Diversion: on significance

It’s hard to tell, but I’m in this picture.

This shot was taken without my knowing it, but after the fact, Darcy Chenowith (who you should have checked out by now) clued me in and then was kind enough to send it along. Jason Mills and I were on the Little Matterhorn, the mountain on the right. Below is Lake Mary Baker, Floral Park up and left, and then Sperry Glacier and the glacial basin. Comeau Pass is on the central skyline.

Of course, you can’t see us—we’re too small. And that’s part of my point: mountains are big. Really big. They dwarf us, our ambitions, our concerns. They don’t care whether you top out or get slid, rockfalled, killed, or return home happily. As playgrounds, or as testing grounds, or as places to see my own progress, they offer all my ambitions and stamina can handle. If there’s a cathedral equal to the possibility and wonder of this life, it is in the mountains that I find it.

Staring at the stars, there’s an insurmountable feeling of vastness, of exposure. The drop away from my sleeping bag goes on literally forever, and though a shiver might run through the realization, it doesn’t terrify those who are scared of heights. But looking over the edge of a mountain, I can fathom the distance. I can grasp it, and it’s real, and it’s still so much bigger than me. Middle-distance, I’d call this: big enough to matter, small enough to measure. And because of this middle distance, mountains cast huge shadows physically and mentally.

There is no question that, as humans, we are changing the hills, even as they outsize those who would climb. Glacier National Park is projected to have have technically lost its glaciers by 2030 or so. This won’t mean that there isn’t any more glacial ice, or that the places we see glaciers won’t still look like glaciers; the existing glaciers will have just shrunk to where they are reclassified as permanent snowfields. Treelines will creep upward, moraines will be colonized and turned into forest, animals will die out and change habitat. The seasonal lack of water from places that used to hold snow will dramatically shift everything downstream from fish habitat to where you can camp midseason. Hotter, drier summers amplify conditions ripe for the wildfires we’ve seen this year.

Personally affecting what seems so unassailable via climate change is perhaps the hardest dichotomy of being a mountain person. I drive a car. I participate in a fossil fuel based economy. I’m a guilty party. To know firsthand how big these places are, how their grandeur opens a similar space and freedom in my own heart, only to see them so delicately balanced on the collective results of individual actions like mine—that’s hard.

I welcome change in so many parts of life, yet want the places that feel so homelike and stalwart to remain the same. Bedrock not only in the way it was laid down, lifted up, but also in how it grounds me. Gives me something stable: a place I speak about in terms used often for a lover.

Worse, I don’t have answers for you. I know what my answers are, but this blog post isn’t intended as a soapbox or political rant, though those dimensions are inevitable once thought turns to action. Envisioning the changes in store for a place that feels close to me profoundly affects who I am, what I stand for, and that process doesn’t feel genuine unless you, every single person who reads this, experiences it on their own terms. My goal here is only to trace where it’s taken me. What I really want to leave you with is this:

Go spend time in your cathedrals. Make yourself vulnerable to their volatility, their storms, their sunshine, their fast and slow change of leaves and ice and steams swollen with runoff. Give yourself to them. Then learn what all of us are doing, square those in your head, your heart, and find the line you can take between them.

Backwards: chalet to chalet again

One of the things my ninth grade P.E. teacher said sticks with me: “We’re only going to run once this semester: when we run the mile.” That I remember his words a decade later is telling of my attitude towards running back then. Going fast was for skis. Or bikes. Why would you want to run somewhere? Running was hard, sweaty, and frustrating.

Running is still hard, sweaty, and frustrating. However, I got introduced to the road version. Then a couple friends showed me about running on trails. Which was more interesting, but involved hills. Then Myke Hermsmeyer completely confused my ability to distinguish fast hiking, running, and scrambling.

But the running paid off. I felt better. Could move faster. And did I mention that it’s hard? Hard things feel worthwhile; they’re the struggle to just keep my head above water rather than cruising. They’re so much learning. And once I get good at something, like hiking uphill, then I wonder if I could do it faster. If I could run uphill.

So this spring, I gave it a try. My body is not that of a runner’s. Too much girth to be fleet and bounce through the forest with the nimble, skinny elves—I roll past like a stampede of walruses on snowshoes. But I found that I could do a little running uphill. And even run downhills too. Which made me think: maybe I could run in the mountains. Maybe I could do the Chalet to Chalet again.

Last year, Myke and I completed what I think to be the first connected visit to both of Glacier’s remaining backcountry chalets (Granite Park and Sperry) in one day. (I’ve been since told that someone from GNP trail crew did Goat Haunt to Logan Pass to Lake McDonald via Floral Park in a day, which blows our trip out of the water). Up the Loop, across the Highline, up to Hidden Lake Overlook, down to Hidden Lake, across Floral Park to Comeau Pass, down to Lake McDonald. 7200ft of gain over some 30 miles. Neither route was new at all, but nobody I knew had decided to connect them before. We’d hiked the whole thing, and went the easy way.

So with my running ideas in my head, I wanted to try it the other way, with one major change: instead of dropping to Hidden Lake, I would go up and over the Dragon’s Tail. This added some extra vert, kept me out of the closure at the foot of the lake, and kept things interesting. In the process, I covered just over 30 miles, 9100ft of elevation gain, and most importantly, found a route that I think solves one of the peak circuit mysteries that’s baffled me at Logan Pass.

This year’s route, on July 9th: Lake Mcdonald to Sperry Chalet, Sperry to Comeau Pass, traverse below the glacier in the Sperry Basin, to Lake Mary Baker, up to the Pass, drop down and traverse right on the bench above Hidden Lake, ascend to summit ridge of Dragon’s Tail, summit, drop down the east side to goat trail to pass near Reynolds, return to Hidden Lake Overlook trail, run down boardwalk, do Highline to Granite Park then drop down the Loop trail.

Glacier’s chalets are a holdover from the origins of the park. Tourists would arrive from back east on the Great Northern Railroad, following their slogan of “See America First”, as opposed to going over to Europe. Without irony, many of the buildings they constructed were done in the architectural style of the european areas they were trying to get people to skip. Once in the park, visitors were then ferried about the park on horseback, traveling between tent camps and chalet buildings that were all spaced about a day’s ride apart.

Two of the chalets remain standing: Sperry, above Lake McDonald, and Granite Park, above the Loop. Summers of 2008 and 2009 I worked at Sperry as a dishwasher and server, respectively (loudest dishwasher ever). Summer of 2012 saw me at Granite Park as one of the hotel housekeepers (knocks on door: “Housekeeping!”). Those three summers account for 31 weeks spent continuously (in three chunks, obviously) in the backcountry at 6500ft with no access to the internet, marginal cell service, and a great amount of time to go hiking and play in the mountains. The friends I made and things I learned there daily impact who I am and why I spend so much time outside.

Best of all, I’ve a family of kindred crazy people who still work there. Visiting them was a big part of why this traverse is interesting to me. The Sperry crew was expecting their first guests of the season the day I rolled through. This was unfortunate for me, as there wasn’t any pie yet made. I’ll just have to go back.

Granite Park had been at it for a while for this summer, but like Sperry, they benefited from our epically dry spring by not having to shovel their trail at all. Pack trains supply the chalets twice a week, taking in food and clean linens, and packing out the garbage and dirty sheets—but they can’t move over snow. My year at Granite, we did significant shoveling for eleven days. So they got away clean this year. It was nice to see them looking so spry and unsullied by days in the deep trenches.

What those trenches looked like last year. Remember, these were dug by hand in consolidated spring snow.

The Floral Park traverse should have had a connected trail. Had Sperry Glacier not been so massive in the early years of the park, I’m sure that some enterprising, trail-building sillies would have linked Hidden Lake over and up through. As it stands, it’s one of my favorite non-technical alpine traverses in the park. I’ve done it on skis, in Chacos, and three other times, once climbing Bearhat en Route. The standard option from Logan Pass is about nineteen miles and 4500ft of elevation gain.

Doing it backwards meant gaining 5000ft on trails from Lake McDonald. Once over Comeau Pass, snow and moraines connect down and around the toe of the glacier. Where the glacier has receded, bare rock slabs tilt at bizarre angles with pools of water between them. Moraines with stunted trees mark former borders of the ice. Everything is tan or red or milky blue, giving a very surreal quality to it all. Then, you pass into Floral Park proper—which was fairly exploding with its namesake as I went through. Alpine wildflowers and their attendant bees are always so impressive: short growing season, tough environment, stunning colors. It’s a carnival of the first rate.

Hidden Lake spends perhaps five months of the year without ice, meaning that the fish that live there spawn in the middle of the summer. Bears then show up to feast. Wisely, the Hidden Lake trail is closed while this happens to keep people out of the orgy and feast. But more problematically, the Hidden Lake part of Floral Park is a trip out of the alpine. The Dragon’s Tail has always seemed like a better way to follow the ridge, but I hadn’t talked to anyone who had traversed it. The Climber’s Guide to Glacier talks about rappeling on the ridge, which I’d believe.

