Thursday, December 18, 2014

Annual Avalanche risk tune-up

Ski season is here, and along with sweeping white mountain views, powder turns, and endless (in a good way) skin tracks, comes the responsibility to tune up on avalanches and risk. I go through a simple but deliberate annual routine, brushing up a bit on snow safety, evaluating my avalanche risk assessment from the past season, and setting goals and expectations for the coming season. It is also a good opportunity to reflect on friends who have died or had close calls in the mountains.
Looking through old photos, I was reminded of just how far back I have managed
to walk back my level of acceptable risk. In this photo, I am working my way down
a steep gully in the Missions with no visibility and 6" of snow with more piling up
every minute. Solo, of course. The gully was puking spindrift. Constantly. But I was
able to ski cut and manage my sluff, and the underlying snowpack was welded so I felt OK.
Acceptable risk? Technically maybe yes, but in retrospect, there was not enough room for
error, and it isn't like I was skiing a once in a lifetime line or anything.

I would probably not ski that line in those conditions toady.
Last year, I modified my approach to travel in avalanche terrain, continually choosing moderate terrain over more exposed options. And while I didn’t ski as much steep terrain as in the past, I like the increased margin of safety. It is also nice to move quickly and safely through the mountains unencumbered by extensive pit digging and stress. I also notched my “go/no-go” risk threshold back a touch. The clearest example is that I no longer treat Moderate avalanche conditions as safe unless proven otherwise. I have also deepened my skepticism of group avalanche assessment in parties larger than about four, preferring moderate objectives and terrain choices that keep the group moving rather than stuck at the top of a run hemming and hawing and discussing the finer points of how representative the pit was, or how best to execute a sketchy ski cut.

However, there is no escaping the fact that I thrive on challenge and adventure, and am OK with taking calculated risks when conditions merit. With a clear mind, attention to detail, and deep reserve of experience and tricks, I still value laying it out there a bit and staying sharp. Without the drive to push and explore, I would not have suggested or skirting slabs in search of a safe line into Sweathouse creek during our amazing Glen Lake/Sweathouse/Hidden Lake Peak/Bear Creek tour last spring, or continuing out to the summit of Castle crag, both of which involved careful avalanche assessment, but were still within the realm of acceptable risk, even in retrospect. Here’s to another year of adventure out in the snow. And not losing sight of the fact that we are making life and death decisions every day we spend in the mountains.

I found this interactive series on human factors and heuristics from POWDER magazine intriguing.

Also, for current conditions, Mr. Fredlund’s assessment is spot on, with the exception that deep facets the Missoula/Bitterroot/Rattlesnake seems to be a touch more consolidated.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Early Season Bliss on St. Mary Peak

Ben and Leah on the South shoulder of St. Mary Peak,
stabbing deep into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Photo: Kyle Scharfe

Oh boy. I had a blast running ski laps at Bridger after Thanksgiving, but I had no idea that another flawless day of early season skiing lay just around the corner, this time with good snow, long runs, wild places and great friends. The crux of the day came early, when the St. Mary peak road turned out to be a terrifying sheet of ice. Fortunately, we were prepared with heavy chains, otherwise our day would have ended in the valley. After driving to the 5,500 foot switchback, we skinned up and climbed the normal route to the summer trailhead, then up to within about a mile of the St. Mary summit. Everyone was relaxed and excited to be skiing above the soupy freezing fog suffocating city dwellers down in the valley.  We took a little run down to McCalla lake, then quickly pushed up and over the top of the South bowl before dropping west, deep into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. 
The crew, stepping in sync near the top of the South bowl.

Enjoying a perfect day in the woods,
dressed appropriately in TLT 5s. Photo: Ben Irey
I had hoped to drop north toward Kootenai creek, but fresh wind slabs were just a touch more threatening than we had hoped, so we instead kept dropping south to the head of St. Mary creek. An easy climb and an enjoyable lunch stop on the summit of an unnamed 8,000’ peak had us staged to cruise a long, undulating run toward Big creek.
Natalie a few steps below the unnamed 8,000' peak.
Our previous run was through the trees in the background.

