Missoula County Highpoint Trip Report

Date: August 23, 2010
Author: Adam Helman

Montana State Completion at Peak X

note 1: All coordinates are in the WGS84 datum.
note 2: Mouse-click on any image for detail.

This effort was part of a larger journey collecting Idaho and Montana county highpoints in August 2010.

I do the "extra mile" to climb this mountain - and for good reason: it is the final county highpoint in my quest to complete the Montana county highpoint list.

Before describing my effort I provide some useful approach road information as an addendum to the existing trip reports.

Saint Mary's Lake Road ("SML") is paved for 2.0 miles after it turns left (east). This turn, being 1.0 mile after its junction with Toweepah Street, means that SML is paved for the first 3.0 miles.

Thereafter one has 4.3 miles of dirt along SML until this junction at (47.26779° N, 113.93788° W). Turn left (east) here. Immediately afterwards is a road fork. Take the left fork and park after 0.2 mile (from the junction) alongside this trailhead at (47.26782° N, 113.93435° W) and 4,041 feet elevation. Your trail departs on the east side of the solitary camping area, just behind a fire ring.

The unmarked trailhead is
just behind a fire ring.

The weather forecast calls for cloudy conditions on Monday the 23rd - and sunny skies for Tuesday. Not wishing to wait two full days after my last county I decided to drive-in on Sunday afternoon and climb the next morning.

There is light rain at 3:24 a.m. - and again at about 4:30. Similarly upon arising before dawn at about 5:15 a.m. I return to sleep until I can assess if a mountain ridge 3,000 feet above is visible, by daylight, and below the cloud deck. It IS visible at first light.

Then again, while contemplating whether to "go for it", and still under the sleeping bag, I use the shortwave radio to get an updated weather forecast just before 6 a.m. Instead I learn of an auto accident on Hawthorne Blvd. in Los Angeles on KNX radio 1070 kHz. The stupidity of having such useless information, from a thousand miles away, yet no local weather forecast is apparent.

Finally I tune-in NPR (National Public Radio) from Missoula on the FM band to learn of a partly cloudy forecast. That's good enough for me: I'll go.

The chocolate babka slice is enjoyed with well-caffeinated milk ... and I'm off with 4 1/2 quarts of water and 1,800 calories of food. The ice axe also comes, having seen snowfields while atop Red Mountain the other day some 50 or 60 air miles to the east.

From trailhead to timberline at roughly 7,000 feet the trail has sections of moderate 20% grade interspersed with (!) 80% grades. Deadfall abounds, making for difficulty locating the trail on the opposite side. EVENTUALLY this aspect will limit the trail's value.

Head to the left of deadfall at (47.27808° N, 113.92110° W) and 6,568 feet elevation, a point reached 75 minutes after my 6:45 a.m. start. This corresponds to climbing at 2,000 vertical feet per hour. I cache one pint of water.

Clouds remain ONLY over the Mission Range - everywhere else it is sunny. Without sun I shiver above treeline in damp clothing from ascent through the forest as the wind blows stiffly out of the west. Only movement resolves this, and yet I want to go slower in the intentional effort to allow for improved weather by the time I get above the current roughly 8,500 foot cloud base.

The trail is difficult to follow through alpine flower fields while ascending the ridge from roughly 7,000 to 7,800 feet. The following WGS84 coordinates may someday prove invaluable as the trail continues its return to Nature.

The trail continues by ascending along a rock rib right atop the ridgeline. Additional coordinates are provided for this section.

A water cache is left here at (47.29491° N, 113.90453° W) and 8,834 feet elevation - and remains there as described below. It is either a pint or full quart in a liter-sized polyethylene bottle. Snow from the recent storm dots the ground, and I switch to glacier glasses.

East Saint Mary's Peak
East Saint Marys Peak is
climbed to reach Peak X.
My ascent route is green,
the descent in red.

Shortly I reach point 8902 at (47.29748° N, 113.90549° W) and measured 8,925 feet elevation. I'm now in the cloud with perhaps 150 feet of visibility. Nevertheless I ascend the ridge as it should lead to the summit of East Saint Mary's Peak.

