Monday, February 29, 2016

Tobacco Root Traverse on skis

It is almost 1 am as I walk in the door to my Missoula apartment, just back from Minnesota.  In minutes, I am cramming my still-swollen foot and ankle into ski boots for the first time in over two weeks since my ankle was sprained. Racing boots are still painful, but the TLT5s feel a little better. Sleep comes easily, but I wake up concerned, re-set my bindings for the larger boots, and grab the thinnest sock I can find for the right foot. Despite all the doubts surrounding the state of my ankle, I have been working diligently with rehab, and know it is still strong and stable, just still a little swollen, and a big day on skis probably will not set the recovery back much if at all.  I let Ben know I'm in for sure, and we are dropping a car near Pony a few hours later. We drive the shuttle to South Meadow creek, and are both are asleep by 9 pm. 
Awaiting sunrise. Cold hands did not stop our forward momentum.
Car to Bell lake
We left the car at 3 am under a full moon.  I had slept well, and was fired up for a big day. We trudged up the road for a few hours, then continued across South Meadow Creek lake and climbed to the ridge top just north of Ramshorn mountain.  The top was very icy, but we were able to get just enough boot purchase to make it through.  As we topped out, the orange full moon was just setting in the west, and the horizon was beginning to turn a pre-dawn grey.  An icy wind kept us moving to a high point north of Ramshorn, where we ripped skins and schussed a short traversing run to the base of Belle point.  I must have been a little intimidated by the length of the day, and suggested we bypass the north couloir on Belle in favor of moving quickly along the ridge.  Ben was amenable, so we kept at it, skinning, walking on bare ground, and skiing a few short pitches as the terrain dictated.  The ankle felt a touch vulnerable on the descents, but it seemed to be holding up well, and a quick stop to tape my left arch was sufficient to keep any foot blisters at bay. Before long, we were dropping off the crest for a nice run down to the headwaters of Mill creek.  A long climb up the beautiful cirque on the back side of Branham put us at the top of the moderate Green Room gully.  At this point, Ben was crushing the climbs and transitions, and I was just holding on, trying not to slow him down too much.  Not surprising though, that guy skis more and faster than about anyone in Montana.  The Green Room skied great. Firm and smooth, and stable. 
Skinning at sunrise. Photo: Ben VandenBos
Ben near the end of the southern portion, about to rip skins and drop off the ridge.

Coming up to the top of the Green Room. Photo: Ben Vandenbos.
Dropping into the Green Room. Bell lake below.

Ben hydrating at Bell lake as I wolf down a burrito.
Bell lake to Hollowtop
We found some open water at Bell lake, and I scarfed a burrito as Ben filled water bottles.  There were a few tracks from yurt skiers, but I was surprised at how many of the classic runs were untouched considering the excellent stability.  We were ahead of schedule, so I suggested we proceed with the Longs/Lonesome link up (it is possible to bypass both on the west), and Ben was game.  With that goal in mind, we made the technical skin and bootpack to the top of Longs. I used ski crampons on the icy ascent, which almost allowed me to keep up with Ben.  We poked our heads over the summit, and were pleased to find adequate coverage on the north face.  After a great run on the north face, I ski cramponed, and Ben booted up the southeast face of Lonesome peak, and we were treated to another long rolling run down the North face all the way to Granite lake.  Still on schedule, we pinned it up Granite.  We saw what looked like wolverine?! tracks in the basin, and it was nice to think about them for a while instead of wallowing in the mounting fatigue.   

Ben jaunting on the final jaunt to Long peak.

