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.

Open for business on Great Northern

First of all, thanks for stopping by. It’s been about a year since I started this blog, with no real ideas about what I wanted it to be other than a place to put things that didn’t fit elsewhere. Since then, it’s become another creative outlet. A way to share stories. A way to link people all over the world to the time I get to spend outdoors.

If I had one wish for this little piece of internet, it would be that these words and photos make their readers interested in closing their computer, turning off the phone, and disappearing into the veil of nature. That what I’m doing serves to inspire. There are as many callings as people under the sun; mine seems to be to chase the dream. Thanks for tuning in.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

At the top of the page, it says “The adventure blog”. People have suggested that I add other aspects of my life, but there’s a purity of purpose here that I cherish. However much I’d like to rant about politics or grammar or whatever, this is a place dedicated solely to adventure. This is a question of spirit, of style. Mountains and wilderness are places free from the immediate influence of entities too far away or different in character to know them properly. It’s good to know there’s nobody looking over your shoulder. So in writing about that feeling, the content should reflect that singular sense of freedom from noise.

I bring this up because the shuttered US government is now affecting where we get to play. While the unpleasant side effects of the shutdown are multifarious and hardly knowable in full, one seemingly small aspect of closed government are the closed gates and makeshift barricades now blocking the entrances to our national parks. My usual destinations of interest are located inside a place that technically belongs to me, as a citizen, but is currently sealed off because of brinksmanship and inability to compromise. Which means that for a weekend climb like the one I planned last weekend, Glacier was off limits.

Photographer and all around gentleman Myke Hermsmeyer had been kicking around a weekend climb during the work week. We headed out of Kalispell pretty early on Saturday morning. The night before had been a scramble to find some extra gear, and I hadn’t been able to come up with a pair of spikes for him. With new snow in the alpine, it meant that we had to keep it mellow, and if it was too hard and scoured, we’d be turning around. A few wrong turns and a bit of dirt road later, and the peak was glowing in the dawn.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Great Northern by name, it’s a pretty popular summer destination for fit day hikers. When not drifted under the snow we found, there’s a goat trail that runs all the way to the summit. Located in the northern Great Bear Wilderness, which abuts the southern boundary of Glacier, it is separated by only an imaginary line drawn along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. The trail isn’t official or maintained—and hence goes practically straight up for the first mile.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

After a bit of sweating in the forest, we popped out into the alpine, the wind, and better views.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Somewhere in there, we hit snow. Though up and down for a bit, we hit the summit ridge after some easy walking.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

In the distance, all the peaks in view are part of Glacier. It’s strange to think that such majesty can be considered “closed.” That a place that is specifically purposed for exploration and wonder could be walled off to prevent those very activities. That the people who caused this may have never seen the places they are closing. That any government or human entity pretends to exercise judgment or control over these places. Staring across the valley, such assertions seemed utterly laughable in contrast to the stately snowcaps adorning each peak.  Which made me smile.

Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Once on the summit ridge, the wind did not let up. We made steady progress for quite a while over the various bumps and drifts. As often happens, the snow got deeper as we ascended. Footing was good until a route finding error saw me on a narrowing, slippery ledge. Scoured and refrozen ice made my explorations crampon worthy, and with Myke behind me with none of his own, we went back to try another option on the direct spine.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Something like an hour was wasted in all this. However, we did find a neat window of rock in the top of the ridge as the first fruit of our labors.

Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

And after that and a quick posthole up some drifted snow, we were again on our way. Long gone was the trail. My left leg was punching through wind buff up to my thigh. Navigating slopes that now held enough snow to create slide potential but kept Myke’s footing secure, a couple false summits came and went.

Not remembering how many high points there were, I suggested that Myke go ahead to shoot back down the ridge at me.

It turned out that the mountain didn’t go any higher, and it’s safe to say that we were both stoked.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

I put out the usual squeals of excitement, while Myke didn’t have to say anything—he’d climbed in a pair of Carhartt work pants, no spikes, and gaitors that my dad could have pulled from an ‘80s gear drawer. Quite badass.

For my part, I was decked out in Mountain Equipment softshell goodness (Centurion Jacket, Mountain Stretch glove, Epic Touring pant, Mountain Stretch gaitor), and I’ve got to say that it was nothing short of cozy. Long gone are the days of sweat soaked hardshells and imaginary breathability. These fabrics and constructions allow a supremely sweaty climber (namely, me) to move hard and still stay totally content under my layers. Totally astonished by how well the Centurion worked; I can’t wait to ski tour in it this winter. Yay Neoshell.


Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

Wind pushed us off the summit, and it was really nice to be headed down in the sun. To my left, Hungry Horse Reservoir glittered. To the right, the “closed” peaks mutely stated that they didn’t care one way or another what the silly humans have to say.
To me, the need for wilderness is primal—to have places that are unregulatable, wild, far beyond the control of people. Summits and vales and vast woods that dwarf us puny humans and keep us humble, remind us how small we really are. For me, I need their shadow, looming. And as we delayered after heading into the trees, the views slipping away, it seemed reasonable to say thanks, once again, for all the mountains give us.

