Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Pintler Loop, Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness

July 20-21, 2014
Map (link)

Johnson Lake

Day 1, July 20
Falls Creek TH to Upper Oreamnos Lake

I had a few days off this weekend, so I decided to head out to the Pintlers.  It's fairly close to home, and my one prior experience in this area proved to be a major highlight of my backpacking career.  I chose a fairly short, trailed loop straight out of the Hiking Montana book for my first solo trip of the season.  I was really looking forward to a few days of solitude and tent living after the long winter this year.

I got kind of a late start out of Missoula (surprise surprise) and didn't make it to the Falls Creek trailhead until sometime after 11:00.  A couple years ago on July 4th, I started at this same trailhead and proceeded to climb Warren Peak before setting up camp near Johnson Lake.  I spent the first day alone, but some time after dark, 3 good friends and their two dogs managed to find me at my campsite.  Over the next four days, we proceeded to complete a gorgeous loop that took us all the way around this phenomenal mountain.  It was a fantastic trip that I will remember forever.

Warren Peak and his unnamed neighbor from Maloney Basin (July 2012)

Today, I was starting from the same place with plans to circle around the Pintler Peaks, climbing West Pintler along the way.  It was just before noon when I finally started out along the familiar trail towards Johnson Lake.  For awhile, I was content to speed along, making up for my slow morning.  Little by little though, I began to notice a serious beargrass presence in the open areas along the trail.  A nice surprise for sure and I soon found myself smiling and strolling along at my wandering pace.  The farther I traveled, the more abundant the flowers became.  By the time I hit Johnson Lake, they had completely taken over.  I've never seen anything like it.  I had to drop the pack and dance around among them.
Beargrass for days at Johnson Lake

After a quick snack, I had to be on my way again.  I circled around to the head of the lake, waved quietly at the cow moose bathing in the shallow water, and turned south toward Pintler Pass.  The trail was reasonable, climbing through timber for bit before working up above the meadows of the upper basin to the grassy saddle.  Warren Peak, my old friend, finally made himself visible to me here on this gentle pass, so I took a few minutes to hang out and enjoy his company.

Falls on Pintler Pass trail

Pintler Pass

After a half hour or so, it was time to continue on again.  As I descended the south slopes, the beargrass began to appear again in force.  I soon realized that I'd be dancing among these guys for the duration of the weekend.  I couldn't be happier.  Honestly, I didn't really find the trail through here to be all that interesting otherwise.  Had it been later in the season,  I would have likely just pushed hard to my destination.  As it was, I found myself spinning in circles, laughing at the surroundings.  Every five or ten steps, I'd stop to take another photo in a vain effort to capture the dominating effect of their presence on my environment.  Sadly, I never came close to succeeding.

I followed this puffy white path for a short time before finding myself at Oreamnos Lake.  It was a nice enough spot, but it just didn't feel like home.  It was still fairly early, so I decided to aim for the unnamed lake in the high basin above it.

West Pintler Peak above Oreamnos Lake

A nice climbers trail led up into the high basin to the base of West Pintler.  Here, once in the open, it was easy to wander on over to my destination lake.  It wasn't long after dropping the pack that I found a very suitable campsite.  It was nice to be home.

Home at Upper Oreamnos Lake

After dropping my gear and having a seat, I decided to pull out my newest piece of equipment, a SPOT transceiver.  Unfortunately, when I went to send out the "I'm OK" message, I realized that I'd forgotten to put the batteries in it.  Oops.  This was actually a concern because although I made sure to tell my mom not to worry if it didn't go through, I was planning to stay out another night as well, and had a feeling that she'd be concerned if she never heard form me at all.  The technology thing is kind of funny that way.  Before the SPOT, I just got the schedule out and gave everyone a panic day if they didn't hear from me.  Now, even with that same schedule and panic day, one day without the SPOT message will immediately make the intended recipients uneasy, even if they know better.

