Saturday, February 9, 2019

Pinball Wizard Gully for time

An ongoing post about trying to ski this local classic fast.

A fine morning for fast Pinball Wizarding.
Jeffrey was motivated enough to rally at 5:30 for a fast go at Pinball.  The gully is in incredible condition right now.  We parked out at the Larry creek parking area and warmed up on the half mile skin to the trailhead before pinning it up in the dark.  I went out at an optimistically fast pace and pushed with all I had all the way to the top.  Evidently sunrise was really pretty, but I was hurting a little too much to appreciate it as much as I should have.  I lost a lot of time on my previous splits, but it was a beautiful morning, and we started making time up above the saddle by not having to stop for cold weather.  I gave it all I had on the climb, and the last few hundred feet were a grind.

From the top, we made the downhill krumholtz skin in great time.  With low avalanche danger, I also on the fly found a much faster way to traverse to the top of the gully by making a longer traverse all on the South side of the ridge.  We started down the gully proper in good time.  The gully was just fantastic.  Firm, fast, smooth skiing.  Perfectly clear, cold morning.  We had a few bobbles on the exit, but neither cost us much time and we zipped out on the icy trail, emerging in 3.15, a new best for me time.  I still think this is a FK(S)T.  Would love to hear of others doing it faster though.  I went up as fast as my fitness will allow right now, but I think I could shave another 10 minutes with perfect execution.  It is of course hard to wonder if sub-3 is possible.  

splits for future reference: First road crossing: 18, trailhead: 55; upper saddle 1.35 summit 2.06; Start skiing 2.25? Trail: 2.40; Car 3.15.

With a Sunday afternoon to spare, I made a speedy go at the Pinball Wizard gully.  I went in to it well rested, and with a skin track in all the way up, was optimistic about fast conditions.  After a few minutes of warmup, I started pushing at a reasonably hard pace.  The climb went quickly for the first two thirds, although snow squalls did lower morale a bit, and reports from a ski party about cold wind on the summit had me wishing I had brought a second pair of gloves.  The upper mountain greeted me with surprisingly cold and biting wind, and I had to stop several times to layer up and deal with frozen fingers.  In any case, I only lost about 10 minutes to clothing and cold finger shenanigans.  From the summit, I took advantage of stable conditions to safely use the quick route, which takes a detour around the N. side of the last gendarme.  From there, one can rip skins and make a big downward ridgeline ski and traverse to the head of the Pinball wizard.  My fingers finally warmed up, and I was served a full helping of screaming barfies, but they eventually subsided, and it was time to ski.  
Your classic ski shot from near the top of the Pinball Wizard.
The skiing was great for the upper two thousand feet, and reasonable for the lower thousand.  On the ski out, I passed Andrew and Jeffrey, who were deproaching from adventures further up drainage which included a lot of skiing, one broken pole, and two broken skis.  Otherwise it was an uneventful exit.  I made it back to the car in 3.21, ten minutes faster than my previous fastest time.  It would be reasonable to cut ten minutes off, and I can't help but wonder if a sub-3 hr loop is possible with good conditions and some fierce suffering on the climb.
Back at the car.  Wearing my pink hat from the Women's march in Helena the previous day.
I am about as pessimistic as anyone about the next four years, but it was rewarding to participate in
the march, showing solidarity with the movement, and sending a clear message of resistance to the new administration.
splits for future reference: First road crossing: 15.30, trailhead: 44; upper saddle 1.24 summit 2.00; Start skiing 2.35. Car 3.21.30.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Blodget ski days

I had a trio of early winter ski ski days in Blodgett.  None of them were perfect, but all of them were decent, and all valuable experience in my quest to unravel the abundant yet fickle ski mysteries of Blodgett.

