The ghost of roommates past

Through the middle of December, I received a number of vague warnings via text message–many of my friends were thinking of making the trip to Whitefish to ski. Given that they and I generally operate on a very loose timetable on looser plans, I waited. Lo and behold, one of my buddies and former college roommate, Chris, made the trek from Washington. He’d recently picked up a split board, and with his usual gusto, was in the process of figuring it out.

Mmmmmm.

The morning after he pulled in, we took off for a day tour up by Marion Lake. Situated above Essex in the Middle Fork corridor with treed, protected aspects, it seemed a good place to find soft snow that hadn’t been nuked by recent warming.

Heat wasn’t an issue. From the train tracks onward, we spent most of our day in the chilly shade. Frost from our breath condensed on everything loose, leaving us looking a bit better than usual.

Marion Lake hangs in a nice valley with fun skiing on either side. Some advice sent us up the south side, or the north side of Essex Mountain. An opening filled with alder benches and framed by spaced trees seemed the best option. What started as a few inches on the access trail was somewhere around 6-8″of smokey fluff, and I was psyched to pillage.

Our skin track proved to be a bit hectic, so sorry if you tried to follow it. Benchy, steep trees made for a few difficult spots. The cold wasn’t treating Chris’ Washington thermostat too well, so he wins the award for putting up with numb hands and feet.

Getting to the ridge meant warming up in the sun we hadn’t seen for a few hours. At the end of it, I spotted a knob with an unobstructed view. On the way over, Chris jumped off a little stump, only to faceplant jacket-less into the fluff. Didn’t snap a picture.

Our lunch spot.

It was hard to know at this point, but we’ve been really lucky here in northwest Montana this winter. Lots of folks are looking at much less snow, so even an average snowpack riddled with persistent weak layers is a blessing to count. Add to that a sunny day with pow to pillage, and things were looking gorgeous.

Looking north. Some folks skied the aspects off the top and right of the righthand peak.

Looking east into Glacier. Mt. Stimpson on the far left, with the thumb of Mt. St. Nicholas on the right.

Really, it hadn’t warmed up much in the sun. Even after scarfing some bars and a bit of bread and cheese, I was full but getting cold. We headed back to the glade, and proceeded to take three laps on our bizarre snowpack. Here’s why:

I’d worried that my skis might be a bit narrow, but the snow was of the hero variety. Anywhere from 6-10″ of blissfully downy glory that liked to slough, and also hit us in the face. Though some other folks hit up the other side, we had that part of the valley all to ourselves. Atop our last lap, I stopped for a few more shots.

Every year about this time, folks talk about New Year’s Resolutions. Taking a flip in the calendar as a chance to start over, to start new, to do something different on this go round. It strikes me as strange to pick the new year–we all know our problems, most way too well. For me, I’ve been juggling too many things, and dropping most of them. Inspiration is the boot to the ass that motivates change, and staring at peaks in the alpinglow always does it for me. That moment, right before dropping in, cold and hungry, all the downhill below in the gathering evening, is clarity. Significance takes proper alignment in the scale of the mountains.

The trail out proved dark, icy, and a wild ride. I chased Chris through the trees on skis that barely fit between the trunks. Some skating on the XC trails, and we were back at the bridge over the tracks.

Chris spent what I hope was a comfortable night on an inflatable mattress, and the next morning, we headed to Whitefish Mountain Resort to see if we could find more pow. New runs cut below Flower Point have prompted the resort to run Tbar 2 more frequently, so we managed four laps of Tbar, ski to the backcountry gate, hike up, drop in, hike up, traverse to Chair 7, ski to the Tbar. Though the snow had been deep at Marion, it came down all afternoon, and we did ourselves some swimming.

For those curious, I spent both active days in Polartec’s Neoshell (as featured in the Centurion jacket/Arc Light pant), and as I’ve mentioned, the breathability is nearly shocking. The boot packing laps on day two would have been unbearable in something that kept more in. Thanks Mountain Equipment.

While we’d been pillaging, my car had found some snow too.

