Category Archives: Montana


Crazy (l) from near Conical

Crazy (l) from near Conical

The Crazies are an isolated range northeast of Bozeman in southwestern Montana. They are known for sharp ridges, a couple small glaciers, and high winds, and their highpoint, Crazy Peak, has over 5,000 feet of prominence. Though the peak is an easy dayhike, I managed to take two days thanks to said wind. This was for the best, as the scenic central part of the range is not visible from Crazy Peak, which lies near the southern end of the range. I used the standard approach from the east via Big Timber Canyon, where the access road threads through miles of private property, including a ranch well up in the canyon that is home to a friendly cat.

Railway bridge

Railway bridge

After being kept awake most of the night by wind buffeting my car at the trailhead campground, I had some caffeine and started up the trail, hoping the wind would either die down or improbably not get much worse higher up. The trail looks like it might have been an old road, with a repurposed railroad bridge at one of the stream crossings. After a few miles, I turned left on the popular side-trail to Granite Lake. The Granite Lake area can evidently be crowded during the main season, but other than two campers on their way out, who momentarily mistook me for a black bear, I had the area to myself.

Crazy (r) from Big Timber

Crazy (r) from Big Timber

Where the trail fades near Blue Lake, I headed straight up a talus hill, making my way toward the side of Crazy’s long west ridge. I hadn’t paid much attention to the route description, but there seemed to be plenty of options. After a long slog up tundra to the base, I found that the talus on the north face of the ridge is all awful. I tried to stick to clean gullies and ribs where I could, but I was not in the best place to do so. I also tried to stay somewhat sheltered, as the wind was strong enough that gusts threatened to knock me over unless I braced myself. With a few hundred feet of wind-blasted talus between me and the ridge, my patience ran out and I turned back.

North face of west ridge

North face of west ridge

On the way down, I managed to find a better route, with mostly turf, dirt, and rock on the face, and a couple of cairns and a bit of a trail below. The key is to continue around the shore of Blue Lake to a minor ravine or inlet stream, then head up the slabs to one side. On the face itself, climb a rib relatively far left, between two close, parallel gullies.

Returning around Blue Lake and wondering what to do with the rest of my day, I passed two cute young women in running shorts and their male friend (the second such meeting this season, oddly), apparently debating what to do. I passed silently — I prefer not to pester people — then returned, figuring they might be headed the way I had just come. It turns out that they were, but my account of the wind changed their minds, and we all headed back down the trail.

I had expected to leave them behind, but (atypically) they used their running shorts to run, and didn’t seem to find me particularly annoying or bad-smelling, so we all jogged down the trail together. It was the first running I had done in awhile, but I felt fine for the time being. Switchbacking back toward Big Timber Canyon, we met an older couple with their college-age son on their way up. The woman was very insistent that we head up past Twin Lakes to tag Conical Peak, as we would otherwise miss out on the authentic Crazy experience.

Crags behind Twin Lakes

Crags behind Twin Lakes

Back at the junction, there was the usual dithering one would expect from a group of four, but we eventually headed up toward Twin Lakes. As the woods opened up near the lakes, I saw that the woman had been correct: this part of the range is much more rugged than the area to the south, with some sharp, unnamed peaks behind the lakes sheltering a small glacier.

Companions above Twin Lakes

Companions above Twin Lakes

The trail continues up to an odd pass well above the saddle between these peaks and Conical. We followed the trail partway, then headed straight up a mixture of rock ribs and decent talus toward Conical’s south ridge. Sheltered from the west wind on this slope, we had a pleasant climb, though my out-of-shape self was suffering. Nearing the ridge crest, the others headed straight up while I, anticipating the wind from the other side, stayed below the crest for a bit. Popping up at a notch, I was instantly struck by the howling gale; looking back a bit on the ridge, I saw that the others had decided not to fight out the last little bit to the summit. I couldn’t blame them, especially the two in shorts. Though I had enough clothes for the last bit, I didn’t care enough about Conical Peak to bother.