I record this ridge waypoint at (47.30196° N, 113.91048° W) and 9,264 feet elevation; plus this summit waypoint at (47.30234° N, 113.91193° W) and measured 9,457 feet elevation. Both the trailhead and summit GPS-based elevations are about 20-40 feet too "high" relative to known map-based elevations. This may be due either to some difference in their respective assumed vertical datums; or I could simply be observing random error in the GPS unit.

I know this IS the summit only from the measured coordinates and as the terrain is lower farther to the northwest. Vacation Pass lies northeast from the chart, as-is Lowary Peak itself (Peak X), yet the "obvious" ridge seems north by my compass. In the clouds, I cannot see more than 100 feet.

What to do?

I descend the cited ridge perhaps 50 vertical feet, and, in a moment of visual clarity, see a Class 3 rock-based route leading in the proper direction along a snowfield's north edge. The rock is completely dripping wet from melting snow, and half the surfaces are covered in 2 or 3 inches of snow. NOT GOOD.

I have three options -

Remember that I am alone so this decision is entirely mine. A few comments from Kahiltna Base Camp come to mind after I decided to not proceed there. I am outraged - and so this time it will be different.

Perhaps had I not consumed 4,400 calories yesterday (which lends me huge stamina) or not had raw coffee grounds in my milk things would have gone differently. But not today.

The 50° snow is descended facing-in, plunging the ice axe and kicking steps for about 100 feet. It's hard work. More importantly,

What am I DOING here alone in a whiteout
with nothing but a shaft of metal to avert disaster?


The gradient eases to maybe 20°, and with clearing weather I happily descend to just above the Saint Mary's / X saddle, leaving yet another water cache.

Peak Y
Peak Y is to the left in this
view from Peak X's summit.

To the immediate northeast are a series of three or four peaks - and Lowary Peak (Peak X) is the second from left, i.e. not the closest one directly in front of me. The leftmost peak is Peak Y, and features a long, nearly horizontal ridge leading to its right (south) and Peak X.

Ascend in the nearest peak's general direction; and then continue north by veering left, all-the-while staying below the ridgeline. I obtain the Peak X summit coordinates as (47.31307° N, 113.90097° W) and a measured 9,411 feet elevation.

I obviate reascent of East Saint Mary's Peak by returning to the saddle and then picking my way across cliff bands to the route below point 8902. I do not recommend this concept as the additional distance negates the advantage of avoiding the 600-700 foot reascent. Furthermore, finding weaknesses in cliff bands is problematic, and requires high Class 3 scrambling at the very least.

I return to the ridgeline trail several hundred feet below my 8,800 foot water cache. It will remain there for now.

rare vista
View 'straight down' from
Peak X's summit to what
must be a rarely visited valley.

Snowfields appear to be a permanent feature as both Bob Packard's report (July 30, 2002) and Jim Perkin's report (July 21, 2007) write of snow and how to bypass or directly deal with it. Moss-covered rocks near the trailhead suggest the Mission Range receives more precipitation than nearby ranges. Corroborating evidence is that no other mountain range in my travels had anywhere near the same amount of snow from last winter. Not even close.

Descent from the waypointed deadfall (see above) to the trailhead consumes 58 minutes from 4:40 to 5:38 p.m., making for a 2,600 feet / hour descent rate.

The ascent takes me 6 hours, arriving at the summit 12:45 p.m. I then leave at 1 p.m. The round trip consumes 10.9 hours. Under better conditions 10 hours is quite likely.

The net elevation gain is 5,400 feet (to the route's highest point, East Saint Mary's Peak). Now add 600 feet from very near the Saint Mary's / X saddle to Peak X's summit: 6,000 feet. Next add 300 feet for ascending rock bands and grass slopes while returning to the trail on-descent; and 50 feet for returning to East Saint Mary's summit after scouting a possible route down. The total elevation as I climbed Peak X is thus 6,350 feet.

However in theory, and using my recommendation of avoiding cliff bands, a reascent to Saint Mary's Peak on the return results in a roughly 6,600 foot total elevation gain.

Peak X is not on the APEX list of "toughest 20" county highpoints in the contiguous states. However as I climbed it the mountain certainly seemed like it should be!

I join Bob Packard and Jim Perkins as MONTANA STATE COMPLETERS. It's been QUITE a time.