Thursday, March 26, 2015

Canyon Peak, South Face redux

While I haven't been getting big, epic days in lately, I have been able to knock out a few tours that are more standard in length, and it has been good to get them cataloged. Canyon Peak is a great example. While the arduous approach and egress prevent the tour from being a true classic, the South face is a fabulous ski run, and the day flows well overall once you get through the approach. The basic tour should be doable in under 12 hours for a standard touring party.
Canyon peak from near the base of the South face.
I was excited to spend the day with Blake, but he ended up bailing at the last minute, so I left all the avy gear at home, threw in the light ski setup, and headed out from the Canyon Creek trailhead alone shortly after 6 am. The entire approach to the falls below Canyon lake was in intermittent snow, and I walked most of it with running shoes. I wasn't especially motivated to move fast, so I settled into a comfortable rhythm, waiting patiently for daylight. I still contend that the Canyon Creek trail is one of the worst in the range, and it was in terrible shape today with intermittent snow, lots of bare patches, and endless running water on the trail. The other bugger is that the trail gets progressively worse over the first three miles, slowly crushing morale.

The tenor of the day shifted at Canyon lake, and I enjoyed the beautiful crisp morning, moving quickly to Wyatt lake and beyond to the Canyon/Sawtooth divide. From the divide, I ripped skins and did a quick downward traverse onto the massive South face. Conditions were firm but otherwise perfect, and I was excited to be way back in wild Bitterroot mountains so early in the day. A quick ski crampon assisted skin and boot ascent had me at the point of highest snow just a stone throw below the summit, excavating a perch to put skis on. Climbing to the top is difficult, and I did not summit. The ski run was great. The snow was just barely softening, and I skied grippy ice and corn all the way down to the logical end of the run a little over a thousand feet above the canyon bottom. Several years ago, I had turned around due to avalanche danger about 200 vertical feet below the point of highest snow, and it was great to finally ski it from the top.
Near Canyon lake. What a nice day. 
Poised at the top, Ready to ski.
It was still well before noon even after a short sit down lunch break. I still had a lot of energy and was excited to just ski a bunch of stuff, so I set an informal goal of making it a 10k day. I skinned easily back up to the Canyon/Sawtooth divide and skied the next avalanche path east down to snowline, which was great - interesting skiing with perfect corn. I repeated the process, skiing the next avalanche path east which was less interesting but had great snow. I topped out on the buttress above Canyon Lake and skied down to to the lake, enjoying some nice warming powder on the way down. With an hour to spare, I climbed back up to the divide and skied a short northwest facing couloir. I ran out of steam about half way up the climb, but it was nothing that a big gooey shot of peanut butter chased by a little gel couldn't fix. There was a pinch at the bottom of the couloir which I thought I could air out, but of course when the time came, I chickened out and ended up bypassing the choke via some shameful but otherwise safe sideslipping through scrappy trees off to the side. I made a valiant attempt to use the last run as a way to traverse down drainage below Canyon lake and cut off some of the trial, but I ended up getting stuck in thick downfall. It took some blue collar creativity to get back to the trail, but I'm pretty good at adversity, and was soon back on the trail. I walked and jogged the exit in ski boots, and was back at the car soon enough.
The excellent second run just east of Canyon peak.
Nice corn snow on the third run. 
Good shallow powder on the fourth run. 
On top of the fifth run near the end of the day. Tired, happy, grateful.
Standing water, intermittent snow and downfall made for an interesting hike out.
By the numbers, about 11,300 vertical feet with a stout approach and egress, done in almost exactly 11 hours at a moderately hard and steady pace car to car. This was a great day. Unfortunately, it was also served as a poignant reminder that Bitterroot Canyon approaches are done for the year.

Also, a few thoughts on Canyon Creek driving directions: The Canyon Creek road is hit or miss for driving in winter. The road is plowed for about a mile past the Blodgett turnoff. From there one can normally drive to at least the first switchback. Take note that the trailhead is shaded, and can it can be difficult to turn around. If in doubt, consider parking at one of the large turnouts on the road where it turns west about a quarter mile before the trailhead. The snow is often bare or thinner there than at the trailhead proper.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Castle Crag, North Couloir

