On scroll tolerance, and risk tolerance

For some of us, the childhood bedroom is long gone.

Perhaps in a house sold, a sewing room created, or a remodel completed, the curvatures of ceiling and the tack holes where posters once hung are remolded or smoothed away with spackle. Yet if that place where your tender years unfurled still remains, the trip back when you step inside is visceral—so many things tugging at the corners of your attention.

Blogging has been feeling that way for me: a place filled with a lot of things that I used to do, a mode I occupied but haven’t visited in a while. It’s natural to grow, or move on. However, over two weeks ago, I decided to take a break from Instagram. It felt like too much of my time and energy was disappearing into the scrolling screen. My brain knew where the icon was, and even with it gone, I’d absentmindedly realize that I was scrolling around the pages of app icons on my phone, looking for something I’d decided to remove.

My dad talked about the balance between consumption and creation years ago—this stuck with me. There’s not a hard and fast line here—there’s absolutely a time and place for letting your brain melt into Netflix after a hard day. We don’t all need to participate all the time in the online space for it to be real—creativity just doesn’t come out of some of us in that realm.

However, I was a writer long before I ever started taking pictures to post on the internet.

It feels paradoxical to find myself mentally tethered to the foreshortened, tight sphere of Instagram captions when my inclination and habit of so many years was to ramble at length, to let the words and ideas flow in a longer form. Enough people have reminded me; I find myself missing the practice of writing longer because, and especially because, it involves thinking longer.  

So here we are, and I can’t emphasize this enough: if you feel pulled away from your creative enterprises, whatever they may be, by the barbed draw of the scroll or the screen, then take a minute. Consider what you’ve settled into. Such a small step back has proven wonderful for me; it feels like my time has returned. I’m excited to be more intentional with how I’m using it, and to right the balance of consumption to creation.

To everyone who told me I should write more, that I should take this back up, thank you. To anyone patient enough to wait for it to return, thank you. To anyone taking the time to read, thank you. 

Something I listened to while writing this: 


While the conditions have varied from place to place, it was promised to be a rough winter for avalanche deaths in the US. This was supposed to stem from a wave of newer folks pushing into already crowded zones, but it seems that the combo of persistent weak layers and persistently excited backcountry users are contributing more to the death toll. Twenty five travelers have already lost their lives, which in the second week of February, means we’ve already outstripped the total number from the 19/20 season.

My heartfelt condolences go out to anyone associated with these tragedies. I’ve known the heartsick hole that is punched into your chest when good people don’t come home from the mountains. It’s lead me to making better decisions, and has pushed me to help with avalanche education in my community. This is an effort that I hope has real results for the folks in our courses; I wish I had more time and guidance to give them.

One thing I keep running into in conversations that bears more discussion and emphasis: risk tolerance, as it applies to our avalanche decision making.

It used to be that the only people who talked about risk tolerance were investors, insurance folks, and scruffy, outdoor nerds. But since COVID-19, we’ve all been, well, exposed to the concept of how our tolerance of risk determines our behavior in everyday life. Ultimately, this makes talking about it with your family easier.

Theoretically, there is no such thing as a “bad” risk tolerance: people are free to free solo, try to float the Grand on inner tubes, BASE jump, or ski gnarly lines in sketchy conditions. And those on the other side of the risk tolerance coin can refuse to cross a ski area boundary for legitimate fears about what is lurking in the uncontrolled snow, or they just stay home to begin with.

A great quote I saw on my friend Jenny Cloutier’s wonderful daily barrage of Instagram story memes said something about how “freedom with no responsibility to anything is just adolescence.” That rings true for me, and leads me to argue that if you make poor decisions because of a high risk tolerance and it affects others (you choose to ski a line, it slides, and takes out cars or people below you who had no say in your choices), then you’ve veered into wrong. 

Similarly, if your risk tolerance is higher than someone else in your group, and you bulldoze over their objections in your commitment towards your personal goals, then you’re blowing it in the communication department. Even more so if you’re the more experienced person in the situation, and I’ve been guilty of this more than once. 

Here’s a cool questionnaire I found on the site of guide Jediah Porter. Reading through it, I’d encourage you to use the situational questions to gauge your own leanings. Try comparing them with your significant other, or your touring partners.

