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.

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Fourth of July: Iceberg Notch

This spring, even while still in Alaska, I was dreaming of three choice couliors in the Many Glacier area. But by the time I got home and got them scouted, only one of the three was even somewhat skiable. Fourth of July saw photographer Myke Hermsmeyer and me headed out to ski Iceberg Notch.

Flagwise, it was a solidly blue collar specimen. The last one in stock at Cardinal True Value, it came with 3’ x 5’ flag, two attacher things, and a pole topped with a plastic eagle. The first purchase with my first painting paycheck of the summer. And it was riding into a Fourth of July couloir mission below Iceberg Notch, catching some serious commentary.

The sandals should have tipped them off. Two young guys wandering up the Iceberg Lake trail in Glacier National Park with nearly bare feet, Mike with a camera. Skis and spangles on my backpack. Fifty yards after every tourist comment about patriotism, I’d start laughing.

The Notch isn’t skied very often. By the Fourth, it didn’t go all the way from the top, and even what was skiable was suncupped, filled with fallen rock, off angle. A ten foot deep runnel ran down the upper section, and was only partially manageable at the necessary crux. None of the buddies who’d expressed interest could make it over, so the only company was Myke over the radio.

A quick, cold crossing of the outlet steam brought me to ski boot time. Once on snow, I rigged leashes from my harness to the axe and Whippet to make instant anchors. The flag was wrapped up so it didn’t snag on something while I kicked steps up the center of the snow.

The apron proved to be mellow, the runnel navigable. Eventually I found myself on an off-camber patch of steep wall, gaps to my left and right, and a crack across the snow above
me.

There’s something to being a fly on a glacial wall—exposure below, the consequences stark. An intrinsic immediacy, maybe, that whatever is going to happen won’t take long. This was far enough for today. I planted my axe and switched crampons for locked Dynafits.

Skis give confidence. Even though the points of crampons and ice tools hold more certainly, the act of facing downhill with boots buckled tight brings familiarity. The first turns were quick, but reassuring—it’d go. Definitely. After a little difficulty in the crux, I heard the flag flapping above me while arcing down to the lake.

A roar came up, and after first checking for rockfall above me, I realized that it was a crowd cheering on the other side of the lake.

On the hike out, we passed many of the folks that watched. A few wanted to take pictures, and we got more talk of patriotism. Pride in the country. We wished people a happy Fourth.

Drinking a beer on the deck of the hotel, I wondered about how far the irony of it carried.

Politics and government didn’t seem worth celebrating with the flag on my pack. Nor troop invasions or tort reform or DOMA. But the place that we’d been—the wildness, with a couloir rising upward and reflecting between icebergs in the lake—that held the value. Patriotism, in our sandal-wearing fashion, looked towards the parentage in the outside world. A sort of Mother’s/Father’s Day for the places that nurse us, that make a backyard the home where freedom is as simple as a pair of picks and some skis. And that’s why the flag was there, why the Fourth was worth celebrating. God bless skis, buddies, sandals, and crampons. ‘merica.

Huge thanks to Myke Hermsmeyer for his photographic skills and Rosemary Till for her hospitality.

Rewind: Mt. Baker in a day

Though I originally intended to get this done before I left for Denali, it didn’t happen. So here’s to catching up.

Mt. Baker is named for a third lieutenant of George Vancouver’s expedition. I imagine the dialogue aboard his ship went something like this:

Lt. Baker: “Hey, what’s that big snowy mountain over there?”
Vancouver: “I don’t know. I guess we’ll call it Mt. Baker, Lieutenant.”

Prior, it had been called Koma Kulshan by the native Lummi people, which essentially meant “white sentinel.” Fair enough. The Spaniards that showed up, fowled an anchor just north of Orcas island, and called it “La Gran Montana del Carmelo” appear to have been ignored as well. So we’re stuck with Mt. Baker.

My history with the peak goes back to summer of 2011. Though I was living and working on Orcas Island in the San Juans, three weekends of June saw me skiing up there. The first trip involved whiskey and jumping over tents. Then Grant and I kicked off our ski mountaineering partnership with a single day ski ascent of the north side. We got fogged out at 7500ft, but came back the next weekend. After camping at 6900ft, we popped out of clouds around 8000ft. A few hours of cramponing saw us on the summit. We skied off in 2pm corn.

Coming back to the PNW this spring, I had designs to go back up there. Some friends from Squamish were headed down. We met up in Bellingham, packed the cars, and drove up towards the Heliotrope trailhead in the late afternoon.

