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.

http://www.movescount.com/moves/move114026737

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.

Diversion: on significance

It’s hard to tell, but I’m in this picture.

This shot was taken without my knowing it, but after the fact, Darcy Chenowith (who you should have checked out by now) clued me in and then was kind enough to send it along. Jason Mills and I were on the Little Matterhorn, the mountain on the right. Below is Lake Mary Baker, Floral Park up and left, and then Sperry Glacier and the glacial basin. Comeau Pass is on the central skyline.

Of course, you can’t see us—we’re too small. And that’s part of my point: mountains are big. Really big. They dwarf us, our ambitions, our concerns. They don’t care whether you top out or get slid, rockfalled, killed, or return home happily. As playgrounds, or as testing grounds, or as places to see my own progress, they offer all my ambitions and stamina can handle. If there’s a cathedral equal to the possibility and wonder of this life, it is in the mountains that I find it.

Staring at the stars, there’s an insurmountable feeling of vastness, of exposure. The drop away from my sleeping bag goes on literally forever, and though a shiver might run through the realization, it doesn’t terrify those who are scared of heights. But looking over the edge of a mountain, I can fathom the distance. I can grasp it, and it’s real, and it’s still so much bigger than me. Middle-distance, I’d call this: big enough to matter, small enough to measure. And because of this middle distance, mountains cast huge shadows physically and mentally.

There is no question that, as humans, we are changing the hills, even as they outsize those who would climb. Glacier National Park is projected to have have technically lost its glaciers by 2030 or so. This won’t mean that there isn’t any more glacial ice, or that the places we see glaciers won’t still look like glaciers; the existing glaciers will have just shrunk to where they are reclassified as permanent snowfields. Treelines will creep upward, moraines will be colonized and turned into forest, animals will die out and change habitat. The seasonal lack of water from places that used to hold snow will dramatically shift everything downstream from fish habitat to where you can camp midseason. Hotter, drier summers amplify conditions ripe for the wildfires we’ve seen this year.

Personally affecting what seems so unassailable via climate change is perhaps the hardest dichotomy of being a mountain person. I drive a car. I participate in a fossil fuel based economy. I’m a guilty party. To know firsthand how big these places are, how their grandeur opens a similar space and freedom in my own heart, only to see them so delicately balanced on the collective results of individual actions like mine—that’s hard.

I welcome change in so many parts of life, yet want the places that feel so homelike and stalwart to remain the same. Bedrock not only in the way it was laid down, lifted up, but also in how it grounds me. Gives me something stable: a place I speak about in terms used often for a lover.

Worse, I don’t have answers for you. I know what my answers are, but this blog post isn’t intended as a soapbox or political rant, though those dimensions are inevitable once thought turns to action. Envisioning the changes in store for a place that feels close to me profoundly affects who I am, what I stand for, and that process doesn’t feel genuine unless you, every single person who reads this, experiences it on their own terms. My goal here is only to trace where it’s taken me. What I really want to leave you with is this:

Go spend time in your cathedrals. Make yourself vulnerable to their volatility, their storms, their sunshine, their fast and slow change of leaves and ice and steams swollen with runoff. Give yourself to them. Then learn what all of us are doing, square those in your head, your heart, and find the line you can take between them.

Backwards: chalet to chalet again

One of the things my ninth grade P.E. teacher said sticks with me: “We’re only going to run once this semester: when we run the mile.” That I remember his words a decade later is telling of my attitude towards running back then. Going fast was for skis. Or bikes. Why would you want to run somewhere? Running was hard, sweaty, and frustrating.

Running is still hard, sweaty, and frustrating. However, I got introduced to the road version. Then a couple friends showed me about running on trails. Which was more interesting, but involved hills. Then Myke Hermsmeyer completely confused my ability to distinguish fast hiking, running, and scrambling.

But the running paid off. I felt better. Could move faster. And did I mention that it’s hard? Hard things feel worthwhile; they’re the struggle to just keep my head above water rather than cruising. They’re so much learning. And once I get good at something, like hiking uphill, then I wonder if I could do it faster. If I could run uphill.

So this spring, I gave it a try. My body is not that of a runner’s. Too much girth to be fleet and bounce through the forest with the nimble, skinny elves—I roll past like a stampede of walruses on snowshoes. But I found that I could do a little running uphill. And even run downhills too. Which made me think: maybe I could run in the mountains. Maybe I could do the Chalet to Chalet again.

Last year, Myke and I completed what I think to be the first connected visit to both of Glacier’s remaining backcountry chalets (Granite Park and Sperry) in one day. (I’ve been since told that someone from GNP trail crew did Goat Haunt to Logan Pass to Lake McDonald via Floral Park in a day, which blows our trip out of the water). Up the Loop, across the Highline, up to Hidden Lake Overlook, down to Hidden Lake, across Floral Park to Comeau Pass, down to Lake McDonald. 7200ft of gain over some 30 miles. Neither route was new at all, but nobody I knew had decided to connect them before. We’d hiked the whole thing, and went the easy way.

So with my running ideas in my head, I wanted to try it the other way, with one major change: instead of dropping to Hidden Lake, I would go up and over the Dragon’s Tail. This added some extra vert, kept me out of the closure at the foot of the lake, and kept things interesting. In the process, I covered just over 30 miles, 9100ft of elevation gain, and most importantly, found a route that I think solves one of the peak circuit mysteries that’s baffled me at Logan Pass.

This year’s route, on July 9th: Lake Mcdonald to Sperry Chalet, Sperry to Comeau Pass, traverse below the glacier in the Sperry Basin, to Lake Mary Baker, up to the Pass, drop down and traverse right on the bench above Hidden Lake, ascend to summit ridge of Dragon’s Tail, summit, drop down the east side to goat trail to pass near Reynolds, return to Hidden Lake Overlook trail, run down boardwalk, do Highline to Granite Park then drop down the Loop trail.

Glacier’s chalets are a holdover from the origins of the park. Tourists would arrive from back east on the Great Northern Railroad, following their slogan of “See America First”, as opposed to going over to Europe. Without irony, many of the buildings they constructed were done in the architectural style of the european areas they were trying to get people to skip. Once in the park, visitors were then ferried about the park on horseback, traveling between tent camps and chalet buildings that were all spaced about a day’s ride apart.

Two of the chalets remain standing: Sperry, above Lake McDonald, and Granite Park, above the Loop. Summers of 2008 and 2009 I worked at Sperry as a dishwasher and server, respectively (loudest dishwasher ever). Summer of 2012 saw me at Granite Park as one of the hotel housekeepers (knocks on door: “Housekeeping!”). Those three summers account for 31 weeks spent continuously (in three chunks, obviously) in the backcountry at 6500ft with no access to the internet, marginal cell service, and a great amount of time to go hiking and play in the mountains. The friends I made and things I learned there daily impact who I am and why I spend so much time outside.

