Taking it back at Blacktail

Two weeks ago, just before I left for Japan, ten inches of new snow fell at Big Mountain. I’d committed the night before to go tour Blacktail with the Spirit Bear and company, yet the texts rolled in. Suggestions to go shoot with Craig, who I’d wanted to shoot with for a couple weeks. I did the considering. Thought about it. And then a part of me that’s trying to hold my planning commitments spoke up. I thanked him, politely declined, and walked the couple blocks to meet the crew headed south. Away from the new forecast. Away from the assured pow, and lift access.

The backseat of the Rav4 was stuffed with Jen, Katie, and Rebecca, while Ben drove. Unplowed tracks of trucks and other vehicles grew steadily deeper as we wound up the curves of the road climbing out of Lakeside. Summer tired spun and slid on the corners, and we did discuss harnessing up the four of us skinning passengers to pull the car like a sled dog team.

It didn’t come to that. We pulled into the top lot to find a whole pile of cars in six to ten inches of new snow. Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol was out doing training, which meant that only a few people were out actually skiing. Six to eight inches of new snow covered the road past the gate as we booted up to the lodge, met up with Mike and Katie, and dropped in on our first run beneath the lifts that hadn’t started spinning for the season.

Ski areas and ski resorts both have lifts, a lodge or two, a ski school. The skiing might be similar, but the focus is different: resorts are about expansion and growth, whereas areas like Blacktail are concerned with maintaining the ski experience for their customers. There’s room for both in the skiing universe, but the soul of skiing, in its pure, ecstatic form, rests in the ski area. It is there that an average family can afford to go skiing. It is at places like Blacktail that the chairs and the pace are slow enough, the prices low enough, for skiing to still be the main event, not just a piece of the whole money-making puzzle.

I’m biased, of course. My grandparents, during my sixth grade year, put Blacktail season passes under the family Christmas tree. Skiing had been a few weekends per year kind of thing, with an annual family ski trip (lucky kids we were), but the pass meant that we could go up whenever. It was a second beginning to my ski life. Every weekend was now fair game. Blacktail was the perfect place; small enough to cut kids loose to go ski, a lodge at the top for lunch, plenty of intermediate terrain with a few scary cliffs to aspire to. Friendly faces that we’d see every week in ski lessons or at the bottom, bumping chairs.

Three seasons went by at Blacktail, all founded on that simple, brilliant idea of the ski pass under the Christmas tree. While I passed through the seven-circled, adolescent-change gauntlet of middle school, the hill stayed much the same. The jumps seemed smaller as my ideas got bigger, my skiing faster. Blacktail began to feel provincial and small. I frequently looked north across the valley at the inviting steeps, fast lifts, and resort vertical of Big Mountain. My dad seemed to sense that my skiing was headed in a new direction, and to support that, he suggested that I try out the Freestyle Team up north. My ninth grade year saw a Big Mountain season pass in my jacket pocket, which would continue through high school and college. I hardly looked back.

Yet as I dropped in behind Ben just over a week ago, blasting down the familiar terrain through fluffy, boottop pow, much of what had once been came rushing back. I could remember the straight ski rentals I’d once skied down the same liftline. How the off-camber glade constantly felt like longer lefts, short rights. The joys of thousands of my life’s powder turns were instigated by the acres rushing by under my skis—that’s a powerful current to ride again.

And in a way, the sense of community was there too: we ran into our friends Jason and Lindsay at the bottom. All nine of us made the transition, then went fairly flying back up the skin track towards the top of the Thunderhead lift. Then we did it again. And again. We saw Brian Kennedy  and his wife. Then, we moved over to the Crystal chair for a few laps. The sun was out. Stoke was high. I skied through memories as deep as the snow left swirling behind us, glittering in the low-hanging, afternoon sun.

Blacktail, as a place and terrain, had been fairly bland when I left it before. The few visits since were focused on skiing with specific people. But through the lens of one day of touring, it had regained much of the soul, the excitement that it had once held for me. My most recent post covered how moving away from solely lift-accessed skiing has changed my mindset towards the early season. This sense of rediscovery at Blacktail is the other side of that coin, and it’s a powerful argument: adding the uphill to the mix means other variables aren’t as important. In the new light of going uphill, the terrain I’d once discounted for being bland was suddenly worthwhile again. Ski touring opens doors to gnarlier terrain, but it also reinvented the flats for me.

