Saturday, April 20, 2013

New ski terrain on Sheepshead and McDonald

I took advantage of perfect weather on 4/9/2013 to ski in the Missions, and was rewarded with the best day of the season.  After stashing a bike at the McDonald reservoir trailhead, I spent the night just past the canal crossing on the Ashley lakes road.
The majestic, snow-choked Missions from the summit of McDonald peak.
Early morning: It was cold when I rolled out of bed, and I shivered through an otherwise splendid breakfast of canned raviolli and leftover egg sandwiches before starting up the road by headlamp at a brisk walking pace.  With the normal switchback cutting, I made it to the summer trailhead at first light in just over an hour, and continued up the ridge, traversing onto the southwest face of Sheepshead shortly after sunrise.  The morning was amazing - the air was dead calm, sunrise was gradual and cold, and the Mission mountains cast their jagged shadow far into the green Jocko river valley.  The ascent of the Southwest face was slow, even with ski crampons, and I topped out around 10 am.
Cold, blue morning.
Missions casting a jagged shadow out into the valley.
High spirits on Sheepshead.

Late morning: First up was a ramp/couloir on the south face of Sheepshead which drops directly to Duncan lake.  With good coverage, the run ended up being moderate with a good mix of powder up high, some wind spine skiing, a little scraping around power coated rock slabs, and an apron which was about an hour early for good corn.  Thrilled with the fabulous conditions, I took a short break at Duncan lake before traversing to McDonald peak, which I climbed by the south face.  The climb went quickly, so I spun a quick lap in the vast south face of the highest peak in the Mission mountains.

Skiing the South face of Sheepshead.
Looking back at Sheepshead from the traverse to McDonald.
I skied the ramp just below the left skyline.
Ready to ski the South face of McDonald peak from the summit.
 Afternoon: Back on the summit, I skied the upper Northwest face of McDonald peak before making an awkward traverse through cliffs, aiming for a high shoulder which, according to the map, should grant ski access to the remote McDonald glacier.  Unfortunately, I traversed way too low, and had to break the skins out for a short climb up to the shoulder.  Once on the shoulder, a moderate, powdery McDonald glacier rolled lazily out in front of me.  I took my time skiing the glacier, enjoying the good snow and wild and remote setting.  I skied about 2,000 vertical feet down to a logical stopping point well above Post creek.  The day was heating up rapidly, so I pushed hard back up to the summit of point 8,600, which sits low on the northwest ridge of the peak.

West facing slabs were especially touchy, and I did a lot of ski cutting as I descended the west gully of point 8,600 (the striking gully visible from McDonald reservoir).  I was also somewhat concerned about a big wet slide ripping down the steep west face.  The careful approach paid off, and the skiing was excellent and sustained all the way to the terminal cliffs at the bottom.  I made an exposed traverse left to a small gully just north of the standard McDonald exit gully, which involved a lot of bushwacking and downclimbing trickery.  Fortunately it went.
Looking back up at the McDonald glacier.
Lower on the McDonald glacier.
About to traverse out of the west facing gully at the end of the day.
Scarier-than-it-looks downclimbing.
Early evening: Soon enough, I was skiing, scrambling, and brush bashing in equal proportions on the standard northwest McDonald exit.  The hike down through the forest and across the creek was pleasant, and I jogged the trail out to the car, yelling and clapping almost constantly to alert grizzly bears of my presence.  From the trailhead, a relaxed, sunny evening bike shuttle put me back at the car and happiness in the form of chips, beer, cookies, and dry socks.
Bike shuttle back in the valley.
Thoughts: I was extremely satisfied at how well the ski tour turned out.  Every run was new to me, and every run except the South face of McDonald could very well be a first descent.  The snow was great, the weather was perfect, and the terrain was challenging but still eminently skiable.  After spending so much time pushing at or near race pace, it was satisfying to throttle it back a notch, allow some time for reflection, and generally enjoy the day.  I have wanted to ski each of these runs for so long, and it was rewarding to catch them all in good condition.
The route according to Google Maps.  The route is shown in green.

