To find a foothold: a noob’s primer to Idaho’s City of Rocks

“That’s not a foothold. No way. You can’t just smear on that and move up.”

It was a cycle: I’d be climbing, sort of cruising, then hit a hard spot in a grade I thought I knew I could climb. First, I’d look down quizzically at the strange granite under my feet, searching for the edges that typically signal a proper foot placement in the rocks I normally climb. Not finding them, I’d perform the second step by reviewing the state of protection somewhere below the questionable way my feet were plastered on the rock. Sometimes it was a bomber cam, sometimes a spinning bolt. Then, I’d finish the routine with a string of curses, place my feet in the not-holds, and push off towards what felt like a certain lead fall down the sharp, slabby crystals. To my surprise, the final fall never actually happened, despite eight days of climbing at Idaho’s City of Rocks and nearby Castle Rocks State Park.


Leading Batwings, 5.8 Photo by Jed Hohf

The City, as it’s more locally known, looks like some massive dog did its granite business all over the 6000ft verdant hills in southern Idaho. Blobs of a granite pluton poke through the surface soil to make for an immense playground of sticky, patina’d, crack-infested climbing that still has an exceptionally frontier feel to it: entry was free, the well went rusty on day three, camping is primitive, and forget about cell reception. Oh, and the wind blew and everything was dusty, even when it rained. I half expected John Wayne to show up (not wearing lycra (John Wayne Never Wore Lycra is a route there)) and start sending next to us. No tumbleweeds heralded his coming though.

A long, long time ago, the California Trail passed through the area and left wagon wheel ruts still visible in the exposed rock along the route. It was a popular westward pioneer route similar to the Oregon Trail, so some enterprising folks also signed their names on the rocks in axle grease. Somewhere around the hundred year mark, graffiti gains historic significance or something.

I didn’t sign the rocks with anything but sweat and chalk, or whatever impression a hasty round of swearing leaves while on lead. But the pioneer theme continued: I arrived in the modern day equivalent of a covered wagon (John’s mid-conversion Sprinter Van), and left in a station wagon stuffed to the gills with people moving to Montana for the summer. We wore tights like the pioneers (of many the routes in the ‘80s and ‘90s) did. And for the first five days or so, I climbed like a man in a distant country, repeating my stange cycle as I lead haltingly upwards.


Following John up Morning Glory, 5.8  Photo by Jed Hohf

Twain famously commented that traveling is fatal to prejudice. He was correct: last spring, I finally had a showdown with the granite crack climbing I’d avoided at home. Leavenworth and the Idaho Selkirks left me walking away with bloody knuckles and a determination to get a trad rack and start stuffing my poor hands into the rock more better-er. Which shows that traveling is both fatal to my prejudices and also a bit like Stockholm syndrome: first I hated the “hard” footwork at the City and was scared, then I was less scared, and then I grew to love the way that I could throw a smear on nearly anything and just stand up. That just does not work on quartzite, as I found out while scrabbling around on some home turf routes last week.


John works on his professor look.

Of course, the best case scenario for willies on the sharp end is to have been put there by a climbing buddy who knows your abilities better than you do. I had the good fortune to climb for the first five days with John G., a self-professed “old school trad climber” who works sorcery with small wires and leads well into the 5.11 range. 5.11 represents strong belaying for me. Yet me climbing mid-5.11 is board certified struggle-bussing. John is classic mentor material. He looks dashing in a sending sweater and Italian capris (of stretch fabric with reinforced knee patches). And better still, we laughed the whole time. I owe most of the progress I made down there to John and trying to keep up with him. Thanks John; I’ll get your pug “Top Dawg” mug back to the van sometime soon.


John leads Hairstyles and Attitudes, 5.11a at Castle Rocks. Photo by Devin Schmit


John does the pensive on Bath Rock.

John and I were hardly the only folks from the Flathead to make the trip to the City that week. Devin and Chris camped in the parking lot next to us. The Sherman and Cox clans put up their tenth straight year of climbing trips to the City, which represents the right way to raise your kids. Jed Hohf and his wife Carlie were there, Joe and his wife Kat (who need to go back to Smith), alongside a couple of gents I’ve met at the gym and since forgotten their names (sorry guys!).


