Mission range ski routes


Skiing the upper West face of Greywolf peak.


Saint Mary's reservoir

Saint Mary's reservoir is perhaps the premeir access point into the Mission mountain range.

Driving directions: From Missoula in the spring, it is fastest to drive via the Jocko river.  From I-90, drive north in Highway 93 for 15 miles, and take Coldwater lane, which leaves the highway about a mile before the town of Arlee.  Take Coldwater lane north for a mile, then turn right on the Jocko road at a T intersection.  Continue on this road for 8.5 miles, and turn left on P-5000.  This is a major intersection which occurs just after crossing the Jocko river for the second time. Follow P-5000 for about 5 miles until you see Twin lakes.  Take a right at a sign for Twin lakes, and follow the road past a campground on the lower lake.  Continue around the lake on the north side, and cross a bridge.  Take a hard right onto a logging spur, and look for boulders blocking the road and the trailhead. This road is usually potholed but otherwise passable to small passenger cars.  P-5000 is often snowed in until April.

In winter, or from the Kalispell area, it is fastest to drive up the St Marys lake road from St Ignatius.  From town, just south of the grocery store, turn onto the St Marys lake road.  The route is intuitive, but generally head  southeast, either following the St Marys lake road the entire way, or taking the Mission Creek road east, then the Foothills road south to re-join the St Marys lake road and continuing to the reservoir.  The road is plowed to within a couple of miles of the reservoir all winter, and is normal melted out by sometime in April.  Driving access to St Marys lake is occasionally open all winter in low snow years.

The climber's trail takes off from a dispersed campsite at the northwest corner of the lake.  Take the time to find the trail.  It is good, and will save a lot of bushwacking.  The trail starts out just west of a small creek and parallels it for about a hundred yards before climbing 4,600 vertical feet southeast ridge of East St Marys peak at 8,600 feet.  From here the possibilities are endless.

East St Marys peak: East St Marys peak is usually approached via the east ridge.  Good moderate runs drop to No Fish lake and Dry creek from all along the ridge.  The southwest aspect of the peak provides excellent skiing, but a creative exit back up either of the St Marys peaks is recommended.  The southeast face of St Marys peak drops to Power creek, and is one of the most popular ski descents in the range.  From the bottom of the face, the most common exits are to climb at least 1,000 vertical feet back up to the approach ridge, or to contour back to the approach trail at approximately 6,600 feet.  The contouring return goes cleanly, but plan some extra time to thread your way through cliffs.  Reports of of the exit from the southeast face down Power creek vary wildly, so explore at your peril.  The complex north aspect is skiiable into Sonielem creek, and provides access to the wild Sonielem ridge and beyond.

Southeast faces of West St Marys (left) and East St Marys (right) peaks in winter.
Climbing in front of the northeast face of East St Marys peak.
Normal climb up the east ridge of East St Marys peak with Greywolf behind.



West St Marys peak:  West St Marys peak is difficult to access, but is worth the effort.  It is most commonly climbed via the wild east ridge from East Saint Mary's peak.  The southeast face provides at least 2,000 vertical feet of good steep skiing..  The northeast face has a good and interesting moderate run on the skier's right edge.  The wild west face drops for over 6,000 vertical feet to the Flathead valley.  It is an adventure of grand proportions, with 3,500 vertical feet of excellent skiing, followed by 2,500 vertical feet of committing bushwacking. Exit back up to the peak, or bushwack straight down to the valley.  The bottom of the exit is on private land, so use discretion and/or caution, or better yet, talk to the land owner before committing.

Climbing in front of the Northeast face of West St Marys peak

Sonielem ridge including Lowary peak and Peak Y:  The Sonielem ridge is easily accessed from the base of the east ridge of East Saint Mary's peak.  The west faces of Lowary peak, Peak Y, and the Sonielem ridge, and Sonielem couloir all provide excellent ski runs into the South fork of Mission creek.  The steep and complex eastern aspect of the Soneilem ridge drops into the head of Mission creek and has at least two skiiable passages.  Lowary peak has a short and spectacular east couloir which is often wind scoured at the top.
West face of Lowary Peak and Peak Y.


