Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Scratching around behind St. Mary, V.6

I am convinced that beyond St. Mary tours provide some of the best early season skiing around.  However, I have been unsuccessful in convincing even the most intrepid of skiers to rally back there.  So to re-iterate, as long as weather is good, the road is not too scary, and avalanche danger is manageable Considerable or less, skiing behind St. Mary is recommended.  It is not too far.
Climbing McCalla. Glad to be above the soul sucking inversion. Photo: Jeffrey
After rallying my pickup to the trailhead with chains, Jeffrey and I set out at first light.  Sunrise was incredibly beautiful, and were already ripping skins after a scant hour skin.  I botched the first run to McCalla lake, but at least we got our one routefinding blunder out of the way early.  Jeffrey lead the entire second climb, and we were soon skiing reasonable settled powder on the west side of the South summit.  We continued down the nice (recommended) gully toward Kootenai creek, stopping at the unnamed lake at 6,700 feet.  We were pleasantly surprised with stability and snow quality. The climb west out of the lake is marginal under the best of circumstances.  It was a downright routefininding challenge with the thin early season snowpack, but nothing that some brush bashing and scrappy postholing couldn't overcome.  Soon enough, we were on the upper bench, and Jeffrey took the lead to a magnificent high perch staring out at the East face of the Heavenly Twins.  I was quite excited to be skiing in one of the most spectacular and wild spots in the Bitterroot on such a splitter weather day.
Grinding out of McCalla early in the day.
Jeffrey skiing the first run.
Skiing! In to Kootenai creek.  Photo: Jeffrey
Spectacular view of the East face of the Heavenly Twins.
We skied an excellent couloir which drops to about 7,000 feet at the base of the Heavenly Twins.  The snow was challenging, but I will never complain about safe couloir skiing this early in the year.  Next up was a climb and ski of the excellent moderate gully below Disappointment peak.  This run would be a classic were it not for the long approach and massive overhead hazard under higher avalanche conditions.  We climbed back up the gully again, and skied an abbreviated run south toward Big Creek, which was also surprisingly excellent.
Couloir!  Dropping into Kootenai. 
Climbing below the Heavenly Twins. Photo: Jeffrey
The upper main South gully of the Heavenly Twins.
Jeffrey climbing in front of Sweathouse spires.
Good skiing on the way home.
At this point it was mid-afternoon and we were tired.  Time to start heading back.  The climb to the St. Mary lake was thin and challenging, but we made it, and the traverse around the basin ended up being surprisingly smooth and fast.  I cajoled Jeffrey into one more short climb to the bump west of St. Mary, which allowed us a bonus run with good powder.  The mandatory climb back to the McCalla bowl is long, but Jeffrey was kind enough to take a long trailbreaking pull, and we were on top soon enough.  The McCalla bowl was just OK.  In the spirit of full disclosure, it was not my most elegant skiing performance ever with breakable crust, flat light, and a ton of climbing in the legs. We overshot the trail on the climb out of McCalla, but easily corrected out error, and were soon cruising out the delightfully short and fast trail to the car.

I have skied everything before, but would go back and do it again and again.  I still need to ski the rolling Northeast snowfields below the Heavenly Twins, and some of the southeast facing terrain back toward Big Creek.  I think that folks should consider at a minimum, skiing the southwest facing trees on the back side of the McCalla bowl more often.  They are similar in character to the popular south facing runs below McCalla, but are about twice as long.  With care and a driving partner just in case, the road is currently driveable to the trailhead without chains for a Subaru or anything burlier.  By my map estimate, 10,400 feet done in 10 hours car to car. 
Sunset during the exit.
Plea for beta
Rumor has it there is an established low route to McCalla lake from the summer trail that does not require climbing out of the lake.  If anyone has beta, I would appreciate it. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

