Category Archives: Montana


Elbow Lake

Mount Cowen is the highpoint of the western Beartooths, which line the eastern side of the Yellowstone River valley between Yellowstone National Park and the town of Livingston. It is the highest of a ring of granite spires, with a class 3-4 route to its summit on generally good rock. Many of the other spires are quite impressive, especially Point 10,814′, which rises over 1000 feet above Elbow Lake.

Lots of this

Sometimes the snow works to your advantage this time of year, covering scree or deadfall. This was not one of those times: though the trail was generally dry and well-maintained at first, the two miles or so of snow between where it enters the Elbow Creek drainage and the far side of Elbow Lake (8000-8500 feet) were posthole hell, ranging from ankle- to crotch-deep. This made a straightforward day a bit more of an ordeal than I had expected, but it was probably good for me, and the views were worth it.

Some flower

I started off from the East Mill Creek trailhead around 6:00, hiking the trail as it contours high on the south side of the “creek” to avoid a large inholding. Fortunately there is a sturdy bridge near the junction with the Elbow Creek trail 1.5 miles in, because there was no way I would ford Mill Creek. I had not paid much attention to distances, and was slightly nonplussed to discover that it was another 6 miles to Elbow Lake.

Trail above woods

The first part went easily, as the trail steadily gained elevation up Upper Sage Creek, traversing the east side before crossing to switchback into open meadows on the west. The trail sees quite a bit of stock traffic, which means that there were few blowdowns, but also that the surface was destroyed where thoughtless equestrians had used it while muddy. There were also plenty of elk and bear prints, though none as big as the grizzly prints I recently saw on the way to Jackson.

Cowen spires

Things abruptly started to suck as the trail crossed over a promontory onto the north-facing slope above Elbow Creek. I managed to make my life slightly less wretched by trying to follow what looked like an old skin track, which hardened the surface of the snow enough that I often did not break through. The elk were apparently not smart enough to do this, so they simply postholed through.

Cowen’s south face

Finally reaching Elbow Lake, I was impressed by a sheer spire that I thought might be Cowen, but was actually the subsidiary 10,814′. I slogged around the lake, and finally saw my lot improve slightly as I reached the avalanche fans from the amphitheater above the lake. I followed one slide path toward the still-hidden summit, taking rock bypasses where I could, which were still faster than snow on the way up. Finally, less than 1000 feet below its summit, Cowen’s south face came into view, looking just as described online.

West ridge

I thrashed up some softening snow to the base of the recommended couloir, then decided that I would prefer the rock to its left. This turned out to be some fun, solid class 3-4, and deposited me at the saddle before the final summit ridge. There is supposedly a mostly class 3 route on the south face, but it seemed like it might be more fun to stay on the ridge. I mostly succeeded, with a bit of extracurricular fifth class and a few deviations near the top.

The summit looked like it even had a Sierra-style fifth class summit boulder, which I climbed, only to see a cairn on a nearby, easier flat spot. I scrambled over there, then tried to enjoy the views quickly, as it looked like a storm might be coming in from the southwest. I tried to find the “standard” route on the way down, and though I found a few cairns, there did not seem to be an obvious easy line.

I took the couloir on the way down, carefully plunge-stepping the steep and inconsistent snow up high, bypassing a pinch point on rock, then plunge-stepping and occasionally boot-skiing back to the upper end of Elbow Lake. Maybe the intermittent clouds helped, because the snow in the woods had not deteriorated as much as I had feared. The slog back to dry land passed without too much pain, except for me getting stupidly lost in the woods when I tried to take a shortcut near the end. I wrung out my socks, switched to shorts, and had a fun run down the trail, continuing to mostly jog along Mill Creek to the car. Hopefully the weather will behave itself enough to get in a couple more days in the area…

Cleveland (35mi, 14h)

Cleveland at last

Early in my project to dayhike the lower 48’s most remote peaks, I dismissed the northern Rockies in favor of the northern Cascades. While I still believe that the Cascades contain the hardest dayhikes, the Rockies can certainly bring the pain, as I found on this harder-than-expected trip. Mount Cleveland is the highpoint of Glacier National Park, and the last ultra-prominence I will climb in the conceivable future (Ibapah is a desert garbage-mound, and Mitchell and Washington are back east). While it is normally approached via Waterton Lake and Stoney Indian Pass, that route involves Canadian border guards and a ferry. I have endured my Canadian border crossing for the year, and the ferry would mean camping, so I chose the alternate approach from the Chief Mountain trailhead near the port of entry.