Greywolf Peak, west aspect:  The west couloir of Greywolf is one of the best ski runs in Montana.  Long, splitter, beautiful, and  just steep enough to be engaging, it is an adventure of grand proportions.  The couloir runnels fairly early in the spring, so go early.  The couloir is a receptical of all manner of ice, rock and snow sluffs from the west face, so treat it with respect. (Early or first descent Colin Chisolm, Chris Spurgeon, May 2005ish)

The west face is skiiable from the exact summit with a deep snowpack, and is an excellent adventure.  Several cliff bands make the route engaging on both the ascent and descent (Early (or first?) descent Brian Story, Shasta Hood, February 2010).  There are several narrow couloirs to the north of the west couloir which provide steep and difficult alternative if the west couloir seems too tame.  The lower portion of the next couloir to the north has been skied at least once from about 1/3 height.  The Index Finger couloir has been skied with one 30 meter rappel from a dead tree (First descent Brian Story, April 2011).  Accessing both couloirs from the top is exposed and confusing.  There is also a short moderate couloir to the south of the west couloir.

West aspect of Greywolf peak.  The West couloir is unlabeled, but should be obvious.


Exit routes:  The standard exit to St Marys lake is down the climbers trail.  It is fast and efficient.  Alternately, several steep bowls and tree shots funnel down into an alder choked and cliffy drainage just east of the climbers trail.  Exiting all the way to the reservoir via this drainage is not advisable, but it is feasible to ski to approximately 5,500 feet, and traverse back west to the climber's trail.  The traverse involves some stout bushwacking, but is not too long.

There are several interesting, long southeast facing gullies down into Dry creek.  The exit out Dry creek is unknown, but looks to be steep and unpleasant.

Other Mission skiing objectives:

Twin Lakes access/Greywolf Peak south and east:  The approach to Riddell lakes and beyond takes off from a recently closed logging road near the outlet of Twin lakes.  Hike up a recently closed road, then up a very steep jeep trail which turns into a climber's trail and contours to the east before climbing toward Riddell lakes.  The standard approach is to climb the ridge to 7,200 feet, then contour east to the basin below Riddell lakes.  A skier was killed in an avalanche on the traverse in the past, so be aware.  From upper Ridell lake, climb and ski the obvious South couloir of Greywolf peak, or climb east and drop into the Scenic lakes basin for access to the East couloir of Greywolf peak.  The BS gully is another fine ski objective which begins on the exact summit of the peak.  The hanging upper snowfield is a wild place to make turns (First descent Brian Story and Nick Vandenbos, June 2008).   The North face of Greywolf peak is skiiable from the exact summit.  A straightfoward 10 foot downclimb off the summit may be required to reach snow.  There is a cliff band which can be rappelled (difficult anchor), or bypassed via a long traverse to skier's right.

*Note:  As of spring 2012, the approach trail is choked with downfall, so plan on adding an hour each way to negotiate the endless debris.  Or better yet, take a couple days and earn a massive community service award by clearing the trail.
South couloir of Greywolf in June from Riddell lakes.
Skiing the East couloir of Greywolf peak.
East aspect of Greywolf peak.  The BS gully is shown with red dots.  The east couloir is visible on the left.
North face of Greywolf peak.  A rappel free descent is available to skier's right.

Lucifer Lake:  An excellent trail climbs from Mission reservoir to the spectacular Mission Falls.  From the falls, a steep and faint climber's trail climbs and contours all the way to Lucifer lake.  The approach is stout, but once at the lake, the skiing is extensive.  Navigating the upper basin is significantly more difficult once Lucifer lake melts out, typically sometime in May.  Obvious ski routes include: Mountaineer peak - Southwest face if not wind scoured, northwest couloir (First/early descent Brian Story, February 2010) east ridge/face; Garden Wall - west face,central west couloir, east face (beware of glide avalanches); Glacier peak south - South face (steep), West face, Northeast face (steep), Glacier peak north - South face; Sonielem ridge - East face (unskied or rarely skied); Lowary peak - Northeast face (steep - unskied?).  In addition, a low pass provides access into upper Ashley and Post creeks and Kakashe peak.  The iconic Sonielem couloir can be accessed from the Mission falls trail.  The bushwack is reportedly extremely unpleasant.

