Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Table Mountain: A Grand View of the Tetons

The last leg of my week long 40th birthday road trip brought me to Wyoming.  I have been to many mountain ranges in the US but never to the Tetons.  I knew ahead of time that snow would be an issue in the area.  Although I would have preferred a backpacking trip in the Tetons, I was happy finding a mountain that was climbable in a day with views of the range.  After a little research, I found my destination, Table Mountain.

Table Mountain actually lies within the Jedediah Smith Wilderness and is part of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest.  The mountain is the boundary for the National Forest and Grand Teton National Park.

I arrived in Alta, Wyoming on the evening of May 27th.  I reached the North Teton trailhead where I made my home for the night.  Apparently the gate to access the area just opened for the season the previous day.

The Tetons on the drive in with Table Mtn barely
noticible in front of the Grand

Since it was still light, I checked out the signage in the area and wanted to see how the beginning of the trails looked.  There were a few spots of snow still and I wanted to see if it was snowy along the trail in the forest.

At the trailhead

There are two trails that lead to Table Mountain.  The first is Trail 024 (Huckleberry Trail) and the other is Trail 029 (Face Trail).  Trail 024 is more gradual while Trail 029 is much more direct.  Both trails meet below the summit.  I was interested in the West Face Trail which is actually about .1 miles down the road at another parking area.  Both trails would require travel over snow most their routes.  I'd rather travel a more direct, shorter distance over the snow, especially if the sun makes conditions slushy.  The trail is somewhat hidden behind a toilet building.  A sign at the beginning of the trail indicates that it's not maintained and very steep- not recommended.  There was a large blowdown blocking the trail near the beginning but no snow.  It was good to know that I had at least some snowfree travel since this route featured 4100 feet of elevation gain in less than 4 miles.

As I was checking out the start of the trail, a guy in his early 20s came stumbling down the trail looking worn out.  He was wearing jeans that were soaked from the knees down.  He had no pack of any kind nor did he carry any water or other drink.  He was wearing steel tip boots with the steel showing through worn leather.  He wore a short sleeve shirt and carried no jacket.  In his hand was a tablet computer.  A small hand gun barely managed to not fall out of his front jean pocket.

I asked him how far he went.  He climbed up to the top of Table Mountain.  He had the pictures on his table to prove it.  It was a pretty nice day and he reached the summit, but he was obviously unprepared for the climb and out of his element.  There were some clouds and I hit rain further north in the mountains.  An unexpected turn in the weather, even just a soaking rain, could have been a problem since he was in all cotton with no extra clothes.  I talked to him a few minutes, asking him about the conditions since he hiked to the summit.  He said it was a pretty straightforward and easy to follow route, even with snow most of the way.  He was a local guy from Idaho Falls that wanted to hike Table Mountain (apparently he has before).  He was nice enough.  I'm guessing he doesn't hike too often.  Hopefully he prepares a little more on future endeavors.  If nothing else, he left tracks in the snow marking the way.

Later in the evening I began chatting with another hiker spending the night at the trailhead.  This was James Putnam from Salt Lake City.  He has climbed Table Mountain before.  He was out for a Memorial Day weekend get away.  We chatted for a while and deciding we would make the climb together.  While we were talking, a moose emerged from the woods and ambled across a clearing in front of the parking lot before heading back into the woods.

I woke up just before 6AM and had a quick bite to eat before beginning the last hike of my 30s.  By 630 I began hiking with James.  The trail climbs fairly steeply on a series of loose switchbacks through the forest.  I think we traveled a little over a mile before we hit the first patch of snow.  The snow was pretty much consistent from that point on.

Entering the wilderness

Early views in early sunshine

Treasure Mountain

Although there was no visible trail, the route is pretty straightforward.  Generally we followed a ridge uphill.  A steep drop into a ravine to our right worked as pretty good landmark to keep on route.  My unprepared buddy from yesterday left tracks in the snow as well that seemed to stay on route.  Once we were on the snow, we were in a less dense forest and we could get occasional views to our right and behind us.

Snow in aspens

View south

Our route brought us to a clearing in the trees at steep slope.  By now, I put on my snowshoes.  I could have probably used microspikes as well at this point since the snow was pretty firm.  This steep pitch featured the most elevation gain of the route.  I made my way with the snowshoes without any problems.  If the slope was any steeper, I may have switched to crampons.  There were plenty of footprints that featured long stretches of sliding on this slope from my steel toed friend's descent.

