Thunderstorm Speeds Hikers on Ascent/Descent of West Butte
Lightning strikes, the power of thunder and gorgeous clouds reminded us of the fragility of life as we hiked to the top of West Butte in the Sweet Grass Hills.
The day started out 7 a.m. with a quick stop in Shelby and then continuing to Sunburst to pick up our sister gals hiking group of Canadians, the WoW (Women of Wonder). All told, we had seven from the U. S. and 7 from Canada, plus one guy. Then it was on to the parking spot along a gravel road.
Our hike started at 9:30, with the pressure of beating a 3 p.m.-predicted thunderstorm to hustle us along. Katie’s husband Tom was our official leader, the one who had the GPS to keep us off private land and also help get us back down through the tree section, which can be a bit tricky. He was also the one who reminded us to gear up quickly and move up the mountain as quickly as we could, which most of us found easier said than done as the way is up, up, up. And this adventure was off-trial, always an experience of route finding.
On the way up, we occasionally turned around to cool ourselves in the breeze and check to see how far off the clouds were. We also enjoyed the flowers: lupine, golden peas, larkspur, wild onion, crazy weed, silky phacelia, death camas, and miles of thread-leaved phacelia, more than we had ever seen before.
Some of us struggled, all of us felt the steepness and one had to turn around about a third of the way up. The terrain was as follows: Meadow, grassy-tufted hillside, pine forest, talus, forest, talus and athen meadow on top. Then we had an unexpected storm, one that came in around noon, just as we were cresting the top. Luckily, we had Beth Thomas who had an app on her phone that tracks storms. She could tell us exactly where the storms were and if they were electrical and how strong.
We quickly got off the top and took shelter among the trees as the lightning storm swirled around us, hugging the butte. It didn’t produce much rain and kept to the side of us, but we did get some pea-sized hail as we ate our lunch, huddled with our colorful ponchos on. When the storm subsided, we went back on top to enjoy the views a bit more before we headed down. We also took a group shot by the cairn and signed the register.
Then we had to scoot as another storm cloud was forming off to the west. We started our steep descent through the talus, then through the trees and then the promised 3 p.m. storm started looming with booms out in the distance, heading our way.
The leaders beat foot to the coulee to get off the mountainside, while the rest of us encouraged everyone to get down as quickly as possible. And the rain was really coming down now. If caught amid the lightning, we reminded everyone to flatten against the ground and for sure not to hold poles up. Even though the storm was a bit frightening, it was also awe-inspiring: The clouds amazing; the lightning and thunder powerful.
Thankfully, we all made it down safely, one with legs jiggling and one with knees locked up but with everyone smiling. For some, the Sweet Grass Hills were on their bucket lists. For others, they now have two out of three buttes completed, with East Butte, the largest and longest hike yet to do, hopefully, next year.
We said quick goodbyes as it was still raining and headed down the now-gumbo road that gave us a squirrelly ride, the Canadians back home and the U.S. gals to Shelby for dinner at Ringside Ribs, a misnomer as they serve everything from pasta to steaks to pizza to fish and chips. The gals who got the barley soup particularly liked it. And the waitress really impressed us as she memorized our order (for all 8 of us). We arrived home around 8.
Who went: U.S. Katie, June, Camille, Kuntz, Brenda, Beth, Sara; Canada: Pat, Linda, Deena, Sharon, LaVerne