Best of all, I’ve a family of kindred crazy people who still work there. Visiting them was a big part of why this traverse is interesting to me. The Sperry crew was expecting their first guests of the season the day I rolled through. This was unfortunate for me, as there wasn’t any pie yet made. I’ll just have to go back.

Granite Park had been at it for a while for this summer, but like Sperry, they benefited from our epically dry spring by not having to shovel their trail at all. Pack trains supply the chalets twice a week, taking in food and clean linens, and packing out the garbage and dirty sheets—but they can’t move over snow. My year at Granite, we did significant shoveling for eleven days. So they got away clean this year. It was nice to see them looking so spry and unsullied by days in the deep trenches.

What those trenches looked like last year. Remember, these were dug by hand in consolidated spring snow.

The Floral Park traverse should have had a connected trail. Had Sperry Glacier not been so massive in the early years of the park, I’m sure that some enterprising, trail-building sillies would have linked Hidden Lake over and up through. As it stands, it’s one of my favorite non-technical alpine traverses in the park. I’ve done it on skis, in Chacos, and three other times, once climbing Bearhat en Route. The standard option from Logan Pass is about nineteen miles and 4500ft of elevation gain.

Doing it backwards meant gaining 5000ft on trails from Lake McDonald. Once over Comeau Pass, snow and moraines connect down and around the toe of the glacier. Where the glacier has receded, bare rock slabs tilt at bizarre angles with pools of water between them. Moraines with stunted trees mark former borders of the ice. Everything is tan or red or milky blue, giving a very surreal quality to it all. Then, you pass into Floral Park proper—which was fairly exploding with its namesake as I went through. Alpine wildflowers and their attendant bees are always so impressive: short growing season, tough environment, stunning colors. It’s a carnival of the first rate.

Hidden Lake spends perhaps five months of the year without ice, meaning that the fish that live there spawn in the middle of the summer. Bears then show up to feast. Wisely, the Hidden Lake trail is closed while this happens to keep people out of the orgy and feast. But more problematically, the Hidden Lake part of Floral Park is a trip out of the alpine. The Dragon’s Tail has always seemed like a better way to follow the ridge, but I hadn’t talked to anyone who had traversed it. The Climber’s Guide to Glacier talks about rappeling on the ridge, which I’d believe.

Setting off knowing that I’d have to climb an untried route midway through was committing. Doing it alone was committing too. I love the process of anteing up for this kind of move, as it demands a total trust of my abilities and preparation. There’s a confidence that I can handle it, which informs a lot of what I do in the hills. The line had to be there, because the animals that travel through there certainly aren’t rappelling.

My route up onto Dragon’s Tail. Entered from the lower right, followed the easy climbing left, then traversed right to the shadow line and up to the ridge. Nothing worse than class three if you stay on the goat trail.

And it was. I followed a well-worn class three goat trail up from the bench above Hidden Lake. It went right up where I thought I could climb, and deposited me right by the route from from the east side. It was a small triumph to find that, and it now opens up the connection from Bearhat to Reynolds in my mental Logan Pass circuit options.

I suffered on this trip. By the time I topped out on Dragon’s Tail, my stomach was in rebellion. I was moving slow, after 8k ft of vertical gain. Dehydration seemed close, despite constant water sipping. The cheese and crackers in my pack tasted bland on the summit, which is never good. I should have bailed at Logan Pass, but thought I was feeling better as I started walking out towards Granite Park.

Logan Pass feels so bizarre as the middle part of a long day.

Walking the Highline as a long slog is just not a good idea. Doing so in 3pm heat is far worse, after already going 18 miles for the day. My stomach stayed unhappy. I drank more, but pushed forward through the slow miles. It was great to see everyone at Granite, but I talked too long and ad to run most of the way down to catch the last shuttle. I was the only one on it.

First class trail tan.

It wouldn’t hit me until I was home, but I just wasn’t hungry. Not good after a day like that. Everything that I’d put in my stomach came back up the next morning. Couldn’t keep anything down. That afternoon, I ended up at Jack’s house: he was recovering, his daughter Lucy was catching up on sleep with her foot in a boot, and I lay on the couch feeling miserable and weak. We all felt rough.

The better part of valor would have been to bail at Logan Pass, and let my stomach rest. Afternoon heat couldn’t have helped. I pushed on because it seemed like it wasn’t that bad, but losing the next couple of days to feeling so sick reinforced that I should have quit. It wasn’t a race, and the objective wasn’t going anywhere. No expectations but my own pushed me through; learning to curb those is the refinement of experience. As I learn to do more with moving fast in the mountains, I’m excited to take in those lessons and see how much more I can push myself. Wonderful to see the chalet crews in their elements.

Having Vulture and eating Granite too: a Glacier Park refusal to compromise

Back in the third week of May, just after I returned home from the PNW, I found myself in the midst of a three part vortex of scheduling. Great weather had me all hopped up on any number of good ideas. Then, the details wouldn’t mesh. I had a couple days of misfires spent at home or taking a last-ditch afternoon trail run to make up for a perfect day more or less wasted. So when Ben suggested a three day trip to ski Vulture Peak, I was in. Then, I realized that some friends were going into Granite Park the last day of the three we’d planned. It seemed like I was going to bail on the Granite crew for the bigger, wilder trip. Then, I reconsidered. Since the trailheads were close, I’d be able to switch trips and stay out for three nights, four days. At the time, it occurred to me that the transition would be a little wild. But it was my chance to do both, rather than pick. And if you can have your trip and eat it too, why not walk a bit further?

Vulture Peak, tucked away in the southern portion of what I consider the North Fork area of Glacier, offers three approach options full of bushwhacking. You can go in from Logging Lake, and brave the beaver ponds and scramble out of the sheer Grace Lake basin. Jefferson Pass to the north offers a long approach option as well. Our route, Packer’s Roost to Flattop Mtn to West Flattop to Trapper Peak to camp, seemed the best for the conditions: we’d take advantage of snow above the shrubberies, be able to ski more, and it would connect me closer to Granite after. However, a couple factors made it worse: the road was gated at Avalanche, so we’d have to ride bikes for nearly seven miles before we’d even start the walk. The Mineral Creek bridge probably wasn’t in. In summer, it’s nearly twenty miles of walking to camp via the route we took. Skis would cut that down, but as we set off from Avalanche, our bikes loaded down, 4:30am on May 21st, I felt like the trip was off to a sufficiently insane start.

It didn’t make sense to bring the food and clothes that I’d want at Granite all the way to Vulture and back, so I devised a genius cache method using a bear keg. Trouble was, the keg has no outside attachment points, which I can only assume it so keep it from being more easily handled by no less a creature than a bear. It toppled off my bike rack twice en route to Packer’s Roost, which didn’t even concern me as we stashed our bikes and started the walk, but would come back to haunt me two days later.

