When I ski, I make all kinds of different noises. In digging through footage to find them, I realized that there are a few that I like to repeat, but they’re all organic: the product of sliding down snow and feeling really good about that.
Excluding whatever types of pagan rituals that might have once been observed, I have my own summer solstice tradition. By waiting until June 21st, the official beginning of their summer glory, I torment friends and family members by reminding them of one simple, basic fact: from that point forward, the days will be getting shorter. The summer has only really just started there. And it will get hotter. And neither of those things prevents me from adding a wintery pall to their summer solstice with that simple, hopeful notion about the shorter, darker days that will soon be back.
Of course, this is only projecting my own wintery preference onto people who like sun and dry trails and such. It’s only pleasure at their pain. I’ll still daydream of floating through powdered glades and skinning across alpine traverses, and in those daydreams, there’s always the small hope that maybe, just maybe, the freak storm will materialize, obliterate the summer hillsides under a coat of fresh snow, and we’ll be there to revel with our skis in some June pow. This never seem to happen though.
Until a storm drunkenly careened down from Canada, slammed into the hills, and sat there for two days straight. Upwards of four inches of rain soaked the valleys, translating to feet in the alpine. Strange phone calls were made, because for that moment, we were that darkly shaded area of snowpocalypse on the storm maps. The place everyone wanted to be. A crew was rallied, and it was time to fulfill those strange dreams of solstice face shots.
Access roads that had recently melted out seemed our best bet. On June 17th, Clay and I piled into Jason’s truck and we headed for Jewel Basin. The thermometer on the rearview crept down to 37. Then to 36. We parked in a light rain, and started skinning with dampening spirits. Sheltering on the porch of the closed ranger station above a parking lot still deep under old snow, the general thought was that we’d missed the fresh for a tour in the rain.
Getting off the porch was the hard part. As we gained elevation, the rain turned to snow glopping on our skins and soaking our gloves. Atop the ridge, it was full on winter, and the damp stoke started to show. With skis that no longer slid due to the sludge ingrained into the bottom, each step was an experiment in something more walking than sliding. The summit came and went, and we transitioned in an alcove above old snow coated in six inches of late June glory.
Ski cuts confirmed the obvious–the bond between the new and old snow was nearly nonexistent. After cutting a wide path, we skied the slide track and then wandered out into new snow on the lower angles of the apron. Heavy snow flew up past our faces, and the instead of sun cups, the unweighting joy of those missing winter days rose from our legs and spilled out into howls of excitement that probably would have echoed, had it not been for the snow.
Since the snow stuck to my bases so well on the trip down to Picnic Lakes, I decided to try touring up without my doomed skins. It worked perfectly. And just as I was thinking this, negotiating a steep spot around a tree, one ski slipped out and I nearly went head first into a consolidated tree well.
No goggles, no skins, not even close to winter, but on the aspects near the trees, it was just what we came for.
Which meant that another lap was in order, despite the soaking we’d all received from the wet start and constant snow. It was a good thing I put my goggles on, because some snow came up and hit me in the face.
Clay managed a creek gap on the way back to the truck, and as we got close, the fact that we were still skiing were we’d walked over dirt brought it home: the snow level had plummeted. We’d skied pow. And now we’d have to drive down through it on a steep dirt road with no plowing or chains in a light pickup truck.
Jason took the helm with Clay and I seated on the dropped tailgate for ballast. At least twice we felt the back end break free and begin to slide sideways until it dug into gravel through the snow.
“Well, if the truck goes off, I guess we’ll just bail.”
And thanks to Jason’s masterful driving, we didn’t have to. Once at snow line, we switched into the cab, and descended into the valley and the rain.
But of course, the snow was still piling up, and with positive June snowpack, we’d have to go pillage again. Such luck demanded another foray. Essex emerged from discussion as the target, and the next day, I found myself walking up the Marion Lake trail in my ski boots.
Elkweed and alder that had only recently sprung up from the melting winter snowpack were festooned with fresh snow. It felt like Christmas. And as we switched into skis nearer to the lake and headed up the slopes of Essex Eountain, the bond between our June gift and the winter’s remnants reminded us that it certainly wasn’t December. Note Clay’s slide in the foreground.
As we ascended, it got deeper, and deeper. Which just made us smile that much more.
And on our second lap, Clay negotiated the melt out to survive a small drop.
At the end of our second lap, it was noticeably warmer. Our fresh was beginning to remember that it was actually June, and prudence suggested a retreat from increasing slide danger.
So descent on the access trail offered an opportunity: we’d be able to ski through some of the snow we’d walked up. As our bases played chicken with barely covered rocks and gravel, we made hashy turns through the alder and thin snow. Clay proved to be the most adept until a corner served up a clatter of a stop.
The walk down proved easy, and as we reached the truck, I considered the slide risk we’d seen increase. Larger piles of snow had fallen in the alpine, making much of the interesting terrain even sketchier than what we’d skied. So I checked out thankfully, dedicating the next day to errands and chores.
Which were necessary, but boring. Climbing at the crag seemed to be a good way to finish too much time on the computer, so I called Taylor.
“Oh, you wanted to climb? I’m going skiing. Jewel with James and Kathy. You want to come?”
And so day three of Juneuary started at 5pm.
Leaving the car a little further than where we’d been snowed in just two days previous, it was a pretty different day. For one, it wasn’t raining.
And for another, the evening was positioning itself for a gorgeous sunset.
Taylor and I made it to the microwave shack. To the west, the sun headed down, kicking alpenglow onto the peaks of the Great Bear and Glacier to our east.
And we headed down. After some ski cuts, we dropped into a fun chute that had slide naturally earlier in the day.
This time, the trip out required skins. Transition at Aeneas Notch.
