Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Scratching around behind St. Mary peak

After years of scheeming over maps, I finally made it out behind St. Mary peak in the Bitterroot for a grand day of exploration.  The day started off well, with a simple drive to 5,500 feet and a 30-minute skin to the summer trailhead.  From the trailhead, I followed a skin track on the summer trail, cutting switchbacks, roughly to treeline below the peak, then made an akward, skins-on descending traverse into the unnamed lake at the head of McCalla Creek.  A quick skin up St. Mary's south bowl me in new ski territory less than three hours into the day.  First up was a good 2,000 vertical foot run into the head of Kootenai creek, transitioning from scrappy west-facing glades to a moderate and enjoyable wide open gully system down toward Kootenai.  
About half way down the first run, with good views out to
Bass and Stormy Joe peaks in Bass Creek.
From the lake, I climbed further west, with hopes of returning to the basin via a low angle hanging snowfield and couloir system that looked appealing on the map.  The hanging snowfield skied well, but the lower couloir was too slabby for my liking, so I bailed upward, and traversed to the skin track and a retreat-style ski back to the.  From there, I made a pair of interesting but shorter ski runs at the head of the cirque, the first of which was an excellent little couloir that was relatively wind buffed and stable - certainly the best run of the day.  From the south shoulder of St. Mary's, I skied the south bowl, then forged a low route directly to the last switchback on the St. Mary's road.  I'm not sure if the low route is worth doing again - it took a lot of akward traversing and a little log hopping, rock bashing, rock slab skimming, and thick forest survival skiing to piece it all together, but it was a good adventure, and the entire retreat only took 90 minutes.

Looking down the upper half of the second run, once again with views out to Bass Creek.
Looking back at St. Mary peak and potential ski lines.
Nice little couloir on the third run.
Looking back up at the third run,  another random little Bitterroot gem.
The fourth run.
The photo doesn't do it justice, but the wind was absolutely howling
as I skied the south bowl of St. Mary peak.
One doesn't have to stay out very late to see the sunset this time of year.
It was satisfying to finally get out and stretch the legs a bit.  The snow quality was poor, but I had a blast making routefinding decisions on the fly by intuition, and it felt great to be tired at the end of the day.  By the numbers, the day was something around 9,000 vertical feet, 9 hours car to car, with 40 mph winds and a 100% satisfaction factor.  For ski gear nerds, I used Scarpa Alien ski boots, and it was pure joy running around the mountain in super light boots.  I also took some super light Millet trekking pants out for their maiden voyage, and they performed well, perhaps even better than spandex, if such a thing is possible. The Bitterroot certainly needs more snow, and snow stability is still suspect, but overall it is shaping up to be a great ski season.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Montana Snowbowl, Public access policy

Montana Snowbowl ski resort is a great place to go for morning or evening ski training, and serves as a quick access point for backcountry skiing in the Rattlesnake.  Public access is legal, but restrictions do apply, and Snowbowl has strongly discouraged users in the past.  Montana Snowbowl's public use access policy has been updated for the 2013-2014 season.  Here are a few bullet points, outlined in the policy.
  • It is legal to skin straight up Paradise outside of operating hours, but there are several restrictions outlined in the permit.
    • Access from National Forest land.  Don't go through the base area.  Review the map and/or follow the route outlined below.
    • The hours are restrictive for uphill traffic: 1 hour before lifts open until the sweep has been completed, roughly 8 am through 5 pm.
    • Runs with active grooming and snowmaking are closed.  It is hard to know where Snowbowl is grooming, but a good rule of thumb is to take a good hard look while driving up to the resort, and act accordingly.  The most common issue is when Snowbowl is grooming on Paradise and the North Dakota Downhill.  I think that the two best ways to deal with this are either to stay outside of Paradise (always legal), or to access the resort via the main parking lot/Second Thought easement if it looks like they are grooming on Paradise.     
    • Park outside of the gate, not in the main lot.
    • No pets.
  • It is always legal to ski back down ski runs in the resort, even while Snowbowl is operating, as long as you don't use the lifts, don't have dogs, avoid runs with active grooming and snowmaking, and exit straight off Paradise.
  • It is always legal to park at the lower lot and skin outside of the resort, even during operating hours. There is usually a skin track.  
It is important to note that the policy only applies to National Forest land.  It is still mandatory that users access the ski runs by parking in the lower lot and hiking/skinning straight up to Paradise.  This necessitates a 5-minute bushwack in both directions.  The bushwack is pretty easy, though.  I normally head straight uphill from the parking lot, just looker's right of the cut slope.  There is a game trail that takes you to the Beargrass highway trail, and from there it is easy to climb up and looker's left to the resort.  The most common infringement is to ski back down through private land in the resort at the end of the day.  There is also an easement across Private property using the Point 6 road and Second Thought.  Although  that access route is more applicable for accessing the Beargrass highway bike trail in the summer, it can be used as an alternate access route if they are grooming on Paradise, or an alternate ski route down.

