Diversion: on significance

It’s hard to tell, but I’m in this picture.

This shot was taken without my knowing it, but after the fact, Darcy Chenowith (who you should have checked out by now) clued me in and then was kind enough to send it along. Jason Mills and I were on the Little Matterhorn, the mountain on the right. Below is Lake Mary Baker, Floral Park up and left, and then Sperry Glacier and the glacial basin. Comeau Pass is on the central skyline.

Of course, you can’t see us—we’re too small. And that’s part of my point: mountains are big. Really big. They dwarf us, our ambitions, our concerns. They don’t care whether you top out or get slid, rockfalled, killed, or return home happily. As playgrounds, or as testing grounds, or as places to see my own progress, they offer all my ambitions and stamina can handle. If there’s a cathedral equal to the possibility and wonder of this life, it is in the mountains that I find it.

Staring at the stars, there’s an insurmountable feeling of vastness, of exposure. The drop away from my sleeping bag goes on literally forever, and though a shiver might run through the realization, it doesn’t terrify those who are scared of heights. But looking over the edge of a mountain, I can fathom the distance. I can grasp it, and it’s real, and it’s still so much bigger than me. Middle-distance, I’d call this: big enough to matter, small enough to measure. And because of this middle distance, mountains cast huge shadows physically and mentally.

There is no question that, as humans, we are changing the hills, even as they outsize those who would climb. Glacier National Park is projected to have have technically lost its glaciers by 2030 or so. This won’t mean that there isn’t any more glacial ice, or that the places we see glaciers won’t still look like glaciers; the existing glaciers will have just shrunk to where they are reclassified as permanent snowfields. Treelines will creep upward, moraines will be colonized and turned into forest, animals will die out and change habitat. The seasonal lack of water from places that used to hold snow will dramatically shift everything downstream from fish habitat to where you can camp midseason. Hotter, drier summers amplify conditions ripe for the wildfires we’ve seen this year.

Personally affecting what seems so unassailable via climate change is perhaps the hardest dichotomy of being a mountain person. I drive a car. I participate in a fossil fuel based economy. I’m a guilty party. To know firsthand how big these places are, how their grandeur opens a similar space and freedom in my own heart, only to see them so delicately balanced on the collective results of individual actions like mine—that’s hard.

I welcome change in so many parts of life, yet want the places that feel so homelike and stalwart to remain the same. Bedrock not only in the way it was laid down, lifted up, but also in how it grounds me. Gives me something stable: a place I speak about in terms used often for a lover.

Worse, I don’t have answers for you. I know what my answers are, but this blog post isn’t intended as a soapbox or political rant, though those dimensions are inevitable once thought turns to action. Envisioning the changes in store for a place that feels close to me profoundly affects who I am, what I stand for, and that process doesn’t feel genuine unless you, every single person who reads this, experiences it on their own terms. My goal here is only to trace where it’s taken me. What I really want to leave you with is this:

Go spend time in your cathedrals. Make yourself vulnerable to their volatility, their storms, their sunshine, their fast and slow change of leaves and ice and steams swollen with runoff. Give yourself to them. Then learn what all of us are doing, square those in your head, your heart, and find the line you can take between them.

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Diversion: poems and mountains

Doing two Diversions two weeks in a row wasn’t my plan. However, I really want to keep this blog interesting for anyone who’s out there reading and also for myself, and this is what I’ve been thinking. Hence the following.

This weekend, the recent Wingsuit BASE deaths of Dean Potter and Graham Hunt have been swirling around my mind. My thoughts are with their families, friends, and those whose lives they touched. Personally, I first saw the news on Facebook, and swore loudly as I dropped into the frustration of yet another person I looked up to leaving us too soon. It took going for a run later to get some perspective. For more on how it made me feel, there’s a post from the fall worth checking out. There’s been a serious outpouring of well justified social media condolences. To my mind, the folks at Alpinist always put out really interesting, talented writing: Katie Ives’ piece Poet of Light and Air: Dean Potter is a perfect example, and easily the best thing I’ve read in the aftermath. I’d recommend reading it.

At the end, one particular line caught my eye:

“He lived his life like a poem.”

Which sounds nice. I agree with her statement. But what exactly does that mean? What is a poem? How can one live their life in that way? Given the mystery that surrounds poetry for most people, what does it mean to describe someone’s life as a poem? I want to slog into this, because this is familiar turf, both as a mountain person and also as a poet.

For me, writing poems and doing outdoor adventures are both intensely and essentially creative endeavors. They both follow a few of the same basic pathways within a giant expanse of freedom to choose.

There is the field, space, or area in which it takes place: the general idea for the poem, its form, or the terrain in which the adventure happens.

Some kind of transit is achieved: whether in the woods or on paper, you start one place and end another.

Style likewise. Be it skis or climbing shoes, there’s a method and way that said terrain is traversed. The poet’s style also follows: terse, expansive, some kind of pace unfolding in the way that they place each word, like a footstep, across the page.

Physical terrain is somewhat dictated: you can’t choose to place cliffs, forests, or slopes of snow. But you can choose which ones you want to climb. You choose the conditions in which you wish to go. You choose your partners, or lack thereof.

Poems or stories can spring from anywhere—but for me, the kernel of an idea, the central idea structure towards which I’m writing, that’s somewhat dictated as well by the initial inspiration. It’s very much like rounding a large bend in a trail and staring at a massive face—I stumble onto these ideas, and then writing is the process of fleshing them out so that other people can see how I’m looking at it.

Of course, poems can go in strange directions, and the unifying/underlying ideas aren’t as immobile as rocks or glaciers. So this fluidity to rearrange, combine, and shift can be helpful. It’s the same type of being able to choose, and just like in the mountains, you can be wrong.

Perhaps it’s a learned sense, something like knowing that you’ve turned the steering wheel enough to make the corner just right in a car on the highway, but I can feel when a poem is working. If you don’t turn it right, you’ll go off the road. In my own writing, revision is the process of correcting those turns and noticing when things don’t adhere. Playing in the mountains is the same way—given your method of travel, and the possible ways to use that to get where you’re trying to go, it’s sometimes easy to make the wrong calls and get off route.
This distinction between being on route or way off and struggling matters, because it’s how we differentiate the good life. It’s how we know clean stanzas from messy conglomerations of bullshit masquerading as eminence.

In the mountains or in poems, every move counts. Dispense with punctuation, and things become more austere (check out Cormac McCarthy to see what I mean). Bring a light rack, and you’ll be forced to run things out. Carry doubles of every piece of pro, and you’ll be slow. Decisions carry weight to determine the progress of poems or parties in the mountains, and sometimes there’s room for error—sometimes not.

When I was in school, I often felt that I’d learned about the mechanics and grammar of English only to chuck them out the window when writing poems. Ultra runners now cover in hours what once took months of siege style expedition climbing. I see the same chucking of established conventions happening outside as in writing. Some margins narrow, but some possibilities expand. The ability to draw your own boundaries and succeed within that defined scope is exactly the same.

Putting it all together, a central idea has to happen, taking good advantage of the terrain, the style involved, following the guidelines set down by the travelers given their imagination and abilities and knowledge with every move counting. Success is the objective in either case.

I waded into all of that to give some sense of how I think about poetry, through an outdoor lens. To me, poetry is not some intangible mystery to be dragged forth when people get etherial as a defense for not having the right words. It’s not soul magic. Like painting or digging a proper snow pit, it’s an art. If you’ve never dug a snow pit, you’d be hard pressed to understand much about that art. Same with poems. To be absolutely fair: I can’t explain the art of a perfect fade-away shot in basketball, or how to perfectly drift a car around a turn. Watercolors were the bane of my elementary years. There’s a ton out there that I can’t properly appreciate—but if the talk is of an outdoor life and how it relates to poems, I feel somewhat qualified.

So to live life as a poem—there’s an artistic focus, an imaginative essentiality, an ability to write your own rules based on knowledge and belief and then make proper, worthy moves within those boundaries. I find this statement apt. I find the Alpinist piece a moving, impressive tribute. And hopefully all these words give a sense of why.