Devin heads up on Tribal Boundaries, 5.10b


Chris Russell on Tribal Boundaries, 5.10b

Friendly faces continued at camp for the second half of the week. My sister Beth and her partner Matt rolled in from Seattle to meet my dad and stepmom, who came up from Logan. Then, in a seriously impressive display of intuitive thinking, my friend Akina made the drive up from SLC and instantly found us climbing with my dad at Practice Rock. All of the City to comb through, yet there she was.


Beth’s hammock at our second campsite. Photo by Akina Johnson

The arrival of family and Akina meant that I switched from chasing John into the role of showing folks around. We did some of the classics. Matt did his first proper multi pitch and first double rappel for his first route at the City on Raindance. The crew especially enjoyed Stripe Rock, climbing Cruel Shoes in two teams (5.7 bliss bolts the whole way).


Beth and I at the rap anchor for Cruel Shoes, 5.7 Photo by Akina Johnson

My favorite climb of the trip, though, was going up the spine of Stripe Rock (5.4?) with my dad. We did four pitches between super scant belay spots. I built a different kind of anchor every time. I forgot the camera, but not the look on my dad’s face when he topped out. Very lucky and gratifying to see him get back into climbing some thirty years after he last roped up.

Yet family and good travel partners don’t solve the bizarre and gap around 5.9 climbing at the City. Maybe it’s just the way the rock works, in that most of the granite flat enough to warrant a 5.9 slab has had much of the patina worn down, which seems to push it into harder or easier grades. Then, the steeper buckets that might be 5.9 often fall into the 5.8 realm, a catch-all for a frighteningly wide array of diverse and interesting climbing at the City. If nothing else, it stretched my mind out.


A nighttime climb of Private Idaho, 5.9 Photo by Devin Schmit

And similarly: all the stick clip toters at Smith Rock complaining about high first bolts should probably take a visit to the City, where my peasant notions about running it out right off the deck were quickly crushed and left to die. Take New York Is Not The City (5.10 or 5.9) as an example: a quick V2 move right off the deck leads to 40ft of unprotected, easy climbing. The first bolt is probably 50ft up there. If you need a place to challenge your gym climbing notions or refocus your understanding of the YDS, the City should be high on your list. Good skills with small TCUs and wires can cut down the runouts in many places, as John well proved.

The guidebook makes much mention of how the contentious practices and ideals of sport climbing were seen during the eighties and nineties at the City. However, with the advent of the area as a National Reserve (it’s still managed as a state park of Idaho), route development ran into a permitting process that seems to have slowed development to a glacial crawl. I’m keen to learn more about it, but it seems that most of the current work going into new routes and keeping up older ones is going on at Castle Rock State Park (which you should also visit) nearby. Expect some spinning bolts in various states of mank at the City. There’s a feeling of climbing inside of a time capsule, of visiting a different era of what rock climbing was.


Following John up some route in the Crackhouse area of Castle Rocks. He placed a hex in impeccable style, and then used a British accent for the rest of the climb. Photo by Devin Schmit

A note on cords: John and I wandered around the City for days with two 70m ropes in tow. Many of the climbs can’t even be toproped with a 70, so be prepared to tag line and double rope rap consistenly. Don’t bring a single 60m and be that climber.

Details I haven’t covered yet:

-Entry is free, yet camping overnight is part of an arcane and somewhat mystical process of reservations that you should take care of in advance. The park suggests that two cars, two tents, and eight people are somehow able to coexist in one camping spot—good luck making that happen.

-Pit toilets are near most the camping, but not all of it. A couple different water options meant it was fine when our well (at Bath Rock) went orange on day three.

-Showers, spotty cell reception, and a smattering of spendy groceries are available in Almo, as well as a hot spring that we didn’t visit. Definitely do your grocery shopping someplace much bigger before the trip.

-It’s high-ish desert: bring the salve/lotion, because you’re going to need it.

Recommended routes that we did (that I remember):

Five.fun

Bath Rock’s rebar route is the shortest via ferrata ever. Very worth it.