... and so it begins, 2018

Well, after a short fall I guess ski season is here.  I don't remember a good early season in years, and if the snowpack can continue to grow without structural setbacks, we could be in for a very good year.
Bring it on, winter!
My first day out was a random day in October, but the motivation was more avoiding stressing an injured achilles than actually skiing.  We did the best we could with the day, skiing five Green Room runs in the Tobacco Roots from a point a few hundred feet below the top due to avalanche danger.  Inge Perkins was killed in an avalanche the same day in the adjacent Madison range.  Thinking about her and Hayden's unreached potential as human beings and climbers is honestly too sad for me to contemplate.
Jeffrey walking to snow in the Tobacco Roots.
With reports of great skiing up high, Jeffrey and I bumbled around above Heart lake in the Great Burn in early November.  There wasn't as much snow as we had hoped for, and visibility was too poor to take any pictures, but we did manage five good runs off the Stateline directly above the lake.  The following day, Leah and I did an impromptu 10k vertcial foot relay ski at Snowbowl. I spent the morning skiing five very good powder LeVelle laps, and she closed out the day doing the same.

I took a day off work in mid-November and just hammered LeVelle laps at Snowbowl.  Mike Foote was kind enough to take a few morning laps at my all day pace, and Ned joined for three runs in the afternoon.  The day sort of of flowed by with ease, and I ended up taking eleven runs on LeVelle for over 13,000 vertical feet of climbing in just under 8 hours car to car.  It was a little silly to ski the same run so many times, but the skiing was good enough that Mike and I ended all of our runs giggling like little kids, and leaving was hard even after my legs were thoroughly thrashed from all of the uphill.  It has been my experience that just one or two long slogging days like this coupled with shorter intensity efforts are sufficient to be able to jump right into long ski tours and racing as the winter progresses.
Climb five of twelve.
Here's to a long, safe 2018 ski season...

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Grand Teton run, kind of for time

On our last day in Jackson, I did the Owen Spaulding route on the Grand for time.  Since we were at the Climber's ranch, I rolled out of bed at first light and set my watch where the trail starts up Burnt Wagon gulch, estimating that was about the same as the Lupine trailhead.  Having suffered through cramps just a week prior, and not having any climbing head anymore, the goal was to go hard but also have fun and stay safe.  There were intermittent concerning clouds in the morning, but fortunately nothing came out of the sky until the afternoon when I was happily back in the valley.  
Your run of the mill Grand summit photo.
I pushed at something like 50k race pace up to the normal trail and up through the switchbacks, then moved easily through the Meadows.  I did OK above the Meadows, but probably should have pushed a little harder to the lower saddle (2.10).  Still feeling good, I pushed a bit harder on the long scramble to the Upper saddle, with just one stop to stash my handheld water bottle.  As expected, a stiff breeze necessitated a coat stop at the upper saddle, then it was off on a new (to me) route.  Fortunately, the route was obvious, although I must admit the climbing through the chimneys above the belly crawl was harder than I had expected.  Roped parties in the Sargent's chimney were super friendly, and I was able to pass without stopping.  I summited not too tired in 3.15.  My lack of climbing head showed a lot on the downclimb.  I took it easy and safe, but it took a lot of time.  I also managed to slightly botch the route below the Upper saddle, but corrected easily and was soon at the Lower Saddle.  I had a lot of fun running out.  I could have pushed harder down to the Meadows, but it was nice to run in control.  The run out to the valley was a blast, and I arrived back at 5.42.  

What a delightful morning, and always a great day to summit the Grand.  By my count, this was my tenth summit and eighth route on the Grand.  Without taking any more climbing risk for speed, it would be feasible to gain about 10 minutes to the Upper saddle and 15 minutes on the descent, but for me ,a sub-5 hour outing would be difficult.  For gear, I took a handheld water bottle (refills on the switchbacks and at lower saddle) and a pack with a wind shirt and pants and calories.  That seemed to work well, with just enough of a food and clothing buffer to feel safe.

