Sunday, April 24, 2016

Bass Creek to Lolo Traverse V.2

Looking back at our runs on St. Joe and Pyramid Butte
(obvious open face) from the west ridge of Sweeney.
Andrew and I did the Bass to Lolo traverse on a warm Sunday in mid April.  The goal was to build on a previous traverse, skiing off Bass peak and the Pyramid Buttes instead of bypassing them via high passes.  In order to get it all done by dark, I suggested a painfully early start time. Andrew was game, and after an abbreviated night of sleep, we were hiking at 4 am.  The approach in the dark was nice, and we were at the base of big St. Joe at first light.  We kept shoes on and scrambled just east of the creek which drains the Southeast face.  Since the snow was firm, we kept the runners on to within about 1,500 vertical feet of the summit.  Andrew was setting a brisk pace, so it was a quick skin to the summit.
Sunrise skinning on St. Joe.  Photo: Andrew Mayer
Andrew leading the charge on the summit ridge of Big St. Joe.
We skied the North face, which after some rock and sastrutggi negotiation, ended up harboring surprisingly good powder.  This face is scoured much of the winter, but there was enough late season snow for it to be an incredible 3,000 foot peak to creek run. Maybe a touch icy at the bottom, but not too bad.  I refilled water in Sweeney Creek, and we were off up the south face of Pyramid Butte.  Andrew was still blazing away, so I just settled in and followed his tracks.  Our pre-dawn start paid off, as we were able to get up the big south face before the day warmed up too much.  I was not sure what we would be able to ski off the top, but fortunately my preferred line, the Northeast face, skied really well.  Small hanging face to soft powder skiing through alpine larch to a nice powdery exit couloir.  Great stuff.  We were on a roll, way ahead of schedule, and enjoying the day.

Andrew skiing the north face.
A happy Brian cruising the North face. Photo: Andrew Mayer
Climbing low on the South face of Pyramid Buttes.

Andrew dropping into the unknown on Pyramid Buttes.
It ended up just being great, straightforward top to bottom skiing.
An uneventful climb put us on the west ridge of Sweeney peak.  Andrew pushed up to an unnamed high point, and I was content to relax for a few minutes and take it all in.  The rolling run down to One Horse lake was not as striking as the previous two runs, but it had good skiing all the way to the lake.  It is a bit of a push from One Horse to the summit of Lolo, but we had both done it before, so we put our heads down and got it done.  From the summit, we still had plenty of time, so we skied the Lantern lake couloir to the lake, then continued down another few hundred vertical before putting skins on for one last warm climb to Lantern ridge.  I was mildly concerned about missing the unmaintained Lantern ridge trail on the exit, but found it and followed it like a hawk down to snow line.  Since the Mormon creek road is still closed, we had to get all the way down to the valley, but it only took an hour of relaxed jogging on the Lantern ridge trial to reach the car. We ended up climbing and descending something north of 12,000 vertical in almost exactly 12 hours at a stout but sustainable pace.
Andrew dropping into Carlton creek.
Cheesey photo on Lolo peak.
Andrew skiing good spring powder below the Lantern lake couloir on Lolo.
Rolling out to the valley at the end of the day.
I understand that the Bass to Lolo traverse is a big day, but it flows well enough to be doable, and should get done more often. The one major caveat is that it is fairly committing, since backtracking from North of the Pyramid Buttes would take a long time. There are many possible variations, but this high route had such amazing skiing that it is hard to imagine a more elegant line.   The upper reaches of Sweeney creek are wild and magical, and it is awesome to spend time in such a wild place so close to town.  

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Camas to North Fork Lost Horse Creek

