Wherever you are: David Steele 14-15

Last week, I unveiled my latest season edit of skiing. Filmed in the Montana backcountry, on Cascade volcanoes, and in the terrain park at Stevens Pass, it’s a pretty good representation of how my skiing still bridges genres.

There’s a wealth of experience in not being just one type of skier. I hope that comes through. Major thanks to family, friends, partners, and especially the sponsors who keep me out there.

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Sistertime in the springtime: The Tooth, Logan Pass, and Rainier’s DC

In my travails lately, I’ve had a few conversations with different buddies about the difficulty of finding people to get out on adventures. Scheduling seems to be the biggest issue, made worse by the relatively small numbers of more-epic outdoors folk in the rural area where we live. Their words ring true for me–but the variability of my schedule gives a bit more flexibility. Even better, the two trips I’ve taken to the pacific northwest this spring have yielded an especially nice series of scheduling benefits: getting out to play with my sister, Beth.

Some background is helpful: growing up, competition kept things somewhat rough between us. Two years of age gap keep us close enough to make a constant friction, to the point that our mother tells a story of pouring out juice in a measuring cup to satisfy that neither was getting more than the other. Scrabble, when we both play, is a blood sport. At one point in my early teens, I told her that snowboarding “was going over to the dark side.” Naturally, she found things that weren’t the ones that I wanted to do: karate, showing horses for a number of years, and eventually finding a passion for theater tech that now informs her job as a commercial lighting salesperson in Seattle.

The moment I left for college in 2007, the antipathy between us disappeared almost overnight. Physical distance seemed to erase the need to compete with each other under the same roof, and though I’ll admit it took me a couple months to realize what was going on, it was a new era of mutual affection. It bums me out now to look back on all the years that I let petty competition steer my emotions elsewhere. True sibling respect is an amazing thing. It was some level of factor in Beth heading to PLU after me. But it wasn’t until she took up indoor bouldering in her third year that we were doing the same active things.

Later, she started climbing on ropes too. For her graduation present last spring, we gave Rainier a shot. Bike commuting twenty to thirty miles a day in Seattle, plus climbing four days a week, has tapped the same endurance genes that I make use of. She’s damn fast in the hills. I can’t even hope to keep up on a bike. Another era has started in our siblingship: outdoor buddies. The three trips in this post are a celebration of the fact that I’m a lucky dude–I get to spend family time out in the vertical world.

Our first adventure this spring was on The Tooth, a four pitch alpine trad route (5.4-5.7) on Snoqualmie Pass. This happened during an off day of my Volcanic Activity tour. Beth has been leading in the mid 5.10s outside and in the upper 5.11s indoors, so the climbing was cake for her. With summer planning looming, I wanted to get out and see how she did with being an efficient rope team while trying to push our way up some multipitch trad. April 27th was the date we went. Snoqualmie Pass was barely open this winter for skiing, but even still, it felt too early. Rain had fallen the night before. Trip reports, though plentiful, didn’t seem too helpful what the approach was, exactly. My favorite includes this phrase: ” beautiful super-redundant nuclear blast proof rappel anchors located every 30 feet down the Tooth.” Which seemed positive.   Either way, Steve had lent us his trad rack (thank you kind sir!) and we wanted to make it happen.

So we rolled into the lower Alpental lot with a dim idea of where we wanted to go. For those reading this, the easiest approach seems to be to take the lake overlook trail, circle around the cirque, and then head for The Tooth. The gully separating the gendarme to the SE along the ridge has rap anchors in it (35m each) for the way down, and it looks like some people go up it too.  Beth on the way up:
Winter still clung to the upper alpine. Our postholes were up to the thigh. It was exactly the kind of snow that makes me wonder why anyone would ever want to walk through it instead of skiing. Still, we made it to the base of the climb, racked up, and I was off like a shot. Dry rock, blue skies, solid placements, easy climbing. Easy to see why everyone and their grandmother has climbed the Tooth–though it’s popular, it’s fun. Stringing the first two pitches together wasn’t at all difficult, even with a half rope doubled up. Running two 70s, you could do the whole thing in two pitches. First pitch:

Beth on her way up:

At change over, things went quick. Beth restacked the rope as I racked up and headed off up the next super short pitch. Third pitch was easily the most fun, with a couple of secure but airy moves on the face. We scrambled the pitch after that, and then I placed a few pieces on the final wall before the summit. Looking down the final wall as Beth comes up:

And with that, we were up top. We’d moved quick, climbed well, and had it all to ourselves. Really fun–I think my concentration on taking the selfie murdered my smile. Bigger fish to fry later: Then, we rapped off. I’ve found that the easier trad climbing I’ve done is actually the worst to rappel, since it’s not overhanging or even vertical. I was forced to punt the rope down over and over again through the shelves. To avoid snags, we rapped four times to where we started climbing, then twice more down the snow couloir to save the strange scramble around the gendarme. If you’re going, note that the second rap station in the snow couloir is on climbers’/rappellers’ left against the couloir wall and has multiple slings.
After that, we crawled our way back through the mush, then down the trail. It had been a really awesome day, Beth had crushed it with her follows and pulling gear. Her skills make me really excited to get out more this summer when she’s not busy with all her friends that are getting married.

