There are places where the ski touring community tours elbow to elbow. They farm powder wiggle turns down whole mountain faces to maximize fresh snow. They deal with the safety and sanity issues caused by tons of backcountry users in one spot: folks leaving packed trailheads at 5:30am only to have helicopters drop clients above them.
I don’t live in one of those places. So this is yet another trip report from a remote, joyous day of backcountry skiing/ski mountaineering with a twist–a group that included some of my friends skied the same line the day prior. They had some issues that we didn’t. Most interestingly, I didn’t find out about it until after we got back.
The line is question is located in the Two Medicine section of Glacier National Park. Appistoki Peak offers a couple different descents, but the east face has two connected, broad faces with some thin middle cliffs to keep you honest. While not a dream line by my interest, Appistoki as a summit remained one of the few I haven’t been on in Two Medicine. It seemed reasonable to get in by bike, given that the east side of Glacier has seen such a spare winter. So like I do, I started watching schedules, weather, and hoping the two would align to get a window.
Weather didn’t quite cooperate. Well, that’s not fair–the forecasters didn’t seem to know what was going on, and though I’ve known this for a while, it didn’t quite ring through this time. A friend and I tried two days before: loaded our bikes, drove two hours to the east side, then found ice on the road and rerouted to another objective. The biggest take away from that day of sun patches and snow squalls was that the forecast was predictably irregular: there’d be a bit of everything, including windows of blue sky to move about in. So a day after, I got ahold of Ben, he said the road was clear, and I set off early the next morning.
True to what Ben had heard, the Two Medicine road was open all the way to Trick Falls. Such luck cut our bike commute down to only a mile and a half before we hit the Scenic Point trail–but not before seeing what we think was a lynx trotting down the road way ahead of us.
I don’t quite know why putting skis on bikes boggles peoples’ minds. Much like ski touring instead of hiking, it’s another way of making things way more efficient on a given day of playing outdoors. Maybe thinking like this only confirms how far gone I’ve gotten. Even more, what I typically do with friends here at home is nothing like the bonkers activities of Brody Leven’s Pedal To Peaks trip last year (Portland to Seattle while summiting and skiing St. Helens, Adams, and Rainier) or what Chris Bangs does, well, constantly on his fat bike.
Ben hits his hooves. Appistoki is above him.
Booting along through varying amounts of snow, we headed up the Scenic Point trail for a ways, then detoured off it to head up the valley towards Mt. Henry. I’m no East side expert–but there’s no question that there’s way less snow than usual. The ravine at the bottom of the valley was the only consistent skinning, so we dropped down there and made transition number two of the day into ski boots.
Walking with skis and ski boots on my pack is a fact of what I like to do. Most of my spring objectives will require this bizarre type of fun. Much like the bike, it’s way more efficient to ski tour than hike, so I relish the springtime options where the approach is covered. If my boots are on the ground in April, it’s a bad sign of things to come. Thankfully, the snow-filled ravine made for great skinning, and we made quick work of the walk into the upper basin.
There’s a thin line between ski touring and scrambling–I tried walking it here and had a little fall before I succeeded.
All this traversing took us below the line we’d be looking at, but with new snow and wind loading just a couple days previous, I wasn’t too keen on going up it. We saw some ski tracks emptying into the snow ravine, but couldn’t see the upper line due to flat light. Our route passed way around to the saddle of the ridge between Appistoki and Mt. Henry.
Though when we arrived there, the promised vista was hiding behind a thick veil of fog and snow squalls. Thinking we’d have no interest in skiing, we stashed our skis and continued up to tag the summit. Gaining the false summit, it was clear that it was, well, clearing out just fine and we’d been fools to leave our skis behind.
Our descent to the top of the line revealed to us what Ben had thought earlier: the skin marks and ski tracks lead up the line we’d wanted to ski. Tight hash marks descended from a break in the cornice, moved through the cliff bands, then cut through the zig zag of the skin track they’d used to get up the face. A pile of avalanche debris was stacked up on the skier’s left of the lower apron, the result of what looked like a point release slide. I remember thinking, “The face probably cooked more yesterday. But we’re way back here, and somebody else skied this. What are the chances?” Sun shown down, and we started poking around in the snow below the cornice to see if the wind slab had filled in. A hasty pit later, and I wasn’t super sure what I thought. Ben and I headed up to the summit to eat some sandwich and think about it.
Looking back towards the false summit.