With snowline marching up the mountainsides and a barely-freezing-at-night-scorching-during-the-day forecast, I cajoled Ben and Leah into a 4 am start to do a Camas/North fork loop before the snowpack fell apart.  We ended up having a fantastic morning.  I dropped Leah and Ben off at snowline on Camas, then drove and jogged the shuttle.  By incorporating a tempo effort into the run portion of the shuttle, I was able to catch them below Camas lake, and we all cruised up to West Camas peak 8905 by high noon.  The only bummer about the approach was seeing the entire drainage shredded by snowmobile traffic.
Leah and Ben nearing West Camas peak.
Since the snow was still intact, and it was to be a one run day, we took our time on the summit before dropping the 3,000 vertical foot BRIBE gully (Best Run in Bitterroot Ever) in sticky but otherwise tasty corn snow.  Intermittent snow during the exit slowed us a bit, but we had all day to negotiate it, and the going was never too bad.  Once we were back on the North fork of Lost Horse trail proper, it was just long slog down the faint trail and Lost Horse road back to the car. Every additional day that Leah gets to ski is a successful day in my book, and it is always good to get out with Ben. By the numbers, one classic ski run and about 4,500 feet of climbing in about 9 hours  at a casual pace with lots of breaks.
Skiing the top of the BRIBE gully.
Ben about half way down.
Things getting interesting on the exit.  We had about 30 minutes of
challenging intermittent snow before switching to easy hiking.
While this was a relatively short and perhaps not “blog worthy” outing, I chose to post because it is a worthy loop for Bitterroot skiers to consider.  There are multiple south facing runs off the back side of West Camas, and the runs further up the drainage are some of the better peak to creek lines in the range.  Beware of avalanches in winter, of course.  It would be easy to tack another run or two along the way to make it a longer day. There is a substantial shuttle from Camas to Lost Horse creek, but the entire loop could be done on foot by parking somewhere between the National Forest boundary and the Lost Horse climbing parking area, and approaching Camas via cross country travel and the southerly Camas road (Note: this is not the standard access road for Camas creek, it is the one that peels off left at the mouth of the standard Camas road).  At the end of the day, just slog a few extra miles back to the car and Boom, you have just completed a nice big loop through the beautiful Camas drainage.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Taylor Hilgard traverse on skis

The south face of Hilgard at dawn during the Taylor Hilgard traverse.
The Taylor Hilgard group in the Madison range is a special place.  The peaks are the highest in Montana outside the Beartooth, and the crest is remote, surrounded by outlying mountains and long trail approaches in all directions.  The terrain is rugged yet user friendly, and best of all, chalk full of classic ski routes.  And the range is home to a robust grizzly population – I have seen sign every time I have visited outside the middle of winter.  My brother and I “cut our teeth” here over a decade ago during a five day trip where we skied most of the high peaks despite poor conditions.  And I have been itching to get back ever since.  Little did I know that everything would come together for one of the best days I have had in the mountains in years.

Since this was a solo outing, I devoted the entire previous day to the 45-mile shuttle.  Getting in position involved five hours of driving, five miles of running, hitchhiking through Yellowstone, and fifteen miles of road biking.  Fortunately, it went off flawlessly, and I was in camp by late afternoon. 
Content at camp the day before.

After a relaxed evening and a few hours of sleep, I was off at 2:45 am. I approached Hilgard via the Beaver Creek road and Avalanche creek.  The pre-dawn goal was to stay happy and get in good position by daybreak, so I relaxed, checked the map frequently, and motored up to Avalanche lake by first light.  The climb out of Avalanche creek was steep and icy, but all skinnable. The first rays of sun illuminated the peaks as I crested the ridge and schussed a short run down to Lake Eglise.  It was going to be a good day.  
Psyched on the Avalanche/Hilgard creek crest.
The ascent of Hilgard went quickly.  I had to employ spikes and an axe, but the snow was consolidated enough for easy climbing. The low 4th class rock steps high on the peak were snow covered and straightforward.  The summit knob is technically skiable, but I opted out and downclimbed about 250 vertical feet before clicking into skis and skiing the lower East face and chalky North couloir.  It was pretty cool to summit the highest Montana peak outside of the Beartooth with winter conditions.
Looking south from Hilgard. Spot the Tetons?
Top of the skiing on Hilgard. More casual than it looks.
Traversing below Hilgard.
Dutchman went quickly.  After a hot skin in intense morning heat and quick jaunt up the south plateau, I investigated the north couloirs.  To my delight, the central couloir went cleanly from just below the summit knob.  After a quick bump up to the summit sans skis, I skied the north couloir with nice chalky snow.  Next up was Echo, which was similar to the previous ascent, just longer and warmer, and with goats to follow.  Echo’s open Northeast couloir was in great condition, and I cruised down it before embarking on a mile plus low angle traverse to the base of Expedition pass.  Feeling the altitude and heat of the day, I took a long break to refresh.  
Looking down the excellent North couloir of Dutchman.