Statistics

Total elevation gain (based on Google Earth):  11,300 feet
Trip length: just under 12 hours car to bike.
Accomplices: None
Put in:  Ashley lake road just past the bridge
Take out: McDonald reservoir
Ski equipment:  Dynafit Broad peak skis, TLT speed race bindings, Scarpa Alien boots, OR Ferossi pants, ski crampons, 35L pack which carried boots on the inside (helpful for bushwacking), reservation permit.
Safety gear included:  One whippet pole, cell phone.
Recommended Safety gear excluded:  Bear spray
Sustinance:  Big breakfast.  1 L of water with Perpetum, refilled once (not enough).  Two burly egg/avacado sandwiches, and about 1,500 calories of Gu, energy bars and Snickers bars.
Bear tracks?: NO!
Trailbreaking effort:  Moderate
Avalanche conditions:  Moderate with touchy slabs, especially on west aspects.
Fatigue factor (1-10): 8
Stoke factor (1-10): 9.8
Memories to suppress:  Cold morning at the car, being scared of big wet slides in the final gully, chapped lips and sunburned arms.

Final note:  Snowpacks in the Missions are roughly 100% of average, but one more sustained warm spell will put a lot of lower elevation objectives out of condition, including the Southwest face of Sheepshead, and a skiable exit to McDonald Northwest.  Get it while you can!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Post-season Snowbowl - 2013

Snowbowl is now closed, and I have been taking advantage of the easy access to snow.  Even with moving responsibilities, I am still hoping to get out once a week or so for the next few weeks until the snow is gone. The normal format is to meet folks at 7R at 5:30 and make one top to bottom run, skinning the runout, chicken chute, and east bowl.  Tuesdays and/or Thursdays are the most likely days, so hopefully folks can join - bring your lightest gear and be prepared for challenging ski conditions since the snow is often barely refrozen on the ski out.

Saturday 4/13 - Spent the day back by Murphy peak with Kyle and Leah.  We left the parking lot at a respectable 7:30 am, and skinned out to Burgundy/Mahogany in a driving graupel storm.  After skiing Mahogany, we skied a new (for me) gully system north off the saddle between Sanders and Murphy peaks.  From there, we climbed back towards Sanders, but turned around due to icy conditions about 400 vertical feet below the summit.  After reversing our tracks, we climbed Murphy peak via the standard NW ridge, skied a variation to the south couloir, and returned to Snowbowl by climbing Mahogany and traversing on the road below Point 6.  We had a spectacular communication breakdown while skiing the closed cliffs by far East, but suffice it to say we all ended up skiing different chutes, and Leah got ditched (SORRY LEAH!!!).  All in all a great day given the poor weather and relatively high avalanche danger.  Approximately 8,000 v.f. according to Kyle's watch (I think this number is inflated), and done in 10.5 hours.

Monday 4/15 - With taxes settled up, I did a variation to the normal Jenny bowl loop.  I was at the end of a seemingly unexplainable period of low fitness, and was dragging pretty hard on the climb.  I saw locals Greg and Don on the climb, which was nice.  The climb to the resort boundary took about 45 minutes, and I barely beat an hour to the top of Point 6.  It was cold and windy on top, so I made good time transitioning for the ski down Jenny bowl on acceptable wind and sun crusted snow.  With plans to also top out above LaVelle, I stopped at the first bench and re-gained the ridgeline just north of the resort (well north of the normal exit).  New wind slabs up to 18" in depth had me sneaking around for the safest route through this section.  A quick jaunt put me on the knoll above LaVelle in about 1.35.  I ran into the perpetually motivated Natalie on the summit, and she was kind enough to let me borrow some warm gloves for the treacherous descent to the car through some of the worst snow of the season.  3,700ish and done in just under 2 hours car to car.