Heading up the slope
Looking down the steep slope toward Treasure Mountain

View south across the slope

From the top of the steep pitch, the route climbed more gradually. The majority of the elevation gain was in the first two miles. We traveled a short stretch through a tree lined meadow that was covered with snow.  After passing through the trees, we reached the open tundra above treeline and the views were endless.  Occasionally there is a brief peek at the top of the Grand Teton but it is mostly hidden behind our destination, Table Mountain.  Even with the Grand and its immediate neighbors hidden, the views from the long tundra walk are worthwhile on their own.

Footprints from my steel toed friend

View  north 

Continuing through snowy meadows

Good look at the open meadow

Sneak peek at the Grand Teton

View south from the tundra

A good look at the vastness of the tundra

The remainder of the route featured very gradual elevation gain until reaching the summit block of Table Mountain.  Although it was not identifiable in the heavy snow, we eventually passed the junction of Trail 024.  Large cornices and steep snow pitches would have made Trail 024 a dangerous route.  Climbing out of the North Fork Teton Creek drainage to gain the tundra would have been difficult and risky at best.  The temperature was fairly warm and I would not have trusted the cornices.

A look back

A look at the cornices

Although not steep, the route climbs a little more aggressively the final stretch before the summit block.  It was in this final stretch we saw something  running across the snow.  It appeared to be a marten.  Because it was running away, I never could get a picture.  We soon reached the base of the summit block and I took off my snowshoes.

Table Mountain's summit

The Tetons peeking out

I think this is Middle Teton

A look south over the vast tundra

Getting close to the summit

These are our footprints on the way down

The summit block of Table Mountain is the toughest part of the climb.  Gaining the summit required scrambling over a mix of rock, scree, and snow.  Since much of it is wind scoured, the snow was often not too deep.  It was not uncommon to step in the snow, only to have it slide out beneath in the buried scree.  Although not too difficult, picking a line required a little patience.  The scrambling up the summit block is short over quickly however.

A look across the summit block

Nice views south scrambling across the rock and snow

Once the scrambling is over, you reach the summit.  Immediately your hard work is rewarded with an "in your face" view of the Grand Teton and its immediate neighbors.  At this point, there is nothing between you and the Grand.  It's about 2 miles away with no obstructions.  Table Mountain stand at 11,106'.  The Grand towers another 2600 feet higher at 13,770'.

The Grand Teton surrounded by Mt Owen and Middle Teton

My summit shot

Even without the Grand Teton right there, the views are pretty impressive.  The entire range of the Tetons is quite jagged, making for an impressive skyline.  The views are pretty far reaching with several snow covered ranges visible into Wyoming, Idaho, and I believe southern Montana.

View north

Looking back down at the approach

Another look north

I think this is looking toward Mt Moran
I think Buck Mtn/Static Mtn area

Looking south over Hurricane Pass

Once again we saw something running across the snow below the summit.  This time I took a photo.  I was able to magnify the photo and confirm it was a marten.  Unfortunately the magnified photo was quite blurry so this is the best photo I have.

Distant marten

We enjoyed the scenery and had a bit to eat before heading back down. It was surprisingly warm and barely any wind.  Once again, a little precaution was necessary on the downclimb of the summit block.  Once off the summit, travel was fast heading downhill.  The scenery is still quite impressive on the return to the valley,

Hiking back down just below the summit

One last look back at Table Mtn

Notice the cliffs that ring most mountains

If anyone can name these peaks to the south, leave a comment

It's hard to tell but this snow melt area is 6 feet deep

The snow softened as the day warmed.  Even with snowshoes, the snow was getting a little sloppy.  When we reached the steep pitch, the crampons on the snowshoes were ineffective.  I was able to use the snowshoes as skis on the steep slope.  Because of the slushiness I never gained too much speed and could pretty much stop when I wanted.  James boot skid quite effectively.  We made it to the trailhead pretty quickly.  We didn't see another group the entire outing.

Near the top of the steep slope

Table Mountain is a spectacular climb for those that enjoy big mountain views.  It may be a difficult for the casual hiker.  The Face Trail is less than 8 miles roundtrip but gains over 4000 vertical feet to over 11,000'.  The less steep Huckleberry Trail adds an extra 2 miles each way.  For the seasoned hiker, the trip shouldn't be too difficult, even with the snow.  According to James, when the snow is melted,  there is quite a display of flowers in the meadows.  Since Table Mountain is not accessed through the National Park, there is no fee or permits required and there are less people.