Thanks to Ben, Jen, Katie, Rebecca, Mike, Katie, Jason, Lindsay, and Brian for being part of that wonderful day. And for those wondering, I’ve got a Japan update coming in hot.

Diversion: on limits and an old, white van

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Back when I was in high school (in 2006), our local ski hill announced they were opening a day earlier than planned. This would have been heartening news, but it was a Friday. Which meant school. Luckily, my parents gave me permission to take, in my mom’s words, a “mental health day” off so that I could be there. Parking my minivan in the nearest lot the night before and getting up at 5:30am to line up for first chair was my natural reaction. Once up top, with not a single skier in front of me, I vividly remember how the drifts were so deep as to flip me over as I dropped into the backside, howling with joy.

Thankfully, the local newspaper photographer recorded the moments just before that first chair went uphill. Maybe it’s that we were so excited. Maybe the stoke carried through. If so, it was enough to land my friends and I on the front page of the Saturday edition. More than one of my teachers called me out when we trooped in for class on Monday—and most of them knew that things that make smiles like the ones the paper captured are worth ditching some of life’s responsibilities.

At least a small bit of the joy captured in those photos came from the fact that I was, in fact, not at my desk at school. And for those who come from a lift-served ski background, uphill skiing can be a similarly liberating feeling. Snow and partners have become my main questions, instead of waiting for opening day, spinning bullwheels, and purchasing passes or parking. An impressive widening of the ski “season” has resulted. It’s like knowing just one country only to realize that there’s a whole globe of other possibilities to play. Anything with enough snow is fair game, with the attendant extra questions of safety, experience, and knowing where and when to go.

Yet, there’s something to anticipation created by limits. Waiting for gifts parked under a Christmas tree makes unwrapping them sweeter. Rough conditions and dry spells yield a serious euphoria when soft snow returns. Maybe appreciating those waits is part of growing up; I don’t know. But the night before the lifts spin still feels like Christmas Eve to me—all that pent up anticipation cresting. The morning comes, likes this past Saturday, and it’s a release of excitement. Listening to the snow phone. Seeing friends in the parking lot. Loading up on a chair that deposits me a long ways uphill only to swoosh and swish back down.

That I remember it now, almost a decade later, demonstrates how much that day meant to me. There’s a stark contrast too—I’d put in over two weeks on my skis, all of that touring, before I sat down on a lift this past weekend. Because I’m not limited by lifts, because I’m not waiting anymore, it doesn’t mean as much: the low crescendo of anticipation, the megawatt explosion of joy don’t have the volume they once did.

A recent read helped to elucidate that people (like me) who are more progressive in their politics tend to see less value in restrictions or rituals or traditions. Instead, we tend to opt for freedom, for good or ill. Ski touring has allowed me to sidestep the constraints placed on lift skiing life. It has opened up so many more avenues to enjoy, explore, and grow on my skis. Yet in that new freedom, I’ve lost some of the intensity created by the limits I abandoned. Maybe this is just a case of finding a new lens for a feeling I’ve known.

Regardless, I want to mark it for myself. It’s also worthy of a Diversion, for me, because it typifies a particular vein of thinking I’ve found useful in examining my own life and those of my peers: what is being given up to arrive at an achievement? People have to make choices, and the things that seem so desirable in the isolation of social media or our own overflowing wanderlust take a bit of tempering from the experience of understanding sacrifices made. For the freedom to ski whenever, I lost some of the joy the limits provided. That kid who slept in the van isn’t waiting anymore, but he has the occasional twinge of remembering how much more the simple joy weighed before he set it aside to walk uphill. 

Wherever you are: David Steele 14-15

Last week, I unveiled my latest season edit of skiing. Filmed in the Montana backcountry, on Cascade volcanoes, and in the terrain park at Stevens Pass, it’s a pretty good representation of how my skiing still bridges genres.

