Thursday, February 25, 2021

On and off piste on Showdown, Trail 747 loop

Our winter wonderland (Gordon Whirry photos)

Meeting the road at the bottom of 747

Summer-like cumulus clouds gathered on this bluebird winter day

 We seized a day between bitter cold and high winds to practice tele turns and enjoy the Little Belts backcountry on Wednesday.

Showdown has cleared a large area just west of its Meadows ski run that's quick to get to from Kings Hill Pass and almost irresistible on the way to the backcountry.

So we didn't resist and enjoyed an hour's worth of turns in 6-inches of new powder on our way to the 747 loop.

There was sparse snowboard and downhill use of this area that drops straight down from the Porphyry Lookout Road to the Showdown Lodge.

Although the temperature was in the low teens, and there was on and off again snow, there was also on and off again bright sunshine and blue skies on this ski trip.  In fact, big, puffy cumulus clouds fluffed the skies above Porphyry, clouds as one might see in the summer sky.  

I was surprised that the ski down 747 wasn't as obstacle-strewn as it was on my last trip down in January after an enormous wind storm blew down trees across the trail.  Deep snow covered much of the debris on this trip.

That new snow clung to the trees creating a magical winter-wonderland effect.

Friday, February 19, 2021

The Deep Freeze finally breaks; Covid vaccination a bright spot

A beautiful ridgeline ski

Mark's tele-path down the steep powerline slope

We carved up the powerline right of way

It's always a treat to see the massive Red Mountain, highest point in the Scapegoat Wilderness (Gordon Whirry photo)

The wind-sculpted Cadotte Creek bottom (Gordon Whirry photo)

We're just coming out of a two-week deep freeze and we got out for a short trip in the Cadotte Creek country just west of the Continental Divide near Lincoln.

The cold streak, in contrast with an otherwise mild winter, was brutal.

This explains the two week gap in postings.

We hunkered down at home during a stretch of 8 sub-zero days with temperatures as in the minus 30s, with winds that drove them into the minus 50s.

The brightest point during that stretch is that I got my second and final Covid-19 vaccination on Feb. 15.

My reaction to the first, Jan. 25 shot was nil.  I thought I would be home free for the second, but that afternoon I developed a mild headache, and then yesterday during the ski trip I became thoroughly fatigued, something that has spilled over into today.

The temperatures on the trip were in the teens to start and it was very windy, a surprise for the west side of the Divide.  Things warmed up under a bluebird sky, but we got hammered by the wind.  There was plenty of snow, but it was a tad odd.  At about eight inches down there was an icy layer that made tele-turning tricky.  Maybe it was the fatigue, but I didn't enjoy the snow much.

We parked at the Cadotte Creek Road pullout on Montana 200 and went right from the car to the nearest ridgeline to the west.  We gained nearly 700 feet and then skied across the top until we reached the powerline.  

There were terrific views in all directions.  We were particularly impressed by the 9,411 feet Red Mountain that was blanketed in snow.

Mark Hertenstein decided to head us down the powerline, a steep pitch that I estimated at at least 25 degrees, enough to make me worry about avalanche.

At the bottom of that pitch we skied out toward Cadotte Creek Road and out.

Montana Highway 200 back to Great Falls was pretty windblown with ground blizzard conditions, but the views of the Rocky Mountain Front were outstanding against the deep azure sky.

Friday, February 05, 2021

REAL winter finally arrives

Katie on her way up to top of the North Peak in Scratchgravel Hills

On top North Peak with the timbered high point of the range in background

We enjoyed great views on way down from the peak

North Peak from below

It's been expected.  It's been predicted. Now we're in its grips.

REAL winter arrived this week and we're looking forward to at least a week where temperatures will drop as low as minus 20, and some two feet of snow is expected to fall in the Little Belts.

But spring-like weather Monday through Wednesday, with temperatures as high as 60 degrees, opened the door for a last ditch hike.

Katie and I headed to the Scratchgravel Hills in the Helena valley on Tuesday and climbed the grassy, treeless North Peak at just over 5,000 feet.  On Thursday I fought near-blizzard conditions in the Little Belts at Kings Hill.

The Scratchgravels are a heavily used, dry and low-slung range with a history of mining.  The northern and western peaks tend to be barren, the south and east heavy timbered with Ponderosas and junipers.

The north peaks offer stunning 360 views of the valley and the Continental Divide country, the Elkhorns, Big Belts and off to the Bridgers, and Helena below.

Wherever there was shade there was snow, which wasn't deep and easy to walk through.  We enjoyed the unshaded and steep hills on our walk, enjoying the spring-like weather.