Looking down Big Timber

Looking down Big Timber

While the others descended the sheltered side, I took a little side-trip to the pass, then rejoined them on the trail. Jogging down the endless switchbacks, occasionally ducking and staggering in a gust of wind, I started to feel my lack of recent running, but kept up for the time being. I jogged as much of the flatter trail in the valley as felt comfortable, talking with Ruby, who had been a cross-country ski racer, but eventually let her go on ahead and walked the rest of the trail, reaching the parking lot seconds before the others.

With plenty of food and nothing better to do, I spent another night at the trailhead, hoping the wind would calm down. I woke the next day to mostly-cloudy skies, but thankfully less wind, and hobbled a more efficient path to Cloud’s west ridge. Following a faint and partially snow-filled trail along the crest, I found easy going up to a broad flat separated from the summit by several sharp notches and pinnacles.

Crazy's summit from plateau

Crazy’s summit from plateau

Here I found some surprising class 3-4 scrambling while downclimbing the right-hand side into the first notch, which is the top of what looks like a fun snow/ice climb. From there, more class 2-3 scrambling to the right of the ridge led to the summit.
Crazy's east ridge

Crazy’s east ridge

The sun finally emerged, so I was able to enjoy the summit for awhile from a sheltered spot. I screwed up the return a bit, crossing more loose talus than necessary — this peak would really be better as a spring snow climb — but made it back to the car without incident, pleased to have both ticked off a peak on the ultra-prominence list and seen the more scenic part of the Crazies.


Granite's north face

Granite’s north face

Appropriately- but unimaginatively-named Granite Peak is located in the Beartooth Range of southern Montana. Though not an especially difficult peak, its solid 4th-class finish makes it one of the harder state high-points.
View back to base of F-t-D

View back to base of F-t-D

The most common approach, though probably not the best, starts from either the East or West Rosebud trailhead, follows a trail to the pass between the two, then climbs from 10,000 to nearly 12,000 feet along the aptly-named Froze-to-Death Plateau over several frustratingly rocky miles. (The Beartooths contain many such high plateaus, possibly left over from when ancient ice sheets blanketed the range.) The route finally descends several hundred feet to the saddle between Tempest and Granite, where the real scrambling begins. A second, possibly better route follows the trail from West Rosebud all the way past Mystic Lake, then continues cross-country to Avalanche Lake before ascending talus to the saddle. This second route would be particularly appealing during thunderstorm season, since it remains at lower elevations as long as possible.

Cool bridge over cograil

Cool bridge over cograil

Descending from the Crazies, I gawped at Big Timber’s new Tesla charging station, then drove on down to the West Rosebud trailhead, where I tried to sleep near an obnoxiously loud brook. Starting sometime after dawn, I passed through the power (or water?) plant and its associated residences, then continued up the rocky trail toward the Mystic Lake dam. A water pipe on the opposite side of the canyon, staying near the level of the lake, let me gage how much I had left to climb.

Mystic Lake

Mystic Lake

After climbing over a rise to one side of the dam, the trail descends and travels along the lakeshore. Unlike the Sierra dammed lakes, which are pathetic mudflats at this time of the year, Mystic Lake seemed nearly full. Partway around the lake, I took the obvious trail over toward East Rosebud, and began the next 2,000 feet of climbing. This trail switchbacked gently through gradually-thinning forest, finally depositing me at the far end of Froze-to-Death Plateau, with no view of Granite.

Granite finally peaks above F-t-D

Granite finally peaks above F-t-D

For the next… forever, I followed occasional large cairns along the right-hand edge of the plateau. Despite being a common route on a popular peak, there are rarely signs of a trail in this section, and while the terrain is not terrible, it is too uneven to be comfortably runnable. Still, the cairns helped me plot a reasonably efficient path through the plateau’s random undulations.

Snow saddle and final climb

Snow saddle and final climb

At the high end of the plateau, I passed within 200 feet of Tempest’s summit before descending along a faint use trail to the Tempest-Granite saddle. Crossing over a couple of tent platforms, I descended slightly on the south side, then followed cairns and bits of trail up sand and talus to the subpeak where the real climbing begins. Even late in a not-particularly-wet year, this subpeak was separated from the main summit by a small snow saddle, but it was soft and flat enough not to be threatening.