We had another nice long break, recharing for the last big climb back to St. Mary. I took the opportunity to do a little preemptive foot surgery. Thanks for the tape, Kyle.  Everyone moved steadily up the last climb, working through foot pain, digestive stress, and general fatigue. In waning evening light we skied the South bowl, skimmed across the lake, and cranked out one last short climb back to the summer trail. A quick schuss had us back at the car, ready to creep down the icy road back to civilization. 7,500 vertical feet and done in about 8 hours.
Ben climbing out of St. Mary creek. Sky Pilot, Sweathouse Spires, and Hidden Peak all visible.

Leah heading home.
Thoughts and beta
The snowpack in the Bitterroot is way above average (like 140%), and it is generally stable. Coverage above about 6,500 feet is excellent – I think as a team we only hit one rock all day. Skiing in Western Montana is IN!

We dug a quick a pit, which confirmed that overnight wind slabs (up to 20 cm deep) were touchy but healing up as rapidly as could be expected.  We did see one old crown in a steep Northeast windloaded starting zone around 8,000 feet, which probably released during the big pre-Thanksgiving storm. More importantly, deep early season facets appear to be stabilizing. We were breaking trail all day and did not hear any collapsing. Same story in the Snowbowl sidecountry on Saturday.

The road was terrifying. I would recommend considering chains mandatory until it snows on top of the ice.

By moving at a measured, steady pace with smart routefinding in relatively simple terrain, we were able to squeeze a lot of skiing into a not-too-long day. Everyone had light-enough gear, except for Natalie, but she is strong enough that it doesn’t matter. Thanks everyone. Let’s do it again soon.

I used to think that the St. Mary zone was overrated for skiing, but am slowly coming around, even though there is no escaping the fact that St. Mary peak is one of the windiest places around. By moving all around the mountain, big, creative tours are possible as long as avalanche conditions are below High. There is still a lot of terrain that needs to be skied. The exposed bowl into the small cirque off the Southwest shoulder, the full 2,000 vertical foot Southwest glade run to St. Mary creek, and the twin west facing gullies to the unnamed lake on the Kootenai creek side all need to be investigated. Also, I can not wait to do a long and wild bowl bouncing tour out to the Heavenly Twins and back. Who’s in?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Montana Snowbowl public access policy - REPOST

12/04/2014 UPDATE -As ski season ramps up and local trails are icing down, a lot of folks turn to skiing for regular exercise, and Snowbowl is an obvious choice. Pre-season and early season tend to be the times when most folks run into conflicts. Snowbowl employees are still hassling skiers - I haven't escaped this year without confrontation and I consider myself polite, informed, and cagey if necessary. The policy is unchanged from last year, so the same advice holds - read the policy, stay off private land, use a lot of discretion in avoiding snowmaking and grooming operations, be polite but assertive if you do get hassled, and most importantly, get up there because there is SKIING to be had!

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 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 three best ways to deal with this are either to stay outside of Paradise (always legal), to ascend Longhorn from the base of Paradise, 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 an easy 5-minute bushwack in both directions. The normal route is to 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 prudent to bring 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 terms and conditions. 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

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ski season is back

Unable to hide my excitement after the first run.
I had a great day on skis at Bridger, and while the terrain was not particularily new or exciting, the snow was good, and it was rewarding to be able to put in a solid day of yo-yo skiing.  After leaving the car in sub zero temperatures, I quickly climbed into the sun, and was able to avoid the worst of the frigid day by skiing sunlit aspects. The warm Thanksgiving temperatures followed by a shot of overnight snow made for good boot top powder on a surprisingly solid and rock free base. I didn't dig a pit, but with all the recent avalanche activity, it seemed like a no brainer to stay off anything too steep.

