Some people hum, some sing outright, and some of us just make unintelligible calls of joy.
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.
“I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.” – John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley
Through the middle of December, I received a number of vague warnings via text message–many of my friends were thinking of making the trip to Whitefish to ski. Given that they and I generally operate on a very loose timetable on looser plans, I waited. Lo and behold, one of my buddies and former college roommate, Chris, made the trek from Washington. He’d recently picked up a split board, and with his usual gusto, was in the process of figuring it out.
The morning after he pulled in, we took off for a day tour up by Marion Lake. Situated above Essex in the Middle Fork corridor with treed, protected aspects, it seemed a good place to find soft snow that hadn’t been nuked by recent warming.
Heat wasn’t an issue. From the train tracks onward, we spent most of our day in the chilly shade. Frost from our breath condensed on everything loose, leaving us looking a bit better than usual.
Marion Lake hangs in a nice valley with fun skiing on either side. Some advice sent us up the south side, or the north side of Essex Mountain. An opening filled with alder benches and framed by spaced trees seemed the best option. What started as a few inches on the access trail was somewhere around 6-8″of smokey fluff, and I was psyched to pillage.
Our skin track proved to be a bit hectic, so sorry if you tried to follow it. Benchy, steep trees made for a few difficult spots. The cold wasn’t treating Chris’ Washington thermostat too well, so he wins the award for putting up with numb hands and feet.
Getting to the ridge meant warming up in the sun we hadn’t seen for a few hours. At the end of it, I spotted a knob with an unobstructed view. On the way over, Chris jumped off a little stump, only to faceplant jacket-less into the fluff. Didn’t snap a picture.
Our lunch spot.
It was hard to know at this point, but we’ve been really lucky here in northwest Montana this winter. Lots of folks are looking at much less snow, so even an average snowpack riddled with persistent weak layers is a blessing to count. Add to that a sunny day with pow to pillage, and things were looking gorgeous.
Really, it hadn’t warmed up much in the sun. Even after scarfing some bars and a bit of bread and cheese, I was full but getting cold. We headed back to the glade, and proceeded to take three laps on our bizarre snowpack. Here’s why:
I’d worried that my skis might be a bit narrow, but the snow was of the hero variety. Anywhere from 6-10″ of blissfully downy glory that liked to slough, and also hit us in the face. Though some other folks hit up the other side, we had that part of the valley all to ourselves. Atop our last lap, I stopped for a few more shots.
Every year about this time, folks talk about New Year’s Resolutions. Taking a flip in the calendar as a chance to start over, to start new, to do something different on this go round. It strikes me as strange to pick the new year–we all know our problems, most way too well. For me, I’ve been juggling too many things, and dropping most of them. Inspiration is the boot to the ass that motivates change, and staring at peaks in the alpinglow always does it for me. That moment, right before dropping in, cold and hungry, all the downhill below in the gathering evening, is clarity. Significance takes proper alignment in the scale of the mountains.
The trail out proved dark, icy, and a wild ride. I chased Chris through the trees on skis that barely fit between the trunks. Some skating on the XC trails, and we were back at the bridge over the tracks.
Chris spent what I hope was a comfortable night on an inflatable mattress, and the next morning, we headed to Whitefish Mountain Resort to see if we could find more pow. New runs cut below Flower Point have prompted the resort to run Tbar 2 more frequently, so we managed four laps of Tbar, ski to the backcountry gate, hike up, drop in, hike up, traverse to Chair 7, ski to the Tbar. Though the snow had been deep at Marion, it came down all afternoon, and we did ourselves some swimming.
For those curious, I spent both active days in Polartec’s Neoshell (as featured in the Centurion jacket/Arc Light pant), and as I’ve mentioned, the breathability is nearly shocking. The boot packing laps on day two would have been unbearable in something that kept more in. Thanks Mountain Equipment.
While we’d been pillaging, my car had found some snow too.
When I first met Chris nearly seven years ago, he was a snowboarder who tried hard and spent a lot of time sliding down on his outerwear, not his board. Since, he’s turned into a ripper worthy of some serious chasing. We may argue like an old, married couple, but that’s just the friction of being quite similar. There’s only so many people on Earth that are friend enough to go on my silly adventures; it was an honor to have him out. Thanks again for the photos and company, buddy.
With a few more projects to finish before the lifts open, it’s been a busy few weeks of interior painting. Stepping out into this chilly high pressure system for a break means grabbing my jacket. Such sunshine demands exploration, and Friday saw a flurry of texts and messages bouncing around amongst the touring crew.
Dave Boye and I left town around 7:30am. The night before, Dave left work early to check out conditions in the Whitefish Range, and our plan was to ski Diamond Peak—if we could get there. The road leading out of Olney for most of the winter is buried deep enough that only snowmobiles can travel. With the snow pack so low in the valley bottom, we’d be able to drive a fair piece in. That ended up as a tree across the road just before the ten mile mark.
