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.

Grizzled vikings and other mountain creatures

Among the influences on my life, books figure as heavily as the mountains. So it’s hardly surprising that I found myself wandering along the trail last week comparing the experience of reading a book to that of climbing a mountain. Books and writing can usually be said to focus around some kind of story, or plot, or movement between two points of thinking. There’s a transit. Surprises or turns along the way can make even a beaten track seem fresh, and entirely new genres or settings can seem like entering a vast, unexplored country that was only hinted at by what I’d heard. While the concept or form might be similar, every book is different in some aspect. All of these can be said of mountains as well.

Which means that, just like books that aren’t particularly interesting, there are a few climbs or excursions that don’t hold as much of my interest. Perhaps they are worthy for other folks. Perhaps I’m off in that I don’t enjoy them as much as others. Perhaps it’s mountain snobbery. One good story sends you searching after another–which can sometimes yield three books of reading for a botched, cankered ending (like The Hunger Games). Mountains can do the same thing, and if a larger climbing project is in motion, there’s going to be less savory parts that have nothing to do with character building. Thankfully, unlike books, a trip to the mountains isn’t following the track of a writer–it’s about making your own adventure, and adapting yourself to what you find there. So the outcome and your attitude about it can be very much up to you.

The Continental Divide, a line that separates the watersheds between the East and West of North America, runs along the spine of Glacier National Park. One of my ongoing projects is to climb all the mountains along that line. In pursuit of that goal, there’s some truly classic, interesting terrain. There’s also a few other places that fall, with a sighing thud, into the less entertaining category. And because I have to visit all the places that includes, the projects can take on the rote routine frequented by less scenic tasks like paperwork or mowing lawns. Though they may be hard, or scenic, they lack imagination. For the less spicy bits, it’s important to keep things like pack rafts and plastic Viking helmets in the trunk of your car.

Awaking in East Glacier from a full night of sleep after a full day, Mitch and I set up off from the Two Medicine trailhead at the perfectly early hour of 10:30am. Our objective was to climb Grizzly Peak. I hadn’t been there, and what it has in prominence, it somewhat lacks in technicality–the climb is 1200ft of gain from the nearest, trail-accessed pass. Chief Lodgepole Mountain, by far the easiest named mountain to climb in Glacier, is a blip on the trail en route. Two summits is the technical total, and both are on the Divide, but it felt like climbing a peak and a quarter. If that.

Thus, the Viking helmet. The oars. The life jacket. Instead of extreme route choices to liven up the day, we’d hike to Cobalt Lake, drop the heavy gear, stash some beers in the iceberg infested waters to cool, then summit one and a quarter times, and head back for a dip and some pack rafting.

Beargrass only blooms once per seven years. With such a pile of it in Glacier, there’s some years that seem like a full on explosion. White, tufted blooms were everywhere on the hike into Cobalt.

After hoisting the pack raft, and stashing the gear, we headed for the pass. Mitch’s feet objected to boots in the parking lot, so he did all the trail in sandals.

Atop Two Medicine Pass, you can see Grizzly as the mountain on the skyline. Chief Lodgepole is the humpy looking pile of choss to the lower left. One quarter mountain is probably generous. I feel bad for Chief Lodgepole that he or she had such a piddly hill as their namesake.

The view from “atop” Chief Lodgepole.

I forgot about our late start, and sometime around 2:30pm, Mitch reminded me that we hadn’t eaten lunch. Here’s a candid shot of enjoying a peanut butter and cookie butter sandwich while wearing plastic excitement on my head.

Then, we waltzed to the summit. Skier vision never goes away, and I tucked this one into the mental echo chamber for next spring’s descents:

I should have taken off my shirt. This was mentioned later. Next time, I plan to do a more accurate job of viking rock lifting:

No ropes. Barely anything that could be considered more than walking. Reduced visibility due to Washington’s wildfires. But it’s still gorgeous. Looking south into the Ole Creek drainage.

Here’s the ridge that Mitch and I traversed the day before: Summit Mtn to Calf Robe Mtn to Red Crow Mtn.

Mitch contributed to summit festivities by pulling out a whole, perfectly ripe avocado. He looks so good in green too.

Then we went down. If it were diagraming the story, we’d call that the falling action.

Neither of us took that literally, at least not until we got to the snowfield descent that cut out two miles of trail. Mitch did a great job arresting with a pole.

Then, as I inflated the pack raft, he put his minimal body fat percentage to the test in some truly frigid water. Exibit A: snowfields terminating in the lake. Exibit B: icebergs.

I jumped in, for the record. Then rapidly turned around and got into a more comfortable way to explore the lake: the Klymit Litewater Dinghy.

Sledding down the snow and into the lake on the raft was considered. Then dismissed. But since something had to be done, I thought I’d try to find a nice iceberg to lasso. My choice was something of a colossal error in judgement: it moved perhaps six inches with each tug. I tried pushing it. I eventually gave up on paddling, and sculled on the side opposite from where the tow cord attached to my vest. In this way, I managed to cross the lake with my sort-of-captive.

