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.

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Fast and slow into Spyder Bowl

A couple of weeks back, Clay, Jonathan, and I (that’s right, I used the Oxford comma) headed up to the Swan Crest. Conflicting motives of practicing crevasse rescue, finding fresh snow in high pressure, and getting some photos all conspired to see us skinning up the refrozen slopfest that was the Strawberry Lake access road with glacier travel and camera gear while Baloo loped along ahead of us.

The last time Clay and Jonathan came up here, they spent most of their day being stuck in a ditch and getting the car out of it. So parking before the turn that sunk them was a victory in itself. I’ve heard stories from friends about a guy with some old jeep on tractor tires that romps around up here. Instead, the tracks we followed were those of four wheelers–not quite wide enough for both skis to comfortably slide past each other as the scrapey mess hooked into our skins. I couldn’t really find where I wanted to skin for most of the two miles it took to reach the Strawberry Lake trailhead.


Clay navigates the first crux.


Thankfully, the creek was drifted over further up.

Previous days of sun left the surface crusted as we made our way up. The route we followed goes up the creek bed into a sort of mudslide canyon that triggers feeling of “oh my, terrain trap” as you skin up. It’s most likely that the ravine walls are eroding through a particularly loose layer, but the trees piled in the bottom seem like the kind turned to pick up sticks by avalanche. Thankfully, we followed some old tracks up to the right as it started to become a real pocket.

Cutting switchbacks up the ridge, snow quality slowly improved. Nearing the top, I was getting really thirsty, and just tired. With a rope, axe, picket and other hardware that we certainly wouldn’t need to make turns, my daypack felt heavy. Perhaps the prudent thing to do was stop, but I wanted to finish the track onto the summit. This made the shoulder feel like it was going on forever. And ever. And when it did arrive, I was greeted by a flat to the real summit.

I still don’t know the name of the mountain we were on. And really, that’s not too important, because as we crested the top, the view swept away: Great Northern in the foreground, with Glacier rearing up behind, Jewel Basin to the south, yada, blah, gorgeous, remarkable, woooooo.

Wind whispered by on its way down to Wildcat Lake, and as we took in the scenery in all its serenity, a helicopter buzzed towards us from the north, flying low along the crest. We struggled to properly salute in time, but I think we got the message through:

I really don’t like helicopters. And I guess there’s no way for them to know we’d be up there until they were too close to have already wrecked the silence, but the fact remains that I like to check out when I’m in the wilderness. Turn my phone into a camera only. Leave the clatter and motors and internet behind for a while. To have all those burst in during the little quiet revelry left on this plant is rudeness in the tune of a turbine engine.

Once it buzzed away, I pulled my skins and was munching before we realized that we didn’t quite have a read on how we’d get down to the Wildcat–cornices were blocking our view. The two more sensible portions of our party headed off in opposite directions to check things out while I let down the team and pulled out the Cheezits.

Once regrouped, we made the call to head south to a sort of saddle and drop in from there. Stashing the glacier gear, the first turns over wind drifts were scrabbly. Clay took the first line, shooting out onto the lake while his unintelligible exaltation echoed up to us. “I guess it’s pretty good down there?”

Photogs have to get their shots too. Jonathan.

Despite the minor hiccup of one tomahawk, the face was fresh and fast. Standing on the lake, the breeze from before was gone. Sun reflecting off all the walls around us cooked down, making me feel like the proverbial ant under the magnifying glass.

“We could be in tshirts right now.” Jonathan was right. The heat was crazy, and worse still, all the snow was getting cooked alongside us. The snow that we’d need to ski down to get out. The snow hanging above our route out. The cornices hanging above that snow. Clay took off and broke trail across the avie paths, while Jonathan and I followed at a distance, going from one stand of dubious looking trees to the next.

The sun beat down. Some small roller balls came down from the trees, but once in the safety of the valley side, nothing remarkable happened. Regaining the ridge, the snow would switch between wind affected, sun protected pow and schmoo above the large bowl we’d earlier crossed in such haste.

Back at the summit, it was lunch time again. Nap time struck after that, and I snuggled into the plush of my skins for about thirty minutes. Jonathan tried to do the same, but even though he’s on 195cm skis, he doesn’t quite fit.