Thursday 4/18 - I made a simple one-run Snowbowl lap with Jason.  I made a good hard push, topping out in 40 minutes, 28 seconds, from the top of the wood stairs to the top of the knoll above LaVelle (2,600 vertical feet), which is a best time.  There was a reasonable established skin track which helped speed things up.  After rendezvousing with Jason on top, we skied difficult but manageable breakable crust back to the car.  I was on the Broad peak skis today, and I can't help but think that I would have finally broken the 40-minute mark with race skis and poles, even though the descent on race skis would have been grim at best.

Tuesday 4/24 - I set out with twin goals of maybe/possibly/finally summiting LaVelle in under 40 minutes, and heading out to Murphy after that.  The skin track went all the way up the gut and out toward the West ridge, and provided an efficient, albeit painfully steep at times route to the top.  After a consistent, hard push, I topped out at 38.57, which is my fastest time, and probably a FKT?  2016 Edit - Haven't heard otherwise, but it is foolhardy to think 38.57 is still an FKT...  I ended up rendezvousing with Leah and Natalie on the summit, and abandoned Murphy peak plans for a nice run with them and celebratory beer for Greg back in town.  The skiing was almost good, with barely re-freezing corn, and we all had a great run down the East bowl.  

Friday, April 12, 2013

Grey Wolf peak, West couloir, FKT

Grey Wolf!
After working out the bugs on a stormy semi-recon-semi-speed attempt a week prior, I made a concerted push to ski the West Couloir of Grey Wolf peak as fast as possible.  It can go faster, but it ended up going in 3 hours, 55 minutes from the Riddell lake trailhead to the St. Mary’s trailhead, which I think is a fastest know time.

Why Grey Wolf?
The west couloir of Grey Wolf peak is one of the best ski runs in Montana.  It is long, steep enough, aesthetic, engaging, and alpine.  It is also a little tricky to get to, runnels severely in the spring, and has a long history of failed attempts.  All of this combines to produce an outing which is long but not daunting, provides a good test of mountaineering skills, and can also be done safely. 

The Tour
After working a half day, I drove out to the trailhead and set off at the decidedly non-alpine time of 2:30 pm.  I casually skinned the shuttle to the Riddell lake trailhead, set the watch, and started up the road to the old trailhead at a bright pace.   The approach to treeline was reasonably fast, and not too mushy or gloppy given the late hour of the day.  As I traversed into the Riddell lake basin, afternoon snow squalls rolled in, and visibility went to near zero by the time I hit the Riddell/Scenic lake pass.  I was still ahead of schedule, but made a major unfortunate detour in the whiteout, climbing the wrong couloir on the east face of the peak.  
Weather deteriorating near Riddell lakes.

About to retreat at the top of the wrong couloir on the east face.
Realizing my error, I quickly ripped skins and sideslipped the icy, debris riddled couloir back down to the correct couloir.  Back on track, I made a hard push up the East couloir to the East/West col.  At the col, I was surprised to see fresh ski tracks from a party camped out in the No fish lake basin.  Further evidence that the West couloir is becoming more popular (just a few years ago it would see just a couple of descents a year).  The West couloir itself was fairly runneled, and the skiing was challenging, especially on race skis.  Soon enough I was schussing across the lower fan, aiming for a skin track which I hoped would save some time on the exit.  The clouds had blown out by this time, and the evening light was absolutely spectacular.  The skin track ended up going too far north, and I followed it way too long before making a long traverse to the south and eventually gaining the St. Mary’s ridge about 300 vertical feet below the normal jump off point.  With about 30 minutes remaining, I skied as fast as race skis, tired legs, and isothermal snow would allow, yipping and clapping to alert grizzly bears of my presence all the way to the car.
The West couloir, from the top, with feeling (and race skis).
At the trailhead.
Happy and tired at the reservoir.
Thoughts
The tour:  I started the clock at the boulders which make the new Riddell lake trailhead, and stopped it at the St. Mary’s reservoir trailhead.  The tour was up the Riddell lake trail, over into the scenic lake basin, up the East couloir, down the West couloir, up to the shoulder of St Mary’s peak, and down the trail to the car.  6,200 vertical feet, according to Google earth.

