The Classic Line

Solving the Riddle of the Sphinx

According to Greek legend, the Sphinx is a mythological creature guarding the city of Thebes. Travelers desiring entrance must solve its riddle and those answering incorrectly are devoured. For skiers, the Sphinx is a 10,876 peak in Montana’s Madison range. In an area full of mountains, the Sphinx is distinctive.

While surrounding peaks resemble the pointy ones drawn by a child, the Sphinx stands alone blob-like. Looming 4,600 feet above the valley floor, its amorphous outline and blocky walls draw the eye and call skiers to its western face. It’s not the hardest peak but it’s not easy with 5,000 feet of climbing over a six-mile approach.

The first time I skied the Sphinx was in less than ideal conditions. Since then, each time I drove by I dreamt of skiing it again, but with so many ski options near my home in Bozeman, it takes ten years to make it back.

This time I bring my partner Mike along. We find our only free Saturday in April and mark “Sphinx” on our calendar. Given the peak’s long approach and often-finicky spring weather, there is a small window when it’s in good condition. Would the day be epic or character building? Would we achieve or would we be content saying, “Well, any day in the mountains is a good day.”

In the chilly morning stillness, we arrive at an empty trailhead as colors of sunrise pirouette in the horizon. A foot of snow from a recent storm covers the ground and stable weather is forecast. Although I grumble about the early departure, it is hard to deny the beauty of daybreak.

Twenty minutes into our skin an ominous whumph breaks the tranquility. A few minutes later, more avalanches reverberate throughout the landscape. Could our luck be ending already?

Then it occurs to us. It’s avalanche control work at Big Sky Resort a mere ten miles away as the crow flies. No signs of avalanches here, but it’s a good reminder to keep an eye on conditions.

Mike and I come alive as the day does. We arrive at the switchbacks as the weather does its spring dance. Clouds and clear skies oscillate offering intermittent visibility. Wind is light, but we know the Sphinx could roar at any moment.

The mighty Helmet comes into view. Poufy white snow surrounds this red mass of rock and makes for a stunning backdrop. A short descent brings us to the bottom of a sparsely treed meadow. Perfect powder sits on this consistently pitched 800-foot slope and we’re tempted to lap it, but the Sphinx looms ahead and we skin on.

After the meadow, we reach a cloudy gully 900 feet below the summit. The crux of the approach, a break in the cliff band, is in front of us. I think back to my trip to the Sphinx a decade ago. In firm conditions, this spot was daunting. Half my group trudged in boot crampons and half struggled with ski crampons. Today, the snow is soft and the weather cool. Skinning calls for focused but manageable work. The steep gully continues. Its towering rocky walls block the summit and overhead hazards keep us alert. Eventually, the terrain opens and eases off revealing a 400-foot skin to the top.

On the chilly summit the Sphinx chooses not to roar. Our eyes take in a vast panorama of places we’ve explored on skis, bikes, and foot. The Spanish Peaks, Buck Ridge, and Cedar Mountain are right in front of us while endless mountains are further afield. Some are haloed in clouds while others glow under cobalt skies. The Madison Valley sits quiet and peaceful thousands of feet below. Dramatic cornices line the summit ridge ending in plunging cliffs. We are ecstatic!

 It is tempting to linger on the cool, windless summit, but we don’t want to push our luck, so we descend. Mike goes first arcing graceful tracks down the gully. As we reach the crux, I feel like a rock star as I ski the steep pitch in stellar conditions. Before we know it, we’re back at the meadow making effortless turns as we head towards the Helmet.

“Well, that was sweet,” Mike says as we regroup at the bottom of the meadow. All I manage is a soft “Yup.”

I grin non-stop as I take the silence, the perfect weather, and the striking rock walls. When we arrive at the switchbacks, the reality of spring skiing sets in. Pleasant weather becomes our enemy as the sun wreaks havoc with conditions forcing us off our skis. There are times we post-hole up to our thighs and it feels like it takes 30 minutes to go 100 yards.

A burger and fries would be perfect right now I think. When I start dreaming of greasy food, I know my attitude and energy are about to plummet, so we stop for a snack in the sunshine before continuing. The rotten snow eventually turns into patchy stew of muck and then a snow-free trail. To our surprise, we come to a meadow covered in snow.

Quickly forgetting about the agony back at the switchbacks, we link easy turns down this gentle grade. The meadow flattens into a snow-covered path and we power-wedge down this last ribbon of snow. Half a mile before the trailhead, we run into the first people we’ve seen all day.

Mud on our boots and ski pants, faces warm and newly suntanned, and tired but not wiped out, we soon arrive back at our car. It is always nice to have a mountain to yourself, and when it’s a powder day on something as iconic as the Sphinx, it’s a rare treat.

Anticipation is part of any adventure and while Mike and I went into it ready for anything, we were surprised things went so well. Now we know that to solve the riddle of the Sphinx, it takes a combination of skill, stamina, and most importantly, luck.

Trailhead: Bear Creek Trailhead near Cameron, Montana, about 1.5 hours from Bozeman. From Ennis on U.S. Highway 287 south for 11.1 miles. Turn left on Bear Creek Road (Forest Road 327) at Cameron. Bear Creek Road heads east on pavement for 3 miles, then turns south on a good gravel road for 1.5 miles until it turns east and goes another mile to the Bear Creek Ranch. Turn south here again and travel less than a mile to a junction. Turn left and head east up Bear Creek to the Bear Creek Ranger Station and the trailhead.

USGS Maps: Sphinx Mountain, Lake Cameron

Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center Current Advisory: the Riddle of the Sphinx

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Ann Vinciguerra

Ann Vinciguerra

What is a big issue your backcountry community is facing?

Maybe it's the abundance of choices. (Bridger Bowl? Nordic skiing? Phat biking? Ice climbing n Hyalite?) Perhaps it's a lack of backcountry ski shops. Whatever the reason, Bozeman backcountry skiers lack a solid community. It's hard to connect and share stories with those outside your regular group of partners.

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