This would be a good place to put a picture, but it was really dark.

After a few hours of sleep, Carl shook me awake at 2am. We had some quick breakfast and started off by carrying our skis through the patches of snow, gravel, and asphault. After a little over a mile, we could skin. Rangers had told us that it was about three miles before the trailhead proper. Once there, we followed a snowshoe trail off into the woods. It took some doing, and eventually, we popped out of the trees just as the sky was lighting up.

Carl getting after some sunscreen.

Iris headed up one of Carl’s absurd TLT5 switchbacks.

Iris’ Achilles had been bothering her, so she decided to meet up with us on our way back. Carl and I roped up, put on ski crampons, and blasted off. I was in the back, doing my best to keep up with Carl’s massive strides. It’s the curse of being hobbitish with giant ski partners.

As the first real test of my B&D ski crampons, I’ve got to say that I was impressed. The grip is insane, they move well, and aside from some balling directly under them that I chalk up to skins that needed wax, no problems.

Carl around 8500ft on the Coleman/Demming route.

At the base of the Roman Wall, we switched to crampons. Somewhere right after, I started to feel the elevation and exertion. We’d come up 9K in only twelve hours.

Near the top of the Roman Wall. The wide shot is Iris’, and if you look closely, you can see us just below the top.

Once over the lip, we sandwiched on the summit for a bit. Carl was fine. My head was swimming a little from the elevation. We’d gone up nearly 11K since leaving Bellingham less than 18 hours before. The ascent from the car was just under 8K. Given that the conditions were perfect and we’d be able to drop several thousand feet quickly on our skis, it wasn’t too much of a worry.

As my first really big touring day on my new Tychoons, I was stoked to see that they performed so well. Light and fast on the uphill. They handle the mix of conditions I usually find in the alpine really well. And after shredding on bigger skis during the winter, it’s nice to take a break for something that moves so easily. The Tychoon features minimal tip rocker as well, which really helps it plane as the snow gets wetter at lower elevations.

Carl drops in.

And I had a blast too.

We met up with Iris, and skied slush most of the way back to the car. Many of the angles on Baker are really nice–long, consistent fall lines that you can just scream down. Certainly one of the more fun ski descents I’ve done.

Thanks to Iris and Carl for their company and photos.

Denali dreaming, part II

Going big. In every way, that’s how this Denali trip has been. More prep, more time, more money, more gear than I’ve ever sunk into one single endeavor. As much mental terra incognita as the physical glaciers and ridges we’re headed north to ski on.

From the exciting moments of reserving an air taxi or the confirmation of our permits, there’s a transition into what to do to get ready. Much like climbing or skiing, there’s plenty of decisions to make along the way. You can go it alone, use some help, or pay someone to guide your success. There are a number of Denali prep courses available—a quick survey throws the price tags between $2,500 and $1,500. Most take place in the Cascades, as spring conditions in March and April can be similar to what goes down up north. But we’re going as our own guides, and besides, it’s not like I’ve the cash to throw down on a guided trip. And it’s not like we’re doing this alone either—so many people have come together to make this all possible. Though we didn’t really plan it, the prep process, just like the way we plan to approach the mountain, has been on our own terms with lots of help, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Looking back, it seems better organized. Or at least more consciously thought through than it actually was. In my case, “training” for Denali started with a long winter of skiing, working on my skis, and traveling to ski. Not that this was really any different from what I would have been doing anyway. There’s no question that constantly being on skis develops the muscles needed to ski sastrugi with a heavy pack.

More than any other, this winter was one of touring. I got to go out skinning with my friends, and the reward came in the form of shredding more untracked, soft snow than I ever have. The planning and decision making for backcountry travel on a day trip crosses over into the expedition ski mountaineering we’ll be doing up north. Many of the days I was out saw 4,000-5,000ft of vertical gain, which isn’t any sort of record, but it kept the hiking stamina from last summer and fall mostly intact. One thing to watch out for: if your friends know you’re headed to Denali, they might let you break a bit more trail than you planned for in the name of “training.”

In mid-April, Clay Roehner and I spent three days in the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park. It was the first trip that really felt relevant to what Grant and I will be doing up north. Initially, Clay had been thinking about a weeklong traverse of the touring zones along the west side of the Middle Fork along US 2. As things shook out, we didn’t have time to place the caches or do the whole thing. With the weather heading towards storm after several weeks of sun, it seemed better to scale back. When I mentioned Many Glacier in the 10pm phone call the night before we left, he was down.

