Sunday, May 31, 2015

Holland Peak, Northeast Face

I took advantage of the end of an extended period of exceptional ski conditions to ski the Northeast face of Holland peak.  The face is comprised of a complicated series of limestone ledges, and my chosen route pieces them together in the most logical way possible.
At the end of the difficulties, looking back up at the ski run.
I had a great nigh of sleep at the trailhead, recovering as much as possible from a long ski adventure the previous day. I awoke refreshed and was soon on the trail, hiking at a nice steady pace. Snowline is high, and I walked almost to the lower lake before putting ski boots on.  Snow conditions were firm, so I put crampons and punched it all the way to the crest of the range. It was a cold, clear, beautiful spring day in the mountains.  I skied a short run to the east, avoiding slabs and nasty glide cracks on the normal summer route to Holland. I got my first look at the face after skinning up to the east ridge.  The lower portion of the face had avalanched down to rock slabs in the past few weeks, and from my vantage point, it was unclear if it would be in skiable condition. Fortunately, I had a better view from the summit. It appeared that the line line was intact.  The timing was right on, so I decided to at least have a look. I did my slow pre-run ritual, throwing down some extra calories, meticulously clicking into my skis and checking my gear, stretching, relaxing,  and mentally preparing.

Looking down the Northeast face from the summit ridge, wondering if it will go.
The upper face was in fine condition, with a few inches of consolidated graupel overlying a firm base.  I navigated the first shelf without incedent, then traversed slowly to the second band. After a few turns, I found a way through the second band and started sideslipping. The snow was icy and very steep as I worked through the second band, but I just kept moving slowly, and the way opened up.  I lost my nerve a little through this section.  To my surprise, the ice had softened slightly on the traverse across runnels to the exit choke, and I was able to slowly work my way off the face without having to negotiate anything too scary.  Below the exit choke, I relaxed and skied along the edge of the debris all the way down to the end of the snow nearly 3,000 vertical feet below the summit.
In the thick of it.
The climb out from the east side of Holland is exposed to avalanches, so I only stopped briefly at the bottom. The climb required walking through endless and massive avalanche debris and some steep skinning and booting, but I arrived at the exit notch on the north ridge without incident.  Finally, I was able to relax and plot out the rest of the day.  I had two great runs on the way out, one down to upper Rumble lake, then one from just a few feet below the crest of the range down through the excellent couloir above lower Rumble lake (this run is a worthy stand alone ski objective).  The jog out was pleasant.
Relieved to be at the exit notch.
Exit couloir.
The Northeast face of Holland Peak is a great challenge for those seeking difficult descents. It is prominent, steep, complex, long, and committing, and hard to catch in condition.  The skiing is good.  I am guessing this is a first decent. Anyone know otherwise? I don't really play the steep skiing game much anymore, but it is engaging to throw my hat into the game once in a while. Somewhere around 10,000 vertical feet done in around 10 hours.

Steep skiing food for thought
Skiing true no-fall terrain is dangerous. These words from the sage Lou Dawson struck a chord with me as I find myself slowly and happily transitioning out of the steep skiing game.

A few things have helped me cope over the years with motivation and goals. One of the biggest was realizing that life as an alpinist is a series of phases, and even at the most aggressive phase each participant has their personal goals and motivations, most importantly that some may choose a career of extreme skiing as a mission of passion and perhaps way of making a living, but it’s not for everyone and it’s also fairly risky.

I truly believe the... media is doing a disservice to our population as a whole by the constant barrage of content that makes it appear that to have fun or value from skiing it has to be done on steep terrain and even with a level of violence (tomahawking, failed “sluff management,” broken necks and on and on.). 

Such is not the case in real life. Traveling in ski touring oriented countries such as Austria and Norway has really helped me see this, but it’s a style and lesson one can glean in North America as well just by paying attention to what really makes you happy in the mountains, as well as what gets the smiles from your friends, loved ones, and people you meet along the way.

