Greathouse/Old Baldy - Montana Mountain Project

On the summit of Old Baldy
Central Montana is dominated by a series of island mountain ranges. Rolling plains give way to small clusters of peaks, each with their own unique climate and character. Just a few miles south of Lewistown, the geographic center of Montana, are the Big Snowy Mountains, which are the largest of the so-called Island Ranges.

I used the excuse of visiting Sara, who is completing an eight week physical therapy internship in Lewistown, to spend a day in the Big Snowies. I knew I wanted to try and go up a few peaks during the weekend, but I was not sure what ranges we would end up exploring so I made the mistake of planning for nothing instead of planning for everything. We ventured into the Big Snowies with only a guidebook as our map, but fortunately Peakbagging Montana gives accurate enough route descriptions that we could wing it with only a few scratches.

We camped at the trailhead across from an intricate gate to one of the many cattle ranches in the area. Over the course of the weekend we realized that exploring in Central Montana requires driving a lot of dirt roads around a lot of private property, or getting permission to even gain access to the public land tucked behind the gates. Fortunately, the Big Snowies still have a few public access points and aside from a distressed cow we had an undisturbed evening.
Sara digging deep with Greathouse on the horizon

Early the next morning we set out up the trail, which circled around the corner of another ranch before beginning to climb up the base of Half Moon Canyon. A few hikers wrote in the trailhead registry about some down trees so we expected to clamber over downfall, but the first four miles we very slow going due to my lack of limbo expertise, and Zeno wanting to go under every tree I wanted to go over. The trail was easy to follow though and before we knew it we were through the section of downfall and into a few miles of creek crossings.

There is no designated Wilderness in the Big Snowies, but they are still quite wild. Much of the range is a roadless area, which, as far as I can tell, is like a Wilderness Area, but chainsaws and hang-gliders are allowed. Herds of elk, bear, and other wildlife are plentiful, which we quickly found out.

Dots of elk below Half Moon Pass. Calves were being harassed
by a bald eagle
After the first few creek crossings we reached a spot where the trail became a braided creek and we spent a few minutes to locate the correct route. Zeno took this opportunity to start losing his mind and pulling hard on his leash. I sat him down and was asking him what got in to him (I am still convinced that one of these days he will respond), when a large rock landed in the creek and something took off up the canyon wall. Neither Sara or I saw the creature that knocked it loose, but Zeno clearly smelled it and we ignored his warning. After that our bear calls became louder while next to the creek, and we kept our eyes up a bit more. We always enjoy seeing wildlife, but it is disconcerting when we don't actually see the wildlife, but know we are within 50 feet.

After our heart rates returned to normal and we reached the five or six mile mark, the canyon opened up into a more meadowy, alpine gully and Greathouse Peak appeared before us. Most sources list Greathouse as the high point of the Big Snowies, but there is still debate as to whether Greathouse or Old Baldy, its neighbor to the east is actually higher. Greathouse is listed at 8,681' and Old Baldy, in some sources, is listed at 8,680+. We decided to climb both to be safe.

Before the trail turned south for its final climb up to Half Moon Pass we struck off to the northeast up a steep slope that would take us to the plateau culminating in Greathouse Peak. We picked a line that looked less steep than the buttresses on either side, and fortunately we could keep moving up it as long as we maintained momentum. It was steep!

Beginning the climb up Old Baldy with Greathouse already completed
As soon as we crested the climb onto the plateau/ridge we were buffeted by the wind. Lewistown commonly has storms blow in, dump some rain, and blow out creating a surprisingly green prairie. With the various small mountain ranges the storms are constantly shifting, growing, and breaking apart which makes it entirely possible to be hit by four or five separate storms a day. The wind hitting us on the ridge looked to be the prelude to a deluge on its way west from the Crazy Mountains. But then again we had already seen one storm hit Old Baldy that completely missed Greathouse a mere two miles distant so the ominous clouds were not a clear threat.

Hiking on the plateau was uneventful and we gained the summit without much more effort. By this point we were getting hungry, but wanted to find a wind shelter before settling in for a lunch, so we dropped directly off the nose down to Half Moon Pass. We also wanted to take some time for Zeno and assess his paws before beginning up the rubble field to the top of Old Baldy. Zeno is very good at gradual uphill/downhill hiking, but gets a bit whiny during steep climbs. He had begun favoring a paw near the top of the climb, but as soon as we started back down he seemed to forget about the pain, and, upon checking at lunch, had no issues with his feet.

The second climb of the day was completely exposed to the wind. Strong gusts nearly unbalanced me a few times as we lumbered up the steep slope. Old Baldy required more route finding due to slowly eroding rock bands, but we managed to find a dog friendly route just as the sky darkened. Again we did not linger on the summit, this time because of the impending storm. On a clear, calm day we supposedly would have been able to see the Absarokas along the southern border of Montana, and the Sweet Grass Hills up near Canada. That Saturday we could barely keep our eyes open without glasses because of the gusts.

Last push to the summit of Old Baldy

Old Baldy and Greathouse Mountain are the apexes of a massive limestone plateau, which belies the sedimentary-turned-uplift geology of the range. According to Rick and Susie Graetz in This is Montana, the water that seeps from these mountains through the limestone and into Big Spring Creek, is the purist in the country. Take that Dasani.

Walking down the plateau embedded with small fossils we picked up remnants of an old two-track road, which made Zeno a bit happier, but then we quickly left it and chose to take the incorrect ridge back to the canyon floor. This led to a marvelous bushwhack through thick fir stands, downfall, and pokey sticks. At the end of a long day the two-track on the other side of the canyon looked quite enticing.

Ultimately we dropped back into Half Moon Canyon a few miles farther up-trail than we originally intended, just in time to force our way back through the downed trees on the trail, earning ourselves a few more scrapes.

Next time we take a map.