First snow and pizza: September 9th

Well, it happened again. I’d done so well for most of the summer, and then the yearly release of new ski content got me all fired up. As if the weather knew that I was particularly vulnerable to walking a long distance in search of a little new blanket of fluff, a bunch of moisture combined with cooler temps rolled through over the past week. Thus, I wandered up to Comeau Pass in the clouds on the theory that there’d be something fresh to ski on the old snow patches.

Pretty interesting snow structure even for the early season. Rain soaked slush makes up the bottom in the old snowfields, with 3-8″ of groppel under a melt/freeze crust above that. The new snow I was skiing was pretty well welded to the freeze crust down lower. Get it before it’s hot.

#winteriscoming

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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.

Backwards: chalet to chalet again

One of the things my ninth grade P.E. teacher said sticks with me: “We’re only going to run once this semester: when we run the mile.” That I remember his words a decade later is telling of my attitude towards running back then. Going fast was for skis. Or bikes. Why would you want to run somewhere? Running was hard, sweaty, and frustrating.

Running is still hard, sweaty, and frustrating. However, I got introduced to the road version. Then a couple friends showed me about running on trails. Which was more interesting, but involved hills. Then Myke Hermsmeyer completely confused my ability to distinguish fast hiking, running, and scrambling.

But the running paid off. I felt better. Could move faster. And did I mention that it’s hard? Hard things feel worthwhile; they’re the struggle to just keep my head above water rather than cruising. They’re so much learning. And once I get good at something, like hiking uphill, then I wonder if I could do it faster. If I could run uphill.

So this spring, I gave it a try. My body is not that of a runner’s. Too much girth to be fleet and bounce through the forest with the nimble, skinny elves—I roll past like a stampede of walruses on snowshoes. But I found that I could do a little running uphill. And even run downhills too. Which made me think: maybe I could run in the mountains. Maybe I could do the Chalet to Chalet again.

Last year, Myke and I completed what I think to be the first connected visit to both of Glacier’s remaining backcountry chalets (Granite Park and Sperry) in one day. (I’ve been since told that someone from GNP trail crew did Goat Haunt to Logan Pass to Lake McDonald via Floral Park in a day, which blows our trip out of the water). Up the Loop, across the Highline, up to Hidden Lake Overlook, down to Hidden Lake, across Floral Park to Comeau Pass, down to Lake McDonald. 7200ft of gain over some 30 miles. Neither route was new at all, but nobody I knew had decided to connect them before. We’d hiked the whole thing, and went the easy way.

So with my running ideas in my head, I wanted to try it the other way, with one major change: instead of dropping to Hidden Lake, I would go up and over the Dragon’s Tail. This added some extra vert, kept me out of the closure at the foot of the lake, and kept things interesting. In the process, I covered just over 30 miles, 9100ft of elevation gain, and most importantly, found a route that I think solves one of the peak circuit mysteries that’s baffled me at Logan Pass.

This year’s route, on July 9th: Lake Mcdonald to Sperry Chalet, Sperry to Comeau Pass, traverse below the glacier in the Sperry Basin, to Lake Mary Baker, up to the Pass, drop down and traverse right on the bench above Hidden Lake, ascend to summit ridge of Dragon’s Tail, summit, drop down the east side to goat trail to pass near Reynolds, return to Hidden Lake Overlook trail, run down boardwalk, do Highline to Granite Park then drop down the Loop trail.

Glacier’s chalets are a holdover from the origins of the park. Tourists would arrive from back east on the Great Northern Railroad, following their slogan of “See America First”, as opposed to going over to Europe. Without irony, many of the buildings they constructed were done in the architectural style of the european areas they were trying to get people to skip. Once in the park, visitors were then ferried about the park on horseback, traveling between tent camps and chalet buildings that were all spaced about a day’s ride apart.