Dawn on Belly River

I did not know what to expect of a trailhead next to a border crossing, and did not wanted to mess with la migra in an area where their Whim is Law, so I camped on a side-road outside the park, then drove up early. The trailhead is apparently the northern terminus of the Continental Divide Trail, however, so I found an ample parking lot with a half-dozen cars. I finished “breakfast,” then started up the trail around 5:45. I expected a day of about 30 miles and 12-13 hours, longer than Jackson without being ridiculous. Little did I know…

Mokowanis valley

The first 10-ish miles are a routine trail commute past the Belly River ranger cabin, then up the Mokowanis to Glenns Lake. The standard route starts from Stoney Indian Lake, well southwest of the peak, then crosses some narrow, east-facing ledges. Since I was coming from the east, and the ledges would definitely hold snow this early in the season, I had to do something else. Digging around online, I found a trip report of a failed attempt from Whitecrow Lake, and a vague account of a route up Whitecrow Ridge, then across the Whitecrow Glacier and up some steep snow. The latter makes little sense on the map, and even less when looking at the terrain, and the former was less than definitive, but I assumed that I could make something work. The plan was to ascend Whitecrow Ridge, then traverse to Cleveland and find a path up its south side.

Thrash up Whitecrow

Nearing Glenns Lake, I checked out my options for getting onto Whitecrow Ridge, with its mixture of steep forest and small cliff bands. Rather than starting at the toe, I decided to head up somewhere just below Point 7047′, where the trail was relatively close to the slope. This proved only mildly unpleasant, with a bit of woods-thrashing, then a bash through some fresh waist-high plants along the edge of a slide path. I occasionally had to tangle directly with the slide alder or forest, but the Cascades have hardened me to such things. Above, I had little trouble threading through the cliff bands with only a bit of class 3-4.

Tricky knob

Emerging just east of 7047′, I was confronted with a real possibility of defeat, as the small knob was steep and sketchy-looking on both sides. The south side was less steep overall, but it turns out that the ledges are more usable to the north. While there is no obvious goat-path, I found droppings here and there, and a series of ledges that got me around the knob with only one truly narrow spot. Above, I stayed on or left of the ridge, following goat trails and the path of least resistance, to eventually reach Whitecrow, a minor bump on the ridge.

Cleveland’s south face

From this vantage, it became clear that a headwall blocked the direct path up Cleveland’s southeast ridge, so it would be necessary to traverse its south face to meet the Stoney Indian route. There are a couple of cliff bands on this face, but it looked like I could find connecting ledges while avoiding most of the lingering snow. There are a number of towers and gaps between Whitecrow and the face, which consumed time backtracking and downclimbing to the south, but there was no truly difficult terrain, and I soon found myself on a dirt-ledge headed across the face.

Whitecrow ridge and Stoney Indian Peaks

While the underlying rock is solid, the ledges are all covered in scree and dirt, some of which had turned to slick mud from the melting snow above. I made my way across and up the face, crossing through a steep grey band partway across, aiming for the saddle with the Stoney Indian Peaks. This made for a lot of annoying side-hilling, and a few minor stream crossings, but nothing super-exposed or sketchy.

Goat escaping

As I got closer to the saddle, I thought I would be smart and angle upward to meet the ridge on its Cleveland side. Bad move: the black rock band above my traverse ledge proved both steeper and wetter than I had expected, requiring some sketchy wet fourth class and backtracking. I eventually made it work, though, and found a faint trail and a couple cairns on Cleveland’s much easier west side. I traversed around a step in the ridge, then started climbing back toward the crest. Along the way, I spotted a shy mountain goat — the only one I saw on this trip — who kicked a few rocks in my direction as he escaped. I followed the goat for a bit, then wound my own way up to the ridge.

