Table Mountain - Montana Mountain Project

Looking at Monument Peak and Table Mountain
Some mountains are named for people, some are named for nearby geographic features, and some are named (sometimes accurately) for their appearance. Table Mountain in the Highlands is aptly named from any vantage point. As the highest point in the Highland Range just south of Butte, it is visible from both I-90 and I-15. From the interstates, and from adjoining ridgelines, it still appears flat enough to eat off of.

Last year I made a half-hearted attempt with my brother from the north side. Although we did not reach the summit of Table that day, we did spend a wonderful 30 minutes on the top of Monument Peak (locally named) sharing a beer and enjoying the fading light. I knew when I attempted Table Mountain again I wanted to access it from the same direction.

This year a group of four of us, Sara, Cory Soulliard, Marisa Sowles, and I, drove up the road after the Wulfman's 14k trail race for an afternoon adventure. Part of the appeal of the north side approach is the high elevation driving access. Although I normally prefer the long days on foot, after a morning of racing reducing the overall elevation gain seemed like a great idea.

Working up to Monument Peak from Red Mountain
We parked near the treeline of Red Mountain and after a few minutes of walking popped out into the open. For the next three miles to the summit of Table Mountain we would be entirely on a ridge with unadulterated views of the surrounding peaks and valleys; the other appeal of an approach from the north side.

Because of the gentle slope to the alpine, the northern slope of Red Mountain is home to an old fire-lookout constructed in 1939. Although it is no longer manned and the outhouse has lost its door (creating one of the best views for conducting business in the process) the tower itself is still in good condition. One night in 1953, however, it nearly blew to pieces.

According to the Montana Standard via the ranger on duty the night of September 20th experienced firsthand the power of a storm. A stray bolt of lightening followed a radio line into the tower and blew out 70 panes of glass and a hole in the infrastructure. Don McPherson, the ranger, momentarily lost consciousness, but was otherwise unhurt and managed to hike six miles through a howling rainstorm to report the destruction. That bolt of lightening may explain the multiple lightening rods currently on the lookout and adjoining radio towers. Fortunately for us, we were able to appreciate the view from the lookout on a sunny day.
Scrambling back from Table Mountain

Our route took us up and over Red Mountain and around a large bowl containing a few small lakes, mountain goats (seen last year), and more rocks than I could count in a few lifetimes. Geologically, however, there are two distinct portions of the ridge, at least in appearance. The north half, which contains Red Mountain and the locally known Monument Peak, is comprised of a red shale type rock that makes for unstable walking. Just south of Monument Peak, however, the rock appears more volcanic in origin. The ridge line also switches from a knife edge to a more gentle, rolling slope covered in hundreds of shades of tiny flowers, at least on the outside of the bowl. The inside of the bowl remained a game of Chutes and Ladders, but played with couloirs and cliffs.

For being a relatively small range with only 3 1/2 points truly above treeline, the Highlands are exceptionally high in altitude by Montana standards. Table Mountain tops out above 10,000' and Red Mountain and Monument Peak are not far behind. After a morning of racing I think we all wanted for oxygen during the uphill portions of our hike. And by the time we traversed the length of the ridge and reached the summit of Table Mountain we were (at least I was) on the verge of hangry.

But then Cory saved the day and pulled out a full watermelon that he smuggled up the mountain.

Cory saving the day!
Cory placed third in Wulfman's 14k and his prize was this watermelon, which at that moment on the top of Table Mountain seemed like the greatest award possible. After enjoying the afternoon sun and imbibing in our fill of the fountain of youth on a rind, we set off back down the slopes with high spirits.

Only a half mile from the summit Zeno disappeared. He had been running over to the edge of the cliffs and grabbing a bite of snow then returning to make sure he didn't fall behind. After one snow run, he didn't come back. I got curious and walked over to where he ran and saw footprints leading straight off the edge of the snowy couloir. With my panic level rising I quickly dropped my pack and leaned over the edge to where I could see the entire exposed face. Fortunately I didn't see blood or hear screaming. Zeno was 90 feet down and attempting to climb back up.

From the top I yelled at him to stay, still unsure of his health, and then ran fifty feet along the ridge until I found a break in the cliffs I could scramble down. I wanted to get across from him so he would not keep trying to crawl up and get hurt in another slide down. After a few sketchy jumps across other couloirs and three short scrambles I was able to reach him in the snow.

On top of Table Mountain with Tobacco Roots in the background
To get back up I had to lift him up steep sections while trying to keep him from going across other snow fields that would send him spiraling down the slope again. I finally managed to get him close to the top where Cory could grab him. By the time I stood back up on the ridge, Zeno was running around like nothing happened. Aside from using the rest of my weeks supply of adrenaline, and Zeno cracking one toenail on his paws, nothing bad happened. He did not, however, go near the snow again.

The traverse back across the ridgeline was uneventful and we were able to appreciate the late afternoon light as it turned everything a darker shade of orange. Despite nearly losing our dog, we had a great day in the Highlands and look forward to going back and exploring the lower ridgeline to the south. Some days I wonder if the Montana Mountain Project is worth it, but then when I'm actually up in the mountains experiencing all that a new range has to offer, I can't imagine doing anything else: especially on a day like this with good friends, a good view, and a watermelon.