There’s a wealth of experience in not being just one type of skier. I hope that comes through. Major thanks to family, friends, partners, and especially the sponsors who keep me out there.

Jewel Basin in the rough: anticipating El Nino

For the snow obsessed in my life, the approach of winter offers yet another opportunity to delve into irrational speculation that’s only as deep as the snow we’d prefer to be shredding. Thus, the most predicable thing about the winter is the way that we lead up to it online: winter forecasts start circulating in August, followed by reposts of Farmer’s Almanac quotations and snow maps in September. Then the first winter storm heads for the west coast, and multiple snow news sources write stories about some obscene NOAA point forecast from some high  point (13,000 ft on Rainier) on one of the Cascade volcanoes. This happened at least twice this year, and I’d find it acceptable only if the person who writes these silly things braves the crevasse hazard and red flags of  124″ of new loading over three days to actually go up there and ski it.

October brings that first snow in the hills and the inevitable, undeniable truth of the ocean temperatures: we’re headed for another El Niño winter here in North America. And since this is the second winter in a row of potential Global Weirding in Montana, there’s been an accompanying conversation that I’ve heard in bars, casual chats, and early season skin tracks. It goes like this:

“Wow, El Niño again. Last winter was terrible man, except that one day. It was dry at the hill for, like, a month. Let’s hope this one is somehow better for us in our corner of the world.” I recently heard a skin track addendum: “Gotta get it now [in November] while it’s still good.”

In response, I’d like to offer a series of evidence-based rebuttals from a day of touring this past March 22. For context: things were sunny and pretty dang thin at the ski areas in northwest Montana. The bottom five hundred feet of Griz chair at Snowbowl was completely snow free under the lift. It was spring slush and people were probably playing golf. An early forecast had even called for rain.

Evidence-based rebuttal number one: don’t conclude that a winter is bad based on lift-accessed conditions.

It’s 2015, people. Backcountry skiing and boarding has blossomed into the full, geeky flower of possibility, while lift lines and gargantuan parking lots solidly show the current state of  your favorite in-bounds powder stash. If you’re looking to find good snow without tracks on it, I’d recommend channeling whatever energy was going into complaining about weather phenomenons into walking uphill.

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Fortunately, my friends are on the same page. That day in March, Dave, Gary, Brad and I loaded into the Black Diamond Mortgage alpine bus and rallied for Jewel Basin. It was downright cruchy while we put skins on and rallied up the road in the morning shadows. Suncrust beckoned. And:

Evidenced-based rebuttal number two: it’s not the snow that terrible; it’s the attitude of the people you’re skiing it with.

Brad, Gary, and Dave are terrific in this respect. It’s a decently long approach just to get into Camp Misery, and we had no idea of the conditions we might find up high. March in a more normal year might mean layer on layers of storm snow in the same places we were walking through. Instead, a thin skim of new snow covered the crunchy sun crust, evidence that it hadn’t been quite stormy up there.

Once on the ridge top, it got windy. My ski crampons were a nice addition, as the crust was relatively slippery and rolled away downhill to the west. Props to the rest of the guys for going without.

Walking the finish to the top of Mt. Aeneas, I wondered a bit about how the skiing would go. Sandwiches appeared, jokes were exchanged, and we decided to give the East face a whirl, hoping that the wind on the ridge had seen fit to match the crust with some dust to scuff around in.

Just before he dropped in, Dave wasn’t unhappy. Which brings me to my third evidence-based rebuttal: you don’t know until you get out there.

A few inches of cream filled in the face. Buttery, soft, glorious stuff. Skiing  that wasn’t perhaps the stuff of legends, but was seriously worthy. We wouldn’t have known it was there had we not gone. We certainly wouldn’t have found it. And after a series of very complimentary things said about the quality of the snow, and the sunshine beaming down, we went back up for more.

Self-righteous aphorisms about earning turns pop up enough in ski writing, even though they’ve been worn more threadbare than a rock-eaten pair of skins. Everyone has their reasons for being out there. Personally, I keep coming back to the same thing: it’s easy to complain about the winter from a chairlift seat. But if you don’t like what’s under your skis, or if Global Weirding has served up another barely recognizable weather pattern, then go explore. Follow weather, seek out aspects, use elevation to your advantage. There’s almost always good skiing to be had if you want to work for it.

