Sounds of the season

When I ski, I make all kinds of different noises. In digging through footage to find them, I realized that there are a few that I like to repeat, but they’re all organic: the product of sliding down snow and feeling really good about that.

Cellular solitude

You are reading these words on a screen. They come to you as information from a vast network of computers. Most likely, you were linked here via social media or email. Such a path to written word would have been unthinkable to people a hundred years ago, and the capability of the internet to enter and alter people’s lives is incredible. Without it, my work as a writer would be much harder. And there’s no question that I’m as intractably stuck in the world of the internet as anybody else. But as people who are both on and offline, we must find ways to negotiate technology and ridgelines in a life that spans both.

A foggy wander around the Hanging Gardens with my grandparents and mom a few weeks back.

Recently, I finished The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, a 2011 book by Nicholas Carr. Covering the important shift in brain function that results from way we interact on the internet, it should be essential reading for nearly everyone. Societal transition from books or newspapers to screens has done more than just simplified and shortened our access to content. The new format, with its hyperlinks and flashing advertisements, changes the way that our brains process information. Instead of the blank margins of a book, where the words are the focus, I know that I’ve felt the restless distraction posed by interacting and reading on the net. In some ways, this blog is part of that noisy wave. Carr summarizes this eloquently:

“And so we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us, in ever more and different ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive. Tuning out is not an option many of us would consider.”

Speaking about the Twitter discussions of live events, Carr states, “Even the experiences we have in the real world are coming to be mediated by networked computers.”

Myke Hermsmeyer hightails it down the diagonal above Lunch Creek a week ago.

Tuning out. As I read, I thought hard about what it means to tune out, to become involved in activities that have nothing to do with electronics or the myriad ways they’ve come to constitute our lives. The feeling crept up that Carr is writing from the standpoint of someone who often can’t escape the things we’ve done to ourselves. Which would be the case for me–but I’ve got a serious habit of doing things that don’t occur in cell service. The blank margins of a book, that entirety of focus and deep concentration on task at hand, these are the feelings that come with being beyond the reach of text messages, email, social media. Solitude is not just getting away from people. It’s also a retreat also the maelstrom of technology that comes with us.

Tara Oster takes in the views at Stahl Peak Lookout last week.

In the centuries after the creation of the printing press, the naturally distracted state of the human brain experienced a new phenomenon. Carr writes, “To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to single, stated object…they had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them”.

My time in the mountains is, for me, that concentration. When focused on the next turn in a chute or balancing to make the next clip while climbing, the wealth of distractions quiets. Nothing else is there but the moment. And I’m convinced that in the same way that books provide that depth of distraction, the outdoors free from screens and cell service are a wilderness essential to our survival.

Taylor Streit makes his first tuns of the season yesterday on Logan Pass.

Deep thought isn’t a luxury. Time to think should be a part of everyone’s life, whether they get it in conversation in a coffee shop or being battered by groppel high on a peak. Perhaps the photos between these blocks of text seem like a distraction. Instead, view them as the real point: as outdoors people, we need our solitude more than ever. There’s much to gain by what we can access with our technology. It shouldn’t supplant our ability to think, though. It can’t replicate the joy of sweating hard to achieve something physically difficult. In its frenzy, it won’t allow us the ability to retreat. So shut off your screen, turn off the nonsense, and go play for every reason you already know.

October slush and a little girl’s bike

Chairlifts, as a technology, present a strange paradox: on one hand, it’s super easy to do a lot of skiing without much effort. On the other, the people who run them dictate when the “ski season” will start and end. So when you leave the resort and start walking or skinning around, the question of definition is no longer filled by somebody else’s schedule of spinning chairs. Theories abound, but for me, I start the new season when I can ski new snow.

It’s also been helpful these past couple years to skip skiing in September. While easily the hardest month to go skiing in my part of the Northern Hemisphere, it’s come down to a question of quality. It’s just not worth it unless I’m super itchy to scratch out a couple of icy, bumpy turns on a remote snowfield. And the whole “ski all twelve months, and then link that up into a preposterous number of years to impress people” thing is all about numbers and less about actually having fun and skiing. Abandoning my Continental Divide project in late August taught me something important about these sorts of “projects”: don’t do mountain things for contrived, unreasonable reasons. Do them because you want to.

So it’s October. I’ve been itchy. And when a relatively typical fall storm came through, I managed to convice Myke to ditch whatever obligations he had the next day and head for Logan Pass to see about harvesting the leftover schmoo.

Myke had procured a “Pixie” bike for an informal downhill race that took place on the things. Instead, he missed the start but still had the thing in the back of his car. So we rode it around the parking lot once up top. We attempted switching out a seat post off of both of our regular size bikes, but they were too big.

True to shoulder season ridiculousness, we put our ski gear on our bags and started walking up the paved trail and boardwalk.

This time of year, the Hanging Gardens are open to walking wherever you please, so we detoured off and headed up the moraines. I finally walked through a bit of snow, which was encouraging. The fact that the pass was open to driving had worried both of us about ski conditions on the way up.

This was my first test of my new pack towards what my mom calls “lunatic-fringe” activities. Ie, hiking in with a full ski setup aboard. The Variant did a killer job with the extra weight, carried comfortably with skis strapped A-frame or just on the side, and I’m excited to do longer, stupider trips with it now.

First skinning with bear spray of the fall season. In short sleeves.

Skins were perhaps a bit excessive. We were skiing new snow on top of old on perhaps 500 ft vertical drop, but hey, these sorts of fall excursions are all about scratching the itch. That doesn’t seem to take much. The first lap is all euphoria, and by the third, I was thinking, “this is fun, but I’d like to take a nap on the rocks.”

