Splash. The sole of the ski boot connected with slippery Pinchot Creek bottom, and for a minute, it seemed like the plastic shell might keep the creek from soaking my liners–the liners that might freeze solid that night in the tent. The liners we’d need to ski. The liners that still had miles to skin before we could make camp. Reaching the snow, I clicked back in, started skinning to catch up with Clay, and felt the squoosh of water that was now a part of every stride winding through the underbrush and up the valley. We’d skin for a while; the creek would cut us off. We’d shoulder our skis and wade in. And each time, I thought that some part of us might never recover from this trip.
Our reasons seemed pretty clear: Mt. Stimson is a truly worthy climb or ski in any season. It dominates the skyline of the southern portion of Glacier. During our climb/ski of nearby Blackfoot Mountain last year, the clouds parted and Clay asked reverently, “What’s that monster over there?”
Further, its southwest face occupies the only NW Montana entry in the 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America, a coffee table book that occupied our living room in Whitefish and occupies my dreams on the regular.
Countering that occupation, Stimson has a reputation for being very tall, which it is, and very hard to get to, which it also fulfills. With a summit just over 10,000ft, it rises nearly 7,000ft above the trailhead on Highway 2. Summer approaches via established trail can range to twenty miles. Being skiers, we figured that with good timing, we could use snow to skin over much of the legendary, vicious underbrush that makes the direct approach up Pinchot Creek so memorable. We’d still have to cross the Middle Fork of the Flathead, Coal Creek, and Pinchot Creek, but thrall to that gorgeous line, and our propensity to embark into suffering, we figured we could do it.
The day before, we got our backcountry permit, and took a quick trip north to scout the trip to the river. Post holing through isothermal nonsense over deadfall in light shoes, we noted that the river didn’t seem too wide upstream of the crossing. So we arrived around six am the next morning with a pack raft, a map, lots of rope, our skis, and some dim notion of what we were about to do.
Skinning over the crunchy postholiness of the day before, Clay dragging the raft behind him through trees, it took us a while to wander to the river. A steep embankment of mixed skinning and logs didn’t help.
But after skinning across the swamp, we found the river. And found that it was much, much wider at the ford than where we’d scouted. After a quick try, we realized that the 30m glacier line tied to a 75ft throw bag we’d brought to return the raft to the person waiting on the other side wouldn’t be enough. Clay ferried the gear across, making me the only piece of luggage necessary to make the other side.
Every piece of cord we had totaled seven different pieces plus two NRS Straps and a big stick. With only himself in the raft, and pulling the cord I tried to keep out of the water, Clay paddled for the far bank. Given that we were trying to cross perhaps 170ft of water, the rope dropped into the current, pulling into a large bow shape that kept Clay from getting quite to the other side. Our plan was that he’d bail out into the shallows, leave the paddle, and I’d pull it back. Instead, committed to his bail next to the steep bank, I held the stick and watched the boat flip. He went fully into the river, clinging to the paddle, and swam madly to shore. The current pulled the boat downstream, and as I dragged it back in with our makeshift line, the inflation sack from the raft floated on downstream with my hopes for the day.
That left me on the near shore, with my bear spray, camera, and a raft, but no paddle. Our plans were shot, but to even sort out our retreat, I had to take the raft across the river. Two paddle raft paddles were sitting in the back of Clay’s rig, so I spent an hour potholing up the softening snow to the railroad tracks, the car, and coming back down. Tying the two paddles together with prussik cord, I took my makeshift kayak paddle, went well upstream, and made it over to Clay.
Arriving on the other bank, I found him exceptionally fashionable in wet ski boots, dry boxers, and his down coat. Unlike the ski gear draped across the trees to dry in the 10am sun, his spirits weren’t drenched. The moment he went in, I’d written the trip off, and was already contemplating lunch at home. In our planning, we’d barely worried about the Middle Fork crossing that had taken us nearly four hours. But in the hour I’d been gone to grab the oars, he did “a little wallowing in self pity, then got dry gear on and started to think about it.” We were there, and it seemed right to go up and check things out since we’d already been through so much–in perhaps a half mile from the car.
Our predictions about patchy snow came true. Before clicking in after yet another section of walking up mud, I’d try to kick my boots in the snow to keep grit out of my tech fittings. The Coal Creek trail led us up the hill, and into some flats where we started to see the ridiculous country where we were headed.
For a while, the trail heads northwest before running up against the embankment of Coal Creek and turning south. Following directions from some friends, we went about a half mile past the junction. Our descent route involved perhaps the worst ravine out there, but we kept our skis, skins, and touring modes on our feet. Clay getting into it:
After that, it was time to cross Coal Creek itself. Clay’s soaked gear meant he wasn’t getting much wetter, so he charged in while I stood in the snow, stripping off my boots and pants in a strange hope of keeping them dry.
Once on the other side, we took a minute to refill our water and think. Both of the major stream crossings were done, and we were that much more committed to a goal that was still a long, long way off. Thinking back, I don’t know when we decided that we’d commit to going in or coming back out. Some mutual stubbornness got us up, put our boots on, and lead us up the embankment and into the trees.
