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.

Volcanic Activity: Mt. St. Helens

Note: all conditions current to April 20, 2015.

There’s much to be said for gnarly descents, untouched lines, and pushing the envelope in search of self discovery, untold riches, and the fawning accolades of battalions of internet followers. However, the truth about some days is simply that, even when everything goes completely to plan, they’re worthwhile but not because of any of the aforementioned qualities.

St. Helens, via the standard route, is a standard sort of day. Made different in this case because of the extra approach work from a poor winter snowpack. But we walked, we skinned, we summited, and headed back down. I guess we got a little lost on the approach, but it wasn’t much to write home or blog or video about.

So instead, I offer you this compilation video of the things I did find interesting, with more explanation below.

Thing #1: Excessive morning motivation. Some people just wake up more easily and quickly than others. You guessed it–I’m one of those exceptionally annoying people who goes to sleep in a wink and bounces right back out of bed. Maybe Mike didn’t actually need coffee, but I’m still impressed with his Geiger counter reference at 5:30am.

Thing #2: Dumb mountaineering jokes. Especially in the vacuum of context brought by a quick video.

Thing #3: Seasonal flux. Winter route over tons of dry trail from a Sno-Park with no snow in sight. Then, it’s blazing hot up even on the upper parts of the mountain. Really not looking forward to climate change.

Thing #4: Shanghi.

Thing #5: Not falling over the cornice. Always hard to get a good read on where the edge does lie, so I probed hard to find it. Still didn’t feel comfy with getting close, so in a storm of Mike inspired inspiration, I put the go pro on the end of my avie probe. Insta-crane.

Thing #6: Poor man’s drone. We then tried skiing with the Gopro on the avie probe. Worked better than I thought.

Thing #7: We saw lots of people walking up and down. Which made me thankful for having skis, so I didn’t have to slog through the slop.

Thing #8: Mike’s shirtless post-trip commentary, selectively edited. The eyes closed thing is hilarious to me. He should be an actor.

Thanks to Mike for rallying down from Seattle, for his zealous company, and for the Cheezits he produced after we got back. So tasty.

Volcanic Activity: Mt. Adams, superstition, and science

Note: all conditions described and depicted are current to April 18th, 2015.

Superstition and I have a suspect relationship. There seems to be enough evidence to suggest that it happens, and plays a small but important role in what happens to me outside, yet the science part of my head that uses terms like “evidence” scoffs at such notions. Even so, I had a nasty feeling that after writing about non-adventure, it might happen to me again relatively soon. The problem with that theory, though, is that you’d have to pick a minor, unimportant trip to waste the potential non-adventure on. And weather lately has been far more conducive to days of the epic variety. So as I got in the car and headed for Washington, the two sides of that decision coin rattling back and forth in my head.

Washington hasn’t had the best winter, as our time on Rainier back in March foreshadowed. Things are downright summer-y out here right now. Even so, that same time on Rainier got me inspired to do more volcano skiing. So here I am in Portland, taking rest days in between sleeping at trailheads and smearing my face with sunscreen.

The plan for Mt. Adams was simple: Rowen would drive down from Seattle, I’d roll in from Montana. We’d meet in the parking lot, and go from there. The permits and passes that Summitpost suggested I’d need weren’t actually required–goes to show that calling to verify with the local ranger district is always a good policy. But as I swung up the bumpy, super rutted road as evening faded into stars in a black sky, it dawned on me that not only was this road really bad, like really bad, but without cell reception, finding Rowen’s car might be a bit more difficult than I’d thought. Third gear moved to second, then crawling uphill in first around potholes big enough to bury somebody in. Superstition started to creep into the dark beyond the reach of my headlights on the ever steepening turns.

But as the saying goes, all midnight-dark-mud-trench roads end somewhere, and I got there about 9:30. My recollection was that Rowen drove a newish Cherokee after his old one burned up, so I wandered about with my headlamp looking for him. No dice. I made some lunch, prepped my gear, set the alarm for 4am, and dropped off to sleep in plain view of the road, thinking he was delayed.

