I’ve read somewhere that laughter is the human reaction to contradiction. In the case of this powder cackle, I didn’t think that the pitch shown would be as steep, or as fun as it proved to be the first time. Then I didn’t think it’d be as fun the second go around. Thankfully, I was wrong.
Visible through the branches of a mountain ash, the streetlight on the opposing block brightens the lower corner of my bedroom window. It shines every night, all year long. It did so during my whole childhood. And while the lamp itself isn’t particularly striking–I’d never taken the time to look at it before writing this–the telephone pole and the bulb braced atop it illuminate not just the ground, but the air of that particular corner. Which, at some point during the fall, has always been filled with the small, reflective dots of snow cast in an amber glaze.
By mid-October, checking the lamp is a routine thing. There’s a tiny potential each time: perhaps, against all odds, that glance will yield the first snow of the season. Such peeks through the window put excitement into just getting up to head to the bathroom. Mornings are always easier when it’s been snowing. And though it was a slow sort of agony to sit in school when I was younger, snow coming down fueled the skiing stoke for later.
So when I arrived back in Montana two days ago from the UK, I was greeted by a snowstorm upon landing. Once home, I looked out the window to see the lamp, and the little dots descending under it, blanketing me with the comfort and excitement of all the years that I’ve stared out into the darkness at that streetlight. It’s winter. It’s time. It’s on.
In my last post, I feel it was pretty clear that we went a long ways to get into the snow. A lot of effort was spent. We worked hard. And it was totally worth it. Which makes what happened a week later that much more bizarre: I got on a plane, and headed to the United Kingdom for two weeks of Octoberish seasonal rewind.
Back in August, discussions started about the Mountain Equipment 15-16 winter range launch. Distributors, reps, and sales folks from all over the world convene here in the UK, where Mountain Equipment is based, to see the products that will be hitting store shelves less than a year from now. As my involvement as an athlete has grown, so has the need to introduce me to the rest of the brand family. Thus, I found myself at the airport five short hours after Whitefish Mountain Films, bags in hand, none of it including ski gear.
I’ll try to keep this rant short, because as Louis CK recognizes (in his profane fashion, so be advised), most of the inconveniences in air travel are minuscule compared with the fact you are “LITERALLY FLYING THROUGH THE AIR LIKE A BIRD.” However, my experience is one of the many that leads to things like Untied.com, a website entirely devoted to consumer complaints against United.
Leaving Kalispell, we taxied out, then came back to the gate because the air conditioning was on the fritz. We deplaned, and an hour and half later, we were airborne. My connections would have worked, but since it was tight, I opted to reschedule in deference to my checked bag. While at Denver, I watched my money get cut more or less in half when converted to pounds. I also got an electrical plug converter.
Leaving Denver, same thing happens. This time though, an oven at the back of the plane was emitting black fumes. I didn’t even know that planes had ovens. And this one didn’t see the “no smoking” signs. So we taxied back, deplaned, then ten minutes later, we line up again to reboard. Also, since my flights changed, my seat selections went out the window. Which put me in 2/3rds of a middle seat, the other third occupied by the exceptionally large gentleman next to me in the aisle. Fate offered me another route in the form of a lady who wanted to trade seats before the plane got going, but the attendants were trying to get everyone seated and I didn’t want to cause more fuss.
Upon landing at Newark, I realized that not only had my next connection been more or less lined up to fly right as I touched the tarmac, United had done me a favor. Instead of rebooking me to a later flight, they’d send me back to Chicago, then to DC, then over to Manchester the next morning. I went to the help desk. An angel disguised as a grumpy looking woman proceeded to look at my new itinerary, get as confused as I was, and then rebook me through Heathrow. She also gave me two food vouchers, in her wisdom, because I was seriously hangry at that point.
Not only did I find a real restaurant in Newark, but the flight over the pond went fine. Upon landing, I walked a couple miles, took a bus, and somehow made my way through some very long lines to connect with my next flight.
I swear that the flight up to Manchester was intentionally zigzagged to make it last long enough to serve me some nuts and a drink. Which I would have been happy to forego, if they’d instead just put my bag on the plane. Per the agents at Heathrow, my checked bag had made it across and through all the changed connections via some wizardry I don’t understand. That last, hour-long flight though? Nope. And thus did I arrive in Manchester: six hours late, jet lagged, under slept, disheveled, and without my main luggage.