An old trail exists somewhere on the north side of Pinchot creek. Like many of the old and unmaintained options in Glaicer, it’s probably overgrown and crumbling. Plus, it was probably under snow for a lot of our route. So our routefinding took us up the ridge to the south. Snow came and went, and after too many transitions, the grass and dirt skinning became natural.
Because we had skis, it could have been possible to go a long ways up the ridge, and then do a traverse back down into the valley floor to gain distance. But as we got higher up, the deadfall worsened. Skinning got extra difficult, and we spent an hour skin skiing and then booting down through isothermal patches of snow between logs to the creek bed, which looked more welcoming. In places, the ground was still frozen. This made for a preponderance of treacherous footing and swearing. So even though I was worried about my liners, the splooshing into the creek was actually quite an upgrade.
The time we spent zig zagging across the creek drifts out of memory. Between the bear keg and overnight stuff in a day pack and sore legs, I was loosing motivation. Clay, however, kept his spirits high, checked his watch, and kept us going upward. Even though he started the day by falling into a cold river in his ski gear, here he was, keeping things chipper as I slowly sank into the swamps of my own frustration. I credit his optimism with the trip, and his leads through the creek bottom kept me with our mission.
Eventually, the creek narrows, goes into a canyon, and we detoured up onto the slopes below Eaglehead Mountain. By this, we gained quite a bit of elevation, got out of the bottom, and didn’t have any more creek crossings. For the first time, we could see the line we’d come all this way to attempt (direct center).
The clock wore on. Crossing some large avie paths was the easy part. Between, the contour line was constantly interrupted by brush and terrain. Stubbornness was the motivation to bash through, skis slipping on logs. We continued up to about 5200ft, and skinned into where we wanted to camp right around 7pm.
We’d been at it for thirteen hours, nine since leaving the Middle Fork. The morning promised 5000ft of gain after an early start. The line loomed above us as alpenglow colored the peaks. I ate my freeze dried macaroni with the satisfaction of someone who is wearing all their layers and about to get into a summer sleeping bag while snow camping.
My gamble had been that I’d go light, hopefully be warm enough in temps that were probably a good 10 degrees F colder than my sleeping bag rating. The night started pleasantly enough. But when we woke at 4am, I was starting cold. Lacking good insulated storage, we’d planned to melt drinking water in the morning. Then the stove went on the fritz after a few cups of hot, watery glory. There was plenty of fuel. It was primed. But it wouldn’t burn strongly, emitting a feeble flame that ate up an hour and a half before we each took about a liter and a half in disgust.
Our liners, which we’d tried to dry, and tucked in our bivys, were soaked and nearly frozen. Clomping around camp in socks and boot shells was more comfortable. And so we left, heading up the valley towards the saddle in the predawn not-dark-enough-we-wasted-so-much-time-on-that-damn-stove.
We fairly flew to the pass, aside from a few patches of steeper crust. In the light, angles were hard to guess at, and I slid back a couple times. Behind us, the peaks above the valley were gathering light. Our midwinter Middle Fork haunts stood up down the valley. I chewed a bar in silence, not quite thinking, and not taking it in really, but just witnessing. Perhaps that’s all I could do, and it felt right.
Eventually, the south face came into view above us, and the full task was at hand.
Looming really isn’t the right word. To get where we wanted to start skiing, we’d need to achieve the center high point. Given the blocky cliffs on both sides, the best route seemed to be up the right side, through the shadow line, and up. 10am was our goal for being on the summit, which would give us some leeway on the SW face that was not yet in the sun. . And so we pushed on, ski crampons biting into the glassy surface of refrozen sludge.
Rime ice covered the boulders, and the pitch steepened. So it was crampon time. Made so easy by the skis on our feet, our rapid progress seemed to halt as we kicked steps into variable, refrozen crust. It wasn’t beyond boot deep, but the exhaustion from the day before seemed to drag behind me, taunting with its weight.
Swinging leads, it seemed to go on for a long time. We were both feeling it, but the sense of how far we’d come grew with the visa below. Attached by my axe, whippet, and crampons, I reveled in the joyful but tenuous feeling of being a fly on a pretty big wall. Water from my liners gave every step a squoosh much more like the creek than the front point. Then, at a break, Clay nudged his pack, and the sunglasses and helmet atop it skittered past our feet down the boot pack. Without them, his red buff and black hair gave the impression that I’d just been following Rambo up the boot pack.
It got steep too.
So when I navigated around a rock, and found myself on the summit ridge, it was relief–cut short by the sight of what still sat between me and the top. It floated perhaps a quarter mile away, the broken rocks and cornices seeming like some castle wall jutting up into the sky.
The short walk to the summit is my favorite part of a climb. Cruxes are interesting, and route finding proves to be the worthy challenge, but the last few steps when you haven’t yet achieved what you’ve set out to do, but know that there’s now nothing that can stop you–that moment is an easy, quick one amongst more that are, by their nature, more complex. To get to that moment, we’d need to traverse over the blocks covered in rime ice, avoid cornices, and not fall off.
