Stark Mountain - Montana Peak Project

The Montana Peak Project is underway! After a few attempts and bailed weekends I finally completed the first summit of many on my quest to the highest point in each mountain range in Montana.

At an elevation of 7,352 Stark Mountain is about the same elevation of the house I grew up in in Flagstaff, AZ. But conditions on top in the second week of March were certainly more wintery than most of the days in my childhood. The summit is just at tree-line, making it a great place for a fire lookout, and can be accessed by road from the south side. The lookout tower is still in place and still manned during the summer months.

Pooped pup (photo by Kailee Carnes)
Stark Mountain is the highest point in the Ninemile Range and one of two high points on my list that I can see from Missoula (the other being Cha-Paa-Qn of the Reservation Divide). The Nine-Mile valley lies between the two peaks and drains both ranges into the Clark Fork. The lumber industry first drew people to the area and ranching has kept people inhabiting the valley since logging has slowed. Mineral County, which houses Stark Mountain, actually has the highest percentage of people employed in the timber industry nationwide at 23%.1  Most of the timber industry is now located in millwork, so of that 23% only 1.1% is actually involved in the harvesting of trees, which in Mineral Country converts to 10 jobs. Despite that seemingly low number there was plenty of logging evidence throughout the hike. From up high we could see miles of logging roads criss-crossing adjacent slopes and we even drove through a current logging operation on the way to the trailhead.

On this excursion I was accompanied by Jesse and Kailee Carnes, their two dogs, and Sequoia. Sara had to work and I opted to leave Zeno at home since he doesn't always agree with other unfamiliar dogs.

With a mid-morning start from the trailhead we knew we had plenty of daylight, but were hoping to beat the rain. Forecasts had called for high percentages of precipitation, which meant that we could reach the colder, higher elevations after being soaked by rain at the lower elevations. Instead the first couple miles remained partly cloudy and actually pretty warm.
First glimpse of the summit

The trail began paralleling the bottom of Cedar Creek, but after less than a mile took a sharp turn to the right and began climbing. We found the trail to be well established with only a few blowdowns across the bottom reaches, and with surprisingly little snow. This changed at roughly the two mile mark, however, when patches of snow began covering the dirt. Soon our quick paced jogging turned to slower hiking over icy footprints.

The softer snow made for untrustworthy foot placement. The choices were to step in footprints from a few days before and hope they still held, which they often did but were painful when they did not, or opt for a new path where you were sure to posthole, but were prepared for it. Either way we quickly got snow in our shoes were forced to deal with the unsure terrain.

The wintry (quickly turning to bleak as the next storm rolled in) terrain reminded me that we were in the heart of wolf territory. One of the first wolves to return to Montana outside of Glacier took up residence in the Ninemile valley and shacked up with a male wolf who presumably came over from Idaho in the late 1980s. They had a litter of pups and began what is now known as the Ninemile pack. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your perspective, the founding female disappeared and her tracking collar was found cut and floating in a river in June of 1990, not long after her litter was born. While some of the ranchers had been fond of the wolf pack and enjoyed watching their growth, others were not so sentimental about the return of the predators. This contrast in feelings towards the reintroduction of wolves still exists and has perhaps become more of an issue since the release of wolves back into Yellowstone in the early 1990's. At the time, however, two-thirds of Montanans supported the return of wolves.2

View looking toward Missoula
For a few months after the mother's death the father was able to still hunt for meat for the young ones. But a run-in with a truck on I-90 soon left the pups to fend for themselves. With a little help from some locals, a few of the young survived, but were soon deemed a danger to local cattle. Three of the four were caught, collared, and relocated to Glacier, but one remained free. Soon after a pack began to develop in the area, but whether this pack centered around the uncaught pup was never determined. I like to think so. Either way there is a pack that claims the Ninemile valley and its environs, so I was on high alert to see some wolves. Alas, I did not.

Around four miles up the Stark Mountain trail the footprints we had been following ended. As far as we could tell we were the first explorers of 2016 from this point forward. By the cut in the trees we could still follow the trail for a little ways, but then lost it as the trees thinned. We opted to just go straight up the ridge (on dry ground we'd never do this if there was a trail, but with snow it doesn't matter!) and shorten the distance to the summit.
At the top of Stark Mountain with a brief break in the storm
(photo by Kailee Carnes)

By this point we found some of the weather that was predicted. Occasional snow flurries flew by and the wind started to feel like mountain wind.3 The howling of the wind reminded me a bit of the wolves that I was hoping to see, but the clouding coming up from the valley quickly obscured any hope of seeing anything aside from the ridge.

Two or three steep pitches brought us to within sight of the lookout tower. On a clear day I'm sure it would have been visible from farther, but on that day it slowly emerged from the cloud and suddenly the summit felt close. Erected in 1964 and now on the National Registery of Historic Places, I'm sure the tower has seen all sorts of weather. I kept reminding myself that as we stood on the summit shivering in the cold wind. The tower, and the port-a-potty strapped to a pole, had survived much harsher weather through the years; I could survive this little late winter squall.

The view from the top was limited by the clouds. We caught occasional glimpses of the valley floor near Alberton to the South and the northern reaches of Ninemile valley, but nothing else. On a clear day Cha-Paa-Qn would have been visible only a few miles northeast. Missoula could be seen to the East.

We took a few minutes on top letting the clouds swirl around us, and then with cold skin took off bounding through the snow back down to the warmer air.

(photo by Kailee Carnes)
On paper Stark Mountain doesn't look as adventurous as other Montana mountains, and maybe it wouldn't be much more than a glorified long run in the summer, but that day, in the snow, Stark was glorious. Kicking off the Montana Mountain Project with a peak in sight of Missoula, with good people (and a few exhausted dogs), and some bonus snow thrown in has made me very excited for what the next 63 mountains have to offer.

And maybe I'll see a wolf on one of them.

1 Economic Profile System. A Profile of Timber and Wood Products: Mineral County, MT (Bozeman: Economic Profile System, 2016), 1.
2 Bass, Rick. The Nine Mile Wolves (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 7
3 To me mountain wind blows a sense of adventure. It's got substance to it, a life of its own. Mountain winds feel soothing at first, and then slap your face and remind you that you're up high, and exposed.