Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Mill 2 to Mill 3 tour

High on Mill 2
With good coverage, adequate stability, and great snow quality, skiing in the Bitterroot is about as good as it gets right now. Jeffrey and I headed out for a long day with the twin objectives of finding good snow and having a good adventure. We found both in abundance. Some friends had skied the East face of Mill 2 the previous day, so we just followed their track all the way from the trailhead to the summit. Even with the track, the upper traverse and climb on the West face was a good technical excercise, and we surmounted it with technical skinning, ski cramponing, booting, rock scrambling, and a little bit of tree climbing.
Jeffrey getting after it on Mill 2.
On the summit, the sun broke through the clouds as I replaced the prayer flags for Chris.
The East face is steep and engaging, but it felt relatively casual since the snow was excellent. We had a fabulous run on this little Bitterroot steep skiing test piece.  From the base, we climbed to the edge of the south gully on Mill 2. We opted out of the long traverse back to the summit, and instead skied straight down to Blodgett Creek.  3,000 feet of excellent skiing later, we were down in the canyon.
Jeffrey in the powder in Mill 2.
More skiing on Mill 2.
Skiing down to Blodgett.
I was less than excited about wind slabs on the west side of Mill 2, so I suggested we tour up canyon about a mile and climb the south side of Mill 3. We had a major false start trying to find the way, but soon enough we were back on track, slowly making our way up the 4,000 vertical foot climb. We used ski crampons again on the climb, and they saved us big time. I'm not afraid to throw a little Spanish in with my German, so Viva la harcheisen!  We were both ready to see the top, and I was excited for a new summit. We skied the low angle northeast face of the multi-named Mill 3/Hauf peak/Printz Ridge HP before nosing our way down into the Mill 2/3 basin and skiing out to Mill creek. Of note, the south facing peak to creek run off Mill 3 that we climbed is moderate, open, not too far back in the canyon, and needs to be skied soon. Our noses were sound, and we found the passage through the cliffs on this otherwise mellow run first try. The exit to the creek had plenty of snow for good skiing all the way down. With beautiful light, we make a triumphant exit out Mill creek. It was a great day, but did't want to leave. 9,300 vertical feet.

Jeffrey on the last climb, with upper Blodgett creek in the background.
Jeffrey on the home stretch.
Back on the trail, about to point it home in Mill creek.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Castle crag via Nipple Knob

Leah and Natalie nearing the summit.

I had another fantastic day in the Bitterroot, skiing the north face of Nipple knob, touring up Sheafman Creek, then skiing the South face of Castle Crag and exiting Mill creek. The weather was great, the company was as good as it gets, and the tour flowed smoothly and had plenty of spice to keep us engaged. There was a healthy dose of canyon slogging time, but it was filled with interesting conversation on a variety of topics, as expected from a party of four with advanced degrees.

We did have to get a little creative to avoid northeast facing wind slabs, but were able piece the tour together without doing anything too slow or dangerous. This was my fifth time on top of the crag, and I was able to re-confirm my opinion that the summit view is one of the best in the range. Both runs were quality, and we were able to score grabby but good conditions from top to bottom on the 3,000 vertical foot south face of Castle Crag. With all the snow, the egress was quick and almost painless. Tacking Nipple knob on to the front part of the day bumped the quality of this tour somewhere just shy of classic status.

Approaching Nipple knob. Photo: Ben Irey
Mill 1 and 2 from Nipple knob. Photo: Ben Irey

Safety meeting (seriously) before engaging the slopes above Knack lake. Photo: Ben Irey
The ladies, skinning all the way to the summit.
Leah cruising on Castle Crag. Photo: Ben Irey

Leah near the bottom of Castle Crag. Photo: Ben Irey

Dressed for spring during the exit.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Back in the Bitterroot - Glen to Sweathouse to Big Creek tour