When I first met Chris nearly seven years ago, he was a snowboarder who tried hard and spent a lot of time sliding down on his outerwear, not his board. Since, he’s turned into a ripper worthy of some serious chasing. We may argue like an old, married couple, but that’s just the friction of being quite similar. There’s only so many people on Earth that are friend enough to go on my silly adventures; it was an honor to have him out. Thanks again for the photos and company, buddy.

Linebacking with Dave and Dave

With a few more projects to finish before the lifts open, it’s been a busy few weeks of interior painting. Stepping out into this chilly high pressure system for a break means grabbing my jacket. Such sunshine demands exploration, and Friday saw a flurry of texts and messages bouncing around amongst the touring crew.

Dave Boye and I left town around 7:30am. The night before, Dave left work early to check out conditions in the Whitefish Range, and our plan was to ski Diamond Peak—if we could get there. The road leading out of Olney for most of the winter is buried deep enough that only snowmobiles can travel. With the snow pack so low in the valley bottom, we’d be able to drive a fair piece in. That ended up as a tree across the road just before the ten mile mark.

Dave does the hokey pokey, turning the truck around.

Clearing trees–a good way to start the touring day.

Our plan had been to get further—a bit closer to the base of Diamond. The tree, though, meant only snowmobiles were going past, which meant the snow wasn’t packed enough for Dave’s tires. And that we were skinning from there.

Bailing from our original plan, we headed up the clearcut to gain the ridge and take stock of what we’d be able to make happen. The snowpack went from lightly crusted to heavy crust to “oh, yeah, that’s nice” as we approached the alpine. During a snack break, a by standing tree committed “unsportsmanlike conduct” by unloading a bit of snow right next to me—after we’d been there for several minutes.

Every year, the future seems to get lighter and faster. Which is cool, and it’s neat to see folks knocking down speed records and moving more minimally in the mountains. However, the inevitable benefit of this direction goes towards people who are, by their body chemistry, habits,  and nature, light and fast. These are the narrow footed folks graced by perpetual metabolism and an impressive lack of sweat glands, if they have them at all. It’d certainly be nice to be one of them, but I’m endowed with a decidedly American physique. That sweats. That gets hot. That doesn’t fit well into anything skinny. That has legs that can ski moguls, and make dynos, and lift heavy objects and stuff. That can take a beating. Really, mine is a body for things like linebacking. So when I chase my scrawny, sweat-less friends up mountains and skin tracks, it’s easy to see why  Dave picked up the nickname “The Diesel Engine.” We take a bit to warm up, hit lower gears on the hills, run efficiently as long as we don’t stop too much, and can go all day at our unspritely pace. We won’t ever be light, and if it’s fast, it’s sweaty. We won’t be breaking speed records, but I hope our efforts don’t become shed in the search for fewer grams, because we have just as much fun—and fun doesn’t weigh anything.

Dave pointing to Diamond Peak, our original goal.

The ridge up took some navigating around cornice and drifts, but what a place to be. Glacier Park and Canada stretched out along the eastern horizon, with worthy ski goals filling each valley and face near at hand. Such weather doesn’t grace us often during the winter. Usually, it’s  the rime and fog that make the famous snow ghosts (ice and snow encrusted pines that dot the treeline) holding court in the marketing brochures. Instead, we had visibility, sun, and shaded pow to ski.


Choosing a line in the cupped drainage to the north of the summit, we dropped in for about 2K of dense pow. Massive settlement cones and cracking evidenced change, and we moved into the open a bit more as our confidence in the snowpack increased.

And this man sells mortgages.

Our line led to the bottom of a slide path, with a protected ridge as the route back up. Dave and I took turns breaking in the track, cutting through wind buff and buttery snow.

Arriving on the summit, we had another chance to soak up the splendor.

Glacier Park dominates the background.

Looking south towards Werner Peak and Whitefish Mountain Resort.

Things were starting to warm up, so we picked a fully northern aspect rolling off a wide spine into the top of the path.

Our first line was in the upper left, coming down the left path. Second line was in the right path, entering from the treed spine.

