Directly after Clay got back from Gunsight, he had to go into work. Being that it was MLK day, and a federal holiday, the Forest Service folks that do our local avie advisory through Flathead Avalanche were off, and since he’d volunteered to go out that day as a second person, it passed to me.
I met Tony Willits across the road from Olney. After confirming that I probably wouldn’t hit a tree with the sled on the first turn of the groomed sled track(thought second might be problematic), he let me strap my Jefferys onto the second sled. Though we’d originally planned to head to Whitefish Mountain (not the resort) to do observations, he’d rolled in a bit late after struggling with some garage doors. By his account, they sounded possessed. Or something. So after some discussion, we headed up to Stryker Ridge and the GNPG terrain to find a north aspect and (maybe) some surface hoar.
The sleds parked in some rare sunshine.
We sledded up a bit into the GNPG permit area, then threw our skins on. Tony heading up.
The pit site was on a north aspect in a fairly treed section of Stryker ridge. Not perfect, and definitely subject to some treebomb activity, but it did well. I asked if scenics were a deciding factor in picking where to dig, and he mentioned that it’s also important to find someplace where you can roll snow pit chunks downhill and have a small bowling session.
Tony checking out the surface snow for possible strikes or spares.
After putting in his ruler, he pulled out a fat stack of cards–old Visas, gym memberships, gift certificates, the like. It threw me for a second, but then he started putting them in at each layer to make easy indicators. Nifty pit magic. Which is probably pretty usual for somebody who’s been doing snow science for the last thirteen years, but I thought it was cool.
There’s no such thing as an avalanche expert. Nobody who has done it for a long time without a close call somewhere in that history. But the folks that have dedicated their careers and livelyhoods to analyzing grain metamorphosis and SWE are great fountains of knowledge, especially for those with less experience (like me). So it was fun to watch him quickly assess things like grain type or layer resistance, qualities that would have take me much longer to identify. He observed, I wrote. On the left, temps by depth are recorded. In the middle, layers are coded by depth, grain type, size, and resistance level.
If this is a bunch of snow nerd jargon, don’t be alarmed–it’s just functional science at work.
Tony then did a shovel shear to identify layers, a CT, and an ECT. Here he is wailing on some pretty solid snow.
The hoarfrost that we’d been looking for was certainly there on shaded aspects. Getting some camera shots of that.
And then a few slithery, soft, fun turns back to the sleds.
The advisory that Tony produced can be found here. Considering that Flathead Avalanche is my local first line for identifying avalanche danger as a guide and as a recreator, it was fun to be a part of producing that community based information. Tony and the rest of the folks do a huge part in advising the local backcountryers, and they deserve big praise for their work.
Two days later, I headed out with the guides to help out/have a fun day skiing. Showed up early.
We’ve got two staff photogs at GNPG. I tried taking a few pictures in the cabin cat on our trip up, and neither of them worked out well. So the professionals don’t look very good in these, but I find them funny.
Jonathan and Clay:
Abby with pear:
And then she offered to take my picture. I figured that she’d come up with something crazy and original, but as far as I can tell, it’s just the usual stoke that comes with going catskiing.
The winch cat chasing us up:
Higher up, Clay and I moved over to the winch cat with Jay to head up to the bus lookout. With only one seat up front, one of us had to ride in back on the cat deck and find purchase by grabbing onto the winch body.
And this is why we do this.
Clay drops in.
Then drops in on some lunch while waiting for a pickup.
“Go stand over there and look majestic”
Apart from my duties as a guide, I’ve been able to help out (or passably do something that’s usually helpful) in the shop. Getting to see everything that has to happen to maintain, customize, and power a fleet of four (yes, four) snowcats and the people that make this operation tick gives a much more realistic picture of the difficulty involved. Snowcats are built as light as possible to minimize fuel costs and improve access and float. Relative to their size as heavy machinery, they barely warrant the term. So they break a lot. The parts can be hard to get, as they’re mostly metric sizes. Atop all that, most cats are designed for grooming, not people hauling, and Great Northern has built two of their own cabins from scratch. When you sit in the back and watch the subalpine firs whipping past, it’s hard to know that that smooth ride and stereo equipped cabin are the product of so much work. The ease created belies the rigor involved, and it’s an honor to get to work with such tireless and passionate folks.