Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Wildflower display before expected Spring storm

From the top of Rodgers Peak on the east side of Rogers Pass 
First Indian Paintbrush of the year

Lots of glacier lilies means the snow has just left

Blue Forget-Me-Nots, Pink Douglasia alpine flowers

Trying to beat the expected Spring snow storm Wednesday and Thursday, I went to Rogers Pass Monday to climb to the ridge lines on both sides of the pass.
It is nearly 1,400 feet to the east and 800 feet to the west, so I got in about 2,200 feet of vertical in gorgeous sunlight and poofy clouds.
Along the way I was treated to a spectacular display of wildflowers, some of them surprising me because I don't usually see them until next month, particularly the alpine varieties.
On the west side the top was spangled with Forget-Me-Nots, Douglasia, Yellowstone Graba, Prairie Smoke.  These are bright blues, pinks and yellows.
Not far from the trailhead I saw my first bright red Indian Paintbrush of the season, and tons of Glacier lilies.
The east side, which faces away from the dominant sunlight had fewer flowers, but even there the alpines were resplendent.
I didn't follow the trail on either routes, taking the ridgeline to Rodgers Peak on the east and leaving the trail as it opened up to the grass on the west.
There was a lot of snow in the Red Mountain (elevation: 9,411 feet) country and most smaller peaks surrounding it.
Again, I marvel at how handy this Continental Divide Trail country is to Great Falls --- and hour's drive for all this.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Some catching up

The view of the Austrian Alps from where we had dinner in Salzburg 
Just one of the incredible waterfalls in Plitvice National Park in Croatia

A view of  the ancient walled city of Dubrovnik, Croatia on the Adriatic Coast.
We've  returned from three weeks in Europe to find hiking season in full swing.
This week we tried to atone for our absence by two trips into the Highwoods, one into Glacier Park's eastside portals and a Wayne's Wednesday Walk climb of Wind Peak in the Rocky Mountain Front northwest of Choteau on the edge of the Bob Marshall.
Not that we weren't getting plenty of exercise in the countries formerly known as Yugoslavia;  Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Montenegro, along with Slovakia and Austria.
We hiked in the amazing waterfall national park in Croatia, the Plitvice and along the Dalmatian Coast of the Adriatic Sea.
And in spite of the marvelous scenery and history of these alpine countries, we felt our own Montana scenery, particularly the Rocky Mountain Front, held up admirably well.
That's Ear Mountain on way down from Wind Mountain top in Front

Old Baldy in Front still has plenty of snow

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Kelseya uniflora hike

The Kelseya uniflora bloom on limestone in the Big Belt Mountains


Katie snapping some shots of the wildflower

The Trout Creek Canyon walls rise above the trail like the nearby Gates of the Mountains

Normally my hikes involve a mountain peak or a loop trail.
But, at the urging of my wife, a wildflower enthusiast, the sole object of our hike was to see the Kelsey Uniflora (a rare limestone loving miniature rose-shrub) bloom in Trout Creek Canyon near the old mining town of York in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.
When I lived in Helena in the 1970s, what is now trail was a scenic road in the Big Belt Mountains known as the "Figure Eight Route" that followed Trout Creek and climbed to the top of Hogback Mountain before descending into the Beaver Creek area.  The 1981 flood obliterated the road and the Forest Service wisely converted the road to a great hiking trail that begins at Vigilante Campground about 7 miles northeast of York.
For me, the Trout Creek Canyon is attraction enough with its towering limestone walls reminiscent of nearby Gates of the Mountains Wilderness.
The Kelseya Uniflora hangs from these walls in full view of the trail up the canyon.
We had a wonderful hike and saw many blooming shrubs.  It was a real treat.
Although this was an early Spring day we saw many hikers, mountain bikers and even horseback riders coming up the trail as we returned.
While there were plenty of Kelseya we didn't see any other wildflowers, although they are blooming in profusion in other areas we've hiked this Spring.
It had been years since I had done this hike, and will return soon.
The road to York is picked up on the Custer Avenue exit off I-15 in Helena.  York is about 20 miles from this exit.  It is paved all the way to within two miles of Vigilante Campground, the trailhead.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Tromping to Willow Creek Falls in snow

Douglasia wildflowers with Fairview Mountain in background

One of the three Willow Creek Falls 
Working our way through the snow on the path

