Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Mcleod peak ski

On Mcleod.
I had a great day skiing Mcleod peak, the highest and most commanding, by leaps and bounds, peak in the Rattlesnake.  I had made a halfhearted attempt on the peak several years ago with Leah and a larger crew, but poor conditions and a less than alpine start forced a turnaround well before the peak.  Things went a lot smoother this time.  I didn't make plans to ski with others, because I had been sick, and didn't know skiing would be possible before rolling out of bed the day of. Starting from the car before sunrise, the tenor of the day was set, with beauty and wonder everywhere.  Beauty in the form of wild mountains, clear, crisp skies, and yesterday's rain drops still frozen to the trees.  Wonder in moving effortlessly over the frozen landscape and finally feeling my body turn the corner after days of sickness.
Frozen ran glittering on trees during the approach.
I had parked a few miles out from the trailhead, but the skin in was fast on packed ice, and the first mile of the trial was packed and quick.  Getting into the hanging upper East fork of Finley creek is quite terrible, with a hard-to-follow meandering trail in the drainage, and a few hundred feet of dry talus to gain the valley.  But, once in, the going was fast along the open southern edge of the creek.   Grizzly tracks got my hackles up, and I couldn't help but wonder if a rare set ski tracks would get the Grizzly's hackles up. From the head of the drainage, about ten minutes of booting put me on a high saddle, and a few hundred feet of scrappy steep skiing and traversing put me below the Southwest face of the peak.  Mcleod was easily ascended by booting the West face and Southwest ridge.
Pretty morning. Ugly approach. About two hours in, and almost to skiable snow.
Bears are out.
I had considered skiing the Northeast face, but deemed it too steep given the icy conditions, and instead skied the moderate South face to the tarn.  The top was severely icy, but it was not too steep, and I was soon cruising smooth, firm corn.  I was well ahead of schedule, and threw in a few extra short runs, climbing and skiing the adjacent east face and a nice moderate rolling run into the adjacent cirque.  The snow was firm enough to boot everything, which made the climbing very easy. After a nice lunch break on the lake, I made one final climb to re-gain access to the exit basin.  The run into the basin was once again very icy, but so it goes.  I took advantage of the firm conditions to make the flat exit in just a few minutes.  From the bottom of the hanging valley, I spent about an hour fighting steep talus, brush, and deep intermittent snow on the trail before hitting the trailhead.  The two mile road exit was all on intermittent ice which was a little sparky but very fast.  And there you have it, a remarkably smooth adventure to Mcleod peak done in 8 hours, 10 minutes with time for a pair of extra runs at a moderate-for-a-sick-guy pace.
Looking back up Mcleod's South face.
Third run.
Climbing for the fourth.
Forth run.  I took it to the lake in the background.
Fifth run out Finley creek.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

More Northern Bitterroot skiing

Leah skiing the classic Pinball Wizard gully.
Short days and adequate low elevation snow coverage have allowed for more exploration in the Northern Bitterroot.  It is nice to add a few new tours to the list that can be done in a short day from town.

Pinball Wizard gully from Bass creek
The Pinball Wizard is a well known classic, but there were two interesting aspects to this itteration.  Most importantly, it was my first day out in the Bitterroot with Leah this winter, and it was magical to spend a day in the mountains with her.  Second, we approached up the adjacent drainage to the east of the Pinball, and it was surprisingly fast and easy.  In fact, I think it was easier than going over Little St. Joe, and safer than climbing the Pinball Wizard directly.  A lot of low elevation snow is required to fill in the scrappy bottom thousand vertical feet between the trail and the upper approach gully, but after that it is smooth sailing. Leave the trail just after the second Bass creek stream crossing and follow your nose.