Downfall kept things interesting in the three or so miles to Mineral Creek. Once there, it became pretty apparent that the spring runoff that started so early this year wasn’t quite fordable. Stacks of planks to be installed sometime later this summer left our crossing option as the four bridge cables the dangled over the swift moving current. I don’t think he liked the idea, but Ben volunteered to go first. Feet on the bottom and hands on the uppers, he made a series of weight shifting moves, sliding hands, then feet, then hands across the gap. I shuffled across next. Zach takes to the trapeze:

Typical stream crossing etiquette is to unbuckle your bag in case you fall in. Given the moves we were making, it seemed like a loose bag would prove a bigger balance hazard. So they stayed ratcheted on. It’s a good thing none of us toppled in. From there, the Flattop Mountain trail climbs up switchbacks along a nice gorge with a waterfall. Somewhere about the 5500ft mark, we ran into snow. Morning air made for solid walking, so we booted for a while before switching to skis somewhere past the Flattop Mountain campground.

We then had some decisions to make. The trail continues across Flattop, eventually dumping you out at Fifty Mountain campground. On the map, it seemed to make a nice, even line across. But ski touring is different, because the opportunity to take advantage of gravity can cut a lot of effort out of traversing cross country. We ditched the trail, electing to head up to the summit of Flattop, then ripped skins and used the downhill to cover a few miles of contouring on the west side. The aim was to find a way to get down to Continental Creek and cross. Ben drops in on a wind-drifted gully that took us perhaps half the way down.

As you can see, Ben did solid work on his tan this trip. More on that later. Shrubs and dirt forced our skis back onto our packs, we dropped to valley bottom, and bushwhacked up the other side. For future reference and route planning, it’s worth noting that the pass at the north end of the Continental Creek drainage is the highest point of the valley. So the further north you go, the less elevation you have to drop in the transition to West Flattop. There’s also a spectacular waterfall in there, on the southern end, probably well over 150ft high, that I’ve never seen photographed or heard about. Next time.

Once atop West Flattop, the skinning was easy. The tops really are quite flat, and go on further than you’d like. Trapper was our next objective, and we had to rip skins then put them back on because of a dip en route.

On our return, we skied from the saddle to the right of the summit and debris. But to keep things easier with our overnight bags, the ridge to the left was our approach option. By this point, we’d done a lot of walking. I was feeling the pack, and the effort. Thankfully, the views, with the stark contrast of the snow line, were worth it. Zach and Ben making their way up with Flattop behind them. On the far right, below treeline, you can see the cut of the Going To The Sun Road on the Garden Wall.

Vulture itself had been growing steadily larger all day. Atop Trapper, I got my first really good look at it. Red line was our descent the next day, with camp at the bottom of the line.

Bottom was the key too: From Trapper to camp, it was pretty much downhill. Much to our surprise and delight, the NW side of Trapper delivered perfect corn. I dropped in first, and by turn number three, was yelling with sheer, all-out happiness. Zach does his rendition of “heavy pack in great corn”:

This winter, I didn’t spend much time camping in the snow. Since spring, though, I think I’ve made up for that. We made camp with proper distance to the small lakes in the bottom of the basin, complete with a couple scraggly hang trees and nice warm rocks to sit on. Clothesline with a view of Cleveland:

Looking up towards Vulture:

Given that we didn’t want to ski ice, the morning was a casual start. 3400ft of gain with light packs felt like cake after the heavy long day of approach.

The route we followed goes up through the Gyrfalcon Lake basin, then hangs a left to the south to pass over into the Vulture Glacier basin before then heading up the summit snowfields to climber’s right, or the north. There’s a summer option up the direct summit ridge discussed in the Edwards climbers’ guide. Ben took the lead up the final snowfield:

I’ll admit: the summit didn’t feel like much compared to the day of approach, or the looming trip back out. Really, many summits feel pretty dang similar: stratospheric, somewhat sparse and stark between blue sky, white snow, black rocks, with the wind blowing over it all. Of course, the view is always different. But for me, the summits themselves are increasingly less interesting compared with the company you have while you stand on them. I’d spent only a day of inbounds skiing with Zach before, but got to know him way better while we were out there. Ben and I spent some time on Appistoki this spring, but again, three days out gives you some awesome time to see all of someone’s range of ability and emotion under the duress of a hot sun and a heavy pack. These are some seriously awesome gentlemen, and it was an honor to stand with them on such a remote summit.

And as I mentioned, Ben kept working on his tan. He left with burn lines from both the backpack straps and his beacon harness, which I can only say made him look even more attractive.

Looking over towards the South Vulture summit.

Quartz Lake and the northern Whitefish Range:

Then, we got to ski down. Thanks to Ben for grabbing this shot of me dropping in off the summit into the double rollover that ends in the Vulture glacier basin.

Ben and Zach make their way down.

It was good enough to go again, but with the sun beating down, more food back at camp, and our general idea to ski Nahsukin that afternoon, we kept going on down. View of the W face of Nahsukin that we’d ski later in the afternoon:

Zach and Ben lead the way back out of camp after lunch.

Looking back up towards Vulture during the mellow climb up the ridge of Nahsukin. Gyrfalcon Lake isn’t quite fishable yet.

Summit creatures of Nahsukin. It’s worth noting that there is a summit register out there, and if you go, be sure to find and sign it.

Descending the face was a mix of rock dodging, isothermal mush straightening, and making sure we didn’t end up over a cliff. That said, it was a damn sight better than walking back down, and we even enjoyed ourselves. A bit less high fiving and excitement than Vulture though.

Afternoon sun had cooked the traverse back to camp, making it a slow affair. However, this has to be one the prettiest places to be moving slowly. Zach makes a turn or two on our way back to camp. Peak in the center is Trapper.

Dinner for me was some random mix of curry and whatever else I brought. Zach and Ben created a mix of macaroni, hot sauce, ramen spice packets, and instant potatoes that really did taste pretty good. Important phrases like “special cheese sauce” were repeated, to much hilarity, and it seemed like we’d been out a good deal longer only two days. We dug some walls for the tent to prevent doom-by-wind in the night. I fell asleep thinking of the massive day to come.

Up by 4, moving well by 5:30. Clearly, these are some stoked, sunburned guys.

And our 6:45am turns down Trapper. Given the massive debris, I wouldn’t have wanted to ski this at any other time of day. Our early rise made it worth it though, because we got an inch of slush atop refrozen stability.

Back across West Flattop. Across Continental Creek. Up Flattop, and skiing down the south ridge from there towards the Flattop campground. It drug on. We were all tired by that point. The view into the Sperry Basin is terrific from up there too. Only from Heavens Peak have I see it so nicely before, so that’s cool. Somewhere before this shot, I’d eaten the last of my cold mashed potatoes, with only a bar remaining for food before I restocked at Packers. In my food there were some burritos, another mac n cheese, and all kinds of other delights. It was good motivation.

Did I mention that we were tired?