Diversion: on non-adventure

If you’re looking for cool pictures, an epic tale, or a story that’s going to make you want to get off the couch this very instant, you might want to scroll past this post. Maybe skip it. Maybe come back next week, or the one after. Because this post is dedicated to the rain in sheets on the windshield. The forgotten boots or skis or skins. The times only a mile in, and everything was scuttled by something unchangeable, something hideously unsurmountable, something that omnipotently smashes your plans and leaves you repacking the car with all your food and gear unmuddied and unused. This is about non-adventure.

Let me break this down a bit. Duct Tape Then Beer, those purveyors of fine outdoor creativity, are fairly well known for how they break down fun into different types. Type One is easy to plan, easy to execute, and goes great. Type Two sees more of the suffering, some difficulties, and makes for a much better story as a result. Type Three is a bad idea to start with, has its moments of serious pain, endangers your life, and leaves you with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that reverberates through the rest of your life. Type Three is the kind of touchstone experience that your friends get tired of hearing about, because you keep remembering random facets about it, and everything links back to that one time in the Himalaya or on the Grand or when the luggage didn’t arrive in Uzbekistan.

In thinking about non-adventure, and trips that never even got close enough to success to be considered failures, I’ve started with the Types of Fun. Straight up, grade A adventure applies to all three types. Mis-adventure, its close cousin, has more to do with Type Two and aptly describes much of what gives Type Three its intensity and staying power. However, non-adventure is in a class by itself, precisely because it has no real accomplishment to speak of. It’s not Type One, because it didn’t go well. Or maybe didn’t go at all. Type Two and Type Three fun are redemptive because something amazing is the outcome. Other than the blatant and obvious lessons to be learned, non-adventure doesn’t have that amazing something. Whatever the colossal mistake was, that becomes the large take away, with no significant tinge of achievement to sweeten the difficulties encountered.

Two or so weeks ago, I spent much of a rainy day off from coaching emailing, running about, and generally doing things that I wouldn’t consider fun or adventurous but are necessary to lay the groundwork for future fun. My bike, so aptly suited to approaching ski projects in the spring, lacked the key ingredient to surviving wet trips without getting wet: fenders. So I picked some up, did the work to put them on, and thought I’d head for the Going to the Sun highway to test them out. Maybe I could ride to Avalanche, then hike on snow and mud to Avalanche Lake. Great late day, solo activity, with all the potential for Type One fun, added to by the snow and limited daylight, which offered a strong chance of Type Two. After packing up, I headed out.

Rain started in West Glacier. By the time I hit Lake McDonald Lodge, things were really coming down. The Fender install was feeling smart already. There’s a human smugness about thwarting the elements with technology, like wearing a good hardshell in a storm or snuggling into a fat sleeping bag as the temperature drops. That smugness gives just a little bit of triumph, something I was feeling as I rolled out of the parking lot in my hard-shells, water already flowing out the bottom of the new plastic on the fenders.

But a mile in, after a couple patches of ice, I rolled up the hill past the Kelly Camp road to find a foot of snow completely covering the road. Maybe twenty minutes had gone by. I was finally feeling warmed up. And unless I wanted to walk a couple miles through patches of snow, to walk up more patches of snow on the trail, things weren’t going any further. What had seemed promising completely evaporated. For those of my local friends who keep advocating for me to get a fat bike, this is an official admission that it would have completely solved my problem: I had the wrong gear for the conditions, and a mindset that wasn’t adaptable enough to keep after it by myself in the limited afternoon light. Melting snow fueled the roar of Mcdonald Creek, the flow swollen just a little bit more as my day washed back downstream along with the snowpack.

Saving grace: it’s still pretty, even a little ways in.

I hung out a bit at a pullout that will be clogged with visitors in a few months, savoring the quiet, and then hopped on and headed back. There wasn’t much to report, much to think about. Snow blocked the road. Things weren’t happening. Despite the lack of snow for a couple thousand feet up the walls of the valley, it still wasn’t off the road, sheltered by the trees and their shade in the sun that hadn’t protected the valley walls.

As I mentioned in the beginning, this blog has plenty of cool photos and stories for people to look at–and that’s by design. Like much of the outdoor content on any social media platform, there’s a targeted focus on being worthwhile and interesting in what I write and blog about. However, all of those platforms and media came around long after the practices and places in the real outdoors. Gorgeous conditions and perfect shots are far more rare than they appear when that’s what’s mediated constantly, and more than anything, I want there to be authenticity in my outdoor thinking, doing, and writing. Hence this post. Hence all these words. Hence delving into non-adventure, spurred on by my decidedly non-epic, unawesome, somewhat non-interesting bike ride, the biggest byproduct being all of this here.

If nothing else, I want people to know that there’s so much more to the outdoor life than when everything goes perfectly. Most of the time, the stories get better the minute things stop going perfectly.  But there are still those days when it goes so poorly that it’s not worth writing about, telling about, or even discussing unless the whole point is to provide contrast with bluebird, perfect conditions. And thus, I say happy non-adventuring.

Vaught did you say?

In the madness of life, there come moments where it’s possible to suspend our bother with the goings on around us, such that our true position gleams as if amidst a dull wreckage. Clarity comes. And with that, a gratitude to simply be alive to survey the life being lived. 

Either that, or the huckleberries were really good after a week spent at summer OR. Whichever proves more accurate, I took a break from the Continental Divide climbs last week to wander up Mt. Stanton and Mt. Vaught. 

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The approach was of the the fruit stand variety–teeming numbers of huckleberries bracketed the trail, interspersed by patches of thimbleberries. I’d credit the speed with which I hit treeline to the trail snacks. 

Like many peaks in Glacier, Stanton features a fairly worn game trail/climbers’ trail in some places. The entrance was obvious, and covered in deadfall, so I crashed around in the brush for a bit before finding it. I don’t know if it’s just me, or that climbing has become more popular in the past five years, or maybe that I’ve been doing some peaks that see more traffic–but they’re more worn in than I remember. 

Wildfires in some nearby vicinity (Idaho, Alberta, Washington, other parts of western Montana) giving a bit more gravitas to the SE summit views from Stanton. Flying ants had completely mobbed the summit prior to my sweaty arrival, and they managed to get all over me and my gear, some of them doing so even in the act of procreating. Pretty impressive little buggers. 

I’m still new to this mountaintop selfie sans timed shutter thing. So that discomfort comes out in the humor of upside down sunglasses. Believe it or not, they work just fine this way. 

The route leads over the summit of Stanton, and then down the ridge to connect with Vaught. From here forward, a few cairns were the only signs that somebody else had passed this way. 


Along the ridge, one particular spot falls off enough to deserve the seldom mention of a rope in the Edwards climbing guide. These sorts of thoughts are always complicated by the amount of time that has passed since Edwards compiled the route info, the natural erosion of these peaks, and made still looser by the varying levels of acceptable risk to any given climber or party. I’ll often shortcut the full discovery by talking to friends or family for their thoughts. In this case, Carl Kohnstamm told me that a chute on the east side afforded a spot to descend and traverse beneath the step. Still, it’s fun to visit these things that leap from a few words in a route description to grow large in the vacuum of the mind. My own estimation was that it looked no worse than 5.6, but the twenty feet of fall would make for a difficult down climb. Probably fine to climb up. And with the lore inspected, I traversed the rest of the ridge. 

A light breeze and another cloud of flying ants greeted me on the summit. 
Views to the west, with Trout Lake in the foreground. 

To the East:

A ptarmigan stays cool on the summit snowfield with Sperry Glacier behind:

And the most inspiring view is easily to the north, with McPartland and Heavens Peak rearing up along the ridge. Apparently, the W face of Heavens has been skied before, and I’ve a newfound respect for that feat. 

Atop the summit, the thunderheads built, but didn’t do anything more than threaten and look on. The ants flew everywhere. It was still. Peaceful. A quiet serenity pervaded the whole scene, the largeness of space and the towers punctuating it serving to dwarf me–to make me small yet again. Perhaps it is the lightness that comes with the shedding of cares. Perhaps it’s truly fresh each time, if one is open to receive it. But in that exposed place, so naked to the volatility of nature and everything that could possibly go wrong on the rocky descent and in the bear-food infested woods alone, the clarity that started this post enveloped me. Maybe it’s something hokey, or maybe the endorphins talking. But there was a burbling geyser of joy to just be there, flying ants and all. Joy to be able to feel that joy. To live out the life I have, I am given, I make. 