On Thursday, knowing that intensely cold weather was on its way, I decided to take advantage of relatively warm (19 degrees) weather to get in a quick ski on Kings Hill, roughly the same as Sunday, without going out on the Deadman Ridge/bowls.

I hadn't anticipated that I'd encounter fierce ground blizzard conditions on the perimeter of Kings Hill and was forced to follow the powerlines until I could drop west over the ridgeline and back down to the cabin at the pass.

The snow was better than Sunday, and I enjoyed some really good turns

My track on the way down from the Kings Hill high point

Monday, February 01, 2021

Concluding a very mild January: Kings Hill-Silver Crest Loop, Sacajawea Springs, Cochrane Dam, Deadman-Kings Hill Loop

Approaching the Deadman bowls in the Little Belts

Pillows of billowy snow in upper O'Brien Creek

The sulfur springs descend to the Missouri River

The Sacajawea Springs emerge in a treeless, dry stretch

 I concluded January with two trips along the River's Edge Trail and two in the Kings Hill area of the Little Belt Mountains.

That means it was mild and dry enough to hike near Great Falls and snowy enough to backcountry ski in the mountains.

The last time I recall such an open winter was in 2005, when we didn't get a really significant amount of snow until mid-March.  

It has been interesting to encounter folks from outside of northcentral Montana gravitating to the Little Belts, which is one of the few mountain ranges where the snow has been consistently good.

One of those folks was Dale Sexton of Livingston, the only other person outside our party on the Deadman trail on Sunday.

He came up behind Gordon Whirry and myself and joined us.  A few minutes into the ski he said, "I think I know you," to me.  Then he recalled how he had given me a can of bear spray in the Bob Marshall Wilderness when we passed on the trail and I told him I had lost mine.  It was a gesture I always appreciated.

It reminded me how tight our little Montana community is!  He has since purchased the renowned Dan Bailey Fly Shop in Livingston.

Gordon and I gave him a small tour of the Deadman trail.  Originally I had thought we'd do an out and back to the Deadman bowls, but after going to the bowls we decided to ascend that little bump known as Kings Hill Peak, and then ski straight down its northwest face to where we were parked.

There had been eight inches of new snow two days before we did this ski and it had settled nicely, making skiing on a bright, sunny and nearly windless trip.

It had been about nine days since I last skied, that time I started at Kings Hill and did an 8-mile loop that started at the O'Brien Creek trailhead and then down the cutoff to Silver Crest, where I skied the E Loop and climbed Mount Eureka, had lunch and headed back via Divide Road to the O'Brien Creek Trail.

Because of Covid we've been forced to be more creative about skiing loops rather than point to point because we don't want to climb into each others' cars at the end.  I truly miss the point to point, though.

With this dry and warm weather the River Edge Trail has been a godsend.

It had been some time since I had done the Sacajawea Springs (3.6 miles roundtrip) or Cochrane trails (7.2 miles), and had wonderful walks on both.

Sacajawea is particularly interesting because of its history interest, the site where Lewis and Clark used its sulphorous waters to heal the young Shoshone guide Sacajawea, who had become ill.

Kings Hill Silver Crest O'Brien Loop

Deadman Kings Hill Loop

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Wind storm knocks down many trees

At the 747 trailhead

Lots of trail blocked this way

It took me nearly 20 minutes to navigate my way around this blow down

 I did the 6-mile 747 Loop in the Little Belts Saturday and was stunned to see the amount of trees that were downed by last week's wind storms.

Along the Porphyry ridge line and just below on the west side the uprooted and broken off trees made the first third of Trail 747 nearly impassible.

There were also many trees lying across the Forest Service Road behind Porphyry, the road that leads back to the O'Brien Creek Trail.

I heard that there were trees across the road leading up to the Deadman Creek Road, and also across the Silver Crest trails.  I can't imagine what the O'Brien Creek run looks like.  I can't imagine what it would be like to Mizpah, Ranch Creek or Nugget Creek.

The Forest Service is going to be mighty busy clearing roads and trails of the debris left by winds that were as high as 90 miles per hour and which knocked out power at Showdown Ski Area for two days.

Aside from that, the snow was pretty good, a couple of inches of new powder covered the trails on this bluebird day.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

Waldron Creek: the Front needs snow

So little moisture on the flanks of Metis Mountain

We skied in a dark winter shadow 

The upper bowl beneath Mount Lockhart.

 I've sure enjoyed the open days with their blue skies and warm winter temperatures, but gosh, we need snow and we need it badly.

I confirmed this Friday with a trip to the Front for a ski on Waldron Creek.