Thankfully, the kind folks on the ground graciously whisked me and Sam Hoyt away to the Lake District, a place specifically designed in the fabric of the universe for relaxing. Sheep cover grassy hills which poke out of the mist in an etherial and calming way. Pubs have seen fit to put climbing gear in frames on their walls. Torrential rain gently affirms your decision to stay inside. Which was a good call, because we had meetings and stuff. After dinner, I presented on some of the ski trips that have been featured here. Which should have been the end of me for that evening, but of course that lead to a series of great discussions in the bar and a bunch of mildly chilled (but certainly not warm) pints.
The next day, we did more meetings and showings of the upcoming line. I’m not allowed to give out hints, though I’m super excited about what’s coming down the pipe. You’ll probably see some of it later this winter.
And in the afternoon, the nearly the whole crew rallied into the rain for a late hike up to Stickle Tarn.
I’ve never seen so many vibrant jackets in the same place.
Everything was really slippery with the rain. Even so, I had a blast scrambling around on the way up. All the energy of eating, airplaning, and meeting bubbled over into that giddy sort of excitement that my friends know well. “I’m outside! This is great! Let’s run wild!” More or less, I turn into a golden retriever.
Evan, our US sales guy, was stoked too.
Then we went down in the dark. I had a borrowed
headlamp head torch from Christoph, one of the gents from Norway. So I managed to not explode on the slippery stones of the trail back down. Props to Joanna for handling them so well.
At home, there’s an hour delay minimum before I can get hot food into my belly post-hike. Here, there are pubs right at the trailhead. Brilliant.
The next day, we headed back to Manchester. My checked bag had yet to arrive, even though it was said that it’d be there my first night. I found out that since the agent at the airline hadn’t provided the phone number for our hotel (which I didn’t know) the courier wouldn’t dispatch the bag. They then handed it off to a third party, which was planning to deliver the bag after we left the hotel that afternoon. Even though we were still there by the time they said they’d deliver, no bag. So I headed back to Manchester with that sinking feeling that I’d have two pairs of underwear for the rest of the trip.
At dinner, we went next door to our hotel to sample the local pub atmosphere. I was keen to try some beers that I’d never seen before. However, horror of all horrors, it seems that the trendy thing to do in “hip” pubs is to bring in a bunch of American craft brew.
None of the US brews looked bad, per se. I even like some of them at home. So it was just startling. I drank something from Portugal that was basically a Budweiser or PBR, and toasted the irony.
The next day, I spent most of it at the ME offices. Thanks to everyone who made time to meet with me. Here’s the UK sales team looking very serious.
In the process of those meetings, it came out that Sam, our lead designer, could accompany me as I went to wander in the Peak District. He generously offered that I should stay at his house, citing the ease of leaving in the morning. So we headed out late (my fault), missed the train, and he graciously grabbed a taxi to solve my slow walking issues. He and his family then entertained me, fed me, and generally made me feel very much welcome. Many thanks to them for their stellar hospitality.
However, the weather wasn’t on the same program. We woke to rain.
And on the way out to Edale, it really started to rain.
Once at the trailhead and getting suited up, it came to pass that despite the rain coming down, Sam didn’t have his waterproof coat. I mentioned that we could call it, but instead he grabbed a large, green, German army poncho that he uses as a family picnic blanket. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, this was my first clue to the fact that the English people think about rain very, very differently than anyone I’ve met anywhere in the states. Or at least they do in my presence. Because Sam threw on the poncho, and off we went.
Our plan was to do as much of the Edale skyline circuit before we needed to head back into town. The trail above leads up this valley, then onto a plateau, which leads off into a ridge that more or less circles the town of Edale. The red brown bushy stuff on the left side of the above photo are ferns, which regenerate to a forest green in the spring of every year. It’s worth noting that even though it’s called the Peak District, it’s more like the Rolling Hills With Gritstone Sticking Out Of Them District.
It’s not a proper day out unless you end up off trail. We went up this little valley, scrambled a short, very wet cliff, and then walked around.
Sam contemplates E.T. His poncho is rolled up atop his pack. By this point, the rain had stopped, and it was just foggy and soaked.
Once on the plateau, we swung around and things got increasingly boggy. Our route was evidently a very popular one. This means tons of foot traffic, and with the peat and sandy soil just under the grassy surface, it takes very little for humans to start erosive processes that then get made huge by all the water coming through. We walked through a lot of mud, which is standard for this time of year, but apparently less so in the drier summer months.
