Tuesday, May 7, 2013

McDonald Peak, North face direct

The mighty north face of McDonald in April. Route is in red.
The dotted line is the suggested route which should yield a clean descent.
John Lehrman joined me for a stellar day in the Missions on May 2, 2013.  With John's 4wd truck, we drove up the Ashley lakes road to the last switchback, and were hiking at 5:15.  The approach to the peak was straightforward, with the normal, minor tree hopping and bushwacking below snowline.  We approached and climbed Sheepshead via the northwest ridge, deviating out onto the Southwest face when the ridge became corniced.  With crampons, the ascent was quick and safe, and we summited exactly 4 hours after leaving the car.  We skied the East ridge of Sheepshead to its terminus, then dropped onto the narrow East face.  To our surprise, the snow was perfect boot top powder, and we were both elated to ski a new run in such perfect conditions.  We stopped in the sun, just above the tarn below McDonald's Northwest face and took a short break, casually eating and transitioning to skins.
Approaching Sheepshead.   All photos:  John Lehrman
Early morning climbing on the Southwest face of Sheepshead.
Nearing the summit of Sheepshead.
A straightworward skin put us on top of the mighty McDonald peak.  I had come to attempt the North face, so we traversed to the drop in point in the center of the face.  Having partially scouted the face a few weeks ago, I navigated carefully to the break in the cornice at the beginning of the line and gazed down into the abyss.  The run looked exactly as I had hoped - plastered with snow and very steep.  John decided not to drop in, so I began gingerly sideslipping 55 degree snow down to and through the first choke.  Fully engaged, I linked a series of steep but soft turns before sideslipping and sidestepping through the upper choke.  The skiing was extremely steep and technical, but conditions were excellent, and I made a bunch of turns down to the lower cliff band. Having only partially scouted the face, I checked left and didn't see a good exit, so traversed about 200' right along the face to the end of the snow.  Unfortunately, the snow strip through the cliff bands was partially covered in waterfall ice.  After contemplating a cliff huck, I decided to downclimb the final 20' cliff.  The next half hour was spent transitioning out of skis and carefully stemming and downclimbing the final chimney.  Reaching all the way to the bottom of my bag of tricks, I tossed my pack and skis down into the chimney and hopped the hopelessly ice-slicked final 10 feet of downclimbing sans skis.  On the glacier, I climbed back up to my skis and pack and enjoyed moderate turns over the bergschrund and down to a large bench.
John coming up McDonald peak with our ski tracks inthe background.
Climbing to McDonald peak.
Carefully sideslipping the upper pitch of the North face of McDonald peak.
 John was waiting patiently below the East face, so I climbed to the northeast shoulder and skied down to him.  After another relaxing break, we returned to the Post/Ashley creek divide and skied the great shoosh booming run down Ashley creek to the lakes.  I was surprised to find adequate snow coverage all the way to the outlet of the lower lake.  Back in running shoes, we hopped on the exit trail and were soon back at the truck.  The exit trail has been cleared in the past year, and is currently in great shape.  To our surprise, we saw fellow skiers Greg and Patrick at the lake, and compared notes from the day at the trailhead.  It is always exciting to see other skiers in this wild corner of Montana.  The road was slow, and the drive down took longer than walking would have, but we weren't in a hurry, and enjoyed just bumping along all the way out to the highway.
Back at the Post/Ashley divide, ready to head home.
We had a perfect day.  Powder and corn snow, blue skies, cold temperatures, wild, rugged mountains, and one of my favorite ski partners of all time will stand out in my memory long after the novelty of tackling a likely first descent of the direct North face wears off.  If anyone is interested in the North face, I would recommend using the skier's left exit, and wait for good north facing conditions late in the year with maximum coverage.  Expect very steep and complex skiing, and don't be surprised if you wonder why you aren't just cruising one of the classic corn runs instead.  By the numbers, the day ended up in the vicinity of 8,000 vertical feet, and done in about 11.5 hours car to car at a steady but casual pace.

John's trip report is here.


  1. Nice work, Brian! The old throw-down and jump tactic--you're taking a page out of Marshall's book.

  2. Ha. The fox would have been proud.