Interesting steep skinning in the bottom of the approach gully.
Getting those kick turns dialed.
We had enough time to spin a short powder lap in the approach gully before bouncing our way down the Pinball.  The skiing was terrible, with breakable crust and impressive avalanche debris in and below the gully.  Oh well.
Leah low in the Pinball Wizard.
Debris.  More impressive and extensive than it looks. 
Little St. Joe, North gully
I rolled out of the trailhead around 5:30 in the rain, excited for a morning out in the mountains, exploring new-to-me terrain close to home.  The climb to Little St. Joe is always long enough to be a little humbling, and it took a full three hours today with moderate trailbreaking above the cabin.  Wildlife was out, with deer and snowshoe hare to keep my company.  I was surprised to find visibility and wind on the summit remarkably tame.  After some sastruggi skiing followed by careful terrain management in the starting zone, I found great powder in the upper part of the North gully.  I skied good powder down to about 6,200 feet, stopping a few hundred vertical feet above the confluence with Sweeney Creek.
... that special feeling you get skinning alone in the rain, waiting for first light.
Good steep tree skiing above the gully.
Looking up the gully.
The 3,000 foot climb out was quite excellent.  The skinning and routefinding were straightforward, and it was great to put in a good trailbreaking effort and get tired.  I skied the northeast bowl to exit, continuing out to the main road from below the bowl.  Having done this once before, I thought that this time might be quicker, but it was just as thick and flat and generally bushwackey as I remembered (1.5 hours summit to car).  I still contend there should be a quick route out from the bottom of the bowl, perhaps farther north, catching a logging road high above the main Little St. Joe road.  I will certainly have to investigate, as I think the northeast run is better than the customary southeast run, and an easy exit from the bottom would make Little St. Joe a more appealing one-run objective.  In any case, I was on the road soon enough, skating the flats and slush and brush bashing in between switchbacks.  8000 vertical feet, done in about 7.5 hours car to car at a moderate pace.
Looking back at a clean track near the top of Little St. Joe.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Northern Bitterroot quick hits

Work and family commitments only allowed for short outings during the President's day weekend, but I made the most of it.  I was able to get out for a nice 6-day skiing streak by stringing together an evening University/Sentinel tour, the last Snowbowl community rando race, and a Sentinel tour with Sam.

Bass Creek Crags, Northwest couloir

Through a combination of efficient movement, determination, and luck, I was able to squeeze a full sized tour out of a short Friday afternoon.  An early departure from work had me walking out of the Bass creek trailhead a touch before 4 pm, excited to explore.  I crossed Bass creek and the two canal ditches before wrapping around to the base of the east face of Crown point/Bass creek crags at the National Forest/Private land boundary.  There isn't any real trail or route to follow, so I just nosed up the second ridge South of the Bass creek canyon flank, spooking a few deer along the way.  The climb to Crown point is remarkably efficient, and I put my head down and fought through the terrible rain saturated snow, hoping to hit rain line sooner rather than later. To my chagrin, the rain saturated snow persisted for most of the climb. I wrapped around to the south face of Crown point from about 500 vertical feet below the summit, and made a long, exposed traverse across the South face.  By staying low, I was able to thread a line through the rock ridges which extend down from the summit.  It was a 15-minute traverse to the lookers left Y fork, and I punched easily up to the top.  Topping out at sunset, not sure exactly where I was may have been a bit engaging, but I'll take adventure when I can get it these days.
This is an old photo, but the Northwest couloir drops
from the skyline behind and just left of the snowboarder.
I skied the excellent Northwest couloir into the Bass Creek crag cirque.  The top is quite exposed, with a hanging slab dropping off into the abyss, but aggressive ski cutting and attention to detail seemed adequate to manage the thin slabs.  Soon enough, I was down in the chute proper, which skied reasonably well.  The skiing in the cirque down to brush thrash line was only OK, with lots of frozen roller balls hiding under the skiff of new snow.  The lower 700 vertical feet or so of the exit from the Bass creek crag cirque involves steep and tricky sideslipping and boulder field negotiation, but both went remarkably easily with the exceptional low elevation coverage.  At this point it was pitch black, but the ski out on the trail was enjoyable and uneventful.
Bass Creek Crags, Northwest couloir, approach.
Bass Creek Crags, Northwest couloir, ski run to the creek.
Bass Creek Crags, Crown point detour.
Thoughts: While avalanche danger needs to be reasonable to safely negotiate the South side traverse and exposed, blind drop in at the top, it is still safer than the adjacent Crown point ski run.  And by Missoula standards, this is a quick outing. The exit to the trail does not come into condition every year, but it is about as good as it gets now.  If stability is good, you have a half day to spare and are feeling adventurous, give 'er a go!  Also, it would be longer but more logical to ski the skier's left fork south off Crown point toward Kootenai creek until the skiing gets bad, then climb the skier's right fork to access the Bass creek crag couloir.

