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Ascent of Snowshoe Peak on 2007-08-13

Climber: Greg Slayden

Date:Monday, August 13, 2007
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Snowshoe Peak
    Location:USA-Montana
    Elevation:8738 ft / 2663 m

Ascent Trip Report

Monday, August 23, 2007:

This was a very long and hard dayhike/scramble up a remote and serious mountain in the Montana wilderness.

I woke up at 4:30 AM in my motel in Bonners Ferry, Idaho and was out quickly, hitting the road at 4:50 AM. I drove east on US 2 into Montana, unhappy that I lost an hour due to a time zone change, and at 6:45 cruised straight through Libby. South of that town, I found the turnoff for the Bear Creek Road, which made the usual progression from paved to potholed to gravel and finally to dirt as it became Forest Service Road 867 and then 4786. The last mile or so was steep, rocky, and rutted, and I drove carefully to avoid damage to my rental car.

I knew that my goal of Snowshoe Peak was going to be a long day, so I was in a hurry to get hiking. I started up the trail towards Leigh Lake at 7:30 AM, pretty late, I thought. The trail was steep and rough, through thick forest at first, and at my first rest stop I realized I had left behind my sunglasses in my haste to get going. Also, a boot lace of mine broke, forcing me to take the time to dig my spare out of my first aid kit.

After more steep uphill the trail switchbacked relentlessly beside a series of waterfalls in the brook canyon to the left. Trip reports suggested that you should not cross the main brook, and I did not, but there were several way trails and it was hard to determine which was best. I chugged uphill the best I could, and finally the trail leveled out a bit in a brushy area. My path became a bit indistinct in the bushes, but it soon rejoined the obvious main trail. This wound about a bit, mostly level, and then dropped slightly to the large expanse of Leigh Lake.

There were some nice rock slabs on the shoreline where I rested a bit, ate some snacks, put on sunblock, and gaped at the sheer vertical relief that walled in the lake on almost all sides ahead. Any doubts I had about being able to climb this peak were not eased one bit by the daunting sights ahead. But I figured I would keep going for now.

I found a very rough way trail that went along the north side of Leigh Lake, but it was so brushy that I decided to take a shortcut on a gravelly mudflat covered with logs on the lakeshore. This was a bad idea, and crossing all the logs got to be such a chore that I made a beeline back for the lakeshore bushes, where I regained the way trail. I was especially worried about grizzly bears in this dense vegetation, and my bear spray in my easily-reachable pack hip pocket was not much consolation.

The way trail got a bit easier and shortly led to the base of a prominent gully leading straight up the steep slope, and the intermittent cairns confirmed that this was my route. So I headed uphill, following a rough path to the left of the brook in the gully. The going was on rocks and scree at first, but up higher the terrain was all steep hillside covered in grass and patches of low bushes, with occasional cliff bands here and there. My trip reports said to stay in the initial gully until 5560 feet, and there were traces of pathway up to this point. Then I headed left to get to the next gully, where the big landmark was a crossing at 6600 feet below a waterfall. Here I was a bit unsure, since I lost the path and the terrain was annoying without being too difficult—areas of chest-high brush, slippery slopes of grass, and ten-foot high cliffs that had to be scaled or bypassed.

Also, there may have been a minor intermediate gully between the two in the trip reports. But more uphill progress brought me towards the 6600-foot level, and I soon could see the obvious gully crossing and waterfall that had been described. A bit of a path crossed the gully here, and then I contoured southwest for a bit, tricky once again due to slippery, steep grass slopes—traversing was actually harder than going uphill. I could see where I was headed, though—I needed to pass under the toe of a rock buttress, where I could then hang a sharp right up what was supposed to be a relatively easy break in the cliff wall that loomed above me.

I had to descend a little ways to an area of snowfields, since, as I often did, I found myself angling too high up in an effort to avoid unnecessary elevation loss. After getting around below the last buttress, I could see the semi-grassy ramp that led uphill, and started winding my way up this narrow diagonal slot. It was steep, with grassy areas interspersed with rock bands, but relatively easy going. The blue sky above me beckoned as a reminder that the top of this pitch was at least the ridgecrest.

