Taking it back at Blacktail

Two weeks ago, just before I left for Japan, ten inches of new snow fell at Big Mountain. I’d committed the night before to go tour Blacktail with the Spirit Bear and company, yet the texts rolled in. Suggestions to go shoot with Craig, who I’d wanted to shoot with for a couple weeks. I did the considering. Thought about it. And then a part of me that’s trying to hold my planning commitments spoke up. I thanked him, politely declined, and walked the couple blocks to meet the crew headed south. Away from the new forecast. Away from the assured pow, and lift access.

The backseat of the Rav4 was stuffed with Jen, Katie, and Rebecca, while Ben drove. Unplowed tracks of trucks and other vehicles grew steadily deeper as we wound up the curves of the road climbing out of Lakeside. Summer tired spun and slid on the corners, and we did discuss harnessing up the four of us skinning passengers to pull the car like a sled dog team.

It didn’t come to that. We pulled into the top lot to find a whole pile of cars in six to ten inches of new snow. Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol was out doing training, which meant that only a few people were out actually skiing. Six to eight inches of new snow covered the road past the gate as we booted up to the lodge, met up with Mike and Katie, and dropped in on our first run beneath the lifts that hadn’t started spinning for the season.

Ski areas and ski resorts both have lifts, a lodge or two, a ski school. The skiing might be similar, but the focus is different: resorts are about expansion and growth, whereas areas like Blacktail are concerned with maintaining the ski experience for their customers. There’s room for both in the skiing universe, but the soul of skiing, in its pure, ecstatic form, rests in the ski area. It is there that an average family can afford to go skiing. It is at places like Blacktail that the chairs and the pace are slow enough, the prices low enough, for skiing to still be the main event, not just a piece of the whole money-making puzzle.

I’m biased, of course. My grandparents, during my sixth grade year, put Blacktail season passes under the family Christmas tree. Skiing had been a few weekends per year kind of thing, with an annual family ski trip (lucky kids we were), but the pass meant that we could go up whenever. It was a second beginning to my ski life. Every weekend was now fair game. Blacktail was the perfect place; small enough to cut kids loose to go ski, a lodge at the top for lunch, plenty of intermediate terrain with a few scary cliffs to aspire to. Friendly faces that we’d see every week in ski lessons or at the bottom, bumping chairs.

Three seasons went by at Blacktail, all founded on that simple, brilliant idea of the ski pass under the Christmas tree. While I passed through the seven-circled, adolescent-change gauntlet of middle school, the hill stayed much the same. The jumps seemed smaller as my ideas got bigger, my skiing faster. Blacktail began to feel provincial and small. I frequently looked north across the valley at the inviting steeps, fast lifts, and resort vertical of Big Mountain. My dad seemed to sense that my skiing was headed in a new direction, and to support that, he suggested that I try out the Freestyle Team up north. My ninth grade year saw a Big Mountain season pass in my jacket pocket, which would continue through high school and college. I hardly looked back.

Yet as I dropped in behind Ben just over a week ago, blasting down the familiar terrain through fluffy, boottop pow, much of what had once been came rushing back. I could remember the straight ski rentals I’d once skied down the same liftline. How the off-camber glade constantly felt like longer lefts, short rights. The joys of thousands of my life’s powder turns were instigated by the acres rushing by under my skis—that’s a powerful current to ride again.

And in a way, the sense of community was there too: we ran into our friends Jason and Lindsay at the bottom. All nine of us made the transition, then went fairly flying back up the skin track towards the top of the Thunderhead lift. Then we did it again. And again. We saw Brian Kennedy  and his wife. Then, we moved over to the Crystal chair for a few laps. The sun was out. Stoke was high. I skied through memories as deep as the snow left swirling behind us, glittering in the low-hanging, afternoon sun.

Blacktail, as a place and terrain, had been fairly bland when I left it before. The few visits since were focused on skiing with specific people. But through the lens of one day of touring, it had regained much of the soul, the excitement that it had once held for me. My most recent post covered how moving away from solely lift-accessed skiing has changed my mindset towards the early season. This sense of rediscovery at Blacktail is the other side of that coin, and it’s a powerful argument: adding the uphill to the mix means other variables aren’t as important. In the new light of going uphill, the terrain I’d once discounted for being bland was suddenly worthwhile again. Ski touring opens doors to gnarlier terrain, but it also reinvented the flats for me.

Thanks to Ben, Jen, Katie, Rebecca, Mike, Katie, Jason, Lindsay, and Brian for being part of that wonderful day. And for those wondering, I’ve got a Japan update coming in hot.

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Diversion: on limits and an old, white van

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Back when I was in high school (in 2006), our local ski hill announced they were opening a day earlier than planned. This would have been heartening news, but it was a Friday. Which meant school. Luckily, my parents gave me permission to take, in my mom’s words, a “mental health day” off so that I could be there. Parking my minivan in the nearest lot the night before and getting up at 5:30am to line up for first chair was my natural reaction. Once up top, with not a single skier in front of me, I vividly remember how the drifts were so deep as to flip me over as I dropped into the backside, howling with joy.

Thankfully, the local newspaper photographer recorded the moments just before that first chair went uphill. Maybe it’s that we were so excited. Maybe the stoke carried through. If so, it was enough to land my friends and I on the front page of the Saturday edition. More than one of my teachers called me out when we trooped in for class on Monday—and most of them knew that things that make smiles like the ones the paper captured are worth ditching some of life’s responsibilities.

At least a small bit of the joy captured in those photos came from the fact that I was, in fact, not at my desk at school. And for those who come from a lift-served ski background, uphill skiing can be a similarly liberating feeling. Snow and partners have become my main questions, instead of waiting for opening day, spinning bullwheels, and purchasing passes or parking. An impressive widening of the ski “season” has resulted. It’s like knowing just one country only to realize that there’s a whole globe of other possibilities to play. Anything with enough snow is fair game, with the attendant extra questions of safety, experience, and knowing where and when to go.

Yet, there’s something to anticipation created by limits. Waiting for gifts parked under a Christmas tree makes unwrapping them sweeter. Rough conditions and dry spells yield a serious euphoria when soft snow returns. Maybe appreciating those waits is part of growing up; I don’t know. But the night before the lifts spin still feels like Christmas Eve to me—all that pent up anticipation cresting. The morning comes, likes this past Saturday, and it’s a release of excitement. Listening to the snow phone. Seeing friends in the parking lot. Loading up on a chair that deposits me a long ways uphill only to swoosh and swish back down.

That I remember it now, almost a decade later, demonstrates how much that day meant to me. There’s a stark contrast too—I’d put in over two weeks on my skis, all of that touring, before I sat down on a lift this past weekend. Because I’m not limited by lifts, because I’m not waiting anymore, it doesn’t mean as much: the low crescendo of anticipation, the megawatt explosion of joy don’t have the volume they once did.