Yet the black/white nature of the extremes of risk doesn’t do much to inform a steady course between them. What are we to do when simple safety is measured against the risks we must take to find joy? It’s not acceptable to die skiing something, especially for the loved ones and life you leave behind. It’s also not acceptable to live the shallowest version of life where risk is muted and dull similarity is the only flavor to bland days.

I’d argue, first and foremost, that as we find our way between the poles of too much and too little risk, we must do it with folks who are likeminded. Our partners deserve our care, our listening, and partners with similar risk tolerance. It is unacceptable to expose them to more than they want, or to put them in the role of caring for us when we go too far and get smacked. Sometimes the risks aren’t obvious until you’re in them. Sometimes you must come up with a hundred excuses to avoid hurting somebody’s feelings when your risk tolerance doesn’t align. All of this is born of honest, earnest communication. Yet this is the task set to us as we battle the war human factors wage on us:

We must seek partners with similar risk tolerance.

Additionally, we need to respect the risk tolerance of others, especially if it’s less than ours. Learning to love skiing in all its forms, in all its aspects, and at flat slope angles—this is a task we can pick up if we want to. I’ve put in years unlearning radness and destoking my desire for the gnar with the goal of mellowing out my risk exposure. Where I used to yearn for more air or steeper pitch, I’ve found the same joy in skinning more laps or just more intensely enjoying 23 degree pow.

This transition, of moving the frame of contentment so that we can see ourselves safe for longer, seems a natural consequence of a middle-of-the-road risk tolerance. Marketing and the general, masculine-derived conception of “steeper and harder and more dangerous is better” directly contradict finding satisfaction in mellow turns.

The discussion about dialing down our terrain choices and slope angles is everywhere; finding acceptance for this concept in our personal sphere and then bringing it to practice is personal work.

I don’t see enough emphasis on this personal change in the broader cultural space of backcountry travel.

Given that we’re in the grey in terms of risk, and the notoriously poor feedback we often receive from our decisions in avalanche terrain, it’s easy to think that we have less risk tolerance than we actually accept. Continual education must be weaponized to push us out of our complacency, and this is the responsibility of every backcountry user to bring to themselves and to their group. Formal is great, but it has to go beyond that too.

An example: recently, my girlfriend’s sister Amanda found herself reacting to the Wilson Glade accident in Utah alongside a number of her touring partners, some of whom are relatively new to the backcountry. Just the weekend before, they’d been in contact while skiing with some of those who passed away in the slide. Amanda used her skills to put together an evening of study and conversation with her touring group surrounding known group avalanche incidents like Tunnel Creek or Cherry Bowl. I thought this was a really smart and intuitive way to help her group process the collective trauma of avalanche fatality while simultaneously creating a space to forge new ideas about how this tragedy would change their group’s operating dynamics and practices. 

Another example: Danielle, my girlfriend, has been doing an online refresher of her avalanche skills via the website of mountain guide Mark Smiley. It’s cool to have her chip in her knowledge from that course, she can move at her own pace, it helps to diffuse the knowledge discrepancy between us, and it helps to keep us sharp when we’re getting out together. 

Finally, we need independent judges who can help us keep our actual risk acceptance in line with our risk tolerance. I find that there’s creep in far more than snowpack: mellow angles at the start of the day or the trip yield to steeper later, confidence builds over time, sometimes without warrant. We need partners who can hold us to our risk acceptance. Clearly delineating open, standby, and closed terrain at the start of the day can help to keep the inner powder pig from taking all the controls.

Hopefully this was helpful to you, and your thought process about risk tolerance. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Loose jams: spring thoughts from the rocks

Two short years ago, I went into the summer with a rack consisting of sport draws, hexes, nuts, and two lonely cams. It was a good time—perhaps the first time I’d call myself a climber instead of just someone who climbed. I talked about climbing as a wonderful pursuit because I didn’t hold myself to big expectations. It was what it was, which felt refreshing in light of the bigger ski things I wanted to pull off. Even dreaming of something to do is an emotional investment in risking the thought of “could I do that, should we try.” Climbing didn’t feel that way for me; skiing did.

Passion has crept into my time on the rock—nobody is surprised by that. I’m now invested, the same way I was on my skis. Three summers ago, leading 5.10 trad seemed like the upper limit of what I could even conceive to accomplish. Credit a lot of help from mentors, plenty of time in the bouldering gym last winter, an SPI guide course and exam, great partners, and lots more mileage on the rock with getting strong enough to actually hit that level. I remember thinking about it as a major sort of milestone. As if it might have more fanfare accompanying each send. Yet here I type, having done some of the things I once only wondered about.


