Photopile

Every once in a while, the ridiculousness of self promotion sneaks up and jumps on me. In my last post, I strove to disappear from the photos and function more as a storyteller.

So some contrast. Here’s some fine work by Jonathan Finch, Abby Stanford, and Kat Gebauer. Shots taken during guiding, out at play, and the last railjam at Big Mtn.

Government sponsored sledding and red flying carpets

Directly after Clay got back from Gunsight, he had to go into work. Being that it was MLK day, and a federal holiday, the Forest Service folks that do our local avie advisory through Flathead Avalanche were off, and since he’d volunteered to go out that day as a second person, it passed to me.

I met Tony Willits across the road from Olney. After confirming that I probably wouldn’t hit a tree with the sled on the first turn of the groomed sled track(thought second might be problematic), he let me strap my Jefferys onto the second sled. Though we’d originally planned to head to Whitefish Mountain (not the resort) to do observations, he’d rolled in a bit late after struggling with some garage doors. By his account, they sounded possessed. Or something. So after some discussion, we headed up to Stryker Ridge and the GNPG terrain to find a north aspect and (maybe) some surface hoar.

The sleds parked in some rare sunshine.

We sledded up a bit into the GNPG permit area, then threw our skins on. Tony heading up.

The pit site was on a north aspect in a fairly treed section of Stryker ridge. Not perfect, and definitely subject to some treebomb activity, but it did well. I asked if scenics were a deciding factor in picking where to dig, and he mentioned that it’s also important to find someplace where you can roll snow pit chunks downhill and have a small bowling session.

Tony checking out the surface snow for possible strikes or spares.

After putting in his ruler, he pulled out a fat stack of cards–old Visas, gym memberships, gift certificates, the like. It threw me for a second, but then he started putting them in at each layer to make easy indicators. Nifty pit magic. Which is probably pretty usual for somebody who’s been doing snow science for the last thirteen years, but I thought it was cool.

There’s no such thing as an avalanche expert. Nobody who has done it for a long time without a close call somewhere in that history. But the folks that have dedicated their careers and livelyhoods to analyzing grain metamorphosis and SWE are great fountains of knowledge, especially for those with less experience (like me). So it was fun to watch him quickly assess things like grain type or layer resistance, qualities that would have take me much longer to identify. He observed, I wrote. On the left, temps by depth are recorded. In the middle, layers are coded by depth, grain type, size, and resistance level.

If this is a bunch of snow nerd jargon, don’t be alarmed–it’s just functional science at work.

Tony then did a shovel shear to identify layers, a CT, and an ECT. Here he is wailing on some pretty solid snow.

The hoarfrost that we’d been looking for was certainly there on shaded aspects. Getting some camera shots of that.

And then a few slithery, soft, fun turns back to the sleds.

The advisory that Tony produced can be found here. Considering that Flathead Avalanche is my local first line for identifying avalanche danger as a guide and as a recreator, it was fun to be a part of producing that community based information. Tony and the rest of the folks do a huge part in advising the local backcountryers, and they deserve big praise for their work.

Two days later, I headed out with the guides to help out/have a fun day skiing. Showed up early.

We’ve got two staff photogs at GNPG. I tried taking a few pictures in the cabin cat on our trip up, and neither of them worked out well. So the professionals don’t look very good in these, but I find them funny.

Jonathan and Clay:

Abby  with pear:

And then she offered to take my picture. I figured that she’d come up with something crazy and original, but as far as I can tell, it’s just the usual stoke that comes with going catskiing.

The winch cat chasing us up:

Higher up, Clay and I moved over to the winch cat with Jay to head up to the bus lookout.   With only one seat up front, one of us had to ride in back on the cat deck and find purchase by grabbing onto the winch body.

And this is why we do this.

Some terrain across the way. This area is called Buffalo Jump, and you might recognize it from Toy Soldier Production‘s Set Your Sights.