I've never seen the winter road to the trailhead so clear and free of snow at this time of year.  We didn't encounter much snow at all until we reached the North Fork Bridge.

Approaching the Front the road was entirely snow free and the foothills as well.  We started seeing some snow on the road at about Clary Coulee.

The snow we had on Waldron Creek was deep and good, but could use some refreshing.

We did the 4.5 miles roundtrip, gaining about 1,300 feet to the lower Waldron Bowl beneath Mount Lockhart.

I was surprised by seeing six other back country skiers in the parking area ---- hot shot young skiers headed for the upper bowls on their AT gear.

The trail had been pretty heavily traveled, which caused me some traction problems on my no-wax scales. About half-way where the various branches of the North Fork Waldron come together there were ski and snowshoe tracks in all directions.

We opted for a south side of the creek ascent to the bowl rather than the traditional north side route.  I was pleased to find some of the best snow of the day, and really interesting scenery, the mounds of snow to the creek, the snow bridges and the occasional open ponds of water revealing the fast-flowing creek.

We lunched in the trees and teled our way down ---- rapidly ---- this time on the north side of the creek.

The Teton Pass Ski Area was open, but we didn't see many cars.  One female skier stopped to chat and said the skiing was good, but she, too, said it needed more snow.

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Oblivious to Trump mob attack on Capitol while skiing


Snow ghosts on the 747 trail

I was happy to see Denise Davies and Brian Kennedy from the Flathead on the trail

Since I was alone, I used my shadow to highlight my ski tracks and great powder

I'm not sure if it was a good thing or bad thing that I missed the Trump Mob's attack on the Capitol Tuesday while I skied out-of-touch in the back country.

I did a 9.4 mile loop in the Little Belts linking Mizpah Bowls with the 747 traverse, a solo run in windless, and bright sun, a peaceful and gorgeous activity in contrast to what was going on in Washington, D.C.

I didn't find out about this attack on our democracy, a coup if you will, until I returned to the car around 4 p.m. and turned on my radio and listened in utter horror.  Needless to say, I've been preoccupied and upset ever since tuning back in.

The wind has been relentless in Great Falls and things are drying out, so my trip to the mountains was to explore whether there was even enough snow to ski.

There was about two inches of fresh powder at Kings Hill Pass, and the sun shone brightly with only the slightest breeze, so I decided to try Mizpah again, a trip I had just taken a mere 10 days ago.  It is one of my favorite back country skis because it takes me to an open ridge, high above snow-covered slopes that sparkle like diamonds when the sun is out, and offering terrific Central Montana views.  Such was the case this Jan. 6.  It was so warm I skied without a hat and clad in a sweatshirt.

As I passed the Trail 747 cutoff I though that I might try to link that trip with Mizpah if I found I had enough energy.

After a delightful lunch at the Mizpah cabin I headed back with that in mind.

Just after I skinned up to climb out of the ridge line's low point, I was met by Denise Davies and Brian Kennedy, Glacier Mountaineering Society climbing friends from the Flathead.  I knew they were staying at the Kings Hill cabin, but figured they were skiing the Showdown hill.  They opted for cross country skiing instead, and followed my tracks.  It was great to see them.

Even though snowmobiles had hit the FS Road 6413, the new snow made the ski run down it less treacherous. 

Friday, January 01, 2021

Kicking and gliding into 2021


Wayne Phillips takes a break at the Mount Eureka warming hut at Silver Crest Cross Country Ski Area

New Year's begins on cross country groomers

Katie tends a fire in prep for her Glacier Girls' snowshoe party

We got 2021 off to a good cross country ski start on the Silver Crest Cross Country Ski Area trails on New Year's Day.

I was joined by H. Wayne Phillips, a long-time ski partner who has joined me here on Jan. 1 several times in the past.

The weather was spectacular if you can ignore that the weather has been too warm, the sky too clear and it hasn't snowed significantly in some time.  It was in the 30s and the sky, clear.

What snow is there at about 7,000 feet in this Island Mountain Range is in good shape and I found the skiing enjoyable, if pretty tame.

Wayne and I got in 3.6 miles and about 400 feet in elevation on these groomed trails.  I used my backcountry tele skis with Wayne on that run.  Then, after he left I put on some old classic skinny skis and did a couple of more miles.

We were there because Katie, who begins the year convalescing with a broken little toe, threw a snowshoe party for her Glacier Girls.  She couldn't join them on the trek, but tended a fire and hosted a s'mores and champagne party for them when they got back to the trailhead.

It was really great to see all the people, particularly the families with kids out skiing and snowshoeing at Silver Crest. 

