Latitude & Longitude – 45.94124 N / 114.35522 W
Route Type – Scramble
Elevation – 9,340’
Class Levels – Class 2+ to 4
Length of Time Required To Complete Route – One or More Days
The Chaffin Creek Drainage, much of which is shown in the above picture, is one of my favorite areas. Surrounded by some of the highest terrain in the Bitterroot Mountains, the west end of the canyon where Chaffin Creek originates has no "pass" – as do most other Bitterroot Drainages – over which long-established trails wander as they connect the backcountry areas of Montana and Idaho. This area remains truly isolated.
One of those unnamed peaks, Point 9340 is the western-most highpoint on the rim surrounding the canyon. Visible from many other summits of the southern end of the Bitterroots, from inside Chaffin Canyon, West Chaffin Peak (as I call it) cannot be easily seen except from the area of the High Lakes.
Reaching West Chaffin Peak, a round trip from the trailhead of over 15 miles, is a strenuous endeavor.
Passing through the most beautiful hanging cirque I have yet to visit in the Bitterroot Mountains is one of the things which makes a climb of West Chaffin Peak worthwhile. Situated at the extreme western end of Chaffin Canyon and almost one thousand feet above Chaffin Lake, this area is home to a string of tarns connected by rippling streams and small waterfalls, referred to by a few of my friends as "The String of Pearls." Covered in low-growing grass with small groups of Alpine Larch and Whitebark Pine spread throughout, some locals call this hanging garden, Shangri-La. It is one of the best backcountry high-camp areas in the Bitterroots, so I certainly won’t disagree with their assessment.
The best way to experience West Chaffin Peak may be to make your visit a multi-day affair unless, that is, you’re full of energy. Camp in the beautiful hanging cirque (8,400’) before climbing this great mountain. And while you’re at it, summit one or more of the other 9,000’+ high-points within one mile of your camp.
Chaffin Creek is named for Alex of John S. Chaffin who homesteaded on the creek in 1880.
Drive south on Hwy 93 from Darby, MT for about 4.5 miles. Turn right (south) onto the West Fork Road (473). Go only about 100 yards, then turn right (southwest) onto Tin Cup-Chaffin Road (no sign).
Continue about 2.8 miles to an unmarked junction and stay to the right (continuing westward). Drive a little over a mile farther to the trailhead which is located at a right-turning switchback. The obvious trailhead will be on your left (west).
There used to be only limited parking space, but during the summer of 2008 the Forest Service added a new parking area for several more vehicles.
There are no restroom facilities.
Area Restrictions (Red tape)Around 2.75 miles from the trailhead, the Chaffin Creek Trail passes into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area. From that point on wilderness rules and regulations apply.
CampingThe most popular spots for camping are near the three most-visited lakes in the drainage, Hart, Tamarack, and Chaffin Lakes, with Hart being the most popular of all (probably because it’s the closest to the trailhead).
The best camping spots though are the area around the Chaffin High Lakes in the upper portion of the cirque above and northwest of Chaffin Lake. This area is more difficult to reach than the three lower lakes, is seldom-visited, and pristine in nature. If you camp there, please keep it unspoiled.
Approach - Chaffin Creek Trailhead to Chaffin High Lakes
From the Chaffin Creek Trailhead, head west through some stately ponderosa pine and douglas fir along a well-used trail. The recently maintained trail stays just north of Chaffin Creek as it makes its way westward along the bottom of the drainage. This trail is gentle, for the Bitterroot Mountains, as it gains just over 1,800’ of elevation in the first 4+ miles. Then the fun begins!
At about 4.3 miles the trail finishes a series of switchbacks up the north side of the drainage and reaches an elevation of approximately 6,750’. The area is on a grass-covered moraine just south of and below the largest gully up the north side of the canyon (45.95584 N / 114.30217 W). From this point the trail proceeds slightly downhill for a short distance as it approaches a crossing of Chaffin Creek.
Note: This crossing of the creek is on slab granite through the upper portion of a falls and can be extremely dangerous during high water. Be very careful! In fact, if there is high water, the best bet is to go off-trail and climb uphill above the falls along the north side of the stream until you find a safe place to cross. Then backtrack along the south side of the creek until you find the trail. It’s better to walk a little farther than to risk your life.
About a mile after the first crossing of Chaffin Creek Falls, and, after crossing the creek once more, you will reach Hart Lake. Make your way along the north side of the lake on a very patchy trail. As the trail goes around the lake, the route turns in a more southwesterly direction.
Hike upward, staying close to the crest of the ridge as it begins curving north-northwest. Shortly after reaching 8,200’ (45.94605 N / 114.33355 W), leave the crest and go almost directly west (left) toward the base of some cliff-bands (45.94569 N / 114.33619 W) blocking the side of the ridge. You want to stay below (to the left) the cliffs until you reach a more gradual incline. You should be close to 8,350’ after passing the cliffs.