Looking north from Table Mtn

Plenty of rugged peaks

I have hiked all over the US and the jagged mountains of the Tetons are among the most impressive I have seen.  I highly recommend the area to those that enjoy mountain travel. I've seen tons of photos of the Grand and the other high Tetons but they are even more amazing up close.  I live in Colorado in the jagged Sangre de Cristo Range, another fault block range that's quite impressive.  The Sangres are my playground and I am still blown away by the Tetons.  I know I said this about most of the places on this road trip, but I plan on revisiting the Tetons again.  Next time, I would like to visit when it's less snowy and explore more of the backcountry on a backpacking trip.

Another look at the Grand

Closeup of the Grand as the sun shifted

After leaving the Table Mountain area, I headed south through Wyoming.  I never saw so many pronghorns (antelope).  Once I got out of the mountains and into sage country, there was a small herd of pronghorns every couple miles.  By the time I reached Craig, Colorado, I must have seen well over 100 pronghorns- no exaggeration.  I arrived back at my house in Colorado around 130AM just in time for the start of my birthday.  I was a day ahead of schedule and Puma was pleasantly surprised to see me.

Pronghorn including a nice buck

More pronghorn

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Monday, June 19, 2017

Climbing in the Gallatin Range: Overlook Mountain

During my late May road trip, my last Montana stop was the Gallatin Range south of Bozeman.  The place that seemed to get a lot of attention was the area around Hyalite Peak.  The 10,000 foot peak is accessed by a scenic trail with numerous waterfalls, before reaching a beautiful alpine basin with a picturesque lake.

After spending a few day in the mountains of Montana and Idaho, I knew Hyalite Peak would be inundated with snow.  Most of the features would probably be hidden in snow as well.  I was also visiting the area on the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend.  This is a popular destination close to the outdoorsy city of Bozeman.  The trail was sure to be busy even with lingering snow.

I looked at alternatives in the same area that may be less busy.  Just a few miles away from the main access to Hyalite Canyon is the East Fork Hyalite Creek Trailhead .  The trail leads to a high alpine basin surrounded by 10,000 foot peaks.  What really caught my eye was the two lakes in its basin.  The upper lake is Heather Lake.  I thought that was sign.  I could hike to Heather Lake in honor of Puma, AKA Heather.  While I was up at Heather Lake, I could possibly continue and take a shot at one of the summits above the lake.

On Friday night, I made my way to the East Hyalite Creek Trailhead, arriving after dark.  There were pockets of snow along the road and the temperature was already in the mid 30s when I arrived.  A few flurries were falling at the 6900' parking lot.  As I have nearly every night the past 6 nights on this road trip, I retired for the night in the Outback Motor Lodge (the back of my car).

I woke up before 6AM and was hiking by 630.  The sky was generally cloudy and a few pellets of snow were on my car from overnight.  I was the only one at the trailhead.


Although the trail was clear at the beginning, I quickly hit patches of snow.  Within twenty minutes, I put on my snowshoes.  A few tracks from prior days led the way along the trail.  The trail generally followed the creek.  At one point the trail veered left where the tracks continued along the creek.  I stuck with the snow-covered trail.  After a series of switchbacks I rejoined the footprints however.

Cliffs above the trail to the west

100% snow cover within 20 minutes from the start

The East Fork Trail follows its namesake creek.  The creek flows in a narrow drainage between two cliff lined slopes.  The creek begins at the two ponds in the upper basin.  It's nearly impossible to go the wrong way.  The footprints stayed close to the creek, so I followed them the rest of the way.  As I gained elevation and the terrain became steeper at points, the footprints postholed more frequently.

East Fork

Views opening up as I climbed

Nearing the start of the meadows

The trail broke from the trees and traveled through a snow cover meadow with sparse trees.  The views of the surrounding mountains opened up in the meadow.  After 4.5 miles, the footprints stopped at a clearing.  I reached the first lake, Emerald Lake.  The lake was barely discernible in the snow however.  It just looked like a snowy meadow.