Looking down a new-to-me tree lane on the Thumb.
Surprisingly good powder on South Boundary.
A primary goal was to just grab a bunch of vertical, so I took 13 runs in total, seven on the Fingers and Pierres Knob, and six on Slushmans, stopping well below the ridgetop. The skin tracks were all in and they were also surprisingly moderate, so the going was quick. I was surprised to find a pair of nice southeast facing runs in both areas that were new to me, but otherwise I was on all familiar terrain. I also bumped into the tireless ski couple, John and Deb - thanks for the tales from Nepal, and the perfect skin track!
It felt wonderful to be back on the skin track.
Looking back at two of my runs earlier in the day.
Emotions, in order of strength at the end of the day:
Psyched, grateful, tired, cold, hungry.

I spent the day at something like a steady bright moderate pace, which left me tired but not exhausted. I underestimated the length of each run, and was surprised to have racked up 14,400 vertical feet in almost exactly 8 hours. I was on Scarpa Aliens and Dynafit Nanga Parbats, and the light gear helped make a long day like this possible.

It was good to spend Thanksgiving with my father.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Blue Mountan 30K race report

I had a great time at the Blue Mountain 30k run. The course is almost all runnable and very fast. Since it is not too long, I was able to go out fairly hard and hang onto an even pace to the end, more like a ski race than an ultramarathon.

I also had a great time battling Tory Kendrick and Scott Marron. We were back and forth several times, and were within a minute of each other for most of the course. In predictable fashion, I was able to push a smidge faster on the flats and ups, and Tory ran away a bit on the downs. In the end, I pushed my calves and hamstrings to the edge of cramping, and was not able to give a hard push over the last mile. Not that it would have been enough to eke out a win. I came across in 2.28, which was good enough for second place.

Aside from a slow post race recovery from a slow-to-come-around right calf, I was pleased at how it went. The course, route marking, post-run barbeque and general vibe were all great.

results here.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Calowachan - Missions

I was fortunate to spend a fine early autumn day on Calowachan in the Missions. I have skied on and around Calowachan, and it has always been a challenge. In summer, the peak is more accessible, but still a bit of an adventure. While the route and craggy peak were both engaging, it was the exceptional crew that made this particular outing so rewarding for me.

Kt regaled us with tales of the outdoor industry and filming powder skiing during the bushwack up the drainage. If you keep your eyes peeled, you will see Kt's images all over the ski world. The bushwack was not too bad, and soon we were on an intermittent climber's trail, heading straight up to treeline and the base of the Northwest ridge proper. We left the ridge a few hundred vertical feet below the summit, and scrambled the Northwest face to the top, which had a few moderate 4th class steps.
Bushwacking socks and gaiters at the trailhead. Photo: Beau Fredlund
Bushwacking. Not too bad.
Kt, high on the Northwest face.
Natalie was in her element during the traverse to the South summit, and it was all I could do to keep up. By teaming up to scout tricky spots, we forged a route on the crest or east of the crest which had a bit of stout 4th class chimneying and many steep steps to navigate. Natalie is director of the Wilderness and Civilization program on campus, and it was fun if not a bit overwhelming to hear how she keeps the dynamic program thriving through a magical combination of vision, collaboration, and sheer dedication.
An enthusiastic point and a high five on the summit of Calowachan.
Kt on the traverse.
Leah on the traverse. Photo: Beau Fredlund
Beau and Kt coming up to the South summit.
Beau arrived on the south summit a few minutes after Natalie, Leah and me. After another long break, Beau pointed it to the south face, and I followed him down through beargrass, thick subalpine shrubs, and a few cliff bands. Based in Cooke City, Beau is one of the most dedicated backcountry skiers I know, and his calculated approach to ski mountaineering is inspiring. His quiet, intense demeanor and love of jazz music are both qualities that I can relate to, and his eye for aesthetics is a quality I can only hope to emulate. Check out the yurts, or better yet, hire Beartooth Powder guides to show you around next time you are in Cooke.
Walking off the South summit.
The descent was probably the least enjoyable part of the day, but we did manage to see a grizzly bear down in the drainage, which is always a treat. Never mind the fact it was within 30 feet of the trail. Good spot Kt. We jogged the Eagle pass trail back to the car, yelling incessantly for bears. Back at the car, a quick dip in the canal rounded the day out nicely. Thanks for the great day guys!