If you like long, flat, unprotectable runouts, the spine of Stripe rock can be done in 3-4 pitches between good gear anchor sections. My dad loved it. Bring a singles rack .3-4” and some big slings, plus two ropes to get down. 70m crosses the pitches well.

5.6-7

Raindance
Adolescent Homosapien
Intruding Dike
Wheat Thin
Cruel Shoes

5.8a-d

Rye Crisp
Carol’s Crack
Delay of Game
Batwings
Morning Glory
Fred Rasmussen
Too Much Fun

5.9

Private Idaho
Mystery Bolter
Scream Cheese

5.10

Bloody Fingers
Thin Slice
Lost Pioneers
Tribal Boundaries
Deez Guys
New York Is Not The City

5.11
Cairo

Huge thanks to all the partners, friends, and family for a killer trip. Also thanks to all the photographers who took photos when my single camera battery died.

Closing the gap: the community’s role in outdoor learning

Every activity, for every one of us, had a starting point: where we were wandering in, excited, and looking to make a good start at something new. And to make that start easier, many of the sports or activities out there have quite a bit in terms of structure. Coaches, leagues, a team or group of similarly minded people, referees to watch the rules—these are familiar things to our broader society.

Many outdoor pursuits have their similar share of organized entry points: scout troops, university clubs, climbing gyms, mountaineering groups. Maybe an uncle introduces you to rock climbing or a family fascination with the outdoors teaches you to backpack or ski while growing up. Parents impart their knowledge, and you learn from them what to pack and when to turn around because of weather.

But unlike soccer or speech and debate, most of what we do outside doesn’t require a membership or any kind of organization. There are some rules, but largely, it’s free form. Even with no prior experience, you could drop the coin for a trad rack or downhill bike right now and proceed to kill yourself with it this weekend. It’s a bit harder to pull that off with a soccer ball in a rec league.

Thus, the dark side of the freedom of the hills is that an uninformed beginner faces a vacuum of knowledge complimented by risk, without a mandatory community or the safety net such a community can help to provide. There’s a gap between experience and excitement.

It’s very possible to bumble and luck your way to some level of experience in nearly any activity outside; I’ve certainly done my share of it. However, I’ve had plenty of situations that I look back on as excessively risky. Margins of safety got too thin. I trusted things to work out, and they did. But the byproduct is that I want my risk-taking to be calculated, not just the product of chance and hoping. Decisions about risk, for me, should be the result of knowledgable processing that considers and knows the factors involved whether it’s travel in avalanche terrain or making decisions about what to pack for a backpacking trip.

Getting better requires an open mindset—we have to admit that we make mistakes, that we can improve. That’s the first step. Any veteran will tell you that they are constantly learning and applying new things, as the risks dictate that those who don’t won’t last long in the mountains. An open and engaged mind is the most essential piece of gear you’ll need, even though it’s never listed in the buyers’ guides.

The second logical step is that, just like in soccer or any of the organized activities in this world, it falls to the skiing, climbing, or whatever outdoor community to close the gaps in people’s experience. Once you want to learn, you need people to teach you, challenge you, and push you to build your skills and enhance your decision making whatever your level of knowledge.

There are the schools, guides, or clubs that can get you going, and there’s much to be said for groups and professional instruction. I’ve spent two weeks this spring learning from professionals (a three day AMGA Single Pitch Instructor course with KAF Adventures and an eight day Wilderness First Responder course with Aerie Backcountry Medicine) and every single minute was very well worth the expense and time. I’d highly recommend both of those companies to anyone interested in what they offer.

However, you shouldn’t live your outdoor life paying to be constantly guided, or doing things only within the comfort of one organized group. It’s important to own the experience and make the decisions that determine success and failure, because without doing it yourself, those the trips, ideas, and successes aren’t truly yours.

The best way to own those experiences and learn outside, to my mind, is to participate in that outdoor community. I’ve made explicit the general, informal structure of how my outdoor world works in hopes of creating a loose model for understanding how we play different roles for different people. My theory is that when we identify these categories, we notice who we need to spend more time with, who might be missing from our experiences, or grow to understand our own place within the community of our less formal sports or activities. These roles break down into three broad categories that anyone can occupy, sometimes simultaneously—while you read, think of who fits these spots for you, or where you fit for other people.