Clay drops in.

Then drops in on some lunch while waiting for a pickup.

“Go stand over there and look majestic”

Apart from my duties as a guide, I’ve been able to help out (or passably do something that’s usually helpful) in the shop. Getting to see everything that has to happen to maintain, customize, and power a fleet of four (yes, four) snowcats and the people that make this operation tick gives a much more realistic picture of the difficulty involved. Snowcats are built as light as possible to minimize fuel costs and improve access and float.  Relative to their size as heavy machinery, they barely warrant the term. So they break a lot. The parts can be hard to get, as they’re mostly metric sizes. Atop all that, most cats are designed for grooming, not people hauling, and Great Northern has built two of their own cabins from scratch. When you sit in the back and watch the subalpine firs whipping past, it’s hard to know that that smooth ride and stereo equipped cabin are the product of so much work. The ease created belies the rigor involved, and it’s an honor to get to work with such tireless and passionate folks.

Freedom

“From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

Two hard kicks and the crampons sticking into ice. Three turns of windbuff in a pocket. Locking into the rail over cheesegraters. Driving. Driving more. Twenty feet behind the snowplow when you see the dual orange lights flashing above, guiding you on, thirty five miles per hour in the veil of pow. Double lifts. Fries at the summit house. Beer in the shower. Putting on wet gear. Skins drying on the curtain rod. Duct tape on ski poles.
Moguls. Backscratchers. Yelling. Polish donuts. Tree taps. Face shots. Face shots. Shot
skis. Getting the shot. Digging pits. Wishing in June. Diving in in December.

“I came to the conclusion that man’s search for freedom is embedded in our genes. That’s what everybody wants.”

Walking on sunshine: survival skiing on Gunsight Mountain

I picked up the phone. “You working tomorrow?”
“Nope. What we doing?”
“Something big. Get there early, be out all day. Get up high.”
“Sounds great. We’ll talk later.”

And we did. After considering the Cascadilla/Rescue traverse, Clay and I decided to head up to Glacier and try for Gunsight Mountain and some real alpine. Sandwiches were made,  I went to the store for clif bars and camera batteries (which I managed to forget, hence the  fisheye bubblyness that are the gopro shots), we went bowling, got a few hours of sleep, and left the house at 4:30am.

Readying at the trailhead.

After working and visiting Sperry for years, the slopes and viewpoints along the trail have become familiar. Moving steadily uphill in the predawn night, we made good time up the packed down trail. Dawn popped just as we were making it into the area just below the chalet.

Once we made the cirque above the upper bridge, we thought about and rejected several routes through the cliffs before settling on a fan and waterfall on the SE side. Switchbacking up the left side of a large debris/talus fan, we angled for the left side of Feather Woman falls, the creek the goes under the first bridge in summer. It got steep. And  icy. We switched to crampons and axes, then climbed through chest high faceted sugar, ice crusts, wind buff, and full on ice to make it up above the cliff bands usually traversed on the trail.

Boreal belay in the crux.

Topped out and back in my skis.

After some more routefinding and skinning over windcrusts, we made it to the stairs at Comeau Pass. Clay went through first.

Sandwiches and puffy coats later, we headed up the right flank of the mountain towards the summit.

Summit ridge.

Clay summit ridging.

Up top, the snow was a mix of hard windcrust, rime, pow pockets covered in rime, and rimecrusted wind crust with drifted surface hoar. There was no guarantee that the footing would function the same way the last step did, which made it interesting. Topping out required going over a cornice in the making and into howling winds on the other side.

Did I mention how awesome the sunshine was? This pile of high pressure has traded greybird storm pow for epic groomer cruising and functional backcountry stability. We saw an old crown high on Mt. Edwards, and while skiing down, a point release propagated a bit into an R1D1 that stopped pretty quickly. Otherwise, it was bomber and beautiful.

Looking down towards Lake McDonald and the chalet.