Headlights woke me at midnight, and I was pretty sure it was a Jeep. Summoning the effort to get out of my bag was difficult. Even so, I wanted to plan for the morning. Walking up on the Jeep, the side windows were tinted such that I couldn’t see the face of the guy now sleeping in the drivers seat. I knocked on the door, and whoever it was stuck his head out in confusion to greet my immediate apology: “Oh geez, I’m sorry, I was looking for a buddy.”

Morning came, and I got my stuff together, leaving the trailhead by 5:30am. Part of the way up, I ran into a guy from Texas who was hiking his snowboard up with no poles. He planned to do St. Helens the next day. Got to give him credit for going at it, though I never saw him later in the day, so no idea if he made it onto the upper mountain. He told me that he was happy to run into me, as he wasn’t sure of the route. That made two of us, as I informed him that I didn’t know either. Then, later, I met a couple gents from the Seattle area who didn’t quite know where the Lunch Counter was–so that made four.

I wanted to wait on the summit for things to soften up–the wind had other plans, and sent me back down, skittering on the ice. Plenty of that in the video. Halfway down the upper face, I saw some pants I recognized. Rowen was maybe 2/3rds of the way up, and as it turned out, he’d been in the lot before I was the night previous. His new car had thrown me off too. But his boots were bothering him, and so we took off down into the slushy, nice, less-scrape-y lower levels. Overall, the ski was really quite fun and the view north to Rainier was a jaw dropper. Very worth all the wandering around in the dark. Best of all, the superstition about non-adventure didn’t hit on this trip, leaving me with just mis-adventure–and of course, I’m pretty used to that.

It’s worth noting that many of the climbs/skis/volcanic activities I’m doing on this trip aren’t very hard from a technical standpoint, but since I’m going places I haven’t before, these are about discovery, not unabashed and balls-to-the-wall gnar. There’s cool stuff to find here, and I plan to scout it and come back on a spring when the snow goes further down into the foothills–expect more about that when my St. Helens post goes up.

Thanks to Rowen for making the drive and forgiving me when I didn’t find him.

Diversion: on non-adventure

If you’re looking for cool pictures, an epic tale, or a story that’s going to make you want to get off the couch this very instant, you might want to scroll past this post. Maybe skip it. Maybe come back next week, or the one after. Because this post is dedicated to the rain in sheets on the windshield. The forgotten boots or skis or skins. The times only a mile in, and everything was scuttled by something unchangeable, something hideously unsurmountable, something that omnipotently smashes your plans and leaves you repacking the car with all your food and gear unmuddied and unused. This is about non-adventure.

Let me break this down a bit. Duct Tape Then Beer, those purveyors of fine outdoor creativity, are fairly well known for how they break down fun into different types. Type One is easy to plan, easy to execute, and goes great. Type Two sees more of the suffering, some difficulties, and makes for a much better story as a result. Type Three is a bad idea to start with, has its moments of serious pain, endangers your life, and leaves you with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that reverberates through the rest of your life. Type Three is the kind of touchstone experience that your friends get tired of hearing about, because you keep remembering random facets about it, and everything links back to that one time in the Himalaya or on the Grand or when the luggage didn’t arrive in Uzbekistan.

In thinking about non-adventure, and trips that never even got close enough to success to be considered failures, I’ve started with the Types of Fun. Straight up, grade A adventure applies to all three types. Mis-adventure, its close cousin, has more to do with Type Two and aptly describes much of what gives Type Three its intensity and staying power. However, non-adventure is in a class by itself, precisely because it has no real accomplishment to speak of. It’s not Type One, because it didn’t go well. Or maybe didn’t go at all. Type Two and Type Three fun are redemptive because something amazing is the outcome. Other than the blatant and obvious lessons to be learned, non-adventure doesn’t have that amazing something. Whatever the colossal mistake was, that becomes the large take away, with no significant tinge of achievement to sweeten the difficulties encountered.