After crossing the saddle, things immediately got more tricky, with steep traversing left toward some chimneys. Though the recent snow was consolidated enough to kick steps in places, I avoided it in my trail runners, limiting my climbing options. Though I had a route description with me, I soon ignored it, instead making my way up and left toward the summit by whatever route seemed reasonable, occasionally back-tracking. I found many cairns and several nests of slings, but the cairns at least seemed to represent multiple routes.

Upper scrambling

Upper scrambling

Where the summit’s leaning block was visible above an unappealing mud-and-slush chute, I retreated a bit, climbed up on a helpful stack of rocks, then made an exposed traverse back right. From here, I plotted a meandering course along ledges and cracks toward the summit ridge, then followed that a few yards to the summit itself.
Peaks to the SW

Peaks to the SW

I had chosen a near-perfect day for the climb, too late in the season for thunderstorms, but still warm enough to almost be comfortable in a t-shirt on top. After lying on the excellent summit nap rock for awhile, I psyched myself up to reverse the tricky route.

Froze-to-Death from summit

Froze-to-Death from summit

Finally nearing the snow saddle, I found an older couple hanging out taking pictures. Surprised I had not passed them or their camp on the way up, I learned that they had come up the valley via Avalanche Lake, but had run out of time on their attempt to summit. After exchanging photo duties, I left them behind as I scurried down to the saddle with Tempest, then plodded slowly back to Froze-to-Death.

Though I had the energy to jog, I found the plateau too uneven to make it worthwhile, so I put on some talk radio for the long walk. I jogged some of the trail back to Mystic Lake, but by then I was less in a running mood, and almost certain to make it back without needing my headlamp. Though I was tired, habit made me jog some of the final rocky trail, a mistake that gave me a black eye when I tripped on one rock and bashed my eye on another. There’s a first time for everything, I guess.

Quake Lake

Memorial boulder in perspective

Montana has some surprisingly well-built National Forest roads, trails, and campsites. The trails surprise me, since they are useless to loggers, and while I have seen lots of people enjoying the free primitive camping, I’m not sure how many stray from their cars and hip waders. Hopefully the trails and roads are being maintained, though given the constant budget squeeze National Forests face, I’m not optimistic.

Montana also has cool little things like Quake Lake. In 1959, an earthquake triggered a massive landslide that killed 28 campers and blocked off the Gallatin river, near-instantly creating a lake. The slide must have been amazing to watch: a hard outer layer of Dolomite on one entire side cracked, releasing itself and underlying soft layers to wash across the canyon and partway up the other side. Some large blocks of Dolomite didn’t even roll as they slid, but wound up right-side up on the other side.

One such boulder has a plaque with the names of those killed. The Forest Service staffs a small museum that, annoyingly, charges a separate entry fee, but the slide itself is worth a stop if you travel through.

Electric Peak

Electric Peak from SE near trailhead

Electric Peak was a good test to see if I should continue feeling sore and sorry for myself: It’s a moderate hike in length and elevation (20 mi, 3200 ft), mostly on-trail with a class 3 finish. The trail even goes through mostly open territory, so the grizzly bears have a chance to get up a good head of steam before they crash into you and bite your face off. It’s also the highest point in northwest Yellowstone, and sort of the high point of the Gallatin range.

It turned out that my leg and ankle mostly work, so I’m back in business. It also turned out that the minor 3rd class finish was longer and more intimidating than I had assumed; most of a group of hikers I passed got turned back by a short catwalk section. The upper rock reminded me of the Maroon Bells in Colorado: nasty stuff that fractures in blocks and produces all kinds of unstable talus. On the other hand, such rock often has a solid core once the outside crumbles off, and it makes for interesting climbing through ledges, catwalks, and notches.


