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.