Bitterroot range ski routes


Bass Creek
Bass Creek is the best drainage for winter time skiing in the Bitterroot range.  The drainage gains elevation much faster than most other drainages, reducing the need for robust low elevation snow, and allowing skiers a quick egress.  In addition, the drive from Missoula is short, and the road to the trailhead never snows in.

Little St. Joe
Little St. Joe is a well established and popular ski destination.  The peak gets more than its share of wind, and the ski out is poor, but it is still a worthy ski destination in itself, and is a great jumping off point for bigger tours.  Although the road is driveable for a mile past the Bass trailhead, the driving does not save time, and the recommended start is from the main Bass Creek parking area.  Head straight up the east face, cutting switchbacks to the summer trailhead.  The route roughly follows the broad southeast ridge, and there is usually a skin track.  From the summer trailhead, follow the summer trail up the southeast ridge to the summit.  From the summit, two large bowls on the east face provide many ski options.  The skiing is generally safe, but beware of a prominent midslope rollover into the South bowl, which is avalanche prone.

There is a backcountry ski cabin on the east face of Little St. Joe, roughly below the southern of the east face bowls at 6,800 feet.  It is maintained by the Rocky Mountain Mountaineers of Missoula.  It is primitive but well maintained, and is first-come-first serve.  It is also hard to find unless the skin track goes to it.

If you have the time, check out open glades on the north face or better yet, traverse the rocky ridgeline west, and ski the long peak to creek avalanche path north into Sweeney Creek.  There are two main gully systems which drop South to Bass creek.  The eastern gully ends in slabby cliffs, and is not skiiable without a lot of rope work.  The President gully (informal name) provides an adventurous, 3,400 foot descent into Bass creek.  A deep snowpack is required to fill in rock slabs midway down the gully.
South aspect of Little St. Joe.  The President Gully is the obvious gully in the center of the photo (early descent Brian Story, Kyle Scharfe, Jeffrey Friess, Jeff Schmalenberg 2/20/2017).  
This classic Pinball Wizard gullyis one of the most accessible and finest peak to creek descents in the range.  The lower portion of the gully is incised and tricky with a thin snowpack, but when in condition, provides a wild and enjoyable half pipe exit to the creek.  Although skiing in the gut of the gully is remarkably safe, a large starting zone hangs above the gully, and snow over smooth rock slabs above the gully itself both occasionally avalanche in a major fashion, so treat it with respect.  The gully can be accessed either from the Little Lt. Joe/St. Joseph peak ridgeline (scrappy but efficient), from the parallel gully system to the east, or climbed directly from Bass creek.  Although the tour over the top is probably the fastest, each approach has its advantages.
An in condition Pinball Wizard gully from the Bass creek trail.

The drainage which drops into Bass creek just west of Little St. Joe has moderate skiing in the headwaters and can be accessed from Bass creek (scrappy approach), or over the top from Little St. Joe.  No one ever skis there, but the skiing is surprisingly good, and one has the option to exit via the Pinball Wizard gully if stability allows.

St. Joseph peak
St Joseph peak, or Big St. Joe, is another excellent, relatively popular ski destination.  The northeast face has several steep ski lines which drop 1,200 vertical feet to a bench.  The southeast bowl provides the safest and most popular ski line.  Caution is advised on the headwall, and in the incised creek exit.  There are also several south facing tree lanes just west of the Pinball Wizard gully which provide good ski runs if you are already in the area.  The south face of St. Joseph has many good ski lines, ranging from short but excellent tree lanes below the southeast ridge to long exposed avalanche chutes on the south face proper.  The big south face chutes are major avalanche performers, so treat them with respect. The north face proper is often wind scoured, but when in condition, provides an excellent, long ski line into the head of Sweeney creek.  The recommended approach is to climb leave the trail at the stream crossing a few hundred yards past the Pinball Wizard gully exit.  Climb the incised drainage as far as you can, eventually passing steep terrain on the East.  As soon as the terrain mellows out, work your way up and west, eventually emerging in the southeast bowl.  Climb the bowl and Southeast ridge to the summit.  The Southeast ridge can also be climbed directly.  The skinning is steep and tricky for the bottom thousand vertical feet, but once on the ridge, the climbing is easy all the way to the summit.

Big St. Joseph peak receives more wind than most peaks in the Bitterroot, and the summit plateau is often snow free.

Crown point/Bass creek crags
Crown point is the craggy summit immediately east of Bass creek crags.  It is prominently visible from the valley.  Crown point sports a premier ski line down the northeast ridge which drops from the exact summit.  The run provides a great adventure when it is in condition, but make sure the lower elevation ice step and boulder fields are passable before giving it a go.  To approach Crown point, head straight south from the trailhead, crossing the creek and two irrigation diversion ditches.  Continue south, then the east face and broad northeast ridge all the way up to the summit.  The final 200 vertical feet of skinning is slow, with several gendarmes and cliffs to negotiate.