After nap time, it was crevasse rescue time. Clay would be heading up to the Wapta traverse shortly, and it’s always a good idea to review. Taking turns to function as rescuer and ballast, it’s quite possible that we accomplished the most scenic crevasse practice that’s happened around here for a bit. I have no data to back that up, but, I mean, look at it (including my nice finger blur):

I think being the ballast is the fun part–you’re tied into your buddy, and then you jump downhill to yank him off his feet to simulate the crevasse fall. Uphill, he’s groaning while fumbling with all the stuff to do, but instead of a crevasse, you’re just sitting there and enjoying yourself in the sun while keeping weight on the rope.

And in slacking fashion, I don’t have any photos or video of our ski down. It was really really fun. Protected semipow in nicely spaced trees turned into an avie chute of rip able corn, a little drop into the mudslide valley of probable doom, and we rode our skis all the way back to the truck. Clay demonstrates proper nordic dog racing form:

Thanks to Clay and Jonathan for a great day. Extra special thanks to Jonathan for his pictures.

A Day With David

Skiing and schoolwork made up nearly everything I cared about in high school. Hygiene, which I can barely spell now, was an afterthought buried in dreadlocks. Girls were on my mind, but I thought it prudent to wait for college, where they’d be more mature. Videos now lost to the balance of misplaced DVDs and wiped hard drives could testify to how rad we once were. We’d film each other learning backflips, doing the same tricks in the park, and shoveling snow to hit rails accustomed to skateboards.

The culture that we once inhabited is still alive. Kids no different from us (but who certainly smell better than I did) are filming each other, learning to jump, and navigating those formative years on their skis. I’ve seen what they’re up to on the wondrous Social Media, and thought that it’d be interesting to reenter that world. The plan I had in mind was a park edit style short, but filmed only on natural, in-bounds features in the spring slush (thanks to Sander Hadley for the inspiration). The sun would shine, I’d ski dazzlingly, and we’d all be stoked.

Instead, the Thursday we picked dawned cloudy and frozen. Landings were crunchy boilerplate. Per usual, I’d overestimated how well I could do nose blocks. Reece, Jackson, and Jake all made the best of it with their filming, and I finished the day feeling like I’d not really accomplished anything other than getting the honor of skiing with the current crop of kids we once were.

Stuck in the mentality of what I’d wanted to do, I missed the opportunity while I was in it–these young skiers had the exact mentality we once did. The energy was in just skiing, just filming, and having fun at it without trying to frame it in some expected outcome. And I would have missed all this if it weren’t for the cameras. I’d credit the power of Reece’s edit for showing exactly what the day was–an average day of skiing around. Not perfect conditions. Not perfect skiing. But perfect in how they match the feeling I didn’t even know I was chasing. Perfect in how the circumstances arranged to teach me a lesson I didn’t remember I needed to learn.

Thanks to Reece, Jackson, and Jake for their camera work, and to Connor and Dan for skiing with us.

Hole in the Wall Couloir

After our time on Wheeler Peak, Alex Taran and I planned to head to Mt. Whitney. The drought in southern California had left things fairly spring-like, so the thought was to do an ascent on the Mountaineers’ Route and ski down from the summit of the highest point in the lower 48.

Of course, this wasn’t as easy as we’d thought. An access road that has typically been dry and blocked with only a sign is now chained off. Mammoth locals told us that rangers had been forced to plow the entire six miles of road to rescue climbers stranded by snowstorms that switched the season faster than they could get out. I can’t blame them for that, but we didn’t have the bikes to access such an obstacle. Six miles of pavement to start out a three day snow climb didn’t sound pretty. Forecasts suggested the summit would be around 0 or -10, rendered wintery by the same winds that turned us back on Wheeler.

Instead of dropping in on a doomed quest to suffer, we ate cookies in a coffee shop, sent emails, and plotted our course. The best course was to ski there in Mammoth, and then head Squaw en route back to SLC. So the next morning, we headed out to ski two couloirs, the first being Hole in the Wall.

Some years, you have to duck to ski this thing. Our experience was a bit different.

Flashback: suncup eights on Blackfoot Mountain

After seven months, three failed attempts to transfer the photos, and a bit of slow blogging time, I’ve finally got everything together to actually tell (and perhaps remember) a ski trip from this July past. To tell the truth, this was in the same 4th of July weekend that saw me skiing Iceberg Notch, but enough with the excuses–it’s winter now, so here’s a piece of sandal wearing summer skiing.

