Right on, Rainier: a ski jaunt up and down the Fuhrer Finger

NOTE: All photos/videos current to route conditions as of March 5/6, 2015.

Unfolding on layers of rock, or ice, or the accumulated winters of a snowfield, geology and weather can be so patient. On their own time scale, they’re moving right along. But on ours, they fairly stand still, and following their slow lead informs a safer mindset: the mountain isn’t going anywhere. We can come back. There’s nothing wrong with stepping down, turning back, making the harder choice.

The truth, though, is that when something catches my notice, or lodges itself in the folds of my brain, that patience is tested. It’s hard to pick good conditions, good people, plan well, and not succeed on an objective. The thought of turning back when many things have aligned can be burdensome. Worse, it’s the feeling of work not yet done on a big goal that eats at me. Such have been the past couple years on Mt. Rainier. I’ve written about those climbs, both our attempt on the Finger in 2013, and our group attempt via the DC last summer.

The net result of both was that I learned quite a bit, but hadn’t been anywhere near the summit. So for this spring, I’d put that goal pretty high on my list. May or June seemed like the time to do it–until a couple weeks ago, when it occurred to me that with the vicious cycle they’ve been having, a March attempt might make some sense. March might be the new May, to quote a local friend.   Of course, the trip wouldn’t have been possible without partners. Blake Votilla was heading to Rainier to interview for a guiding job with RMI (which he now has–congrats!), so we shuffled dates, brought Miles and Mike on board, and hoped to meet up around 9am Thursday.

Late on Wednesday afternoon, I loaded up and headed on out from Kalispell. The drive was most interesting going over White Pass. Snow guns with lights trained into their tubes of snow made for a remarkable sight in the dark. A kind lady helped me with directions to the Skate Creek Road at 1:30am. Just an hour later, I pulled into Ashford, shuffled gear, and fell asleep. Six hours later, Blake, who must have been out on a walk, casually strolled by. We chatted while I packed, discussed a couple things, and headed into the park to find Miles and Mike. After half an hour of waiting for them in the Longmire parking lot, we realized they were in the ranger station–waiting for us. Our permit secured, we headed back out to organize. Then Miles walked up to the group: “Turns out there’s going to be another group on the Finger. The best part is that my ex-girlfriend is in it.” This set off all kinds of speculation about camp that night, though we’d later realize that the other party wasn’t planning to camp anywhere near us. Everything went into two vehicles for the trip up to Paradise. We reorganized, and were off to a great alpine start of almost exactly noon. Looking out across, with the red line indicating our route. Things went smoothly. We dropped off the main trail near the base of Pan Point, traversed over a moraine, and roped up to cross the lower Nisqually and Wilson Glaciers en route to camp. Blake and Miles took one 30m, with Mike and I behind. Perhaps the biggest thing that I notice every time I’m on Rainier is exactly that: it’s big. The scale is way off for most of the mountain environments I’ve played in. For reference, compare the route picture above. The first line covers about 4000ft feet of gain, while the second is over 5000ft. Another angle on the vastness, of Mike and me: We found things more cracked out than we expected. Paradise, and I assume the mountain at large, has seen only a fraction of its yearly snow, and I remember fewer detours around broken areas from our April trip two years back. Other than that, some fresh snow from a few days prior make for easy skinning. We made it to camp at around 9200’with daylight to spare, and only a little bit of treacherous ice. Mike and Miles sidle in. Citing the good weather, we took a Megamid just in case, but never needed it. A wind drift below a massive rock offered a nice floor and room for bunks. As I’m demonstrating, it’s important to check the softness of your mattress in these wild climes. Once settled, we melted a preposterous amount of snow to rehydrate. Its amazing how much water you go through at elevation, with a medium sized pack, trying to make good time. Past trips haven’t seen me succeeding at drinking enough, and paying a price performance wise. Then, Miles pulled a small deli’s worth of veggies, cheese, and sauce out of his pack, and cooked some incredibly delicious backcountry pizzas. The secret seems to lie in a just add water crust, mixed in a ziplock and then squeezed out to cook in a pan. Rich eating, that’s for sure. Very tasty. Though our kitchen and dining room was nice, I wanted more counter space for making sandwiches. Snow walls make for easy remodels. Somewhere in there, we all bedded down in the alcove, passing off to dreamland. The moon was bright and further across the sky every time I woke up. Then the alarm jangled out of my watch at 3am, and we were up again. We took forever to get out of camp, mostly because we really hit the water hard. I’ll take the blame there. 5:30 saw us skinning across the glacier, ski crampons crunching into the refrozen surface. Navigation happened at the length of a headlamp, and it was strange to watch the beams of Miles and Blake searching the mounds of snow and ice ahead of us for the route across the basin and into the bottom of the finger. Above us, ice and snow hung and loomed in the dark. On my end of the rope, I felt pretty dang small there, just moving forward across the snow in the direction we knew the Finger’s couloir to be, the rope to Mike tugging behind me. Eventually, light came and we began to angle up into the couloir. I dropped the rope to Mike, and continued up. Ski crampons would bite in, then sometimes slide. Switching to crampons would be more secure as our feet punched in through the thin surface of crust, but then we’d lose the efficiency of out skins. The angle forced our hands (or maybe more appropriately, our feet) as the sky began to go those pastel colors you see on Lisa Frank pony coloring books. Here, Mike chews on a ski strap to keep his energy up. Leader shot from Blake, the rest of us chugging along behind him: We had to high side on climbers left to avoid cracks radiating off the Nisqually Icefall towards the upper part of the Finger. There wasn’t enough snow, to our eyes, to allow a glacier traverse. This meant a steep pitch to that top that we belayed up to avoid a roped tumble into the open crevasses below. It’s worth noting that we couldn’t see a good line for a traverse into
the Nisqually, though I know that’s sometimes good route finding, as when Wildsnow did it.
Once there, we found our way across a little pass and onto the summit glaciers. Things were starting to slow down in our rope team. Water and exhaustion were taking their toll as we strolled upwards. Mike takes it in. The Finger proper is down and to the left. Rainier so dwarfs any of the foothills around it that it doesn’t have the feel of Mt. Baker, the other stratovolcano I’ve climbed. Plus, because the base is so broad, the upper reaches feel more like a big plateau than the top of an individual mountain. It goes on, and on, and on. The scale constantly messed with my head. Maybe five hundred feet above where the last picture was taken, Mike had had enough. He’d pushed super hard, but was exhausted. It was smart for him to stop and save his energy for the trip down. With the emergency sleeping bag in my pack, he could bundle up and wait. The weather seemed fine. Part of me wanted to call it off and wait for him, but I’ll be honest–the part of me that wanted to finish what the two trips previous hadn’t done was really strong. I wanted to make the summit. With his urging, I tied in with Blake and Miles to finish the last 700ft or so to the top. Rope snagging on wind sharpened sastrugi, we fairly flew up the last bit of glacier to find the summit decorated with small plates of ice and a bitingly cold wind. I would have liked to hang out, but the wind was fierce. Plus, Mike was waiting. Plus, the gate to Paradise would close and lock at 5pm. It was just after 1pm. We’d need a nearly record setting pace on feet to make it in time. Of course, we weren’t on feet for the 9000ft we were about to descend. We had skis. It was rattley, chattery, and strange. We crossed snow bridges, dodged sastrugi, and made scrapey turns down big panes of wind affected snow. Mike was awakened from his nap by our hollers of glee. Once the whole band was back together, we took off again.

