Wait, bikes? Spring ski scoping in Glacier

Denial seems futile: both the calendar and Facebook say that it’s spring. Roads closed to cars are melting out. To avoid dread approaches over perfectly wheelable gravel and pavement is to get on the bike. And like every spring for the last four years, I’ve realized that it’s time to spend a few moments considering how I feel about including bikes back into my life, if only for a brief six weeks or so.

Skiing actually has it pretty easy. Bindings and boots are what they are, yet skis are so mechanically simple on the consumer end. No shocks, no brakes, no cables or chains or welds or tubes to break and cause havoc. And these days, bikes make skis look downright cheap. I’ll give that expense the blame that for not having done much to change mine.

Thus, it comes as no shock that my bike is in about the same state of functional silliness that it’s seen since it emerged from my uncle’s barn in 2012. Bikes, like ships, should not be renamed. Mine was originally christened Headhunter and spirited my uncle Rob through many shenanigans and over much slick rock during his days of med school in Salt Lake City. I was helping them move out of their Montana house and found the bike covered in dust and staring down a fate of being left behind.

It had no wheels, the chain was destroyed, and who knows how long it had rested there. A couple salvaged wheels from their garage, new tubes/tires/chain, and I was off to the races. I’ve since added a rack and fenders (because I’m a weenie and getting blasted in the face by water is so fun) to complete what usually gets classified as an Alpine Assault Vehicle. Thumb shifters, a top tube too long, and a rear chainring that prevents it from running in its highest gear are the major quirks. I’ve never had it tuned up; maybe that’s part of the charm.

Snowmelt on the roadways is the major reason I even have a bike that I use that frequently outside of errands in town. Wheels offer the chance to access objectives that sit behind long, flat, road approaches that are closed to cars yet open to anyone will to pedal their way up. Skiing, camping, hiking, or just riding for the fun of it; this is my micro-bike season.

The other cool part about the roads melting out is that it offers an easy way to get into Glacier and scope the spring ski options with my own eyes. Photos from other folks are fine, but if they aren’t looking at the same things that I am, it’s a lot harder to know exactly what’s going on. The photos in this post are from two days. I covered a pile of ground via car and bike first with my mom, then with Alex and Morgan.

Last Sunday, April 3rd, my mom and I headed to the east side to ride bikes into Many Glacier. The Glacier National Park Road Status page told us that the road was closed, but they had been plowing. Always a good sign for bikes, so we made the call to try the six hour roundtrip from Kalispell. Just typing that out makes me think that it’s a really long way; it doesn’t feel like that though. Who knows.

Things were super sun and very dry when we got started at the Sherburne Dam. The ride in was completely dry and otherwise uneventful.

We swung out to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, glassed the Altyn hillsides for bears (only found bighorn sheep), then headed back to the Many Glacier Hotel to eat lunch.

I’ve long recommended Many Glacier to folks looking for the classic Glacier experience. Drive in access, the amenities at the hotel and campground, and a pile of hikes with lots of different lengths and difficulty levels make it a good place to explore in the summer. People seem to have figured that out too; it can be a zoo during the height of the season. Early season trips like ours take on the feel of a ghost town: windows are boarded up, the wind blows, and the only sounds are the ones that nature is making. Two other people (the winter caretakers of the hotel) were our only human sightings.

So it was quiet, and gorgeous. Yet the east side really suffered from a warm winter. Snowpacks that usually necessitate plowing and offer great snow approaches are totally gone this year. With them, the runouts and drifts that fill in classic ski lines. It’s hard to look at such wonderful landscapes while simultaneously feeling the frustration of a spring skier without the key ingredient: lots of snow. It makes me wonder what this place will look like come August. Home seemed like the place for this spring; instead, I’m considering more time in the mammoth snowpack that the Cascades stacked this past winter.

We hung out for a bit, then headed back out. It had only been twelve miles and change, so we wandered down to St. Mary to saddle up and ride some more.

The burn last summer meant that much of the road that normally would have snow didn’t have the shade or shelter of trees with their needles. It was smooth riding all the way to the St. Mary Falls trailhead. Judging by the road status page as of this writing, they’ve plowed past Jackson Glacier Overlook already. This means riding bikes with avie gear (a preferred alpine sport in Montana), but the access is pretty dang incredible.