Two or so weeks ago, I spent much of a rainy day off from coaching emailing, running about, and generally doing things that I wouldn’t consider fun or adventurous but are necessary to lay the groundwork for future fun. My bike, so aptly suited to approaching ski projects in the spring, lacked the key ingredient to surviving wet trips without getting wet: fenders. So I picked some up, did the work to put them on, and thought I’d head for the Going to the Sun highway to test them out. Maybe I could ride to Avalanche, then hike on snow and mud to Avalanche Lake. Great late day, solo activity, with all the potential for Type One fun, added to by the snow and limited daylight, which offered a strong chance of Type Two. After packing up, I headed out.

Rain started in West Glacier. By the time I hit Lake McDonald Lodge, things were really coming down. The Fender install was feeling smart already. There’s a human smugness about thwarting the elements with technology, like wearing a good hardshell in a storm or snuggling into a fat sleeping bag as the temperature drops. That smugness gives just a little bit of triumph, something I was feeling as I rolled out of the parking lot in my hard-shells, water already flowing out the bottom of the new plastic on the fenders.

But a mile in, after a couple patches of ice, I rolled up the hill past the Kelly Camp road to find a foot of snow completely covering the road. Maybe twenty minutes had gone by. I was finally feeling warmed up. And unless I wanted to walk a couple miles through patches of snow, to walk up more patches of snow on the trail, things weren’t going any further. What had seemed promising completely evaporated. For those of my local friends who keep advocating for me to get a fat bike, this is an official admission that it would have completely solved my problem: I had the wrong gear for the conditions, and a mindset that wasn’t adaptable enough to keep after it by myself in the limited afternoon light. Melting snow fueled the roar of Mcdonald Creek, the flow swollen just a little bit more as my day washed back downstream along with the snowpack.

Saving grace: it’s still pretty, even a little ways in.

I hung out a bit at a pullout that will be clogged with visitors in a few months, savoring the quiet, and then hopped on and headed back. There wasn’t much to report, much to think about. Snow blocked the road. Things weren’t happening. Despite the lack of snow for a couple thousand feet up the walls of the valley, it still wasn’t off the road, sheltered by the trees and their shade in the sun that hadn’t protected the valley walls.

As I mentioned in the beginning, this blog has plenty of cool photos and stories for people to look at–and that’s by design. Like much of the outdoor content on any social media platform, there’s a targeted focus on being worthwhile and interesting in what I write and blog about. However, all of those platforms and media came around long after the practices and places in the real outdoors. Gorgeous conditions and perfect shots are far more rare than they appear when that’s what’s mediated constantly, and more than anything, I want there to be authenticity in my outdoor thinking, doing, and writing. Hence this post. Hence all these words. Hence delving into non-adventure, spurred on by my decidedly non-epic, unawesome, somewhat non-interesting bike ride, the biggest byproduct being all of this here.

If nothing else, I want people to know that there’s so much more to the outdoor life than when everything goes perfectly. Most of the time, the stories get better the minute things stop going perfectly.  But there are still those days when it goes so poorly that it’s not worth writing about, telling about, or even discussing unless the whole point is to provide contrast with bluebird, perfect conditions. And thus, I say happy non-adventuring.

A tale of two parties: skiing Appistoki

There are places where the ski touring community tours elbow to elbow. They farm powder wiggle turns down whole mountain faces to maximize fresh snow. They deal with the safety and sanity issues caused by tons of backcountry users in one spot: folks leaving packed trailheads at 5:30am only to have helicopters drop clients above them.

I don’t live in one of those places. So this is yet another trip report from a remote, joyous day of backcountry skiing/ski mountaineering with a twist–a group that included some of my friends skied the same line the day prior. They had some issues that we didn’t. Most interestingly, I didn’t find out about it until after we got back.

The line is question is located in the Two Medicine section of Glacier National Park. Appistoki Peak offers a couple different descents, but the east face has two connected, broad faces with some thin middle cliffs to keep you honest. While not a dream line by my interest, Appistoki as a summit remained one of the few I haven’t been on in Two Medicine. It seemed reasonable to get in by bike, given that the east side of Glacier has seen such a spare winter. So like I do, I started watching schedules, weather, and hoping the two would align to get a window.