The East Fork poking through the snow in the meadow

Footprints heading toward Emerald Lake

These meadows get boggy and
supposedly have good wildflowers in season

Overlook Mountain

Views toward Overlook Mtn (left) from the upper meadows

Overlooking Emerald Lake

I checked my map quickly and made my way toward Heather Lake.  There was no trail in the snow but travel was easy.  I traveled in and out of meadow and tree cover.  Before long I reached Heather Lake.

Overlook Mountain from Emerald Lake

Overlook Mountain

Not unlike Emerald Lake, Heather Lake was broad snowy area.  Heather Lake sits more or less at treeline around 9200'.  From the lake I had a good look at my options for climbing a peak.  Two 10,000 foot peaks are accessible from the Heather Lake basin, 10,333' Mt Chisolm and 10,265' Overlook Mountain.

Mt Chisolm

Mt Chisolm is protected from the basin by a long sheer cliff band rising nearly 1000 feet.  Other than a nasty looking couloir that is a class 4 climb at best, Chisolm didn't seem like a good option.

The couloir on the right is a possible class 4+ route to Chisolm
A look at the cliff band  extending beyond Mt Chisolm

Although not as dramatic as Chisolm, Overlook Mountain was protected by cliffs along most of its ridge.  To the north of the cliffs was a steep, snowy pitch that had a possible route to the north ridge of Overlook.  This time I had my ice ax and crampons and was prepared to make an attempt at Overlook
A look at the slope accessing Overlook

After passing Heather Lake I reached the bottom of the snowy pitch.  I ate a quick snack and put on a fleece shirt since the wind picked up a bit.  I change from my snowshoes to my crampons.  I put my poles away and grabbed my ice ax.

Initially the pitch isn't too steep.  The snow was solid and the crampons gripped nicely.  Most of the pitch has avalanche potential but the snow had good integrity and was nicely consolidated this time of year.  A few old slides were visible under the cliffs.

An old avalanche on the left side of the photo
Click to enlarge for easier viewing

Mt Chisolm

While the first third of the climb was relatively mellow, the middle third became steeper.  At this point the crampons and ice ax were necessary.  I picked my way up the slope without any real issues although minor route finding was required as I passed a few lingering trees and rocks.

Nearing the middle stretch of the slope

The final third of the pitch became quite steep.  It was a challenge to pick the path of least resistance.  Although I have climbed shorter one or two move pitches that were steeper, this was probably the steepest extended snow climb that I attempted with such a dangerous fallout.  Rocks and trees were waiting if a fall couldn't be arrested.  I'd almost equate it to climbing a ladder during the steepest part.  I wouldn't go any steeper without ropes and anchors.  The final push over the headwall was the steepest just before gaining the ridge.

Not the steepest pitch but getting close to the
steepest part of the slope, steepest I felt comfortable
stopping to take a photo

Mt Chisolm near the top of the slope

The traverse across the ridge to the summit is fairly straightforward.  I started out just traveling below the ridge following patches of rock.  I soon followed the ridge proper however finding easier travel on consistent snow.  At places the ridge is fairly narrow with a steep drop into the basin below. Low clouds floated by in all directions, just barely above the summit.  A few flurries fell.

View from the top of the snow slope

Looking toward the summit

Narrow ridge 

Just below the summit

I reached the summit pretty quickly after gaining the ridge.  The low cloud cover may have decreased visibility somewhat, but I still had good views that were far reaching.  Immediately to the east is the view down the East Fork that I hike up with Mt Chisolm and the massive cliffs stretching out along the basin. Much of the Gallatin Range is visible to the south.  Paradise Valley is visible to east with the peaks of the Absaroka Range towering just across the valley.  The isolated Crazy Mountains stand out to northwest.  The Bridgers can be seen to the north poking out above the ridge.  I'm not an expert on this area but I believe the Madison Range and Spanish Peaks were visible to the west.  I'm sure most of the summits nearby have impressive views, but Overlook Mountain seems to be an appropriate name.

Ice ax on summit

Mt Chisolm and it cliffs extending above
Emerald and Heather Lakes

Heather Lake below with Emerald Lake beyond

The Bridger Range in the distance
beyond the north ridge

Hyalite Peak

Paradise Valley and Absaroka Range

Heavy clouds over the Absaroka Range

Another distant range,  I believe I'm looking
toward the Crazy Mountains but not 100% sure

While I stood on the summit, I heard rock fall just below to the west.  I looked down and saw two bighorn sheep making their way just below the ridge.  I watched as they made short work of the ridge and disappeared out of sight in just a couple minutes.  On my descent I occasionally saw their tracks.  In Colorado, I travel through Bighorn Sheep Canyon every time I leave my house.  I see sheep regularly along the road, just above the river grazing, and on the slopes around the canyon.  I never get tired of seeing them.  Seeing them high in the mountains however is a real treat.  They are really at home in the rough, rocky terrain and maneuver through it with grace.

