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May 18th, 2002
Today we headed a couple of hours south of Hamilton to visit a ghost town called Bannack. E is planning on bringing her 5th grade class there for a field trip in a couple of weeks, and she wanted to familiarize herself with the setup. Naturally, we took this as an opportunity (excuse?) to go hiking and make a few turns. Bannack is located near the Pioneer Mountains, one of the ranges east of the southern Bitterroots. There is actually a ski area in the Pioneer Mountains, another somewhat unknown Montana ski area called Maverick Mountain. We would have liked to visit Maverick this past winter, but as with a lot of the ski areas in the region, we just never got around to it. I also contemplated doing a bit of backcountry in the Pioneers, but seeing as we'd never set foot in the range before, it seemed like a formal ski area might be the best introduction. I searched quite a while on the internet, and couldn't find any real info on alpine backcountry skiing in the Pioneer Mountains. However, there was plenty of mention of XC skiing and snowmobiling.
To get to Bannack, we headed south to Lost Trail Pass. In the Sula area, we noticed that a car had pulled to the side and the occupants were looking at something in the woods. We stopped as well, and although at first we saw nothing, soon I caught some movement and realized that about a dozen animals were mingling on the woody hillside. Looking at the horns, we thought they were mountain goats (see the picture), but it turns out that these the animals with the small pointed horns are in fact the females (ewes) and/or yearlings of Mountain Sheep. We had seen three males (rams) earlier in the year with their fantastic curly horns, but it was a real treat to get to see so many at once. Just before the pass, we stopped at our usual stopover, the Sula store, to gas up etc. The shop keep, who always sees us on trips to Lost Trail, spoke up with a smile, "Hey, don't you guys know it's May, where do you think you're going with those skis!?" I informed her that we were heading over to the Pioneers for a little hike and ski. She said, "Boy, you guys are real diehards!" I sort of agreed, but in the back of my head I was thinking, "Hey, we're Vermonters, not wussy (whosey) Montanans!" (they're probably all out fishing ;). We continued on to Lost Trail Pass (7,000') and found that the ski area still had a heaping helping of snow. Some brown patches were forming on the lower reaches of the trails with southern exposure, but overall things looked pretty good. Next, we continued up over Chief Joseph Pass (7,280') and down into the Big Hole. The Big Hole, is the site of a famous Indian battle between the Nez Perce and the U.S. army in 1877. The land really is like a "Big Hole" in the mountains, a broad flat valley with the Bitterroots to the northwest, The Pioneers to the East, the Anaconda Range to the north, and the Beaverhead Mountains to the west.
We continued along through the Big Hole, through the small towns of Wisdom and Jackson. Looking to the southwest, we admired the amazing ski terrain and wealth of snow in the Beaverhead Mountains. Just south of Wisdom, we got held up momentarily by some cattle herding, but finally got to Bannack State Park. Bannack was actually the 1st capitol of Montana, now it's a spooky ghost town, but it seems to be well maintained by the state. E spoke with one of the park rangers to get things set for her class trip, we took a quick look around, and then it was off to Maverick Mountain.
After leaving Bannack, we headed north along the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway. Aside from the craggy peaks in the distance, the snow situation didn't look too good. However, since most of the terrain we were looking at faced south, we weren't too worried. Finally, up ahead we saw what looked like a ski trail. It was south facing, but it was absolutely BARE! Since I hadn't been able to find a trail map for Maverick, I had no idea which direction most of the trails faced, but I was really hoping some of them faced due north by the look of things. In a couple more miles, we came to the Maverick Mountain access road and continued up. The outlook didn't improve, and when we could finally see all the trails from the parking lot, we got the bad news. None of the trails really faced north, mostly east. Only one trail had snow worth skiing, and that was just the top half. It didn't look like it was going to be worth hiking for the snow that was there.
We regrouped back on the byway, and decided to head north, deeper into the Pioneer Mountains. Maybe we'd find something to ski that didn't take a substantial hike. A few minutes along the byway, we came to Elkhorn Hot Springs, and the road had a closed sign that said snowmobiles only. We were already around 7,100', and it didn't look like anyone was going to be snowmobiling any time soon. The main gate to the byway WAS open, and when we saw a truck come through, we decided to hit the byway despite the snowmobile sign.
We gradually climbed higher on the byway, eventually reaching just shy of 8,000'. The road was covered with snow in spots, but they were generally short stretches. Judging by the number of other vehicles we saw, it looked like the road was open. We kept our eyes peeled for skiable terrain, but the most attractive stuff we saw was in the higher peaks of the Pioneers to our east, and it looked like there was no convenient access. I consulted our map and looked at what might be ahead on our route. A peak up ahead called Seymore Mountain looked like it had potential. It looked like it rose to nearly 9,000', and the map showed a large treeless area on its north/northeast side. There was also an indication on the map that a campground was right below the face, which might provide the access we needed.