Weather didn’t quite cooperate. Well, that’s not fair–the forecasters didn’t seem to know what was going on, and though I’ve known this for a while, it didn’t quite ring through this time. A friend and I tried two days before: loaded our bikes, drove two hours to the east side, then found ice on the road and rerouted to another objective. The biggest take away from that day of sun patches and snow squalls was that the forecast was predictably irregular: there’d be a bit of everything, including windows of blue sky to move about in. So a day after, I got ahold of Ben, he said the road was clear, and I set off early the next morning.

True to what Ben had heard, the Two Medicine road was open all the way to Trick Falls. Such luck cut our bike commute down to only a mile and a half before we hit the Scenic Point trail–but not before seeing what we think was a lynx trotting down the road way ahead of us.

I don’t quite know why putting skis on bikes boggles peoples’ minds. Much like ski touring instead of hiking, it’s another way of making things way more efficient on a given day of playing outdoors. Maybe thinking like this only confirms how far gone I’ve gotten. Even more, what I typically do with friends here at home is nothing like the bonkers activities of Brody Leven’s Pedal To Peaks trip last year (Portland to Seattle while summiting and skiing St. Helens, Adams, and Rainier) or what Chris Bangs does, well, constantly on his fat bike.

Ben hits his hooves. Appistoki is above him.

Booting along through varying amounts of snow, we headed up the Scenic Point trail for a ways, then detoured off it to head up the valley towards Mt. Henry. I’m no East side expert–but there’s no question that there’s way less snow than usual. The ravine at the bottom of the valley was the only consistent skinning, so we dropped down there and made transition number two of the day into ski boots.

Walking with skis and ski boots on my pack is a fact of what I like to do. Most of my spring objectives will require this bizarre type of fun. Much like the bike, it’s way more efficient to ski tour than hike, so I relish the springtime options where the approach is covered. If my boots are on the ground in April, it’s a bad sign of things to come. Thankfully, the snow-filled ravine made for great skinning, and we made quick work of the walk into the upper basin.

There’s a thin line between ski touring and scrambling–I tried walking it here and had a little fall before I succeeded.

All this traversing took us below the line we’d be looking at, but with new snow and wind loading just a couple days previous, I wasn’t too keen on going up it. We saw some ski tracks emptying into the snow ravine, but couldn’t see the upper line due to flat light. Our route passed way around to the saddle of the ridge between Appistoki and Mt. Henry.

Though when we arrived there, the promised vista was hiding behind a thick veil of fog and snow squalls. Thinking we’d have no interest in skiing, we stashed our skis and continued up to tag the summit. Gaining the false summit, it was clear that it was, well, clearing out just fine and we’d been fools to leave our skis behind.

Our descent to the top of the line revealed to us what Ben had thought earlier: the skin marks and ski tracks lead up the line we’d wanted to ski. Tight hash marks descended from a break in the cornice, moved through the cliff bands, then cut through the zig zag of the skin track they’d used to get up the face. A pile of avalanche debris was stacked up on the skier’s left of the lower apron, the result of what looked like a point release slide. I remember thinking, “The face probably cooked more yesterday. But we’re way back here, and somebody else skied this. What are the chances?” Sun shown down, and we started poking around in the snow below the cornice to see if the wind slab had filled in. A hasty pit later, and I wasn’t super sure what I thought. Ben and I headed up to the summit to eat some sandwich and think about it.

Looking back towards the false summit.

Given what I’d seen, and thinking about it, we decided to walk back down and grab our skis. To give it a shot. Here’s Ben as we came back up:

Skis on, I knocked off about fifteen feet of chunky cornice blocks to see if the wind pillow at the top of the chute would react. Tiny pockets came out, but there didn’t seem to be much cohesion, and I felt better about the upper slope. We agreed on a safe waiting spot, Ben saddled up, and dropped in.