Schmoo. Ah schmoo. The remnants of what was fresh snow, refrozen and melted several times. A veritable blanket of gooey, sloppy stuff that mimics powder but really isn’t. And prone to making slow moving wet slides on refrozen, icy suncups. This is what happens when you try to skin it on the higher upper angles. Although, it did lend itself to some fun once atop the silly thing.

Myke drops in.

I didn’t get a nap, but we did take this follow up picture to my shirtless Kahiltna episode.

Then comes the transition back into shoes and the walk down. I need to figure out a better way to rig my skis for down climbing or walking downhill–the tails always seem to bang on ledges or steps. There’s a compression strap a bit higher up on my pack that I could use, but that might not give that much improvement. Either way, scratching the itch feels good but the walk out reminds me that it’s not really the season for this yet.

It’s hard to advocate this time of year, but seasons do give perspective. If skiing was easily accessible all the time, it wouldn’t feel as precious. Waiting makes the first few turns much more delicious. Perhaps in an era of instant gratification and NOW NOW NOW it’s good to have to wait for something so essential to our lives as skiers. It’s also well and good to extol such high minded ideals on my blog but be positively vibrating with anticipation around my friends and family. Eh. Here’s to our addictions and our ideals, both at once.

Then again, it was a perfect time to ride the Pixie bike down the Sun Road. Myke took it from the parking lot to Oberlin Bend, and had difficulty sitting down comfortably. Since I’m more hobbitylike, I squeezed on and rode down to Triple Arches.

By the time I got there, the coaster brake had heated the back hub enough to make it too hot to touch. Turning wasn’t really a good idea, as the bike clearly wasn’t designed for nimble maneuvers at 20 mph. When I stopped, a skid went for a few yards, resulting in a flat spot on the wheel. Ridiculous? Certainly. But the looks on the faces of people going the other way in their cars were absolutely priceless.

Thanks to Myke for bringing the fun and shooting such nice pictures. And to whoever it was that donated the bike. No little girls were harmed or stolen from in the making of this blog post.

On brutality in the mountains

A box of old notebooks still lurks in my closet. Recording the capricious and hormonally charged span of years from high school into college, there’s a pile of angst and unformed emotion via poetry. In light of studying and gaining perspective in the craft of writing, they now seem so raw and reckless in their vicissitudes as to be pretty dang useless. However, their true testament is to the simple fact that writing, for me, is an outlet for emotion.

And when it’s pared that simply, there’s nothing wrong with those notebooks. Many of the blog posts here are a sort of decompression or reflection on trips involving various levels of stress or enjoyment. If you’ve read them, you know. Writing is not the dictation of finalized thoughts–while we write, we rethink and generally clarify the things we’re trying to get down. There’s a therapy to words in that sense, because to write is to continually reconsult about a topic until the final catharsis of the finished product takes some of the burden with it.

As of today, the ski mountaineering community has experienced a couple weeks of tragedy:  Sebastian Haag and Andrea Zambaldi died in an avalanche just short of the summit of Shishapangma. Yesterday, snowboard mountaineer Liz Daley died in an avalanche near the Fitz Roy massif. Also yesterday, ski mountaineers Andreas Fransson and JP Auclair have been presumed dead in an avalanche on Monte San Lorenzo (or Mount Cochrane) on the Chile/Argentine border. No rescue party has been to the latter, but with helicopter reports of inert bodies and a minimum of 48 hours in the cold, it’s a pretty slim chance. I hope that I’m wrong.

But as the notebooks attest, these times of emotion trigger a written response. Instead of being speechless, or submitting some excuse about words not being adequate, here’s a try.

“We [climbers] demonstrate in the most stunning way of all–at the risk of our lives–that there is no limit to the effort man can demand of himself. This quality is the basis of all human achievement…it can never be proved enough. I consider that we climbers–that I–serve all humanity. We prove that there is no limit to what man can do.” -Walter Bonatti

My heart goes out to those who knew and loved these wonderful people. I thank all of them for their proof.

And the rest of us, who watched on as they did incredible things, as they redefined what could be done via a pair of skis ridden by the human spirit, are now left to ponder the course our aspirations will take. On one hand, I question whether I have any legitimate claim on the sorrow in their deaths–after all, I didn’t know any of them personally. Jumping on the bandwagon of a dead icon as if an imagined connection means as much as the loss of a spouse or real friend only demeans their deep grief.
On the other, these people are my people. People in the mountains. Exploring on their crampons; sending it down on their skis. The ski mountaineering community is, and will probably continue to be, niche enough that the effects of these deaths reverberate. And for international ski icons like Fransson and Auclair, their passing reflects not only the loss of an individual and the bright creativity that made them so worthy of their status–it also marks the loss of people I looked up to. It makes final their progress into difficult, dangerous terrain. It stops their ability to continue showing us “what man[kind] can do,” and because I cherish them for their abilities in that realm, it represents a loss of a leader in a small community.
On yet another hand, such losses bring home that the sheer bliss and joy that comes from our good times in the mountains has another, darker, equally as sheer side in brutality. If Fransson and Auclair symbolized pushing forward, this is the rebound. It is so hard to acknowledge, as it forces me to reflect on all the close calls. This spring, a broad wet slide aired off a cliff above and took out a face traverse we’d put in only ten minutes prior. In another incident highlighted at the start of my season edit, I kicked off a wet slab/corn slab of two week old snow on June 30th. In both cases, luck figured heavily. And to hear of people dying when they have much more experience makes going out again a complicated pile of emotions for me.