Ben midway down Lonesome.  Granite peak looms in the background.
Climbing Granite peak. Up, up, up! Photo: Ben VandenBos
We topped out at 2 pm, with 10k of climbing in our legs, tired but still in high spirits.  The run down Granite was great. We even found some good settled powder in the trees below the peak.  We followed a snowmobile track down South Willow creek for a mile or so before stopping to slap skins on and re-fuel for the last long climb of the day, which would take us almost 3,000 vertical feet up to Horse mountain, then across a broad plateau to Hollowtop.  I was incredibly grateful that the ankle was still holding up perfectly, because the final push to the car was gonna be a bruiser.  After topping off the tank with a burrito chased by gel, we skinned, booted, scrambled, and talus swam our way up to Horse.  Our pace had slowed a bit, and it was nice to just move comfortably, chatting at times, but otherwise grinding out the climb.  The Horse – Hollowtop traverse was completely snow free, so we clunked across as the sun slowly crept toward the western horizon.  On Hollowtop, at sunset, we ripped skins for the last time and made the big descent to Mason lake.  Hollowtop gets ravaged by wind, and we had to take skis off a few times to connect snow patches.
Dropping off the summit of Granite.
Looking back from Horse mountain.  We started at the skyline peak on the far left of the photo.
Ben plateau cruising and closing in on Hollowtop.
Hollowtop peak to car
At the lake, we had our one hiccup of the day, when I was unable to find the road.  Ben advocated for descending directly to Cataract lake, but I obstinately refused.  I think his strategy would have been faster, but mine at least guaranteed that we would not get lost in the dark. We eventually found the road shortly before clicking headlamps on.  We started hitting intermittent bare patches about 2 miles from the trailhead, so the exit was longer than anticipated.  Ben is a fearless intermittent snow skiing champ, and I was skiing conservatively to protect the cankle, so eventually he tired of waiting, and cruised out to the car while I clumped down the road in the dark.  Soon enough, we were back at the car, ski boots off, and super excited to have pulled off a great traverse.  I was totally beat! I did not even come close to making the drive home before getting sleepy.  No worries though – the sleeping bag was still all set up, and I had a great night of sleep near Fairmont hot springs before polishing the drive off the next morning. 

Ben contemplating the lack of snow for out last run on Hollowtop.
Skiers have been traversing the Tobacco Root range for decades, and it was pretty cool to join their ranks.  I suspect we may be the first party to push all the way out to Hollowtop, but if so, that is a very minor style improvement over previous traverses.  It was great to finally get out with Ben.  Having that guy along is like having a secret weapon blazing the way, as he is super strong, positive, and makes consistently excellent route decisions on the fly.  Our route was a good one. Logical with quite a bit of good skiing and options in the second half to make it shorter.  It also does not engage any unnecessarily hazardous terrain, and for the most part, stays out of big avalanche starting zones.

There are many variations which could make it better, or at least different.  For one, travel would be smoother later in the spring when there is more snow on the plateaus. The trek all the way out to Hollowtop was a grind for not a lot of good skiing. In fact, the highlight of that portion was the plateau walk (which is actually quite nice). It would certainly be easier to end at Granite, exiting down Willow or South Boulder creeks.  Also, it would be nice to take at least one ski run in the southern portion of the range, and top out on a peak or two.  We didn’t due to time constraints.  An excellent and logistically simple traverse would be to run from Branham (or Bradley) to Granite/little Granite (either direction), skiing Longs and Lonesome along the way.  There would be no shuttle required, and everything would link up logically.  That said, the traverse is highly recommended for those with a strong set of legs and lungs looking for an adventure.
The route.  Kind of rough, but if you know the range, you get the idea.
Approximate total elevation gain 13,200 feet
Length: ~30 miles done in 16 hours, 20 minutes
Accomplices: Ben Vandenbos
Put in:  Private land boundary on South Meadow creek
Take out: base of Mason lake road near PonyFuel: Burritos, bars, gel, perpetum. Averaged a little over 100 cal/hr.
Equipment:   Dynafit Nanga Parbat skis, TLT5 boots (to protect the ankle), thin sock on right foot for ankle, ski crampons, one whippet. Extra regular sock and two different insoles in case the ankle flared up. Headlamp with extra batteries.
Number of ski runs: 7
Number of good ski runs: 5
Fatigue factor (1-10): 9 (note, 9 is  virtually impossible to exceed in a no-race setting)
Stoke factor (1-10): 9 + stoke that my ankle held up.
Memories to suppress:  Lack of snow on the plateaus.  Painful left shin and 6th toe pain.

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