Flathead range partial traverse

The Flathead range seems pretty under-appreciated in the western Montana mountain scene. You just never hear people talking about it. It’s like the nearby Swan range, Missions, and the Bob Marshall wilderness the Flatheads sit within dominate everyone’s imaginations. I think part of the reason too is that the meat of the Flathead range is not really visible from any major highways, and even the views you do get from the dirt road on the east side of the Hungry Horse reservoir only hint at what the range has to offer.

When Mike Foote and Mike Wolfe did their 600-mile Crown of the Continent traverse from Missoula to Banff several years ago, they called the section of the Flathead range they traveled through some of the most scenic, remote-feeling country of their trip. If those kinds of guys have that high praise, that’s good enough for me! I’d also met Dakota Jones earlier this year when I got involved as a volunteer mentor with his Footprints running / environmental activism camp (check it out!), and he’d mentioned he wanted to try some kind of traverse across the Flathead. In late July he texted that he was planning on traversing the range in a single push. Meanwhile my friend Sam Linnet and I were planning on fastpacking it over two days at a saner pace. For some reason Dakota decided two days of sarcasm and heavier packs sounded more fun than blazing through the traverse in a badass single push.

Starting at the Lower Twin Creek TH on the east side of Hungry Horse reservoir, the traverse stretches for roughly 60 miles and 31k feet of ascent as it winds its way north to the Ousel peak trailhead. Except for a few miles of trail at the beginning and about six miles from Ousel peak down to the finish, the route is all off trail. Maps show a couple trails that rise up to the crest along the way, but at least in the section we covered these seem to be relics more than reality. Even the trail on the map going up to the summit of Crossover, the first named peak of the route, peters out far short of where the map indicates.

Working your way south to north also gives the added benefit of looking at Glacier National Park on the horizon the whole time. With these epic, jagged peaks lining the skyline in front of you, you get to feel like a hero marching to glory. Even if the reality is far from that, it’s nice to at least feel that way every once in a while. Going this direction, the Flathead range itself also becomes progressively more rugged and (in my mind at least) more interesting. You feel like the further you go, the more you’re rewarded.

Beta-wise, the ridgeline goes at class 2 and 3 for everything we covered. There is some decent bushwhacking (stinging nettle!) going up to Crossover once the trail disappears, and there is some heinous bushwhacking through the bowl to the northwest of Red Sky mountain. Like, you’re just swimming through the alders kind of bushwhacking, not even close to touching the ground. It’s a relatively short section, but be warned.

We didn’t get even close to our goal of traversing the range in two days; Sam started feeling under the weather in the afternoon of the first day. He could still move decently, but just not fast enough for us to stay on the pace we’d need. Oh well, shit happens. We all decided to just spend the night somewhere up high and then bail to the west down to the dirt road that runs along the east side of the reservoir. From there we’d hitchhike back to Dakota’s truck at the Ousel trailhead.

So this trip wasn’t about how far we could go or how many peaks we could climb, but much more about just spending a couple days with good people in a place that inspires. Sam and Dakota are the kind of folks that can seamlessly transition from heavy sarcasm to thoughtful deep conversation while hiking all day — all great things in my book. This was the first trip I’d ever taken with Dakota, and it was really fun to get to know him better. We spent a lot of time talking about the shared environmental interests among us three (Sam is an attorney and got his degree in environmental law); there’s no better place to solve the world’s problems than while hiking along a remote panoramic ridgeline in the Bob Marshall wilderness.

I’d love to come back and give this route another try. By every account I can find, we didn’t even get to the really scenic sections of soaring, exposed bedrock around the Great Northern / Grant / Liebig area. As it was, we found a camp spot at the base of a snowfield on the north side of Felix mountain. We’d covered 22 miles or so and 14k vertical — a solid day, but several miles short of where we wanted to be if we were going to have a shot at finishing out the second half of the route on day two. We’d also been getting the distinct feeling that the reality of the route was expanding relative to what our pre-trip mapping had suggested. As good as mapping software like Caltopo is, sometimes these mountain adventures have a way of including a significant amount of extra miles and vertical gain than you anticipate.

We watched a fantastic sunset from our sleeping bags, told a few more jokes, and drifted off to sleep. I’d recently bought one of those fancy ultralight elephant’s foot sleeping bags from Patagonia made for mountaineers. They’re a half bag, with regular insulation on the bottom half but just a windshell on the upper half. The idea is that mountaineers are already packing a huge down parka for belays and whatnot, so the parka pulls double duty as the upper part of the sleeping bag at night. I, unlike seasoned mountaineers, made the mistake of bringing far too light of a down jacket. I froze my ass off! Good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from many mistakes…

In the morning we bailed off the west ridge of Felix, bushwhacking our way down to a series of old logging roads that we walked back to the main road. Dakota, if you ever read this, just remember that you never got the elevator riddle, and Sam and I will never let you forget it.

As we walked the road a nice couple stopped, but they only had room for one. Dakota hopped in, with the idea that he’d bring his truck back to pick Sam and I up. About half an hour after he left though another vehicle stopped and gave us a ride back to Hungry Horse. We hung out in the shade until Dakota came through, then all piled in for the drive back to our friend’s house in Columbia Falls where we licked our wounds with beer and even more sarcasm. I can think of worse ways to spend a couple days!

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