Jewel Basin in the rough: anticipating El Nino

For the snow obsessed in my life, the approach of winter offers yet another opportunity to delve into irrational speculation that’s only as deep as the snow we’d prefer to be shredding. Thus, the most predicable thing about the winter is the way that we lead up to it online: winter forecasts start circulating in August, followed by reposts of Farmer’s Almanac quotations and snow maps in September. Then the first winter storm heads for the west coast, and multiple snow news sources write stories about some obscene NOAA point forecast from some high  point (13,000 ft on Rainier) on one of the Cascade volcanoes. This happened at least twice this year, and I’d find it acceptable only if the person who writes these silly things braves the crevasse hazard and red flags of  124″ of new loading over three days to actually go up there and ski it.

October brings that first snow in the hills and the inevitable, undeniable truth of the ocean temperatures: we’re headed for another El Niño winter here in North America. And since this is the second winter in a row of potential Global Weirding in Montana, there’s been an accompanying conversation that I’ve heard in bars, casual chats, and early season skin tracks. It goes like this:

“Wow, El Niño again. Last winter was terrible man, except that one day. It was dry at the hill for, like, a month. Let’s hope this one is somehow better for us in our corner of the world.” I recently heard a skin track addendum: “Gotta get it now [in November] while it’s still good.”

In response, I’d like to offer a series of evidence-based rebuttals from a day of touring this past March 22. For context: things were sunny and pretty dang thin at the ski areas in northwest Montana. The bottom five hundred feet of Griz chair at Snowbowl was completely snow free under the lift. It was spring slush and people were probably playing golf. An early forecast had even called for rain.

Evidence-based rebuttal number one: don’t conclude that a winter is bad based on lift-accessed conditions.

It’s 2015, people. Backcountry skiing and boarding has blossomed into the full, geeky flower of possibility, while lift lines and gargantuan parking lots solidly show the current state of  your favorite in-bounds powder stash. If you’re looking to find good snow without tracks on it, I’d recommend channeling whatever energy was going into complaining about weather phenomenons into walking uphill.

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Fortunately, my friends are on the same page. That day in March, Dave, Gary, Brad and I loaded into the Black Diamond Mortgage alpine bus and rallied for Jewel Basin. It was downright cruchy while we put skins on and rallied up the road in the morning shadows. Suncrust beckoned. And:

Evidenced-based rebuttal number two: it’s not the snow that terrible; it’s the attitude of the people you’re skiing it with.

Brad, Gary, and Dave are terrific in this respect. It’s a decently long approach just to get into Camp Misery, and we had no idea of the conditions we might find up high. March in a more normal year might mean layer on layers of storm snow in the same places we were walking through. Instead, a thin skim of new snow covered the crunchy sun crust, evidence that it hadn’t been quite stormy up there.

Once on the ridge top, it got windy. My ski crampons were a nice addition, as the crust was relatively slippery and rolled away downhill to the west. Props to the rest of the guys for going without.

Walking the finish to the top of Mt. Aeneas, I wondered a bit about how the skiing would go. Sandwiches appeared, jokes were exchanged, and we decided to give the East face a whirl, hoping that the wind on the ridge had seen fit to match the crust with some dust to scuff around in.

Just before he dropped in, Dave wasn’t unhappy. Which brings me to my third evidence-based rebuttal: you don’t know until you get out there.

A few inches of cream filled in the face. Buttery, soft, glorious stuff. Skiing  that wasn’t perhaps the stuff of legends, but was seriously worthy. We wouldn’t have known it was there had we not gone. We certainly wouldn’t have found it. And after a series of very complimentary things said about the quality of the snow, and the sunshine beaming down, we went back up for more.

Self-righteous aphorisms about earning turns pop up enough in ski writing, even though they’ve been worn more threadbare than a rock-eaten pair of skins. Everyone has their reasons for being out there. Personally, I keep coming back to the same thing: it’s easy to complain about the winter from a chairlift seat. But if you don’t like what’s under your skis, or if Global Weirding has served up another barely recognizable weather pattern, then go explore. Follow weather, seek out aspects, use elevation to your advantage. There’s almost always good skiing to be had if you want to work for it.

After our second lap, we dropped down the chute just below the summit of Aeneas.It was not quite as nice as the east face had been.

Which is the evidence base for my fourth conclusion: skiers are happier when they learn to love hard snow. Don’t get me wrong: pow is great. Soft snow is wonderful. And it’s made all the sweeter by enjoying the hell out of wind scour, sastrugi, icy mank, sludge, suncups, moguls, chicken heads, and runnels. Diversity keeps ski skill up, keeps the challenge hard, and makes the good days feel even more amazing. The winter I worked as a cat skiing guide, skiing powder got a little blasé due to too much repetition. You don’t want that in your life. Dig out the hop turns and find the crunchy stuff to keep it lively. We certainly did in that chute.

It was the nice bit of doodling down the flats back to Picnic Lakes. Gary made some silky tele turns in front of me.

Then, we bumped back up to the ridge to find springtime. Sun had softened the crust we’d skied in the morning, leaving a nice bit of surface corn for the enjoying in Crown Bowl.

Our exit down the road took a while, and eventually we walked a bit, but the day had been ours. It hadn’t rained. We’d found fun skiing and good snow towards the end of a “terrible winter.” And as we wander forth in the coming months, having no idea what this El Niño will bring, I keep thinking back to these good times as a touchstone and motivation to keep getting out, skinning a little further, and reaping the rewards.

 

 

 

The life aquatic: England, part two

Thinking back on my trip through England, I came to a couple of major conclusions that fit in with the stories from the trip. So without further ado, here they are.

Conclusion #1: The Pacific Northwest of the US needs to stop pretending they have it especially wet. Unless you live in Forks, Glacier, or Skykomish, the English are way, way wetter and less perturbed about it than you. And if you do live in those towns, you’re probably about on par with the climbing conditions we encountered on my first outing with Rich T. and Rich B. upon arriving back in the Lake District.

I did some cursory research before leaving for the UK. The Peak District is more like a bunch of rolling hills, and the Lake District is where they actually have mountains. However, as we rolled into Old Dungeon Ghyll, I realized that how the dry the road is has nothing to do with whether or not climbing is going to happen. Because Rich and Rich racked up, we made it up Middle Fell Buttress, and headed on to Gimmer Crag where the conditions were somewhat near the Underwater variety.

Yep. We climbed up that slippery sheet of lichen. Not a bolt in sight, and Rich T. made his way up, over, and around. Some of the footholds were puddles. I found myself longing for dry cracks to jam a fist into. Looking back, my facial expression reveals that I was having a lot of fun, and seriously impressed that we weren’t aid climbing. Our middle belay, below D route.

Rich B. then led D route. Somewhere near the spot in this photo, Rich T. described the conditions as “a bit grim.”