With some scuffling around in the trees, some turns, and the same creek gap, we got back to the car just as headlamps seemed like a good idea. Our trip down the road went much more smoothly with just dirt. It’d been three days of wet, then pow, then sludge. The storm had come. We’d been ready. And as the hot days resumed, bringing with them the daydreams of the snow on our faces, they didn’t seem quite as far away.
Thanks to Jason, Clay, Taylor, James, and Kathy for their companionship and photos. Thanks especially to Jason for motivating and not going off the road.
Looking out the upper floors of the Tingelstad dorm at Pacific Lutheran University, my alma mater, Mount Rainier fills the eastern horizon. The first time I went to visit a friend who lived there, it majestically posed through the windows of an end lounge. Nowhere else on campus does the picture appear so completely; the image of its conical mass through the haze of Tacoma was my first of a truly massive mountain in close proximity to where I lived. Like anyone with any sort of upward ambition, the desire to play on and climb up it was kindled with that first chance encounter.
So when my sister asked to climb Rainier as her graduation present, it made sense. She spent a year longer at PLU than I did, and thus had that much more time to stare at the giant looming out of sight behind shade trees and brick buildings. Starting with a group of some six people, only four of us eventually committed and arrived in a hurricane of gear and excitement at the end of May: my sister Beth, our mutual friend Laurel, my girlfriend Rose, and me.
As I spend a fair bit of time in the hills, and was the only one with expedition mountaineering experience, it fell to me to organize and pilot the planning of our trip. Everyone else would be renting things like crampons or cold weather sleeping bags, we’d need to eat things, what about permitting, and on and on. I made a gear list (notably lacking water bottles). A big thanks to Woody for helping out with my gear and some stuff for Rose.
But none of this seemed particularly daunting to me. I didn’t need to buy any gear. We didn’t have to ski anything, though I’d be taking my skis as far as Camp Muir because I refused to walk down that snowfield. Grant and I did way more work on our trip for Denali last year. I’m not sure why the particulars of this trip didn’t feel strange at the time, but I figured that with good weather and a simple route choice on the Disappointment Cleaver, we could make a solid shot at getting to the top.
The week before our Friday departure, I helped Beth to move into a new house in Seattle, then attended the Mountain Equipment Spring ’15 launch at their US headquarters in Peshastin. After a kind ride from Sam to and from, I was itchy to get going, but lacking on prep work and organizing gear. After a bunch of last minute stuff that took hours, Laurel and I arrived in Parkland. Everything somehow fit into Beth’s car–we even managed to get all four of us in there.
Rainier can present a serious altitude challenge for climbers who live nearby. Puget Sound seems to be within spitting distance of most houses, making the summit a gain of 14,000 ft from usual sleeping elevation. Making such a leap in a few days doesn’t work for everyone, so to help the crew acclimate, we spent the first night at Paradise. I figured we’d roll in, work on crevasse rescue and roped travel, and with another practice session the next day at camp, everyone would be up to speed for our time on the glaciers.
Leading the crew through the snowy woods by Paradise, the experience gap started to become obvious to me–if even by accident, I’d been skiing and climbing with a number of friends whose experience and abilities were better or comparable with my own. They’d self arrested falls, melted snow for all their water, and suffered under big packs. We’d trade ideas, talk about things, and know about trip planning from having been here. But the people I cared about on the rope behind me relied on my estimations of their skills, readiness, and ability to think they could make the climb. They had to. And while I know well the seriousness of being in the mountains, the transition from partner to leader or teacher was one that I hadn’t fully realized.
Morning came with a nearly full repack, and I headed out to get in line at the permitting office. The Rainier trips I did with Grant last spring were before the May 15th winter camping period ended, so I didn’t realize that permits were required after that date. Montana has very little permitting on climbing, so it wasn’t strange to think that we didn’t need one. 30% of permits are held for walk ups, and with all the reserved permits full we were hoping to snag one the afternoon before, but couldn’t get to the office before it closed. So I stood in line, only to get to the front and realize that three available “spots” referred to numbers of people instead of tent sites–we couldn’t camp at Muir. And I didn’t have all the contact info for our group, or a license plate number, or the rest of my group with me. It was a junk show, and it was my fault; I should have done more research. As the others shouldered their packs to learn about grinding uphill, I was learning more about what a leader for this kind of thing should have done.
We set off, moving at a steady pace. The headwall at Panorama Point proved our first test of climbing with full bags–we stopped shortly after to take a break. In the planning process, I had been worried that we’d get hit by a nice spring snow squall on the hill. That meant that we’d take heavier gear for worse cold, just in case. Such conservative thinking put an additional ten to fifteen pounds into everyones’ packs, and the strain was slowing us quite a bit. Being used to big bags, it didn’t occur to me how much they might factor in. I’d failed to mention carrying weight when Laurel asked how to train for our climb. It proved a heavy thing to forget.
As it was Saturday, the crowds streamed by us. Later, I overheard a ranger mention that there were 300 people at Camp Muir during the day.
Since Camp Muir was a zoo, our permit was for the Muir snowfield. Anywhere we wanted to be between 7600 and 9600 was fair game. By the time we hit Moon Rocks, just above 9000ft, it was pretty clear that the packs, the altitude, and lack of water had throttled our summit bid. Worried that wind would kick up in the evening and level the horribly substandard REI “four season” tent we’d rented for Beth and Laurel, we dug in camp behind the rocks.
As I cut blocks for the tent walls, I thought more about our trip plan. Of the group, only Laurel and I had snow camped. I was the only one with extensive crevasse rescue practice, and my demonstration was so rusty that I found myself thinking it dangerous to try and teach it again without doing some research. It’s fine to rely on a leader to select a route, but if they take the crevasse rescue knowledge with them into a crack, that leaves the others stranded and panicked. As I later learned, people usually take multiple trips on Rainier before they attempt a summit, which should have made sense–I spent two weekends on Baker before a third weekend saw us on the summit.