Our band of five Wayne's Wednesday Walkers made it through the Willow Creek Falls to the opening of the Fairview Plateau via a muddy and sometimes snow-covered trail.
This wintry hike on a gray spring day actually enhanced the beauty of this already gorgeous scenery.
We went about 5-miles round trip, gaining some 800 feet en route taking in the three large waterfalls of Willow Creek in the Rocky Mountain Front west of Augusta.
The scenery was so beautiful I was berated by Camille Consolvo who berated me for not having included it in my list of "Top Ten" hikes for newcomers, something I gave her went she moved to Great Falls from Oregon several years ago.
A Pasque Flower cluster in time for the Pasque on Sunday
Despite the wintry weather, we were rewarded with several spectacular shows of spring flowers, such as a field of pink Douglasia, and many Pasque flowers.  We saw quite a number of mule deer on the road driving in and out.
The day was in sharp contrast to Tuesday when northcentral Montana skies were a beautiful, cloudless blue and the sun shone brightly.
Because of the weekend's snows I strapped on skis and skins and teled Big Seven at Showdown and then went to White Sulphur Springs for a soak. While there were about three inches of snow, it sat a top a wind crust, which broke when I powered my turns.  It was great to be out in the warm sun, but it wasn't the greatest of conditions.....sort of a metaphor for the entire ski season, now over unless I ski Logan Pass at Glacier when it opens this summer.
A "selfie" from the top of an abandoned Showdown ski hill, which closed two weeks ago

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Back to Wagner Basin and Front; a climbing find

Mark Hertenstein looks over the bighorn sheep trail route below the ridge line.  His routes are marked in red lines

Mark Hertenstein is quite an off-trail route-finder, among the best I've climbed with.
On Friday we went back to the Front and Wagner Basin on a blustery spring day and checked out a climbing route he had spotted an an earlier trip.
Just to the east of Castle Reef a high ridge runs south to the Sun River, towering 1,500 feet above the valley floor to the east, a precipitous drop.
Mark confirmed that a great bighorn ledge runs most the more than mile-long length of this wall, about 5 to 10 feet wide in most parts about 100 feet below the ridge line.
We were able to access it through a break in the wall.
In several spots it wraps under overhangs in the wall.
We checked this out for a short distance, but agreed that if we were 20 years younger this would have been something we would have tried to follow for its length.
It reminded me a lot of the breathtaking traverse in Glacier Park known as the Ptarmigan Traverse, a goat trail that hangs on the west side of the Ptarmigan Wall about 3,000 feet above Helen Lake in sight of Old Sun Glacier.  I have done this traverse four times and think it to be the most exciting thing I've ever done in the park.
I've included several photos of this Sun Canyon Wall bighorn path.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Wagner Basin spectacle

In Wagner Basin below Castle Reef 
Three rams in one of the three bands of bighorn sheep we encountered

Nice drop off on ridge line 

Wayne Phillips enjoys the view from the ridge
Although I haven't posted for a few weeks it doesn't mean I haven't been out and about.
I have given up on backcountry skiing, though, and begun hiking.
I've scaled Mount Sentinel in Missoula and Mount Helena, done a short trip on the Pioneer Ridge in the Little Belts, and Wednesday did a spectacular hike in the Wagner Basin of the Sun Canyon in the Rocky Mountain Front west of Augusta.
There are no designated trails in this open area beneath Castle Reef and along the Sun River. Access is from Home Gulch and a small parking area at the southern tip of the reef. We walked beneath the reef along a number of cliff bands, gaining and losing about 2,300 feet on the 5.3 mile hike. We saw three bands of bighorn sheep and many whitetail deer that love the willow covered Sun River bottom. We saw early spring flowers like the pink/purple Douglasia, and Pasque Flower.
This simple hike delivers some of the best of the east side Bob Marshall Country:  high, snow-covered peaks, and fabulous vistas.
Indian pictographs/handprints

Driving to the canyon we stopped by the Sun River Game Range viewing area and could spot easily 1,000 elk grazing beneath Sawtooth Mountain.
Wagner Basin is a good choice this time of year because the elevation is windblown and there is no snow to contend with.  There was snow above 6,500 feet, however.
After the hike we stopped by the bridge over the Sun near the Gibson Dam road to view Indian pictographs.
Beware:  the ticks are out.

For map, more photos, CLICK HERE.

