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. 

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