Unwittingly, I was asking and supposing too much. There’s a lot to learn about just camping in the snow. About good rope work. About functioning well at altitude. I assumed that the rest of the group was where I was, because that’s usually the case. In stepping back, I realized that what we ended up doing was exactly what we should have planned–a practice trip. A taste of what it’s like to camp in the snow and haul big bags. A chance to enjoy the view from the pee rock and appreciate the alpine.
As the crew started to go to bed, I saw a pair of blue pants that I thought I recognized. A buddy had mentioned that they might be on the mountain the same weekend, so I shouted, and it was confirmed. Jonas, Connor, and Xanti all pulled into camp and dug themselves a platform just below our tents.
They were headed to the summit the next day, while we planned to head the rest of the way to Camp Muir.
Morning came. The scones I packed for breakfast were delicious. Once we all realized that our backpack lids worked as fanny packs, we headed for Muir.
Once there, I climbed up onto the Cowlitz Cleaver to ski a bit. A view into the Nisqually Cirque.
At home, things have been various shades of unconsolidated all spring, leaving us with a weird mix of mush, pow, and isothermal soup. That made the corn cycle on Rainier an absolute blast, and I tore down the chute below (the guide building at Camp Muir is visible in the lower left), hooting and hollering all the way to 8000ft. A quick skin back to camp, and after a brew session to rehydrate, Beth and I went up to Muir for more.
Later in the evening, Beth and I took some time to work on snow climbing. She led a steep but inconsequential pitch of snow, putting in pickets and then top belaying me up. I then dug the first snow bollard I’ve ever made, and we rappelled inconsequently back to camp. There’s not much explanation for why I was so excited about a simple trench in the snow–it’s just cool to rap on nothing but snowpack, to have learned it from some simple research in Freedom of the Hills, and to have it work perfectly the first time.
Beth and I are lucky–between my dad’s exploits in the fourteeners in Colorado and the Canadian Rockies and my mom’s exploration in Glacier and Wyoming, we come by the mountains naturally. We had parents to teach us to layer, bring water, and set turn around times. To keep us motivated. To show us the power of the freedom in the mountains while balancing that with safety.
Many people don’t have such luck. They wander into mountaineering with less appreciation for the danger, lack of skills, or no group to teach and encourage them. For me, it’s an honor to take friends out and show them the aspects of the mountains that have given me so much. I think it’s the responsibility of anyone who feels comfortable in the mountains to help others get to where they’re at. By the standards of my peers, this would have been a dull trip. But for me, it shifted from a summit bid to showing a few people the things I really love about playing on big mountains in the snow. Which, ultimately, is more satisfying.
In the morning, we packed up and headed down. Plastic was in fashion for everyone, with the ladies sporting bag-skirts and me on my ski bases.
The chute at Pan Point proved interesting, with one wall as ice and other other as slush. Laurel popping out with a grin.
We piled everything back into the car, and headed for Parkland and some well deserved fast food. Thanks to all the ladies for a wonderful trip, and teaching me so much about how to organize these sorts of things.
My thoughts and best wishes are with survivors of those who died on Liberty Ridge the same week.
On May 8th, Dan Koestler and I skied Mt. Allen. We got up early, and the only photo I got before my phone died was this, of our approach:
Here’s one from the night before. Our line up went up the large snowfield on the right side of the near ridge, then traversing around the knob and up the summit ridge.
Normally, this post would be longer. It’d include a more comprehensive look into where we got to, and the excellent skiing down. But in the process of a dead phone battery (a noob mistake) and not carrying an extra camera (another noob mistake), it made the climb an exercise in enjoying the climb for it’s own sake. This was a good thing. Instead of a tool, the phone was inert weight in my pack–as good as a paperweight for all the good it could do. But it’s my attitude about those dead batteries that is worth some writing.
In this modern world of professional outdoorsfolks on the Internet, content is the main currency that makes us worthwhile for support. All those logos that show on the upper right allow me, in varying capacities, to keep chasing my dreams and playing in the mountains instead of doing something more traditional for work. I’m incredibly grateful to get to do these things as a sort of work. But such an occupation recasts the notion of forgetting to charge the batteries on my phone. Instead of a missed chance to impress friends on Facebook or show my grandmother where I went, it becomes a professional misstep. Something to regret.
Which can seem strange. Our climb went really well. Both Dan and I commented that, in effect, nothing had gone wrong or been super difficult to surmount. The climbing and skiing was straightforward. The summit ridge was gorgeous. Edwards mentions in his guidebook that Mt. Allen is not to be underestimated, and it did feel like we went up, and up, and up. Qualities like these characterize the mountaineering experience, and the trip was certainly a bonafide day in the places that keep me coming back.
Truth, though, requires that I take note of how what I do has become a sort of work. Of the myriad reasons why I love to climb things, to ski down them, the work of capturing and spreading that out to another audience is an occupational one. It can grate against a concept of mountainous purity; the voice that suggests that these places are wild enough to be left off the internet. That only eyes that did the work to get there should see them. That climbing or skiing should be done for the purity of purpose which they possess unadled by the need to make content or support yourself.
However, I don’t see that purity as the end reason for spending time in the mountains. There is an difference between climbing or skiing purely for their own joy and doing so with a camera and a writerly mindset. Just as there’s a difference between climbing, and seeing how fast you can climb. Or going with a group versus solo. All these have their place. I practice them all. I’ll head off on adventures that don’t end up with any documentation or ostensible occupational use. Keeping these notions clear allows me to do both, and I’d wanted to tell the story of our trip on Allen. So when the batteries died, and I felt like I’d failed at something because my attitude was set in that mode.