Kootenai Point, Gold Couloir
I spent an interesting Sunday morning skiing the Gold couloir on the North shoulder of St. Mary peak.  The tour is best described here.  This iteration was interesting.  I was treated to a frigid barefoot creek ford right away, which was followed by almost two hours of arduous trailbreaking through isothermal snow.  But I persisted, and was soon cruising the upper pitch to the Gold couloir entrance.  With the slow going, the approach took the full 3 hours, ensuring I would be late getting back to the house.
Worse-than it looks traibreaking persisting at 6,500 feet.
The skiing in the Gold couloir was excellent.  It is a great little Bitterroot gem.  From the base of the couloir, I traversed across the mid slope bench (it is possible to ski almost another thousand vertical of good tree skiing), did a quick 10-minute skin, and started out the Exit bowl.  
Beta photo: Gold couloir entrance.
Looking down the excellent Gold couloir with excellent boot top powder.
And looking back up the Gold couloir.

The out of condition exit. Add unskiable isothermal snow to the mix, and you get the idea. 
The egress was quite terrible.  I hit difficult isothermal mush well above the canyon floor, and debris from a large natural avalanche was stacked up for over a thousand vertical feet of the exit gully.  It took about 30 minutes of my most creative mush bashing and log hopping outside the gully to reach the creek, which I forded in ski boots.  The trail exit was surprisingly quick.  Even though isothermal mush and endless puddles kept skiing to a minimum, the trail was packed enough that I was able to jog most of it, making the return trip in the customary hour.  It was a little sad to see the exit so out of condition in an otherwise big snow year, but so it goes.  Good outing, done in about five hours at a moderate pace with poor conditions.

I wonder if it might be just as fast to re-climb the couloir and just reverse the ascent route, rather than fight the exit from the exit bowl and egress down Kootenai creek, as both are so often in poor shape.

Little St. Joe, South Gully early descent
To my surprise, Jeff, Jeffrey and Kyle were all keen for a half day exploratory adventure, so we rolled out of the Bass creek trailhead at first light on President's day.
We skied the gully in the center of the photo.
Little St. Joe summit is visible.
The Pinball Wizard gully is just out of view to looker's left.
Kyle set a perfect, steady pace all the way to the top - he broke trail the entire way and didn't stop once during the almost 3 hour climb to our high point.  Damn Kyle.
The days of skiing from the car on snow are over for the year.
From the top (we stopped about ten minutes from the exact summit), we nosed our way into the gully, with one stop to check the map to ensure we were going the correct way.  I had scoped the gully during the Crags outing a three days prior, but I was not sure that it went cleanly.  At this point we were at least committed to having a look.  After a few turns in the nondescript upper reaches, the gull formed. The snow in the gully itself was a bit chunky, but the ambience and terrain were both striking.  There were two tricky spots which were, to our relief, filled in, and we were soon at the bottom.
Kyle skiing, as the gully begins to form. 
Jeff skiing low in the gully.
From the bottom, I crossed the creek and took the conventional skier exit, while Kyle led everyone else on a bit of an adventure on the north side of the creek.  Needless to say, my way was faster, but no-one cared, and we were soon reunited and on our way out to the car and civilization.  I had a wonderful time exploring, and couldn't have asked for a better morning.

Thoughts: I am curious if this run has ever been skied, and would love to hear about others skiing it.  It takes quite a bit of snow to fill in the mid-gully rock slabs and low elevation exit, but should be skiable during average to big snow years.  And it just seems wrong that a 3.400 vertical foot ski line with good skiing that can be discovered in a casual 4 hour outing should fly under the radar for so long.  So I would encourage folks to consider doing a bit of research and giving it a go sometime, probably soon this year before it melts out.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Pinball Wizard Gully, fast(ish)

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 adminstration.
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.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Bailing into upper Sweeney Creek

I celebrated Martin Luther King day with Jeffrey deep in the Bitterroot.  It felt like an important time to reflect on race relations in light of the recent election, and it was nice to  have some time in the mountains.
Climbing in the South Fork of Sweeney creek on an impeccable day.
Pyramid Buttes in the background.
We headed out from the Bass creek trailhead by headlamp, waiting for the sunrise.  It is always a big climb to Little St. Joe, but we put one foot in front of the other, eventually summiting a little under three hours into the day.  After skiing over the top via the krumholtz laden west ridge, we ripped skins, and skied a good run north into the South fork of Sweeney creek.  The upper 1,500 feet of powder skiing was excellent, with steep glades and a tree lined gully.  After re-grouping, we made a long westward traverse down to the creek and took an early lunch stop.  It is only a short skin to the base of Pyramid Buttes, and we were climbing into the sun in the Southeast gully less than four hours after leaving the car.  To our surprise, the snow had not baked down in the last day or so, and we were immediately faced with thin shooting cracks as we started up.  After a quick avalanche discussion, we climbed another hundred feet and dug a pit to assess.  Even with relatively reassuring tests in the lower snowpack (CT20Q2/3 at 40 cm), there was enough uncertainty with fresh slabs higher on the peak that we decided to bail.
Good skiing into Sweeney creek.
Not feeling it.
It was a little underwhelming skiing the 20 turn run back to the creek, but live to ski another day. With hours of time remaining, we made a quick push into the headwaters, regaling each other with tales of previous bailing experiences.  Next up was an obvious bowl right at the head of the drainage, so we got to work climbing it.  The ensuing 2,000 foot run of moderate rolling terrain and boot top powder was excellent. With  an extra hour in the day, Jeffrey took a big trailbreaking block, and lead us to the top of an nondescript knob on the Sweeney/Lolo Creek crest. The warm, clear views from the summit were unique, featuring the craggiest of the Bitterroot summits all in a line to the south.  Pretty cool. Anyway, the ensuing run was excellent.
Starting down the low angle upper snowfield on the third run.
Big St. Joe in the background.
We skied the obvious knob for our fourth run.
On the knob! Stormy Joe in the background. 
More good powder skiing.
At this point, we had bounced our way all the way to the headwaters, and a simple 1,000 vertical foot climb put us on the Big/Stormy saddle.  My memory of the run down to Bass creek was poor, but it all skied well.  We had to break trail down canyon a few miles, but soon enough we were back on an established track, and enjoyed the very easy exit down Bass creek to the car.  A touch over 10,000 vertical feet done in about eleven hours car to car at a moderate pace that had us pleasantly fatigued at the end.
Heading home from the Big/Stormy saddle.
Thoughts: We could have probably pushed up Pyramid Buttes, but it was nice to instead do something new.  This is actually a great tour, one I would do again.  It does require moderate avalanche danger, but there are a lot of options, and everything flows, aside from shenanigans getting from the Little St. Joe summit to Sweeney creek.  Skiing in the upper S. Fk is vast and it is nothing short of tragic that there is not a Forest Service trail into the drainage.