The West face of Glacier peaks from Lucifer Lake in winter.
The West face of the Garden Wall from Lucifer Lake in winter.

Ashley Lakes:  The road to the Ashley lakes trailhead takes off 1 mile north of the Ashley creek road (confusing).  Cross the canal on a new (summer 2011) bridge.  Bounce your way along the canal for 1/4 mile.  From here, a rough 4x4 road climbs straight up through meadows and timber before switchbacking to a trailhead at about 4,800 feet.  If the road is too steep or rocky, don't be afraid to park and hike, since the trailhead can be reached from the canal in just over an hour with strategic switchback cutting.  When in condition, the 4,400 vertical foot southwest face of Sheepshead peak (9,417) is one of the best ski faces in the Mission range.  It is also a major avalanche path which ends in cliffs, so treat it with respect.  Also, it requires a lot of snow to fill in the tricky exit couloir.  It is most easily approached  via the lower northwest ridge and upper southwest face.  Sheepshead peak also sports two distinct ski lines to Duncan lake on it's south face, and steep terrain on it's northeast face.  The east ridge and face is also a good ski run, and can be used to access the northwest face of McDonald peak.  The very steep north face might be skiiable, but would require a bold skier and some innovation.

From the trailhead, a marginal trail drops southeast into Ashley creek before climbing to Ashley lakes.  When snow covered, the best way to pass the lakes is on the south shore, climbing straight up a gash in the south end of the cliffs that separate the two lakes.  From the upper lake, Upper Ashley creek can be accessed via a congested ramp at the southeast corner of the lake.  Ski terrain of all types is abundant on several unnamed peaks in Upper Ashley creek.  Upper Ashley creek also provides easy access to Kakashe Mountain, Mission Creek, upper Post creek, and the South face of Mc Donald peak.

Post Creek:  Post creek is most commonly used to access the long and beautiful northwest face of Mc Donald peak (covered in the Mc Donald peak section).  The trail takes off at an established trailhead at the southwest corner of Mc Donald reservoir.  The junction with the trail to Mc Donald peak takes off at roughly 2.5 miles, where the trail starts climbing.  The creek crossing can be difficult, but once across the creek, a faint climber's trail climbs just east of the creek to openings around 4,600 feet.  From here, it is fairly straightforward to climb to 5,200 feet.  Above here, a steep series of cliff bands must be passed.  It is easiest to ascend near the main drainage, which is much easier when covered in snow.  In the author's opinion, this is the most challenging and dangerous portion of the route.  The route from the top of the cliffs should be obvious.  Several steep slopes also drop into this basin, including slopes on the southwest shoulder of Sheepshead peak, and a striking west facing gully from the northwest ridge of Mc Donald peak  (Probable first descent Brian Story, April 9, 2013).

The summer trail takes the south fork of Post creek, and it appears that there is interesting terrain on both sides of the drainage up near Summit lake.  The quality of the Post creek trail between the Mc Donald peak cutoff and Summit lake is unknown.


McDonald Peak:  McDonald peak is the highest and most commanding peak in the Mission range.  It is also a skier's peak, with excellent skiing on all aspects.  Access is difficult by any route, but with good conditions, a strong touring party can ski the peak in a reasonable day.  I think the easiest route to the summit is via the South face, approaching from Ashley lakes, and the second easiest is via the Northwest face, approaching from Post creek (see directions in the Ashley Lakes and Post Creek sections).  When in condition, perhaps the finest approach route is to go over the top of Sheepshead and ski it's east ridge and face to the base of the Northwest face, or ski south to Duncan lake and access McDonald peak via the south face.  The peak can also be accessed from the east via Glacier and Heart lakes, but a snowmobile is typically required for the long road to the trailhead.  The south and east faces of Mc Donald peak are both moderate and excellent.  The cliffy north face of Mc Donald peak has been skied directly to McDonald glacier, but is extremely steep, and requires a deep and stable snowpack to be feasible (First descent Brian Story, May 2, 2013).  Alternately, Mc Donald glacier can be accessed from the main summit by skiing the upper Northwest face and hopping over the Northwest ridge.  The glacier is a wild and remote place, and the skiing is all quite moderate and enjoyable.  Although it appears a feasible exit to Post Creek exists, perhaps a more certain strategy is to climb back out and exit via the Northwest face, or circumnavigate the peak and exit via Ashley lakes.