Splits (approximate):  Old trailhead: 0.13;  Half way saddle: 0.37; Riddell/Scenic divide: ~1.30; Top of West couloir 2.28; St. Mary’s shoulder: ~3.30; Trailhead 3.55.  

Philosophy:  It is completely understandable to question the desire to do tours like this for speed.  I would encourage any dissenters to just get out there and ski the couloir in a way they find satisfying.  Also, doing the tour as a point-to-point is a little arbitrary, since the fastest car-to-car time would probably still go via the normal route from the St. Mary’s reservoir.  Nevertheless, my car-to-car time checked in at right around 4.45.

Equipment:  Dynafit Race skis with race bindings, wall to wall nylon skins, Scarpa Alien boots, ski crampons, Helmet.  OR Ferrossi climbing pants and Lycra top, racing pack, 2 servings Perpetum (thanks Colin), 1 GU 0.75 liter of water.  This was not enough fuel.

Room for improvement:  The detour up the wrong couloir cost me a lot of time, as much as 30 minutes.  Also, the detour on the skin track out of the hole cost a few minutes.  Overall, conditions were acceptably fast, and the skiing was OK, so no complaints.  It is less of a mountaineering adventure this way, but I think climbing the East is faster than climbing the South and traversing high on the peak.  I think a sub-3.5 hour outing is possible – someone should go do it.

Finally - be careful out there!  
http://www.missoulaavalanche.org/2013/04/one-caught-while-ascending-grey-wolf-missions/

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Perfection at the Bell Lake Yurt

Classic view of couloirs on the north face of Branham peak.
After sneaking around with high avalanche danger the previous year Nate, Leah, and I returned to the Bell Lake Yurt with Minot, Paul and Rob.  Weather and snow conditions aligned perfectly, exceeding expectations.
Long couloirs and good snow - what dreams are made of.
On the first day, we rendezvoused at the trailhead around 11 am and snowmobile-towed just past the summer trailhead.  We all made it up to the yurt by mid-afternoon, and all climbed to the summit Bell lake peak.  After enjoying the summit view, we skied O'farrell's Theater together.  What a great ski run.  From the base, half the group headed back to the yurt, and I joined Leah and Rob for a second run.  We re-climbed just north of Flapjack, and skied the parallel couloir to O'farrell's, which was also classic.  Sleep deprived, I checked in early after the requisite food and festivities in the yurt.

On the second day, I coaxed everyone out to Legatt peak.  After an unnecessary, selfish solo lap on the Hob Knob, the entire group skied south off the east shoulder of Thompson peak down to Thompson reservoir before taking a lap on the west shoulder of Legatt peak, and lap on the central north face of Legatt (we topped out about 50 vertical feet below the exact summit).  From the outlet of Gneiss lake, we made a short climb followed by a long shoosh-booming ski run east to Branham lakes.  We took a great long lunch break on the lake, and Paul regaled us with tales of a ski traverse of the range over a decade ago.  Paul is one of the many unsung heroes of Montana backcountry skiing.