Originally, I’d been eyeing a snowfield on the northwest face of Mt. Jackson. Just as I saw on the Notch, spring rains had ripped snow out of the hills, and the line probably wasn’t going to go. That meant flexibility, and since Rose and a group of folks from the Park Cafe had just climbed Mt. Logan in the same basin, I though of Blackfoot. Glacier travel makes it one of five “technical” peaks in Glacier (all of which have been successfully done without gear), so it’s a dubious designation. The line, though, promised some of the most connected July skiing available.

Clay, fresh off a stint of staring at and banging rocks in Canada, hitchhiked to the shuttles with his backpacking, skiing, and glacier travel gear. I found him looking severely clean shaven on Logan Pass. Our backcountry permit gave us a night at Gunsight Lake before our climb, so it was off to the trailhead. Diving into the brushy track down to Reynolds creek, our ski boots drug through dusty alder–we were definitely in for an adventure.

We rolled into the backcountry campground a couple hours later. Gunsight Lake sits at the base of a cirque full of waterfalls. Even filtering water and munching bars on the gravel beach next to camp feels scenic.

A steep track (“Not recommended for pack stock” on the sign) leads into the glacial basin. One side sees the remnants of Jackson Glacier, while the other leads up into the Blackfoot Glacier. To get a better perspective on our line, we grabbed the lids of our packs (which, in a stroke of luck, become fanny packs) and hustled up.

Routefinding.

Though without service, Clay phones in a request for sunshine.

During the wander back to camp, clouds knit themselves above the valley. Though I’d already donned my shells to keep the ferocious mosquitos at bay, it started to rain as we cooked our couscous. Wasn’t much of a downpour, but it left the brush wet, and stray bits of drizzle during the night meant that, come morning, our hike to the glacier would be a soggy one.

Five am. Behind the sound of my watch alarm came the rasp of something chewing just across the campsite. A headlamp check revealed a deer trying to get salt from our pole grips. Breakfast would wait, we’d filter water higher up, so camp was struck, and time to don packs. Stashing a beer in the creek for the return, Clay’s lamp lit the narrow slice between shrubs studded by raindrops. Halfway up, my shoes were beginning to slosh. To make matters worse, the spot Clay had called in the sun was covered in dense fog. Descending the moraines with care, we crossed into the bottom of the glacier basin.

Early light showed that the fog was low cloud cover, stretching across the valley. Clear conditions were our navigation plan, so after climbing the east terminal moraine, we sat for almost an hour, wondering. But there wasn’t much for it–we’d hiked six miles to camp, four more to check it out, crawled through the wet shrubs–too early to give up. Balancing on the rocks at the edge of the snow, we stashed our hiking boots, roped up, and skinned into the fog.

But it was only a couple hundred feet thick. Time for sunscreen, sending it, and that bit of euphoria released after sitting beneath a boulder for an hour wondering if the whole thing was shot to hell. A quick series of gullies between moraines and the rock face lead us onto the glacier proper.

Despite the spring rains, the glacial surface wasn’t too cracked out. We’d brought a picket apiece, planning to use axes or skis to make other snow anchors should we need them. Moving off a bench and up onto the higher glacier required negotiating a couple cracks/bergschrunds. I set our pickets as running protection, and we made the traverses in fine style.

Once above the cracks, another traverse above some downslope holes was required. I remember thinking that another picket would be super nice. Never the one who seems to find gear in the mountains, I was completely shocked to look down the rock ledge to see a picket and quickdraw lying there. Still haven’t found the owner, so if you lost it, let me know. Otherwise, I’ll keep using it.

Switching back into our skis, we made good time across the upper flats.

The summit snowfield was another switch back into our crampons. Clay lead it, finding a lone mountain goat looking down on us at the top.

Looking over to Harrison Glacier on the backside of Mt. Jackson.

Later in the season, some friends would have a high-angle confrontation with an ornery grizzly sow and two cubs, but we were lucky to drop our crampons for an easy three hundred foot rock scramble to the summit proper.

