Sassy suncups on Logan Pass

Despite some serious struggles with the camera glitching, I snagged a little POV from a classic ski line on Logan Pass this past weekend.

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Flashback: suncup eights on Blackfoot Mountain

After seven months, three failed attempts to transfer the photos, and a bit of slow blogging time, I’ve finally got everything together to actually tell (and perhaps remember) a ski trip from this July past. To tell the truth, this was in the same 4th of July weekend that saw me skiing Iceberg Notch, but enough with the excuses–it’s winter now, so here’s a piece of sandal wearing summer skiing.

Originally, I’d been eyeing a snowfield on the northwest face of Mt. Jackson. Just as I saw on the Notch, spring rains had ripped snow out of the hills, and the line probably wasn’t going to go. That meant flexibility, and since Rose and a group of folks from the Park Cafe had just climbed Mt. Logan in the same basin, I though of Blackfoot. Glacier travel makes it one of five “technical” peaks in Glacier (all of which have been successfully done without gear), so it’s a dubious designation. The line, though, promised some of the most connected July skiing available.

Clay, fresh off a stint of staring at and banging rocks in Canada, hitchhiked to the shuttles with his backpacking, skiing, and glacier travel gear. I found him looking severely clean shaven on Logan Pass. Our backcountry permit gave us a night at Gunsight Lake before our climb, so it was off to the trailhead. Diving into the brushy track down to Reynolds creek, our ski boots drug through dusty alder–we were definitely in for an adventure.

We rolled into the backcountry campground a couple hours later. Gunsight Lake sits at the base of a cirque full of waterfalls. Even filtering water and munching bars on the gravel beach next to camp feels scenic.

A steep track (“Not recommended for pack stock” on the sign) leads into the glacial basin. One side sees the remnants of Jackson Glacier, while the other leads up into the Blackfoot Glacier. To get a better perspective on our line, we grabbed the lids of our packs (which, in a stroke of luck, become fanny packs) and hustled up.

Routefinding.

Though without service, Clay phones in a request for sunshine.

During the wander back to camp, clouds knit themselves above the valley. Though I’d already donned my shells to keep the ferocious mosquitos at bay, it started to rain as we cooked our couscous. Wasn’t much of a downpour, but it left the brush wet, and stray bits of drizzle during the night meant that, come morning, our hike to the glacier would be a soggy one.

Five am. Behind the sound of my watch alarm came the rasp of something chewing just across the campsite. A headlamp check revealed a deer trying to get salt from our pole grips. Breakfast would wait, we’d filter water higher up, so camp was struck, and time to don packs. Stashing a beer in the creek for the return, Clay’s lamp lit the narrow slice between shrubs studded by raindrops. Halfway up, my shoes were beginning to slosh. To make matters worse, the spot Clay had called in the sun was covered in dense fog. Descending the moraines with care, we crossed into the bottom of the glacier basin.

Early light showed that the fog was low cloud cover, stretching across the valley. Clear conditions were our navigation plan, so after climbing the east terminal moraine, we sat for almost an hour, wondering. But there wasn’t much for it–we’d hiked six miles to camp, four more to check it out, crawled through the wet shrubs–too early to give up. Balancing on the rocks at the edge of the snow, we stashed our hiking boots, roped up, and skinned into the fog.

But it was only a couple hundred feet thick. Time for sunscreen, sending it, and that bit of euphoria released after sitting beneath a boulder for an hour wondering if the whole thing was shot to hell. A quick series of gullies between moraines and the rock face lead us onto the glacier proper.

Despite the spring rains, the glacial surface wasn’t too cracked out. We’d brought a picket apiece, planning to use axes or skis to make other snow anchors should we need them. Moving off a bench and up onto the higher glacier required negotiating a couple cracks/bergschrunds. I set our pickets as running protection, and we made the traverses in fine style.

Once above the cracks, another traverse above some downslope holes was required. I remember thinking that another picket would be super nice. Never the one who seems to find gear in the mountains, I was completely shocked to look down the rock ledge to see a picket and quickdraw lying there. Still haven’t found the owner, so if you lost it, let me know. Otherwise, I’ll keep using it.

Switching back into our skis, we made good time across the upper flats.