Meeting up at seven the next morning, the junkshow bloomed quickly. I’d left my fuel bottle in Kalispell. We went back from the gas station to grab his skins. In a moment of totally obviousness, Safeway had no white gas and the hardware store saved us. My dad left work to get us a fuel bottle from his shed. All which goes to show that flexible planning and good cheer are probably the best tools to include on these sorts of ventures.
A stop in West Glacier yielded our backcountry permit and the info that the road had been plowed. Another stop in East Glacier saw the last supply getting and arranging our packs.

By virtue of the scope of the trip, the pile of gear is large. Intricacies come along with that pile. Simple things like how to pour white gas from large cans into the narrow MSR bottles. When full, the spout is too big. It spills. What happens if you overfill? A minor problem, but still frustrating. Easily, the solution is a funnel. But what interests me is the way that these things are learned. In my case, the folks at the East Glacier mercantile had a funnel I could use. A checklist could theoretically prepare you for all the small issues like this. Make it possible to anticipate them. Personally, I’d rather go out with friends, deal with small mistakes, and write the “To Fix” issues in my Rite In The Rain.

The turnoff in Babb had snow, and Clay’s Suburban made it all the way to the gate at the foot of Lake Sherburne. Skis went on packs, packs on backs, and we saddled up on our bikes for the six mile trip to the picnic area that was to be our campsite.

I can’t really recommend riding a bike with such big bags. We managed the slush, puddles, and winds with no incident, but we’re skiers. It was a close thing. Wheels were a means to an end from which a skin track can start, in our case the picnic area north of Swiftcurrent Lake.

After avoiding death by bighorn ram near the caretaker cabin, our complaining asses rolled into the picnic area to some serious amenities. Unlocked pit toilets. Picnic tables. A fire ring to put the Whisperlite in. Bearproof food storage in the garbage containers. During the summer, this is the domain of tourists who can park and eat Fritos in the shade of some pines. Though not open for public travel, crunching across bare asphalt in ski boots didn’t quite feel like backcountry.

Without much visibility, it was hard to say what was going on in the alpine. The whole area has seen 8-12” of snow in the last week, making the snowpack we skinned into below Grinnell Point a bit of scour, refreeze, and buff atop a solid crust. Nothing moved on the mellow slopes, but we weren’t convinced. Rapid warming could quickly destabilize the new snow making for wet slabs or point release slush gushers. It seemed smart to keep expectations low. Over dinner back at the picnic tables, we decided to head up to Grinnell Lake the next day. We’d be closer to the alpine and wouldn’t see work trucks heading past.

After waking, we packed up and headed over to dodge open water patches on Lake Josephine. Navigating the creek between the head of Josephine and Grinnell pushed us up on the hillside below Grinnell Mtn, and we arrived at the head of Grinnell just as the clouds parted. Immediately, we saw point releases moving into the cirque we’d need to skin through to make it up to Grinnell Glacier. Retreating to the shelter of the big trees, we pitched camp and went for a recon skin with the argillite face of  Angel’s Wing towering above. The crust was somehow bonded to a foot of new snow, though we skied conservatively. For good measure, I alternated Clay’s tracks out the bottom for some powder eights.

Transitions while winter camping are more than just skins or goggles. Pulling into camp means going from sweaty active gear, perhaps a softshell, to down and mitts. Insulating boot liners in the toe of my bag. Insulating water so it won’t freeze. It’s not the easy luxury of summer backpacking, but then again, snow allows you to build your own kitchen.

Ours had two seats, a counter for prep and cooking, a fridge box, and sat down out of the wind. Still, lessons learned: don’t keep your glove liners off in wind. Bring extra socks just for camp, as your usual ones are sweaty.

Hauling big bags and the bike ride of the day before had tired us out. Couscous came quickly and we gulped it before it got cold. As they say, hunger is certainly the best sauce. Planning an early morning, the tent door zipped up by six pm.

I woke up to ten degrees in the tent, ice crystals all over the walls, and six am. We’d been asleep for a full twelve hours. Best of all, the clouds of the previous days were gone. Clay rallied first into the sunshine; we powered out of camp to the bottom of the headwall. Just after layering down, I had to race back to the tent for my beacon. Lesson: put that thing on first. Then, we headed up the ramp towards the glacial basin. Summer sees this area as a set of cliffs with waterfalls running down them, so cutting a track through windbuff atop the crust required kicking in at nearly every step. Lesson: use the ski crampons I subsequently purchased.