Jeff and Jeffrey climbing in front of the Mystery chutes.
I took advantage of a rare break in the weather to rally a strong group of Missoula skiers for a day of exploration in the Bitterroot. The firehose of precipitation has finally abated a bit, so we were all excited to get out into some more interesting terrain. As it turns out, avalanche danger was still on the spicy side, but we were still able to ski some new-to-us terrain. We started out by climibing to Glen Lakes at sunrise. This was a new approach for all of us except Jeff, and I relished in discovering a new and surprisingly spectacular little cirque tucked just out of view of the valley.  From the top of the unnamed 8,400 peak west of Glen Lake, we spent about 20 minutes debating the merits of dropping in to Sweathouse peak via the most prominent south facing gully. We decided to go for it, skirting slabs where possible, and were rewarded an icy but stable run all the way down to Sweathouse.
Basking in sunrise on the approach to Glen Lakes.
Jeff at the top of the first run. The entire Gash
complex and the Mystery chutes are visible behind him. 
The zone as seen from Gash. Our first run was the sun/shade gully.
Our second run was the sunlight face off the obvious peak on the left skyline.
It is possible to ski both of these objectives from Gash in a full day.
I had planned on moving on to north facing terrain, but wind slabs seemed too touchy, so I suggested we point up drainage for a look at Hidden Peak. On that subject, it seems like it has been unusually windy, and avalanche danger has been uncharacteristically high this year. Or maybe I am just getting soft, or old and wise? Anyway, everyone was on board, and after a good hard push we were soon ripping skins at our high point. The run was good, if not a touch generic.
At the base of the Hidden peak run.
Aftere a long break at the bottom, we made another push back to 8,400. I must not have eaten enough, because I had a real low energy patch on the last climb. With a squall blowing in, we decided to start the involved exit process. We ended up skiing a long (almost 4,000 vertical feet!) and interesting peak to creek run, which which was difficult to find, and harbored persistent, unsettling wind slabs at the top, even in the trees. We worked our way down slowly, and soon the scary slabby snow changed to safe but challenging powder over chunky avalanche debris in the main gully. The gully was a grand adventure with a few powder turns, a lot of chunky avalanche debris, and a lot of sideslipping around obstacles of all kinds including brush and waterfalls. And there was a healthy sampling of not-too-bad skiing through alder, thin snow navigating in the forest, and a all-hand-on deck search for a safe crossing across Big Creek. It was a great adventure, and I enjoyed every minute of it, aside from the slabby snow at the top.
In the thick of it during the exit to Big Creek.
The ski out Big Creek was fairly long but enjoyable, and we were soon back at the car lounging in lawn chairs (thanks Blake), and consuming massive amounts of beer and potato chips in full Montana style.

Random Snippets:
This is a pretty good zone, but it is limited by the extra long approach compared to similar areas (Gash, nipple knob, Camas, Mill point, etc). Also, a deep low elevation snowpack is required to ski easily down into Big Creek. Still, I will be back o ski the mellower terrain directly above and below the lakes, and to explore more of the north facing terrain toward Big Creek. I really enjoyed the crew today - thanks guys! Of note, everyone has been out skiing a lot this year, and was on light gear, which translated to a strong and fluid day, where about 9,700 vertical feet of touring flew by fairly casually. It was my first day on a new pair of G3 C3 Zen Oxide skis, and aside from grabby tips and tails (to be addressed with ski tuning in the near future), I was pretty impressed. Certainly not the flashiest ski out there, but light enough, nimble enough, floaty enough, and totally solid. I’ll check back in with more details. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Jack 'n Jill Race report