Showy asters on the straightforward descent. 

Crossing the ridge for the second time, I took note of the ledge that cuts across the west side of the summit block. It hadn’t been mentioned at all in the climbers guide, but seemed a reasonable thing to try. A faint game trail lead me across, saving the up and down of revisiting the flying ant orgy that was doubtless still in full swing up top. 

Somewhere right after I took this shot, I ran out of water. This time of year usually spells dry alpine conditions–most of the snow has gone down to be lakes and rivers and flush toilets. Thankfully, I found a source of water with some serious sugar in it too:

It went on like this. A stomach ache replaced the thirst, but I kept eating until I hit the stream, and eventually the lake. Where I took off my socks to find the full proof of the full, delicious day.

Lone Walkering

No sign, manual, or printed advice in recent memory has said this, so let me be the first: go hiking alone.

In the tradition of the (less epic) spirit quest, the quietude of the era before electricity and steam, the simple moments where the wilderness pipes into only one pair of ears with nothing to distract, mutilate, or bend the experience–go by yourself.

Success is entirely between you and where you go. Anything that happens, you have to handle or accept. Perhaps the consequences of a mistake seem more spectacular in free soloing, but it only takes a small slip in the wrong spot on a much tamer slope for the same result. To have that concentration on the forefront of the mind while moving well and enjoying the experiences creates a tension. There’s a simplicity, a purity there. Everything has to work. And when I wind into that groove, there’s a sense of happiness that is completely different from climbing with an awesome team or group. I wouldn’t call it better; just worthwhilely different.

If my advice causes you to get hurt, I’m not to blame. Go prepared. I make different decisions when by myself. I wear a helmet when it’s probably not necessary. So be smart.

And since I’ve yet to head off by myself for a summer climb this year, a solo climb of Lone Walker Mountain in Two Medicine made perfect sense. Back in May, Dan Koestler and I traversed under it en route to Dawson Pass on skis, but we didn’t make the ascent as the south ridge of Hellen seemed plenty difficult for our afternoon. My Continental Divide project meant I needed to go back and climb it, so I rolled into the Two Med parking lot around 8:45 with a vague notion of what I’d be doing.

Casual tourists use the Glacier Park Boat Company to avoid walking, and probably learn a bit about the park en route. In a last minute bid to dodge the three and a half miles of forest walking up Middle Two Medicine Lake, I hopped the 9:00 boat for a bow seat. The instructive tour was drowned out by engine noise, and it’s just as well, because I wasn’t paying attention anyway.

From the boat, there’s a bit of walking through the forest and meadows to get up to Upper Two Medicine Lake. En route, Twin Falls proves that old adage about Montana: you need a panoramic mode to capture even the waterfalls.

Rolling up through some nice meadows, the trail ambled through beargrass (white) and spiraea (pink) that were going absolutely party mode. I’m not a huge flower guy, but the display was absurd.

It proved a nice prelude to the next segment. The more standard route up goes to the pass on the north side of the mountain, which means you have to go up the lake. Options include bushwhacking and then sidehilling for a stupid amount of time, or wading the lakeshore and cutting up a vicious scree slope.

I took the second option, which connected poorly with the super-sized winter that we just seemed to finish. Exhibit A: extra water made the lake level higher, which made wading a deeper experience than I thought I’d face. Exhibit B: extra avalanches lead to lots of floating logs, fully branched and needled, and resting in the water against the bank. The whole point of my sloshy detour was to avoid flora, so how frustrating to realize something I’d never even contemplated: underwater bushwhacking. Exhibit C: wading for a mile and a half between knee and butt deep is hard work. It’s slow.

But then you run into false hellebores popping up under a melting snowbank, and their idiot optimism wears off. Eventually, I made it to a big scree slope, which served as a fully functional treadmill of swearing. After that, a snow slope made for much better footing and less swearing.

What it lacked in swearing, it made up for in serious deja vu. En route from Mt. Rockwell, the center peak, we’d traversed the lower snowfield in May. I don’t think we’d have tried it had we seen the hanging snowfields visible in this picture, but once in, we were committed.

In this photo from May, you can see our ski traverse line entering the trees in the bottom of the frame. Above them, you can see the track of the wet slide that took out a hundred yards of it ten minutes after we put that section in. It came down as we were transitioning to head up the slope to safety, and the boot pack was the fastest I’ve ever done with a big pack through thigh deep sludge. We left feeling the weight of humility, and weren’t on anything slidey after 9:30 for the rest of the trip.

It was quite nice to make the climb to the pass with no hang fire. Mountains don’t feel evil to me, but the place was rank with my own fear from before. A cruisey ridge was just the ticket, and Lone Walker delivered.

A shot of the ridge in winter.

It was really nice going until I got to the summit ridge, and ended up traversing counter clockwise around most of the summit block looking for a good access point.

Eventually, I found one, and after a few moves, the summit was just an easy walk down the ridge.

Summiting isn’t my favorite part of the climb. Instead, it’s the moment, usually twenty to thirty feet away, that it becomes apparent that there aren’t any obstacles left–no more route finding, scree fields, bears, or other difficulties that stand between me and getting exactly half way to a successful day in the hills. The summit itself is nice too, but the knowledge that you’ve made it kicks in a little before you’re actually there–and that’d the feeling of success that I love so much about the mountains.

In my parking lot rush for the boat, I forgot to change into one of the nice, wicking Crux Tees that Mountain Equipment sent me at the beginning of this summer. So that meant I realized I was in cotton all day, and it actually was just fine.

I’ve also become a big fan of Hammer Nutrition’s Perpetuem Solids while out wandering around. They’ve got some protein in them to keep your muscles happy for moving around all day, they taste fine, and they’re chewy enough to take the mind off scree grinding for a while.

Upper Two Med, Middle Two Med, and Lower Two Med with Rising Wolf towering above them to the left.

On the descent, things went just fine. I opted to crampon down the snow because it was just big and steep and sun cupped enough to make glissading a little scary, even with an axe. Which meant that I was wearing crampons and Salomon Running shoes. And, in a very important coincidence, they’re the sameish color match.

I found a hitchhiker.

Wade, wade, wade. The trees on the left, immediate shore were the worst part of the trip. A steep drop off meant that I had to cling to veggie belays, my feet on slippery rocks, traversing along. Each grip of a belay sent the gnats resting in the trees out to swarm around my head. Caution demanded slow speed, with a soaked backpack as the consequence, so the gnats were totally a match for my speed.

And once at the foot of the lake, I booked it to make it back in time for the return boat. The joke, however, was once again on me. I arrived to find out that there wasn’t enough room and waited a while so they could offload and return for the rest of us. But return they did, and it was wonderful to skip the last miles, especially because I saw a bear ranger, gun on shoulder, headed off to the north shore trail I would have taken.

Thanks to the Boat Co for finding a spot for me, and thanks to Lone Walker for not sliding on us last time so I could come back.

Check out the trip stats on Movescount: http://www.movescount.com/moves/move36373906

Sloshing up Mt. Stimson

Splash. The sole of the ski boot connected with slippery Pinchot Creek bottom, and for a minute, it seemed like the plastic shell might keep the creek from soaking my liners–the liners that might freeze solid that night in the tent. The liners we’d need to ski. The liners that still had miles to skin before we could make camp. Reaching the snow, I clicked back in, started skinning to catch up with Clay, and felt the squoosh of water that was now a part of every stride winding through the underbrush and up the valley. We’d skin for a while; the creek would cut us off. We’d shoulder our skis and wade in. And each time, I thought that some part of us might never recover from this trip.

Our reasons seemed pretty clear: Mt. Stimson is a truly worthy climb or ski in any season. It dominates the skyline of the southern portion of Glacier. During our climb/ski of nearby Blackfoot Mountain last year, the clouds parted and Clay asked reverently, “What’s that monster over there?”

Further, its southwest face occupies the only NW Montana entry in the 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America, a coffee table book that occupied our living room in Whitefish and occupies my dreams on the regular.