After our second lap, we dropped down the chute just below the summit of Aeneas.It was not quite as nice as the east face had been.

Which is the evidence base for my fourth conclusion: skiers are happier when they learn to love hard snow. Don’t get me wrong: pow is great. Soft snow is wonderful. And it’s made all the sweeter by enjoying the hell out of wind scour, sastrugi, icy mank, sludge, suncups, moguls, chicken heads, and runnels. Diversity keeps ski skill up, keeps the challenge hard, and makes the good days feel even more amazing. The winter I worked as a cat skiing guide, skiing powder got a little blasé due to too much repetition. You don’t want that in your life. Dig out the hop turns and find the crunchy stuff to keep it lively. We certainly did in that chute.

It was the nice bit of doodling down the flats back to Picnic Lakes. Gary made some silky tele turns in front of me.

Then, we bumped back up to the ridge to find springtime. Sun had softened the crust we’d skied in the morning, leaving a nice bit of surface corn for the enjoying in Crown Bowl.

Our exit down the road took a while, and eventually we walked a bit, but the day had been ours. It hadn’t rained. We’d found fun skiing and good snow towards the end of a “terrible winter.” And as we wander forth in the coming months, having no idea what this El Niño will bring, I keep thinking back to these good times as a touchstone and motivation to keep getting out, skinning a little further, and reaping the rewards.

 

 

 

What happened to summer? Part two: scrambling the Middle and South Tetons

In an interview recently, I mentioned that I’ve a hard time being excited about places and individual route ideas until I actually get there. Food is the same way: sure, a cheeseburger might look great on a billboard, but how does that compare to one steaming on a plate in front of you?

Somehow, I’ve been able to ignore the Tetons for quite a while. Their tops stick over the foothills and can be seen on the drive to SLC, so I’ve had a little bit of that in-your-face mountain lust as I passed south before. However, seeing them from Driggs, as I did while doing a few days of hanging with my dad at the beginning of August, ramped it up. He either got tired, got tired of me, or saw that I was keen to go for a big mountain day after an aborted day of rain backpacking and a hike above Teton Pass the next. Thus did I find myself making the commute from the affordable side to the mountainy side with everyone else the next morning. If I big day was what I needed, the 4th class southern couloir on the Middle Teton would fit the bill.

6:30am saw me leaving the trailhead, though that wasn’t quite headlamp material. Cold had me wearing a long sleeve for the first time for the summer: it’s nice to be reminded mid-summer that my winter fantasies aren’t some conjuring with zero basis in fact. Some guys I met in the switchbacks beneath Garnet Canyon told me that a there was a bear cub below the trail. If there’s anything scarier than an adult bear, it’s a cub with a sow out of sight. Went a little faster there for a while, and had a scare when a blast of sound came roaring up the foothills, only to realize that it was a jet taking off at the Jackson airport. Everyone I passed was on the same program: headed to the Middle.

New terrain and ranges entail a bit of choosing: do I dive in on something that appears gnarly, or take the time to get my feet wet? What guidebook has the info I need to make good choices? How sandbagged am I going to feel once I actually get out there? Some friends had done the Grand in nothing but running shoes; I wondered if that would be where I’d find myself comfort wise.

I picked up Aaron Gam’s Teton Rock Climbs: A Guide to the Classic and Not-So-Classic Routes at Yostmark Mountaineering in Driggs. It’s not the bible, but covers a lot of the classic options with a number of 5.11-5.12 multi pitch trad lines I’ll only dream about in this life. It seemed a bit better put together and more recent than some of the others. I’ll be happy to have it when I go back, but more about that later.

The Meadows campground in the fork of Garnet Canyon is beautiful for all the right reasons: mountain valley, epic climbs right out the door, good water, and camping under boulders. I took only a liter of aqua to start the day, then zapped a bunch of glacially cold water as campers crawled out of their tents. It was a nice break spot. After, the trail in to the south fork of the canyon rapidly gets into shed-sized boulder fields, which make for a fun mix of hiking, rock climbing, and route finding as you make your way up valley.

