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.

A Day With David

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

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

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

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

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

Hole in the Wall Couloir

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

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

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

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

Flashback: suncup eights on Blackfoot Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

Routefinding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clay fills in:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linebacking with Dave and Dave

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

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

Dave does the hokey pokey, turning the truck around.

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

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

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

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

Dave pointing to Diamond Peak, our original goal.

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


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

And this man sells mortgages.

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

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

Glacier Park dominates the background.

Looking south towards Werner Peak and Whitefish Mountain Resort.

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

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

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

Alder time.

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

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

Nighttime powder aliens

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

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

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

On the flats near the entrance to Thousand Turns.

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

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

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

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

Collin with the lights of the base area behind him.

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

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

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

Proper nighttime grass skiing form.

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

Steep and deep.

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

Thanks to Greg and Collin for sharing the madness.

 

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.