The day warming up on the climb to Echo.
Expedition basin view from Echo. With skis.
It is a long way from Echo to Imp, but well consolidated snow allowed for two fast traverses before and after Expedition pass, and the west facing ascent of Imp was still firm enough for easy skinning. The bootpack up Imp’s southwest ridge was a bit slow, but it was fun to weave a line through steep snow and loose rock.  I summited the west knob about two hours ahead of schedule.  The east knob is actually higher, but I prioritized fluid movement over elevation technicalities.  I did drink the last of my water on the summit, resolved to find water below Koch or be subject to a desperately dehydrated climb to Koch.  The North couloir of Imp was great, with more smooth chalky snow, followed by rolling moraine skiing down to treeline, followed by a long traverse through broken terrain and mushy snow to the creek.  
Dehydrated shadow at the top of Imp. Koch in the distance.
OK that was fun. At the bottom of Imp's North couloir.
When I arrived at the creek, I could hear water running below the snow, so I skied down drainage a hundred feet or so until I found an opening.  I took another long break in the shade, pounding a liter of water, eating two burritos, and psyching up for the final 2,000+ foot climb to the summit of Koch. Usually, I am happy to settle into a hard pace and grind out the final climb of a long day, but my legs and body didn’t really have it this time and resorted to steady slogging and lots of GU. Must have been the elevation. I summited Koch around 5 pm, well ahead of schedule and glad to be done climbing.  It was late and my legs were tired, but I could not have been more satisfied. The best ski line is down the direct east face, but I didn’t want to deal with refreezing snow. So I cruised the smooth, open southeast face.  The exit was surprisingly slow.  I guess it is 10+ miles back to the car, so I should have expected it.  The heat of the day had turned the snow to isothermic mush below 8,000 feet, and I spent more time than I would have liked face down in the snow, wallowing in facets.  Fortunately, there were ski tracks to follow. The flat seven miles of road to the Nine quarter circle ranch and my truck went by in a monotonous but beautiful seventy minutes.  
Tired and happy mountain dude on Koch.
On Koch, looking back to Hilgard, the little black horn on the far horizon.
Isothermal mush on the exit.
This was one of my best days in the mountains ever.

Amazing day and route.  This and the Mission traverse are the finest "out there" length outings I have done in Southwest Montana. The traverse logically strings together all of the high peaks in the group, the skiing is excellent, the setting is grand and remote, and there are no throw away sections, aside from the long approach and longish egress. Even though elevation gain is moderate, the full traverse is a bit daunting in length, and a few variations could tighten it up to a more doable length. Skipping Dutchman on the East would be easy and quick.  Skipping the Hilgard summit would save time.  A Hilgard/Echo loop, returning to Beaver creek on the Expedition basin trail, would be a top notch day in the mountains, and would not require a shuttle.  The Hilgard to Echo loop could also leave time for a run from the ridge above Earthquake lake into Avalanche creek instead of slogging up Beaver and Avalanche creeks.  

Amazingly, I could see old ski tracks most of the day. I would later learn that it was a group of Bozeman locals including Bobby Downs, Brian Clubber, and Josh Apple, who did a slightly longer overnight trip the previous week.  Nice line! And it was nice to follow tracks during the Taylor Fork exit. Also, thanks to Blake Votilla and Inge Perkins who completed a similar traverse last year, and got me fired up to give it a go.

Here are two route screen shots.  Note the orientation is NOT North to the top.
Route Part 1. Avalanche creek to Imp.  Most of the Beaver/Avalanche approach is not visible.
Route Part 2. Echo to exit.  The exit down Tumbledown is not visible, but it roughly follows the summer trail and road.
Route: Up Beaver creek road, up Avalanche creek (in drainage, not on trail), Climb and ski Hilgard east face and north couloir (did not ski from summit), climb and ski Dutchman North couloir (did not ski summit knob), climb and ski Echo Northeast couloir, Expedition pass, Climb ski Imp North couloir from west summit, Climb and ski Koch southeast face, down Tumbledown creek and Taylor Fork to car.
Approximate total elevation gain:  10,600 feet
Length: 30 miles done in 16 hours, 40 minutes
Accomplices: No
Put in:  Beginning of Beaver creek road
Take out: M.P. 4.5 on the Taylor fork road
Fuel: Burritos, bars, gel, perpetum, 4L water. Averaged about 150 cal/hr.
Equipment:   Dynafit Nanga Parbat skis, Scarpa Alien boots, double race poles, race skins for the road (not worth it), Alu crampons and axe, extra sunscreen. Headlamp with extra batteries, basic emergency kit.
Equipment left in car to save weight: Avalanche gear, whippet (wished I brought it), ski crampons, helmet, warm gloves, warm hat:  
Tricks of the day: Going to sleep at 7 pm in order to feel rested. Taping feet before setting off to prevent any chance of blistering. Mellow, steady pace all day with adequate breaks to keep everything happy.
Number of ski runs: 6
Number of classic ski runs: 4
Fatigue factor (1-10): 8 (note, 9 is virtually impossible to exceed in a non-race setting)
Stoke factor (1-10): 10
Memories to suppress:  Sunburned lips, dehydration before the epic water stop below Koch.