Rocky Mountain - Montana Mountain Project

Sara with the Bob Marshall behind
While traveling across the eastern part of Montana one encounters a lot of open flat land. Occasional island mountain ranges break up the northern reaches of the Great Plains only to disappear as the next valley stretches out in front of you for miles. At one point as you travel west, however, big walls rise up against the horizon with no discernible passage. The line remains unbroken from north to south as part of the Continental Divide. Island mountain ranges are a thing of eastern Montana. It is here, on the Rocky Mountain Front, that the Plains completely and dramatically give way to mountainous terrain.

The Rocky Mountain Front is made up in part by the Sawtooth Mountains on the eastern edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Jutting up from the ground in long fins reminiscent of whirling blades ripping the length of a 2x4, the Sawtooth Mountains present an intimidating face that requires careful travel to pass through on foot, and no passage by car.

Fossil in the limestone
At 9,392' Rocky Mountain is the highest point in the Sawtooth Range, as well as the Bob Marshall Wilderness. It guards one of the most popular trails into the Bob Marshall from the east, Headquarters Pass Trail, and offers magnificent views into Glacier National Park, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and many miles east across the prairies.

After a few days of backpacking on the Continental Divide Trail in the southern half of the Scapegoat and Bob Marshall Wilderness, Sara and I decided to try for an impromptu trip up Rocky Mountain. For the first time all summer I had not done couch research of the mountain. I had not read any blogs, squiggly topo lines, or SummitPost entries. We knew it was near Headquarters Pass and decided that was good enough.

My parents were up from Flagstaff to help us resupply on our aforementioned backpack trip, and were willing to drop us at the trailhead before making camp. We got a later start that day, about noon, so we started up the well-trod trail at a brisk pace to make up some time.

Looking at Headquarters Pass and Rocky Mountain
Geologically the Sawtooth Mountains are mostly comprised of huge limestone chunks. As a former ocean floor the rock is full of little fossils and shells marking the final resting places of millions of ancient creatures. As tectonic plates collided, forming the Rockies, the bedrock shifted from horizontal to nearly vertical and buckled through the crust up into the air creating the eastern edge of the Continental Divide, and the mountain we were hiking up that day.

We quickly passed the turn for Our Lake and began ascending above the South Fork of the Teton River. In another few minutes we caught our first glimpse of the summit. Like a reflection in a review mirror, the top was actually closer than it appeared, but it still made us pause and wonder if we had left too late in the day. Looking at the big face in front of us we were also wondering if we should have read at least one blog on how to get up there. Our plan was to get to the pass and figure it out from there, but if the rest of the mountain looked like the north face we might be in trouble.

Scrambling up the south side
Above a waterfall we started to see cave-like openings on a ridge to the east. Part of me wanted to figure out a way to explore the caverns in the short cliff band, but even from a mile away I could tell my climbing skills would not be up to par. The Bob Marshall Wilderness contains a plethora of limestone caves. In 2006 Jason Ballensky discovered a cave opening on Turtlehead Mountain, about halfway between Rocky Mountain on the east edge of the Bob Marshall and Holland Peak on the west edge, that upon further exploration turned out to be the deepest limestone cave in the country. Only a few lava tubes in Hawaii are deeper. According to the Missoulian Ballensky hasn't even found the bottom of the Tears of the Turtle cave yet (as of June, 2014). At 1,629 feet and 44 rappels underground his crew ran into muddy quicksand and decided to call it a day so they could see sunlight again. Without headlamps, and no knowledge of the Tears of the Turtle Cave, Sara and I were content to leave the caves to guys like Ballenksy and stay focused on Rocky Mountain.
A few summit intervals as Rut training

After a little over three miles and some gorgeous mountain hiking, we hit Headquarters Pass. We had hoped to just continue on the ridge from the pass up to the summit, but after looking at it from the pass we decided it was bit more than we wanted for the day and opted to continue over the pass and then traverse up to the south side of the peak (after reading more info later it turns out that heading straight up from the pass isn't as scary as it looks).

We abandoned the trail a half mile over the pass and began hiking up a steep ramp to another little saddle. The rest of the way up became a series of navigating various goat trails, scrambling, trying to avoid kicking rocks down, and hoping we weren't going to get cliffed out. This entire quarter mile was like a geologic microcosm of the whole range. Various little fins of rock protruded up into the paths we wanted to take and created a crumbling mess of rocks below.

On the summit of Rocky Mountain in the Sawtooth Range
Eventually we gained the true ridge only a few yards from the summit. Incredibly, as we hit the top a hawk, riding on a thermal of air, whooshed up from below only a few feet from our heads. I wish all mountains had a welcoming committee like that.

From the top we could easily see the saw blades of the Sawtooths, and a few of the incredibly large burn areas in the Bob Marshall. Just like grizzlies, mountain goats, and horsepackers, wildfire is part of the ecosystem in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. As much as I prefer hiking through green, living trees, I still try to appreciate the important role fire has to play in the habitat. From the vantage of Rocky Mountain, however, the mass of devastation was unbelievable. Wildfires can cover some ground! A month or so earlier I fit shoes on a former Lolo National Forest Superintendent and he reminded me that before humans controlled fire, it's estimated that nearly 50% of any given watershed was recovering from fire at any given time. Seeing the remnants of recent fires from high above, I could definitely believe it.
Heading down our much easier path.

As we had struggled to find the correct path on the way up, we were hoping we would not have to pick a similar route down (remember we were simply guessing at the best way up). So we were grateful to see a climbers trail leading down the northeast ridge of the mountain. We only felt slightly ridiculous at having missed this path on the way up. The route made for a pleasant journey back down to the Headquarters Pass Trail and into camp in time for dinner.