Backcountry Digs: Yurtski video

I know, it feels way too much like spring. The grass around here is seriously terrifying for this time of year. But back in January, it did snow. Maybe we’ve forgotten what it feels like to have snowflakes bounce off your face en route to hanging in a smokey contrail behind us, but it did happen.

To prove this, the video from my time at Yurtski with Brody Leven, KT Miller, Rachel Delacour, and filmer extraordinaires Bobby Jahrig and Tyler Swank is now live. Enjoy a short powder fix and I hope that it’s enough to shift this dry docked tide we seem to have. There’s even some skiing with the American flag, which you might recognize from its tenure on Iceberg Notch and at the Rut last season.

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Salt in wintery wounds

Over the past few days, I’ve discussed my theories about this bizarre winter with a few different friends. My personal thought is that all the bike riding, roller blading, and outdoor rock climbing that’s happening only exacerbates the summery trend of winter, because it shows the snow deities (whoever and whatever they may or may not be) that we are unfaithful to the true purpose of having snow on the ground–which is, of course, to go skiing. Friends have countered that such deities might be galled into action by the same displays of summer activities that I find so heretical, and perhaps spurred into haste by the sight of flesh and open toes in February. Who’s to say?

Whatever the reason for this strange season, I’m (as ever) not ready for it to be done. To that point, here’s a little clip from our time at Yurtski back in January, where the snow was soft, the women were strong, the men were good looking, and all the children were above average. Here’s to a long winter.

Mixed climbing and powder surprises: Rumble Ridge

With much of the western US experiencing a serious recession in the snow category, and having been on the road for two weeks through SIA and now Utah without my uphill gear or running shoes, there’s a whole cavalcade of itchyness running around. Toss in the photos that keep arriving from Japan (I thought that their season just ended sometime in February?), and it makes for jealousy in the key of accumulations.

But before I left on this sojourn, though, we’d had ourselves a decent winter. Temps held things in better shape up high, and that meant that ski mountaineering uniquely positioned its acolytes to harvest the fun stuff in the alpine. A weather window was shaping up, and I made plans to head out on two days of skiing and climbing.

The first, though, was not to be. My alarm rung out at 4am, waking me from four hours of sleep. I searched around to get stuff together, and I realized that not only was I super tired before two looming days in the alpine, I couldn’t find one of my ski socks. While this doesn’t seem like a major hurdle from the rested, comfortable perspective of the present, I assure you that it was a major setback in my morning planning. So much so that I texted Blake and Carl, told them I wasn’t going, and promptly returned to my bed.

As their instagram report from the field showed, I really did miss out:

I’ve never made a habit of bailing on things without good cause. In all truth, it still bothers me that I didn’t make it out with them, because I broke my word that I’d go. But in that early morning, it felt like I’d probably get sick if I tried to get up then and do the two days in front of me. I made an early bedtime, and even though both Carl and Blake didn’t want to join us, I showed up at the Rumble Lakes trailhead the next morning to find Steven Gnam already driving around and looking for me.

I don’t have much in the way of early day pictures, mostly because it wasn’t much fun to ski through or take pictures of. Deadfall plagued our shortcut, and once we started heading up climbers trail on the ridge, dust on icy crust made for seriously dicey skinning. Once again, I vowed to get ski crampons for my wider skis. But as we climbed, it steadily got deeper.

Even better, the cloud ceiling that kept things grey approached, and then dispersed beneath us.

Inversions always feel like cheating. Looking down, I knew that thousands of people below the ceiling were experiencing yet another overcast day in the Swan, while we exulted in the need for sunscreen at the bottom of our packs. Even better, the views across to the Missions were simply stunning as we made our way up the ridge.

As a route of ascent, the crest held many advantages of safety over the gullies and slide path ridden slopes on either side. Cornicing was minimal, the snow was stable, and we were high above the runout zones that the summer trail ascends. Steven had suggested bringing crampons and tools for a specific notch, and as we arrived, I saw he was right. A knife of snow descended into the bottom, with no fall zones to each side. To regain the ridge, a small pitch mixed climbing awaited. Steven lead down the knife, kicking in steps as he went. Slow and steady was the name of the game, and eventually, it was my turn.

