This spring, even while still in Alaska, I was dreaming of three choice couliors in the Many Glacier area. But by the time I got home and got them scouted, only one of the three was even somewhat skiable. Fourth of July saw photographer Myke Hermsmeyer and me headed out to ski Iceberg Notch.
Flagwise, it was a solidly blue collar specimen. The last one in stock at Cardinal True Value, it came with 3’ x 5’ flag, two attacher things, and a pole topped with a plastic eagle. The first purchase with my first painting paycheck of the summer. And it was riding into a Fourth of July couloir mission below Iceberg Notch, catching some serious commentary.
The sandals should have tipped them off. Two young guys wandering up the Iceberg Lake trail in Glacier National Park with nearly bare feet, Mike with a camera. Skis and spangles on my backpack. Fifty yards after every tourist comment about patriotism, I’d start laughing.
The Notch isn’t skied very often. By the Fourth, it didn’t go all the way from the top, and even what was skiable was suncupped, filled with fallen rock, off angle. A ten foot deep runnel ran down the upper section, and was only partially manageable at the necessary crux. None of the buddies who’d expressed interest could make it over, so the only company was Myke over the radio.
A quick, cold crossing of the outlet steam brought me to ski boot time. Once on snow, I rigged leashes from my harness to the axe and Whippet to make instant anchors. The flag was wrapped up so it didn’t snag on something while I kicked steps up the center of the snow.
The apron proved to be mellow, the runnel navigable. Eventually I found myself on an off-camber patch of steep wall, gaps to my left and right, and a crack across the snow above
There’s something to being a fly on a glacial wall—exposure below, the consequences stark. An intrinsic immediacy, maybe, that whatever is going to happen won’t take long. This was far enough for today. I planted my axe and switched crampons for locked Dynafits.
Skis give confidence. Even though the points of crampons and ice tools hold more certainly, the act of facing downhill with boots buckled tight brings familiarity. The first turns were quick, but reassuring—it’d go. Definitely. After a little difficulty in the crux, I heard the flag flapping above me while arcing down to the lake.
A roar came up, and after first checking for rockfall above me, I realized that it was a crowd cheering on the other side of the lake.
On the hike out, we passed many of the folks that watched. A few wanted to take pictures, and we got more talk of patriotism. Pride in the country. We wished people a happy Fourth.
Drinking a beer on the deck of the hotel, I wondered about how far the irony of it carried.
Politics and government didn’t seem worth celebrating with the flag on my pack. Nor troop invasions or tort reform or DOMA. But the place that we’d been—the wildness, with a couloir rising upward and reflecting between icebergs in the lake—that held the value. Patriotism, in our sandal-wearing fashion, looked towards the parentage in the outside world. A sort of Mother’s/Father’s Day for the places that nurse us, that make a backyard the home where freedom is as simple as a pair of picks and some skis. And that’s why the flag was there, why the Fourth was worth celebrating. God bless skis, buddies, sandals, and crampons. ‘merica.
Huge thanks to Myke Hermsmeyer for his photographic skills and Rosemary Till for her hospitality.