Thursday, April 14, 2016

Taylor Hilgard traverse on skis

The south face of Hilgard at dawn during the Taylor Hilgard traverse.
The Taylor Hilgard group in the Madison range is a special place.  The peaks are the highest in Montana outside the Beartooth, and the crest is remote, surrounded by outlying mountains and long trail approaches in all directions.  The terrain is rugged yet user friendly, and best of all, chalk full of classic ski routes.  And the range is home to a robust grizzly population – I have seen sign every time I have visited outside the middle of winter.  My brother and I “cut our teeth” here over a decade ago during a five day trip where we skied most of the high peaks despite poor conditions.  And I have been itching to get back ever since.  Little did I know that everything would come together for one of the best days I have had in the mountains in years.

Since this was a solo outing, I devoted the entire previous day to the 45-mile shuttle.  Getting in position involved five hours of driving, five miles of running, hitchhiking through Yellowstone, and fifteen miles of road biking.  Fortunately, it went off flawlessly, and I was in camp by late afternoon. 
Content at camp the day before.

After a relaxed evening and a few hours of sleep, I was off at 2:45 am. I approached Hilgard via the Beaver Creek road and Avalanche creek.  The pre-dawn goal was to stay happy and get in good position by daybreak, so I relaxed, checked the map frequently, and motored up to Avalanche lake by first light.  The climb out of Avalanche creek was steep and icy, but all skinnable. The first rays of sun illuminated the peaks as I crested the ridge and schussed a short run down to Lake Eglise.  It was going to be a good day.  
Psyched on the Avalanche/Hilgard creek crest.
The ascent of Hilgard went quickly.  I had to employ spikes and an axe, but the snow was consolidated enough for easy climbing. The low 4th class rock steps high on the peak were snow covered and straightforward.  The summit knob is technically skiable, but I opted out and downclimbed about 250 vertical feet before clicking into skis and skiing the lower East face and chalky North couloir.  It was pretty cool to summit the highest Montana peak outside of the Beartooth with winter conditions.
Looking south from Hilgard. Spot the Tetons?
Top of the skiing on Hilgard. More casual than it looks.
Traversing below Hilgard.
Dutchman went quickly.  After a hot skin in intense morning heat and quick jaunt up the south plateau, I investigated the north couloirs.  To my delight, the central couloir went cleanly from just below the summit knob.  After a quick bump up to the summit sans skis, I skied the north couloir with nice chalky snow.  Next up was Echo, which was similar to the previous ascent, just longer and warmer, and with goats to follow.  Echo’s open Northeast couloir was in great condition, and I cruised down it before embarking on a mile plus low angle traverse to the base of Expedition pass.  Feeling the altitude and heat of the day, I took a long break to refresh.  
Looking down the excellent North couloir of Dutchman.

The day warming up on the climb to Echo.
Expedition basin view from Echo. With skis.
It is a long way from Echo to Imp, but well consolidated snow allowed for two fast traverses before and after Expedition pass, and the west facing ascent of Imp was still firm enough for easy skinning. The bootpack up Imp’s southwest ridge was a bit slow, but it was fun to weave a line through steep snow and loose rock.  I summited the west knob about two hours ahead of schedule.  The east knob is actually higher, but I prioritized fluid movement over elevation technicalities.  I did drink the last of my water on the summit, resolved to find water below Koch or be subject to a desperately dehydrated climb to Koch.  The North couloir of Imp was great, with more smooth chalky snow, followed by rolling moraine skiing down to treeline, followed by a long traverse through broken terrain and mushy snow to the creek.  
Dehydrated shadow at the top of Imp. Koch in the distance.
OK that was fun. At the bottom of Imp's North couloir.
When I arrived at the creek, I could hear water running below the snow, so I skied down drainage a hundred feet or so until I found an opening.  I took another long break in the shade, pounding a liter of water, eating two burritos, and psyching up for the final 2,000+ foot climb to the summit of Koch. Usually, I am happy to settle into a hard pace and grind out the final climb of a long day, but my legs and body didn’t really have it this time and resorted to steady slogging and lots of GU. Must have been the elevation. I summited Koch around 5 pm, well ahead of schedule and glad to be done climbing.  It was late and my legs were tired, but I could not have been more satisfied. The best ski line is down the direct east face, but I didn’t want to deal with refreezing snow. So I cruised the smooth, open southeast face.  The exit was surprisingly slow.  I guess it is 10+ miles back to the car, so I should have expected it.  The heat of the day had turned the snow to isothermic mush below 8,000 feet, and I spent more time than I would have liked face down in the snow, wallowing in facets.  Fortunately, there were ski tracks to follow. The flat seven miles of road to the Nine quarter circle ranch and my truck went by in a monotonous but beautiful seventy minutes.  
Tired and happy mountain dude on Koch.
On Koch, looking back to Hilgard, the little black horn on the far horizon.
Isothermal mush on the exit.
This was one of my best days in the mountains ever.

