A Long Time Coming
In the year 2000 and again in 2002, my wife and I spent some time hiking and backpacking in Montana's Bitterroot Mountains, and I recounted some of those experiences in a 2006 trip report called "Appreciating the Bitterroots"
. That trip report got me into a little trouble with some of SP's Bitterroot fans and natives, who politely but firmly objected to my remarks about the dammed backcountry lakes, the poor trail conditions, and what to me was not a suitably alpine nature to the range itself (in short, too many trees even at the higher reaches of the peaks). But sometimes a little controversy can actually bring people together, and we all seemed to recognize in each other a love of mountains both rugged and remote. Invitations to show me the "real" Bitterroots ensued, friendships began, and, in July 2008, I finally made it out there, where I had the good fortune to spend a week with thephotohiker
(Mike), with whom I'd done some hiking and climbing in Wyoming's Absaroka Range the year before.
During our week together, we went on five different outings that took us to a total of eleven different summits, and I did indeed get to see the "real" Bitterroots, peaks and areas I'd never have discovered as a casual visitor.
I certainly did underestimate the beauty and the wildness of the Bitterroots. The range seems to be endless, and there are so many unnamed peaks and drainages without trail systems that there is a lifetime of exploring waiting beyond the canyon walls and peaks one sees from the Bitterroot Valley. Grizzly bears have reportedly returned to the range, there are established wolfpacks, and elk and deer roam the backcountry and trails alike. In terms of wildlife habitat and diversity alone, it is a wilderness comparable to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, especially when considered as part of a larger ecosystem connected with the nearly adjacent Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness that sprawls across much of central Idaho.
I must admit, though, and I perhaps should duck as I say so, that I still think the mountains are a little too forested for my taste. Although the range does have several high peaks that soar above treeline, most of the peaks we saw and climbed did not truly break out above timberline but rather had narrow bands of trees almost all the way to the summits and stunted trees at the summits themselves. As I expressed to Mike in a moment of frustration close to the end of the trip, the last thing I want to do after struggling through talus-hopping and bushwhacking conditions to reach a ridgeline is encounter more trees. I often found myself stretching my neck and wishing I were several feet taller, feeling trapped by trees in places where I normally expect to find an expanse of rock or tundra and sky.
But I loved most of what I saw, and as time passes and I look at pictures and replay my memories, I love it more and more, and I miss it. The only real disappointment was the lousy weather when we hiked up St. Mary Peak; the overcast conditions spoiled what was just an unbeatable view of the Heavenly Twins.
Unless I move there myself, which is unlikely since my wife remains firmly opposed to the winters of the Northern Rockies, I'll never see more than a small fraction of the Bitterroots that Mike has and will. Still, there are some realistic goals remaining, some based on Mike's descriptions and others based on the views from our climbs: North Trapper, the Como Peaks, Jerusalem, El Capitan, Lonesome Bachelor, the Shard and other peaks in the Chaffin drainage.
Hopefully, I'll be back out and will be welcome again at Mike's. His home, in addition to being very nice and comfortable, is about the best place imaginable to return to after a long day in the mountains; one can sit on the deck with a cold beer or a nice glass of wine and watch the sun set over the Bitterroots, with the Como Peaks dominating the view. About the only way it could be better would be if it were up in the mountains themselves, which also would add the distinct benefit of clearing out some of those damn trees!
What follows is not the traditional trip report detailing the events of the climb(s) but rather a collection of photographs, with commentary, that represent my favorite moments and views from the trip.