Countering that occupation, Stimson has a reputation for being very tall, which it is, and very hard to get to, which it also fulfills. With a summit just over 10,000ft, it rises nearly 7,000ft above the trailhead on Highway 2. Summer approaches via established trail can range to twenty miles. Being skiers, we figured that with good timing, we could use snow to skin over much of the legendary, vicious underbrush that makes the direct approach up Pinchot Creek so memorable. We’d still have to cross the Middle Fork of the Flathead, Coal Creek, and Pinchot Creek, but thrall to that gorgeous line, and our propensity to embark into suffering, we figured we could do it.

The day before, we got our backcountry permit, and took a quick trip north to scout the trip to the river. Post holing through isothermal nonsense over deadfall in light shoes, we noted that the river didn’t seem too wide upstream of the crossing. So we arrived around six am the next morning with a pack raft, a map, lots of rope, our skis, and some dim notion of what we were about to do.

Skinning over the crunchy postholiness of the day before, Clay dragging the raft behind him through trees, it took us a while to wander to the river. A steep embankment of mixed skinning and logs didn’t help.

But after skinning across the swamp, we found the river. And found that it was much, much wider at the ford than where we’d scouted. After a quick try, we realized that the 30m glacier line tied to a 75ft throw bag we’d brought to return the raft to the person waiting on the other side wouldn’t be enough. Clay ferried the gear across, making me the only piece of luggage necessary to make the other side.

Every piece of cord we had totaled seven different pieces plus two NRS Straps and a big stick. With only himself in the raft, and pulling the cord I tried to keep out of the water, Clay paddled for the far bank. Given that we were trying to cross perhaps 170ft of water, the rope dropped into the current, pulling into a large bow shape that kept Clay from getting quite to the other side. Our plan was that he’d bail out into the shallows, leave the paddle, and I’d pull it back. Instead, committed to his bail next to the steep bank, I held the stick and watched the boat flip. He went fully into the river, clinging to the paddle, and swam madly to shore. The current pulled the boat downstream, and as I dragged it back in with our makeshift line, the inflation sack from the raft floated on downstream with my hopes for the day.

That left me on the near shore, with my bear spray, camera, and a raft, but no paddle. Our plans were shot, but to even sort out our retreat, I had to take the raft across the river. Two paddle raft paddles were sitting in the back of Clay’s rig, so I spent an hour potholing up the softening snow to the railroad tracks, the car, and coming back down. Tying the two paddles together with prussik cord, I took my makeshift kayak paddle, went well upstream, and made it over to Clay.

Arriving on the other bank, I found him exceptionally fashionable in wet ski boots, dry boxers, and his down coat. Unlike the ski gear draped across the trees to dry in the 10am sun, his spirits weren’t drenched. The moment he went in, I’d written the trip off, and was already contemplating lunch at home. In our planning, we’d barely worried about the Middle Fork crossing that had taken us nearly four hours. But in the hour I’d been gone to grab the oars, he did “a little wallowing in self pity, then got dry gear on and started to think about it.” We were there, and it seemed right to go up and check things out since we’d already been through so much–in perhaps a half mile from the car.

Our predictions about patchy snow came true. Before clicking in after yet another section of walking up mud, I’d try to kick my boots in the snow to keep grit out of my tech fittings. The Coal Creek trail led us up the hill, and into some flats where we started to see the ridiculous country where we were headed.

For a while, the trail heads northwest before running up against the embankment of Coal Creek and turning south. Following directions from some friends, we went about a half mile past the junction. Our descent route involved perhaps the worst ravine out there, but we kept our skis, skins, and touring modes on our feet. Clay getting into it:

After that, it was time to cross Coal Creek itself. Clay’s soaked gear meant he wasn’t getting much wetter, so he charged in while I  stood in the snow, stripping off my boots and pants in a strange hope of keeping them dry.

Once on the other side, we took a minute to refill our water and think. Both of the major stream crossings were done, and we were that much more committed to a goal that was still a long, long way off. Thinking back, I don’t know when we decided that we’d commit to going in or coming back out. Some mutual stubbornness got us up, put our boots on, and lead us up the embankment and into the trees.

An old trail exists somewhere on the north side of Pinchot creek. Like many of the old  and unmaintained options in Glaicer, it’s probably overgrown and crumbling. Plus, it was probably under snow for a lot of our route. So our routefinding took us up the ridge to the south. Snow came and went, and after too many transitions, the grass and dirt skinning became natural.

Because we had skis, it could have been possible to go a long ways up the ridge, and then do a traverse back down into the valley floor to gain distance. But as we got higher up, the deadfall worsened. Skinning got extra difficult, and we spent an hour skin skiing and then booting down through isothermal patches of snow between logs to the creek bed, which looked more welcoming. In places, the ground was still frozen. This made for a preponderance of treacherous footing and swearing. So even though I was worried about my liners, the splooshing into the creek was actually quite an upgrade.

The time we spent zig zagging across the creek drifts out of memory. Between the bear keg and overnight stuff in a day pack and sore legs, I was loosing motivation. Clay, however, kept his spirits high, checked his watch, and kept us going upward.  Even though he started the day by falling into a cold river in his ski gear, here he was, keeping things chipper as I slowly sank into the swamps of my own frustration. I credit his optimism with the trip, and his leads through the creek bottom kept me with our mission.

Eventually, the creek narrows, goes into a canyon, and we detoured up onto the slopes below Eaglehead Mountain. By this, we gained quite a bit of elevation, got out of the bottom, and didn’t have any more creek crossings. For the first time, we could see the line we’d come all this way to attempt (direct center).

The clock wore on. Crossing some large avie paths was the easy part. Between, the contour line was constantly interrupted by brush and terrain. Stubbornness was the motivation to bash through, skis slipping on logs. We continued up to about 5200ft, and skinned into where we wanted to camp right around 7pm.

We’d been at it for thirteen hours, nine since leaving the Middle Fork. The morning promised 5000ft of gain after an early start. The line loomed above us as alpenglow colored the peaks. I ate my freeze dried macaroni with the satisfaction of someone who is wearing all their layers and about to get into a summer sleeping bag while snow camping.

My gamble had been that I’d go light, hopefully be warm enough in temps that were probably a good 10 degrees F colder than my sleeping bag rating. The night started pleasantly enough. But when we woke at 4am, I was starting cold. Lacking good insulated storage, we’d planned to melt drinking water in the morning. Then the stove went on the fritz after a few cups of hot, watery glory. There was plenty of fuel. It was primed. But it wouldn’t burn strongly, emitting a feeble flame that ate up an hour and a half before we each took about a liter and a half in disgust.

Our liners, which we’d tried to dry, and tucked in our bivys, were soaked and nearly frozen. Clomping around camp in socks and boot shells was more comfortable. And so we left, heading up the valley towards the saddle in the predawn not-dark-enough-we-wasted-so-much-time-on-that-damn-stove.

We fairly flew to the pass, aside from a few patches of steeper crust. In the light, angles were hard to guess at, and I slid back a couple times. Behind us, the peaks above the valley were gathering light. Our midwinter Middle Fork haunts stood up down the valley. I chewed a bar in silence, not quite thinking, and not taking it in really, but just witnessing. Perhaps that’s all I could do, and it felt right.

Eventually, the south face came into view above us, and the full task was at hand.

Looming really isn’t the right word. To get where we wanted to start skiing, we’d need to achieve the center high point. Given the blocky cliffs on both sides, the best route seemed to be up the right side, through the shadow line, and up. 10am was our goal for being on the summit, which would give us some leeway on the SW face that was not yet in the sun. . And so we pushed on, ski crampons biting into the glassy surface of refrozen sludge.

Rime ice covered the boulders, and the pitch steepened. So it was crampon time. Made so easy by the skis on our feet, our rapid progress seemed to halt as we kicked steps into variable, refrozen crust. It wasn’t beyond boot deep, but the exhaustion from the day before seemed to drag behind me, taunting with its weight.


