Thursday, January 30, 2014

Grey Wolf 4X4

Near the bottom of the first run, looking out to Riddell lakes and a sea of clouds at dawn.
On January 23rd, I finally completed a long standing project of skiing all four aspects on Grey Wolf peak in a day. While not a high elevation peak, Grey Wolf is a prominent and rugged mountain with a rich mountaineering history. Nick, Ben and I failed on this link up last spring, so with adequate snow coverage and high pressure, I took a day off of work for a second attempt.

I started skinning from the truck at 4:40 am, and followed Blake's ski tracks up through the icy fog until it broke right at Riddell lake. After stashing the headlamp, I climbed the south couloir by moonlight, topping out at dawn. The south couloir skied perfectly - very firm but edgable, with smooth snow from top to bottom.

All smiles at dawn at the top of the South couloir.
Looking down the South couloir out to a sea of clouds at dawn.
Fine turns below the South couloir.
I transitioned quickly at the lake and climbed into the sun at the Riddell/Scenic divide. The downhill traverse to the east couloir went quickly, and I was soon skinning, then booting, then dancing up firm snow in crampons to the top of the couloir. At the top, I stashed both water bottles and dropped in. With a small cornice and no runnel, the couloir skied perfectly, and I was soon back at the lake, smiling and taking it all in. The second climb up the east was quick. The day was heating up, and I pushed fairly hard to beat any falling snow. I topped out at 10:15, pouring sweat, and ready to spend some time on the shady side of the mountain.  I had a blast skiing the West couloir.  This was my 7th full descent, and I can't get enough of what I consider to be one of Montana's finest ski mountaineering objectives.  I skied out of the shade and into the warm sun at the lake below No fish lake and took a full break, relaxing, drying skins, eating food, drinking water, and enjoying the perfectly cold and clear day.

Happy at Scenic lakes after a successful descent of the East couloir.
At the top of the East couloir.
Chalky snow in the West couloir.

Sun break, geting psyched up for the big push up the west face to the summit.
With firm snow, I transitioned from skins to spikes at the mouth of the couloir and walked up, pied a plat style. Pierre Tardivel would have approved. I traversed the snow ledge between the West face and the normal upper west chimney ridge route, surmounted one class 4 step, and climbed easily to the main summit.  This is the last summit that I shared with Chris Spurgeon, and I spent a minute on top, gazing at the mountain goat tracks, wishing they were Chris' running freely over the mountains. The North face was a wake up call.  I was expecting dreamy neve, but instead found edgeable ice. Over cliffs. Skiing meticulously, I made my way down the face and through the traverses before dropping to the small moraine at the base of the face.  The easiest return is to climb east toward Sunset Crags, but with a little extra time, I instead booted straight back up my tracks to the Grey Wolf/Sunset col for a crack at a new, steep return couloir to Scenic lake.  I completely botched the routefinding into the couloir, and ended up having to pull out some tricks including technical backing up over rimy wind lips and hacking through a little cornice with my whippet to gain access to the lower portion of the exit couloir.  In any case, it went, and I didn't fall into the gaping moat, and I was soon back at Scenic lake.  A quick climb put me back on the Scenic/Riddell divide, and a thrashy but quick ski put me back at the trailhead.  It was a perfect tour.  I love skiing.
Thinking of you, Chris.
Below the North face, looking back up at the ski line.
Heading home.  Just enough snow to ski cleanly out to the car on the trail.

This is a great tour. It is long but not too long, techy but not too difficult, committing but not too dangerous, and the skiing is amazing. I was glad to have perfect conditions. Upon my semi-recommendation, the brothers Vandenbos did the same tour the following day.  Nice work Nick and Ben! Today was a reminder that with good conditions, mid-winter ski mountaneering can be safer and easier than spring skiing. No runnels, no glare ice, no falling rocks, no hiking out in ski boots. All good things. This was also a good example of why I advocate for using light gear, since the light kit allowed me to move efficiently up the climbs, was adequate to fully enjoy the downhills, and allowed me to stay relaxed all day and still be back at the car well before dark.

In terms of conditions, I found stable, deep snow everywhere. The road is plowed to Twin Lakes, and it is icy but passable even to low clearance vehicles with snow tires.  The Riddell trail has a lot of donwnfall, but there is enough snow that one barely notices.  I am trying to get away from touring in spandex, but I did wear the racing suit, and it was, well, pretty much perfect. This was my first day steep skiing on the Nanga Parbats. They did OK. The early rise tail doesn't seem to provide as much support as I would have liked, and they don't appear to edge like the Broad Peak skis did, but they held their own, even with relatively flimsy boots. The chatter I was expecting never came, which was a surprise for such light skis. I would want a more traditional ski for really technical, icy skiing, but for my purposes the Nanga Parbats seem to be sufficient to get down the steep stuff, and have proven to be quite nimble and playful for their small size.  So, 1.8 thumbs up for now.

Approximate total elevation gain (based on topo map):  10,500 feet
Trip length: a little north of 10 hours
Accomplices: None
Put in:  Random turnout near Twin Lakes
Take out: Same
Ski equipment:  Dynafit Nanga Parbat skis, TLT speed race bindings, Scarpa Alien boots, One whippet, and one race pole.  Spandex suit, Camp Nanotech crampons,  Ski crampons.  Helmet. 
Sustinance:  Cold Taco del Sol buritto and cold coffee for breakfast.  2 liters of water with Perpetum and Hammer Fizz.  1.5 king size Snickers bars, two granola bars, bag of peanuts  500 calories of Gu.
Number of crampon transitions: 8
Trailbreaking effort:  None
Avalanche conditions:  Low, but moderate danger from falling snow and ice.
Fatigue factor (1-10): 7
Stoke factor (1-10): 10
Memories to suppress:  Dark and foggy morning.


  1. Impressive tour, Brian. Will you be in Bozeman this weekend for the race at Bridger? If so, give me a call if you have any extra time and I'll buy you a beer. I'll likely be riding the lifts a Bridger tomorrow as well.

  2. Yes Ryan, I am planning on Bridger. I'll give you a call, and maybe we can squeeze a ridge hike in after the race.