The basin's famous "skull tree" of birds painting on deer skulls and hung from the tree 
Douglasia wildflowers in bloom

We encountered a few patches of snow 
The bushwhack along the Sun River bottom

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Sunset Mountain again; best powder of season

Lots of snow has fallen at Rogers Pass
This backcountry ski season continues to remind me of 2005 when it took until March for the best snow and best skiing.
We're in the midst of a series of storm pulses that are dropping terrific snow, particularly along the Front and Continental Divide.  We could see as much as two feet of new snow in the days ahead.
The wind is a bit troublesome, but the snow makes up for it.
Our Wayne's Wednesday group diverted from the Teton Ski Resort area Wednesday to Rogers Pass because we saw forecasts for a big dump that would make negotiating the Teton Road a bit tricky.
Besides, why drive 2 hours to ski when a simple hour to Rogers Pass would give us just as good a day out.
We did the Sunset Mountain ski from the pass, 6 miles out and back, with about 1,200 feet of gain when we counted the telemark turns from the top.
Where we tele turned below the top
 It was the best powder of the season, by far.
I had done this ski just 10 days ago and found it even better Wednesday because there was new snow.
After climbing to the telecommunications towers at the top of the peak, we hit the tele slopes just below it, really an old clearcut.  We probably should have stayed longer than we did.
I'm a big fan of passes along the Continental Divide, particularly Marias, just south of Glacier Park, Stemple and Flesher and especially Rogers.
Rogers is as close to Great Falls as Kings Hill Pass in the Little Belts, except the road is better.  It takes an hour to get there and it delivers you to the Continental Divide Trail, with great skiing to the south, or as was the case Wednesday, Sunset Mountain just east of the trail.  Rogers also opens up the possibilities of skiing in the Mike Horse Mine Area or Cadotte Creek, both a short distance from the pass.
We shared the pass with a logging truck

Beautiful kick and glide conditions most of the way 
Gorgeous snow at the top

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Snow good, three eclectic trips

Skiing up the Jones Creek bottom with Choteau Mountain to the east

One of the most gorgeous valleys on the Front

Finally getting some good snow and I was out in it three times in the past week:  Bender Creek to Hoover Ridge in the Little Belts, a quick run on Silver Crest Cross Country Ski Area, and a gorgeous afternoon in the Rocky Mountain Front.
Bender Creek was a compromise for Wayne Wednesday Walks old-guys group.  Four of us showed up, hoping to catch the great, new snow at Rogers Pass and possibly do Sunset Mountain again.  But....I was overruled by our group that feared the strong winds coming from the west.
Instead, we headed for Bender Creek, just east of Monarch, an area that I generally don't like because it doesn't get much snow cover and is often icy and rocky.  On Wednesday it had a little more snow than usual, but the rocks were still there, and I rocked up my skis pretty severely.  It is three miles and about 1,500 feet to Hoover Ridge.  Along the way above the creek there are great views of the peaks from open and very ski-able parks.  We played a bit in these parks and for the most part avoided the winds from the west by being in this enclosed north and east facing valley.
I skinned up on the way down to avoid getting out of control in the narrow bottoms.  I shouldn't have.  The snow was good enough to have teled down, and I missed out on that fun, just compounding my displeasure with rocking up my skis.  It turned out this was a fairly good choice, but I think we all realized that Rogers Pass would have been better.  Oh, well.
On Thursday my wife asked me to check out Silver Crest to make sure there was a passable snowshoe trail for her Big Brothers and Sisters outing on Saturday.  That took me less than an hour, and so I took off the snowshoes, put on my skis and did a 3 mile loop on pretty good snow-covered trails.  I hadn't been to Silver Crest in a number of years and was impressed with the snowshoe trail work and signs.  This is a very nice area for the less adventuresome.
On Saturday we went up the Teton Pass Ski Area to see the large amounts of snow, more than 60 inches with 12 inches new on the slopes.  We climbed the hill to the north and tele skied back down the to lodge, but felt that the snow was just too heavy to do many turns.  The sun had hit it the day before and it was heavy.  So, we went down the road to Jones Creek, which lies in a stunningly scenic valley of high peaks in all directions ---- Choteau, Guthrie to the east, Cave, Ear, Wind to the south, and the high unnamed peaks to the north and west.
It was windy, but the snow was pliable and we toured up the bottom for several miles, stopping for a lunch in brilliant sunlight.
 Bender Creek meadow

Monday, February 27, 2017

Sunset Mountain off Rogers Pass

Approaching the Sunset Mountain summit, which has three telecommunications towers 
Tele turns in the clearcut beneath the summit

A sampling of the terrain along Little Wolf Creek Road

What was shaping up to be a wasted backcountry trip Sunday turned out to be the best trip of the season, although it was a short one.
We did a 6-mile up-and back, 1,100 feet elevation gain backcountry ski trip that started at Rogers Pass and ended at Sunset Mountain (elevation: 6,539 feet).  It followed the Little Wolf Creek Road to the top where there are communications towers.  There is no snowmobile traffic on this road.
This is generally a windswept area, so care needs to be taken to time the ski with a fresh powder dump.
The views in this area are exceptional as this road is located just to the east of the Continental Divide Trail.
There are numerous telemark opportunities from the top in the clearcuts to the south on BLM land.
We started hoping to do a Sun Canyon trip up one of the many gulches there, but when we got there we found no snow.
The route in blue from Rogers Pass
In a quick re-direct, we returned to Augusta and took U.S. 287 back to Montana 200 and Rogers Pass with hopes of finding something better.
We had long looked at that Sunset Mountain area up the Little Wolf Creek Road, but had always opted for the adjacent Continental Divide Trail on the west side instead.
The snow was coming down in buckets and we decided to give it a try.
The skiing was perfect ---- about a foot on top of a solid base, and the road rises steadily but gently.
We were quickly out of earshot from the Rogers Pass traffic.

