Right on, Rainier: a ski jaunt up and down the Fuhrer Finger

NOTE: All photos/videos current to route conditions as of March 5/6, 2015.

Unfolding on layers of rock, or ice, or the accumulated winters of a snowfield, geology and weather can be so patient. On their own time scale, they’re moving right along. But on ours, they fairly stand still, and following their slow lead informs a safer mindset: the mountain isn’t going anywhere. We can come back. There’s nothing wrong with stepping down, turning back, making the harder choice.

The truth, though, is that when something catches my notice, or lodges itself in the folds of my brain, that patience is tested. It’s hard to pick good conditions, good people, plan well, and not succeed on an objective. The thought of turning back when many things have aligned can be burdensome. Worse, it’s the feeling of work not yet done on a big goal that eats at me. Such have been the past couple years on Mt. Rainier. I’ve written about those climbs, both our attempt on the Finger in 2013, and our group attempt via the DC last summer.

The net result of both was that I learned quite a bit, but hadn’t been anywhere near the summit. So for this spring, I’d put that goal pretty high on my list. May or June seemed like the time to do it–until a couple weeks ago, when it occurred to me that with the vicious cycle they’ve been having, a March attempt might make some sense. March might be the new May, to quote a local friend.   Of course, the trip wouldn’t have been possible without partners. Blake Votilla was heading to Rainier to interview for a guiding job with RMI (which he now has–congrats!), so we shuffled dates, brought Miles and Mike on board, and hoped to meet up around 9am Thursday.

Late on Wednesday afternoon, I loaded up and headed on out from Kalispell. The drive was most interesting going over White Pass. Snow guns with lights trained into their tubes of snow made for a remarkable sight in the dark. A kind lady helped me with directions to the Skate Creek Road at 1:30am. Just an hour later, I pulled into Ashford, shuffled gear, and fell asleep. Six hours later, Blake, who must have been out on a walk, casually strolled by. We chatted while I packed, discussed a couple things, and headed into the park to find Miles and Mike. After half an hour of waiting for them in the Longmire parking lot, we realized they were in the ranger station–waiting for us. Our permit secured, we headed back out to organize. Then Miles walked up to the group: “Turns out there’s going to be another group on the Finger. The best part is that my ex-girlfriend is in it.” This set off all kinds of speculation about camp that night, though we’d later realize that the other party wasn’t planning to camp anywhere near us. Everything went into two vehicles for the trip up to Paradise. We reorganized, and were off to a great alpine start of almost exactly noon. Looking out across, with the red line indicating our route. Things went smoothly. We dropped off the main trail near the base of Pan Point, traversed over a moraine, and roped up to cross the lower Nisqually and Wilson Glaciers en route to camp. Blake and Miles took one 30m, with Mike and I behind. Perhaps the biggest thing that I notice every time I’m on Rainier is exactly that: it’s big. The scale is way off for most of the mountain environments I’ve played in. For reference, compare the route picture above. The first line covers about 4000ft feet of gain, while the second is over 5000ft. Another angle on the vastness, of Mike and me: We found things more cracked out than we expected. Paradise, and I assume the mountain at large, has seen only a fraction of its yearly snow, and I remember fewer detours around broken areas from our April trip two years back. Other than that, some fresh snow from a few days prior make for easy skinning. We made it to camp at around 9200’with daylight to spare, and only a little bit of treacherous ice. Mike and Miles sidle in. Citing the good weather, we took a Megamid just in case, but never needed it. A wind drift below a massive rock offered a nice floor and room for bunks. As I’m demonstrating, it’s important to check the softness of your mattress in these wild climes. Once settled, we melted a preposterous amount of snow to rehydrate. Its amazing how much water you go through at elevation, with a medium sized pack, trying to make good time. Past trips haven’t seen me succeeding at drinking enough, and paying a price performance wise. Then, Miles pulled a small deli’s worth of veggies, cheese, and sauce out of his pack, and cooked some incredibly delicious backcountry pizzas. The secret seems to lie in a just add water crust, mixed in a ziplock and then squeezed out to cook in a pan. Rich eating, that’s for sure. Very tasty. Though our kitchen and dining room was nice, I wanted more counter space for making sandwiches. Snow walls make for easy remodels. Somewhere in there, we all bedded down in the alcove, passing off to dreamland. The moon was bright and further across the sky every time I woke up. Then the alarm jangled out of my watch at 3am, and we were up again. We took forever to get out of camp, mostly because we really hit the water hard. I’ll take the blame there. 5:30 saw us skinning across the glacier, ski crampons crunching into the refrozen surface. Navigation happened at the length of a headlamp, and it was strange to watch the beams of Miles and Blake searching the mounds of snow and ice ahead of us for the route across the basin and into the bottom of the finger. Above us, ice and snow hung and loomed in the dark. On my end of the rope, I felt pretty dang small there, just moving forward across the snow in the direction we knew the Finger’s couloir to be, the rope to Mike tugging behind me. Eventually, light came and we began to angle up into the couloir. I dropped the rope to Mike, and continued up. Ski crampons would bite in, then sometimes slide. Switching to crampons would be more secure as our feet punched in through the thin surface of crust, but then we’d lose the efficiency of out skins. The angle forced our hands (or maybe more appropriately, our feet) as the sky began to go those pastel colors you see on Lisa Frank pony coloring books. Here, Mike chews on a ski strap to keep his energy up. Leader shot from Blake, the rest of us chugging along behind him: We had to high side on climbers left to avoid cracks radiating off the Nisqually Icefall towards the upper part of the Finger. There wasn’t enough snow, to our eyes, to allow a glacier traverse. This meant a steep pitch to that top that we belayed up to avoid a roped tumble into the open crevasses below. It’s worth noting that we couldn’t see a good line for a traverse into
the Nisqually, though I know that’s sometimes good route finding, as when Wildsnow did it.
Once there, we found our way across a little pass and onto the summit glaciers. Things were starting to slow down in our rope team. Water and exhaustion were taking their toll as we strolled upwards. Mike takes it in. The Finger proper is down and to the left. Rainier so dwarfs any of the foothills around it that it doesn’t have the feel of Mt. Baker, the other stratovolcano I’ve climbed. Plus, because the base is so broad, the upper reaches feel more like a big plateau than the top of an individual mountain. It goes on, and on, and on. The scale constantly messed with my head. Maybe five hundred feet above where the last picture was taken, Mike had had enough. He’d pushed super hard, but was exhausted. It was smart for him to stop and save his energy for the trip down. With the emergency sleeping bag in my pack, he could bundle up and wait. The weather seemed fine. Part of me wanted to call it off and wait for him, but I’ll be honest–the part of me that wanted to finish what the two trips previous hadn’t done was really strong. I wanted to make the summit. With his urging, I tied in with Blake and Miles to finish the last 700ft or so to the top. Rope snagging on wind sharpened sastrugi, we fairly flew up the last bit of glacier to find the summit decorated with small plates of ice and a bitingly cold wind. I would have liked to hang out, but the wind was fierce. Plus, Mike was waiting. Plus, the gate to Paradise would close and lock at 5pm. It was just after 1pm. We’d need a nearly record setting pace on feet to make it in time. Of course, we weren’t on feet for the 9000ft we were about to descend. We had skis. It was rattley, chattery, and strange. We crossed snow bridges, dodged sastrugi, and made scrapey turns down big panes of wind affected snow. Mike was awakened from his nap by our hollers of glee. Once the whole band was back together, we took off again.