Mill Point, Shoshone and Kootenai gullies
Another late start.  I decided to climb from Blodgett to maximize time spent in new terrain.  I walked the normal Shoshone climbing approach and booted another few hundred feet above before putting skis on.  Footing was trecherous, and I fell once and knocked the wind out of myself and bruised or broke my ribs.  The fall hurt like a bugger, and it took about three weeks to heal, but I was able to keep skiing.  I skinned up the path between Shoshone and Flathead.  The long dry spell had closed, and there was up to 8" of new fresh snow. Skinning was tricky, and the new snow was predictably unstable on the old ice crust.  At the top, I cached heavy gear and skied the gully back down to the end of good snow at about 6,000 feet. The snowpack was thin, and I had to ski carefully, but it was a great 2,000 foot powder run.  
Looking down the Flathead gully.
I jammed back up my skin track and floundered a bit on dangerous collapsing slabs (not too scary, but I did have to employ meticulous, heads up routefinding) to Mill point.  I also tried to rock climb a rock step near the summit, and failed spectacularly.  Rock climbing is not a good idea with a broken rib, in ski boots.  In any case, I retreated before doing anything dumb and found another way to the summit, arriving just before sunset. I skied the Kootenai gully between the UK buttress and Nez Perce.  It is a great ski line, but it was terribly thin, and I clipped more rocks than I would have liked.  I skied as far as possible before picking my way down about 800 feet of classic Bitterroot slabs, steep grass, and talus to the trail.

The schuss out was filled in and fast.  I probably jumped into these a little early, but overall coverage is great and I need to start doing peak to creeks as conditions allow.  About 6.5 k, done in 7 hours.
Great snow at the top of the Kootenai gully.
Mill Point, Shoshone and Kootenai gullies
In full furlough style, I didn't leave the trailhead until 11 am after day care drop off, but had the rest of the day at my disposal.  I made the normal climb to Mill point in an even 3 hours, including a quick inconclusive pit stop (I dug my pit on a representative aspect, but the snowpack was too shallow to represent the thick wind slab avalanche hazard present on the steepest upper portion of the bowl).  In any case, the avalanche danger was a stout Moderate, but it was coming off a larger storm cycle that produced a lot of dangerous avalanches, especially in adjacent ridges, so it seemed prudent to treat it more like Considerable.

The trailbreaking was rather laborius all the way up, but I ground it out.  I had been skiing perfect powder day after day, and to my surprise, the snow was not very good, even up high.  From the summit, I nosed my way down the most conservative route in the main upper bowl.  The run was excellent, with fun glade skiing in the upper third, a fun gully in the middle third, and fun meadow skipping lower down.
Steep glade skiing on the first run in the Southeast bowl of Mill point.
I skied for a little over 2,000 vertical feet and climbed back to the summit.  I skied another lap in the bowl, climbed for a third summit, then booked it out to the car.  The exit took almost exactly an hour, and it was nice to arrive back at the car right at dark.  It was great to finally ski this excellent run, and I will keep it in mind as a good option when solar aspects are skiing well and the avalanche danger is on the moderate/considerable divide.  I was pretty tired today.  8.5k vert, 7 hours
The fun middle gully at the bottom of the Southeast bowl of Mill point.
The run continues down and around the corner.
Sears Lake couloir and peak to creek
Powder skiing above Sears Lake.
Jeffrey and I rallied at 4 am with high hopes of skiing a big day of peak to creek runs.  Unfortunately it was super warm, and we ended up spending a rather demoralizing few hours rain and mush skinning in the dark.  We left the trail at the High Lake trail junction.  I took the slop trailbreaking pull to freezing line, and Jeffrey took the glop trail breaking pull to the top of the Sears lake couloir.  I was feeling really low energy, and just did my best to keep up.  It had not snowed as much as I had feared overnight, and I felt quite confident dropping into the couloir.  The entrance is super funky, but we had quite amazing skiing once we got in the couloir itself.  It is a great line, and would be a classic were it not lodged so far away from civilization.
Jeffrey working his way through the scrappy entrance to the Sears Lake couloir.
Great skiing in the Sears lake couloir. 
 We still wanted to get to 10k in, but with terrible snow down low, decided to take the easy route and lap powder above Sears lake.  We took three varied and interesting runs above the lake.  For some reason, we were both really fighting fatigue, but we put our heads down and got it done on the climbs.  The skiing was great fun.  To end the day, we climbed to the big avalanche path of the Printz ridge high point.  We made the traverse from the Sears basin to the peak successfully, but were stymied by no visibility at the final upper headwall.  I was tired enough to be quite content with not bumbling around in the soup trying to find a safe way to the top, and Jeffrey kindly agreed to start heading down.  I want to return and ski this big one from the summit.  Even with very sloppy skiing in the lower half, we had a good run.  The trail out was a grind.  I really should have brought kicker skins to speed things up, but we resorted to traditional methods, making the exit in 2.5 hours.  I got lazy and ski skimmed over a lot of rocks on the trail, glad to have brought my durable Bitterroot adventure skis.
First run above Sears lake.
Third run above Sears lake.
Good skiing in the upper part of our peakish to creek run.
Big mountains, little skier.  Skiing to the trail.
This was, for me, the hardest ski day this year, and I was pretty whopped by the time we made it back to the car. We ticked just over 10k vert, done in 13 hours car to car.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Big Saint Joe for time