Calowachan is a good outing, and I will be back to do it again. Unusual equipment included a reservation recreation pass, bear spray, and bushwacking socks.  I used gaiters and they were the envy of the group. We benefited from Dan Sexton's route beta. Thanks Dan. The day was around 6,000 vertical feet done in around 9 hours car to car, all from the Eagle Pass trailhead.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Canyon Peak North ridge

Looking back down Canyon Peak's narrow North ridge.
I am bad at saying no to attempts on aesthetic and creative routes in the mountains, especially with perfect weather and vibrant fall colors. The North ridge of Canyon peak is one of the only established easy local alpine rock routes, and it is nothing short of shameful that it has taken me this long to climb it. Plus, I was excited to make it a loop.  Aesthetic. Creative. Perfect weather, Fall colors. All check. Unfortunately I had a lingering cold going into the weekend. A wiser man would have perhaps opted out in favor of recovery. Not me. I drove down the Blodgett trailhead late Friday evening and settled in for a generous night of sleep.

I started the day at Blodgett and biked the 1.5 mile road back out to the Canyon Creek road junction. From there, I jogged the road to the trailhead, cutting switchbacks of course, then jogged and walked to a highpoint about a mile below Canyon lake. I still contest this is one of the longest 5-mile sections of trail anywhere. I roughly followed the route suggested by Michael Hoyt in his excellent Bitterroot hiking guidebook (much of his information is also on summitpost), climbing off trail up slabs and open forest to gain access to the headwaters of the basin. I'm not sure it was much faster than just taking the trail to Canyon lake, but it wasn't much slower.
Looking back down at golden larch and Canyon creek from the base of Canyon Peak.
Canyon peak. The North ridge is on the right skyline. It is not as steep as it looks.
The route up the North ridge was good. The climbing is all 4th class except one short dihedral, which went at easy 5th. It could probably be avoided. The ridge is also delightfully exposed. A recommended route for sure.
Golden larch and clean granite on the North ridge.
On the summit. The cord hanging out of the pack is tat that I found and hauled off the mountain.
From the summit, I looked around for an easy downclimb route, but ended up using my previous descent route down the southwest ridge (described below). There are few moves of easy but exposed 5th class downclimbing, which made the descent the climbing crux of the day. I dropped west off the ridge at the first shallow col, and worked down easy ledges, slabs, and talus all the way to High lake. From the lake and a water refill stop, I nosed my way down the High lake trail, which is a bit cryptic. Also, the map location is dead wrong. From the lake, the trail climbs to the east, crossing the low slabby outlet moraine like feature at a poorly defined saddle. There are a few cairns. The trail becomes a litle more defined, and cuts east to the base of the large west facing cliff wall and skirts the base of the wall. From there, the trail crosses a talus slope before dropping west down to the drainage bottom. Below treeline, the trail was flush with uncut downfall which slowed the pace, but the run down to Blodgett was still fun. The run out Blodgett was great. Plenty of miles to stretch the legs out, and lots of smooth trail interspersed with fast rocky sections to keep things interesting. I returned to the car feeling as good as could be expected, having enjoyed another fine fall day in the mountains. I think the day was around 5,500 vertical feet and it was done in almost exactly 6.5 hours trailhead to trailhead.
Cruising around High lake.
What passes for a trail in Montana. Don't worry, there are two visible cairns. 
Blodgett spires looking attractive during the run out.
Route tidbits

Canyon peak North ridge route: The route is intuitive.  Follow the path of least resistance, either on or just east of the crest.