Arriving at the lower part of the Nisqually, we skinned back up to join the main trail. Miles, Mike, and I forwent our shirts for the last bit to Paradise. Whippets and ripped abs, I tell ya…

Thanks to Blake, Miles, and Mike for a terrific trip. Thanks also to Blake for photos.

Backcountry Digs: Yurtski video

I know, it feels way too much like spring. The grass around here is seriously terrifying for this time of year. But back in January, it did snow. Maybe we’ve forgotten what it feels like to have snowflakes bounce off your face en route to hanging in a smokey contrail behind us, but it did happen.

To prove this, the video from my time at Yurtski with Brody Leven, KT Miller, Rachel Delacour, and filmer extraordinaires Bobby Jahrig and Tyler Swank is now live. Enjoy a short powder fix and I hope that it’s enough to shift this dry docked tide we seem to have. There’s even some skiing with the American flag, which you might recognize from its tenure on Iceberg Notch and at the Rut last season.

Salt in wintery wounds

Over the past few days, I’ve discussed my theories about this bizarre winter with a few different friends. My personal thought is that all the bike riding, roller blading, and outdoor rock climbing that’s happening only exacerbates the summery trend of winter, because it shows the snow deities (whoever and whatever they may or may not be) that we are unfaithful to the true purpose of having snow on the ground–which is, of course, to go skiing. Friends have countered that such deities might be galled into action by the same displays of summer activities that I find so heretical, and perhaps spurred into haste by the sight of flesh and open toes in February. Who’s to say?

Whatever the reason for this strange season, I’m (as ever) not ready for it to be done. To that point, here’s a little clip from our time at Yurtski back in January, where the snow was soft, the women were strong, the men were good looking, and all the children were above average. Here’s to a long winter.

Mixed climbing and powder surprises: Rumble Ridge

With much of the western US experiencing a serious recession in the snow category, and having been on the road for two weeks through SIA and now Utah without my uphill gear or running shoes, there’s a whole cavalcade of itchyness running around. Toss in the photos that keep arriving from Japan (I thought that their season just ended sometime in February?), and it makes for jealousy in the key of accumulations.

But before I left on this sojourn, though, we’d had ourselves a decent winter. Temps held things in better shape up high, and that meant that ski mountaineering uniquely positioned its acolytes to harvest the fun stuff in the alpine. A weather window was shaping up, and I made plans to head out on two days of skiing and climbing.

The first, though, was not to be. My alarm rung out at 4am, waking me from four hours of sleep. I searched around to get stuff together, and I realized that not only was I super tired before two looming days in the alpine, I couldn’t find one of my ski socks. While this doesn’t seem like a major hurdle from the rested, comfortable perspective of the present, I assure you that it was a major setback in my morning planning. So much so that I texted Blake and Carl, told them I wasn’t going, and promptly returned to my bed.

As their instagram report from the field showed, I really did miss out:

I’ve never made a habit of bailing on things without good cause. In all truth, it still bothers me that I didn’t make it out with them, because I broke my word that I’d go. But in that early morning, it felt like I’d probably get sick if I tried to get up then and do the two days in front of me. I made an early bedtime, and even though both Carl and Blake didn’t want to join us, I showed up at the Rumble Lakes trailhead the next morning to find Steven Gnam already driving around and looking for me.

I don’t have much in the way of early day pictures, mostly because it wasn’t much fun to ski through or take pictures of. Deadfall plagued our shortcut, and once we started heading up climbers trail on the ridge, dust on icy crust made for seriously dicey skinning. Once again, I vowed to get ski crampons for my wider skis. But as we climbed, it steadily got deeper.

Even better, the cloud ceiling that kept things grey approached, and then dispersed beneath us.

Inversions always feel like cheating. Looking down, I knew that thousands of people below the ceiling were experiencing yet another overcast day in the Swan, while we exulted in the need for sunscreen at the bottom of our packs. Even better, the views across to the Missions were simply stunning as we made our way up the ridge.

