North Trapper Peak
Two years ago, I was driving north along US
Highway 93 between Lost Trail Pass and Darby, Montana when some
spectacular peaks to the west caught my eye. I would later learn
that these are parts of the Trapper Peak massif, the highest point in the
Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana. Curiously, North Trapper
Peak is officially named as a separate mountain, and although it is not
the highest peak in the massif, it is without question the most striking
especially when viewed from the highway. Despite looking rather
impregnable, North Trapper Peak actually has a non-technical climbing
route which is well-described in
Summitpost.org. On my way to Idaho for the upcoming total solar
eclipse, I took a short detour on 19 August 2017 to climb this beautiful
To get to the trailhead for North Trapper Peak, I turned onto West Fork
Road (State Highway 473) from US Highway 93 and headed south to the
signed turnoff to Baker Lake (a little over 11 kilometres south of the
junction between Highways 93 and 473; if coming from the south on Highway
93, Conner Cutoff Road can be used as a short cut). The drive to
the trailhead via forestry roads 363 and 5634 took awhile, but the roads
were generally in pretty good shape all the way there (2WD okay, high
A good trail runs up past a rock outcrop known as Baker Point and visits
three successively higher tarns--Baker Lake, Middle Lake and Gem Lake.
This is a deservedly popular and well-maintained trail, and there are
lots of good camping spots at each of the tarns. On this day, I
encountered a lot of other hikers on the trail, but somewhat
surprisingly, no one else ventured beyond Gem Lake.
From Gem Lake, I climbed up to a high col to the north before briefly
descending a very steep path on the other side. The Summitpost.org
route description mentions that it is possible to take a short cut here
to minimize elevation loss while entering the basin below North Trapper
Peak. The alternative is to drop all the way down the north side of the
col before climbing back up to the basin. Being the lazy sort, I opted to
take the short cut, but as I would quickly find out, it entails some
difficult and exposed down-climbing. I spent considerable time
route-finding and slithering down a few challenging drop-offs before
finally reaching easy terrain again.
||A crescent moon and the planet Venus
hang in the eastern sky before dawn.
||A map on a signboard at the trailhead
shows a general overview of the area near North Trapper Peak.
The trailhead is at the end of forestry road 5634.
||A rock outcrop called Baker
Point is located about 600 metres from the trailhead.
||Sonny stands atop Baker Point (2264
metres) with East Trapper Peak visible in the distance.
East Trapper Peak is reflected in Baker Lake.
||Sonny arrives at Middle Lake.
||The off-trail route to North Trapper
Peak begins at Gem Lake and climbs up to the col on the right.
This is Gem Lake as seen from partway up the route to
Hiking into the basin, I aimed for the bottom of an obvious couloir
running up the southeast face of North Trapper Peak. Following the route
description, I left the couloir partway up and traversed westward across
large slabs. This avoids more technical terrain further up the couloir. When it seemed feasible, I resumed climbing upwards until I reached the
base of some large blackish cliffs guarding the upper mountain. Here, I
traversed back eastward on a bit of a ledge, but instead of re-entering the couloir, I turned
up a broad, shallow gully which ultimately leads to the summit ridge. The
scrambling here up Class 3/4 terrain is straightforward and enjoyable,
and I was soon looking down the precipitous north face of North Trapper
||Numerous beaten paths run between the
rocks up to the col.
||The route drops steeply down the north
side of the col.
||This ledge leads to a short cut that
saves some elevation loss, but the route is not easy and entails some
||North Trapper Peak finally comes into
view across the basin. The route to the summit is marked.
According to Summitpost.org, this is the Olbu Southeast Face route
which is named after the man--Gerald Olbu--who popularized it.
||The difficulty of the
short cut route is more evident here.
The crux of the route is a 2-metre high step just below the
first and easternmost of three distinct summits. Previous climbers
had stacked rocks at the base of this step to make it easier to ascend,
but feeling that this was somewhat unsporting, I circumvented the step
altogether by going around it on climber's left. This turned out to
be easier said than done as I ventured onto some frightfully exposed
terrain to get around the crux. Even past the crux, I had some
difficulty scrambling up onto the first summit. In fact, the entire
summit ridge requires some care to maneuver as the stacked boulders there
all have an airy feel to them. Nevertheless, I had no further
problems tagging both the middle summit and the westernmost (true)
||This is looking up from
the bottom of the couloir.
||Pretty yellow flowers
adorn the couloir.
||Sonny grinds his way up
the couloir. The exit point is just around the next corner.
After leaving the couloir, Sonny walks across large slabs on the
southeast face of North Trapper Peak.
||This is looking back along the ledge
(right) just below blackish cliffs. The ledge is used to
traverse back toward the couloir in order to circumvent the steep
slabs at the bottom of the photo.
||Instead of re-entering the couloir, the
route turns up this broad, shallow gully.
||Just before the first summit is this
crux. It is challenging to climb up even with the stacked rocks
at the bottom.
||For some unknown reason, the summit register
container is located on the first summit which is not the highest
point on the mountain.
||The westernmost (true) summit and the middle summit
are a short distance away from the first summit.
||This is looking back at the first
summit from the middle summit.
||Here is the westernmost (true) summit as seen from
the middle summit.
Sonny reaches the westernmost (true) summit of North Trapper Peak
On descent, I chose to tackle the crux and awkwardly slid down
onto the climbers' stacked rocks. I then retraced my steps more or
less back down the shallow gully and the couloir including the long detour out onto the
large slabs. The few small cairns that I had built on my way up were very
reassuring to see on my way down. In the basin, I took a short break by a
creek to rest and rehydrate before resuming my return to the high col. The short
cut was much easier to negotiate this time since I knew the route already and was
mostly climbing upward on the more difficult sections. After clearing the
high col, I descended to Gem Lake without any trouble and subsequently
enjoyed a pleasant hike back to the trailhead.
||To the south are East Trapper Peak and
||The Bitterroot Mountains stretch away
to the north. On the distant horizon at far left is El Capitan.
||The col above Gem Lake is at centre in
this view to the southeast.
North Trapper Peak turned out to be a rather long day for me, but oddly
enough, it never felt long. With a scenic approach trail, very little scree and lots of wonderful hands-on scrambling, North Trapper Peak ranks
among the best scrambles I have done this year. I plan to return in the
future to hike up the higher and technically easier Trapper Peak, but
that ascent might feel a bit anticlimactic to me in comparison to the
thrills I experienced on North Trapper Peak.
||Here is a hazy view of East Trapper
Peak, Trapper Peak and North Trapper Peak from US Highway 93 two days
Distance: 14.9 kilometres
Round-Trip Time: 11 hours 26 minutes
Total Elevation Gain: 1175 metres