I am excited to get back to trying for fast times on local tours.  Avalanche conditions during the furlough were a little too high for many of the more exciting circuits, but with the Bass trail in mint shape, it seemed like a great time for Big St. Joe.  I was able to convince Leah and Justin to help put the skin track in up to the summit ridge the previous day during an enjoyable powder skiing tour, so the stage was set for an attempt.
Big Saint Joe.  The Southeast bowl is the obvious bowl dropping from the high point.
I headed out from the car with a race setup plus a bundle of warm clothes at a responsibly brisk pace.  The trail had enough soft snow on it that gliding was fast and efficient, and I made it to the meadows almost 15 minutes faster than expected.  I made the planned transition from fast skins to climbing skins, and made reasonable progress on the skin track through the tricky cliffs and into the bottom of the Southeast bowl.  To my minor chagrin, one of my skins blew, but I was able to swap it out without too much lost time. 
Going up, low in the Southeast bowl.
I was quite surprised by the intensity of the alpine winds, but my time was good, so I proceeded, layering up incrementally as the intensity of the gale increased.  I had to re-break about a thousand vertical feet of trail from yesterday.  Even with close to hair trigger wind slabs, I was able to make a safe climb up onto the summit ridge.  I slowed down a lot on the summit ridge.  Honestly, my energy wasn't that good, but I also had to be pretty careful with very strong winds and fresh hard slabs right on the ridge (typically the ridge harbors stable, wind blasted sastruggi).  My body temp was OK, and time was still reasonable, so I carefully ground it out to the summit at three hours on the nose.  After a successful wind transition (i.e. standing on my pack so it wouldn't blow away), I skimmed back across the plateau, buoyed by the ferocious tailwind.  The ski down the peak was great fun.  The wind had wrecked yesterday's perfect powder, but it was safe, and I will never complain about 4,000 feet of consistently good skiing.  For speed, the descent was fast.  I made good time to the meadows, then blasted out to the car.  3.48 ctc.
Back at car.  Tired, frazzled, and happy
Splits for future reference: First stream 18mins; Bass creek #1: 40; Leave trail 1.05;  Start up the SE face above the funk: 1.20;  Gain summit ridge 2.30;  Summit: 3.0;  Trail outbound 3.20;  Car 3.48.

I think this is a good candidate for trying to ski faster.  It is a high, prominent mountain with a great ski line.  With care, it can also be safely skied with elevated avalanche danger.  It is interesting as a speed test in that it demands good flat skinning speed as well as good climbing speed cranking up the 4,000 vertical foot climb from the meadows.  The most significant challenge for posting a truly fast time is putting the energy and time in to pre-set a track.