And it continued. Down Flattop, across the bridge cables again, and plowing through the downed timber to get on back. I tried to stay hydrated. My stomach grumbled.

The same urgency that I’d had to get to food carried Ben and Zach along too. Once we reached Packers Roost, they grabbed their bikes, said their goodbyes, and headed out. I was all excited about the food in my bear keg, but upon opening it, realized that something had gone seriously wrong: a cloud of white gas vapors slammed into my face. It seems the extra bottle of stove fuel I’d stashed there had leaked, probably caused by the falls off my bike on the way in. Almost three days of marinating later, the stink made my dry clothes pungent. I couldn’t quite tell if it had gone through the plastic bags that housed my precious burritos and the caramel roll I’d brought for breakfast the next day. But I was ravenous. Smelling the burritos, they seemed ok. So I ate one, as it started to rain a bit.

It’s a downright miracle that my bike and gear all made it from Packer’s Roost to the Loop. Skis, boots, overnight bag, and bear keg were all mounted onto it, hanging off the back in a crazy cantilever that would make the bike wheelie if I didn’t have a hand on the bars. I chugged along in my granny gears, tired. It rained some. All I could think was that if insanity was contagious, I was admiral of a plague ship full of it. Twenty plus miles in, skis on my bike, headed to carry more of all that uphill for yet another night out…

Once at the Loop, I stashed my bike, grabbed the white gas smelling food, put my skis on my pack, and started the final four miles/2500ft gain of my day. There were a few burps, after each I’d smell white gas. Which convinced me: the white gas had seeped through the plastic bags. In my hunger, I’d eaten some. Gross. My lunch for the next day was ruined. Hopefully the breakfast wasn’t. My food was three gels, three bars, and maybe a caramel roll. Perhaps the gents I was meeting up with would have some extra.

Around 5500ft, the snowline reappeared. I put my skis back on, and trudged up to Granite Park to meet the rest of the crew. Facebook had deceived me into thinking that a whole cadre of chalet folks would be in attendance–turns out a poorly timed nap (cough cough LARS) prevented most of them from even getting in the car. Instead, Zach, Breyden, Will, and Sam were all there, having just finished some afternoon naps. I pulled my gear off and started dinner as the first three headed out for an evening lap. I don’t have much in the way of records of difficulty, but the whole trip had left me pretty dang drained. For some sense of scale, this it the Move and map:

But as usual, all the distance was worth it. Granite Park is probably the easiest-attained Best View in Glacier. The whole summer of 2012, when I worked at Granite, I stared at Vulture. It was nice to stare into the sunset and know I’d been over there only that morning.

The next morning, I woke up pretty early. Hungry. Excited for my caramel roll. I got all situated, took a bite, and smelled white gas again. So my breakfast was hosed. I stuffed it back in my pack, muttering. Thankfully, the guys had overpacked a bit, and found some extra food to spare. They saved my day with that, and it was a good thing, because our plan was to go and ski Grinnell Mountain. Zach, one of my coworkers on that Granite summer of 2012, had already been up there. For the rest, it was a new trip, and I’d never brought skis along.

We crossed the divide, dropped across the south Swiftcurrent Glacier, and booted up to the summit ridge of Grinnell. Zach and Breyden leading the change:

They elected to ski more towards the glacier basin, while I went up towards the summit and picked a line through the rocks. Northwest facing made for great turns unwrecked by morning sun. I got to watch all three of them shred down, and the stoke was high.


As we walked back up to the divide for the quick ski back to Granite, I considered how cool it was to not only switch trips, but also get to see old friends and meet new ones twice in the same time out. The beauty in Glacier draws cool people, and the folks I’ve been able to meet doing all this hanging around here are salt of the earth. Another blessing to be counted.

We then headed back down. It felt longer than it actually is. Despite more donated food from the gents, I was really hungry.

So when we hit the Loop, I rerigged my gear and bolted for Avalanche. Thankfully, they hadn’t towed my car. Thankfully, I’d had the foresight to buy some snacks. Thankfully, some nice guy took our group picture. Somehow, they managed to pack all their gear and bikes into only one 4runner, and they headed off. I drove back home, thinking that it really had worked out pretty dang well to have my Vulture and eat Granite too. Maybe I’ll try this stuff more.

Big thanks to Ben and Zach for the time on Vulture, Justin for hosting us at Field Camp prior to departure, Zach, Breyden, Will, and Sam for the good times at Granite, and the good people at Glacier National Park dispatch for handling my backcountry reservations for two separate trips while the actual backcountry office was in training.

Lemonade on Little Dog

The Spirit Bear didn’t have my phone number. So the message popped up on Facebook: “What are you doing tomorrow?”

My car’s on its last legs. Christmas presents to buy. Emails to send. A whole string of dangling conversations to finish or move a few texts down the line. Things that could maybe lead to sustaining the ability to question what was next in my schedule. Plenty that wouldn’t fall into place until I actually took it head on. Neglect wouldn’t help. So I had plenty to do tomorrow.

However, as winter has sputtered to life here, we’ve been dry-docked with a snowless spell. Stages of ceased snowing include denial, attempting to find stashes, acceptance of tracked out/ravaged snowpack conditions, and then ski mountaineering. Things seemed primed for a trip into the scoured, buffed alpine. If you’ve got no pow, and just scapey, crusty lemons–make lemonade.

So Spirit Bear’s message was the conversation I picked up. The next morning, Ben was at my door, with his fully functional and recreational vehicle, which solved the “brakes don’t work” issue for the moment. He was also on top of the pastry game, so we stopped to pick up sticky buns before heading north.

We picked up Jason in Columbia Falls and were off through the Middle Fork, discussing topics of importance with our mouths full of sticky buns. Things are certainly low tide, and followed that in the cross loaded, rocky first-glance at our objective atop Marias Pass: Little Dog mountain.

When I think about about the local outdoor community, there’s a series of branches that start with my immediate friends and then spread into the people that live in this little corner of the world. Though I’d known Ben since I was in high school, and knew of his exploits in Glacier, we’d never climbed or skied together. He and Jason had raced biked years ago, but I hadn’t skied with Jason since two years back. The newness didn’t bother me–we had strong, fit skiers. We were joking and chatting and just enjoying ourselves as we skinned through the forest and detoured up a creek towards the lower slopes.


The day was my second in a new pair of boots, so I was a little tentative about how that’d shake out. No hot spots appeared on the flatish walk in, or on the ascent up a rib to the west of the saddle between Little Dog and Summit. Jason and I were chasing Ben, which is a pretty common thing to do, given that he’s one of the fastest uphill people in our little corner of the world. Some folks like to switch leads when skinning or bootpacking, because they get tired. Ben, however, does not get tired. As far as I can tell.