Looking down summit plateau

The lower end of the summit knob is a jumble of horrible basalt talus with a short third class step. Above, the broad summit plan stretches for over half a mile, gradually rising another 400 feet to the summit on its far northern end. Cleveland is notorious for grizzly bears feeding on its summit later in the season, but I was there before the bears, and saw only a couple piles of old manure. From the highpoint, the peak drops steeply 4000 feet northwest to Cleveland Creek, then another 2000 feet to Waterton Lake. To the south, Mount Merritt rises 5000 feet on the other side of the Mokowanis.

Chief Mountain

After 15 minutes, I reluctantly set out on the long slog home. I wanted to avoid the long traverse around Whitecrow Ridge, and contemplated some version of descending via Whitecrow Lake. The bushwhack below the lake was supposedly bad, but there seemed to be consistent snow in the woods above 6000 feet, and the plain above the lake was covered in nice, solid avalanche debris. I returned to the saddle, hoping to see an obvious path down to the southeast. Failing to see an obvious line, and worried about cliffing out, I decided to retrace my traverse partway to Whitecrow, where there was obviously navigable terrain down toward the lake.

Random cool Canadian peaks

As it turns out, it looks like a diagonal line from the saddle toward the ridge southwest of the lake would have worked. Unfortunately, I managed to punch myself in the face with some epicly stupid route-finding. First, I thought I would try to traverse the south side of Whitecrow above the forest to reach a slide path. The side-hilling proved awful, so I eventually gave up and scree-skied into the woods. The snow was helpful in places, but not as continuous or consolidated as I had hoped, so then began the bushwhack. I ended up bashing my way down a steep, wooded hillside left of creek, tripping on hidden branches, stabbing my hand on broken twigs, climbing over rotting logs, and generally hating life. I was having flashbacks to my descent fro the Pickets via Eiley-Wiley Ridge, though at least this time was not by headlamp. As a final insult, I reached the valley bottom only to find that the trail was closer to the lake than the map suggested, across a nightmare tangle of deadfall. I think retracing my steps would have been slightly faster, but all roads to Whitecrow involve suffering.

Chief and ranger cabin

I transitioned to shorts, then started the trudge home. I expected to have the place to myself, but soon met an experienced Glacier backpacker out for the day from his camp at Cosley Lake. We talked for awhile, and he reported seeing a grizzly swimming past the camp area that morning. Joy. Fortunately I met no bears, just a couple of kids out on a camping trip. I would have told them about the swimming grizzly, but they didn’t seem talkative. My wet feet were sore, so I actually enjoyed taking my shoes off to wade through the 50-yard stretch below Cosley where the trail had become a stream.

Almost Nat Geo

Nearing the ranger cabin, I looked up to see a fox staring intensely at something in a meadow 100 yards away. I zoomed all the way in and focused on it, but I remain a bad photographer: right as I released the shutter, the fox pounced on its prey, and I got the back half of a Nat Geo action shot. I took a couple more photos as the creature sized me up, then took off again jogging for home. A couple miles past the ranger cabin, I met a girl out for a solo backpack who had just startled a mountain lion on the trail. I though that perhaps I should walk for awhile to avoid setting off the cat’s prey drive, but that resolve lasted for all of 100 yards: I wanted this to end. I was even impatient enough to jog parts of the 700-foot climb up from the Belly River to the trailhead. I reached the car just over 14 hours out, and rinsed off and ate as CBP made a pass through the lot, keeping the Homeland safe from… something. I have many peaks still to bag in Glacier, and a new respect for its savagery, but that’s enough for this trip.


So much of this

With two days of good weather in the forecast, it was time to actually get something done in Glacier. The park contains 6 peaks over 10,000 feet; given seasonal road and trail closures, and difficult stream fords, only three looked reasonable: Jackson, Cleveland, and Merritt. They all required an unfortunate drive around to the other side of the park, but west-side peak-bagging options seem limited. Jackson looked like a moderate day on paper: about 20 miles and 5-6000 feet of elevation gain, so I chose to do it first.