The summit snowfield was another switch back into our crampons. Clay lead it, finding a lone mountain goat looking down on us at the top.

Looking over to Harrison Glacier on the backside of Mt. Jackson.

Later in the season, some friends would have a high-angle confrontation with an ornery grizzly sow and two cubs, but we were lucky to drop our crampons for an easy three hundred foot rock scramble to the summit proper.

The fog had burned off, we’d been just fine on the glacier, and looking back down the glacier and valley to the trailhead, it seemed a long way to have come to make July turns. On the way out, we met David Boye and his buddy Gary on the trail, who talked about how “in your twenties, you don’t really think about efficiency or practicality in trip planning.” Which was fair. We’d carried camping, skiing, and glacier travel gear through summer foliage, over moraines, and then used some of it to get all the way up here. A single day assault might have been lighter. There were things in my pack I probably didn’t need. It’d be a long walk out.

But of course, we had 3600ft of skiing ahead of us. Clay drops in.

Digging our edges into the slushy goodness, all the lame things I could say about why it’s worth it to drag skis in just evaporate. Clay skied the first pitch, I followed.

And since it seemed like a good idea, we made some slush eights down the upper face: 

Clay fills in:

Once back at the cracks, we had to make the call about how to get back across. Standing above it that morning, it occurred to me that the slope was perfect for just jumping across. Looking at it again, it seemed the simpler option. And probably easier than down climbing.

I’d call it the benefit of freeride eyes in mountaineering. A long traverse, and we were back atop of the gully where we’d left the fog. Near the bottom, we grabbed our boots, and negotiated some cracks and rocks, but the eights came back.

At the bottom, the hiking boots went back on, and we retraced our steps over the moraines, back to the lake, to the beer we’d stashed in the creek that morning, and out.

On the trail, we got a chance to look back at the route from afar.

The weight of the skis on our packs was a reminder that we’d been up there, across the valley, in July, making slush eights as people backpacked and hiked by. It feel neither “practical” nor particularly “efficient.” The hill back up to the highway wasn’t much fun. Now, in the middle of winter, with tons of options and plentiful snow, it’s good to look back on July and how we made use of the snow then, our youthful enthusiasm, and this gorgeous playground.

Many thanks to Clay for his companionship, photos, and uncanny ability to bring good weather on our trips.

“The best laid plans…often get derailed at the bar”

Perhaps the greatest danger of ditching me at the bar for the company of some lady is that the experience will end up starting a blog post. Which is to say, not much danger. Normally, I would say bravo. Though if the plan is to leave early the next morning to get in the mountains, and especially to ski, it’s more than average disappointment. I’ll omit his name to avoid shame (unlikely) or swelling his ego (possible).

Which is exactly what happened last Friday after the Valhalla premiere in Missoula. Waking up on his couch, a once promising early start became breakfast at 10. Then heading back to Kalispell by noon. The tail end of the sinking feeling that started on his couch washed through–that the day was shot for big stuff. Certainly skiing.

Furthermore, the road status that would have allowed easy access to skiing showed closure nearly fifteen miles below the fresh fluff. So I wrote it off, went for a quick hike, and then a housewarming shindig. Where I realized that everyone was headed for a good time at the bars. So I said goodnight and planned to head up alone the next morning.

My initial plan was to take the trail to Comeau Pass, and ski above it. That would have meant an 18 mile, 5500ft day minimum, and I wasn’t too jazzed to be doing it solo. Passing into the freshly reopened gates of Glacier National Park, it felt good to be headed back in. But the road was open much further than I’d anticipated–talking with the ranger in the entrance cubicle, it was closed a few miles short of Logan Pass.

So I switched my plan. The gradual advance of winter and plowing in the spring close the Going To The Sun highway to vehicle traffic to certain points that have the parking, but beyond the gate it’s usually open a few miles for walking/biking travel. My bike was at home in the garage, as I figured the road was closed lower down. So it all went on the pack at Big Bend and I took to the asphalt.

While walking, a couple guys I’d seen strapping skis to their bikes pedaled past to remind me of being unprepared. I caught up with them just as they’d about finished their transition from cycles to skis, introductions were made, and we planned to meet up higher if I caught them again. They skinned off while I put on my ski boots for the first time since August.