Somewhere in the past couple weeks, I switched my touring setup over to wider Steeples, thinking that I’d probably be skiing pow in the near future. The rib we followed was either scoured, baked, massacred, faceted wind drifts that were hard enough to not hold an edge, or rocks and scree thinly coated in a couple inches of fluff. It made for such interesting skinning that Jason eventually gave up and started bootpacking. He caught up to where I was trying to finesse my way through the drifts, so I joined him. Judging by his face we caught him, Ben wasn’t having any fun at all. None.

From there, skis went on packs. The wind drifts made good footing, and it didn’t take too much time to make the ridge.


The last time I was bootpacking up a big face, tiredness and dehydration dogged every step. But as we climbed, it just felt good to plant each foot above the next, drifts and outcrops passing along from above to below.


Spindrift had been blasting off the ridge all day, and the wind howled over us. Since things didn’t look too promising, we left our skis and continued up. Jason ahead of me, and Ben way out there.

The view back towards Summit. On a bigger day with better conditions, I could see skiing the N face of Little Dog, ascending Summit, skiing its SW face, then heading back up to the saddle.

Looking across Ole Creek.

All the sculpting and rock hard drifts evidenced the wind hammering the outside of my hood. Spindrift would occasionally come around my glasses and stick to the warmer, insides of the lenses. And it was just wonderful to be cruising along up Ben’s boot prints, snug and happy in my gear as the wind raged and sun shown down.

But the same wind was a bit unsettling to Jason. As I caught up to him, he told me that he’d had enough, and was turning around to wait for us at the saddle. With Ben a bit higher on the ridge, I started juggling the thoughts in a hard situation. On one hand, it’s good form to stick together in case something happens. With one member of the crew retreating, perhaps we should all head back. But Ben wasn’t part of this decision, so it was the two of us. Jason was fine with me heading on. He had crampons if he wanted to use them, and I felt he could make the descent. But since I felt fine, and had Ben forging ahead, I felt good to catch up with him. We’d all regroup to ski from the saddle.

Looking back on that decision, it made our margin for group error much slimmer. Jason was more or less solo on his walk back to the saddle, and if something went wrong up high, Ben and I would just have each other until we could get word to Jason. Given how we felt, the competencies of the group, and the conditions, I don’t feel bad about the decision now–but I would have liked to make it as a group, instead of choosing between scenarios in my head. We had a range of speeds, and that was beneficial in exposing fewer people to concentrated hazards, but it limited our communication. This hindsight is the kind of thing to bring to future trips. Reflection is positive, when acted upon.

After I caught up, Ben and I negotiated a couple chutes, kicking through thin, unconsolidated wind drifts to the firmer stuff underneath. Around the corner, up the edge, and there we were. Clouds roiled to the west, with their puffy tops catching a golden glint from the sun. To the south, they broke up over the Divide, leaving us with blue sky over the plains in the east. Our  perch was right on the break point. It was pretty dang exciting.

It was also extra windy. I threw on crampons for the walk down, took a few swallows of water, and we marched back down to meet Jason. Ben snags a group selfie back at the saddle:

Ben and I dug a pit, revealing a seriously consolidated snowpack on the lee, cross loaded slopes we’d be skiing.

I swung in first, found a little bit of loose, crusted snow on the margin, and made it down a ways.

Jason linked turns down to me, and on his go, Ben blew out of a ski. It rocketed down the slope as he yelled, then caught a bit of snow, rolled, and thankfully stopped. Ben doing some downhill walking:

From there, we traversed skiers right into some of the ramps of the lower mountain. Ski cutting the soft, thin drifts as we went, the angle decreased and got downright fun as we skied back into the creekbed we’d come up. Ben enjoys some just desserts:

Bopping along the creek, the whole day took on a nice afterglow. We’d started with winds, and that sinking feeling of low tide, but here we were, having skied some legitimate crust and actual pow on the bottom. Only a little bit of skinning ensued on the trip out, and as we crossed the tracks back to the car, I couldn’t help thinking that the best recovery drink for the evening was resoundingly lemonade.

Thanks to Jason for motivating, Ben for his photos, and both for a wonderful day in the park.

Through the winter portal: Comeau Camp

It may not really matter when the snow finally hits the valley floor in my hometown, because when it does arrive, it feels like it came later than it should. The advantage of mountains around here, though, is that you can push the fast forward button on the ski season. Two pairs of boots, snow camping stuff in the pack, and every step up a muddy trail is a chance to hit the snow line and put skins in the snow.

Last week, Steven Gnam and I were both sick enough of office time that it was simple to make the call: we’d head up to Comeau Pass to find some snow and see how winter was progressing above us. With lenses, Steven’s pack was easily 30lbs heavier than mine. Before the trip was through, I watched him run downhill with it. Much respect.

Traveling upward, things steadily moved through fall into winter. Our boots touched snow in the switchbacks below the chalet, but we waited to switch out until things were filled in enough to actually skin up. I’ve been messing with the time lapse feature in the new iOS lately. The first attempts haven’t been good, but while we were stopped, the fog that we’d hiked through was creeping up the valley. I built a little tripod of snow on a rock, and starting recording. Just before we left, I watched the video and nearly dropped my phone. Instead of the static shot I’d imagined, the snow had melted at a constant rate, creating an unintentionally cinematic pan upwards. Here’s to accidents.

We switched to skis as the trail crossed the main gully below Mt. Edwards. Packs were joyously a little lighter. As I skinned away, all the dirt we’d walked over receding in the glide of each slide forward.

While not really filled in, there was enough snow to skin up on comfortably. We followed the trail up, across the stepping stones, and arrived at the base of the stairs a bit later than we’d estimated.

In the 1970’s, before this slot was blasted into the cliff, a metal ladder ran up and over the rocks. I can only imagine climbing that thing with a real pack while kicking rime off each step up the rungs. Instead, we had easy going with only one hard move over an ice flow on the stairs.

To respect the distance regulations and minimize our impact, we camped a bit down the hill on the east side of the little lake on the pass. We’d thought that camp would be quick and we could ski a little, but as happens, snow camping is slow camping. Getting and heating water required chopping a hole in the lake ice. Setting the tent meant anchoring to buried rocks. Since we brought a three season, the guy lines all had to be placed. Even then, the tent would do a minimal collapse every time wind hit it. Sometime after midnight, I came to the realization that no matter how many times the tent wall curled inward over my sleeping bag, the thing wouldn’t be going anywhere with the two of us in it. Just sleep.

And it proved to be fine. I awoke to this:

While I got my breakfast going, Steven took off to do a bit of recon.

A few thoughts about winter menus and water.

Typically, snow camping can be reduced to two main categories: melting/boiling water, and everything else. We took along a Jetboil Sumo for that, and it did admirably. Since we had the lake a little walk away, it made more sense to carry water than melt snow. Where I’d usually take a filter in the summer, I used a Steripen Traveler to nuke the lake water with UV rays. This saved the filter from freezing up, and only added another small piece of electronics to the pile in the bottom of my sleeping bag.