Swinging leads, it seemed to go on for a long time. We were both feeling it, but the sense of how far we’d come grew with the visa below. Attached by my axe, whippet, and crampons, I reveled in the joyful but tenuous feeling of being a fly on a pretty big wall. Water from my liners gave every step a squoosh much more like the creek than the front point. Then, at a break, Clay nudged his pack, and the sunglasses and helmet atop it skittered past our feet down the boot pack. Without them, his red buff and black hair gave the impression that I’d just been following Rambo up the boot pack.

It got steep too.

So when I navigated around a rock, and found myself on the summit ridge, it was relief–cut short by the sight of what still sat between me and the top. It floated perhaps a quarter mile away, the broken rocks and cornices seeming like some castle wall jutting up into the sky.

The short walk to the summit is my favorite part of a climb. Cruxes are interesting, and route finding proves to be the worthy challenge, but the last few steps when you haven’t yet achieved what you’ve set out to do, but know that there’s now nothing that can stop you–that moment is an easy, quick one amongst more that are, by their nature, more complex. To get to that moment, we’d need to traverse over the blocks covered in rime ice, avoid cornices, and not fall off.

And it looked daunting. Our crampons were balling up nearly every step. Making the first, spidery moves across the unsupported snow fields meant pulling out the microscope: be right here, right now. This little slope. One movement at a time, with an idea of where to go that lasts about twenty feet. We moved a little, and I think Clay just had had enough.

“I’m good. Since I dropped my lid, there’s just no desire to keep moving there. I don’t care about skiing that other face, not without a helmet.”

He was right. Calling it there was a good move. Skiing our ascent line would be plenty interesting to ski. But in the time that we’d already made on the ridge, the fear had become manageable. I could move in this. And it was visible the whole way.

I said, “I think I’m good moving across this. You ok with that?”

He was, and I set off. Things got easier, then harder, and before I knew it, that last twenty feet came up, and the easy, successful feeling came out in a lonely little wolf howl.

A selection of shots from the summit:

Back across the summit ridge toward Clay:

Looking down the SW face:

Out the west ridge to the right:

South towards St. Nicholas and the Cloudcroft. Pichot is in the foreground.

North, over Nyack creek with Blackfoot and Jackson.

When we climb, we get to survey the world while it truly dwarfs us. Seething masses of geology and water, held in temporary forms until they erode away, giant waves becoming flattened by each particle of rock carried down a stream–they hold such easy ability to keep us humble, tiny, and permeated by wonder. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So moving back along the ridge, my water gone, kicking my feet into the places where I’d been before, I wandered out of the blank bliss of the summit and into the reality that, hey, we get to ski down this thing.

Clay in his perch.

Getting our gear on, and setting up, it registered that we were getting late–11am. Looking around for a wet slide that I heard coming down, I realized that it was on the skier’s right of the bowl we’d ascended. Clay dropped in, ski cut on the steeps, and after posting up we both watched his slough step down into small pockets and sludge its way out the bottom of the bowl.

Looking down from the perch. Clay is the speck on the right side, above the rocks.

Like the ascent, we took turns swinging into sheltered pockets and navigating the skier’s left. It was steep, nicely edgeable, and a whole hell of a lot of fun.


As we skied out the bottom, I spotted a dome shaped white thing next to the murder scene of some grouse that came to a rough end. It was the helmet that had skittered away. Rambo reclaimed his helmet. And we surfed down the old moraines, jumping off stuff and chortling all the way to camp.

As if it sensed our relief and the sun shining down, the stove worked fine back at camp. Water melted, we allowed a short nap to dry things out. Note the recycled avie debris used as a drying rack.

Descent came much more quickly. Our skin trail lead back down the valley through the nonsense of bushes we’d already crashed through once. Instead of zig zagging, the bench on the south side of Pichot Creek held snow for at least a half mile past where Peril Creek comes in. All good travel seems to end on this trip, usually in dirt or downfall or heavy shrubberies. So eventually, we fixed bayonets and once more waded into the creek.

Felt soles would be better. However, you can’t roll your ankle in ski boots. Or stub your toe.  And the liners, once soaked, work sort of like a wetsuit by insulating and warming the water around your skin. Each time the water comes over the top of the boot, it changes the warmer stuff around your foot. Which keeps things interesting.

In an attempt to avoid the deadfall doom of our descent into Pinchot Creek, we followed it a bit downstream. By and large, we missed the deadfall by going straight into a band of christmas trees packed onto the fringe of the burn like teenagers stageside at a boy band farewell concert. Swearing at them doesn’t really do much, so grabbing them by the throat and pulling yourself uphill makes for better uphill headway.

Our reward was a nice gap in the burn. Much easier walking afforded a better route to a newly swollen Coal Creek. Crossing involved a desperate skate across a large, flat boulder while waist deep in the current.

But by this point, we knew it could be over soon. So the manic energy of finishing the task coursed through our soggy, limp enthusiasm. I found myself chasing Clay down the trail over dirt patches as he plowed onward into the dusk that was coming down.

The Coal Creek trail goes right through the middle of this melt pond. It’s under about ten feet of water here, which will all go away later in the season. I know you’re looking at the trail.

Once arrived at the Middle Fork, we arranged gear, ferried, and got across by two manning the pack raft. I lay on the bow, my feet to each side of the cockpit, beard over the water like a tired figurehead in some bizarre aquatic comedy involving ski boots. Clay paddled us across, landing as it truly began to be dark.

It all got slower then. Around the swamp. Up the hill. Walking along the trail tracks, with Clay carrying the ricksack filled with raft on his front and all the ski stuff on his back. Eventually, our headlamps reflected in the headlights of the Suburban. Dry gear gave way to weariness, and the drive back in to Columbia Falls was a tired one.

So many words for only two days. So much difficulty. And both easily worth it, to see my estimation of my own abilities bested by the miles traversed and difficulties overcome. Thanks to Clay for his enthusiasm, skills, photos, and being badass enough to totally go in the river and decide to carry on.

Holed up at Holland Lookout

Of course, it was raining. Drops pelted the windshield all the way to Condon. An afternoon skin to Rumble Lakes was ruled out in favor of wandering around and stuffing ourselves with delicious food at my uncle’s place. Maybe the weather window would arrive by morning.

Ah, spring in the northern Rockies. Dirt approaches lead to patchy, crusted, nasty skinning, which leads to a buried trail, which transitions to full on winter in the alpine. Sweaty base layers and freezing at night lead to walking out with ski pants on my backpack. High pressure moves in for a couple days, storm snow sheds in the dramatic gurgling of wet avalanches, then the next cell rains on the climbing crags and puts fresh snow into the slide paths. Process repeats.

Playing this time of year requires partners that are used to such bizarre conditions. Who aren’t afraid to throw skis and boots on a backpack already heavy with camping and camera gear, then chug merrily up the skin track while expounding on the artistic and aesthetic aspects of working in the outdoor industry. Steven Gnam is one such powerhouse. Introduced by mutual buddies, our first encounter involved making pizza and chatting past midnight about different rambles and projects all over Glacier. Several months of phone tag and emailing followed, and we finally met up to head down the Swan a couple weeks back.

Of course, it was raining when we woke up. I learned to do nearly anything in the rain while living in Washington, but that part of me isn’t quite what it once was. Looking at the rain soaking the deck in front of the cozy living room was disheartening. And since we were angling to overnight, in the snow, and weren’t sure if the lookout would have a stove.

Essentially, I was being a wuss.

Which is, of course, an opportunity. Sometimes it’s the cheer of a friend, the encouragement of a climbing partner, or the sun coming out. Chocolate discovered in the bottom of my pack. An easy hundred feet encountered in impenetrable bushwhacking. Whatever it is, it sweetens that soured part of my mind that controls attitude, which controls nearly everything. Sitting in the living room, the sun began to poke through here and there, and once that happened, it was time to explode our gear from the Subaru.

Steven expertly handled the massive snow ruts on the way into the parking lot, while the trail held only dirt for the first mile or so. Spring plays those nasty tricks with low elevation snow cover–flats still postholeable, and slopes bare and brushy.

Even once in ski boots, we alternated snow and pine needles. Gaining the ridge was stiff going, but it quickly got very wintery.

Judging by the photos we’d seen on Facebook, we thought our nightly accommodations could take a little bit of digging to get in. But perhaps the wind would scour the ridge top, and it’d be easy.