Along with some of the climbing I’ve been up to (next blog post), it’s be really eye opening to see the impact that tons of human traffic can have on a landscape. So many of the places I frequent at home are remote enough that they might see maybe ten to twenty people a year. Some places less. And as more people move to the mountains, and do the things that I do, the spread is going to change the places we play. That’s inevitable. Bogged out areas and super polished climbing holds can be our future, or I can be aware of that and help to set things right before they get bad. That means upping my own standards of Leave No Trace.
If one of my friends had been considering a trip like this, at this time of year, I’d probably have given the knee-jerk response: “What? That’s the start of ski season!” And that’s true. I’ve seen all the photos from home. But there’s a very different type of beauty at work in these landscapes. This trip has been about meeting people, but these new landscapes are pretty in how they roll, how their ridges connect, how the history of playing in them goes back hundreds of years. Stepping into that as a hill walker or climber is a unique thrill.
Even more, the hospitality for my entire trip has been astounding. I’ve been very lucky to stay in two lovely households, get personally shown around by folks who know this area well, and they’ve been super patient in dragging the sweaty American along as he fumbles setting up anchors and can’t run all the way up the hill. Many thanks to Duncan for all his logistical wizardry, Sam and Hannah and their family, Rich and Steph for where I’ve been the last week, Rich Bailey for his rock time, and Rich Woodall for getting me on the plane.
So has it been worth it to miss the start of winter? Absolutely.
Sam and I glopped our way back to the car, and headed out just as things really started to get almost sunny. That night, I got on a train to the Lake District, where I’ve been since.
Tune in for my next blog post to hear about my trad climbing education, becoming a lichen, and why fell running can involve falling.
It may not really matter when the snow finally hits the valley floor in my hometown, because when it does arrive, it feels like it came later than it should. The advantage of mountains around here, though, is that you can push the fast forward button on the ski season. Two pairs of boots, snow camping stuff in the pack, and every step up a muddy trail is a chance to hit the snow line and put skins in the snow.
Last week, Steven Gnam and I were both sick enough of office time that it was simple to make the call: we’d head up to Comeau Pass to find some snow and see how winter was progressing above us. With lenses, Steven’s pack was easily 30lbs heavier than mine. Before the trip was through, I watched him run downhill with it. Much respect.
Traveling upward, things steadily moved through fall into winter. Our boots touched snow in the switchbacks below the chalet, but we waited to switch out until things were filled in enough to actually skin up. I’ve been messing with the time lapse feature in the new iOS lately. The first attempts haven’t been good, but while we were stopped, the fog that we’d hiked through was creeping up the valley. I built a little tripod of snow on a rock, and starting recording. Just before we left, I watched the video and nearly dropped my phone. Instead of the static shot I’d imagined, the snow had melted at a constant rate, creating an unintentionally cinematic pan upwards. Here’s to accidents.
We switched to skis as the trail crossed the main gully below Mt. Edwards. Packs were joyously a little lighter. As I skinned away, all the dirt we’d walked over receding in the glide of each slide forward.
While not really filled in, there was enough snow to skin up on comfortably. We followed the trail up, across the stepping stones, and arrived at the base of the stairs a bit later than we’d estimated.
In the 1970’s, before this slot was blasted into the cliff, a metal ladder ran up and over the rocks. I can only imagine climbing that thing with a real pack while kicking rime off each step up the rungs. Instead, we had easy going with only one hard move over an ice flow on the stairs.
To respect the distance regulations and minimize our impact, we camped a bit down the hill on the east side of the little lake on the pass. We’d thought that camp would be quick and we could ski a little, but as happens, snow camping is slow camping. Getting and heating water required chopping a hole in the lake ice. Setting the tent meant anchoring to buried rocks. Since we brought a three season, the guy lines all had to be placed. Even then, the tent would do a minimal collapse every time wind hit it. Sometime after midnight, I came to the realization that no matter how many times the tent wall curled inward over my sleeping bag, the thing wouldn’t be going anywhere with the two of us in it. Just sleep.
And it proved to be fine. I awoke to this:
While I got my breakfast going, Steven took off to do a bit of recon.
A few thoughts about winter menus and water.
Typically, snow camping can be reduced to two main categories: melting/boiling water, and everything else. We took along a Jetboil Sumo for that, and it did admirably. Since we had the lake a little walk away, it made more sense to carry water than melt snow. Where I’d usually take a filter in the summer, I used a Steripen Traveler to nuke the lake water with UV rays. This saved the filter from freezing up, and only added another small piece of electronics to the pile in the bottom of my sleeping bag.
