With much of the western US experiencing a serious recession in the snow category, and having been on the road for two weeks through SIA and now Utah without my uphill gear or running shoes, there’s a whole cavalcade of itchyness running around. Toss in the photos that keep arriving from Japan (I thought that their season just ended sometime in February?), and it makes for jealousy in the key of accumulations.
But before I left on this sojourn, though, we’d had ourselves a decent winter. Temps held things in better shape up high, and that meant that ski mountaineering uniquely positioned its acolytes to harvest the fun stuff in the alpine. A weather window was shaping up, and I made plans to head out on two days of skiing and climbing.
The first, though, was not to be. My alarm rung out at 4am, waking me from four hours of sleep. I searched around to get stuff together, and I realized that not only was I super tired before two looming days in the alpine, I couldn’t find one of my ski socks. While this doesn’t seem like a major hurdle from the rested, comfortable perspective of the present, I assure you that it was a major setback in my morning planning. So much so that I texted Blake and Carl, told them I wasn’t going, and promptly returned to my bed.
As their instagram report from the field showed, I really did miss out:
I’ve never made a habit of bailing on things without good cause. In all truth, it still bothers me that I didn’t make it out with them, because I broke my word that I’d go. But in that early morning, it felt like I’d probably get sick if I tried to get up then and do the two days in front of me. I made an early bedtime, and even though both Carl and Blake didn’t want to join us, I showed up at the Rumble Lakes trailhead the next morning to find Steven Gnam already driving around and looking for me.
I don’t have much in the way of early day pictures, mostly because it wasn’t much fun to ski through or take pictures of. Deadfall plagued our shortcut, and once we started heading up climbers trail on the ridge, dust on icy crust made for seriously dicey skinning. Once again, I vowed to get ski crampons for my wider skis. But as we climbed, it steadily got deeper.
Even better, the cloud ceiling that kept things grey approached, and then dispersed beneath us.
Inversions always feel like cheating. Looking down, I knew that thousands of people below the ceiling were experiencing yet another overcast day in the Swan, while we exulted in the need for sunscreen at the bottom of our packs. Even better, the views across to the Missions were simply stunning as we made our way up the ridge.
As a route of ascent, the crest held many advantages of safety over the gullies and slide path ridden slopes on either side. Cornicing was minimal, the snow was stable, and we were high above the runout zones that the summer trail ascends. Steven had suggested bringing crampons and tools for a specific notch, and as we arrived, I saw he was right. A knife of snow descended into the bottom, with no fall zones to each side. To regain the ridge, a small pitch mixed climbing awaited. Steven lead down the knife, kicking in steps as he went. Slow and steady was the name of the game, and eventually, it was my turn.
Moments of quiet confidence are so wonderful in the mountain experience. As I walked down the packed out steps, the view dropping away on each side of the whippet or ice tool in my hand, I chuckled a little at the absurdity of what we were up to, and the likely fact that we’d be soon skiing fresh snow as a result of our fun. Even better, the tails of my skis drug through the snow, making the steps an exercise in keeping every single step controlled.
Looking back across at the knife:
It’s counterintuitive, but mixed climbing in crampons actually feels less stable than without. The points of each spike radiate out from your foot, making the lever forcing your ankle that little bit longer. Even the barely two inches changes the balance point significantly, which then flows on up into the whole balance equation. Add a drop below and loose rocks, sometimes only frozen in place, and it made for some interesting and slow going.
Such weirdness broke up the typical monotony of a skin track all the way to the top. Getting to use touring skills alongside the scrabbley, scrappy style of mixed climbing only adds to the fun. That much better to top out and get to see all around the majority of the Rumble Basin.
Upper Rumble Lake:
We ate some, surveyed some, and then dropped some of a cornice into the slope to check out the stability. Windslab was our main concern, until the chunks rolled their way down with no result at all.
Well, that’s not right. These were the result:
Per usual, dropping in felt amazing. We skied perhaps eight hundred feet down in the basin instead of depending the complexities of the ridge, then transitioned to head up to another ridge.
Our goal was the saddle directly above me in the photo above. Noting the potential for cross loading and the way we’d seen wind moving in the area, we took the ridge ascent one at a time. Steven moving up:
And my follow. Our descent went out the low pass in this photo.
Once atop the ridge, we scrapped our plans for heading to the peak to our west–the ridge complexities earlier had eaten daylight, leaving us with a descent of the area we’d skinned up. Relative to the icy horrors of the first track, it’d be a dream. And considering that we’d started the day in the gray, with no clear plan of what we’d get done, it was glorious to feel the windburn and sunburn meld on my face as we drank tea and reveled in the inversion from our perch.
The mountain life is amazing. We’re so lucky to get to do this. This view of Holland Peak and Upper Rumble is one more convincing piece of evidence.
Tea gone, we packed up and headed on down. The turns were juicy, then sastrugi, then a bit more soft stuff as I dodged rocks down into the basin.
And I do love the golden hour in the alpine. Far better to witness alpenglow all around you than from the valley floor.
Indeed, we were headed for the valley floor. In getting there, we found my biggest surprise of the day: the light winds had kept things soft, and our descent carried us through perhaps three thousand feet of mellow powder fields and pillow bopping. It could not have been nicer, or more rewarding. Our hoots of excitement echoed up the walls we’d stood on top on our ascent just hours earlier. Steven fills in the eights:
Though we had to pay for our powder salvation somehow. Lower elevation brought serious alder and bush bashing. I may have jumped over a log or two on our exit down the summer trail. Here, Steven uses expert gumby joint technique and his manic grin to dispatch a particularly feisty piece of shubbery:
And eventually, we did end up back in the murk.
But as we skied back to the car, headlamps illuminating the snow rushing past on either side of the track we’d skinned up, it’d been a day of everything: poor skinning, dry tooling, pow turns where the sun warmed fluff blasts up to gently caress your face. It was a good day. Worth all the effort and the scrabbling. And as I sit in the Denver airport now, I’m so so so so so ready to get back to Montana and days like this.
Thanks to Steven for his wonderful companionship, ideas, popcorn, and photos. And yes, Blake–you did miss out.