The fog had burned off, we’d been just fine on the glacier, and looking back down the glacier and valley to the trailhead, it seemed a long way to have come to make July turns. On the way out, we met David Boye and his buddy Gary on the trail, who talked about how “in your twenties, you don’t really think about efficiency or practicality in trip planning.” Which was fair. We’d carried camping, skiing, and glacier travel gear through summer foliage, over moraines, and then used some of it to get all the way up here. A single day assault might have been lighter. There were things in my pack I probably didn’t need. It’d be a long walk out.

But of course, we had 3600ft of skiing ahead of us. Clay drops in.

Digging our edges into the slushy goodness, all the lame things I could say about why it’s worth it to drag skis in just evaporate. Clay skied the first pitch, I followed.

And since it seemed like a good idea, we made some slush eights down the upper face: 

Clay fills in:

Once back at the cracks, we had to make the call about how to get back across. Standing above it that morning, it occurred to me that the slope was perfect for just jumping across. Looking at it again, it seemed the simpler option. And probably easier than down climbing.

I’d call it the benefit of freeride eyes in mountaineering. A long traverse, and we were back atop of the gully where we’d left the fog. Near the bottom, we grabbed our boots, and negotiated some cracks and rocks, but the eights came back.

At the bottom, the hiking boots went back on, and we retraced our steps over the moraines, back to the lake, to the beer we’d stashed in the creek that morning, and out.

On the trail, we got a chance to look back at the route from afar.

The weight of the skis on our packs was a reminder that we’d been up there, across the valley, in July, making slush eights as people backpacked and hiked by. It feel neither “practical” nor particularly “efficient.” The hill back up to the highway wasn’t much fun. Now, in the middle of winter, with tons of options and plentiful snow, it’s good to look back on July and how we made use of the snow then, our youthful enthusiasm, and this gorgeous playground.

Many thanks to Clay for his companionship, photos, and uncanny ability to bring good weather on our trips.

The ghost of roommates past

Through the middle of December, I received a number of vague warnings via text message–many of my friends were thinking of making the trip to Whitefish to ski. Given that they and I generally operate on a very loose timetable on looser plans, I waited. Lo and behold, one of my buddies and former college roommate, Chris, made the trek from Washington. He’d recently picked up a split board, and with his usual gusto, was in the process of figuring it out.

Mmmmmm.

The morning after he pulled in, we took off for a day tour up by Marion Lake. Situated above Essex in the Middle Fork corridor with treed, protected aspects, it seemed a good place to find soft snow that hadn’t been nuked by recent warming.

Heat wasn’t an issue. From the train tracks onward, we spent most of our day in the chilly shade. Frost from our breath condensed on everything loose, leaving us looking a bit better than usual.

Marion Lake hangs in a nice valley with fun skiing on either side. Some advice sent us up the south side, or the north side of Essex Mountain. An opening filled with alder benches and framed by spaced trees seemed the best option. What started as a few inches on the access trail was somewhere around 6-8″of smokey fluff, and I was psyched to pillage.

Our skin track proved to be a bit hectic, so sorry if you tried to follow it. Benchy, steep trees made for a few difficult spots. The cold wasn’t treating Chris’ Washington thermostat too well, so he wins the award for putting up with numb hands and feet.

Getting to the ridge meant warming up in the sun we hadn’t seen for a few hours. At the end of it, I spotted a knob with an unobstructed view. On the way over, Chris jumped off a little stump, only to faceplant jacket-less into the fluff. Didn’t snap a picture.

Our lunch spot.

It was hard to know at this point, but we’ve been really lucky here in northwest Montana this winter. Lots of folks are looking at much less snow, so even an average snowpack riddled with persistent weak layers is a blessing to count. Add to that a sunny day with pow to pillage, and things were looking gorgeous.

Looking north. Some folks skied the aspects off the top and right of the righthand peak.

Looking east into Glacier. Mt. Stimpson on the far left, with the thumb of Mt. St. Nicholas on the right.

Really, it hadn’t warmed up much in the sun. Even after scarfing some bars and a bit of bread and cheese, I was full but getting cold. We headed back to the glade, and proceeded to take three laps on our bizarre snowpack. Here’s why:

I’d worried that my skis might be a bit narrow, but the snow was of the hero variety. Anywhere from 6-10″ of blissfully downy glory that liked to slough, and also hit us in the face. Though some other folks hit up the other side, we had that part of the valley all to ourselves. Atop our last lap, I stopped for a few more shots.