Moments of quiet confidence are so wonderful in the mountain experience. As I walked down the packed out steps, the view dropping away on each side of the whippet or ice tool in my hand, I chuckled a little at the absurdity of what we were up to, and the likely fact that we’d be soon skiing fresh snow as a result of our fun. Even better, the tails of my skis drug through the snow, making the steps an exercise in keeping every single step controlled.

Looking back across at the knife:

It’s counterintuitive, but mixed climbing in crampons actually feels less stable than without. The points of each spike radiate out from your foot, making the lever forcing your ankle that little bit longer. Even the barely two inches changes the balance point significantly, which then flows on up into the whole balance equation. Add a drop below and loose rocks, sometimes only frozen in place, and it made for some interesting and slow going.

Such weirdness broke up the typical monotony of a skin track all the way to the top. Getting to use touring skills alongside the scrabbley, scrappy style of mixed climbing only adds to the fun. That much better to top out and get to see all around the majority of the Rumble Basin.

Upper Rumble Lake:

We ate some, surveyed some, and then dropped some of a cornice into the slope to check out the stability. Windslab was our main concern, until the chunks rolled their way down with no result at all.

Well, that’s not right. These were the result:

Per usual, dropping in felt amazing. We skied perhaps eight hundred feet down in the basin instead of depending the complexities of the ridge, then transitioned to head up to another ridge.

Our goal was the saddle directly above me in the photo above. Noting the potential for cross loading and the way we’d seen wind moving in the area, we took the ridge ascent one at a time. Steven moving up:

And my follow. Our descent went out the low pass in this photo.

Once atop the ridge, we scrapped our plans for heading to the peak to our west–the ridge complexities earlier had eaten daylight, leaving us with a descent of the area we’d skinned up. Relative to the icy horrors of the first track, it’d be a dream. And considering that we’d started the day in the gray, with no clear plan of what we’d get done, it was glorious to feel the windburn and sunburn meld on my face as we drank tea and reveled in the inversion from our perch.

The mountain life is amazing. We’re so lucky to get to do this. This view of Holland Peak and Upper Rumble is one more convincing piece of evidence.

Tea gone, we packed up and headed on down. The turns were juicy, then sastrugi, then a bit more soft stuff as I dodged rocks down into the basin.

And I do love the golden hour in the alpine. Far better to witness alpenglow all around you than from the valley floor.

Indeed, we were headed for the valley floor. In getting there, we found my biggest surprise of the day: the light winds had kept things soft, and our descent carried us through perhaps three thousand feet of mellow powder fields and pillow bopping. It could not have been nicer, or more rewarding. Our hoots of excitement echoed up the walls we’d stood on top on our ascent just hours earlier. Steven fills in the eights:

Though we had to pay for our powder salvation somehow. Lower elevation brought serious alder and bush bashing. I may have jumped over a log or two on our exit down the summer trail. Here, Steven uses expert gumby joint technique and his manic grin to dispatch a particularly feisty piece of shubbery:

And eventually, we did end up back in the murk.

But as we skied back to the car, headlamps illuminating the snow rushing past on either side of the track we’d skinned up, it’d been a day of everything: poor skinning, dry tooling, pow turns where the sun warmed fluff blasts up to gently caress your face. It was a good day. Worth all the effort and the scrabbling. And as I sit in the Denver airport now, I’m so so so so so ready to get back to Montana and days like this.

Thanks to Steven for his wonderful companionship, ideas, popcorn, and photos. And yes, Blake–you did miss out.

Invading Cana-duh

In recent years, the area I live has occupied by a friendly invasion. On any given weekend of summer or winter, a contingent of RVs, fifth wheel trailers, and pickup trucks can be found heading down Friday night from the Canadian border. They drive the seventy miles or so to Whitefish, or Glacier Park, and proceed to enjoy their weekend free from the depredations of sales tax, the metric system, signs in two languages, and the higher Canadian prices for liquid commodities (beer and petroleum). Hey, Montana is all about freedom and liberty and such. Come Sunday, they all head back north, presumably until the next weekend.

Comparisons are frequently drawn by locals both accepting and irate between Whitefish and Tijuana–south of the border towns with cheap beer. But they keep our tourism-based economy going in the process. And like any group of people, there’s a ton of great folks just here for a good time to balance out the jerks that spoil their reputation.

Personally, I’m stoked they’re here. As a kid, the favorable exchange rates saw my family in Canada for lots of our trips. That’s since changed, so I don’t blame them. Our ski hill wouldn’t survive without their visits. They money they spend here is as good as anybody elses’. For tourists, they’re a jovial, usually polite, group of people.