For me, documenting and telling the stories of the outdoors is about more than pleasing sponsors or earning a living. It’s about spreading the joy that I get out there. It’s about inspiring people to play harder, engage the natural world around them, and put those benefits to work in caring for the places that do so much for them. If you read my work, I’m thankful. If it motivates you to be outside, I’m fulfilled.
Splash. The sole of the ski boot connected with slippery Pinchot Creek bottom, and for a minute, it seemed like the plastic shell might keep the creek from soaking my liners–the liners that might freeze solid that night in the tent. The liners we’d need to ski. The liners that still had miles to skin before we could make camp. Reaching the snow, I clicked back in, started skinning to catch up with Clay, and felt the squoosh of water that was now a part of every stride winding through the underbrush and up the valley. We’d skin for a while; the creek would cut us off. We’d shoulder our skis and wade in. And each time, I thought that some part of us might never recover from this trip.
Our reasons seemed pretty clear: Mt. Stimson is a truly worthy climb or ski in any season. It dominates the skyline of the southern portion of Glacier. During our climb/ski of nearby Blackfoot Mountain last year, the clouds parted and Clay asked reverently, “What’s that monster over there?”
Further, its southwest face occupies the only NW Montana entry in the 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America, a coffee table book that occupied our living room in Whitefish and occupies my dreams on the regular.
Countering that occupation, Stimson has a reputation for being very tall, which it is, and very hard to get to, which it also fulfills. With a summit just over 10,000ft, it rises nearly 7,000ft above the trailhead on Highway 2. Summer approaches via established trail can range to twenty miles. Being skiers, we figured that with good timing, we could use snow to skin over much of the legendary, vicious underbrush that makes the direct approach up Pinchot Creek so memorable. We’d still have to cross the Middle Fork of the Flathead, Coal Creek, and Pinchot Creek, but thrall to that gorgeous line, and our propensity to embark into suffering, we figured we could do it.
The day before, we got our backcountry permit, and took a quick trip north to scout the trip to the river. Post holing through isothermal nonsense over deadfall in light shoes, we noted that the river didn’t seem too wide upstream of the crossing. So we arrived around six am the next morning with a pack raft, a map, lots of rope, our skis, and some dim notion of what we were about to do.
Skinning over the crunchy postholiness of the day before, Clay dragging the raft behind him through trees, it took us a while to wander to the river. A steep embankment of mixed skinning and logs didn’t help.
But after skinning across the swamp, we found the river. And found that it was much, much wider at the ford than where we’d scouted. After a quick try, we realized that the 30m glacier line tied to a 75ft throw bag we’d brought to return the raft to the person waiting on the other side wouldn’t be enough. Clay ferried the gear across, making me the only piece of luggage necessary to make the other side.
Every piece of cord we had totaled seven different pieces plus two NRS Straps and a big stick. With only himself in the raft, and pulling the cord I tried to keep out of the water, Clay paddled for the far bank. Given that we were trying to cross perhaps 170ft of water, the rope dropped into the current, pulling into a large bow shape that kept Clay from getting quite to the other side. Our plan was that he’d bail out into the shallows, leave the paddle, and I’d pull it back. Instead, committed to his bail next to the steep bank, I held the stick and watched the boat flip. He went fully into the river, clinging to the paddle, and swam madly to shore. The current pulled the boat downstream, and as I dragged it back in with our makeshift line, the inflation sack from the raft floated on downstream with my hopes for the day.
That left me on the near shore, with my bear spray, camera, and a raft, but no paddle. Our plans were shot, but to even sort out our retreat, I had to take the raft across the river. Two paddle raft paddles were sitting in the back of Clay’s rig, so I spent an hour potholing up the softening snow to the railroad tracks, the car, and coming back down. Tying the two paddles together with prussik cord, I took my makeshift kayak paddle, went well upstream, and made it over to Clay.
Arriving on the other bank, I found him exceptionally fashionable in wet ski boots, dry boxers, and his down coat. Unlike the ski gear draped across the trees to dry in the 10am sun, his spirits weren’t drenched. The moment he went in, I’d written the trip off, and was already contemplating lunch at home. In our planning, we’d barely worried about the Middle Fork crossing that had taken us nearly four hours. But in the hour I’d been gone to grab the oars, he did “a little wallowing in self pity, then got dry gear on and started to think about it.” We were there, and it seemed right to go up and check things out since we’d already been through so much–in perhaps a half mile from the car.
Our predictions about patchy snow came true. Before clicking in after yet another section of walking up mud, I’d try to kick my boots in the snow to keep grit out of my tech fittings. The Coal Creek trail led us up the hill, and into some flats where we started to see the ridiculous country where we were headed.
For a while, the trail heads northwest before running up against the embankment of Coal Creek and turning south. Following directions from some friends, we went about a half mile past the junction. Our descent route involved perhaps the worst ravine out there, but we kept our skis, skins, and touring modes on our feet. Clay getting into it:
After that, it was time to cross Coal Creek itself. Clay’s soaked gear meant he wasn’t getting much wetter, so he charged in while I stood in the snow, stripping off my boots and pants in a strange hope of keeping them dry.
Once on the other side, we took a minute to refill our water and think. Both of the major stream crossings were done, and we were that much more committed to a goal that was still a long, long way off. Thinking back, I don’t know when we decided that we’d commit to going in or coming back out. Some mutual stubbornness got us up, put our boots on, and lead us up the embankment and into the trees.
An old trail exists somewhere on the north side of Pinchot creek. Like many of the old and unmaintained options in Glaicer, it’s probably overgrown and crumbling. Plus, it was probably under snow for a lot of our route. So our routefinding took us up the ridge to the south. Snow came and went, and after too many transitions, the grass and dirt skinning became natural.
