Glacier National Park climbing accident report, June 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solstice Solstice 2015: still ski time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beth on her way up:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking up towards Vulture:

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

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

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

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

Looking over towards the South Vulture summit.

Quartz Lake and the northern Whitefish Range:

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

Ben and Zach make their way down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I mention that we were tired?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Diversion: poems and mountains

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

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

At the end, one particular line caught my eye:

“He lived his life like a poem.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diversion: away//home

Away:

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

Home:

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

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.