Setting off knowing that I’d have to climb an untried route midway through was committing. Doing it alone was committing too. I love the process of anteing up for this kind of move, as it demands a total trust of my abilities and preparation. There’s a confidence that I can handle it, which informs a lot of what I do in the hills. The line had to be there, because the animals that travel through there certainly aren’t rappelling.

My route up onto Dragon’s Tail. Entered from the lower right, followed the easy climbing left, then traversed right to the shadow line and up to the ridge. Nothing worse than class three if you stay on the goat trail.

And it was. I followed a well-worn class three goat trail up from the bench above Hidden Lake. It went right up where I thought I could climb, and deposited me right by the route from from the east side. It was a small triumph to find that, and it now opens up the connection from Bearhat to Reynolds in my mental Logan Pass circuit options.

I suffered on this trip. By the time I topped out on Dragon’s Tail, my stomach was in rebellion. I was moving slow, after 8k ft of vertical gain. Dehydration seemed close, despite constant water sipping. The cheese and crackers in my pack tasted bland on the summit, which is never good. I should have bailed at Logan Pass, but thought I was feeling better as I started walking out towards Granite Park.

Logan Pass feels so bizarre as the middle part of a long day.

Walking the Highline as a long slog is just not a good idea. Doing so in 3pm heat is far worse, after already going 18 miles for the day. My stomach stayed unhappy. I drank more, but pushed forward through the slow miles. It was great to see everyone at Granite, but I talked too long and ad to run most of the way down to catch the last shuttle. I was the only one on it.

First class trail tan.

It wouldn’t hit me until I was home, but I just wasn’t hungry. Not good after a day like that. Everything that I’d put in my stomach came back up the next morning. Couldn’t keep anything down. That afternoon, I ended up at Jack’s house: he was recovering, his daughter Lucy was catching up on sleep with her foot in a boot, and I lay on the couch feeling miserable and weak. We all felt rough.

The better part of valor would have been to bail at Logan Pass, and let my stomach rest. Afternoon heat couldn’t have helped. I pushed on because it seemed like it wasn’t that bad, but losing the next couple of days to feeling so sick reinforced that I should have quit. It wasn’t a race, and the objective wasn’t going anywhere. No expectations but my own pushed me through; learning to curb those is the refinement of experience. As I learn to do more with moving fast in the mountains, I’m excited to take in those lessons and see how much more I can push myself. Wonderful to see the chalet crews in their elements.

McDonald Peak: Extra dimensions in the shrubberies

There’s a basic truth to nearly every blog: they’re all in need of an update. I’ve not posted anything adventure-based since Jack’s fall, but that’s mostly because I’ve been busy collecting adventures to write about. No other excuses there.

My gamble continues to be that people want to read in-depth, long-form content about the things that I do outside. There’s a necessary contrast to the soundbite mentality that inflects too much of the media I regularly consume. Maybe Skinning with bear spray is too long for some people. Maybe I ramble too much. But if I’m to be mediated here–packaged as who I deliver myself to be to those who only know me through what they read on the internet–then I’m going to try to show that honestly, completely. Not always a simple endeavor, or easy. I’m going to take my time to do it, and I’m going to own that need to take time.

So that said, let’s crank this thing back up, and bounce back to three days after I came out of the Belly River post-accident. While down at RMO, Matt Brake asked about going up McDonald Peak in the Missions. We’d be considering a later date, but suddenly Wednesday was open. I was headed down the Swan Valley anyway to spend Fourth of July with family, so a day trip from that side worked into our plan. I woke up too late, arrived at our meet spot late, and we left the trailhead at least an hour after we’d targeted. Matt was very gracious about all this, which is appreciated.

The window to climb McDonald is a little narrower than other local options. Because it rests on tribal land, we both got permits from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (available anywhere you can get a fishing or hunting license) to be able to legally climb. Beyond that, the alpine closes on July 15th to keep the bears undisturbed as they climb up and gorge themselves on the insects that go up high to mate and reproduce. Imagine grizzly bears with paws covered in ladybugs. Big bear tongues licking bugs off the talus. I’m not even making this up.

Neither of us had much sleep the night before: he’d been helping a friend move. I’d been up late packing, or something. We were both pretty dang chipper as we set off from the Kraft Creek trailhead. It’s a few switchbacky miles from there up to Heart Lakes, the place were we’d set off on the cross country trek.


Looking across lower Heart Lake.

McDonald is the highest peak in the range, and boasts a seriously long ski descent off the NW side of the summit. I figured that’d be the way that I first came up, but the other side sounded interesting too. Plus, it had been years since I’d been up high in the Missions. The trail quickly gave way to some schwacking over rock slabs on the NW side of upper Heart Lake. It wasn’t bad going. In hindsight, we should have gone back this way.

There’s a pass you angle towards. We ended up sidehilling much of the last half mile, but I’m not convinced there’s a way better route. Unless there’s a major game trail that we missed from the lakes below. Maybe it was just easy going because of the conversation: Matt and I have known each other for a while. He once orchestrated an operation that let me try on three different pairs of hiking boots while I was posted up for eleven weeks at a backcountry chalet. My mom hiked them in, I picked the ones that fit the best, and then had boots for the summer. But we’d never adventured together. He’s an introspective, deep-thinking dude–just the kind of guy that makes trail disappear underfoot as the talk distracts from the repetition of step after step.

They’re serious about the signage: this big thing is all the way up at the pass, way off any developed trail. A higher vantage seemed helpful in scouting our route down, so we leveled up to see this:

From the pass, we’d be working our way around Cliff Lake in the foreground, then ascending the left ridge. On the way back down to the pass, I found a little ski line:

A nice game trail drops right out of the saddle and steeply descends to the lake. You could probably fall over and roll right down the thing. We then detoured left around the south end, going up and over a cliff band to avoid a bit of deep water soloing. Maybe you’re noticing a trend: this was the right way to go. I’d recommend going back this way too. It was so good I even drew in a little red line.

Things get a little strange in the bottom, but eventually we popped out and had to cross a creek. I watched Matt move a decent sized tree that had been ripped out by avalanche to make a bridge–the stream washed it away as we looked on. We hopped across with an athletic jump and trekking poles.

It’s immense country up there, and pretty dang remote. No official trails reach into the basin. The base of the mountain is perhaps eight miles from the trailhead. So there aren’t many people to appreciate the splendor of waterfalls like this one:

Recommendations suggested following the rock rib up the SE side of the mountain, but as we got up there, both Matt and I noted the lovely ramp of snow that lead right up to the top. No scrambling or fussing needed. Might as well use the spikes we’d hauled in, right?

Given the slide that Jack had taken, perhaps steep snow travel should have bothered me more. I remember thinking a bit about it, but not worrying. Route finding was easy. The going was simple and we made great time up the switchbacks I kicked in. Looking up the face:

Matt higher up.

Nothing steeper than forty degrees had us cresting the top pretty quickly. The summit plateaus on the SE side, and with a bit of ridgewalking, we were up top.

Glacier summits have a lot of familiarity for me–each top has its place within its fellows. I recognize other spots, and connect dots. McDonald was very different. Dropping off the west, the valley floor nearly six thousand feet below feels a bit removed due to the lateral distance. None of the surrounding peaks are imbued with the memories of climbing up them; it’s a little exciting and context-less at the same time.

Skiing down in this direction would be so fun–hopefully that’s the mode of transit next time I’m up here.

We’d hit the top in the full of the afternoon, and a nap felt warranted. But the long walk out beckoned. Bailing off the top was plenty fun though: nice glissading lead into putting our spikes back on for the steeper pitch, only to pull them off and slide our way down the less wild lower portion.

For anyone following along, this is where we should have followed our tracks in. Instead, we thought that the ridge on the NW side of Cliff Lake somehow looked connected–nevermind that our idea didn’t square with the map, or how water flows downhill. Maybe we were tired from less sleep. Traversing climber’s right, we got way over there and committed before realizing how wrong we were. Going all the way around the north side the lake was our option. The true adventure of the day was just starting.

At least that waterfall was still gorgeous.

Crossing the foot of the lake saw us walking on the raft of somewhat floating logs. A bit nerve wracking.

From there, we had a steep gain to what looked like a connected ridge. Instead, a series of three or four up and downs tested our patience. The bugs were out, the sun shown down, and it just plain sucked that we’d made our job of getting out that much harder. I forgot to take any more photos, concentrating on boring straight into the middle of the suffering and just getting out.

The saddle was really nice. We followed a well worn trail we’d missed on the way up, which quickly ran out and left us schwacking through creeks on the south side of the basin. Again, following our route up would be been way better. Clomping down the slippery rocks took on that air of the doom-schwack–surge forward, grab whatever, just keep moving. Mosquitos started to get thick. The terrain kept us from moving fast enough to lose them. Eventually, a good trail by a small lake to the southwest of Heart Lake gave us hope that there’d be a better option.