I’d have to agree. It was slippery. And since I was following, I had the task of pulling the gear from the rock, knowing full well that the experienced folks ahead of me wouldn’t be rappelling abseiling back down. Thus did I fail to pull a number 4 wallnut from where it had seated in an underclinging crack. It’s yours for the taking. And as I’m not experienced enough to know if it was truly lost, or if I just suck at removing stuck nuts, I did replace it for Rich B.

Toping out. I believe this is called the lunatic grin. Apparently, the old school climbers would put socks on over their boots when conditions were like this. However, the new “light and fast” movement has dispensed with the sodden socks, such that they’re climbing in the same conditions without the added grip.

Here’s the Riches cleaning up.

Some casual scrambling took us to the summit, where I discovered that our alpine-style ascent had been bested by a veritable herd of free soloists using natural fibers for their outerwear:

Which leads to conclusion number two: sheep poo is practically indistinguishable from mud. Sheep may not be everywhere in England, but they were almost everywhere I went that wasn’t in a town. There’s probably a process whereby the poo becomes the mud, making it some level of continuum between stages. And somehow, it was always on my shoes.

This trend continued the next day, on my second venture with Rich T. up and across Striding Edge to Helvellyn.

What’s usually a few hour run for Rich proved to be a very nice day hike hill walk up and around the rolling hills. Striding Edge is famous enough to warrant its own postcard. Apparently, people like to fall off on a somewhat regular basis.

Which makes sense, because some of the rocks were, you guessed it, wet. I have to give serious credit for the summit wind shelter though: the X shape design doesn’t even begin to question that the wind might come from any given direction at any time, so it’s just prepared for the eventuality. We really didn’t have much wind. It was a nice, calm place to hang out while Rich filled me in on an absurd 65 mile run he’s planning over basically every hill and valley that we could see from up there.

The peaks of the Lake District remind me of the Two Medicine area of Glacier, but covered almost entirely in grass (and sheep poo). There’s a serene beauty to them that doesn’t come with more rocky outcrops. I found myself really enjoying the contrast, green, and general calm that comes with these places.

Over one roll, Rich had a surprise for me. I can only describe it as inspired madness. Way up in the hills, at least an hour’s walk from the nearest road, a creaky looking platter rests between rows of snow fence. It’s the project of the Lake District Ski Club, and it boasts nine “unique” and ungroomed pistes. A season pass costs 55 pounds quid and even after hauling gear uphill for an hour, members often have to shovel out the lift before using it.

I have nothing but respect for the people that operate and ski at Raise. And next time I go back, I really hope there’s snow, because this seems like the best idea ever: put a big walk before the lifts to cut down on numbers. Then go out and play on your club tow with your buddies. Brilliant.

There’s also a serious sense of history in the area, owing to a quarry that’s a casual three hundred years old or so. Debris from whatever they were mining is everywhere. It sort of looks like natural talus to ignorant American eye. On the trail switchbacks, I threw out one, and only one, exceptionally Texan “Howdy” to a group of hikers going the other way. They immediately fell silent, and I don’t know if they heard me chuckling with mirth as I walked off.

My Texan accent must have registered with the place, though. On the absolute last grass/water/mud/poo slope before the car, I managed to completely lose my footing and land ass first. Which meant I went into Whole Foods Booth’s looking exactly like a muddy American.

Given that my runners trainers had yet to dry out, I realized that rubber boots might be the absolute best footwear for these sorts of places at this time of the year. However, rubber boots make things a little bit harder when my third conclusion is brought into play: Never, ever bolt anything.

I was told that there are indeed sport climbing crags in England. They do exist. But the general ethic of trad crags are far more in keeping with the climb-in-the-rain philosophy I’ve already described. The third day I was in the lakes, Rich T. and I headed out to Trowbarrow. It’s an old quarry, with a few rusted out pitons serving as the only fixed protection on the wall. A quick survey eliminated most of the easier leads as too damp. So Rich saddled up and lead some bizarre English grade that I don’t particularly understand, but felt between 5.9 and 5.10.

En route, he managed to dry out a few of the wetter spots with chalk, so I had that benefit for my follow. The little pourovers in the limestone made for an aesthetic finish.


Given that this was a crag, I thought that we’d just rappel abseil off, per the typical American custom. Nope. We did more soggy walking down a footpath in climbing shoes. And after some brief but thorough instruction from Rich, I managed my first trad lead ever up Coral Sea. It’s apparently named after the fossils that can be seen in the wall.

The leading success continued a couple days later, when I managed to actually swing leads with Rich B (I think he did the harder ones) when we went someplace that had Pinnacle in its name. For a trad newb, it was a really cool introduction to not just looking for the next hold, but also thinking about the next protection while climbing. So now I face the financial doom that is acquiring a trad rack–I swear that just when you seem to have the gear program dialed, something new comes along to ensure that it stays expensive.

Looking up at the Pinnacle thing. I got to lead the top pitch, which went around the upper arete, and was super fun and exposed. If it looks wet, the bottom most certainly was. Rich B. clarified that the international wetness scale is nothing like the English wetness scale. Worse, the video (forthcoming at some point) clearly shows that he totally forgot about the sopping lower section when the upper section was “bone dry!”

Looking down from the top:

More confirmation that the Lakes aren’t ugly:

Walking out from the crag, we passed through a few of the fields in the lower left of the above photo. There’s a lot of public rights of way dating back to some seriously bygone era, meaning that access is a lawful right through many pieces of private land. Which leads me to another conclusion about the places I visited: wandering around has some serious history. After one day of computering, Rich T. and I went for a fell run. I took the term literally and fell into some rocks on the downhill during the gathering dusk. We went over some stiles, ran past some lakes, and it was gorgeous. I also remembered why running hills is hard.

I’m going to skip the tourist day that I spent in Windermere. Conclusion: you don’t care about me eating cheese and crackers by a lake. 

The last part of my trip included a few days at the Kendal Mountain Festival. It’s pretty dang similar to what Banff is like when you actually go to Banff, but there’s a higher concentration of serious mountain talent from Britain and Europe. Basically, we walked around town, ate, watched films, and went climbing. Cheers to Sam for meeting up for lunch. And yet another conclusion: when England does put up bolts inside, it does it right. 25 meters of overhanging pump to keep things interesting in Kendal.

A couple shots from wandering around Kendal:

I managed to meet a few really neat folks too, so cheers to Ben, Abs, and Tom, and also to the gents at Whitedot. Thanks to Rich W. and Rich T. for all the help around town. One big highlight, personally, was when Bjarne Salen got the whole crowd on their feet and yelling for Andreas Fransson. Thanks for that.

On my last day, I woke up hungover after going to sleep at 3am. I wandered town for a bit, met up with Rich T, and we took a stroll over to the Kendal Ski Club with the idea that we’d check it out.

And as it does, one thing lead to another. Whitedot was doing a demo, their rep had pants, the kind folks at the ski hill saw fit to let me borrow boots and poles, and before I knew it, I was on the little carrot tow.