A recent read helped to elucidate that people (like me) who are more progressive in their politics tend to see less value in restrictions or rituals or traditions. Instead, we tend to opt for freedom, for good or ill. Ski touring has allowed me to sidestep the constraints placed on lift skiing life. It has opened up so many more avenues to enjoy, explore, and grow on my skis. Yet in that new freedom, I’ve lost some of the intensity created by the limits I abandoned. Maybe this is just a case of finding a new lens for a feeling I’ve known.

Regardless, I want to mark it for myself. It’s also worthy of a Diversion, for me, because it typifies a particular vein of thinking I’ve found useful in examining my own life and those of my peers: what is being given up to arrive at an achievement? People have to make choices, and the things that seem so desirable in the isolation of social media or our own overflowing wanderlust take a bit of tempering from the experience of understanding sacrifices made. For the freedom to ski whenever, I lost some of the joy the limits provided. That kid who slept in the van isn’t waiting anymore, but he has the occasional twinge of remembering how much more the simple joy weighed before he set it aside to walk uphill. 

Wherever you are: David Steele 14-15

Last week, I unveiled my latest season edit of skiing. Filmed in the Montana backcountry, on Cascade volcanoes, and in the terrain park at Stevens Pass, it’s a pretty good representation of how my skiing still bridges genres.

There’s a wealth of experience in not being just one type of skier. I hope that comes through. Major thanks to family, friends, partners, and especially the sponsors who keep me out there.

Jewel Basin in the rough: anticipating El Nino

For the snow obsessed in my life, the approach of winter offers yet another opportunity to delve into irrational speculation that’s only as deep as the snow we’d prefer to be shredding. Thus, the most predicable thing about the winter is the way that we lead up to it online: winter forecasts start circulating in August, followed by reposts of Farmer’s Almanac quotations and snow maps in September. Then the first winter storm heads for the west coast, and multiple snow news sources write stories about some obscene NOAA point forecast from some high  point (13,000 ft on Rainier) on one of the Cascade volcanoes. This happened at least twice this year, and I’d find it acceptable only if the person who writes these silly things braves the crevasse hazard and red flags of  124″ of new loading over three days to actually go up there and ski it.

October brings that first snow in the hills and the inevitable, undeniable truth of the ocean temperatures: we’re headed for another El Niño winter here in North America. And since this is the second winter in a row of potential Global Weirding in Montana, there’s been an accompanying conversation that I’ve heard in bars, casual chats, and early season skin tracks. It goes like this:

“Wow, El Niño again. Last winter was terrible man, except that one day. It was dry at the hill for, like, a month. Let’s hope this one is somehow better for us in our corner of the world.” I recently heard a skin track addendum: “Gotta get it now [in November] while it’s still good.”

In response, I’d like to offer a series of evidence-based rebuttals from a day of touring this past March 22. For context: things were sunny and pretty dang thin at the ski areas in northwest Montana. The bottom five hundred feet of Griz chair at Snowbowl was completely snow free under the lift. It was spring slush and people were probably playing golf. An early forecast had even called for rain.

Evidence-based rebuttal number one: don’t conclude that a winter is bad based on lift-accessed conditions.

It’s 2015, people. Backcountry skiing and boarding has blossomed into the full, geeky flower of possibility, while lift lines and gargantuan parking lots solidly show the current state of  your favorite in-bounds powder stash. If you’re looking to find good snow without tracks on it, I’d recommend channeling whatever energy was going into complaining about weather phenomenons into walking uphill.

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Fortunately, my friends are on the same page. That day in March, Dave, Gary, Brad and I loaded into the Black Diamond Mortgage alpine bus and rallied for Jewel Basin. It was downright cruchy while we put skins on and rallied up the road in the morning shadows. Suncrust beckoned. And:

Evidenced-based rebuttal number two: it’s not the snow that terrible; it’s the attitude of the people you’re skiing it with.

Brad, Gary, and Dave are terrific in this respect. It’s a decently long approach just to get into Camp Misery, and we had no idea of the conditions we might find up high. March in a more normal year might mean layer on layers of storm snow in the same places we were walking through. Instead, a thin skim of new snow covered the crunchy sun crust, evidence that it hadn’t been quite stormy up there.

Once on the ridge top, it got windy. My ski crampons were a nice addition, as the crust was relatively slippery and rolled away downhill to the west. Props to the rest of the guys for going without.

Walking the finish to the top of Mt. Aeneas, I wondered a bit about how the skiing would go. Sandwiches appeared, jokes were exchanged, and we decided to give the East face a whirl, hoping that the wind on the ridge had seen fit to match the crust with some dust to scuff around in.

Just before he dropped in, Dave wasn’t unhappy. Which brings me to my third evidence-based rebuttal: you don’t know until you get out there.

A few inches of cream filled in the face. Buttery, soft, glorious stuff. Skiing  that wasn’t perhaps the stuff of legends, but was seriously worthy. We wouldn’t have known it was there had we not gone. We certainly wouldn’t have found it. And after a series of very complimentary things said about the quality of the snow, and the sunshine beaming down, we went back up for more.

Self-righteous aphorisms about earning turns pop up enough in ski writing, even though they’ve been worn more threadbare than a rock-eaten pair of skins. Everyone has their reasons for being out there. Personally, I keep coming back to the same thing: it’s easy to complain about the winter from a chairlift seat. But if you don’t like what’s under your skis, or if Global Weirding has served up another barely recognizable weather pattern, then go explore. Follow weather, seek out aspects, use elevation to your advantage. There’s almost always good skiing to be had if you want to work for it.

After our second lap, we dropped down the chute just below the summit of Aeneas.It was not quite as nice as the east face had been.

Which is the evidence base for my fourth conclusion: skiers are happier when they learn to love hard snow. Don’t get me wrong: pow is great. Soft snow is wonderful. And it’s made all the sweeter by enjoying the hell out of wind scour, sastrugi, icy mank, sludge, suncups, moguls, chicken heads, and runnels. Diversity keeps ski skill up, keeps the challenge hard, and makes the good days feel even more amazing. The winter I worked as a cat skiing guide, skiing powder got a little blasé due to too much repetition. You don’t want that in your life. Dig out the hop turns and find the crunchy stuff to keep it lively. We certainly did in that chute.

It was the nice bit of doodling down the flats back to Picnic Lakes. Gary made some silky tele turns in front of me.

Then, we bumped back up to the ridge to find springtime. Sun had softened the crust we’d skied in the morning, leaving a nice bit of surface corn for the enjoying in Crown Bowl.

Our exit down the road took a while, and eventually we walked a bit, but the day had been ours. It hadn’t rained. We’d found fun skiing and good snow towards the end of a “terrible winter.” And as we wander forth in the coming months, having no idea what this El Niño will bring, I keep thinking back to these good times as a touchstone and motivation to keep getting out, skinning a little further, and reaping the rewards.