Over Mother’s Day weekend, Beth and her manfriend Matt made it back to Kalispell on a mad dash from Seattle. They rolled in late, then we all packed into my grandparents’ pickup with four bikes for proper Mothers’ Day festivities with a ride up the Going To the Sun road. To be honest, I didn’t take much in the way of pictures because I was chasing Beth’s furious pace up the road. She puppy-dog’d the other three of us on the way up the Loop, and after I caught up and tried to hang on as she powered up the steep grade. Elevation and continued steepness aren’t what she deals with while bike commuting. Bicycling in general isn’t my forte. Lactic acid burned in my thighs and I repeatedly told my legs to shut up as we fairly flew up the road. Maybe she was just being polite in that she didn’t dust me. Either way, we made the top in time for another sibling shot.

It’s good to be humbled by your younger sister, but even better to see her so excelling at something athletic that she enjoys. I just hope she waits for me when she really becomes an athletic mountain terror and I’m panting in her wake. As my mom does now, maybe I’ll be able to take a little bit of credit for helping to get her there.

As I mentioned earlier, we gave Rainier a go last spring. Due to my inexperience leading and planning, and a general lack of experience with big packs, that trip didn’t get past Camp Muir. So I said we’d give it another try this spring. My initial trip to the PNW this spring didn’t see that attempt. Beth texted to say that she had a weather window, I hemmed and hawed a little, and then committed, seeing other possibilities for after our climb. As I did when some friends and I skied Rainier in March, my trip over detoured through Yakima, White Pass, and then to Paradise.

I camped in the parking lot Thursday night, and went in to get our walk-up permit for Muir on Saturday. Folks at the Climbing Information Center were supremely helpful both on the phone and also in person–thanks to them for route advice and their friendly demeanor. I walked out with our permit, climbing passes for Beth and Andy, a college friend of hers that would be accompanying us, and blue bags. Then, I hopped in the car for Seattle, shopped for food and other essentials at Feathered Friends, bought some trad gear on a steal from Rob (thanks!), and hopped in Beth’s car to head back down to Paradise. I’ll explain in a minute.

Details on Rainier climbing, in case you’re curious: A climbing pass ($45/$32 for ages 25+/<24) is required for anyone going above 10,000ft. You need to register for your climb, and during the offseason from Labor Day to Memorial Day, you can self register. If spending the night out, you’ll also need a backcountry camping permit, which you can reserve, or also pick up as a walkup if the prior reservation window has ended. Rainier’s climbing rangers have always been helpful, and they run the best kept NPS climbing info blog I’ve seen, with good posts on current route conditions. First timers typically take the Disappointment Cleaver or Emmons Glacier routes.

Back to our trip. Rainier poses a big elevation risk for folks living at low elevations, like nearly everything nearby, because they end up gaining nearly 14,000ft over a period of a few days. HACE and HAPE are a concern, plus exhaustion. A safe rule of thumb that I learned while in Alaska was to only move 1000ft of elevation for every night spent sleeping there. Essentially, if moving camp between say 11,000ft and 14,000ft, spend three nights at 11,000ft before bumping up. People can and do move much faster, and altitude affects everyone differently at different times, so I’m not sure how much that rule applies for quicker climbs like Rainier. That said, I’ve found that sleeping at Paradise the night before beginning a climb on Rainier offers the benefit of 5000ft of gain before the trip even starts. Plus, it cuts out any driving–you’re there, and an early start is easy. Hence our return to Paradise from Seattle. We sorted gear, did a z-pulley demonstration, and fell asleep in anticipation of our early start.

Beth and Andy all saddled up at 6am: I took skis, because the five grand of perfectly good skiing between Paradise and Camp Muir would be wasted if I walked. Beth and Andy moved along at a great pace. Once on the Muir snowfield, we took breaks every thousand feet.

We were among the first to pull into Muir, arriving just after 11am. Beth and Andy had done really well staying hydrated with their packs and the steady, fast pace. Andy sported a headache, but both Beth and I felt great, which should be a tribute to learning a bit more and good genes. Another benefit of bringing your sister: Beth set the lunch bar high with smoked gouda, triscuts, and dates. She made me little delicious sandwiches of all three while I dug out a proper snow kitchen next to the tent.