I was not surprised to hear that the Jack 'n Jill randonee race was postponed by a week due to the blizzard, but I was surprised that no fewer than four other Missoulians were game to make the drive over to the Rocky Mountain front to have a go at the re-scheduled course. I have heard good things about this ski hill, and was excited to check it out. Teton Pass ski resort has a cool vibe and impressive sidecountry touring terrain when conditions are stable. And they did a great job hosting the race.
Post-race mug shot. Thanks for the battle Ben.
Photo: Teton Pass
After a warm up and brief pre-race meeting, the gun went off. A Le mans start gave an appropriate, old-school flare to the race.  Blake made it first off the line, with Ben and me in hot pursuit. Within a few minutes, Ben had taken the lead, and I was sandwiched betwen him and Blake. To my surprise, Ben was unable to open a gap, and I was able to get out ahead of him, but was not able to open a gap to the top of the first climb. Ben got out of the transition first, and we both skied hard to the bottom of the run. Ben had another good transition, and started up about 30 seconds ahead of me. I took in some fluid and calories at the bottom, then just rallied with all my might to the top. I was only able to close the gap by about 10 seconds during the short climb, and Ben held on to his lead at the transition, and through the descent. We finished within 25 seconds of each other. Blake came through a few minutes back, then Leah cruised over the line in first for women, and 4th overall.  The rest of the Missoula crew was not far behind. In terms of excecution, I felt good going into the race, and was able to push hard without any real bobbles. Any day where I can stay within striking distance of Ben is about as good as I can ask for. The rest of the Missoula crew had strong races - Blake and Natalie are going to be deadly if they are able to scrape together full race setups, and Janine completed her first ski race of any kind in good style.

Coming into the finish line. No helmet, no problem. That's how we do it
 in Montana (and Europe, I suppose). Photo: Teton Pass
Team Missoula all back at the finish line. Photo: Teton Pass
We spent the remainder of the day hiking to the top of the mountain and riding lifts. The awards were fun, with plenty of prizes to go around. Good times, and a big thanks to everyone at the resort for putting on a great event. Results are here.
Checking out the big explosive triggered crown from the night before
during our sidecountry excursion to the summit. Photo: Blake Votilla
Still waiting with baited breath for stability to improve in the Bitterroot...

Monday, March 3, 2014

Missoula Foothill Diaries

Missoula experienced a series of near record snow and wind events that have allowed for good skiing in the foothills above town. Unfortunately, the good skiing has been overshadowed by the tragic avalanche on Mt. Jumbo. Check the Missoulian and for more information and updates. Please be careful out there, and abide by any restrictions that the city places on Sentinel or Jumbo. I have been able to have a great run of powder skiing, getting out for at least a quick spin on skis at least 5 days a week for three weeks running. 

Wednesday, Feb. 26  I skied one lap on South Sentinel, biking tp Maurice, and ascending just north of the fire road and Pengelly trail. I skied the tree strip between the North and South summits before traversing south back to the fire road for a rock free exit. The snow was thin, but the skiing was surprisingly good and I only hit one rock. 52 min. bike to bike.

Nearing the top of Sentinel at sunset. The father and daughter
below are about rip turns back to town.
Thursday, Feb 27 I skied the south face of University Mountain from the Pattee Canyon cross country parking area before work. I approached via the Deer Creek sneak road, then went straight up to the top. The snow was plentiful, and a biting wind on the summit ridge made it feel like a genuine mountain experience. It was good to see a crew of friends heading up for a shot at the north face all the way to the Clark Fork River. Rumor has it that the skiing was pretty good, if not a bit sparky for the last 1,000 vertical feet or so. 1 hour 3 minutes car to car.
Closing in on the Beacon from the south.
Friday Feb 28 I toured out from the house, and skied the north edge of Sentinal, climbing the M trail and skinning just south of the summer trail in full blizzard conditions. I saw a lot of cracking and fracture propagation in fresh new wind slabs, and modified my route accordingly. The skiing was great. No time, but it was a slow outing, probably about 1 hr 10 min or so from the bottom of the trail.

Urban approach to Sentinel.
Saturday, March 1 I toured up the Sentinel fire road again. The biting wind was too much for all of us, but I was stubborn and proceeded to the top. Fresh wind slabs were sensitive once again, with shooting cracks, whoomphing, and fresh avalanche crowns in wind loaded pockets. I threaded a line down Sentinel that avoided steep terrain above houses, but in retrospect it would have been better to avoid skiing above houses on Sentinel altogether. On the ski over and back through town, I stopped to help push five cars out of wind drifts. The remainder of the day was spent excavating our vehicles and digging snow around our house.

