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.

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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.