Montana Headwall » Head Trip

High on cedar

Alpine strollin’ in the Madison Range



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I slowly pulled a small camera out of my pocket and began taking pictures. My movement seemed to spook the calves, which ran down the trail right at us before veering off and stopping 15 yards out. The calves were now quite far from their herd, and we could hear the cows mewing and chirping. We remained frozen, watching and enthralled. The two youngsters slowly began walking toward us again, stopping just five feet from me. I could nearly touch the smaller one, and it looked so relaxed I wondered if we were the first people it had ever seen. The four of us stood motionless, staring into each others’ eyes for three minutes that felt like 30. Then the cows charged in, stopping 20 yards out. We averted our eyes but the herd bolted, calves and all, crashing off through the woods.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.

Invigorated, we resumed our walk and quickly arrived at Lake Cameron, with just enough daylight left to pitch the tent and snap a bunch of hot-burning branches off beetle-killed pines for a fire. We poured some G&Ts as the sun set over the lake, crawled into our bags, and dreamed of elk.

The next morning dawned clear, and we tried to find a route via our sole guide: a Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forest travel map. It’s meant to be a road map, with no elevation contours and a scale of 1-inch per mile. With perfect weather, some French press coffee and Kara’s pumpkin muffins under our belt, we hung our gear in a tree and headed straight uphill with light packs. We planned to summit by noon, return to camp mid-afternoon, and roll out in time to catch dinner in Ennis. The route was trail-less, but the traveling was straightforward, weaving through open parks and around funky rock towers. Within an hour we were above the tree line in a world of seemingly endless boulder fields and talus ridges.

As we crested Point 10,412 we saw our first crux: a tall, apparently impassible cliff separating 10,412 from the rest of the Cedar summit. I went left, looking for routes, while Kara went right. Before long I spotted her a quarter-mile away, already ascending the next section and yelling something about the cliff in front of me. I backtracked, found Kara’s delicate sneaker route, and joined her 20 minutes later on the summit, where she was sprawled out smiling in the sun. We slipped on warm clothes and gorged ourselves on elk jerky, cheese and crackers while basking in tremendous 360-degree views.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.

Some maps mark this point as Cedar Mountain West; eyeballing it, we couldn't tell if it was higher or lower than Cedar Mountain East. To the northeast, the ski runs of Yellowstone Club and Big Sky stood out from the surrounding wilderness, broad, elk-filled meadows spread out beneath them. Towering to the north beyond Lone Peak stood the Spanish Peaks. To the south, we were surprised to see how far below us Sphinx Mountain and its smaller sibling The Helmet appeared, while unidentifiable snowcaps sparkled in the sun beyond. Even lower in the greened-up Madison Valley to the west we spotted Kara’s old family homestead.

The views were just a bonus.

What we cared about most was the ridge, snaking a mile northward and two miles eastward from our spot near the center of the horseshoe. After a summit catnap we descended the narrow, windswept arête toward Cedar East. Though it was mostly a stroll, a thin, rotten section of steep white rock near the ridge’s low point gave us a solid but surmountable challenge.

Soon we summited Cedar East and were surprised to find no summit cairn. Were we the first? It’s unlikely, but we'd seen no sign of people since leaving the lake, and we were glad regardless to be atop such a pristine peak. A cold and persistent wind kept our daydreaming in check, so we tucked behind some boulders to finish off the last of lunch and discuss descent options.

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