The first time I ever saw Bell Mountain, I knew I wanted to climb it. I was traveling down Highway 28 along the dry eastern foot of the Lemhis in search of a Conoco station, any Conoco station, as I had run out of cash and had only a Conoco card to refuel my vehicle. I learned two important things this trip: 1) always carry cash, and 2) there are no Conoco Stations in Eastern Idaho. However, long before the real panic set in, there was that singular view of Bell Mountain's north face rearing several hundred feet higher than anything around it, a lofty buttressed tower collecting the morning sunlight like an immense gem. My desire was piqued...
Next fall, on a whim, I drove over the divide from my home in Helena, MT, down the Bannock Pass Rd into Leadore, and finally along ID 28 through the dusty Birch Creek Valley to the base of the peak. There is a turn off here for signed Mammoth and Bell Mountain Canyons in a wide, dusty sage flat. I seem to recall there was something mentioned regarding lime kilns as well on the sign. At any rate, this is where I turned. The road to the mouth of Bell Mountain Canyon takes off left after a few miles--just before the aforementioned kilns, crosses a spacious flat at the base of the mountains, crosses a couple of barbed wire fences (which I closed behind me), sloshes through a few cow paddies, and finally plunges down a steep little hill into Mammoth Canyon--which I mistook for Bell Mountain Canyon--and where I set up my tent next to my car. After observing a magnificent sunset, I was lulled to sleep by the lowing of nearby cattle. They stayed around all night.
I hit the trail (road) dark and early next morning, wearing a stiff pair of leather mountaineering boots that promptly rubbed fantastic blisters onto my heels. I was not disturbed too badly, however, as I convinced myself that I merely "breaking them in" (meaning my boots). Instead, I nearly broke myself down.
Through my ignorance, I ascended the road up Mammoth Canyon a bit before I realized that I wasn't walking toward the mountain anymore, so I crossed southward (left) over a prominent lateral moraine dotted with invasive douglas fir and down into the next valley, Bell Mountain Canyon, which sports a rough 4WD road along its bottom. This road can be driven to a closure sign a couple miles past where I parked near the mouth of the canyon, but as my vehicle did not have the necessary clearance, I did well to remain where I was. About this time, the sun finally peeked over the mountains to the east, spiking the morning chill with a welcome bit of warmth. In but an hour's time, the canyon would be transformed into a fiery furnace, shimmering with temperatures well into the nineties. Beware: in summertime, the Lemhis are HOT and DRY. Bring lots of water!
And still my feet rubbed against my unforgiving boots...
I left the road after a half mile or so, and after crossing a string of gorgeous subalpine meadows intersperced with picteresque bands of timber, I climbed northward out of the canyon toward a subpeak visible on Bell's northeast ridge, lying high above a fantastic pile of scree. The view from the subpeak is amazing--a vantage point which gives an unbeatable view of the upper 1,200 feet of the climb up Bell Mountain as well as an interesting perspective of its close neighbor, jagged, impressive (yet officially unnamed) Umpleby Peak.
As I walked down the subpeak into the saddle, a mother black bear and two cubs crossed in front of me, descended into the cirque below Bell's north face, climbed high onto the north shoulder, and crossed out of view, all with very little evident effort. Making this all the more impressive was the fact that mother bear was going along on only three legs, one injured hind leg being held high along her flank in a protective pose.
The northeast spur above the saddle is steep and loose (mark that--LOOSE!), but not really exposed. Just follow it on up to the notch where it joins the east ridge climbing up from the head of Bell Mtn Canyon. At this point, the loose, sliding rubble gives way to the magnificent quartzite summit block which looks from a distance like a giant crystal and, in point of fact, pretty much is. The climbing from here to the summit, while not difficult, is quite exposed in places and warrants a 3-4 rating. Here, my mountaineering boots vindicated me, for though they had damn near crippled my feet on the approach, the firm tread and stiff soles aided me magnificently on the small footholds just below the summit, as well as providing stable support on the loose, rough descent.
In the register on top are several entries from the Amy family who lives at the western base of the mountains and, judging by the prodigious number of signatures, very nearly treats the mountain as a backyard playground. Unless I misread the handwriting, "Amy" is both the first and last name of one family member: "Amy Amy." Poor girl. At any rate, the view from the top is tremendous, especially to the south where the towering pyramid of Diamond Peak rises sharp against the sky, dwarfing countless other impressive peaks. Being dry and mostly treeless, the southern Lemhis afford very little sense of scale at a distance; you must climb to the summits to appreciate the vast distances and tremendous nature of the peaks. Across the valley to the west rise the Lost River Range, a similarly-situated mountain range of even more stupendous scale. Having climbed peaks in the Wind Rivers, Tetons, Beartooths and Glacier Park, I feel comfortable in asserting that these two Eastern Idaho ranges--Lost River and Lemhi--contain peaks of stature and beauty that rank among the greatest in the Rocky Mountains.
The descent was relatively uneventful. I continued to grind my feet into hamburger. The drive back was long and boring. I walked around like a penguin for a few days to keep weight off my blistered heels, but came back with some great photographs. That's about it. Sorry I couldn't inject more drama or thrill to this little sojourn, but that's just the way things are, I guess.
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