 

 

 

Volcanic Activity: Mt. Adams, superstition, and science

Note: all conditions described and depicted are current to April 18th, 2015.

Superstition and I have a suspect relationship. There seems to be enough evidence to suggest that it happens, and plays a small but important role in what happens to me outside, yet the science part of my head that uses terms like “evidence” scoffs at such notions. Even so, I had a nasty feeling that after writing about non-adventure, it might happen to me again relatively soon. The problem with that theory, though, is that you’d have to pick a minor, unimportant trip to waste the potential non-adventure on. And weather lately has been far more conducive to days of the epic variety. So as I got in the car and headed for Washington, the two sides of that decision coin rattling back and forth in my head.

Washington hasn’t had the best winter, as our time on Rainier back in March foreshadowed. Things are downright summer-y out here right now. Even so, that same time on Rainier got me inspired to do more volcano skiing. So here I am in Portland, taking rest days in between sleeping at trailheads and smearing my face with sunscreen.

The plan for Mt. Adams was simple: Rowen would drive down from Seattle, I’d roll in from Montana. We’d meet in the parking lot, and go from there. The permits and passes that Summitpost suggested I’d need weren’t actually required–goes to show that calling to verify with the local ranger district is always a good policy. But as I swung up the bumpy, super rutted road as evening faded into stars in a black sky, it dawned on me that not only was this road really bad, like really bad, but without cell reception, finding Rowen’s car might be a bit more difficult than I’d thought. Third gear moved to second, then crawling uphill in first around potholes big enough to bury somebody in. Superstition started to creep into the dark beyond the reach of my headlights on the ever steepening turns.

But as the saying goes, all midnight-dark-mud-trench roads end somewhere, and I got there about 9:30. My recollection was that Rowen drove a newish Cherokee after his old one burned up, so I wandered about with my headlamp looking for him. No dice. I made some lunch, prepped my gear, set the alarm for 4am, and dropped off to sleep in plain view of the road, thinking he was delayed.

Headlights woke me at midnight, and I was pretty sure it was a Jeep. Summoning the effort to get out of my bag was difficult. Even so, I wanted to plan for the morning. Walking up on the Jeep, the side windows were tinted such that I couldn’t see the face of the guy now sleeping in the drivers seat. I knocked on the door, and whoever it was stuck his head out in confusion to greet my immediate apology: “Oh geez, I’m sorry, I was looking for a buddy.”

Morning came, and I got my stuff together, leaving the trailhead by 5:30am. Part of the way up, I ran into a guy from Texas who was hiking his snowboard up with no poles. He planned to do St. Helens the next day. Got to give him credit for going at it, though I never saw him later in the day, so no idea if he made it onto the upper mountain. He told me that he was happy to run into me, as he wasn’t sure of the route. That made two of us, as I informed him that I didn’t know either. Then, later, I met a couple gents from the Seattle area who didn’t quite know where the Lunch Counter was–so that made four.

I wanted to wait on the summit for things to soften up–the wind had other plans, and sent me back down, skittering on the ice. Plenty of that in the video. Halfway down the upper face, I saw some pants I recognized. Rowen was maybe 2/3rds of the way up, and as it turned out, he’d been in the lot before I was the night previous. His new car had thrown me off too. But his boots were bothering him, and so we took off down into the slushy, nice, less-scrape-y lower levels. Overall, the ski was really quite fun and the view north to Rainier was a jaw dropper. Very worth all the wandering around in the dark. Best of all, the superstition about non-adventure didn’t hit on this trip, leaving me with just mis-adventure–and of course, I’m pretty used to that.

It’s worth noting that many of the climbs/skis/volcanic activities I’m doing on this trip aren’t very hard from a technical standpoint, but since I’m going places I haven’t before, these are about discovery, not unabashed and balls-to-the-wall gnar. There’s cool stuff to find here, and I plan to scout it and come back on a spring when the snow goes further down into the foothills–expect more about that when my St. Helens post goes up.

Thanks to Rowen for making the drive and forgiving me when I didn’t find him.

A tale of two parties: skiing Appistoki

There are places where the ski touring community tours elbow to elbow. They farm powder wiggle turns down whole mountain faces to maximize fresh snow. They deal with the safety and sanity issues caused by tons of backcountry users in one spot: folks leaving packed trailheads at 5:30am only to have helicopters drop clients above them.

I don’t live in one of those places. So this is yet another trip report from a remote, joyous day of backcountry skiing/ski mountaineering with a twist–a group that included some of my friends skied the same line the day prior. They had some issues that we didn’t. Most interestingly, I didn’t find out about it until after we got back.

The line is question is located in the Two Medicine section of Glacier National Park. Appistoki Peak offers a couple different descents, but the east face has two connected, broad faces with some thin middle cliffs to keep you honest. While not a dream line by my interest, Appistoki as a summit remained one of the few I haven’t been on in Two Medicine. It seemed reasonable to get in by bike, given that the east side of Glacier has seen such a spare winter. So like I do, I started watching schedules, weather, and hoping the two would align to get a window.

Weather didn’t quite cooperate. Well, that’s not fair–the forecasters didn’t seem to know what was going on, and though I’ve known this for a while, it didn’t quite ring through this time. A friend and I tried two days before: loaded our bikes, drove two hours to the east side, then found ice on the road and rerouted to another objective. The biggest take away from that day of sun patches and snow squalls was that the forecast was predictably irregular: there’d be a bit of everything, including windows of blue sky to move about in. So a day after, I got ahold of Ben, he said the road was clear, and I set off early the next morning.

True to what Ben had heard, the Two Medicine road was open all the way to Trick Falls. Such luck cut our bike commute down to only a mile and a half before we hit the Scenic Point trail–but not before seeing what we think was a lynx trotting down the road way ahead of us.

I don’t quite know why putting skis on bikes boggles peoples’ minds. Much like ski touring instead of hiking, it’s another way of making things way more efficient on a given day of playing outdoors. Maybe thinking like this only confirms how far gone I’ve gotten. Even more, what I typically do with friends here at home is nothing like the bonkers activities of Brody Leven’s Pedal To Peaks trip last year (Portland to Seattle while summiting and skiing St. Helens, Adams, and Rainier) or what Chris Bangs does, well, constantly on his fat bike.

Ben hits his hooves. Appistoki is above him.

Booting along through varying amounts of snow, we headed up the Scenic Point trail for a ways, then detoured off it to head up the valley towards Mt. Henry. I’m no East side expert–but there’s no question that there’s way less snow than usual. The ravine at the bottom of the valley was the only consistent skinning, so we dropped down there and made transition number two of the day into ski boots.