Nope. Crashing down the steep hillside above the lake, the shrubberies were fully overhead. I’d step down small creek beds, a veggie belay in each hand. The bugs got so bad I put on my shell. Matt continued on, and I’d hear him crashing around ahead of me. Most of my caution was completely gone–it was a pell-mell insane no-holds-barred assault on everything separating me from the trail. Type three fun, for that thirty minutes. Rolling downhill might have honestly been an option–maybe someone will come up with a way to surf across thick vegetation. I’d invest in that.

Finally, I reached the lake. Only to realize that I’d have to go back up and over a cliff that came straight out of the water. Bear trails have a telltale, high-waist sort of height to them, where the brush smacks your face and upper body but nothing touches your legs: I followed one of these around, eventually finding Matt in full rain gear at the foot of the lake, surrounded by every mosquito that has ever existed. This is not hyperbole (ok, it is, but it didn’t feel like it then). The bugs were insane. Twenty of the little bloodsuckers hovered around my face, while  hundreds more crawled on my soft shells, trying to find an opening. It was absurd. We just packed up and got out of there.

Maybe it’s people I climb with, or maybe it’s something I bring to the trips, but most walks out are quiet. Tiredness or eagerness to get done pushed our legs along. We moved fast, eventually lost the bugs, and pulled into the trailhead as things were starting to get darker. I dropped Matt off at his car (he later told me that he had to sleep for a few hours on the side of Swan Lake en route back to Kalispell), while I headed south to our family cabin.

I don’t have exact figures. My guess is that the day is twenty miles, 6000ft ish of gain from the side we went. And for the love of all the mountain sense, follow the easy route back out.

Thanks to Matt for his wonderful company and suggesting the climb–it was an honor to eat summit snacks and suffer alongside him.

The view from Jack’s ledge: my personal account

When looking dead on, the east facing layers of the wall gave little away. Water ran down from hanging snowfields in the evening heat, wetting out many of the lower gullies that would have been funnels for rockfall even without streams cascading down. Pitching it out through weaknesses we couldn’t see on the bare rock would keep us on the wall for days. Sometimes, turning my head to the side helps to cheat the lack of direct perspective into finding a viable route—maybe that ledge connects. Maybe I just can’t see how.

Perhaps not strangely, trying to write the experience of watching Jack, my climbing partner, fall some weeks ago feels so similar to the process we took in scouting the route: looking at an unclimbed, unknown face to decipher a safe way up. Seeing the broad picture, while knowing that the details too fine-grained to be visible at that distance could well snag the whole attempt. Or prove the small holds that hold up a path through difficult, vertical ground.

A couple of reporters I respect did a fine job of telling the story. Why add to that? Why go on? Because writing, for me, is processing. I don’t sit down with the full compliment of ideas that remain after I’ve stopped typing. Time accrued between all the movements of key strokes, pathways crossing and ideas smashing together in the effort to paste them from the football fields of loose papers in my head to somewhere some other human can read them—what results is always more than where I start. So I’m unapologetic in that this is a personal account.

Internet content is so perfect so often–blue skies, huge stoke, big success. I’m a human being, and want to be viewed as such in my pursuits. This post is another contribution towards keeping balance in who I am as mediated by my blog.

A lot of people have asked how I’m doing. This piece is also for them, because my goal here is to process and evoke more of what was going through my head as things went down, the sorts of things that don’t fit into newspaper stories or pithy quotes. Things perfect for rambling along, like I usually do, on this blog.

Of late, I’ve tried to broaden my range of mountain mentors. Climb and ski with people who have seen gnarly things happen. Who have experience. Who can teach me the safer ways to do the things that I want to master. Jack is absolutely that guy—he’s done a lot in different conditions, and put in his time. Hell, he just turned sixty. So when he fell, I was pretty sure he’d get his axe in quickly.

He slid out of my vision, obscured by the rock bend in the couloir. I yelled his name a couple times, then heard rockfall beneath me, then silence.

Maybe he couldn’t hear me. I yelled again, and started traversing back out into the snow, where I could eventually see the bottom of the snow couloir. Some 500ft beneath me, the snow ended on a scree bench, with a big rock on the right side. Jack wasn’t on the snow, wasn’t on the bench. I yelled again.

The dull idea that he might be dead arrived. If he hadn’t stopped, he had probably gone to the bottom of the basin. My mind went straight to Touching the Void, a classic of mountaineering literature, in which a climber cuts the rope to his partner then assumes his death, only to later find that his partner survived. Recovery or rescue, I had to climb down and take a look. There’d be no peace if I didn’t do that. Maybe he’d survived.

Melt in the snow had shaped the surface of the couloir into a V-shape with a runnel in the crotch. That runnel had the hardest snow and made the best climbing on the way up. Gravity pulled Jack straight down it, and his ride had erased the steps we’d kicked. I’d plant my axe, kick both feet down, plant, and keep moving. It took forever. Imaginary phone conversations with Jack’s wife Leslie, who I’d never met, played in my head. What would I say? Kicking both feet in, I thought about the long, solo walk out if I found nothing below me. I thought about walking up the steps of the Belly River ranger station, about how I’d report a fatality. The words I might use.

We’d been more confident about the couloir than any other part of our route. Once there, we were home free. We’d have been atop the ridge in another 300ft. Perhaps we’d gotten too excited. Maybe lost focus, or didn’t properly respect the steep snow, an element I spend so much time on as to be dangerously comfortable. Plant the axe.

Whether alive or dead, I reminded myself that my own safety was key. Nothing heroic or risky—I was getting myself out of here. Make each move count. Kick the steps. Plant the axe. Go take a look, and then make a plan.

My crampons finally crunched into the scree at the bottom of the couloir. A pile of slush had come down the runnel with Jack and fanned out on the ledge. I still couldn’t see below me, so I traversed climber’s right for an angle. Something in me braced for seeing his body on a ledge. For not seeing anything at all, and having to walk out bearing a news so much heavier than my pack.

His green shirt caught my eye first. He sat on a ledge perhaps 200ft below the snow, head in his hands. Nearly empty, his pack lay behind him. It must have broken open during the fall. His helmet was gone. Somehow, he’d fallen down 500ft of snow and then through the ledges of a waterfall to stop here, not just alive, but sitting up. A rope and some of his gear glistened where the water ran around them a hundred feet above.

Alive. There’s so much vitality in just the word. It had been roughly an hour since Jack had fallen, and all the whirring in my mind had its answer. Alive I could work with. Injured, we could handle that. Instantly, everything changed. This was no recovery, no long walk out with terrible news, no situation beyond my ability to change—this was a rescue. Climbers understand focus on a goal, and I now had one: see how he was, and then make a plan. Keep moving forward.

The noise of the creek running next to him kept him from hearing any of the yells I made as I got close. There was blood on his arms, pants, and as I reached him, the first thing he asked caught me off guard: “Where am I?” Head trauma was my first thought. I cleared up where he was, that he’d fallen, and handed him the water bottle. He knew who I was, and seemed pretty on top of things given how far he’d fallen, but asked several times how far he’d fallen from the snow.

The ledge was decently flat, but the loose scree and rocks had me worried that he was still in danger of falling, so anchoring him in seemed important. We’d split part of the rack before starting our ascent up the couloir, so I arranged a quick anchor and clipped it to Jack’s harness.

His right arm was obviously broken, he had rib pain, and complained of a little pain in his back and neck. A big gash just above his left elbow was still bleeding a little, so we taped that shut. I got him to lay down on his pack, and tried to keep him from moving, as the neck and spine worried me, but he still had sensation in his limbs. His crampons were tethered around his ankles, but had been blown off his boots somewhere in the fall. I took them off.

Several times, Jack told me he was sorry. I told him there was nothing to be sorry for, because he hadn’t died on me.

We had no cell phone, and it’s dubious as to whether coverage would have reached the ledge anyway. No satellite beacon. No radio. I thought about our options, then heard a telltale thwacking. Glacier National Park is cursed by helicopter tours that buzz overhead at least once an hour on the busy days. I could perhaps signal to them, and get word out that way. Jack’s tent is a yellow Bibler, so I hung it on the snowfield next to us and tried to write HELP on it with mud. You can imagine how well mud and water sticks to a single wall, four season, waterproof tent. Instead, I gave Jack the job of listening for helicopters. Every time one came by, I’d jump up and wave like the lunatic I hoped I’d look like with an orange shirt in one hand and orange stuff sack in the other.

D: “We’re going to get you out of here.”
J: “I don’t know how.”