The cirque below the north face of Bass creek crags has several excellent ski lines.  The best approach is to leave the trail shortly after the small perennial stream crossing when the old trail is on the south side of the creek.  Continue up through heavy brush until the drainage opens up, then climb easily into the upper basin.  Once in the basin, there are several long open chutes extending up toward the Bass creek crags and Crown point.

There is a narrow north facing cirque sandwiched between the Bass creek crag and Lappi lake cirques.  It provides a moderate quality ski run, and can be skied with relatively high avalanche danger. Climb up from the bottom, starting up at or just before the Pinball Wizard avalanche runout zone.

Lappi to Bass Lake
The Lappi lake area has a variety of good skiing, and can be skied during periods of relatively high avalanche danger.  Lappi lake can be approached via the summer trail, but a more direct approach bushwacks up through unplesant dense trees before ascending open west facig slopes on the east edge of the drainage below the lake.  There are several options from the lake.  A short but high quality west facing couloir drops to the lake.  Rolling northeast facing terrain capped by a fun, moderate bowl also sits above the lake.  The most high quality ski terrain lies just outside the Lappi lake cirque, however.  From the summit west of the lake, an excellent, moderate southeast facing bowl drops all the way into Kootenai creek, and the upper 1,500 vertical feet provide good skiing.  The adjacent north facing cirque to the west of Lappi lake has a cleaner run all the way to Bass creek, and is the recommended exit for tours into the Lappi lake area.  This cirque has several short and steep chutelets on it's western margin.

There is a prominent rock spire west of the two Lappi cirques which has a dramatic north facing gully which the author informally calls the Flathead couloir.  It is possible to descend from the very top, but a 20m rappel is required (early descent Brian Story, later winter 2015).  A descent from below the slab is recommended.  Early (first?) descent Blake Votilla, Ben Brunsvold winter 2015.

Smokey Joe (elev 8,593 ft) is the next peak west of the Lappi cirques.  Its western slopes drop to Bass lake, and have several appealing ski lines.  Smokey Joe's northeast face is a massive avalanche path, and is criscrossed with cliffs and ice bulges.  It is a great ski run, but is also a major avalanche performer, and must be treated with respect.  The northeast shoulder of Smokey Joe has an excellent, steep northeast rollover ski run as well as more moderate, high quality terrain on the southeast side.  The cirque to the east has a lot of short, steep terrain.


Stormy Joe (elev. 9,008 ft) dominates the skyline west of Saint Joseph peak.  Stormy Joe's south face has several striking couloir systems.  The Southwest shoulder has several chutes with short rocklined sections, which are all good.  The central portion of the South face is a complicated series of rock slabs and discontinuous gullies, but there are two primary gully system which go cleanly. The western gully system is non technical.  The Center gully (informal name) is a complex route that has a rock slab crux at the bottom, and a long pitch of ice (WI 2) midway up and a bit hanging snowfield at the top (First? descent Brian Story, February 26 2016).  It is not great skiing, but does provide an engaging technical challenge. The most obvious and only classic ski line is Party in the Couloir, a striking, clean couloir on the Southeast  face which terminates 800 vertical feet below the summit.  There is a very complex couloir system east of Party in a couloir which involves a tricky sneak exit and sporty waterfall ice negotiation at the bottom (First? descent Brian Story, January 2008).
Stormy Joe (left).  The big V shaped snowfield (west gully) and barely-there-center gully are visible. 
Entrance to the Central gully on Stormy Joe.
Bring ice tools and have an adventure.
The Bowl Bounce tour is one of the finest long tours in the Bitterroot range.  Endless variations are possible, but the basic tour is: up Bass Creek to Bass Lake.  Up to North Bass peak.  Down east to the head of Kootenai creek (elev. 6,800 ft).  Up to the Kootenai/Bass saddle, then up to point 8,285 (var. ski west couloir back down and re-climb to point 8,285).  Down northeast slopes to unnamed lake in head of Kootenai creek (elev. 7,200 ft). From there, either end by going up to Smokey Joe, down by any of several routes to Bass Creek OR do another double bounce behind the west Lappi bowl, and exit Lappi.  Someone some day will bounce their way all the way to Crown point, and I hope they invite me along!

Bass Lake
It takes at least 3 hours to approach Bass Lake, but the terrain is magnificent, and the snow is usually deep.  The ski terrain around Bass lake is dominated by north Bass peak, which provides excellent, moderate open glade skiing back to the lake, or to the east into the head of Kootenai creek.  The western flanks of Smokly Joe and the southern flanks of Storm Joe all drop to the lake, and have a variety of terrain (described above).