Walking with skis and ski boots on my pack is a fact of what I like to do. Most of my spring objectives will require this bizarre type of fun. Much like the bike, it’s way more efficient to ski tour than hike, so I relish the springtime options where the approach is covered. If my boots are on the ground in April, it’s a bad sign of things to come. Thankfully, the snow-filled ravine made for great skinning, and we made quick work of the walk into the upper basin.

There’s a thin line between ski touring and scrambling–I tried walking it here and had a little fall before I succeeded.

All this traversing took us below the line we’d be looking at, but with new snow and wind loading just a couple days previous, I wasn’t too keen on going up it. We saw some ski tracks emptying into the snow ravine, but couldn’t see the upper line due to flat light. Our route passed way around to the saddle of the ridge between Appistoki and Mt. Henry.

Though when we arrived there, the promised vista was hiding behind a thick veil of fog and snow squalls. Thinking we’d have no interest in skiing, we stashed our skis and continued up to tag the summit. Gaining the false summit, it was clear that it was, well, clearing out just fine and we’d been fools to leave our skis behind.

Our descent to the top of the line revealed to us what Ben had thought earlier: the skin marks and ski tracks lead up the line we’d wanted to ski. Tight hash marks descended from a break in the cornice, moved through the cliff bands, then cut through the zig zag of the skin track they’d used to get up the face. A pile of avalanche debris was stacked up on the skier’s left of the lower apron, the result of what looked like a point release slide. I remember thinking, “The face probably cooked more yesterday. But we’re way back here, and somebody else skied this. What are the chances?” Sun shown down, and we started poking around in the snow below the cornice to see if the wind slab had filled in. A hasty pit later, and I wasn’t super sure what I thought. Ben and I headed up to the summit to eat some sandwich and think about it.

Looking back towards the false summit.

Given what I’d seen, and thinking about it, we decided to walk back down and grab our skis. To give it a shot. Here’s Ben as we came back up:

Skis on, I knocked off about fifteen feet of chunky cornice blocks to see if the wind pillow at the top of the chute would react. Tiny pockets came out, but there didn’t seem to be much cohesion, and I felt better about the upper slope. We agreed on a safe waiting spot, Ben saddled up, and dropped in.


The middle cliffs made for a few seconds of no visibility, which worried me, but with no safe spot to stop above them, Ben made good moves down and he arced out onto the lower apron. A little yodel of joy floated up to me, and it was my turn.


Somewhere between 6-8″ of new snow was bonded to the older crust underneath. On hard turns, I’d scrape, but once in the apron, it was simply glorious. I did some yodeling of my own as I met Ben at his perch.

Things weren’t quite as primo further down, but the exit ramp still made for fast, slushy turns. At the bottom, Ben told me that the line had been really high on his wish list for quite a while–bonus points there. The summit seemed like a pretty lame accomplishment compared with the great ski we’d had. Another quick jaunt to the bottom followed, and we refueled and counted our options, still aglow with the neat line.

Just above our stopping spot, a line the locals call Y Chutes headed up the other side of the valley from Appistoki. Skipping the nap that sounded nice, we headed up there, cutting a nice zigzag that started in slush and ended in some of the most variable skiing I’ve done in a while. It was a neat spot to practice a skis on transition without any sort of kick turning, being not very scary, but certainly something I want to get better at for other places.

After that, we headed back down the snow ravine, transitioned, and started the walk out. Appistoki opened as a sort of curtain as we skied down the valley, progressively revealing the snow clad upper slopes and giant bulk that is Rising Wolf mountain (behind Ben in third photo below). Upper center of the first photo shows the top of the Y Chutes.

Back at the bikes, I took a couple minutes to load up my skis and boots the way I’ll want to for longer rides later this spring. Aligning the bindings on the top tube to allow freedom to pedal takes a little fiddling, but with some ski straps, it’s not too hard to hold them on there. The booster strap of your boot works well to secure the cuff to the back rack, and some rope threaded around the uppers holds them fast. It’s possible to layer the pack on top of all of this, but given the short ride out, it wasn’t an issue.

Driving out to East Glacier, I reflected on how awesome the day had been. Good weather, safe route finding, and plenty of skiing with some pow as a cherry on top. But once back in cell reception, I casually checked my emails. The Flathead Avalanche advisory was in there, so I clicked on it, and found my jaw hanging open. Near the top, I read: “On Friday, two skiers were caught in a cornice triggered, loose snow avalanche on Appistoki Peak in Glacier National Park.”

Essentially, a group of five skinned and booted up the same face, same line we skied. While three of the party were on top, a natural cornice collapse near the false summit entrained loose snow and swept the other two, who were still on the face, about 200ft through a series of small cliffs. Then, when the three on top went to drop in, they triggered a small wind slab during a ski cut.

“Whoa. Friday. So yesterday. So the tracks we saw were that party. So the avie debris we saw carried people down the cliffs we flashed through. Maybe we made the wrong calls and got lucky?” The whole day flashed back through my head, every decision taking on a new cast in the light of the observation . I hadn’t thought to check the advisory before we left, as Two Medicine is outside the forecast area, otherwise the day would have started off on a very different note–so much so that I probably would have canned the trip for another objective.

Coming away, it serves to highlight the variability that happens over only perhaps 24 hours in the alpine: the cornices we dropped didn’t yield anything like the wind slab that broke on the prior party. We’d taken a long route to get there, but doing so lessened the possibility of being in the path of the cornice fall slide that hit the other other group. Even more, the events of the observation took on a much more real cast: these were friends of mine. It brought the situation home. There’s such a wide range of possibilities out there, and when so many good days stack up, the vicious feedback of avalanche terrain can make you feel like you’ve been nailing the decisions. There’s such a delicate balance between poking holes in human factors and cultivating courage to send when the conditions are right; I find it hard to square the two easily. For me, it’s another reminder that we’re fragile casings of soft flesh playing in a cold world of steep snow, ice, and rocks–respect isn’t optional, and doing our best to debrief our decisions is the only way to move confidently AND safely forward.

Thanks to Ben for his great company, hospitality, and photos. Thanks to the other party (let me know if you want to be recognized by name) for submitting the observation and letting us know.

Right on, Rainier: a ski jaunt up and down the Fuhrer Finger

NOTE: All photos/videos current to route conditions as of March 5/6, 2015.

Unfolding on layers of rock, or ice, or the accumulated winters of a snowfield, geology and weather can be so patient. On their own time scale, they’re moving right along. But on ours, they fairly stand still, and following their slow lead informs a safer mindset: the mountain isn’t going anywhere. We can come back. There’s nothing wrong with stepping down, turning back, making the harder choice.

The truth, though, is that when something catches my notice, or lodges itself in the folds of my brain, that patience is tested. It’s hard to pick good conditions, good people, plan well, and not succeed on an objective. The thought of turning back when many things have aligned can be burdensome. Worse, it’s the feeling of work not yet done on a big goal that eats at me. Such have been the past couple years on Mt. Rainier. I’ve written about those climbs, both our attempt on the Finger in 2013, and our group attempt via the DC last summer.