Teton crest trail backpacking

Our family spent a delightful week backpacking in the Tetons, traversing from the Tram at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort to Paintbrush canyon along the justifiably popular Teton crest trail.  The weather was perfect, the views were spectacular, and Sam had a great time on his longest outing yet.  Wildfire smoke was quite bad on days two and four, but we had clear skies the remainder of the trip. To our surprise, the mountain wildflowers were still in full bloom, and we saw wildlife, including bears, which added to the ambience.  Our packs were very heavy, but we took out time and never walked much more than ten miles a day, so it was manageable. We were both able to get out for a few mountain scrambles from camp, and it was nice to get a few obscure Teton summits under out collective belts. Here are a few photos.
In Granite creek, with Cody peak and the top of JHMR in the background.
Rolling through wildflowers to camp on the first day.
Starting across the Death Canyon shelf.  Need to camp up here next time.
Backpacking is a lot of work.
I scrambled Veiled peak from Alaska basin.
Up and down the visible easy 5th ledge system on the South face.
Wister, Nez Perce, and South Teton also visible.
Deaux of lesTrois Tetons from Hurricane pass.
The photo does not do the scenery justice.
Sam playing at Hurricane pass.  Also showing my large pack, with diapers drying in the sun.
View from camp in the North fork of Cascade.
Sam getting some shut eye at Lake Solitude.
Smokey skies above Lake Solitude near the Paintbrush divide.
I scrambled Mount Woodring from camp near Holly lake.
It was very smokey, but the climb was fun.
5 days in and still in high spirits, Sam rock climbs,
plays with sticks, and tries to eat a blue plastic lid
while Leah climbs Mount Woodring in the background.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Calowachan loop

I did the Calowachan loop as a final moderate mountain outing before the Rut.  A more thorough report is here.  This post will focus on route beta.
Looking South to the main Mission group from the South summit.

Calowachan is an isolated and spectacular peak just North of the primary Mission mountain massif.  As such, it is hard to combine it with anything else, but just climbing the peak is a worthwhile stand alone objective. In retrospect, I think the preferred loop direction is clockwise.  It is easier to nail the bushwack, and it is also nice to get it out of the way early in the day.  The Northwest ridge is considered the standard route on Calowachan.  However, for running parties, I think that the quickest and most elegant way to get Calowachan done is an out and back from the Eagle pass trail, doing the traverse twice.

I decided to do the loop counter clockwise, saving the bushwack for the end of the day.  After successfully navigating a stand-off with a skunk on the trail, I ran and walked up to the final meadow below Eagle pass in 1 hour and 40 minutes.  The trail in the upper basin is grown in with vegetation, but I didn't mind walking and keeping an eye out for bears.  From the trail, I punched it up the almost 2,000 vertical feet of beargrass.  It was slippery and slow, and I wish there was a more elegant way to get this done.
Starting up 2,000 feet of beargrass below the South summit.
The traverse between the summits is craggy, and I spent some time trying to refine the route from last time.  As such, I tried descending a west facing gully off the summit which did not go, before downclimbing the distinctive 4th class east facing chimney to the notch.  I took a few extra minutes to summit the middle knob, climbing a stout 4th class chimney filled with scary loose blocks on the Northeast face, and downclimbing 4th class ledges on the South face.  The South face ledges were much preferred.  The normal traverse skirts the middle summit to the east directly below the summit block.  There is one small but continuous cliff on the South ridge of the North summit, and I had hoped to find an easier way through, but ended up just climbing the same chimney/dihedral as before.  There are two tricky moves off the ground, but after that, one can safely stem or chimney all the way up the 15-foot step.  The remaining terrain was easy to the main North summit.

