Conditions Report: Springtime Highs in the Tobacco Roots, MT

Mike Lavery | | Trip ReportTrip Report
tobacco roots spring skiing
Bluebird skies in Brown Bear country. Photo: Mike Lavery

This past week, a group of 8 skiers, including myself, headed to Montana’s Tobacco Root mountains for three days of spring skiing. The Roots lie some 50 miles outside of Bozeman, profiling its western skyline with 43 peaks over 10,000 feet. Having stared at them daily from my kitchen window, this was going to be my first time exploring them on skis.

Early Thursday the group assembled at the end of a long dirt road for the trek into our accommodations, the Bell Lake Yurt. This late into May, the 2.5 miles to the yurt was a mix of mud, snow, and open streams that kept us busy for two hours. We were all expecting to be skinning from the cars, so no one had proper hiking footwear for the first mile. I think that’s the longest I’ve ever walked in ski boots. On the bright side, neither the forecasted 100% chance of rain or any grizzly bears ever materialized. After a quick stop at the yurt, we skinned up into the Bell Lake basin to make a few turns and compile our hit list for the next two days.

A full morning of sunshine had cooked all aspects, so low angle, overripe corn was the only thing on today’s menu. We made a few short runs just to check the area out, and the corn turned out to be quite tasty.

Tobacco root lake
Bell Lake and Long Mountain in the background. Photo: Mike Lavery

Friday morning we awoke to blue skies, and 2-3 inches of heavy new snow.  Our group of three was on the skin track by 0700 and standing 2000 feet higher on the summit of Thompson Peak 90 minutes later.  After a short, creamy descent off the south face of Thompson, we put the skins back on and toured north towards Long Mountain in search of couloirs. The overdue cloud cover and precipitation moved in shortly thereafter, reducing visibility to zero as well as our chances of navigating safely in unfamiliar terrain. We picked our way down a mellow alpine bowl in total whiteout and then headed back to the yurt for an early lunch.

Thompson Peak
Climbing towards Thompson Peak. NW face of Branham in the background. Photo: Mike Lavery

Friday afternoon, the weather died down a bit, so myself and one partner set back out to have a look at the steep northwest face of Branham Peak.  On the ascent, the new snow seemed well bonded, boot penetration was only a few inches, and despite our best efforts, everything seemed intent on sitting still. Looser, isothermal snow started to show up around the rocks closer to the ridge line, so we decided to transition about 200 feet shy of our objective.

Branham peaks slide
Visibility: Low.  Pucker factor: High. Sam cuts one loose. Photo: Mike Lavery

Things can change rapidly in the springtime and this run would turn into quite a reminder. On his first turn, my partner triggered a 3 inch deep, 25ft long section of new snow that ran 700 vertical feet downslope, all the while picking up more snow in its path. The second I moved, the snow below my skis went running in similar fashion. Other than a little surprised, we were both OK, and our problem seemed pretty manageable. We stuck to the bed surface down to the large debris pile, and then found some stable turns into the bowl below. Low gnar it was for the remainder of the day.

Bell lake ski tracks
Our tracks. Avalanche just above and to the lookers left. Photo: Mike Lavery
 Saturday morning brought another 6+ inches of low density, mid-winter powder. What month is it again? Winds were strong, visibility was low, and the new snow was not well bonded. We farmed powder for hours in the lower elevation trees. No complaints to be found here.
Tobacco root powder
The Saturday morning skinner. Photo: Mike Lavery
May powder skiing
Tending to the pow. Photo: Mike Lavery

In the afternoon, we discovered it had snowed all the way down to the trailhead. Other than a few stream crossings, we were able to spend most of the trip out on skis. The weather didn’t play too nice on this trip for spring mountaineering objectives, but skiing powder in May is nothing to complain about. Winter in Montana seems far from over.

Photo Tour

Bell lake skiing
The Bell Lake Basin. Thompson Peak to the right. Photo: Mike Lavery
Tobacco Roots Yurt
The Bell Lake Yurt. Photo: Mike Lavery
Tobacco Roots skiing
Friday morning commute. Photo: Mike Lavery
Tobacco roots skiing
Branham Peak. Photo: Mike Lavery
Branham Avalanche
The debris pile. Photo: Mike Lavery

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