As a route of ascent, the crest held many advantages of safety over the gullies and slide path ridden slopes on either side. Cornicing was minimal, the snow was stable, and we were high above the runout zones that the summer trail ascends. Steven had suggested bringing crampons and tools for a specific notch, and as we arrived, I saw he was right. A knife of snow descended into the bottom, with no fall zones to each side. To regain the ridge, a small pitch mixed climbing awaited. Steven lead down the knife, kicking in steps as he went. Slow and steady was the name of the game, and eventually, it was my turn.

Moments of quiet confidence are so wonderful in the mountain experience. As I walked down the packed out steps, the view dropping away on each side of the whippet or ice tool in my hand, I chuckled a little at the absurdity of what we were up to, and the likely fact that we’d be soon skiing fresh snow as a result of our fun. Even better, the tails of my skis drug through the snow, making the steps an exercise in keeping every single step controlled.

Looking back across at the knife:

It’s counterintuitive, but mixed climbing in crampons actually feels less stable than without. The points of each spike radiate out from your foot, making the lever forcing your ankle that little bit longer. Even the barely two inches changes the balance point significantly, which then flows on up into the whole balance equation. Add a drop below and loose rocks, sometimes only frozen in place, and it made for some interesting and slow going.

Such weirdness broke up the typical monotony of a skin track all the way to the top. Getting to use touring skills alongside the scrabbley, scrappy style of mixed climbing only adds to the fun. That much better to top out and get to see all around the majority of the Rumble Basin.

Upper Rumble Lake:

We ate some, surveyed some, and then dropped some of a cornice into the slope to check out the stability. Windslab was our main concern, until the chunks rolled their way down with no result at all.

Well, that’s not right. These were the result:

Per usual, dropping in felt amazing. We skied perhaps eight hundred feet down in the basin instead of depending the complexities of the ridge, then transitioned to head up to another ridge.

Our goal was the saddle directly above me in the photo above. Noting the potential for cross loading and the way we’d seen wind moving in the area, we took the ridge ascent one at a time. Steven moving up:

And my follow. Our descent went out the low pass in this photo.

Once atop the ridge, we scrapped our plans for heading to the peak to our west–the ridge complexities earlier had eaten daylight, leaving us with a descent of the area we’d skinned up. Relative to the icy horrors of the first track, it’d be a dream. And considering that we’d started the day in the gray, with no clear plan of what we’d get done, it was glorious to feel the windburn and sunburn meld on my face as we drank tea and reveled in the inversion from our perch.

The mountain life is amazing. We’re so lucky to get to do this. This view of Holland Peak and Upper Rumble is one more convincing piece of evidence.

Tea gone, we packed up and headed on down. The turns were juicy, then sastrugi, then a bit more soft stuff as I dodged rocks down into the basin.

And I do love the golden hour in the alpine. Far better to witness alpenglow all around you than from the valley floor.

Indeed, we were headed for the valley floor. In getting there, we found my biggest surprise of the day: the light winds had kept things soft, and our descent carried us through perhaps three thousand feet of mellow powder fields and pillow bopping. It could not have been nicer, or more rewarding. Our hoots of excitement echoed up the walls we’d stood on top on our ascent just hours earlier. Steven fills in the eights:

Though we had to pay for our powder salvation somehow. Lower elevation brought serious alder and bush bashing. I may have jumped over a log or two on our exit down the summer trail. Here, Steven uses expert gumby joint technique and his manic grin to dispatch a particularly feisty piece of shubbery:

And eventually, we did end up back in the murk.

But as we skied back to the car, headlamps illuminating the snow rushing past on either side of the track we’d skinned up, it’d been a day of everything: poor skinning, dry tooling, pow turns where the sun warmed fluff blasts up to gently caress your face. It was a good day. Worth all the effort and the scrabbling. And as I sit in the Denver airport now, I’m so so so so so ready to get back to Montana and days like this.

Thanks to Steven for his wonderful companionship, ideas, popcorn, and photos. And yes, Blake–you did miss out.

Headlamp backflips and other nighttime phenomena

Back toward the beginning of January, I went on a four day, three night film trip for Epic Montana to Yurtski, a six person shack of coziness on the southern edge of the Swan Range. We were met with wonderful hospitality by the hosts at Yurtski. Our group of four skiers (Brody Leven, KT Miller, Rachel Delacour, myself) and two filmers (Bobby Jahrig and Tyler Swank) made for an outstanding team, accomplishing quite a lot of safe skiing during a massive storm and the warmup afterward.

An edit from the trip is forthcoming soon, but I wanted to use a post to talk about my mindset and the nighttime shenanigans it lead to.

Film trips are first and foremost a group of skiers and filmers working together towards a common goal of the final product. Add that to the reality that backcountry skiing is complicated enough without the logistical hurdles posed by trying to film it all. Money and time are spent to get everyone there, keep them happy, and produce something worthwhile. In our case, folks drove from Salt Lake City and Seattle to be there. The trip was an opportunity to gather footage not only for the edit, but also whatever film projects come from my whole season of skiing. The stars of making good content align for a brief period, and all of this engenders pressure to perform well.

I’ve driven away from too many shoots feeling like there was more that I could have done, or a trick I should have tried a couple more times, or some other aspect of effort that could have yielded a better product. So in heading to Yurtski, I felt duty bound to drop the hammer as much as conditions and the crew would allow. We found stability in our pits and during the day, communicated well, and managed the avalanche hazards as a group. So with fresh snow, I found myself at the end of our first day wondering about going out for a night ski.

Headlamps are one thing. But fully lighting up the skiing enough to see it well on camera would need a bit more. Tyler provided the perfect solution in a 125 LED array box designed to be mounted the hot shoe of a camera. We rigged it to attach to a tripod, put it atop a selfie stick, and then rigged the whole thing to the back of my helmet with voile straps.

