December 27, 2014

Bolted off Black Mountain Summit

Back in May I was interviewing for jobs outside of Montana.  I knew there was a good chance I would find one and the possibility of moving seemed eminent.  So I decided to head out to the hard-to-get-to peaks around Missoula that had been evading me.  First up was Black Mountain.  Black Mountain is a 5,863 foot peak located West of the valley in Lolo National Forest.  It is one of the prominent peaks that surrounds the Missoula valley but is relatively unknown and untraveled.


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May in Montana is still early early Spring but fortunately I picked a really nice sunny day to head back into the isolated western Missoula forests, or so it seemed!  The rivers were still very high and despite the sun we could still get hammered by snow at any time.   Getting to the trailhead is confusing and requires driving way back into Lolo National Forest.  You have to take the old O'Brien Creek Road which was beautiful!  This is an area most Missoulians never see and they should.  The road is laced with beautiful, old farms and forests.


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The trailhead only has a few parking spots but I bet it never really fills up.  There are a few signs at the trailhead but none mention Black Mountain and for good reason.  I grabbed some water, gels and my bear spray and headed North on the trail.


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With only a few weeks of sunlight this year, the wildflowers were starting to bloom in the mountains.  If you don't take into account the sudden drops in temperature, this time of year is the beginning of the short window where Montana's beauty is unparalleled.   After eagerly waiting through winter for this, I quickly shot up the switchbacks cutting my way through the overgrown flowers and vegetation.


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This is the point where I tell you that there is no trail to Black Mountain.  Sure there are a few single track trails that weave through the hills in no particular direction and sure there are countless forest roads that cut into the mountain sides but none of them really lead anywhere.  Most of them, as I would find out, would just disappear into the vegetation.  This O'Brien Creek area was logged by Owens & Hurst logging company in the early 90s and hosts winter elk migrations.


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I literally had no idea where I was going so I just kept heading North and West.  Everyone once in a while I would see Black Mountain off in the distance.  At one point the trail dropped down to a deep, fast moving creek.  There was no way I was going to make it across and I thought the day was done.  So I went off trail and hiked straight up to see if I could find where else I could go.


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As luck would have it, I found another forest road that went above the creek.  I took off down the trail and made my way once again in the direction of Black Mountain.  The forest roads never seemed to climb up any particular peak but rather followed along the contours.  The only way to get up was to go off trail and climb to the next forest road, if there even was one!!


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After climbing up some random peak I just stopped and took along around.  You could see Mt Jumbo and Mt Sentinel to the East, Blue Mountain rising to the South and Black Mountain off the West.  You couldn't see the Rattlesnake or anything North of O'Brien Creek.   The view facing Missoula was incredible though.  This place is so beautiful.


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Finally I found myself at the base of Black Mountain.  You can see forest roads near the top but there was no forest road or trail that took you to them which is odd.  So I cut through the trees and waist high vegetation, making my way up to the forest roads.  I saw a lot and I mean a lot of bear scat.  It was everywhere.  Luckily I never ran into one.


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While I was climbing the final forest road up to the summit I heard thunder and saw a huge flash of lightning.  Up to this point it had been sunny and beautiful but I had been bushwalking in the forest for the last 30 min or so and a storm had crept up on me.  I looked South towards Blue Mountain and watched lightning strike after lightning strike flash near the summit.  The worst part was that the storm was coming from the South and was headed right for me.


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Unfortunately I had to call it and I'm glad I did because the storm quickly surrounded me.  I was hauling it back to the Jeep with lighting and thunder all around me.  There was no where to hide back there!  I was so close to the summit of Black Mountain but it looks like it will have to wait until another time, another year or another part of my life.


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Pretty much every prominent peak in the Missoula valley is easily accessed by forest roads and trails.  Black Mountain is the rare peak that has no direct access which makes it intriguing for me.  I didn't see anyone else out there the entire time I was running.  I found no trail maps online just one account of a person who hiked up there with his dog a few years ago.  For those people who like to get out in the middle of nowhere and route find this hike/run is really fun and challenging.

December 14, 2014

The Not-So-Welcome Creek Wilderness

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Back on May 24th, my friend Jimmy Grant and I headed up to the well known Rock Creek drainage.  Our goal for the day was to start at the Welcome Creek trailhead and run up to the top of Mt. Cleveland.  To do that we had to enter the Welcome Creek Wilderness area, a heavily timbered 28,000 acre area with steep, rocky slopes.  Welcome creek cuts through the northern Sapphire mountain range just south of Missoula.  Unfortunately Jimmy's sister needed his car, so we were stuck with her open top Jeep Wrangler.    May in Montana is not like May in the rest of the country.  It historically involves freezing rain, clouds and snow melt from higher elevations which cause the rivers to 'blow out'.

