Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Heart of the Missions Traverse

I spent Friday morning completing the Heart of the Missions traverse from East St Marys peak to McDonald peak.  It was a perfect day, and was one of my proudest ski tours ever.  The tour was dedicated to Chris Spurgeon - I can't go into the Missions without feeling Chris' presence.

Inspired by a Ron Johnson article in Backcountry Magazine, I originally did the Heart of the Missions traverse in May of 2008.  My original route included the west couloir of Greywolf peak and a complete traverse of the crest of the Garden wall.  It was a bold route, and took over 17 hours to complete car to car.  What an epic!  I modified the route this time into a tour which flows logically and hits the major high points of East St Mary's, Mountaineer, south Glacier, and McDonald peaks.

The dramatic Garden wall and Mountaineer peak.

Thursday evening was spent running the 18-mile bike shuttle from McDonald to St Marys reservoirs.  The shuttle took a bit longer than anticipated, and I wasn't in my sleeping bag until well after dark.  I awoke to a strong refreeze and started hiking up the normal St Mary's climbers trail at 4:30 am.  Snowline was quite high, but I eventually transitioned to skis and moved steadily to the summit of East St Marys peak, following an old skin track.  It was cool to see the southeast face adorned with a pair of ski tracks - nice work James and Matt.  From the summit (2h 49 min), I skied the broad northeast ridge, wrapping below Lowary peak to the head of the Fissure Glacier.  The route to Mountaineer peak was long as always, and I employed the full bag of tricks including booting, skinning, skiing, and ski cramponing (is cramponing a verb?).
Looking back at the west face of Greywolf peak from St Marys peak.
It was a good morning.
Below the east couloir of Lowary peak, ready to climb to Mountaineer peak.
Mountaineer peak's unfamiliar east face served up good, straighforward skiing on ice and corn before breaking down and allowing a high traverse below the Garden Wall.  I took a break below the Garden Wall to refuel and enjoy the day.  A long skin put me below Mount Shoemaker, which I bypassed on the southwest side.  From there, a fairly technical climb up the southeast ridge of south Glacier peak put me on the summit a little after 11am.  I had hoped for some morning softening on the 55 degree northeast face, but it was still frozen solid, and I sideslipped a good portion of the face, made a few icy turns, then exited stage left to a sneak snow ramp which drops down to Icefloe lake.

Looking back at Greywolf peak from Mountaineer peak.
On the Garden wall looking to the tricky southeast ridge of Glacier peak south.
A steep and icy northeast face of Glacier peak south.

From the lake, I made a very hard push to the summit of McDonald peak via the south face.  I took another break on the summit of McDonald, enjoying the day, and psychologically preparing for the mandatory bushwack out to the car.  McDonald's classic northwest face was icy and smooth, and I was soon working my way down the exit gully.  The gully was a little melted out but still passable, and I was soon skiing in and around willows to snowline.  It felt good to swap out sweaty ski boots for dryish socks and approach shoes.  I did my best following the faint climber's trail to Post creek, and was soon on the Post creek trail, jogging out to the car.  The run/hike out went quickly, and my thoughts alternated between the fear of getting eaten by a grizzly bear and the satisfaction of an inspiring day in the Mission mountains.
Looking down the northwest face of McDonald peak.
Sheepshead  peak and Mission reservoir visible.

The exit gully is pretty melted out.
Total elevation gain (based on topo map):  11,260 feet
Trip length: 10 hours, 30 minutes bike to car (includes 2.5 hours for the bushwacky exit).
Accomplices: None
Put in:  St Marys reservoir
Take out: McDonald reservoir
Ski equipment:  Dynafit Broad peak skis, TLT speed race bindings, Dynafit TLT 5 boots, lycra pants, 35L pack which carried boots on the inside (helpful for bushwacking).
Safety gear:  One whippet pole, skis with sharp edges, bear spray, cell phone.
Sustinance:  Big breakfast.  2L of water with electrolyte tabs and about 2,000 calories of Gu, Heed, and energy bars.
Bear tracks?: Yes - one set above Icefloe lake.
Trailbreaking effort:  No 
Avalanche conditions:  Ice = stable 
Fatigue factor (1-10): 9.5
Stoke factor:  10+
Memories to suppress:  Late night bike shuttle, sideslipping Glacier peak, poor bushwacking execution, big toe bliseters from the jog out.

Southern half from St Marys to Mountaineer.
Northern half from Mountaineer to McDonald.


  1. Well done! I've done a slightly different variation of this route and think this tour can easily be considered a Mission Classic. Thanks for the motivation to keep getting out.

  2. Great post Brian. I am convinced that you are crazy! ;) I really like the Memories to suppress. :)

  3. Thanks. There are certainly a bunch of viable alternate routes, including bypassing mountaineer and glacier peaks entirely in winter on the east or west, and a potentially spectacular addition of the southwest face of sheepshead peak and exit via ashley lakes. My reservations in calling the tour classic are length (kind of long), logistics (long shuttle), and the long and committing exit below the northwest face of McDonald peak.

  4. haha veena. with long and complex adventures like this, there are always memories to suppress!

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  6. Brian, inspiring route and style. I created a hillmap route based on your google map profile. Is it fairly accurate?