Thursday, February 27, 2014

Big to Little St. Joe tour

On the first day of President’s day weekend, a couple of Missoula’s finest skiers joined me on an exploratory day up Bass creek. The mountains around Missoula are in the throes of a massive storm cycle, so the agenda was simple: go up Bass Creek and ski whatever looked good and safe. Much to our surprise, the morning dawned clear, so we headed straight to the summit of St. Joseph peak. Big St. Joe is a long push from the car, and we took time to forge an as-safe-as-possible route, dig a pit, discuss options for the day, and generally enjoy the fine morning. I had not been on the summit in about three years, so it was good to stand on top of this commanding mountain yet again. With all the fresh snow, we felt obligated to tiptoe around a bit, and we took a conservative route down the southeast ridge and into the southeast bowl.  The skiing was excellent, inspiring Nick to yodel for an impressive portion of the descent.
High on big St. Joe
Nick yodelling as he skis down St. Joeseph peak.
We stopped at the very bottom of the bowl, about 1,000 feet above the creek, and climbed up the shallow ridge just west of the Pinball Wizard gully. I really wanted to jump into the Pinball Wizard, but wisely decided to save it for a more stable day.  Instead, we skied boot top powder down one of the tree lanes adjacent to our skin track, then re-ascended the track to the Bass/Sweeney divide. With weather blowing in and daylight waning, we hoofed it across to Little St. Joe, sneaking south of all the gendarmes and wind blown junk along the ridge. We skied the standard ascent route back to the car, and were able to keep skis on the whole way. We ended in the rain, but it was OK, because we had just had a fantastic 10k day.
Jeffrey at the bottom of the second run.
Transitioning in the storm on Little St. Joe at the completion of the traverse.
This was a great day. With better weather than anticipated conservative approach, we were able to move around really well and ski a bunch of terrain safely during a period of Considerable to High avalanche danger. The traverse out to St. Joe was a worthwile addition to the day, but skiing out Little St. Joe was pretty disappointing.  The skiing is just not very good on the southeast ridge. We probably should have skied the North meadows and committed to the slow bushwack out to the road. I still think that the tour is better done in reverse, with major variations.

The rest of the weekend was also enjoyable.  Ben, Leah and I went up the North Fork of Lost Horse creek and found a snowed in road (we parked out at the Lodge, which is about 2 miles from the South Fork trailhead), wind, too much new snow, and some good powder skiing. Ben is hands down the best trailhead food person I know, and we were treated to warm split pea soup at the car.  It spoiled my dinner, but that was OK. Monday was spent skiing at Mill point for the first time from Blodgett. The approach and egress were quite easy with the low elevation coverage, and we had some good skiing down to Tag Alder lake and farther down toward Mill Creek. I wanted to ski a big south facing run back into Blodgett, but avalanche danger seemed too high, so we just took it easy, cranking out about 8,500 vertical feet of mellow skiing.
Skinning in the storm and trying to stay in high spirits.

Ben skiing powder in Lost Horse creek.
And a quick detour to beat the light-is-right drum. While not racking up vertical like some guys, I have been fortunate to ski over 40,000 vertical feet of powder (and 2,000 feet of terrible breakable mush - thanks Kyle) in the past two weeks. I have been using semi-light skis (too-short Dynafit Manaslus and Huascarans) with race bindings and TLT 5 boots. With heavier gear, it would not have been fun to take the second long run in Bass Creek, or explore all they way down into Mill creek, or feel great for early Marshall powder laps, or get out with enough time for one of my partners to get hopelessly lost and still return to the car before dark.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Return to the Swans - Lick Lake couloir

The Lick lake couloir in spring 2012. The Maola face is a more
exposed line that I skied a few years ago in memory of my grandmother.
Leah, Ted, and I took advantage of the late January high pressure system to ski the stellar Lick Lake couloir from the summit of Ptarmigan mountain. As skiers like to say, it did not disappoint. The road approach is over 5 miles long, but with kicker skins, we made good time through the eerie early morning inversion. The climb up to Ptarmigan was fairly slow, especially since we were forced out of the main avalanche path. Even with a late summit time, everyone was still OK to drop East into the great Bob Marshall wilderness.
Closing in on Ptarmigan.
The top of the run involves exposed skiing down the East ridge, and we put our steep skiing game faces on and took our time. The couloir itself was great. It is big and beautiful, and would get skied all the time if it were not for the long approach. From the lake, we took a long snack break and began the long haul back up to the crest. A massive slide had released just a few days prior, leaving a 10 foot crown and impressive debris pile at its base. We decided that the safest way back to the ridge would be to climb the bed surface of the slide, which went without incident. On a stability related note, the snow was much less stable in the Swans than in the Missions and Bitterroot. Just thinner and weaker, with more scary lurking glide avalanche potential. I wonder if this is a common trend? But I digress.
Leah, dwarfed by the Lick lake couloir.
Leah and Ted on the way out to the Swan crest, looking back at the couloir,
and feeling the vast wildness of the Bob Marshall wilderness.
From the crest, we took the big 4,000 foot west facing avalanche path back to the road.  The top had great shallow powder skiing, and the lower gully and alder exit were surprisingly fun. Even the ski out went smoothly, with about two miles of kicker skins, then a quick schuss out to the car. We returned right at "very, very dusk". I turned my headlamp on for the last quarter mile or so, and Leah and Ted decided to just pound it out in the dark. What a day.
Leah skiing down to the sea of clouds.
Ted skiing down to the sea of clouds.
Back at the road after surviving the bushwack unscathed.
With stable snow, this is a great tour. I still think that the Lick lake couloir from Ptarmigan mountain is one of the best ski lines around Missoula. The road approach could be eliminated with a snowmobile. It was great getting out with Ted, and I was glad that we were able to venture into his beloved Bob Marshall Wilderness.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Bridger Bowl Skin to Win - 2014 Race Report