Looking back to the South Summit.  I took the small shaded chimney
East of the crest, but one could easily bypass it entirely lower on the East side.
Happy scrambler on top.
Looking to the North summit.  I passed the primary grey cliff band in the
shallow dihedral just left of the shaded blob/chimney looker's right of the ridge crest.
Descending the Northwest ridge was great fun.  The route on the upper mountain is good low 4th class scrambling, and a game trail takes one cleanly down to roughly 6,000 feet on the ridge.  I abandoned the ridge as the game trail dissipated and started dead reckoning to the creek, which would lead back to the car.  The bushwack was much longer than I had remembered, and the descent would end up taking just as long as the climb from the car.  Getting down to the creek, and the first quarter mile along the creek were in the low Bad category, then it was almost an hour of Pretty Bad weaving through dense cedar forest to the trail.  Fortunately, there isn't really any routefinding, so I just crashed along.  The final 10-minute run on the trail was fast and fun.  I was surprised that the ascent and descent both took 2 hours, 30 minutes, but so it goes with bushwacking.

The summit block on the Northwest face.  I leave the ridge here, contour around
the sunlight ridge, work straight up easy gullies,
then trend up and right on 3rd class ground to the summit.
Approach directions to the Northwest ridge.  Take the Eagle pass trail for about a mile.  The trail will enter a lush cedar forest, and soon will switchback out of the drainage.  Leave the trail at the switchback.  Hop over slash blocking an old logging road spur, and continue up the spur road in the same drainage.  When the road prism peters out, drop north to the creek and follow the path of least resistance, usually near the stream bottom, until the stream grade flattens out, the canopy opens up, and prominent cliffs jut up on climber's right.  Plan 1 to 2 hours to this point.  Leave the creek bed in this section, and use your best bushwacking magic to attain the Northwest ridge of Calowachan.  There may be an optimal route, but I have not found it, so don't be discouraged if you end up fighting for an hour or so.  Once on the Northwest ridge, follow an intermittent trail to the upper mountain.  Leave the ridge a few hundred vertical feet below the summit, just below an obvious vertical cliff step, and traverse South around a corner about 300 feet to a broken gully system.  Work your way up from there, trending climber's right where possible, all the way to the summit.  If done correctly, nothing will be harder than easy 4th class.

On a gear related note, this was the last day on my first pair of La Sportiva Mutant shoes.  After a long search (Saucony Exodus, Altra Lone peak, La Sportiva Ultra Raptor, La Sportiva Helios, Pearl Izumi Trail N2), the Mutants are the first shoe that fits the bill for moderately technical mountain scrambling with a health does of trail running.  They are not perfect, but they are by far the best shoes I have found.  A second pair is already in use.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Smith Creek Pass to Holland Lake traverse in the Swans

As much as I enjoy exploring, it is enjoyable to return to old favorites in the mountains.  I recently did the Cooney pass to Holland lake traverse in the central Swan range, my favorite long summer outing near Missoula.  The only real competitor is the Mission traverse, but in my opinion, the unmarred high quality terrain of the Swan outweighs the prominence and definitive nature of the Mission traverse.
Holland peak and the knife edge section leading up to the North ridge.
After working a full day, I didn’t roll out of town until 7 pm, which did not allow enough time to get the shuttle set.  So I just dropped a bike at Holland lake and drove to the Falls creek road.  I was running up the road at first light the next morning.  In an effort to reduce biking, I ran three miles of the Falls creek road to the trailhead, which went quickly.  Since I was going for time, however casually, I took a few minutes to stretch at the trailhead and set a stop watch.  The trail up to Cooney pass opens with a long set of switchbacks ascending the east face overlooking the valley.  The sunrise illuminating the Missions was spectacular.  I took my time, running where possible but mostly walking with purpose, knowing that I should be on top of Cooney within an hour of wrapping into the drainage.  Aside from some minor fretting due to no water along the trail (I had left the car with only a half liter), the mile or so up Falls creek went quickly.  I made a game day decision to leave the trail at the mouth of the upper hanging basin instead of taking the trail all the way to Smith Creek pass and climb Cooney via the East ridge.  The ascent of Cooney was slightly quicker this way, and I was surprised to top out at two hours.  
At the trailhead, excited for the day.

