Friday, July 5, 2013

Hilgard Peak, Lee Metcalf Wilderness

Amy McCarthy peers into Hilgard Basin

“The sense of adventure which one gets in the wilderness reaches its perfection in the romance of mountaineering.” – Bob Marshall

Hilgard Peak is the patriarch of Montana’s majestic Madison Range. Its craggy 11,316 ft summit stands sentry over the 141,000-acre Hilgard-Taylor Unit of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.  Reaching its summit is a delightful wilderness adventure through a Rocky Mountain paradise.

HMG UltaMid provides the ideal shelter for our high camp in Hilgard Basin

Within 5 linear miles from the Madison River this jagged glacier horn rises over 6,500 ft . With no easy way to the top, the highest point in the Madison Range was not climbed until 1948 when Dave Wessel braved its steep east ridge during a one-day solo ski mountaineering adventure. Personally, daunted by its technical summit, I bypassed it in 2011 during a solo high ski traverse of the Taylor-Hilgard.

Amy carefully finds her way up the Summit Ridge 

While bold ascents of Hilgard's more technical west and north sides have been pioneered by legendary mountaineer and wilderness advocate Rick Reese, the summit of Hilgard Peak is most easily obtained following Wessel’s 4th-class route up Hilgard's east ridge.

Descending into Hilgard Basin

The easiest approach follows the 5-mile trail up the West Fork of Beaver Creek to Avalanche Lake. Cross-country route finding over the ridge to Hilgard Basin and Lake Eglise is then required. The north side of the ridge is often covered with steep snow and an ice axe is highly recommended.

Approaching the East Ridge

Hilgard's east ridge can then be obtained from a 10,520 ft shelf that offers great camping on alpine tundra next to a glacial tarn.

Ascending the East Ridge of Hilgard Peak 

With good route-finding the east ridge is only Class 4. Initially the steeper rock can be avoided by traversing left into a loose gully. Likewise, the exposed summit ridge can be avoided by traversing along a ledge system on the east side. In Select Peaks of the Greater Yellowstone,Thomas Turiano provides a detailed and accurate route description.

Amy McCarthy, Hilgard Peak

"Experienced mountaineers will not need a rope for this climb, but novices would be in danger without."  - Thomas Turiano

Fryxell and Amy, Hilgard Basin

Fryxell, our faithful canine companion, accompanied us as far as our high camp in Hilgard Basin, which he guarded against marauding grizzly bears while we made the final 1.5-hour roundtrip to the summit.

— route 
Satellite View of the Avalanche Lake Approach to the East Ridge

Climbing Hilgard's east ridge from Beaver Creek involves 6 miles of hiking along a maintained pack trail to Avalanche Lake followed by 2.5 miles of cross-country travel. The 4,300 ft ascent involves steep snow, scree and and exposed rock scrambling. We completed the climb in two relatively easy days. 

— route 
Topographic Map of Hilgard Peak and the West Fork of Beaver Creek

The trailhead for the West Fork of Beaver Creek can be accessed along a graded Forest Service road that leaves Highway 287 near Earthquake Lake.

Wilderness Boundary, Beaver Creek

Established in 1983, the Wilderness is named after Montana Senator and conservationist — Lee Metcalf. After his death in 1978 the senator's ashes were scattered across his beloved mountains.

Amy and Fryxell enjoy the sight, sound and taste of the West Fork of Beaver Creek

As late as the 1970s, the Madison Range included 600,000 contiguous roadless acres that many hoped would become Wilderness. Unfortunately, the logging and snowmobile lobby objected and today's 259,000-acre Lee Metcalf Wilderness is divided into four separate units: Bear Trap Canyon, Spanish Peaks, Monument Mountain, and its centerpiece – the 141,000-acre Hilgard-Taylor Unit.

Hilgard Basin, Lee Metcalf Wilderness

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