Canyon peak descent: The easiest and safest descent is to bring a single rope and rappel straight south from one of several established rappel stations. From the base of the rappel, one should be able to scramble either over to High lake, or more commonly, back east to the normal return to Canyon creek (there is a notch/ramp way east of the peak). If you are not rappelling, descend the crest of the southwest ridge about 100 feet from the summit until it narrows to a point. Downclimb on the crest, using big lichen covered foot holds and two slopers on the crest. The moves are easy, but it is exposed. From the bottom of the step, downclimb a steep but easy chimney to the east. You should now be below the steep summit cliff band. From here, proceed with your descent route of choice, downclimbing easy 4th class steps as required.
Looking down the descent ridge. I stayed on the crest to the first visible white pinnacle.
The crux is getting down to the pinnacle.  I downclimbed a chimney in front of the pinnacle to the left (not visible).
Just remember, you are trying to get below the summit cliff band.
I also left the ridge at first visible shaded low point and headed west (right) down to High lake,

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Rut 50k 2014, race report

I had a great time yet again at the Rut 50k race in Big Sky. The race did not go particularily well for me, but the course was fun, and it is always great to spend time with the close knit ski racing and running community. It was also pretty cool to hear tales of the fastest people in the world battling it out on the course. And, Leah had a great run. Go Leah!
Hurting on the climb to Lone Peak.  Photo: Jenny Pierce
The race itself started out well. I finished the first climb in about 40th place, right where I wanted to be. The entire climb and descent to the first aid felt like I was floating, almost effortlessly. From the first aid, I followed Anna Frost all the way to the top of the Headwaters. I pulled the pace back a bit about halfway throught the climb and topped out on Headwaters feeling good. The descent off Headwaters felt great with the notable exception of one distinct cramping twinge in my left adductor, a problem that would eventually derail my race. I pushed at a hard and steady pace to tram dock, losing another place or two, but still keeping my goal pace. I also saw my dad at the out and back from tram dock, which was fun. About 500 vertical feet up the Lone peak climb, my left adductor cramped magnificently, forcing a long stop to whimper a bit, loosen out, and refuel. I was able to get the legs loosened up, and gingerly hobbled my way up to the summit, arriving in decent time but worried about how I was going to finish the race.

I took some time to completely fuel in the aid station, then began gingerly descending Lone peak. Fortunately, the cramps stayed in the background, and I was able to work my way down at a slow but even pace.  From the bottom of the descent, my legs were actually feeing good again, and I made a hard push to the top of Dakota then down to the bottom of the Andesite climb, reeling in a few runners in the process. About half way up the Andesite climb, my adductors started cramping again, and I had to stop about four times. Super painful and generally not good.  From the last aid, I just kind of jogged it in, keeping a mellow and steady pace to the finish. I finished in 7 hrs 27 minutes, about a half hour behind my time goal. It was great to see friends and family at the finish, and I was psyched to cheer Leah in at the end of a hard but very strong run for her.

Although I was dissapointed in the adductor cramping problems, I am grateful to have had almost a year of tweak and injury free running. Which has translated into many, many runs and mountain adventures unencumbered by fear of tweaks and injury. I am also eager to focus a bit on the adductor cramping issue, as it seems to plague many crossover ski racers such as myself. I used poles for the race, and I don't think they helped much, so scratch them in the future. Also, I used leopard print gaiters. Those things rock.

I have to once again give a big congratulations to the Montana Mikes for putting together one heck of  a Montana spirited run, party and experience I will never forget. And thanks to all of the international runners who not only out-ran the locals, but also participated in the event, inspired us all, and threw down as hard as anyone at the post-race dance party. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Glacier Park Running

Leah running down to Lake Ellen Wilson from Gunsight Pass.
I was able to finally get up to Glacier with Leah for Labor Day weekend. We did not do much up-front research, and as a result, ended up on the justifiably popular trails every day.