Of course, we arrived to find only a corner of the roof peaking out. While the wind blew and my gloves got soaked, we started digging our way down. Hopefully the winterizing storm shutters were in place.

No such luck. Sometime before the first snow fell, wind probably ripped the plywood away. The door was open, and the window somehow smashed. A huge pile of snow awaited us inside. Firewood and stove were drifted over. To make everything worse, packrats had gotten in and pooped on nearly every flat surface. We arrived around 3pm, and it was 7pm before the fire was going. Thoughts turned to dinner and making ourselves comfortable, which got stranger as the dirt floor melted into mud sprinkled with turds from the rats.

Fruit of our labors: thermonuclear sunsets over the Missions.

Evening came with dinner and melting water. Thanks to our high perch, Steven saw the Northern Lights, so we got that midnight light show as well.

Morning arrived with the rain clouds gone, and zero motivational issues.

With a gorgeous day starting, we looked for ski options. Heavy cornices trailed east on the ridge, making assessment difficult. Underneath them, large rock slabs had been heating all winter. The ridge in both directions didn’t offer much in safe entrances to the terraces towards Necklace Lakes, so the option was to head west, down our skin track. Sticking in the trees and along the ridge top, we found fresh snow that was getting gooey by our second lap.


On our second lap, I swore off oatmeal for good. In Steven’s words, “if I eat oatmeal in the morning, it’s actually worse than if I ate nothing at all. It just sucks the energy out of me.” I’d noticed the feeling before, but this was worse than ever. Though so tempting for ease of preparation, and easy to buy, I’m done with it as a backcountry food.

Lunch, however, was a tasty combo of cream cheese and bell pepper burritos. So that solved some problems as we packed up to leave.

Steven digging out the storm door.

Ski time. Note the large crown above and to the right of me.

Things went from sludge to sludge to sludge to sticks. We managed to trigger a couple wet slides over the edge of the ridge, and they sludged on down, muttering. Things got thicker, and eventually we found ourselves in isothermal grossness, making little headway.

After some serious brush bashing, we were back at the place where we’d put our boots on. It was absurdly hot, so I just put my pants on my pack, thinking we’d probably not see anyone here, given that it was so early in the season. Ticks were a concern. But I’d check extra well.

Of course, we met some folks. Who promptly asked me if I knew about the ticks. Talking to them later in the parking lot, we learned they were biologists studying the way that trees talk to each other by way of chemical signals. So at least we weren’t the only weird people out in the woods.

Thanks to Steven for an awesome trip, his humor, and his photos. Next up will be our adventure to Sperry Chalet the next day.

 

Fast and slow into Spyder Bowl

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.

Mindless on Mt. Merritt

Glacier National Park is home to six peaks over 10,000 feet. Last week, my buddy Mitch and I found ourselves in line at the Apgar Backcountry Permit office at 6am, hoping to climb two of them.

The initial plan was hatched on a random drop in to Mitch’s house earlier in the summer. Over homemade pesto, he mentioned that he was looking to climb Mt. Merritt, one of the tens,  and Mt. Cleveland, the highest peak in Glacier. We put dates on the calendar, and that’s how we found ourselves at Apgar a full hour before it was set to open.

Usually, that’s enough time to be first in line. In recent years, the popularity of Glacier has exploded. People of all stripes have been flocking to the park, including backpackers who fall in love with the scenery and deal with the somewhat medieval backcountry permitting system to sleep under the stars. However, we were third in line. Because four offices open at the same time, we were in competition for something like twelve to fourteen groups connected by the same internet-linked reservations system. With a limited number of sites available in the Belly River, our subsequent nights got gobbled up by other groups. We left with one night at the head of Glenn’s Lake, about a fourth of our intended itinerary, no thoughts of Cleveland, and an inkling that the trip we were about to embark on was going to be a bit silly.

Rose got off work in the afternoon, and we had twelve miles to cover after leaving the Cheif Mountain Customs trailhead. Three of those went by before the rain started.

Thunder echoed all over the valley, gullies on the mountains became white with sudden streams, and the vegetation overgrowing the trail brushed water onto our legs and boots.
I got the squishy feel of water in my only pair of socks (only out for one night, right?) as we neared the Belly River ranger station.

Cleveland in the thunder.

Wet crossing over the Belly River.

Near the foot of Cosley Lake, things got extra overgrown. Meaning extra wet. Though the storm seemed to be clearing out as it got dark.

It was a wet crew that rolled in to eat dinner at 11pm. No idea how my phone transformed  Rose into a zombie. I fell asleep listening to water drop out of the trees onto our tarp.

Breakfast. 5am wakeup. And the worst part was putting dry feet into wet socks into still wetter boots. A bright spot: oatmeal.

Good morning, Merritt.

Crossing the north end of the lake.

Mitch and Carl.Water stop at Mokowanis. Looking up at the Stoney Indian peaks and Cleveland.

The Edwards route description notes finding elk trails across a “vegetated gully.” Given that we were the third party to summit this year, it comes as no surprise that we weren’t able to find much. Heading into the soggy shrubberies.
After some serious sidehilling and a bit of cliff scrabbling, Mitch and Rose top out in the cirque.

We stopped for a break, dried socks and maps, and I realized that the thunderstorm had frosted the summit of Kaina Mountain with the first new snow I’ve seen this year.

Yay for winter. I can’t wait.

Drier socks on my feet, there was a bit of scree/talus to traverse before the gully scrambling begins. No real goat trails through there, and the storm from the hike in kept the rock wet. Mitch starts the real climbing.

Just above the algal reef, an outcropping of particularly hardy rock that we cut through via a nice little shelf, Rose looked up and said, “Bear!” We all watched a nice blonde griz make a hasty retreat up through the cliffs and into the draw to the left. Despite the fact that bears can be anywhere at any time of year here, I admit that my guard was down. Pretty impressive to see it move so fast up the shelves and scree.

Carl near the top of the cliffs. At this point, we’d done nearly 1500ft of scrambling since leaving the basin.

Cresting the ridge, we got our first views to the south. Mitch drinking it in.

From there, the route traverses a number of scree shelves above the Old Sun glacier. Rose heading across with Natoas Mtn to her upper right.
Yours truly bringing up the rear.A short arm of snow blocked the route, and Carl was kind enough to lead and cut the steps in for the rest of the crew.Some confusion about which of the two summits was higher ensued. The map and route description consulted, we headed up to the northern one.



While up there, I thought about the rainy trip in. My wet boots. How far we had to walk out that night. And really, those are the parts that make the summits sweet. That part of talus that doesn’t get any higher is flavorless unless it’s spiced by everything that comes before and after.

Back at the saddle for our water break.

And the descent.


On the way down, we found our elk trail. It emptied into a streambed infested by a large moose. We waited for him to leave, followed it down, and then saw why we couldn’t it find it on the way up.

It was easy overhead going, with lots of ripe thimbleberries to sweeten the ride. We made noise, ate, schwacked, and popped out at the lake to find some buddies enjoying their dessert.

No more photos from this point on is a testament to the grunt back out. A couple miles to  Glenns, and we we grabbed the rest of our gear. With no permit for that night, we were determined to headlamp our way to the trailhead. About six miles in, my feet were feeling it. Carl started telling cougar stories. Eight miles in, and sitting down wasn’t smart. Ten miles, and my stomach began to do backflips. One trip into the woods, and I thought I was good.  A mile further, and I hastily ran in there again, but didn’t make it in time. One am, by headlamp, holding up the group, changing out of soiled shorts into the other pair of underwear I had, my long johns.

Somewhere around this point the trudge entered the stupid level, where each foot propels itself forward. Blisters starting to form from still damp socks. Rose’s headlamp died, so I was lighting her feet and remembering for when I got there. A couple of times, the eyes across a field would flare in our lamps before heading off. At the beginning of the trip, I joked about the switchbacks right below the trailhead being punishment. Instead, I can honestly say I smiled when we hit them.

2:30am saw us laying in the parking lot, watching shooting stars. Earlier this year, two climbers I met on the trail mentioned that “while in your twenties, you don’t think about efficiency or practicality in your climbing trips.” They said this in reference to our overnight bags complete with skis and glacier travel gear. Lying there behind the car, it flashed back to me. I remember thinking, “well, they said efficiency or practicality, but at least we brought our headlamps.”