Intrepid skiers can climb west from Bass lake and access terrain in the head of the South Fork of Lolo Creek.  The Beyond Bass couloirs are two runs which drop west off the Northwest side of Point 8551.  These are two of the most striking rock lined couloirs in the Bitterroot.  Both couloirs have a choke mid-way down which requires a difficult downclimb or rappell from trees (south fork), or an ice bulge rappell from a v-thread (north fork).  Early descents Brian Story, January 2009.

Kootenai Creek
Kootenai Point
From the Kootenail Parking Lot, cross Kootenai Creek and find your way onto the east ridge above the creek (the best legal way is at the Diving Board Wall about 200 yards up canyon).  Take the broad east face and ridge to the Kootenai Point Bowl, which is on the extreme north shoulder of St. Mary's Peak.  During the approach, a high bump on the east ridge is best passed on the south via an old logging road.  The Gold couloir is probably the best ski line.  It is moderate and quite aesthetic.  The Manger couloir is basically a less user friendly variation to the Gold Couloir, and required a single rope rappel or some difficult downclimbing.  The Frankinsence couloir is also a less asthetic but still worthy alternative to the Gold couloir.  The Myrrh Couloir requires at least one 30m rappel from a large dead tree, and ice climbing up to WI3 for those who choose to climb the route.  Exiting to the creek from the base of the Gold couloir looks to be unplesant, so the best strategy is to exit via the Exit Bowl.  The Exit Bowl provides a clean run all the way to the creek.  It is a major avalanche path, so treat it with respect.   Good low elevation snow coverage is helpful in making the Exit Bowl and Kootenai Creek trail enjoyable.

Colin Chisolm made a probable first descent of the Gold Couloir and Exit Bowl during mid February 2009.  Nick Vandenbos and I made the likely first ascent and ski descent of the Myrrh couloir on March 25, 2009, and I made a likely first descent of the Frankincense couloir on the same day.  I made likely first descents of the Shepherd and Manger couloirs solo on March 11, 2012.  All run names are informal.


Kootenai creek is a tough drainage for skiing.  The trail is long and undulating, and aside from Kootenai point, most of the good skiable lines are way up the drainage.  However, there is quite a bit of terrain in the upper drainage.  Access to the head of Kootenai is also available via a long snowmobile ride from near Lolo Pass.  In the upper drainage, the terrain above all of the Kootenai lake provide a variety of skiiable terrain, from stee bowls and chutes to more moderate and safe tree protected skiing.  Also, several nice looking tree lined avalanche paths drop south to Kootenai creek from points along the Kootenai/Bass ridgeline.  Finally, the Heavenly Twins are a remote Bitterroot classic, but they are described in the Big Creek section.

Gash Point Area
Gash Point is probably the most popular ski destination in the Bitterroot.  And for good reason, considering the abundance of high elevation terrain, safe skiing, a relatively short approach, and winter-long road access to 5,000 feet.  The most common access point is from the lower Gash Creek trailhead.  The upper trailhead is deceptively hard to reach, and it is best to stop at the lower trailhead under almost all circumstances.  In addition to the more accessible terrain, Gash provides a high elevation route to upper Bear and Sweathouse, and Big Creeks.  Get an early start and let your imagination run wild.

Driving Directions:
To reach the Gash trailhead, turn north off Highway 89 in Victor at the traffic light or on Fifth street.  Head west about 1.5 miles until you hit a T-intersection with Pleasant View Road.  Take a left and follow this road through several 90 degree bends.  Be sure to stay right at the Y-intersection with Red Eagle drive.  The road will eventually turn to dirt.  Climb up past residences, eventually topping out at the intersection with the Bear creek Overlook road.  Snow plowing often ends here. Park or continue northwest into Gash creek and proceed to the trailhead. Beward of deep snow in the two draws on the way to the trailhead. There are two trailheads, but the author strongly recommends using the lower trailhead since it does not take much more time to ski to the upper trailhead than it takes to drive, and the ski out to the lower trailhead is much faster than the drive down from the upper trailhead.

Approach:
From the lower trailhead, follow the skin track or summer trail to the upper trailhead (45 minutes), and continue into upper Gash Creek.  T'he approach to the South and North bowl crosses the creek and heads up a broad ridge all they way to the base of the bowls.  The approach to Gash point proper and beyond heads up the prominent broad ridge between Gash and Sweathouse creeks.

South and North bowl
Both the South and North bowls provide long, safe ski runs with consistently good snow.  The South bowl is one of the most popular ski destinations in the Bitterroot.  Aside from steep roll overs along the rim of the South bowl and at the bottom of the North bowl, the entire area can be skied safely even during periods of high avalanche danger.  The South bowl can also be approached from the Bear Creek Overlook road and trail.  This high route is longer, but provides a more aesthetic and high elevation alternative to the standard approach.