Two of the chalets remain standing: Sperry, above Lake McDonald, and Granite Park, above the Loop. Summers of 2008 and 2009 I worked at Sperry as a dishwasher and server, respectively (loudest dishwasher ever). Summer of 2012 saw me at Granite Park as one of the hotel housekeepers (knocks on door: “Housekeeping!”). Those three summers account for 31 weeks spent continuously (in three chunks, obviously) in the backcountry at 6500ft with no access to the internet, marginal cell service, and a great amount of time to go hiking and play in the mountains. The friends I made and things I learned there daily impact who I am and why I spend so much time outside.

Best of all, I’ve a family of kindred crazy people who still work there. Visiting them was a big part of why this traverse is interesting to me. The Sperry crew was expecting their first guests of the season the day I rolled through. This was unfortunate for me, as there wasn’t any pie yet made. I’ll just have to go back.

Granite Park had been at it for a while for this summer, but like Sperry, they benefited from our epically dry spring by not having to shovel their trail at all. Pack trains supply the chalets twice a week, taking in food and clean linens, and packing out the garbage and dirty sheets—but they can’t move over snow. My year at Granite, we did significant shoveling for eleven days. So they got away clean this year. It was nice to see them looking so spry and unsullied by days in the deep trenches.

What those trenches looked like last year. Remember, these were dug by hand in consolidated spring snow.

The Floral Park traverse should have had a connected trail. Had Sperry Glacier not been so massive in the early years of the park, I’m sure that some enterprising, trail-building sillies would have linked Hidden Lake over and up through. As it stands, it’s one of my favorite non-technical alpine traverses in the park. I’ve done it on skis, in Chacos, and three other times, once climbing Bearhat en Route. The standard option from Logan Pass is about nineteen miles and 4500ft of elevation gain.

Doing it backwards meant gaining 5000ft on trails from Lake McDonald. Once over Comeau Pass, snow and moraines connect down and around the toe of the glacier. Where the glacier has receded, bare rock slabs tilt at bizarre angles with pools of water between them. Moraines with stunted trees mark former borders of the ice. Everything is tan or red or milky blue, giving a very surreal quality to it all. Then, you pass into Floral Park proper—which was fairly exploding with its namesake as I went through. Alpine wildflowers and their attendant bees are always so impressive: short growing season, tough environment, stunning colors. It’s a carnival of the first rate.

Hidden Lake spends perhaps five months of the year without ice, meaning that the fish that live there spawn in the middle of the summer. Bears then show up to feast. Wisely, the Hidden Lake trail is closed while this happens to keep people out of the orgy and feast. But more problematically, the Hidden Lake part of Floral Park is a trip out of the alpine. The Dragon’s Tail has always seemed like a better way to follow the ridge, but I hadn’t talked to anyone who had traversed it. The Climber’s Guide to Glacier talks about rappeling on the ridge, which I’d believe.

Setting off knowing that I’d have to climb an untried route midway through was committing. Doing it alone was committing too. I love the process of anteing up for this kind of move, as it demands a total trust of my abilities and preparation. There’s a confidence that I can handle it, which informs a lot of what I do in the hills. The line had to be there, because the animals that travel through there certainly aren’t rappelling.

My route up onto Dragon’s Tail. Entered from the lower right, followed the easy climbing left, then traversed right to the shadow line and up to the ridge. Nothing worse than class three if you stay on the goat trail.

And it was. I followed a well-worn class three goat trail up from the bench above Hidden Lake. It went right up where I thought I could climb, and deposited me right by the route from from the east side. It was a small triumph to find that, and it now opens up the connection from Bearhat to Reynolds in my mental Logan Pass circuit options.

I suffered on this trip. By the time I topped out on Dragon’s Tail, my stomach was in rebellion. I was moving slow, after 8k ft of vertical gain. Dehydration seemed close, despite constant water sipping. The cheese and crackers in my pack tasted bland on the summit, which is never good. I should have bailed at Logan Pass, but thought I was feeling better as I started walking out towards Granite Park.

Logan Pass feels so bizarre as the middle part of a long day.