Danger is such a part of what I do. It’s somewhat relative–driving in cars at 70mph only a few feet from people doing the same in the opposite direction is considered very normal. People knowingly eat food that may cause disease or early death, or readily expose themselves to chemicals that do much the same. So perhaps there’s some variability and danger in skiing down mountains, but I don’t see it as that much worse than many real dangers that we take for granted. I make calculated guesses and try very hard to be safe in the mountains. Even so, the truth is that the consequence of death isn’t something I understand, and it’s hard to weigh that kind of thing honestly. I think it gets covered over, and much like the drop under one’s feet while leading or the exposure that you can’t afford to fall off, I try to hold it in value without letting it paralyze my moves.

During college, a ski buddy took his life. The day after I found out, I skipped my classes and drove I-90 up to Snoqualmie Pass and the PCT. Once up high, I took a detour to a rocky outcrop that doesn’t see much traffic, wrote him a note, and tucked it in a crack in the rock. I said goodbye to him aloud up there, the wind carrying my words off to the north. In retrospect, it was exactly what I needed to do.

In 2012, an avalanche swept down Tunnel Creek at Stevens Pass. It killed three pillars of the local community, including Chris Rudolph. He’d been the one to lure me to Stevens, the one who had gotten me a job, the one who was constantly stoked to get out and play. I wrote this in his memory, and though I’d rework the beginning, it still fits with how I felt then.

So I don’t know what I’ll do this time. But the writing is there, and as with these other knocks to the heart and to confidence, the start is as simple as a sentence.

His Holy Chossness, Mt. Saint Nicholas

Just as they stick up into the sky, certain peaks stick in the imagination. Perhaps they’re aesthetic, or rigorous, or feature in an epic tale told around the dinner table. Rearing heavenwards in the southeast corner of Glacier, Mt. Saint Nicholas certainly fits the bill on all three. Not only is the thumb distinguishable from everything nearby, it’s sort of a family tradition: my grandfather and several uncles have been to the summit. I’ve heard the story of how the first move requires the leader to stand on someone’s shoulders to start the moves at the family dinner table several times, and with such a legacy to follow, it had to happen sometime. 

http://skinningwithbearspray.com/2014/01/03/the-ghost-of-roommates-past/


http://skinningwithbearspray.com/2014/06/03/sloshing-up-mt-stimson/

Most mountaineers that play in Glacier have either climbed St. Nick or say they want to. Earlier this summer, some friends had suggested we make it happen over Labor Day weekend. Having not heard much from them in the week leading up, I got a phone call from Greg Fortin while painting a picket fence for Dave Boye. The weather looked good. We’d have our window. Did I want to go? I’d counted on the week to take care of some projects, including finishing the fence. Thankfully (for my predicament), Dave was turned around by poor timing on St. Nick earlier this year. So if it didn’t happen on time because of a climb, I figured he’d understand. 

And at six the next morning, it was on. St. Nick is on the right. 

Much like our soggy trip into Stimson this spring, St. Nick would require crossing both the Middle Fork and Coal Creek (twice) on the approach. Instead of the fiasco of wandering through the woods with a pack raft in tow, we were lucky to be able to ford. Greg takes to the chilly morning waters.

 

Amazing what a few months of melting and drainage can do. The place were Greg is standing was under ten feet of spring runoff when I last skinned by it. The trail disappeared into the chilly pond, only to remerge on the other side. Funny that it leaves a grassy meadow for later in the year. 



Undesignated permit in hand (or, more accurately, in pack), we planned to camp in the saddle north of the peak that first night. After an early start the next day, we’d climb, summit, and head back out. At least that was the plan. Before we could even start the technical climbing that gives St. Nick the mystique to back up its grandeur, an 11 mile, 5000ft approach was on the menu. 

As we walked in, I pondered the newness of the situation. Though I’ve been doing plenty of climbing this season, “climbing” in Glacier usually means a decent approach, 3K-6K feet of scree, bushwhacking, and a bit of scrambling to keep the “climber” honest. I’d guess that there’s ten named peaks in Glacier that actually require technical rock work or glacier travel to reach. St. Nick is one of the few where the standard route involves multipitch alpine trad climbing. My cragging seldom wanders into the multi pitch realm, and my trad leading experience was precisely zilch. Offering to carry half of the rack alongside one of the ropes was a partial token of thanks to all the leading that Greg would be doing. However, after looking at Mt. Sir Donald on Rogers Pass the previous weekend, I needed to see if alpine rock was really something I could do. And as we wandered down the valley through the wet morning grass, I knew that if it proved too much, we’d bail and come back when I was ready. 

Our approach took us about three miles past the Coal Creek backcountry campground. From there, we dropped off the trail, and went straight into the Fire Swamp. Though the fire didn’t seem particularly active, I kept a watchful eye out for R.O.U.Ses and barely pulled Greg from some Lightning Sand. 

Finally pushing up the other bank and out of the devil’s club was a joy. It turns out that we were off route–a better plan is to follow the ridge top just to the west of the main stream draining the NW bowl of St. Nick. Most of the game go there. Since it’s a ridge, the deadfall are stacked right on the ground instead of being lifted in the air–thanks to Greg for finding it on our way out. Instead, we forged ahead. And were well rewarded for our efforts. 

Not R.O.U.Ses, but H.O.U.Ses–Huckleberries Of Unusual Size. Some friends have been calling the bushes “hucklecherries” this season, and it fits. Most of the ones we found were of the gargantuan variety–which slowed our progress, but not in a frustrating way. 

Fire whipped through this area some years ago. Many of the trees in the bowl we ascended were completely torched, which changed the avalanche dynamics of those forested slopes. Slides had come through, leveling whole swaths of trees in the exact same direction, cutting right through groves that probably hadn’t seen such activity for quite a while. 