There’s something to the rhythm in active sports. Runners, walkers, kayakers, cyclists–everyone who does the repetitive motions involved can feel when they have hit that pace. That vibration that sounds on key within their own sounding board. For me, it’s ski touring. Each stride, plant of a pole at that pace that I can keep up all day. It’s as comfortable as walking, as natural as if it was the first thing I learned to do. And all this floods back in even the first few strides up the road. After going past the visitor center, I caught up with the bikers and we headed up to the moraines below Mt. Clements.

Dan on edgeless cross country skis. 


Jason and I plotting. We skinned up to the base of the peak and did two laps on a short, north facing slope. Not more than 500-600ft, but a few inches of fresh atop a bomber base meant great turns. Hoots and hollers echoed around the little cirque. 

Looking down from where we ripped our skins. 

Aftermath. 

Looking for another slope with perhaps a bit more vertical, we headed over to Hidden Bluffs. Perhaps it’s skiers eye, but these peaks are always prettier in the winter. 

 
Finding less coverage, we found Dan near the bottom and headed back over for another lap in the same slope. 

Skiing back to where they’d left their bikes and I my shoes was maybe twenty well spent minutes. They took off, and I skied as far as I could on the small bits of snow on the side of the road. Once the little ribbon had melted into the pavement, it was time to switch back and drink the rest of my thermos. 

As they say, there’s not a bad seat in the house. A few folks on a walk mistook me for a Canadian via my accent. Everything back in the pack, I got back to my car to see the driver’s side door transformed to a message board.

Evidently, my buddy Mitch, who climbed Mt. Merritt with us in August, had been by. Which brought me back to the community that uses these places, that loves them and believes in them, that goes to bars, that sometimes gets up early, that meets other folks at the trailhead and goes skiing with them. What an honor to get to spend time in these places, with these people. Even when all the plans go to hell at the bar. Even when skiing is on the line.

Thanks to Jason and Dan for a solid day. Thanks to Dan for his photos. Thanks to (unnamed) for going home with her.

Whether the weather

If you look back through the blog posts from this year, there’s a prevailing trend of sunshine and good weather. Fog has blown off, storms have not materialized. Who knows how this has happened, as I don’t believe in weather forecasting. Though when I heard on NPR that there was a thunderstorm watch for most of southwest Montana the night before another promising climbing weekend, it didn’t connect that it was headed this way.

Friday started off innocuous enough. Light rain fell on St. Mary as we rallied the crew and headed out. Coming over the hill into Two Medicine, things were sunny. They stayed that way through the trailhead.

Our aim was to climb Little Dog (on left above) and Summit Mtn (on right), both located on the southern border of Glacier. The ridgeline connecting them is part of the Continental Divide, just up from Marias Pass. We hiked in the Autumn Creek trail, took the fork towards East Glacier, and eventually turned into the trees for an easy bushwack to the base of Little Dog.

Once out of the trees, it was plain that the weather was coming in from the south. Echoing in my head was the radio broadcaster mentioning that “the storm is headed north at forty miles per hour”, which would have put it, well, right about on top of us.
Ever cool while hiking with approaching thunder, Scott manages to text while climbing.

Thinking it best to wait a bit, we hunkered down in the trees to see what the clouds would do. South, the storm was headed to our east, and missed us by ten miles at least. Another one behind it held our attention when some piece of the first one rallied back west. Coming up fast, it proceeded to soak us with rain and hail as we hastily pulled on raingear. A minute later, it blew through. Waterfalls tumbled down previously dry gullies above us, the concentrate of acres of bare rock. Somewhat bewildered and back in the sun we started upwards again.

Zips open, the layer calisthenics began. Useful only ten minutes prior to keep the rain at bay, our jakets were now smothering in the full sun. Atop the next rise, and last bit of shelter before entering the upper scrambling, we stopped again to scope the behemoth thundertowers following the belt of the storm east of us.I have zero meteorological training. Nobody in the group did. That didn’t stop us from speculating at length about high to low pressure, storm movements, and whether or not it was going to slam us higher on the peak. Prior group experiences with proximity lightening atop weren’t anything close to positive, so that weighed in for a turn around. My mind changed several times. Eventually, it seemed that it wasn’t bad enough to warrant canning the day. Twenty minutes later, the fun scrambling began.
Strangely for Glacier, much of the upper mountain was scree free. Occasional shelves sat in an otherwise bare rock face, explaining the insta-waterfalls from before–there was nothing for the rain to soak into, hence it all heading immediately downhill.