He was shocky, but I was blown away how stable he seemed. There was no way to know if he had internal damage. It seemed important to find a better spot to him to rest, given that I had no idea how long we’d be there. Moving him wasn’t a good idea, as the neck and spine pain made all too clear, but he was in the middle of a rock funnel. I looked all over in a fifty foot radius, and realized that he was in about the flattest, widest spot. Pushing mud and rocks downhill, I dug out a platform for him, lined it with my pad, then inflated his on top of mine. It wasn’t far, maybe four feet, but the anchor wouldn’t work with the new spot. I slung a rock then deadman’d it in the snow above him, doubling my cordalette to make the new connection. Jack managed to butt scoot himself up onto the pads, and he was finally a bit more comfy.

I’d arrived at Jack at approximately 12:30. It seemed important to stay long enough to get him stable and see how he was doing. But with each passing helicopter, there came a realization that we were still a long way from help. My attempts to flag them down did nothing, which isn’t their fault—why would they be looking for injured climbers during a scenic tour, especially in a place like where we were? I began to reorganize gear out of my bag, taking only the bare essentials I’d need for a quick trip out. Near the top of Jack’s pack, I left my sleeping bag, food, his bivy sack, two liters of water, and some layers. He also had the stove and pot to heat up dinner if things got cold.

Leaving meant a series of gambles. That he’d remain stable. That I could get help to him efficiently. That he could put on the sleeping bag when it got cold, or open the pack with so little strength in his right arm. But as 2pm rolled around, I felt the daylight shrinking. To get out, raise the alarm, then actually have help get there that day, I had eight hours and change. I’d have a mission, a purpose in what I was doing. He’d be left alone, to deal with the pain and taking care of himself. I don’t envy that position, and I think it’s the way harder spot.

Just after 2pm, I held Jack’s hand for a minute, told him that I’d get help coming, and set off. On my decisions hung not only my own safety, but the ability to get the word out. In my mind, failure wasn’t an option. I had to succeed. Maybe this seems strange, but after so much high consequence skiing this spring, tons of time in no fall zones—such a mindset is a familiar place for me. Not comfortable per se; I’m too wary of the danger for that, but I can operate there without wigging out. Let me be clear: I’m no hero. I didn’t do anything extraordinary or way outside my comfort zone to help rescue Jack. If there’s anything that sets my actions apart from what someone else might have done, I’d cite that ability to operate in vertical terrain with a cool head, an attribute of any good mountain partner.

At the bottom of the snow, I found Jack’s axe in the slush pile. That gave me two, and with the steps I’d kicked, it was quick work getting up the snow to the ridge. Jack had given me some directions about the descent on the other side. As Jack’s daughter Lucy later pointed out, it might have been a little foolish to ask a guy who had just hit his head about how to descend to Lake Margaret. Instead, his directions were spot on, and I ran down scree and glissaded until the double-overhead vegetation swallowed me on the shores of the lake. Since there’s no trail around, I walked straight in, boots and all, and waded the shore to make better time.

It didn’t feel like a rescue. More like I was moving through the mountains at speed, with high stakes, and trying to move quick. Not much more than that.

My plan was to start looking in the campgrounds for a party with a satellite phone. If that didn’t seem to work, I’d hang my pack and trail run to the ranger station in the Belly, some seven or eight miles away. Running shoes had seemed like an excess, but now they were security. I took the time to walk back the wrong way to check Mokowanis Junction, and found Maddie and Jeanne as the sole occupants—they immediately offered their satellite communicator, and Maddie graciously spent the next hours typing out messages, finding signal, and hanging out with a smelly guy whose mind was elsewhere.

I’m guilty of disliking Spot beacons, satellite phones, and anything else that provides a link to the outside world in places where it shouldn’t intrude. I’m guilty of thinking that they create a false reliance on technology—and there is some truth to that. I’m guilty of enjoying the distance felt when you absolutely can’t mess up.  But when someone is injured or dying in front of you, those reasons seem stupid. We’re lucky to have incredible rescue folks, and live in a modern age in an advanced country. Deciding to not take advantage of that for the reasons I listed looks cruelly on anyone who cares about me or the people I’m out there with. Outdoor pursuits are often selfish, but that cruelty is beyond my own comfort. I’ve since gotten a Spot locator, and plan to get it running.

Eventually, it got past 7pm. The satellite text messages we were sending back and forth with the emergency dispatch and, by proxy, Glacier rangers weren’t going through. I worried that the rescue wouldn’t happen that night, which would leave Jack exposed. What if something had taken a turn for the worse? What if he hadn’t been as stable as I thought? With Maddy and Jeanne, I weighed the benefits of staying vs heading out to the Belly River ranger station. If I was leaving, I wanted at least two hours before it got dark. Wandering solo in the Belly after dark is a poor idea. Just as I was waffling, a new text came through instructing me to hike that way and meet a ranger hiking out to meet me. In minutes, my pack was on and I was out of there after some lame attempt to express my gratitude to the two wonderful people who had helped us so much.

Hiking at a fast pace felt good. I hurtled along, pushed by the knowledge that the window of daylight was closing. Somewhere by Cosley Lake, I met the ranger. Immediately, we sat down and fixed Jack’s location over the radio. This same ranger had seen us on our way in, and also ran into Jack last year when he and Al climbed the Cusp. He had been out hiking all day, summited two peaks with some mutual friends staying with him, and then bounced out to meet me after hearing about what was happening on the radio. I credit him with incredible care, professionalism, and hospitality, as we eventually walked back out to the ranger station, where I spent the night. I remember thinking on the way in that it’d be cool to spend a night there someday—be careful what you wish for, I guess.

As we hiked out, the radio periodically gave us some info—a park contract helicopter had spotted Jack, and he was waving back. Two Bear Air, a local search helicopter capable of doing a high angle rescue with their hoist, was dispatched and en route. Then things calmed down and we didn’t hear anything until the ranger called in to ask. It turned out that Jack was by then en route to Browning in an ambulance, which was the final bit of relief. We couldn’t hear the helicopters, as they were on the other side of Mt. Merritt. I felt a long way away from Jack, from the events unfolding. That didn’t stop me from sleeping like a rock though, so it must have not bothered me much.

In the morning, I walked out with my friends who had been staying with the ranger. Their company made quick work of the six miles out from the ranger station, and I really appreciate them for it. I got out, started texting family to let them know that I was safe and what had happened, then tried to get in touch with Jack’s family by reaching out on facebook. Turns out that they’d been trying to get my phone number, but nobody they’d asked had it. Meanwhile, I drove to Browning in case that Jack was still there. It was hot in the car, I was sweaty, and super hungry as I’d basically skipped two meals after hiking and climbing a full circumnavigation of Mt. Merritt. Before I went on my way, I relayed the story to Jack’s daughters and wife by phone. Jack was in Great Falls, and I offered to come down there, but was graciously asked not to to allow Jack to rest. Made sense to me, so I pointed the ship for home. Thanks to Ben for meeting up with me at the Two Med Grill for food—I really appreciated his company.

In the wake of all that happened, it hasn’t seemed to affect my mountaining—two days later, Matt Brake and I did a big climb with a significant bit of snow travel on top. It was attention worthy, but I felt at home. Two weeks out, I made a committing solo traverse over a route new to me through Floral Park. Boldness and risk still matter to me; perhaps I’m more acutely aware of the consequences.

Mountains sustain and provide so much for me and those who I adventure with while holding the potential to injure or kill us. It’s a relationship of love and real danger. The work of a mountaineer’s life is to walk the fine ridge lines carefully, trying to anticipate getting smacked down amidst the joy. There may be no articulate answer or solution to the opposing ways that a mountain can make your life wonderful and simultaneously threaten to take it away, but I’ll keep looking, rambling here, and trying to learn and experience what I can.

Jack is recovering well at home. He’s walking, in just a neck brace and cast, and spunky as ever.

Glacier National Park climbing accident report, June 27, 2015

This is a media statement I wrote up and cleared with Jack and his family. It was an honor to be out climbing with him, and I look forward to getting out there again once he’s back at it (and we sort out our tahini game).

Climber injured and rescued from below the Lithoid Cusp in Glacier National Park
A statement by the climbers:

On Saturday, June 27th, mountaineers Jack Beard and David Steele, both of Kalispell, attempted to pioneer a new route up the glacial wall beneath the Lithoid Cusp in Glacier National Park. While no ropes were needed, the route traversed narrow ledges and featured much steep scrambling on loose ground over exposure. The final eight hundred feet of their planned ascent gained the ridge top by way of a steep snow chute.

Halfway up the snow chute, at approximately 11:30am, Beard lost his footing in the loose snow. He was unable to arrest, slid down the snow, and over the rocks and waterfall beneath. Steele, who was in the lead, could not see where Beard had stopped. He down-climbed the snow, then traversed a rock ledge, and spotted Beard on a small outcropping some two hundred feet below. Both men were using crampons and ice axes in the snow.

Steele descended to Beard, who had sustained fractures in his ribs, spine, and right forearm, as well as a concussion. After building a platform, anchoring Beard, flagging the area with a yellow tent draped on a snowbank, and arranging provisions so that Beard could spend the night, Steele then attempted to flag down passing flight-seeing helicopters. At 2pm, he departed to get help, climbing back up to the couloir, up the snow, and then descending the other side to Margaret Lake.

