Skiing Sphinx Mountain in the Madison Range of SW Montana
Trailhead: Bear Creek Trailhead – 6240′
Distance: 12 miles round trip
Time: 6 – 8 hours
Total Vertical: 5000′
Sphinx Mountain Elevation: 10876′
USGS Maps: Sphinx Mountain, Lake Cameron
Ever since I moved to Montana, I have wanted to ski the Sphinx. I hiked the Sphinx last year and that made me want to ski it even more. The Sphinx is highly visible from around the region. The isolated conglomerate fortress sits at 10,876′ in the middle of the Madison Range. It’s a popular ski descent and I’m stoked to have checked this one off.
Located in the 141,000 acres of the Taylor Hilgard Unit of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, which is in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest of southwest Montana, Sphinx Mountain towers over the surrounding wilderness and beckons to be skied. It’s even featured in Ben Werner’s Backcountry Skiing Bozeman and Big Sky guide. On a low avalanche day in March, Jeremy Wood and I set off from Big Sky to ski the Sphinx.
Twenty four hours after returning from Switzerland, my jet-lagged clock was set for an early start. At 430am, it was snowing and hovering around 0 degrees F in Big Sky. We got in the car and started the long trek north around the Madison Range. The drive takes 2.25 hours to get to the Bear Creek trailhead near Cameron, MT – a long drive to climb a mountain that is only 10 miles as the crow flies from home.
Once we hit the dirt road, a huge herd of elk ran in front of the car in the early morning light. This was the first, but not the last wildlife encounter of the day.
Mountains are best enjoyed in the morning so at 715, the sun illuminated the valley and we set off down the trail. With the unseasonably warm weather, we were both armed with bear spray, bells, and loud noises. It’s funny that bear spray is a regular part of my backcountry ski kit.
We hooted and hollered down the trail toward our destination. After about 20 minutes we noticed some massive canine prints in the fresh dusting of snow on the skin track. Next we saw a big steamy pile of excrement. It must be fresh because it was frigid out there. Within a few more steps, the number of tracks increased, as did the steamy piles.
Our noisemaking had startled a pack of wolves and they were not far ahead of us. Overactive imaginations noticed a few distance movements, but who ever sees a wolf? As we broke out of the box canyon and into a large meadow, the entire pack of wolves started howling in unison. From less than a football field away, a pack of 8 to 10 wolves was aggressively letting us know we were on their turf. We didn’t have to test it, but does bear spray work on a pack of wolves? Got to love wild Montana.
After the howling subsided, we decided to continue toward the cloud-shrouded Sphinx. We quickly crossed the meadows and started uphill on a south facing slope. The only place where there was any consistent snow was on the thinly covered summer trail. As we gained the ridge toward the Helmet saddle, we ventured off the summer trail. This resulted in a small route finding faux pas that added a bit of time and a bit of extra vertical.
We quickly recouped from this and were back on track and heading toward the Sphinx. After a short break near tree line, the cloudy hat of the Sphinx burned off and we headed toward the west facing gully. At this point we were in the gunbarrel. Large slopes of snow hung over our heads and large cliffs loomed below our skis. Time to move.
The snow was packed and firm. We skinned straight up the gut, until this proved to be to challenging. Then we transitioned to bootpacking. Eventually the slope mellowed and we went back to skinning.
Eventually we reached the summit of the Sphinx at 10876′. The wind was howling and the temps were freezing. I was glad for my Patagonia Triolet Jacket to keep the wind out. The views of Big Sky Resort, the Spanish Peaks, the Cedar complex, the Taylor Hilgards, Yellowstone, the Tetons, the Madison Valley, the distinct Absarokas, and other mountain ranges were breathtaking.
We snapped a few photos, scouted a few lines, respected the massive cornices dangling over several thousand feet of conglomerate cliff faces, and got ready to ski.
As we ripped skins and clipped on helmets, we noticed another group following our skin track up. Turns out it was our friend Brenna Kelleher of Bigger Skies and her friend out for an adventure. Got to love it when you randomly see friends at 10,500 feet on remote mountain peaks in the middle of the wilderness. Brenna also informed us that the wolves we had startled in the early morning light were also following us down the skin track. There were new massive wolf prints in our skin track when they started down the trail. Kind of intimidating to know we were surrounded by wolves…
Jeremy and I were not expecting great turns on the way down, but we were pleasantly surprised with turn quality. We skied down our descent route in the gully, but there are other options to ski down – although they all exit at the same entry point to the alpine.
When we reached the safety of tree line, the snow quality improved. We ripped some fun powder turns in the shadow the Helmet and the Sphinx. Amazing.
We followed the skin track out. It was a bit hairy skiing down the melted out south facing slope as there were plenty of rocks. It was like a mid-May descent through this section. My skis avoided any core shots, but are in need of a tune. Backcountry skiing is awesome.
We made good time back to the car and had no further animal encounters. At the end of the adventure, Jeremy Wood and I covered about 5000 vertical feet in 12 miles in just under 8 hours. After a long ski adventure, I enjoyed some chocolate milk in Ennis and we headed back to Big Sky. There’s a high pressure in the air, looking forward to my next adventure already.