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

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.

Jewel Basin in the rough: anticipating El Nino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Nighttime powder aliens

All through the summer and fall, the pursuit of snow in northwest Montana inevitably involves some treks to get to the remaining bits of winter. So when the snow that graces the very tops of the peaks defining the Flathead Valley comes all the way to my Whitefish doorstep, it’s a whole new feeling.

This past week saw the first real snow down low, as evidenced by a garbage truck sideways across two lanes on my morning commute. On Sunday, Greg Fortin of Glacier Adventure Guides and I headed up to Big Mountain.

Piling ski gear atop the compressors and construction tools in the back of his truck, we talked about how much we might find. How far we might walk. Whether anything would be worth skiing.

On the flats near the entrance to Thousand Turns.

After a bit of booting through a couple thin inches, we switched to skins. Nearly eight inches blanketed the hill below the summit. We agreed that we’d be able to ski something. 

A couple of laps on the backside ensued. Knowing the hill as well as we do from skiing it during the lift season, a couple deep pockets with minimal rocks sounded the second day of powder yells this season. Taking some roads and skiing over some grass, we managed to ski all the way back to the truck.

Monday morning came, and with it the painting grind. The words of Jason, the guy I’d chased on Logan Pass two weekends prior, echoed in my head: “I do a lot of my skiing by headlamp.” So when Collin texted me later, I told him to find his, grab his gear, and we’d get up there after work.

Five pm signaled the end of our work day. After nine hours of painting, I shed duck canvas for Neoshell, met Collin, and we parked in nearly the same spot as before.

Collin with the lights of the base area behind him.

Twenty minutes in, the eyes of a deer glowed in the trees. With nearly four more inches, it looked like we were in for a good time. Steam rose from our mouths and base layers to hang etherial in the lamp beams.

Fog of a larger sort, i.e. the cloud dropping light snow on us, shrouded the upper mountain. Lights from the base area and valley below didn’t penetrate. As we neared the summit, the top terminal of Chair 1 cast light through its upper windows. We’d been abducted by the nighttime pow aliens, only to find ourselves here, atop our local ski hill, with a can of Cold Smoke to enjoy before dropping in. With goggles and headlamps, we even looked otherworldly.

Again, our knowledge of the hill in daylight with a full snowpack helped us. The upper mountain was wonderful until the ratio of snow to grass swung more towards the latter.

Proper nighttime grass skiing form.

Near the lower sections, where Greg and I had booted up the day before, the skiing looked like a hayfield. Grass necessitated jump turns, as it grabbed our skis and kept us from really, well, skiing. Combined with the short beam of our headlamps, it made the whole thing pretty comical.

Steep and deep.

Such is the beginning of the season, though. Skiing grass and rocks now makes dodging alders fun in December. A deeper snowpack makes airing over the same alders fun in February. And as I sit on a sunny porch in California sandal weather, I can’t wait to get back.

Thanks to Greg and Collin for sharing the madness.