16 August 2010

Bushwhacking, Peakbaggin, and Wilderness: Sullivan Creek to Mt Howe, August snow

As time goes by, my friends' health deteriorates or they seem to be increasingly busy with work or other distractions. And so I do more and more solo trips, especially when it comes to backpacking and peak bagging. At age 55, I'm glad I can still do this. Though I joke with Mrs Rover that someday I'll probably end up in a grizzly bear turd, she doesn't seem to find that a bit funny. I suppose I should advertise:
      TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to
      become one with the natural world. Apply in person.
You know, something like the philosophical gorilla's want ad from Daniel Quinn's novel Ishmael.

For what might be my last (and only the second) backpacking trip of the season, I chose Sullivan Creek to Mt Howe. It's part a chain of mountain peaks that stands along the Continental Divide just west of my home in Walkerville/Butte Montana. Getting an early start, dewy spider webs caught the rising sun:

Sullivan Basin is a lovely, seldom visited spot at the edge of the Pintler Wilderness. Seldom visited because: it's 11.5 miles of bad road to get there; there is no trailhead; and there is no formal trail. I'm not sure why so many otherwise seasoned hikers and confident outdoorspeople only consider the trails on a map when they plan a trip, but that's how it is. The harsh and dry climate make for open woods, particularly as you approach the Alpine Zone. Having read notes in the peak jar on Mt Howe, it seems that virtually every other peak bagger has come up the west side from Seymour Creek or along the ridge from Mt Evans.

Yet it would be a petty conceit to think I'm the only person that visits this place. Therefore it was no surprise to find a recently established campsite near the old logging road that marks my private "trailhead:"

Years ago, outfitters with horses built what has become a faint trail into Sullivan Basin, and each year the old blazes that marked the trail fade a bit more:

But what's this? Some pilgrim has marked new blazes:

And freshened up that old trail by using a chainsaw to cut away deadfall:

A few miles up the drainage (about half-way to my destination in the cirque), they have established a very nice campsite with a most impressive woodpile. My guess is that some hopeful pilgrim plans to hunt elk during the archery season and perhaps kill one of the trophy bulls that inhabit this place:

Passing above this pilgrim's camp, I broke out into the lush open meadows that define the upper basin:

Mountain goat fur, shed from the heavy winter coat they wear nine months of the year, decorated the little alpine larch trees:

And provided a good scent for MollyTheDog (MTD):

It's a harsh area where geological and biological forces strike a precarious balance. Sometimes life loses ground as torrents of snow melt erode gullies in the mountainside:

At other times, avalanches tear down the slopes, snapping trees (the lower six feet or so of their trunks held rigid by snowpack) like toothpicks:

Trees that stand too high above their neighbors become a target for and are often killed by lightning:

If they're lucky, the lightning merely prunes away the higher branches while the trunk grows ever stouter (sounds like a lesson in the Yin-Yang of Tao):

My campsite was at 9,000 feet in elevation at the base of Mount Howe (I'm not sure who it was named after; shown center left in this photo, the ridge capped with snow):

Tent up, a bit of wood gathering, and it was tea time (Underground Blogger will be happy to note I am wearing a heavy wool shirt and long pants on an August afternoon!):

Did I mention there was a chill in the air? Sure enough, next morning, we woke to a little snow squall (view from the tent door):

After a bit of effort to start the breakfast fire with wet wood and gusting winds, I decided to hike around the basin playing wait & see with the weather. If it cleared, I would hike to the peak of Mt Howe. If it didn't, I'd pack for home. It did clear a bit. The mountain goats came out to feed on a slope high above me:

Hoary marmots (well camouflaged!) scrambled over the scree:

And in this veritable rock garden wildflowers bloomed galore, including Mountain Penstemon (Penstemon montanus):

Mountain Townsendia (Townsendia montana):

Elk Thistle (Cirsium scariosum):

Arctic Gentian (Gentiana algida):

an Alpine species of Harebell (Campanula sp):

Weakstem Stonecrop (Sedum debile):

and a ubiquitous flower in this region, the tiny blooms of Moss Campion (Silene acaulis):

The sky began to clear in fits & starts, with occasional glimpses of the peak. We were mid-way up the slope anyway, so it was time to get into scree-hopping mode. This was made a bit treacherous by the black lichen, which is VERY slick when wet. Luckily it tends to grow in the more-or-less level areas, and not on the steeper rocks:

With the exhuberance of youth, MTD gets a little TOO frisky sliding down the snowfields, somtimes clawing her way to a stop just before the rocky scree:

After a moment, her tracks in the old snow turned pink from the "watermelon snow" algae:

As we reached the summit, I took a moment to make a note in the peak jar (no one else has left a note this year), eat a snack, and take a quick snapshot of MTD with Saddle Mountain (East & West Goat Peaks) in the background:

The sky began to close in again and it was getting difficult to see the route down. Time to go:

 A bit of sleet followed me to camp but after a sound nap I woke to sunny skies. I took a walk around the meadow while MTD guarded the pudding pot (instant pudding with powdered milk):

A humble bee ventured out to gather nectar from the Pink Mountain Heather (Phyllodoce empetriformus):

The Pink Heather overshadowed the low growing and somewhat scarcer Four-angled Mountain Heather (Cassiope tetragona):

Coiled Lousewort (Pedicularis contorta) grew in large patches:

And the Whitebark Pines (Pinus albicaulis) looked ready for Christmas with their brilliant red blossoms:

While lounging and eating supper, I was amazed to see a Long-toed Salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum) crawl under a rotting log (probably looking for tasty ants). One just doesn't expect to see an amphibian in this environment:

A good night's rest and it was time to head home. Were it not for An Ri Ra, Butte's Irish music festival, I would have been tempted to stay another night.