Heading out took us into a ravine, and then onto the Hanes Pass trail. Hopping (and in one case limboing) downed logs and refrozen crust, that lead down to the access road. A couple miles and one skated hill later, the truck appeared around a bend.

Alder time.

As I mentioned before, we wouldn’t have been able to get here if the road wasn’t plowed for logging operations. Snowmobiles passed us, heading the other way as we drove back to Olney. The tree wasn’t an issue for skiers, but I’m sure we made life easier for sledders this winter. Diverse uses, all managing to coexist and function together. Everyone finding what they need in the mountains–loud, light, or heavy.

Many thanks to Dave Boye for scouting, driving, and being a badass. Check out his blog.

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.

 

“The best laid plans…often get derailed at the bar”

Perhaps the greatest danger of ditching me at the bar for the company of some lady is that the experience will end up starting a blog post. Which is to say, not much danger. Normally, I would say bravo. Though if the plan is to leave early the next morning to get in the mountains, and especially to ski, it’s more than average disappointment. I’ll omit his name to avoid shame (unlikely) or swelling his ego (possible).

Which is exactly what happened last Friday after the Valhalla premiere in Missoula. Waking up on his couch, a once promising early start became breakfast at 10. Then heading back to Kalispell by noon. The tail end of the sinking feeling that started on his couch washed through–that the day was shot for big stuff. Certainly skiing.

Furthermore, the road status that would have allowed easy access to skiing showed closure nearly fifteen miles below the fresh fluff. So I wrote it off, went for a quick hike, and then a housewarming shindig. Where I realized that everyone was headed for a good time at the bars. So I said goodnight and planned to head up alone the next morning.

My initial plan was to take the trail to Comeau Pass, and ski above it. That would have meant an 18 mile, 5500ft day minimum, and I wasn’t too jazzed to be doing it solo. Passing into the freshly reopened gates of Glacier National Park, it felt good to be headed back in. But the road was open much further than I’d anticipated–talking with the ranger in the entrance cubicle, it was closed a few miles short of Logan Pass.

So I switched my plan. The gradual advance of winter and plowing in the spring close the Going To The Sun highway to vehicle traffic to certain points that have the parking, but beyond the gate it’s usually open a few miles for walking/biking travel. My bike was at home in the garage, as I figured the road was closed lower down. So it all went on the pack at Big Bend and I took to the asphalt.

While walking, a couple guys I’d seen strapping skis to their bikes pedaled past to remind me of being unprepared. I caught up with them just as they’d about finished their transition from cycles to skis, introductions were made, and we planned to meet up higher if I caught them again. They skinned off while I put on my ski boots for the first time since August.

There’s something to the rhythm in active sports. Runners, walkers, kayakers, cyclists–everyone who does the repetitive motions involved can feel when they have hit that pace. That vibration that sounds on key within their own sounding board. For me, it’s ski touring. Each stride, plant of a pole at that pace that I can keep up all day. It’s as comfortable as walking, as natural as if it was the first thing I learned to do. And all this floods back in even the first few strides up the road. After going past the visitor center, I caught up with the bikers and we headed up to the moraines below Mt. Clements.

Dan on edgeless cross country skis. 


Jason and I plotting. We skinned up to the base of the peak and did two laps on a short, north facing slope. Not more than 500-600ft, but a few inches of fresh atop a bomber base meant great turns. Hoots and hollers echoed around the little cirque. 

Looking down from where we ripped our skins. 

Aftermath. 

Looking for another slope with perhaps a bit more vertical, we headed over to Hidden Bluffs. Perhaps it’s skiers eye, but these peaks are always prettier in the winter. 

 
Finding less coverage, we found Dan near the bottom and headed back over for another lap in the same slope. 

Skiing back to where they’d left their bikes and I my shoes was maybe twenty well spent minutes. They took off, and I skied as far as I could on the small bits of snow on the side of the road. Once the little ribbon had melted into the pavement, it was time to switch back and drink the rest of my thermos. 