That first night, I toured up and skied a couple laps down to the yurt. The next evening, the whole crew got in the act, and we did some party skiing through a couple neat areas. We all traded the helmet around–here’s KT digging in.

The next day, we woke to clear weather and sendy conditions. Our first lap went fine, and as I was hustling back to the top, a backflip on my mind, when the whole face started to roller ball. It was a bummer, but the warming conditions meant increased stress on the storm snow, and it wasn’t anything to mess with. The day went out with nothing upside down happening.  Dinner came and went, and while sitting at the table stuffed with delicious pasta, I realized that it was probably that night or not again on the trip. Thoughts of the moment and regret I’d feel later flashed through, so on went my boots, and I headed out to find a spot. The landing was zipper crust. The transition was so tight that my skis held me in the air while standing in it. The lip would probably hold. And once the jump was built, I came back to the yurt, the filmers rallied, and we headed back out.

On my first hit, I straight aired to give Tyler and Bobby a sense of where the light would be. Once skinned back up, I dropped in and gave the flip a try, only to underrotate, catch my feet in the pow, and flip forward. On their cameras, the light of my lamp disappeared as I rolled only to pop back up. The second try was the same, and I cursed in snow caked frustration.

Because the lamp lit what was ahead of me, it didn’t extend to the uppermost horizon of my vision–the part most important for seeing the snow surface and then reacting to pull my feet forward and land the flip. Both times, I’d seen the snow too late to land and couldn’t make it work in time. Up I went again, got the snow out of my helmet, and did the flip more by feel than by vision. Trees and Bobby were on either side of the runout down to the traverse road, though they’re hard to see in the video.

I was tired before I even left the yurt. The failed attempts had built up the anticipation. All the fear of not really being able to see what was happening each time, being so exposed in the backcountry, and needing to get this done brooded every time I was skinning back up. So when it all came together for the magical moment, and I rode away down onto the traverse, the yell of excitement became the release of all those tensions into the success of notching something cool there in the midnight darkness.  Landing something scary always creates this feeling of instantaneous euphoria, because the work is all in the prep and then not thinking while you do it–the riding away is all wonderful afterglow.

And as we skied back towards the yurt with its three sleeping skiers, the excitement of adding another solid shot to the edit kept me awake. But as I lay down in my sleeping back, it was the satisfaction of doing something bizarre and making it work that lulled me off to sleep.

Thanks to Bobby and Tyler for staying up late and freezing while I got it done, and thanks to the rest of the crew for dealing with our clanking when we got back.

Check back soon for the full edit.

Lemonade on Little Dog

The Spirit Bear didn’t have my phone number. So the message popped up on Facebook: “What are you doing tomorrow?”

My car’s on its last legs. Christmas presents to buy. Emails to send. A whole string of dangling conversations to finish or move a few texts down the line. Things that could maybe lead to sustaining the ability to question what was next in my schedule. Plenty that wouldn’t fall into place until I actually took it head on. Neglect wouldn’t help. So I had plenty to do tomorrow.

However, as winter has sputtered to life here, we’ve been dry-docked with a snowless spell. Stages of ceased snowing include denial, attempting to find stashes, acceptance of tracked out/ravaged snowpack conditions, and then ski mountaineering. Things seemed primed for a trip into the scoured, buffed alpine. If you’ve got no pow, and just scapey, crusty lemons–make lemonade.

So Spirit Bear’s message was the conversation I picked up. The next morning, Ben was at my door, with his fully functional and recreational vehicle, which solved the “brakes don’t work” issue for the moment. He was also on top of the pastry game, so we stopped to pick up sticky buns before heading north.

We picked up Jason in Columbia Falls and were off through the Middle Fork, discussing topics of importance with our mouths full of sticky buns. Things are certainly low tide, and followed that in the cross loaded, rocky first-glance at our objective atop Marias Pass: Little Dog mountain.

When I think about about the local outdoor community, there’s a series of branches that start with my immediate friends and then spread into the people that live in this little corner of the world. Though I’d known Ben since I was in high school, and knew of his exploits in Glacier, we’d never climbed or skied together. He and Jason had raced biked years ago, but I hadn’t skied with Jason since two years back. The newness didn’t bother me–we had strong, fit skiers. We were joking and chatting and just enjoying ourselves as we skinned through the forest and detoured up a creek towards the lower slopes.


The day was my second in a new pair of boots, so I was a little tentative about how that’d shake out. No hot spots appeared on the flatish walk in, or on the ascent up a rib to the west of the saddle between Little Dog and Summit. Jason and I were chasing Ben, which is a pretty common thing to do, given that he’s one of the fastest uphill people in our little corner of the world. Some folks like to switch leads when skinning or bootpacking, because they get tired. Ben, however, does not get tired. As far as I can tell.

Somewhere in the past couple weeks, I switched my touring setup over to wider Steeples, thinking that I’d probably be skiing pow in the near future. The rib we followed was either scoured, baked, massacred, faceted wind drifts that were hard enough to not hold an edge, or rocks and scree thinly coated in a couple inches of fluff. It made for such interesting skinning that Jason eventually gave up and started bootpacking. He caught up to where I was trying to finesse my way through the drifts, so I joined him. Judging by his face we caught him, Ben wasn’t having any fun at all. None.

From there, skis went on packs. The wind drifts made good footing, and it didn’t take too much time to make the ridge.


The last time I was bootpacking up a big face, tiredness and dehydration dogged every step. But as we climbed, it just felt good to plant each foot above the next, drifts and outcrops passing along from above to below.


Spindrift had been blasting off the ridge all day, and the wind howled over us. Since things didn’t look too promising, we left our skis and continued up. Jason ahead of me, and Ben way out there.

The view back towards Summit. On a bigger day with better conditions, I could see skiing the N face of Little Dog, ascending Summit, skiing its SW face, then heading back up to the saddle.

