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?

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