Sunday, June 15, 2014

Bass Creek to Lolo Peak traverse

Life has been busy over the past few weeks, allowing adequate time for outdoor adventures, but no extra time for documentation, hence the delay on getting this report out (the tour was completed on June 1st). The tour was magical on many levels, and should be repeated often by strong touring parties. It is among the best ski traverses I have done around Missoula, on-par with my beloved version of the Rattlesnake traverse. The skiing is not as good as the Rattlesnake traverse, but it is still high quality, and the route is more wild and committing.

If you are a strong backcountry skier near Missoula, you should do this traverse because:
  • The setting is fantastic. Upper Sweeney creek is wild and spectacular. Most of the day is spent way back in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, in truly wild country.
  • The line is logical, and the skiing is all moderate.
  • It is close to town – there is less car time than driving to Trapper, even with the car shuttle. 
  • Once you climb out of Bass creek, you are able to stay high the whole way. 
  • The tour is long, but at just under 10,000 vertical feet, it is still in the realm of possibility for most strong parties.  There is no easy exit from the middle of the traverse, so it is committing (in a good way).     
  • Countless extensions are possible. Just use your imagination.
Our line.  I think this is the path of lest resistance.
Upper Sweeney Creek in winter.  Our route descended
off the shaded high pass and traversed betwen the two visible lakes.
The day went about as well as we could have hoped for.  I drove up to the Carlton trailhead on Saturday night and biked back to my sleeping bag on the outskirts of Lolo. Jeffery and I rallied out of Lolo at 4:45 am, and were hiking up Bass creek by first light at 5:30. We hiked and jogged all the way up Bass creek, and climbed snow-free beargrass slopes for over a thousand vertical feet before switching to skis. Aside from some bone-chilling stream crossings, the dry land trek went about as smoothly as could be expected. Maintaining a steady pace, we hit the Big Saint Joe/Stormy Joe pass by mid-morning and made the long rolling descent into Sweeney creek.  We benefitted all day from consolidated spring snow, easily shussing through rolling terrain in upper Sweeney Creek.

Cold early morning Bass creek ford. (photo credit for all photos - Jeffrey)
At the Big/Stormy Joe divide. The high pass on Pyramid Buttes is visible in the background.
Another moderate climb had us at a high pass only a few hundred feet below the top of the Pyramid Buttes.  We ended up doing a lot of traversing on the second run to get around the south end of Holloway lake, which allowed us to move through the somewhat complicated terrain without any delays.  A thunder cell rolled through as we were climbing up to the Sweeney/Carlton Creek divide, and I pushed the pace a bit, which was detrimental to our energy reserves, but got us over the ridge before any electricity came out of the sky.  We had a nice rolling run down to One Horse Lake, where we had a long sit-down lunch break under a tree as a few light convective showers rolled through. The last long climb to the summit of Lolo peak was slow, but it was steady, and we were soon standing on the summit, back in familiar terrain.  The only snafoo of the day occurred when the cord on my Scarpa Aliens broke on the run to Carlton lake, but I had an extra cord in my pack and we ended up just taking a nice long break on the edge of the lake as I fiddled with gear.  
Climbing to the high pass on Pyramid Buttes.
Jeffrey traversing off Pyramid Buttes.  Duffey Lake and Lolo peak visible in the background.

Slow and steady near Reid lake on the last climb to Lolo peak.
On Lolo peak, nearing the end of the traverse.
The climb out to Carlton ridge was quick. The ski out from Lolo is confusing, and many parties have tales that go something like: “I got so lost coming out from Lolo. We ended up too far (LEFT or RIGHT – both are equally valid) and we spent hours (insert epic tale here.  It is best if it involves Search and Rescue, endless bushwacking, and/or hiking out to the valley).” I have certainly been confused more than once, so we skied close together and took our time, sticking right on the climber’s trail the whole way.  It was a quick 15 minute walk out from snow line, and we were soon back at the car, energized by a perfect day in the mountains.  9,800 vertical feet and a bunch of miles, and done in about 11 hours car to car.


  1. That stupid 1-mile descent from Carlton is Reason Number One why I got a GPS. The stupid traversing 2-mile descent off St. Mary is Reason Number Two. Never a problem since!!!

  2. Beautiful Linkup & great read on the terrain! When I first submitted Lolo last December I could not help but look south with curiosity of what might come if the car was down that way and I could ski through the range. Can't wait to try this next time I'm in town.