Snow camping usually leaves me dehydrated, for a couple important reasons. Really cold or really hot water can be hard to drink. Instant food can be pretty salty, which tastes good, but can actually leave you feeling more dehydrated after the mug of Ramen is gone. Because it’s cold out, it’s easy to go a while without drinking. The lack of minerals in melted snow or pure lake water seems to bother my stomach some. And also, your water bottle can freeze up.

To combat this, I took a regular nalgene liter with a FortyBelow neoprene cover. On the way in, this cut weight as I’d fill up at creeks that we crossed then use the Steripen. Once at camp, I’d fill it 2/3rds with lake water, purify that, then add another third of boiling to even out the temperature. To finish, I’d use an Endurolytes Fizz tablet to add in some beneficial solutes and make it taste nice, then drink to my heart’s content.

In and around camp, a GSI Fairshare is the absolute essential. Mug, bowl, small plate of a lid. Easily cleaned by swirling hot water inside with the top on. I have a neoprene FortyBelow bootie for it that adds insulation. Tea, breakfast, soup, whatever–the Fairshare is the absolute way to go.

With the rest of my menu winter camping menu, it’s nice to keep a balance of calories, taste, and heat. Even though we were out for only two days, fruits and veggies are always the things that I miss most, so I tried to take care of that.

Trail food, lunch, and snacks:

Hammer Bars (which don’t freeze up until it’s down around 10 degrees F)
Justin’s Maple Almond Butter
48% milk chocolate with otters on the wrapper
Triscuts
Cheddar cheese
Blended fruit tubes. These things are like baby food, but make for a compact way to get some fruit in your backcountry diet.

Dinner:

I took an instant, single serving, organic black bean soup mix from the grocery store and rebagged it in a ziploc. Once in my mug, I added the noodles from a packet of ramen, then filled it up with water. Ten minutes later, I had black bean noodle soup.
Dried seaweed sheets can be a great, light way to get iron and greens while out, and you can add them to soups or wraps if you want.

Breakfast:

In a ziploc baggie:
Potato buds, some garlic salt, instant milk, grated pepperjack cheese. Throw it in the Fairshare, add water, and bingo: super breakfast. If I could find a nicely tasting protein powder that works when heated, I might add it here.

Tea is great, and though I’m not much of a hot-drink-in-the-morning person, it’s nice when cold camping.

Anyway. Once Steven returned, and we got breakfast done, we headed out to ski. Pits showed something like three feet of new accumulations atop the permanent snow fields in the drifts, and while the layers weren’t the best, they weren’t very reactive in our tests.

Skinning back up to camp:

After some lunch, we headed over to the main snowfield of Gunsight.

Because of the layers we’d seen earlier, we followed up the ridge and dug two hasty pits en route. Even at higher elevation, there was some kind of rain/melt crust with intact groppel 15-20cms below the windswept crust in the more loaded areas. This made us pretty cautious, but it wasn’t super reactive, and we didn’t have any problem with it.


I’ve skied this snowfield at numerous times for five out of the last six years. When I worked at Sperry Chalet, it was my go to. The way it sweeps down off the summit of Gunsight has yet to get boring, and I’ve yet to ski it in the same condition twice.

On our way back to camp, Steven found a nice wave to surf.

And with that, it was time to pack up. In my rush to get everything back onto my pack and head out, I just threw my hiking boots under the lid straps without actually tying them in. We descended the stairs, skied about halfway to the chalet, and when I went to switch back into my boots, found only one of them still on my pack.

Instantly, I realized that it could have fallen off anywhere. If I couldn’t find it, I’d have a left foot in a ski boot for the rest of the seven miles to the road. “IDIOT!” It was so annoying to not have done something as simple as securing them to my pack, but that’s haste for you. I should have thought more about it, and it’s good to learn those lessons.

Steven caught up with me, realized what happened, and figured that he could run back up to look for it. I was in no condition to run, and certainly didn’t have the footwear, so I stayed with our gear while he headed back up. Twenty minutes later, he grinned back down to me, boot in hand. Huge thanks to him for that huge help–it saved my foot, the walk out, and probably the whole trip. I switched out my gear, ensured that everything was strapped on tight, and we headed down.

We weren’t the only folks heading down the trail:

But as we went, speeding along in time to a ski crampon that was dinging with every step that Steven took, we didn’t see anything. We walked down through slush, then mud, then dryish trail. The winter portal had closed, and it was definitely fall again. Somehow, we didn’t put on headlamps either, and by the time we hit the car, it was nine tenths dark.

Thanks to Steven for joining in the madness of a couple days up high, heavy packs, and especially for saving my foot with his running prowess. Here’s to the season.

October slush and a little girl’s bike

Chairlifts, as a technology, present a strange paradox: on one hand, it’s super easy to do a lot of skiing without much effort. On the other, the people who run them dictate when the “ski season” will start and end. So when you leave the resort and start walking or skinning around, the question of definition is no longer filled by somebody else’s schedule of spinning chairs. Theories abound, but for me, I start the new season when I can ski new snow.

It’s also been helpful these past couple years to skip skiing in September. While easily the hardest month to go skiing in my part of the Northern Hemisphere, it’s come down to a question of quality. It’s just not worth it unless I’m super itchy to scratch out a couple of icy, bumpy turns on a remote snowfield. And the whole “ski all twelve months, and then link that up into a preposterous number of years to impress people” thing is all about numbers and less about actually having fun and skiing. Abandoning my Continental Divide project in late August taught me something important about these sorts of “projects”: don’t do mountain things for contrived, unreasonable reasons. Do them because you want to.

So it’s October. I’ve been itchy. And when a relatively typical fall storm came through, I managed to convice Myke to ditch whatever obligations he had the next day and head for Logan Pass to see about harvesting the leftover schmoo.

Myke had procured a “Pixie” bike for an informal downhill race that took place on the things. Instead, he missed the start but still had the thing in the back of his car. So we rode it around the parking lot once up top. We attempted switching out a seat post off of both of our regular size bikes, but they were too big.

True to shoulder season ridiculousness, we put our ski gear on our bags and started walking up the paved trail and boardwalk.

This time of year, the Hanging Gardens are open to walking wherever you please, so we detoured off and headed up the moraines. I finally walked through a bit of snow, which was encouraging. The fact that the pass was open to driving had worried both of us about ski conditions on the way up.

This was my first test of my new pack towards what my mom calls “lunatic-fringe” activities. Ie, hiking in with a full ski setup aboard. The Variant did a killer job with the extra weight, carried comfortably with skis strapped A-frame or just on the side, and I’m excited to do longer, stupider trips with it now.

First skinning with bear spray of the fall season. In short sleeves.

Skins were perhaps a bit excessive. We were skiing new snow on top of old on perhaps 500 ft vertical drop, but hey, these sorts of fall excursions are all about scratching the itch. That doesn’t seem to take much. The first lap is all euphoria, and by the third, I was thinking, “this is fun, but I’d like to take a nap on the rocks.”

