Monday, March 26, 2012

North face of Sky Pilot for time

Sky Pilot!
I have been thinking about this one for a while.  The north face of Sky Pilot from Gash Point is one of the best long tours in the Bitterroot.  With fast conditions and waning snow at the lower elevations, this seemed like one of the last opportunities for an honest attempt at a speed run.  I had spent the previous trip out to Sky Pilot making mental time splits for a sub-6 hour trip, so that was the informal goal for the day.  I had also made informal rules for the tour which reduce the vertical gain to about 7,600 vertical feet while still hitting all the high and low points of the tour.

The tour
I parked out at the end of the snow plowing and had a relaxing warm up road ski to the lower trailhead.  Good refreeze, calm winds, clear skies, excellent snow coverage - it was going to be another good day.  I left the trailhead at 7:11 and was immediately hit with some residual fatigue from touring the previous day.  I kept the pace well out of the pain cave, and made good time to the summit of Gash Point.
Fast conditions near the summit of Gash Point.
 The traverse down toward Bear Lake was icy and fast.  I stayed as high as possible and transitioned well above the lake.  A short ascending climb put me in the small basin below the north face, and another good push put me on the summit.  I transitioned quickly on the summit and was soon arcing turns down the north face - the ramp in the sky.  My camera had fallen out during the climb, and I skied along the skin track until I found it near the bottom of the face.  I took the run all the way to Bear Lake and a mandatory water stop.  The normal water holes along the edge of the lake are pretty well frozen, but I punched stubbornly at ice on the edge of the lake for a while until my ski pole broke through.  Water.  GU.  Skins on.  It was time to started the long meandering climb back to Gash.  I battled fatigue, ice and glop all the way back to Gash.  The ski out was fast, and I was soon glancing at my watch at the trailhead.  11:43 and 20 seconds - 4 hours, 32 minutes and 20 seconds.  Nice!
Ski tracks on the north face.
Back at the trailhead.  A little haggard but psyched.
The tour:  Clock starts and stops at the lower Gash trailhead.  Skiers have to summit Gash Point proper and Sky Pilot peaks and ski all the way down to Bear Lake at least once.

Splits (approximate):  Upper trailhead 0.27;  Gash Point summit 1.37; transition to Sky Pilot climb 1.58; Sky Pilot summit 2.38; Bear Lake 3.18; Start final ski out; 4.11.  Trailhead and rest 4.32.  Car and beer approx. 5.0.

Philosophy:  It is completely understandable to question the desire to do tours like this for speed.  Racing the clock is admittedly a silly and arbitrary game, and running around the hills in spandex and skinny skis is not as sexy as sending powder lines.  That being said, speed touring provides another way to experience the backcountry, and the ability to go fast and long is rewarding on many levels.  And as much as it hurts, touring quickly through the mountains is liberating. Kind of like flying.  Except you get GU instead of complimentary beverages.  And you can keep your shoes on.  And while you may enjoy the ride, you don't get to sit back.

Regrets:  Skiing along the skin track in search of my camera left fairly ugly ski tracks on an otherwise beautiful mountain.

Dynafit Broad Peak skis with race bindings, Mohair mix skins, Dynafit TLT 5 boots, ski crampons, lycra racing suit, racing pack, 2 servings Perpetum (thanks Colin), 2 GUs, 1 liter of water from Bear Lake.

Equipment not used: ski hook, Voile ski strap, sunscreen (left in car.  whoops)

Room for improvement:  Conditions were fast, but they could be faster with a drier skin track to Gash Point (better glide) and a residual skin track of any kind beyond Gash.  Some dense powder on the north face and glop and ice on the return added a few minutes.  Slow transitions with time for pictures and donning a parka added a few minutes.  I lost composure a bit on the last climb.  Better fueling and drive would have saved a few minutes.  Having a partner to keep a brighter pace would save a few minutes.  True race skis would shave off a few minutes.  Finally, touring 8,000+ vertical feet the previous day was not good for peak performance.  It would be reasonable to find at least 10 minutes in there somewhere, but a sub-4 hour Sky Pilot would be pretty stout.  This is probably a speed record for the tour, not that anyone is counting.  But maybe not, anyone who has done it faster let me know.  Or give 'er a go yourself and let me know how it goes!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Boulder Peak, northeast face

Boulder Peak, Northeast face.  The ski route takes a line near
the upper right skyline of  the peak.
Another great view of the northeast face of Boulder peak.
Steep east faces compose a distinct genre of ski descent in the Bitterroot range.  Many of the monarchs of the range have a commanding east face that doubles as a high quality ski line.  Think Bass Creek crags, St. Mary's Peak, Mill 2, and my personal favorite, the wild east face of El Capitan (which incidentally looks to be in excellent shape right now).  Boulder Peak's compact northeast face is aesthetic, challenging, and provides 4,100 vertical feet of high quality skiing all the way to Boulder Creek. To my knowledge, it has not been previously skied from the summit, so I decided to take advantage of the above average snowpack to explore the face from the top.
Leaving the trailhead at first light, I walked about half way to School Point on dry ground before putting on skis.  Climbing up through the inversion, I was greeted by dramatic morning light on the high peaks of the Southern Bitterroot - Jerusalem, Trapper, East Trapper, and the Shard.  It was going to be a good day.  A solid refreeze made for fast travel conditions, and I summited the peak in well under 4 hours at a moderate pace.
The Saphire and Annaconda Pintler range above the clouds during the approach.
The first crux of the northeast face lies about 50 feet below the summit, so I was immediately and fully engaged in technical skiing (aka - meticulous sidestepping).  Short skis were much appreciated, and an ice axe would have been useful.  Once below the fluted upper crux, several hundred feet of steep skiing with excellent snow put me on top of the lower cliff band.  I skied to the edge of the cliffs, and was shocked to find a sneaky little escape ramp which provided rappel free access to the lower face.  I was already having a great day, but this was over the top!  The lower face is a high quality run in its own right, and the skiing was good all the way to Boulder Creek.  I think the northeast face of Boulder Peak is similar in difficulty to the east face of El Capitan.  The crux is more difficult than anything on El Cap, but the routefinding, exposure, and overall level of commitment are not as severe.  In any case, it is a high quality and challenging steep skiing adventure.
From the top.  With feeling.

On ya from the top with a cornice on the left and steep technical snow flutes on the right

I was shocked to find a sneak passage to the lower face.

The lower face in fine condition.
About half way down.
I spent the remainder of the day climbing and skiing a south facing gully directly across the drainage from Boulder Peak.  The views were spectacular, and the corn skiing was pretty good.  At 2 hours, the exit was fairly long, but enjoyable with snow all the way to the trailhead.  A lone set of wolf tracks graced the trail for several miles.  I was surprised to find my ski tracks on the trail from an earlier Boulder to Trapper link up.  I was also a little dissapointed that NO-ONE has skied the Mary or Goddess couloir this year.  There are only a few weeks left before the trail melts out, so come on Missoula/Bitterroot area skiers - get out and ski these lines, they are plastered with snow totally classic!  8,600 vertical feet and done in 8h 35min car to car at a casual pace.  See Route Descriptions page for more information on Boulder Creek.
Run #2 - 3,000 feet of corn under the
watchfull eye of East Boulder point.

The couloirs of East Boulder point are in excellent shape.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Cleaning up loose ends at Kootenai Point

On good snow years like this one, Kootenai Point is one of my favorite venues in the Bitterroot.  It recieves little to no ski traffic despite the amazing terrain, relatively short approch, and short drive.  The exit can be a bit arduous, but so it goes in the Bitterroot.  I returned on 3/11/2012 with two ropes to ski a pair of lines which require rappells to link up snowfields.
I skied the Manger and Shepherd couloirs
and exited via the lower portion of the Exit bowl.
The Tour
I approached via the normal east ridge route, and was gearing up on top of the Shepherd couloir within 3 hours of leaving the parking lot.  This is the first scary/difficult ski objective of the year, and I was surprisingly nervous dropping in.  The skiing was no-fall but moderate aside from a sideslip around an ice bulge and thin sugar snow traverse to the rappel (32 m).  I rappelled from a large tree on the skier's left edge of the couloir.  In retrospect, the rappel is possible with one 60 meter rope, but caution is advised.  There is a small cliff band about 200 feet below the rappel, and I decided to jump it.  I stuck the landing and was able to relax for the remainder of the run. 
A braver skier would have made turns around the ice bulge.
The rap.  Downclimbing is not an option.
From the base, stash one rope and skin back to the ridge via the Gold couloir.  Ski crampons made the ascent quick and efficient.  Once on top, I scouted the entrance to the Manger couloir.  I ended up deciding to make a 30' rappel into the South fork, but in retrospect it would have been better simply to downclimb into the east fork of the couloir.  The skiing was moderate and quite aesthetic.  The couloir terminates in cliffs, and a simple 25 m rappel from a large tree deposited me about half way down the Gold couloir.  I skied the Gold couloir out to the base, then made the normal climb to the Exit bowl.  The Exit bowl skied fairly well.  It avalanched FULL track during the last avalanche cycle, and I spent some time at the bottom carrying skis down unskiable yet impressive avalanche debris.  I spent the hike out to the trailhead in a powerfull squall which threw down everything from snow to sleet and rain.  Unfortunately the trail has melted out in the past month, so Kootenai Point is pretty much done for the year.  As expected, the Shepherd and Manger couloirs are not as good as other ski lines in the cirque, but do provide interesting and high quality skiing intermixed with straight forward rope shenanigans.  All rappels were from big trees.  Both couloirs were probably first descents.  About 7,900 vertical feet and done in 9 hr 5 min.  Would have been faster if I was better at rappelling quickly.
Looking down into the Manger couloir.  Getting in was a bit scrappy.
Avalanche debris at the bottom of the Exit bowl.
Steve Romeo
I am still trying to reconcile the tragic death of Jackson-based skier Steve Romeo, who was killed in an avalanche 3 days prior.  I met Steve briefly in Jackson last summer, and was immediatly struck by his unwavering passion for all things skiing.  The circumstances of his death are truly unnerving.  Rest in peace Steve.  Your unwavering love of the mountains will inspire me for years to come.  LIVE TO SKI.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Return to Sheep Mountain

I returned to Sheep Mountain on 3/6/2012 after work for a speed run.  The skiing was great with up to 4" of new snow and beautiful early evening light.  I ripped skins knowing that a sub-2 hour trip was possible, and made it back to the car in 1 hr 59 min 15 sec.  It was a nail-biter.  I used an improved route, skinning up the middle ridge and gully instead of the northernmost of the east ridges.  My splits were as follows:  1st stream crossing: 25 min, leave trail 55 min, summit 1h 35 min.  I opted for a Broad Peak skis with TLT race bindings, which made the skiing fun and probably only increased the time marginally over using race skis given the light re-freeze on the lower portion of the run.  3,800 vertical feet. 

The Fin and the Whitestripe - 3/4/2012

Skiing the Fin.
I spent an enjoyable Sunday exploring Roaring Lion Creek with Kyle and Leah.  From the trailhead, we skinned 3 miles or so up the beautiful open Ponderosa Pine drainage, then up through willows and gloppy snow to the basin in between Ward 2 and 3.  Still skeptical about snow stability, we bypassed the Ward 3 gullies and instead climbed to the summit of the Fin.  The views were outstanding, and we took a long relaxing break on top.  The Fin itself skied well, and we sent Kyle out ahead to put in the skin track to the summit of Ward 2 and the Whitestripe gully.
Snack break below Ward 3.
Leah topping out on the Fin.
The climb was short, and a traverse and quick talus downclimb put us on top of the Whitestripe.  The ensuing run was great - a big wind buffed upper face which funneled down into a long and enjoyable open gully.  There is a major icefall near the bottom of the gully which we bypassed in an adjacent gully system on skier's left.  The snow deteriorated at the bottom, and the bushwack and boulder bounce down to the trail was slow and unpleasant.  The return to the car was relaxing, even on the undulating Roaring Lion trail.  I think the Whitestripe gully is a bit too adverse at the bottom to be a classic peak to creek Bitterroot descent, but it was an excellent day of exploration.  Thanks to Kyle for breaking trail all day.  5,500 vertical feet and done in 9.5 hours car to car.
Kyle in the Whitestripe gully.
The route.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Leap Year Day celebration - Skinning the Bald Sheep

Although the Leap Year day 2008 was a bust for skiing (worked in the office), I spent Leap Year Day 2004 winter backpacking and skiing some of the deepest backcountry powder of my life with Bob D and a crew of MSU students in the Crazy Mountains of Montana.  I made a compromise this time around, working a full day, then spending the precious few pre-dark post-work hours skinning and skiing powder.

Mount Baldy
After the normal quick skin to the base of the peak, I pretty much botched the bushwack between the trail and the open ski slopes of Mount Baldy.  I  was moving a bit too slow, and turned around about 300 vertical feet shy of the summit due to impending darkness.  The skiing was excellent, however, with up to 6" of powder and well frozen snow all the way to the car.  Will have to return and try to go faster with a better bushwacking plan (3,600 vertical feet in 2 hours 40 minutes).
Ready to ski good snow on Bald Mountain well after sunset.
Sheep Mountain
I made a similar pre-dark effort the previous day on Sheep Mountain.  The skiing was fairly good up high and marginal/brushy down lower.  I skied the most northerly east ridge, but in retrospect some of the ridges farther south might avoid some of the unpleasant brush bashing.  The tour went quickly (3,800 vertical feet in 2 hrs 9 minutes).
Starting down one of the East ridges on Sheep Mountain.
I recommend Bald Mountain as a good, accessible, off the beaten path ski option for Missoula area skiers.  It doesn't receive as much snow as the rest of the range, so can be a good option during higher avalanche danger periods despite the steep terrain.  For directions, look at a map - Dry Creek near Superior.  Look for an old signed road on the left just before crossing the Dry Fork and re-entering private land. There is a good trail which is steep enough to be fast on the way out.  The trailhead is at 2,800 feet, so it is only recommended on good snow years like this one.  Linking Sheep and Bald mountains would involve some unnecessary bushwarking, but skinning the Bald Sheep is such a catchy name for a ski tour it might be worth doing it just for the bar talk.

For gear, I took a new pair of spandex pants and touring shirt for their maiden voyage(s), and am pleased with how both are working out.  So Missoula skiers take note - I have an extra spandex ski touring outfit which I am willing to loan out.  Try it out.  You won't be disappointed.