Waiting for Old Faithful

As I predicted, my thigh and ankle have rendered me a semi-sedentary tourist for awhile. What better to do, then, than toodle around Yellowstone with the hordes on 4th of July weekend? So I got some beta on what to see from John, then made my winding way through the park from south to north.

I made my way fairly directly to the Old Faithful section of the park, with its ring of hotels and restaurants surrounding the rows of benches surrounding Old Faithful. Arriving around 8:00, I was surprised to see the parking lots almost empty. I eased myself out of the car, put on my pack, and spent a few hours hobbling along the boardwalks, trying to take some interesting pictures. I was not too impressed by the geysers themselves, and didn’t have much luck taking interesting pictures of them — it’s hard to anticipate when the geyser will emit an interesting spray, and autofocus lag gets in the way. I found the multicolored pools and bacterial mats more interesting and photogenic.

By the time I was done, hundreds of people were sitting waiting for Old Faithful, and the parking lot was closer to full. I spent the rest of the day among the tourists, including a surprising number of Indians.

The highlight of the park for me was the Grand Prismatic Pool. A high-temperature spring supports a variety of colored bacteria in a large, steaming pool. From some angles, light reflected off the pool bottom colors the steam. The Museum of the Park Ranger, though small, was also interesting.

I was less impressed with the terraces, which are featured on the front of the park brochure. It was hot and crowded, and most of the area was dry and inactive. I saw a few bison, and three bears at two bear-jams, but after my up-close encounter in Burnt Wagon Gulch, watching distant bears through binoculars was not that exciting.

I ended the day with an extended hobble up the old road to Mount Washburn from the south. The trail was still mostly snow-covered, but the snow was well-consolidated and -traveled. Being the highest point in the northeast corner of the park, it affords a good view of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to the southeast, the caldera to the southwest, and the Absaroka, Beartooth, and Teton ranges on the horizon.

Dirtbag notes

There are truly excellent free, no-reservation campsites near Grass Lake, only a few miles from the south entrance to Yellowstone. Each site has its own picnic table, fire ring, and outhouse. While there are only 14 sites, I had no trouble finding one early in the evening during prime tourist season.

Gardiner, near the north entrance, is surrounded by national forest with good access roads and no restrictions on dispersed camping. The town itself is not as bad a tourist trap as one might expect, but WiFi is hard to come by; the coffee place charges $2.50 for the password.

Glacier National Park

After some time off of peak-bagging to, among other things, read those Stieg Larsson books that have sold so well, try to be a tourist, and make my tiresome way through Idaho, I decided to spend some time in Glacier National Park on my way to Washington. I use the phrase “on the way” loosely since, as I learned, Glacier is not a convenient side-trip unless you are going to or coming from Kalispell.

Glacial lake southwest of Reynolds

From the few pictures I had seen, I thought it resembled the area around Aspen, with lush vegetation and soft, crumbly rock. In some ways it is an extreme version of the Elks, with more greenery, more wildlife, and steeper, even more crumbly rock. But being a glaciated range, my friend’s description of it — like someone had gone at the rock with a huge ice cream scoop — is probably better. Rivers and streams have barely started carving the rock, so the range is full of steep, flat-topped fins and near-vertical bowls with cascades pouring down their sides.

(grizzly?) bear cub by the road

If you see cars stopped by the side of (or in) the road in Montana, stop, grab your camera, and look around, because there’s usually something worth seeing. On my drive from the Many Glaciers entrance to East Glacier, I was clued in to the presence of both a bald eagle sitting obliviously in a tree, and (I think) a grizzly bear cub foraging by the roadside. Montana is teeming with wildlife.

Reynolds and Dragon Tail (class 3?)

Reynolds from the parking lot.

I got to the park late, so I headed up to the Logan Pass visitor’s center early to find a map. Unfortunately it didn’t open until 9, so I chose a nearby easy peak for the day, Mt. Reynolds. The first part of the route follows a boardwalk that seems to be one of the park’s most popular tourist trails; it was swarmed when I returned in the afternoon.