Fireweed, burned trees, sunrise, Mission mountains.
Early morning light on Cooney.
Another purposeful thirty minutes of movement had me on Cooney’s sister southern summit.  The entire route to Holland is nothing short of delightful.  The crest goes over five small summits perched above the Albino glacier, and the ridge gradually tapers from open and fast to knife edge.  I was able to collect snow in two spots, which was sufficient to stay hydrated.  The highlight is the half mile knife edge section just North of Holland peak.  Having no head for exposure anymore, I took my time through this section.  I also passed the final ridgeline north of the notch via loose ledges on the East, but I do think this saved any time.  Holland’s 4th class North ridge route flowed easily as well.  From the notch, stay on the crest until it gets steep, bypass the first step on the west, then transition immediately into a bypass on the East.  From there, stay more or less on top to the summit.  I arrived on the summit of Holland in 4.45, feeling a bit tired but good overall, and spooked a herd of nine goats enjoying the lofty perch.
Looking back at the opening quarter of the traverse.
Starting into the knife edge section.  A crux (shown below)
is hidden in the notch at the base of the cleanest slabs on the ridge.
Looking back at the crux.  I walked across the black ledge and did a few exposed sidestepping moves across a small gap.  Then up an easy 5 foot dihedral to the stance where I took the photo.  One could, in a pinch, back up about 500 feet, drop about 800 vertical feet to the east, and bypass all of these difficulties off the ridge.
Goats on Holland peak.
Buck took fifty five minutes.  I stopped one last time to pack my bladder and bottle with snow and shoot a GU packet, but otherwise it was all fun movement.  I took the gully immediately east of the North ridge, which is less elegant than the ridge but a bit faster.  Someday I will get the route off the South side of Buck dialed (the south face, southeast ridge, and west face all go), but I took the conservative route down the south face, scree skiing about 800 feet of terrible loose scree, then traversing terrible loose scree back to the ridge.  From there it is easy and enjoyable sailing to the peak above Rubble lake.  And from there it is easy and enjoyable sailing to Woodward.  I topped out on Woodward appropriately tired right at 7 hours.  The descent off the South side of Woodward is a little slow, but soon enough I was once again in smooth sailing territory, which I rode to the Holland lookout.  It was clear that I would be able to easily beat my previous best time, so I took a minute at the lookout to stretch, eat, and get psyched for the descent to the trailhead.  The legs had enough pep left to click the last five miles of immaculate, enjoyable trail running off in 45 minutes.  I emerged at the trailhead at 8.23, over an hour faster than my previous best time.  Roughly 9,000 vertical feet.  Having survived the day intact, my knee moaned for the entire 15-mile bike shuttle, but I didn’t care, and a dip in Lake Alva was enough to check the biking induced inflammation.
Looking South from Holland to Buck.
Looking South from Buck to Woodward.
Bad/loose scree skiing on the South side of Buck.
Looking South from Woodward to the lookout.
Starting down the trail home.

This route is just fantastic.  I am familiar enough with the terrain that it was fun to not think about routefinding and spend much of the day simply enjoying the movement.  For time, I had great conditions and went relatively hard, but still took a lot of pictures and stopped for water breaks.  I have no doubts that a fit mountain runner could go sub-6.  On the flip side, less experienced routefinding parties, parties with limited climbing experience, and hiking parties may find the entire traverse hard to complete in a day, especially given the nonexistent bail options north of Holland peak.

The traverse from Smith Creek pass to Rumble lake, with the option to climb Holland peak would be considered a classic mountain scramble if it was in a more popular area.  I can not recommend it more highly, as long as one respects the exposure and lack of bail options. I'll try to get some route beta up soon.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Swan peak loop

After an enjoyable hike above Glen lake with my two favorites on Saturday, the news started coming in from Charlottesville.  Unbridled racism, hatred, fear that a new status quo has arrived where armed factions seeking to oppress are normalized and equated with those seeking relief from oppression.  I was sick to my stomach.  The night brought only restless sleep.

