Hollowtop Mountain - Montana Mountain Project

View of the three peaks on my route from Hollowtop Lake. Horse Mountain, Mount Jefferson, and Hollowtop Mountain.
For the fourth time I felt like I was going to fall backwards. Windmilling my arms I caught my balance, took a breath, and continued stumbling up the 48% grade. From the head of the creek below me this route looked the easiest, but it still involved hiking (I gave up running when the grade rose above 15%) up a steep avalanche chute was covered with loose rock. Every time I attempted an increase in pace, I was forced to pause, regain my balance, and catch my breath. Each pause, however, provided an opportunity to look at the ever expanding view below me. 

I was on the side of Horse Mountain on a route that I hoped would take me on a ridgeline loop to the top of Hollowtop Mountain, the highest point in the Tobacco Root Mountains. The Tobacco Roots, located on the east side of the Continental Divide near Whitehall, contain one of the highest concentrations of peaks over 10,000' (43) in Montana, especially considering the relatively small area of the range. The range makes a rough horse-shoe shape, if the horse wore a narrow shoe, with the opening facing north. The small near-ghost mining town of Mammoth lays in the middle of the shoe ringed by high mountains and provides wonderful high elevation access. 

Looking west from the top of Horse Mountain
My approach brought me to the side of Horse Mountain from the east side of the range, however, through the near-ghost mining town of Pony. According to ponymontana.com, fewer than 100 families live in Pony now, despite the population being over 5,000 at the height of the gold rush in the late 1800's. The town got its name from Tecumseh 'Pony' Smith, one of the settlers, who helped take over $5 million out of the Tobacco Roots through Pony between 1870 and 1880. After 1880 the quality of the gold decreased and Pony's population growth slowed. Today it's little more than a single street with old mining buildings and a surprisingly popular saloon/dive bar. 

I left from the trailhead another few miles beyond Pony and began running up the trail to Hollowtop Lake. The sage brush, wide trail, and scent of fresh cattle droppings reminded me of previous adventures in central Arizona. The land in this area was much drier than early trips into the hills this summer. 

Where the ridge gets narrow between Horse and Jefferson
The climb was gradually uphill, but it felt steeper. By the time I hit the lake I had gained just over 2,500' and was no longer surrounded by high desert vegetation. The lake emerged from a dense lodgepole forest, and from here I was able to see my main objective for the day. Immediately across the lake was a panorama of Horse Mountain, Mount Jefferson, and Hollowtop Mountain. And a great looking ridge connecting all three. 

After a brief stop at the lake I continued to the opposite end and left the trail to follow a creek to its headwaters below Horse Mountain. A short half mile later I emerged onto a glacial tarn and left the trees behind. 

The Tobacco Roots, like most of Montana, are scarred by glaciers from the last ice age. As part of the Boulder Batholith, the granite rocks must have provided a wonderful nesting site for the large ice floes. Although the Tobacco Roots are technically a pluton of the Boulder Batholith, glacial retreat helped expose the rich mineral deposits found in the formation; the same mineral deposits that made Butte the mining town it was. 

On the top of Jefferson with the approach ramp and
the flat top of Horse Mountain behind me.
From my vantage point at the head of the last creek before the mountains reached for the sky, I couldn't see any gold. But I did see an avalanche chute that from low down looked like it would take me to the correct place. So I found myself hiking up an incredibly steep slope to the top of Horse Mountain. 

The summit of Horse Mountain is not at all what I expected after such a steep climb. The top is nearly a quarter mile long, thin, flat mesa. While climbing I imagined a narrow point jutting up requiring a fair amount of caution and balance, but I was actually able to start running again, and look around at the same time. 

Now that I could see into the inside of the horseshoe that is the Tobacco Roots, I noticed evidence of very recent mining activity: speculators probably still hoping to eke another few dollars out of the hills before it completely dries up. The Mammoth side of the Tobacco Roots paid out over $14 million in ore, $9 million more than the Pony side, so it's understandable that some people are still trying for more. 

The horseshoe shape of the range allowed the range to look larger than it actually is and I immediately thought of the San Juans in Colorado. The similarities are striking. Huge mountains, layers of ridges (not just one single spine), easily accessible for the most part, and contain high altitude mining activity. 

Looking at Hollowtop from Mount Jefferson
Catching my toe on a rock brought my attention back to where I was running and out of the San Juans. Ahead of me lay Mount Jefferson and Hollowtop, but after Horse Mountain it looked like my brief return to running would be halted. 

Past Horse Mountain the ridge narrowed considerably and the granite blocks became jagged and exposed. A few times the "trail," which at this point was really just a slightly worn path in the rocks, jumped off the exact ridge to work around a few technical sections. I was still able to move quickly, but running was not an option. The ridge opened up again before the summit into a wide gentle ramp where I managed a stumbling jog for a few minutes at a time.

The top of Jefferson is the opposite of Horse. Where Horse Mountain is wide and flat, Jefferson is more of a mountain's mountain. Jumbled rocks, a cliff face, and loose footing require a hiker's full attention while negotiating the summit. The route to Hollowtop looked clear, however, and the low clouds were still non-threatening and sparse, so I decided to keep on moving forward. 

From the low spot between Jefferson and Hollowtop (the head of a glacial drainage I would follow out) the approach is another simple long ramp studded with boulders. I merely had to zigzag around a few big rocks on my way up and the summit emerged. Nothing technical about it. 

My exit point. Hollowtop on the left, Jefferson hiding on the right.
Hollowtop gets its name from the huge chunk taken out of the east side of the mountain. From below it appears as if someone took an ice cream scoop to a cheap carton of ice cream, the kind that comes in square blocks, and left a gouge in the corner. The gradually sloping bowl holds snow a bit longer than it should each year considering it's on an east facing slope, but by this time in August there was little snow to be seen. 

After taking an extended summit break I returned down the ramp and then dropped down the drainage that serve as the headwaters to the North Fork of Willow Creek. This route took me cross-country until a small lake/large pond emerged with a faint trail leading down to Skytop Lake. From Skytop I was able to start running again and quickly descended past Deep Lake, Hollowtop Lake, back into the high desert terrain, and finally to the car where an odiferous herd of cows awaited my arrival.