My mom and I then headed back out, and down to Two Med. A quick snack stop in St. Mary yielded the interesting discovery that GPI had set the categories strangely on the cash register; the clerk run up the chips I bought under the “Stamps” umbrella.

In Two Medicine, the road was closed about a mile outside the park entrance station. We rode in to find it blocked by snow just before the Running Eagle Falls trailhead. I’d imagine it has quite a bit more snow than we found elsewhere, at least on the valley floor. It was a quick turnaround and we headed for home.
Then, yesterday the 5th, Alex and Morgan invited me to bike into Bowman Lake with them. Our alpine start involved getting lunch at a reasonable lunch hour, turning around to get gas after starting up the road to the North Fork, and a closed Polebridge Bakery. Obviously the last was the biggest tragedy.

Halfway to the lake, I was wondering why we brought fat bikes (thanks for the loaned wheels, Parsons). Then the snow started. And the puddles. And the packed ice. Maching downhill at maybe twenty five mph (that’s generous) in short sleeves on slush covered icepack on a fat bike might be one the scariest, wettest things I’ve done in recent memory. Props to Alex for doing it in such style. I can’t even say that it wasn’t fun.

We made it to the lake to hang out for a while. I skipped some rocks. Ate some sandwich. Looked the mountains with dismay at how much snow as in them.

Then, as a sort of protest against the fact that we could even ride bikes to any of the places we got to because of low snow, I went on the 1st Annual One-Man Bowman Lake Nude Bike Ride. It didn’t really require going very far. Hard to say which was whiter: the mountains or my bottom. You be the judge.

The ride back out was a total party of downhill enthusiasm. I cornered with terror; Alex screamed along and I tried to follow his line. We took maybe half the time we spend on the ride in. I’d bet that the snow and ice persist for the next ten days minimum; maybe that’s an overly cautious estimate.

Suffice to say that it’s spring here, and the biking is pretty dang great. Thanks to my mom, Alex, and Morgan for a couple great days out. Here’s to strapping skis on in the high country as soon as the avie cycle settles down.

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Over the Rainbow

Whatever they may say about the age of modern convenience and connectivity, it hasn’t yet managed to efficiently bridge the wildly diverse array of places that my friends call their summer homes. Several examples: Steven with a cell phone and iPad, but no texting/messaging options, leaving a bizarre gulf between phone calls and emailing back and forth. Dan, with no cell service up the North Fork, so I call him on the phone where he works. Often though, we’ll talk via Facebook message. Another gulf.

Don’t try to tell me there’s an app for these sorts of things. App existence doesn’t sway these people.

And still another, Tyler McCrae, who is also out of cell reception. So when I called last week to confirm the loose plans hashed out in a chance breakfast encounter the morning prior, the landline went straight to voicemail. An hour later, it was ringing, but nobody picked it up. But then, at 10:30pm, my phone starts making those bizarre noises that now signal that someone is calling. It’s Tyler, and he wants to know if I’m still in for the next morning. Tenish minutes of considering my 4am wakeup that morning, the climb we’d done that day, and whether I really wanted to switch my gear and load my mom’s kayak onto the car.

I’m not good at indecision. Several years ago, when I started making a more concerted effort to achieve the mountaineering goals I wanted, it became a mantra: why not now? What are you really waiting for? Despite the six hours of sleep I’d get, the gear to switch, and the tiredness I already felt, these are the moments split by only a hairsbreadth difference. Feeling that echo of motivation, I fell into its tug: it was on. I’d go.

Six short hours later, I hopped in the car. At Big Creek, I met Tyler and Quinn. We moved the kayak, stopped at Polebridge for more food, and made it the Bowman boat ramp by the early time of 9am.

Because it so dominates the south shore of Bowman Lake, Rainbow Peak has always been on my radar. The climb didn’t seem too difficult on paper, but the approach features five miles of dense, lakeshore bushwhacking or a swim or a boat. We chose boats, because we’re bright, young gentleman who were probably going to find other ways to make our day difficult–pick the low hanging fruit, right?