I still think there is a faster way to get through the funk below the Southeast bowl.  Need to get that one dialed.  Also for speed, I lost as much as twenty minutes due to cold, trailbreaking, and poor skin choice.  On the contrary, I felt pretty good, and made spectacular-for-me time on the trail, so I think this time is representative of a very good time with perfect conditions if there is not a pre-set skin track.  I still don't know if the steep climbing and skiing prowess of my Nanga parbat setup would have bested my race skis for speed, but I had a lot of fun skiing the skinny skis today.  I think 3.30 might be possible.

On a tangential note, as a normal touring objective, I think that the Southeast bowl of Big St. Joe is a reasonable contender for a powder skiing venue with Considerable avalanche danger for skiers looking to do something other than the storm day classics.  The approach is a little tricky, but it really does not take much longer to get to the top of the Southeast bowl than to the top of Little St. Joe or Lappi.  And if one gets up there and avalanche conditions are surprisingly stable, one can easily move into more interesting terrain by going to the summit, skiing any of the  South face runs, or making the funky but reasonably quick climb to the Pinwall Wizard gully and exiting that way.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Missions, Sheepshead Southwest face

Let's go ski that one!  Photo: Ned Gall
I was able to take advantage of a triple boost of stable snow, a solid partner, and the furlough to ski Sheepshead in the Missions.  I was doubtful that the weather would be good enough, but Ned was keen to have a look, so we headed out at a casual 9:30 after day care drop off. We parked low on the road, but there was plenty of time to ski the peak if conditions allowed.  It took two hours of climbing to surmount the inversion, but once we did we were in a warm, clear, happy world.
Approaching the trailhead below the inversion.
A preliminary look at the face indicated it was in great shape, but the state of the exit gully was an unknown.  I wanted to assess stability in the chute, so we traversed off the summit ridge and climbed the ski run directly, which necessitated a very long and somewhat exposed traverse.  A quick pit coupled with other signs of stability had us confident in stability on this very exposed ski objective.  It is a long grind, but we made steady progress on the climb, switching a few times between booting and steep skinning, and were on the summit about 4.5 hours after leaving the car.  My optimistic planning brain had kicked around the possibility of skiing a second run, but we didn't really have time to.  We both agreed to keep it at one run, but it was going to be one heck of a one-and-done tour.
Ned, booting...
...and skinning on the climb.
The ski run was amazing.  The snow was firm and smooth, and we took our time leapfrogging down the massive face.  We were not able to ski the exit couloir, but had brought crampons and an axe as a backup, and were able to downclimb with a reasonable margin of safety.  The skate across the lakes was quick and fun, and the trail was slow like it normally is.  We made it back to the car about 30 minutes after dark, safe and happy.  I had a fabulous day. Thanks to Leah for letting me stay out late and have this remarkable experience. 
Skiing off Sheepshead, just below the summit. Photo: Ned Gall
Ned skiing on Sheepshead, about half way down the face.
Downclimbing.  Non-trivial but safe.  Thin snow over ice, super glad to have spikes.
In my opinion, this is one of the most iconic lines in the area, with great skiing, but the exposure over cliffs and dubious exit make it too dangerous to be a classic.  Still very much worth doing, with a careful eye on conditions.

With over 4,000 vertical feet of drop, and a coverage crux at the bottom, finding good conditions is challenging, especially in spring.  I kind of think the best way to do it is in winter when the lower mountain has good skiing and the lakes are frozen, but preferably with enough snow to ski the exit.

Ned is getting after it this winter, skiing a ton and exploring where prudent.  Be like Ned.

Ben Brunsvold skied this in 2008 or 2009.  Perhaps the first ski descent? I would love to hear of anyone skiing it earlier.

I really should spend more time in the Missions figuring out the litany of slightly smaller but still very much worthy ski lines on the lower peaks.  I need to go back and ski Sheepshead's moderate looker's left gully.  I also need to spend two or three days exploring around Kakashe, and am running out of excuses to make an attempt on the Soneielem couloir.