Thanks to Rose, Carl, and Mitch for sending it on such a fool’s errand. ‘Twas an honor to be out there with you all. Thanks to Mitch for his summit photo, and to Rose and Carl for taking my picture.

Denali Fo’ Real: Part 2

And we’re back. If you’ve returned after that last massive missive, thanks. If you’re just wandering in, this is part two of three from my Denali adventure this spring. The third section, which will include our summit day and leaving the mountain, will be along shortly. I left off just as we arrived at 11,000ft camp.

All the prep and travel to get to the mountain had the effect of winding me up. Some of my buddies talk of getting “itchy” after extended stints of normal behavior; there was no question that I was raring to go by the time we set foot on the glacier. Excellent weather only made me want to take advantage in case we got cut off by an incoming storm.

Arriving at 11,000ft camp, I was stoked. Over the past few days we’d made serious progress on the mountain. Our team worked. We had what we needed. We’d made friends. The night of our arrival, we got our first gifts from an expedition lead by a climbing ranger: cheddar cheese, salsa, and reindeer sausage. Grant savored his meat treats while I threw restraint to the winds and clobbered the whole lot of cheese.

And it felt good. Many folks have asked what surprised me most about our trip, and I’ve pointed out that it went beyond my previous experience in many categories. The most winter camping. The heaviest loads and sleds. The greatest elevation gains. Altitudes above 12,000ft. The largest amounts of glacier travel. I guess there’s a certain amount of hope that one will cope well with all those difficulties—I certainly believed that we’d be up to them—but to have it actually happen is vindicating. Lying there in the tent at 11,000ft, it was undeniable that we’d be doing well.

Rest was the objective of our first day. We’d done 3200ft the day before, a grand of it with all our gear. The sun was well overhead and the frost on the tent had long since melted into water by the time I got up. For the first few days on the glacier, I’d refused to wear my noseguard. On one hand, it was pride, because there’s absolutely nothing even remotely cool about noseguards. On the other, it changed the fit on my glacier glasses so that light came in underneath them. I’d tried to be diligent with sunscreen instead, and had a bright red and aching schnozz to show for it. So to make up for my stupid pride, I did the sensible thing and covered the chapped skin in duct tape. It stayed on for two days and, while looking even less appealing than the noseguard, allowed it to heal somewhat. After that, the noseguard was on every day.

Right above camp is Motorcycle Hill, supposedly so named after the even steeper hills that see motorcycle hillclimb competitions. The good weather had many groups in the same state of excitement I was exhibiting, so we watched various ropeteams jockey for position, take different routes, and eventually all get stuck crossing a crevasse at the same point. Good spectating was had from camp, warm mugs of oatmeal in our hands and down booties on our feet. Later in the day we skinned up Motorcycle Hill and found the few pow turns to be had there.

Sometime after we got back from our ski, the Army boys rolled in and set up camp right next to us. They’d sit on our counter/bench, give us candy or poptarts, and tell stories that made me weep from laughing so hard. Guys that I’d probably never talk to elsewhere became friends to joke and struggle with. Just before we went to bed, the Swedes arrived, called us Cinderellas (I still am not sure why), and we helped them dig a cache.

The next day dawned the coldest yet. In the shadow, we packed up most of our food and gas, our really cold gear, and set off up Motorcycle Hill.

Slow and steady, we made our way up towards Windy Corner. When nasty, it’s common to see 60-100mph gusts cutting across the rock bands. For us, it was still and sunny. Going up the hill right before it, I thought I smelled white gas, which seemed strange given that there weren’t any camps nearby. A hundred feet before the top my ass started to burn, and the smell was getting stronger. Upon opening my pack, the fumes got worse and it became apparent that our lucky streak had ended.

Nearly everyone on Denali burns white gas as fuel in their cookstoves. Most of it is purchased from the air taxies, who stockpile it on the glacier and give it to you when you arrive at Kahiltna Base. Following the elevation, the two gallon cans in my pack had ascended nearly 13,000ft from where they’d been put on a plane in Talkeetna. Amongst everything we’d made happen, we hadn’t opened them to equalize the air pressure with elevation. That caused them to leak, and some bolts on the frame of my pack rubbed holes in the plastic of the garbage bag that contained them. Two and a half sticks of precious butter had been soaked. My pack reeked. The white gas had leaked onto the waterproof bottom, soaked through the seam into my hipbelt, and soaked into my pants. Which accounted for the burning sensation. Frustrated, I repacked everything and poured water on my pants to dilute the gas.

A guided group at Windy Corner.

Just shoveling out our cache at 13,500ft took our breath away.

After wanding it and clicking in, we made turns back to camp. 7.5 hours up, 15 minutes down. All fun and smiles.

Until I pulled out my avalanche beacon to turn it off. Safely back in camp, I realized that some hardware flapping on my harness must have struck the screen. With the crystal broken, I had no idea of the battery life, and the search mode was only auditory—no arrows or distances. It was the second setback.

Sound sleep usually follows big days, and this was no exception for me. I was out like a light, until awakened by what sounded like Grant hacking up his third lung for the evening. I must have dozed off. 5am, and I open my eyes to see Grant wide awake, reading. Not at all normal. He’d been up all night hacking, and while he explained this the coughing fits would interrupt him. Scrolling through both our heads were thoughts about HAPE—we were within  the elevation range, and Grant has a history of altitude sickness. Shortly behind those were thoughts that the whole expedition might be in jeopardy. We talked it through, reiterated our commitment to coming home safe before everything else, and changed our plan.

With good weather in the forecast and momentum behind us, the strategy was to head up to 14,200ft camp that day. Get past Windy Corner with our gear, acclimate, relax, and then push for the summit when the weather gave us a window. With only three days of food in camp, the supplies weren’t there to wait out whatever the cough or a storm might bring. I found a couple of guys we’d met the day before, Robert and Edward, and asked to rope in with them. I’d go up and grab food from the cache, come back, and in the mean time, Grant would try to call my uncle, a doctor, on a borrowed sat phone to see if we could get some expertise on the situation.

Throwing some bars in my jacket for breakfast, I hustled to get ready. Edward was about to leave the Air Force, and was prepping for a speed ascent. While I tied my prussiks on, he mentioned that Robert, a priest by occupation, had been hit by a truck at some point and suffered frontal lobe damage. I realized that I was tying in with two of the crazier people on the hill. We flew up the hill, and they fed me Snickers bars at 14,200 camp while I took it all in.

Robert leading below the Messner.

Gapers. Real gapers.

Another Foraker shot. I wonder if climbers over there constantly take pictures of Denali.

14,200ft camp feels like the epicenter. Above, the fixed lines trace up to a saddle at 16,200ft. Rescue Gully drops into cracked, icy aprons below 17,200ft camp. A few over, the Messner Couloir, Orient Express, and West Rib all drop nearly 5000ft from the Football Field that sits below the summit.

Fixed lines.

Messner is on the right.

From above, the camp itself looks like a town: a central sort of broad thoroughfare, with the sprawl of walled, tent subdivisions springing up around its periphery. Only 6000ft from the summit, it’s the first place that really feels within striking distance. Knowing that I had to descend, grab food from the cache, and potentially not make it back up that high if Grant took a turn for the worse made it bittersweet. Our lack of experience at altitude wasn’t helping us, so I asked a few friends already at 14,200 what they thought. The general consensus was that it was some sort of respiratory bug that came from the cold, dry air. Optimistically, I dropped in and enjoyed the skiing back to 11,000.

“Want a picture before you head out?”

Grant was doing much better when I returned. Coughing only occasionally and smiling, he’d been chatting with folks in camp and had come to the same conclusion—probably just the dry air getting to his lungs. The plan was to take another rest day, and head up to 14,200ft the day after. My brain was sporting an altitude headache, so I took a nap while he cooked dinner.

The offday saw us basically sedentary. I built a lounge chair of snow and read Moby Dick in the sun. During our training, I’d anticipated the fun of off days—just getting to hang out in the snow, no real goals for that day. Lazy style in the midst of a ton of activity.

