Taking it back at Blacktail

Two weeks ago, just before I left for Japan, ten inches of new snow fell at Big Mountain. I’d committed the night before to go tour Blacktail with the Spirit Bear and company, yet the texts rolled in. Suggestions to go shoot with Craig, who I’d wanted to shoot with for a couple weeks. I did the considering. Thought about it. And then a part of me that’s trying to hold my planning commitments spoke up. I thanked him, politely declined, and walked the couple blocks to meet the crew headed south. Away from the new forecast. Away from the assured pow, and lift access.

The backseat of the Rav4 was stuffed with Jen, Katie, and Rebecca, while Ben drove. Unplowed tracks of trucks and other vehicles grew steadily deeper as we wound up the curves of the road climbing out of Lakeside. Summer tired spun and slid on the corners, and we did discuss harnessing up the four of us skinning passengers to pull the car like a sled dog team.

It didn’t come to that. We pulled into the top lot to find a whole pile of cars in six to ten inches of new snow. Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol was out doing training, which meant that only a few people were out actually skiing. Six to eight inches of new snow covered the road past the gate as we booted up to the lodge, met up with Mike and Katie, and dropped in on our first run beneath the lifts that hadn’t started spinning for the season.

Ski areas and ski resorts both have lifts, a lodge or two, a ski school. The skiing might be similar, but the focus is different: resorts are about expansion and growth, whereas areas like Blacktail are concerned with maintaining the ski experience for their customers. There’s room for both in the skiing universe, but the soul of skiing, in its pure, ecstatic form, rests in the ski area. It is there that an average family can afford to go skiing. It is at places like Blacktail that the chairs and the pace are slow enough, the prices low enough, for skiing to still be the main event, not just a piece of the whole money-making puzzle.

I’m biased, of course. My grandparents, during my sixth grade year, put Blacktail season passes under the family Christmas tree. Skiing had been a few weekends per year kind of thing, with an annual family ski trip (lucky kids we were), but the pass meant that we could go up whenever. It was a second beginning to my ski life. Every weekend was now fair game. Blacktail was the perfect place; small enough to cut kids loose to go ski, a lodge at the top for lunch, plenty of intermediate terrain with a few scary cliffs to aspire to. Friendly faces that we’d see every week in ski lessons or at the bottom, bumping chairs.

Three seasons went by at Blacktail, all founded on that simple, brilliant idea of the ski pass under the Christmas tree. While I passed through the seven-circled, adolescent-change gauntlet of middle school, the hill stayed much the same. The jumps seemed smaller as my ideas got bigger, my skiing faster. Blacktail began to feel provincial and small. I frequently looked north across the valley at the inviting steeps, fast lifts, and resort vertical of Big Mountain. My dad seemed to sense that my skiing was headed in a new direction, and to support that, he suggested that I try out the Freestyle Team up north. My ninth grade year saw a Big Mountain season pass in my jacket pocket, which would continue through high school and college. I hardly looked back.

Yet as I dropped in behind Ben just over a week ago, blasting down the familiar terrain through fluffy, boottop pow, much of what had once been came rushing back. I could remember the straight ski rentals I’d once skied down the same liftline. How the off-camber glade constantly felt like longer lefts, short rights. The joys of thousands of my life’s powder turns were instigated by the acres rushing by under my skis—that’s a powerful current to ride again.

And in a way, the sense of community was there too: we ran into our friends Jason and Lindsay at the bottom. All nine of us made the transition, then went fairly flying back up the skin track towards the top of the Thunderhead lift. Then we did it again. And again. We saw Brian Kennedy  and his wife. Then, we moved over to the Crystal chair for a few laps. The sun was out. Stoke was high. I skied through memories as deep as the snow left swirling behind us, glittering in the low-hanging, afternoon sun.

Blacktail, as a place and terrain, had been fairly bland when I left it before. The few visits since were focused on skiing with specific people. But through the lens of one day of touring, it had regained much of the soul, the excitement that it had once held for me. My most recent post covered how moving away from solely lift-accessed skiing has changed my mindset towards the early season. This sense of rediscovery at Blacktail is the other side of that coin, and it’s a powerful argument: adding the uphill to the mix means other variables aren’t as important. In the new light of going uphill, the terrain I’d once discounted for being bland was suddenly worthwhile again. Ski touring opens doors to gnarlier terrain, but it also reinvented the flats for me.

