Wait, bikes? Spring ski scoping in Glacier

Denial seems futile: both the calendar and Facebook say that it’s spring. Roads closed to cars are melting out. To avoid dread approaches over perfectly wheelable gravel and pavement is to get on the bike. And like every spring for the last four years, I’ve realized that it’s time to spend a few moments considering how I feel about including bikes back into my life, if only for a brief six weeks or so.

Skiing actually has it pretty easy. Bindings and boots are what they are, yet skis are so mechanically simple on the consumer end. No shocks, no brakes, no cables or chains or welds or tubes to break and cause havoc. And these days, bikes make skis look downright cheap. I’ll give that expense the blame that for not having done much to change mine.

Thus, it comes as no shock that my bike is in about the same state of functional silliness that it’s seen since it emerged from my uncle’s barn in 2012. Bikes, like ships, should not be renamed. Mine was originally christened Headhunter and spirited my uncle Rob through many shenanigans and over much slick rock during his days of med school in Salt Lake City. I was helping them move out of their Montana house and found the bike covered in dust and staring down a fate of being left behind.

It had no wheels, the chain was destroyed, and who knows how long it had rested there. A couple salvaged wheels from their garage, new tubes/tires/chain, and I was off to the races. I’ve since added a rack and fenders (because I’m a weenie and getting blasted in the face by water is so fun) to complete what usually gets classified as an Alpine Assault Vehicle. Thumb shifters, a top tube too long, and a rear chainring that prevents it from running in its highest gear are the major quirks. I’ve never had it tuned up; maybe that’s part of the charm.

Snowmelt on the roadways is the major reason I even have a bike that I use that frequently outside of errands in town. Wheels offer the chance to access objectives that sit behind long, flat, road approaches that are closed to cars yet open to anyone will to pedal their way up. Skiing, camping, hiking, or just riding for the fun of it; this is my micro-bike season.

The other cool part about the roads melting out is that it offers an easy way to get into Glacier and scope the spring ski options with my own eyes. Photos from other folks are fine, but if they aren’t looking at the same things that I am, it’s a lot harder to know exactly what’s going on. The photos in this post are from two days. I covered a pile of ground via car and bike first with my mom, then with Alex and Morgan.

Last Sunday, April 3rd, my mom and I headed to the east side to ride bikes into Many Glacier. The Glacier National Park Road Status page told us that the road was closed, but they had been plowing. Always a good sign for bikes, so we made the call to try the six hour roundtrip from Kalispell. Just typing that out makes me think that it’s a really long way; it doesn’t feel like that though. Who knows.

Things were super sun and very dry when we got started at the Sherburne Dam. The ride in was completely dry and otherwise uneventful.

We swung out to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, glassed the Altyn hillsides for bears (only found bighorn sheep), then headed back to the Many Glacier Hotel to eat lunch.

I’ve long recommended Many Glacier to folks looking for the classic Glacier experience. Drive in access, the amenities at the hotel and campground, and a pile of hikes with lots of different lengths and difficulty levels make it a good place to explore in the summer. People seem to have figured that out too; it can be a zoo during the height of the season. Early season trips like ours take on the feel of a ghost town: windows are boarded up, the wind blows, and the only sounds are the ones that nature is making. Two other people (the winter caretakers of the hotel) were our only human sightings.

So it was quiet, and gorgeous. Yet the east side really suffered from a warm winter. Snowpacks that usually necessitate plowing and offer great snow approaches are totally gone this year. With them, the runouts and drifts that fill in classic ski lines. It’s hard to look at such wonderful landscapes while simultaneously feeling the frustration of a spring skier without the key ingredient: lots of snow. It makes me wonder what this place will look like come August. Home seemed like the place for this spring; instead, I’m considering more time in the mammoth snowpack that the Cascades stacked this past winter.

We hung out for a bit, then headed back out. It had only been twelve miles and change, so we wandered down to St. Mary to saddle up and ride some more.

The burn last summer meant that much of the road that normally would have snow didn’t have the shade or shelter of trees with their needles. It was smooth riding all the way to the St. Mary Falls trailhead. Judging by the road status page as of this writing, they’ve plowed past Jackson Glacier Overlook already. This means riding bikes with avie gear (a preferred alpine sport in Montana), but the access is pretty dang incredible.

My mom and I then headed back out, and down to Two Med. A quick snack stop in St. Mary yielded the interesting discovery that GPI had set the categories strangely on the cash register; the clerk run up the chips I bought under the “Stamps” umbrella.