The surface is something like mats of the fibers from fine hair brushes. In that picture, you can see all the sprinklers that keep it wet (it has to be wet, of course), and sliding down it is something like the texture of skiing under a snow gun. The Club had a couple jumps, a quarter pipe, and even some moguls. I made laps for about an hour, and the grin on my face in that photo stuck around into the afternoon. Thanks to everyone who got me on the hill. Conclusion: heart matters more than snow if you really want to go skiing.

That afternoon, I headed back down to Manchester on the train, spent an excellent evening with Rich W., then headed to the airport in the morning. More or less the last thing that I saw before takeoff:

Conclusion: there’s an airline out there where the inflight entertainment is nothing but epic guitar solos. 

This whole trip wouldn’t have been possible without the support of everyone at Mountain Equipment. Thanks for bringing me over, including me in the family, showing me around, and supporting me in what I do. Duncan Machin deserves a huge helping of accolades for his detail wizardry and for putting up with my emails. Rich T. , Steph, and Serin have my gratitude for letting me invade their home for most of my stay in the lakes, and for showing me around along with the guidance of Rich B. Cheers to the Kendal Ski Club for letting me slide. Thanks to Sam and Hannah for their hospitality in Manchester, and to Rich W. and Sandra for theirs in the same.

“Not bad for November”: England, part I

In my last post, I feel it was pretty clear that we went a long ways to get into the snow. A lot of effort was spent. We worked hard. And it was totally worth it. Which makes what happened a week later that much more bizarre: I got on a plane, and headed to the United Kingdom for two weeks of Octoberish seasonal rewind.

Back in August, discussions started about the Mountain Equipment 15-16 winter range launch. Distributors, reps, and sales folks from all over the world convene here in the UK, where Mountain Equipment is based, to see the products that will be hitting store shelves less than a year from now. As my involvement as an athlete has grown, so has the need to introduce me to the rest of the brand family. Thus, I found myself at the airport five short hours after Whitefish Mountain Films, bags in hand, none of it including ski gear.

I’ll try to keep this rant short, because as Louis CK recognizes (in his profane fashion, so be advised), most of the inconveniences in air travel are minuscule compared with the fact you are “LITERALLY FLYING THROUGH THE AIR LIKE A BIRD.” However, my experience is one of the many that leads to things like Untied.com, a website entirely devoted to consumer complaints against United.

Leaving Kalispell, we taxied out, then came back to the gate because the air conditioning was on the fritz. We deplaned, and an hour and half later, we were airborne. My connections would have worked, but since it was tight, I opted to reschedule in deference to my checked bag. While at Denver, I watched my money get cut more or less in half when converted to pounds. I also got an electrical plug converter.

Leaving Denver, same thing happens. This time though, an oven at the back of the plane was emitting black fumes. I didn’t even know that planes had ovens. And this one didn’t see the “no smoking” signs. So we taxied back, deplaned, then ten minutes later, we line up again to reboard. Also, since my flights changed, my seat selections went out the window. Which put me in 2/3rds of a middle seat, the other third occupied by the exceptionally large gentleman next to me in the aisle. Fate offered me another route in the form of a lady who wanted to trade seats before the plane got going, but the attendants were trying to get everyone seated and I didn’t want to cause more fuss.

Upon landing at Newark, I realized that not only had my next connection been more or less lined up to fly right as I touched the tarmac, United had done me a favor. Instead of rebooking me to a later flight, they’d send me back to Chicago, then to DC, then over to Manchester the next morning. I went to the help desk. An angel disguised as a grumpy looking woman proceeded to look at my new itinerary, get as confused as I was, and then rebook me through Heathrow. She also gave me two food vouchers, in her wisdom, because I was seriously hangry at that point.

Not only did I find a real restaurant in Newark, but the flight over the pond went fine. Upon landing, I walked a couple miles, took a bus, and somehow made my way through some very long lines to connect with my next flight.

Sam Hoyt: ME Rockies rep, gentleman, scholar, and friendly face in the Heathrow terminal.

I swear that the flight up to Manchester was intentionally zigzagged to make it last long enough to serve me some nuts and a drink. Which I would have been happy to forego, if they’d instead just put my bag on the plane. Per the agents at Heathrow, my checked bag had made it across and through all the changed connections via some wizardry I don’t understand. That last, hour-long flight though? Nope. And thus did I arrive in Manchester: six hours late, jet lagged, under slept, disheveled, and without my main luggage.

Thankfully, the kind folks on the ground graciously whisked me and Sam Hoyt away to the Lake District, a place specifically designed in the fabric of the universe for relaxing. Sheep cover grassy hills which poke out of the mist in an etherial and calming way. Pubs have seen fit to put climbing gear in frames on their walls. Torrential rain gently affirms your decision to stay inside. Which was a good call, because we had meetings and stuff. After dinner, I presented on some of the ski trips that have been featured here. Which should have been the end of me for that evening, but of course that lead to a series of great discussions in the bar and a bunch of mildly chilled (but certainly not warm) pints.

The next day, we did more meetings and showings of the upcoming line. I’m not allowed to give out hints, though I’m super excited about what’s coming down the pipe. You’ll probably see some of it later this winter.

And in the afternoon, the nearly the whole crew rallied into the rain for a late hike up to Stickle Tarn.

I’ve never seen so many vibrant jackets in the same place.

Everything was really slippery with the rain. Even so, I had a blast scrambling around on the way up. All the energy of eating, airplaning, and meeting bubbled over into that giddy sort of excitement that my friends know well. “I’m outside! This is great! Let’s run wild!” More or less, I turn into a golden retriever.

Evan, our US sales guy, was stoked too.

Then we went down in the dark. I had a borrowed headlamp head torch from Christoph, one of the gents from Norway. So I managed to not explode on the slippery stones of the trail back down. Props to Joanna for handling them so well.

At home, there’s an hour delay minimum before I can get hot food into my belly post-hike. Here, there are pubs right at the trailhead. Brilliant.

The next day, we headed back to Manchester. My checked bag had yet to arrive, even though it was said that it’d be there my first night. I found out that since the agent at the airline hadn’t provided the phone number for our hotel (which I didn’t know) the courier wouldn’t dispatch the bag. They then handed it off to a third party, which was planning to deliver the bag after we left the hotel that afternoon. Even though we were still there by the time they said they’d deliver, no bag. So I headed back to Manchester with that sinking feeling that I’d have two pairs of underwear for the rest of the trip.

At dinner, we went next door to our hotel to sample the local pub atmosphere. I was keen to try some beers that I’d never seen before. However, horror of all horrors, it seems that the trendy thing to do in “hip” pubs is to bring in a bunch of American craft brew.

None of the US brews looked bad, per se. I even like some of them at home. So it was just startling. I drank something from Portugal that was basically a Budweiser or PBR, and toasted the irony.

The next day, I spent most of it at the ME offices. Thanks to everyone who made time to meet with me. Here’s the UK sales team looking very serious.