Great Northern, like many things around here, takes its name from the railway that comes through Whitefish. There happens to be bar and brewery that share the name with the mountain, so once back in town, we set out to the other “summits” of Great Northern. I’ll let the next three photos tell the story.


Huge thanks to Myke for being a sorcerer with his camera and a stand up climbing buddy. No thanks to the jerks that caused the shutdown. May packrats make nests in the kitchens of their summerhomes.

Denali dreaming, part 1

There’s an expectation, totally my own, that the words that I write about places are supposed to be equal to the places themselves. A theory that if this silly primate body I wander around in is barely able, maybe the words it strings together can compensate for sunburnable flesh and blistery toes. Ironically and obviously, it goes without saying that it’s hard to fulfill. Being a big mountain, certainly the largest I’ve ever sought to play on, Denali puts extra weight on that wish.

Grant Domer and I fly north to Anchorage on May 17th. A short trip to Talkeetna, a flight onto the Kahiltna, and we’ll be wandering up the West Buttress until we fly back to Seattle on June 17th. Grant’s been thinking of this trip since the summer of 2011, when we skied Mt. Baker.


Grant checking out a map on Rainier.

He envisioned building up to this climb two years later. At the time, it seemed about a lifetime and bunch of money I didn’t have into the future. Occasionally the thought would play through my head, but it didn’t feel serious–I’d wandered back to Montana and working through the summer didn’t leave much time for getting out on the volcanos.


A skinning day with Woody Dixon in the Cascades.

A phone call this last December got me back in the game. Grant was still on the chase, as excited as that climb a few years back. Plane tickets were the commitment to launch a several month scramble (on my part) to catch up.  Now, we’re less than three weeks away from flying north, and here’s the first part of some reflections on the process.

Most the climbing I’ve done in Glacier Park has been guided by J. Gordon Edwards’ quirky classic, <u>A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park</u>. Despite Grant’s guidance and general idea about what we were getting into, I was looking for a guidebook. Colby Coombs’ guide to the West Buttress has awesome route information and a solid section on gear to bring. There’s a lot of time devoted to common ailments from altitude and cold, both bountiful on Denali.

To add to the guidebook, there’s required reading to even get your permit from the Park Service. In the PDF is a code necessary for registration. I read through all of Wildsnow’s blog posts related to their trip from 2010 to get a more comprehensive idea of skiing the thing. Going on a tip from my father, I read an account of the first winter ascent of Denali,  -148 Degrees.

Most of the official tone talks of self sufficiency and preparation. Nothing promises an easy climb. Within the first few days of their trip, the winter ascent lost a member to a crevasse fall. The accident reporting from Denali last year does not flinch at the number of dead climbers. Between the vertical relief (13,000ft) between base camp and the summit, the latitude decreasing oxygen and making the mountain feel higher (more along the lines of 23,000ft near the Equator), and the timing of our trip seeing more spring weather, a serious tone is valid.

Still, I really enjoyed the moments of levity in what I read. These are mountaineers after all. A passage from Coombs:

“Perhaps the oddest animal encounter was with a red squirrel begging for food at 12,500ft. This is no less than 15 miles and over 10,000ft in elevation from the nearest spruce grove. Did the little mammal arrive on the glacier in someone’s duffel in a gorp-induced coma?”

Beyond all that I’ve learned on my own, I’ve been once again reminded of why mountain communities are the best ones. Conversations about my spring plans, once I mention Denali, have become a great outpouring of support for our trip. People have offered me their expedition weight long johns, mentioned friends who went before, connected through email to folks with experience, offered gear hookups, and in the case of my sponsors, pulled out all the stops to help with gear. In the piles of details and accumulating gear, the generosity of the people in my life is still the largest heap in sight. Thank you.

A few worthy specifics:
-To Grant. For spearheading this, helping with gear, and especially the booties. Arabianistas!
-To the family. To Mom and Dad for encouraging me, starting me on this path, and enduring the worry. To my grandparents for their support and employment. To my uncles  for their words of wisdom about avoiding chaffing and offers of loaned gear.
-Massive thanks to Woody Dixon  and Mountain Equipment for being onboard with the trip from the beginning. His help with clothing, equipment, and a new sleepsack made the difference between a cost prohibitive trip and a possible one.
-Thanks to Scott Andrus, Sam Caylor, and Rowen Tych at ON3P for keeping me in skis. The 186 Vicik Tours that I just mounted up will be perfect for spring assaults and slogging up the Kahiltna.
-Green thanks to SDot for transporting us in AK. Super stoked to see you.

Photopile

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

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

Government sponsored sledding and red flying carpets

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

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

The sleds parked in some rare sunshine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan and Clay:

Abby  with pear:

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

The winch cat chasing us up:

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

And this is why we do this.

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

Clay drops in.

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

“Go stand over there and look majestic”

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

Walking on sunshine: survival skiing on Gunsight Mountain

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

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

Readying at the trailhead.

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

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

Boreal belay in the crux.

Topped out and back in my skis.

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

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

Summit ridge.

Clay summit ridging.

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

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

Looking down towards Lake McDonald and the chalet.

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

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

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

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

Trying to slow down by the skin track.

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

Huge thanks to Clay for the photos.