Beta: use those ski legs and stem that thing. Topping out on George and Martha at Frenchman Coulee. Photo: Emily Smith

In the last five days, I’ve fallen off two of my projects, both 5.10b trad leads at our local pile of magical quartzite, Stonehill. It would be very nice to send these. I am genuinely bummed. I think things like, “I’m better than this. I can climb this grade. I’m strong as I’ve ever been, and know things that I never did. My mental game is way better. Why can’t I pull it together?

The answer, of course, offers a few different paths. Those of you who have read The Rock Warrior’s Way will recognize much of what follows. If you haven’t dove in, and you want to improve your experience of any activity were risk and growth go hand in hand, do yourself a huge favor and pick the book up right now.


Excellent crack technique on the crux of Delirium Tremens at Smith Rock. Photo: Vinny Stowell

Now back to “why I can’t pull it together”:

#1. Climbing is not only about climbing hard; it’s about learning and exploration of both the physical world and personal abilities. It’s easy for me to focus on goals when I’m invested; it’s easy to get attached to the achievement reward of sending a climb. Diving into the redpoint mindset of trying to achieve a benchmark places that success as the highest goal, rather than learning or giving an honest effort.


Stefan styles the ankle breaker section of Stonehill’s Supercrack shortly after I fell off of it. Photo: Jed Hohf

It’s important to zoom out, in the case of success or failure, and see what it means in the broader scope of what I want to do outside. And thus:

#2. Climbing should not always be hard; such an attitude ignores the fun that comes with enjoying all of the activity. Skiing, and all its wonderful facets, has taught me that it can be fun to play in the terrain park, or ski 20 degree trees, or ride lifts. Once in a while, it’s good to do the work to access big, steep faces deep in the middle of nowhere. But it’s the sum of those parts that matters—value in skiing doesn’t derive only from the hard, scary things that look impressive in photos. Whether I’m guiding, cruising 5.6, or chasing my strong friends up the hard stuff, my climbing needs to be informed by these lessons from the snow.


#3. It’s easier for me to climb with good mindfulness when it’s well within my perceived “ability range”. But my old habits often take over when I’m climbing something that’s nearer my limit—I tense up, overgrip, don’t breathe as well as I should, and generally let the pressure get to me. So rebuilding my habits when I can dedicate more mental and physical energy to doing it right, ie on climbs where I’m less near my limit, will yield better practice that should translate to better climbing when it’s hard.

#4. Getting better at any mountain activity and participating in the community of that activity means spending time at every level: learning, hanging out with peers, being mentored. Coming into the spring, I felt like my fall had been spent doing things that rarely pushed me super hard. I was teaching. I was mentoring. I worked on being a supportive, helpful peer in the mountains. And I was doing important work, but it was time for me to chase some mentors up hard rocks.


Harry heads up on his first trad lead of the season at Stonehill. 

That shift in mindset carried me away into focusing on achievement and comparisons, rather than honest effort and learning. Knowing this now gives me the mental weapons to shift the way I think about it next time I jump into the deep end.

#5. Trends of success are less important than trends of learning and giving a good effort. I find this particularly poignant now: my first climbing trip of the season to Frenchman Coulee saw me send a 10a lead that bucked me off last year. I managed to send 10b a few weeks later at Smith Rock, and felt pretty dang proud of that.

Some 10d bolts leads here at home and Smith had me thinking that 10b trad should be doable—when the send trend was broken, I got frustrated. It felt like I was slipping backwards, or somehow missing the boat. It felt like the effort I invested had been a sham. Instead:

#6. This is the biggest takeaway: in falling off, I didn’t fail. My success streak didn’t end; it just meant that learning shifted from “oh wow I can do this” to “it’s time to analyze and get better.” It’s good that I fell, because it emphasized the particular area I need to improve. See #3.


Topping out on Zebra/Zion at Smith Rock. 


Grades. I obsess about sandbagged grades and benchmarks, as only a kid who had his apple juice measured to make sure I was getting as much as other kids can. But the bigger thing is that I’m sick of my ego getting involved in my athletic pursuits. I don’t want to compete with anybody but myself. Grades make such competition easy. But what kind of fulfilling joy comes from turning climbing into a constant opportunity to try really hard to keep up with other people? Or to get down on myself when I’m not constantly improving? Repeat answer #6.