If your calling is the steeps and hardcore alpinism, then it is, but it’s a great big world with lots of options.  Lou Dawson, 2015

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Lolo Peak Ski for time

Skiing off the summit.
With snowline marching rapidly up the hillsides, I dragged myself out of bed in the dark and made a speed run on Lolo Peak.  I gave it a full effort. No activity the day before, coffee to suppress the early morning sleepies, race skis, dialed route, etc.

The circuit went about as smoothly as could be expected. I went out at a hard sub-threshold pace, which felt like full effort at 6 am. I made one quick skis on transition at snowline, then a long transition on top of Carlton ridge, well ahead of my previous best time. The snow was consolidated and fast, which allowed me to skate around the lake.  I slapped skins on, sucked down some calories, and pinned it up into the fog. The snow on Lolo peak was grippy, skiinable ice, and I was able to top out well ahead of my previous best time at a hard but sustainable pace. 

To my delight, the summit was just above the clouds, and it was pretty cool to look and only see the tippy tops of the Bitterroot summits poking above the clouds.  I skied slowly back down to Carlton lake, taking time to manage the ice. Also, I couldn't see anything with the fog, so I blindly followed ski tracks.  Another long skate around the lake and a quick hard skin back to Carlton had me transitioning about 20 minutes ahead of my previous pace.  It is almost impossible to not get a little turned around on the ski back down from Carlton, and this time was no different.  I detoured off to the left, but a long summer trail switchback put me back on the main skin track.  I skipped a few patches of snow before throwing the skis on the back, stripping to a t-shirt, and clunking down the last two miles to the trailhead at a respectable running pace in ski boots.  2 hrs, 15 mins, 20 seconds.

Excited to have shaved a half hour off my previous time.
Splits for future reference: Mill creek junction 0.12; Carlton outbound 0.54; Starting up Lolo 1.02; Leaving summit 1.29; Carlton inbound 1.52; trailhead 2.15.20

This is a solid time for me. The day went off without a hitch and conditions were fast. The only way to go significantly faster would be to push at  full race pace or show up with better fitness. Running in ski boots kind of sucks, but doing it all in ski boots is critical for a solid time. For general information, skiiable snow is about half way up. Overall coverage is still good, and it should be that way for another week at least. Also, MTB Missoula in collaboration with the Forest Service has cleared the Lolo and Mill creek trails.  Thanks guys.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Missions - West Saint Mary to Lucifer Lake traverse

Thursday evening was fraught with indecision. I was registered for a running race, happily tapering and excited for a good beat down. Then I checked the weather. In the subsequent days since registering, the forecast had changed from dreary and grey (blissful running weather) to splitter clear and cold (blissful skiing weather).  So, after a few minutes of hemming and hawing, I texted the normal suspects about skiing, strapped on running shoes and went out for a hard run. By the end of the evening, my legs were shot and I had the Jeffs on board for a big day on Saturday. Viva la skiing!

Jeffrey skinning to the summit of West St. Mary's peak.
I suggested a wonky tour that was intended to hit some runs that I’ve been meaning to ski for a long time. Fortunately, Jeff and Jeffrey were on board, and we ended up piecing it together in good style. I slept the previous night at the Mission reservoir trailhead and biked out in the dark to our meeting point in the valley. We were hiking up the ESM trail at 6 am. With fast conditions and only one short break, were on the summit three hours later.  We bumped out to West Saint Mary and skied the convoluted Northeast face way down into Sonielem creek. It is an odd line, but a few inches of fresh graupel made for fun conditions and it is always a good time walking the plank out to WSM.
Approaching the ESM summit.
Jeff skiing on West St. Mary.
Next, we climbed around glide cracks to the crest of the Sonielem ridge and the entrance to the only clean run off the ridge.  I was hesitant dropping in on the face without scouting it on the way up, but the snow was perfect. We had a great run down the huge open face and through the steep exit couloir.  It was gratifying to finally forge a ski line down this complex and unforgiving face.  As we crossed upper Mission creek, we skied across numerous fresh grizzly tracks, which was pretty cool if not a bit intimidating.  We punched a short bootpack up to Lake of the Stars and continued straight north to an unnamed 9,.000 foot peak just west of Mountaineer.  I pushed out along the ridge to the proper summit, and we all skied down together. While not a classic, it was a big and interesting run, and I was once again excited to finally ski it.  A long second lunch break ensued at the bottom. 