As they say, there’s not a bad seat in the house. A few folks on a walk mistook me for a Canadian via my accent. Everything back in the pack, I got back to my car to see the driver’s side door transformed to a message board.

Evidently, my buddy Mitch, who climbed Mt. Merritt with us in August, had been by. Which brought me back to the community that uses these places, that loves them and believes in them, that goes to bars, that sometimes gets up early, that meets other folks at the trailhead and goes skiing with them. What an honor to get to spend time in these places, with these people. Even when all the plans go to hell at the bar. Even when skiing is on the line.

Thanks to Jason and Dan for a solid day. Thanks to Dan for his photos. Thanks to (unnamed) for going home with her.

Open for business on Great Northern

First of all, thanks for stopping by. It’s been about a year since I started this blog, with no real ideas about what I wanted it to be other than a place to put things that didn’t fit elsewhere. Since then, it’s become another creative outlet. A way to share stories. A way to link people all over the world to the time I get to spend outdoors.

If I had one wish for this little piece of internet, it would be that these words and photos make their readers interested in closing their computer, turning off the phone, and disappearing into the veil of nature. That what I’m doing serves to inspire. There are as many callings as people under the sun; mine seems to be to chase the dream. Thanks for tuning in.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

At the top of the page, it says “The adventure blog”. People have suggested that I add other aspects of my life, but there’s a purity of purpose here that I cherish. However much I’d like to rant about politics or grammar or whatever, this is a place dedicated solely to adventure. This is a question of spirit, of style. Mountains and wilderness are places free from the immediate influence of entities too far away or different in character to know them properly. It’s good to know there’s nobody looking over your shoulder. So in writing about that feeling, the content should reflect that singular sense of freedom from noise.

I bring this up because the shuttered US government is now affecting where we get to play. While the unpleasant side effects of the shutdown are multifarious and hardly knowable in full, one seemingly small aspect of closed government are the closed gates and makeshift barricades now blocking the entrances to our national parks. My usual destinations of interest are located inside a place that technically belongs to me, as a citizen, but is currently sealed off because of brinksmanship and inability to compromise. Which means that for a weekend climb like the one I planned last weekend, Glacier was off limits.

Photographer and all around gentleman Myke Hermsmeyer had been kicking around a weekend climb during the work week. We headed out of Kalispell pretty early on Saturday morning. The night before had been a scramble to find some extra gear, and I hadn’t been able to come up with a pair of spikes for him. With new snow in the alpine, it meant that we had to keep it mellow, and if it was too hard and scoured, we’d be turning around. A few wrong turns and a bit of dirt road later, and the peak was glowing in the dawn.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Great Northern by name, it’s a pretty popular summer destination for fit day hikers. When not drifted under the snow we found, there’s a goat trail that runs all the way to the summit. Located in the northern Great Bear Wilderness, which abuts the southern boundary of Glacier, it is separated by only an imaginary line drawn along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. The trail isn’t official or maintained—and hence goes practically straight up for the first mile.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

After a bit of sweating in the forest, we popped out into the alpine, the wind, and better views.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Somewhere in there, we hit snow. Though up and down for a bit, we hit the summit ridge after some easy walking.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

In the distance, all the peaks in view are part of Glacier. It’s strange to think that such majesty can be considered “closed.” That a place that is specifically purposed for exploration and wonder could be walled off to prevent those very activities. That the people who caused this may have never seen the places they are closing. That any government or human entity pretends to exercise judgment or control over these places. Staring across the valley, such assertions seemed utterly laughable in contrast to the stately snowcaps adorning each peak.  Which made me smile.

Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Once on the summit ridge, the wind did not let up. We made steady progress for quite a while over the various bumps and drifts. As often happens, the snow got deeper as we ascended. Footing was good until a route finding error saw me on a narrowing, slippery ledge. Scoured and refrozen ice made my explorations crampon worthy, and with Myke behind me with none of his own, we went back to try another option on the direct spine.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Something like an hour was wasted in all this. However, we did find a neat window of rock in the top of the ridge as the first fruit of our labors.

Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

And after that and a quick posthole up some drifted snow, we were again on our way. Long gone was the trail. My left leg was punching through wind buff up to my thigh. Navigating slopes that now held enough snow to create slide potential but kept Myke’s footing secure, a couple false summits came and went.

Not remembering how many high points there were, I suggested that Myke go ahead to shoot back down the ridge at me.

It turned out that the mountain didn’t go any higher, and it’s safe to say that we were both stoked.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

I put out the usual squeals of excitement, while Myke didn’t have to say anything—he’d climbed in a pair of Carhartt work pants, no spikes, and gaitors that my dad could have pulled from an ‘80s gear drawer. Quite badass.

For my part, I was decked out in Mountain Equipment softshell goodness (Centurion Jacket, Mountain Stretch glove, Epic Touring pant, Mountain Stretch gaitor), and I’ve got to say that it was nothing short of cozy. Long gone are the days of sweat soaked hardshells and imaginary breathability. These fabrics and constructions allow a supremely sweaty climber (namely, me) to move hard and still stay totally content under my layers. Totally astonished by how well the Centurion worked; I can’t wait to ski tour in it this winter. Yay Neoshell.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Wind pushed us off the summit, and it was really nice to be headed down in the sun. To my left, Hungry Horse Reservoir glittered. To the right, the “closed” peaks mutely stated that they didn’t care one way or another what the silly humans have to say.
To me, the need for wilderness is primal—to have places that are unregulatable, wild, far beyond the control of people. Summits and vales and vast woods that dwarf us puny humans and keep us humble, remind us how small we really are. For me, I need their shadow, looming. And as we delayered after heading into the trees, the views slipping away, it seemed reasonable to say thanks, once again, for all the mountains give us.

Great Northern, like many things around here, takes its name from the railway that comes through Whitefish. There happens to be bar and brewery that share the name with the mountain, so once back in town, we set out to the other “summits” of Great Northern. I’ll let the next three photos tell the story.


Huge thanks to Myke for being a sorcerer with his camera and a stand up climbing buddy. No thanks to the jerks that caused the shutdown. May packrats make nests in the kitchens of their summerhomes.

Whether the weather

If you look back through the blog posts from this year, there’s a prevailing trend of sunshine and good weather. Fog has blown off, storms have not materialized. Who knows how this has happened, as I don’t believe in weather forecasting. Though when I heard on NPR that there was a thunderstorm watch for most of southwest Montana the night before another promising climbing weekend, it didn’t connect that it was headed this way.

Friday started off innocuous enough. Light rain fell on St. Mary as we rallied the crew and headed out. Coming over the hill into Two Medicine, things were sunny. They stayed that way through the trailhead.

Our aim was to climb Little Dog (on left above) and Summit Mtn (on right), both located on the southern border of Glacier. The ridgeline connecting them is part of the Continental Divide, just up from Marias Pass. We hiked in the Autumn Creek trail, took the fork towards East Glacier, and eventually turned into the trees for an easy bushwack to the base of Little Dog.

Once out of the trees, it was plain that the weather was coming in from the south. Echoing in my head was the radio broadcaster mentioning that “the storm is headed north at forty miles per hour”, which would have put it, well, right about on top of us.
Ever cool while hiking with approaching thunder, Scott manages to text while climbing.

Thinking it best to wait a bit, we hunkered down in the trees to see what the clouds would do. South, the storm was headed to our east, and missed us by ten miles at least. Another one behind it held our attention when some piece of the first one rallied back west. Coming up fast, it proceeded to soak us with rain and hail as we hastily pulled on raingear. A minute later, it blew through. Waterfalls tumbled down previously dry gullies above us, the concentrate of acres of bare rock. Somewhat bewildered and back in the sun we started upwards again.