Addendum #2:

My last post talked about how I need to blog as a method of thinking through emotions, thoughts, experiences outside of paid writing. This is an exercise in that kind of writing-as-thinking. It feels like navel-gazing, somewhat. However, my bet is that other people may see themselves in this kind of experience. I also want to showcase my own frustration and process; I don’t want to preach the value of struggle while somehow pretending that I’m above it.

Addendum #3: Dear partners, please take more pictures of me falling. They’re highly relevant to posts like this.

Diversion: this thing is back. Here’s why.

Hello Earthlings with the internet,

It’s been a minute. I’ve spent less time than I would like writing lately, which might be the universal complaint of the non-disciplined writer that isn’t constantly employed at a keyboard. This post is an exploration of why.

My gigantic, whiny list of excuses that nobody wants to read (which is not available, even by request) dissolves into three major problems that bear mentioning: the removed ability to think through outdoor situations by writing about them, and the side effects from monetizing and job-itizing the writing I’ve been doing, and the people who have read my work, appreciated it, and want more.

Blogging was and remains my first outlet. Free from the benefits of an editor or the need to create content for sponsors, I just wanted a container to put my thoughts and adventures into. Those pure iterations developed into style of writing-as-thinking about the trip I was blogging, and thus did I better understand what had happened, what was cool about it, and how I could improve later on. Readers benefited from getting into that perspective as well. In not blogging as much, I’ve lost that retrospective rumination. Reason number one to kick this thing back on: I miss chewing on these experiences post-facto.

The strange aspect of all that processing was that it was valuable. I want to thank the folks that see monetary value in what I write—it’s super cool to be paid for one of the things I love to do. I’ve been given the key to audiences and containers that I would have never cracked on my own, and I continue to enjoy the support of editors who better my writing and push me to hone my craft, to develop my inklings into legible pieces.

But, making money off of something that’s a part of your heart requires care—and I didn’t manage that care very well. My relationship to writing changed: it became paid or rewarded content. It became a necessary part of my job, a line on my to-do list. I still wrote what I cared about, but it got squeezed into something I did when I was getting monetarily rewarded to do it. Other writing still appeared that felt good, but it wasn’t related.

Then my life moved on from a full-time focus on creating things that had marketing value. I’ve happy about that: it’s good to show up for work as a guide or salesperson or freelance writer and then leave the tools, the stress, and the to do list finished at the end of the day, to be picked up later. My thoughts went like this: “writing all the time for my blog or anyone else was a thing I did when I had the time—now, I needed to go to bed to get up to guide.”  Or, alternately: “I just want to go play, and get out of my head.”

Writing should be done because it’s what I want to do. Writers, first and foremost, should have something to say. The best part of this post is that it is procrastination: some writer’s block has slowed me down on a paid piece I care about, and here I am venting with words that flow easily, freely. Sorry Matt; I’ll get it done. Thus, reason two to return to the blog: writing is something I love. Some part of that love needs to be completely separate from work and money. I owe that part of me a chance that’s all its own.

If I were a storyteller in some village a hundred years ago, these kinds of thoughts might have been spooled out by the well, or maybe in a dingy tavern over the soft clinking of tankards at the bar. I’d look people in the eye as I said things, feel their reactions, appreciation, boredom. Instead, convenience makes this available nearly anywhere on a screen. You can read this at your leisure. I’m afforded a spectacularly large audience, many of whom I’m lucky to know, but can’t see their reactions. I write, it goes out, and I hope that it’s worth the time that people spend reading. I sometimes wonder how much time my friends and complete strangers have spent reading this blog. I wonder how many came back to read more. And recently, I’ve heard from a few of those folks saying that they want me to stop sitting on my hands. Thanks for the kick in the ass, you wonderful folks. Reason three: the people who spent their life force reading my ramblings demand yet more. David should not argue with these fine people.

It’s spring. Ski tracks and big, ursine paw prints once again crisscross the blanched dreamscapes of our local hills. Can’t go unprepared into this new season: it’s time for some more skinning with bear spray.




