Monday, February 23, 2015

White Cloud mountains - Castle Peak

White Cloud sunrise from camp.
The South face of Castle Peak is listed in “50 Classic ski descents of North America”. Since there is no route information in the book, the striking image of the south face provided a perfect catalyst for a wild and pure adventure. The end product was weekend of skiing in the White Cloud mountains of Idaho unencumbered or assisted by any information about the area aside from the original 1964 7.5 minute USGS quad map.

Leah was game to head out early, so we extended an already three-day weekend and made the drive to the East Fork of the Salmon and the five hour approach on the first day. The last two hours of the approach were all in the dark, but we were able to dead reckon to Baker lake without incident.

After a surprise flurry, Saturday dawned cold and clear, and we headed over the Little Boulder/Germania divide, straight for the South face of Castle peak. We were able to efficiently skin and boot consolidated snow on the South face without difficulty. From the point of highest snow, a short scramble had me on the summit, gazing to the Sawtooth, Lost Rivers, Beaverheads, and beyond. 

Kick turn on the South face of Castle peak.
The South face skied well, and we both fully enjoyed the descent. After a long break at Chamberlain lakes, we took a short lap on an open south facing bowl before starting our return to camp via the Southeast shoulder of Castle. We topped out on the shoulder at sunset and skied a big open couloir back to camp, flicking on our headlamps just a few steps from camp. The evening was nice, cooking, drinking tea, and eating Valentine’s day chocolate.
Leah skiing the South face of Castle peak.
Leah heading back up for more.
The second morning was cold, but we hit the sun after an hour or so of movement, and we were soon were cramponing up a couloir above Castle lake in full sun. Much to my chagrin, the mid-couloir choke was not filled in, but after some hemming and hawing, we climbed past it anyway. The ski down was good – I had a blast, and Leah got it done, including a tricky downclimb over the choke. We extended the run all the way down to treeline for a proper break. After lunch, we climbed back up to Castle lake and skied the most aesthetic of a trio of couloirs above the lake. The snow was chalky and steep and fun, and was a nice bookend to a day of striking and sustained couloirs. We indulged in a fire back at camp, which did a good job keeping the cold at bay.
Leah climbing steep snow above the choke in an unnamed couloir above Castle lake.
Near the base of the couloir.
Leah coming up yet another clean, steep, chalky couloir.
The last day was supposed to be blustery, but we awoke to crisp clear skies. We were psyched. We immediately charged up to treeline with the thought of threading ski tracks through rock pinnacles on an intriguing southeast face back to camp. Near the top of the climb, an aesthetic couloir came into view on the opposite side of the peak. It looked chalky and fun, so we switch plans and got to work finding the sneak entrance. We were able to find a way in, and enjoyed great skiing all the way to Hatchet lake. A quick hop over the ridge had us back at camp just in time to pack up and embark on the ski out. The egress went about as quickly as could be expected. A mile of dry trail walking put us back at the car a little tired and a little sunburned but extremely satisfied and energized from a perfect Valentine’s wilderness adventure.

Skiing the couloir above Hatchet lake on the last day.
That was fun. 
The last mile was dry.
Note: The South face of Castle peak is a good ski objective. I would argue that the long approach, wind scoured middle portion of the run, slightly generic aesthetics and lack of summit snow keep it just out of the realm of classic. However, it is absolutely worth a trip if you have the time and are in the area. As far as I can tell, it is the premier descent off the premier peak in the range, and the line is on par with the best descents in the Sawtooth.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Big St. Joe, South Gully East

Leah skiing on the South face of Big St. Joseph peak.
Leah and I have been having an ongoing debate on the relative quality of this ski season. While I still contend this season is on par or better than average, the weather in the past three weeks has not helped my case. Last weekend, the mountains were coated in a dangerous, uniform layer of ice. Despite the stable snow, we bailed on steeper, more interesting objectives and instead headed up Big St. Joseph peak hoping for sun warmed snow on the south face with an acceptable bail option back down the ascent route. The day was gorgeous, and we made good time on the ascent despite surprisingly melted out and challenging climbing in the gully at the base of the peak. Andrew was the only one who had brought ski crampons along, and he put them to good use, skinning everything except the 40+ degree exit from the Southeast Bowl. This was my sixth lifetime summit of Big. St. Joe.
Andrew, getting it done.
Climbing the summit ridge. Photo: Andrew Mayer
It was breezy on the summit, so our stay was abbreviated. We booted west to the highest south gully. Finding sheer glazed ice, we reluctantly booted up and out and back over the summit, expecting to reverse our ascent route. After skiing the summit ridge, we took a gamble and nosed our way down into the eastern most of the three massive south facing avalanche paths on the peak. The snow had softened just enough, so we went for it. The ensuing run was fantastic, with good corn snow and a long, enjoyable fall line with a nice clean rock lined couloir exit. I was elated to ski this big, beautiful run in legitimately good conditions. The exit out Bass Creek has survived the warm wet storm largely intact, and we were out to the car in no time. Good day, and always great to get out with a strong new partners from Missoula. 6,000 vertical feet and done in about 8.5 hours car to car.
Leah and Andrew cruising on the South Face of Big St. Joe
Leah and me coming out of the pinch on the South Face. Photo: Andrew Mayer