At last I reached the crest of the ridge, at the col between Bockman and Snowshoe Peaks, at about 7300 feet. I took a long rest here, took a GPS waypoint, built a little cairn to help me remember that this was the way down, and ate some more food. Ahead, the massive bulk of Snowshoe looked even more intimidating, since the crenellated ridge was severely foreshortened. The massive scale of the peak and its tilted rock strata reminded me of the famous picture of Unsoeld and Hornbein starting up the West Ridge of Everest in 1963.

Not totally optimistic, I started along the ridge, which started out as a pleasant and fun scramble on a nice knife-edge of slanted rock, mostly flat. It was not long, though, before the ridge suddenly reared up in a massive series of cliffs. The best route was not very clear, and at each step in this giant’s staircase you had to decide if you wanted to climb more-or-less straight up, bypass the step using obscure way-paths marked by infrequent cairns on the left, or else find a way around to the right on steeply sloping rock strata that might lead to an easier step to climb.

I alternated all these approaches. There did seem to be a network of very steep paths on loose junk you could use to the left for quite a ways, especially lower down, but the tantalizing cairns I saw rarely added up to any coherent route. The right bypass option often did not exist, and when it did, there was some serious scrambling involved. The best option seemed to be to stay on the crest of the ridge as much as possible. The hardest part of the ridge was a 20-foot or so cliff that did not appear to offer a bypass option, so I had to do some serious class-4 climbing to scramble past it.

Above this big step, the terrain got a bit easier, with big blocks of talus to hop over. But not long afterwards the ridge got very steep and the clear bypass route was to the right, onto the vestigial snowfield of the Blackwell Glacier. I had my ice-axe, but no crampons for the very thin late-summer coating of snow overlaying gray ice. So I gingerly tiptoed out onto the neve and climbed uphill for a few hundred feet, worried about an inability to arrest on the hard ice. I stayed as close to the rock as I could, and I was happy to see an obvious place where I could regain the rock of the ridge.

More scampering up mini rock cliffs on the ridgecrest at last brought me towards the very top of the great northeast ridge I had been following, and here a well-worn path left the ridgecrest to contour to the left across the head of a ravine, where it gained a little col in the main summit ridge of Snowshoe Peak. My northeast ridge, oddly, did not lead directly to the summit, so now I had to head northwest along the craggy main ridge. I knew I was very close, though, so I figured I had an easy stroll up to the summit.

However, very little is easy on Snowshoe Peak, and this last stretch to the summit was especially exasperating. The ridge itself was way too jagged to stay on, and the northeast side was a sheer cliff, so I had to stay on the southwest side, where a long series of parallel tilted cliff bands blocked progress. With summit fever, I tried a couple times to avoid climbing these cliff bands by climbing uphill in the areas between them, but they would bring me to the ridgecrest, where sheer gendarmes blocked progress and views down the sheer northeast face were daunting. So I had to retreat downhill until I could find a place to climb the cliff band, then get faced with another one, etc. My GPS and altimeter told me I was very close to the top, but I could not seem to get there.

Finally I stayed low enough long enough to get over enough cliff bands so that when I climbed again I reached the ridge right before the summit. At 1 PM I finally strolled to the surprisingly rounded and spacious summit area, exhausted from my last push. Happy, I sat down for a long and well-deserved rest. The weather was perfectly clear, and I had a huge panorama of the Cabinet Mountains all to myself. I signed the trail register—the peak did not get that many ascents, maybe a couple every week during the summer. I was expecting to see the entry from my friends Bob and Duane, who had climbed it about a week ago, but they must not have had a pen or else didn’t want to sign.

The only downside to my 40-minute rest on the summit was nagging fear about the nasty descent with class-4 scrambling that lay ahead. But after I had eaten, rested, taken photos, walked over to the slightly lower northwest peak, and other summit rituals, I realized I had better get going.