Hello, grizzly

Going-to-the-Sun road was closed at the Jackson Glacier Overlook, so I slept there, then got a semi-lazy start toward Gunsight Pass. I had checked on the park’s website that the crucial suspension bridge over Reynolds Creek had been installed, and assumed that the popular trail toward Gunsight Pass had been at least partly cleared, as it had on the other side below Sperry Chalet. Unfortunately, I was badly mistaken: the trail beyond the bridge has not been cleared at all, and the next four miles through an old burn had probably over 100 blowdowns. This turned what I thought would be a mellow day into something of an ordeal. On the other hand, it kept most people away, and possibly the grizzlies as well, since most animals aren’t stupid enough to plow through such a steeplechase course. I saw some very fresh grizzly and moose tracks, and a fair amount of manure, but did not catch a glimpse of either.

Alternate bridge

Things finally started sucking less as the trail climbs out of the Saint Mary River valley beyond the Florence Falls turnoff. The snow was nicely consolidated, and I made good time to where another suspension bridge should cross the outlet of Gunsight Lake. Unfortunately the “bridge” was just a pile of slats on the near bank, and I could not figure out how to assemble it myself. The ford looked reasonable, but I did not relish the thought of climbing out barefoot onto the snow on the other side. Fortunately, there was a nice log-jam about a third of a mile downstream, so I did not need to subject myself to that ordeal.

Upper east ridge

Beyond the log-jam, I kicked steps uphill through the woods in 3-4 feet of consolidated snow, which was probably faster and easier than whatever the ground looks like in summer. Once out of the trees on Jackson’s east ridge, I preferred the underlying rock and scree to the somewhat softer snow, angling up to a random point on the ridge. The crest itself was mostly snow-free, with only a few deviations necessary from the cairned summer route. The angle of the rock layers makes the ridge a ramp rather than stairs, and the rock is sticky enough to easily walk up the slabs.

Summit ridge and Lake McDonald

I traversed to the far end of the summit ridge, where I finally found the summit cairn and “register,” a chewed-on Gatorade bottle with some wet scraps of paper and a $20 bill (score!). With clean air and a few high clouds, the view was spectacular, encompassing the entire park, including all of the other 10,000 foot peaks, from Stanton just south, to Cleveland far to the north. I think late May or early June is the best time to visit Glacier: not only does the snow make cross-country travel in the woods easier, but it hides the corpses of its dying glaciers.

Saint Mary River valley

I scrambled back along the ridge, then had a quick plunge-step and boot-ski down to the woods, definitely much faster and easier than scrabbling down the dinner-plate talus. As I crossed my bridge and descended toward the Saint Mary valley, I steeled myself for the miserable log-hop and climb back to the road. Though I once again saw no animals — not even a moose in the expansive swamps — I was surprised to meet two guys who had nearly passed the wretched part of the trail on their way to Gunsight Lake. They had apparently chosen poorly when picking out a moderate dayhike on a long road trip from Arizona. I was impressed by their tenacity, and encouraged them by letting them know that they were almost through the worst.

I finished the grind up to the trailhead mid-afternoon, encountering a steady stream of tourists driving up to the road closure, taking a few photos, and driving back down. I also met a couple of local skiers hiking down the road, which was supposedly closed to hikers. I asked them where they had skied, but despite the skis obviously attached to the top of my car, they were absolutely unfriendly and vague — oh well. I ate my beans in silence, then drove on to the next.


I ain’t wading that

Early-season conditions can be frustrating sometimes. After a day lost waking up to a steady drizzle, I hoped to traverse a ridge of peaks northwest of Lake McDonald, from Stanton to Heavens. The park had opened more of the Going-to-the-Sun road, allowing me to drive to Avalanche Creek, only a couple of miles short of the direct route to Heavens. I lucked out in choosing to start at the north end, because it turns out I would have been trapped on the wrong side of McDonald Creek if I had ened there instead, facing a long, nasty bushwhack either way to reach a crossing. The trip reports I found suggested either fording the creek or crossing on logs, but there were no suitable logs, and the “creek” was a raging river that I did not feel comfortable trying to ford.