Click here for a map and more details of trip: http://adventures.garmin.com/en-US/by/montana-tom/2017-2-26-cdt-sunset-mtn-near-rogers-pass/#.WLRbvd9tnZg

A road with a view

One of several outcrops

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Lots of odd snow for Nugget Creek run

The Nugget Creek route in Little Belts
So, here's the report on northcentral Montana's backcountry snow:  lots of new powder on top a crust that encases at least a foot of sugar snow that never set up.
As we skied Nugget Creek in the Little Belts Wednesday we could punch our poles through the various layers to the ground.
The snow on the bottom, deposited in December, just never set up because of the bitter-cold weather.
That was followed by more snow that was encased in the ice from a hard Chinook melt and some rain.  Then this week's powder ---- more than a foot over three days ---- Sunday to Wednesday and more coming.
This is the oddest ski season I've encountered.
On Mizpah Ridge below Mizpah Peak (Gordon Whirry photo)
When we could stay on the top of the crust it was great kick and glide skiing.  But, the crust would occasionally collapse and send us to the ground.  Yes, there was some "whoomphing" that cautioned us not to get on any steep slopes.  If we got going too fast telemarking a slope we'd often run into a wall of that collapsed snow that had the effect of running into large vat of mashed potatoes.
Nugget Creek is the Wayne Phillips' created alternative to the Porphyry/Ranch Creek run.  We call it simply "High Porphyry" or "Nugget Creek."
Once Ranch Creek headwall is reached, instead of dropping to the road, Nugget Creek ascends a 300 foot ridge and then drops south and east ultimately to Highway 89 at Mile Marker 123.
It covers 10.3 miles, rises 1,700 feet and drops nearly 2,900 feet.  It starts at Kings Hill Pass, goes up Showdown Ski area to the top of Porphyry Peak, across the ridge to Mizpah and then on to the Ranch Creek headwall.
Yes, we got some turns in and enjoyed a gorgeous, if cold and snowy winter day, but the snow was weird.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Snowshoeing Lazyman Roadless Area

At the beginning of our hike we ran out of snow and it was off and on with snowshoes

Pretty typical scenery along the trail

A view of Red Mountain through trees and blow down

The bright red line to left was our route
If nothing else, the Montana Wilderness Association has succeeded in introducing folks to otherwise obscure federal roadless lands in national forests that could be considered for wilderness with its Wilderness Walks and Snowshoe Hikes programs.
It's particularly important as the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest is preparing its forest-wide plan that could stand as a management document for decades.
Although I had lived in Helena for eight years in the 1970s I didn't do much hiking and skiing in the area between the old mining camp of Rimini and McDonald Pass.
Until Sunday I hadn't been in the Rimini Area for about 35 years.
An MWA Snowshoe Walk into the Lazyman Roadless Area east and south of Rimini introduced me to that area.
We took a trail that started at the old Moose Creek ranger station, now a forest cabin rental.  The trail leads to the top of Colorado Mountain (7,217 feet) and offers access to Black Mountain (7,149 feet) and a loop along the Lazyman Ridge.
Our group of a dozen snowshoers, led by Doug and Sonia Powell of Helena, only went up a couple of miles and 1,200 feet in questionable and crusty snow, but it gave us a fine overview of this 11,608 acres roadless area that's only a few miles from a densely populated Helena.  It is also in the shadow of the large Red Mountain near Rimini.  Doug pointed out various access points and trails into the area and the adjacent Jericho Roadless Area across the road near the Moose Creek Campground/Picnic Area.
The Jericho area, 8,440 acres climbs north to McDonald Pass.
Unfortunately, the Forest Service is not recommending either of these areas for wilderness.
The Lazyman area is densely covered by timber, much of which has been killed by bark beetle and blown down.
Aside from great views of the Black Mountain area, unless you get off trail and high, the views are of this timbered trail.
It looks as though it gets high snowshoe use.
If there were sufficient snowfall it would be very skiable, too.
The Helena Lewis and Clark National Forest is taking comment on its plan through March 31.