Saint Joseph Peak, 9,587'
Bookended by days and days of cloudy and rainy weather, the day of June 14 came bright and sunny and we were glad to be getting an early start. The objective was a trip to the high Bitterroot ridge between Sweeney and Bass Creeks. With a full day to adventure, we hoped to link the quite accessible "Little Joe"—officially an unnamed summit along the ridge—to Saint Joseph Peak, at 9,587', its the ninth highest in the range. For Missoulians, its also one of the closest and most accessible alpine ridge strolls around. Lacking an obvious, from-the-valley view, the route is lesser-known and rarely travelled. Its also quite steep, gaining 3000 feet of vert in the first three miles.
My climbing partner for the day is Erik Samsoe, a good friend and former Bitterrooter who's childhood home afforded a rare view of the mountain's northeast bowl. This will be his first attempt at summitting St Joe, and he's excited to get into the mountains he's long ogled from the valley. Over the past two decades, I've explored the ridge a number of times, the potent memories of endless wildflower meadows and an exquisite ridge walk between the summits continuing to draw me back.
We arrive at the trailhead and immediately begin the slog up the trail. We find the cabin maintained by the Rocky Mountaineers for winter use en route, and toss back a nip of some cached R&R whiskey with our breakfeast of elk jerky and Cliff bars. Its just the boost we need. Ten minutes of climbing later we hit the snowline and soon we're able to walk on top of it. An hour later we've found a nearly snow-free route and followed it up a large boulder field. We fill our water bottles and soon we're cresting the summit of Little Joe. The hike up may have been non-stop and stiff, but the views from the top of the summit tower overwhelm any sense of fatigue.
We look around, and consider our neighborhood. To the north, the Missions, the Rattlesnakes and the Swans tower above their valleys. To the southeast, the Pintlers, Anacondas and Pioneers are all still snowbound. Turning further south, the Beaverheads are barely visible just past Lost Trail pass. And in the immediate foreground lies the familiar and spectacular Bitterroots— Bass Creek Crags, St. Mary's and the Heavenly Twins dominate, while the enormous massifs of El Capitan and countless others fill the horizon as far as can see, all of them mostly covered in snow. To the west, Tom Beal Park in Idaho is still snowy too, draining into the deep canyon carved by the Lochsa River just to its north.
Immediately to our west lies the sinuous east-west ridge leading to the massive-looking Saint Joseph's Peak. But the killer views aren't just out toward the horizon—they're also up, and down. Overhead, a perfect sundog girdles our star, and beneath my feet I notice some ladybugs. Like, thousands, doing there business in this seemingly unlikely but extraordinary location.
Now able to see nearly to Oregon, we're confident with the weather and decide to go for the true summit. It may be just over two miles and 1,000' feet of up-down away, but the going's a bit tedious. Its also incredibly fun, made further challenging by many feet of old snow, a not-obvious route and, once we get a little further out on the ridge, as much as a foot of new snow that would not support weight. So we postholed on, choosing bare rocks over snow whenever possible, and weaving between ridgetop hoodoos on a very fun choose-your-own-adventure ridge stroll.
Soon we stood at the dramatic east cliff of the true summit. A large avalanche (with a 6" crown) had ripped down the center of the southeast bowl, but we still thought it our best way to the top.
We hopped in, postholed a traverse across the few-days-old slide and climbed out onto the south ridge between cornices.
Before we knew it we summited, fairly beat. Looking down on both Lolo Peak and St. Mary's Peak, the views from Saint Joe are even better than Little Joe. But we didn't waste much time, eating quickly and perusing the summit register hidden in a thermos beneath a summit cairn. According to the entries, we were the first party of 2012, but it was full of many names we knew. Dating back to 2007, there were perhaps 20 sign-ins: a fellow photographer and her boyfriend, a drinking buddy (who claimed a nearly-impossible 2.2 hour approach!), and some prominent Bitterroot mountaineers. At least three entries were written by people claiming to be 60 or older, all proclaiming the excellence of the route, and the remarkable stamina required to get there.
Speaking of stamina, we were now half done with our out-and-back. So we glissaded down the south ridge, jumping off cornices and cartwheeling across the fun and foregiving snow.
Soon we were back on the ridge and scrambling up the backside of Little Joe. Once on top we finished off the last of our food and began run-glissading down the east face until the snow petered out. After another 30 minutes of downhill on-trail pounding, we arrived at the car, beat but stoked.