Friday, June 28, 2013

6th Annual Warren Wallow

The 6th Annual Warren Wallow took place last weekend.  Each year has been memorable, and this year was no different.  The snow was thin this year, so we had to do some extra hiking to upper Carpp lake, and limited our skiing to the North face and Carpp lake return couloir.  As is the tradition, Leah convinced us to take an icy dip in Lower Carpp lake, which was by far the most intense part of the day.  Warren is always a fun trip, and even after 8 summits I am still always excited to return.  So with any luck I will be back again next year, same time, same place.
Booting up Warren.
I love skiing!
Blake skiing, minutes before permanently losing his  ski pole basket.
Skiing Warren.
Last turns of the year?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Rainier via the Kautz

Leah skiing Rainier.
The approach
With solid high pressure in the forecast, Leah and I made the pseudo-annual voyage out to Rainier.  After a long drive to Paradise and the requisite red tape meeting with the climbing rangers, we packed up for an afternoon approach to high camp on the turtle snowfield.  There had been a widespread avalanche cycle the previous week, and we saw lots of crowns at the lower and mid elevations during the approach to Glacier Vista.  We also talked to a skier who had just been carried in a wet slide descending from our intended camp.  All this information coupled with obviously saturated snow at the lower elevations gave us pause, but we headed up anyway.  You don't know until you go, right?  Snow conditions were safe enough to allow passage to a high camp below the Turtle snowfield, and we spent a beautiful evening relaxing before retiring early.
Roped up and slugging up to the Turtle snowfield.
The wind
About an hour after knocking off to sleep, I woke up to strong wind on the tent, and the remainder of the night was spent sleeping intermittently as 20-50 mph winds raged outside.  Unsure of our ability to safely climb, and downclimb if necessary, in the high winds, we did not get up with the 4 am alarm, thus abandoning our original plan to ski the Fuhrer finger.  The wind took its toll on everyone, and most of the parties on our side of the mountain were bailing as we were hemming and hawing about what to do at sunrise.  Bucking the trend, we headed up with a plan to climb to Camp Hazard and beyond if conditions permitted.  It is worth noting that a jet boil was absolutely essential for melting water in the tent, since it was way too windy to start a stove of any kind outside.

The climb
Conditions were still great when we arrived at Camp Hazard, so we roped up and committed to the exposed traverse under the seracs below the Kautz ice cliff and easily climbed the crux snow-covered ice pitches to the upper Kautz.  The wind had abated at this point, and the air temps and snow conditions were still favorable, so aside from the stress of being hours behind schedule and still fully committed to our objective, it was turning out to be an awesome day.  We stayed roped up for the upper Kautz, and proceeded with the slow march to the summit.  Somewhere along the way, the lack of oxygen caught us, and we arrived on the summit plateau tired, a little cold, and ready to start the descent.  We skied from the summit plateau, about 300 vertical feet below the top of Point Success.

Leah battling the wind near Camp Hazard.
Climbing on the upper Kautz.
The ski
The skiing was great.  The upper headwall was still icy and intimidating, but the ice held and edge, and we made our way down to better corn on the upper Kautz snowfield. The descent through the crux pitches on the lower Kautz was challenging, and we did some sideslipping and a lot of slow skiing, carefully poking around for thinly veiled patches of glacial ice.  We took the handline exit off the Kautz, which was straightforward and minimized time exposure to the Kautz ice cliff.  With the most exposed section of the route in the bag, and thousands of feet of good corn skiing below us, the stress level dropped as soon as we hit the Turtle snowfield.  We took turns arcing big easy turns down to camp, then worked our way down and across the Nisqually glacier, carefully managing wet slide and cravasse danger.  Soon enough, we were back amongst the parade of people between Paradise and Camp Muir, enjoying the easy schuss out to the car.
Leah sideslipping steep snow into the crux section of the Kautz.
Working across to the handline traverse.  The crux ice steps
and upper Kautz are visible in the background.
Good corn snow on the Turtle snowfield.
This was supposed to be an easy trip, but it wasn't.  I am becoming increasingly convinced that perfect conditions from top to bottom are nearly impossible to find on Rainier, and that it is therefore worth waiting for a stellar weather forecast combined with favorable trip reports before committing to the long drive from Missoula.

The Kautz is a good ski route, as long as the glacial ice pitches are snow covered.  The entire upper mountain is big, steep, and exposed, and the crux ice pitches are quite skiable and engaging.  The Turtle snowfield is great fun, and it is good to be separated from the inevitable concentration of parties on the Dissapointment Cleaver route (and the Fuher finger).  And while I always tell myself that Rainier is too far away, has too many rules and regulations, is too glaciated, and has too many people, I'm sure it won't be long until I am itching to go back and engage this big and inspiring mountain yet again.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Chris Spurgeon, remembered

It was three years ago, almost to the hour, that Chris Spurgeon was killed in an avalanche in the Bitterroot mountains.  While I now go weeks at a time without thinking about him, I will occasionally find myself on top of a mountain, in tears, deeply wishing that Chris was still alive.  He was a beautiful, strong, complicated, quiet, intelligent, motivated person with a deep love for a simple life and the wild outdoors.  I hope everyone who knew Chris will take a few minutes to remember him in their own way.