The slope between the North bowl and Gash point proper is littered with short ski runs.  Similar to the North bowl, beware of avalanches on the rollover at the base of these slopes.

Gash Point proper
The 2,800 vertical foot North face of Gash point skis well, but be wary of cliffs and steep rollovers. The safest route is on the skier's right edge of the face, especially at the top.  The entire face will occasionally avalanche in a major way, so be aware.  From the base of the face, skiers can continue into endless touring terrain in the headwaters of Sweathouse creek

Bear lake basin
One could spend several dawn-to-dusk days skiing high quality lines in the Bear lake basin.  Since the access is via Gash point, the Bear Lake tours usually come into condition fairly early in the year, often well before the canyons have enough snow to allow reasonable access.  The lake can be reached via a 2,000 descending traverse from Gash point proper.  From the summit of Gash, descend about 200 vertical feet straight south to the top of a rock outcrop.  From there, make a descending traverse to the west, cutting just below the two more prominent rock outcrops.  Continue the descending traverse to the lake.  Bear Lake can also be accessed via the North fork of Bear Creek, but the trail is long (2 hours minimum) and undulating.  From the lake, the most classic and popular objective by far is the striking, semi-hanging North face of Sky Pilot.  The North face is most commonly climbed directly.  The East face of Sky Pilot may be the most difficult ski descent to date in the Bitterroot.  It has been skied by at least three parties (First descent by Colin Chisolm, February 2009).  Point 8839 has several big avalanche chutes on its south face and a series of attractive rock lined couloirs on the west edge of the south face, all of which are highly recommended.  To return to Gash point, eat your Wheaties, then re-trace your tracks up and east for 2,000 vertical feet to the summit of Gash Point proper.  With good conditions, the ski out to the trailhead from Gash point can be done in less than 30 minutes.  
The North face of Sky Pilot takes the obvious looker's right ramp.
Looking back at the south face of 8830 from the summit of Sky Pilot.
Sweathouse spires behind
Sweathouse creek
Sweathouse creek is most easily accessed from the North face of Gash point proper.  Alternatively, the creek can be accessed from the Northwest face of Gash Point proper (tricky), or potentially from south facing avalanche paths above Glen lake.  There are a lot of options for skiing in the drainage, including the intimidating (unskied?) northeast face of Point 8839, rolling slopes below the majestic Sweathouse spires, and the iconic and eminantly skiable south face of Hidden Peak (Point 8618).  Hidden Peak from Gash is an excellent tour, similar in length and quality to the North face of Sky Pilot.  The Mystery chutes drop off the North face of the Northwest ridge of Gash point proper, and are fairly complex but high quality (see "Gash and the Mystery chutes in Sweathouse Creek" blog post, March 2013, for more details).  To return to the the Gash trailhead, climb the lower 1,500 vertical feet North face of Gash point proper, exit to the left, and follow the standard egress back to the car.  On a map, Sweathouse creek can be accessed from the bottom of the drainage, but unconfirmed rumors indicate the bushwack is stout.  

Sheafman Creek
Sheafman Creek sits at 6,500 feet and as a result, holds a lot more snow than adjacent drainages. Unfortunately, the gate on the Sheafman road is closed at the valley in the winter, necessitating a 5-mile approach to the trailhead. By cutting switchbacks, this can be done in less than an hour each way. The burned east face between Mill and Sheafman creeks is informally called Nipple knob. Although much of the approach is often dry, there is good skiing on both the east and north face, and one can link up an interesting tour in a moderate day.

The trail into Sheafman creek wraps north from the summer trailhead before eventually crossing the creek and climbing to a trio of small lakes at the head of the drainage. The south side of the creek is short and does not have many interesting ski lines, but the north side of the creek has several intriguing peak to creek ski runs from East and West Sheafman points. The iconic Castle Crag dominates the head of the basin. The North couloir of Castle Crag into Fred Burr and South face into Mill Creek are worthy ski objectives. The view from the top of Castle Crag is one of the best in the range.
Lookind down canyon at West and East Sheafman points.
Blodgett Creek
In the summer, everyone loves Blodgett, but in the winter, use drops off to a trickle of hikers, ice climbers, and rock climbers seeking out a little patch of warm winter granite. Skiing requires robust low elevation snow and the approaches are long, but there are a lot of big and interesting things to do. Although it does snow in on big years, the trailhead is typically accessible all winter.


Mill Point

Mill Point provides relatively accessible safe tree skiing. The area gets a less snow and more wind than adjacent areas, but there is enough terrain that it is worth checking out. It is uncommon to be able to ski out to the car, and a deep low elevation snowpack is recommended. Mill Point is accessible from either Blodgett Creek or Mill Creek.  The Mill Creek reportedly has more bushwacking, and care should be taken not to get stuck on ridgelines too far north at the bottom of the climb. From Blodgett Creek, make your way around the east edge of the Parking Lot Wall crags and wrap up and around to the lower east face. From here, ascent clearcuts for an hour or so, then continue all the way to the summit on or near the broad Southeast ridge.

