Thursday, April 30, 2015

Remembering Catherine in the Missions

South Glacier Peak, Garden Wall, and Mountaineer peak.
I spent the anniversary of the death of my mother alone in the mountains. It was an introspective day filled with memories and tears. The day was beautiful, with flowers blooming in the low country and a windless mix of sunshine and snow showers in the alpine. It is conflicting to reflect on death during the season of rebirth.

Looking up Glacier peak and Shoemaker.
Mountaineer, Lowary, Sonielem, East St. Mary's.
Ready to ski. Sonielem ridge behind.
Although I still miss Catherine dearly, a year has dulled the sense of loss. It did not take much, however, to peel the scab away and for grief to emerge. Catherine should still be alive, and she has missed so much in just one year. In deference to her memory, I will aspire to cherish close friends and family, and to always, always be kind.  

View from the Garden Wall couloir.
Garden Wall couloir. (Bigger than it looks)
The skiing was mint. I skied the South face of Shoemaker, the Garden Wall couloir, the West face of South Glacier peak, and the South face of North Glacier peak (one of the classics of the range, in my opinion). Every run was excellent. In fact, it was one of the best ski days of the year. About 12,000 vertical feet in 11 hours, 20 minutes.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A fine afternoon in the Missions

Lowary Peak, East couloir.
Despite the early demise of winter at lower elevations, the skiing up high is nothing short of fantastic at the moment. I of course had to take advantage, and spent Easter Sunday in the Missions, savoring the cold, powdery conditions and checking out a few runs that have been on the list for a long time. I slept in a bit, and it wasn't until late morning that I left the car. I climbed straight up to St. Mary's peak via the normal climber's trail and East ridge. It took the full three hours to summit, and I topped out ready to take a look at some new ski lines.
Greywolf from East St. Mary's. The mini west is the short couloir
North of the main craggy summit.
I quickly schussed the nondescript northeast ridge of ESM, slapped skins on, and climbed to Lowary peak's north summit. I was able to ski frozen rime directly off the summit to the entrance of the East couloir. To my surprise, the couloir was guarded by a big cornice, so I put the steep skiing game face on and worked the tricky sneak around entrance on skier's right. Since the top of the couloir harbored some shallow slabs from the few inches of overnight snow, I kept my game face on, strategically ski cutting and working through two steep convex rollovers. Fortunately, things mellowed out quickly and the rest of the run was good old fashioned fun dust on crust couloir skiing. I sat down for a few minutes on the shores of Grizzly lake to eat a curry chicken sandwich and plot my next move. I wasn't super excited about the slabs, but headed north toward No Fish lake anyway to have a look at the west side of Greywolf.

Good skiing in Lowary peak's East couloir.

Schussing down to No Fish lake to see what kind of trouble I could get into on Greywolf.
Encouraged by more consolidated snow on the west aspects, I headed up a short couloir on the northwest shoulder of the peak - the mini west (my informal name). The climb was quick, and in an hour, I managed to climb it, ski it with great powder, and convince myself that I had time and energy to tack on the main West couloir. I traversed out from the base of the mini west, took a double shot of GU, and started climbing. It was great to be back in the West couloir of Greywolf. I contend that it is the most aesthetic line around Missoula, and one of the best in the state. After working through debris in the fan and runnel ice in the lower choke, I punched to the top in boot top powder. The run was excellent - boot top powder in the top half, a manageable runnel, and warm settled powder at the bottom. I was psyched to catch it in good condition.  I took another double shot of GU and started back up to St. Mary's shoulder and out to the car, enjoying the fatigue at the end of a day well spent.
Good snow in the mini-west. 
Good snow and coverage in the West couloir of Greywolf. 
More skiing in the West couloir.
The West couloir from No Fish Lake.
Of note, coverage in the adjacent couloirs is excellent.
Conditions and coverage are good in the Missions. It was great to be back. 10,200 vertical feet, done in 8 hours, 36 minutes. I fueled intensely and kept the effort pegged at hard aerobic all day.

Swan Range - Ptarmigan Point

Dropping into Ptarmigan. Photo: Andrew Mayer
I finally made it out with Jeff and Andrew to ski the west face of Ptarmigan point 9,083. This is the largest of the west facing avalanche paths off the Clearwater lake loop road, and also happens to be the third highest peak in the range. We fought a little bit with the snowmobiles on the approach, and it took quite a while to hit snowline, but the going was easy, and we were soon on the Swan crest. We had climbed to the crest several avalanche paths to the south of Ptarmigan with a loose plan of skiing whatever looked good and kept us moving north. The snow looked better on the east side, so we took a short run down toward Gorge lake to start off the day.

Jeff getting us to snowline.
Climbing to the crest. Conditions were firm, so we just booted.
Jeff on the Swan crest.
Jeff dropping east into the Bob.
After a quick climb out, we skied straight west down a striking avalanche path to snowline. After an icy upper pitch, the snow gradually softened, and we enjoyed a long run. A big traversing climb put us at the top of the Ptarmigan avalanche path, relieved to find a snow strip which descended cleanly from the ridge. Once again, the top few hundred feet were terribly icy, but soon we were down out if the ice, skiing a run that I have wanted to ski for a long time with endless shallow powder and corn. On a perfect day. With great friends and fantastic views out to the Missions. I was psyched and I think everyone else was too. We milked every last bit of snow before eventally taking skis off well above the bottom of the avalanche path. Bushwacking and a brokend down sled kept the egress interesting, but it was never too bad, and we were soon back at the car.
Andrew spotting Jeff on our second run.
Climbing out of the second run.
Skiing Ptarmingan. Finally!
At the end of the snow, getting ready to hike out.
Thoughts:  I am quite impressed with the Clearwater Lake loop road terrain in the Swans. It is all big and exposed, so stable conditions are a must, but with that caveat, the ski terrain is dramatic and high quality. The road approach is fairly long, but the climb from the road to the crest of the range is direct, the drive from Missoula is not too long, and the bushwacking is blissfully minimal compared to adjacent ranges. The bottom of all of the avalanche paths are also all melted out and unfortunately about done for the year. Check it out sometime.