Lemonade on Little Dog

The Spirit Bear didn’t have my phone number. So the message popped up on Facebook: “What are you doing tomorrow?”

My car’s on its last legs. Christmas presents to buy. Emails to send. A whole string of dangling conversations to finish or move a few texts down the line. Things that could maybe lead to sustaining the ability to question what was next in my schedule. Plenty that wouldn’t fall into place until I actually took it head on. Neglect wouldn’t help. So I had plenty to do tomorrow.

However, as winter has sputtered to life here, we’ve been dry-docked with a snowless spell. Stages of ceased snowing include denial, attempting to find stashes, acceptance of tracked out/ravaged snowpack conditions, and then ski mountaineering. Things seemed primed for a trip into the scoured, buffed alpine. If you’ve got no pow, and just scapey, crusty lemons–make lemonade.

So Spirit Bear’s message was the conversation I picked up. The next morning, Ben was at my door, with his fully functional and recreational vehicle, which solved the “brakes don’t work” issue for the moment. He was also on top of the pastry game, so we stopped to pick up sticky buns before heading north.

We picked up Jason in Columbia Falls and were off through the Middle Fork, discussing topics of importance with our mouths full of sticky buns. Things are certainly low tide, and followed that in the cross loaded, rocky first-glance at our objective atop Marias Pass: Little Dog mountain.

When I think about about the local outdoor community, there’s a series of branches that start with my immediate friends and then spread into the people that live in this little corner of the world. Though I’d known Ben since I was in high school, and knew of his exploits in Glacier, we’d never climbed or skied together. He and Jason had raced biked years ago, but I hadn’t skied with Jason since two years back. The newness didn’t bother me–we had strong, fit skiers. We were joking and chatting and just enjoying ourselves as we skinned through the forest and detoured up a creek towards the lower slopes.


The day was my second in a new pair of boots, so I was a little tentative about how that’d shake out. No hot spots appeared on the flatish walk in, or on the ascent up a rib to the west of the saddle between Little Dog and Summit. Jason and I were chasing Ben, which is a pretty common thing to do, given that he’s one of the fastest uphill people in our little corner of the world. Some folks like to switch leads when skinning or bootpacking, because they get tired. Ben, however, does not get tired. As far as I can tell.

Somewhere in the past couple weeks, I switched my touring setup over to wider Steeples, thinking that I’d probably be skiing pow in the near future. The rib we followed was either scoured, baked, massacred, faceted wind drifts that were hard enough to not hold an edge, or rocks and scree thinly coated in a couple inches of fluff. It made for such interesting skinning that Jason eventually gave up and started bootpacking. He caught up to where I was trying to finesse my way through the drifts, so I joined him. Judging by his face we caught him, Ben wasn’t having any fun at all. None.

From there, skis went on packs. The wind drifts made good footing, and it didn’t take too much time to make the ridge.


The last time I was bootpacking up a big face, tiredness and dehydration dogged every step. But as we climbed, it just felt good to plant each foot above the next, drifts and outcrops passing along from above to below.


Spindrift had been blasting off the ridge all day, and the wind howled over us. Since things didn’t look too promising, we left our skis and continued up. Jason ahead of me, and Ben way out there.

The view back towards Summit. On a bigger day with better conditions, I could see skiing the N face of Little Dog, ascending Summit, skiing its SW face, then heading back up to the saddle.

Looking across Ole Creek.

All the sculpting and rock hard drifts evidenced the wind hammering the outside of my hood. Spindrift would occasionally come around my glasses and stick to the warmer, insides of the lenses. And it was just wonderful to be cruising along up Ben’s boot prints, snug and happy in my gear as the wind raged and sun shown down.

But the same wind was a bit unsettling to Jason. As I caught up to him, he told me that he’d had enough, and was turning around to wait for us at the saddle. With Ben a bit higher on the ridge, I started juggling the thoughts in a hard situation. On one hand, it’s good form to stick together in case something happens. With one member of the crew retreating, perhaps we should all head back. But Ben wasn’t part of this decision, so it was the two of us. Jason was fine with me heading on. He had crampons if he wanted to use them, and I felt he could make the descent. But since I felt fine, and had Ben forging ahead, I felt good to catch up with him. We’d all regroup to ski from the saddle.

Looking back on that decision, it made our margin for group error much slimmer. Jason was more or less solo on his walk back to the saddle, and if something went wrong up high, Ben and I would just have each other until we could get word to Jason. Given how we felt, the competencies of the group, and the conditions, I don’t feel bad about the decision now–but I would have liked to make it as a group, instead of choosing between scenarios in my head. We had a range of speeds, and that was beneficial in exposing fewer people to concentrated hazards, but it limited our communication. This hindsight is the kind of thing to bring to future trips. Reflection is positive, when acted upon.

After I caught up, Ben and I negotiated a couple chutes, kicking through thin, unconsolidated wind drifts to the firmer stuff underneath. Around the corner, up the edge, and there we were. Clouds roiled to the west, with their puffy tops catching a golden glint from the sun. To the south, they broke up over the Divide, leaving us with blue sky over the plains in the east. Our  perch was right on the break point. It was pretty dang exciting.

It was also extra windy. I threw on crampons for the walk down, took a few swallows of water, and we marched back down to meet Jason. Ben snags a group selfie back at the saddle:

Ben and I dug a pit, revealing a seriously consolidated snowpack on the lee, cross loaded slopes we’d be skiing.

I swung in first, found a little bit of loose, crusted snow on the margin, and made it down a ways.

Jason linked turns down to me, and on his go, Ben blew out of a ski. It rocketed down the slope as he yelled, then caught a bit of snow, rolled, and thankfully stopped. Ben doing some downhill walking:

From there, we traversed skiers right into some of the ramps of the lower mountain. Ski cutting the soft, thin drifts as we went, the angle decreased and got downright fun as we skied back into the creekbed we’d come up. Ben enjoys some just desserts:

Bopping along the creek, the whole day took on a nice afterglow. We’d started with winds, and that sinking feeling of low tide, but here we were, having skied some legitimate crust and actual pow on the bottom. Only a little bit of skinning ensued on the trip out, and as we crossed the tracks back to the car, I couldn’t help thinking that the best recovery drink for the evening was resoundingly lemonade.

Thanks to Jason for motivating, Ben for his photos, and both for a wonderful day in the park.

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.