Sea kayaking reminds me of ski touring–there’s the glide, the closeness to the element you’re using, and the silence of swift movement. I was a sea kayak guide for the summer of 2011. The enjoyment comes right back, and it was fun to glide down the lake. Tyler and Quinn had to fight their borrowed, decidedly non-sleek canoe up the lake. It didn’t seem to phase them. The walk up starts at the creek that drains the whole face that we were to climb. Landing, with Numa Peak in the background:

Out of the boat, and right up the slope. Some relatively simple bushwhacking through loam and deadfall gave way to a steep elk trail that barreled up the hill near the stream. My quads discussed the poor planning involved in a big mission like this after a decent day before. I told them to stuff it.

They stuffed through the forest, then avie debris cast helter skelter against some groves that withstood the onslaught. They stuffed through nettles and brush in the middle of the chutes. Tyler found a trail along the margin, and they stuffed up that too. Below us, the view of the lake got better and better until we could look back to see the boat ramp and all we’d covered.

Then they were tired, so it was break time. Quinn wields his sword in compression shorts.

Did I mention that this was his second climb in Glacier? Super impressive. The dry creek bed started splashing at us, which was nice, because the sun cooked down and we’d be lacking water further up. Less than a hundred yards from our break, we stopped to filter water.

Tyler, moving again:

The stuffing slowed to huffing and puffing. Though moving upward at a solid clip, the chute went on and on. At some point, we were supposed to roll over the edge and into a cirque that would spell the halfway point. My mind chased possibilities between a shaky altimeter (and I was wrong about that that) on my Ambit2 and a route description gone haywire. When we finally cleared the gully, it was nice to look a long ways down into the cirque we’d been trying to find. We’d been off route, but at least we were higher than we thought.

Following some stiff Class 4 moves up a gully, then a traverse out onto the face, we steered clear of the scree that coats the slopes on the south side. Not too difficult, with easy options on the sides for the cruxes, it was fun climbing. Cruisey. We made good time, pushed forward by the cumulus clouds that were building up into thunderheads to the west.

Eventually, we reached the ridge. I think we were all tired, but the weather seemed to be holding.

Just below the summit. The crooked horizon line can interpreted as tiredness.

A hundred feet more, and we were up top. Sometimes the goal of reaching a summit seems so arbitrary–in abstraction, any other point would work as an agreed upon place to stop and turn around. But beyond the goals we set for ourselves or the silly notions about “conquering” mountains just because one has stood atop them, there’s a perfectly reasonable way to look at the top as a stopping point–the views are better.

Looking northwest at Kintla and Kinnerly.  

Across the ridge to Carter:

Southeast over the Rainbow Glacier to Vulture:

And panoramically from the summit.

To the north, things were beginning to rumble as a massive cloud stacked itself into the heavens. I’m not petrified of lightening, but it didn’t seem like a good plan to risk later storms, especially since we’d have to travel back across the lake. It was time to head down.

Because the loose footing would allow for some scree sliding, we wandered over to the south slopes that we’d avoided on our ascent. A small patch of snow provided some sliding entertainment. A gully lead down and then we followed the bottom of the cirque back over to catch the south fork of the chute we’d ascended.

Looking up into the cirque. Our route followed the darker slot in the center right of the steep stuff.

Pushing to make the summit and get down out of the lightening range had taken its toll. A long break ensued, so much so that it was a bit later by the time we got rolling down the hill.

Going down, if you’re following the up track, has the nice quality of the known to it. It’s easy to make the right moves if there’s a trail, or if I can remember things well enough to use that. Balance against the previous uncertainty of where to climb is achieved, such that it feels sweeter to have sorted the route finding. There’s the sense of plunging back down–even though it’s part of the climb, I’m usually ready to be done.

Instead of the giant lightening rod that I’d feared crossing, the lakeshore proved a great chance to jump in and cool off. We all went into the water. And man did it feel nice after the sweatiness of the climb through the heat of the day.

To top that, we had a tailwind. On a lake that seems to grow two foot waves and headwinds, it blew from our back and caressed us back down to the foot. Some sort of concession it seemed, like an acknowledgement that we’d done something cool. Though if it had been a headwind, I’d probably cast it as yet another epic challenge as part of an epic day, man. So who knows if it actually was a gift. We were happy.

As I paddled along, the sun cut down below the ridge, painting the scree we’d partied down into alpenglow. Calm water took us into the boat ramp, where we made an important discovery: melted chocolate bars make for great dipping on fresh cherries.

Thanks to Tyler and Quinn for a great day. Check out the stats of the trip on my Movescount.