Though hard, we made it up the first bench. Clay lead the second and popped out into the scoured steps of the glacial basin with a whoop.  Our route went up to the moraines above the pond, to the left, and we skinned through the flats between the Wing and Mt. Gould and up to the summit of Angel’s Wing.

Dropping off the summit, we milked crust that became the first true powder that either of us has skied in a few weeks.

A lower bowl was even deeper. Stoke was very high. Sounds of joy were being yodeled. As it was getting close to eleven am, we leapfrogged our way down through the headwall and reached camp congratulating each other on a safe descent.

After packing up camp, we headed back down the lakes.

Reaching the bikes, we caught a ride out with a service truck. Good thing, too—there’s a likely chance our flatish tires wouldn’t have survived the trip back to the ‘burban.

As we put on shoes and stowed our gear, I reflected on my sunburn. On the trip, and how it had become a learning experience. A tip here, an idea there. Not “training” in some sort of artificial, detached way, but an adventure in its own right. Good times had. Powder skied. Most importantly, safe decisions made that got us up and back to the car. My kind of fun.

Thanks again to Clay for his photos and company.

Two days in Leavenworth

A second Denali prep post is coming soon, but the adventures in Washington haven’t stopped, so the blogging won’t either.

After a few days up north in Bellingham painting a boat hull, I headed over towards Leavenworth to meet up with Chris and Woody. Chris and I planned to climb at the Index crags en route. True to form, the sunshine broke down into rain the minute we were both in the parking lot. Stevens Pass saw a full on snowstorm while we drove through, and as sure as it’s always rainy in Index, it was sunny in Leavenworth.

Stopped by the Mountain Equipment office to pick up some beta and found that the last of my Denali gear had arrived. There’s a disconnect between the 70F temps in the parking lot and the cold temps this stuff is designed for, and so I wandered across the street and we took a photo. Down coat, alti mitts, balaclava, insulated pants, and spring flowers.

After that, Chris and I headed back up Tumwater Canyon to Castle Rock. Warmups happened on Angel Crack, a 5.10b finger crack which also happened to be my first ever. It’s a classic example of why badass climbing photos are easier to come by than skiing ones. Judging the picture below, you might think I’m a solid ways off the deck on some classic of finger-wrenching bliss.

Instead, the whole route can be summarized thus:

We moved over to a 5.9 offwidth just next to it called Damnation Crack. Per usual, Chris lead it in fine style. Here’s his selfie from the midway rest ledge.

I hopped on the Struggle Bus for a ride of exasperation and expletives in the first few moves. Not much feet to speak of, but after pulling on the first two pieces of gear, I made it into the true offwidth and shimmied up.

Here’s another misleading photo. Given the large pile of expensive metal slung under my arm, you’d probably not know that I can’t properly set any of it. Judging by the rope, it looks like I lead my way over there instead of being headed toward the belay station.

Topped out with Chris before heading to South for dinner.

That night, I drove out to Woody’s place in Plain. The next day, we headed up towards Merritt Lake. The drive out was uneventful until we hit the typical spring snowblock on an access road. That lead to the typical walk with hiking boots up the bare trail until we hit snowline.

Shortly before we put some glopstopper on our skins, I did a demo of dramatized touring.
A bit like Ministry of Silly Walks for the skin track.

Another shot of walking up. Oh, the gravity.

We decided to head up towards Mt. Mastiff, but a casual start had baked the snowpack. Traversing the ridge seemed imprudent, so I took some more photos.


Looking up the ridge at the summit. Another day.

Dropping down to where we ate lunch, the call was made to ski a sheltered, north facing coulior. I ski cut it, we both skied two short pitches, then a small (10ft by 10ft) wet slab triggered below Woody and ran over the tips of my skis. Something like 8″ of shmoo atop a refreeze crust. Time to pull the plug. Time to be thankful we didn’t try to push it on bigger slopes. We booted back up and skied down our skin track.

“I’ll slash that shaft of sun like it’s actually dry powder or something.”

Woody, after a detour ruined his speed.

After a rousing bit of searching for where we’d stashed our boots (which I had skied right past), we headed down the trail and back to the truck.

We’re headed off to climb tomorrow morning, so I’ll update that later. Big thanks to Woody and Chris for the photos, Woody and Mindy for their hospitality, and to Chris Rudolph for once buying a pink cosmopolitan for Gregg Winter at South so I can remember it now.