Walking the Highline as a long slog is just not a good idea. Doing so in 3pm heat is far worse, after already going 18 miles for the day. My stomach stayed unhappy. I drank more, but pushed forward through the slow miles. It was great to see everyone at Granite, but I talked too long and ad to run most of the way down to catch the last shuttle. I was the only one on it.

First class trail tan.

It wouldn’t hit me until I was home, but I just wasn’t hungry. Not good after a day like that. Everything that I’d put in my stomach came back up the next morning. Couldn’t keep anything down. That afternoon, I ended up at Jack’s house: he was recovering, his daughter Lucy was catching up on sleep with her foot in a boot, and I lay on the couch feeling miserable and weak. We all felt rough.

The better part of valor would have been to bail at Logan Pass, and let my stomach rest. Afternoon heat couldn’t have helped. I pushed on because it seemed like it wasn’t that bad, but losing the next couple of days to feeling so sick reinforced that I should have quit. It wasn’t a race, and the objective wasn’t going anywhere. No expectations but my own pushed me through; learning to curb those is the refinement of experience. As I learn to do more with moving fast in the mountains, I’m excited to take in those lessons and see how much more I can push myself. Wonderful to see the chalet crews in their elements.

Through the winter portal: Comeau Camp

It may not really matter when the snow finally hits the valley floor in my hometown, because when it does arrive, it feels like it came later than it should. The advantage of mountains around here, though, is that you can push the fast forward button on the ski season. Two pairs of boots, snow camping stuff in the pack, and every step up a muddy trail is a chance to hit the snow line and put skins in the snow.

Last week, Steven Gnam and I were both sick enough of office time that it was simple to make the call: we’d head up to Comeau Pass to find some snow and see how winter was progressing above us. With lenses, Steven’s pack was easily 30lbs heavier than mine. Before the trip was through, I watched him run downhill with it. Much respect.

Traveling upward, things steadily moved through fall into winter. Our boots touched snow in the switchbacks below the chalet, but we waited to switch out until things were filled in enough to actually skin up. I’ve been messing with the time lapse feature in the new iOS lately. The first attempts haven’t been good, but while we were stopped, the fog that we’d hiked through was creeping up the valley. I built a little tripod of snow on a rock, and starting recording. Just before we left, I watched the video and nearly dropped my phone. Instead of the static shot I’d imagined, the snow had melted at a constant rate, creating an unintentionally cinematic pan upwards. Here’s to accidents.

We switched to skis as the trail crossed the main gully below Mt. Edwards. Packs were joyously a little lighter. As I skinned away, all the dirt we’d walked over receding in the glide of each slide forward.

While not really filled in, there was enough snow to skin up on comfortably. We followed the trail up, across the stepping stones, and arrived at the base of the stairs a bit later than we’d estimated.

In the 1970’s, before this slot was blasted into the cliff, a metal ladder ran up and over the rocks. I can only imagine climbing that thing with a real pack while kicking rime off each step up the rungs. Instead, we had easy going with only one hard move over an ice flow on the stairs.

To respect the distance regulations and minimize our impact, we camped a bit down the hill on the east side of the little lake on the pass. We’d thought that camp would be quick and we could ski a little, but as happens, snow camping is slow camping. Getting and heating water required chopping a hole in the lake ice. Setting the tent meant anchoring to buried rocks. Since we brought a three season, the guy lines all had to be placed. Even then, the tent would do a minimal collapse every time wind hit it. Sometime after midnight, I came to the realization that no matter how many times the tent wall curled inward over my sleeping bag, the thing wouldn’t be going anywhere with the two of us in it. Just sleep.

And it proved to be fine. I awoke to this:

While I got my breakfast going, Steven took off to do a bit of recon.

A few thoughts about winter menus and water.

Typically, snow camping can be reduced to two main categories: melting/boiling water, and everything else. We took along a Jetboil Sumo for that, and it did admirably. Since we had the lake a little walk away, it made more sense to carry water than melt snow. Where I’d usually take a filter in the summer, I used a Steripen Traveler to nuke the lake water with UV rays. This saved the filter from freezing up, and only added another small piece of electronics to the pile in the bottom of my sleeping bag.