We continued north along the byway, and finally Seymore Mountain came into view. There was some snow even on the south side, and as we got closer, we could see the partially open northeast face, which had plenty of snow and some steep terrain. We wanted to find the best access we could, so we passed by the Little Joe Campground, and continued on about ¼ mile to a spot known as Grand Vista. The Grand Vista gave us a perfect view of the skiable terrain on Seymore, but didn't turn out to be a great access point. It was about a mile from the ski slope, and in between was the Wise River. Although the river wasn't huge, it was too big to cross without some sort of bridge, and there didn't appear to be one in the area. We decided to check out an access road of sorts that we'd seen between the campground and the vista. It had no markings, but it also wasn't posted, so we drove in. It looked like this would be a good place to start our hike, but by now, it was after 2:00 P.M., a bit late to start such an ordeal. So, we decided to recon the area with the intention of returning in the future.
We worked our way down to the river, used some fencing to get past a small stream, and continued southward. We needed to find a shallow part of the river, or a downed tree that would let us cross. Finally, after a few minutes of heading upstream, we found a few bridges made of downed trees. We tested one out that looked good, and it held fine. We continued along the other side of the river for a few minutes to get some sense of the area, then returned to the car. We decided to finish off the byway, and headed north to the town of Wise River. From there, it was back through the Big Hole and home.
June 8th, 2002
Since we didn't have time to ski on our first visit to the Pioneer Mountains, we decided to head back when we got the chance. That chance came 3 weeks later. E had just finished up her last days at school; Friday was the last day for the kids and Saturday morning was a half day cleanup day. The weather also took an interesting transition of its own, changing from late spring 70s into the 40s as a Pacific storm system pulled in from southern British Columbia. Forecasts called for snow generally above 5,500' with 1 to 2 feet expected in the East Glacier area (they eventually ended up with 4-5 feet of new snow, and many cattle were stranded and/or killed). The latest forecasts I'd heard called for 4-8 inches in the Bitterroots, and up to 6 inches in the Pioneers. It seemed like great weather for camping!
We packed up our gear and headed out in the afternoon. Although it had rained overnight and we could see a bit of new snow in the mountains above 6,000', blue sky was showing in a number of areas. The clouds thickened as we headed south to Lost Trail Pass. We could see that about an inch of new snow had fallen at Lost Trail Powder Mountain, but that most of the trails had melted out and were devoid of snow. Some of the north-facing slopes looked like they would be skiable, but we weren't sure if it would be worth it. As we headed over Chief Joseph Pass, the temperature dropped to 34 F, and snow began to fall. Snow continued to fall as we headed through the Big Hole, and eventually lightened up as we approached Jackson. We continued up the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway, and found that, ironically, Maverick Mountain looked much whiter than it did three weeks earlier. It wasn't really skiable though, as just a couple inches of snow had sugar coated the trails. We continued on the byway, checking out Elkhorn Hot Springs along the way, and eventually ending up at Little Joe Campground (~7,000').
There was a light coating of snow on the ground, and graupel was falling from the sky. As we feared, the face of Seymore Mountain was totally melted out. The only snow up there was a light coating, nowhere near enough to cover all the scree. We knew this meltout was a possibility, and we'd have to find our skiing elsewhere. We made dinner, then settled in for the night. Graupel continued to fall and the temperature was around freezing.
The next morning we woke up to a couple of inches of new snow at the campground, making for a real pretty scene. We had breakfast, then continued north along the Byway. All the mountains we could see were in generally the same shape, and high peaks to the east in the 10,000' plus range weren't visible. Now that we were armed with a detailed topographic map that we had picked up a few weeks ago, we could explore some of the side roads that looked promising. Taking one these roads for about 4 miles, we saw plenty of great ski terrain, but all of it, even the north-facing stuff, was stripped clean of any old snow. We had to chock up our observations as useful for next year, and headed home.
The snow accumulations were generally light in the Big Hole, but as we approached Chief Joseph Pass and the Bitterroots, the accumulations of snow built back up to a few inches. We could see that the slopes of Lost Trail Powder Mountain were once again covered with white. We decided that since we were here, and had all our ski gear, heck, why not make a few turns.
We pulled into the parking lot and drove about a half mile up into the ski area to reach some north facing terrain that we expected to have a good base below the new stuff. We hiked up for about 20 minutes or so, and I continued on alone a little farther to hit one of the steeper chutes (I think it was Beaver, but that's just our best guess). The snow was somewhat wet, but there was a nice base of corn below it. Beaver is probably about 40 degrees at its steepest point, but I hiked up to stuff in the 30-35 degree range. I put down a series of jump turns, and they were quite enjoyable. It may not have been the greatest snow in the world, but I'll take it for June. From there, E joined in and we continued on some of the lower angle terrain, back to the car. These turns were fun too, but as we approached the last few yards before the car, we realized that anything without the old base was virtually unskiable; full of rocks and gravel. We counted ourselves lucky to get any turns without having to do a huge hike into the high country, and headed back to Hamilton. On the way, we stopped again at the Sula store, where a number of folks were getting ready for some four-wheelin' fun. The snowmobiles were put away; a true sign of seasonal change. I initially thought that these might be my latest turns ever, but a quick look at the SkiVT-L discussion list archives revealed that a day from Tuck's on June 15th, 1996 is still the reigning champ. Hopefully I'll get out a few times this summer, there's still plenty of snow around.
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