4.29.2016

Luck & Powder on the Sphinx - 4.16.16

Sometimes a day in the backcountry comes together just as you want it to. When the outing is a ski tour in late spring that includes a long approach and it  works out perfectly, you are incredibly lucky. Mike and I must have had some good karma coming our way as our trip to ski the Sphinx couldn't have been better.
The Sphinx, Madison Range, Montana
The Helmet, Madison Range, Montana
The Mighty Helmet
We started thinking about this objective only two weeks prior and were amazed that the Bear Creek Cabin, located at the trailhead, was still available. Forest service cabins are usually booked months ahead of time on weekends so we scored. Regardless of what the weather were to do that weekend, we had the cabin for two nights so if we skied great, if the weather was crappy we'd have a nice mountain retreat to play cards, read, socialize and just relax. We couldn't go wrong.

Our second piece of luck came with a snowstorm that hit the area the day before our trip with 12" of snow at Big Sky and probably a bit less (8"?) at the Sphinx, which is just down the way in a dryer part of the Madison range.

Not sure what to expect weather-wise, we got an early start and lucked out with conditions. Temperatures stayed relatively cool all day so the snow stayed soft up high but never got mushy down low. There were periods of clouds and low viability on the approach but surprisingly little wind. By the time we were ready to ski there were blue skies, which made a stunning backdrop to the mountains, new snow and huge red rocks that are found throughout the area.

Our next piece of luck was in the solitude we found. With new snow and great weather we expected to see at least one other party but we didn't see anyone until about half a mile before we were back at the trailhead. I suspect that everyone else was at the Pond Skim in Big Sky or setting off wet slides at Bridger Bowl. It is always nice to have an mountain to yourself and when it's something as iconic as the Sphinx it is really sweet.

While we saw no people, signs of wildlife were everywhere. Although we didn't see any critters, animal tracks of various sizes ran off in all direction and we're pretty sure the big tracks we saw were that of some sort of wild cat.

This was the second time I skied the Sphinx and Mike's first. To get a powder day on it in mid-April was a rare treat. The A-List give this day (And the entire weekend) five stars!

If You Go...

Bear Creek Cabin, Madison Range, Montana
Cabin sweet cabin
Bear Creek Cabin - This is one of the rare forest service cabins with electricity. The kitchen/living area has an stove, oven and refrigerator, along with a couch and a desk. It's spacious for a forest service cabin and is a nice place to lounge.

There is a second room with two twin beds and a bunk bed. The forest service uses it as an administrative center in the summer so it's only available to the public from November through April. It's about a 1.5 hour drive from Bozeman.The Bear Creek Cabin is a gem.

About the Ski - We got a 6:30 start so while it wasn't a nice lie-in, it wasn't painfully early either and I could tolerate it. The trail was covered with snow almost to the trailhead and we spent minimal time (Less than 15-20 minutes) before we started to skin.

Daybreak, ski tour up Sphinx Mountain, Montana
The Sphinx at daybreak
The Sphinx is a big ski - 6,400 feet at the trailhead to 10,876 feet at summit in an approach of approximately six miles. Add in one short downhill on the approach and one short skin on the way out and we estimated the overall elevation gain to be just under 5,000 feet.

Route finding is relatively easy with skinning along the summer trail for much of the way. About one mile from the summit, you come to the base of a gully and this is where things get a bit tricky. The crux of this part of the ascent, a steep break in the cliff band, comes right away. After crux, you skin up the gully for a way until the terrain eventually opens up with a straightforward skin to the summit ridgeline.

The crux can be a bit wind effected so be prepared with ski crampons and possibly boot crampons and an ice ax. (Lucky for us we skinned right up it!) Firm conditions might make it daunting for some so a good kick-turn is mandatory!  Additionally, after the crux you're skinning up the narrow gully, which is steeper and longer that it appears and includes overhead hazards. Don't let your guard down once on the summit rigdeline line as there are huge cornices and steep drop offs.

While the Sphinx is isn't extreme terrain, it shouldn't be taken lightly. Come prepared with the right gear and knowledge, keep an eye on snow and weather conditions, and communicate with your group.

The Verdict: The Sphinx is a great ski for the keen but experienced and dedicated ski tourer. While we hit it perfectly, it can be windy and conditions at the crux can be tricky. As with any long ski, conditions can vary greatly from top to bottom. Go into it being prepared for anything and if you have a stellar day like we did you will be psyched. 

Photos Highlights From Our Trip

On the summit - Watch out for the cornices!

Big cornaces on Sphinx Mountain summit ridge line


Nice turns - For some reason, my camera was in sepia mode most of the outing. Mike got the better pictures that day, but I really like this one of him.



More photos of tracks - in the gully...


...and with the Helmet looming over the landscape.


Another gully shot.


The reality of spring skiing -It was a long day so the trail was starting to melt out when we got to the switchbacks on the way down. Be prepared for patchy spots, posting-holing up to your thighs, mud on your boots and other joys of spring skiing.


Being stubborn, I kept my skis on as long as possible past the point that it was practical. Be ready to employ the power wedge as I'm doing in the photo below!