The net result of both was that I learned quite a bit, but hadn’t been anywhere near the summit. So for this spring, I’d put that goal pretty high on my list. May or June seemed like the time to do it–until a couple weeks ago, when it occurred to me that with the vicious cycle they’ve been having, a March attempt might make some sense. March might be the new May, to quote a local friend.   Of course, the trip wouldn’t have been possible without partners. Blake Votilla was heading to Rainier to interview for a guiding job with RMI (which he now has–congrats!), so we shuffled dates, brought Miles and Mike on board, and hoped to meet up around 9am Thursday.

Late on Wednesday afternoon, I loaded up and headed on out from Kalispell. The drive was most interesting going over White Pass. Snow guns with lights trained into their tubes of snow made for a remarkable sight in the dark. A kind lady helped me with directions to the Skate Creek Road at 1:30am. Just an hour later, I pulled into Ashford, shuffled gear, and fell asleep. Six hours later, Blake, who must have been out on a walk, casually strolled by. We chatted while I packed, discussed a couple things, and headed into the park to find Miles and Mike. After half an hour of waiting for them in the Longmire parking lot, we realized they were in the ranger station–waiting for us. Our permit secured, we headed back out to organize. Then Miles walked up to the group: “Turns out there’s going to be another group on the Finger. The best part is that my ex-girlfriend is in it.” This set off all kinds of speculation about camp that night, though we’d later realize that the other party wasn’t planning to camp anywhere near us. Everything went into two vehicles for the trip up to Paradise. We reorganized, and were off to a great alpine start of almost exactly noon. Looking out across, with the red line indicating our route. Things went smoothly. We dropped off the main trail near the base of Pan Point, traversed over a moraine, and roped up to cross the lower Nisqually and Wilson Glaciers en route to camp. Blake and Miles took one 30m, with Mike and I behind. Perhaps the biggest thing that I notice every time I’m on Rainier is exactly that: it’s big. The scale is way off for most of the mountain environments I’ve played in. For reference, compare the route picture above. The first line covers about 4000ft feet of gain, while the second is over 5000ft. Another angle on the vastness, of Mike and me: We found things more cracked out than we expected. Paradise, and I assume the mountain at large, has seen only a fraction of its yearly snow, and I remember fewer detours around broken areas from our April trip two years back. Other than that, some fresh snow from a few days prior make for easy skinning. We made it to camp at around 9200’with daylight to spare, and only a little bit of treacherous ice. Mike and Miles sidle in. Citing the good weather, we took a Megamid just in case, but never needed it. A wind drift below a massive rock offered a nice floor and room for bunks. As I’m demonstrating, it’s important to check the softness of your mattress in these wild climes. Once settled, we melted a preposterous amount of snow to rehydrate. Its amazing how much water you go through at elevation, with a medium sized pack, trying to make good time. Past trips haven’t seen me succeeding at drinking enough, and paying a price performance wise. Then, Miles pulled a small deli’s worth of veggies, cheese, and sauce out of his pack, and cooked some incredibly delicious backcountry pizzas. The secret seems to lie in a just add water crust, mixed in a ziplock and then squeezed out to cook in a pan. Rich eating, that’s for sure. Very tasty. Though our kitchen and dining room was nice, I wanted more counter space for making sandwiches. Snow walls make for easy remodels. Somewhere in there, we all bedded down in the alcove, passing off to dreamland. The moon was bright and further across the sky every time I woke up. Then the alarm jangled out of my watch at 3am, and we were up again. We took forever to get out of camp, mostly because we really hit the water hard. I’ll take the blame there. 5:30 saw us skinning across the glacier, ski crampons crunching into the refrozen surface. Navigation happened at the length of a headlamp, and it was strange to watch the beams of Miles and Blake searching the mounds of snow and ice ahead of us for the route across the basin and into the bottom of the finger. Above us, ice and snow hung and loomed in the dark. On my end of the rope, I felt pretty dang small there, just moving forward across the snow in the direction we knew the Finger’s couloir to be, the rope to Mike tugging behind me. Eventually, light came and we began to angle up into the couloir. I dropped the rope to Mike, and continued up. Ski crampons would bite in, then sometimes slide. Switching to crampons would be more secure as our feet punched in through the thin surface of crust, but then we’d lose the efficiency of out skins. The angle forced our hands (or maybe more appropriately, our feet) as the sky began to go those pastel colors you see on Lisa Frank pony coloring books. Here, Mike chews on a ski strap to keep his energy up. Leader shot from Blake, the rest of us chugging along behind him: We had to high side on climbers left to avoid cracks radiating off the Nisqually Icefall towards the upper part of the Finger. There wasn’t enough snow, to our eyes, to allow a glacier traverse. This meant a steep pitch to that top that we belayed up to avoid a roped tumble into the open crevasses below. It’s worth noting that we couldn’t see a good line for a traverse into
the Nisqually, though I know that’s sometimes good route finding, as when Wildsnow did it.
Once there, we found our way across a little pass and onto the summit glaciers. Things were starting to slow down in our rope team. Water and exhaustion were taking their toll as we strolled upwards. Mike takes it in. The Finger proper is down and to the left. Rainier so dwarfs any of the foothills around it that it doesn’t have the feel of Mt. Baker, the other stratovolcano I’ve climbed. Plus, because the base is so broad, the upper reaches feel more like a big plateau than the top of an individual mountain. It goes on, and on, and on. The scale constantly messed with my head. Maybe five hundred feet above where the last picture was taken, Mike had had enough. He’d pushed super hard, but was exhausted. It was smart for him to stop and save his energy for the trip down. With the emergency sleeping bag in my pack, he could bundle up and wait. The weather seemed fine. Part of me wanted to call it off and wait for him, but I’ll be honest–the part of me that wanted to finish what the two trips previous hadn’t done was really strong. I wanted to make the summit. With his urging, I tied in with Blake and Miles to finish the last 700ft or so to the top. Rope snagging on wind sharpened sastrugi, we fairly flew up the last bit of glacier to find the summit decorated with small plates of ice and a bitingly cold wind. I would have liked to hang out, but the wind was fierce. Plus, Mike was waiting. Plus, the gate to Paradise would close and lock at 5pm. It was just after 1pm. We’d need a nearly record setting pace on feet to make it in time. Of course, we weren’t on feet for the 9000ft we were about to descend. We had skis. It was rattley, chattery, and strange. We crossed snow bridges, dodged sastrugi, and made scrapey turns down big panes of wind affected snow. Mike was awakened from his nap by our hollers of glee. Once the whole band was back together, we took off again.