Zips open, the layer calisthenics began. Useful only ten minutes prior to keep the rain at bay, our jakets were now smothering in the full sun. Atop the next rise, and last bit of shelter before entering the upper scrambling, we stopped again to scope the behemoth thundertowers following the belt of the storm east of us.I have zero meteorological training. Nobody in the group did. That didn’t stop us from speculating at length about high to low pressure, storm movements, and whether or not it was going to slam us higher on the peak. Prior group experiences with proximity lightening atop weren’t anything close to positive, so that weighed in for a turn around. My mind changed several times. Eventually, it seemed that it wasn’t bad enough to warrant canning the day. Twenty minutes later, the fun scrambling began.
Strangely for Glacier, much of the upper mountain was scree free. Occasional shelves sat in an otherwise bare rock face, explaining the insta-waterfalls from before–there was nothing for the rain to soak into, hence it all heading immediately downhill.

Arriving at the ridge, the view to Elk Mountain was cool.

Better still, we had to climb this to the summit.

Running shelves beneath the crenulations in the ridge, the biggest objective hazard in the fog were the death farts carried back to us from Nick. A bit socked in on top.

And I include this for the amazing facial expressions. Not staged, I promise. And everyone was stoked to be at the summit. I guess that’s the danger of climbing with me: ridiculous looks may end up on the internet.Fog sent us a ways down the wrong ridge before Rose, the map, and the GPS confirmed that we should traverse. Coming across it and towards Summit, the clouds blasted up and  across us. Really cool ridge walking.

Eventually, we heard thunder again. That meant turning up the pace to make the summit and boogie. Looking later, we got within about a quarter mile and 300 ft vertically before we had to hunker down in the vicinity of a big overhang.

Mist obscured the storm moving in. Thunder got closer. I ate peanut butter and chocolate chip sandwiches while leaning into the uncomfortable rocks. Sound was our only guide to where the electricity was. Didn’t get close to us, but we sat for perhaps thirty minutes in the rain and hail. This time above, we watched the creeks form, one pushing a muddy rivulet through a scree field to wash mud into the gully.

Once the bulk of the storm passed, we elected to bail. With more on the horizon (or so it seemed), it was a good call. Twenty minutes and a pile of slippery descent later, we were rewarded for our caution with this:Nick put in perspective, saying “You know that if we’d hung around, it would have kept raining.” Add in his English accent for proper emphasis.

Regardless of the weather, the lower scree fields were a total blast. Something like 700ft of loose, consistent, cushiony crumbled mountain to run down. I was making turns as Scott blazed straight down.

Somewhere below the scree, I did some wet beargrass sledding in my rain pants. Huckleberries were found and devoured. Back at the car, the condition of my gaitors said it all: wet, dirty, unzapped, and happy to be back at the car.

Saturday came with morning thunderstorms. I rewaterproofed my boots, tried to dry things out, and read my book. Later in the day, the returning cafe employees got a party going. Rose and I checked out about midnight. Morning came with a hangover and headache. The scene outside:

Given that the thunderstorms were supposed to give way to sun the next day in the forecast I don’t believe in, it seemed reasonable to go for a climb again. Nick, Connor, Emily, Rose, and I piled into her car and headed for Two Medicine.

I would suggest that there are perhaps no straight sections on this road. My stomach, by the time we got to the parking lot, was anything but happy. Boots on. Ignore headache. Hit the trail.

Our plan was to climb Never Laughs mountain, a relatively mellow gain of about 2600ft with a good part of that being off trail. After taking the advice of a boat company employee, we took the Aster Park overlook trail and then began to ‘schwack around the north end of the mountain.Just the weekend before, I climbed Painted Teepee, the mountain visible in the center left of this photo. With rain coming in and out, clouds bottlenecked in Two Medicine Pass, and my shell a constant companion, it was quite a change.

Who knows how many people have climbed Never Laughs. We certainly aren’t the first, but I assert that the age of exploration is still alive–all it takes is a map, some vague ideas about route, and trying them. Route finding is a challenge that makes even minor summits cool. To add to this, my hangover wasn’t checking out. Given that I don’t train to drink hard, it understandably never gets easier for me. Lesson: even small climbs seem longer while fighting off the effects of the liquor infused with the very juniper berries I walked past.

Formidable. Especially dicey when wet. Thankfully, we went around the back.