Arriving at the lower part of the Nisqually, we skinned back up to join the main trail. Miles, Mike, and I forwent our shirts for the last bit to Paradise. Whippets and ripped abs, I tell ya…

Thanks to Blake, Miles, and Mike for a terrific trip. Thanks also to Blake for photos.

Lemonade on Little Dog

The Spirit Bear didn’t have my phone number. So the message popped up on Facebook: “What are you doing tomorrow?”

My car’s on its last legs. Christmas presents to buy. Emails to send. A whole string of dangling conversations to finish or move a few texts down the line. Things that could maybe lead to sustaining the ability to question what was next in my schedule. Plenty that wouldn’t fall into place until I actually took it head on. Neglect wouldn’t help. So I had plenty to do tomorrow.

However, as winter has sputtered to life here, we’ve been dry-docked with a snowless spell. Stages of ceased snowing include denial, attempting to find stashes, acceptance of tracked out/ravaged snowpack conditions, and then ski mountaineering. Things seemed primed for a trip into the scoured, buffed alpine. If you’ve got no pow, and just scapey, crusty lemons–make lemonade.

So Spirit Bear’s message was the conversation I picked up. The next morning, Ben was at my door, with his fully functional and recreational vehicle, which solved the “brakes don’t work” issue for the moment. He was also on top of the pastry game, so we stopped to pick up sticky buns before heading north.

We picked up Jason in Columbia Falls and were off through the Middle Fork, discussing topics of importance with our mouths full of sticky buns. Things are certainly low tide, and followed that in the cross loaded, rocky first-glance at our objective atop Marias Pass: Little Dog mountain.

When I think about about the local outdoor community, there’s a series of branches that start with my immediate friends and then spread into the people that live in this little corner of the world. Though I’d known Ben since I was in high school, and knew of his exploits in Glacier, we’d never climbed or skied together. He and Jason had raced biked years ago, but I hadn’t skied with Jason since two years back. The newness didn’t bother me–we had strong, fit skiers. We were joking and chatting and just enjoying ourselves as we skinned through the forest and detoured up a creek towards the lower slopes.