The most common run is to ski moderate burned glades to Tag Alder Lake. If avalanche danger is high, note that the slope is more moderate the farther north you go. From Tag Alder lake, either run a few more laps, or extend the run east toward the Bitterroot Valley, or north toward Mill Creek. There are also steeper glades off the North side of Mill Point that appear to be worth skiing. There are several south facing gullies that drop almost 4,000 vertical feet to Blodgett Creek. The gullies are almost never snow covered to the creek, even on the biggest snow years, but it can be worth skiing the upper portions, or or skiing as far as possible before embarking on talus hopping adventure.

North side Peak to Creek runs
With enough snow, the Blodgett creek trail is good for skiing. A pair of kicker skins can help speed things up on the exit, especially above Blodgett Falls where the trail is flat.

Blodgett is lined with good peak to creek ski runs. Most of the big gully systems have multiple branches and variations, and one can make a full day just skiing multiple forks in each of the gully systems. A deep low elevation snowpack is required to get off the trail, but there are a lot of options once everything fills in.  The first main gully system is down the South Side of Mill 2. The access is just past the bridge, on the west side of Flathead Buttress. The lower fan is choked with alder, but one can usually sneak by at the base of rock slabs on the west edge. The entire gully system is steep and exposed to avalanches, but it is a great run. The large South face of Mill 3 is hard to locate from the trail, but the avalanche path is open and fairly moderate, and the run all the way down to Blodgett is one of the longest ones in the canyon. The next small avalanche path west has an incised drainage at the bottom before opening up and forking at the top. The upper 1,000 vertical feet is fairly steep and exposed. The Blue Ice bowl is prominently visible from the lower Canyon. The entrance is tricky, and much of the snow sits on precarious rock slabs. Although good skiing can be found, care should be taken to avoid glide avalanches, esepecially if it is warm. 

In the Mill 2 south gully with Swan slabs behind.
Above Blodgett falls the snow is deeper and there are at least four excellent peak to creek ski runs from Sears point and the points west of Sears. There is a north couloir which drops from Sears point to Sears lake which is highly recommended.
South facing peak to creek runs in upper Blodgett.
On the South side of the creek, Swans slabs is recommended when there is enough snow. Above there, many options exist. 

Northwest side of Cesar's Palace.
Canyon Creek
With an arduous approach and limited skiing, Canyon Creek isn't my favorite drainage, but there is qute a bit of good skiing up the headwaters, including access to the classic South Face of Canyon peak. 

Driving Directions and Access: The Canyon Creek road takes off from the Blodgett road, about 2 miles before the trailhead. The Canyon Creek road is hit or miss for driving in winter. The road is plowed for about a mile past the Blodgett turnoff. From there, one can normally drive to at least the first switchback. Take note that the trailhead is shaded, and can it can be difficult to turn around. If in doubt, consider parking at one of the large turnouts on the road where it turns west about a quarter mile before the trailhead. The snow is often bare or thinner there than at the trailhead proper. The trail undulates for the entirety of its torturous duration. With deep snowfall, it is possible to stay down near the drainage bottom for the last few miles leading up to the falls and avoid some undulations. Plan three hours minimum to get to Canyon Lake.

Skiing: During average to high snow years, Downing peak proper can be accessed via a boulder field just past the Wilderness Boundary. There are a variety of moderate quality runs on the peak proper. There is also a striking south facing couloir directly across canyon from Downing proper which only fills in during big snow years. If you are going further up canyon, chances are you are headed all they way to Canyon and Wyatt lakes.  From Canyon lake, the ski runs in the basin are numerous and obvious. There is good skiing in the two cirques south and east of the lake and on North Canyon peak and several unnamed high points north of Canyon peak. There are a couple more good south facing gullies which drop toward Sawtooth creek from the ridge above Wyatt and Canyon lakes.  Logical link ups in the Canyon Creek drainage include bowl bouncing from Canyon peak back east to Downing Mountain and skiing north into Blodgett Canyon from Romney ridge.