Remodeling at home is expensive and time consuming. But when you’re snow camping, you can build countertops, storage, seating, and windscreens wherever you please. I went out for a little ski lap above Muir, and snapped this picture. Since it was the weekend, the trail of mountain zombies stretched down the snowfield and camp quickly filled up with tents. Once back, I took a nap. Then we dove into crevasse rescue practice on the snow rollover just out of camp. Demonstrating a z-pulley in the parking lot had helped clarify a few of the complicated bits. Andy served as ballast, and I demonstrated. Then Beth did it under my supervision. Then by herself, as I hung on the other side of the rope  and thought about dinner. Andy, safely pulled out of the “crevasse” for the second time. Andy, during dinner, decided that he wasn’t planning on accompanying us on our summit push the following morning. His headache remained, even after a bunch of water and a nap. That left Beth and I planning on waking up at 1am, out of camp by 2am. We crawled into our bags, and proceeded to eat a whole bar of chocolate between the three of us, giggling about the ridiculous words printed into each different square of the bar. Mountain moments are like that: nerves or tiredness or the sheer tide of lunacy sweeps over a whole group of people together and you find yourself eating spicy, pop-rock, fine chocolate in a tent in the snow above 10,000ft. I hate that overused Kerouac quote about “the mad ones”, but lying there in my bag, it occurred to me that they’re the ones I truly understand and care for most.

1am came way too early. My breakfast pastries (pain au chocolat and cinnamon roll) were delicious. At 2am, we trundled out across towards Cathedral Gap, one other party starting up Gib Ledge. We moved well, and not long later at the gap, were treated to a sight: the lamps of a whole pile of teams that left around midnight shone above use, illuminating the route we’d take under the canopy of stars. I wish my camera and skills could capture things like that. We layered down a bit there, then continued through the flats, up the mixed rock and snow at the bottom of the Cleaver, and up to the top. Given the low snowfall this winter, things above the Cleaver were not as normal. The route typically jags climbers’ right to connect with the Emmons shoulder. Then, it ascends up to the crater rim. Instead, we traversed the top of the cracks in the Ingraham, went over a ladder, and found ourselves above Gibraltar Rock, still traversing. It was one hell of a sunrise. The big holes weren’t new territory for me, but they cemented the reason we’d done the practice the day before for Beth. It was a packed, prepared route designed for guided clients. Hand lines and placed running protection guarded the most exposed sections. Even still, it had all the massive grandeur and scale that big, humbling piles of snow and rock should. Beth later told me that she hadn’t ever felt that small. Her courage in that new environment was really impressive, and she handled the holes and exposure like a veteran. After crossing above Gibraltar Rock, we wound across to the Nisqually Cleaver, where the route ascended again. Wind had been blasting us since turning the corner. Fog reached down and obscured the group of five we’d begun to catch. Whether or not the lenticular was coming down, the summit was fogged in, and we still had 1300ft to go. So we talked about the weather worsening, comfort levels, and how we felt. The weather worried me. Beth agreed, and we turned around to make the walk back down. But first, a sibling selfie:

It didn’t bother me to retreat. We’d made it to 13,100ft, and fast. Things looked potentially grim. Sure, we’d worked hard and as always, it’s frustrating to fall short of the summit. But to see Beth move to so confidently and well in that kind of terrain is the the type of thing that doesn’t require reaching an arbitrary point atop a big hill. Plus, the benefit of turning back there is that we can go and do it again next year. Hopefully the weather will be better, because I really want to pick out the Seattle skyline from the summit.

On our way through Ingraham Flats, we detoured to try and tie down a tent that wasn’t staked into the snow at all, but simply corded to the tent next to it. Each gust would flap it completely up in the air, only to set it down. Maybe we helped. You can see that the cloud had come down to the top of the Cleaver in this photo. All the way back to Seattle, we’d turn in our car seats to see if the cloud would lift–it never did, and that’s some consolation for our decision to turn back.

Back in camp, we spent a while trying to find Andy, only to realize that he’d gone off for a little exploration on the rock buttress above camp. He was stoked to see us, and his headache was gone. We pulled camp, and they took off. I loaded up, and made turns all the way to Alta Vista before walking the rest of the way to the car.

The snack spot at Paradise has a huge benefit compared with some of the other ones I’ve experienced: soft serve. It was 10am, I’d been up since 1am, and so it felt totally justified to be lying on a rock in my sandals, looking scruffy, waiting for Beth and Andy with my ice cream.