Mount Jerusalem from the higher of the Soda Springs Peaks-- The day on the Soda Springs Peaks was hell on my feet. I arrived in the Bitterroots with badly blistered feet but had kept going prior to this outing due to a good case of stubbornness (and of mountain addiction), and because of either going in Chacos or heavily bandaging and taping my feet when wearing boots. Because the Chacos had just recently served me well on two consecutive days of almost 20 miles each in Glacier National Park, I opted for them again for this moderate-length day trip. In Glacier, though, I was on trails until I was well above timberline, so the off-trail beating my feet took was minimal. This day, though, was about nothing but off-trail travel, including some bushwhacking. Things were mostly fine getting to the summits, but the return trip found my feet engaged in pained protest. But the views this day may have been my favorites of my week in the Bitterroots with Mike. I got to see deep into the heart of the range, into a wilderness of lonely canyons and raw granite. Mount Jerusalem seemed so massive and close that I could almost leap across to it. If my feet hadn't been so sore, perhaps I would have tried. Wild Idaho-- Another view from the higher of the Soda Springs Peaks, this is probably my favorite picture from my week in the Bitterroots and was my favorite single view. To me, this is everything the heart of the Bitterroots is-- wild, rugged, and remote. Here, an unnamed peak across the state line in Idaho beckoned to my eyes and my imagination and my yearnings. I even briefy considered proposing a traverse over to the peak before realizing the mountain was not as close as it looked and probably would turn into too much of an undertaking for a single day. But the idea of it will linger in my mind, and it will continue to call. Heavenly Twins-- Viewed from near the summit of Point 8608. This climb of this peak was a much-needed gentle day after the blister-punishing Soda Springs Peaks day, but, truth be told, this was my favorite climb of the trip. For one, I loved the views. More importantly, though, was that there was a good deal of snow on the off-trail portion of the climb. Not expecting snow at such elevations, we'd left the ice axes behind, but the snow was moderate and steep enough to climb without an axe or crampons, and my poor, battered feet just loved it. And it was a relatively short outing, apparently not something commonly found when seeking Bitterroot summits. Middle Camas Peak-- Viewed from a saddle on the south side of the peak. The best mountaineering outing of the trip was, by far, our day traversing the cirque of the Camas Lakes, a day that took us to five distinct summits under the blessing of weather that was just about perfect. And for someone who likes his mountaineering without a rope and related gear, the action was just about perfect, too; there was ridgeline hiking, snow climbing, and scrambling. My favorite peak of the day was probably West Camas Peak because it was a small summit with great views and required some scrambling to reach, but the scrambling up Ward Mountain was probably my favorite single stretch of the day; although it was our last summit of the day and we'd already been out for several hours and logged plenty of elevation gain, I somehow found a second wind here and just really enjoyed the climb to the summit area while feeling almost no physical taxation. The bummer of the day was the long, knee-jarringly steep trail descent from Ward, which was made worse by our errors in reading maps and the terrain; that error added over a mile and about 700' of elevation gain to the day, and then my legs were tired. Still, the error did not ruin the day and is now just an amusing memory. West Camas Peak from the traverse to Ward Mountain. West Camas is a remote wilderness peak without the prominence to be a separate ranked peak but with enough character to deserve it. Small tower on West Camas Peak-- I thought this little tower/ridge would take me right to the summit. I thought wrong. While my companion sensibly bypassed this spot on its left, I climbed this to try what looked like some interesting scrambling. The scrambling was interesting-- Class 3 verging on Class 4 with some exposure and sketchy rock-- and the top was small and airy, but it ended in a dropoff just high and steep enough to prevent safe downclimbing, and it was a short stone's throw from the summit. So I had to go back, but it was a nice little scramble-- no regrets. A view from West Camas Peak-- More wild, trackless, and nameless Bitterroot high country. Out there is where alpine and wilderness dreams are made. Point 8807-- Seen from Mill Point West. Our day on these peaks epitomized what much of mountaineering in the Bitterroots is: steep bushwhacking and off-trail talus hiking, scrambling, and route finding. Point 8807 was a little disappointing, being covered with stunted trees that detracted from the views, but Mill Point West was altogether different. It involved an interesting ridge traverse around some jagged and scenic rock outcrops; a short but interesting scrambling option to reach the summit; and a small, rocky summit with unobstructed views of some of the Bitterroots' most spectacular mountains and canyons.