Looking across Ole Creek.

All the sculpting and rock hard drifts evidenced the wind hammering the outside of my hood. Spindrift would occasionally come around my glasses and stick to the warmer, insides of the lenses. And it was just wonderful to be cruising along up Ben’s boot prints, snug and happy in my gear as the wind raged and sun shown down.

But the same wind was a bit unsettling to Jason. As I caught up to him, he told me that he’d had enough, and was turning around to wait for us at the saddle. With Ben a bit higher on the ridge, I started juggling the thoughts in a hard situation. On one hand, it’s good form to stick together in case something happens. With one member of the crew retreating, perhaps we should all head back. But Ben wasn’t part of this decision, so it was the two of us. Jason was fine with me heading on. He had crampons if he wanted to use them, and I felt he could make the descent. But since I felt fine, and had Ben forging ahead, I felt good to catch up with him. We’d all regroup to ski from the saddle.

Looking back on that decision, it made our margin for group error much slimmer. Jason was more or less solo on his walk back to the saddle, and if something went wrong up high, Ben and I would just have each other until we could get word to Jason. Given how we felt, the competencies of the group, and the conditions, I don’t feel bad about the decision now–but I would have liked to make it as a group, instead of choosing between scenarios in my head. We had a range of speeds, and that was beneficial in exposing fewer people to concentrated hazards, but it limited our communication. This hindsight is the kind of thing to bring to future trips. Reflection is positive, when acted upon.

After I caught up, Ben and I negotiated a couple chutes, kicking through thin, unconsolidated wind drifts to the firmer stuff underneath. Around the corner, up the edge, and there we were. Clouds roiled to the west, with their puffy tops catching a golden glint from the sun. To the south, they broke up over the Divide, leaving us with blue sky over the plains in the east. Our  perch was right on the break point. It was pretty dang exciting.

It was also extra windy. I threw on crampons for the walk down, took a few swallows of water, and we marched back down to meet Jason. Ben snags a group selfie back at the saddle:

Ben and I dug a pit, revealing a seriously consolidated snowpack on the lee, cross loaded slopes we’d be skiing.

I swung in first, found a little bit of loose, crusted snow on the margin, and made it down a ways.

Jason linked turns down to me, and on his go, Ben blew out of a ski. It rocketed down the slope as he yelled, then caught a bit of snow, rolled, and thankfully stopped. Ben doing some downhill walking:

From there, we traversed skiers right into some of the ramps of the lower mountain. Ski cutting the soft, thin drifts as we went, the angle decreased and got downright fun as we skied back into the creekbed we’d come up. Ben enjoys some just desserts:

Bopping along the creek, the whole day took on a nice afterglow. We’d started with winds, and that sinking feeling of low tide, but here we were, having skied some legitimate crust and actual pow on the bottom. Only a little bit of skinning ensued on the trip out, and as we crossed the tracks back to the car, I couldn’t help thinking that the best recovery drink for the evening was resoundingly lemonade.

Thanks to Jason for motivating, Ben for his photos, and both for a wonderful day in the park.

The life aquatic: England, part two

Thinking back on my trip through England, I came to a couple of major conclusions that fit in with the stories from the trip. So without further ado, here they are.

Conclusion #1: The Pacific Northwest of the US needs to stop pretending they have it especially wet. Unless you live in Forks, Glacier, or Skykomish, the English are way, way wetter and less perturbed about it than you. And if you do live in those towns, you’re probably about on par with the climbing conditions we encountered on my first outing with Rich T. and Rich B. upon arriving back in the Lake District.

I did some cursory research before leaving for the UK. The Peak District is more like a bunch of rolling hills, and the Lake District is where they actually have mountains. However, as we rolled into Old Dungeon Ghyll, I realized that how the dry the road is has nothing to do with whether or not climbing is going to happen. Because Rich and Rich racked up, we made it up Middle Fell Buttress, and headed on to Gimmer Crag where the conditions were somewhat near the Underwater variety.

Yep. We climbed up that slippery sheet of lichen. Not a bolt in sight, and Rich T. made his way up, over, and around. Some of the footholds were puddles. I found myself longing for dry cracks to jam a fist into. Looking back, my facial expression reveals that I was having a lot of fun, and seriously impressed that we weren’t aid climbing. Our middle belay, below D route.

Rich B. then led D route. Somewhere near the spot in this photo, Rich T. described the conditions as “a bit grim.”

I’d have to agree. It was slippery. And since I was following, I had the task of pulling the gear from the rock, knowing full well that the experienced folks ahead of me wouldn’t be rappelling abseiling back down. Thus did I fail to pull a number 4 wallnut from where it had seated in an underclinging crack. It’s yours for the taking. And as I’m not experienced enough to know if it was truly lost, or if I just suck at removing stuck nuts, I did replace it for Rich B.

Toping out. I believe this is called the lunatic grin. Apparently, the old school climbers would put socks on over their boots when conditions were like this. However, the new “light and fast” movement has dispensed with the sodden socks, such that they’re climbing in the same conditions without the added grip.

Here’s the Riches cleaning up.

Some casual scrambling took us to the summit, where I discovered that our alpine-style ascent had been bested by a veritable herd of free soloists using natural fibers for their outerwear:

Which leads to conclusion number two: sheep poo is practically indistinguishable from mud. Sheep may not be everywhere in England, but they were almost everywhere I went that wasn’t in a town. There’s probably a process whereby the poo becomes the mud, making it some level of continuum between stages. And somehow, it was always on my shoes.

This trend continued the next day, on my second venture with Rich T. up and across Striding Edge to Helvellyn.

What’s usually a few hour run for Rich proved to be a very nice day hike hill walk up and around the rolling hills. Striding Edge is famous enough to warrant its own postcard. Apparently, people like to fall off on a somewhat regular basis.