Every year about this time, folks talk about New Year’s Resolutions. Taking a flip in the calendar as a chance to start over, to start new, to do something different on this go round. It strikes me as strange to pick the new year–we all know our problems, most way too well. For me, I’ve been juggling too many things, and dropping most of them. Inspiration is the boot to the ass that motivates change, and staring at peaks in the alpinglow always does it for me. That moment, right before dropping in, cold and hungry, all the downhill below in the gathering evening, is clarity. Significance takes proper alignment in the scale of the mountains.

The trail out proved dark, icy, and a wild ride. I chased Chris through the trees on skis that barely fit between the trunks. Some skating on the XC trails, and we were back at the bridge over the tracks.

Chris spent what I hope was a comfortable night on an inflatable mattress, and the next morning, we headed to Whitefish Mountain Resort to see if we could find more pow. New runs cut below Flower Point have prompted the resort to run Tbar 2 more frequently, so we managed four laps of Tbar, ski to the backcountry gate, hike up, drop in, hike up, traverse to Chair 7, ski to the Tbar. Though the snow had been deep at Marion, it came down all afternoon, and we did ourselves some swimming.

For those curious, I spent both active days in Polartec’s Neoshell (as featured in the Centurion jacket/Arc Light pant), and as I’ve mentioned, the breathability is nearly shocking. The boot packing laps on day two would have been unbearable in something that kept more in. Thanks Mountain Equipment.

While we’d been pillaging, my car had found some snow too.

When I first met Chris nearly seven years ago, he was a snowboarder who tried hard and spent a lot of time sliding down on his outerwear, not his board. Since, he’s turned into a ripper worthy of some serious chasing. We may argue like an old, married couple, but that’s just the friction of being quite similar. There’s only so many people on Earth that are friend enough to go on my silly adventures; it was an honor to have him out. Thanks again for the photos and company, buddy.

Linebacking with Dave and Dave

With a few more projects to finish before the lifts open, it’s been a busy few weeks of interior painting. Stepping out into this chilly high pressure system for a break means grabbing my jacket. Such sunshine demands exploration, and Friday saw a flurry of texts and messages bouncing around amongst the touring crew.

Dave Boye and I left town around 7:30am. The night before, Dave left work early to check out conditions in the Whitefish Range, and our plan was to ski Diamond Peak—if we could get there. The road leading out of Olney for most of the winter is buried deep enough that only snowmobiles can travel. With the snow pack so low in the valley bottom, we’d be able to drive a fair piece in. That ended up as a tree across the road just before the ten mile mark.

Dave does the hokey pokey, turning the truck around.

Clearing trees–a good way to start the touring day.

Our plan had been to get further—a bit closer to the base of Diamond. The tree, though, meant only snowmobiles were going past, which meant the snow wasn’t packed enough for Dave’s tires. And that we were skinning from there.

Bailing from our original plan, we headed up the clearcut to gain the ridge and take stock of what we’d be able to make happen. The snowpack went from lightly crusted to heavy crust to “oh, yeah, that’s nice” as we approached the alpine. During a snack break, a by standing tree committed “unsportsmanlike conduct” by unloading a bit of snow right next to me—after we’d been there for several minutes.

Every year, the future seems to get lighter and faster. Which is cool, and it’s neat to see folks knocking down speed records and moving more minimally in the mountains. However, the inevitable benefit of this direction goes towards people who are, by their body chemistry, habits,  and nature, light and fast. These are the narrow footed folks graced by perpetual metabolism and an impressive lack of sweat glands, if they have them at all. It’d certainly be nice to be one of them, but I’m endowed with a decidedly American physique. That sweats. That gets hot. That doesn’t fit well into anything skinny. That has legs that can ski moguls, and make dynos, and lift heavy objects and stuff. That can take a beating. Really, mine is a body for things like linebacking. So when I chase my scrawny, sweat-less friends up mountains and skin tracks, it’s easy to see why  Dave picked up the nickname “The Diesel Engine.” We take a bit to warm up, hit lower gears on the hills, run efficiently as long as we don’t stop too much, and can go all day at our unspritely pace. We won’t ever be light, and if it’s fast, it’s sweaty. We won’t be breaking speed records, but I hope our efforts don’t become shed in the search for fewer grams, because we have just as much fun—and fun doesn’t weigh anything.

Dave pointing to Diamond Peak, our original goal.