Then the forest ended, and we were into a large rock field decidedly lacking in delicious fruit bushes. Near the top, I filtered four liters and stuffed them into my much heavier pack–we guessed that the saddle campsite wouldn’t have water, and were kind of right. 

Impressively, the last thousand feet were a frustrating bit of scree work, alternated with slippery rocks and route finding up the chutes. I would have been lost on the way down had Greg not known the way, so I’d mark it well on the way up. I was expecting to be way high on a ridge with an epic view down into a valley–the lake and plateau that instead showed up were even more interesting. 

Looking south. Central high point is an unnamed peak north of Church Butte, and the craggy ridge is Salvage Mountain. 

Once we’d ate dinner, Greg went off to the snowfields below the pass to get some more water. He took a wander on this way back up to see the plateau behind the ridge in the above photo, and came back quite excited about some grassy patches of flat turf that seemed much more protected than the windy, rocky options in the saddle. 

Greg headed out to the better spot.

Of course, it was a pretty rough spot, with the blasé views you generally get around here. 

A quick trip up to the ridge for sunset left us contemplating the last thousand feet or so–it certainly looked impressive. 

I totally relish sleeping outside, but some places carry the beary bogeyman with them. Brilliant stars shown down. The Milky Way splashed across the sky, changing positions every time I woke up. An unusual amount of shooting stars skittered their way through the atmosphere. Right around three AM, I looked over to see greenish Northern Lights decorating the north horizon. And through it all, I remained subtly convinced that the rustling of my sleeping back in the breeze was the sound of a bear crunching through scree. Sort of a ridiculous thing to worry about, because even if it was, what was there to do? Nevertheless, it was there. And I totally slept through most of Greg yelling at me to get up for the sunrise. 

But not all of it. And Greg caught me looking really spiffy. 

The snow Greg put in our water bottles the night before had melted some. After a hurried breakfast and repack, we were off to the races. There’s quite a bit of gain from the saddle to the Great Notch, where the rope work starts, and we definitely had our share of route finding difficulties. Last time Greg was here, eight inches of snow fell while he was trying to get to the mountain, and he had to fix extensive portions of line to get his team out safely on the slippery rock. As we climbed up, he recognized a few pieces of sling and cordelette that he’d left in those heinous conditions. 

There’s a bit of info available on the Summitpost page for different routes, but not much in the way of actual explanation for the Northeast Ridge. Anytime an obstacle is reached on the ridge approaching the Notch, we detoured to the south side, staying pretty high on each detour. There’s a couple bits of stiff class 3 en route. But pretty soon, you pop out on the little summit to the north of the Great Notch, and it’s party time. Just before, take a look up the cliffs, and if the slings are still there, it’s easy to spot the first two belay stations–boulders with nice ledges and good spacing. The vaunted first move is, at worst, a 5.8 overhang with poor feet. A small stack of rocks helped us, but once you slug through a couple hard moves on big handholds, it’s way easier. 

I circled the belay stations in the composite photo below, and what I think is the third belay ledge. It’s probably not as far as it looks, but that third pitch was pretty long for us, and used most of a 70m rope. Anchor is another large boulder with slings.
All of this climbing is directly on the spine of the ridge–no need to wander onto the faces. There’s a bit of curve to the thing, and even when it’s starting to level out more, there’s a bit of work left to do. 

To start the fourth pitch, detour not too far off onto  the NW side of the ridge spine (several piton belays stations over here). We made the mistake of going towards the SE side, and that lead to thin, nasty 5.9 with rope drag and very few places to put in pro. This pitch was perhaps the steepest, most exposed climbing, hitting somewhere around 5.8 for most of where we were. I’d wager we took a harder line than necessary, and again, it was a boulder for an anchor. Fifth pitch was pretty quick, and we scrambled the last one to the summit (but did a single rappel back down it). 

Getting into the groove came easily. Greg was doing great lead work, and it was a pleasure to see the rope snaking out through my belay. I wore my Mountain Equipment Eclipse hoodie all day as a thicker side of base layer, and it was perfect–warm enough for the windy belay, but great when the sun was shining down too. Especially using the hood as a sun shade. 

Greg on pitch two:

It wasn’t until the third pitch before I really realized how high up we were–as the photos show, it’s blocky and not totally vertical. Contrary to what I’d expected, the exposure was there, but not incapacitating. I had a solid belay in Greg, and though I didn’t weight the rope once, I think that confidence allowed me to pull out the microscope. Focus on the moves. Be right there, right now. One hand and foot at a time, moving steadily upward. And that’s the beauty of something so mentally involving as climbing up rocks–I totally forgot about bank accounts, frustrations, and even my own name. It’s the sort of trance that I get while skiing down something, but on the uphill. 

Greg at the top of the third pitch. 

As I mentioned, we got off route to start the fourth pitch. Greg started up a small dihedral on the south side, got a ways above a hex, and then spent a bit trying to find a way to protect himself. Finding nothing, he decided to “retreat upward.” His voice floated down from around the corner: “If I fall here, I’ll definitely deck out.”

Twenty seconds later, I heard a snap, and Greg flew down into view, landing ninja-like in the rocks of a small outcropping. My catch had done nothing because of the low hex, and seeing the loose rope across my lap, my right hand abandoned the useless device, shot out, and pulled the rope taught. Fixing the belay with my left hand, Greg stood. 

“My ankles might be broken.” He shuffled towards me as he said this, and I wondered how one would walk in that sort of condition. Or how we’d rappel. Or all that approach, with the fire swamp and creek crossings to manage. How could we get out? It’s one thing to be committed to the rock, but another altogether to be so deep and so deeply screwed. But he stood there, checking his ankles. 

