Pine Creek Lake – Absaroka Wilderness

When I lived in Northwest Montana in and around Glacier National Park I became interested in attaining the summits of mountains. The idea of bagging a peak was as new to me as the mountains around me. During my childhood in Minnesota my brother and I certainly did our share of exploring but no hills were high enough to be called summits. I claimed a half or full dozen of peaks within the boundary of Glacier and then in a somewhat anticlimactic move, found myself in a day job in Duluth, MN. Duluth is like a mountain town – – just without the mountains. There are lots of hardcore outdoor enthusiasts there including some local hardmen even now in the 21st century putting up FAs on some tough, but small rock.

A new career called and I headed back out to the mountains, this time in Southwest Montana where the list of peaks to climb is nearly endless. The Bridger, Crazy, Tobacco Root, Madison, Gallatin, Abaroka, Beartooth ranges are all within one hundred miles, and the list goes on. Having set my sights on Ross Peak in the Bridger Range before even arriving in Bozeman I quickly set out to attain that in my second week here. Next my perusing of the pages at Summit Post put me in a mindset of the Absaroka Range and particularly Black Mountain.

Thursday Night – For those weekend warriors it is important to spend the week previous to your trips planning routes, attaining maps, checking off gear lists and preparing food. I had all taken preparations made by Thursday evening and my pack and trekking poles were readied by the door of my room.

Friday Afternoon – Out of work, back home and into the Subaru for the fifty mile drive to the Pine Creek Lake trailhead. I arrived by 18:30 and made the thousands-of-feet-over-five-miles-climb along a nice Forest Circus trail to Pine Creek Lake wherein to find the place to myself. Downing a canned-pint of a local Montana-brewed scotch-style ale I nestled into my quilt by about 22:00.

Saturday Morning – I awoke to my alarm at 05:45 for a semi-alpine start at Black. The weather was to be hot so I wanted to make the climb before too much sun was shining over the peaks to the East. I climbed and made the summit by 08:30 (read trip log at Summit Post). My plan was to follow the peaks ridge around the Pine Creek valley, summit McKnight Mountain and drop Eastward to McKnight Lakes and then a trail-less descent Northwest-ward the next day to the trailed South Fork Deep Creek trailhead. I was quickly thwarted by fear and rationale by some nasty exposure on the knife edge ridge off the East flank of Black Mountain.

Saturday Afternoon – Rather than risk life and limb on the alpine ridges I re-traced my steps down Black Mountain and headed off cross-country through the wilds of the Pine Creek drainage. I made my way across the mid-elevations and climbed again to the saddle between the ridges I was on previously and McKnight Mountain. I could look downard onto McKnight Lakes but seeing no obvious, safe route downward I opted instead to stay in the Pine Creek drainage. I wandered all over it, climbing and descending some 3,500 feet that day eventually settling on a nice campsite on the East side of the lake.

Saturday Evening – The lake was anything but mine that night as six other sets of backpackers showed up to camp. I joined one group, a father and his two sons at their campfire that evening for good conversation and a gorgeous sunset before heading back to my tarp for a cold slumber. Temperatures were hovering around 40 deg. F by 04:00. I was pushing my superultralight setup that night and awoke to do warming sit-ups a number of times before the sun shone.

Sunday Morning – Awake at 06:30, packed and down to the car in time to catch biscuits and gravy at a little joint with good, fresh, organic coffee. Home before the afternoon for relaxing, reading and enjoying my new home in Bozeman.

Spanish Peaks Unit of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness

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I recently made a career change which has taken me away from the beautiful Arrowhead of Minnesota and placed me into the grandiose peaks and valleys of the approximately 4,000,000 acres of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Upon arriving into my new hometown of Bozeman, MT and unpacking my Subaru of my belongings I immediately dove into my new roomates map drawer to find a couple day backpacking loop to satisfy my lust to enjoy the freedom of the hills.

I contemplated heading back up to my old haunt at Glacier National Park but decided that can wait until I’ve explored my new area a bit. Next I considered heading down to Yellowstone National Park but decided against it because of how busy it would be as well as the hassle of the permit system. I had read about the Lee Metcalf Wilderness briefly in some outdoor blogs and it looked to be perfect for my needs – close to Bozeman and high in elevation.

I opted to start hiking along the South Fork of Spanish Creek, head about ten miles up to Jerome Rock Lakes, spend the night, travel a short distance over a 9,000 ft. pass and down to Upper Big Brother Lake to spend the second night and then awake on the third day to descend a different drainage back to the trailhead and my waiting Subaru.

Montana welcomed me back with open arms. Although I’ve been a flatlander living in Minnesota for the past two years I was still able to climb the 2,400 ft to Jerome Rock Lakes and it’s 8,000+ ft elevation without too much light-headedness. Two bears along the trail reminded me I was back in very wild country again. I arrived at the lake just as a thunderstorm was moving in fast. I peered over the lake to see a Bald Eagle swooping low along the lake heading for cover. I had read the upper lakes were nicer than the lower so I quickly began bushwhacking upstream but reaching two plateaus and no lake I decided to head back down to attempt to set up camp before the rains came. I had my shelter laid out when it started pouring. All was well however as I got everything situated and myself under the tarp to hear the thunder rumbling overhead and the lighting crashing around me. The rain didn’t let up until much later so I spent the better part of twelve hours under the tarp that night.

The next day was short on miles but I awoke early and headed out hoping to arrive and do some exploring. This also offered me the opportunity to hike slow at these high elevations to be sure my un-aclimatized body could handle it all. I had my ice axe with me as the Forest Service reps couldn’t give me solid beta on what the snow situation would be at 9,000 ft. There was patchy snow but nothing with dangerous exposure so I never used the axe. The high alpine country of this area is stunning. Rugged peaks, broken scree slopes, raggedy old-growth conifers. Being that this is a wilderness area the trail maintenance is at a minimum. The trail disappeared and hikers are forced to follow rock cairns through the pass. Route-finding was moderate to difficult between finding the cairns and moving through the snow.

I followed the cairns down to what I thought was Big Brother Lake, set up camp, had a snack and took a nap as it was still only 9:30 a.m. and I had plenty of time to explore later. Awaking from a wonderful slumber I headed out around the lake to climb the prominent knob in the cirque. Upon reaching the top I noticed there were three lakes in the drainage and not one as denoted on the map I was carrying. I determined that I was actually at an upper lake and that Big Brother was another .25 or .5 miles downstream. I lazied around the rest of the day and waded all over the freezing cold lake until anotehr thunderstorm came speeding in. I had to push my tarp walls out to keep them from blowing in for about ten minutes while the storm raged. When it let up a bit I went out, re-set all my tarp stakes and reinforced them with big rocks. This provided a bomber set up and the rest of the storm had nothing on my shelter.

6:30 came and I awoke as my body seems to do lately. I packed up, ate some granola and began bushwhacking down to the other lake, hoping that upon arriving there I would be able to find the trail again. I was in luck and I was sailing downhill on good trail in no time. Aside from the 250 downed trees I encountered it was good hiking. I arrived back at the Subaru around 11:00 and was back in Bozeman by 12:00.