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Oct 14 2014

On Top of the Cabinets

Alan Weltzien finds himself at home in northwestern Montana

Exploring Montana, Featured

This has been the year to celebrate each of Montana’s remarkable wilderness areas. Of course, the best way to celebrate, and to learn about, these landscapes is to walk them. 

If I’ve learned anything in my 23 years of hiking, backpacking, and climbing in Montana’s wilderness areas from our home in the southwestern corner, I’ve learned that many Montanas exist, even above treeline. The farther I stray from my home ranges in Montana’s largest county, the more I revel in the varieties of understory and peaks, of trees and rock.

When I first got to know Doug Ferrell, former President of MWA and now Chair of the Board of Friends of Scotchman Peaks, I suggested a swap: I wanted him to show me some of his home ground in the green, extreme northwest of the sate, and in turn he would come to the Beaverhead Valley so I could show him some of our basin and range country.

I’ve not yet escorted Doug into the East Pioneers or Beaverheads, but this past Labor Day weekend I drove to his Trout Creek home. The next morning we rode past the Noxon Reservoir and turned north on Highway 56 following the Bull River. The lush meadow grasses and curves of the small river made me think of Ireland. I realized anew how microclimates shift as you gradually follow the Clark Fork River downstream in its northwest direction. Annual rainfall increases every twenty miles or so. We parked just off the South Fork Bull River road (2,400 feet) and hoisted our backpacks, heading up the North Fork to Snowshoe Lake.


Bull River at Sunset. Photo by Aaron Theisen

My feeble knowledge of the Cabinets comes from my scanning the St. Regis River canyon as I-90 winds towards Lookout Pass. I know these views well, but I’ve hardly ever strayed beyond the windshield. After a quarter mile of hiking with Doug through a dusky, mature forest of western hemlock and western red cedar, I kept shaking my head. A Puget Sound kid, I felt as though I was no longer in Montana. Except that I was.

The North Fork trail winds along and above the tumbling drainage of Verdun Creek, after which it becomes, in Doug’s non-sexist term, a “manway.” My boots and I know these kinds of trails well. They writhe up and down and around. At times they seem to circle back upon themselves. On our way, we picked wild blueberries, thrashed past lots of Rocky Mountain maple and alder, crossed several drainages, and spotted devil’s club. I didn’t know most of the plants brushing my legs or arms except that they looked and smelled familiar. I plunged in the Cabinets Wilderness Area as a newbie, yet I felt as though I had come home.

As the “manway” turned northeast, we confronted “the rock” – a large, open section of sedimentary slab several hundred feet tall that wouldn’t be fun to negotiate when wet. We followed a rudimentary trail left of center, then climbed talus slopes until we broke south, wandering beyond a big talus pile through woods until finally spying Snowshoe Lake and setting up camp near its west end. We had already climbed more than 4,000 feet. I joked with Doug that we were finally well above Dillon, my hometown.

After we nibbled lunch atop a polished slab at lakeshore, I pitched my old REI tent. We then decided to head for Snowshoe Peak: top of the Cabinets and goal of this trip. It was just mid-afternoon and some sunshine regularly broke through the high and thin cloud cover. We now walked with almost no weight on our backs. Snowshoe Peak, at 8,738 feet, rises higher than any peak between Washington’s Cascades (including the Pasayten Wilderness Area) and Glacier National Park—a fact Doug reminded me of.  A moderately angled gully to Snowshoe’s west ridge seemed the obvious route to take.

After we traversed scattered meadows and boulder fields at the base of the cirque, Doug ‘s back started aching and he decided to pull back. Besides, he had climbed this puppy more than once before. I stepped up the gully without loosing rocks, crossed this stunning section of low-angled slab rock, and puffed through a lovely stand of alpine larch – one of my favorite trees, even when they aren’t changing colors. Though the landscape was new, my aging body recalled so many scrambles up so many peaks. Addicted to 360-degree views, I’m an unapologetic peakbagger. My addiction hasn’t abated one bit in decades. I paused and blew harder now but never paused for long.


Cabinets at Sunset. Photo by Jeff Nisbet

Up the ridge and a final short rock walk brought me to the summit, where I found a much younger man than myself, one in a large party camped nearby at the lake. This was the third peak he had climbed that day. As I sat and hydrated in the late afternoon sunlight, my eyes drank in the vistas. I could see Libby basking in sunlight and the ribbon of Highway 2 following Lake Creek. The peaks of the Glacier area rose to the east. To the west, the green and gray Scotchmans, all unknown to me, popped up in a crowd. But I was most stunned by the Cabinets themselves here in their core: steep drops, sharp peaks, and glistening lakes such as Leigh and Granite Lakes far below.

Rain pinging the tent fly woke me just after midnight. Doug, who was sleeping outside, hastened to join me. It rained for the next thirteen hours or so. On the soggy hike out, my squishing boots made me think I was back in the Cascades. Dropping just south of “the rock” through steep high brush was not pretty. Once we hit the “manway” in the upper forest, hail briefly popped off our backpacks and hoods. But I wouldn’t trade any of it.

After a warm-up coffee at the Bull Lake Bar, we drove up Ross Creek to the famous Ross Creek Cedars – a crowded place on this Labor Day weekend afternoon. But voices dissipated like the rain as we walked past these old ones. I grew up hugging western red cedars at our family cabin on Washington’s Camano Island, in mid-Puget Sound. But never had I seen such stout, ancient cedars as these in Ross Creek. Most grow there as twins or triplet trees, and many lean like Pisa’s famed tower. I hugged every one of them.

Those big cedars capped my all-too-brief immersion in the Cabinets, for me an unknown Montana mountainscape that turned out to be quite familiar. I will be going back.

O. Alan Weltzien is an MWA member in Dillon