Even the five miles out felt fun after that. We charged along, borne on the success of our ridiculous antics and how well the day had gone. It was really pretty, too.

Thanks to Mitch for his companionship and the good times. Thanks to Ben Darce for the accommodations in East Glacier. My apologies to the church group whose service  was interrupted by a  farmer-tanned, beached-whale semi-plunge into Two Medicine Lake. In my defense, we were both sweaty again.

New! Check out our day on Movescount.

Fickle batteries

On May 8th, Dan Koestler and I skied Mt. Allen. We got up early, and the only photo I got before my phone died was this, of our approach:

Here’s one from the night before. Our line up went up the large snowfield on the right side of the near ridge, then traversing around the knob and up the summit ridge.

Normally, this post would be longer. It’d include a more comprehensive look into where we got to, and the excellent skiing down. But in the process of a dead phone battery (a noob mistake) and not carrying an extra camera (another noob mistake), it made the climb an exercise in enjoying the climb for it’s own sake. This was a good thing. Instead of a tool, the phone was inert weight in my pack–as good as a paperweight for all the good it could do. But it’s my attitude about those dead batteries that is worth some writing.

In this modern world of professional outdoorsfolks on the Internet, content is the main currency that makes us worthwhile for support. All those logos that show on the upper right allow me, in varying capacities, to keep chasing my dreams and playing in the mountains instead of doing something more traditional for work. I’m incredibly grateful to get to do these things as a sort of work. But such an occupation recasts the notion of forgetting to charge the batteries on my phone. Instead of a missed chance to impress friends on Facebook or show my grandmother where I went, it becomes a professional misstep. Something to regret.

Which can seem strange. Our climb went really well. Both Dan and I commented that, in effect, nothing had gone wrong or been super difficult to surmount. The climbing and skiing was straightforward. The summit ridge was gorgeous. Edwards mentions in his guidebook that Mt. Allen is not to be underestimated, and it did feel like we went up, and up, and up. Qualities like these characterize the mountaineering experience, and the trip was certainly a bonafide day in the places that keep me coming back.

Truth, though, requires that I take note of how what I do has become a sort of work. Of the myriad reasons why I love to climb things, to ski down them, the work of capturing and spreading that out to another audience is an occupational one. It can grate against a concept of mountainous purity; the voice that suggests that these places are wild enough to be left off the internet. That only eyes that did the work to get there should see them. That climbing or skiing should be done for the purity of purpose which they possess unadled by the need to make content or support yourself.

However, I don’t see that purity as the end reason for spending time in the mountains. There is an difference between climbing or skiing purely for their own joy and doing so with a camera and a writerly mindset. Just as there’s a difference between climbing, and seeing how fast you can climb. Or going with a group versus solo. All these have their place. I practice them all. I’ll head off on adventures that don’t end up with any documentation or ostensible occupational use. Keeping these notions clear allows me to do both, and I’d wanted to tell the story of our trip on Allen. So when the batteries died, and I felt like I’d failed at something because my attitude was set in that mode.

For me, documenting and telling the stories of the outdoors is about more than pleasing sponsors or earning a living. It’s about spreading the joy that I get out there. It’s about inspiring people to play harder, engage the natural world around them, and put those benefits to work in caring for the places that do so much for them. If you read my work, I’m thankful. If it motivates you to be outside, I’m fulfilled.

Flashback: suncup eights on Blackfoot Mountain

After seven months, three failed attempts to transfer the photos, and a bit of slow blogging time, I’ve finally got everything together to actually tell (and perhaps remember) a ski trip from this July past. To tell the truth, this was in the same 4th of July weekend that saw me skiing Iceberg Notch, but enough with the excuses–it’s winter now, so here’s a piece of sandal wearing summer skiing.

Originally, I’d been eyeing a snowfield on the northwest face of Mt. Jackson. Just as I saw on the Notch, spring rains had ripped snow out of the hills, and the line probably wasn’t going to go. That meant flexibility, and since Rose and a group of folks from the Park Cafe had just climbed Mt. Logan in the same basin, I though of Blackfoot. Glacier travel makes it one of five “technical” peaks in Glacier (all of which have been successfully done without gear), so it’s a dubious designation. The line, though, promised some of the most connected July skiing available.

Clay, fresh off a stint of staring at and banging rocks in Canada, hitchhiked to the shuttles with his backpacking, skiing, and glacier travel gear. I found him looking severely clean shaven on Logan Pass. Our backcountry permit gave us a night at Gunsight Lake before our climb, so it was off to the trailhead. Diving into the brushy track down to Reynolds creek, our ski boots drug through dusty alder–we were definitely in for an adventure.

We rolled into the backcountry campground a couple hours later. Gunsight Lake sits at the base of a cirque full of waterfalls. Even filtering water and munching bars on the gravel beach next to camp feels scenic.