Climbing to the Sonielem ridge.
Hey there grizzly. The tracks were only a few hours old.
Jeff climbing above the Lake of the Stars. Our Sonielem run
is the cleanest sunlit face up and left of Jeff.
After lunch, it was decided that we had enough gas in the tank for another run, so we motored up the big access ramp to Mountaineer and skied off the point of highest snow at the head of the ramp.  The ramp is a great ski line, and 2,000’ of cruiser corn was a perfect way to end the day.  We made a quick exit, staying well above Lucifer lake on the South side.  A long but uneventful shuffle down the trail had us back at my truck by early evening.

Looking up the bottom third of our fourth run.
What a day. I think the East Sonielem run was a first decent, but who knows. Also, with WSM in the bag, I managed to ski all of the major Mission peaks this year (with the possible exception of West McDonald, Peak Y, Kakashe and Flattop, but I don’t consider them to be major peaks). Pretty cool. It was great to spend another day in the mountains with Jeff and Jeffrey. Approximately 11,500 vertical feet done in a touch over 13 hours.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Bountiful corn harvest in the Missions

Leah and I headed into the Missions with overnight packs, excited for two big days of touring. The corn harvest this spring has been as good as I can remember, so it seemed appropriate to ski as much as possible while the snow still lingers. A late evening approach put us at a picturesque camp right at snowline at dusk, sipping whiskey and enjoying a respite from a busy week.

Moonrise at camp.
After a leisurely morning at camp, we headed up to Lucifer and over the low pass into Ashley creek. Lucifer lake is just melted out enough that we had to traverse above the shoreline, which is always a challenge.  We took a short run into the head of Ashley creek, skipping over Grizzly tracks along the way. I was excited to hit up Sheepshead, and Leah was game, so we traversed above Duncan lake and climbed the South face. To our surprise, we spotted a party on McDonald peak across the way, relaxing and enjoying the view. We had a great run on the exposed East ridge down to the tarn at the base of McDonald peak, and were soon back on the trail, skinning the Northwest face of McDonald. 

Leah getting the ball rolling on the climb to the Ashley creek divide.
Skinning the last few steps to the summit.
Starting down the East ridge of Sheepshead.
Mid way through the climb, we were surprised to see the party making their way back up to the summit, and we all convened on top. It was Andrew and company, and it was fun to cross paths with them. They ended up cranking out their own 10k day. Nice job fellas. We skied a long run down the massive East face almost to Cliff lake, then made a long climb to South Glacier via Icefloe, the connecting ramp, Lake of the Clouds, and the upper West face of Glacier. We both summited with tired legs, pleased with our big loop over the highest peaks in the range. After lingering on the summit for a few minutes, we skied a direct line on the West face. The snow was overly warmed, and we had to carefully manage large wet sluffs on the way down toward Lucifer. But we made it back to our camp with enough time to enjoy a leisurely dinner before calling it a night.