Cohorts

These are your buddies, often about your age: the co-conspirators on speed dial. They’ve got a similar bent, similar amounts of experience, the same goals. These gals or guys send you pictures of ski lines or new singletrack that get you dropping house chores to get in the car. Maybe the ones you ditch your boy/girlfriend/spouse for, or if you’re lucky, they include your significant other.

Without them, you’ve got no belay, no shuttle driver, and nobody to share the experience when you puke and have to walk out in the rain. They want to learn, just like you. You watch their back: you ask to check their harness or you want to dig the pit they want to skip. They watch yours: took their Level II avie cert or swift water rescue in guide training, and since you’re definitely coming with, you’ll practice crevasse rescue at camp tonight. They push you to learn, call you on your faults, and genuinely care about you and what you’re doing together.

This group can never get big enough. You want cohorts with similar schedules. You want people who are your skill level in every activity you want to do. Easier done in SLC or Boulder then in Podunk-hasn’t-blown-up-yet-but-the-touring’s-sick (this is where I live). Introduce yourself, share your beer, be friendly/outgoing at the campground/trailhead, and don’t forget to grab numbers so you can follow through on that idea you realized you both had. I’ve met a ton of my cohorts while out in the middle of nowhere.

You can spend, as far as I can tell, as much time as you want with your cohorts outside without feeling the drain of teaching/being taught.

Skip the jerks, the batshit insane, and the ones you don’t trust. This goes for every group, but definitely don’t let them into this circle.

Mentors

These are the people you respect. Often, they’re older than you. They’ve been around. Been placing passive pro since long before you were born. Skied everything you’ve been drooling over in the Chuting Gallery. Since some of their Cohorts have probably died out there, they’re more careful than you, and manage to have just as much fun.  They don’t like to suffer like they used to, so they got efficient and went lightweight.

Most importantly, they have to want to pass their knowledge off to squids like you. Not all of them do, so when you find one, keep up, learn fast, offer to carry the heavy stuff, and curb your inner, puppy-like enthusiasm when it annoys them. Introduce your Cohorts to them, and add to the learning and fun.

If you’re a Mentor, the inexperienced are your opportunity to give back. You’ve made it this far, and you know the joys and sorrows of doing what it is you do at a high level. In my mind, getting to know such joys means I owe it to people looking to learn to help them raise their personal bar. You the don’t want the future to place cams wrong, ski without their avie gear, or—heaven forbid—take up soccer instead. So dive in and help them get there.

Find Mentors who understand and respect your limits, and will gently push you to better them occasionally. Believe in yourself when they do this.

You’ll learn more from these folks than you ever will in a book. Listen, watch, and ask intelligent questions. Pay for gas, coffee, whatever it takes, and for the love all the adventures you have under the wide sky, thank them.

You might be the best XC rider around, but if you’re headed out climbing for the first time, it’s good to listen to Mentors—who may be younger than you. This goes for any switch in activities: it’s a great opportunity to get humble and remember what it’s like to start out.

Mentors will probably teach you life lessons too. Things like how to check in with your wife. When the housing market is better. How to organize having kids and still crushing you on the skin track. Maybe they’ll even get you your next job.

Be wary and skeptical—mentors can and have made mistakes before. Do your best to understand what they’re thinking, and if it’s consistently outside your comfort zone or downright wrong, find somebody else. A good mentor welcomes questions and clues you in to their thinking.

Respect that Mentors are probably doing less difficult/rad/interesting activities so that they can bring you along, and that too much of this may drive them a little crazy. There’s an ease to playing with your cohorts and peers, to not explaining everything, that sometimes doesn’t happen in the Mentor/Up and Comer dynamic. Thank them, and don’t feel slighted when they want to go and do things that hit more on their level.

Anyone with experience can be a Mentor. Teaching what you do helps you learn it better. That said, be damn sure that what you are teaching is dialed, and that you know enough to teach it properly.

Up and Comers

These are the friends or acquaintances who haven’t been out the backcountry gate. Maybe younger than you. Only climbed indoors. Never backpacked, but done a couple day hikes. Maybe they’ve no experience at all, but are keen to try it out. They’re slow, they’re clumsy, and they don’t know this yet, so be patient. They stalk your Instagram or heard a story about you and wish they could do the same cool stuff.