Snow camping usually leaves me dehydrated, for a couple important reasons. Really cold or really hot water can be hard to drink. Instant food can be pretty salty, which tastes good, but can actually leave you feeling more dehydrated after the mug of Ramen is gone. Because it’s cold out, it’s easy to go a while without drinking. The lack of minerals in melted snow or pure lake water seems to bother my stomach some. And also, your water bottle can freeze up.

To combat this, I took a regular nalgene liter with a FortyBelow neoprene cover. On the way in, this cut weight as I’d fill up at creeks that we crossed then use the Steripen. Once at camp, I’d fill it 2/3rds with lake water, purify that, then add another third of boiling to even out the temperature. To finish, I’d use an Endurolytes Fizz tablet to add in some beneficial solutes and make it taste nice, then drink to my heart’s content.

In and around camp, a GSI Fairshare is the absolute essential. Mug, bowl, small plate of a lid. Easily cleaned by swirling hot water inside with the top on. I have a neoprene FortyBelow bootie for it that adds insulation. Tea, breakfast, soup, whatever–the Fairshare is the absolute way to go.

With the rest of my menu winter camping menu, it’s nice to keep a balance of calories, taste, and heat. Even though we were out for only two days, fruits and veggies are always the things that I miss most, so I tried to take care of that.

Trail food, lunch, and snacks:

Hammer Bars (which don’t freeze up until it’s down around 10 degrees F)
Justin’s Maple Almond Butter
48% milk chocolate with otters on the wrapper
Triscuts
Cheddar cheese
Blended fruit tubes. These things are like baby food, but make for a compact way to get some fruit in your backcountry diet.

Dinner:

I took an instant, single serving, organic black bean soup mix from the grocery store and rebagged it in a ziploc. Once in my mug, I added the noodles from a packet of ramen, then filled it up with water. Ten minutes later, I had black bean noodle soup.
Dried seaweed sheets can be a great, light way to get iron and greens while out, and you can add them to soups or wraps if you want.

Breakfast:

In a ziploc baggie:
Potato buds, some garlic salt, instant milk, grated pepperjack cheese. Throw it in the Fairshare, add water, and bingo: super breakfast. If I could find a nicely tasting protein powder that works when heated, I might add it here.

Tea is great, and though I’m not much of a hot-drink-in-the-morning person, it’s nice when cold camping.

Anyway. Once Steven returned, and we got breakfast done, we headed out to ski. Pits showed something like three feet of new accumulations atop the permanent snow fields in the drifts, and while the layers weren’t the best, they weren’t very reactive in our tests.

Skinning back up to camp:

After some lunch, we headed over to the main snowfield of Gunsight.

Because of the layers we’d seen earlier, we followed up the ridge and dug two hasty pits en route. Even at higher elevation, there was some kind of rain/melt crust with intact groppel 15-20cms below the windswept crust in the more loaded areas. This made us pretty cautious, but it wasn’t super reactive, and we didn’t have any problem with it.


I’ve skied this snowfield at numerous times for five out of the last six years. When I worked at Sperry Chalet, it was my go to. The way it sweeps down off the summit of Gunsight has yet to get boring, and I’ve yet to ski it in the same condition twice.

On our way back to camp, Steven found a nice wave to surf.

And with that, it was time to pack up. In my rush to get everything back onto my pack and head out, I just threw my hiking boots under the lid straps without actually tying them in. We descended the stairs, skied about halfway to the chalet, and when I went to switch back into my boots, found only one of them still on my pack.

Instantly, I realized that it could have fallen off anywhere. If I couldn’t find it, I’d have a left foot in a ski boot for the rest of the seven miles to the road. “IDIOT!” It was so annoying to not have done something as simple as securing them to my pack, but that’s haste for you. I should have thought more about it, and it’s good to learn those lessons.