“I landed in a bush. Some moss or something. I think it saved my legs.” 

“You ok?” 

“Yeah. I can’t believe it. I had a whole handhold just snap clean off. It didn’t hit me. And right after I mentioned hitting the deck.” 

And aside from one sore ankle, he was fine. To boot, he took thirty seconds, then climbed right back up the thing that had just bucked him off. Run out, over a big, exposed face, he shut down his fear and channeled the adrenaline of the moment into a lead that I nearly fell on while following. Super impressive work, when only a minute prior I’d been wondering about cell service and rescue plans. And such are the moments upon which difficult mountain endeavors hinge–if Greg had wanted to bail, I’d have been with him. Bummed, but understanding the reasons. It takes so very little for things to go so very wrong in the remote places we frequent–so my conclusion is that Greg has massive, brass balls to deck on a lead fall from the mountain falling apart and keep pushing up. Not only do I owe all the leads to him, and the fact that we made it, but that courage to push through when shook. Truly an honor to climb with such a strong man of the hills. 

The next two pitches breezed by. I knew I was a ways up, but it didn’t matter–right there, right then. Nothing else. So far out of what I’d say is my element, but so at home in the familiar bubble of concentration that comes from ignoring the jeer squad of detracting worries. 

Stacking ropes atop our fifth pitch. 

Greg, on the last pitch (which we scrambled, then single rapped for the descent). 

With some last scrambling, we were on the summit. 


Looking north: Doody and the Cloudcroft, Eaglehead and Pinchot, Stimson, and Jackson in the back left. 

Looking east: Flinsch, Red, Rising Wolf, Rockwell, Appistoki, Henry, Ellsworth in back. Lone Walker, Caper, Battlement, Vigil in front. Our campsite was left of the large patch of snow in the foreground. 

Typically, the summit is a place of rest, and somewhat ease–the route is known, and unless a different route is to be descended, the obstacles that are really going to be issues are already there. However, as Greg’s drop had proved, it only takes a ledge with no moss on it to turn things on their head. I felt exposed, raw, way far gone from the comforts and capabilities of the world. It was exhilarating to know that I could climb up such stuff, following Greg’s lead. Freedom, for me, comes with the swelling sense of possibility when my boundaries are successfully pushed. What a way to get into multi pitch trad–and if I could make this follow, what of the future? What else could I do? How many other great climbs had just been opened, the possibility now a crack in what had been a blank wall of no? That excitement whirred alongside the fear of where we were, and as we started down, I thought that the rappels might be simple. 

Of course, they weren’t. All the blocks and lack of verticality that kept me happy on the climb made for really sketchy raps. Not only was it hard to find some of the rap stations, but the blocks meant that the rope threaded over multiple edges, see sawing back and forth with every weight and unweight as I moved over further edges. Greg would throw the rope down, get set, and head off to untangle the ends from the rocks. I’d be there, waiting. Nobody to talk to, nothing to do but swallow the fear and head down. I actually took ten deep breaths above the third pitch–but it didn’t do much to cut the most constant wave of fear I’ve felt in the mountains in quite a while. 

On skis, you can block out the terror by falling into the trance of downward movement. Climbing up, the rope is a precaution, not a taughtly stretched single thing holding you to the world by the weight of a boulder. Pulling the rope wracked the nerves–every little hitch or tug seemed to suggest that we’d be stuck. The knot tying the ropes together seemed to grow in size, always threatening to lock up on something and send us into solution mode.The down was scary, and towards the bottom, I just started going faster to get out of there. It seems dramatic given that people do much more difficult stuff in way more harrowing conditions, but was I headed down, thinking of the thin ropes over all the rock edges above me, I actually thought, “Man, this would be a really lame way to go out.”

 Greg looks up from the Great Notch as I prepare for the last double rappel.

It’s been a while since I’ve been that excited to be back on chossy, steep scrambling. The rappels were exciting, terrifying, and over. Grabbing our stuff, we started the race against the darkness to descend the 5000ft from the Notch to Coal Creek. 


I don’t think it right to call a mountain a canvas, because the marks we make on them aren’t important to see in the big picture. Arena seems better, because when we go to these places, it is the climber that comes home so changed–the possibility that I keep coming back to, the ability to fire ourselves in their crucible and come away that much more clean, simple, pure. 


Of course, we lost the race. Darkness crept over us as were nearing the creek. Stumbling through headlamp lit marsh grass, I watched Greg fall into a grassy hole between two logs. He then fell in again, and his headlamp beam completely disappeared. Once at the creek, we used map and GPS to arrive at the not-so-significant conclusion that we were perhaps a mile upstream of where we’d crossed before. Any excitement I had evaporated. 

Greg, however, was totally into it. Twisted ankle and all, he waded in.  

And quickly, everything changed. As the current pulled into an pool much deeper than our hip belts, we got on a log. 

“No way. I know this place. This is where we came across three years ago!”

In the dark, with nothing to guide us, we’d found the route that had eluded us in broad daylight before. No fire swamp. No doom by devil’s club. Just a gentle flow, to a log over the deep part, and we were on the hillside. It was another stroke of brilliant luck when we needed it most. An hour or so later, it was near 11:30pm. We were almost to the Coal Creek campground, and with another major river crossing and six miles, sleeping was the better part of valor. We grabbed a spot in the name of tiredness, and conked right out. 

Rope makes for a stiff pillow. 