Monday, January 21, 2019

2019 Furlough ski diaries

An accounting of skiing goings on during the furlough.  Although I would have preferred to work, I skied every day I was in Montana, and ended up touring over 80,000 vertical feet.  Conditions were consistently excellent.  Coverage is good, but persistently high and tricky avalanche danger kept me from doing Bitterroot peak to creeks as much as I would have preferred.  I threw structured training out the window, just puttering along at a happy moderate pace for weeks on end.  Good aerobic base building, and it was nice to ski every day and not dig into a fatigue hole.

1/27 Marshall 1.5k
Sam skiing Marshall mountain.
Skinned to the top with Sam.  We took his skis, and he skied to the base from below the upper pitch with the harness.  It took longer to go down than up, but we both had an absolute blast.

1/26 Snowbowl rope tow 0k
Felt good to take a day off from exercise.  Nice morning.

1/25 Mill point, Southeast bowl 8.5k
Steep glade skiing on the first run in the Southeast bowl of Mill point.
The fun middle gully at the bottom of the Southeast bowl of Mill point.
The run continues down and around the corner.
Tour was up Mill point, two runs in the Southeast bowl, back to summit and out.  The Mill Southeast bowl is a great run.  See seperate post.   7 hours

1/24 Blue Point and Marshall + Rando Radness spectating 4.5k
After day care drop off, I headed up Marshall with hopes of repeating local guru Paul's tour on Blue point from the previous day.  I ran into Tim on top, and he tagged along for the remainder of the tour.  We continued out to Blue point, turning around below the high point.  We skied good snow down through the clear cuts behind the resort, and a mid-length climb put us back on the summit for a normal run down.  Finding good conditions is tricky, but I would still like to go back and do more on Blue point.

I skinned about a third of the way up with Sam in backpack and watched the uphill rando radness race in the evening.  3 hours

1/23 Marshall 1.5k
Quick one lap Marshall tour with Leah.  Felt surprisingly recovered from yesterday. Maybe I should have tried harder. Great skiing.

1/22 Big St. Joe, Fast 6k
Skipping my way up Big St. Joe just before the wind kicked in.
I made a speed run on Big St. Joe, using yesterday's skin track.  I am not very fired up to skimo race this year, but I am excited to try for some fast times on some of the local peaks and tours.  To my surprise, it was extremely windy up high, but otherwise it was a great outing, and I went fast for me.  The first half went really fast with race skis, and having a pre-broken skin track sped things up a ton, but up high I lost at least ten minutes to cold and wind and having to re-break about a thousand vertical of trail.  Fortunately I brought some extra warm clothes, so I was able to slowly grid it out to the summit.  The avalanche danger was Considerable, but it was safe enough with careful routefinding.  I would like to do this again and get my time down.  It is a really nice outing, has great skiing, demands a variety of skills to ski fast, and is pretty safe.  My splits were: First stream 18mins; Bass creek #1: 40; Leave trail 1.05;  Start up the SE face above the funk: 1.20;  Gain summit ridge 2.30;  Summit: 3.0;  Trail outbound 3.20;  Car 3.48.  It would not be easy, but I think 3.30 is possible for me.

1/21  Lower Big St. Joe 5.5k
Justin skiing excellent powder on Big St. Joe.
I was able to get out with Leah and Justin Angle.  It had snowed another few inches overnight, so the skin in was snowy and beautiful.  I tried approaching the lower Southeast bowl a little farther climber's right, which proved unsatisfactory, so we retreated and went up my new normal way about a hundred yards east of the drainage.  We skinned up the low angle Southeast bowl until it started to steepen, then took a run and a half on great boot top powder.  Thanks to Justin and Leah for the fun day out. 6 hours.

1/20 Lappi Lake 7k
Lappi powder skiing.
Long half day tour, starting by headlamp and returning by early afternoon.  I followed Leah and Ned's track from the previous day and skied a full lap on the main Lappi ski run (upper bowl and ramps down to below the lake).  The skiing was so fun that I took another half lap, then climbed back just far enough to get into the West bowl, which I took out.  The new snow was a little heavy, but it was great skiing.  6 hours.

