I’ve read somewhere that laughter is the human reaction to contradiction. In the case of this powder cackle, I didn’t think that the pitch shown would be as steep, or as fun as it proved to be the first time. Then I didn’t think it’d be as fun the second go around. Thankfully, I was wrong.
Some people hum, some sing outright, and some of us just make unintelligible calls of joy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.