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The ride from Missoula to the Welcome Creek trail was horrific.  It wasn't that cold outside, for Montana standards, but the wind and rain with the open top Jeep was bone chilling.  I had a blanket draped over me and I still couldn't feel any part of my body.  By the time we made it to the trail head we both had to do push ups and jumping jacks just to get blood flowing to our extremities again!


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The run started off with a really cool suspension bridge over Rock Creek.  Why is there always a group of kids jumping up and down in the middle of the bridge trying to break it?  Once we made it past the madness we hit a nice section of dirt single track.  This seemed to be a good start to our day..

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After the first section of beautiful single track, the trail cut into the side slope of the mountains.  The trail consisted of uneven, wet and icy rocks.  On one side you had a large boulder field and the other was overgrown with pricker bushes hanging over the creek.  The trail closely shadowed the meandering creek and at several points the trail literally was the creek!


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This is where things to a turn for the worse.  We had run only a mile or so and then we crossed the creek via a nicely crafted log bridge but then all of a sudden the trail disappeared.  After shredding ourselves with pricker bush after pricker bush we finally just stopped and looked around.  All we could find were old rusted machine parts and beer cans.  We couldn't tell if the trail was covered by the rising creek or if we were just lost.  Jimmy hopped the creek and found a trail on the other side.  We were never supposed to cross the creek.  Oh well, so we continued along the rocky trail until we came up on this really old cabin.


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 The Welcome Creek Wilderness area was once well known for mining.  In 1888 the largest gold nugget (1.5 pounds) in Montana's history was found in the Welcome Creek Wilderness.  It later became a hideout for outlaws who took residence in the old abandoned mining cabins.  There are only two cabins left that are still in decent condition.  We came upon the Carron cabin the Cinnabar creek drainage converges with the Welcome creek drainage.  This cabin was way out in the middle of nowhere.  It was interesting to learn that this isolated and unforgiving place had such history.  After we inspected the cabin we continued on what looked to be the trail.  Who ever had lived here must have created several trails to set traps, gather wood and collect water from the creek.  We went down every trail and none of them went further than a hundred yards.   At one point we ended up bottoming out at the creek and found several bear prints in the snow.  There was no where else to go so we just climbed straight up the mountain.  We stopped in a clearing somewhere near the top of this unnamed mountain with the cold Montana landscape stretching for miles in front of our eyes.


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Jimmy and I took some time to eat a few gels and enjoy the solitude one can only find in the Montana wilderness!  Then we trudged back down the loose mountain slope and found our way back to the cabin.  The way back didn't take us that long.  We had only made it a few miles into the wilderness area even though it took us a few hours to get there!


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Many of my friends fish on the infamous Rock Creek drainage and they always recommended I check out the trails.  The trip was eventful and the running wasn't that great but this area was beautiful.  In Montana we are spoiled with beautiful backcountry areas and its hard to keep that appreciation year after year.  I'm happy that I went out and explored the Welcome Creek wilderness because it reminded me just how amazing this place is.  If you head out here make sure you do it in late summer or early fall when the creek is low.  Maybe one day I'll find the trail past Carron Cabin up to Mt Cleveland!


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July 3, 2014

The Other 'El Capitan'

I can't stress how much the Bitterroots are under appreciated. There are so many great trails, alpine lakes and peaks that it is often hard to choose where to go.  Most people are put off by the 30 - 60 min drive down highway 93.  Having lived on the east coast for most of my life, I haven't had the luxury of mountains out my backdoor, so I am used to driving several hours to get back into the mountains for a single run.  After a full week of running in the Sapphires and Rattlesnake mountains, I want to venture out to new trails and mountains.  Almost a year ago now I set off with friend, ultrarunner and bouldering phenom Justin Yates to a very remote peak in the Bitterroot mountains - El Capitan.


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Out and Back Route for El Capitan Summit

No, not the El Capitan but the Montanan's El Capitan.  Every state with mountains has an El Capitan peak.  I've hiked several over the last few years.  None are quite as impressive as Yosemite Valley's El Cap but climbing a peak with that name usually involves a long day of  climbing with ample opportunities to scramble and bushwhack.  Justin and I set off before dawn to give ourselves plenty of time to make the summit and be home for dinner.  *Side note - Every foray into the mountains is carefully planned as to how long you can be out in the back country before you have several missed calls and voice mails from your significant other.  You know what I am talking about...