Route wise, it’s easy: go until you hit the ridge. There’s a faint trail on the climber’s right that I lost several times. Once at the top of the ridge, turn right, work up the snow/rock edge, and then take the central gully up the face. Lots of loose rock in this area, so a helmet is a really good idea.

Somewhere above the snow, I met up with a couple guys who had joined forces at the AAC climber’s ranch. We angled up and left, then ran the ridge top to the summit. We were the first group up top, with tons of folks behind us. The view down to the Lower Saddle below the SE face of the Grand Teton was excellent. Climbers were making their way up to the Upper Saddle for their days on the Grand, and I wondered what it’d be like up there. Overall, it’d had been solid 4th class climbing with some optionally harder moves that I made to have more fun. The rock felt nice, I was comfy here on a mellow scramble day. Choosing to do a mellow day rather than try to dive in on something faster was the right call. I felt good, with the altitude slowing me down a little bit. With the AAC guys, I took some photos, enjoyed myself in a windbreak beneath the summit slab, and I barely felt the elevation. My confidence was up.


As was my energy. I’d wondered about a route up the South Teton too, and the hordes arriving on the summit and soon to drop into that rock infested gully, I worried about being a human bowling pin. Saying a quick goodbye, I bailed down the ridge quite a ways before dropping in, which took me out of the line of fire except for about some sixty feet or so. “Rock!” sounded halfheartedly about every thirty seconds from the main gut, and making my quick escape seem that much smarter. I glissaded the bottom snow and stopped for a quick break at the saddle.

Looking south at the South Teton. Route I took follows the ridge from climber’s right to left.

Much like the Middle, the South Teton has a scramble-able route leading up from the saddle at the top of the canyon. Lots of loose talus makes the bottom of the route, but near the ridgeline a sort of trail forms. It goes through some spikes of rock, up a couloir with plenty of loose options to roll, and then onto the summit ridge. The views aren’t much different from the Middle, though the clean lines of the Grand are less clear. Far fewer people graced the top, and and I sat atop the highest boulder eating more of my lunch.

Looking South from the summit.

Back towards the Middle and Grand.

The more I looked down the face in front of me, I realized there was a steep snow descent that would have worked had I brought crampons. Such thinking was indicative of how much confidence I’d already gained—these mountains didn’t feel alien. Good rock. Familiar route finding. The same feeling of strain at altitude higher than normal. Learning that I should come more prepared seasoned the flavor of the day as I started my way back down.

Some remaining snow patches added a little glissading to all the boulder hopping on the descent to the Meadow. If ever there was an alpine day to bring poles—this is it. I fueled up a bit of water and kept plugging away down the trail, glancing back at the options that had now appeared: the Grand up the north fork of Garnet. The Dike Route vaulting directly up the middle of the Middle. The potential of the place still has me jazzed to head back and spend more time.

What had felt like a bit of switchback fun that morning quickly degenerated into thoughts of “man, you could ride a bike down this be back at the car so quick.” Enjoying the moment can be hard when I’m hungry and ready to be done, but as they usually do, the miles passed. I hit the car to drive back over the pass towards pizza with my dad, thinking of the views where I had been. Maybe, just maybe, I could fit the Grand in before heading south.

Soon: heavy traffic on the Grand.

What happened to summer? Part 1: Heavy Shield (Mt. Wilbur) with Dave and Gary

Confession: at long last, I’ve become one of those harried, terrible individuals who is responding late to all sorts of messages, blogging late, and wondering where all the time went. Current projects seem to keep running over the time I used to have to process and write. I once wondered what on earth such busy people were doing with their time, that they couldn’t find a half second to respond to my quibbling questions or issues. However, I now get it. To all the people I didn’t understand before: I’m sorry. To everyone who was waiting for this, thanks for your patience. I’ve been living in the moment a lot, and it’s high time to catch up.

Thanks for bearing with me as I keep trying to find balance. The next few posts will be about a few summer escapades so as to not totally lose my mind on the cronology.

Though I can’t successfully shop for groceries without one, hit lists of a mountainy sort don’t appeal to me from a number of perspectives. Making one is a sort of commitment: if I spend the time to organize my desires and sort out which are worthy and which are just passing fancy, I feel even more invested in them. Friends can tell you that I’m not a bucket list kind of guy.