Thanks to Ben, Jen, Katie, Rebecca, Mike, Katie, Jason, Lindsay, and Brian for being part of that wonderful day. And for those wondering, I’ve got a Japan update coming in hot.

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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.

October slush and a little girl’s bike

Chairlifts, as a technology, present a strange paradox: on one hand, it’s super easy to do a lot of skiing without much effort. On the other, the people who run them dictate when the “ski season” will start and end. So when you leave the resort and start walking or skinning around, the question of definition is no longer filled by somebody else’s schedule of spinning chairs. Theories abound, but for me, I start the new season when I can ski new snow.

It’s also been helpful these past couple years to skip skiing in September. While easily the hardest month to go skiing in my part of the Northern Hemisphere, it’s come down to a question of quality. It’s just not worth it unless I’m super itchy to scratch out a couple of icy, bumpy turns on a remote snowfield. And the whole “ski all twelve months, and then link that up into a preposterous number of years to impress people” thing is all about numbers and less about actually having fun and skiing. Abandoning my Continental Divide project in late August taught me something important about these sorts of “projects”: don’t do mountain things for contrived, unreasonable reasons. Do them because you want to.

So it’s October. I’ve been itchy. And when a relatively typical fall storm came through, I managed to convice Myke to ditch whatever obligations he had the next day and head for Logan Pass to see about harvesting the leftover schmoo.

Myke had procured a “Pixie” bike for an informal downhill race that took place on the things. Instead, he missed the start but still had the thing in the back of his car. So we rode it around the parking lot once up top. We attempted switching out a seat post off of both of our regular size bikes, but they were too big.

True to shoulder season ridiculousness, we put our ski gear on our bags and started walking up the paved trail and boardwalk.

This time of year, the Hanging Gardens are open to walking wherever you please, so we detoured off and headed up the moraines. I finally walked through a bit of snow, which was encouraging. The fact that the pass was open to driving had worried both of us about ski conditions on the way up.

This was my first test of my new pack towards what my mom calls “lunatic-fringe” activities. Ie, hiking in with a full ski setup aboard. The Variant did a killer job with the extra weight, carried comfortably with skis strapped A-frame or just on the side, and I’m excited to do longer, stupider trips with it now.

First skinning with bear spray of the fall season. In short sleeves.

Skins were perhaps a bit excessive. We were skiing new snow on top of old on perhaps 500 ft vertical drop, but hey, these sorts of fall excursions are all about scratching the itch. That doesn’t seem to take much. The first lap is all euphoria, and by the third, I was thinking, “this is fun, but I’d like to take a nap on the rocks.”

Schmoo. Ah schmoo. The remnants of what was fresh snow, refrozen and melted several times. A veritable blanket of gooey, sloppy stuff that mimics powder but really isn’t. And prone to making slow moving wet slides on refrozen, icy suncups. This is what happens when you try to skin it on the higher upper angles. Although, it did lend itself to some fun once atop the silly thing.

Myke drops in.

I didn’t get a nap, but we did take this follow up picture to my shirtless Kahiltna episode.

Then comes the transition back into shoes and the walk down. I need to figure out a better way to rig my skis for down climbing or walking downhill–the tails always seem to bang on ledges or steps. There’s a compression strap a bit higher up on my pack that I could use, but that might not give that much improvement. Either way, scratching the itch feels good but the walk out reminds me that it’s not really the season for this yet.

It’s hard to advocate this time of year, but seasons do give perspective. If skiing was easily accessible all the time, it wouldn’t feel as precious. Waiting makes the first few turns much more delicious. Perhaps in an era of instant gratification and NOW NOW NOW it’s good to have to wait for something so essential to our lives as skiers. It’s also well and good to extol such high minded ideals on my blog but be positively vibrating with anticipation around my friends and family. Eh. Here’s to our addictions and our ideals, both at once.

