Friday, September 21, 2012

Swan Traverse in a day

After traversing both the northern and southern portions of the Swan range earlier this summer, I returned to link the two into a marathon of ridge scrambling interspersed with alpine basin hiking and elegant trail running.  The result was probably my favorite non-ski day this summer, an outing which should appeal to trail runners, climbers, and fit wilderness enthusiasts alike.

I spent the previous evening running the 30-mile bike shuttle at a casual pace, arriving at the Smith Creek pass trailhead just in time to get an early jump on sleeping.  I was up early, hiking and jogging out of the parking lot at 3:30 am at a sustainable pace.  I hit the pass well before first light, and scrambled the north ridge of Cooney peak with the light of the Cooney fire twinkling below.  The traverse to South Cooney went smoothly, aside from a couple of darkness-induced routefinding errors.  Sunrise bosted morale as it always does, and I was soon on the clean, slabby ridge walk to Holland peak.  A quick jog down the south face of Holland and class 4 scramble put me on the summit of Buck Mountain right at the 6 hour mark.  I descended the southeast face of the peak and traversed alpine basins to Rubble lake for water, then continued through more high alpine terrain to the Sapphire Lake Trail.  The trail took longer than expected, but the route is spectacular, winding around alpine lakes before switchbacking down to Upper Holland Lake.  I saw a black bear on the trail, which added some excitement to the day.  I also managed to loose my camera in this stretch, must have fallen out of a pocket..  I made it to the lake in 8.45, almost an hour behind schedule.

After a full water refill at Holland lake, I jogged up the heavily used trail to Gordon Pass.  The bushwack back up to treeline was reasonable, and I was grateful to be below treeline as a rogue thunderstorm blew through.  Soon enough I was back above treeline, this time scrapping up the clean slabs on the north ridge of Carmine peak.  The climb to Carmine went quickly, as did the traverse to Wolverine peak.  I had opted to traverse from north to south, which allowed for quick scrambling up the north ridges of Ptarmigan and Fisher peaks, and a surprising amount of runnable terrain on the south side descents.  A constant, brisk wind and haze from smoke kept temps down.  With adequate food and water, I was able to maintain a bright pace, and I was on top of Fisher peak at a little under 14 hours, ready to start heading down.  The bumps on the ridge south of Fisher were slower than I remembered, but it wasn't too long before I picked up the trail.  40 minutes later, I was back at the car, with tender feet, and tired legs, ready to eat cookies and drink beer.

While my time is brisk, I have no doubts that it would go in well under 10 hours in the hands of a strong trail runner, especially someone who can maintain a running gate over talus.

The route
From Smith Creek pass trailhead, up trail to the pass.  Traverse along the ridge crest, summiting Cooney, south Cooney, Holland, and Buck (peak south of Holland). Traverse alpine basins to Sapphire lake trail, and take the trial down to Holland lake, then up to Gordon pass.  Bushwack back up to the Swan crest at Carmine mountain, and continue to Sunday mountain, summiting Wolverine, Ptarmigan peak, Ptarmigan point, and Fisher peaks along the way.  Down trail to Rice ridge trailhead.

Cooney Pass: 1.45
South Cooney: 2.45
Holland: 5
Buck: 6
Trail: 7.40
Holland Lake: 8.45
Carmine: 10.10
Wolverine: 11
Ptarmigan point: 12.40
Fisher: 13.45
Trail: 14.50
Car: 15.32

Total elevation gain (based on topo map):  13,400 vertical feet
Total distance (approximate):  30 miles
Trip length: 15 hours, 32 minutes trailhead to trailhead
Accomplices: None
Put in:  Smith Creek pass trailhead
Take out: Rice Ridge trailhead
Equipment of note:  Hiking poles, running shoes.
Sustinance:  Big breakfast.  About 8L of water (carried 3 bottles with refills) with electrolyte tabs and about 3,500 calories of Hammer Gel, Heed, energy bars, and cookies
Bears?: Yes 
Lightening? Yes
Fatigue factor (1-10): 9
Stoke factor:  9 (Note:  virtually impossible to exceed 9 if skis aren't involved)
Memories to suppress:  Losing my camera, smoke

No camera = no pictures, which is too bad because it was a beautiful day.


  1. Well done Brian! Did you end at Sunday Mtn rather than Matt Mtn? Seems a bit more logical to take the trail down from Sunday to the Rice Ridge TH. Either way, solid effort.

    I got shut out on an attempt to ski the NW face of S. Cooney a couple winters back. This is some good inspiration to get back into this country more this winter.

  2. Thanks. Yes, you are correct, end at Sunday mountain. And yes, certainly lots of spectacular and reasonably accessible ski terrain.

  3. Brian, your stories are awesome! I'm jealous of all the amazing adventures you go on, I need to get into the back country more in the winter. Every time I drive through the Swan, I see countless amazing powder walls (especially in the Holland Peak area), like something you would see in the Chugach. Have you ever considered skiing one of them? Is the avalanche risk too high? Based off my dabbling with google earth and a topo map, there's a few 2,500+ foot fall-line runs that look absolutely amazing.

  4. Nevada - There is certainly a lot of appealing looking terrain in the Swans which is accessible in winter without the need for a snowmobile. I don't think anything in Montana fills in like the Chugach, but the big west faces of the Swan are quite skiiable when avy danger is low enough.

  5. Good point, we don't get quite that much snow, but it definitely looks awesome up there. Someday....