Ascent of Hollowtop Mountain on 2014-04-29

Climber: Duncan Lennon

Other People:Solo Ascent
Date:Tuesday, April 29, 2014
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Hollowtop Mountain
    Elevation:10604 ft / 3232 m

Ascent Trip Report

I skied Hollowtop alone and in just a few hours. In retrospect, it's both one of the dumber things I've done in the mountains and among the ascents I'm most proud of.

Parking just beyond Pony, Montana, I hiked up the road past Cataract Lake until I reached snow at around 7,000 feet. I skinned up a meadow past some cattle with Hollowtop dead ahead and looking pretty far away. Soon, thick lodgepole stands forced me down towards Cataract Creek, but upon reaching more open woods I traversed higher and higher on the ridge northwest of the creek until I reached an easy ramp that led to spot elevation 8102. From here, I contoured above the basin that holds Mason Lake, in late April still buried under many feet of snow. Passing north of a minor headwall, I finally entered the small cirque due north of the summit, into which drops an intimidating couloir originating in the "hollow top" that is so visible from this entire section of southwest Montana. I picked between a few boulders and ledges and eyed up the couloir. It was at least 100' wide and probably just under 40 degrees. Avalanche city, though snow conditions in the area had been stable for a while. I couldn't get any propagation on the two tests I conducted in my pit, so I bootpacked straight up the 800' chute in what felt like ten minutes. The ice-cream scoop of the summit area is really amazing, and I looked out across the clear valleys trying to pick out all the places I'd eyed up this feature from. I skinned up the scoop, unable to see the summit but using context clues to figure out the general bearing. Surprisingly, the lip of the scoop was fairly steep and very slightly corniced, and I obstinately stayed in my bindings as I skinned up and over a pretty exposed bulge. The summit talus pile lay several hundred feet away, so I zoomed over there, marveling at my luck that the cloud ceiling remained just above me. There was a USFS summit register at the top, and views to the north and east were pretty wild. Blowing snow and clouds prevented my seeing most of the rest of the 'Roots, but some cool-looking nearby peaks beckoned.

As I recall, the ascent took 3:30, though- full disclosure- I was in the very best shape of my life. After signing in, I got in the skis and swooped over the cornice and down through the scoop to the rollover leading to the couloir/ramp thing. Here, I began to doubt my wisdom in skiing alone, as I eyed up the brutal-looking runout path. While the upper section of the couloir was clear, the bottom jogged a bit to make room for a tongue of ledge that ran out into its middle. Thus a skier would have to ride in control down the steepest section and do a bit of a Z before letting rip into the open basin below. If he fell in the upper section and got rolling, he'd roll into/over the ledge. If the snow let go, that ledge would be only the first of many concerns which would collectively kill him. Assessing all this, I decided to take it on with the full understanding that I could and perhaps should take my skis off at any time. The best part of this plan was that there were no better skiers present to mock me should I choose this option. I made some turns and felt good. The powder was deep but felt very solid. I began to swish down toward the ledge, holding up every few turns to reassess. At the critical moment, the narrow zig and the sharp zag, I was pretty tuned in and executed. Free at last, I shot straight through the bowl and onto my former skin track. The skiing was pretty good as I followed my original contouring line down, leaving it occasionally to find more open areas to turn in. Remembering a long flat section of the ascent, I stayed high above the creek so as to maximize my gravitational advantage. Somehow in doing this I forgot about the thick lodgepoles, so I plunged right in and spent the next few minutes ducking branches and deliberately running into/hugging trunks to slow my momentum or adjust my direction. Wishing I had just followed my trusty skin track, I eventually stumbled out into a bunch of cattle and skied through patchy sagebrush meadow down to my hiking boots and the mercifully safe road down to the car. The descent took about 90 minutes, and in short order I joined my buddies at Norris Hot Springs.

Thinking on it now, this trip seems like quite an effort, though at the time I found it to be no big deal and didn't think to write a trip report. April and May are amazing times to access big mountains in Montana, and the right equipment can cut a normal round trip time in half. I can't drive between Helena and Bozeman anymore without cracking a smile as I notice the distinctive Hollow Top at the crest of the Tobacco Roots.
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    Quality:8 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)

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