Stanton and Vaught from bridge

After that disappointment, I drove to the other end of the ridge, then hiked over a mile of gated-off side road to the trailhead. It was late morning by now, and punishingly hot, so I didn’t feel particularly ambitious. I followed the trail through an old burn to the saddle between McDonald and Camas Creeks, ducking a number of blowdowns, then took off on a game/use trail toward Stanton, at the southern end of the ridge. The mosquitoes were out in force between 5500 and 6500 feet, above which there was enough of a breeze to keep them grounded. I found bits of trail here and there along the ridge, which could have been made by either humans or goats.

Lake McDonald

I should have continued to the higher Mount Vaught, but doing so would require re-climbing Stanton on the return, and I was feeling lazy. After some time a safe distance from the disgustingly ladybug-infested summit, where I unsurprisingly found a tick on my pant leg, I returned partway along the ridge, then dropped straight to the head of a slide path. The consolidated snow made for decent boot-skiing that eased the descent to the trail, with only minimal bushwhacking lower down. I should have run the trail, but simply fast-walked in the mid-afternoon heat, in no hurry to return to my car.


Gunsight from Comeau Pass

The States’ Glacier National Park is kind of a disappointment to someone familiar with Canada. The climbing is inferior to Canada’s Glacier National Park (i.e. Rogers Pass), and the peaks and glaciers are a lesser version of the Canadian Rockies. With the Going-to-the-Sun road mostly closed, access to peaks in Glacier is low and limited. From the west, the road is drivable only to the end of MacDonald Lake, at 3200 feet. Trails seem to be mostly snow-free up to 6000 feet, and the snow is well-consolidated above that, but the few accessible peaks still tend to require about 6000 feet of gain. Gunsight, a 9000-footer above the recently-burned Sperry Chalet, is one of the easiest summits to reach in the area.

Glacier Basin

It was well above freezing overnight, and the days are long, so there was no reason to get an early start — the snow would be what it would be. A fire last summer had burned a lot of the approach to the Sperry Chalet, as well as one of the Chalet buildings, but the Parks Service had been busy with a chainsaw, and the trail was clear up to where the snow started. It was a long grind up from the lake at 3200 feet to the start of solid snow around 6000 feet, about halfway to the peak elevation-wise. I was pleased to find the snow consolidated, even late in the morning in the woods.

Burned Sperry Chalet

Above the chalet, the trail traverses a ledge to climb a sort of amphitheater, and this ledge was still holding a fair amount of high-angle snow. While I did not need my crampons, I was glad to have my ice axe with me, as a slip would have shot me off a small cliff. Above the traverse ledge, I climbed toward Comeau Pass in a more-or-less straight line, passing mostly-frozen Feather Woman and Akaiyan Lakes. While the peaks mostly seem to have standard white man names, many natural features have Native American names that I suspect were not given by the natives themselves.

Comeau Pass slot

The final 20 feet to the pass is a slot in a headwall that was either blasted entirely, or improved with cut steps and some rock-work. From Comeau Pass, Mount Edwards is a 1000-foot climb to one side, while Gunsight is a 1200-foot climb to the other. I probably should have done both, but I had two more biggish days planned, and opted to only tag the higher peak. I stayed mostly on the rock of the northwest ridge, as the snow on the north face was not as well-consolidated as that lower down. The climb was straightforward except for the transitions between rock and snow.

Summit snow arete

The summit was a narrow snow arete, hard on one side and calf-deep on the other. I tagged the high point, then sat on some rocks on the west side to have a snack and look down at huge Lake MacDonald 6000 feet below. The return went quickly, with a 600-foot glissade down the north face, then some plodding and boot-skiing down to below the chalet. I met a half-dozen people hiking the trail, including two girls with a map, who I encouraged to continue at least as far as the chalet. However, it seems like I have the high country to myself now — I saw some old ski tracks, but no boot tracks, despite the friendly snow. Their loss.