So when talking to friends about summer ideas, I brought a couple things up, but didn’t write anything down. When very few of those passing comments happened, I wasn’t bummed because I hadn’t gotten all invested with a physical list. Instead, many of my summer trips were to familiar places with friends who hadn’t been there before. Case in point: doing the Thin Man’s Pleasure route up Mt. Wilber Heavy Shield with Dave Boye and Gary back in July.

Some nomenclature first. I’ve ranted before about the appalling tendency to substitute boring white guy names instead of the original, native designation. Heavy Sheild by name, the peak that you can find on maps and visitor brochures and guided vista informational handouts of the Many Glacier area is often called Mt. Wilbur. I’m not sure I know who Wilbur was. I don’t care. And this is why: the SE face of Heavy Shield looks like an enormous quarter pipe with grassy foothills. It directly squares the vista from the Many Glacier hotel front deck (perhaps the best place in the entire world to drink a beer post-climb), rearing skyward with that imposing quality of sheer ramparts and fortressness. It looks menacing—like something that inspired Tolkien’s visions of Mordor. Some impossible loaded pillars complete the eastern summit ridge, while a conical scree and talus cap completes the tippity top. It was a sincere and grave error in understanding to rename something that is so very clearly a Heavy Shield after a white dude of comparatively paltry significance. Henceforth, you’ll see it referred to properly in this blog.

For all the reasons I just listed, Heavy Shield is an imposing climb to view head on. It shows up on lists of technical peaks in Glacier, requiring rope work for most people (at least a pitch on the the up and a 35m rappel on the down over exposure). Beyond the lore, it’s just so central to the view. Every since I’d been to Many, I thought: “I want to go up there.” Longing to go up there is part of any decent Glacier mountaineer’s experience.

Dave and Gary got ahold of me, we booked a weekend in July, and I went skiing the day before on my way over. Gary’s connections through work had us a place to stay in near the Many Glacier campground. Since I was the guy with the most technical experience, we all got gear out and practiced rappelling with third hands anchored to a post in the glow of the front porch light. This proved handy the next morning.

Which, at 5:30, came pretty dang quickly. The walk in to Red Rock Lake went smoothly. No bears. Dave filled Gary and I in about his trip to Disneyland and American Girl dolls, which was a nice continuation of why I go out with these two: besides being great company, they’re old. Two generations ahead of me. They know how to function well in relationships, have gobs of good life experience, and know much about things that I don’t. Far easier to shortcut via their pitfalls rather than suffer the same defeats.

They’re also fast. If Dave Boye didn’t have his hands full being a father and running a mortgage company, he’d be the quickest guy in the Flathead Valley. None of us would keep up with him, except maybe the Spirit Bear, and he doesn’t count. So thanks to his desk time, Gary and I were right behind him. Until the brush started.

For those paying attention, the best way to approach the beargrass slopes at the bottom of Heavy Shield is as follows: go past Red Rock Falls, until you hit a straight stretch of trail that seems past where you should be to enter the valley with the stream draining the whole SE face. There will be some nicely angled rock along this straight stretch of trail, go the the end of it where it turns back to the west, then leave the trail and angle up and right through the mellow grass and occasional trees.

As the-guy-who-had-been-there-before, it was my job to know where to go. Nervousness saw me leave the trail too early on a promising game track that quickly evaporated into thickets. Dave has at least a Level 3 Bushwhacking cert. He could be heard ahead enjoying himself as Gary and I struggled along in his shubbery-y wake. I thought I spied a better route, and ended up airborne at least once before descending into the creek ravine and up the other side to join Dave and Gary in the beargrass.

From there, it’s a lot of upslope walking to get to into the real climbing. Edwards’ stair step approach goes up the left hand side of the mountain, following the ridge through easy scree/talus and a couple cliff bands until one runs into the upper castle.


My first time on Heavy Shield came three years ago with a crew from the Park Cafe. Vinny lead the way, and I remember thinking that it would have been impossible to locate where to go had he not been in the lead.