Steven caught up with me, realized what happened, and figured that he could run back up to look for it. I was in no condition to run, and certainly didn’t have the footwear, so I stayed with our gear while he headed back up. Twenty minutes later, he grinned back down to me, boot in hand. Huge thanks to him for that huge help–it saved my foot, the walk out, and probably the whole trip. I switched out my gear, ensured that everything was strapped on tight, and we headed down.

We weren’t the only folks heading down the trail:

But as we went, speeding along in time to a ski crampon that was dinging with every step that Steven took, we didn’t see anything. We walked down through slush, then mud, then dryish trail. The winter portal had closed, and it was definitely fall again. Somehow, we didn’t put on headlamps either, and by the time we hit the car, it was nine tenths dark.

Thanks to Steven for joining in the madness of a couple days up high, heavy packs, and especially for saving my foot with his running prowess. Here’s to the season.

Walking on sunshine: survival skiing on Gunsight Mountain

I picked up the phone. “You working tomorrow?”
“Nope. What we doing?”
“Something big. Get there early, be out all day. Get up high.”
“Sounds great. We’ll talk later.”

And we did. After considering the Cascadilla/Rescue traverse, Clay and I decided to head up to Glacier and try for Gunsight Mountain and some real alpine. Sandwiches were made,  I went to the store for clif bars and camera batteries (which I managed to forget, hence the  fisheye bubblyness that are the gopro shots), we went bowling, got a few hours of sleep, and left the house at 4:30am.

Readying at the trailhead.

After working and visiting Sperry for years, the slopes and viewpoints along the trail have become familiar. Moving steadily uphill in the predawn night, we made good time up the packed down trail. Dawn popped just as we were making it into the area just below the chalet.

Once we made the cirque above the upper bridge, we thought about and rejected several routes through the cliffs before settling on a fan and waterfall on the SE side. Switchbacking up the left side of a large debris/talus fan, we angled for the left side of Feather Woman falls, the creek the goes under the first bridge in summer. It got steep. And  icy. We switched to crampons and axes, then climbed through chest high faceted sugar, ice crusts, wind buff, and full on ice to make it up above the cliff bands usually traversed on the trail.

Boreal belay in the crux.

Topped out and back in my skis.

After some more routefinding and skinning over windcrusts, we made it to the stairs at Comeau Pass. Clay went through first.

Sandwiches and puffy coats later, we headed up the right flank of the mountain towards the summit.

Summit ridge.

Clay summit ridging.

Up top, the snow was a mix of hard windcrust, rime, pow pockets covered in rime, and rimecrusted wind crust with drifted surface hoar. There was no guarantee that the footing would function the same way the last step did, which made it interesting. Topping out required going over a cornice in the making and into howling winds on the other side.

Did I mention how awesome the sunshine was? This pile of high pressure has traded greybird storm pow for epic groomer cruising and functional backcountry stability. We saw an old crown high on Mt. Edwards, and while skiing down, a point release propagated a bit into an R1D1 that stopped pretty quickly. Otherwise, it was bomber and beautiful.

Looking down towards Lake McDonald and the chalet.

The excitement that I get atop mountains after a long skin and bootpack doesn’t square with how I feel looking at the pictures afterward. Which makes sense. But it also doesn’t help my summit photos look any less ridiculous. So I’m rolling with it.

Once we’d sufficiently windburned ourselves, it was time to drop. Clay got a couple great shots from up above on the ridge.

The snow went from rime crust to wind buff bordered by sastrugi. The turns were somewhat soft, but I followed the edge of the drift down into the flats making little noises of excitement that my gopro picked up. Unfortunately, it was at the wrong angle, and so there’s lots of footage of my skis sliding over snow but no visual of where I was headed. Chalk that up to climbing helmets.

Once down, we dropped over the edge, skied drifted pow becoming mashed potatoes, I missed a shot with Clay’s camera by forgetting the lens cap, we crossed the new wet slides that had come through on the lower trail, and hauled down the skin track towards the car.

Trying to slow down by the skin track.

Eight hours up, two hours down and two tired dudes eating deformed sandwiches on the car ride back after another perfect day in Glacier.

Huge thanks to Clay for the photos.