Snowshoe; also Scotchman

Snowshoe’s east face

Ticking off “ultra-prominence” peaks is sort of silly, but it does lead me to ranges I would not normally visit. The Cabinet Mountains, in far northwest Montana, are not especially high, with generally poor rock and only one small glacier, so I would normally skip them. However, they are home to Snowshoe Peak, one of Montana’s four ultras, so I took the time to visit on my way to Canada, and was pleasantly surprised. The range reminded me a bit of the Cascades, with U-shaped glacial valleys, crappy rock, savage bush-whacking, and even a bit of devil’s club. It also feels much more “redneck” than other parts of the state I have visited. Snowshoe Peak, Mine, and Lake were all named by some miner who spent several frustrating hours nearby repairing his snowshoe.

Snowshoe trail

Driving to the trailhead in the endless evening light, I missed the Leigh Lake turnoff, found an unexpected gated inholding, and ended up at the Snowshoe Mine site. I could have driven back to find the correct trailhead, but I thought (incorrectly) that SummitPost listed a route starting where I was parked, and I was tired of driving. So I settled in and read a bit, then tried to sleep while it was still light out.

Here endeth the trail

Expecting a short outing, I took my time in the morning, starting off around 6:30, which is really more like 5:30 or 6:00 this far west in the time zone. The Snowshoe Lake trail starts off promising enough, heading straight uphill along a pipe that was part of the old mine. Unfortunately, the trail peters out at the first lake, which is little more than a large mud-puddle. From there, a game trail with a few signs of human traffic heads north to a larger lake. I saw one of the white-tailed deer who maintain the trail as I wound through the brush.

Snowshoe, 7718, and lots of traversing

Any semblance of a trail ends in the bog near the upper lake. Embracing the suck, I continued north, eventually breaking out onto a plain of consolidated avalanche snow. Not sure of the best route, I climbed a steep chute west to a saddle, where I oriented myself and prepared for what looked like a long, frustrating traverse to Snowshoe. I followed goat trails through the krummholtz, finding a surprising cairn on 7718, and getting my first view of impressive Leigh Lake and its remaining icebergs.

Typical ledge terrain

After descending to a saddle, things became more complicated. The uplift rock rises to the south or southeast, so the holds are favorable either along the ridge or to the right. However, this means that ledges tend to lose elevation; also, the crumbly towers frustrate attempts to stay on the crest. I ended up splitting my time between the crest and ledges to the right, occasionally doing some 4th class climbing to surmount towers or regain the ridge. It was mostly pleasant climbing on surprisingly good rock, and I couldn’t complain about the view of Leigh Lake cirque, but the constant fight against downward-sloping ledges got old.

A Peak from Snowshoe

Where my ridge joined the standard Leigh Lake route the rock changed, and I found myself trying to follow goat paths through slightly-too-high cliff bands on the left side. After what felt like a few too many false summits, I finally reached the real one, where I was the first this year to sign the register. To the north, A Peak (yes, that’s its name) looked more impressive and just about as high; if I had not just suffered through so much ridge, I would have gone on to tag it.

Leigh Lake cirque

Retracing my route sounded miserable. There were a bunch of register entries mentioning the Leigh Lake route, so I decided to do that, then turn off my brain and hike/jog the road back to my car. After meandering back through the cliff bands, I found a cairn and a bit of trail, and started down the northeast ridge. The rock was not as good here, but the intermittent snow helped. I saw more cairns on the ridge, but lost whatever trail exists on the face, which was still mostly covered in snow.

East face from near Leigh Lake

Crossing a stream down near the lake, I found what I hoped was the start of a robust use trail. However, it faded and I lost it again above the lake outlet, and suffered what felt like a lot of wretched bush-whacking through woody berries and downward-sloping, slippery grass. I clearly need to up my bushwhack game before I get to the Cascades. Just as I emerged onto the real trail near a well-developed campsite, I met a man out for a dayhike, who I greeted with a nonsensical remark about brush. The trail was not in great shape, but at least it was easy to follow, and I was soon back on the road, with nothing but some tedium between me and my car.