1/19 Marshall 1.5k
Quick one lap Sam backpack tour.  The snow was soft, and we had fun hitting jumps on the ski down.

1/18 Mill Point,  South gullies. 6.5k
Looking down the Flathead gully.
Great snow at the top of the Kootenai gully.
Another late start.  The tour was: Up Shoshone climbing approach, up and down gully west of there.  Back up to the summit of Mill point, down Kootenai gully, walk out to trail, fly out to car on skis.  Details in separate post. 7 hours.

1/17 Rando Radness 3k
I raced hard.  Worked my way up on the first climb, topping out in the lead.  Jeffrey passed in transitions and crushed me for the rest of the race.  I did the next few laps about a minute ahead of Jesse Carnes and Doug Melzer.  Felt good, especially for not doing any quality workouts in a few weeks since I was either traveling or skiing every day. Did an extra lap afterward.

1/16 Marshall 1k
Car radio install was the main task for the day.
I took longer than I should have, but it was successful!
Leah and I skinned most of Marshall on a gorgeous evening before beelining it to pick Sam up. Brought race skis and practiced transitions. 45 mins

1/15 Missions, Sheepshead, Southwest face 6k
See separate post.  Such a fun day. I had such a great time!  7.5h

1/14 Big St. Joe, South face 7k
Jeffrey heading for the South gullies above the inversion.
We did the big climb to big St. Joe in t-shirt weather and summited in warm, calm conditions a rarity on this behemoth. We skied the center gully, which required some down walking to get to snow.  I had miscalculated, and the snow was too warm.  We survival skied it anyway. It was nice to finally do this one from the summit. Since the skiing was bad, we just did another short run in the lower fan before flying out on the trail.  7 hours

1/13 Marshall 2k
Did the big climb and skied the upper pitch twice with Sam in the back pack.

1/12 Snowbowl rope tow 0k
With Sam and Leah. Nice morning.

1/11 Gash, Sky Pilot attempt 10k

Looking down the chute on my second run and across at Sky Pilot.
2,000 feet of stable corn made me happy.
Retreating back to Gash shortly before sunset.
I didn't leave the car until 10, but still had a great day skiing and scheming ideas for the rest of the dry spell.  My first main run was the eastern chute to Bear lake, and it was very good and safe.  I climbed to Sky Pilot but turned around by mixed pit results at the base of the face.  I skied another short run, then made a high traverse and long exit climb to Gash.  Made it out right at dark. 8 hours

1/10 Bike ride and Randonee radness  0.6k
I ended up just doing a 2.5 hour road bike ride.  Lower Miller creek, Trails End, Miller Creek, South hills.  It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, and it felt great to bike.  I skinned one lap at Randonee radness with Sam to spectate the race

1/9 Snowbowl backcountry ~5.5k
I rallied a reasonably early morning Snowbowl.  Far East, up East Bowl to Point six, Taint, two Totality laps from the last road cut, Jenny Bowl, Lower Paradise.  I dug a quick pit on Totality and had failures at ECT22P at about 50 cm on thin facets on a wind slab.  There was a lot more snow than before we left for Mexico, and the skiing was all pretty good.  4 hours.

1/8  Lolo Pass, Crystal Amphitheater ~4k
Looking back at my second run.
After a late night return from our family Oaxaca vacation, I slept in, ran a few errands, then headed out to explore at Lolo.  I am essentially a Lolo novice, and accordingly parked in the wrong lot and bumbled my way in to the cirque.  There was over a foot of new, light snow, and aside from thin early season coverage, I think that conditions were about as good as they get.  I bumbled around all day, but took two runs off the North shoulder of the cirque, then worked my way to tracks farther in on the finger ridge with the main Crystal crags and had a great run, following tracks.  Every run had great, almost face shot deep powder.  A short climb and tree schwack put me back at the highway with time to spare for day care pick up.  I really liked this zone and want to go back.  4 hours.