As a skier and mountaineer, it should be nearly impossible to ignore Canada. Especially with so many of its citizens playing in my own backyard. However, I’ve been pretty good at it for quite a while, if by no other reason than just putting on the blinders and playing at home. That all changed last weekend.

Back in the 1970s, my dad headed north from Colorado towards the area in Montana where I was raised and live. His reason was simple: there was a big lake. Once here, he kept going into Canada with “no idea, no plan where I was going.” The mountain lust that had developed in Colorado found a bonanza in the Interior Ranges. I can only imagine him heading up the behemoth, glacially carved valleys, rubber-necking out the window of his red VW Beetle.

As we drove north (albeit in a much less nostalgic vehicle), I did plenty of staring. On either side of the river valleys, peaks reared up sharp and unknown, whole ranges of boundless potential wandering that I might have successfully ignored for who knows how much longer. There was a knowing gleam in my dad’s eye–when he suggested the trip for a summer outing, he was already plotting to turn me onto the scent that so filled his nostrils those years ago.

Our first day was spent heading up the Abbott Crest in Glacier National Park of Canada. Snaking north, west, and south through the avalanche sheds on Rogers Pass, the Transcanada Highway makes a quite an impression as you drive through the park. The control work they do in the winter also means warning signs in, you guessed it, two languages.

My dad’s first mistake was to let me make the decision on where to go. He’s been out and about a bit this summer, but like most people, enjoys some flat on his trails. Especially for a warm up. Instead, the Abbott trail takes to switchbacks with abandon, climbing aggressively right out the gate.

Most of the trails here were created by mountaineers trying to get to their goals as quickly as possible. This sort of thinking is absolutely refreshing to me, but that will probably change by the time I’m older. So while I’m not sorry for my trail choice (the most vertical gain of all the options), it wasn’t perhaps the best way to start the weekend.

The loaf of sandwiches is a recurring theme on our trips together. Sometime before we leave, my dad will take a whole loaf of bread, spread peanut butter and jam between each pair of slices, and we’ll eat on it during those snacky moments that inevitably happen. Here’s the loaf in action.

Rogers Pass has been on my radar as a touring destination, but I’ve since realized that it’s sort of essential that I make it up there.

The trail did eventually flatten out, and then started going up again. Having gone far enough, my dad sent me on to climb things and move fast. We’d meet up at the car later, but I wanted to get a higher viewpoint to see what was around.

So I made my way around the bowl, and scrambled straight up to attain the Crest. A nice couple from Quebec told me some history of the area, and confirmed the hut sighting I thought was right.

The Crest was a total blast, with little bits of scrambling and some exposure here and there. Falling away into glaciated basins on either side, the map was my only way of sorting out the peak names around me.

There’s a comfort and familiarity to the peaks in my backyard. Climbing there, each summit presents plenty of places I’ve been before, just from a different angle. The crumbly rock, the strange bushwhacking, the huckleberries, the place names–they hold the significance of home. And as I walked up onto Mt. Abbott and sat in awe of the place that surrounded me, it occurred to me that I’d been at home too long. The comfort had become a droning noise in the background. It didn’t feel as fresh. And of course, that’s the whole point of travel–to shake up the stale-ing perspective that comes from seeing the same place through the same eyes. Everything I didn’t know, all the strange peaks and their beckoning ridges, they opened the doors to new perspective and the joy of expanded possibilities.

The trip back down the ridge was the ease of downhill. Across the way, couloirs in the Mt. Rogers area were still skiable.

And also across the way, Mt. Sir Donald made quite an impression. The Northwest Arete (left side here) is on the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, and it’s certainly the stunner in the area. Here’s coming back with the trad rack and some good partners.

One other reason I love Canada: terrific facial hair. AB Rogers puts on an impressive display:

On our second day out, we skipped the switchbacks and took the gondola to the ridge crest of Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. While I wouldn’t condone this sort of activity for everyone, it was really fun to spend some time in the upper alpine with my dad.

They’re in the process of extending the trails to the ridge south of the gondola, and it lead to a neat little meadow overlooking the valley. The headwaters of the Columbia were below us, and that was pretty neat to see.

The feeling of not knowing was wonderful. After a bit of time on an old map, we located the peaks I’d been staring at over the glacier the day before, completing just a small part of the huge smattering of terrain up here.