The excitement that I get atop mountains after a long skin and bootpack doesn’t square with how I feel looking at the pictures afterward. Which makes sense. But it also doesn’t help my summit photos look any less ridiculous. So I’m rolling with it.

Once we’d sufficiently windburned ourselves, it was time to drop. Clay got a couple great shots from up above on the ridge.

The snow went from rime crust to wind buff bordered by sastrugi. The turns were somewhat soft, but I followed the edge of the drift down into the flats making little noises of excitement that my gopro picked up. Unfortunately, it was at the wrong angle, and so there’s lots of footage of my skis sliding over snow but no visual of where I was headed. Chalk that up to climbing helmets.

Once down, we dropped over the edge, skied drifted pow becoming mashed potatoes, I missed a shot with Clay’s camera by forgetting the lens cap, we crossed the new wet slides that had come through on the lower trail, and hauled down the skin track towards the car.

Trying to slow down by the skin track.

Eight hours up, two hours down and two tired dudes eating deformed sandwiches on the car ride back after another perfect day in Glacier.

Huge thanks to Clay for the photos.

Pb&j and pillows

Made in an early morning rush as light is just starting to hit the clouds. Fixings grabbed from the trunk of my car; no room in the fridge. Thrown in the bag next to avie gear and extra layers.

Smooshed a little more with each transition. Gloves out. Skins in. Skins out. Smoosh.

Water bottle pulled out. The sandwich flows into the vacancy, I drink, then push the bottle back in. Smoosh.

Skins off. Radio chatter. Waiting for cameras. Waiting for light. Johan’s going first. Going to be a bit. Pull out the mangled thing that I made this morning. Jelly on liner gloves. Peanut butter on my face.

Cameras ready. There’s the sun. Goggles on.

Dropping.

The dream is not a moment

As I’m sitting down to write this, the sitting is happening in a warm, expansive house in Nelson, BC. The lights are on. We ate well for dinner. Bobby’s handing me half a Cold Smoke, and I’m trying to catch up on where I’ve been lately.

Canyon Creek. With a snowpack that you could hold in your arms, in its entirety, the stability was all time. For a few days after Christmas and going into the New Year, some friends and I got to pillage the Seven Sisters chute complex. 2008 still lingers in my memory, that day in January when Anthony Kollman got killed in the first Sister. So each line through felt like a cheat, some sort of miracle passage of luck. But we kept checking, and kept pushing, and nothing seemed to budge. So we skied.

And when the high pressure broke down, I took a quick trip to Lost Trail. Drove to Missoula, stayed on Jordan’s couch, woke at 5am, picked up Dillon and Jake and Wiley, drove south in the snow. Rolled in to find eight inches in the parking lot, and found it all over my face for the rest of the day.

Now I’m here in Nelson. Having never skied Whitewater, I rolled up at the invitation of a friend to come shoot with the Sweetgrass crew here in the heart of western Pow Canuckistan. Backcountry access from the lifts is cake, and today we skied out in the dark after mining the last glimmers of daylight.

Yesterday:

Today:

It occurs to me that I once thought about the hoopla of the adventurous life as a goal. As something that, much like the mountains upon which it is played out, has a climb, summit, and descent. A high point at which I might know that I’d achieved something measurable. If it were music, it would be one note, held long and in perfect pitch, the fruit of twenty minutes’ preamble.

But this dream is not a moment. The dream is not one instant of recognition and then a decline. To follow the musical analogy, it’s a sustain. A humble tone held long, low, powerful. Pitch that stays constant in its vibrance, clear in its focus. The dream of skiing these places, of getting video/photos that inspire and tell the stories; this is not a series of quests to push the bar higher. Rather, I see it as fulfilling a quiet motive to live. A decision made of years and wishes that become possible once it is decided that they are.

I’m so thankful to get to do this.

Thanks to Clay, Dillon, and Bobby for the shots.