From Margaret Lake, Steele descended to Mokowanis Lake and began to ask backcountry campers if they had a satellite phone or any means of reporting the emergency. At Mokowanis Junction, Maddie Martin, a thru-hiker on the Pacific Northwest trail, offered hers. Martin sent the first SOS message dictated by Steele around 5:45pm.

Alone on the ledge, Beard endured his injuries and rockfall that popped the inflatable pad he lay on. He moved into a sleeping bag and layers as evening approached.

Assisted by Martin, Steele sent and received several messages from Glacier Park dispatch. Eventually, rangers instructed Steele to head east toward the Belly River Ranger Station to meet a ranger headed the opposite direction to meet him. They connected around 8:15pm and used radio contact to fix Beard’s location for searchers.

Once spotted by the park contract helicopter, Two Bear Air was requested due to the steep terrain and lack of landing area. Two Bear staff were lowered, arranged Beard, and transported him to Many Glacier. Beard then went to Browning by ambulance, and was transferred to Great Falls due to the extent of his injuries.

Beard and Steele are immensely grateful for all the efforts put forth in this rescue. They’d like to thank especially Maddie and Jeanne Martin, Bruce Gillis, the Glacier National Park dispatch and incident teams, as well as the crews of the helicopters. The speed and ease of the rescue was made possible by the incredible crew at Two Bear Air, and both climbers tip their helmets to those fine folks. 
Beard and Steele are confident that if they’d carried a large quantity of tahini in their supplies, nothing could have possibly gone wrong.

Solstice Solstice 2015: still ski time

I don’t know about you, but the calendar saying summer doesn’t really feel like much of a command.

Over the solstice, I managed a couple ski days on Logan Pass, one with Taylor Streit, who stars in the opening interview. The last line is one that I’ve stared at for a long, long time. It’s nice to have gone up there and skied it, but I don’t need to hit it again–at least not in these conditions.

Sistertime in the springtime: The Tooth, Logan Pass, and Rainier’s DC

In my travails lately, I’ve had a few conversations with different buddies about the difficulty of finding people to get out on adventures. Scheduling seems to be the biggest issue, made worse by the relatively small numbers of more-epic outdoors folk in the rural area where we live. Their words ring true for me–but the variability of my schedule gives a bit more flexibility. Even better, the two trips I’ve taken to the pacific northwest this spring have yielded an especially nice series of scheduling benefits: getting out to play with my sister, Beth.

Some background is helpful: growing up, competition kept things somewhat rough between us. Two years of age gap keep us close enough to make a constant friction, to the point that our mother tells a story of pouring out juice in a measuring cup to satisfy that neither was getting more than the other. Scrabble, when we both play, is a blood sport. At one point in my early teens, I told her that snowboarding “was going over to the dark side.” Naturally, she found things that weren’t the ones that I wanted to do: karate, showing horses for a number of years, and eventually finding a passion for theater tech that now informs her job as a commercial lighting salesperson in Seattle.

The moment I left for college in 2007, the antipathy between us disappeared almost overnight. Physical distance seemed to erase the need to compete with each other under the same roof, and though I’ll admit it took me a couple months to realize what was going on, it was a new era of mutual affection. It bums me out now to look back on all the years that I let petty competition steer my emotions elsewhere. True sibling respect is an amazing thing. It was some level of factor in Beth heading to PLU after me. But it wasn’t until she took up indoor bouldering in her third year that we were doing the same active things.

Later, she started climbing on ropes too. For her graduation present last spring, we gave Rainier a shot. Bike commuting twenty to thirty miles a day in Seattle, plus climbing four days a week, has tapped the same endurance genes that I make use of. She’s damn fast in the hills. I can’t even hope to keep up on a bike. Another era has started in our siblingship: outdoor buddies. The three trips in this post are a celebration of the fact that I’m a lucky dude–I get to spend family time out in the vertical world.

Our first adventure this spring was on The Tooth, a four pitch alpine trad route (5.4-5.7) on Snoqualmie Pass. This happened during an off day of my Volcanic Activity tour. Beth has been leading in the mid 5.10s outside and in the upper 5.11s indoors, so the climbing was cake for her. With summer planning looming, I wanted to get out and see how she did with being an efficient rope team while trying to push our way up some multipitch trad. April 27th was the date we went. Snoqualmie Pass was barely open this winter for skiing, but even still, it felt too early. Rain had fallen the night before. Trip reports, though plentiful, didn’t seem too helpful what the approach was, exactly. My favorite includes this phrase: ” beautiful super-redundant nuclear blast proof rappel anchors located every 30 feet down the Tooth.” Which seemed positive.   Either way, Steve had lent us his trad rack (thank you kind sir!) and we wanted to make it happen.

So we rolled into the lower Alpental lot with a dim idea of where we wanted to go. For those reading this, the easiest approach seems to be to take the lake overlook trail, circle around the cirque, and then head for The Tooth. The gully separating the gendarme to the SE along the ridge has rap anchors in it (35m each) for the way down, and it looks like some people go up it too.  Beth on the way up:
Winter still clung to the upper alpine. Our postholes were up to the thigh. It was exactly the kind of snow that makes me wonder why anyone would ever want to walk through it instead of skiing. Still, we made it to the base of the climb, racked up, and I was off like a shot. Dry rock, blue skies, solid placements, easy climbing. Easy to see why everyone and their grandmother has climbed the Tooth–though it’s popular, it’s fun. Stringing the first two pitches together wasn’t at all difficult, even with a half rope doubled up. Running two 70s, you could do the whole thing in two pitches. First pitch:

Beth on her way up:

At change over, things went quick. Beth restacked the rope as I racked up and headed off up the next super short pitch. Third pitch was easily the most fun, with a couple of secure but airy moves on the face. We scrambled the pitch after that, and then I placed a few pieces on the final wall before the summit. Looking down the final wall as Beth comes up:

And with that, we were up top. We’d moved quick, climbed well, and had it all to ourselves. Really fun–I think my concentration on taking the selfie murdered my smile. Bigger fish to fry later: Then, we rapped off. I’ve found that the easier trad climbing I’ve done is actually the worst to rappel, since it’s not overhanging or even vertical. I was forced to punt the rope down over and over again through the shelves. To avoid snags, we rapped four times to where we started climbing, then twice more down the snow couloir to save the strange scramble around the gendarme. If you’re going, note that the second rap station in the snow couloir is on climbers’/rappellers’ left against the couloir wall and has multiple slings.
After that, we crawled our way back through the mush, then down the trail. It had been a really awesome day, Beth had crushed it with her follows and pulling gear. Her skills make me really excited to get out more this summer when she’s not busy with all her friends that are getting married.

Over Mother’s Day weekend, Beth and her manfriend Matt made it back to Kalispell on a mad dash from Seattle. They rolled in late, then we all packed into my grandparents’ pickup with four bikes for proper Mothers’ Day festivities with a ride up the Going To the Sun road. To be honest, I didn’t take much in the way of pictures because I was chasing Beth’s furious pace up the road. She puppy-dog’d the other three of us on the way up the Loop, and after I caught up and tried to hang on as she powered up the steep grade. Elevation and continued steepness aren’t what she deals with while bike commuting. Bicycling in general isn’t my forte. Lactic acid burned in my thighs and I repeatedly told my legs to shut up as we fairly flew up the road. Maybe she was just being polite in that she didn’t dust me. Either way, we made the top in time for another sibling shot.

It’s good to be humbled by your younger sister, but even better to see her so excelling at something athletic that she enjoys. I just hope she waits for me when she really becomes an athletic mountain terror and I’m panting in her wake. As my mom does now, maybe I’ll be able to take a little bit of credit for helping to get her there.

As I mentioned earlier, we gave Rainier a go last spring. Due to my inexperience leading and planning, and a general lack of experience with big packs, that trip didn’t get past Camp Muir. So I said we’d give it another try this spring. My initial trip to the PNW this spring didn’t see that attempt. Beth texted to say that she had a weather window, I hemmed and hawed a little, and then committed, seeing other possibilities for after our climb. As I did when some friends and I skied Rainier in March, my trip over detoured through Yakima, White Pass, and then to Paradise.

I camped in the parking lot Thursday night, and went in to get our walk-up permit for Muir on Saturday. Folks at the Climbing Information Center were supremely helpful both on the phone and also in person–thanks to them for route advice and their friendly demeanor. I walked out with our permit, climbing passes for Beth and Andy, a college friend of hers that would be accompanying us, and blue bags. Then, I hopped in the car for Seattle, shopped for food and other essentials at Feathered Friends, bought some trad gear on a steal from Rob (thanks!), and hopped in Beth’s car to head back down to Paradise. I’ll explain in a minute.