So if you’re a Mentor, cool your jets for a day, help them sort the gear, and take them out. Pack the lunch. Carry the rack. And somewhere between the trailhead and top, you’ll realize that, as a Mentor, sharing what gets you so stoked is a thrill just as cool as doing it yourself. When they unlock the crux or safely make the summit, you got to contribute to that look in their eyes. You want to change someone’s life? Want to change the world for someone? Help an Up and Comer do the things they dream about.

Success builds on success. Good experiences keep Up and Comers coming back excited, while bad ones nip fun in the bud. If you’re a Mentor, keep this in mind during your trip planning. Don’t push them too hard, but don’t slight them either. Pick good weather. Ask dumb questions to make sure they brought the right stuff. Be extra dialed to allow for their junkshow.

Up and Comers need their Mentors to focus on their experience, so a Mentor can’t be too personally invested in making the top or sending five projects that day. Encourage communication, consistently check in, and if your bizarre idea is too scary or wild or too far outside their comfort zone, you need to be willing to turn around.

Up and Comers: too much time with Mentors will drain you, tire you out, or maybe even lessen your enjoyment. Maybe they simply go harder than you ever want to. Notice this, and be sure to form your own Cohorts that are on the same page.

To me, a healthy, multi-activity outdoor life includes active participation with Cohorts, Mentors, and Up and Comers. It’s the best way to receive and give back to the communities you play in. Anything else seems like poor stewardship of getting to go and do these kinds of things—it seems like hoarding the gift.

However, there are plenty of people who want to be in their little clique, don’t want to share what they do or where they go, and aren’t interested in the broader community of their sport. I disagree with this ethic, but I do respect people’s time and personal relationship with the things they do outside. So when you meet folks who don’t want to be part of the broader community or won’t let you in, just know they’re having less fun in their little corner and keep marching on.

This post is dedicated to all the Mentors who have spent their time and energy and money to teach me their cagey ways, the Cohorts who called my bluff or pushed me hard or believed in my crazy idea, and to all the Up and Comers for flashing those grins and sharing the stoke when they made that little breakthrough with big results. I would be dead or way less happy without all of you. Thanks to all of you for making this outdoor life so much sweeter, and here’s to the next time we get out.

Wait, bikes? Spring ski scoping in Glacier

Denial seems futile: both the calendar and Facebook say that it’s spring. Roads closed to cars are melting out. To avoid dread approaches over perfectly wheelable gravel and pavement is to get on the bike. And like every spring for the last four years, I’ve realized that it’s time to spend a few moments considering how I feel about including bikes back into my life, if only for a brief six weeks or so.

Skiing actually has it pretty easy. Bindings and boots are what they are, yet skis are so mechanically simple on the consumer end. No shocks, no brakes, no cables or chains or welds or tubes to break and cause havoc. And these days, bikes make skis look downright cheap. I’ll give that expense the blame that for not having done much to change mine.

Thus, it comes as no shock that my bike is in about the same state of functional silliness that it’s seen since it emerged from my uncle’s barn in 2012. Bikes, like ships, should not be renamed. Mine was originally christened Headhunter and spirited my uncle Rob through many shenanigans and over much slick rock during his days of med school in Salt Lake City. I was helping them move out of their Montana house and found the bike covered in dust and staring down a fate of being left behind.

It had no wheels, the chain was destroyed, and who knows how long it had rested there. A couple salvaged wheels from their garage, new tubes/tires/chain, and I was off to the races. I’ve since added a rack and fenders (because I’m a weenie and getting blasted in the face by water is so fun) to complete what usually gets classified as an Alpine Assault Vehicle. Thumb shifters, a top tube too long, and a rear chainring that prevents it from running in its highest gear are the major quirks. I’ve never had it tuned up; maybe that’s part of the charm.

Snowmelt on the roadways is the major reason I even have a bike that I use that frequently outside of errands in town. Wheels offer the chance to access objectives that sit behind long, flat, road approaches that are closed to cars yet open to anyone will to pedal their way up. Skiing, camping, hiking, or just riding for the fun of it; this is my micro-bike season.

