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