Details on Rainier climbing, in case you’re curious: A climbing pass ($45/$32 for ages 25+/<24) is required for anyone going above 10,000ft. You need to register for your climb, and during the offseason from Labor Day to Memorial Day, you can self register. If spending the night out, you’ll also need a backcountry camping permit, which you can reserve, or also pick up as a walkup if the prior reservation window has ended. Rainier’s climbing rangers have always been helpful, and they run the best kept NPS climbing info blog I’ve seen, with good posts on current route conditions. First timers typically take the Disappointment Cleaver or Emmons Glacier routes.

Back to our trip. Rainier poses a big elevation risk for folks living at low elevations, like nearly everything nearby, because they end up gaining nearly 14,000ft over a period of a few days. HACE and HAPE are a concern, plus exhaustion. A safe rule of thumb that I learned while in Alaska was to only move 1000ft of elevation for every night spent sleeping there. Essentially, if moving camp between say 11,000ft and 14,000ft, spend three nights at 11,000ft before bumping up. People can and do move much faster, and altitude affects everyone differently at different times, so I’m not sure how much that rule applies for quicker climbs like Rainier. That said, I’ve found that sleeping at Paradise the night before beginning a climb on Rainier offers the benefit of 5000ft of gain before the trip even starts. Plus, it cuts out any driving–you’re there, and an early start is easy. Hence our return to Paradise from Seattle. We sorted gear, did a z-pulley demonstration, and fell asleep in anticipation of our early start.

Beth and Andy all saddled up at 6am: I took skis, because the five grand of perfectly good skiing between Paradise and Camp Muir would be wasted if I walked. Beth and Andy moved along at a great pace. Once on the Muir snowfield, we took breaks every thousand feet.

We were among the first to pull into Muir, arriving just after 11am. Beth and Andy had done really well staying hydrated with their packs and the steady, fast pace. Andy sported a headache, but both Beth and I felt great, which should be a tribute to learning a bit more and good genes. Another benefit of bringing your sister: Beth set the lunch bar high with smoked gouda, triscuts, and dates. She made me little delicious sandwiches of all three while I dug out a proper snow kitchen next to the tent.

Remodeling at home is expensive and time consuming. But when you’re snow camping, you can build countertops, storage, seating, and windscreens wherever you please. I went out for a little ski lap above Muir, and snapped this picture. Since it was the weekend, the trail of mountain zombies stretched down the snowfield and camp quickly filled up with tents. Once back, I took a nap. Then we dove into crevasse rescue practice on the snow rollover just out of camp. Demonstrating a z-pulley in the parking lot had helped clarify a few of the complicated bits. Andy served as ballast, and I demonstrated. Then Beth did it under my supervision. Then by herself, as I hung on the other side of the rope  and thought about dinner. Andy, safely pulled out of the “crevasse” for the second time. Andy, during dinner, decided that he wasn’t planning on accompanying us on our summit push the following morning. His headache remained, even after a bunch of water and a nap. That left Beth and I planning on waking up at 1am, out of camp by 2am. We crawled into our bags, and proceeded to eat a whole bar of chocolate between the three of us, giggling about the ridiculous words printed into each different square of the bar. Mountain moments are like that: nerves or tiredness or the sheer tide of lunacy sweeps over a whole group of people together and you find yourself eating spicy, pop-rock, fine chocolate in a tent in the snow above 10,000ft. I hate that overused Kerouac quote about “the mad ones”, but lying there in my bag, it occurred to me that they’re the ones I truly understand and care for most.

1am came way too early. My breakfast pastries (pain au chocolat and cinnamon roll) were delicious. At 2am, we trundled out across towards Cathedral Gap, one other party starting up Gib Ledge. We moved well, and not long later at the gap, were treated to a sight: the lamps of a whole pile of teams that left around midnight shone above use, illuminating the route we’d take under the canopy of stars. I wish my camera and skills could capture things like that. We layered down a bit there, then continued through the flats, up the mixed rock and snow at the bottom of the Cleaver, and up to the top. Given the low snowfall this winter, things above the Cleaver were not as normal. The route typically jags climbers’ right to connect with the Emmons shoulder. Then, it ascends up to the crater rim. Instead, we traversed the top of the cracks in the Ingraham, went over a ladder, and found ourselves above Gibraltar Rock, still traversing. It was one hell of a sunrise. The big holes weren’t new territory for me, but they cemented the reason we’d done the practice the day before for Beth. It was a packed, prepared route designed for guided clients. Hand lines and placed running protection guarded the most exposed sections. Even still, it had all the massive grandeur and scale that big, humbling piles of snow and rock should. Beth later told me that she hadn’t ever felt that small. Her courage in that new environment was really impressive, and she handled the holes and exposure like a veteran. After crossing above Gibraltar Rock, we wound across to the Nisqually Cleaver, where the route ascended again. Wind had been blasting us since turning the corner. Fog reached down and obscured the group of five we’d begun to catch. Whether or not the lenticular was coming down, the summit was fogged in, and we still had 1300ft to go. So we talked about the weather worsening, comfort levels, and how we felt. The weather worried me. Beth agreed, and we turned around to make the walk back down. But first, a sibling selfie:

It didn’t bother me to retreat. We’d made it to 13,100ft, and fast. Things looked potentially grim. Sure, we’d worked hard and as always, it’s frustrating to fall short of the summit. But to see Beth move to so confidently and well in that kind of terrain is the the type of thing that doesn’t require reaching an arbitrary point atop a big hill. Plus, the benefit of turning back there is that we can go and do it again next year. Hopefully the weather will be better, because I really want to pick out the Seattle skyline from the summit.

On our way through Ingraham Flats, we detoured to try and tie down a tent that wasn’t staked into the snow at all, but simply corded to the tent next to it. Each gust would flap it completely up in the air, only to set it down. Maybe we helped. You can see that the cloud had come down to the top of the Cleaver in this photo. All the way back to Seattle, we’d turn in our car seats to see if the cloud would lift–it never did, and that’s some consolation for our decision to turn back.

Back in camp, we spent a while trying to find Andy, only to realize that he’d gone off for a little exploration on the rock buttress above camp. He was stoked to see us, and his headache was gone. We pulled camp, and they took off. I loaded up, and made turns all the way to Alta Vista before walking the rest of the way to the car.

The snack spot at Paradise has a huge benefit compared with some of the other ones I’ve experienced: soft serve. It was 10am, I’d been up since 1am, and so it felt totally justified to be lying on a rock in my sandals, looking scruffy, waiting for Beth and Andy with my ice cream.

Getting to do outdoor stuff with your family is a huge gift. Anyone who spends their time in the hills knows the amazing things that happen when you disappear into the lofty realm for a few days, and how the experience  lingers on afterward. Infusing that into a familial bond is amazing. Sharing it with my sister is a tremendous honor, and just like the expanded ideas that come from my own experiences, there’s a shining future of climbs out there for us. Thanks to Matt for his care and driving late at night and belaying, Andy for accompanying us on Rainier, Steve for the rack, and most importantly my parents for giving me such a rad adventure buddy. Love you, Beth.

Having Vulture and eating Granite too: a Glacier Park refusal to compromise

Back in the third week of May, just after I returned home from the PNW, I found myself in the midst of a three part vortex of scheduling. Great weather had me all hopped up on any number of good ideas. Then, the details wouldn’t mesh. I had a couple days of misfires spent at home or taking a last-ditch afternoon trail run to make up for a perfect day more or less wasted. So when Ben suggested a three day trip to ski Vulture Peak, I was in. Then, I realized that some friends were going into Granite Park the last day of the three we’d planned. It seemed like I was going to bail on the Granite crew for the bigger, wilder trip. Then, I reconsidered. Since the trailheads were close, I’d be able to switch trips and stay out for three nights, four days. At the time, it occurred to me that the transition would be a little wild. But it was my chance to do both, rather than pick. And if you can have your trip and eat it too, why not walk a bit further?

Vulture Peak, tucked away in the southern portion of what I consider the North Fork area of Glacier, offers three approach options full of bushwhacking. You can go in from Logging Lake, and brave the beaver ponds and scramble out of the sheer Grace Lake basin. Jefferson Pass to the north offers a long approach option as well. Our route, Packer’s Roost to Flattop Mtn to West Flattop to Trapper Peak to camp, seemed the best for the conditions: we’d take advantage of snow above the shrubberies, be able to ski more, and it would connect me closer to Granite after. However, a couple factors made it worse: the road was gated at Avalanche, so we’d have to ride bikes for nearly seven miles before we’d even start the walk. The Mineral Creek bridge probably wasn’t in. In summer, it’s nearly twenty miles of walking to camp via the route we took. Skis would cut that down, but as we set off from Avalanche, our bikes loaded down, 4:30am on May 21st, I felt like the trip was off to a sufficiently insane start.

