Route Type – Scramble
Elevation – 9,125’
Class Level – Class 3
Length of Time Required To Complete Route – One Day
The day I climbed Boulder Peak was an extremely smoky one. I peered over the north edge of the summit area at a fire burning near Lake of The Rocks, over 1,000 feet below, and a few smoldering spot fires to my right (east) in the gully leading down to Boulder Creek. From previous study of my Topo maps, I was aware of Point 9125, a mere half mile north of and 680 feet below my position. I was interested in discovering more about that highpoint and in finding a way to reach its summit.
What I discovered that day in August 2006, was that reaching the summit may not be a particularly easy task. The connecting ridge between Boulder Peak and Point 9125, which I refer to as North Boulder Peak, is extremely rugged, guarded by innumerable gendarmes, and would certainly be climbable only in the Class 5 range if at all. Because of the sight-limiting smoky conditions, I was unable to ascertain information about the ridge leading to North Boulder Peak or the gullies on either side (east and west sides). But I knew enough about the typical terrain of the Bitterroots to realize that any approach from the Boulder Creek Trail was likely to involve bushwhacking. Despite those facts, I resolved to some day give one of the gully approaches a try. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for.
Now, having visited this mountain, I must say that it’s summit is one of the most rewarding of the many I have reached. Not only are the views astounding, but the solitude of a truly wilderness experience one receives on the top of North Boulder Peak is available few other places. The only sign of civilization is the just-visible Boulder Creek Trail as it snakes its way to the west from Montana into Idaho over a high mountain pass.
According to Than Wilkerson, Boulder Creek was named for the large boulders in the creek prior to 1886. The name appears on Lieberg's 1898 map and on the 1897 and 1909 General Land Office Survey plats.
From the south side of Darby, MT, drive south about 4 miles on Hwy 93 and turn right (west) onto Montana 473, also known as the West Fork Road.
Shortly after mile marker 13, turn right (west) onto Boulder Creek Road (5631) which is marked by a sign for the Sam Billings Campground.
Follow the road for 1.3 miles to the trailhead just past the Sam Billings Memorial Campground.
The is a large parking area in addition to stock handing facilities.
An outhouse is available at the end of the campground nearest the trailhead.
The trail heads in a northwesterly direction from the far end of the parking area.
Area Restrictions (Red tape)Just under 2 miles from the trailhead, the route enters the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area. Wilderness rules and regulations apply.
CampingThe Sam Billings Campground is just before the trailhead as you drive along the approach road. A nice secluded and rather large campground, this is probably the best place to camp if you plan to do so before tackling this route.
The only other area along this route that I would even consider good for camping is at the high lake just below the summit. The only problem is that camping there requires carrying your gear through some seriously rough and steep terrain to and from the area. I’m unlikely to ever attempt such a herculean feat.
Approach – Boulder Creek Trailhead to the Bottom of the Access Gully
The route begins at the trailhead by following the Boulder Creek Trail as it progresses in a generally northwesterly direction. As is the case with most trails in the West Fork Ranger District, this trail is in excellent condition and appears to receive frequent upkeep.
Follow the trail for approximately 4.4 miles to a spot (45.86314 N / 114.31583 W, elevation 5,760’) just past (west of) where Slide Creek flows from the right (north) across the trail.
This is the end of the maintained trail for this route, and where the climbers’ route begins.
Climbers’ Route – Boulder Creek Trail to the Summit
Leave the Boulder Creek Trail and pick your own place to cross from the north to the south side of Boulder Creek. Depending upon the time of year, this may not be an easy task. Boulder Creek drains an especially large area and carries sizable volumes of water, especially during the spring melt.
Once across the creek, continue southwest through the extremely dense forest, keeping the main stream from the access gully on your left (east).
Note: In my opinion this is the most tiresome portion of the route which will cause less intrepid climbers to turn back. Why? Because this section contains the absolute worst bushwhacking I have ever experienced in the Bitterroot Mountains. It appears that, over what were probably many hundreds of years, this area has received sufficient water draining from the gully, to keep annual growth at its maximum.