The ridge up took some navigating around cornice and drifts, but what a place to be. Glacier Park and Canada stretched out along the eastern horizon, with worthy ski goals filling each valley and face near at hand. Such weather doesn’t grace us often during the winter. Usually, it’s  the rime and fog that make the famous snow ghosts (ice and snow encrusted pines that dot the treeline) holding court in the marketing brochures. Instead, we had visibility, sun, and shaded pow to ski.


Choosing a line in the cupped drainage to the north of the summit, we dropped in for about 2K of dense pow. Massive settlement cones and cracking evidenced change, and we moved into the open a bit more as our confidence in the snowpack increased.

And this man sells mortgages.

Our line led to the bottom of a slide path, with a protected ridge as the route back up. Dave and I took turns breaking in the track, cutting through wind buff and buttery snow.

Arriving on the summit, we had another chance to soak up the splendor.

Glacier Park dominates the background.

Looking south towards Werner Peak and Whitefish Mountain Resort.

Things were starting to warm up, so we picked a fully northern aspect rolling off a wide spine into the top of the path.

Our first line was in the upper left, coming down the left path. Second line was in the right path, entering from the treed spine.

Heading out took us into a ravine, and then onto the Hanes Pass trail. Hopping (and in one case limboing) downed logs and refrozen crust, that lead down to the access road. A couple miles and one skated hill later, the truck appeared around a bend.

Alder time.

As I mentioned before, we wouldn’t have been able to get here if the road wasn’t plowed for logging operations. Snowmobiles passed us, heading the other way as we drove back to Olney. The tree wasn’t an issue for skiers, but I’m sure we made life easier for sledders this winter. Diverse uses, all managing to coexist and function together. Everyone finding what they need in the mountains–loud, light, or heavy.

Many thanks to Dave Boye for scouting, driving, and being a badass. Check out his blog.

Nighttime powder aliens

All through the summer and fall, the pursuit of snow in northwest Montana inevitably involves some treks to get to the remaining bits of winter. So when the snow that graces the very tops of the peaks defining the Flathead Valley comes all the way to my Whitefish doorstep, it’s a whole new feeling.

This past week saw the first real snow down low, as evidenced by a garbage truck sideways across two lanes on my morning commute. On Sunday, Greg Fortin of Glacier Adventure Guides and I headed up to Big Mountain.

Piling ski gear atop the compressors and construction tools in the back of his truck, we talked about how much we might find. How far we might walk. Whether anything would be worth skiing.

On the flats near the entrance to Thousand Turns.

After a bit of booting through a couple thin inches, we switched to skins. Nearly eight inches blanketed the hill below the summit. We agreed that we’d be able to ski something. 

A couple of laps on the backside ensued. Knowing the hill as well as we do from skiing it during the lift season, a couple deep pockets with minimal rocks sounded the second day of powder yells this season. Taking some roads and skiing over some grass, we managed to ski all the way back to the truck.

Monday morning came, and with it the painting grind. The words of Jason, the guy I’d chased on Logan Pass two weekends prior, echoed in my head: “I do a lot of my skiing by headlamp.” So when Collin texted me later, I told him to find his, grab his gear, and we’d get up there after work.

Five pm signaled the end of our work day. After nine hours of painting, I shed duck canvas for Neoshell, met Collin, and we parked in nearly the same spot as before.

Collin with the lights of the base area behind him.

Twenty minutes in, the eyes of a deer glowed in the trees. With nearly four more inches, it looked like we were in for a good time. Steam rose from our mouths and base layers to hang etherial in the lamp beams.

Fog of a larger sort, i.e. the cloud dropping light snow on us, shrouded the upper mountain. Lights from the base area and valley below didn’t penetrate. As we neared the summit, the top terminal of Chair 1 cast light through its upper windows. We’d been abducted by the nighttime pow aliens, only to find ourselves here, atop our local ski hill, with a can of Cold Smoke to enjoy before dropping in. With goggles and headlamps, we even looked otherworldly.

Again, our knowledge of the hill in daylight with a full snowpack helped us. The upper mountain was wonderful until the ratio of snow to grass swung more towards the latter.

Proper nighttime grass skiing form.

Near the lower sections, where Greg and I had booted up the day before, the skiing looked like a hayfield. Grass necessitated jump turns, as it grabbed our skis and kept us from really, well, skiing. Combined with the short beam of our headlamps, it made the whole thing pretty comical.