The other cool part about the roads melting out is that it offers an easy way to get into Glacier and scope the spring ski options with my own eyes. Photos from other folks are fine, but if they aren’t looking at the same things that I am, it’s a lot harder to know exactly what’s going on. The photos in this post are from two days. I covered a pile of ground via car and bike first with my mom, then with Alex and Morgan.

Last Sunday, April 3rd, my mom and I headed to the east side to ride bikes into Many Glacier. The Glacier National Park Road Status page told us that the road was closed, but they had been plowing. Always a good sign for bikes, so we made the call to try the six hour roundtrip from Kalispell. Just typing that out makes me think that it’s a really long way; it doesn’t feel like that though. Who knows.

Things were super sun and very dry when we got started at the Sherburne Dam. The ride in was completely dry and otherwise uneventful.

We swung out to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, glassed the Altyn hillsides for bears (only found bighorn sheep), then headed back to the Many Glacier Hotel to eat lunch.

I’ve long recommended Many Glacier to folks looking for the classic Glacier experience. Drive in access, the amenities at the hotel and campground, and a pile of hikes with lots of different lengths and difficulty levels make it a good place to explore in the summer. People seem to have figured that out too; it can be a zoo during the height of the season. Early season trips like ours take on the feel of a ghost town: windows are boarded up, the wind blows, and the only sounds are the ones that nature is making. Two other people (the winter caretakers of the hotel) were our only human sightings.

So it was quiet, and gorgeous. Yet the east side really suffered from a warm winter. Snowpacks that usually necessitate plowing and offer great snow approaches are totally gone this year. With them, the runouts and drifts that fill in classic ski lines. It’s hard to look at such wonderful landscapes while simultaneously feeling the frustration of a spring skier without the key ingredient: lots of snow. It makes me wonder what this place will look like come August. Home seemed like the place for this spring; instead, I’m considering more time in the mammoth snowpack that the Cascades stacked this past winter.

We hung out for a bit, then headed back out. It had only been twelve miles and change, so we wandered down to St. Mary to saddle up and ride some more.

The burn last summer meant that much of the road that normally would have snow didn’t have the shade or shelter of trees with their needles. It was smooth riding all the way to the St. Mary Falls trailhead. Judging by the road status page as of this writing, they’ve plowed past Jackson Glacier Overlook already. This means riding bikes with avie gear (a preferred alpine sport in Montana), but the access is pretty dang incredible.

My mom and I then headed back out, and down to Two Med. A quick snack stop in St. Mary yielded the interesting discovery that GPI had set the categories strangely on the cash register; the clerk run up the chips I bought under the “Stamps” umbrella.

In Two Medicine, the road was closed about a mile outside the park entrance station. We rode in to find it blocked by snow just before the Running Eagle Falls trailhead. I’d imagine it has quite a bit more snow than we found elsewhere, at least on the valley floor. It was a quick turnaround and we headed for home.
Then, yesterday the 5th, Alex and Morgan invited me to bike into Bowman Lake with them. Our alpine start involved getting lunch at a reasonable lunch hour, turning around to get gas after starting up the road to the North Fork, and a closed Polebridge Bakery. Obviously the last was the biggest tragedy.

Halfway to the lake, I was wondering why we brought fat bikes (thanks for the loaned wheels, Parsons). Then the snow started. And the puddles. And the packed ice. Maching downhill at maybe twenty five mph (that’s generous) in short sleeves on slush covered icepack on a fat bike might be one the scariest, wettest things I’ve done in recent memory. Props to Alex for doing it in such style. I can’t even say that it wasn’t fun.

We made it to the lake to hang out for a while. I skipped some rocks. Ate some sandwich. Looked the mountains with dismay at how much snow as in them.

Then, as a sort of protest against the fact that we could even ride bikes to any of the places we got to because of low snow, I went on the 1st Annual One-Man Bowman Lake Nude Bike Ride. It didn’t really require going very far. Hard to say which was whiter: the mountains or my bottom. You be the judge.

The ride back out was a total party of downhill enthusiasm. I cornered with terror; Alex screamed along and I tried to follow his line. We took maybe half the time we spend on the ride in. I’d bet that the snow and ice persist for the next ten days minimum; maybe that’s an overly cautious estimate.

