Some ice, some wind, some sun make for wonderful outside day
As we left Great Falls at 7:30 a.m. and headed through the canyon to Helena, we couldn't help notice the howling wind, making us a bit anxious about our hike up Mount Helena. We were also a bit nervous about the amount of snow and ice we might encounter on the trail, but we were so glad to be getting out that we put those concerns in the back of our mind. With COVID-19 and the over two feet of snow we received the last two weeks, many of us were feeling cooped up and in need of an outing.
On the way, we also encountered a herd of deer crossing the freeway, two of which darted out in front of Judy's car, necessitating a quick braking. Then two turned into three, four, five and six, with a seventh--and maybe more--crossing after we proceeded! As we stopped to let them cross, we were worried about a semi coming and not being able to stop since we had been passing trucks the whole trip. Luckily, nothing like that happened; we were safe and so were the deer.
Katie, Camille and Judy arrived at the trailhead at 9 a.m. and met Sue from Helena (she lives on Lake Helena now, although she used to live in Great Falls. She told us her tale of moving from her home to her cabin on the lake, a big move for her husband who was born and raised in Great Falls).
We chatted for a while and introduced ourselves as not everyone knew one another; we hit the trail by 9:30 a.m.. Katie and Camille's husbands had tagged along, planning to hike in the area as well.
Right away, we had a snow-packed trail, icy in spots. Some opted to put on ice cleats right away while others relied on poles to keep from slipping and sliding. The plan was to take the Prospect Shafts Trail up and then take the 1906 or Prairie Trail down; however, those two are on the north side of the mountain, in the shade of many trees and prone to holding snow and ice, so we changed our plans to staying to on the southside of the mountain both going and returning.
So we meandered up the Prospect Shafts trail, while the guys went off trail avoiding the snow and ice. We went past the memorial to a music teacher who loved the trail, reading the plaque about him and then went past the trenches that remain from WWII training as we handled the steady climb to the top. We were pleasantly surprised that the trail wasn't crowded and that there wasn't any wind. We passed two parties who were going down; one man passed us going up. Otherwise, we had the trail to ourselves. The trip to the top is 1.65 miles with about 1100 feet of elevation gain.
At the top, the sweeping panorama was amazing; the Sleeping Giant came into view as well as the dreaded Colorado mountain that Katie and Judy had hiked earlier this year--truly a hike from 'you know where' with swamps and hundreds of dead-fallen trees to climb over, scurry under or plow through, an adventure well forgotten. As we gals sat and ate our lunch we did have to bundle up as the wind picked up, but not overly so. Then we saw the two guys making their way to join us. As we sat, Katie's husband explained about how Mount Helena was used as a training ground for WWII combat in the Italian alps as well as pointing out many of the mountains and MacDonald Pass. We looked down on the Capitol, Carrol College, the Helena Cathedral and Fort Harrison.
Then it was time to descend. We retraced our steps on the Backside trail, took West to McKelvey to Hanging Draw to Dump Out Trails, a total of 5 miles on the day.
We arrived back at the cars around 1 p.m. and arrived back home by 2:30.