Snow camping usually leaves me dehydrated, for a couple important reasons. Really cold or really hot water can be hard to drink. Instant food can be pretty salty, which tastes good, but can actually leave you feeling more dehydrated after the mug of Ramen is gone. Because it’s cold out, it’s easy to go a while without drinking. The lack of minerals in melted snow or pure lake water seems to bother my stomach some. And also, your water bottle can freeze up.
To combat this, I took a regular nalgene liter with a FortyBelow neoprene cover. On the way in, this cut weight as I’d fill up at creeks that we crossed then use the Steripen. Once at camp, I’d fill it 2/3rds with lake water, purify that, then add another third of boiling to even out the temperature. To finish, I’d use an Endurolytes Fizz tablet to add in some beneficial solutes and make it taste nice, then drink to my heart’s content.
In and around camp, a GSI Fairshare is the absolute essential. Mug, bowl, small plate of a lid. Easily cleaned by swirling hot water inside with the top on. I have a neoprene FortyBelow bootie for it that adds insulation. Tea, breakfast, soup, whatever–the Fairshare is the absolute way to go.
With the rest of my menu winter camping menu, it’s nice to keep a balance of calories, taste, and heat. Even though we were out for only two days, fruits and veggies are always the things that I miss most, so I tried to take care of that.
Trail food, lunch, and snacks:
Hammer Bars (which don’t freeze up until it’s down around 10 degrees F)
Justin’s Maple Almond Butter
48% milk chocolate with otters on the wrapper
Blended fruit tubes. These things are like baby food, but make for a compact way to get some fruit in your backcountry diet.
I took an instant, single serving, organic black bean soup mix from the grocery store and rebagged it in a ziploc. Once in my mug, I added the noodles from a packet of ramen, then filled it up with water. Ten minutes later, I had black bean noodle soup.
Dried seaweed sheets can be a great, light way to get iron and greens while out, and you can add them to soups or wraps if you want.
In a ziploc baggie:
Potato buds, some garlic salt, instant milk, grated pepperjack cheese. Throw it in the Fairshare, add water, and bingo: super breakfast. If I could find a nicely tasting protein powder that works when heated, I might add it here.
Tea is great, and though I’m not much of a hot-drink-in-the-morning person, it’s nice when cold camping.
Anyway. Once Steven returned, and we got breakfast done, we headed out to ski. Pits showed something like three feet of new accumulations atop the permanent snow fields in the drifts, and while the layers weren’t the best, they weren’t very reactive in our tests.
Skinning back up to camp:
After some lunch, we headed over to the main snowfield of Gunsight.
Because of the layers we’d seen earlier, we followed up the ridge and dug two hasty pits en route. Even at higher elevation, there was some kind of rain/melt crust with intact groppel 15-20cms below the windswept crust in the more loaded areas. This made us pretty cautious, but it wasn’t super reactive, and we didn’t have any problem with it.
I’ve skied this snowfield at numerous times for five out of the last six years. When I worked at Sperry Chalet, it was my go to. The way it sweeps down off the summit of Gunsight has yet to get boring, and I’ve yet to ski it in the same condition twice.
On our way back to camp, Steven found a nice wave to surf.
And with that, it was time to pack up. In my rush to get everything back onto my pack and head out, I just threw my hiking boots under the lid straps without actually tying them in. We descended the stairs, skied about halfway to the chalet, and when I went to switch back into my boots, found only one of them still on my pack.
Instantly, I realized that it could have fallen off anywhere. If I couldn’t find it, I’d have a left foot in a ski boot for the rest of the seven miles to the road. “IDIOT!” It was so annoying to not have done something as simple as securing them to my pack, but that’s haste for you. I should have thought more about it, and it’s good to learn those lessons.
Steven caught up with me, realized what happened, and figured that he could run back up to look for it. I was in no condition to run, and certainly didn’t have the footwear, so I stayed with our gear while he headed back up. Twenty minutes later, he grinned back down to me, boot in hand. Huge thanks to him for that huge help–it saved my foot, the walk out, and probably the whole trip. I switched out my gear, ensured that everything was strapped on tight, and we headed down.
We weren’t the only folks heading down the trail:
But as we went, speeding along in time to a ski crampon that was dinging with every step that Steven took, we didn’t see anything. We walked down through slush, then mud, then dryish trail. The winter portal had closed, and it was definitely fall again. Somehow, we didn’t put on headlamps either, and by the time we hit the car, it was nine tenths dark.
Thanks to Steven for joining in the madness of a couple days up high, heavy packs, and especially for saving my foot with his running prowess. Here’s to the season.