The morning dawned overcast and dewy. My bag had water droplets all over it, and the biggest saving grace was the mix of cheese, powdered milk, and instant potatoes at the bottom of my food bag. Breakfast turned my morning around. It was time to head out. 

Greg crosses the Middle Fork. 

Huge thanks to Greg for inviting, leading, and doing it all with panache. And thanks to Dave for letting me skip out on the fence–I went back and finished it later in the week. 

Invading Cana-duh

In recent years, the area I live has occupied by a friendly invasion. On any given weekend of summer or winter, a contingent of RVs, fifth wheel trailers, and pickup trucks can be found heading down Friday night from the Canadian border. They drive the seventy miles or so to Whitefish, or Glacier Park, and proceed to enjoy their weekend free from the depredations of sales tax, the metric system, signs in two languages, and the higher Canadian prices for liquid commodities (beer and petroleum). Hey, Montana is all about freedom and liberty and such. Come Sunday, they all head back north, presumably until the next weekend.

Comparisons are frequently drawn by locals both accepting and irate between Whitefish and Tijuana–south of the border towns with cheap beer. But they keep our tourism-based economy going in the process. And like any group of people, there’s a ton of great folks just here for a good time to balance out the jerks that spoil their reputation.

Personally, I’m stoked they’re here. As a kid, the favorable exchange rates saw my family in Canada for lots of our trips. That’s since changed, so I don’t blame them. Our ski hill wouldn’t survive without their visits. They money they spend here is as good as anybody elses’. For tourists, they’re a jovial, usually polite, group of people.

As a skier and mountaineer, it should be nearly impossible to ignore Canada. Especially with so many of its citizens playing in my own backyard. However, I’ve been pretty good at it for quite a while, if by no other reason than just putting on the blinders and playing at home. That all changed last weekend.

Back in the 1970s, my dad headed north from Colorado towards the area in Montana where I was raised and live. His reason was simple: there was a big lake. Once here, he kept going into Canada with “no idea, no plan where I was going.” The mountain lust that had developed in Colorado found a bonanza in the Interior Ranges. I can only imagine him heading up the behemoth, glacially carved valleys, rubber-necking out the window of his red VW Beetle.

As we drove north (albeit in a much less nostalgic vehicle), I did plenty of staring. On either side of the river valleys, peaks reared up sharp and unknown, whole ranges of boundless potential wandering that I might have successfully ignored for who knows how much longer. There was a knowing gleam in my dad’s eye–when he suggested the trip for a summer outing, he was already plotting to turn me onto the scent that so filled his nostrils those years ago.

Our first day was spent heading up the Abbott Crest in Glacier National Park of Canada. Snaking north, west, and south through the avalanche sheds on Rogers Pass, the Transcanada Highway makes a quite an impression as you drive through the park. The control work they do in the winter also means warning signs in, you guessed it, two languages.

My dad’s first mistake was to let me make the decision on where to go. He’s been out and about a bit this summer, but like most people, enjoys some flat on his trails. Especially for a warm up. Instead, the Abbott trail takes to switchbacks with abandon, climbing aggressively right out the gate.

Most of the trails here were created by mountaineers trying to get to their goals as quickly as possible. This sort of thinking is absolutely refreshing to me, but that will probably change by the time I’m older. So while I’m not sorry for my trail choice (the most vertical gain of all the options), it wasn’t perhaps the best way to start the weekend.

The loaf of sandwiches is a recurring theme on our trips together. Sometime before we leave, my dad will take a whole loaf of bread, spread peanut butter and jam between each pair of slices, and we’ll eat on it during those snacky moments that inevitably happen. Here’s the loaf in action.

Rogers Pass has been on my radar as a touring destination, but I’ve since realized that it’s sort of essential that I make it up there.

The trail did eventually flatten out, and then started going up again. Having gone far enough, my dad sent me on to climb things and move fast. We’d meet up at the car later, but I wanted to get a higher viewpoint to see what was around.

So I made my way around the bowl, and scrambled straight up to attain the Crest. A nice couple from Quebec told me some history of the area, and confirmed the hut sighting I thought was right.

The Crest was a total blast, with little bits of scrambling and some exposure here and there. Falling away into glaciated basins on either side, the map was my only way of sorting out the peak names around me.

There’s a comfort and familiarity to the peaks in my backyard. Climbing there, each summit presents plenty of places I’ve been before, just from a different angle. The crumbly rock, the strange bushwhacking, the huckleberries, the place names–they hold the significance of home. And as I walked up onto Mt. Abbott and sat in awe of the place that surrounded me, it occurred to me that I’d been at home too long. The comfort had become a droning noise in the background. It didn’t feel as fresh. And of course, that’s the whole point of travel–to shake up the stale-ing perspective that comes from seeing the same place through the same eyes. Everything I didn’t know, all the strange peaks and their beckoning ridges, they opened the doors to new perspective and the joy of expanded possibilities.

The trip back down the ridge was the ease of downhill. Across the way, couloirs in the Mt. Rogers area were still skiable.

And also across the way, Mt. Sir Donald made quite an impression. The Northwest Arete (left side here) is on the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, and it’s certainly the stunner in the area. Here’s coming back with the trad rack and some good partners.

One other reason I love Canada: terrific facial hair. AB Rogers puts on an impressive display:

On our second day out, we skipped the switchbacks and took the gondola to the ridge crest of Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. While I wouldn’t condone this sort of activity for everyone, it was really fun to spend some time in the upper alpine with my dad.

They’re in the process of extending the trails to the ridge south of the gondola, and it lead to a neat little meadow overlooking the valley. The headwaters of the Columbia were below us, and that was pretty neat to see.