Snowbowl Map.  Paradise is the farthest run to the right.
The lower lot is delineated with a "P".
Stay out Private land in the black box unless you are on the easement. 
I strongly encourage people skin at Snowbowl, and not to let Snowbowl discourage public use.  Skiers are still plowed in and confronted occasionally, so it is worth bringing a shovel or a friend to help push you out, and also a copy of the public use policy, or at least a good understanding of the conditions.  As far as I can tell from the policy, many of the actions that Snowbowl claims are illegal are in fact legal.  Parking in the lower lots are totally legal, even if they are snowplowing.  Although common sense and respect is certainly merited, there is also no language about disrupting disrupting runs by being on them discretely when Snowbowl employees are using them for snowmobile access.  One point of confusion that is not clearly outlined in the policy is avalanche control avoidance.  At this point, please use common sense, which I would interpret at a minimum as avoiding the upper bowls if it has been snowing.

If folks do get hassled, I would encourage you to give the Forest Service a call.  Contacts are shown in the policy, and both Carl and Al are aware of the problem, and are good to work with.

Also, this policy is up for review every year, and the best thing uphill minded skiers can do to preserve access is to get out there, but abide by the policy.  Please be tactful and polite, and keep it all legal, PLEASE.

Before and after the Operating Season
As long as skiers mind the pet/groomer/snowmaking restrictions, it is legal to skin straight up Paradise using the National Forest Access.  After the resort closes, it is technically still mandatory to access from National Forest, but in the past, Snowbowl doesn't seem to mind skiers skiing up through the base area.  My recommendation post-season skiing  is to park outside of the gate and ski up the gut, but understand that Snowbowl has the right to kick you off Private land at the base.

Lolo National Forest Website:

Select text from the policy

Montana Snowbowl is managed under a Special Use Permit on the Lolo National Forest.  National Forest lands within the permit area are open to non motorized public access year round with the following exceptions: 


The public may access National Forest land by way of a non motorized easement across Snowbowl’s private
property at the base area parking lot. This easement provides non motorized public access to National Forest
lands south of the parking lot as shown on the map. Other than on the easement identified on the map, private
land within the permit area may be closed to public access. People using this easement must park on the south
side of the Snowbowl entrance gate.

Non motorized access to Point Six may also be gained by using the Point Six Road No. 9962. Forest travelers
are advised to watch for wheeled or tracked vehicles on roads and trails while in the permit area or on the Point
Six Road No. 9962, year round.


All ski runs and trails are closed to uphill traffic when the lifts are operating. The uphill traffic restriction is in
effect 1 hour prior to the lifts opening and until day end sweep has been completed and all skiers coming
downhill have arrived at the base area. Pets that are attended on a leash will be allowed in the parking lot area

Please contact Carl Anderson, 329-3976 or Al Hilshey, 329-3962, if you have any questions.

8.5 Winter Access to the Permit Area 

People departing the ski area or going off area has been discussed in Sections 3.3.2 and 3.3.3. People wanting
to enter the Permit Area can do so as long as grooming and or snowmaking operations are not ongoing on the
particular run they are skiing or boarding and as long as they are not traveling uphill during regular business
hours while the lifts are running. Outside of regular business hours, public access is not allowed on runs while
grooming and or snowmaking are occurring on that run. Snowbowl shall not be responsible for skiers or 
snowboarders inside the ski area boundary before or after regular business hours

Monday, December 9, 2013

Skiing slideshow Tuesday December 10 at the Trailhead

I will be giving a skiing slideshow for the Rocky Mountain Mountaineers at the Trailhead in Missoula Tuesday, December 10 at 7 pm. I will focus on skiing in the Bitterroot and Missions. According to the Rocky Mountain Mountaineers, "Brian is a very active, local backcountry skier who has helped take the sport to a new level." This is a bit of an exaggeration, but the slideshow should be pretty fun, and hopefully will give a good insight into my warped ski brain. Bring a beer, and hope to see you all there!