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.

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