From the lake, Nate busted a track out to the base of Branham peak.  I did not want to return to the yurt just yet, so I split off, with sights on a narrow, aesthetic couloir on the southeast shoulder of Branham peak.  The couloir ended up being terrible, and I stopped well below the top.  After surviving the skiing, I re-ascended to the southeast ridge of the peak and skied the excellent, 1,800 vertical foot northeast gully of Brahnam peak.  From the base, I climbed up to the lower northeast shoulder of Branham peak, and skied good snow in an unnamed (?) but striking tree lined gully back to the base of the avalanche path below Baker.  What a tour!  I had volunteered to help Jess schlep her pack into the yurt, but she had already made it in, so I simply returned to the yurt, rendezvousing with the remainder of the party, who had skied the Green Room and the Backdoor couloir.  Famished and tired, we all gorged on good food before crashing into bed early.  The grand Branham peak circumnavigation was a success - about 8,000 vertical feet, 4 distinct basins, and lots of interesting skiing.
Oggling at ski runs below Legatt.
Lunch on Branham lakes.
Nate brandishing his broken pole/ski cane at the top of the Backdoor couloir.
On day three, Rob, Paul, and Minot headed north to explore around Lonesome and Longs peaks, and the remainder of the group headed to Bell lake's primary playground: the north face of Branham peak.  I put a boot pack up the Good One, and Leah and I skied the Other One.  The snow was acceptable for booting, and perfect for skiing - we knew we were in for a good day.  From the base, we reversed the sequence, and climbed the Other One before skiing the Good One.  The Good One was, well, good.  2,000' of interesting and aesthetic skiing with powder snow.  
Mid-way down the Other One.
Jess cruising below the Good One.
Nate at the bottom of the Good One.
From the base, we skinned up to the base of the Contender couloir, where we chatted with a party of two headed to the Contender.  Fortunately, we had our sights on a shorter couloir wedged between the Contender and D&D.  We stopped at the chockstone well below the ridge, and skied the aesthetic line all the way back to the comforts of the yurt.  With a little over an hour to kill and adequate energy reserves, Leah and I headed out for an evening spin on a short couloir directly above the yurt, which we dubbed the Front Porch.  The upper portion of the couloir ended up being surprisingly sporty, and we had to pull out some advanced steep skiing tricks on the descent, including skiing with an ice axe, scraping tips and tails through a few narrow pinches, and some delicate, rocky sidestepping.  Leah held it together through the difficulties, and we were soon back at the yurt, swapping stories from an amazing day.
Leah starting down the small hanging snowfield at the top  of the Good One.
Leah climbing the unnamed couloir.
Leah skiing the unnamed couloir.
On the last day Jess skied out, and Paul and Rob climbed and skied Thompson peak via the moderate East face.  Minot, Nate, Leah and I headed to the White Rabbit couloir on the north shoulder of Bell peak.  During the climb, I spotted a steep and exposed ramp and couloir system which drops just south of the White Rabbit.  Leah and Minot wisely wanted nothing to do with it, but Nate joined me for a sporty descent of what we deemed the Wild Hare couloir.  We took a nice long lunch break at the base before re-climbing to the saddle, and ridge walking to the summit of Bell peak.  I did some rock hopping to access Flapjack, which skied perfectly all the way to the lake, while the remainder of the crew took a final spin on O'farrell's.  After a quick stop at the yurt, we loaded up and skied out.  The entire egress took about 2 hours, and we were soon back at the car reflecting on what was one of the best, if not the best ski trip of the year.  A big thanks to the entire group, and especially Nate for organizing.
Complex terrain on the last day in the Wild Hare couloir.
Heading home, with reluctance.
Team Missoula pretty much cleaned up.  By moving around and covering ground, we skied the following runs over the course of 4 days:

Flapjack (2 variations)
O'farrel's Theater
couloir east of O'farrell's
Wild Hare couloir
White Rabbit couloir
Unamed peak between Lonesome and Granite East
Lonesome peak South
Beetlejuice
Thompson shoulder south to Thompson reservoir
Thompson peak east
Leggat west shoulder - Northwest gully
Legatt west shoulder proper to the reservoir
Leggat north face
the Bad One couloir
Branham peak Northeast couloir
Branham peak North face right
Good One couloir
Other One couloir
Unnamed couloir between the Contender and D&D
Backdoor couloir
Front Porch couloir
Green Room
Jam and Jelly

Not a bad showing - nice work everyone!