3 turns in, 300 to go. Leah dropping in on the East face of McDonald.
Ski tracks on the East face.
Leah near the summit of South Glacier peak.
It froze well on Saturday night, so after a chilly morning at camp, we headed back up to Lucifer for more skiing. The snow was well frozen, so we kept the skis on the packs, trudging up to Picture lake, then up the massive southwest ramp all the way to the summit of Mountaineer peak.  We had an impeccable run down the East face. The snow was so good that we extened the run as far as possible down the wild basin below the Garden Wall.  We needed to crest the range in order to return to camp and civilizaiton, so we pointed the skis uphill and climbed the edge of the Sunrise glacier to the Garden Wall, then ran the 3rd class ridge to the summit of Shoemaker.  In keeping with the trend of the trip, we had an impeccable run with top to bottom perfect corn on the south face of Shoemaker. What a great way to wrap up the trip. Unfortunately, the day was getting late, so we once again pointed the skis back toward Lucifer and camp. The egress was long and somewhat painful with overnight packs, but it was a small price to pay for 13,000 vertical feet of amazing touring in the high peaks of the Missions.

Strolling across Picture lake on the way to Mountaineer peak. 
Skiing off Mountaineer peak. 
Perfect corn on the south face of Shoemaker.
After getting the climber's trail and terrain around Lucifer lake dialed in, I am now fully on board with recommending Lucifer as a worthwile access point for the Missions. Everything worth skiing is a long day, but the options are virtually endless once you get above the lake. The best time to go seems to be late April through late May on an average year when the approach to Lucifer is snow free and the lake is still frozen over. 

The skiing is really good out there right now. Go get it before the snow all melts away.

Our routes, shown in red.
Shout out
A big shout out to Blake Votilla, Inge Perkins and Jeffrey Friess for their bold Mission traverse on April 19. To my knowledge, their high route from Sheepshead to East Saint Mary's is arguably the boldest line completed on skis in a day. More info here. Strong work!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Fairy Meadow Photos

Oh Canada! Heading out on the Granite glacier for a big day of powder skiing.
Leah and I were able to once again join a strong Montana/Seattle crew for a week at the Bill Putnam Fairy Meadow hut in the Adamant sub-group of the Selkirk range. We had to contend with a buried weak layer and several days of grey weather, but were also treated to several blue days which afforded us adequate opportunities to get into the alpine. It was a great week of mountains, snow, friends, and all around high quality fun.

The first three days were spent skiing around the limited tree skiing near the hut in a storm with High avalanche danger. We were able to push out to Friendship col toward the end of the storm days.

Pushing up to Friendship col.
Team Canada plots their next move during a
hotly contested game of Cards Against Humanity.
We had two clear days, and everyone went out and just skied as much as they could. On the first clear day, I teamed up with Leah and Natalie. We didn't really have a plan, but ended up doing an absolutely stellar loop up the Granite, down into Austerity creek, and back via Mount Sir Williams. It was one of the best days of the year.
Nicky giving her stamp of approval in front of Doubletop.
Leah and Natalie climbing up out of Crystaline Creek.
After braving gale force winds and tricky climbing on the West ridge,
Natalie drops off the summit of Sir Williams.
Leah down on the Granite at the end of a very good day.
The following day, Leah and I ended up on our program, too gun shy about avalanche danger to hit up steep couloirs, but too ambitious to wait for the remainder of the group. We ended up doing a really nice loop up to Friendship, then skiing the justifiably popular Sentinel and Pioneer peaks before returning via Pioneer pass and the Granite glacier.
Leah climbing up to Friendship col.
Airy ridgline scrambling to the summit of Sentinel.
Primo powder turns low on Pioneer peak.
We had enough visibilty and stability to ski a trio of couloirs in the Houdini needles. I spent the afternoon alone, skiing the big West facing couloir near the hut that we had been staring at all week, and a the striking Northeast face of another craggy Adamant mountain which I forget the name of.

The crew getting technical in the Houdini Needles. Photo: Frank Huster
Dropping into one of the steeper Houdini Needle couloirs. Photo: Fank Huster
The big couloir that I skied in the afternoon.
Excited to ski this one after staring at it from the hut all week.
Despite elevated avalanche danger, three solid days of consolidation on sunlit aspects
allowed us to just start poking up into select steeper terrain.