Happily, I had a much easier time during the descent that I thought. I think that mostly this was due to all the route knowledge I had picked up on the way up, plus generously using gravity to jump down low cliff bands when they were in my way, instead of trying to always find the best way over. On the initial descent from the summit, I headed down between cliff bands and then stayed pretty low, where the cliffs could be jumped easily, then countoured back to the crest of the ridge, crossed it, and took the curving path over to the crest of the Northeast Ridge.

Descending the ridge was mostly OK—the trouble spots were the slippery snow on the sloping glacier remnant, an awkward downclimb of the 20-foot fourth-class step, and trying to find a semi-cairned path that scrambled down steep terrain on what was now the right side of the ridge, bypassing a large cliff on the crest. Like on the way up, this ridge offered a very sustained scrambling and routefinding challenge.

I was very happy to reach the relatively level part of the ridge—at this point, the chance I would injure or kill myself in a fall dropped significantly, and I considered myself essentially “down the mountain”. Now I just walked the tightrope on gently sloping slabs for ten minutes or so before reaching the col where my route descended the grassy gully. My cairns gave me peace of mind, but were not really needed—the route was obvious. However, it was a bit tricky—the grassy slopes were kind of slippery, and, as usual, the terrain was very steep—I was constantly trying to find the ground with the easiest footing. By now I was low on water on this warm, sunny, perfectly clear day, so I was anxious to get down.

The base of the gully was another good landmark for me on the way down, and I countoured at the 6600-foot level on uneven grassy/brushy/rocky terrain for a while. There were a couple large snowbanks at first I walked past, but no running water coming from them. Aided by GPS, I found the gully crossing from the way up, and then headed downhill, mostly on grass, and zig-zagging around small cliff bands. Eventually I found the upper end of the way trail that went down into the main gully, and at the crossing of the gully stream I stopped to fill my water bottles and add iodine tables. The trail made the going much easier, and soon it led me steeply down into the eroded gully that ended at the shores of Leigh Lake.

A short but very brushy (and grizzly friendly) path led me back to the slabs, and here I took a long rest, drinking the now-purified water I had gotten back in the gully. I was doing OK on time, so I could now enjoy my accomplishment a bit and lie in the sun on the smooth rock by the scenic lake.

As I hiked the trail from Leigh Lake to the trailhead I came across the only humans I saw all day on my hike, an older couple on a dayhike to the lake. They were separated quite a bit, and the wife did not seem too happy with how the husband was taking too much time birdwatching and dawdling. I chatted with them both on my way down as I passed them, and soon I was below the large waterfall and hiking down the steep, rutted, eroded path in the woods. I was back to my rental car at the trailhead at 6:15 PM. It was almost a 11-hour day for me—5 ½ hours up, about 45 minutes on top, and 4 ½ hours down.

I quickly took off my boots, changed clothes, and started down. Oddly, there was no other car at the trailhead, so I wondered how the couple I had seen near the lake had gotten there. My question was answered when I saw a couple of mountain bikes stashed on the side of the road a mile or so downhill. Had I known, I might have waited to give them a ride to their bikes, but I was tired and hungry and it might have been a long wait.

Back at US 2 I turned right and headed for Kalispell, not seeing a single other car ahead or behind me for over an hour, when I stopped at the first commercial establishment I saw, the Happy Inn. Here I bought a snack, called my father-in-law in Kalispell to arrange a crash pad for the night, and then drove for another hour, arriving at his place at 9 PM. A shower and fold-out sofa was all I needed after this very long day.
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:4938 ft / 1503 m
    Extra Gain:200 ft / 60 m
    Route:Lake Leigh/NE Ridge
    Trailhead:Leigh Lake TH  4200 ft / 1280 m
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Scramble, Exposed Scramble, Snow Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe
    Weather:Pleasant, Calm, Clear
Ascent Statistics
    Time Up:5 Hours 30 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Time Down:4 Hours 35 Minutes
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip


 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Greg Slayden
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Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. Peakbagger.com accepts NO resposibility or liability from use of this data.

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