Greathouse – best seat in the house.
I’ve been on several peaks where I could see large portions of Montana but Greathouse Peak might take the prize when it comes to spotting the island ranges of central Montana. In fact, some sources claim that on a clear day you can see all the way from Canada to Yellowstone. Skies aren’t always as clear as they were decades ago (longer fire seasons, airline traffic, etc.), but they were decent the day a few friends and I summited Greathouse (Monday 6/28/21). Despite a faint haze near the surface, we could identify the Little Rockies and Bears Paw Mountains near the Hi-Line, and the Pryor Mountains southeast of Billings (faint), as well as several closer ranges, including the Highwoods, Little Belts, Crazies, Moccassins, and Judith Mountains.

Never summer?
The Aaniih (formerly Gros Ventre) name for the Big Snowies is níichʔibííkʔa, which translates to “it is never summer” – possibly because snow could be seen up there all year long, or maybe because they knew of the impressive ice cave south of Crystal lake, near the crest of the range (see previous blog post). Like all mountains in central Montana, the character of the Big Snowies remains a mystery to most who travel around this part of the state. From the vantage point of distant highways they resemble an upside-down canoe – not real complicated. However, my friends and I discovered that there is much more to them than meets the eye.

As I scouted the Big Snowies using Google Earth I noticed a couple strange teardrop-shaped basins on the southern side of the mountains – the watersheds of Careless Creek and Swimming Woman Creek. A little research revealed that they are classic examples of pseudo-cirques. Although the basins have SOME characteristics of glacially-carved cirques, they were actually shaped by frequent rockslides due to a unique set of geologic circumstances. It’s complicated but if you’d like to know more about the development of these false cirques, I’ve provided a link below. Nonetheless, the opportunity to explore a pseudo-cirque, share an adventure with friends, AND climb the highest peak in the range was plenty of incentive for me. As a bonus, the narrow ridge around the head of an adjacent basin is called “Knife Blade Ridge” – What hiker wouldn’t welcome the chance to see what that’s all about!

Somewhere in the middle of Montana.
So, on Sunday afternoon three friends and I made the 180-mile drive from Helena to Swimming Woman Canyon, northeast of Judith Gap. We rose early Monday morning, hiked 4 miles to the summit of Greathouse, then followed the Uhlhorn Trail across the Knife Blade Ridge before venturing off-trail to check out an area northwest of there. As you will see in the photo tour, the 12.5-mile roundtrip hike was well-worth the drive. The view from the crest, the pseudo-cirque, and the Knife Blade did not disappoint.