Then again, it was a perfect time to ride the Pixie bike down the Sun Road. Myke took it from the parking lot to Oberlin Bend, and had difficulty sitting down comfortably. Since I’m more hobbitylike, I squeezed on and rode down to Triple Arches.

By the time I got there, the coaster brake had heated the back hub enough to make it too hot to touch. Turning wasn’t really a good idea, as the bike clearly wasn’t designed for nimble maneuvers at 20 mph. When I stopped, a skid went for a few yards, resulting in a flat spot on the wheel. Ridiculous? Certainly. But the looks on the faces of people going the other way in their cars were absolutely priceless.

Thanks to Myke for bringing the fun and shooting such nice pictures. And to whoever it was that donated the bike. No little girls were harmed or stolen from in the making of this blog post.

Holed up at Holland Lookout

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

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

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

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

Essentially, I was being a wuss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fruit of our labors: thermonuclear sunsets over the Missions.

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

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

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


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

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

Steven digging out the storm door.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

“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.

Two days in Leavenworth

A second Denali prep post is coming soon, but the adventures in Washington haven’t stopped, so the blogging won’t either.

After a few days up north in Bellingham painting a boat hull, I headed over towards Leavenworth to meet up with Chris and Woody. Chris and I planned to climb at the Index crags en route. True to form, the sunshine broke down into rain the minute we were both in the parking lot. Stevens Pass saw a full on snowstorm while we drove through, and as sure as it’s always rainy in Index, it was sunny in Leavenworth.

Stopped by the Mountain Equipment office to pick up some beta and found that the last of my Denali gear had arrived. There’s a disconnect between the 70F temps in the parking lot and the cold temps this stuff is designed for, and so I wandered across the street and we took a photo. Down coat, alti mitts, balaclava, insulated pants, and spring flowers.

After that, Chris and I headed back up Tumwater Canyon to Castle Rock. Warmups happened on Angel Crack, a 5.10b finger crack which also happened to be my first ever. It’s a classic example of why badass climbing photos are easier to come by than skiing ones. Judging the picture below, you might think I’m a solid ways off the deck on some classic of finger-wrenching bliss.

Instead, the whole route can be summarized thus:

We moved over to a 5.9 offwidth just next to it called Damnation Crack. Per usual, Chris lead it in fine style. Here’s his selfie from the midway rest ledge.

I hopped on the Struggle Bus for a ride of exasperation and expletives in the first few moves. Not much feet to speak of, but after pulling on the first two pieces of gear, I made it into the true offwidth and shimmied up.

Here’s another misleading photo. Given the large pile of expensive metal slung under my arm, you’d probably not know that I can’t properly set any of it. Judging by the rope, it looks like I lead my way over there instead of being headed toward the belay station.

Topped out with Chris before heading to South for dinner.

That night, I drove out to Woody’s place in Plain. The next day, we headed up towards Merritt Lake. The drive out was uneventful until we hit the typical spring snowblock on an access road. That lead to the typical walk with hiking boots up the bare trail until we hit snowline.

Shortly before we put some glopstopper on our skins, I did a demo of dramatized touring.
A bit like Ministry of Silly Walks for the skin track.

Another shot of walking up. Oh, the gravity.

We decided to head up towards Mt. Mastiff, but a casual start had baked the snowpack. Traversing the ridge seemed imprudent, so I took some more photos.


Looking up the ridge at the summit. Another day.

Dropping down to where we ate lunch, the call was made to ski a sheltered, north facing coulior. I ski cut it, we both skied two short pitches, then a small (10ft by 10ft) wet slab triggered below Woody and ran over the tips of my skis. Something like 8″ of shmoo atop a refreeze crust. Time to pull the plug. Time to be thankful we didn’t try to push it on bigger slopes. We booted back up and skied down our skin track.

“I’ll slash that shaft of sun like it’s actually dry powder or something.”

Woody, after a detour ruined his speed.

After a rousing bit of searching for where we’d stashed our boots (which I had skied right past), we headed down the trail and back to the truck.

We’re headed off to climb tomorrow morning, so I’ll update that later. Big thanks to Woody and Chris for the photos, Woody and Mindy for their hospitality, and to Chris Rudolph for once buying a pink cosmopolitan for Gregg Winter at South so I can remember it now.