And it looked daunting. Our crampons were balling up nearly every step. Making the first, spidery moves across the unsupported snow fields meant pulling out the microscope: be right here, right now. This little slope. One movement at a time, with an idea of where to go that lasts about twenty feet. We moved a little, and I think Clay just had had enough.
“I’m good. Since I dropped my lid, there’s just no desire to keep moving there. I don’t care about skiing that other face, not without a helmet.”
He was right. Calling it there was a good move. Skiing our ascent line would be plenty interesting to ski. But in the time that we’d already made on the ridge, the fear had become manageable. I could move in this. And it was visible the whole way.
I said, “I think I’m good moving across this. You ok with that?”
He was, and I set off. Things got easier, then harder, and before I knew it, that last twenty feet came up, and the easy, successful feeling came out in a lonely little wolf howl.
A selection of shots from the summit:
Back across the summit ridge toward Clay:
Looking down the SW face:
Out the west ridge to the right:
South towards St. Nicholas and the Cloudcroft. Pichot is in the foreground.
North, over Nyack creek with Blackfoot and Jackson.
When we climb, we get to survey the world while it truly dwarfs us. Seething masses of geology and water, held in temporary forms until they erode away, giant waves becoming flattened by each particle of rock carried down a stream–they hold such easy ability to keep us humble, tiny, and permeated by wonder. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So moving back along the ridge, my water gone, kicking my feet into the places where I’d been before, I wandered out of the blank bliss of the summit and into the reality that, hey, we get to ski down this thing.
Clay in his perch.
Getting our gear on, and setting up, it registered that we were getting late–11am. Looking around for a wet slide that I heard coming down, I realized that it was on the skier’s right of the bowl we’d ascended. Clay dropped in, ski cut on the steeps, and after posting up we both watched his slough step down into small pockets and sludge its way out the bottom of the bowl.
Looking down from the perch. Clay is the speck on the right side, above the rocks.
Like the ascent, we took turns swinging into sheltered pockets and navigating the skier’s left. It was steep, nicely edgeable, and a whole hell of a lot of fun.
As we skied out the bottom, I spotted a dome shaped white thing next to the murder scene of some grouse that came to a rough end. It was the helmet that had skittered away. Rambo reclaimed his helmet. And we surfed down the old moraines, jumping off stuff and chortling all the way to camp.
As if it sensed our relief and the sun shining down, the stove worked fine back at camp. Water melted, we allowed a short nap to dry things out. Note the recycled avie debris used as a drying rack.
Descent came much more quickly. Our skin trail lead back down the valley through the nonsense of bushes we’d already crashed through once. Instead of zig zagging, the bench on the south side of Pichot Creek held snow for at least a half mile past where Peril Creek comes in. All good travel seems to end on this trip, usually in dirt or downfall or heavy shrubberies. So eventually, we fixed bayonets and once more waded into the creek.
Felt soles would be better. However, you can’t roll your ankle in ski boots. Or stub your toe. And the liners, once soaked, work sort of like a wetsuit by insulating and warming the water around your skin. Each time the water comes over the top of the boot, it changes the warmer stuff around your foot. Which keeps things interesting.
In an attempt to avoid the deadfall doom of our descent into Pinchot Creek, we followed it a bit downstream. By and large, we missed the deadfall by going straight into a band of christmas trees packed onto the fringe of the burn like teenagers stageside at a boy band farewell concert. Swearing at them doesn’t really do much, so grabbing them by the throat and pulling yourself uphill makes for better uphill headway.
Our reward was a nice gap in the burn. Much easier walking afforded a better route to a newly swollen Coal Creek. Crossing involved a desperate skate across a large, flat boulder while waist deep in the current.
But by this point, we knew it could be over soon. So the manic energy of finishing the task coursed through our soggy, limp enthusiasm. I found myself chasing Clay down the trail over dirt patches as he plowed onward into the dusk that was coming down.
The Coal Creek trail goes right through the middle of this melt pond. It’s under about ten feet of water here, which will all go away later in the season. I know you’re looking at the trail.
Once arrived at the Middle Fork, we arranged gear, ferried, and got across by two manning the pack raft. I lay on the bow, my feet to each side of the cockpit, beard over the water like a tired figurehead in some bizarre aquatic comedy involving ski boots. Clay paddled us across, landing as it truly began to be dark.
It all got slower then. Around the swamp. Up the hill. Walking along the trail tracks, with Clay carrying the ricksack filled with raft on his front and all the ski stuff on his back. Eventually, our headlamps reflected in the headlights of the Suburban. Dry gear gave way to weariness, and the drive back in to Columbia Falls was a tired one.
So many words for only two days. So much difficulty. And both easily worth it, to see my estimation of my own abilities bested by the miles traversed and difficulties overcome. Thanks to Clay for his enthusiasm, skills, photos, and being badass enough to totally go in the river and decide to carry on.