Leah skiing from the back porch.
Skier triggered avalanche on the south side of Sentinel.
The crown was 2-3 feet deep, but the terrain was not steep
enough for it to run like the avalanche on Jumbo.
Nipped by the frost on Sentinel. 
There was about 2 feet of settled snow here before the wind hit. 
3 foot drifts in our front yard.
Sunday, March 2  Nipple knob in the Bitterroot with Leah. Not a foothills day, but a great moderate tour. Up to the top from the County highway, one 1,200’ powder run into Sheafman Creek, and back up to the top for the 4,000’ run down to the valley, which had good snow the whole way.
Leah ripping at the top of a great powder run into Sheafman creek from the top of Nipple knob.
Excellent powder skiing at the bottom of Nipple knob.
Monday, March 4 I headed up Marshall after work with intentions on venturing out to Woody Mountain. Unfortunately, the rain had turned the snow to mush and glop, and it became immediately obvious that Woody was a little too far out given the slow conditions. I took a short run north off the top, then skied out the normal ski runs. The skiing was slow, but it wasn't too crusty or knee wrenching, so no harm no foul. No photos, but just imaging to move uphill after tying a bowling ball to each foot, and you get the picture.

Skiing may be put on hiatus this week if it rains. To be continued...

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Roger's Pass, Photo report

Glaciers, blue sky, tons of snow. Welcome to Roger's Pass.
Leah and I spent four days touring around Roger's Pass. A deep and scary persistent weak layer kept us from getting out into any steep alpine terrain, but the weather and snow were top notch. By maintaining a relaxed pace, we were able to ski about 6,000 vertical feet every day and not get too worn down.

Day 1: McGill
We toured up the McGill shoulder and skied two runs with excellent powder around the edge of the main avalanche path and the gunbarrel chutes. Much to our surprise, skiers were exiting the way they came, and we had second tracks down the awesome Camp West path back to the car. Camping was cold but still fun.
Skinning among snow ghosts on McGill. 
Leah busting powder on McGill.
Ripping skins at the end of a the day on McGill.
Dropping into the Camp West path on McGill.

Day 2: Flat Creek
After waking up to blue skies, we made the difficult decision to still spend the day below treeline. We toured up the normal Flat Creek trees skin track, then took a surprisingly poor east facing run down to the creek. From there, we climbed through old growth trees to about 2/3 height up the mighty Smart Avalanche paths. The ski was long and amazing. Arriving at the car at dark, we quickly packed our stuff and made the frigid ski into the Wheeler hut in the dark. We met up with some good Missoula friends and had a great time in the hut. Until I fell asleep about an hour before anyone else.

Leah skiing in the Smart paths. 
More powder in the Smart paths.
Day 3: Asulkan hut and Sapphire col
It may have been frigid, but the day dawned clear, so we headed staight up the Asulkan valley, with intentions of summiting Youngs peak if conditions permitted. Unfortunately, several large recent crowns indicated that avalanche danger was still perilously high above treeline, so we stopped at the Asulkan hut, had a snack, and had a good run down the Triangle trees back down to the Mousetrap. From there, we followed a skin track to the top of Triangle Morane, and forged a route up to Sapphire col. Pushing past where everyone else had stopped was unnerving, but the route seemed low angle enough to be safe, except for one short rollover, which we managed the best we could. Topping out in the sun, with Leah, in the heart of the mountains was fantastic. The run down was every bit as classic as it was supposed to be, and we were soon back at the hut, kicking back and swapping stories from the day.
The last few steps to the Asulkan hut.
Leah enjoying great turns below the hut. 
Climbing up the Triangle Morane with Youngs taunting us in the background. 
My eyes hurt. On the climb to Sapphire col.
Leah at Sapphire col with a whole lot of classic Rogers Pass touring terrain behind her. 
This is the steep rollover we were worried about. We ascended and descended one at a time. 
Day 4: Lookout col 
We spent the morning skinning up to Lookout col. To our surprise, no-one had pushed the skin track all the way to the col, and we had a great view of the surrounding area before skiing the rolling, enjoyable run back to the hut. On the way out we passed at least 10 skiers headed for the col, and I'm glad we were able to beat them to the punch. The drive back was long but uneventful, and I can't wait to go back with more stable conditions.
Another day, another great view. Near Lookout col.
My first few turns off the col.