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Western end of Lake Como from Little Rock Creek Trail Head

On Saturday morning we hopped in the Jeep and headed about 60 miles south on highway 93 and hooked west into the Lake Como recreation area.  Once you get past the artificial Lake Como beach resort you follow a slightly maintained jeep road for a few bumpy miles up to the Little Rock Creek trail head.  The sun was rising and just starting to illuminate the tips of the surrounding peaks.   I love early summer mornings in the mountains... the air is so cool and crisp and everything is dead quiet. 


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Eastern end of Little Rock Creek Lake

The first section of Little Rock Trail is mostly single track that meanders alongside Little Rock Creek.  Every once and a while the trail dead ends into very sharp and awkwardly placed boulders.  Each bouldering session would last for 5-10 min and then the trail would pick up again.  Eventually the trail spits you out on to a mountain of driftwood signifying the start of Little Rock Creek lake.   


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Justin taking in our first clear view of El Capitan Peak

Shortly after Little Rock Creek lake the trail just fades away into a creek.  Justin and I ended up pushing south along the lake shore and then bushwhacking along a creek up to base of El Capitan.  This section was pretty rough and annoying so I would recommend skirting north around the lake instead (which we did on the way back).


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El Capitan reflection in an unnamed lake 2000+ ft below

Eventually you come up on three unnamed lakes at the base of the mountain.  The water is crystal clear and provides great reflections of the beautiful scenery surrounding you.   Once you take in the beauty of the remote lakes you can start to plan how you are going to approach the summit.  There are several colouirs to pick from and none of them are particularly pleasant.  Though we did find one that was easier than the rest...


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Justin leading up the colouir


We had already been hiking for a few hours when we hit this massive colouir.  The first 100 yards were fun then we hit the shadow of the mountain...  Really steep pitches with loose rock, mud, snow and ice.  It wasn't a particularly long stretch by any means but it took the longest for us (me) to get through.  Justin quickly bounded up the scree while I was slipping/struggling behind in my Hokas. Don't ever where Hokas on technical or wet terrain. 


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The wet, snowy, muddy top of the colouir

Once you get past the top of the colouir the rest was easy.  Immediately you are rewarded with views of what is referred to as the cathedral consisting of several surrounding peaks in close proximity including El Capitan, Lonesome Bachelor, the Como Peaks and a few others.  We weren't even at the summit and the views were already incredible.


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The Cathedral


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The Final Approach/Slog to the Summit


The last few pitches up to the summit look pretty steep but they aren't bad at all.  The rocks are really unstable near the top though and you never know when your tired legs are going to crash through some loose boulders.  You can also start to feel the altitude as  you make your way up to nearly 10,000 feet.

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Justin peering into Idaho from Montana on the summit of El Capitan

This hike saves the best for last.  To get to the actual summit you have to pull yourself up 20 feet of loose crumbling rock.  It requires a good amount of upper body strength and some nerves.  The drop down either side is a few thousand feet so if you have trouble with heights or vertigo you might now want to climb the last 20 feet.  It felt really unstable and uneven up there.  Have to wonder how long that loose rock will stay up like that!


Video I shot from the summit

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Looking north at the Bitterroot range 

To the north you have wave after wave of 9-10,000ft mountains running east to west with creeks and valleys separating them.  To the east you can see the famous Bitterroot valley, the Sapphire range and you can even see the Anaconda-Pintler range off on the horizon.  Fall is fire season in mountain so the views are a little hazy.


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Looking east toward the Sapphire and Anaconda-Pintler Mountains

After 15-20 min on the windy cold summit we descended back down to the colouir.  Except that when we hiked back all of the colouirs looked the same!  We went back and forth between 3 or 4 different colouirs until we just went with one.  It wasn't the one we went up and ended up being pretty dicey but we made it down ok.


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Descending the colouir towards the three unnamed lakes

We took a short break at the lakes and plotted our next move.  The vegetation/creek bushwhack was a slow slog so we decided to go north around the lake.  Moving along the north side of the valley was so much easier.  There were beautiful, open meadows with fire red wild flowers.  So much better than the way out.


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Beautiful wild flowers of the Bitterroot mountains

I really liked the western end of Little Rock Creek lake.  The thick grassy meadows with virgin pine trees were so beautiful.  The temperature was starting to drop as the sun was starting to retreat which made the hike back much cooler.  As expected the hike back to the car always seems to take longer than the way out.  With the excitement of summiting El Capitan hours behind us all we had now were achy muscles and hunger!  The section from Little Rock Creek Lake to the trail head seemed to go on forever.  Eventually we made it to the Jeep, grabbed some food and headed home.