It didn’t make sense to bring the food and clothes that I’d want at Granite all the way to Vulture and back, so I devised a genius cache method using a bear keg. Trouble was, the keg has no outside attachment points, which I can only assume it so keep it from being more easily handled by no less a creature than a bear. It toppled off my bike rack twice en route to Packer’s Roost, which didn’t even concern me as we stashed our bikes and started the walk, but would come back to haunt me two days later.

Downfall kept things interesting in the three or so miles to Mineral Creek. Once there, it became pretty apparent that the spring runoff that started so early this year wasn’t quite fordable. Stacks of planks to be installed sometime later this summer left our crossing option as the four bridge cables the dangled over the swift moving current. I don’t think he liked the idea, but Ben volunteered to go first. Feet on the bottom and hands on the uppers, he made a series of weight shifting moves, sliding hands, then feet, then hands across the gap. I shuffled across next. Zach takes to the trapeze:

Typical stream crossing etiquette is to unbuckle your bag in case you fall in. Given the moves we were making, it seemed like a loose bag would prove a bigger balance hazard. So they stayed ratcheted on. It’s a good thing none of us toppled in. From there, the Flattop Mountain trail climbs up switchbacks along a nice gorge with a waterfall. Somewhere about the 5500ft mark, we ran into snow. Morning air made for solid walking, so we booted for a while before switching to skis somewhere past the Flattop Mountain campground.

We then had some decisions to make. The trail continues across Flattop, eventually dumping you out at Fifty Mountain campground. On the map, it seemed to make a nice, even line across. But ski touring is different, because the opportunity to take advantage of gravity can cut a lot of effort out of traversing cross country. We ditched the trail, electing to head up to the summit of Flattop, then ripped skins and used the downhill to cover a few miles of contouring on the west side. The aim was to find a way to get down to Continental Creek and cross. Ben drops in on a wind-drifted gully that took us perhaps half the way down.

As you can see, Ben did solid work on his tan this trip. More on that later. Shrubs and dirt forced our skis back onto our packs, we dropped to valley bottom, and bushwhacked up the other side. For future reference and route planning, it’s worth noting that the pass at the north end of the Continental Creek drainage is the highest point of the valley. So the further north you go, the less elevation you have to drop in the transition to West Flattop. There’s also a spectacular waterfall in there, on the southern end, probably well over 150ft high, that I’ve never seen photographed or heard about. Next time.

Once atop West Flattop, the skinning was easy. The tops really are quite flat, and go on further than you’d like. Trapper was our next objective, and we had to rip skins then put them back on because of a dip en route.

On our return, we skied from the saddle to the right of the summit and debris. But to keep things easier with our overnight bags, the ridge to the left was our approach option. By this point, we’d done a lot of walking. I was feeling the pack, and the effort. Thankfully, the views, with the stark contrast of the snow line, were worth it. Zach and Ben making their way up with Flattop behind them. On the far right, below treeline, you can see the cut of the Going To The Sun Road on the Garden Wall.

Vulture itself had been growing steadily larger all day. Atop Trapper, I got my first really good look at it. Red line was our descent the next day, with camp at the bottom of the line.

Bottom was the key too: From Trapper to camp, it was pretty much downhill. Much to our surprise and delight, the NW side of Trapper delivered perfect corn. I dropped in first, and by turn number three, was yelling with sheer, all-out happiness. Zach does his rendition of “heavy pack in great corn”:

This winter, I didn’t spend much time camping in the snow. Since spring, though, I think I’ve made up for that. We made camp with proper distance to the small lakes in the bottom of the basin, complete with a couple scraggly hang trees and nice warm rocks to sit on. Clothesline with a view of Cleveland:

Looking up towards Vulture:

Given that we didn’t want to ski ice, the morning was a casual start. 3400ft of gain with light packs felt like cake after the heavy long day of approach.

The route we followed goes up through the Gyrfalcon Lake basin, then hangs a left to the south to pass over into the Vulture Glacier basin before then heading up the summit snowfields to climber’s right, or the north. There’s a summer option up the direct summit ridge discussed in the Edwards climbers’ guide. Ben took the lead up the final snowfield:

I’ll admit: the summit didn’t feel like much compared to the day of approach, or the looming trip back out. Really, many summits feel pretty dang similar: stratospheric, somewhat sparse and stark between blue sky, white snow, black rocks, with the wind blowing over it all. Of course, the view is always different. But for me, the summits themselves are increasingly less interesting compared with the company you have while you stand on them. I’d spent only a day of inbounds skiing with Zach before, but got to know him way better while we were out there. Ben and I spent some time on Appistoki this spring, but again, three days out gives you some awesome time to see all of someone’s range of ability and emotion under the duress of a hot sun and a heavy pack. These are some seriously awesome gentlemen, and it was an honor to stand with them on such a remote summit.

And as I mentioned, Ben kept working on his tan. He left with burn lines from both the backpack straps and his beacon harness, which I can only say made him look even more attractive.

Looking over towards the South Vulture summit.

Quartz Lake and the northern Whitefish Range:

Then, we got to ski down. Thanks to Ben for grabbing this shot of me dropping in off the summit into the double rollover that ends in the Vulture glacier basin.

Ben and Zach make their way down.

It was good enough to go again, but with the sun beating down, more food back at camp, and our general idea to ski Nahsukin that afternoon, we kept going on down. View of the W face of Nahsukin that we’d ski later in the afternoon:

Zach and Ben lead the way back out of camp after lunch.

Looking back up towards Vulture during the mellow climb up the ridge of Nahsukin. Gyrfalcon Lake isn’t quite fishable yet.

Summit creatures of Nahsukin. It’s worth noting that there is a summit register out there, and if you go, be sure to find and sign it.

Descending the face was a mix of rock dodging, isothermal mush straightening, and making sure we didn’t end up over a cliff. That said, it was a damn sight better than walking back down, and we even enjoyed ourselves. A bit less high fiving and excitement than Vulture though.

Afternoon sun had cooked the traverse back to camp, making it a slow affair. However, this has to be one the prettiest places to be moving slowly. Zach makes a turn or two on our way back to camp. Peak in the center is Trapper.

Dinner for me was some random mix of curry and whatever else I brought. Zach and Ben created a mix of macaroni, hot sauce, ramen spice packets, and instant potatoes that really did taste pretty good. Important phrases like “special cheese sauce” were repeated, to much hilarity, and it seemed like we’d been out a good deal longer only two days. We dug some walls for the tent to prevent doom-by-wind in the night. I fell asleep thinking of the massive day to come.

Up by 4, moving well by 5:30. Clearly, these are some stoked, sunburned guys.

And our 6:45am turns down Trapper. Given the massive debris, I wouldn’t have wanted to ski this at any other time of day. Our early rise made it worth it though, because we got an inch of slush atop refrozen stability.

Back across West Flattop. Across Continental Creek. Up Flattop, and skiing down the south ridge from there towards the Flattop campground. It drug on. We were all tired by that point. The view into the Sperry Basin is terrific from up there too. Only from Heavens Peak have I see it so nicely before, so that’s cool. Somewhere before this shot, I’d eaten the last of my cold mashed potatoes, with only a bar remaining for food before I restocked at Packers. In my food there were some burritos, another mac n cheese, and all kinds of other delights. It was good motivation.

Did I mention that we were tired?

And it continued. Down Flattop, across the bridge cables again, and plowing through the downed timber to get on back. I tried to stay hydrated. My stomach grumbled.

The same urgency that I’d had to get to food carried Ben and Zach along too. Once we reached Packers Roost, they grabbed their bikes, said their goodbyes, and headed out. I was all excited about the food in my bear keg, but upon opening it, realized that something had gone seriously wrong: a cloud of white gas vapors slammed into my face. It seems the extra bottle of stove fuel I’d stashed there had leaked, probably caused by the falls off my bike on the way in. Almost three days of marinating later, the stink made my dry clothes pungent. I couldn’t quite tell if it had gone through the plastic bags that housed my precious burritos and the caramel roll I’d brought for breakfast the next day. But I was ravenous. Smelling the burritos, they seemed ok. So I ate one, as it started to rain a bit.

It’s a downright miracle that my bike and gear all made it from Packer’s Roost to the Loop. Skis, boots, overnight bag, and bear keg were all mounted onto it, hanging off the back in a crazy cantilever that would make the bike wheelie if I didn’t have a hand on the bars. I chugged along in my granny gears, tired. It rained some. All I could think was that if insanity was contagious, I was admiral of a plague ship full of it. Twenty plus miles in, skis on my bike, headed to carry more of all that uphill for yet another night out…

Once at the Loop, I stashed my bike, grabbed the white gas smelling food, put my skis on my pack, and started the final four miles/2500ft gain of my day. There were a few burps, after each I’d smell white gas. Which convinced me: the white gas had seeped through the plastic bags. In my hunger, I’d eaten some. Gross. My lunch for the next day was ruined. Hopefully the breakfast wasn’t. My food was three gels, three bars, and maybe a caramel roll. Perhaps the gents I was meeting up with would have some extra.