Arriving at the lower part of the Nisqually, we skinned back up to join the main trail. Miles, Mike, and I forwent our shirts for the last bit to Paradise. Whippets and ripped abs, I tell ya…

Thanks to Blake, Miles, and Mike for a terrific trip. Thanks also to Blake for photos.

Headlamp backflips and other nighttime phenomena

Back toward the beginning of January, I went on a four day, three night film trip for Epic Montana to Yurtski, a six person shack of coziness on the southern edge of the Swan Range. We were met with wonderful hospitality by the hosts at Yurtski. Our group of four skiers (Brody Leven, KT Miller, Rachel Delacour, myself) and two filmers (Bobby Jahrig and Tyler Swank) made for an outstanding team, accomplishing quite a lot of safe skiing during a massive storm and the warmup afterward.

An edit from the trip is forthcoming soon, but I wanted to use a post to talk about my mindset and the nighttime shenanigans it lead to.

Film trips are first and foremost a group of skiers and filmers working together towards a common goal of the final product. Add that to the reality that backcountry skiing is complicated enough without the logistical hurdles posed by trying to film it all. Money and time are spent to get everyone there, keep them happy, and produce something worthwhile. In our case, folks drove from Salt Lake City and Seattle to be there. The trip was an opportunity to gather footage not only for the edit, but also whatever film projects come from my whole season of skiing. The stars of making good content align for a brief period, and all of this engenders pressure to perform well.

I’ve driven away from too many shoots feeling like there was more that I could have done, or a trick I should have tried a couple more times, or some other aspect of effort that could have yielded a better product. So in heading to Yurtski, I felt duty bound to drop the hammer as much as conditions and the crew would allow. We found stability in our pits and during the day, communicated well, and managed the avalanche hazards as a group. So with fresh snow, I found myself at the end of our first day wondering about going out for a night ski.

Headlamps are one thing. But fully lighting up the skiing enough to see it well on camera would need a bit more. Tyler provided the perfect solution in a 125 LED array box designed to be mounted the hot shoe of a camera. We rigged it to attach to a tripod, put it atop a selfie stick, and then rigged the whole thing to the back of my helmet with voile straps.

That first night, I toured up and skied a couple laps down to the yurt. The next evening, the whole crew got in the act, and we did some party skiing through a couple neat areas. We all traded the helmet around–here’s KT digging in.

The next day, we woke to clear weather and sendy conditions. Our first lap went fine, and as I was hustling back to the top, a backflip on my mind, when the whole face started to roller ball. It was a bummer, but the warming conditions meant increased stress on the storm snow, and it wasn’t anything to mess with. The day went out with nothing upside down happening.  Dinner came and went, and while sitting at the table stuffed with delicious pasta, I realized that it was probably that night or not again on the trip. Thoughts of the moment and regret I’d feel later flashed through, so on went my boots, and I headed out to find a spot. The landing was zipper crust. The transition was so tight that my skis held me in the air while standing in it. The lip would probably hold. And once the jump was built, I came back to the yurt, the filmers rallied, and we headed back out.

On my first hit, I straight aired to give Tyler and Bobby a sense of where the light would be. Once skinned back up, I dropped in and gave the flip a try, only to underrotate, catch my feet in the pow, and flip forward. On their cameras, the light of my lamp disappeared as I rolled only to pop back up. The second try was the same, and I cursed in snow caked frustration.

Because the lamp lit what was ahead of me, it didn’t extend to the uppermost horizon of my vision–the part most important for seeing the snow surface and then reacting to pull my feet forward and land the flip. Both times, I’d seen the snow too late to land and couldn’t make it work in time. Up I went again, got the snow out of my helmet, and did the flip more by feel than by vision. Trees and Bobby were on either side of the runout down to the traverse road, though they’re hard to see in the video.

I was tired before I even left the yurt. The failed attempts had built up the anticipation. All the fear of not really being able to see what was happening each time, being so exposed in the backcountry, and needing to get this done brooded every time I was skinning back up. So when it all came together for the magical moment, and I rode away down onto the traverse, the yell of excitement became the release of all those tensions into the success of notching something cool there in the midnight darkness.  Landing something scary always creates this feeling of instantaneous euphoria, because the work is all in the prep and then not thinking while you do it–the riding away is all wonderful afterglow.

And as we skied back towards the yurt with its three sleeping skiers, the excitement of adding another solid shot to the edit kept me awake. But as I lay down in my sleeping back, it was the satisfaction of doing something bizarre and making it work that lulled me off to sleep.

Thanks to Bobby and Tyler for staying up late and freezing while I got it done, and thanks to the rest of the crew for dealing with our clanking when we got back.

Check back soon for the full edit.

Lemonade on Little Dog

The Spirit Bear didn’t have my phone number. So the message popped up on Facebook: “What are you doing tomorrow?”

My car’s on its last legs. Christmas presents to buy. Emails to send. A whole string of dangling conversations to finish or move a few texts down the line. Things that could maybe lead to sustaining the ability to question what was next in my schedule. Plenty that wouldn’t fall into place until I actually took it head on. Neglect wouldn’t help. So I had plenty to do tomorrow.

However, as winter has sputtered to life here, we’ve been dry-docked with a snowless spell. Stages of ceased snowing include denial, attempting to find stashes, acceptance of tracked out/ravaged snowpack conditions, and then ski mountaineering. Things seemed primed for a trip into the scoured, buffed alpine. If you’ve got no pow, and just scapey, crusty lemons–make lemonade.

So Spirit Bear’s message was the conversation I picked up. The next morning, Ben was at my door, with his fully functional and recreational vehicle, which solved the “brakes don’t work” issue for the moment. He was also on top of the pastry game, so we stopped to pick up sticky buns before heading north.

We picked up Jason in Columbia Falls and were off through the Middle Fork, discussing topics of importance with our mouths full of sticky buns. Things are certainly low tide, and followed that in the cross loaded, rocky first-glance at our objective atop Marias Pass: Little Dog mountain.

When I think about about the local outdoor community, there’s a series of branches that start with my immediate friends and then spread into the people that live in this little corner of the world. Though I’d known Ben since I was in high school, and knew of his exploits in Glacier, we’d never climbed or skied together. He and Jason had raced biked years ago, but I hadn’t skied with Jason since two years back. The newness didn’t bother me–we had strong, fit skiers. We were joking and chatting and just enjoying ourselves as we skinned through the forest and detoured up a creek towards the lower slopes.


The day was my second in a new pair of boots, so I was a little tentative about how that’d shake out. No hot spots appeared on the flatish walk in, or on the ascent up a rib to the west of the saddle between Little Dog and Summit. Jason and I were chasing Ben, which is a pretty common thing to do, given that he’s one of the fastest uphill people in our little corner of the world. Some folks like to switch leads when skinning or bootpacking, because they get tired. Ben, however, does not get tired. As far as I can tell.

