Damien and I were excited to explore Hyalite Canyon beyond ice climbing and venture further into the backcountry. We chose to start our exploration with a backcountry ski ascent of Hyalite Peak. It was listed as a Bozeman area classic with medium traffic. The most famous summit in the canyon to ski is Mount Blackmore. However, the book mentioned that the final ascent of Blackmore was a technical scramble with ice axe and crampons needed. We thought that it was best to start with Hyalite to get a feel for the area first since it didn’t involve gear beyond skis. In the end we discovered that Hyalite was the more technical peak of the two!

Damien and I began our day in the early morning, just before sunrise at the Grotto Falls Trailhead (the end of the road). There is a wonderfully packed down track here used by both climbers and skier’s alike. We continued up the trail through forest making sure to remain on the Hyalite Creek Trail with each junction. The 3-4-mile trail through the forest to the head of the valley seems endless and elevation gain is barely noticeable.

At Shower Falls the track abruptly begins to gain elevation in earnest with steep switchbacks leading up to the tree-line. As the trees parted a large rock buttress came into view. We paused to examine our map. We could not assume that the skin tracks indeed went to Hyalite Peak and felt that it would be wise to double check. As it turned out, the route to Hyalite Peak circled around the left side of the buttress. However, the skin track went right. It a good thing we checked!

Damien and I parted from the well-established track and began to break our own trail. We circled around the buttress to a basin with frozen Hyalite Lake. Here we received our first distant view of an intimidating looking Hyalite Peak. The slopes seemed complex, but we continued to switchback upward generally aiming to the right of the summit until topping out at the lower saddle above Hyalite Lake. Ahead of us was a massive snow field and steep slopes leading to the upper saddle. The upper saddle was guarded by what appeared to be a cornice and we could see sluffing mostly on the left side. We decided to traverse on the right slope upward to avoid the possible avalanche danger and, hopefully, find a way to navigate the cornice.

The saddle appears much further away than it is which was a wonderful surprise. Damien and I traversed the slope which was icy in places but for the most part easy to skin. Near the saddle we encountered windblown talus and removed our skis. To avoid the cornice, we climbed up the talus to the ridge-line about 50 feet above the low point of the saddle where the cornice ended. Here were kicked steep steps up to the ridge and then descended to the wind-blown saddle at about 10,000 feet.

Damien and I left our skis at the saddle and climbed the remaining 300 feet on foot. The broad ridge was strewn with exposed rocks. The final ascent of 300 feet took about 20 minutes. I never experienced attitude issues below 13,000 feet before, but for some reason on Hyalite Peak the thin air made everything take 3x as much energy.

The summit was windy, large and marked by a large carin. Views of the snow caped Gallatin Range abounded in all directions and it occurred to me that this was my first Montana summit. I could not have asked for a more perfect winter ski ascent! The climb was more difficult and rugged than we anticipated, but the rewards are always worth it. Of course, we still had one more obstacle to overcome.

Damien and I returned to our skis (which took 5 minutes) and prepared for the ski descent. I am always amazed at how much better skins stick in powder. In the Northwest the skins are barely hanging on for dear life and nearly fall off as you remove them. In the Rockies you need to actually rip the skins off the boards!

Damien and I broke through a shallow part of the cornice and side hilled down the left side of the slope just below our skin track. The snow had a crust on it making turns awkward. As we reentered the basin near the lower saddle Damien suddenly plunged into the snow. Damien never falls, and I stopped immediately.

Damien’s gear malfunctioned. The pin that holds his boot in ski mode had popped out! Suddenly in walk mode he lost control of the ski and went down. Damien wears La Sportiva Spitfires. They are light weight boots and comfortable, but we’ve noticed that they are on the delicate side and can’t take a beating in the mountains. Some of the straps were already coming apart and one sole is tattered. However, none of this mattered. The most important issue here was that the boot is already not stiff. Skiing down in walk mode was not going to happen without some adjustments.

In frustration, Damien removed his ski and to get a better look at his boot. Naturally the ski eagerly began an independent journey down the slope. Our breaks don’t always automatically engage since the board is so wide. I charged after it. Luckily, it torpedoed into the snow about 300 yards down. Damien now faced the task of descending to the runaway ski. It was quite the sight! He skateboarded down on a signal ski, plunging into the snow every few feet. However, he fell impressively few times all things considered.

Damien resolved his boot issue by tightening every buckle on his boot and adding a ski strap to provide additional support. The fix worked, and I couldn’t see a difference in Damien’s ski performance. He informed me, however, that he was only weighting his good boot and the other foot was being used for balance only. Impressive!

We generally followed our skin trail back to the parking lot with fun tree skiing and a fast ride in the valley on the heavily traveled skin track. It wasn’t the most amazing ski descent, but it was an excellent mountaineering adventure…. and an excuse for Damien to replace his boots with a more robust model: Scarpa Mastrale RS.

Elevation gain:3449 ft

12 miles RT

 

 

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