The day was my second in a new pair of boots, so I was a little tentative about how that’d shake out. No hot spots appeared on the flatish walk in, or on the ascent up a rib to the west of the saddle between Little Dog and Summit. Jason and I were chasing Ben, which is a pretty common thing to do, given that he’s one of the fastest uphill people in our little corner of the world. Some folks like to switch leads when skinning or bootpacking, because they get tired. Ben, however, does not get tired. As far as I can tell.

Somewhere in the past couple weeks, I switched my touring setup over to wider Steeples, thinking that I’d probably be skiing pow in the near future. The rib we followed was either scoured, baked, massacred, faceted wind drifts that were hard enough to not hold an edge, or rocks and scree thinly coated in a couple inches of fluff. It made for such interesting skinning that Jason eventually gave up and started bootpacking. He caught up to where I was trying to finesse my way through the drifts, so I joined him. Judging by his face we caught him, Ben wasn’t having any fun at all. None.

From there, skis went on packs. The wind drifts made good footing, and it didn’t take too much time to make the ridge.


The last time I was bootpacking up a big face, tiredness and dehydration dogged every step. But as we climbed, it just felt good to plant each foot above the next, drifts and outcrops passing along from above to below.


Spindrift had been blasting off the ridge all day, and the wind howled over us. Since things didn’t look too promising, we left our skis and continued up. Jason ahead of me, and Ben way out there.

The view back towards Summit. On a bigger day with better conditions, I could see skiing the N face of Little Dog, ascending Summit, skiing its SW face, then heading back up to the saddle.

Looking across Ole Creek.

All the sculpting and rock hard drifts evidenced the wind hammering the outside of my hood. Spindrift would occasionally come around my glasses and stick to the warmer, insides of the lenses. And it was just wonderful to be cruising along up Ben’s boot prints, snug and happy in my gear as the wind raged and sun shown down.

But the same wind was a bit unsettling to Jason. As I caught up to him, he told me that he’d had enough, and was turning around to wait for us at the saddle. With Ben a bit higher on the ridge, I started juggling the thoughts in a hard situation. On one hand, it’s good form to stick together in case something happens. With one member of the crew retreating, perhaps we should all head back. But Ben wasn’t part of this decision, so it was the two of us. Jason was fine with me heading on. He had crampons if he wanted to use them, and I felt he could make the descent. But since I felt fine, and had Ben forging ahead, I felt good to catch up with him. We’d all regroup to ski from the saddle.

Looking back on that decision, it made our margin for group error much slimmer. Jason was more or less solo on his walk back to the saddle, and if something went wrong up high, Ben and I would just have each other until we could get word to Jason. Given how we felt, the competencies of the group, and the conditions, I don’t feel bad about the decision now–but I would have liked to make it as a group, instead of choosing between scenarios in my head. We had a range of speeds, and that was beneficial in exposing fewer people to concentrated hazards, but it limited our communication. This hindsight is the kind of thing to bring to future trips. Reflection is positive, when acted upon.

After I caught up, Ben and I negotiated a couple chutes, kicking through thin, unconsolidated wind drifts to the firmer stuff underneath. Around the corner, up the edge, and there we were. Clouds roiled to the west, with their puffy tops catching a golden glint from the sun. To the south, they broke up over the Divide, leaving us with blue sky over the plains in the east. Our  perch was right on the break point. It was pretty dang exciting.

It was also extra windy. I threw on crampons for the walk down, took a few swallows of water, and we marched back down to meet Jason. Ben snags a group selfie back at the saddle:

Ben and I dug a pit, revealing a seriously consolidated snowpack on the lee, cross loaded slopes we’d be skiing.

I swung in first, found a little bit of loose, crusted snow on the margin, and made it down a ways.

Jason linked turns down to me, and on his go, Ben blew out of a ski. It rocketed down the slope as he yelled, then caught a bit of snow, rolled, and thankfully stopped. Ben doing some downhill walking:

From there, we traversed skiers right into some of the ramps of the lower mountain. Ski cutting the soft, thin drifts as we went, the angle decreased and got downright fun as we skied back into the creekbed we’d come up. Ben enjoys some just desserts:

Bopping along the creek, the whole day took on a nice afterglow. We’d started with winds, and that sinking feeling of low tide, but here we were, having skied some legitimate crust and actual pow on the bottom. Only a little bit of skinning ensued on the trip out, and as we crossed the tracks back to the car, I couldn’t help thinking that the best recovery drink for the evening was resoundingly lemonade.

Thanks to Jason for motivating, Ben for his photos, and both for a wonderful day in the park.

On brutality in the mountains

A box of old notebooks still lurks in my closet. Recording the capricious and hormonally charged span of years from high school into college, there’s a pile of angst and unformed emotion via poetry. In light of studying and gaining perspective in the craft of writing, they now seem so raw and reckless in their vicissitudes as to be pretty dang useless. However, their true testament is to the simple fact that writing, for me, is an outlet for emotion.