The feeling of not knowing was wonderful. After a bit of time on an old map, we located the peaks I’d been staring at over the glacier the day before, completing just a small part of the huge smattering of terrain up here.

I came to the mountains via my family. To get to experience such cool places with them still is a huge blessing, and it’s a huge honor to wander around stomping grounds that my dad once and still passes through. I’m not big into lineage, but the baton has very clearly been handed off.

The baton of great selfies, that is.

Big thanks to my dad for a wonderful weekend, the maps, and most of all, the parenting that has lead me to find such freedom in the mountains. And to the Canadians–I’ll be back.

Vaught did you say?

In the madness of life, there come moments where it’s possible to suspend our bother with the goings on around us, such that our true position gleams as if amidst a dull wreckage. Clarity comes. And with that, a gratitude to simply be alive to survey the life being lived. 

Either that, or the huckleberries were really good after a week spent at summer OR. Whichever proves more accurate, I took a break from the Continental Divide climbs last week to wander up Mt. Stanton and Mt. Vaught. 

,

The approach was of the the fruit stand variety–teeming numbers of huckleberries bracketed the trail, interspersed by patches of thimbleberries. I’d credit the speed with which I hit treeline to the trail snacks. 

Like many peaks in Glacier, Stanton features a fairly worn game trail/climbers’ trail in some places. The entrance was obvious, and covered in deadfall, so I crashed around in the brush for a bit before finding it. I don’t know if it’s just me, or that climbing has become more popular in the past five years, or maybe that I’ve been doing some peaks that see more traffic–but they’re more worn in than I remember. 

Wildfires in some nearby vicinity (Idaho, Alberta, Washington, other parts of western Montana) giving a bit more gravitas to the SE summit views from Stanton. Flying ants had completely mobbed the summit prior to my sweaty arrival, and they managed to get all over me and my gear, some of them doing so even in the act of procreating. Pretty impressive little buggers. 

I’m still new to this mountaintop selfie sans timed shutter thing. So that discomfort comes out in the humor of upside down sunglasses. Believe it or not, they work just fine this way. 

The route leads over the summit of Stanton, and then down the ridge to connect with Vaught. From here forward, a few cairns were the only signs that somebody else had passed this way. 


Along the ridge, one particular spot falls off enough to deserve the seldom mention of a rope in the Edwards climbing guide. These sorts of thoughts are always complicated by the amount of time that has passed since Edwards compiled the route info, the natural erosion of these peaks, and made still looser by the varying levels of acceptable risk to any given climber or party. I’ll often shortcut the full discovery by talking to friends or family for their thoughts. In this case, Carl Kohnstamm told me that a chute on the east side afforded a spot to descend and traverse beneath the step. Still, it’s fun to visit these things that leap from a few words in a route description to grow large in the vacuum of the mind. My own estimation was that it looked no worse than 5.6, but the twenty feet of fall would make for a difficult down climb. Probably fine to climb up. And with the lore inspected, I traversed the rest of the ridge. 

A light breeze and another cloud of flying ants greeted me on the summit. 
Views to the west, with Trout Lake in the foreground. 

To the East:

A ptarmigan stays cool on the summit snowfield with Sperry Glacier behind:

And the most inspiring view is easily to the north, with McPartland and Heavens Peak rearing up along the ridge. Apparently, the W face of Heavens has been skied before, and I’ve a newfound respect for that feat. 

Atop the summit, the thunderheads built, but didn’t do anything more than threaten and look on. The ants flew everywhere. It was still. Peaceful. A quiet serenity pervaded the whole scene, the largeness of space and the towers punctuating it serving to dwarf me–to make me small yet again. Perhaps it is the lightness that comes with the shedding of cares. Perhaps it’s truly fresh each time, if one is open to receive it. But in that exposed place, so naked to the volatility of nature and everything that could possibly go wrong on the rocky descent and in the bear-food infested woods alone, the clarity that started this post enveloped me. Maybe it’s something hokey, or maybe the endorphins talking. But there was a burbling geyser of joy to just be there, flying ants and all. Joy to be able to feel that joy. To live out the life I have, I am given, I make. 



Showy asters on the straightforward descent. 

Crossing the ridge for the second time, I took note of the ledge that cuts across the west side of the summit block. It hadn’t been mentioned at all in the climbers guide, but seemed a reasonable thing to try. A faint game trail lead me across, saving the up and down of revisiting the flying ant orgy that was doubtless still in full swing up top. 

Somewhere right after I took this shot, I ran out of water. This time of year usually spells dry alpine conditions–most of the snow has gone down to be lakes and rivers and flush toilets. Thankfully, I found a source of water with some serious sugar in it too:

It went on like this. A stomach ache replaced the thirst, but I kept eating until I hit the stream, and eventually the lake. Where I took off my socks to find the full proof of the full, delicious day.

Over the Rainbow

Whatever they may say about the age of modern convenience and connectivity, it hasn’t yet managed to efficiently bridge the wildly diverse array of places that my friends call their summer homes. Several examples: Steven with a cell phone and iPad, but no texting/messaging options, leaving a bizarre gulf between phone calls and emailing back and forth. Dan, with no cell service up the North Fork, so I call him on the phone where he works. Often though, we’ll talk via Facebook message. Another gulf.

Don’t try to tell me there’s an app for these sorts of things. App existence doesn’t sway these people.

And still another, Tyler McCrae, who is also out of cell reception. So when I called last week to confirm the loose plans hashed out in a chance breakfast encounter the morning prior, the landline went straight to voicemail. An hour later, it was ringing, but nobody picked it up. But then, at 10:30pm, my phone starts making those bizarre noises that now signal that someone is calling. It’s Tyler, and he wants to know if I’m still in for the next morning. Tenish minutes of considering my 4am wakeup that morning, the climb we’d done that day, and whether I really wanted to switch my gear and load my mom’s kayak onto the car.