Suffice to say that it’s spring here, and the biking is pretty dang great. Thanks to my mom, Alex, and Morgan for a couple great days out. Here’s to strapping skis on in the high country as soon as the avie cycle settles down.

Switcharoo Guest Post: bean roulette and yurts with Ben Horan

Good morning, and welcome back to Skinning with bear spray. Unfortunately, you’ve been bamboozeled by the oldest trick in the book: the bait and switch. I’m The Gentleman at Large, and I’m taking the reigns today. You can see what David has to say for himself over at the Gentleman at Large blog!

pioneertrip-1

I was sitting across a roughhewn wooden table from a man in a bandanna. We both sat with straight backs and leaned in toward each other slightly. Sweat beaded on my forehead. The room was very loud and dozens of people crowded around us, waving cash and yelling. In the other man’s right hand was an old revolver with the bluing faded near the muzzle. It was pressed against his temple and when the hammer fell on an empty cylinder the metallic click was drowned out by cheering and jeering and a new round of betting. Neither of us allowed our gaze to break from the other man’s eyes. He slid the revolver across the table to me.

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “this sounds a lot more like a scene from The Deer Hunter than something that actually happened to you.” I have to admit that you’re right. And while I’ve never played Russian Roulette in a steamy Vietnamese prison camp, I have tried to finish all of the food that we packed on a yurt trip to avoid packing it out.  And as we passed the pot of reconstituted beans back and forth it began to feel a bit like a gun to the head.

pioneertrip-8

I’ve had the opportunity to spend a few weeks in yurts in recent seasons, and like to think I’m becoming an old hand at backcountry ski trips. And so to make your next hut trip experience more pleasant, I’d like to offer a few bits of advice.

  • Spring for the gear haul – $200 for a five mile gear haul sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? It is. They’ve got you over a barrel, and who cares? Do it, and then bring whatever you want. Throw your food in there. Throw a keg in there. Probably hang on to your avy beacon. Definitely don’t worry about how you’re going to get all that stuff you packed back to the car – it’s pretty much all just food anyway and you’ll probably finish it.
  • Do not look at a map – You paid for a snowmobile shuttle, so you’re good. You don’t need to know where you’re going, just follow the tracks. Be sure to disregard any fine print that could suggest that the gear haul only goes three quarters of the way to the hut. That’s depressing and you can deal with it when you get there.
  • Bring your own everything – Sharing is bullshit. Everyone should bring their own: tortillas, cheese, granola, beer, bread, peanut butter, mustard, and coffee. Nothing makes me angrier than when someone doesn’t bring their own mustard and then asks to use some of mine.
  • Pack only dried staples – Oats. Flour. Beans. You’re a regular homesteader out in this here frontier-style fake-house. Be sure to pack food like you’re playing Oregon Trail. Canned beans are for quitters. Store-bought bread is a sin. Bring a rifle in case you need to shoot a buffalo.
  • Booze. Lots. – During the Napoleonic Wars, sailors in the British Royal Navy received a daily ration of a gallon of beer, a pint of wine, or a half pint of rum (depending on availability). Who won the Napoleonic Wars? Not Napoleon, that’s who. Take a page out of Lord Nelson’s book and have a nip with breakfast.
  • Keg beer – Nothing steams my Twinkie (and there’s nothing worse than a steamed Tinkie) more than trash. And if you run the numbers on a group of ten, drinking a gallon of beer a day, for three or four days, you start to come up with a lot of empties. You can remedy this by just bringing a keg. Alternatively you can leave the keg in the truck with a large spool of tap hose and run that in behind you on the approach. Don’t forget to find a volunteer to hang out in the parking lot and pump!
  • Earplugs – You never really know someone until you sleep next to them at altitude after they’ve had their daily ration of beer. Now of course I don’t snore, but you sure do and so I always travel with earplugs. They’re also useful on airplanes, in the office, and at your next high school reunion.

I do hope that this has been as helpful for you as it’s been fun for me. Please do check in at The Gentleman at Large for regular Tuesday updates on better living and a healthy lifestyle!

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.