A pair of bighorn sheep scrambling below the summit

Bighorns making their way along the ridge

I left the summit and made my way to the top of the steep snow slope.  I was about to reach the toughest part of my outing,  the descent of the headwall.  Because of the steepness, I couldn't glissade or plunge step.  I had to downclimb backwards while kicking in steps.  I plunged my ice ax in to the snow until the it sunk to the head.  The snow was softening and this offered the most stable protection.  I kicked steps in the snow, making sure each step was stable while downclimbing.  I would go several feet at a time before reanchoring my ax in the snow.  It was a slow process but the only way for safe passage on the steep, ladder-like pitch.

Making my way back down the ridge

Along the ridge

Sheep tracks in the snow

Interesting rock on the ridge

Looking down on Heather Lake

I think this is looking at the
distant Madison Range

I made it past the crux eventually and the travel was much easier.  The pitch was at a point where I could plunge step down the slope.  Softening snow caused snow balling under my crampon occasionally but wasn't a real problem  I made it back to Heather Lake and had a quick bite to eat.

Approaching Heather Lake

Looking toward Overlook Mountain

From Heather Lake, I switched back to my snowshoes.  The clouds were lifting by this point and the snow became quite soft as the sun became more intense.  I'm glad that I had my snowshoes.  I made quick time returning down the East Fork.

Another look up my route.  You can see the
steepness of the headwall pretty well.

Ice on the cliffs north of Heather Lake
About halfway down, I ran into the first group of the day.  It was a pair backpacking with pretty large packs.  They struggled without snowshoes and ran into some serious postholing issues.  I passed numerous groups going in the opposite direction.  Nobody had snowshoes and everyone was going through postholing hell.  While there was only a few postholes on my way up, the trail was obliterated by postholes as I passed more and more people on my descent.  Nobody had snowshoes or gaiters for that matter.  By this point many were wearing sneakers and other inappropriate footwear.

Hiking away from Emerald Lake

Cliffs above Emerald Lake 
Views across the upper meadows

A last look back through the meadows

About 20 minutes from the end of my hike, I finally took off my snowshoes as I approached longer stretches of bare ground.  Several people asked me about the conditions ahead and they all seem shocked when I told them I just removed my snowshoes.  I finished up at the trailhead just after 1PM after covering about 13 miles and gaining 3400 vertical feet.  By now there was over a dozen cars in the parking lot including a couple groups just getting started.  Not one of them seemed prepared for the conditions.  My favorite group was a group of 6 or so college-aged kids that had seriously overloaded packs but seemed more concerned on how to pack in their booze bottle.

Ridge high above the East Fork basin

East Fork Creek

The Gallatin Range is a beautiful place to explore.  This was my first experience in the range but I hope to revisit the area again someday.  Overlook Mountain is one of the northern most peaks in the range.  The range extends 75 miles from Bozeman, Montana south into Yellowstone National Park.  The area has great hiking and backpacking opportunities and no shortage of scenery and  A-list wildlife.

Mt Chisolm and the long cliff band
above Heather and Emerald Lakes

The surrounding ranges have great opportunities as well.  The Absaroka and Beartooth Ranges lie to the east across Paradise Valley including nearly a million acres of wilderness.  The highest peaks in Montana are in the Beartooths.  Across the Gallatin Valley to the west are the 11,000 foot peaks of the Madison Range including parts of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.  The area has amazing beauty and holds an impressive list of wildlife including grizzly bears, wolves, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and bison in the lower reaches of the region.

After leaving the Gallatins, I headed south toward the western side of Tetons.  On the way, I drove through the Gallatin River Valley which travels from Bozeman to West Yellowstone, Montana.  For those that aren't into hiking and appreciate a scenic drive, this route is worthwhile.  For Yellowstone visitors a worthy roadtrip would be a drive up the Gallatin Valley and return to Yellowstone via Paradise Valley or the stunning Beartooth Highway.

Tomcat at Heather Lake with Overlook
Mountain in the background

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