Because we had skis, it could have been possible to go a long ways up the ridge, and then do a traverse back down into the valley floor to gain distance. But as we got higher up, the deadfall worsened. Skinning got extra difficult, and we spent an hour skin skiing and then booting down through isothermal patches of snow between logs to the creek bed, which looked more welcoming. In places, the ground was still frozen. This made for a preponderance of treacherous footing and swearing. So even though I was worried about my liners, the splooshing into the creek was actually quite an upgrade.
The time we spent zig zagging across the creek drifts out of memory. Between the bear keg and overnight stuff in a day pack and sore legs, I was loosing motivation. Clay, however, kept his spirits high, checked his watch, and kept us going upward. Even though he started the day by falling into a cold river in his ski gear, here he was, keeping things chipper as I slowly sank into the swamps of my own frustration. I credit his optimism with the trip, and his leads through the creek bottom kept me with our mission.
Eventually, the creek narrows, goes into a canyon, and we detoured up onto the slopes below Eaglehead Mountain. By this, we gained quite a bit of elevation, got out of the bottom, and didn’t have any more creek crossings. For the first time, we could see the line we’d come all this way to attempt (direct center).
The clock wore on. Crossing some large avie paths was the easy part. Between, the contour line was constantly interrupted by brush and terrain. Stubbornness was the motivation to bash through, skis slipping on logs. We continued up to about 5200ft, and skinned into where we wanted to camp right around 7pm.
We’d been at it for thirteen hours, nine since leaving the Middle Fork. The morning promised 5000ft of gain after an early start. The line loomed above us as alpenglow colored the peaks. I ate my freeze dried macaroni with the satisfaction of someone who is wearing all their layers and about to get into a summer sleeping bag while snow camping.
My gamble had been that I’d go light, hopefully be warm enough in temps that were probably a good 10 degrees F colder than my sleeping bag rating. The night started pleasantly enough. But when we woke at 4am, I was starting cold. Lacking good insulated storage, we’d planned to melt drinking water in the morning. Then the stove went on the fritz after a few cups of hot, watery glory. There was plenty of fuel. It was primed. But it wouldn’t burn strongly, emitting a feeble flame that ate up an hour and a half before we each took about a liter and a half in disgust.
Our liners, which we’d tried to dry, and tucked in our bivys, were soaked and nearly frozen. Clomping around camp in socks and boot shells was more comfortable. And so we left, heading up the valley towards the saddle in the predawn not-dark-enough-we-wasted-so-much-time-on-that-damn-stove.
We fairly flew to the pass, aside from a few patches of steeper crust. In the light, angles were hard to guess at, and I slid back a couple times. Behind us, the peaks above the valley were gathering light. Our midwinter Middle Fork haunts stood up down the valley. I chewed a bar in silence, not quite thinking, and not taking it in really, but just witnessing. Perhaps that’s all I could do, and it felt right.
Eventually, the south face came into view above us, and the full task was at hand.
Looming really isn’t the right word. To get where we wanted to start skiing, we’d need to achieve the center high point. Given the blocky cliffs on both sides, the best route seemed to be up the right side, through the shadow line, and up. 10am was our goal for being on the summit, which would give us some leeway on the SW face that was not yet in the sun. . And so we pushed on, ski crampons biting into the glassy surface of refrozen sludge.
Rime ice covered the boulders, and the pitch steepened. So it was crampon time. Made so easy by the skis on our feet, our rapid progress seemed to halt as we kicked steps into variable, refrozen crust. It wasn’t beyond boot deep, but the exhaustion from the day before seemed to drag behind me, taunting with its weight.
Swinging leads, it seemed to go on for a long time. We were both feeling it, but the sense of how far we’d come grew with the visa below. Attached by my axe, whippet, and crampons, I reveled in the joyful but tenuous feeling of being a fly on a pretty big wall. Water from my liners gave every step a squoosh much more like the creek than the front point. Then, at a break, Clay nudged his pack, and the sunglasses and helmet atop it skittered past our feet down the boot pack. Without them, his red buff and black hair gave the impression that I’d just been following Rambo up the boot pack.
It got steep too.
So when I navigated around a rock, and found myself on the summit ridge, it was relief–cut short by the sight of what still sat between me and the top. It floated perhaps a quarter mile away, the broken rocks and cornices seeming like some castle wall jutting up into the sky.
The short walk to the summit is my favorite part of a climb. Cruxes are interesting, and route finding proves to be the worthy challenge, but the last few steps when you haven’t yet achieved what you’ve set out to do, but know that there’s now nothing that can stop you–that moment is an easy, quick one amongst more that are, by their nature, more complex. To get to that moment, we’d need to traverse over the blocks covered in rime ice, avoid cornices, and not fall off.
And it looked daunting. Our crampons were balling up nearly every step. Making the first, spidery moves across the unsupported snow fields meant pulling out the microscope: be right here, right now. This little slope. One movement at a time, with an idea of where to go that lasts about twenty feet. We moved a little, and I think Clay just had had enough.
“I’m good. Since I dropped my lid, there’s just no desire to keep moving there. I don’t care about skiing that other face, not without a helmet.”
He was right. Calling it there was a good move. Skiing our ascent line would be plenty interesting to ski. But in the time that we’d already made on the ridge, the fear had become manageable. I could move in this. And it was visible the whole way.
I said, “I think I’m good moving across this. You ok with that?”
He was, and I set off. Things got easier, then harder, and before I knew it, that last twenty feet came up, and the easy, successful feeling came out in a lonely little wolf howl.
A selection of shots from the summit:
Back across the summit ridge toward Clay:
Looking down the SW face:
Out the west ridge to the right:
South towards St. Nicholas and the Cloudcroft. Pichot is in the foreground.