Somewhere in the past couple weeks, I switched my touring setup over to wider Steeples, thinking that I’d probably be skiing pow in the near future. The rib we followed was either scoured, baked, massacred, faceted wind drifts that were hard enough to not hold an edge, or rocks and scree thinly coated in a couple inches of fluff. It made for such interesting skinning that Jason eventually gave up and started bootpacking. He caught up to where I was trying to finesse my way through the drifts, so I joined him. Judging by his face we caught him, Ben wasn’t having any fun at all. None.

From there, skis went on packs. The wind drifts made good footing, and it didn’t take too much time to make the ridge.


The last time I was bootpacking up a big face, tiredness and dehydration dogged every step. But as we climbed, it just felt good to plant each foot above the next, drifts and outcrops passing along from above to below.


Spindrift had been blasting off the ridge all day, and the wind howled over us. Since things didn’t look too promising, we left our skis and continued up. Jason ahead of me, and Ben way out there.

The view back towards Summit. On a bigger day with better conditions, I could see skiing the N face of Little Dog, ascending Summit, skiing its SW face, then heading back up to the saddle.

Looking across Ole Creek.

All the sculpting and rock hard drifts evidenced the wind hammering the outside of my hood. Spindrift would occasionally come around my glasses and stick to the warmer, insides of the lenses. And it was just wonderful to be cruising along up Ben’s boot prints, snug and happy in my gear as the wind raged and sun shown down.

But the same wind was a bit unsettling to Jason. As I caught up to him, he told me that he’d had enough, and was turning around to wait for us at the saddle. With Ben a bit higher on the ridge, I started juggling the thoughts in a hard situation. On one hand, it’s good form to stick together in case something happens. With one member of the crew retreating, perhaps we should all head back. But Ben wasn’t part of this decision, so it was the two of us. Jason was fine with me heading on. He had crampons if he wanted to use them, and I felt he could make the descent. But since I felt fine, and had Ben forging ahead, I felt good to catch up with him. We’d all regroup to ski from the saddle.

Looking back on that decision, it made our margin for group error much slimmer. Jason was more or less solo on his walk back to the saddle, and if something went wrong up high, Ben and I would just have each other until we could get word to Jason. Given how we felt, the competencies of the group, and the conditions, I don’t feel bad about the decision now–but I would have liked to make it as a group, instead of choosing between scenarios in my head. We had a range of speeds, and that was beneficial in exposing fewer people to concentrated hazards, but it limited our communication. This hindsight is the kind of thing to bring to future trips. Reflection is positive, when acted upon.

After I caught up, Ben and I negotiated a couple chutes, kicking through thin, unconsolidated wind drifts to the firmer stuff underneath. Around the corner, up the edge, and there we were. Clouds roiled to the west, with their puffy tops catching a golden glint from the sun. To the south, they broke up over the Divide, leaving us with blue sky over the plains in the east. Our  perch was right on the break point. It was pretty dang exciting.

It was also extra windy. I threw on crampons for the walk down, took a few swallows of water, and we marched back down to meet Jason. Ben snags a group selfie back at the saddle:

Ben and I dug a pit, revealing a seriously consolidated snowpack on the lee, cross loaded slopes we’d be skiing.

I swung in first, found a little bit of loose, crusted snow on the margin, and made it down a ways.

Jason linked turns down to me, and on his go, Ben blew out of a ski. It rocketed down the slope as he yelled, then caught a bit of snow, rolled, and thankfully stopped. Ben doing some downhill walking:

From there, we traversed skiers right into some of the ramps of the lower mountain. Ski cutting the soft, thin drifts as we went, the angle decreased and got downright fun as we skied back into the creekbed we’d come up. Ben enjoys some just desserts:

Bopping along the creek, the whole day took on a nice afterglow. We’d started with winds, and that sinking feeling of low tide, but here we were, having skied some legitimate crust and actual pow on the bottom. Only a little bit of skinning ensued on the trip out, and as we crossed the tracks back to the car, I couldn’t help thinking that the best recovery drink for the evening was resoundingly lemonade.

Thanks to Jason for motivating, Ben for his photos, and both for a wonderful day in the park.

The life aquatic: England, part two

Thinking back on my trip through England, I came to a couple of major conclusions that fit in with the stories from the trip. So without further ado, here they are.

Conclusion #1: The Pacific Northwest of the US needs to stop pretending they have it especially wet. Unless you live in Forks, Glacier, or Skykomish, the English are way, way wetter and less perturbed about it than you. And if you do live in those towns, you’re probably about on par with the climbing conditions we encountered on my first outing with Rich T. and Rich B. upon arriving back in the Lake District.

I did some cursory research before leaving for the UK. The Peak District is more like a bunch of rolling hills, and the Lake District is where they actually have mountains. However, as we rolled into Old Dungeon Ghyll, I realized that how the dry the road is has nothing to do with whether or not climbing is going to happen. Because Rich and Rich racked up, we made it up Middle Fell Buttress, and headed on to Gimmer Crag where the conditions were somewhat near the Underwater variety.

Yep. We climbed up that slippery sheet of lichen. Not a bolt in sight, and Rich T. made his way up, over, and around. Some of the footholds were puddles. I found myself longing for dry cracks to jam a fist into. Looking back, my facial expression reveals that I was having a lot of fun, and seriously impressed that we weren’t aid climbing. Our middle belay, below D route.

Rich B. then led D route. Somewhere near the spot in this photo, Rich T. described the conditions as “a bit grim.”

I’d have to agree. It was slippery. And since I was following, I had the task of pulling the gear from the rock, knowing full well that the experienced folks ahead of me wouldn’t be rappelling abseiling back down. Thus did I fail to pull a number 4 wallnut from where it had seated in an underclinging crack. It’s yours for the taking. And as I’m not experienced enough to know if it was truly lost, or if I just suck at removing stuck nuts, I did replace it for Rich B.

Toping out. I believe this is called the lunatic grin. Apparently, the old school climbers would put socks on over their boots when conditions were like this. However, the new “light and fast” movement has dispensed with the sodden socks, such that they’re climbing in the same conditions without the added grip.

Here’s the Riches cleaning up.

Some casual scrambling took us to the summit, where I discovered that our alpine-style ascent had been bested by a veritable herd of free soloists using natural fibers for their outerwear:

Which leads to conclusion number two: sheep poo is practically indistinguishable from mud. Sheep may not be everywhere in England, but they were almost everywhere I went that wasn’t in a town. There’s probably a process whereby the poo becomes the mud, making it some level of continuum between stages. And somehow, it was always on my shoes.

This trend continued the next day, on my second venture with Rich T. up and across Striding Edge to Helvellyn.

What’s usually a few hour run for Rich proved to be a very nice day hike hill walk up and around the rolling hills. Striding Edge is famous enough to warrant its own postcard. Apparently, people like to fall off on a somewhat regular basis.