I left the trail at the pass to follow a boot track and fainter trail around to Reynolds’ southwest ridge, then scrambled up the goat paths, scree, and class 2 steps, passing occasional cairns, to the final, steep summit cap. With the cairns, this is no worse than easy class 3, but it must have taken some time to find the route through a maze of ledges and breaks. The summit is a long, narrow, flat sidewalk with 2000 feet of impressive exposure to the north. I opened a giant register canister to discover a quart bottle with… scraps of paper inside. Oh, well.

After lunch, I made my way back to the saddle and, the weather looking decent, decided to try climbing the long, narrow ridge to the south that had caught my attention on the way up. The ridge consists of three parts: a medium-length section with a broad, flat top, a long section with a jagged top and one vertical side, and a short section with a rounded top leading to the summit. After some experimenting, I found that rather than proceeding along the ridge, it was best to drop down to a goat path on the eastern side after the first, flat section. The improbable ledge bypasses the impressive middle section, and leads to a section of broken class 2-3 rock that can be climbed to reach the final section.

After about an hour of scrambling and backtracking, I reached the summit. Fortunately the peak had a register, so I learned that it was called Dragon Tail. The guidebook back at the visitor’s center said it was 3rd class, but I managed to add a bit of difficulty by not knowing the route.

The tourist trail was a circus by the time I returned, with people wearing all kinds of clothing and footwear having all kinds of trouble with the slushy snow. The chaos did not, however, disturb a mother marmot nursing her young 30 feet from the trail.

A long hike to nowhere (class 4, 28-30 mi)

Merritt from near tunnel.

The original plan was to climb Mt. Merritt, the second-highest peak in the park, by Norman Clyde’s northeast ridge route. After reading in the guidebook that I would have to drive 40+ miles up to the Canadian border to start a 36-mile round-trip, I decided to try something else. The new plan was to do the standard glacier route with an approach through Ptarmigan Tunnel, which would involve less driving and hiking distance. Also, it would be in a more popular part of the park, so the grizzlies would have other meal choices.

I got a late start around 8 (which is more like 7, since Montana stretches the mountain time zone west), but by running the flatter stretches, made it to Elizabeth Lake before 10:30. Things went downhill from there: First, a party heading the other direction mentioned that a grizzly had been seen earlier near their camping area. I set up a crampon to chime against my axe to warn the bear, and warily kept going. Then a Swiss backpacker, trying to be helpful, gave me a variant of the usual “go not unto the glacier alone, or surely ye must die” speech. There are glaciers and glaciers, and the one on Merritt is relatively small and tame, with little crevasse danger, but scoldings never help my morale. When I couldn’t find a usable path up the streams where the route leaves the trail, I decided to do something else instead.

I got to Helen Lake around lunch, soaked myself in DEET, and tried to eat lunch in the campsite’s “food preparation area.” However, the mosquitoes were thick enough that I probably would have had to apply bugspray to my eyes and tongue to be able to eat, so I ate quickly in a slightly less infested area, and set out to find the path up Ahern Pass.

There is a faint trail along the lefthand side of the lake, but it gives out in scree and snow, and I wasted much time and energy trying to find it in the brutal midday heat. After having a snack and, taking a chance, replenishing my water from a snowbank, I decided to just head up the flatter lefthand wall to see what I found. I finally found a well-established goat track; I could tell by the tufts of goat hair where it passed through stunted pine trees. The trail one again disintegrated near the rocks to the left of the pass, but I forced my way through the broken cliffs and along the ridge, and back down to the pass.

I found three women at the pass (and some sheep, but alas, Mr. Colbert, no gold). They had turned around part-way up Ahern Peak because of the approaching storm, and I didn’t bother to try for the summit, but ran on ahead of them toward the Granite Park chalet and the pass back to my car. The storm came in quickly, and while luckily the trail was well below the ridge, I had to endure a mile or two of hail before the chalet. I considered dropping in to wring out my socks and refill my water, but instead took advantage of a break in the weather to hurry over the pass. As I found out later, the useless chalet doesn’t even have water for mere backpackers, so I didn’t miss much. I dried out on the hike back, anyways.