Mount Edith - Montana Mountain Project

On top of Mount Edith, high point of the Big Belts
Rain cells obscured the Crazy Mountains before blowing into the foothills of the Big Belts as we wound our way up the road towards Mount Edith. The Big Belts, which Mount Edith dominates, form the eastern edge of Canyon Ferry Lake along the Missouri River and separate the Missouri River from the Smith River drainage. As we drove higher, more and more water came running down the road, evidence of recent rain showers and the looming clouds promised more.

After a half-hearted mid-winter attempt to head up Mount Edith, which was derailed within the first mile from the highway due to snowy roads, Sara and I decided to try again on our way to Lewistown. We expected to find snowdrifts again blocking the route before we could get within striking distance, but got lucky and made it within 1/2 mile of the trailhead. From here we donned snowshoes and set off along the heavily drifted road to the start of the climb.

Just around the first bend we came across an old mine shaft complete with conveyor system. Although now quite dilapidated, it served as a reminder that at one time the Big Belts were overrun with gold prospectors.

Sara snowshoeing the 'trail' on the lower reaches of Mount Edith
Confederate Gulch, farther north in the 'Belts, became a focus point of placer miners after a group of Confederates on leave from the Civil War discovered gold in 1864. With the discovery of the Montana Bar the next year, a frenzy of placer mining activity existed in Confederate Gulch. According to Dan Cushman in the Gold Frontier, Confederate Gulch outproduced all other Montana gold mining areas combined between 1866 and 1869. This was due to the fact that the gold was easy to retrieve, there was water close, the grade of the gulch was good for sluicing, and there was a lot of gold!

With the feet of snow under our snowshoes I had little hope of finding gold, so I focused instead on trying to find the trail. As we left the road the trail began to switchback up the eastern slope of Mount Edith. For the first half of the hike the sun was out and we were down to our t-shirts and I was regretting wearing my warm pants. But then one of the rain squalls we saw during our drive up the hill hit us and I was glad for the pants. Fortunately we had just climbed high enough that the rain came in the guise of snow pellets and harmlessly bounced off.

Climbing above the last few trees as the snow squall moves past
Our route up Mount Edith was particularly gentle. Yes we had switchbacks in many places, but even without them the upper reaches of the Big Belts are more gentle (aside from the east facing slope of Mount Baldy). The lower elevation portions of the mountains, as well as the northern section tend toward much steeper slopes. A mid-winter hike at the northern end of Canyon Ferry Lake found us bushwhacking in extremely steep terrain.

Even farther north, beyond the Gates of the Rockies, the gulches are steeper and unforgiving. In 1949 one of these gulches was home to one of the first big firefighting disasters in the country. The Mann Gulch fire, written about in Norman McLean's iconic Young Men and Fire, claimed the lives of 13 smoke jumpers when it reversed direction and came roaring back up-slope. The firefighters were forced to race the flames up the steep embankments of the Big Belts to the safety of the other side. Some didn't make it.

Standing in snowshoes and still brushing snow pellets off my jacket, it was difficult to imagine the heat created in the Big Belts that day, or simply how hot it will be in a month this summer in the foothills along the Missouri River. I was also glad that we were able to hike up the relatively gentle grade of Mount Edith, and not have to race flames in the steeper areas.

The squall blew through as quickly as it arrived, which coincided with our route taking leave of the trail. At the top most switchback we cut up an open slope towards the summit. As we climbed higher and the trees grew sparse, the snow depth lessened. At the summit we were standing on only a few inches of patch snow.
Last slope to the summit

Wind whipped by the 9,504' top, but the storms were far enough away by this point that we could see the more rugged Mount Baldy only a few miles away, and actually catch a few glimpses of the Crazies, Castles, and Little Belts. At this point in the Montana Mountain Project, the Big Belts are the closest to the ranges of Central Montana that I've explored. This is the first time I've seen some of these other ranges and it made me excited to keep exploring the Island Ranges.