First snow and pizza: September 9th

Well, it happened again. I’d done so well for most of the summer, and then the yearly release of new ski content got me all fired up. As if the weather knew that I was particularly vulnerable to walking a long distance in search of a little new blanket of fluff, a bunch of moisture combined with cooler temps rolled through over the past week. Thus, I wandered up to Comeau Pass in the clouds on the theory that there’d be something fresh to ski on the old snow patches.

Pretty interesting snow structure even for the early season. Rain soaked slush makes up the bottom in the old snowfields, with 3-8″ of groppel under a melt/freeze crust above that. The new snow I was skiing was pretty well welded to the freeze crust down lower. Get it before it’s hot.


On mental mass: Split Mountain

Some mountains manage to cast a mental shadow that dwarfs their physical bulk. Maybe they tap into some strange, specific foreboding that we harbor. Perhaps they tie into a wild story we heard told by someone we respect. Sometimes they live a legend all their own, and to climb them is to weave your own rope and route into all the chaotically braided others.

There are perhaps a dozen truly technical major summits here at home in Glacier National Park; mountains where you really do want a rope and protection and the knowledge of how to use them. But because the vast majority of the high points force climbers to focus more on route finding up ledges and chimneys of first-rate choss, the few where the rope makes it into my pack seem to stand out a bit more.

Split Mountain is one of those technical peaks. It cuts an imposing profile from any angle, especially its most commonly viewed direction from the St. Mary area. From Almost A Dog Pass, the view is triangularly similar: steep, layered cliff bands forming a pyramid that’s crowned with the titular, halved summit block. I’d heard reports from friends at the Park Cafe a few years ago about the upper section and more recently, Ben Darce has been up there more than any normal climber should be.

Any one of them would have been happy to give me their thoughts on the climb and what to bring. However, the aforementioned mental shadow it cast merited a bit of a more sporting sort of trip. I’ve been lucky to learn a lot more about placing trad gear and alpine route finding in the past couple of years—it was time to test it out. Time to see if what I’ve learned would hold up without the beta from others, even in the shadow of how I thought about Split. I did manage to track down the partially helpful info on Split in the Edwards guide, put together a light alpine rack, and Beth and I took off from the Cut Bank trailhead at 9am without much idea of what exactly we were getting ourselves into.

Split from Triple Divide Pass, spring 2014

Split from Triple Divide Pass, July 5th, 2016

It’s worth noting that this trip report will totally ruin some of the surprises we found and the same sort of exploratory spirit I wanted to have up there. If you want an interesting experience without the benefit of the photos/info to follow, here’s the bare basics:

-Approaching from Triple Divide Pass is closer, and probably easier.
-Bring a light alpine rack and longer draws
-Bring a skinny 70m rope.
-Bring 20-30ft of tat in case you find the anchors wreckaged or lacking.
-Have fun!

Ok. Spoilers ahead.

Things were smooth in the Cut Bank valley, and Beth and I kept the pace brisk up to Triple Divide Pass on a trail that wasn’t as massively muddy or filled with bear sign as the last time I went in.  I’ve never actually been to Red Eagle Lake, or approached the pass from that direction, but the long flats in the beginning turned me off from heading in that way. Triple Divide offered more up and down, which appeals, you know? Plus, as the name indicates, Triple Divide Mtn divides the Pacific, Atlantic, and Hudson Bay watersheds from its summit. The whole Continental Divide thing is a bit less cool when you live and play on it constantly, but it’s neat to note.

Looking south from Triple Divide Pass.

We dropped down a few switchbacks on the north side of the pass, then glissaded the rest of the way until we were in the meadows near the moraines on the west side of the basin. It’s pretty easy to visualize the whole basin traverse from the pass—another reason to go that way.

From the slopes above Blueing Lake, talus and scree slopes plus some very minor vegetation offer access to the algal reef, a grayish band of rock that you can’t miss because you’ll need to find one the better spots to ascend/descend through it.

Beth looks down into the basin and back at Triple Divide Pass.

Walking up the summit ridge from the southwest.

Beth and I hit the top of the ridge and traversed towards the major castle of Split, climbing the loose ledge 3rd/4th class scrambling so classic to the upper sections of many of Glacier’s peaks.

