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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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'.


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!


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..


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!


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.


 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.


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!


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!

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.