North, over Nyack creek with Blackfoot and Jackson.
When we climb, we get to survey the world while it truly dwarfs us. Seething masses of geology and water, held in temporary forms until they erode away, giant waves becoming flattened by each particle of rock carried down a stream–they hold such easy ability to keep us humble, tiny, and permeated by wonder. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So moving back along the ridge, my water gone, kicking my feet into the places where I’d been before, I wandered out of the blank bliss of the summit and into the reality that, hey, we get to ski down this thing.
Clay in his perch.
Getting our gear on, and setting up, it registered that we were getting late–11am. Looking around for a wet slide that I heard coming down, I realized that it was on the skier’s right of the bowl we’d ascended. Clay dropped in, ski cut on the steeps, and after posting up we both watched his slough step down into small pockets and sludge its way out the bottom of the bowl.
Looking down from the perch. Clay is the speck on the right side, above the rocks.
Like the ascent, we took turns swinging into sheltered pockets and navigating the skier’s left. It was steep, nicely edgeable, and a whole hell of a lot of fun.
As we skied out the bottom, I spotted a dome shaped white thing next to the murder scene of some grouse that came to a rough end. It was the helmet that had skittered away. Rambo reclaimed his helmet. And we surfed down the old moraines, jumping off stuff and chortling all the way to camp.
As if it sensed our relief and the sun shining down, the stove worked fine back at camp. Water melted, we allowed a short nap to dry things out. Note the recycled avie debris used as a drying rack.
Descent came much more quickly. Our skin trail lead back down the valley through the nonsense of bushes we’d already crashed through once. Instead of zig zagging, the bench on the south side of Pichot Creek held snow for at least a half mile past where Peril Creek comes in. All good travel seems to end on this trip, usually in dirt or downfall or heavy shrubberies. So eventually, we fixed bayonets and once more waded into the creek.
Felt soles would be better. However, you can’t roll your ankle in ski boots. Or stub your toe. And the liners, once soaked, work sort of like a wetsuit by insulating and warming the water around your skin. Each time the water comes over the top of the boot, it changes the warmer stuff around your foot. Which keeps things interesting.
In an attempt to avoid the deadfall doom of our descent into Pinchot Creek, we followed it a bit downstream. By and large, we missed the deadfall by going straight into a band of christmas trees packed onto the fringe of the burn like teenagers stageside at a boy band farewell concert. Swearing at them doesn’t really do much, so grabbing them by the throat and pulling yourself uphill makes for better uphill headway.
Our reward was a nice gap in the burn. Much easier walking afforded a better route to a newly swollen Coal Creek. Crossing involved a desperate skate across a large, flat boulder while waist deep in the current.
But by this point, we knew it could be over soon. So the manic energy of finishing the task coursed through our soggy, limp enthusiasm. I found myself chasing Clay down the trail over dirt patches as he plowed onward into the dusk that was coming down.
The Coal Creek trail goes right through the middle of this melt pond. It’s under about ten feet of water here, which will all go away later in the season. I know you’re looking at the trail.
Once arrived at the Middle Fork, we arranged gear, ferried, and got across by two manning the pack raft. I lay on the bow, my feet to each side of the cockpit, beard over the water like a tired figurehead in some bizarre aquatic comedy involving ski boots. Clay paddled us across, landing as it truly began to be dark.
It all got slower then. Around the swamp. Up the hill. Walking along the trail tracks, with Clay carrying the ricksack filled with raft on his front and all the ski stuff on his back. Eventually, our headlamps reflected in the headlights of the Suburban. Dry gear gave way to weariness, and the drive back in to Columbia Falls was a tired one.
So many words for only two days. So much difficulty. And both easily worth it, to see my estimation of my own abilities bested by the miles traversed and difficulties overcome. Thanks to Clay for his enthusiasm, skills, photos, and being badass enough to totally go in the river and decide to carry on.
Of course, it was raining. Drops pelted the windshield all the way to Condon. An afternoon skin to Rumble Lakes was ruled out in favor of wandering around and stuffing ourselves with delicious food at my uncle’s place. Maybe the weather window would arrive by morning.
Ah, spring in the northern Rockies. Dirt approaches lead to patchy, crusted, nasty skinning, which leads to a buried trail, which transitions to full on winter in the alpine. Sweaty base layers and freezing at night lead to walking out with ski pants on my backpack. High pressure moves in for a couple days, storm snow sheds in the dramatic gurgling of wet avalanches, then the next cell rains on the climbing crags and puts fresh snow into the slide paths. Process repeats.
Playing this time of year requires partners that are used to such bizarre conditions. Who aren’t afraid to throw skis and boots on a backpack already heavy with camping and camera gear, then chug merrily up the skin track while expounding on the artistic and aesthetic aspects of working in the outdoor industry. Steven Gnam is one such powerhouse. Introduced by mutual buddies, our first encounter involved making pizza and chatting past midnight about different rambles and projects all over Glacier. Several months of phone tag and emailing followed, and we finally met up to head down the Swan a couple weeks back.
Of course, it was raining when we woke up. I learned to do nearly anything in the rain while living in Washington, but that part of me isn’t quite what it once was. Looking at the rain soaking the deck in front of the cozy living room was disheartening. And since we were angling to overnight, in the snow, and weren’t sure if the lookout would have a stove.
Essentially, I was being a wuss.
Which is, of course, an opportunity. Sometimes it’s the cheer of a friend, the encouragement of a climbing partner, or the sun coming out. Chocolate discovered in the bottom of my pack. An easy hundred feet encountered in impenetrable bushwhacking. Whatever it is, it sweetens that soured part of my mind that controls attitude, which controls nearly everything. Sitting in the living room, the sun began to poke through here and there, and once that happened, it was time to explode our gear from the Subaru.