Once we traversed around the south side of the upper castle and entered the big, eponymous slot, the climbing got real. Beth and I both soloed face/stem moves (5.8?) instead of removing packs to worm up the two sloping chimneys (probably 4th/5th), which proved attention getting with the way the slope drops away to the meadows below Red Eagle Pass. The “chockstone” mentioned in the Edwards description is above both of these.

Post-sloping-soloing face.

Quotation marks, in this case, indicate that the chockstone is more like a giant pile of debris wedged poorly into the split. Somebody slung the biggest chunk a while back, but it makes for a dodgy rap anchor and even more questionable as a belay point to bring somebody up from below. Some knifeblades and angles in the wall above could probably be donated to the cause, and if I head up there again, I’d improve it a bit.

I racked up on the “chockstone” while Beth did a bit of shivering—it’s a wind tunnel in there. For me, the expanded ability to protect 5th class climbing in the alpine comes from the cragging and trad climbing I’ve done over the past couple years. I’ve little doubt that a properly strong climber could free solo any of the technical routes in Glacier, but I want a bigger safety margin than that. Thus, it’s pretty amazing to take familiar climbing tools and apply them in our local alpine environment. The rock leaves a ton to be desired if you grew up on anything igneous—protection can be sparse and creative (or just plain bad), but I really do love the process of piecing it all together. It’s home. It’s funky. It’s ours.

It was also a good moment to take stock of how the climbing, in its physical actuality, stacked up against the mental thing I’d made of Split. Once there, in the moment, connected to rock and solving the problems of getting from A to B in little successions, the large problem of climbing a mountains becomes a series of small problems. Pulling out the microscope, I’ve heard it called. And in those moments, where the world is no bigger than the little bubble of what do I stand on now and what is next, focus blurs out the rest of the questions and its just one small solution stacked atop the next until a mountain mostly stands beneath my feet.

Edwards speaks of traversing out above 1900ft of exposure while climbing the upper section, which has to mean that he traversed out onto the NE face. Pretty bold. I skipped the exposure, and opted to climb up the right side though the slot, stemming and then pulling face moves up some broken silliness while placing a red c3 and #1 c4 (both solid) on long slings. There’s probably more options for protection there, but by then I was at the upper rap anchor. A pile of choss and a .5 c4 provided a top anchor, and I brought Beth up to the summit block.

The views are pretty dang neat, especially of the smaller lakes beneath the sheer drop off the NE face. Beth and I looked back at Almost A Dog pass, where we’d been a couple weeks previous. Perhaps the wildest thing about the summit are the numerous large cracks and slots in the major rock itself—the whole thing feels like a big house of cards, and just sitting around doesn’t inspire much confidence in that part of me that wonders about the whole dang thing falling apart.

As I’ve written before, it’s such an honor to get to climb with my sister. Some people do family dinners, or reunions, or get together for a weekend, but the best thing about these sorts of adventures is that they offer even more time to think, talk, and build incredible, shared experiences in life. Beth pushed through a bunch of fear to make it up there, pulled some hard moves, and given that it was her fourth summit in Glacier, she’s off to a killer start. It’s a wonderful thing to get to combine the outdoor things I want to do with the people in my family.

We rapped off the double anchor on the E side of the split, and then again off the “chockstone”, but kept our feet on the walls most of the way for the second one. Both rope pulls went smooth, and we saw success retracing our route through the upper cliffs and algal reef.

From there, the traverse back to the trail went smoothly. It’s not proper screeing, but the footing is generally fine and there’s probably water there year round so you can fill back up for the hike back out. Once back on the path, the late hour meant that we kicked into high gear, blasted over the pass, and then down the other side and out the flats with no bear sign and even more good conversation to pass the quick miles.

We’re-gonna-rocket-out-the-trail-post-summit face.

Beth tried to change one of my car headlights at the trailhead, we couldn’t get the old bulb out, but just jiggling the apparatus made it come back on. Then, we missed closing at the St. Mary grocery store and I cursed all available malevolent deities for the lack of the Park Cafe. Seriously, St. Mary is badly in need of a food renaissance.

All told, our day was just over 21 miles, and in the neighborhood of 6300ft of gain/loss. Thanks again to Beth for coming along and crushing it, and also to Ben Darce for making me want to make it up there.


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):


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.


Adolescent Homosapien
Intruding Dike
Wheat Thin
Cruel Shoes


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


Private Idaho
Mystery Bolter
Scream Cheese


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


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.


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.


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!


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.


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!