Day 1 - Jackson Glacier overlook to Gunsight pass to Sperry Chalet to Lake McDonald

With an early departure from Missoula, we were done with the drive, campsite setup, and shuttle by early afternoon. We started running from the Jackson Glacier overlook in a heavy downpour. Fortunately, the rain abaited shortly after starting out, and the run up to Gunsight lake was easy and quick. We continued up to Gunsight Pass, where we chatted for a few minutes with a group of NRCS soil scientists who were collecting baseline soil surveys in the park.  Pretty cool.
Neon arm warmers in full effect on the climb to Gunsight pass.
We continued down to the spectacular Lake Ellen Wilson, and enjoyed every step of the trail to the Sperry Chalet. After a quick lemonade stop in the Chalet, we ran the last 4 miles with ease, returning to the highway with 20 miles of absolutely gorgeous running under our belts. A super nice family from Kalispell gave us a ride out of their way to the campground - thanks guys.
About to drop to the Sperry Chalet.
Day 2 - Siyeh Pass backward - Sun point to Siyeh bend

We took an easy day, hiking and jogging the 10-mile Piegan pass loop. From Sun point, we hiked up toward Siyeh pass, taking a long break under a rock as a series of cold fall showers blew through. Once the storm abated, we blasted over the pass, then jogged down to Preston park and out to the car. We ran the last half hour or so in a steady downpour, which left us cold and eager to hit the road. Fortunately, a nice father/son duo give us a ride, saving a long cold wait at Siyeh bend.
Climbing to Siyeh pass, moments before the rain started. 
Leah cruising down from Siyeh Pass.
Rolling down soggy trails in the rain below Preston park.
Day 3 - Siyeh bend to Piegan pass to Many Glacier to Swiftcurrent pass to the Loop

A cold and wet evening and night didn't sap our motivation, so we headed out early for the longest run of the trip. We were able to once again hitch a ride over the pass. It was foggy and wet and spitting rain, which had us cursing the weather forecasters once again, since "wintery mix" would have been a lot more appropriate than the "mostly sunny" forecast. In any case, we jogged and walked to Piegan pass and pushed over the top during a lull in the precip, running down the impeccable trail to treeline as rain spattered the Many Glacier valley in front of us. We continued down miles of soggy but enjoyable trail to the Many Glacier hotel for a nice long lunch break.
Final push to Piegan pass.
From the hotel, we jogged up to the trailhead, then jogged the flat miles to Bullhead lake. Along the way, we happened by a group of hikers who pointed out a Grizzly bear low on the flanks of Mount Wilbur. Wildlife sighting - check. We walked the entire magnificent climb up to Swiftcurrent pass. Pushing over the pass, we ran down to the Granite Park chalet just as a round of showers rolled through. We were happy to sit them out in the comforts of the chalet. From the chalet, we ran down to the Loop, feeling good and enjoying the last few miles of a 26 mile day and 50+ mile weekend.
Coming up to Swiftcurrent pass.
Leaving the Granite park chalet.
While pounding the trails was fun and the only viable option given the weather, I can't wait to return and hit some more of the high peaks and ridgelines in the park.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Sonielem Traverse - Missions

On East Saint Mary's peak with the Soneilem ridge in the immediate background. Photo: Jeffrey
During 50th anniversary celebrations of the Wilderness act, it seemed appropriate to pay homage by casting off into the wild Mission mountain wilderness on a new and unknown traverse. As much as I enjoy recreating anywhere that is outside, spending time in designated Wilderness is always rewarding, and it was no surprise to return to civilization grounded, energized, and a little humbled.