In the process of those meetings, it came out that Sam, our lead designer, could accompany me as I went to wander in the Peak District. He generously offered that I should stay at his house, citing the ease of leaving in the morning. So we headed out late (my fault), missed the train, and he graciously grabbed a taxi to solve my slow walking issues. He and his family then entertained me, fed me, and generally made me feel very much welcome. Many thanks to them for their stellar hospitality.

However, the weather wasn’t on the same program. We woke to rain.

And on the way out to Edale, it really started to rain.

Once at the trailhead and getting suited up, it came to pass that despite the rain coming down, Sam didn’t have his waterproof coat. I mentioned that we could call it, but instead he grabbed a large, green, German army poncho that he uses as a family picnic blanket. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, this was my first clue to the fact that the English people think about rain very, very differently than anyone I’ve met anywhere in the states. Or at least they do in my presence. Because Sam threw on the poncho, and off we went.

Our plan was to do as much of the Edale skyline circuit before we needed to head back into town. The trail above leads up this valley, then onto a plateau, which leads off into a ridge that more or less circles the town of Edale. The red brown bushy stuff on the left side of the above photo are ferns, which regenerate to a forest green in the spring of every year. It’s worth noting that even though it’s called the Peak District, it’s more like the Rolling Hills With Gritstone Sticking Out Of Them District.

It’s not a proper day out unless you end up off trail. We went up this little valley, scrambled a short, very wet cliff, and then walked around.

Sam contemplates E.T. His poncho is rolled up atop his pack. By this point, the rain had stopped, and it was just foggy and soaked.

Once on the plateau, we swung around and things got increasingly boggy. Our route was evidently a very popular one. This means tons of foot traffic, and with the peat  and sandy soil just under the grassy surface, it takes very little for humans to start erosive processes that then get made huge by all the water coming through. We walked through a lot of mud, which is standard for this time of year, but apparently less so in the drier summer months.

Along with some of the climbing I’ve been up to (next blog post), it’s be really eye opening to see the impact that tons of human traffic can have on a landscape. So many of the places I frequent at home are remote enough that they might see maybe ten to twenty people a year. Some places less. And as more people move to the mountains, and do the things that I do, the spread is going to change the places we play. That’s inevitable. Bogged out areas and super polished climbing holds can be our future, or I can be aware of that and help to set things right before they get bad. That means upping my own standards of Leave No Trace.

If one of my friends had been considering a trip like this, at this time of year, I’d probably have given the knee-jerk response: “What? That’s the start of ski season!” And that’s true. I’ve seen all the photos from home. But there’s a very different type of beauty at work in these landscapes. This trip has been about meeting people, but these new landscapes are pretty in how they roll, how their ridges connect, how the history of playing in them goes back hundreds of years. Stepping into that as a hill walker or climber is a unique thrill.

Even more, the hospitality for my entire trip has been astounding. I’ve been very lucky to stay in two lovely households, get personally shown around by folks who know this area well, and they’ve been super patient in dragging the sweaty American along as he fumbles setting up anchors and can’t run all the way up the hill. Many thanks to Duncan for all his logistical wizardry, Sam and Hannah and their family, Rich and Steph for where I’ve been the last week, Rich Bailey for his rock time, and Rich Woodall for getting me on the plane.

So has it been worth it to miss the start of winter? Absolutely.

Sam and I glopped our way back to the car, and headed out just as things really started to get almost sunny. That night, I got on a train to the Lake District, where I’ve been since.

Tune in for my next blog post to hear about my trad climbing education, becoming a lichen, and why fell running can involve falling.

Vaught did you say?

In the madness of life, there come moments where it’s possible to suspend our bother with the goings on around us, such that our true position gleams as if amidst a dull wreckage. Clarity comes. And with that, a gratitude to simply be alive to survey the life being lived. 

Either that, or the huckleberries were really good after a week spent at summer OR. Whichever proves more accurate, I took a break from the Continental Divide climbs last week to wander up Mt. Stanton and Mt. Vaught. 

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The approach was of the the fruit stand variety–teeming numbers of huckleberries bracketed the trail, interspersed by patches of thimbleberries. I’d credit the speed with which I hit treeline to the trail snacks. 

Like many peaks in Glacier, Stanton features a fairly worn game trail/climbers’ trail in some places. The entrance was obvious, and covered in deadfall, so I crashed around in the brush for a bit before finding it. I don’t know if it’s just me, or that climbing has become more popular in the past five years, or maybe that I’ve been doing some peaks that see more traffic–but they’re more worn in than I remember. 

Wildfires in some nearby vicinity (Idaho, Alberta, Washington, other parts of western Montana) giving a bit more gravitas to the SE summit views from Stanton. Flying ants had completely mobbed the summit prior to my sweaty arrival, and they managed to get all over me and my gear, some of them doing so even in the act of procreating. Pretty impressive little buggers. 

I’m still new to this mountaintop selfie sans timed shutter thing. So that discomfort comes out in the humor of upside down sunglasses. Believe it or not, they work just fine this way. 

The route leads over the summit of Stanton, and then down the ridge to connect with Vaught. From here forward, a few cairns were the only signs that somebody else had passed this way. 


Along the ridge, one particular spot falls off enough to deserve the seldom mention of a rope in the Edwards climbing guide. These sorts of thoughts are always complicated by the amount of time that has passed since Edwards compiled the route info, the natural erosion of these peaks, and made still looser by the varying levels of acceptable risk to any given climber or party. I’ll often shortcut the full discovery by talking to friends or family for their thoughts. In this case, Carl Kohnstamm told me that a chute on the east side afforded a spot to descend and traverse beneath the step. Still, it’s fun to visit these things that leap from a few words in a route description to grow large in the vacuum of the mind. My own estimation was that it looked no worse than 5.6, but the twenty feet of fall would make for a difficult down climb. Probably fine to climb up. And with the lore inspected, I traversed the rest of the ridge. 

A light breeze and another cloud of flying ants greeted me on the summit. 
Views to the west, with Trout Lake in the foreground. 

To the East:

A ptarmigan stays cool on the summit snowfield with Sperry Glacier behind:

And the most inspiring view is easily to the north, with McPartland and Heavens Peak rearing up along the ridge. Apparently, the W face of Heavens has been skied before, and I’ve a newfound respect for that feat. 

Atop the summit, the thunderheads built, but didn’t do anything more than threaten and look on. The ants flew everywhere. It was still. Peaceful. A quiet serenity pervaded the whole scene, the largeness of space and the towers punctuating it serving to dwarf me–to make me small yet again. Perhaps it is the lightness that comes with the shedding of cares. Perhaps it’s truly fresh each time, if one is open to receive it. But in that exposed place, so naked to the volatility of nature and everything that could possibly go wrong on the rocky descent and in the bear-food infested woods alone, the clarity that started this post enveloped me. Maybe it’s something hokey, or maybe the endorphins talking. But there was a burbling geyser of joy to just be there, flying ants and all. Joy to be able to feel that joy. To live out the life I have, I am given, I make. 



Showy asters on the straightforward descent. 