Amazing day and route.  This and the Mission traverse are the finest "out there" length outings I have done in Southwest Montana. The traverse logically strings together all of the high peaks in the group, the skiing is excellent, the setting is grand and remote, and there are no throw away sections, aside from the long approach and longish egress. Even though elevation gain is moderate, the full traverse is a bit daunting in length, and a few variations could tighten it up to a more doable length. Skipping Dutchman on the East would be easy and quick.  Skipping the Hilgard summit would save time.  A Hilgard/Echo loop, returning to Beaver creek on the Expedition basin trail, would be a top notch day in the mountains, and would not require a shuttle.  The Hilgard to Echo loop could also leave time for a run from the ridge above Earthquake lake into Avalanche creek instead of slogging up Beaver and Avalanche creeks.  

Amazingly, I could see old ski tracks most of the day. I would later learn that it was a group of Bozeman locals including Bobby Downs, Brian Clubber, and Josh Apple, who did a slightly longer overnight trip the previous week.  Nice line! And it was nice to follow tracks during the Taylor Fork exit. Also, thanks to Blake Votilla and Inge Perkins who completed a similar traverse last year, and got me fired up to give it a go.

Here are two route screen shots.  Note the orientation is NOT North to the top.
Route Part 1. Avalanche creek to Imp.  Most of the Beaver/Avalanche approach is not visible.
Route Part 2. Echo to exit.  The exit down Tumbledown is not visible, but it roughly follows the summer trail and road.
Route: Up Beaver creek road, up Avalanche creek (in drainage, not on trail), Climb and ski Hilgard east face and north couloir (did not ski from summit), climb and ski Dutchman North couloir (did not ski summit knob), climb and ski Echo Northeast couloir, Expedition pass, Climb ski Imp North couloir from west summit, Climb and ski Koch southeast face, down Tumbledown creek and Taylor Fork to car.
Approximate total elevation gain:  10,600 feet
Length: 30 miles done in 16 hours, 40 minutes
Accomplices: No
Put in:  Beginning of Beaver creek road
Take out: M.P. 4.5 on the Taylor fork road
Fuel: Burritos, bars, gel, perpetum, 4L water. Averaged about 150 cal/hr.
Equipment:   Dynafit Nanga Parbat skis, Scarpa Alien boots, double race poles, race skins for the road (not worth it), Alu crampons and axe, extra sunscreen. Headlamp with extra batteries, basic emergency kit.
Equipment left in car to save weight: Avalanche gear, whippet (wished I brought it), ski crampons, helmet, warm gloves, warm hat:  
Tricks of the day: Going to sleep at 7 pm in order to feel rested. Taping feet before setting off to prevent any chance of blistering. Mellow, steady pace all day with adequate breaks to keep everything happy.
Number of ski runs: 6
Number of classic ski runs: 4
Fatigue factor (1-10): 8 (note, 9 is virtually impossible to exceed in a non-race setting)
Stoke factor (1-10): 10
Memories to suppress:  Sunburned lips, dehydration before the epic water stop below Koch.


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  2. Good work and nice trip report! This traverse is on my bucket list for next winter. Last summer I hiked up sentinel creek to echo, dutchman, and hilgard then out avalanche. Taylor/Hilgard is an amazing place.

  3. Good work and nice trip report! This traverse is on my bucket list for next winter. Last summer I hiked up sentinel creek to echo, dutchman, and hilgard then out avalanche. Taylor/Hilgard is an amazing place.

  4. Nice Brian, thanks for the write-up. Would like to give your route a try one day!

  5. Awesome! Have wanted to do that for far too long. Did a great backpack of the whole Madison Range a few years back, what fun. Thanks for the stoke!!

  6. Insane day! Would be epic as multi-day traverse, outrageous as a single push!