Canyon Peak: The South face of Canyon peak is a Bitterroot classic.  It drops directly from near the summit all the way down to Sawtooth Creek. It is also a major avalanche performer so be aware. Although the South face is in the Sawtooth Creek drainage, the recommended access is up Canyon Creek. From Wyatt lake, climb southwest on a bench to the Canyon/Sawtooth divide. The access col is obvious since there is only one major break in the cliffs. From the col, rip skins and traverse onto the South face. Climb as high as you dare, ski as far as you like, and reverse the route to exit. The Northeast face of Canyon peak fills in almost every year. It is a short but steep and spectacular testpiece. The crux is waiting for thin snow over rock slabs at the choke to fill in and consolidate. To the author's knowledge, neither ski run has been skied from the summit. Northeast face early/first descent: John Lehrman April 26, 2008 (early descent of the South face the same day).
The South face of Canyon peak from near the base of the ski run.
North Fork Lost Horse Creek
Driving Directions and Access: During light to average snow years, vehicles can be driven to the South Fork of Lost Horse Creek trailhead, which is about 1 mile shy of the North Fork drainage.  The recommended driving tactic is to stop driving where most of the snowmobile trailers have been turning around, which varies depending on snow level.  Turnarounds are limited past the South Fork trailhead, so proceed with caution.  The North Fork trail is faint at best, but it roughly takes the slope break above the incised drainage on the east side of the creek.  Access is quick by Bitterroot standards, but plan at least 1.5 hours for the approach, and 45 minutes for egress to and from the South Fork trailhead.

Skiing: Once in the basin, peak to creek avalanche paths drop south from the Camas and Roaring Lion divide, and provide a variety of excellent long runs.  The south facing peak to creek runs can be logically combined with tours in the Camas Creek drainage.  The south side of the canyon has many shorter options, including a bunch of pillow drop ski lines for those so inclined.

The South face of the North Fork of Lost Horse Creek photo #1.  
South face of the North Fork of Lost Horse Creek photo #2.
The BRIBE gully is the major avalanche path just looker's right of center.   
South face of the North Fork of Lost Horse Creek photo #3.  Camas peak is the highest peak.
Lost Horse Creek
I have not skied in the main fork of Lost Horse Creek, however this is the only drainage in the Bitterroot Mountains where snowmobiles are allowed.  As a result, access is excellent... if you have a snowmobile.

South Fork Lost Horse Creek
See North Fork Lost Horse creek for driving directions. The South fork takes a lot of snow for enjoyable access.  Also take note, there is no bridge across the main fork of Lost Horse creek so plan on wet feet unless the creek is iced over.  The primary objective in the lower drainage is the North couloir on Koch peak. There are two couloirs, and the West branch is the most moderate.  There is also a nice big peak to creek gully about a mile back down the drainage which provides good egress.  It should also be possible to approach from the road between Como lakes and Lost Horse creek, up the ridge between the drainages.
Old route photo showing the North couloirs on Koch peak.
Boot top powder in the North couloir on Koch peak.
The more difficult east fork on Koch peak.
There is a lot more terrain farther up the South fork.  There are several south facing gullies, and many options on East Whites and Whites peaks.
South facing options in the South Fork of Lost Horse creek during a big snow year.
Avalanche paths higher up in the South fork of Lost Horse creek.
Little Rock Creek
The main objectives up Little Rock Creek are the Como peaks and El Capitan.  The trailhead is several miles past Lake Como.  It is not unusual to have to park either at the reservoir outlet, or only a few miles up the road.  The lower portion of the trail usualy has a lot of skis on/off sections, but it gets better about a third of the way up the drianage.  The approach from Little Rock creek lake to the upper lakes is quite easy with snow. The approaches off the trail to the Como peaks are all tricky and not really recommended.  In the headwaters of the drainage, there are several nice gullies just south of El Capitan, which are worth a look.  The East face of El Capitan is perhaps the finest steep skiing challenge in the range.  It is full value, so wait for good conditions and come prepared for a full value adventure.  First descent - Brian Story, April 12, 2008.
The East face of El Capitan in excellent condition after the first descent.


Tin Cup Creek
Tin Cup has a few big objectives, the Tin Cup chutes, and the south faces of the three Como peaks.  Both are highly recommended.  The Tin Cup chutes are massive avalanche performers, but they are also perhaps the longest, cleanest north facing runs in the range.  Treat them with respect, but give 'er a go if you get a chance.  The South faces of all the Como peaks are great Bitterroot lines.  There is a bench about halfway up the peaks, and access and skiing below the bench is challenging at best.  The Middle and East peaks both have nice long runs to the bench.  Driving is a bit tricky.  It is typical to be able to drive to near the summer trailhead the bottom of Tin Cup creek, although the road is always in terrible shape.  There is also a trailhead on the south side of the creek which I have not used, but it might be a better option.
The Tin Cup chutes.
South faces of Middle and East Como peaks.
Chaffin Creek
The most popular objective in Chaffin Creek is probably the excellent North Couloir of Sugarloaf peak.  The route and approach are fairly self explanatory.  Once can ski from the exact summit, or stash skis where the snow gets thin above the couloir and walk up to the North summit for a great view of Trapper and the surrounding peaks.  Early descent, Brian Story and John Leherman April 20, 2008.
Sugarloaf peak.  The North couloir cleaves the cliffs at the top of the obvious open couloir.
Early/first descent of the North couloir of Sugarloaf peak.
John and I skied from the exact summit.
There are a bunch of other worthy objectives in the drainage.  The East face of Little Tin cup drainage and the East face of Little Tin Cup peak 9,617 should be accessible from farther up the Chaffin road, and are worth an investigation.  There are a handfull of long south facing peak to creek avalanche paths which drop from near the Little Tin Cup peak summit.  They are complex lines, so do some scouting and choose wisely.  The Shard is skiiable from the exact summit.  The run is steep and exposed but doable with good coverage and good steep skiing skill and judgement.  First descent Brian Story, May 15, 2011. The head of the drainage has a lot of good moderate skiing.  The long approach would be doable for fit parties.
Complex south facing lines off Little Tin Cup peak.
Route photo for the Shard.  This route is not really recommended, but it goes.
On a typical winter, one can drive most of the way to the summer trailhead.  It is typical for snow to pick up a lot in the last half mile or so.  Consider parking a bit short of the trailhead and saving yourself getting stuck if driving seems sketchy approaching the trailhead.