Our plan had been to get further—a bit closer to the base of Diamond. The tree, though, meant only snowmobiles were going past, which meant the snow wasn’t packed enough for Dave’s tires. And that we were skinning from there.
Bailing from our original plan, we headed up the clearcut to gain the ridge and take stock of what we’d be able to make happen. The snowpack went from lightly crusted to heavy crust to “oh, yeah, that’s nice” as we approached the alpine. During a snack break, a by standing tree committed “unsportsmanlike conduct” by unloading a bit of snow right next to me—after we’d been there for several minutes.
Every year, the future seems to get lighter and faster. Which is cool, and it’s neat to see folks knocking down speed records and moving more minimally in the mountains. However, the inevitable benefit of this direction goes towards people who are, by their body chemistry, habits, and nature, light and fast. These are the narrow footed folks graced by perpetual metabolism and an impressive lack of sweat glands, if they have them at all. It’d certainly be nice to be one of them, but I’m endowed with a decidedly American physique. That sweats. That gets hot. That doesn’t fit well into anything skinny. That has legs that can ski moguls, and make dynos, and lift heavy objects and stuff. That can take a beating. Really, mine is a body for things like linebacking. So when I chase my scrawny, sweat-less friends up mountains and skin tracks, it’s easy to see why Dave picked up the nickname “The Diesel Engine.” We take a bit to warm up, hit lower gears on the hills, run efficiently as long as we don’t stop too much, and can go all day at our unspritely pace. We won’t ever be light, and if it’s fast, it’s sweaty. We won’t be breaking speed records, but I hope our efforts don’t become shed in the search for fewer grams, because we have just as much fun—and fun doesn’t weigh anything.
The ridge up took some navigating around cornice and drifts, but what a place to be. Glacier Park and Canada stretched out along the eastern horizon, with worthy ski goals filling each valley and face near at hand. Such weather doesn’t grace us often during the winter. Usually, it’s the rime and fog that make the famous snow ghosts (ice and snow encrusted pines that dot the treeline) holding court in the marketing brochures. Instead, we had visibility, sun, and shaded pow to ski.
Choosing a line in the cupped drainage to the north of the summit, we dropped in for about 2K of dense pow. Massive settlement cones and cracking evidenced change, and we moved into the open a bit more as our confidence in the snowpack increased.
Our line led to the bottom of a slide path, with a protected ridge as the route back up. Dave and I took turns breaking in the track, cutting through wind buff and buttery snow.
Arriving on the summit, we had another chance to soak up the splendor.
Things were starting to warm up, so we picked a fully northern aspect rolling off a wide spine into the top of the path.
Heading out took us into a ravine, and then onto the Hanes Pass trail. Hopping (and in one case limboing) downed logs and refrozen crust, that lead down to the access road. A couple miles and one skated hill later, the truck appeared around a bend.
As I mentioned before, we wouldn’t have been able to get here if the road wasn’t plowed for logging operations. Snowmobiles passed us, heading the other way as we drove back to Olney. The tree wasn’t an issue for skiers, but I’m sure we made life easier for sledders this winter. Diverse uses, all managing to coexist and function together. Everyone finding what they need in the mountains–loud, light, or heavy.
Many thanks to Dave Boye for scouting, driving, and being a badass. Check out his blog.
All through the summer and fall, the pursuit of snow in northwest Montana inevitably involves some treks to get to the remaining bits of winter. So when the snow that graces the very tops of the peaks defining the Flathead Valley comes all the way to my Whitefish doorstep, it’s a whole new feeling.
This past week saw the first real snow down low, as evidenced by a garbage truck sideways across two lanes on my morning commute. On Sunday, Greg Fortin of Glacier Adventure Guides and I headed up to Big Mountain.
Piling ski gear atop the compressors and construction tools in the back of his truck, we talked about how much we might find. How far we might walk. Whether anything would be worth skiing.
After a bit of booting through a couple thin inches, we switched to skins. Nearly eight inches blanketed the hill below the summit. We agreed that we’d be able to ski something.
A couple of laps on the backside ensued. Knowing the hill as well as we do from skiing it during the lift season, a couple deep pockets with minimal rocks sounded the second day of powder yells this season. Taking some roads and skiing over some grass, we managed to ski all the way back to the truck.
Monday morning came, and with it the painting grind. The words of Jason, the guy I’d chased on Logan Pass two weekends prior, echoed in my head: “I do a lot of my skiing by headlamp.” So when Collin texted me later, I told him to find his, grab his gear, and we’d get up there after work.
Five pm signaled the end of our work day. After nine hours of painting, I shed duck canvas for Neoshell, met Collin, and we parked in nearly the same spot as before.
Twenty minutes in, the eyes of a deer glowed in the trees. With nearly four more inches, it looked like we were in for a good time. Steam rose from our mouths and base layers to hang etherial in the lamp beams.