A steep track (“Not recommended for pack stock” on the sign) leads into the glacial basin. One side sees the remnants of Jackson Glacier, while the other leads up into the Blackfoot Glacier. To get a better perspective on our line, we grabbed the lids of our packs (which, in a stroke of luck, become fanny packs) and hustled up.

Routefinding.

Though without service, Clay phones in a request for sunshine.

During the wander back to camp, clouds knit themselves above the valley. Though I’d already donned my shells to keep the ferocious mosquitos at bay, it started to rain as we cooked our couscous. Wasn’t much of a downpour, but it left the brush wet, and stray bits of drizzle during the night meant that, come morning, our hike to the glacier would be a soggy one.

Five am. Behind the sound of my watch alarm came the rasp of something chewing just across the campsite. A headlamp check revealed a deer trying to get salt from our pole grips. Breakfast would wait, we’d filter water higher up, so camp was struck, and time to don packs. Stashing a beer in the creek for the return, Clay’s lamp lit the narrow slice between shrubs studded by raindrops. Halfway up, my shoes were beginning to slosh. To make matters worse, the spot Clay had called in the sun was covered in dense fog. Descending the moraines with care, we crossed into the bottom of the glacier basin.

Early light showed that the fog was low cloud cover, stretching across the valley. Clear conditions were our navigation plan, so after climbing the east terminal moraine, we sat for almost an hour, wondering. But there wasn’t much for it–we’d hiked six miles to camp, four more to check it out, crawled through the wet shrubs–too early to give up. Balancing on the rocks at the edge of the snow, we stashed our hiking boots, roped up, and skinned into the fog.

But it was only a couple hundred feet thick. Time for sunscreen, sending it, and that bit of euphoria released after sitting beneath a boulder for an hour wondering if the whole thing was shot to hell. A quick series of gullies between moraines and the rock face lead us onto the glacier proper.

Despite the spring rains, the glacial surface wasn’t too cracked out. We’d brought a picket apiece, planning to use axes or skis to make other snow anchors should we need them. Moving off a bench and up onto the higher glacier required negotiating a couple cracks/bergschrunds. I set our pickets as running protection, and we made the traverses in fine style.

Once above the cracks, another traverse above some downslope holes was required. I remember thinking that another picket would be super nice. Never the one who seems to find gear in the mountains, I was completely shocked to look down the rock ledge to see a picket and quickdraw lying there. Still haven’t found the owner, so if you lost it, let me know. Otherwise, I’ll keep using it.

Switching back into our skis, we made good time across the upper flats.

The summit snowfield was another switch back into our crampons. Clay lead it, finding a lone mountain goat looking down on us at the top.

Looking over to Harrison Glacier on the backside of Mt. Jackson.

Later in the season, some friends would have a high-angle confrontation with an ornery grizzly sow and two cubs, but we were lucky to drop our crampons for an easy three hundred foot rock scramble to the summit proper.

The fog had burned off, we’d been just fine on the glacier, and looking back down the glacier and valley to the trailhead, it seemed a long way to have come to make July turns. On the way out, we met David Boye and his buddy Gary on the trail, who talked about how “in your twenties, you don’t really think about efficiency or practicality in trip planning.” Which was fair. We’d carried camping, skiing, and glacier travel gear through summer foliage, over moraines, and then used some of it to get all the way up here. A single day assault might have been lighter. There were things in my pack I probably didn’t need. It’d be a long walk out.

But of course, we had 3600ft of skiing ahead of us. Clay drops in.

Digging our edges into the slushy goodness, all the lame things I could say about why it’s worth it to drag skis in just evaporate. Clay skied the first pitch, I followed.

And since it seemed like a good idea, we made some slush eights down the upper face: 

Clay fills in:

Once back at the cracks, we had to make the call about how to get back across. Standing above it that morning, it occurred to me that the slope was perfect for just jumping across. Looking at it again, it seemed the simpler option. And probably easier than down climbing.

I’d call it the benefit of freeride eyes in mountaineering. A long traverse, and we were back atop of the gully where we’d left the fog. Near the bottom, we grabbed our boots, and negotiated some cracks and rocks, but the eights came back.

At the bottom, the hiking boots went back on, and we retraced our steps over the moraines, back to the lake, to the beer we’d stashed in the creek that morning, and out.

On the trail, we got a chance to look back at the route from afar.

The weight of the skis on our packs was a reminder that we’d been up there, across the valley, in July, making slush eights as people backpacked and hiked by. It feel neither “practical” nor particularly “efficient.” The hill back up to the highway wasn’t much fun. Now, in the middle of winter, with tons of options and plentiful snow, it’s good to look back on July and how we made use of the snow then, our youthful enthusiasm, and this gorgeous playground.

Many thanks to Clay for his companionship, photos, and uncanny ability to bring good weather on our trips.