At any rate, I decided that I had to do what I could to get ahold of my mom.  While I wasn't overly optimistic about my chances, I figured that the best bet would be to climb up to a high point in hopes of finding cell service.  I couldn't help but laugh as I negotiated a path through snow and talus on my way to the top of the unnamed peak to my north.  I've gone after plenty of summits in the past, but this was the first time I've ever done so for the sole purpose of making quick phone call.  When I reached the top, I was surprised to find that I did have service.  She was happy to hear from me, and as I talked to her, I began to look around to see just how appealing my surroundings were.  Views to Warren and West Goat Peaks kept most of my attention, but the looks down into the different basins were nice as well.  In the end, I named this "Moms Peak" (not just for mine, but for all moms out there) and spent a fair amount of time just enjoying my environment.

View east from Moms Peak

Eventually though, my stomach told me it was time to make my way down.  By the time I got back to camp, the temperature had dropped enough that the hordes of mosquitoes I'd been dealing with all day had all gone down for the night.  I enjoyed a relaxing dinner near the lake as daylight began to fade and found myself in the tent shortly thereafter.  Not bad at all.

View from the kitchen

Day 2, July 21
Upper Oreamnos Lake to Falls Creek Trailhead

The cold, clear night eventually gave way to a bit of a cloudy, dreary morning.  West Pintler Peak, my first objective for the day, just kind of hung out beneath the cloudy skies, completely uninterested in my presence.  I was happy to give her plenty of attention as I packed up, but received none back in return.  Oh well.  I suppose I'd get to know her better soon enough.  When it was time to go, I aimed for the southeast ridge, which I was able to gain with little difficulty.  Before I knew it, I was dropping my pack and preparing for a quick jaunt to the summit.

Moms Peak (left) and Oreamnos Basin

The skies weren't exactly friendly, but I didn't see any sign of real storms on the way, so off I went.  The going remained reasonable and before long, I found myself at the highest point.  Once again, I was treated to some gorgeous looks at my immediate surroundings, but sadly, the clouds washed out most of the extensive views that I'd been hoping to enjoy.  I still appreciated getting to check out Warren and West Goat Peaks again and even though I knew that rain was likely headed my way, I couldn't help but relax for a little while up here.  This was a fine vantage and I had it all to myself. 

View East from West Pintler

No one ever wants to leave these places, but after about 45 minutes at the top, I knew I had to be on my way.  I made it back to my gear easily enough and loaded back up, eager to make for Sawed Cabin Lake.  Getting there required a short, steep descent down some loose talus.  Certainly not my favorite terrain, but by paying attention and stepping carefully, it proved to be little more than a nuisance.  After a quick water break at the lake, I found myself back on pleasant ground again and it was an enjoyable walk up to Elk Park and the reintroduction to my trail.

West Pintler Peak looks over Elk Park.  Southeast ridge comes off of the summit to the right.

Oddly, from here on out, I don't really have a whole lot to say.  The trail was nice and easy as it led me through burnt forest flush with wildflowers and new growth.  In fact, it was the flora, dead and alive, that stole the show.  The mountains and lakes helped to create a nice backdrop, but by no means were they the center of attention here.  I simply walked at a comfortable pace, happily lost in my immediate environment.

Life and death in the Pintlers

When I reached Kelly Lake, I called an audible.  I'd originally planned to stay here tonight, but it was still early and I just didn't feel like stopping yet.  I decided to continue on.  If I had the energy and wanted to stay out another night, I could make for Phyllis Lakes.  Otherwise, I was only a few hours from the trailhead.  By the time I reached Little Johnson Lake, energy was beginning to fade and a Rye IPA at the Phillipsburg Brewery was beginning to sound fantastic.  My decision was made.  I kicked it up a gear and followed the Middle Fork of Rock Creek down toward my car, reaching it just after 7:00.  40 minutes later, I was at the brewery enjoying my reward, already reflecting on another fine experience getting to know some beautiful country.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I am writing in order to obtain permission to use one of your Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness images (with proper credit given of course) in a local-regional publication on Montana’s natural history. We specialize in small print runs of locale specific history titles and would love your image to accompany the chapter on island ranges and the Continental Divide.

    I appreciate your consideration.

    Artie Crisp
    Commissioning Editor l The History Press
    ph: +1 843.577.5971 x239 and fax: +1 843.577.6712 I

  3. Fantastic pictures and story. Thanks!