Which makes sense, because some of the rocks were, you guessed it, wet. I have to give serious credit for the summit wind shelter though: the X shape design doesn’t even begin to question that the wind might come from any given direction at any time, so it’s just prepared for the eventuality. We really didn’t have much wind. It was a nice, calm place to hang out while Rich filled me in on an absurd 65 mile run he’s planning over basically every hill and valley that we could see from up there.

The peaks of the Lake District remind me of the Two Medicine area of Glacier, but covered almost entirely in grass (and sheep poo). There’s a serene beauty to them that doesn’t come with more rocky outcrops. I found myself really enjoying the contrast, green, and general calm that comes with these places.

Over one roll, Rich had a surprise for me. I can only describe it as inspired madness. Way up in the hills, at least an hour’s walk from the nearest road, a creaky looking platter rests between rows of snow fence. It’s the project of the Lake District Ski Club, and it boasts nine “unique” and ungroomed pistes. A season pass costs 55 pounds quid and even after hauling gear uphill for an hour, members often have to shovel out the lift before using it.

I have nothing but respect for the people that operate and ski at Raise. And next time I go back, I really hope there’s snow, because this seems like the best idea ever: put a big walk before the lifts to cut down on numbers. Then go out and play on your club tow with your buddies. Brilliant.

There’s also a serious sense of history in the area, owing to a quarry that’s a casual three hundred years old or so. Debris from whatever they were mining is everywhere. It sort of looks like natural talus to ignorant American eye. On the trail switchbacks, I threw out one, and only one, exceptionally Texan “Howdy” to a group of hikers going the other way. They immediately fell silent, and I don’t know if they heard me chuckling with mirth as I walked off.

My Texan accent must have registered with the place, though. On the absolute last grass/water/mud/poo slope before the car, I managed to completely lose my footing and land ass first. Which meant I went into Whole Foods Booth’s looking exactly like a muddy American.

Given that my runners trainers had yet to dry out, I realized that rubber boots might be the absolute best footwear for these sorts of places at this time of the year. However, rubber boots make things a little bit harder when my third conclusion is brought into play: Never, ever bolt anything.

I was told that there are indeed sport climbing crags in England. They do exist. But the general ethic of trad crags are far more in keeping with the climb-in-the-rain philosophy I’ve already described. The third day I was in the lakes, Rich T. and I headed out to Trowbarrow. It’s an old quarry, with a few rusted out pitons serving as the only fixed protection on the wall. A quick survey eliminated most of the easier leads as too damp. So Rich saddled up and lead some bizarre English grade that I don’t particularly understand, but felt between 5.9 and 5.10.

En route, he managed to dry out a few of the wetter spots with chalk, so I had that benefit for my follow. The little pourovers in the limestone made for an aesthetic finish.


Given that this was a crag, I thought that we’d just rappel abseil off, per the typical American custom. Nope. We did more soggy walking down a footpath in climbing shoes. And after some brief but thorough instruction from Rich, I managed my first trad lead ever up Coral Sea. It’s apparently named after the fossils that can be seen in the wall.

The leading success continued a couple days later, when I managed to actually swing leads with Rich B (I think he did the harder ones) when we went someplace that had Pinnacle in its name. For a trad newb, it was a really cool introduction to not just looking for the next hold, but also thinking about the next protection while climbing. So now I face the financial doom that is acquiring a trad rack–I swear that just when you seem to have the gear program dialed, something new comes along to ensure that it stays expensive.

Looking up at the Pinnacle thing. I got to lead the top pitch, which went around the upper arete, and was super fun and exposed. If it looks wet, the bottom most certainly was. Rich B. clarified that the international wetness scale is nothing like the English wetness scale. Worse, the video (forthcoming at some point) clearly shows that he totally forgot about the sopping lower section when the upper section was “bone dry!”

Looking down from the top:

More confirmation that the Lakes aren’t ugly:

Walking out from the crag, we passed through a few of the fields in the lower left of the above photo. There’s a lot of public rights of way dating back to some seriously bygone era, meaning that access is a lawful right through many pieces of private land. Which leads me to another conclusion about the places I visited: wandering around has some serious history. After one day of computering, Rich T. and I went for a fell run. I took the term literally and fell into some rocks on the downhill during the gathering dusk. We went over some stiles, ran past some lakes, and it was gorgeous. I also remembered why running hills is hard.

I’m going to skip the tourist day that I spent in Windermere. Conclusion: you don’t care about me eating cheese and crackers by a lake. 

The last part of my trip included a few days at the Kendal Mountain Festival. It’s pretty dang similar to what Banff is like when you actually go to Banff, but there’s a higher concentration of serious mountain talent from Britain and Europe. Basically, we walked around town, ate, watched films, and went climbing. Cheers to Sam for meeting up for lunch. And yet another conclusion: when England does put up bolts inside, it does it right. 25 meters of overhanging pump to keep things interesting in Kendal.

A couple shots from wandering around Kendal:

I managed to meet a few really neat folks too, so cheers to Ben, Abs, and Tom, and also to the gents at Whitedot. Thanks to Rich W. and Rich T. for all the help around town. One big highlight, personally, was when Bjarne Salen got the whole crowd on their feet and yelling for Andreas Fransson. Thanks for that.

On my last day, I woke up hungover after going to sleep at 3am. I wandered town for a bit, met up with Rich T, and we took a stroll over to the Kendal Ski Club with the idea that we’d check it out.

And as it does, one thing lead to another. Whitedot was doing a demo, their rep had pants, the kind folks at the ski hill saw fit to let me borrow boots and poles, and before I knew it, I was on the little carrot tow.