Steven expertly handled the massive snow ruts on the way into the parking lot, while the trail held only dirt for the first mile or so. Spring plays those nasty tricks with low elevation snow cover–flats still postholeable, and slopes bare and brushy.
Even once in ski boots, we alternated snow and pine needles. Gaining the ridge was stiff going, but it quickly got very wintery.
Judging by the photos we’d seen on Facebook, we thought our nightly accommodations could take a little bit of digging to get in. But perhaps the wind would scour the ridge top, and it’d be easy.
Of course, we arrived to find only a corner of the roof peaking out. While the wind blew and my gloves got soaked, we started digging our way down. Hopefully the winterizing storm shutters were in place.
No such luck. Sometime before the first snow fell, wind probably ripped the plywood away. The door was open, and the window somehow smashed. A huge pile of snow awaited us inside. Firewood and stove were drifted over. To make everything worse, packrats had gotten in and pooped on nearly every flat surface. We arrived around 3pm, and it was 7pm before the fire was going. Thoughts turned to dinner and making ourselves comfortable, which got stranger as the dirt floor melted into mud sprinkled with turds from the rats.
Fruit of our labors: thermonuclear sunsets over the Missions.
Evening came with dinner and melting water. Thanks to our high perch, Steven saw the Northern Lights, so we got that midnight light show as well.
Morning arrived with the rain clouds gone, and zero motivational issues.
With a gorgeous day starting, we looked for ski options. Heavy cornices trailed east on the ridge, making assessment difficult. Underneath them, large rock slabs had been heating all winter. The ridge in both directions didn’t offer much in safe entrances to the terraces towards Necklace Lakes, so the option was to head west, down our skin track. Sticking in the trees and along the ridge top, we found fresh snow that was getting gooey by our second lap.
On our second lap, I swore off oatmeal for good. In Steven’s words, “if I eat oatmeal in the morning, it’s actually worse than if I ate nothing at all. It just sucks the energy out of me.” I’d noticed the feeling before, but this was worse than ever. Though so tempting for ease of preparation, and easy to buy, I’m done with it as a backcountry food.
Lunch, however, was a tasty combo of cream cheese and bell pepper burritos. So that solved some problems as we packed up to leave.
Steven digging out the storm door.
Things went from sludge to sludge to sludge to sticks. We managed to trigger a couple wet slides over the edge of the ridge, and they sludged on down, muttering. Things got thicker, and eventually we found ourselves in isothermal grossness, making little headway.
After some serious brush bashing, we were back at the place where we’d put our boots on. It was absurdly hot, so I just put my pants on my pack, thinking we’d probably not see anyone here, given that it was so early in the season. Ticks were a concern. But I’d check extra well.
Of course, we met some folks. Who promptly asked me if I knew about the ticks. Talking to them later in the parking lot, we learned they were biologists studying the way that trees talk to each other by way of chemical signals. So at least we weren’t the only weird people out in the woods.
Thanks to Steven for an awesome trip, his humor, and his photos. Next up will be our adventure to Sperry Chalet the next day.
A couple of weeks back, Clay, Jonathan, and I (that’s right, I used the Oxford comma) headed up to the Swan Crest. Conflicting motives of practicing crevasse rescue, finding fresh snow in high pressure, and getting some photos all conspired to see us skinning up the refrozen slopfest that was the Strawberry Lake access road with glacier travel and camera gear while Baloo loped along ahead of us.
The last time Clay and Jonathan came up here, they spent most of their day being stuck in a ditch and getting the car out of it. So parking before the turn that sunk them was a victory in itself. I’ve heard stories from friends about a guy with some old jeep on tractor tires that romps around up here. Instead, the tracks we followed were those of four wheelers–not quite wide enough for both skis to comfortably slide past each other as the scrapey mess hooked into our skins. I couldn’t really find where I wanted to skin for most of the two miles it took to reach the Strawberry Lake trailhead.
Clay navigates the first crux.
Thankfully, the creek was drifted over further up.
Previous days of sun left the surface crusted as we made our way up. The route we followed goes up the creek bed into a sort of mudslide canyon that triggers feeling of “oh my, terrain trap” as you skin up. It’s most likely that the ravine walls are eroding through a particularly loose layer, but the trees piled in the bottom seem like the kind turned to pick up sticks by avalanche. Thankfully, we followed some old tracks up to the right as it started to become a real pocket.
Cutting switchbacks up the ridge, snow quality slowly improved. Nearing the top, I was getting really thirsty, and just tired. With a rope, axe, picket and other hardware that we certainly wouldn’t need to make turns, my daypack felt heavy. Perhaps the prudent thing to do was stop, but I wanted to finish the track onto the summit. This made the shoulder feel like it was going on forever. And ever. And when it did arrive, I was greeted by a flat to the real summit.
I still don’t know the name of the mountain we were on. And really, that’s not too important, because as we crested the top, the view swept away: Great Northern in the foreground, with Glacier rearing up behind, Jewel Basin to the south, yada, blah, gorgeous, remarkable, woooooo.
Wind whispered by on its way down to Wildcat Lake, and as we took in the scenery in all its serenity, a helicopter buzzed towards us from the north, flying low along the crest. We struggled to properly salute in time, but I think we got the message through:
I really don’t like helicopters. And I guess there’s no way for them to know we’d be up there until they were too close to have already wrecked the silence, but the fact remains that I like to check out when I’m in the wilderness. Turn my phone into a camera only. Leave the clatter and motors and internet behind for a while. To have all those burst in during the little quiet revelry left on this plant is rudeness in the tune of a turbine engine.