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El Capitan is a pretty remote peak but it is doable as a day hike.  We had plenty of sunlight to spare even with making a few mistakes along the way.  The views from the top were simply stunning and a little different than some of the northern peaks in the Bitterroots.  Definitely one of my favorite hikes in Montana. I definitely underestimated the effort required for this summit. Justin and I were in pretty good running shape going into this and we were both feeling tired at the end.  About 6,500 feet of climbing on the day.  Nothing a few gas station chocolate bars and gatorades couldn't fix though!


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Elevation profile for our El Capitan hike about 6,500 of climbing

March 2, 2014

Searching for Ch-Paa-Qn Peak

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I've been in Missoula for almost 2 years now and have run / climbed almost every major peak in the Missoula area:  Sentinel, Jumbo, Sheep, Blue Point, University, Radio Towers, Dean Stone, Blue Mountain, Lolo, Point Six, Stuart, Murphy... etc.  The one last major peak (Black Mountain is still on my list) I had not climbed was Ch-paa-qn or "Squaw" peak. Ch-paa-qn is Salish for gray, treeless mountain.


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Ch-paa-qn is roughly 25 miles west of Missoula.  A quick drive down I-90 to the nine mile drainage and then about an hour drive up a rough, old forest road via Edith Peak Rd and you are at the edith peak trail head.  Since I am injured I decided to ride my bike up instead of driving.  I didn't see anyone on the way up until I hit the trail head.  There was a couple inside a car who looked at me like I was in idiot for riding my bike up there.  Pretty standard.


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The trail leading to the peak is around 3 miles and heads west the entire way to the base of the peak.  The first 2 miles of trail are heavily vegetated and not regularly maintained.  It was a bit nervy during the first 30 min because the vegetation was over my head and I was hiking alone.  My expired bear spray was locked and loaded and fortunately never called for action.  The bear spray was in the front of pack because I've heard that two male grizzlies live somewhere on this mountain.





After swimming through a sea of vegetation for the first two miles I was happy to exit into the first clearing.  The grassy meadows were so peaceful with only the birds occasionally interrupting my well earned silence.  I did sneak up on a few sage grouse but instead of surprising me with their deafening flutter, they turned to stone and let me pass in silence.






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Then out of nowhere long rock chutes appear from the North.  From this point on it's your choice as to when you want to head up to the summit.  I chose to walk for a while on the trail before bouldering to the summit.


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The initial part of the climb weaves through small pockets of forest.  About half way up you clear the tree line and enter shrub country.  However, there are a few old, dead trees swaying and creaking with the summit winds.  I would be lying if I didn't say it was a bit ominous.


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After 9 miles of biking and 3+ miles of hiking I finally reached the summit at 7,798 ft.  I hadn't seen anyone since the couple in the parking lot - who were debating whether or not they should hike or just go home.  Only 5 minutes on the summit and I could already hear people approaching from the south.  They had taken the alternate route via the Reservation Divide Trail (3.5 miles 1,800 ft ascent) which they claimed had quite a bit of traffic.  That validated my decision to take the less traveled and more climbing option via the Sleeping Woman Trail (3 miles 2300ft ascent).


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Ch-paa-qn can be seen from almost anywhere in the Missoula Valley.  The nearly 8,000 ft peak prominently towers over the nine mile drainage with no other peaks challenging it.  Needless to say the views from Ch-paa-qn are incredible.


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The best views included the Bitterroots and the Missions.  This particular summit provides a really unique perspective of the Mission Range.


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After chatting with the guys on the summit and a quick snack I headed back down to the trail.  I took a different route back and was rewarded with beautiful meadows full of bright red shrubs.





Ironically, I passed no fewer than 5 groups on the way back to the trailhead.  Thought it was kind of strange since I was late getting to the summit myself and these folks had a ways to go.  Hiking this trail at night would be fun with a group but the vegetation and rock slides would make it interesting!


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I took one final glance back at the summit while cruising back down Edith Peak Rd on my bike.  My last major summit in the Missoula area did not disappoint.  If you are willing to make the drive from Missoula this is very easy hike, if not the easiest hike I've done, for the area.  This trip would be amazing on skis during the winter.  For those who want to break away from the Rattlesnake, Sentinel and Blue Mountain crowds this is a great day hike option that provides unique views of the Missoula and Mission Valleys.  If you bring binoculars you can just see the South end of Flathead Lake!  
Originally from Strongsville, OH, I spent 8 years in Raleigh, North Carolina and have since recently moved to Missoula, MT. I have been a runner all my life and have recently started pursuing ultra marathons. Any excuse to be outside and on the trails.