The middle cliffs made for a few seconds of no visibility, which worried me, but with no safe spot to stop above them, Ben made good moves down and he arced out onto the lower apron. A little yodel of joy floated up to me, and it was my turn.


Somewhere between 6-8″ of new snow was bonded to the older crust underneath. On hard turns, I’d scrape, but once in the apron, it was simply glorious. I did some yodeling of my own as I met Ben at his perch.

Things weren’t quite as primo further down, but the exit ramp still made for fast, slushy turns. At the bottom, Ben told me that the line had been really high on his wish list for quite a while–bonus points there. The summit seemed like a pretty lame accomplishment compared with the great ski we’d had. Another quick jaunt to the bottom followed, and we refueled and counted our options, still aglow with the neat line.

Just above our stopping spot, a line the locals call Y Chutes headed up the other side of the valley from Appistoki. Skipping the nap that sounded nice, we headed up there, cutting a nice zigzag that started in slush and ended in some of the most variable skiing I’ve done in a while. It was a neat spot to practice a skis on transition without any sort of kick turning, being not very scary, but certainly something I want to get better at for other places.

After that, we headed back down the snow ravine, transitioned, and started the walk out. Appistoki opened as a sort of curtain as we skied down the valley, progressively revealing the snow clad upper slopes and giant bulk that is Rising Wolf mountain (behind Ben in third photo below). Upper center of the first photo shows the top of the Y Chutes.

Back at the bikes, I took a couple minutes to load up my skis and boots the way I’ll want to for longer rides later this spring. Aligning the bindings on the top tube to allow freedom to pedal takes a little fiddling, but with some ski straps, it’s not too hard to hold them on there. The booster strap of your boot works well to secure the cuff to the back rack, and some rope threaded around the uppers holds them fast. It’s possible to layer the pack on top of all of this, but given the short ride out, it wasn’t an issue.

Driving out to East Glacier, I reflected on how awesome the day had been. Good weather, safe route finding, and plenty of skiing with some pow as a cherry on top. But once back in cell reception, I casually checked my emails. The Flathead Avalanche advisory was in there, so I clicked on it, and found my jaw hanging open. Near the top, I read: “On Friday, two skiers were caught in a cornice triggered, loose snow avalanche on Appistoki Peak in Glacier National Park.”

Essentially, a group of five skinned and booted up the same face, same line we skied. While three of the party were on top, a natural cornice collapse near the false summit entrained loose snow and swept the other two, who were still on the face, about 200ft through a series of small cliffs. Then, when the three on top went to drop in, they triggered a small wind slab during a ski cut.

“Whoa. Friday. So yesterday. So the tracks we saw were that party. So the avie debris we saw carried people down the cliffs we flashed through. Maybe we made the wrong calls and got lucky?” The whole day flashed back through my head, every decision taking on a new cast in the light of the observation . I hadn’t thought to check the advisory before we left, as Two Medicine is outside the forecast area, otherwise the day would have started off on a very different note–so much so that I probably would have canned the trip for another objective.

Coming away, it serves to highlight the variability that happens over only perhaps 24 hours in the alpine: the cornices we dropped didn’t yield anything like the wind slab that broke on the prior party. We’d taken a long route to get there, but doing so lessened the possibility of being in the path of the cornice fall slide that hit the other other group. Even more, the events of the observation took on a much more real cast: these were friends of mine. It brought the situation home. There’s such a wide range of possibilities out there, and when so many good days stack up, the vicious feedback of avalanche terrain can make you feel like you’ve been nailing the decisions. There’s such a delicate balance between poking holes in human factors and cultivating courage to send when the conditions are right; I find it hard to square the two easily. For me, it’s another reminder that we’re fragile casings of soft flesh playing in a cold world of steep snow, ice, and rocks–respect isn’t optional, and doing our best to debrief our decisions is the only way to move confidently AND safely forward.

Thanks to Ben for his great company, hospitality, and photos. Thanks to the other party (let me know if you want to be recognized by name) for submitting the observation and letting us know.

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.