In Two Medicine, the road was closed about a mile outside the park entrance station. We rode in to find it blocked by snow just before the Running Eagle Falls trailhead. I’d imagine it has quite a bit more snow than we found elsewhere, at least on the valley floor. It was a quick turnaround and we headed for home.
Then, yesterday the 5th, Alex and Morgan invited me to bike into Bowman Lake with them. Our alpine start involved getting lunch at a reasonable lunch hour, turning around to get gas after starting up the road to the North Fork, and a closed Polebridge Bakery. Obviously the last was the biggest tragedy.

Halfway to the lake, I was wondering why we brought fat bikes (thanks for the loaned wheels, Parsons). Then the snow started. And the puddles. And the packed ice. Maching downhill at maybe twenty five mph (that’s generous) in short sleeves on slush covered icepack on a fat bike might be one the scariest, wettest things I’ve done in recent memory. Props to Alex for doing it in such style. I can’t even say that it wasn’t fun.

We made it to the lake to hang out for a while. I skipped some rocks. Ate some sandwich. Looked the mountains with dismay at how much snow as in them.

Then, as a sort of protest against the fact that we could even ride bikes to any of the places we got to because of low snow, I went on the 1st Annual One-Man Bowman Lake Nude Bike Ride. It didn’t really require going very far. Hard to say which was whiter: the mountains or my bottom. You be the judge.

The ride back out was a total party of downhill enthusiasm. I cornered with terror; Alex screamed along and I tried to follow his line. We took maybe half the time we spend on the ride in. I’d bet that the snow and ice persist for the next ten days minimum; maybe that’s an overly cautious estimate.

Suffice to say that it’s spring here, and the biking is pretty dang great. Thanks to my mom, Alex, and Morgan for a couple great days out. Here’s to strapping skis on in the high country as soon as the avie cycle settles down.

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.

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.

Denali dreaming, part II

Going big. In every way, that’s how this Denali trip has been. More prep, more time, more money, more gear than I’ve ever sunk into one single endeavor. As much mental terra incognita as the physical glaciers and ridges we’re headed north to ski on.

From the exciting moments of reserving an air taxi or the confirmation of our permits, there’s a transition into what to do to get ready. Much like climbing or skiing, there’s plenty of decisions to make along the way. You can go it alone, use some help, or pay someone to guide your success. There are a number of Denali prep courses available—a quick survey throws the price tags between $2,500 and $1,500. Most take place in the Cascades, as spring conditions in March and April can be similar to what goes down up north. But we’re going as our own guides, and besides, it’s not like I’ve the cash to throw down on a guided trip. And it’s not like we’re doing this alone either—so many people have come together to make this all possible. Though we didn’t really plan it, the prep process, just like the way we plan to approach the mountain, has been on our own terms with lots of help, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Looking back, it seems better organized. Or at least more consciously thought through than it actually was. In my case, “training” for Denali started with a long winter of skiing, working on my skis, and traveling to ski. Not that this was really any different from what I would have been doing anyway. There’s no question that constantly being on skis develops the muscles needed to ski sastrugi with a heavy pack.

More than any other, this winter was one of touring. I got to go out skinning with my friends, and the reward came in the form of shredding more untracked, soft snow than I ever have. The planning and decision making for backcountry travel on a day trip crosses over into the expedition ski mountaineering we’ll be doing up north. Many of the days I was out saw 4,000-5,000ft of vertical gain, which isn’t any sort of record, but it kept the hiking stamina from last summer and fall mostly intact. One thing to watch out for: if your friends know you’re headed to Denali, they might let you break a bit more trail than you planned for in the name of “training.”

In mid-April, Clay Roehner and I spent three days in the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park. It was the first trip that really felt relevant to what Grant and I will be doing up north. Initially, Clay had been thinking about a weeklong traverse of the touring zones along the west side of the Middle Fork along US 2. As things shook out, we didn’t have time to place the caches or do the whole thing. With the weather heading towards storm after several weeks of sun, it seemed better to scale back. When I mentioned Many Glacier in the 10pm phone call the night before we left, he was down.

Meeting up at seven the next morning, the junkshow bloomed quickly. I’d left my fuel bottle in Kalispell. We went back from the gas station to grab his skins. In a moment of totally obviousness, Safeway had no white gas and the hardware store saved us. My dad left work to get us a fuel bottle from his shed. All which goes to show that flexible planning and good cheer are probably the best tools to include on these sorts of ventures.
A stop in West Glacier yielded our backcountry permit and the info that the road had been plowed. Another stop in East Glacier saw the last supply getting and arranging our packs.

By virtue of the scope of the trip, the pile of gear is large. Intricacies come along with that pile. Simple things like how to pour white gas from large cans into the narrow MSR bottles. When full, the spout is too big. It spills. What happens if you overfill? A minor problem, but still frustrating. Easily, the solution is a funnel. But what interests me is the way that these things are learned. In my case, the folks at the East Glacier mercantile had a funnel I could use. A checklist could theoretically prepare you for all the small issues like this. Make it possible to anticipate them. Personally, I’d rather go out with friends, deal with small mistakes, and write the “To Fix” issues in my Rite In The Rain.

