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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