Given what I’d seen, and thinking about it, we decided to walk back down and grab our skis. To give it a shot. Here’s Ben as we came back up:
Skis on, I knocked off about fifteen feet of chunky cornice blocks to see if the wind pillow at the top of the chute would react. Tiny pockets came out, but there didn’t seem to be much cohesion, and I felt better about the upper slope. We agreed on a safe waiting spot, Ben saddled up, and dropped in.
The middle cliffs made for a few seconds of no visibility, which worried me, but with no safe spot to stop above them, Ben made good moves down and he arced out onto the lower apron. A little yodel of joy floated up to me, and it was my turn.
Somewhere between 6-8″ of new snow was bonded to the older crust underneath. On hard turns, I’d scrape, but once in the apron, it was simply glorious. I did some yodeling of my own as I met Ben at his perch.
Things weren’t quite as primo further down, but the exit ramp still made for fast, slushy turns. At the bottom, Ben told me that the line had been really high on his wish list for quite a while–bonus points there. The summit seemed like a pretty lame accomplishment compared with the great ski we’d had. Another quick jaunt to the bottom followed, and we refueled and counted our options, still aglow with the neat line.
Just above our stopping spot, a line the locals call Y Chutes headed up the other side of the valley from Appistoki. Skipping the nap that sounded nice, we headed up there, cutting a nice zigzag that started in slush and ended in some of the most variable skiing I’ve done in a while. It was a neat spot to practice a skis on transition without any sort of kick turning, being not very scary, but certainly something I want to get better at for other places.
After that, we headed back down the snow ravine, transitioned, and started the walk out. Appistoki opened as a sort of curtain as we skied down the valley, progressively revealing the snow clad upper slopes and giant bulk that is Rising Wolf mountain (behind Ben in third photo below). Upper center of the first photo shows the top of the Y Chutes.
Back at the bikes, I took a couple minutes to load up my skis and boots the way I’ll want to for longer rides later this spring. Aligning the bindings on the top tube to allow freedom to pedal takes a little fiddling, but with some ski straps, it’s not too hard to hold them on there. The booster strap of your boot works well to secure the cuff to the back rack, and some rope threaded around the uppers holds them fast. It’s possible to layer the pack on top of all of this, but given the short ride out, it wasn’t an issue.
Driving out to East Glacier, I reflected on how awesome the day had been. Good weather, safe route finding, and plenty of skiing with some pow as a cherry on top. But once back in cell reception, I casually checked my emails. The Flathead Avalanche advisory was in there, so I clicked on it, and found my jaw hanging open. Near the top, I read: “On Friday, two skiers were caught in a cornice triggered, loose snow avalanche on Appistoki Peak in Glacier National Park.”
Essentially, a group of five skinned and booted up the same face, same line we skied. While three of the party were on top, a natural cornice collapse near the false summit entrained loose snow and swept the other two, who were still on the face, about 200ft through a series of small cliffs. Then, when the three on top went to drop in, they triggered a small wind slab during a ski cut.
“Whoa. Friday. So yesterday. So the tracks we saw were that party. So the avie debris we saw carried people down the cliffs we flashed through. Maybe we made the wrong calls and got lucky?” The whole day flashed back through my head, every decision taking on a new cast in the light of the observation . I hadn’t thought to check the advisory before we left, as Two Medicine is outside the forecast area, otherwise the day would have started off on a very different note–so much so that I probably would have canned the trip for another objective.
Coming away, it serves to highlight the variability that happens over only perhaps 24 hours in the alpine: the cornices we dropped didn’t yield anything like the wind slab that broke on the prior party. We’d taken a long route to get there, but doing so lessened the possibility of being in the path of the cornice fall slide that hit the other other group. Even more, the events of the observation took on a much more real cast: these were friends of mine. It brought the situation home. There’s such a wide range of possibilities out there, and when so many good days stack up, the vicious feedback of avalanche terrain can make you feel like you’ve been nailing the decisions. There’s such a delicate balance between poking holes in human factors and cultivating courage to send when the conditions are right; I find it hard to square the two easily. For me, it’s another reminder that we’re fragile casings of soft flesh playing in a cold world of steep snow, ice, and rocks–respect isn’t optional, and doing our best to debrief our decisions is the only way to move confidently AND safely forward.
Thanks to Ben for his great company, hospitality, and photos. Thanks to the other party (let me know if you want to be recognized by name) for submitting the observation and letting us know.