The turnoff in Babb had snow, and Clay’s Suburban made it all the way to the gate at the foot of Lake Sherburne. Skis went on packs, packs on backs, and we saddled up on our bikes for the six mile trip to the picnic area that was to be our campsite.

I can’t really recommend riding a bike with such big bags. We managed the slush, puddles, and winds with no incident, but we’re skiers. It was a close thing. Wheels were a means to an end from which a skin track can start, in our case the picnic area north of Swiftcurrent Lake.

After avoiding death by bighorn ram near the caretaker cabin, our complaining asses rolled into the picnic area to some serious amenities. Unlocked pit toilets. Picnic tables. A fire ring to put the Whisperlite in. Bearproof food storage in the garbage containers. During the summer, this is the domain of tourists who can park and eat Fritos in the shade of some pines. Though not open for public travel, crunching across bare asphalt in ski boots didn’t quite feel like backcountry.

Without much visibility, it was hard to say what was going on in the alpine. The whole area has seen 8-12” of snow in the last week, making the snowpack we skinned into below Grinnell Point a bit of scour, refreeze, and buff atop a solid crust. Nothing moved on the mellow slopes, but we weren’t convinced. Rapid warming could quickly destabilize the new snow making for wet slabs or point release slush gushers. It seemed smart to keep expectations low. Over dinner back at the picnic tables, we decided to head up to Grinnell Lake the next day. We’d be closer to the alpine and wouldn’t see work trucks heading past.

After waking, we packed up and headed over to dodge open water patches on Lake Josephine. Navigating the creek between the head of Josephine and Grinnell pushed us up on the hillside below Grinnell Mtn, and we arrived at the head of Grinnell just as the clouds parted. Immediately, we saw point releases moving into the cirque we’d need to skin through to make it up to Grinnell Glacier. Retreating to the shelter of the big trees, we pitched camp and went for a recon skin with the argillite face of  Angel’s Wing towering above. The crust was somehow bonded to a foot of new snow, though we skied conservatively. For good measure, I alternated Clay’s tracks out the bottom for some powder eights.

Transitions while winter camping are more than just skins or goggles. Pulling into camp means going from sweaty active gear, perhaps a softshell, to down and mitts. Insulating boot liners in the toe of my bag. Insulating water so it won’t freeze. It’s not the easy luxury of summer backpacking, but then again, snow allows you to build your own kitchen.

Ours had two seats, a counter for prep and cooking, a fridge box, and sat down out of the wind. Still, lessons learned: don’t keep your glove liners off in wind. Bring extra socks just for camp, as your usual ones are sweaty.

Hauling big bags and the bike ride of the day before had tired us out. Couscous came quickly and we gulped it before it got cold. As they say, hunger is certainly the best sauce. Planning an early morning, the tent door zipped up by six pm.

I woke up to ten degrees in the tent, ice crystals all over the walls, and six am. We’d been asleep for a full twelve hours. Best of all, the clouds of the previous days were gone. Clay rallied first into the sunshine; we powered out of camp to the bottom of the headwall. Just after layering down, I had to race back to the tent for my beacon. Lesson: put that thing on first. Then, we headed up the ramp towards the glacial basin. Summer sees this area as a set of cliffs with waterfalls running down them, so cutting a track through windbuff atop the crust required kicking in at nearly every step. Lesson: use the ski crampons I subsequently purchased.

Though hard, we made it up the first bench. Clay lead the second and popped out into the scoured steps of the glacial basin with a whoop.  Our route went up to the moraines above the pond, to the left, and we skinned through the flats between the Wing and Mt. Gould and up to the summit of Angel’s Wing.

Dropping off the summit, we milked crust that became the first true powder that either of us has skied in a few weeks.

A lower bowl was even deeper. Stoke was very high. Sounds of joy were being yodeled. As it was getting close to eleven am, we leapfrogged our way down through the headwall and reached camp congratulating each other on a safe descent.

After packing up camp, we headed back down the lakes.

Reaching the bikes, we caught a ride out with a service truck. Good thing, too—there’s a likely chance our flatish tires wouldn’t have survived the trip back to the ‘burban.

As we put on shoes and stowed our gear, I reflected on my sunburn. On the trip, and how it had become a learning experience. A tip here, an idea there. Not “training” in some sort of artificial, detached way, but an adventure in its own right. Good times had. Powder skied. Most importantly, safe decisions made that got us up and back to the car. My kind of fun.

Thanks again to Clay for his photos and company.