Crossing the ridge for the second time, I took note of the ledge that cuts across the west side of the summit block. It hadn’t been mentioned at all in the climbers guide, but seemed a reasonable thing to try. A faint game trail lead me across, saving the up and down of revisiting the flying ant orgy that was doubtless still in full swing up top. 

Somewhere right after I took this shot, I ran out of water. This time of year usually spells dry alpine conditions–most of the snow has gone down to be lakes and rivers and flush toilets. Thankfully, I found a source of water with some serious sugar in it too:

It went on like this. A stomach ache replaced the thirst, but I kept eating until I hit the stream, and eventually the lake. Where I took off my socks to find the full proof of the full, delicious day.

Over the Rainbow

Whatever they may say about the age of modern convenience and connectivity, it hasn’t yet managed to efficiently bridge the wildly diverse array of places that my friends call their summer homes. Several examples: Steven with a cell phone and iPad, but no texting/messaging options, leaving a bizarre gulf between phone calls and emailing back and forth. Dan, with no cell service up the North Fork, so I call him on the phone where he works. Often though, we’ll talk via Facebook message. Another gulf.

Don’t try to tell me there’s an app for these sorts of things. App existence doesn’t sway these people.

And still another, Tyler McCrae, who is also out of cell reception. So when I called last week to confirm the loose plans hashed out in a chance breakfast encounter the morning prior, the landline went straight to voicemail. An hour later, it was ringing, but nobody picked it up. But then, at 10:30pm, my phone starts making those bizarre noises that now signal that someone is calling. It’s Tyler, and he wants to know if I’m still in for the next morning. Tenish minutes of considering my 4am wakeup that morning, the climb we’d done that day, and whether I really wanted to switch my gear and load my mom’s kayak onto the car.

I’m not good at indecision. Several years ago, when I started making a more concerted effort to achieve the mountaineering goals I wanted, it became a mantra: why not now? What are you really waiting for? Despite the six hours of sleep I’d get, the gear to switch, and the tiredness I already felt, these are the moments split by only a hairsbreadth difference. Feeling that echo of motivation, I fell into its tug: it was on. I’d go.

Six short hours later, I hopped in the car. At Big Creek, I met Tyler and Quinn. We moved the kayak, stopped at Polebridge for more food, and made it the Bowman boat ramp by the early time of 9am.

Because it so dominates the south shore of Bowman Lake, Rainbow Peak has always been on my radar. The climb didn’t seem too difficult on paper, but the approach features five miles of dense, lakeshore bushwhacking or a swim or a boat. We chose boats, because we’re bright, young gentleman who were probably going to find other ways to make our day difficult–pick the low hanging fruit, right?

Sea kayaking reminds me of ski touring–there’s the glide, the closeness to the element you’re using, and the silence of swift movement. I was a sea kayak guide for the summer of 2011. The enjoyment comes right back, and it was fun to glide down the lake. Tyler and Quinn had to fight their borrowed, decidedly non-sleek canoe up the lake. It didn’t seem to phase them. The walk up starts at the creek that drains the whole face that we were to climb. Landing, with Numa Peak in the background:

Out of the boat, and right up the slope. Some relatively simple bushwhacking through loam and deadfall gave way to a steep elk trail that barreled up the hill near the stream. My quads discussed the poor planning involved in a big mission like this after a decent day before. I told them to stuff it.

They stuffed through the forest, then avie debris cast helter skelter against some groves that withstood the onslaught. They stuffed through nettles and brush in the middle of the chutes. Tyler found a trail along the margin, and they stuffed up that too. Below us, the view of the lake got better and better until we could look back to see the boat ramp and all we’d covered.

Then they were tired, so it was break time. Quinn wields his sword in compression shorts.

Did I mention that this was his second climb in Glacier? Super impressive. The dry creek bed started splashing at us, which was nice, because the sun cooked down and we’d be lacking water further up. Less than a hundred yards from our break, we stopped to filter water.

Tyler, moving again:

The stuffing slowed to huffing and puffing. Though moving upward at a solid clip, the chute went on and on. At some point, we were supposed to roll over the edge and into a cirque that would spell the halfway point. My mind chased possibilities between a shaky altimeter (and I was wrong about that that) on my Ambit2 and a route description gone haywire. When we finally cleared the gully, it was nice to look a long ways down into the cirque we’d been trying to find. We’d been off route, but at least we were higher than we thought.

Following some stiff Class 4 moves up a gully, then a traverse out onto the face, we steered clear of the scree that coats the slopes on the south side. Not too difficult, with easy options on the sides for the cruxes, it was fun climbing. Cruisey. We made good time, pushed forward by the cumulus clouds that were building up into thunderheads to the west.

Eventually, we reached the ridge. I think we were all tired, but the weather seemed to be holding.

Just below the summit. The crooked horizon line can interpreted as tiredness.

A hundred feet more, and we were up top. Sometimes the goal of reaching a summit seems so arbitrary–in abstraction, any other point would work as an agreed upon place to stop and turn around. But beyond the goals we set for ourselves or the silly notions about “conquering” mountains just because one has stood atop them, there’s a perfectly reasonable way to look at the top as a stopping point–the views are better.

Looking northwest at Kintla and Kinnerly.  

Across the ridge to Carter:

Southeast over the Rainbow Glacier to Vulture:

And panoramically from the summit.

To the north, things were beginning to rumble as a massive cloud stacked itself into the heavens. I’m not petrified of lightening, but it didn’t seem like a good plan to risk later storms, especially since we’d have to travel back across the lake. It was time to head down.

Because the loose footing would allow for some scree sliding, we wandered over to the south slopes that we’d avoided on our ascent. A small patch of snow provided some sliding entertainment. A gully lead down and then we followed the bottom of the cirque back over to catch the south fork of the chute we’d ascended.

Looking up into the cirque. Our route followed the darker slot in the center right of the steep stuff.

Pushing to make the summit and get down out of the lightening range had taken its toll. A long break ensued, so much so that it was a bit later by the time we got rolling down the hill.

Going down, if you’re following the up track, has the nice quality of the known to it. It’s easy to make the right moves if there’s a trail, or if I can remember things well enough to use that. Balance against the previous uncertainty of where to climb is achieved, such that it feels sweeter to have sorted the route finding. There’s the sense of plunging back down–even though it’s part of the climb, I’m usually ready to be done.

Instead of the giant lightening rod that I’d feared crossing, the lakeshore proved a great chance to jump in and cool off. We all went into the water. And man did it feel nice after the sweatiness of the climb through the heat of the day.

To top that, we had a tailwind. On a lake that seems to grow two foot waves and headwinds, it blew from our back and caressed us back down to the foot. Some sort of concession it seemed, like an acknowledgement that we’d done something cool. Though if it had been a headwind, I’d probably cast it as yet another epic challenge as part of an epic day, man. So who knows if it actually was a gift. We were happy.

As I paddled along, the sun cut down below the ridge, painting the scree we’d partied down into alpenglow. Calm water took us into the boat ramp, where we made an important discovery: melted chocolate bars make for great dipping on fresh cherries.