It was a mild, but enjoyable way to begin what we hope will be a better year than the 2020 pandemic year.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

I won't miss 2020, but I'll remember it


Being able to use public lands made 2020 half-way bearable.  This was our Scapegoat Massif trip

There's really nothing good to say about the Year 2020, except perhaps that President Donald Trump was defeated in a bid for re-election.

The Covid-19 Pandemic overwhelmed every aspect of life beginning in early March.

My wife Katie and I have taken this contagious virus very seriously and have been in lockdown since then.  That has meant we've shopped online, including groceries, not had guests, worn masks, practiced self-distancing, not gone to Church, and avoided restaurants and indoor spaces where there are crowds.  We have not seen children or grandchildren in person for more than a year.  We schedule Zoom visits with relatives and friends.  Because our Neighborhood Council refused to give up meetings in person, I resigned from the council.  I continue to serve on the Great Falls Historical Society Board, but only through Zoom digital meetings. Okay, we do see people when we do our daily walks in the neighborhood, we regularly see friends at a distance, outside only.  I miss my coffee house, and having friends and family over.

Luckily, we live in a place where public lands are plentiful, and we've probably done more hiking and skiing than in any other year I can remember.  If we hike with anyone else, we drive separately to avoid getting in anyone else's vehicle.

But, we had to cancel a scheduled trip to Scandinavia (we lost more than $1,200 so far), and have had to cut out our regular trips to Canada to see friends and sights since the border closed in April.  The East Side of Glacier Park was closed, and for the first time in memory we didn't get into Many Glacier or the Two Med.

To make matters worse this year, my Mother died at age 94, just a week prior to the Pandemic shutdowns, and Katie has been dealing with injuries from our October 2019 car accident in Minneapolis and a broken toe!

We did do a lovely 5-day backpack trip into the Scapegoat Wilderness to the Scapegoat Massif via Welcome Pass, and I took a 6-day, 84-mile backpack trip on the Continental Divide Trail between Lookout Pass east of Butte to the Seymour Lake Trailhead in the Anaconda Pintlar Wilderness.

I spent considerable time in the Little Belt Mountains, visiting and revisiting spectacular places, and am near completing a guide book on that central Montana Island Mountain Range.

I will not miss 2020, but I'll certainly remember it.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Mizpah Ridge: Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds

What a great finale for an otherwise dismal year of 2020.

Back country skiing along the Mizpah Ridge in the Little Belt Mountains Monday called to mind the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," with the way the snow's hoar frost sparkled and the deep blue sky was lit up by a brilliant sun. (Minus any mind altering substances).

We climbed up Porphyry and skied its open ridge south to the Mizpah Bowls and beyond. Then we were treated to a colorful sunset as we drove back to Great Falls.

When there's fresh snow and plentiful sunshine this ski is tough to beat. We were fortunate that someone had skied to Mizpah before us and broke some pretty deep snow.

We noticed that a snowmobile had illegally come up the Trail 747 where it joins this ridge off FS Road 6413. We took pictures to send to the Forest Service. You'd think with more than 300 miles of groomed trails the snowmobilers would stay off the 30 some miles of cross country ski trails.

We climbed an lost just under 2,000 feet and traveled 9 miles.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

747 loop in deep powder on Christmas Eve Eve


With more than a foot of snow overnight in the Little Belts, backcountry skiing was a must, even if the temperatures were in the single digits and the winds honking.

The road was surprisingly in good shape for all the new snow.  It fell on an old, crusty base.

We did the 6-mile Trail 747 loop, which amounts to a climb of the Porphyry Peak ski hill, traveling south down the peak's ridge for about a half-mile, just beyond the Glory Hole black diamond run, and then on to the 747 1-mile cutoff trail that drops down to a Forest Service Road that traverses the north and east sides of Porphyry.

Despite Covid, there were a healthy number of skiers, many of them children, but once we headed down 747 we were in deep backcountry terrain with not another soul in site.

Finding the trail was a tad difficult because of the logging just north of the ski slope.  Just beyond Glory Hole we found the trail we were looking for.  I imagine those who have never skied this run before will have difficulty finding their way to Mizpah and Ranch Creek.

747, a relatively new trail, has been difficult following in past years, but blue streamers and the ruts of ORV users make the route hard to miss.

I had a bit of difficulty with the uphill to the top of Porphyry because I had sloppily applied new base wax to my fish scales.  I got a good work out to the top.

At the top the wind was howling, so we got behind the Top Rock shelter.  At one point I went in, absolutely forgetting about Covid.  It took me about 5 seconds to realize that was a place I shouldn't be.

The snow was about as perfect as one would find mid-winter. I hope this is a good sign for the back country ski season.