Getting to do outdoor stuff with your family is a huge gift. Anyone who spends their time in the hills knows the amazing things that happen when you disappear into the lofty realm for a few days, and how the experience  lingers on afterward. Infusing that into a familial bond is amazing. Sharing it with my sister is a tremendous honor, and just like the expanded ideas that come from my own experiences, there’s a shining future of climbs out there for us. Thanks to Matt for his care and driving late at night and belaying, Andy for accompanying us on Rainier, Steve for the rack, and most importantly my parents for giving me such a rad adventure buddy. Love you, Beth.

October slush and a little girl’s bike

Chairlifts, as a technology, present a strange paradox: on one hand, it’s super easy to do a lot of skiing without much effort. On the other, the people who run them dictate when the “ski season” will start and end. So when you leave the resort and start walking or skinning around, the question of definition is no longer filled by somebody else’s schedule of spinning chairs. Theories abound, but for me, I start the new season when I can ski new snow.

It’s also been helpful these past couple years to skip skiing in September. While easily the hardest month to go skiing in my part of the Northern Hemisphere, it’s come down to a question of quality. It’s just not worth it unless I’m super itchy to scratch out a couple of icy, bumpy turns on a remote snowfield. And the whole “ski all twelve months, and then link that up into a preposterous number of years to impress people” thing is all about numbers and less about actually having fun and skiing. Abandoning my Continental Divide project in late August taught me something important about these sorts of “projects”: don’t do mountain things for contrived, unreasonable reasons. Do them because you want to.

So it’s October. I’ve been itchy. And when a relatively typical fall storm came through, I managed to convice Myke to ditch whatever obligations he had the next day and head for Logan Pass to see about harvesting the leftover schmoo.

Myke had procured a “Pixie” bike for an informal downhill race that took place on the things. Instead, he missed the start but still had the thing in the back of his car. So we rode it around the parking lot once up top. We attempted switching out a seat post off of both of our regular size bikes, but they were too big.

True to shoulder season ridiculousness, we put our ski gear on our bags and started walking up the paved trail and boardwalk.

This time of year, the Hanging Gardens are open to walking wherever you please, so we detoured off and headed up the moraines. I finally walked through a bit of snow, which was encouraging. The fact that the pass was open to driving had worried both of us about ski conditions on the way up.

This was my first test of my new pack towards what my mom calls “lunatic-fringe” activities. Ie, hiking in with a full ski setup aboard. The Variant did a killer job with the extra weight, carried comfortably with skis strapped A-frame or just on the side, and I’m excited to do longer, stupider trips with it now.

First skinning with bear spray of the fall season. In short sleeves.

Skins were perhaps a bit excessive. We were skiing new snow on top of old on perhaps 500 ft vertical drop, but hey, these sorts of fall excursions are all about scratching the itch. That doesn’t seem to take much. The first lap is all euphoria, and by the third, I was thinking, “this is fun, but I’d like to take a nap on the rocks.”

Schmoo. Ah schmoo. The remnants of what was fresh snow, refrozen and melted several times. A veritable blanket of gooey, sloppy stuff that mimics powder but really isn’t. And prone to making slow moving wet slides on refrozen, icy suncups. This is what happens when you try to skin it on the higher upper angles. Although, it did lend itself to some fun once atop the silly thing.

Myke drops in.

I didn’t get a nap, but we did take this follow up picture to my shirtless Kahiltna episode.

Then comes the transition back into shoes and the walk down. I need to figure out a better way to rig my skis for down climbing or walking downhill–the tails always seem to bang on ledges or steps. There’s a compression strap a bit higher up on my pack that I could use, but that might not give that much improvement. Either way, scratching the itch feels good but the walk out reminds me that it’s not really the season for this yet.

It’s hard to advocate this time of year, but seasons do give perspective. If skiing was easily accessible all the time, it wouldn’t feel as precious. Waiting makes the first few turns much more delicious. Perhaps in an era of instant gratification and NOW NOW NOW it’s good to have to wait for something so essential to our lives as skiers. It’s also well and good to extol such high minded ideals on my blog but be positively vibrating with anticipation around my friends and family. Eh. Here’s to our addictions and our ideals, both at once.

Then again, it was a perfect time to ride the Pixie bike down the Sun Road. Myke took it from the parking lot to Oberlin Bend, and had difficulty sitting down comfortably. Since I’m more hobbitylike, I squeezed on and rode down to Triple Arches.

By the time I got there, the coaster brake had heated the back hub enough to make it too hot to touch. Turning wasn’t really a good idea, as the bike clearly wasn’t designed for nimble maneuvers at 20 mph. When I stopped, a skid went for a few yards, resulting in a flat spot on the wheel. Ridiculous? Certainly. But the looks on the faces of people going the other way in their cars were absolutely priceless.

Thanks to Myke for bringing the fun and shooting such nice pictures. And to whoever it was that donated the bike. No little girls were harmed or stolen from in the making of this blog post.

“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.