Sunday, February 1, 2015

St. Mary to Heavenly Twins and beyond tour

Looking west to Point 8,865 and the Heavenly Twins.
I took advantage of the end of a long high pressure system and the first legitimately low avalanche danger of the year to link St. Mary peak and the Heavenly Twins, skiing as many good lines as possible along the way. Weather the previous week had included record warm temperatures and rain, leaving the snow stable but covered with a veneer of rain ice all the way from the valley to the ridgetops. After a bike shutte the previous night, I left my bivy site at the bottom of the St. Mary road a touch before 5 am. I headed straight up the mountain under the glow of a near full moon, cutting road switchbacks and occasionally checking the map. It was a long dark few hours, and I wandered around a bit at times, but it was all worth it when I hit the St. Mary summit just as the sun crested the horizon, 3 hours and 40 minutes into the day.
I spent several hours doing this before the sun came up.
Sunrise. My shadow. St. Mary Lookout. Ready for a big day.
I descended the rocky South ridge on foot, which was actually quite enjoyable. The Scarpa Alien boots pretty much double as running shoes. I skied a short run in the West Bowl of St. Mary peak before hopping west over the ridge to a long west facing tree lined gully. I took the gully to an unnamed lake tucked away in a high tarn in Kootenail Creek. The line is great, but the snow was very icy, so I took my time, mentally preparing for a day of firm conditions. From the lake, I headed up to point 8,865, armed with ski crampons. The climb went quickly, and I stopped on the shoulder of 8,865 where the slope breaks out to the long summit ridge. I skied the upper Northeast face before taking a hard left down a short gully into another spectacular hanging basin at the base of the Heavenly Twins.
Near the bottom of the snowless south ridge of St. Mary.
The boulder hopping was actally quite enjoyable.
Icy tree lane off the far west shoulder of St, Mary peak. 
Looking down the third run, which dropped to the sun/shade saddle,
then skier's left through a fun gully toward Kootenai Creek.
The climb up out of the basin went quickly with ski crampons, and I was soon poised at the Kootenai/Big creek divide. I took a short, traversing run around the south side of Dissapointment point and paused for a quick lunch break in the sun. Armed with crampons, I booted up to the South shoulder, then around to the Southwest face and up to the fantastically exposed Heavenly Twins summit. I took another short break on the summit, enjoying the wild spectacular perch before downclimbing about 100 feet to skiable snow on the Southwest face. If it were not for the arduous approach and egress, the 3,300 vertical foot Southwest face of the South Heavenly Twin would be one of the classics of the range. The upper face was very icy, but it was just edgeable enough to negotiate the upper 45 degree headwall pitch with a thin but adequate margin of safety. About half way down, the snow softened, and I enjoyed nice corn snow all the way down to Beaver Creek. I slapped skins on one last time and made the big climb up to Point 8,702. The climb was long, but I was feeling good, so I just pushed and pushed and pushed. The extensive upper basin is lined with cliffs and cornices, but I was able to sneak through a small break in the cornice and boot a few hundred feet of terrible frozen facets to the summit.
Climb with a view. At the Kootenai/Big divide, looking north to Big St. Joe.
Scratch marks during the wrap around below Dissapointment point.
About half way down the Heavenly Twins.
I skied the 3,200 vertical foot fall line to Beaver Creek in good corn snow. Once I hit the creek, the tenor of the day changed from a magical dance throught the mountains to a long slog out to civilization. The creek had melted out, and all the rocks were covered in ice, so I just waded the creek with skis on, saturating my boot liners in the process. Ah well. The egress out of Big Creek is just plain long, and after about two miles of steady progress with kicker skins, I put the skis on the pack and walked/jogged/ice skipped the last four miles out to the car. The egress took a mind numbing 3.5 hours, but so it goes sometimes in the Bitterroot. Of note, I parked out at the Glen Lake/Big Creek junction. It adds a mile to the day, but eliminates trechourous icy road driving to a trailhead without a good turnaround. I flicked my headlamp on about 10 minutes before reaching the car, and beer, dry socks, and the contentment of a day well spent skiing dream lines deep in my backyard.
Looking back at the magnificent Southwest face of the Heavenly Twins.
That was fun. 
About half way down the massive south face of Point 8,702.
This is one of the biggest avalanche paths in the Bitterroot mountains.
Ice covered rocks and soggy boots after crossing Big Creek.
This was a great tour. I got a little greedy and pretty much just skied everything that looked good and logical, but it could be simplified and shortened into a reasonable day. Even though last week's rain and warm temperatures sapped the low elevation snow, the snow seems to be welded together, so it finally feels like go time for bigger, steeper ski runs. Even though the tour was long, I putted along at a moderate, steady pace, returning to the car tired but not wasted.

By the numbers, 13,300 vertical feet and done in 13 hours, 40 minutes. Gear used: Scarpa Aliens, Dynafit Nanga Parbats, ski crampons, ice crampons, one Whippet and one race pole. I brought and consumed about 2,500 calories and by far the most memorable food item was a packet of squeezable MRE peanut butter than kept me kicking along for hours.

Memories to suppress: Fording Big Creek with ski boots, the entire snowless egress, ICE EVERYWHERE.
The route.