Fog of a larger sort, i.e. the cloud dropping light snow on us, shrouded the upper mountain. Lights from the base area and valley below didn’t penetrate. As we neared the summit, the top terminal of Chair 1 cast light through its upper windows. We’d been abducted by the nighttime pow aliens, only to find ourselves here, atop our local ski hill, with a can of Cold Smoke to enjoy before dropping in. With goggles and headlamps, we even looked otherworldly.
Again, our knowledge of the hill in daylight with a full snowpack helped us. The upper mountain was wonderful until the ratio of snow to grass swung more towards the latter.
Near the lower sections, where Greg and I had booted up the day before, the skiing looked like a hayfield. Grass necessitated jump turns, as it grabbed our skis and kept us from really, well, skiing. Combined with the short beam of our headlamps, it made the whole thing pretty comical.
Such is the beginning of the season, though. Skiing grass and rocks now makes dodging alders fun in December. A deeper snowpack makes airing over the same alders fun in February. And as I sit on a sunny porch in California sandal weather, I can’t wait to get back.
Thanks to Greg and Collin for sharing the madness.
Perhaps the greatest danger of ditching me at the bar for the company of some lady is that the experience will end up starting a blog post. Which is to say, not much danger. Normally, I would say bravo. Though if the plan is to leave early the next morning to get in the mountains, and especially to ski, it’s more than average disappointment. I’ll omit his name to avoid shame (unlikely) or swelling his ego (possible).
Which is exactly what happened last Friday after the Valhalla premiere in Missoula. Waking up on his couch, a once promising early start became breakfast at 10. Then heading back to Kalispell by noon. The tail end of the sinking feeling that started on his couch washed through–that the day was shot for big stuff. Certainly skiing.
Furthermore, the road status that would have allowed easy access to skiing showed closure nearly fifteen miles below the fresh fluff. So I wrote it off, went for a quick hike, and then a housewarming shindig. Where I realized that everyone was headed for a good time at the bars. So I said goodnight and planned to head up alone the next morning.
My initial plan was to take the trail to Comeau Pass, and ski above it. That would have meant an 18 mile, 5500ft day minimum, and I wasn’t too jazzed to be doing it solo. Passing into the freshly reopened gates of Glacier National Park, it felt good to be headed back in. But the road was open much further than I’d anticipated–talking with the ranger in the entrance cubicle, it was closed a few miles short of Logan Pass.
So I switched my plan. The gradual advance of winter and plowing in the spring close the Going To The Sun highway to vehicle traffic to certain points that have the parking, but beyond the gate it’s usually open a few miles for walking/biking travel. My bike was at home in the garage, as I figured the road was closed lower down. So it all went on the pack at Big Bend and I took to the asphalt.
While walking, a couple guys I’d seen strapping skis to their bikes pedaled past to remind me of being unprepared. I caught up with them just as they’d about finished their transition from cycles to skis, introductions were made, and we planned to meet up higher if I caught them again. They skinned off while I put on my ski boots for the first time since August.
There’s something to the rhythm in active sports. Runners, walkers, kayakers, cyclists–everyone who does the repetitive motions involved can feel when they have hit that pace. That vibration that sounds on key within their own sounding board. For me, it’s ski touring. Each stride, plant of a pole at that pace that I can keep up all day. It’s as comfortable as walking, as natural as if it was the first thing I learned to do. And all this floods back in even the first few strides up the road. After going past the visitor center, I caught up with the bikers and we headed up to the moraines below Mt. Clements.
Dan on edgeless cross country skis.
Jason and I plotting. We skinned up to the base of the peak and did two laps on a short, north facing slope. Not more than 500-600ft, but a few inches of fresh atop a bomber base meant great turns. Hoots and hollers echoed around the little cirque.
Looking down from where we ripped our skins.
Looking for another slope with perhaps a bit more vertical, we headed over to Hidden Bluffs. Perhaps it’s skiers eye, but these peaks are always prettier in the winter.
Finding less coverage, we found Dan near the bottom and headed back over for another lap in the same slope.
Skiing back to where they’d left their bikes and I my shoes was maybe twenty well spent minutes. They took off, and I skied as far as I could on the small bits of snow on the side of the road. Once the little ribbon had melted into the pavement, it was time to switch back and drink the rest of my thermos.
As they say, there’s not a bad seat in the house. A few folks on a walk mistook me for a Canadian via my accent. Everything back in the pack, I got back to my car to see the driver’s side door transformed to a message board.
Evidently, my buddy Mitch, who climbed Mt. Merritt with us in August, had been by. Which brought me back to the community that uses these places, that loves them and believes in them, that goes to bars, that sometimes gets up early, that meets other folks at the trailhead and goes skiing with them. What an honor to get to spend time in these places, with these people. Even when all the plans go to hell at the bar. Even when skiing is on the line.
Thanks to Jason and Dan for a solid day. Thanks to Dan for his photos. Thanks to (unnamed) for going home with her.