I’m not good at indecision. Several years ago, when I started making a more concerted effort to achieve the mountaineering goals I wanted, it became a mantra: why not now? What are you really waiting for? Despite the six hours of sleep I’d get, the gear to switch, and the tiredness I already felt, these are the moments split by only a hairsbreadth difference. Feeling that echo of motivation, I fell into its tug: it was on. I’d go.

Six short hours later, I hopped in the car. At Big Creek, I met Tyler and Quinn. We moved the kayak, stopped at Polebridge for more food, and made it the Bowman boat ramp by the early time of 9am.

Because it so dominates the south shore of Bowman Lake, Rainbow Peak has always been on my radar. The climb didn’t seem too difficult on paper, but the approach features five miles of dense, lakeshore bushwhacking or a swim or a boat. We chose boats, because we’re bright, young gentleman who were probably going to find other ways to make our day difficult–pick the low hanging fruit, right?

Sea kayaking reminds me of ski touring–there’s the glide, the closeness to the element you’re using, and the silence of swift movement. I was a sea kayak guide for the summer of 2011. The enjoyment comes right back, and it was fun to glide down the lake. Tyler and Quinn had to fight their borrowed, decidedly non-sleek canoe up the lake. It didn’t seem to phase them. The walk up starts at the creek that drains the whole face that we were to climb. Landing, with Numa Peak in the background:

Out of the boat, and right up the slope. Some relatively simple bushwhacking through loam and deadfall gave way to a steep elk trail that barreled up the hill near the stream. My quads discussed the poor planning involved in a big mission like this after a decent day before. I told them to stuff it.

They stuffed through the forest, then avie debris cast helter skelter against some groves that withstood the onslaught. They stuffed through nettles and brush in the middle of the chutes. Tyler found a trail along the margin, and they stuffed up that too. Below us, the view of the lake got better and better until we could look back to see the boat ramp and all we’d covered.

Then they were tired, so it was break time. Quinn wields his sword in compression shorts.

Did I mention that this was his second climb in Glacier? Super impressive. The dry creek bed started splashing at us, which was nice, because the sun cooked down and we’d be lacking water further up. Less than a hundred yards from our break, we stopped to filter water.

Tyler, moving again:

The stuffing slowed to huffing and puffing. Though moving upward at a solid clip, the chute went on and on. At some point, we were supposed to roll over the edge and into a cirque that would spell the halfway point. My mind chased possibilities between a shaky altimeter (and I was wrong about that that) on my Ambit2 and a route description gone haywire. When we finally cleared the gully, it was nice to look a long ways down into the cirque we’d been trying to find. We’d been off route, but at least we were higher than we thought.

Following some stiff Class 4 moves up a gully, then a traverse out onto the face, we steered clear of the scree that coats the slopes on the south side. Not too difficult, with easy options on the sides for the cruxes, it was fun climbing. Cruisey. We made good time, pushed forward by the cumulus clouds that were building up into thunderheads to the west.

Eventually, we reached the ridge. I think we were all tired, but the weather seemed to be holding.

Just below the summit. The crooked horizon line can interpreted as tiredness.

A hundred feet more, and we were up top. Sometimes the goal of reaching a summit seems so arbitrary–in abstraction, any other point would work as an agreed upon place to stop and turn around. But beyond the goals we set for ourselves or the silly notions about “conquering” mountains just because one has stood atop them, there’s a perfectly reasonable way to look at the top as a stopping point–the views are better.

Looking northwest at Kintla and Kinnerly.  

Across the ridge to Carter:

Southeast over the Rainbow Glacier to Vulture:

And panoramically from the summit.

To the north, things were beginning to rumble as a massive cloud stacked itself into the heavens. I’m not petrified of lightening, but it didn’t seem like a good plan to risk later storms, especially since we’d have to travel back across the lake. It was time to head down.

Because the loose footing would allow for some scree sliding, we wandered over to the south slopes that we’d avoided on our ascent. A small patch of snow provided some sliding entertainment. A gully lead down and then we followed the bottom of the cirque back over to catch the south fork of the chute we’d ascended.

Looking up into the cirque. Our route followed the darker slot in the center right of the steep stuff.

Pushing to make the summit and get down out of the lightening range had taken its toll. A long break ensued, so much so that it was a bit later by the time we got rolling down the hill.

Going down, if you’re following the up track, has the nice quality of the known to it. It’s easy to make the right moves if there’s a trail, or if I can remember things well enough to use that. Balance against the previous uncertainty of where to climb is achieved, such that it feels sweeter to have sorted the route finding. There’s the sense of plunging back down–even though it’s part of the climb, I’m usually ready to be done.

Instead of the giant lightening rod that I’d feared crossing, the lakeshore proved a great chance to jump in and cool off. We all went into the water. And man did it feel nice after the sweatiness of the climb through the heat of the day.

To top that, we had a tailwind. On a lake that seems to grow two foot waves and headwinds, it blew from our back and caressed us back down to the foot. Some sort of concession it seemed, like an acknowledgement that we’d done something cool. Though if it had been a headwind, I’d probably cast it as yet another epic challenge as part of an epic day, man. So who knows if it actually was a gift. We were happy.

As I paddled along, the sun cut down below the ridge, painting the scree we’d partied down into alpenglow. Calm water took us into the boat ramp, where we made an important discovery: melted chocolate bars make for great dipping on fresh cherries.

Thanks to Tyler and Quinn for a great day. Check out the stats of the trip on my Movescount.