This year's iteration of the Skin to Win race was fun as always, but first, a public service announcement for all randonee racers within driving distance:

The Skin to Win is one of the best courses I have raced.  Endless technical skinning, challenging descents, and miles of ridgeline traversing are the highlights. The resort does a great job hosting the event, the prizes are generous, and the food is good. I would highly encourage anyone within striking distance to put this event on their calendar for next year, especially strong backcountry skiers in Bozeman and Missoula, Canadians, Jacksonites, and SLC folks.

The race itself was great. I had a pre-race crisis when the cord closure on my ski boots exploded just a few minutes before the starting gun, but Reed from Bozeman had a spare cord and bailed me out.  Thanks Reed!

The blow by blow was as follows:
The LeMans start always shakes things up, and Nate Brown was first off the line, I was second, and everyone else left in a group.  I was briefly in the lead before Ben Parsons blazed by.  Knowing he would be fast, I let him go, and settled into a bright but sustainable pace.  Alan Adams passed me before the North Bowl road, and John closed in but didn't pass until the top of the road.  I transitioned to the bootpack mid-way in a group of 5, and we all hammered up the bootpack.  I was able to maintain position, and caught Alan at the top of Hidden.  Alan and Dave got out of the transition before me, but I was able to pass them both in Hidden couloir with some aggressive and slightly impolite skiing.  Dave and I charged down through cut up powder on the Apron, and somehow managed to stay on our feet. We transitioned with John and moved as a group up the Motor Room bootpack. John got out about 30 seconds ahead of me, and I got out just ahead of Dave. I think Dave started having skin troubles, because I would not see him for the rest of the race. I was running full width nylon skins, which allowed me to almost catch John on the way-too-steep skin track up Bridger Gullies. Sluice Box skied well. I think John was getting face shots. John wisely switched to nylon skins, but he had to rummage through his pack to get them, which allowed me to get out of the transition just ahead of him. The third climb reverses the Right Side/Tight Squeeze exit track, and is super steep and challenging, and I was able to work my steep skinning magic and open a 50 second gap on John to the ridge.  I pushed hard up the ridge to the Nose transition, where Becca was working.  Thanks for volunteering, Becca! The Nose skied well, and I got out of the transition about a minute ahead of John. Using my "if you don't feel like you are about to die, you should go faster" mantra, I pushed hard up the last climb, and focused on skiing smoothly along the technical ridgeline all the way to Slashman's. At this point, I was pretty much in no-man's land. It would take gear failure or an especially magnificent crash to catch Ben, and John was out of sight behind me, so I throttled back a notch and focused on not making any mistakes.  Soon enough, I was bombing down the last run and trying to skate efficiently on the long cat track finish.  The little uphill stinger was painful as always, but I was soon over the line, in second place, and glad to be done. John came in about 2 minutes later, then Dave, Nate Brown, and Alan, with tales of epic skin failures.

Starting photo, with everyone pondering how much they are willing to suffer.

Results in hours.minutes

1 Adrian Michela 3.02
1 Parsons Ben 2.03
2 Story Brian 2.08
3 Curry John 2.10
5 Hoffman David 2.19
4 Brown Nate 2.19
6 Bestwick Michael 2.23
7 Adams Alan 2.27
8 Watson Reed 2.30
9 Magajna Joe 3.20
10 Witt Jeff 3.29
11 Wood Edward 3.18

I had a great race. Even pacing, adequate fueling, just enough clothing, and strong skiing all went off without a hitch. Transitions were slow, but that is kind of the way of it. I have not been as motivated to train hard as in years past, so it was encouraging to see that my fitness has not fallen off too much.

Ben took the lead early on, and pretty much skied his own race out in front. Strong work Ben! Were it not for skin carnage, it would have been a battle between about 5 of us the whole way. John gave a good fight, as always. Thanks John! The race organizers worked especially hard this year to set the course during a snowy and cold week. The course was well marked, and the skin tracks were in, so thanks to everyone who helped out.

This is the third consecutive year of low turnout at the Bridger race, which is too bad, because the course is really, really good. As I mentioned in the PSA above, I would heartily encourage locals to support Bridger, grab your lightest setup, and just give it a go next year. Also, any racers looking for a good new course should make the drive and check it out.