Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness Climb: Little Rainbow Mountain

After leaving the Sawtooth Wilderness in Idaho, my next stop was the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness in Montana.  Not unlike the Sawtooths, the Anaconda Range promised to have plenty of snow.  Making a hike in the Anaconda Range more difficult was the likelihood of long approaches for most areas.  Although I looked into several areas to hike in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, most prospects seemed like very long endeavors for a day hike that would be further complicated by a lingering snowpack.  As I made my way toward Anaconda, Montana; I didn't really have a set plan yet.

Montana stateline

The Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness is not exactly on too many people's radar.  The bulk of the wilderness is to the west of the city of Anaconda, Montana in the forgotten Anaconda Range.  I read that it is one of the least visited wilderness areas in the lower 48.  I guess its obscurity is good for those that visit the area.

The Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness sits along the Continental Divide and is traversed by the Continental Divide Trail.  Although the highest elevations are less than 11,000 feet, the mountains are still quite rugged with low treelines this far north.

View of the Anaconda Range 

Anaconda Range between Anaconda
and Georgetown Lake

Closeup of the Anaconda Range

Montana has no shortage of A-List destinations.  Glacier National Park may be on the top of this list.  Yellowstone's northern border reaches into Montana with the park being very accessible from Montana.  There is an impressive string of ranges south of Bozeman and not too far from Billings including the Beartooth, Abasaroka, Gallatin, Madison, and other smaller ranges.  Close to Glacier National Park is a great wilderness complex including the Bob Marshall, Great Bear, and Scapegoat Wildernesses.  With these areas not too far away, it's easy for the Anaconda-Pinler Wilderness to be forgotten.

Despite its relative obscurity, the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness was a must-visit spot for me.  Before Puma and I moved to Colorado, we were split between Colorado and Montana.  Even after we moved to Colorado, we only planned on spending 5-10 years in Colorado.  Montana is at the top of the list for our next home when we make our next move in a few years.  Somehow I stumbled upon the small city of Anaconda as a prospect.

Anaconda is a forgotten town near Butte.  After mine closures in the 80s, the town lost its economy.  Anaconda is large enough to have most amenities, and close enough to the larger Butte for most everything else.  We would be able to buy a house outright in the area and have no mortgage, allowing us to focus on recreation more than working to pay a mortgage.  Anaconda is within a reasonable distance of many top notch outdoor centers including the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness in its backyard.  This is part of the reason I wanted visit the area..

My initial thoughts were to climb 10,607' Mt Haggin.  Mt Haggin is accessed right from Anaconda and stands as the third highest summit in the Anaconda Range.  On my drive into to Anaconda however, the skies were grey with occasional flurries near the Continental Divide.  The visibility wasn't the best.  I headed north to Georgetown Lake, not too far from Anaconda, just to check out the area.

Mt Haggin visible near Anaconda

After checking out the lake, I decided to head up a Forest Service Road toward Storm Lake.  A road leads about 9 miles to the lake, which sits below the Continental Divide at 8200'.  My progress was halted however as I hit snow in less than 4 miles, around 7000', that was impassible in my car.  I decided to park, load up my pack with snowshoes and hike to the lake.

I hiked in and out of patches of snow for about 20 minutes before needing my snowshoes full time.  Because I was traveling on a covered road, I made pretty good time.  There appeared to be old snowmobile tread under the snow that kept the road rather firm.  A few other old ski and foot tracks were visible along the road.  Although I was generally in forest, there was an occasional view to the nearby mountains.  Most of the time there was at least a flurry falling and an occasional quick snow shower even though it didn't feel too cold.

View hiking along the road

Tuft of fur along the trail.  There weren't any tracks nearby
but it looked similar to moose

As I came closer to the lake, most of the past tracks disappeared except for an old ski track.  I made quick time covering the 5+ miles and was at the lake faster than I expected.  The lake was completely frozen and covered by snow.  The location is quite pretty as the lake is surrounded by alpine summits.  The Continental Divide travels over some of the peaks that are visible beyond the lake.  The visibility was somewhat obscured with snow showers and thicker clouds moving over the summits.

Little Rainbow Mountain over Storm Lake

Since I made it to the lake faster than I anticipated, I decided to continue.  There were several options to extend my hike.  I had this area on my list of potential outings and researched the hiking potential.  Options ranged from an easy loop around the lake, bagging one of the visible peaks, or heading to Goat Flat- a high alpine plateau surrounded by a sea of mountains along the Continental Divide.

From the lake, there was a fairly prominent peak that stood out and looked accessible, Littlte Rainbow Mountain.  I followed the lake shore and made my way toward the peak of interest.  Since no trails were visible, I generally stuck to the edge of the lake, at times crossing short sections of the actual lake for the path of least resistance.  On the opposite side of the lake I found more ski tracks that appeared to be following the trail in the direction I was heading.

The trail, covered in a deep snow pack, was quite pleasant as it meandered through a mix of trees and meadows.  As I got closer to my target, I began to get good views of it.  A few short steep climbs through the trees brought me to a snowy meadow below the mass of the mountain.