Scree chute up to the summit ridge.

Looking down the summit ridge just below the top.

Rose and I up top. This marked her fortieth summit in Glacier, and I consider myself quite a lucky guy to hang out with such a tenacious lady. This may be the first time with her wearing shorts while I rock long pants.

An old trail exits Buttercup Park, the drainage to the south of Never Laughs. We descended an awesome scree chute, feet churning, rocks flying. Somewhere near the bottom, a couple of bighorn rams were grazing. Here’s the typical picture of sheep butt:

The trail had some deadfall, but really was in good condition even after so many years of neglect. Nick started thinking of beers on the lake, which translated to hustling our way out as the weather got downright balmy.

If was sunny all the time, it wouldn’t snow. It’d be too easy. Weather is the constant variable that makes it fun, random, and difficult. Pinned down by lightening, digging out a tent in the storm, drying raingear in a big wind–these are the things that keep it fun for me. Getting turned around is good, as it flexes the retreat muscles. Mountaineering is about the long game, as the things we seek aren’t going anywhere fast. It’ll be cool to head for Summit again sometime, but until then, I count it an excellent fall climbing weekend. Thanks to Rose, Nick, Emily, Scott, and Connor for making sure that we laughed through the rain.

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.

Fourth of July: Iceberg Notch

This spring, even while still in Alaska, I was dreaming of three choice couliors in the Many Glacier area. But by the time I got home and got them scouted, only one of the three was even somewhat skiable. Fourth of July saw photographer Myke Hermsmeyer and me headed out to ski Iceberg Notch.

Flagwise, it was a solidly blue collar specimen. The last one in stock at Cardinal True Value, it came with 3’ x 5’ flag, two attacher things, and a pole topped with a plastic eagle. The first purchase with my first painting paycheck of the summer. And it was riding into a Fourth of July couloir mission below Iceberg Notch, catching some serious commentary.

The sandals should have tipped them off. Two young guys wandering up the Iceberg Lake trail in Glacier National Park with nearly bare feet, Mike with a camera. Skis and spangles on my backpack. Fifty yards after every tourist comment about patriotism, I’d start laughing.

The Notch isn’t skied very often. By the Fourth, it didn’t go all the way from the top, and even what was skiable was suncupped, filled with fallen rock, off angle. A ten foot deep runnel ran down the upper section, and was only partially manageable at the necessary crux. None of the buddies who’d expressed interest could make it over, so the only company was Myke over the radio.

A quick, cold crossing of the outlet steam brought me to ski boot time. Once on snow, I rigged leashes from my harness to the axe and Whippet to make instant anchors. The flag was wrapped up so it didn’t snag on something while I kicked steps up the center of the snow.

The apron proved to be mellow, the runnel navigable. Eventually I found myself on an off-camber patch of steep wall, gaps to my left and right, and a crack across the snow above
me.

There’s something to being a fly on a glacial wall—exposure below, the consequences stark. An intrinsic immediacy, maybe, that whatever is going to happen won’t take long. This was far enough for today. I planted my axe and switched crampons for locked Dynafits.

Skis give confidence. Even though the points of crampons and ice tools hold more certainly, the act of facing downhill with boots buckled tight brings familiarity. The first turns were quick, but reassuring—it’d go. Definitely. After a little difficulty in the crux, I heard the flag flapping above me while arcing down to the lake.

A roar came up, and after first checking for rockfall above me, I realized that it was a crowd cheering on the other side of the lake.

On the hike out, we passed many of the folks that watched. A few wanted to take pictures, and we got more talk of patriotism. Pride in the country. We wished people a happy Fourth.

Drinking a beer on the deck of the hotel, I wondered about how far the irony of it carried.

Politics and government didn’t seem worth celebrating with the flag on my pack. Nor troop invasions or tort reform or DOMA. But the place that we’d been—the wildness, with a couloir rising upward and reflecting between icebergs in the lake—that held the value. Patriotism, in our sandal-wearing fashion, looked towards the parentage in the outside world. A sort of Mother’s/Father’s Day for the places that nurse us, that make a backyard the home where freedom is as simple as a pair of picks and some skis. And that’s why the flag was there, why the Fourth was worth celebrating. God bless skis, buddies, sandals, and crampons. ‘merica.