Steep and deep.

Such is the beginning of the season, though. Skiing grass and rocks now makes dodging alders fun in December. A deeper snowpack makes airing over the same alders fun in February. And as I sit on a sunny porch in California sandal weather, I can’t wait to get back.

Thanks to Greg and Collin for sharing the madness.

 

“The best laid plans…often get derailed at the bar”

Perhaps the greatest danger of ditching me at the bar for the company of some lady is that the experience will end up starting a blog post. Which is to say, not much danger. Normally, I would say bravo. Though if the plan is to leave early the next morning to get in the mountains, and especially to ski, it’s more than average disappointment. I’ll omit his name to avoid shame (unlikely) or swelling his ego (possible).

Which is exactly what happened last Friday after the Valhalla premiere in Missoula. Waking up on his couch, a once promising early start became breakfast at 10. Then heading back to Kalispell by noon. The tail end of the sinking feeling that started on his couch washed through–that the day was shot for big stuff. Certainly skiing.

Furthermore, the road status that would have allowed easy access to skiing showed closure nearly fifteen miles below the fresh fluff. So I wrote it off, went for a quick hike, and then a housewarming shindig. Where I realized that everyone was headed for a good time at the bars. So I said goodnight and planned to head up alone the next morning.

My initial plan was to take the trail to Comeau Pass, and ski above it. That would have meant an 18 mile, 5500ft day minimum, and I wasn’t too jazzed to be doing it solo. Passing into the freshly reopened gates of Glacier National Park, it felt good to be headed back in. But the road was open much further than I’d anticipated–talking with the ranger in the entrance cubicle, it was closed a few miles short of Logan Pass.

So I switched my plan. The gradual advance of winter and plowing in the spring close the Going To The Sun highway to vehicle traffic to certain points that have the parking, but beyond the gate it’s usually open a few miles for walking/biking travel. My bike was at home in the garage, as I figured the road was closed lower down. So it all went on the pack at Big Bend and I took to the asphalt.

While walking, a couple guys I’d seen strapping skis to their bikes pedaled past to remind me of being unprepared. I caught up with them just as they’d about finished their transition from cycles to skis, introductions were made, and we planned to meet up higher if I caught them again. They skinned off while I put on my ski boots for the first time since August.

There’s something to the rhythm in active sports. Runners, walkers, kayakers, cyclists–everyone who does the repetitive motions involved can feel when they have hit that pace. That vibration that sounds on key within their own sounding board. For me, it’s ski touring. Each stride, plant of a pole at that pace that I can keep up all day. It’s as comfortable as walking, as natural as if it was the first thing I learned to do. And all this floods back in even the first few strides up the road. After going past the visitor center, I caught up with the bikers and we headed up to the moraines below Mt. Clements.

Dan on edgeless cross country skis. 


Jason and I plotting. We skinned up to the base of the peak and did two laps on a short, north facing slope. Not more than 500-600ft, but a few inches of fresh atop a bomber base meant great turns. Hoots and hollers echoed around the little cirque. 

Looking down from where we ripped our skins. 

Aftermath. 

Looking for another slope with perhaps a bit more vertical, we headed over to Hidden Bluffs. Perhaps it’s skiers eye, but these peaks are always prettier in the winter. 

 
Finding less coverage, we found Dan near the bottom and headed back over for another lap in the same slope. 

Skiing back to where they’d left their bikes and I my shoes was maybe twenty well spent minutes. They took off, and I skied as far as I could on the small bits of snow on the side of the road. Once the little ribbon had melted into the pavement, it was time to switch back and drink the rest of my thermos. 

As they say, there’s not a bad seat in the house. A few folks on a walk mistook me for a Canadian via my accent. Everything back in the pack, I got back to my car to see the driver’s side door transformed to a message board.

Evidently, my buddy Mitch, who climbed Mt. Merritt with us in August, had been by. Which brought me back to the community that uses these places, that loves them and believes in them, that goes to bars, that sometimes gets up early, that meets other folks at the trailhead and goes skiing with them. What an honor to get to spend time in these places, with these people. Even when all the plans go to hell at the bar. Even when skiing is on the line.

Thanks to Jason and Dan for a solid day. Thanks to Dan for his photos. Thanks to (unnamed) for going home with her.