|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)
couloir east of O'farrell's
Wild Hare couloir
White Rabbit couloir
Unamed peak between Lonesome and Granite East
Lonesome peak South
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
Front Porch couloir
Jam and Jelly
Not a bad showing - nice work everyone!