Once it buzzed away, I pulled my skins and was munching before we realized that we didn’t quite have a read on how we’d get down to the Wildcat–cornices were blocking our view. The two more sensible portions of our party headed off in opposite directions to check things out while I let down the team and pulled out the Cheezits.
Once regrouped, we made the call to head south to a sort of saddle and drop in from there. Stashing the glacier gear, the first turns over wind drifts were scrabbly. Clay took the first line, shooting out onto the lake while his unintelligible exaltation echoed up to us. “I guess it’s pretty good down there?”
Photogs have to get their shots too. Jonathan.
Despite the minor hiccup of one tomahawk, the face was fresh and fast. Standing on the lake, the breeze from before was gone. Sun reflecting off all the walls around us cooked down, making me feel like the proverbial ant under the magnifying glass.
“We could be in tshirts right now.” Jonathan was right. The heat was crazy, and worse still, all the snow was getting cooked alongside us. The snow that we’d need to ski down to get out. The snow hanging above our route out. The cornices hanging above that snow. Clay took off and broke trail across the avie paths, while Jonathan and I followed at a distance, going from one stand of dubious looking trees to the next.
The sun beat down. Some small roller balls came down from the trees, but once in the safety of the valley side, nothing remarkable happened. Regaining the ridge, the snow would switch between wind affected, sun protected pow and schmoo above the large bowl we’d earlier crossed in such haste.
Back at the summit, it was lunch time again. Nap time struck after that, and I snuggled into the plush of my skins for about thirty minutes. Jonathan tried to do the same, but even though he’s on 195cm skis, he doesn’t quite fit.
After nap time, it was crevasse rescue time. Clay would be heading up to the Wapta traverse shortly, and it’s always a good idea to review. Taking turns to function as rescuer and ballast, it’s quite possible that we accomplished the most scenic crevasse practice that’s happened around here for a bit. I have no data to back that up, but, I mean, look at it (including my nice finger blur):
I think being the ballast is the fun part–you’re tied into your buddy, and then you jump downhill to yank him off his feet to simulate the crevasse fall. Uphill, he’s groaning while fumbling with all the stuff to do, but instead of a crevasse, you’re just sitting there and enjoying yourself in the sun while keeping weight on the rope.
And in slacking fashion, I don’t have any photos or video of our ski down. It was really really fun. Protected semipow in nicely spaced trees turned into an avie chute of rip able corn, a little drop into the mudslide valley of probable doom, and we rode our skis all the way back to the truck. Clay demonstrates proper nordic dog racing form:
Thanks to Clay and Jonathan for a great day. Extra special thanks to Jonathan for his pictures.
Skiing and schoolwork made up nearly everything I cared about in high school. Hygiene, which I can barely spell now, was an afterthought buried in dreadlocks. Girls were on my mind, but I thought it prudent to wait for college, where they’d be more mature. Videos now lost to the balance of misplaced DVDs and wiped hard drives could testify to how rad we once were. We’d film each other learning backflips, doing the same tricks in the park, and shoveling snow to hit rails accustomed to skateboards.
The culture that we once inhabited is still alive. Kids no different from us (but who certainly smell better than I did) are filming each other, learning to jump, and navigating those formative years on their skis. I’ve seen what they’re up to on the wondrous Social Media, and thought that it’d be interesting to reenter that world. The plan I had in mind was a park edit style short, but filmed only on natural, in-bounds features in the spring slush (thanks to Sander Hadley for the inspiration). The sun would shine, I’d ski dazzlingly, and we’d all be stoked.
Instead, the Thursday we picked dawned cloudy and frozen. Landings were crunchy boilerplate. Per usual, I’d overestimated how well I could do nose blocks. Reece, Jackson, and Jake all made the best of it with their filming, and I finished the day feeling like I’d not really accomplished anything other than getting the honor of skiing with the current crop of kids we once were.
Stuck in the mentality of what I’d wanted to do, I missed the opportunity while I was in it–these young skiers had the exact mentality we once did. The energy was in just skiing, just filming, and having fun at it without trying to frame it in some expected outcome. And I would have missed all this if it weren’t for the cameras. I’d credit the power of Reece’s edit for showing exactly what the day was–an average day of skiing around. Not perfect conditions. Not perfect skiing. But perfect in how they match the feeling I didn’t even know I was chasing. Perfect in how the circumstances arranged to teach me a lesson I didn’t remember I needed to learn.
After our time on Wheeler Peak, Alex Taran and I planned to head to Mt. Whitney. The drought in southern California had left things fairly spring-like, so the thought was to do an ascent on the Mountaineers’ Route and ski down from the summit of the highest point in the lower 48.
Of course, this wasn’t as easy as we’d thought. An access road that has typically been dry and blocked with only a sign is now chained off. Mammoth locals told us that rangers had been forced to plow the entire six miles of road to rescue climbers stranded by snowstorms that switched the season faster than they could get out. I can’t blame them for that, but we didn’t have the bikes to access such an obstacle. Six miles of pavement to start out a three day snow climb didn’t sound pretty. Forecasts suggested the summit would be around 0 or -10, rendered wintery by the same winds that turned us back on Wheeler.
Instead of dropping in on a doomed quest to suffer, we ate cookies in a coffee shop, sent emails, and plotted our course. The best course was to ski there in Mammoth, and then head Squaw en route back to SLC. So the next morning, we headed out to ski two couloirs, the first being Hole in the Wall.
Some years, you have to duck to ski this thing. Our experience was a bit different.
The goal, beyond others, is to get out there and come home safe to do it again. I left on an overnighter to ski Wheeler Peak with Alex Taran thinking it would be fairly springy up there, but was reminded that it’s still (thankfully) winter up high. We beat a hasty retreat to dodge hypothermia caused by some fierce ridge top winds, and here’s a video of our climb day.