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Sweet Mary and Joseph!

August 25, 2010

The Bitterroot Mountains are known for many things… OK, really, outside of Montana, most probably aren’t familiar with the Bitterroots.  But a rich history of jesuit missionaries and heavenly countryside probably made it inevitable that there would be St. Joseph and St. Mary peaks in the range, sitting two drainages away from each other.

Saturday morning I decided to hike most of the way to St. Joseph (to the ridge connecting Big Joe with Little Joe, a 9,000 foot high point on Big Joe’s east ridge, to check out the pseudo-technical climbing), and Sunday saw me climbing St. Mary.  These hikes are complete contrasts, absent the long jeep roads to the trail heads.

The trailhead to the St. Joe trailhead isn’t too bad; I’m unsurprised to find myself the first person to arrive, even on a weekend morning.  This is not a hike for everyone; indeed, I would see very few people, and I don’t believe anyone I met made it to the top of Little St. Joe, let alone Big Joe on beyond.  Why?  The trail is… not easy.

It starts out as easy as any trail can, by going, quixotically, downhill.  The first mile is actually quite pleasant, meandering through the normal hardwoods and climbing moderately, with a few breaks allowing views of the insane ridge that separates the two drainages between St. Mary and St. Joseph.

There’s some nice technical climbing to have on this somewhat low ridge (8000? or so feet).  Lots of neat fins and aretes and I’m not gonna even come close to it today, so I just admire.  Oooh, pretty!

A view back to the East surprises me; I’m about 3,000 feet above the valley floor (the floor is at about 3,100 feet; the high peaks are around 9,100, so 6k feet of gain or so).  But it’s not the vertical that surprises me so much as a hot air balloon – not something I had expected!

Yes, it’s just a spec.  And for those curious, the mountains WAY on the other side of the valley are the Sapphires.

So, the trail… it stays almost flat for about a mile, then starts a nice uphill slog that one author notes “never gets less than 25% grade”.  Oh, and trail maintenance apparently is given up as a lost cause at about this point, as some VERY dangerous widow-makers loom over the trail:

And some nice deadfall makes for some nice climbing:

I would note these are at basically the same spot – kinda frightening!  Eventually the trees thin enough to make out the trail ahead; this doesn’t look bad, but it really is about a 30-40 degree angle at this point.  It’s not bad (you just head up), but it’s kinda slow going, and hard on the knees going out.

Still, the views easily make up for the hardships; across the nifty ridge to the south, I’m finally able to make out St. Mary rising above:

St. Mary’s is the grassy peak on the middle horizon; on the right skyline are the Heavenly Twins.  And yeah, lots of other stuff drops away back to the south.

A view back to the right shows a lot of scrubby whitebark pine and the weird mound that is the summit of Little Joe.

From the summit, the route to Little Joe looks pretty straightforward – bushwhack through some pine and larch, follow the ridge, then climb to the top.  St. Joe is on the left horizon; the three Pyramid Buttes are on the right skyline.

The ridge isn’t nearly as straight-forward as one would hope; there are two climbing obstacles on the ridge, the first being this interesting formation. There’s an easy climb through the notch in the middle, but I’m not looking to do the ascent, just check out the route.

From there, looks pretty easy, with just a worrisome chute to climb on the face itself.  That will be for another day.  So I screw around and try to get a decent pic looking back towards St. Mary:

Lighting and photography – not my strong suits.  I’m also oddly drawn to this pic, as there’s a very distinct aspect of my father present in my pose – I really am my father’s son in this pic.

Not much else to report – a pretty tough hike, as the second mile climbs about 2500 feet or so by itself.  But, wow, great views.  To the north is Sweeney (near right horizon), and Lolo Peak peaking out behind it.

One thing I’ve always been amazed at on, or near, summits like this, is just how hardy and determined whitebark pine is.  The wind was gusting to 40-50 mph easy on this ridge, and it was easy to guess how hard the wind blows on non-clear days.  You can get a sense by how the pine grows up on the lee side of rocks and other protuberances, like this:

The wind is blowing from left to right (usually) on this ridge, and you can clearly see how the pine are growing in the wind’s shadows.  Pretty nifty.

And I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – easily the animal that, generally, scares me the most during actual summit hikes is… the ptarmigan, or mountain chicken.  Fairly stupid, taciturn, not easy to spook, the ptarmigan generally lets you approach… and approach… and approach… before suddenly deciding it needs to be anywhere else and takes off with an amazing, thundering sound of excited feathers, a sudden sound that always makes me jump.  Here’s a rather taciturn one, which decided to just quietly yield the trail to me rather than panic into flight.

I hit a party of 27 people coming out right near the trailhead (not a typo, 27 – 3^3), and am glad for the early start, though they seemed a convivial bunch.

The trail to St. Mary’s Peak on Sunday is a complete 180 from the trail to St. Joseph’s.  First, no technical climbing.  Second, no offtrail hiking. Third, a maintained trail. Fourth, the trail doesn’t get above maybe 20% grade at its max – I found myself running the trail a lot, in both directions; for a trail runner, it’s an absolute wonderful beast.

Maybe I shouldn’t park my Jeep like that… but I can, so I do. 

The trail is incredibly well-maintained, and one gets the sense that lots and lots of people use this trail (as evidenced by people actually beating me to the trailhead).  I pass a couple as I make my way up to the top, but still others have beaten me to the summit, which includes a non-active fire lookout.

The group that beats me to the top is fairly large, but they decide they want to have a nice lunch in the lookout, which leaves the actual summit a hundred yards away all mine for quiet contemplation.  To the north, I look at yesterday’s hike; St. Joseph Peak is to the left, with the connecting saddle to Little Joe in plain view:

And the weather is much cloudier, but that is fine with me, as it allows sun to dance and play hide-and-seek with the shadows on the cols and snowfields of the Heavenly Twins to the west:

I just sat and watched the sun come and go on this marvelous scene for about twenty minutes, a quiet zen-like observance I hadn’t experienced since watching clouds similarly form and break over Cracker Lake below the massive 3,100 foot north face of Mt. Siyeh in Glacier.

A pull-back view of the scene to the west. There’s so much here, I don’t even want to comment, though I will say the other high point to the left of the twins is Ranger Peak. 

And to the south… forget about it.  Just wave of wave of terrestrial wonder. Literally a hundred mountain tops in Montana and Idaho saying hello.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Andrew Schultz permalink
    September 10, 2010 4:06 pm

    I looked at all the pictures first, thought wow his dad was out there with him. And then I read your text and laughed that you saw it to. That pose is so much your dad!

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