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.

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