The Swedes in their 11,000ft camp.

The next morning, it was back on. Feeling similar to our second carry day to 11,000ft, we kept up a good pace, took breaks, and made it into 14,200 camp in the evening.

“This, kids, is a rainshadow.”

Looking up to Windy Corner.

A few hundred yards out of 14,200ft camp.

We’d backcarry for the cache at 13,500ft the next day, but for the moment it was wonderful. Taking a spot in what we later learned to be an empty Alaska Mountain School camp, it was only a few hours before the Army boys joined us, pitched their tents, and the neighborhood resumed.

Prior tenants dug a massive amphitheater-style cook pit, so we all piled in to melt water and share the stoke of arriving.

My last trip up had been in different conditions, with the expedition hanging on how Grant would feel. To be there, have our stuff and friends, and stare out at alpenglow on Foraker while brushing my teeth—it’s another in a massive series of moments, each valuable enough on their own to be worth remembering for years, all compressed into a tight bundle that sparkles differently from each direction in which it’s viewed.

That was the first night I was cold. With morning temps around -15F, it was always a bit of motivation to get out of the sleeping bag. After, I started sleeping in my heavy long johns and Fitzroy. Which only added to the motivation issues. Perhaps the best qualifier for that couple minutes of hopping around in the vestibule and changing is the view. The trick seems to be a vista with a gravitational pull equal or greater to the contentment of staring at the tent ceiling, totally toasty. For those wondering, I took a Mountain Equipment Iceline down bag. 800ish fill power, rated to -12F (-25C). The next step of armament would have been a -40F bag, and that was overkill. With my clothes layers to amplify, it worked great.

As motivation to get our cache, Grant and I promised ourselves a pancake breakfast after we returned.

The Army boys grab their cache.

Our unqualified pancake disaster (eating mushy, half cooked doughballs) from a Stevens Pass trip was swiftly dispatched by expert-level non-stick pan handling.

Drying out our bags.

Later in the day, we did a little walk over to the Edge of the World, a spot with a view off the glacial bench that 14,200 occupies. It looks some 6,000ft down into the NE Fork of the Kahiltna, the distance that I earlier showed an avalanche sliding down.

If we’d hauled it this far, might as well enjoy a nip.

Colton and Troy from the Army came with us, and when we returned, the Swedes had arrived to fill out the neighbors.

Each evening, folks at the Airstrip would relay the weather forecast at 8pm via the little handheld radios. Everything seemed to stop for a couple minutes while the decisions for the next couple days were determined by what the little voice would say. 14,200 camp was different in that the NPS camp posted a weatherboard, so it was easier to make plans if we’d missed the forecast or just plain couldn’t hear it. That second night at 14,200ft was a Tuesday. Weather was supposed to roll in during the weekend, and with it our summit bid time seemed to be closer. If it was Sunday, we could swing it: cache Weds, rest Thurs, move to 17,200ft on Friday, summit Sat, head down Sun. If it held. Any sooner and we’d be interrupted, on the hill longer, and possibly running out of belly fire to get the thing done.

Shadow crossing into camp for the evening.

Foraker, 2AM. By Grant. I was asleep.

Following the plan, we headed out to cache the next day. Sleds aren’t much use above 14,200ft camp, so it was just our packs filled with food, skis strapped on the outside for the ride down. There’s no proper name for the headwall below the fixed lines, but it just gets steeper the higher you climb. An hour or so out, the fog came in. We watched a group of injured climbers make their way off the ropes with assistance from the NPS folks. After, we walked over, clipped our ascenders on, and started up. Having seen the lines from below, it’s obvious that you’re exposed to falling and crevasses below. Rockfall from above. Though in the fog, it consisted of cuplike steps in the ice.

Stops to clip around the pickets anchoring the lines in. More of a slog than an awareness of the place; a huge mountain rendered down to the little circle of visibility.

At the top of the lines, 16,200ft, it was intermittently clear. Clouds seemed to be cupped in the cirque above camp, pouring over into the Peters Glacier on through the notch. Grant realized he had cell reception.

Pile of rope and anchors when we stopped.

Then the real climbing began. Though there’s a plethora of pre-placed running protection into which to clip your rope, a fall would certainly be a bad choice. The Peters Glacier lurks somewhere down to the left, and on the right, clouds obscured the rock face crowning the ice down to 14,200ft camp.

Somebody who didn’t quite fit into the kindness of the mountain theme had pulled all the biners from the running protection. Leading meant piling most of our spare biners together, clipping them in one by one, and Grant would pull them as the rope fed up to his harness. Slow progress. Though at least it’s steep, with rocks peeking out or actually in the way. After all the glacier slogging it felt like we’d finally found a mountain.

By the time we hit the base of the Washburn Thumb at around 16,800ft, I was beat, woozy from the altitude, and wondering about how deep a cache I could dig. The hardest part proved to be finding a spot on the ledge that wasn’t already colored with urine.

Descent proved easier than I’d thought.

Grant exits the fixed lines.

Getting to the bottom of the fixed lines, we switched into skis and partied through six inches of dust on ice. Somewhere, I slashed to throw up a bit of snow. Flakes filled my glacier glasses, rendering the rest of my ski somewhat blind. I chortled and yelled my way into camp, thinking that I wasn’t any crazier than any of these other people. It was comforting.

Rest day pile in the tent.

The next day, we rested. Sort of. Grant managed to get through Game of Thrones and guarded the tent from unoccupancy. I read, then got itchy and went sledding in my camp booties with one of the Swedes. We picked up a pile of food from some Quebecians and a guided group on their way down, so I got to surprise Grant with a large package of Pop-Tarts and some peanut butter cups. Gio, one of the Army boys from SoCal, grabbed some bags of bagels. The XKG was converted into a toaster, and the food party was off to a great start.

Grant cooked up freeze dried potatos O’brien at 3pm. The Swedes had long since divided themselves into a cook and a dishwasher, and the cook brought over a cheesecake he’d made over the stove.

Krill with his cheesecake.

No idea how that worked. Delicious. We probably drank some whiskey too, though I don’t see that in my notes.

The night before, I’d seen a couple of guys ski below us as we descended from the lines. After wandering over to their camp it became apparent that I’d finally found the other Montanans on the mountain. Kurt and Craig proved to be suitably badass, having made their summit a few days prior. They were hanging around and hoping to get up into the Orient Express. Late in the “rest” day and somewhere in the middle of our food party, I met up with them and we skinned up to the bottom of the fixed lines to make three more tracks in the fresh snow.

Skis and the fixed lines–a match made in heaven.

And Grant.

The food party was prep for what now feels like the hardest day on the mountain. Per usual, it took us forever to get out of camp. Our packs were heavy, only to get heavier when we picked up the cache at 17,000ft camp.

Instead of stashing our skis, we carried them up the lines. While Grant chatted with his girlfriend at the notch, I talked to a couple guys heading down, and realized we both know Ryan, one of the guys at ON3P in Portland. Heading up, we grabbed our cache, and promptly got involved in a tangle of folks on the fixed lines going around the Thumb.

The Army guys were just above it.

For the rest of the walk to 17,200ft  camp we followed them over narrow spines and rocky moves with the heaviest pack I’d yet carried. The scenery was worth it, and as we walked around a shoulder to see camp, Denali Pass and the Thunderbird Couloir popped into view.

17,200ft camp.

Me walking over to the edge. I think that’s a hair on the lens of Grant’s camera.

Looking back at the ascent route–it goes right up the top of this ridge.

Best of all, we’d cleared the clouds. With nothing taller to block the sunset, the rays kicked down until almost 1am.

The Thunderbird Couloir sits in the middle of this black rock face. So tantalizing. Denali Pass in the center of the photo.

Autobahn, and the way up.

We made camp, scattering our gear in a somewhat organized way. I gaped at Foraker for about the hundredth time. After staying away all trip, I took some Diamox to help acclimate. Dinner was macaroni and cheese. We were beat, tired, spent, and we fell asleep knowing that in the morning, we’d try to ski off the summit.

Part three, which will include our summit day and leaving the mountain, will be coming very shortly. Thanks for stopping by.