Schmoo. Ah schmoo. The remnants of what was fresh snow, refrozen and melted several times. A veritable blanket of gooey, sloppy stuff that mimics powder but really isn’t. And prone to making slow moving wet slides on refrozen, icy suncups. This is what happens when you try to skin it on the higher upper angles. Although, it did lend itself to some fun once atop the silly thing.

Myke drops in.

I didn’t get a nap, but we did take this follow up picture to my shirtless Kahiltna episode.

Then comes the transition back into shoes and the walk down. I need to figure out a better way to rig my skis for down climbing or walking downhill–the tails always seem to bang on ledges or steps. There’s a compression strap a bit higher up on my pack that I could use, but that might not give that much improvement. Either way, scratching the itch feels good but the walk out reminds me that it’s not really the season for this yet.

It’s hard to advocate this time of year, but seasons do give perspective. If skiing was easily accessible all the time, it wouldn’t feel as precious. Waiting makes the first few turns much more delicious. Perhaps in an era of instant gratification and NOW NOW NOW it’s good to have to wait for something so essential to our lives as skiers. It’s also well and good to extol such high minded ideals on my blog but be positively vibrating with anticipation around my friends and family. Eh. Here’s to our addictions and our ideals, both at once.

Then again, it was a perfect time to ride the Pixie bike down the Sun Road. Myke took it from the parking lot to Oberlin Bend, and had difficulty sitting down comfortably. Since I’m more hobbitylike, I squeezed on and rode down to Triple Arches.

By the time I got there, the coaster brake had heated the back hub enough to make it too hot to touch. Turning wasn’t really a good idea, as the bike clearly wasn’t designed for nimble maneuvers at 20 mph. When I stopped, a skid went for a few yards, resulting in a flat spot on the wheel. Ridiculous? Certainly. But the looks on the faces of people going the other way in their cars were absolutely priceless.

Thanks to Myke for bringing the fun and shooting such nice pictures. And to whoever it was that donated the bike. No little girls were harmed or stolen from in the making of this blog post.

Lone Walkering

No sign, manual, or printed advice in recent memory has said this, so let me be the first: go hiking alone.

In the tradition of the (less epic) spirit quest, the quietude of the era before electricity and steam, the simple moments where the wilderness pipes into only one pair of ears with nothing to distract, mutilate, or bend the experience–go by yourself.

Success is entirely between you and where you go. Anything that happens, you have to handle or accept. Perhaps the consequences of a mistake seem more spectacular in free soloing, but it only takes a small slip in the wrong spot on a much tamer slope for the same result. To have that concentration on the forefront of the mind while moving well and enjoying the experiences creates a tension. There’s a simplicity, a purity there. Everything has to work. And when I wind into that groove, there’s a sense of happiness that is completely different from climbing with an awesome team or group. I wouldn’t call it better; just worthwhilely different.

If my advice causes you to get hurt, I’m not to blame. Go prepared. I make different decisions when by myself. I wear a helmet when it’s probably not necessary. So be smart.

And since I’ve yet to head off by myself for a summer climb this year, a solo climb of Lone Walker Mountain in Two Medicine made perfect sense. Back in May, Dan Koestler and I traversed under it en route to Dawson Pass on skis, but we didn’t make the ascent as the south ridge of Hellen seemed plenty difficult for our afternoon. My Continental Divide project meant I needed to go back and climb it, so I rolled into the Two Med parking lot around 8:45 with a vague notion of what I’d be doing.

Casual tourists use the Glacier Park Boat Company to avoid walking, and probably learn a bit about the park en route. In a last minute bid to dodge the three and a half miles of forest walking up Middle Two Medicine Lake, I hopped the 9:00 boat for a bow seat. The instructive tour was drowned out by engine noise, and it’s just as well, because I wasn’t paying attention anyway.

From the boat, there’s a bit of walking through the forest and meadows to get up to Upper Two Medicine Lake. En route, Twin Falls proves that old adage about Montana: you need a panoramic mode to capture even the waterfalls.

Rolling up through some nice meadows, the trail ambled through beargrass (white) and spiraea (pink) that were going absolutely party mode. I’m not a huge flower guy, but the display was absurd.

It proved a nice prelude to the next segment. The more standard route up goes to the pass on the north side of the mountain, which means you have to go up the lake. Options include bushwhacking and then sidehilling for a stupid amount of time, or wading the lakeshore and cutting up a vicious scree slope.

I took the second option, which connected poorly with the super-sized winter that we just seemed to finish. Exhibit A: extra water made the lake level higher, which made wading a deeper experience than I thought I’d face. Exhibit B: extra avalanches lead to lots of floating logs, fully branched and needled, and resting in the water against the bank. The whole point of my sloshy detour was to avoid flora, so how frustrating to realize something I’d never even contemplated: underwater bushwhacking. Exhibit C: wading for a mile and a half between knee and butt deep is hard work. It’s slow.

But then you run into false hellebores popping up under a melting snowbank, and their idiot optimism wears off. Eventually, I made it to a big scree slope, which served as a fully functional treadmill of swearing. After that, a snow slope made for much better footing and less swearing.

What it lacked in swearing, it made up for in serious deja vu. En route from Mt. Rockwell, the center peak, we’d traversed the lower snowfield in May. I don’t think we’d have tried it had we seen the hanging snowfields visible in this picture, but once in, we were committed.

In this photo from May, you can see our ski traverse line entering the trees in the bottom of the frame. Above them, you can see the track of the wet slide that took out a hundred yards of it ten minutes after we put that section in. It came down as we were transitioning to head up the slope to safety, and the boot pack was the fastest I’ve ever done with a big pack through thigh deep sludge. We left feeling the weight of humility, and weren’t on anything slidey after 9:30 for the rest of the trip.

It was quite nice to make the climb to the pass with no hang fire. Mountains don’t feel evil to me, but the place was rank with my own fear from before. A cruisey ridge was just the ticket, and Lone Walker delivered.

A shot of the ridge in winter.

It was really nice going until I got to the summit ridge, and ended up traversing counter clockwise around most of the summit block looking for a good access point.

Eventually, I found one, and after a few moves, the summit was just an easy walk down the ridge.

Summiting isn’t my favorite part of the climb. Instead, it’s the moment, usually twenty to thirty feet away, that it becomes apparent that there aren’t any obstacles left–no more route finding, scree fields, bears, or other difficulties that stand between me and getting exactly half way to a successful day in the hills. The summit itself is nice too, but the knowledge that you’ve made it kicks in a little before you’re actually there–and that’d the feeling of success that I love so much about the mountains.

In my parking lot rush for the boat, I forgot to change into one of the nice, wicking Crux Tees that Mountain Equipment sent me at the beginning of this summer. So that meant I realized I was in cotton all day, and it actually was just fine.