I overestimated the length of the outing, so we headed out very early from Saint Mary's reservoir. Not wanting to drive two vehicles, we both biked the shuttle to Mission reservoir by headlamp, and were jogging from the trailhead at 7 am. The trail to Lucifer lake is steep but good, and we made decent time running when possible, but mainly just hiking and enjoying the morning. From a water refill stop at the lake, we cast off into the brush, heading for the base of the avalanche path at the toe of the Sonielem ridge. We had to do a couple of map checks, but the bushwacking was not too bad by Mission standards, and we were able to nose our way up through brush infested cliffs with minimal carnage. I had no beta for climbing the steep northeast face of the ridge, and an unanticipated skiff of fresh snow had us both nervous.  Fortunately, we were able to weave a way through the cliffs, even if it was a touch more exposed than we would have liked. We really didn't want to have to downclimb, so it was with great relief that we topped out on the ridge.
Bushwacking to the base of the ridge.
Jeffrey all smiles as we top out on the Sonielem ridge.
Glacier peaks and Picture lake in the background.
The initial ridge was clean easy, and we walked over the Sonielem high point before starting a more exciting ridge section to Peak Y. The knife edge traversing was engaging, and I enjoyed deducing the routefinding puzzles on the fly. Soon enough, we bypassed a final cruxy vertical step on the west, and walked easily to the top of Peak Y. The traverse to each of the Lowary peak summits was also clean and quick. After another lunch break on Lowary, we jogged down to the saddle, and huffed it up to St. Mary's peak, intersecting a hiking party just a few hundred vertical feet below the summit. After chatting and relaxing on the summit for almost half an hour, we jogged the 5,500 vertical foot descent to the car at a casual pace, hopping over downfall and yelling for bears on the steep and rugged trail. We arrived at the reservoir tired but not too worked, and immediately jumped in for a swim. Great day in the hills.
The exposed middle portion of the Sonielem ridge.
Belly flopping near the summit of Peak Y.
Normal Greywolf from East St, Mary's photo.
Although it is perhaps generous to call this a classic outing, the clean ridge section of the traverse is high quality (with the exception of some rotten rock here and there). It is also fun to be in a place seldom visited by humans, despite the Soneilem ridge's commanding presence from the valley. Gaining the ridge at the beginning of the day was a big push, but after that, the rest of the day just kind of flowed by with ease. Of note, while the difficulties never exceed moderate class 4, bailing from the traverse would be long and difficult.

I can't help but dream about a traverse around the rim of Mission creek, from the Sonielem ridge to Kakashe. Maybe someone fast can go do it and let me know how it goes...

Our day was somewhere around 7,500 vertical feet, and done in about 8.5 hours at a moderate, steady pace with several long stops.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Holland Lake loop in the Bob

Lydia coming up to the Holland lookout.
When Leah suggested we do a long run with our friend Lydia, I immediately suggested the Holland Lake to Holland Lookout loop in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Fortunately, they were both excited about the idea, so after a huge breakfast at the River City Grill in Bonner, we rallied out to Holland Lake. We kept the pace bright but relaxed, and the run to upper Holland Lake was enjoyable and quick, and aside from a few huckleberry picking stops, the short push to Pendant pass was also quick. With a cool breeze in the air, we lost no time dropping down Pendant creek all they way to Pendant and Big Salmon Falls. This portion of the trail was muddy from the recent rain and heavy horse traffic, and we spent a lot of time walking around puddles.  
Distractions along the trail.
Lydia and Leah climbing to Pendant pass.
Rolling down Pendant creek.
From the falls, we managed to run by the Smokey Creek trail junction, but we realized our error quickly, and an easy backtrack had us back on route.  After a hard climb through wet brush to Smokey lakes, we continued up to Necklace lakes for a late lunch break. Refreshed, we made the final short push up to the Holland Lookout. The views from the top were unobstructed by clouds, and we took another full break to appreciate it all. We descended the Lookout trail, and the descent was smooth and easy. In fact, we all arrived at the car pleasantly tired, but far from worked after about 25 miles and something well north of 5,000 vertical feet of exploring in the Bob.
A questionable looking guy (Brian) in front of a beautiful mountain (Buck).
Montana had a bumper crop of beargrass this year.
Here, Leah climbs though it.
Newly weds celebrating at the Holland lookout.  Photo: Lydia
Team Storyberg was not able to keep up with Lydia on the long, smooth downhill back to the car.

Aside from the novelty of pushing deep into the Wilderness, I thought that the Pendant and Smokey Creek portions were the least enjoyable parts of the loop.  As long as one does not mind a shorter run, a Lower to Upper Holland to Sap[hire lakes to the Lookout would be a higher quality outing, I think. Also, Lydia is running really well right now. I certaintly wouldn't want to have her breathing down my neck on a downhill in the last few miles of a long race...