Thanks to Tyler and Quinn for a great day. Check out the stats of the trip on my Movescount.

Lone Walkering

No sign, manual, or printed advice in recent memory has said this, so let me be the first: go hiking alone.

In the tradition of the (less epic) spirit quest, the quietude of the era before electricity and steam, the simple moments where the wilderness pipes into only one pair of ears with nothing to distract, mutilate, or bend the experience–go by yourself.

Success is entirely between you and where you go. Anything that happens, you have to handle or accept. Perhaps the consequences of a mistake seem more spectacular in free soloing, but it only takes a small slip in the wrong spot on a much tamer slope for the same result. To have that concentration on the forefront of the mind while moving well and enjoying the experiences creates a tension. There’s a simplicity, a purity there. Everything has to work. And when I wind into that groove, there’s a sense of happiness that is completely different from climbing with an awesome team or group. I wouldn’t call it better; just worthwhilely different.

If my advice causes you to get hurt, I’m not to blame. Go prepared. I make different decisions when by myself. I wear a helmet when it’s probably not necessary. So be smart.

And since I’ve yet to head off by myself for a summer climb this year, a solo climb of Lone Walker Mountain in Two Medicine made perfect sense. Back in May, Dan Koestler and I traversed under it en route to Dawson Pass on skis, but we didn’t make the ascent as the south ridge of Hellen seemed plenty difficult for our afternoon. My Continental Divide project meant I needed to go back and climb it, so I rolled into the Two Med parking lot around 8:45 with a vague notion of what I’d be doing.

Casual tourists use the Glacier Park Boat Company to avoid walking, and probably learn a bit about the park en route. In a last minute bid to dodge the three and a half miles of forest walking up Middle Two Medicine Lake, I hopped the 9:00 boat for a bow seat. The instructive tour was drowned out by engine noise, and it’s just as well, because I wasn’t paying attention anyway.

From the boat, there’s a bit of walking through the forest and meadows to get up to Upper Two Medicine Lake. En route, Twin Falls proves that old adage about Montana: you need a panoramic mode to capture even the waterfalls.

Rolling up through some nice meadows, the trail ambled through beargrass (white) and spiraea (pink) that were going absolutely party mode. I’m not a huge flower guy, but the display was absurd.

It proved a nice prelude to the next segment. The more standard route up goes to the pass on the north side of the mountain, which means you have to go up the lake. Options include bushwhacking and then sidehilling for a stupid amount of time, or wading the lakeshore and cutting up a vicious scree slope.

I took the second option, which connected poorly with the super-sized winter that we just seemed to finish. Exhibit A: extra water made the lake level higher, which made wading a deeper experience than I thought I’d face. Exhibit B: extra avalanches lead to lots of floating logs, fully branched and needled, and resting in the water against the bank. The whole point of my sloshy detour was to avoid flora, so how frustrating to realize something I’d never even contemplated: underwater bushwhacking. Exhibit C: wading for a mile and a half between knee and butt deep is hard work. It’s slow.

But then you run into false hellebores popping up under a melting snowbank, and their idiot optimism wears off. Eventually, I made it to a big scree slope, which served as a fully functional treadmill of swearing. After that, a snow slope made for much better footing and less swearing.

What it lacked in swearing, it made up for in serious deja vu. En route from Mt. Rockwell, the center peak, we’d traversed the lower snowfield in May. I don’t think we’d have tried it had we seen the hanging snowfields visible in this picture, but once in, we were committed.

In this photo from May, you can see our ski traverse line entering the trees in the bottom of the frame. Above them, you can see the track of the wet slide that took out a hundred yards of it ten minutes after we put that section in. It came down as we were transitioning to head up the slope to safety, and the boot pack was the fastest I’ve ever done with a big pack through thigh deep sludge. We left feeling the weight of humility, and weren’t on anything slidey after 9:30 for the rest of the trip.

It was quite nice to make the climb to the pass with no hang fire. Mountains don’t feel evil to me, but the place was rank with my own fear from before. A cruisey ridge was just the ticket, and Lone Walker delivered.

A shot of the ridge in winter.

It was really nice going until I got to the summit ridge, and ended up traversing counter clockwise around most of the summit block looking for a good access point.

Eventually, I found one, and after a few moves, the summit was just an easy walk down the ridge.

Summiting isn’t my favorite part of the climb. Instead, it’s the moment, usually twenty to thirty feet away, that it becomes apparent that there aren’t any obstacles left–no more route finding, scree fields, bears, or other difficulties that stand between me and getting exactly half way to a successful day in the hills. The summit itself is nice too, but the knowledge that you’ve made it kicks in a little before you’re actually there–and that’d the feeling of success that I love so much about the mountains.

In my parking lot rush for the boat, I forgot to change into one of the nice, wicking Crux Tees that Mountain Equipment sent me at the beginning of this summer. So that meant I realized I was in cotton all day, and it actually was just fine.

I’ve also become a big fan of Hammer Nutrition’s Perpetuem Solids while out wandering around. They’ve got some protein in them to keep your muscles happy for moving around all day, they taste fine, and they’re chewy enough to take the mind off scree grinding for a while.

Upper Two Med, Middle Two Med, and Lower Two Med with Rising Wolf towering above them to the left.

On the descent, things went just fine. I opted to crampon down the snow because it was just big and steep and sun cupped enough to make glissading a little scary, even with an axe. Which meant that I was wearing crampons and Salomon Running shoes. And, in a very important coincidence, they’re the sameish color match.

I found a hitchhiker.

Wade, wade, wade. The trees on the left, immediate shore were the worst part of the trip. A steep drop off meant that I had to cling to veggie belays, my feet on slippery rocks, traversing along. Each grip of a belay sent the gnats resting in the trees out to swarm around my head. Caution demanded slow speed, with a soaked backpack as the consequence, so the gnats were totally a match for my speed.

And once at the foot of the lake, I booked it to make it back in time for the return boat. The joke, however, was once again on me. I arrived to find out that there wasn’t enough room and waited a while so they could offload and return for the rest of us. But return they did, and it was wonderful to skip the last miles, especially because I saw a bear ranger, gun on shoulder, headed off to the north shore trail I would have taken.

Thanks to the Boat Co for finding a spot for me, and thanks to Lone Walker for not sliding on us last time so I could come back.

Check out the trip stats on Movescount: http://www.movescount.com/moves/move36373906

Freshies in Juneuary

Excluding whatever types of pagan rituals that might have once been observed, I have my own summer solstice tradition. By waiting until June 21st, the official beginning of their summer glory, I torment friends and family members by reminding them of one simple, basic fact: from that point forward, the days will be getting shorter. The summer has only really just started there. And it will get hotter. And neither of those things prevents me from adding a wintery pall to their summer solstice with that simple, hopeful notion about the shorter, darker days that will soon be back.