Which makes sense, because some of the rocks were, you guessed it, wet. I have to give serious credit for the summit wind shelter though: the X shape design doesn’t even begin to question that the wind might come from any given direction at any time, so it’s just prepared for the eventuality. We really didn’t have much wind. It was a nice, calm place to hang out while Rich filled me in on an absurd 65 mile run he’s planning over basically every hill and valley that we could see from up there.

The peaks of the Lake District remind me of the Two Medicine area of Glacier, but covered almost entirely in grass (and sheep poo). There’s a serene beauty to them that doesn’t come with more rocky outcrops. I found myself really enjoying the contrast, green, and general calm that comes with these places.

Over one roll, Rich had a surprise for me. I can only describe it as inspired madness. Way up in the hills, at least an hour’s walk from the nearest road, a creaky looking platter rests between rows of snow fence. It’s the project of the Lake District Ski Club, and it boasts nine “unique” and ungroomed pistes. A season pass costs 55 pounds quid and even after hauling gear uphill for an hour, members often have to shovel out the lift before using it.

I have nothing but respect for the people that operate and ski at Raise. And next time I go back, I really hope there’s snow, because this seems like the best idea ever: put a big walk before the lifts to cut down on numbers. Then go out and play on your club tow with your buddies. Brilliant.

There’s also a serious sense of history in the area, owing to a quarry that’s a casual three hundred years old or so. Debris from whatever they were mining is everywhere. It sort of looks like natural talus to ignorant American eye. On the trail switchbacks, I threw out one, and only one, exceptionally Texan “Howdy” to a group of hikers going the other way. They immediately fell silent, and I don’t know if they heard me chuckling with mirth as I walked off.

My Texan accent must have registered with the place, though. On the absolute last grass/water/mud/poo slope before the car, I managed to completely lose my footing and land ass first. Which meant I went into Whole Foods Booth’s looking exactly like a muddy American.

Given that my runners trainers had yet to dry out, I realized that rubber boots might be the absolute best footwear for these sorts of places at this time of the year. However, rubber boots make things a little bit harder when my third conclusion is brought into play: Never, ever bolt anything.

I was told that there are indeed sport climbing crags in England. They do exist. But the general ethic of trad crags are far more in keeping with the climb-in-the-rain philosophy I’ve already described. The third day I was in the lakes, Rich T. and I headed out to Trowbarrow. It’s an old quarry, with a few rusted out pitons serving as the only fixed protection on the wall. A quick survey eliminated most of the easier leads as too damp. So Rich saddled up and lead some bizarre English grade that I don’t particularly understand, but felt between 5.9 and 5.10.

En route, he managed to dry out a few of the wetter spots with chalk, so I had that benefit for my follow. The little pourovers in the limestone made for an aesthetic finish.


Given that this was a crag, I thought that we’d just rappel abseil off, per the typical American custom. Nope. We did more soggy walking down a footpath in climbing shoes. And after some brief but thorough instruction from Rich, I managed my first trad lead ever up Coral Sea. It’s apparently named after the fossils that can be seen in the wall.

The leading success continued a couple days later, when I managed to actually swing leads with Rich B (I think he did the harder ones) when we went someplace that had Pinnacle in its name. For a trad newb, it was a really cool introduction to not just looking for the next hold, but also thinking about the next protection while climbing. So now I face the financial doom that is acquiring a trad rack–I swear that just when you seem to have the gear program dialed, something new comes along to ensure that it stays expensive.

Looking up at the Pinnacle thing. I got to lead the top pitch, which went around the upper arete, and was super fun and exposed. If it looks wet, the bottom most certainly was. Rich B. clarified that the international wetness scale is nothing like the English wetness scale. Worse, the video (forthcoming at some point) clearly shows that he totally forgot about the sopping lower section when the upper section was “bone dry!”

Looking down from the top:

More confirmation that the Lakes aren’t ugly:

Walking out from the crag, we passed through a few of the fields in the lower left of the above photo. There’s a lot of public rights of way dating back to some seriously bygone era, meaning that access is a lawful right through many pieces of private land. Which leads me to another conclusion about the places I visited: wandering around has some serious history. After one day of computering, Rich T. and I went for a fell run. I took the term literally and fell into some rocks on the downhill during the gathering dusk. We went over some stiles, ran past some lakes, and it was gorgeous. I also remembered why running hills is hard.

I’m going to skip the tourist day that I spent in Windermere. Conclusion: you don’t care about me eating cheese and crackers by a lake. 

The last part of my trip included a few days at the Kendal Mountain Festival. It’s pretty dang similar to what Banff is like when you actually go to Banff, but there’s a higher concentration of serious mountain talent from Britain and Europe. Basically, we walked around town, ate, watched films, and went climbing. Cheers to Sam for meeting up for lunch. And yet another conclusion: when England does put up bolts inside, it does it right. 25 meters of overhanging pump to keep things interesting in Kendal.

A couple shots from wandering around Kendal:

I managed to meet a few really neat folks too, so cheers to Ben, Abs, and Tom, and also to the gents at Whitedot. Thanks to Rich W. and Rich T. for all the help around town. One big highlight, personally, was when Bjarne Salen got the whole crowd on their feet and yelling for Andreas Fransson. Thanks for that.

On my last day, I woke up hungover after going to sleep at 3am. I wandered town for a bit, met up with Rich T, and we took a stroll over to the Kendal Ski Club with the idea that we’d check it out.

And as it does, one thing lead to another. Whitedot was doing a demo, their rep had pants, the kind folks at the ski hill saw fit to let me borrow boots and poles, and before I knew it, I was on the little carrot tow.

The surface is something like mats of the fibers from fine hair brushes. In that picture, you can see all the sprinklers that keep it wet (it has to be wet, of course), and sliding down it is something like the texture of skiing under a snow gun. The Club had a couple jumps, a quarter pipe, and even some moguls. I made laps for about an hour, and the grin on my face in that photo stuck around into the afternoon. Thanks to everyone who got me on the hill. Conclusion: heart matters more than snow if you really want to go skiing.

That afternoon, I headed back down to Manchester on the train, spent an excellent evening with Rich W., then headed to the airport in the morning. More or less the last thing that I saw before takeoff:

Conclusion: there’s an airline out there where the inflight entertainment is nothing but epic guitar solos. 

This whole trip wouldn’t have been possible without the support of everyone at Mountain Equipment. Thanks for bringing me over, including me in the family, showing me around, and supporting me in what I do. Duncan Machin deserves a huge helping of accolades for his detail wizardry and for putting up with my emails. Rich T. , Steph, and Serin have my gratitude for letting me invade their home for most of my stay in the lakes, and for showing me around along with the guidance of Rich B. Cheers to the Kendal Ski Club for letting me slide. Thanks to Sam and Hannah for their hospitality in Manchester, and to Rich W. and Sandra for theirs in the same.