Skiing the Skyline

A yurt-opian Tobacco Root traverse.

Boasting 43 peaks higher than 10,000 ft., the Tobacco Root Mountains are thick with glaciated bowls, couloirs, cirques, and gullies, not to mention chutes aplenty. One would be hard-pressed to find a local backcountry skier who hasn’t at least dreamed of crossing the spectacular range—the skyline is silhouetted in every Bozeman sunset, after all—and now, almost anyone can. The guides at Montana Alpine Adventures offer the Montana Haute Route (Tobacco Root Traverse). Instead of suffering through with heavy overnight packs and passing up a bunch of fun ski lines, this yurt-opian traverse involves carefully orchestrated drop-offs, pick-ups, portering, a fully supplied yurt with hot meals, cozy beds, and one or two days of ski-touring in the Bell Lake basin and couloir-skiing on Branham Peaks. And with numerous noteworthy descents along the way (and just lightweight daypacks) this is truly a skier’s Haute Route. I completed it in the spring of 2015 with guides Drew Pogge and Tucker Cunningham, along with Erica Cunningham and Ben Ford.

Day 1
Ringed by corniced granite walls and plentiful ski terrain, South Meadow Lake is a worthy destination—or starting point, in our case—near the southern edge of the T-Roots. After crossing the frozen lake, we skinned north with Ramshorn Peak’s east-facing wall looming above aesthetic ice flows and technical avalanche terrain. At the top of the drainage we hastily climbed an east-facing bowl to the northern shoulder of Ramshorn Peak and the crest of the range. The rest of the day-one travel comprised miles of beautiful rolling plateaus, scenic snowfields, and high-altitude turns to the saddle of Branham Peak. 

We traveled adjacent to a cusp of jagged peaks, with never-ending views of seemingly infinite mountains and valleys. Ours was a mixture of walking, skinning, scrambling, and skiing—eventually we clambered up a col on the southern flank of Mount Bradley where we ripped skins and descended 1,000 feet downa steep pitch to Branham Lakes. From there it was a short skin to the western saddle of Branham Peaks and the top of a 2,000-foot final run that ended at the shore of Bell Lake.

Despite variable conditions and tired legs, the sun-drenched descent to Bell Lake was euphoric and well-deserved. At the yurt, we were served hot toddies and appetizers, making for one very happy hour. After a steak dinner and a few card games, we planned our action-packed “layover” day around the yurt and hit the sack.

Day 2
Day two turned out to be a blissful mix of coffee, bacon, couloir skiing, whiskey, storytelling, and Jenga, all the while eagerly anticipating Day Three, the final and most ambitious day of the traverse, as it involves the ascent and descent of four of the highest summits in the range. 

Day 3
We departed the yurt at sunrise and skinned north from Bell Lake toward Long Mountain, the first summit of the day. A few turns down a steep, powdery chute and quick zip across the bowl landed us at the south face of Lonesome Mountain which was still icy from the crisp, clear night. We applied crampons and cruised up the thousand-foot face to the summit of Lonesome, where we begrudgingly passed up perfect corn conditions and dropped onto the steeper, more technical north face. After negotiating a rocky chute, we glided across the drainage to the southeast face of Granite Peak. 

With the sun now in full effect and our bodies starting to fatigue, the climb up Granite was slow and methodical. Firm sastrugi created mesmerizing texture and kept us entertained as we wrapped around to the north. From the summit of Granite, incredible panoramic views provided a unique perspective of southwest Montana and eastern Idaho’s white-capped summits. All in all, we counted 13 mountain ranges. Following lunch, we descended the northeast ridge for a few turns then slipped onto Granite’s north-facing pyramid and wiggled from wind-wave to wind-wave searching for soft turns.

Our route dabbled on the west side of the Little Granite crest for a bit, but trended toward our final objective, Hollowtop Mountain. Aiming to keep a bit of elevation, we set a mean traverse and skirted past the north face of Little Granite to a meadow below the east face of Middle Mountain. With water reserves depleted and no fresh water sources in sight, out came the Jet Boil to melt snow for an essential replenishment before the 1,200-foot skin to the shoulder of Horse Mountain.

Being back on the crest of the range with the end in sight was exhilarating, to say the least. As we walked along Mount Jefferson’s plateau, late afternoon clouds created a morphing mix of shadows and light that accentuated the peaks and surrounding chunks of granite with supreme valley views. At the summit of Hollowtop, we took a moment to celebrate before descending nearly 4,000 feet non-stop.

And, wah-lah! Powder—the best conditions of the journey and a great reward for tired legs. Finally, we skied to Mason Lake then glided down the snow-covered road to our shuttle above Cataract Lake—and finally cold brews at the inimitable Pony Bar. The skyline was ours at last.

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