Thursday, November 20, 2014

Climbing Sphinx Mountain, East of the Madison Valley in Southwest Montana.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

I was invited to join a group of guys heading for Montana to hike up Sphinx Mountain. I jumped at the chance to explore new ground and have some company during a hike. We met at Scott's home at 4:00 A.M. and piled into his Subaru.  Scott Hurst, James Helfrich, Matt Wood, Gavin Simpson, and myself made up the party.

We began the hike at twilight. It was clear and cold. The hike to the Sphinx and the nearby Helmet wound through a forested valley and up gentle slopes. Hunters had broke trail for much of the initial hike into the backcountry.

Photo by Matt Wood
Hiking to Sphinx Mountain, Montana
Soon the Helmet came into sight. It is a spectacular rock formation just west of Sphinx Mountain. James commented that the Helmet was indeed the most photographic peak during the hike. Here are four views of the Helmet.

The Helmet, Montana

The Helmet, Montana

The Helmet, Montana

The Helmet, Montana
The hike took us up the northwestern gully and then east to the summit. The temperature never rose above 0. With the windchill, it was at least -10 to -20. In fact, when we finished the hike and drove out to the highway the temperature was -18 without a windchill factor.

The Gully, Sphinx Mountain, Montana
The climbing was easy class 3. From the summit the views were spectacular and rewarding. On the top my altimeter read 11, 054 feet...not a tall peak, but nonetheless a great place to spend a winter day with good company.

Hiking Out of the Gully

Looking North
Upper Ridge, Sphinx Mountain, Montana. 

Nearing the Summit, Sphinx Mountain, Montana
On the Summit

Matt Wood on the Summit
Upper Ridge of Sphinx Mountain, Montana

Upper Ridge of Sphinx Mountain, Montana

Upper Ridge of Sphinx Mountain, Montana
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Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Climbing Huhs Horn, Beaverhead Range, Idaho

Huhs Horn (left), Beaverhead Range, Idaho

I set off hiking up Scott Canyon last Saturday with the goal of climbing Scott Peak, the highest point in the Beaverhead Mountains along the Idaho Montana border.  I knew the forecast called for a fifty percent chance of rain and snow but was willing to roll the dice for a chance to photograph in anything but bright sun.

As I came out of the canyon, an imposing peak surrounded by bands of gnarly cliffs dominated the view. I jumped to the conclusion that this must by Scott Peak and based my choices on this assumption. I had read that the approach to the peak was to be gained by climbing a steep wall in an amphitheater of cliffs to the south. I hiked past the rocky peak to find this approach. Staying a bit high on the north side I came across a great limestone arch as I rounded the entrance to the rocky canyon. looking down, The entire valley was a sea of scree. From my high vantage, I saw what looked like rolling waves of scree running parallel to the sides of the of the entrance. These waves flowed into and up the valley, intertwining with each other. I had read a geologist's study of ice glaciers in the Lemhis and immediately made the association. I am fairly sure I was viewing an impressive display of ice glaciers.

At this point, the hiking was easy going. The scree was blocky and mostly stable. the altitude gain was easy. The valley ended in a amphitheater surround on the three sides with bands of cliffs with steep slopes of scree above. The very end of box was banded by three distinct levels of cliffs. I had read that by traveling northeast toward these bands a break in the walls would yield an easy class 3 climb to the uppermost palisade. Walking along the base of the lower cliff, this spot was fairly easy to find. It is the only non-technical place to scale the walls. However, I did place a cairn to help others identify this entrance.

Beginning the Climb Through the Cliffs

Initially, I had planned on climbing Webber Peak, Scott Peak, and Huhs Horn that day. The three peaks lay on the same ridge with Scott Peak in the middle and Huhs Horn to the north of Scott. If I had to give up a peak, it was going to be Webber, the southwest peak. 

After coming out of the cliffs, I thought the rugged peak to the north was Scott and decided to angle my traverse through the steep scree toward the peak to the south. I would bag Webber and then traverse the ridge north to Scott, and then on to Huhs Horn. About thirty minutes into this section, the clouds began to churn and the wind picked up. Since Webber was my lowest priory, I decided to abandoned this summit as the weather became more of an issue. I turned from south to north and headed to the ridge line leading to the summit of what I thought was Scott Peak.

Once on the ridge, gale force winds whipped in from the west. I walked the ridge bracing myself with a trekking pole on the leeward side. I put on another layer to stay comfortable and leisurely walked the ridge to the cairn marking the summit of what I assumed was Scott Peak. I made a few images along the way.

Italian Peak (center left), Beaverhead Range, Idaho

Beaverhead Range, Idaho

Beaverhead Range, Idaho

The Next peak to the north had to be Huhs Horn. I dropped off the peak and climbed down to the ridge leading to the next peak. The climbing was moderate class 3. I kept looking at the peak in front of me and wondering how I would even approach a summit attempt. From my vantage point, it looked like a fortress guarded by a series of cliff bands. As the ridge became more technical, I cursed the guy who wrote the ridge between Scott and Huhs Horn was an easy class 2. Finally, I came to a fifteen foot vertical down climb that demanded a landing onto a two foot section of ridge line with nothing by a few thousand feet of air on both sides. Beyond that, the ridge looked like it only got worse. Given the 50-60 mile wind gusts, the fact that I was alone, and the impending winter storm, I knew when to concede to the mountain. I wanted to photograph the peak in front of me before I turned around and headed back. Got out my tripod and camera. Set everything up and was just seconds away from pushing the shutter when the blizzard hit. 

The Blizzard Begins, Italian Peak Slowly Disappears in the Distance

I hurriedly clicked the shutter as the mountain in front of me began to disappear in the storm. By the time I began climbing back up to the summit and ridge line, I was in a white out. I could only see about forty feet in any direction. When I began to descend, I knew I must find the one spot in about a mile of cliff face that was climbable. It would be like finding a needle in a haystack. My first descent ended at the top of massive cliffs. I then began traversing across the face, more cliffs. By this time, I was caked with snow. I had brought enough layers to spend the night if required but was not very happy with the possibility. I knew that I had to have a visual to identify my position relative to the location through which I came up. I made up my mind that the only thing I could do was keep waking and searching. Within 10-15 minutes the valley below cleared. The clouds rolled away and I could see the entire face that I needed to descend. I angled towards the central portion of cliffs. When I saw a cairn ahead of me, I almost kissed it.

After coming off the cliffs, the hike was once again leisurely, I looked for fossils and enjoyed the solitude and views back to Scott Canyon.

Huhs Horn, Beaverhead Range, Idaho

Once at home, I traced the route I had taken and concluded that I had climbed the wrong peak. I figured out that the initial peak I was heading for was not Webber Peak at all. It was Scott Peak! and the gnarly peak I climbed was Huhs Horn! The ridge between the two was indeed an easy class 2. The peak I tried to reach before the storm was Italian Peak and the ridge to that peak is formidable. And I was right about that last mountain (Italian Peak) being a challenge. Lopez writes that the summit climb is a class 4 with rotten rock. My first time in the Beaverheads was a learning experience. At least I have some bearings now for future climbs.

Other Resources:

Tom Lopez Website:
Huh's Horn

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