Around 5500ft, the snowline reappeared. I put my skis back on, and trudged up to Granite Park to meet the rest of the crew. Facebook had deceived me into thinking that a whole cadre of chalet folks would be in attendance–turns out a poorly timed nap (cough cough LARS) prevented most of them from even getting in the car. Instead, Zach, Breyden, Will, and Sam were all there, having just finished some afternoon naps. I pulled my gear off and started dinner as the first three headed out for an evening lap. I don’t have much in the way of records of difficulty, but the whole trip had left me pretty dang drained. For some sense of scale, this it the Move and map:

But as usual, all the distance was worth it. Granite Park is probably the easiest-attained Best View in Glacier. The whole summer of 2012, when I worked at Granite, I stared at Vulture. It was nice to stare into the sunset and know I’d been over there only that morning.

The next morning, I woke up pretty early. Hungry. Excited for my caramel roll. I got all situated, took a bite, and smelled white gas again. So my breakfast was hosed. I stuffed it back in my pack, muttering. Thankfully, the guys had overpacked a bit, and found some extra food to spare. They saved my day with that, and it was a good thing, because our plan was to go and ski Grinnell Mountain. Zach, one of my coworkers on that Granite summer of 2012, had already been up there. For the rest, it was a new trip, and I’d never brought skis along.

We crossed the divide, dropped across the south Swiftcurrent Glacier, and booted up to the summit ridge of Grinnell. Zach and Breyden leading the change:

They elected to ski more towards the glacier basin, while I went up towards the summit and picked a line through the rocks. Northwest facing made for great turns unwrecked by morning sun. I got to watch all three of them shred down, and the stoke was high.


As we walked back up to the divide for the quick ski back to Granite, I considered how cool it was to not only switch trips, but also get to see old friends and meet new ones twice in the same time out. The beauty in Glacier draws cool people, and the folks I’ve been able to meet doing all this hanging around here are salt of the earth. Another blessing to be counted.

We then headed back down. It felt longer than it actually is. Despite more donated food from the gents, I was really hungry.

So when we hit the Loop, I rerigged my gear and bolted for Avalanche. Thankfully, they hadn’t towed my car. Thankfully, I’d had the foresight to buy some snacks. Thankfully, some nice guy took our group picture. Somehow, they managed to pack all their gear and bikes into only one 4runner, and they headed off. I drove back home, thinking that it really had worked out pretty dang well to have my Vulture and eat Granite too. Maybe I’ll try this stuff more.

Big thanks to Ben and Zach for the time on Vulture, Justin for hosting us at Field Camp prior to departure, Zach, Breyden, Will, and Sam for the good times at Granite, and the good people at Glacier National Park dispatch for handling my backcountry reservations for two separate trips while the actual backcountry office was in training.

Diversion: poems and mountains

Doing two Diversions two weeks in a row wasn’t my plan. However, I really want to keep this blog interesting for anyone who’s out there reading and also for myself, and this is what I’ve been thinking. Hence the following.

This weekend, the recent Wingsuit BASE deaths of Dean Potter and Graham Hunt have been swirling around my mind. My thoughts are with their families, friends, and those whose lives they touched. Personally, I first saw the news on Facebook, and swore loudly as I dropped into the frustration of yet another person I looked up to leaving us too soon. It took going for a run later to get some perspective. For more on how it made me feel, there’s a post from the fall worth checking out. There’s been a serious outpouring of well justified social media condolences. To my mind, the folks at Alpinist always put out really interesting, talented writing: Katie Ives’ piece Poet of Light and Air: Dean Potter is a perfect example, and easily the best thing I’ve read in the aftermath. I’d recommend reading it.

At the end, one particular line caught my eye:

“He lived his life like a poem.”

Which sounds nice. I agree with her statement. But what exactly does that mean? What is a poem? How can one live their life in that way? Given the mystery that surrounds poetry for most people, what does it mean to describe someone’s life as a poem? I want to slog into this, because this is familiar turf, both as a mountain person and also as a poet.

For me, writing poems and doing outdoor adventures are both intensely and essentially creative endeavors. They both follow a few of the same basic pathways within a giant expanse of freedom to choose.

There is the field, space, or area in which it takes place: the general idea for the poem, its form, or the terrain in which the adventure happens.

Some kind of transit is achieved: whether in the woods or on paper, you start one place and end another.

Style likewise. Be it skis or climbing shoes, there’s a method and way that said terrain is traversed. The poet’s style also follows: terse, expansive, some kind of pace unfolding in the way that they place each word, like a footstep, across the page.

Physical terrain is somewhat dictated: you can’t choose to place cliffs, forests, or slopes of snow. But you can choose which ones you want to climb. You choose the conditions in which you wish to go. You choose your partners, or lack thereof.

Poems or stories can spring from anywhere—but for me, the kernel of an idea, the central idea structure towards which I’m writing, that’s somewhat dictated as well by the initial inspiration. It’s very much like rounding a large bend in a trail and staring at a massive face—I stumble onto these ideas, and then writing is the process of fleshing them out so that other people can see how I’m looking at it.

Of course, poems can go in strange directions, and the unifying/underlying ideas aren’t as immobile as rocks or glaciers. So this fluidity to rearrange, combine, and shift can be helpful. It’s the same type of being able to choose, and just like in the mountains, you can be wrong.

Perhaps it’s a learned sense, something like knowing that you’ve turned the steering wheel enough to make the corner just right in a car on the highway, but I can feel when a poem is working. If you don’t turn it right, you’ll go off the road. In my own writing, revision is the process of correcting those turns and noticing when things don’t adhere. Playing in the mountains is the same way—given your method of travel, and the possible ways to use that to get where you’re trying to go, it’s sometimes easy to make the wrong calls and get off route.
This distinction between being on route or way off and struggling matters, because it’s how we differentiate the good life. It’s how we know clean stanzas from messy conglomerations of bullshit masquerading as eminence.

In the mountains or in poems, every move counts. Dispense with punctuation, and things become more austere (check out Cormac McCarthy to see what I mean). Bring a light rack, and you’ll be forced to run things out. Carry doubles of every piece of pro, and you’ll be slow. Decisions carry weight to determine the progress of poems or parties in the mountains, and sometimes there’s room for error—sometimes not.

When I was in school, I often felt that I’d learned about the mechanics and grammar of English only to chuck them out the window when writing poems. Ultra runners now cover in hours what once took months of siege style expedition climbing. I see the same chucking of established conventions happening outside as in writing. Some margins narrow, but some possibilities expand. The ability to draw your own boundaries and succeed within that defined scope is exactly the same.

Putting it all together, a central idea has to happen, taking good advantage of the terrain, the style involved, following the guidelines set down by the travelers given their imagination and abilities and knowledge with every move counting. Success is the objective in either case.

I waded into all of that to give some sense of how I think about poetry, through an outdoor lens. To me, poetry is not some intangible mystery to be dragged forth when people get etherial as a defense for not having the right words. It’s not soul magic. Like painting or digging a proper snow pit, it’s an art. If you’ve never dug a snow pit, you’d be hard pressed to understand much about that art. Same with poems. To be absolutely fair: I can’t explain the art of a perfect fade-away shot in basketball, or how to perfectly drift a car around a turn. Watercolors were the bane of my elementary years. There’s a ton out there that I can’t properly appreciate—but if the talk is of an outdoor life and how it relates to poems, I feel somewhat qualified.

So to live life as a poem—there’s an artistic focus, an imaginative essentiality, an ability to write your own rules based on knowledge and belief and then make proper, worthy moves within those boundaries. I find this statement apt. I find the Alpinist piece a moving, impressive tribute. And hopefully all these words give a sense of why.

Diversion: away//home

Away:

Stark and violently black against the frame of blue sky and background snowfields, the summit lazes impervious above a face filigreed with couloirs. Twisting and plummeting, they connect or careen towards the valley with an abandon bent by gravitational theories, white alleys cutting through cliffs and blank stone. The map in my pack can’t name the peak, can’t make it a reference–who cares what someone named it, though. To the untrained, unread eye, the name of every mountain is possibility. Maybe, with the right weather, the right crew, that could go. Up early, hug the right flank. Drop in once the sun hits it and blast wide turns back to camp. Might work. Nothing known to dull down the flavor. No limits yet imposed. Away, it’s easy to dream, and dream hard.

Home:

At home, though, the labeled names take on their own reverence. Folds cross the map as contours in evidence of the the terra so well cognita. I’ve dreamed this before. I see it again. Maybe this year. We keep talking, but no way. Not enough snow. Not filled in. Wrong crew. Shed cycle setting up again. Stood on top a few times–could we take skis? How many raps? Turns out someone climbed it in ’73. Had to dig to find that on Supertopo. More knife blades. Familiar in how it falls apart. Typical in the long approach. Standing on top means standing in awe, just from a slightly different angle.