Saturday, June 17, 2006

Butte Revisited

In response to my rather derogatory recent post about Butte, someone commented that they would've spent their layover "appreciating that which can never leave or be taken away from Butte- the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains and valleys." It's a good point. Until recently, our Butte layovers were quite short, which precluded much outdoor recreation. I had done some hiking on the hills west of town, but never had an opportunity to hike the big mountains to the east - until this week. Finally, I had a nice long Butte layover with good weather. It was time to make a date with Butte's most prominent landmark, Our Lady of the Rockies.

"Our Lady" is a 90 foot statue of the Virgin Mary that overlooks Butte from 8500 feet on a ridge that defines the continental divide in this area. At night the floodlit statue seems to float above the city. At my airline, she is often known as "Our Lady of Full-Scale Deflection" or "Our Lady of No Left Turn" because when shooting the ILS 15 approach at Butte, she is just to your left and above you. One of our captains tells a story from the Metroliner days. It was a dark and stormy night, and he was on the VOR-A approach, which takes you over the ridge a few miles south of Our Lady. Somehow they ended up off course, and through a break in the clouds he saw the statue just off their right wing. "I saw the Virgin," he says, "so I started praying!" Indeed.

Less intense encounters can be arranged through a tour company in Butte, which takes busses up the private road to Our Lady and the nearby chapel. Another option for the self-flagellating or the cheap is to climb the 3000 foot ridge on foot. I figured I'm doubly qualified, so I packed a lunch and got a ride to the outskirts of town from the hotel van. "There's an old Boy Scout trail that you should be able to follow," the van driver assured me as he dropped me off on a steep dirt road. "Just go up the road until it ends at a house, and follow the ridge next to it." Sounded easy. I walked a quarter mile up the road until it apparently deadended at someone's house, and duly started climbing a nearby ridge.

As I crossed this meadow, I thought I found the trail. As it reentered the trees, however, it quickly tapered off. I thought I picked it up again several times, but in each case I realized I was seeing many more deer and elk tracks than human ones. If there really was a boy scout trail, it wasn't on this ridge. Still I was able to make pretty steady progress upwards through an old burn without too much scrambling.

I knew that the line I was taking up the ridge would put me a ways south of the Lady, and I'd eventually have to traverse over. However, a large rock spine to my left kept the Lady out of view after I snapped the picture above. I appeared to be approaching the top of the ridge when I spotted a gap in the spine that was easily climbable.

I scrambled up the gap, expecting to see the Lady at my elevation on the other side, a short traverse away.

D'oH! I had a good 500 feet elevation left. I gingerly climbed down off the spine and continued my slog up the ridge. Once I reached the top, I realized I was standing on the continental divide. Expansive views to the east included a highland meadow that looks like a heck of a camping spot:

A short traverse later, I was up close and personal with Our Lady of the Rockies.

The Berkeley Pit: Superfund Site, Tourist Attraction.

I sat for a while, taking in the views and eating my lunch. From this vantage point, I could see my mistake: the road I started on did not deadend where I thought it did, but continued into a valley. The actual deadend was almost directly below the statue. The slope below the statue looked passable, and if there was a Boy Scout trail, I figured it'd be there. The first portion of the slope consisted mostly of loose dirt and scree, and I rather gingerly worked my way down. After a few hundred feet, the trees thickened, providing more footholds. At one point, I realized that I was following what looked an awful lot like a trail, and then I saw boot prints, and then I saw orange ribbons tied on trees along the way. I'd found the Boy Scout trail.

And what a trail! I gotta hand it to the Boy Scouts, they didn't waste any time in getting up and down the mountain. Their scant path makes no concessions to topography except to skirt sheer cliffs. I lost the trail quite a few times, but by following the fall line and looking for orange ribbons I'd pick it up again. Eventually it deposited me next to a prominent ridge at the end of the road, just like the van driver had said. There was a lot of old mining equipment scattered around the last house. I stopped at the house to chat with a woman watering plants outside; it turns out her husband founded the local mining museum. After that, it was a three mile hike back to the hotel.

So...anonymous commenter, thanks for the encouragement to get out and hike Butte's surroundings. While I still consider the town to be a rather dismal place, the prospect of further explorations in the mountains has me excited for my next Butte layover. Next time I think I'll check out that meadow on the east side of the ridge. It looks like a good place to see some elk.


Aviatrix said...

And *I* followed your example and got out for a walk where I saw deer and ravens and birds of prey. And I saw clouds down at treetop level in an environment where I didn't need to have an emotional response to that. I could just say, "oh look, pretty clouds," instead of "call flight services and see how our alternate is doing."

Anonymous said...

That's the spirit, Sam! Glad to see you got the opportunity to go out on a nice hike. I understand that sometimes a short layover between rough flights can impose time, motivation, and weather difficulties, and force you to stay a bit more "local" with your explorings. Nevertheless looks like it was a beautiful day. Makes me wish my last transit through Butte included a layover (and some daylight!). Maybe someday I will be able to go back and visit that statue as well.

Beautiful pictures, by the way! Thanks for allowing me to (virtually) visit the Butte I missed.

"It's all about attitude" I myself must remember this phrase too when enduring some of my occupation's not so exciting phases.

-that one anonymous poster from before ;)