Arriving at the ridge, the view to Elk Mountain was cool.

Better still, we had to climb this to the summit.

Running shelves beneath the crenulations in the ridge, the biggest objective hazard in the fog were the death farts carried back to us from Nick. A bit socked in on top.

And I include this for the amazing facial expressions. Not staged, I promise. And everyone was stoked to be at the summit. I guess that’s the danger of climbing with me: ridiculous looks may end up on the internet.Fog sent us a ways down the wrong ridge before Rose, the map, and the GPS confirmed that we should traverse. Coming across it and towards Summit, the clouds blasted up and  across us. Really cool ridge walking.

Eventually, we heard thunder again. That meant turning up the pace to make the summit and boogie. Looking later, we got within about a quarter mile and 300 ft vertically before we had to hunker down in the vicinity of a big overhang.

Mist obscured the storm moving in. Thunder got closer. I ate peanut butter and chocolate chip sandwiches while leaning into the uncomfortable rocks. Sound was our only guide to where the electricity was. Didn’t get close to us, but we sat for perhaps thirty minutes in the rain and hail. This time above, we watched the creeks form, one pushing a muddy rivulet through a scree field to wash mud into the gully.

Once the bulk of the storm passed, we elected to bail. With more on the horizon (or so it seemed), it was a good call. Twenty minutes and a pile of slippery descent later, we were rewarded for our caution with this:Nick put in perspective, saying “You know that if we’d hung around, it would have kept raining.” Add in his English accent for proper emphasis.

Regardless of the weather, the lower scree fields were a total blast. Something like 700ft of loose, consistent, cushiony crumbled mountain to run down. I was making turns as Scott blazed straight down.

Somewhere below the scree, I did some wet beargrass sledding in my rain pants. Huckleberries were found and devoured. Back at the car, the condition of my gaitors said it all: wet, dirty, unzapped, and happy to be back at the car.

Saturday came with morning thunderstorms. I rewaterproofed my boots, tried to dry things out, and read my book. Later in the day, the returning cafe employees got a party going. Rose and I checked out about midnight. Morning came with a hangover and headache. The scene outside:

Given that the thunderstorms were supposed to give way to sun the next day in the forecast I don’t believe in, it seemed reasonable to go for a climb again. Nick, Connor, Emily, Rose, and I piled into her car and headed for Two Medicine.

I would suggest that there are perhaps no straight sections on this road. My stomach, by the time we got to the parking lot, was anything but happy. Boots on. Ignore headache. Hit the trail.

Our plan was to climb Never Laughs mountain, a relatively mellow gain of about 2600ft with a good part of that being off trail. After taking the advice of a boat company employee, we took the Aster Park overlook trail and then began to ‘schwack around the north end of the mountain.Just the weekend before, I climbed Painted Teepee, the mountain visible in the center left of this photo. With rain coming in and out, clouds bottlenecked in Two Medicine Pass, and my shell a constant companion, it was quite a change.

Who knows how many people have climbed Never Laughs. We certainly aren’t the first, but I assert that the age of exploration is still alive–all it takes is a map, some vague ideas about route, and trying them. Route finding is a challenge that makes even minor summits cool. To add to this, my hangover wasn’t checking out. Given that I don’t train to drink hard, it understandably never gets easier for me. Lesson: even small climbs seem longer while fighting off the effects of the liquor infused with the very juniper berries I walked past.

Formidable. Especially dicey when wet. Thankfully, we went around the back.

Scree chute up to the summit ridge.

Looking down the summit ridge just below the top.

Rose and I up top. This marked her fortieth summit in Glacier, and I consider myself quite a lucky guy to hang out with such a tenacious lady. This may be the first time with her wearing shorts while I rock long pants.