Scotchman Peak

Things abruptly turned more redneck as I drove into Idaho, with a roadside quarry and a stack of rusting 1950s-era cars next to the road just past the border. Surprisingly, though, there is a nice trail up Scotchman Peak, reminiscent of the Washington “workout peaks” around Snoqualmie Pass. I had thought of doing this peak in the evening after Snowshoe, but I had had enough, so I saved it for the next morning. If you know roughly where to look, the trailhead is easy to find, with signs directing one to “Trail #65” from the forest road continuation of Main Street in Clark Fork. From the trailhead sign warning about mountain goats, a well-maintained trail climbs steadily to the summit, mostly in the woods.

Since I did this as a run, I did not carry a camera, but the views were partly obscured by clouds in any case. I managed about 3800 ft/hr on the meat of the climb, slower than I probably should be, but not far off expectations. The resident goats were waiting at the structure, and while they were clearly habituated, they were not aggressive, and moved out of the way for me to tag the summit and sign the register. As expected, there isn’t much Strava competition on this obscure peak, so I even nabbed the “record” on the descent, without taking the risks required to truly go fast.


Parting view of McDonald

After some slow, unscheduled car maintenance in rural Idaho, I’m finally back on track…

Nice trail work

McDonald Peak, the highpoint of the Mission Range in northwest Montana, made its way onto my radar for being an ultra-prominence peak, one of only a few I have left to do. Nothing in Montana is really “on the way” to anything, but McDonald wasn’t too far out of the way to Canadia, so I added it to my itinerary. The peak can be approached from either side, and I chose the east to avoid dealing with Indian land. I haven’t spent much time in Montana, but I have enjoyed its wholesome atmosphere and well-kept public lands in the past, and this outing had a similar feel.

First junction

McDonald is closed from July 15 to September 30 to avoid harassing grizzly bears as they feed on moths on the summit. I tried not to think too much about where the bears might be now as I started up the trail around 6:00 with my headphones in and some probably-expired bear spray on my waist belt. I passed through some amazing fields of bear-grass, but they apparently don’t eat that, and I was soon at the end of the official trail at Heart Lake.

Tedious uplift

I barged through some people’s camp, then took what started out as a decent use trail. Not having a map of the area other than my road atlas, I didn’t know much about the route other than that I had to cross the ridge to the west, from which the peak would be obvious. As the use trail faded, I climbed northwest out of the trees, in what I realized on the return was the wrong direction. The scenery was nice, but the uplifted layers of limestone made for some obnoxious up-and-down.


I reached the next side-ridge north, then took off for what looked like a manageable place to cross the ridge, realizing that I was probably off-course. At the crest, I saw I was a bit too far north, but fortunately the other side was wretched steep dirt and grass instead of a cliff, so I got down to the valley floor with only a bit of cursing. The majority of the basin was still covered in sun-cupped snow, but this worked in my favor, covering the bogs and brush, and providing a sketchy snow bridge over the main creek crossing.

West Mac from McDonald

I think the “official” route goes all the way around the south side of the peak to the southwest face, but I took a more direct line up the southeast face on a mix of super-sticky limestone and snow (3-6″ of slurpee on top of harder stuff). I was hot and slow on the climb, but eventually reached the south ridge without using my crampons, and summited about 5h30 from the trailhead. There was still too much snow to see the extent of the glacier to the north, but I had fine views of the peaks to the south, and of West McDonald towering over the valley to the west. Far to the northeast I could make out the higher peaks of Glacier National Park and, possibly, Waterton up in Canada.


The return went much more smoothly, starting with a fairly epic boot-ski back down the southeast face. I broke through a snow bridge once, but had enough momentum to face-plant on the downhill side almost before my feet touched the stream. Fortunately the snowpack up here is not like Colorado in May, so I had almost no postholing on my way back to the even-sketchier snow bridge. The correct ridge crossing had been obvious from the summit, and I even found the use trail in a dry patch near the top.

After more glissading down nearly to Island Lake, I picked up a faint use trail around the north side, then left it to drop down some slabs northeast toward Heart Lake. I’m not sure what the best line would be through here, but after some thrashing, I found the continuation of the use trail around Heart’s west and north sides, eventually reaching the top of the official trail. I hiked a bit, then jogged out of impatience, reaching the car a bit under 9 hours after leaving. On to the next.


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.