Trapper Peak
Trapper Peak has a lot of good skiing.  It is typically skied in the spring, when the road starts to melt out, however the mid-winter approach from the highway is doable, and the peak can be skied all winter.  In the spring, the recommended approach is to drive as far as you can toward the Baker lake, then approach to the lake on the summer trail.  From Baker lake, head south and gain the ridge above the lake via a short, steep chute (this is the normal summer climber's route).  From there, it is smooth sailing all the way up the broad east ridge to the peak.  Return via Gem lakes.  There are several gullies on the North side of the peak which are clearly visible from the highway, including the main North gully off the exact summit.  One can climb back out, or you can ski down the drainage another thousand vertical feet or so, and climb a steep couloir back to the ridge above Gem lake.  In addition to the North coloirs, there are a few ramps and one steep couloir above Gem lake.  The Gem lake couloir almost always has a massive cornice, so treat it with respect, and plan on getting a bit creative if you ski it from the top.  The southeast face and couloir of North Trapper peak is skiiable earlier in the year, and is a great mountaineering challenge.

In addition ot the popular alpine terrain, there is also a good collection of gladed and tree-lined chutes off the ridge south of Baker lake, including the Oh My God chute.

There are a bunch of high peaks and intriguing couloirs along the ridge crest West of Trapper.  It would not be unreasonable for a fast party to access several of these lines in winter from Boulder or Trapper creeks, or in spring from the normal Trapper approach.

Boulder Creek
Park on the West Fork Highway or just up the road which is signed for the Sam Billings Memorial Campground.  To approach Boulder Point lookout, East Boulder Peak and Boulder Peak head up the road for a quarter mile or so and gain the east face.  Continue west past School Point to the Boulder Point lookout, East Boulder Peak, or Boulder Peak.  All these lines can be accessed from the canyon floor as well.  The Boulder Creek trail is fair and tends to hold snow.

Boulder Point Lookout
Several steep gullies drop north from the Lookout to the creek.  They require a deep snowpack.  They are also bisected by cliffs, so plan accordingly.
Gully from Bolder lookout.  Note the cliff mid-height.

East Boulder Peak
Couloirs and Bowls drop north from East Boulder Peak to Boulder Creek.  The Blue Ice bowl is the most moderate.  The Goddess and Mary couloirs are both big, complex and very good.  Most of the lines are major avalanche paths, so beware.  There are a few other lines worthy of exploration.



The Mary couloir cleaves the dark cliffs just left of the center of the photo.
The Goddess is the couloir in the middle of the picture.
The left gully has a major ice flow and is heavily guarded by cornices.

Boulder Peak
Boulder Peak is most easily accessed via the east ridge and southeast face.  The south face to Nelson Lake and southeast face provide moderate and long runs.  The northeast face can be skied from the summit, but be prepared for very steep skiing, cornice danger, and a possible rappel.  The lower northeast face can be reliably skied from about 400 vertical feet below the summit by climbing up from the creek.  There is a very steep and narrow couloir on the northwest face of the peak which merits further exploration.  Summitpost.org has a good description of the route to Boulder Peak.
The northeast face of Boulder Peak.
From right to left, Boulder Peak, Mary Couloir Cirque, Goddess Couloir.
Blue ice bowl around the left skyline.

South faces
Several aesthetic south facing gullies exist.  On an average snow year, the good looking gullies with reliable snow start between Crow and Slide Creeks.  Moderate climbs up Crow and Slide creeks provide access to Trapper and East Trapper peaks.
South facing terrain..  Crow Creek and Slide Creek are visible.
Trapper and East Trapper Peaks are visible on the sky line.