The surface is something like mats of the fibers from fine hair brushes. In that picture, you can see all the sprinklers that keep it wet (it has to be wet, of course), and sliding down it is something like the texture of skiing under a snow gun. The Club had a couple jumps, a quarter pipe, and even some moguls. I made laps for about an hour, and the grin on my face in that photo stuck around into the afternoon. Thanks to everyone who got me on the hill. Conclusion: heart matters more than snow if you really want to go skiing.

That afternoon, I headed back down to Manchester on the train, spent an excellent evening with Rich W., then headed to the airport in the morning. More or less the last thing that I saw before takeoff:

Conclusion: there’s an airline out there where the inflight entertainment is nothing but epic guitar solos. 

This whole trip wouldn’t have been possible without the support of everyone at Mountain Equipment. Thanks for bringing me over, including me in the family, showing me around, and supporting me in what I do. Duncan Machin deserves a huge helping of accolades for his detail wizardry and for putting up with my emails. Rich T. , Steph, and Serin have my gratitude for letting me invade their home for most of my stay in the lakes, and for showing me around along with the guidance of Rich B. Cheers to the Kendal Ski Club for letting me slide. Thanks to Sam and Hannah for their hospitality in Manchester, and to Rich W. and Sandra for theirs in the same.

Diversion: the streetlight

Visible through the branches of a mountain ash, the streetlight on the opposing block brightens the lower corner of my bedroom window. It shines every night, all year long. It did so during my whole childhood. And while the  lamp itself isn’t particularly striking–I’d never taken the time to look at it before writing this–the telephone pole and the bulb braced atop it illuminate not just the ground, but the air of that particular corner. Which, at some point during the fall, has always been filled with the small, reflective dots of snow cast in an amber glaze.

By mid-October, checking the lamp is a routine thing. There’s a tiny potential each time: perhaps, against all odds, that glance will yield the first snow of the season. Such peeks through the window put excitement into just getting up to head to the bathroom. Mornings are always easier when it’s been snowing. And though it was a slow sort of agony to sit in school when I was younger, snow coming down fueled the skiing stoke for later.

So when I arrived back in Montana two days ago from the UK, I was greeted by a snowstorm upon landing. Once home, I looked out the window to see the lamp, and the little dots descending under it, blanketing me with the comfort and excitement of all the years that I’ve stared out into the darkness at that streetlight. It’s winter. It’s time. It’s on.

“Not bad for November”: England, part I

In my last post, I feel it was pretty clear that we went a long ways to get into the snow. A lot of effort was spent. We worked hard. And it was totally worth it. Which makes what happened a week later that much more bizarre: I got on a plane, and headed to the United Kingdom for two weeks of Octoberish seasonal rewind.

Back in August, discussions started about the Mountain Equipment 15-16 winter range launch. Distributors, reps, and sales folks from all over the world convene here in the UK, where Mountain Equipment is based, to see the products that will be hitting store shelves less than a year from now. As my involvement as an athlete has grown, so has the need to introduce me to the rest of the brand family. Thus, I found myself at the airport five short hours after Whitefish Mountain Films, bags in hand, none of it including ski gear.

I’ll try to keep this rant short, because as Louis CK recognizes (in his profane fashion, so be advised), most of the inconveniences in air travel are minuscule compared with the fact you are “LITERALLY FLYING THROUGH THE AIR LIKE A BIRD.” However, my experience is one of the many that leads to things like Untied.com, a website entirely devoted to consumer complaints against United.

Leaving Kalispell, we taxied out, then came back to the gate because the air conditioning was on the fritz. We deplaned, and an hour and half later, we were airborne. My connections would have worked, but since it was tight, I opted to reschedule in deference to my checked bag. While at Denver, I watched my money get cut more or less in half when converted to pounds. I also got an electrical plug converter.

Leaving Denver, same thing happens. This time though, an oven at the back of the plane was emitting black fumes. I didn’t even know that planes had ovens. And this one didn’t see the “no smoking” signs. So we taxied back, deplaned, then ten minutes later, we line up again to reboard. Also, since my flights changed, my seat selections went out the window. Which put me in 2/3rds of a middle seat, the other third occupied by the exceptionally large gentleman next to me in the aisle. Fate offered me another route in the form of a lady who wanted to trade seats before the plane got going, but the attendants were trying to get everyone seated and I didn’t want to cause more fuss.

Upon landing at Newark, I realized that not only had my next connection been more or less lined up to fly right as I touched the tarmac, United had done me a favor. Instead of rebooking me to a later flight, they’d send me back to Chicago, then to DC, then over to Manchester the next morning. I went to the help desk. An angel disguised as a grumpy looking woman proceeded to look at my new itinerary, get as confused as I was, and then rebook me through Heathrow. She also gave me two food vouchers, in her wisdom, because I was seriously hangry at that point.

Not only did I find a real restaurant in Newark, but the flight over the pond went fine. Upon landing, I walked a couple miles, took a bus, and somehow made my way through some very long lines to connect with my next flight.

Sam Hoyt: ME Rockies rep, gentleman, scholar, and friendly face in the Heathrow terminal.

I swear that the flight up to Manchester was intentionally zigzagged to make it last long enough to serve me some nuts and a drink. Which I would have been happy to forego, if they’d instead just put my bag on the plane. Per the agents at Heathrow, my checked bag had made it across and through all the changed connections via some wizardry I don’t understand. That last, hour-long flight though? Nope. And thus did I arrive in Manchester: six hours late, jet lagged, under slept, disheveled, and without my main luggage.

Thankfully, the kind folks on the ground graciously whisked me and Sam Hoyt away to the Lake District, a place specifically designed in the fabric of the universe for relaxing. Sheep cover grassy hills which poke out of the mist in an etherial and calming way. Pubs have seen fit to put climbing gear in frames on their walls. Torrential rain gently affirms your decision to stay inside. Which was a good call, because we had meetings and stuff. After dinner, I presented on some of the ski trips that have been featured here. Which should have been the end of me for that evening, but of course that lead to a series of great discussions in the bar and a bunch of mildly chilled (but certainly not warm) pints.