I’ve also become a big fan of Hammer Nutrition’s Perpetuem Solids while out wandering around. They’ve got some protein in them to keep your muscles happy for moving around all day, they taste fine, and they’re chewy enough to take the mind off scree grinding for a while.

Upper Two Med, Middle Two Med, and Lower Two Med with Rising Wolf towering above them to the left.

On the descent, things went just fine. I opted to crampon down the snow because it was just big and steep and sun cupped enough to make glissading a little scary, even with an axe. Which meant that I was wearing crampons and Salomon Running shoes. And, in a very important coincidence, they’re the sameish color match.

I found a hitchhiker.

Wade, wade, wade. The trees on the left, immediate shore were the worst part of the trip. A steep drop off meant that I had to cling to veggie belays, my feet on slippery rocks, traversing along. Each grip of a belay sent the gnats resting in the trees out to swarm around my head. Caution demanded slow speed, with a soaked backpack as the consequence, so the gnats were totally a match for my speed.

And once at the foot of the lake, I booked it to make it back in time for the return boat. The joke, however, was once again on me. I arrived to find out that there wasn’t enough room and waited a while so they could offload and return for the rest of us. But return they did, and it was wonderful to skip the last miles, especially because I saw a bear ranger, gun on shoulder, headed off to the north shore trail I would have taken.

Thanks to the Boat Co for finding a spot for me, and thanks to Lone Walker for not sliding on us last time so I could come back.

Check out the trip stats on Movescount: http://www.movescount.com/moves/move36373906

Grizzled vikings and other mountain creatures

Among the influences on my life, books figure as heavily as the mountains. So it’s hardly surprising that I found myself wandering along the trail last week comparing the experience of reading a book to that of climbing a mountain. Books and writing can usually be said to focus around some kind of story, or plot, or movement between two points of thinking. There’s a transit. Surprises or turns along the way can make even a beaten track seem fresh, and entirely new genres or settings can seem like entering a vast, unexplored country that was only hinted at by what I’d heard. While the concept or form might be similar, every book is different in some aspect. All of these can be said of mountains as well.

Which means that, just like books that aren’t particularly interesting, there are a few climbs or excursions that don’t hold as much of my interest. Perhaps they are worthy for other folks. Perhaps I’m off in that I don’t enjoy them as much as others. Perhaps it’s mountain snobbery. One good story sends you searching after another–which can sometimes yield three books of reading for a botched, cankered ending (like The Hunger Games). Mountains can do the same thing, and if a larger climbing project is in motion, there’s going to be less savory parts that have nothing to do with character building. Thankfully, unlike books, a trip to the mountains isn’t following the track of a writer–it’s about making your own adventure, and adapting yourself to what you find there. So the outcome and your attitude about it can be very much up to you.

The Continental Divide, a line that separates the watersheds between the East and West of North America, runs along the spine of Glacier National Park. One of my ongoing projects is to climb all the mountains along that line. In pursuit of that goal, there’s some truly classic, interesting terrain. There’s also a few other places that fall, with a sighing thud, into the less entertaining category. And because I have to visit all the places that includes, the projects can take on the rote routine frequented by less scenic tasks like paperwork or mowing lawns. Though they may be hard, or scenic, they lack imagination. For the less spicy bits, it’s important to keep things like pack rafts and plastic Viking helmets in the trunk of your car.

Awaking in East Glacier from a full night of sleep after a full day, Mitch and I set up off from the Two Medicine trailhead at the perfectly early hour of 10:30am. Our objective was to climb Grizzly Peak. I hadn’t been there, and what it has in prominence, it somewhat lacks in technicality–the climb is 1200ft of gain from the nearest, trail-accessed pass. Chief Lodgepole Mountain, by far the easiest named mountain to climb in Glacier, is a blip on the trail en route. Two summits is the technical total, and both are on the Divide, but it felt like climbing a peak and a quarter. If that.

Thus, the Viking helmet. The oars. The life jacket. Instead of extreme route choices to liven up the day, we’d hike to Cobalt Lake, drop the heavy gear, stash some beers in the iceberg infested waters to cool, then summit one and a quarter times, and head back for a dip and some pack rafting.

Beargrass only blooms once per seven years. With such a pile of it in Glacier, there’s some years that seem like a full on explosion. White, tufted blooms were everywhere on the hike into Cobalt.

After hoisting the pack raft, and stashing the gear, we headed for the pass. Mitch’s feet objected to boots in the parking lot, so he did all the trail in sandals.

Atop Two Medicine Pass, you can see Grizzly as the mountain on the skyline. Chief Lodgepole is the humpy looking pile of choss to the lower left. One quarter mountain is probably generous. I feel bad for Chief Lodgepole that he or she had such a piddly hill as their namesake.

The view from “atop” Chief Lodgepole.

I forgot about our late start, and sometime around 2:30pm, Mitch reminded me that we hadn’t eaten lunch. Here’s a candid shot of enjoying a peanut butter and cookie butter sandwich while wearing plastic excitement on my head.

Then, we waltzed to the summit. Skier vision never goes away, and I tucked this one into the mental echo chamber for next spring’s descents:

I should have taken off my shirt. This was mentioned later. Next time, I plan to do a more accurate job of viking rock lifting:

No ropes. Barely anything that could be considered more than walking. Reduced visibility due to Washington’s wildfires. But it’s still gorgeous. Looking south into the Ole Creek drainage.

Here’s the ridge that Mitch and I traversed the day before: Summit Mtn to Calf Robe Mtn to Red Crow Mtn.

Mitch contributed to summit festivities by pulling out a whole, perfectly ripe avocado. He looks so good in green too.

Then we went down. If it were diagraming the story, we’d call that the falling action.

Neither of us took that literally, at least not until we got to the snowfield descent that cut out two miles of trail. Mitch did a great job arresting with a pole.

Then, as I inflated the pack raft, he put his minimal body fat percentage to the test in some truly frigid water. Exibit A: snowfields terminating in the lake. Exibit B: icebergs.

I jumped in, for the record. Then rapidly turned around and got into a more comfortable way to explore the lake: the Klymit Litewater Dinghy.

Sledding down the snow and into the lake on the raft was considered. Then dismissed. But since something had to be done, I thought I’d try to find a nice iceberg to lasso. My choice was something of a colossal error in judgement: it moved perhaps six inches with each tug. I tried pushing it. I eventually gave up on paddling, and sculled on the side opposite from where the tow cord attached to my vest. In this way, I managed to cross the lake with my sort-of-captive.

Even the five miles out felt fun after that. We charged along, borne on the success of our ridiculous antics and how well the day had gone. It was really pretty, too.

Thanks to Mitch for his companionship and the good times. Thanks to Ben Darce for the accommodations in East Glacier. My apologies to the church group whose service  was interrupted by a  farmer-tanned, beached-whale semi-plunge into Two Medicine Lake. In my defense, we were both sweaty again.

New! Check out our day on Movescount.