Ch-Paa-Qn - Montana Mountain Project

Every winter a lone, snow covered peak emerges on the skyline west of Missoula. The mountain, is of course, there all year, but when fresh snow covers it's flanks it becomes prominent on the against dark winter skies. This is the 7,996' Ch-Paa-Qn Peak.

Pikas call the top of Ch-Paa-Qn home.
Ch-Paa-Qn is the highest point in the Reservation Divide, a sub-range of either the Ninemile range, Rattlesnake Mountains, Garnet range, or Salish Mountains, depending on who you ask. According to Montana.gov, however, it stands alone as its own range, and so I went up Ch-Paa-Qn as part of the Montana Peak Project.

Although Ch-Paa-Qn has been a fixture on the landscape for eons, it has been known by a few different names over the past 150 years. When Captain John Mullan first referred to the peak in 1863, he called it Skiotah Peak and that name was made official in 1917.1  But in 1918 the name was changed again to the common Squaw Peak, despite protestations from the native Salish tribe. By the latter half of the 20th century there was enough public pressure on the Montana government to change landmarks using the name 'Squaw' to something else, anything else. In 1999, 74 places were renamed, and Squaw Peak became Ch-Paa-Qn.

As I drove toward the peak from Missoula I couldn't help but draw comparisons to the San Francisco Peaks just outside Flagstaff, AZ. I grew up at the base of those mountains, and like Ch-Paa-Qn they have incredible prominence. It can be seen from a hundred miles in all directions and local tribes hold it as a sacred mountain. I do not know if the Salish hold Ch-Paa-Qn sacred, but I would be surprised if it did not play some role in their origin story. Ch-Paa-Qn (translated to Sleeping Woman) seems like a more respectful name when considering local history.

There are a couple trails that lead to Ch-Paa-Qn Peak, but I opted for the short push from the top of Edith Peak road. With fresh snow over the previous few days, and old snow underneath, the short option seemed like the prudent choice considering the rain clouds and late start.

I left the car and began loping down the well-marked trail. The Reservation Divide trail is supposed to connect all the way west to Siegel Pass, but is usually hit or miss with what sections get cleared each year from downfall. After this summer, however, the entire trail should be clear since there will be a mountain bike race put on by the Western Montana Trail Series that covers most of the length of the Divide. MTB Missoula will be clearing the whole trail just for the ride, so keep that in mind if you're looking for some volunteer trail work.

The first half mile of the trail was glorious. Only a few downed logs needed jumping, and I was able to make good time on the rain softened dirt. But pretty soon I climbed enough that the soft dirt turned into a swamp and then into snow. I spent half of the 3.5 miles to the summit trying to stay on top of wet snow. I was wearing my Saucony Peregrines so I had plenty of grip, but my feet were soaked almost immediately. I can't wait for the Gore-Tex version to come out.

Despite the wet and cold feet I was able to keep moving and had a great time on the way up. Flowers were blooming in the snow-free spots and I could hear water running under a lot of the snow. A couple Pikas even scampered across the snowy rock field.

Looking across the Ninemile Valley at Stark Mountain
The last 1/4 mile or so to the summit is off trail on a talus field that would normally be fun for me. The recent snow, however, had left a six inch cover on a lot of the scree, which is just enough to hide the rocks, but not enough to keep ankles, feet, and knees protected from twists and falls. It was slow going up the slope, but it afforded me ample time to look back at Stark Mountain across the Ninemile Valley and towards the Rattlesnake Mountains in the east.

From the top I gazed down on the Jocko Valley to the north, Ninemile Valley to the west, and the Missoula Valley to the south and east. It occurred to me that I was standing on what 13,000 years ago would be an island in the middle of a massive glacial lake. Glacial Lake Missoula, as it's called, backed up water from Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho all along the Clark Fork River into the Missoula and Jocko Valleys. The high water mark can still be seen 1,000' above Missoula. When the ice dam failed, as it did multiple times, it released catastrophic floods that reshaped the landscape from Montana to the Pacific coast, including the 'scablands' in Eastern Washington.2

On top with the Reservation Divide behind me
Looking at the many valleys below me, and the vast miles of farmland, mines, trees, low mountains, and cities, I had problems imagining that all that could be covered by water stopped up by a large ice cube at the mouth of a canyon. And then imagining that when that ice cube lifted allowing huge amounts of water - which created a wave up to 500 feet high and miles wide - to empty out in a few hours blew my mind. I can't fathom the landscape changing that drastically in that short amount of time.

While I was looking out over my former-lake domain, I wasn't aware that a rain squall had developed behind me and was moving steadily down the Ninemile Valley. I finally saw the dark wall headed my way, like a Glacial Lake Missoula flood, as it was a few miles away. I quickly packed up my bag and descended as quickly as treacherously possible and ran back on the trail only to get caught in a downpour moments from the car. Even though the lake no longer remains, I still drove home feeling like I went for a swim.



1 Kim Briggeman, "100 Icons: Ch-Paa-Qn is a Big Mountain with an Elusive Name," The Missoulian, September 14, 2014. Accessed May 30, 2016, http://missoulian.com/lifestyles/100icons/icons-ch-paa-qn-peak-is-a-big-mountain-with/article_04284df8-3d47-11e4-b078-e7730aa9987d.html 2 Kendall Johnson, "Lake Missoula and Its Floods," Rangelands, Society for Range Management 33, No. 5 (October 2011): 37.


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