Other notable options
Just up canyon from the northeast face of Boulder Peak.
Hoodoo Pass
Heart Lake
The drive up Trout Creek is always an adventure.  The road is always plowed to the Gull Property just prior to Tin Cup Creek.  Snowmobile trailers often park here in mid winter, but be advised that the land owner charges a small fee to park on his property.  In early season, or in low snow years, it is common for snowmobile trailers to  drive farther up the drainage.  A common strategy is to proceed up the drainage until reaching the point where it seems like most of the snowmobile trailers have turned around, then skin from there.  It is common for skiers to use snowmobiles to access Hoodoo Pass and even the Heart Lake trailhead.  Snowmobiles are not allowed on the Heart Lake trail, or on the Stateline trail which heads south from Hoodoo Pass. 

The skin to Heart Lake is about 3 miles.  From the lake, one can continue up to Pearl Lake and out to Dalton Lake or even Trio Lakes.  Excellent north and east facing terrain exists above Heart Lake itself.  There is also a series of small cirques all along the ridgeline back to Hoodoo Pass which all offer good ski options.

North facing chutes above Dalton Lake.  The bowl to looker's right is also good.

A pair of ski lines worthy of a return trip with more snow.

North facing terrain at the inlet of Heart Lake.  Note the short but fun couloir on the upper left.

Here is a very rough list of suggested routes.  Stars indicate especially high quality tours.

Classic Peaks/long tours in Bitterroot (north to south)
Lolo Peak (spring)
* St. Joseph Peak, South, Southeast or NE faces from Bass Creek
* Bowl Bounce tour, Bass Creek
Anything in Bass Creek
St. Mary's (easy access - spring)
Heavenly Twins (Southwest - long approach, East - steep)
* North face Sky Pilot from Gash point/Bear Lake
East Face Canyon Peak (requires a lot of snow)
Mill 2 East and west faces from Mill Creek
Koch Peak, North gullies
* El Capitan, East face or Southeast gullies (difficult, requires a lot of snow)
* Sugarloaf Peak, north gully
Tin cup chutes
* Trapper peak, north gullies (spring)
North Trapper, southeast face/couloir
Boulder Peak, northeast face (difficult, requires a log of snow)

Bitterroot Peak to Creek classics (north to south)
* Pinball Wizard gully (can combine with Little St. Joe north to Sweeney creek or Big St. Joe)
 Bass Creek Crags/Crown Point
* Kootenai Point Exit Bowl (Kootenai trail is bad)
South Face of Castle Crag (Mill trail is bad)
Many options in Blodgett creek (Swan slabs north facing, Mill 2, 3, blue ice bowl, Sears Lake couloir and south facing avalanche path)
Canyon Peak south (Sawtooth trail is bad)
Many south facing options in N. Fk Lost Horse
* Tin Cup Chutes
* Goddess or Mary couloir in Boulder Creek accessed via Boulder Point

Safe/high avalanche danger places:
* Gash Point
* Camas Creek - many ways to link up an interesting tour
* Downing Mountain Lodge (need reservation)
Little St. Joe
Lappi Lake (Bass Creek)
Jenny Bowl above snowbowl, accessed legally around ski area boundary
*Snowbowl sidecountry (lots of steep terrain - not always safe)

Swans 
Yurt area
Fisher Peak, West face
* Ptarmigan point, Lick Lake couloir
Many big west facing avy paths off the Clearwater Lake loop road
* Holland Peak

Superior 
Heart Lake area near Hoodoo pass (early season or with a snowmobile)
Illinois Peak, North face (Late season - skiable into July)
*Cliff Lake area up Dry Creek (early season or early June when the road opens up)
Sheep Mountains and Mt Baldy (needs a lot of snow)
St. Regis Basin (Lookout Pass area)
*Stevens Peak/Stevens Lake basin (Lookout Pass area)

Rough indication of trail quality for skiing in the Bitterroot, from good to bad

Good
Bass Creek
Camas Creek
Chaffin Creek
Blodgett Creek
NF Lost Horse Creek (needs a lot of snow)

OK
Tin Cup Creek
Boulder Creek
Roaring Lion Creek
Trapper Creek
Big Creek
Bear Creek
Fred Burr Creek (bad road access)
Sheafman Creek (bad road access)
SF Lost Horse Creek
Mill Creek

Bad
Little Rock Creek
Canyon Creek
Sawtooth Creek
Kootenai Creek

4 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Yes. The Canyon Creek approach is terrible! The only thing it has going for it is a moderately higher elevation than adjacent dranages.

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  2. Have you ever toured up the Fred Burr drainage?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes. The approach is long and the trail above the lake is pretty rough, but there are several good South facing peak to creek runs starting about half a mile past the lake and a North facing gully system just east of the drainage below Castle crag. All reports of accessing Castle crag from Fred Burr have not been positive (I think Sheafman is better).

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