Spring is upon us, so I made a push to get back and ski Castle Crag before all the snow melted out of the approach. Even though most of the Bitterroot Canyon trails seem to be about done for the year, Sheafman creek sits about 1,000 feet higher, so it is a good bet for holding some late season snow. I climbed Nipple knob (Point 7830) at the start of the day and took a long traversing run down into Sheafman creek. Even though I didn't get many turns, it was nice to bypass the lower canyon and get some early alpine views.
Climbing Nipple knob.
From the creek, I slogged three miles or so up canyon past Knaack lake to the Sheafman/Fred Burr divide. It is easy to wrap around the north side of the peak, and I was soon booting up the short but steep North couloir. The entrance is heavily guarded by cornices, but I found a sneak through on climber's left. I was buffeted by strong winds on the ridge and decided to forgo the summit. The skiing was steep, but the snow was good and I was soon at the base of the couloir. I extended the run another thousand vertical feet or so toward Fred Burr Creek, which made for an interesting run of about 2,000 vertical feet. The snow below the couloir was sticky and variable and it was raining, but so it goes sometimes.
Looking down the North couloir of Castle Crag from the top.
Looking up the North couloir of Castle Crag from the bottom.
The forecast storm had moved in by this time, and my lunch stop was abbreviated by biting wind and rain. I stuck to my original plan despite the deplorable weather conditions and skinned up to West Sheafman Peak 8,652. From there I skied a good 2,000 foot south facing peak to creek line back into Sheafman which had surprisingly excellent corn snow from top to bottom.  The exit from Sheafman is average by Bitterroot standards, and I skied then walked out to the trailhead at kind of an aggressive put-put pace before donning running shoes and jogging the few road miles back to the car. The whole exit took about 2.5 hours. Something like 8,000 feet done in about 9 hours at a moderate pace.
On Sheafman point, shaking my head in disbelief after an hour of skinning in 50 mph winds and spitting rain.
Looking up at the run off Sheafman point.
Back in running shoes, nearing the car at the end of the day.
While there is no escaping the fact that a minimum 4 hour approach is asking a lot for a 500 vertical foot couloir, by adding in some runs like I did, this tour is worth doing. Even though it is short, the north couloir demands some respect. It is steep and overhung by big cornices, and quite a bit of snow is required to fill in the mid-couloir slabs.

The north side of Sheafman creek has at least three distinct, high quality peak to creek runs which can be incorporated into the day or simply skied as independent objectives. In addition, there are two striking couloirs which drop north toward Fred Burr from Sheafman point. I poked around the entrances a bit and found them well guarded by cornices, but it was raining and I didn't do a thorough investigation so perhaps a more determined individual could find a safe way to drop them from the top.
Approximation of the route

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Swan Peak

“It looks like you can ski a huge run off Swan peak all the way to Sunbeam Lake in the Bob. We should go do that sometime.”
Chris Spurgeon

Swan peak adorned with ski tracks.
I cast off alone in the dark for Swan peak, inspired by Chris' vision and informed with approach beta from Steven Gnam (Thanks Steve). It was a dark and confusing few hours at the start of the day navigating logging roads and a faint climbers trail, but I persisted, emerging at base of the peak shortly after sunrise. Without a good topo map, I started up the incorrect cirque, but a short hop over the ridge to the north put me back on track at lower Squeezer lake. Travel conditions were surprisingly tricky, but I made steady skinning progress on the long climb to the base of the high cirque tucked on the west side of the peak. From there, the standard summer route revealed itself, and I scampered up steep snow and rime and rock to the summit.
Tricky skinning on the climb up Swan Peak.
Looking out to Swan glacier, the Missions and beyond.
I skied directly off the summit, which, after a short section of wild knife edge ridge trickery, opened up to almost 4,000 vertical feet of delightful skiing down to Sunbeam lake. The snow quality was fair, and it was great to ski continuously for what must have been ten minutes or more.

It is pretty awesome to be alone way back in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in winter. I soaked in the sun and the solitude and the mounting fatigue during the long climb back up to the divide. The original plan was to take a shorter route over the north shoulder of the peak, but that way looked tricky, so I decided to make it a double summit day. After topping out and navigating a short downclimb through rime on the upper face, I clicked in about 100 feet below the summit and skied the Northwest ridge and west face down to treeline. The exit was long but enjoyable, filled with tricky climber trail skiing, jogging down snowless switchbacks, and digging into my shallow bag of nordic skiing tricks on the long road out to the car.
Ski tracks on the East face.
Starting down the West face.
I have been acutely feeling the loss of my mother lately. The healing process is slow, and almost a year after her passing, I am still reminded of how much I miss her almost daily. 

Shortly after my grandmother passed away, I skied a wild and unforgiving run in the same mountain range which I informally named the Maola face. 

