I had a fun little climb this past Sunday up White Calf mountain with my friend J. We were moderately fast and had a 7 hour outing car to car… Uncertain of what to expect we brought everything (snowshoes, cross country skis, crampons, rope and ice axes)! Our skinny skis were on and off during the approach and we ditched the skis and snowshoes for good after we had passed underneath Divide. We used skis again on our way back down the radio tower road, through the charred remnants of the St. Mary forest fire... pretty bad conditions overall for skiing (unless you like skiing in snow the consistency of oatmeal and patches of mud/gravel) but it was amusing!
Maybe it’s because this was my first scramble of the year or because I don’t get out as much as I used to, but man, what a blast! That said, I don’t think most peakbaggers would recall Whitecalf as one of their highlights (I think our route via the North facing slopes would generally be classified as a scree slog), but we had a rare bluebird day and ended up doing a snow climb, which was pretty dang cool. Hiking up on firm snow was much easier than the ‘2 steps forward, 1 step back’ that we encountered on the bare patches of scree/talus.
Our approach was via the Radio tower road (so access was via the Blackfeet reserve). We were able to drive about a half mile up the road before it got snowy.
We initially tried to check out the ridge on the east side of the mountain, despite the imposing cliff block that looks insurmountable from afar. We thought if we could gain the ridge above the big cliff block that that we could avoid all the snowy slopes and get in some fun scrambling. After a bit of time scouting about (maybe 45 minutes) we realized it was going to take a bunch of time just to see what lay past the big cliff face… I thought that it would only be a 10 minute detour to be able to hike over to see the other side. Funny how mountain features that you see from far away can be way bigger than you think… or vice versa! Sometimes you never really know until you are right there.) It might be possible to do that route in the summer, but the scrambling was more difficult than I thought and the snowy slopes at the base of cliffs were rather steep and we chose not to try and traverse past the cliffs.
After deciding that we had farted around enough, we set our sights on a route up the backside (that is, the North face of Whitecalf that faces towads Divide mtn). We were able to drop down pretty quickly from the ridge so overall we burnt away maybe an hour.
Despite the lingering snowy conditions, there looked to be a streak of bare rocks/scree that ran up between the snowfields… we aimed for the bare rocky area but ultimately just walked up to the summit on snow. It had been overcast and the sun had not been shining for too long on that side of the mountain, so the snow was still quite firm and suitable for hiking due to the north facing aspect … we were able to fly up and down and were back down at the base by 2 PM. The snow was pretty firm and we were sinking in 4-6" or so with our boots (we were sinking in more on the way down).
From afar, the snowfields looked much steeper than reality but we still had ice axes out; we never roped up, nor did we feel there was much avalanche risk. Granted, we did observe some sloughing on the east face of Divide on the way back but did not see any sloughing or any recent avalanche debris on Whitecalf (it is very wind blasted on that north face so there is not as much snow accumulation but there was still way more snow than we had anticipated). Hazardwise rockfall was probably the biggest concern, followed by postholing through the snow and breaking your leg on the snow covered rubble field at the bottom of the valley between Divide and Whitecalf. Never really felt too worried about sliding because the snow was not that hard and the slope not that steep (we plunged stepped merrily all the way down).
It was very scenic up top and there were still some cornices along the ridge. We stayed away from the cornices… as much as I really enjoy looking straight down (going right up to the edge) once up on top of a ridge or peak, I have learned to resist the urge to take a single step out onto a cornice (a buddy of mine once fell 12 feet through a cornice while ski touring in BC and he convinced me never to walk out onto one if at all possible).
I unfortunately forgot my camera and J.’s battery died after only taking a few shots but more pictures prolly wouldn’t have done the summit views justice anyways. We could see the Sweetgrass Hills and Browning to the east and the prairies melted off into the haze like the ocean. To the west the sea of peaks were plastered with snow like ice cream sundaes. There were also these cool clouds just overhead that looked like they were a series of white circular discs painted onto a blue ceiling.
I currently have the worst tan ever as we were blasted by the sun from the reflection off the snow and I was wearing a helmet, so I have these white patches from the strapping on my face and on the back of my head!