Huge thanks to Myke Hermsmeyer for his photographic skills and Rosemary Till for her hospitality.

Mt. McPartland with GMS

After all the hot weather here in the Flathead, a rainstorm sans lightening bolts slammed the door on fire season–at least for a bit. It also happened to arrive right over the weekend of my first outing with the Glacier Mountaineering Society.

The trip plan was to head up Mt. McPartland, a relatively obscure peak that sits between Mt. Vaught and Heavens Peak in the Going to the Sun Road corridor. Only visible for a mile or so from car, it’s seldom seen and generally not on the radar. Easily the biggest factor is that there’s no easy way to get to it. Not the gnarliest bushwhacking I’ve encountered, but it takes the prize for the wettest.

We met up at 6am in Apgar. Stars were out over the Flathead Valley, but as I drove north, it became obvious that the storm was still soaking Glacier. As if to reinforce that, the rain started at the turnoff into West Glacier. Some introductions and a quick carpool up the road to a turnoff by McDonald Creek followed. Armed with wading shoes, fording the creek wasn’t too hard.

GMS is an organization of climbers and hikers interested in the climbing of things in, of course, Glacier. My motive for joining up was to become more integrated into the climbing establishment here. And to get route information that’s hard to find online or missing from the often outdated guide to Glacier. Once signed up, you can register for events via an online calendar. Most of them were full, but a couple caught my eye, including this McPartland trip. As the weather forecast blackened, spots opened up, and I found myself bumped from the waitlist.

Once in our boots on the west side of McDonald Creek, we followed traces of the old trail there until turning uphill and into the brush. By this point, it was actively pouring, and we were all pretty wet.

Perhaps it was an exceptional group. Perhaps everyone just didn’t care that the spigots in the clouds were fully open. Perhaps it was a case where each person thought it a bit ridiculous that we were there, but didn’t want to ruin it for everyone else. In the back of my head, I remembered and hoped on the clear sky to the south.

After a while, we moved back into an avalanche chute, working our way up through brush and a number of slick cliff bands. Huckleberries and sarviceberries were everywhere. With purple hands and tongues we headed up.

Somewhere near the top of the chute, it finally stopped raining. The cloud level rose in front of us, enough that some sun showed up at our first real lunch spot. Wringing the water out of my socks made things much less squishy.

Following the drainage that runs up to the summit of Mt. Vaught, we climbed up into the clouds.

Following a GPS, we ended up a bit too high up in the drainage. Fog obscured sight navigation, but eventually we dropped back down and over to the large basin beneath McPartland. Tim, the trip coordinator and brush guide extraordinaire, had welcomed us to Jurassic Park while the rain poured down early on. Given that there’s a Floral Park, Preston Park, and Granite Park in Glacier, it seems fair and indeed necessary to call that big basin Jurassic Park.

By the time we got there though, our route detour in the clouds had cost us the time needed to make the summit. So we hung out in Jurassic Park, ate our sandwiches, and watched the clouds come and go.

Our foggy quarry.

And then the high pressure cleared things out.

Eventually, we packed up. On the way down, we confirmed the connectedness of the Glacier climbing community; Tim grew up on the same block as my mom, and Greg roomed with an uncle of mine while working for the park.

Thankfully, the hucks were still everywhere on the route down. Mountain candy at its finest.

Tim, looking majestic.

Much dryer on the way down, the schwack seemed to go a lot faster. Some forest walking, and there were our sandals in the tree.

Greg on the ford back out.

And the avie chute we ascended.

It’s pretty impressive that GMS can take groups of individuals who don’t necessarily know each other and offer Glacier as a social experience. Kudos to Tim for putting everything together and all the work he did to find what I’d call the easiest looking route through some tough country. Thank to Rodney, Greg, and Cecilia for a stellar day in the rain and sun. Stoked to do more with GMS.