Of course, this is only projecting my own wintery preference onto people who like sun and dry trails and such. It’s only pleasure at their pain. I’ll still daydream of floating through powdered glades and skinning across alpine traverses, and in those daydreams, there’s always the small hope that maybe, just maybe, the freak storm will materialize, obliterate the summer hillsides under a coat of fresh snow, and we’ll be there to revel with our skis in some June pow. This never seem to happen though.

Until a storm drunkenly careened down from Canada, slammed into the hills, and sat there for  two days straight. Upwards of four inches of rain soaked the valleys, translating to feet in the alpine. Strange phone calls were made, because for that moment, we were that darkly shaded area of snowpocalypse on the storm maps. The place everyone wanted to be. A crew was rallied, and it was time to fulfill those strange dreams of  solstice face shots.

Access roads that had recently melted out seemed our best bet. On June 17th, Clay and I piled into Jason’s truck and we headed for Jewel Basin. The thermometer on the rearview crept down to 37. Then to 36. We parked in a light rain, and started skinning with dampening spirits. Sheltering on the porch of the closed ranger station above a parking lot still deep under old snow, the general thought was that we’d missed the fresh for a tour in the rain.

Getting off the porch was the hard part. As we gained elevation, the rain turned to snow glopping on our skins and soaking our gloves. Atop the ridge, it was full on winter, and the damp stoke started to show. With skis that no longer slid due to the sludge ingrained into the bottom, each step was an experiment in something more walking than sliding. The summit came and went, and we transitioned in an alcove above old snow coated in six inches of late June glory.

Ski cuts confirmed the obvious–the bond between the new and old snow was nearly nonexistent. After cutting a wide path, we skied the slide track and then wandered out into new snow on the lower angles of the apron. Heavy snow flew up past our faces, and the instead of sun cups, the unweighting joy of those missing winter days rose from our legs and spilled out into howls of excitement that probably would have echoed, had it not been for the snow.

Since the snow stuck to my bases so well on the trip down to Picnic Lakes, I decided to try touring up without my doomed skins. It worked perfectly. And just as I was thinking this, negotiating a steep spot around a tree, one ski slipped out and I nearly went head first into a consolidated tree well.

No goggles, no skins, not even close to winter, but on the aspects near the trees, it was just what we came for.

Which meant that another lap was in order, despite the soaking we’d all received from the wet start and constant snow. It was a good thing I put my goggles on, because some snow came up and hit me in the face.

Clay managed a creek gap on the way back to the truck, and as we got close, the fact that we were still skiing were we’d walked over dirt brought it home: the snow level had plummeted. We’d skied pow. And now we’d have to drive down through it on a steep dirt road with no plowing or chains in a light pickup truck.

Jason took the helm with Clay and I seated on the dropped tailgate for ballast. At least twice we felt the back end break free and begin to slide sideways until it dug into gravel through the snow.

“Well, if the truck goes off, I guess we’ll just bail.”

And thanks to Jason’s masterful driving, we didn’t have to. Once at snow line, we switched into the cab, and descended into the valley and the rain.

But of course, the snow was still piling up, and with positive June snowpack, we’d have to go pillage again. Such luck demanded another foray. Essex emerged from discussion as the target, and the next day, I found myself walking up the Marion Lake trail in my ski boots.

Elkweed and alder that had only recently sprung up from the melting winter snowpack were festooned with fresh snow. It felt like Christmas. And as we switched into skis nearer to the lake and headed up the slopes of Essex Eountain, the bond between our June gift and the winter’s remnants reminded us that it certainly wasn’t December. Note Clay’s slide in the foreground.

As we ascended, it got deeper, and deeper. Which just made us smile that much more.

And more.

And more.

And more.

And on our second lap, Clay negotiated the melt out to survive a small drop.

At the end of our second lap, it was noticeably warmer. Our fresh was beginning to remember that it was actually June, and prudence suggested a retreat from increasing slide danger.

So  descent on the access trail offered an opportunity: we’d be able to ski through some of the snow we’d walked up. As our bases played chicken with barely covered rocks and gravel, we made hashy turns through the alder and thin snow. Clay proved to be the most adept until a corner served up a clatter of a stop.


The walk down proved easy, and as we reached the truck, I considered the slide risk we’d seen increase. Larger piles of snow had fallen in the alpine, making much of the interesting  terrain even sketchier than what we’d skied. So I checked out thankfully, dedicating the next day to errands and chores.

Which were necessary, but boring. Climbing at the crag seemed to be a good way to finish too much time on the computer, so I called Taylor.

“Oh, you wanted to climb? I’m going skiing. Jewel with James and Kathy. You want to come?”

And so day three of Juneuary started at 5pm.

Leaving the car a little further than where we’d been snowed in just two days previous, it was a pretty different day. For one, it wasn’t raining.

And for another, the evening was positioning itself for a gorgeous sunset.

Taylor and I made it to the microwave shack. To the west, the sun headed down, kicking alpenglow onto the peaks of the Great Bear and Glacier to our east.

And we headed down. After some ski cuts, we dropped into a fun chute that had slide naturally earlier in the day.

This time, the trip out required skins. Transition at Aeneas Notch.

With some scuffling around in the trees, some turns, and the same creek gap, we got back to the car just as headlamps seemed like a good idea. Our trip down the road went much more smoothly with just dirt. It’d been three days of wet, then pow, then sludge. The storm had come. We’d been ready. And as the hot days resumed, bringing with them the daydreams of the snow on our faces, they didn’t seem quite as far away.

Thanks to Jason, Clay, Taylor, James, and Kathy for their companionship and photos. Thanks especially to Jason for motivating and not going off the road.

What’s in your sleeping bag? Warm up to the Down Codex

Athletes are notoriously unreliable when it comes to recommending gear–and I’m hardly an exception.  While I may use and abuse products more than any other group, I also prone to the same issue we all face: when somebody gives me something, or pays me, I’m less likely to give products or people the scrutiny they deserve. A bad pocket placement or issue with camber becomes something to deal with, an email sent, and perhaps a change in the line for the next year, but not a reason to switch brands when a purchase is at hand.

Also, the part of me that loves rational, scientific thinking about outdoor gear hates the ambiguity of a decision between this or that jacket, or which bindings, or what carries better in a given situation. Clear, interesting innovations or differences are what still get me excited about outdoor products. In order to avoid my personal biases, I try to focus on those when someone asks me how I like my gear.

Bearing all that in mind, I’m really quite jazzed on Mountain Equipment’s Down Codex project. In order to audit animal welfare and clean up their supply chain, ME started by asking a simple question: where does our down come from?

That answer, it turns out, is alarmingly complex. When they started asking back in 2009, nobody knew for sure, because nobody had yet asked. Raising ducks or geese purely for their down isn’t profitable, so all the down in sleeping bags or puffy jackets is a byproduct of slaughter for meat. Such birds are farmed all over Europe and Asia, from ten to ten thousand birds on individual farms. Processors or mid-level agents collect down, process it, then pass it on to wholesalers, who pass it on to manufacturers like Mountain Equipment.