I came to the mountains via my family. To get to experience such cool places with them still is a huge blessing, and it’s a huge honor to wander around stomping grounds that my dad once and still passes through. I’m not big into lineage, but the baton has very clearly been handed off.

The baton of great selfies, that is.

Big thanks to my dad for a wonderful weekend, the maps, and most of all, the parenting that has lead me to find such freedom in the mountains. And to the Canadians–I’ll be back.

Glop and sunshine at Sperry

The day after coming out from Holland Lookout, Steven Gnam and I went in to Sperry Chalet.

The initial thought was to head up to Gunsight mountain, the peak the dwarfs the chalet on its bench. However, we’d been at it for the two days previous, and our late arrival Saturday in Kalispell made an early start less appealing. So we found ourselves on the trail at a nicely agreeable hour, despite the dirt we walked with skis on our backs.

It proved walkable all the way to Crystal Ford (as of April 20th, 2014), so we stowed our boots in a tree and skinned on ahead.

Deadfall popped out a bit here and there–making interesting moves to do in the otherwise mellow trail.

The cliffs above the trail have been shedding hard this winter. Avie debris had come way down into the trees, making the trail a strange dirt shelf buried quite a ways under our feet. This continued for a quite a while, and both Steven and I remarked that it was unusually low on the trail, relative to our own experience.

It was a good wake up call. Wet slides have tremendous power, and even when the trees appear to be closely knit and outside of a slide zone, the snow had bowled on through unimpeded.

Traversing along the base of some clearings beneath the cliffs, we made good time into the upper basin. Of course, we made sure that the slope angle was ok in our given snacking locations.

Detouring through the rolling flats between the chalet and what the chalet employees call the Seven Sisters (the rolling ridge the comes down from Lincoln Peak), we made a quick trip up to Lincoln Pass to look over towards Mt. Jackson.


A set of fresh wolverine tracks wound over the moraines, straight up, and then over the pass. We took a few minutes for grandeur-taking-in. Glacier may not have the largest mountains, but this spring has reinforced that 7000ft of relief from the valley floors is plenty for me. Perhaps we get a bit used to being out there, but the refreshing feeling of looking out across the sea of triangles never looses its cool. There’s a peace there, a knowledge that it’s all so much bigger than who we are, yet it’s up to us to take care of it and the critters that call it home.

Skiing down to the chalet, I hopped over a little roll over, and managed to air the continuation of the gulo track completely by accident.

I’m always conflicted when people ask about my spirit animal. Most of me wants to be a wolverine–an athletic machine totally equal to the big mountains it inhabits, if only for a short time, wild time. But the reality is that I’m not that fast, and not quite that gnarly, so honesty demands the answer of mountain goat. Seems fitting that even my spirit animal wants to climb faster and travel further.

Swinging down to the chalet, the late spring snowpack decorated the roof of the hotel and had the dining hall mostly buried. It’s still snowing in the high country, which means great skiing, once it finally consolidates. A month has passed since these photos were taken, and we’re still waiting for that.

As the sun dropped lower, we ripped skins and headed on down.

Skiers have any number of expressions when they’re skiing, but I think Steven has it about perfected: the megawatt smile. Further testing will determine if he skis that way through fresh snow too.

Our traverse out was pretty unremarkable. Back through the avie debris, and gluey conditions left us in tour mode with no skins, pushing our way down the hill. The trail is under there, somewhere.

We milked it over several dirt patches, and eventually walked the rest of the way down.  As we packed our stuff into the Subaru for the drive back to Whitefish, I slouched into the seat and thought about not much at all, which meant one thing: running around in these mountains can make me tired.

Thanks to Steven for his insight, jokes, base welding knowledge, holding my phone, and proper skiing attitude.

A Day With David

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.

Thanks to Reece, Jackson, and Jake for their camera work, and to Connor and Dan for skiing with us.

Lost it, and almost lost it

I’m a words guy. We get along. The grid thing on my phone camera helps my composition somewhat, but it’s easy to tell that writing comes easier than photos. Same goes for video, so forgive me if these first few (or, let’s be honest, all of them) end up being relatively useless.

But in an attempt to broaden the scope of this blog, I’m planning to do more regular, shorter content. And because crash footage is usually more interesting than people landing or skiing away from things, that’s where we’ll start: