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!


  1. Hell, I spent four hours Sunday just doodling around to the lower point on Gash, not even the summit. From where I was Sky Pilot looks like a week long effort. WAY TO GO!

    (I was happy, however, to not have to lose time fooling around on the road below: go farther and get stuck, or just stop and hike? It went from dry mud to deep snow in about 50 yards. Anyway, I never push the truck on those unmaintained roads any more--not worth the half-mile saved for the stress of driving on ice.)

  2. Thanks. Sky Pilot usually takes 7-12 hours with a competent crew at a non-race pace. I agree about the roads, often better to walk, especially at Gash. Was that your old blue Bronco I saw at the lower trailhead?

  3. No, it was a silver Nissan pickup. I was there Sunday March 25. There was a newer Jeep there when I got back.