An open stream with Little Rainbow Mountain in the distance

Traveling along the trail with old ski tracks

Little Rainbow Mountain


I had two peaks that were accessible from the meadow.  I didn't have elevations with me to know which was higher but the two prospects were Mt Tiny or Little Rainbow Mountain.  Little Rainbow Mountain looked higher so I decided to climb it.  The climb to the summit ridge however was my biggest hurdle.  Without snow, there is a trail that climbs between the two peaks to Storm Lake Pass.  My other option, which was steeper but more direct was to climb a steep snow slope.

Mt Tiny-much steeper than it looks

Slopes of Little Rainbow Mountain- much steeper than it looks

Not thinking I was going to try for a summit when I began this hike, I left my ice ax and crampons in the car.  They both would have been useful to climb the snowy pitch.  I decided to go for it anyway.  My snowshoes have aggressive teeth on the crampons and the fall zone wasn't too dangerous.  I could always head toward the pass if I felt uncomfortable.  I made pretty good time and didn't have any real issues making my way up the steep pitch.

The saddle is Storm Lake Pass

Slopes of Little Rainbow Mountain which are steeper
than the photo shows

An old avalanche path- it's easier to see if you click
on the picture

Making my way up the steep snow which
is much steeper than the photo shows

Once on the ridge, I took off my snowshoes since it was fairly wind scoured.  The ridge straddles the Continental Divide and I followed the Divide to the summit.  At this point I still couldn't confirm I was climbing the higher peak.  I soon reached a false summit and knew I was on the higher mountain.  I made good time traveling the ridge and soon reached the summit. At times the route traveled a fairly tight line just above the drop off to the east.

The ridge is quite bare at spots

Obscured visibility with falling snow

Snow covered Storm Lake

Working my way up the ridge

Travel is easy following the snow

Staying just to the right of the cornice

Nearing the summit

I was in a steady light snow at the summit so the views were somewhat obscured.  I was able to the see some of the surrounding mountains despite the snow.  I could see Georgetown Lake a few miles north pretty clearly.  Occasionally I had a short break where more distant mountains came into view briefly.

The snow  was more intense when I reached the summit,
obscuring the visibility

Looking north over UN 9611' with Georgetown Lake in the corner

Storm Lake and Georgetown Lake beyond

Looking toward Mt Tiny

Kurt Peak with Queener Mtn in the distance

Mt Howe and Mt Evans

The top of Mt Tiny

Low clouds looking toward Georgetown Lake

Another look southwest toward Kurt
Peak and Queener Mountain

Goat Flat is the plateau left of Mt Tiny

I returned down the ridge back toward Storm Lake Pass.  I contemplated climbing Mt Tiny.  As I got closer, I realized it would be at least a class 3 climb, maybe with a possible class 4 move.  I didn't want to get into it since I didn't have my crampons or ice ax.

Heading back down toward Mt Tiny

Descending the ridge

Difficult to see, but looking back at my tracks

Continuing down the ridge 

Nearing Storm Lake Pass

I descended at the pass, rather than directly down the steep slope, since the pitch was a little more manageable in snowshoes.  Traveling downhill I made good time.  I returned to Storm Lake before rejoining the snow covered road back to my car.  I don't have the exact distance of this outing but it was somewhere between 12 and 14 miles, much of it traveling over easier terrain while snowshoeing the snow covered road.  The elevation gain was around 3000 feet.

View near Storm Lake Pass

Discovery Ski Area with possibly the Flint Creek
Range in the distance

Descending Storm Lake Pass

UN 9611' on the descent

Small stream above Storm Lake

Approaching the lake which is visible beyond the trees

One last look at Little Rainbow Mountain from Storm Lake

Little Rainbow Mountain stands at 9989'.  Despite it's less than intimidating name, Little Rainbow Mountain is the 8th highest peak in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness.  It's also nearly 350 feet higher than Rainbow Mountain which stands a couple miles to the west.  By Colorado standards 9989' would be a walk in the woods.  However, in Montana's northern latitude the alpine zone starts significantly lower.  Because this is an obscure peak in an obscure wilderness area and I was traveling in the early season, I didn't see another person.

After my hike in the Sawtooth Wilderness falling short of my goals, it was really nice that this outing exceeded my goals.  Just like the Sawtooths, I plan on revisiting the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness again, preferably in summer conditions.  This area may be my backyard if Puma and I eventually move to this area.

I spent the night in the Anaconda area and spent the morning exploring the area by car.  The weather was nicer the following morning and I drove around Georgetown Lake.  This proved to be a good drive.  The scenery is quite impressive with snowy, alpine mountains reflecting in the lake.  I also managed to see a pair of moose in the water.  At another spot I saw about 10 bald eagles roosting in a tree.  The area definitely had a nice feel to it.

Several bald eagles in a tree by Georgetown Lake-a bunch took
off before I took the photo.
Click the photo for larger view

Bald eagle closeup

Bald eagle in flight

Immature bald eagle

Peaks of the Anaconda Range over Georgetown Lake

Wider view of the Anaconda Range

Reflecting mountains of the Anaconda Range

Another angle looking over Georgetown Lake
into the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness

Taken right from the shore of the lake

A pair of moose in Georgetown Lake

Bald eagle perching

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