Saint Joseph Peak, a mountain that I had seen many times from different vantage points in the Bitterroots. In particular, up close from atop Little Saint Joseph. I was faced with a couple of questions. Do I follow the ridge west and take on some class 4 up Saint Joseph's east face with what I had heard was intense exposure or can I drop off the end of the ridge into the southeast basin, gain the southeast ridge, and then proceed up. With no clear answers and uncertainty rattling around in my head, I opted to look at the Bass Creek approach and see what kind of misery I could inflict on myself.
My destination was the Charles Waters Memorial campground which sits a stones throw from the trailhead. I pulled in, got settled, and with nothing else to do waited for a presentation on Lewis & Clark by a local historian. He was quite good, but growing tired, I snuck out and headed off to bed.
Not feeling 100% in the morning, oh well, I hit the trail knowing I would eventually feel fine as the day wore on. What wasn't fine was being greeted by a stiff wind blowing through the canyon. I was hoping this was the result of wind pouring through the narrow canyon and that up high I would be out of it. Foolish boy. It was not to be as I got drilled all day long.
I settled in working up the broad trail with my first objective to get a look at the southeast ridge, see if I could get on it, and then work my way up. Proving that this is still Montana, I was quickly passed by four people on horses who I am sure were on a day ride headed for Bass Lake at the head of the canyon. I was slightly jealous at the amount of ground they could cover until I caught back up while they were stuck at some deadfall which I easily negotiated.
Around five miles in I got my first look at the southeast ridge and was not encouraged. It has two or three series of cliff bands down low visible through the trees and I quickly decided to continue up the trail and see what lay ahead once past the ridge. Sure enough, a little over six miles in, a nice meadow opened up with a rock filled stream punching right up to the higher reaches of the southeast ridge.
Still not feeling quite up to speed, I sat down for some lunch and rest and then decided to head up and due a little exploration. Once at the top of the meadow, I felt better and decided to keep on going. The streambed narrows as it goes through rock walls on both sides. The crux comes in this area with a five foot high boulder shelf to get up. The stream pours over one side and so there is no choice but to go up the other side. Stumped for a moment or two, I finally grabbed some short, but sturdy shrubs above the boulder and literally pulled myself up. Shortly, I was able to get out of the streambed and begin the steep grind through rock, trees, and deadfall to gain the southeast ridge top. I just could not get into a comfortable rhythm with the exertion, jumbled terrain, and wind blasting away.
Once on the southeast ridge I finally realized I would make the summit and sitting down to regroup I also got some answers. With a clear view of the ridge running west from Little Saint Joseph and the basin below me, it was evident that you could work the ridge to Saint Joseph's east face, plunge down some talus into the basin, and then gain the southeast ridge where I was sitting. This knowledge came a little late as I was well into the long way around.
After putting on a dry base layer I plodded on up to the summit where the flat summit plateau invited the wind to have a clear shot at me. Despite this there were some excellent views of the Bass Creek Crags and all the neighbors - Lolo, Sweeney, Saint Mary, Heavenly Twins, and Bass Peak. After six hours to the summit I realized I had carried a jacket in my backpack and it was going to get worn. I pulled out the binoculars and scoured the east ridge and Little Saint Joseph looking for someone else who might be working their way up but saw no one.
After building a small shelter for the summit register I had brought it was time to go. I actually dropped 2000' very quickly after having had enough of the wind and made my way down the rocky streambed. The highlight of the day was getting down the five foot boulder shelf. I sat down on the edge, reached across my body with both hands and grabbed those low shrubs. With that I slid off the rock, did a 180 turn in the air, and landed on my feet facing the rock. I was quite pleased with that move, but of course no one saw it.
With six miles of trail facing me to get back to my vehicle you can't do much but get after it. At least the wind was at my back. I did run into a local hiker out for some exercise who had climbed Saint Joseph many times and he confirmed that he had done the east ridge, basin traverse, and then onto the southeast ridge and up to the summit. I may have to give that a go some day. As I closed in on the trailhead, I remembered that there was an Arby's in Florence. Being highly motivated, I hustled up, jumped in my vehicle, and raced off for some hot food.
Image courtesy of thephotohiker