Note: I have tried beginning the traverse lower on the ridge (about 8,100') which allows a track across more talus and less grass. Unfortunately it also takes you across more scree. Of the two tracks, I prefer the higher traverse beginning just below the cliff-bands.
Continue traversing toward a low-point (it looks like a very shallow saddle) to the west. This is the entry point to a hanging cirque containing several small lakes, an area I call The Chaffin High Lakes.
When you attain the saddle (beside an outlet stream) you will be greeted by a very open forest of larch and whitebark pine. There are multiple places one could set up a base-camp for a multi-day summit assault. I consider this Chaffin High Lakes area to have the very best back-country camping in the Bitterroots.
Climbers' Routes - West Chaffin Peak from the Chaffin High Lakes
From a spot just north of the first, and lowest, Chaffin High Lake, you’ll be able to spot West Chaffin Peak on the ridge-crest by looking southwest. From your location, there is one obviously doable route to the summit – the east face (easiest) - and maybe two others which look possible - climb Chaffin Point and follow the ridge-crest south to West Chaffin Peak (more difficult) or climb from the floor of the cirque to the saddle between Chaffin Point and West Chaffin Peak (difficulty currently unknown).
East Face Route (Class 2+)
From your position near the lowest of the High Lakes, head southwest through the open woods of Alpine Larch and Whitebark Pine. Hike uphill, working your way up and around several small cliff-bands along the northwest side of a small ridge.
When you reach an elevation around 8,600 feet or so, you will come to a small stream – the outlet for the next High Lake. Pick a spot to cross the stream and pass the lake on its northwest side. As you walk, study the east face of West Chaffin. Notice the location of the small cliff-band and sections of slab-granite, both of which you will want to avoid if possible. Once you see an ascent line that you like, go for it. My choice was a climbing traverse to the southwest through a steeper section on the lower face, after which I changed course to the northwest directly toward the ridge-crest north of the summit (see the red track on the Topo Map).
There are many routes up and over the stable talus on the east face, and I'm not ready to say any one is better than any other. However, I will mention that the farther south one ascends the face, the easier the climbing. The farther north you go on the face, the more difficult it becomes because of slab-granite and scree.
Chaffin Point and the Connecting Ridge (Class 3 or 4)
Climb over mostly stable talus (there are a couple small patches of scree, but they’re not too bothersome) toward the low point just east of Chaffin Point.
Pick your own line, but be aware there is one small gully which runs about halfway up the ridge. Once you can pick it out, simply climb upwards around its top end. Doing so will keep you from having to expend extra energy climbing in and out of the depression.
Once you reach the ridge-crest, turn west and walk the short distance to the summit.
From the High Lakes to the summit requires only Class 2 or 2+ climbing and should take less than an hour, even if you stop several times to take pictures.
The route between Chaffin Point and West Chaffin’s summit is at least Class 3 (Class 4 if you climb over all the rock outcrops instead of going around) and is over stable talus and granite blocks. The easiest path moves off and on the ridge-crest multiple times to avoid rock outcrops and unnecessary exposure. Be advised that just past (south of) the saddle, the slab-granite on your left (east) is quite steep and affords few if any hand holds or foot placements. Stay on the ridge-crest or to its right (west) and don’t slip! This route requires careful route-finding to complete, especially through and just south of the saddle area.
A Possible Alternate Route
It may be (and probably is) possible to climb directly to a point along the saddle between Chaffin Point and West Chaffin Peak in spite of the fact that the ridge-crest is protected by some steepish but not vertical slab-granite. There are some good looking cracks in the slabs which lead toward West Chaffin Peak as they gain elevation. I have not climbed this route (yet) and ascending directly to the saddle from the floor of the cirque could be potentially dangerous (it’s quite exposed). This path to the summit certainly looked inviting when I last visited the Chaffin High Lakes area. Unfortunately I didn't have the time to give it a shot. Next time!
When To GoIt’s possible to visit this summit at any time of the year, though traveling over snow may increase the difficulty substantially in spots. Because the trailhead is at a rather low elevation (for the Bitterroots) it is generally accessible all winter.
There are only a couple of spots along the maintained trail where there are signs of avalanche activity, none of them very recent. But the section of the route which traverses below the cliffs on the Shard’s southeast ridge is susceptible to avalanche and should be crossed only when the snow is well-consolidated. When covered with snow, this traverse requires an ice axe and crampons.
Note: There are very few snow anchors around the Chaffin High Lakes in the upper portion of the cirque. Therefore I do not recommend entering the area when the snow is not well-consolidated. Some years that may include all of the winter months, which is not to say that during other years travel in the area will be safe. If you do attempt this summit during the winter, know how to read snow, be aware of current conditions, and stay extremely alert.
Essential GearDuring the summer hiking season, only sturdy hiking boots and weather-appropriate clothing are required to reach this summit. If snow is present, then snowshoes or skis (with skins) may be required. Any traverse across The Shard’s southeast ridge on snow will require an ice axe and crampons.
Carry plenty to eat and drink. Reaching (and returning from) this summit is considered a strenuous endeavor and not to be taken lightly.