Similarly, the majestic East face of Swan peak will for me always be the Catherine face.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Blaze Mountain, East Face

Ski tracks on the East face of Blaze Mountain. Photo: John Curry
I was able to get away during a family visit to Big Sky and take advantage of a perfect trifecta of good weather, stable snow, and a strong motivated partner. John Curry and I headed out from the Beehive trailhead well after sunrise with the intention of skiing the East face of Blaze Mountain and whatever else we could find along the way. We made good time ascending the basin, and were soon on top of the mellow peak just east of Beehive. I had planned on dropping to the Northwest, but John suggested we ski a nice looking couloir into the head of the Mirror lake basin. A spicy downclimb had us on top of the line, and we skied it down to the basin and continued all the way down to Mirror lake.
Climbing out of Beehive Basin. Photo: Jobn Curry
Dropping in on the first run. Photo: John Curry
The East face of Blaze Mountain is heavily wind loaded and holds acres of thin, intimidating wind slabs. We probably would have turned around had the avalanche danger not been low. But it was, so after a brief discussion of wet slide concerns, we felt OK committing to the line. We traded pulls, with me kicking up the chute and around a few thin steps on foot, and John skinning the upper face, which required many, many switchbacks. We scampered to the true summit amongst extensive mountain goat tracks. After taking a break to enjoy the windless summit, we skied the face with stable powder.
Climbing Blaze Mountain. Photo: John Curry
John starting down the East/Hummingbird face.
That was fun. We both skied the face in a single push, and John's legs cramped,
forcing him to straight line the final apron.
We took another run above Mirror lake before putting in the final ski track out to Beehive basin. We were both tired and relieved to top out on the last climb. From the divide, a quick schuss had us back at the car. Thanks John for such a great day. 7,000+++ vertical feet, done in about 8.5 hours car to car.
Climbing for our third run. Photo: John Curry
John on the last climb

Thursday, March 5, 2015

2015 Jack 'n Jill race at Teton Pass

Alpine scrambling and bluebird powder turns off a summit followed by food and relaxation with friends.
All smiles at the top of the first climb. Photo: Ben Horan
Not how I would typically describe a randonee race, but that is exactly what happened at the 3rd annual Jack ‘n Jill race at Teton Pass. The resort added an excellent 5,000 vertical foot pro course this year, and most of the usual suspects showed up to give it a go.

The race itself played out along predictable lines. I was feeling good and went out hard, flirting with threshold. Ben was of course untouchable out in front, and I topped out on the first climb between Alan Adams and Jeffrey Freiss. I took a wild tomahawking crash on the first descent, but recovered OK and came into the first transition in second place, about a minute in front of Alan and Jeffrey. The second lap was enjoyable, with a good hard effort on the uphill and more powder on the downhill. I closed the gap slightly on Ben and was able to gain a little more breathing room in front of Alan and Jeffrey. Feeling good, I went all out on the third climb and descent but didn’t really have any chance of catching Ben.  I crossed the finish line in 1.45, just a few minutes before watching Jeffrey come across mere seconds in front of Alan. Jason Mills and Carl Kohnstamm were not far behind. Leah pushed hard for the entire race and ended in a respectable third place in a strong women’s field.

Ben Parsons in the lead. Photo: Ben Horan
Powder skiing on the second descent. Photo: Ben Horan

There was a good turnout of folks with standard touring gear, and it was fun to cheer everyone on as they came across the line. Unfortunately, we ended up having to leave before the award ceremony, but had enough time after the race to relax and soak in the great atmosphere that Teton Pass always delivers. I was really impressed with this race. Teton Pass throws a great party, and the full pro course is on par with any mid-length course I have done anywhere. Check it out next year.

Pro  Course  Results



Ben Parsons

Inge  Perkins
Brian Story

Amber  Steed
Jeffrey  Friess

Leah  Samberg
Alan  Adams

Jess  Tapp
Jason  Mills

Claire Kniveton  
Carl Kohnstamm

Kim  Givter
Kevin Oberholser

Sierra Richmond  
Andrew Mayer 

Blake  Votilla

Stuart Reifwig

In terms of performance, I had a good race. I went out controllably hard and was able to maintain a steady sub threshold effort on all of the uphills. The bootpacks were a touch tricky, which I exploited to gain on Jeffrey and Alan on the first climb. Downhill skiing, transitions, fueling, and clothing all went off without a hitch. I moved up from 5th to 2nd over the duration of the race, and maintained or even closed the gap on Ben.