As long as the correct route is followed, I think the most enjoyable and reliable way to get Mc Donald done is to climb Mc Donald peak via upper Ashley creek and the south face of the peak, then ski the Northwest face of the peak, and exit via Post creek.  Do not underestimate routefinding challenges during the exit.  

Finally, please respect the Grizzly bear closure from July 15 to October.  


Eagle Pass:  The Eagle pass trail is well maintained, and provides good access to the West, Southwest, Southeast faces of Mount Calowahcan, and miscellaneous terrain near Eagle Pass.  The West face of mount Calowahcan sports an excellent, difficult ski run from the main summit (Probable first descent Brian Story and Chris Spurgeon, May 2009).  The West face of the south summit of Calowachan also provides an excellent, steep ski challenge.  The basin from below the west face of Calowachan is most easily accessed via a steep north facing gully below the south summit.

Mollman lakes:  There is a high density of interesting, shorter ski terrain including a collection of striking  couloirs surrounding the drainages immediately adjacent to Mollman lakes.  The trailhead is about 1/2 mile north of what is shown on the map.  The trail into Mollman lakes exists and is well maintained.  Several good couloirs drop to Elk Lake.  Several good couloirs drop from the northeast shoulder of Calowahcan.  The east face of Crow mountain has several steep and complex couloirs.  An abundance of interesting ski terriain drops to the summer a mile or so shy of Mollman lakes, including north facing gullies and the large southwest face of peak.

Skiing off the summit of Greywolf Peak with Glacier, Mountaineer and McDonald visible.

Looking South from Mc Donald peak with Glacier, Mountaineer, Greywolf,
East and West St Marys peaks and the Sonielem ridge all visible.

Note:  A tribal conservation permit is required to access the Mission mountain range from the west.  Permits are easily obtained from most sporting goods stores.  Permits expire at the end of February, so it is worth waiting until March to purchase.  I have been checked multiple times at the trailhead.  Conservation permits are only $15, so please respect the tribe and purchase one before heading into the Missions.  Also, a grizzly bear conservation restriction forbids human access of any kind in the McDonald peak area from July 15 to October.  Please respect the restrictions.  

This page is dedicated to Chris Spurgeon, who had a deep and personal attraction to the Missions, and spent countless days exploring the range on skis.  I had many memorable days in the Missions with Chris, including a bushwack from hell to Lucifer Lake, a wild link up of Lowary, East and West St Mary's peaks, the probable first descent of the West face of Calowahcan, and the second descent of the BS gully on Greywolf just 4 days before his premature death.  His wild and uncompromising spirit lives on in the Mission Mountains.
Chris Spurgeon on Calowahcan.

6 comments:

  1. Any recommendations for a first back-country ski in the missions?

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  2. East Saint Mary's peak is a good first place to go since there are a variety of options and you get a good look around at the range. Greywolf South couloir is also a good bet if snow is stable.

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  3. I took Chris S. on his first two Mcd. peak ski trips.
    B.S. first ascents are bs

    ken C

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    1. I hope you had great days on that best of a mountain. To each their own on the merit of first ski descents. I am just trying to get information out and recorded. Brian

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  4. Amazing site and amazing pics!! Thank you for the information, much appreciated!! Not sure if you still check this but I was just curious if you know if the Jocko River Road is plowed from Arlee to the Lower Jocko Lake (or at least comes within roughly 3 miles of it). Trying to reach a mountain (7401 adjacent to 7533) to ski this time of year but unsure of access. I've been told there is a house close to the area that they keep the road plowed for but thought I'd check before driving all the way from the Flathead. Thanks again Brian!

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  5. Just moving into the jocko valley with my wife and 15 year old son that lives for skiing/mountaineering from Missoula. Thanks for sharing access points look forward meeting up in the mission's. No doubt I would have ate a lot more brush with out your info. Thanks bootgrinder

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