The next day, we did more meetings and showings of the upcoming line. I’m not allowed to give out hints, though I’m super excited about what’s coming down the pipe. You’ll probably see some of it later this winter.

And in the afternoon, the nearly the whole crew rallied into the rain for a late hike up to Stickle Tarn.

I’ve never seen so many vibrant jackets in the same place.

Everything was really slippery with the rain. Even so, I had a blast scrambling around on the way up. All the energy of eating, airplaning, and meeting bubbled over into that giddy sort of excitement that my friends know well. “I’m outside! This is great! Let’s run wild!” More or less, I turn into a golden retriever.

Evan, our US sales guy, was stoked too.

Then we went down in the dark. I had a borrowed headlamp head torch from Christoph, one of the gents from Norway. So I managed to not explode on the slippery stones of the trail back down. Props to Joanna for handling them so well.

At home, there’s an hour delay minimum before I can get hot food into my belly post-hike. Here, there are pubs right at the trailhead. Brilliant.

The next day, we headed back to Manchester. My checked bag had yet to arrive, even though it was said that it’d be there my first night. I found out that since the agent at the airline hadn’t provided the phone number for our hotel (which I didn’t know) the courier wouldn’t dispatch the bag. They then handed it off to a third party, which was planning to deliver the bag after we left the hotel that afternoon. Even though we were still there by the time they said they’d deliver, no bag. So I headed back to Manchester with that sinking feeling that I’d have two pairs of underwear for the rest of the trip.

At dinner, we went next door to our hotel to sample the local pub atmosphere. I was keen to try some beers that I’d never seen before. However, horror of all horrors, it seems that the trendy thing to do in “hip” pubs is to bring in a bunch of American craft brew.

None of the US brews looked bad, per se. I even like some of them at home. So it was just startling. I drank something from Portugal that was basically a Budweiser or PBR, and toasted the irony.

The next day, I spent most of it at the ME offices. Thanks to everyone who made time to meet with me. Here’s the UK sales team looking very serious.

In the process of those meetings, it came out that Sam, our lead designer, could accompany me as I went to wander in the Peak District. He generously offered that I should stay at his house, citing the ease of leaving in the morning. So we headed out late (my fault), missed the train, and he graciously grabbed a taxi to solve my slow walking issues. He and his family then entertained me, fed me, and generally made me feel very much welcome. Many thanks to them for their stellar hospitality.

However, the weather wasn’t on the same program. We woke to rain.

And on the way out to Edale, it really started to rain.

Once at the trailhead and getting suited up, it came to pass that despite the rain coming down, Sam didn’t have his waterproof coat. I mentioned that we could call it, but instead he grabbed a large, green, German army poncho that he uses as a family picnic blanket. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, this was my first clue to the fact that the English people think about rain very, very differently than anyone I’ve met anywhere in the states. Or at least they do in my presence. Because Sam threw on the poncho, and off we went.

Our plan was to do as much of the Edale skyline circuit before we needed to head back into town. The trail above leads up this valley, then onto a plateau, which leads off into a ridge that more or less circles the town of Edale. The red brown bushy stuff on the left side of the above photo are ferns, which regenerate to a forest green in the spring of every year. It’s worth noting that even though it’s called the Peak District, it’s more like the Rolling Hills With Gritstone Sticking Out Of Them District.

It’s not a proper day out unless you end up off trail. We went up this little valley, scrambled a short, very wet cliff, and then walked around.

Sam contemplates E.T. His poncho is rolled up atop his pack. By this point, the rain had stopped, and it was just foggy and soaked.

Once on the plateau, we swung around and things got increasingly boggy. Our route was evidently a very popular one. This means tons of foot traffic, and with the peat  and sandy soil just under the grassy surface, it takes very little for humans to start erosive processes that then get made huge by all the water coming through. We walked through a lot of mud, which is standard for this time of year, but apparently less so in the drier summer months.

Along with some of the climbing I’ve been up to (next blog post), it’s be really eye opening to see the impact that tons of human traffic can have on a landscape. So many of the places I frequent at home are remote enough that they might see maybe ten to twenty people a year. Some places less. And as more people move to the mountains, and do the things that I do, the spread is going to change the places we play. That’s inevitable. Bogged out areas and super polished climbing holds can be our future, or I can be aware of that and help to set things right before they get bad. That means upping my own standards of Leave No Trace.

If one of my friends had been considering a trip like this, at this time of year, I’d probably have given the knee-jerk response: “What? That’s the start of ski season!” And that’s true. I’ve seen all the photos from home. But there’s a very different type of beauty at work in these landscapes. This trip has been about meeting people, but these new landscapes are pretty in how they roll, how their ridges connect, how the history of playing in them goes back hundreds of years. Stepping into that as a hill walker or climber is a unique thrill.

Even more, the hospitality for my entire trip has been astounding. I’ve been very lucky to stay in two lovely households, get personally shown around by folks who know this area well, and they’ve been super patient in dragging the sweaty American along as he fumbles setting up anchors and can’t run all the way up the hill. Many thanks to Duncan for all his logistical wizardry, Sam and Hannah and their family, Rich and Steph for where I’ve been the last week, Rich Bailey for his rock time, and Rich Woodall for getting me on the plane.

So has it been worth it to miss the start of winter? Absolutely.

Sam and I glopped our way back to the car, and headed out just as things really started to get almost sunny. That night, I got on a train to the Lake District, where I’ve been since.

Tune in for my next blog post to hear about my trad climbing education, becoming a lichen, and why fell running can involve falling.