Chris' cairn.  May 19, 2013.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Grey Wolf 3.3

Nick responded favorably to an invitation to "ski something big on Saturday", and arrived in Missoula late on Friday evening with his brother Ben in tow.  We rolled out of bed at 3 am, and were soon driving through town, watching partiers at the end of their day as ours was just beginning.  We cast off from the trailhead at first light.  The goal was to try to ski all four aspects of Grey Wolf peak before the day warmed up too much.
Dropping into a challenging East couloir on Grey Wolf.
The trail to Riddell lakes was cleared last fall, but fairly heavy downfall over the winter slowed progress somewhat.  Still, we arrived at Riddell lakes in the early morning, and climbed the South couloir well before it saw any sun.  The skiing in the South couloir was icy but manageable, and we all chattered down through the ice before finding a little bit of corn on the apron above upper Riddell lake.
Approaching Riddell lake.  Photo: Nick Vandenbos.
Nick and Ben coming up the South couloir.
Nick at the bottom of the South couloir.
In good spirits, we transitioned at Riddell lake and climbed over to the Scenic lake basin and an intimidating first look at the East couloir.  It was severely runneled and already pretty warm, but it looked skiable so we headed up.  We pushed hard up the couloir, and were soon scrambling a little mixed step to the notch.  Small wet slides were already coming down the runnel, and we briefly discussed conditions, deciding to stick with the original plan to ski and re-climb the East couloir.  So down we went, navigating a little mandatory air at the top of the couloir, and working steep snow above the jaws of the runnell.  Down at Scenic lake, we stopped just long enough to re-fill water before pushing hard once again up the East couloir.
Looking up an almost-out-of-condition East couloir.
Botting a steep East couloir.  Photo: Nick Vandenbos.
Soon enough we were back at the notch, sweaty and extremely glad to be out of the oven.  Next up was the west couloir, which looked great from the top.  I was worried that it may have runnelled too severely for easy skiing, and sure enough it had.  We skied the upper 700 vertical feet before regrouping and talking through options.  The lower couloir was icy and severely runnelled, with gaping moats, and we would have had to downclimb most of the rest of the couloir.  None of us wanted it bad enough, so we put spikes back on and started climbing back out, headed to the main summit.

Ben starting down the West couloir.  It skied well at the top...
Retreating upward in the West couloir.
 We climbed to the summit via the West couloir and upper West face, navigating lots of steep snow intermixed with ice and rock steps.  On top, with one straightforward descent to go, we were finally able to relax.  After a long break on the summit, we downclimbed a short chimney and began our descent of the North face.  Nick and I had skied the North face almost exactly 5 years prior, and had rappelled the final cliff band.  It was great to return with him to explore another new line.  The run was moderate but engaging and slightly complex, with good snow, and I had a blast.  This may have been a first descent.  With a little time to spare, we simul skied all the way to Grey Wolf lake for another long and relaxing break.
Boys will be boys
Nick and Ben downclimbing to skiable snow on the North face on Grey Wolf.
Ben on the exit ramp on the North face of Grey Wolf.
The return to the car involves a long climb to the Greywolf/Sunset crags pass, a surprisingly complex ski to Scenic lakes, then a short climb to the Riddell lake basin.  We move quickly through this, and with some beargrass skiing beta from Ben, we skied all the way to the end of the snow before changing to running shoes.  The trail back to the car was quick.

Nick has an excellent account on his highly recommended blog.

I am excited to go back and finish this someday.  The link up is logical, technical, and committing.  It has a lot of good skiing, and is long but still doable.  Finding good conditions with stable snow would be tricky, but once again, doable.  I have no regrets on bailing on the lower West couloir.  I was excited to ski with Nick and Ben.  They are solid skiers and climbers, as well as great friends.  They also have an eye for new and challenging ski lines, and recently skied the highest peak in Montana from the exact summit, probably for the first time.  Nice work guys.

Total elevation gain (based on Google Earth):  10,200 feet
Trip length: 12 hours
Put in:  New Riddell lake trailhead
Take out: Same
Ski equipment:  G3 Soulfly skis, La Sportiva RT tech bindings, Scarpa Alien boots, One whippet, OR Ferossi pants, Camp Nanotech crampons,  25L Arcteryx pack, helmet.
Sustinance:  GU, Bars, sesame sticks, 1 L water refilled twice, electrolyte tabs.
Trailbreaking effort:  Low
Avalanche conditions:  Low to Moderate with a lot of hanging rollerballs and ice.
Fatigue factor (1-10): 8
Stoke factor (1-10): 8
Memories to suppress:  Runnells! Not completing the link up.

In other news:
I skied St. Mary peak in the Bitterroot peak with a bunch of rad Missoulians for my birthday the following day.  Spandex was well represented.  Thanks to all who braved the wet weather.