Merri said...

A lovely hike!
- The Equestrian Vagabond

secret agent woman said...

That's really funny because I scrolled through the photos before I read the text and when I saw that one I thought, "Oh my God, he's wearing winter clothes in the hottest part of summer!"

Anonymous said...

So if we find you in a grizzly bear turd can we still say, "He died doing what he loved."?

Judy said...

You are such a good storyteller, if this can be called a story. I like it, whatever it might be. And I love all the photos! Keep moving, as long as you can! That is the way to stay young!

Sylvia K said...

What a fantastic camping trip and you are indeed a great storyteller! I was fascinated by the enormous spiderwebs!! Wow! Love all your photos, but then it's Montana and I love/miss everything in Montana! Hope your week is going well! Thanks for your visits and comments! Always appreciated!


Anonymous said...

A great post. I think you might get some takers for your hiking buddy ad.

Loved the flowers and seeing snow. We are starting to turn the corner here toward fall, but it is still a long way until cold weather ( I hope)

I didn't know heather grew there, very interesting. As were all the other plants that I will look up, one by one.

Hey, did that pudding set? I have tried it with powered milk, and it wasn't so good.

Anonymous said...

My goodness, what a wonderful & incredible series of Montana scenery! My 2 favorite states (that I've visited) are Montana & Wyoming - it's just so incredibly beautiful & breathtaking there!!!

Thanks for stopping by & commenting

EcoRover said...

Anonymous, well, I guess so. But it might be more accurate to say he died doing what he was.

Gardenpath, yes, Jello Instant Pudding (I should get a commission here) always sets well in ice-cold mtn spring water. Perverse though it is, I actually LIKE the stuff--at least in the double chocolate, butterscotch, and pistachio versions. I won't tell you what some of my hiking mates call butterscotch for its, uh, lovely color.

Shey said...

I had a nice & relaxing virtual walk in your world. Thank you for that. There are lots of exciting things to see, from critters to plants & lovely scenery. I would love to be one of your occasional pupils if I lived nearby. Alas, I will have to settle learning your world from afar. I'm glad you have MTD as company, she'll scare the bears away :)

~ Sheepheads said...

We've been getting the same bear flak....

This is quite a post. Someone did quite a job putting together that camp!

Now we know what all of those flowers are that populate the hills this time of year.

Hike on, Cheers!

Walt Olson said...

Your pictures make me miss home so much! I grew up in Butte and did a lot of hiking there as a youngster.

I have a year and 9 months (4 semeseter left: this is my last crop of Masters students!) til I can retire and return. But we will probably wind up in Western Wyoming where my daughter lives. However, the mountains and the climate are still the same.

tsduff said...

A rare Ecorover siting! Thanks for the great portrait in warm clothing :) Truly LOVE your blog - a dream come true for me which I live vicariously through you...

One doesn't expect to see all of these amazing references to the flora and fauna... it would be great for me to know my flowers like I know my birds. Thanks for the amazing post. It was a good trip!

EG Wow said...

Thanks for the tour! You got to see and experience so much because you made the effort. Thanks for taking this lazy slug along on the virtual part of the tour. Watermelon snow is totally new to me - wow! an algae grows in the snow! And I'm fascinated by the alpine plants.

But I'm surprised someone has been allowed to cut so much firewood and stack it for winter.

Betsy from Tennessee said...

Hi ER, I love reading about all of your hikes... You are so fortunate to be living in a place like you do--and are healthy enough to make trips like this... It was wonderful... I got alot of exercise just going along with you 'virtually'.... ha

Albert A Rasch said...

I am just green with envy! One of these days I will take my family into mountains like yours and let them experience the majesty and wonder!

Thank You!
Albert A Rasch
The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles: Sporting Classics!

troutbirder said...

Well, I certainly enjoyed the camping and hiking. The flowers were fantastic, loving the wild ones as I do. Peak baggin from 9,000 ft would be just my style, if it weren't for being a little out of shape and a (undercontrol) heart condition. :)

Dan said...

Great trip, and great pictures. I'm planning on heading to the APW next week, but I'm still a bit wary of the mosquitoes. How were they?

Janie said...

We go off trail a lot and rarely see anyone else. Looks like the pilgrims have moved in on your solitude!
Great photos. I always enjoy your flowers and sometimes recognize some I've seen but couldn't identify.