And when it’s pared that simply, there’s nothing wrong with those notebooks. Many of the blog posts here are a sort of decompression or reflection on trips involving various levels of stress or enjoyment. If you’ve read them, you know. Writing is not the dictation of finalized thoughts–while we write, we rethink and generally clarify the things we’re trying to get down. There’s a therapy to words in that sense, because to write is to continually reconsult about a topic until the final catharsis of the finished product takes some of the burden with it.

As of today, the ski mountaineering community has experienced a couple weeks of tragedy:  Sebastian Haag and Andrea Zambaldi died in an avalanche just short of the summit of Shishapangma. Yesterday, snowboard mountaineer Liz Daley died in an avalanche near the Fitz Roy massif. Also yesterday, ski mountaineers Andreas Fransson and JP Auclair have been presumed dead in an avalanche on Monte San Lorenzo (or Mount Cochrane) on the Chile/Argentine border. No rescue party has been to the latter, but with helicopter reports of inert bodies and a minimum of 48 hours in the cold, it’s a pretty slim chance. I hope that I’m wrong.

But as the notebooks attest, these times of emotion trigger a written response. Instead of being speechless, or submitting some excuse about words not being adequate, here’s a try.

“We [climbers] demonstrate in the most stunning way of all–at the risk of our lives–that there is no limit to the effort man can demand of himself. This quality is the basis of all human achievement…it can never be proved enough. I consider that we climbers–that I–serve all humanity. We prove that there is no limit to what man can do.” -Walter Bonatti

My heart goes out to those who knew and loved these wonderful people. I thank all of them for their proof.

And the rest of us, who watched on as they did incredible things, as they redefined what could be done via a pair of skis ridden by the human spirit, are now left to ponder the course our aspirations will take. On one hand, I question whether I have any legitimate claim on the sorrow in their deaths–after all, I didn’t know any of them personally. Jumping on the bandwagon of a dead icon as if an imagined connection means as much as the loss of a spouse or real friend only demeans their deep grief.
On the other, these people are my people. People in the mountains. Exploring on their crampons; sending it down on their skis. The ski mountaineering community is, and will probably continue to be, niche enough that the effects of these deaths reverberate. And for international ski icons like Fransson and Auclair, their passing reflects not only the loss of an individual and the bright creativity that made them so worthy of their status–it also marks the loss of people I looked up to. It makes final their progress into difficult, dangerous terrain. It stops their ability to continue showing us “what man[kind] can do,” and because I cherish them for their abilities in that realm, it represents a loss of a leader in a small community.
On yet another hand, such losses bring home that the sheer bliss and joy that comes from our good times in the mountains has another, darker, equally as sheer side in brutality. If Fransson and Auclair symbolized pushing forward, this is the rebound. It is so hard to acknowledge, as it forces me to reflect on all the close calls. This spring, a broad wet slide aired off a cliff above and took out a face traverse we’d put in only ten minutes prior. In another incident highlighted at the start of my season edit, I kicked off a wet slab/corn slab of two week old snow on June 30th. In both cases, luck figured heavily. And to hear of people dying when they have much more experience makes going out again a complicated pile of emotions for me.

Danger is such a part of what I do. It’s somewhat relative–driving in cars at 70mph only a few feet from people doing the same in the opposite direction is considered very normal. People knowingly eat food that may cause disease or early death, or readily expose themselves to chemicals that do much the same. So perhaps there’s some variability and danger in skiing down mountains, but I don’t see it as that much worse than many real dangers that we take for granted. I make calculated guesses and try very hard to be safe in the mountains. Even so, the truth is that the consequence of death isn’t something I understand, and it’s hard to weigh that kind of thing honestly. I think it gets covered over, and much like the drop under one’s feet while leading or the exposure that you can’t afford to fall off, I try to hold it in value without letting it paralyze my moves.

During college, a ski buddy took his life. The day after I found out, I skipped my classes and drove I-90 up to Snoqualmie Pass and the PCT. Once up high, I took a detour to a rocky outcrop that doesn’t see much traffic, wrote him a note, and tucked it in a crack in the rock. I said goodbye to him aloud up there, the wind carrying my words off to the north. In retrospect, it was exactly what I needed to do.

In 2012, an avalanche swept down Tunnel Creek at Stevens Pass. It killed three pillars of the local community, including Chris Rudolph. He’d been the one to lure me to Stevens, the one who had gotten me a job, the one who was constantly stoked to get out and play. I wrote this in his memory, and though I’d rework the beginning, it still fits with how I felt then.

So I don’t know what I’ll do this time. But the writing is there, and as with these other knocks to the heart and to confidence, the start is as simple as a sentence.

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.

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.

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.

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.