Monday, February 23rd, 2004 - Mill Creek Canyon, Montana
On Monday, I thought that a backcountry trip would be a nice way to mix things up without having to spend any money (Lost Trail was closed until Thursday anyway). We could have headed somewhere like Montana Snowbowl in Missoula or Discovery Basin near Anaconda, but without any new snow, it probably wasn't going to be worth spending the extra drive time and money. I wanted to try something in the Bitterroots I'd never skied before, and had some info about the skiing off Mill Point (8,467'). It's one of the closest peaks to our house, just a few miles away as the crow flies. My boss Bruce said that there was some good skiing off the north side, and that you could even ski from the summit if you wanted to. I didn't have exact details on the route, but I figured our best shot was to hike the Mill Creek trail on the north side of the peak, and look for a way to head up. I didn't think we had the time or inclination to head all the way to the peak (a hike of over 4,000 vertical feet), but I figured we'd be able to get up into some good coverage to make some turns.
We gathered up skins, snowshoes, and the rest of the gear for our trip, packed everything into the Forester, and made the short trip to the Mill Creek trailhead (elevation ~4,150'). The sheltered trailhead revealed the lowest vestiges of the snowpack, and even though the general covering was just a patchy dusting, the trail itself had seen some traffic and provided a firm (and sometimes slick) surface. Some areas were pretty icy, and the guys using snowshoes put them on to make use of the crampons. There were still intermittent patches of bare ground, and I wasn't quite willing to beat up on my skins just yet. When needed, I hung to the side of the trail in the loose snow to avoid hitting the iciest patches while hiking in my ski boots.
The trail took us up the canyon, and we passed through some burned areas created by past fires. Eventually, the slick trail surface gave way to less packed snow, and the unsettle snow depth increased to a couple of feet. Soon, as the underbrush became covered, we could walk off the trail and take whatever route we wanted. We'd been eyeing the north slope off Mill Point, looking for a place to hike up, but nowhere in the first couple of thousand feet seemed to have enough snow to cover up the large boulder fields and scree. Each time we would round a corner, hoping to see a sufficiently covered line, but find more of the same. Off in the distance, we could see some well-covered slopes, but they were WAY out of range - several miles and a couple thousand feet up. There was no way we could even get there by dark at this rate, not to mention getting back out to the trailhead.
After covering about three miles and 800 vertical feet, the trail came to a modest pitch that probably consisted of small rock ledges and slab when the snowpack was absent (elevation ~4,950'). We reached the top of this pitch, and, with no skiable terrain in sight off Mill Point, we decided this would have to be our stopping point. It was a bit of a downer not to have reached any steep powder lines, but at least we'd have this first pitch to ski, and hopefully we could make the best out of the rest of the 800 vertical feet we'd gained. We stopped for some food and photos in the pale February sun, and hung out for a while below the monstrous cliffs on the north side of the canyon. Even though the sun wasn't very strong, it warmed things up compared to the shaded areas.
Chris hangs out below the huge cliffs on the north side of Mill Creek Canyon.
Once it was time to head down, I skied the first pitch of about 50 feet and found that the snow was quite powdery over a consistent base. There was just about enough of a slope to make a couple of turns, but generally it was a straight line affair through the powder. Soon we were back on the trail and running the bobsled track. At times it was really fast, sometimes TOO fast. At a few critical steep or tight points, there was no way to bleed off speed without heading into the powder, but fortunately coverage was sufficient for this. There were also a few points that required some climbing, but only a couple that really required us to remove our skis. The most exhilarating part was the bottom section, where we moved into the very fast snow (i.e. ice). At one point, we were screaming along a thin ribbon of ice, with a steep drop to the left, and a slope up to the right with nowhere to bail. This carried us right through to the parking lot (after jumping a couple of gravel patches).
That night we ordered out from Bamboo Garden, our favorite Chinese restaurant in town. I had to eat quickly and head out to pick up Dave, whose flight was coming in around 10:00 P.M. Fortunately, Dave made it in fine (last year he couldn't make it due to illness). After a quick stop at Taco Bell (these late night flights seem to make everyone hungry) we headed home and this year's group was complete. Tomorrow we'd be heading east to experience the skiing in the Bozeman area. I was excited, since it was my third winter in Montana and I'd yet to check out the skiing at places like Bridger and Big Sky.
(The boys head to Big Sky Resort)
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