It that context, it was a little intense rolling out of town in the dark, with an acrid odor of smoke in the air.  But we rallied.  The forecast was mixed, with thunderstorms in the afternoon, and I was glad that Conor and Jeffrey were amenable to shelving more ambitious plans for a better weather day.  Even with a few wrong turns on the road, we jogged out from the Squeezer creek road gate at a respectable 7:30.  The adequately maintained user trail had been cleared this year, and was remarkably enjoyable all the way to the lower lake.  We followed the normal summer route to the upper lake, then up Swan peak.  The route up the Southwest ridge was just steep and craggy enough to be interesting and enjoyable.
Approaching the lower lake.  All photos: Conor Phelan
Water getting high on Swan peak.
From the summit, we began the ridge traverse to Lion creek.  The initial descent was fast and beautiful.  The morning was sunny and warm, and views down to Sunbeam lake and out to the Bob were striking.  Soon we were in the thick of it, negotiating tricky snow moats, rock steps up to stout 4th class on crap rock, and scrappy vegetation.  I kind of lead the whole way and did my best to keep everyone safe as we worked through the technical difficulties.  It took over two hours to summit the high point on the northeast corner of our loop.  The terrain looked quicker getting to the final unnamed peak, and I was cautiously optimistic that we would beat the impending rain showers to the trail.
Fun terrain dropping off Swan peak.
I think it goes
I think it goes.

I think it goes.
Instead, we spent the next few hours finding creative ways to pass cliff bands along the ridge.  I had hoped to climb the last peak directly from the pass, but there was too much uncertainty with steep terrain for my liking.  Plus, it was already raining lightly.  So it was an easy sell to instead climb a loose gully east of the peak.  When we topped out on the gully, the weather was holding, more or less, so we pushed to the summit.  On top, we speculated how many people summit each year.  Conor thought a handful at least, I thought we might be the first this year.  Jeffrey, still recovering from a hard race last week, sucked down water and ate food.
Looking out to the last peak. We climbed the gully on far looker's right.
Jeffrey glad to be about done with the loose gully.
On the last peak in the rain.  Good times.
The descent to the trail was not ideal.  It was loose the whole way, and it took a long time to pass a large cliff band.  In the future, I would try staying on the crest.  But we eventually made it.  My legs felt surprisingly wonderful all day, and I enjoyed pushing a bit on the eleven mile trail exit.  The Lion creek trail is a great, runable trail, and waterfalls and Cedar forests kept us in awe as we clicked off the miles back to civilization.  We did take a major deviation into an outfitter camp, but eventually figured it out.  Plus, it rained, which felt great after 50 days without precipitation.  It would have been easiest to drive two cars and do a short shuttle, but we instead closed the loop on foot by piecing two road systems together along the face of the range.  At this point Jeffrey and I were both pretty knackered, but Conor seemed unphased, so we just tried to keep up.  We wandered a bit linking the two roads, but figured it out eventually, and were soon back at the car, 11.5 hours after leaving.  The day was not quite as elegant as I had hoped, so thanks to Conor and Jeffrey for patience and level heads as we pieced the route together.  Our watches said almost 30 miles and over 10k of vert for the day (although I think 8,500 is more realistic).
Trying to keep the pace up on the Lion creek exit.
Thoughts:  I would go back to Swan peak, but I don't know if I would do this route again, especially since there are so many other things to do in the immediate area.  A simple out and back climb from Squeezer creek would be a fun, relatively simple day.  A long trail run over Lion pass and around to Cooney pass would also be a long but potentially rewarding outing.  And, I need to finally go and investigate the crest from Union peak to Cooney pass.  Been on my list for a few years, and I am running out of excuses to not do it.  On a more out-there note, it is hard to not start wondering about doing a monster Swan to Pyramid full traverse someday.  It seems conceptually possible in two very long days.