Over time, as branches and trees have fallen, and without the intervention of fire, the forest floor has become littered with partially decomposed debris. Because of the readily-available moisture, mosses have invaded and turned the area into a bog. Unfortunately for those traveling through, this "bog" is full of partially and completely hidden holes, some stretching down 3 to 4 feet to the water which trickles under the entire area. To make things even more interesting, there is a good growth of ferns and small shrubs growing on the moss and downed vegetation.
All this serves to make footing extremely precarious. In many places, because of the undergrowth, it’s impossible to see where you’re placing your feet. To keep from falling into a hole this section of the route requires a person to thoroughly test each foot placement, then hope for the best. Even worse, the forest here is so thick it’s impossible to see through the trees to any particular destination.
Once you break free of the section of horrible bushwhacking, head toward the northeast ridge – it should be to your right (west) if you kept a good line while bushwhacking – of North Boulder Peak.
Climb the ridge until you reach an elevation around 6,600’, then begin traversing along its east side as you enter the gully proper. Stay close to the base of the ridge until you reach an elevation near 7,400’, at which point you’re likely to want to move away from the ridge onto flatter terrain out in the throat of the gully . (See the red track on the Topo Map for the line.)
When you reach an elevation of 8,000’, change your line of travel from southwest to south-southwest (the purple track on the Topo Map). You’re aiming for a weakness in the cliff-band which guards the bowl at the top of the gully. At first it may not be apparent, but as you get closer the break in the cliff-band becomes more obvious.
Note: I did not follow that line above 8,000’, but turned in a more westerly direction and climbed directly up the cliff into the small bowl below the summit (red track on the Topo Map). This line requires Class 5.2 – 5.4 climbing and much more energy than that required by following the recommendation track (Class 2+ or 3).
Upon reaching the cliff-band weakness just above 8,400’, climb upward into the small bowl and turn your direction of travel to the north-northwest and toward the small tarn.
From the tarn, work your way northwest up the talus slope to the ridge-crest below the summit. From there it’s an easy Class 2+ climb to the rather small but extremely nice and very seldom-visited summit.
Note: During my visit to the summit and during the ascent and descent I studied the northeast ridge of North Boulder Peak, trying to determine if it was climbable. It appears that it is. I estimate the climbing to be Class 3 and 4 with careful route finding.
To descend, follow your ascent route in reverse.
If you should be temped to follow my descent route, I advise traversing to the northwest side of the gully by the time you reach an elevation close to 7,700’, then reverse your ascent route the remainder of the way back to the developed trail.
Also it should be noted that this (southeast) side of the gullly is extremely susceptible to avalanche. In many places the side of the gully is extremely steep slab-granite with no anchors to help hold snow. Travel at your own risk when there is ANY CHANCE of avalanche. I recommend that a person should not enter this area of the gully until late spring when the snow is well consolidated, and by which time snow will have long-since come off the slabs.
When To Go
This summit can be reached at any time of the year. Because the trailhead is at a rather low elevation (even for the Bitterroots), it is generally accessible even after winter snows. In fact, climbing this peak when the section of the route which requires bushwhacking is covered with consolidated snow (late spring or early summer) may be the best time.
A Note of Caution – The southeast side of the gully used to reach the summit is extremely susceptible to avalanche. This sidewall is very steep and slippery slab granite which appears to slide every winter. You should probably not enter the gully unless the snow is well consolidated or you plan to stay on the northwest side to lessen exposure to avalanche. You should also know how to read snow for avalanche danger then act appropriately.
Essential GearOnly standard hiking gear and weather-appropriate clothing is required to reach this summit, unless you plan to follow the route on snow.
Because the last couple of miles on this route gain over 3,000’, it’s probably a little steep to be climbed on skinned skis. Crampons and ice axes are probably more appropriate.