A duck in China may go through three middle men who aggregate the feathers of hundreds of farms before making its way onto a processor. Maybe it’s a simpler scenario, where one farm in Ukraine goes through a processor, then wholesaler, and then into a sleeping bag. Either way, we’re talking about the lives of millions of animals over several continents–chasing down whether they have access to water or are plucked live is no small task. Beyond that, the quality of the down must still remain quite high, because nobody wants to be cold.

ME followed up their original inquiries by drawing up a set of rules to which their down suppliers needed to conform. Covering things like adequate space, no force feeding, and the elimination of solvents in the cleaning and sorting processes, the rules were then communicated to suppliers. Going further than anyone else in the industry, ME has created and implemented successful, third party audits by the IDFL  that check the compliance of every part of their supply chain. To date, one supplier has been phased out as a result of recurring infractions. Several other manufacturers have begun to do these sorts of things, which are steps in the right direction, though nobody else has gone nearly this far towards understanding and auditing their supply chain.

In the picture above is my Xero 300 (30 degree F) sleeping bag, along with the tag that I’ve cut out. The number (101012010018), when traced, shows the down to be sourced from Ukraine alongside the rest of the high quality 850 fill power fluff that fills something like thirteen nalgene bottles per ounce. It’s warm, comfy stuff. And I certainly sleep better knowing that birds weren’t live plucked or inhumanely slaughtered for my jacket.

Overall, specialty outdoor brands constitute less than 1% of global down usage. There’s literally thousands of tons of down going into pillows or comforters to be sold at Bed Bath and Beyond, and none of that is subject to scrutiny of this level. And while the stuff that ME produces constitutes a tiny fraction of the global demand, it’s admirable that they’ve taken the steps to understand and control their supply chain. It’s a definitive difference in how they’re doing business–one of the things that makes me proudest to work with them. Check out the site, see what it’s about, and perhaps think about where the down in your gear is coming from for your next purchase.

Sloshing up Mt. Stimson

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.

Holed up at Holland Lookout

Of course, it was raining. Drops pelted the windshield all the way to Condon. An afternoon skin to Rumble Lakes was ruled out in favor of wandering around and stuffing ourselves with delicious food at my uncle’s place. Maybe the weather window would arrive by morning.

Ah, spring in the northern Rockies. Dirt approaches lead to patchy, crusted, nasty skinning, which leads to a buried trail, which transitions to full on winter in the alpine. Sweaty base layers and freezing at night lead to walking out with ski pants on my backpack. High pressure moves in for a couple days, storm snow sheds in the dramatic gurgling of wet avalanches, then the next cell rains on the climbing crags and puts fresh snow into the slide paths. Process repeats.

Playing this time of year requires partners that are used to such bizarre conditions. Who aren’t afraid to throw skis and boots on a backpack already heavy with camping and camera gear, then chug merrily up the skin track while expounding on the artistic and aesthetic aspects of working in the outdoor industry. Steven Gnam is one such powerhouse. Introduced by mutual buddies, our first encounter involved making pizza and chatting past midnight about different rambles and projects all over Glacier. Several months of phone tag and emailing followed, and we finally met up to head down the Swan a couple weeks back.

Of course, it was raining when we woke up. I learned to do nearly anything in the rain while living in Washington, but that part of me isn’t quite what it once was. Looking at the rain soaking the deck in front of the cozy living room was disheartening. And since we were angling to overnight, in the snow, and weren’t sure if the lookout would have a stove.

Essentially, I was being a wuss.

Which is, of course, an opportunity. Sometimes it’s the cheer of a friend, the encouragement of a climbing partner, or the sun coming out. Chocolate discovered in the bottom of my pack. An easy hundred feet encountered in impenetrable bushwhacking. Whatever it is, it sweetens that soured part of my mind that controls attitude, which controls nearly everything. Sitting in the living room, the sun began to poke through here and there, and once that happened, it was time to explode our gear from the Subaru.

Steven expertly handled the massive snow ruts on the way into the parking lot, while the trail held only dirt for the first mile or so. Spring plays those nasty tricks with low elevation snow cover–flats still postholeable, and slopes bare and brushy.

Even once in ski boots, we alternated snow and pine needles. Gaining the ridge was stiff going, but it quickly got very wintery.

Judging by the photos we’d seen on Facebook, we thought our nightly accommodations could take a little bit of digging to get in. But perhaps the wind would scour the ridge top, and it’d be easy.

Of course, we arrived to find only a corner of the roof peaking out. While the wind blew and my gloves got soaked, we started digging our way down. Hopefully the winterizing storm shutters were in place.

No such luck. Sometime before the first snow fell, wind probably ripped the plywood away. The door was open, and the window somehow smashed. A huge pile of snow awaited us inside. Firewood and stove were drifted over. To make everything worse, packrats had gotten in and pooped on nearly every flat surface. We arrived around 3pm, and it was 7pm before the fire was going. Thoughts turned to dinner and making ourselves comfortable, which got stranger as the dirt floor melted into mud sprinkled with turds from the rats.

Fruit of our labors: thermonuclear sunsets over the Missions.

Evening came with dinner and melting water. Thanks to our high perch, Steven saw the Northern Lights, so we got that midnight light show as well.

Morning arrived with the rain clouds gone, and zero motivational issues.

With a gorgeous day starting, we looked for ski options. Heavy cornices trailed east on the ridge, making assessment difficult. Underneath them, large rock slabs had been heating all winter. The ridge in both directions didn’t offer much in safe entrances to the terraces towards Necklace Lakes, so the option was to head west, down our skin track. Sticking in the trees and along the ridge top, we found fresh snow that was getting gooey by our second lap.


On our second lap, I swore off oatmeal for good. In Steven’s words, “if I eat oatmeal in the morning, it’s actually worse than if I ate nothing at all. It just sucks the energy out of me.” I’d noticed the feeling before, but this was worse than ever. Though so tempting for ease of preparation, and easy to buy, I’m done with it as a backcountry food.

Lunch, however, was a tasty combo of cream cheese and bell pepper burritos. So that solved some problems as we packed up to leave.

Steven digging out the storm door.

Ski time. Note the large crown above and to the right of me.

Things went from sludge to sludge to sludge to sticks. We managed to trigger a couple wet slides over the edge of the ridge, and they sludged on down, muttering. Things got thicker, and eventually we found ourselves in isothermal grossness, making little headway.

After some serious brush bashing, we were back at the place where we’d put our boots on. It was absurdly hot, so I just put my pants on my pack, thinking we’d probably not see anyone here, given that it was so early in the season. Ticks were a concern. But I’d check extra well.

Of course, we met some folks. Who promptly asked me if I knew about the ticks. Talking to them later in the parking lot, we learned they were biologists studying the way that trees talk to each other by way of chemical signals. So at least we weren’t the only weird people out in the woods.

Thanks to Steven for an awesome trip, his humor, and his photos. Next up will be our adventure to Sperry Chalet the next day.