An old trail exits Buttercup Park, the drainage to the south of Never Laughs. We descended an awesome scree chute, feet churning, rocks flying. Somewhere near the bottom, a couple of bighorn rams were grazing. Here’s the typical picture of sheep butt:

The trail had some deadfall, but really was in good condition even after so many years of neglect. Nick started thinking of beers on the lake, which translated to hustling our way out as the weather got downright balmy.

If was sunny all the time, it wouldn’t snow. It’d be too easy. Weather is the constant variable that makes it fun, random, and difficult. Pinned down by lightening, digging out a tent in the storm, drying raingear in a big wind–these are the things that keep it fun for me. Getting turned around is good, as it flexes the retreat muscles. Mountaineering is about the long game, as the things we seek aren’t going anywhere fast. It’ll be cool to head for Summit again sometime, but until then, I count it an excellent fall climbing weekend. Thanks to Rose, Nick, Emily, Scott, and Connor for making sure that we laughed through the rain.

Walking on sunshine: survival skiing on Gunsight Mountain

I picked up the phone. “You working tomorrow?”
“Nope. What we doing?”
“Something big. Get there early, be out all day. Get up high.”
“Sounds great. We’ll talk later.”

And we did. After considering the Cascadilla/Rescue traverse, Clay and I decided to head up to Glacier and try for Gunsight Mountain and some real alpine. Sandwiches were made,  I went to the store for clif bars and camera batteries (which I managed to forget, hence the  fisheye bubblyness that are the gopro shots), we went bowling, got a few hours of sleep, and left the house at 4:30am.

Readying at the trailhead.

After working and visiting Sperry for years, the slopes and viewpoints along the trail have become familiar. Moving steadily uphill in the predawn night, we made good time up the packed down trail. Dawn popped just as we were making it into the area just below the chalet.

Once we made the cirque above the upper bridge, we thought about and rejected several routes through the cliffs before settling on a fan and waterfall on the SE side. Switchbacking up the left side of a large debris/talus fan, we angled for the left side of Feather Woman falls, the creek the goes under the first bridge in summer. It got steep. And  icy. We switched to crampons and axes, then climbed through chest high faceted sugar, ice crusts, wind buff, and full on ice to make it up above the cliff bands usually traversed on the trail.

Boreal belay in the crux.

Topped out and back in my skis.

After some more routefinding and skinning over windcrusts, we made it to the stairs at Comeau Pass. Clay went through first.

Sandwiches and puffy coats later, we headed up the right flank of the mountain towards the summit.

Summit ridge.

Clay summit ridging.

Up top, the snow was a mix of hard windcrust, rime, pow pockets covered in rime, and rimecrusted wind crust with drifted surface hoar. There was no guarantee that the footing would function the same way the last step did, which made it interesting. Topping out required going over a cornice in the making and into howling winds on the other side.

Did I mention how awesome the sunshine was? This pile of high pressure has traded greybird storm pow for epic groomer cruising and functional backcountry stability. We saw an old crown high on Mt. Edwards, and while skiing down, a point release propagated a bit into an R1D1 that stopped pretty quickly. Otherwise, it was bomber and beautiful.

Looking down towards Lake McDonald and the chalet.

The excitement that I get atop mountains after a long skin and bootpack doesn’t square with how I feel looking at the pictures afterward. Which makes sense. But it also doesn’t help my summit photos look any less ridiculous. So I’m rolling with it.

Once we’d sufficiently windburned ourselves, it was time to drop. Clay got a couple great shots from up above on the ridge.

The snow went from rime crust to wind buff bordered by sastrugi. The turns were somewhat soft, but I followed the edge of the drift down into the flats making little noises of excitement that my gopro picked up. Unfortunately, it was at the wrong angle, and so there’s lots of footage of my skis sliding over snow but no visual of where I was headed. Chalk that up to climbing helmets.

Once down, we dropped over the edge, skied drifted pow becoming mashed potatoes, I missed a shot with Clay’s camera by forgetting the lens cap, we crossed the new wet slides that had come through on the lower trail, and hauled down the skin track towards the car.

Trying to slow down by the skin track.

Eight hours up, two hours down and two tired dudes eating deformed sandwiches on the car ride back after another perfect day in Glacier.

Huge thanks to Clay for the photos.