This time, it was my turn to be that leader, and I worried that the same blankness I’d seen before would send me searching for the right way to go. As we put on harnesses and helmets, then started up the scree chute and diorite, I relaxed into the climbing and it became clear: the route was right there.

Up left, plugging in hands and good crimps through some of the only igneous rock in the park within the diorite band. Then detour right on the ledge, around the bulge that signaled the belay platform. There was the cannon hole we’d climb through, the feature for which they call it Thin Man’s Pleasure. A few years more experience, more time spent doing steep stuff, and it felt fine to tie the rope to my harness and start soloing up as Vinny had done before. I rigged a belay off the two angles hammered into a crack, and Dave and Gary came up to join the party on the chockstone. Plan on bringing your own webbing, because both times I’ve been up there, the previous party has left an American death triangle for an anchor.

From there, it’s steep scrambling and traversing with one notable move at the place where Thin Man’s joins the central couloir routes.

A traverse on thin, loose holds comes to a corner, where most people jump six or so feet into a fan of screen next to the rappel anchor. Exposure yawns down underneath the jump, and it’s committing. “I don’t go airborne much anymore,” was Dave’s comment as I described it early in the day, but sure enough, he sent the jump with poise.

Past the scree jump, the route follows a ledge into a notch in the summit ridge. It’s not the low one that you see from the parking lot and hotel, but the view down to Iceberg Lake  is stunning. If you own a copy of Edwards’ A Climber’s Guide To Glacier National Park you’ll quickly recognize that the cover photo was taken here.


As the guys made the last moves and we settled into the mountain top lunch routine, I thought about how cool it was to be out there with them. The day had a vicarious thrill that I know well from coaching skiing: when someone puts the pieces together and I’ve contributed encouragement or advice, their excitement is contagious. I feel a jolt of satisfaction that’s part and parcel of the same experience; what can be a singular achievement is shared.

The elation Dave and Gary gave off at making the top was its own thrill even though it had been a casual day for me, through a place I’d been before. There’s so much to be said for sharing outdoor experiences and opening doors for friends. The older I get, the more important that becomes for me.

Dave ate a Jersey Boys sandwich he’d hauled up there. I napped a little behind the small windbreak of stacked rocks near the summit cairn. Then we packed up and started down the screen cone.

The corner we jumped on the way up is easier moves on the down, so that was narrow, but everyone handled it fine.

At the cannon hole, I rigged saddle bags of the rope to make the rap cleaner–yet another good idea I learned from Vinny the first time I’d been up. With a 70m, you can rappel climber’s left all the way to the scree ledge, skipping the platform we used on the way up. A couple overhangs allow protection from the rocks that get kicked down as others descend. Dave and Gary had some difficulty with their third hands; perhaps extending the rappel devices on a sling might have helped. I put them on a fireman’s belay and they made the rappel without a personal backup, so that’s something to improve on in practice. Both hadn’t rappelled in Glacier before, so there was some excitement as we all hit the ledge and headed on down.

We stopped for water on the way down, then found the route I described earlier following Dave’s Level 3 worthy lead. Cruising out on the trail was just hot. It was July, after all. There’s a satisfaction to walking back out after a rad climb. I’m always happy to be out of the gnarly, dangerous parts of the mountains, no matter how much I seek them out and enjoy the step up in heartbeat the accompanies those spots. I might trip and fall on a flat trail—but the consequences there aren’t there, so I can relax my mental concentration.

Dave and Gary wanted to bail back to Kalispell, so the beer on the porch of the hotel didn’t happen. But if it had, I’d have sat there and stared back at Heavy Shield, its impressive upper wildness, and marinated in having safely been part of the skyline, a satisfaction that only pilots and mountaineers can understand.

Thanks to Dave and Gary for their idea, their excellent companionship, and their photos. Always a pleasure, gents.

Diversion: on significance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Backwards: chalet to chalet again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First class trail tan.

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

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

McDonald Peak: Extra dimensions in the shrubberies

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

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

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

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

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


Looking across lower Heart Lake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt higher up.

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

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

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

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

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

At least that waterfall was still gorgeous.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The view from Jack’s ledge: my personal account

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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