Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Pinball Wizard Gully, fast(ish)

With a Sunday afternoon to spare, I made a speedy go at the Pinball Wizard gully.  I went in to it well rested, and with a skin track in all the way up, was optimistic about fast conditions.  After a few minutes of warmup, I started pushing at a reasonably hard pace.  The climb went quickly for the first two thirds, although snow squalls did lower morale a bit, and reports from a ski party about cold wind on the summit had me wishing I had brought a second pair of gloves.  The upper mountain greeted me with surprisingly cold and biting wind, and I had to stop several times to layer up and deal with frozen fingers.  In any case, I only lost about 10 minutes to clothing and cold finger shenanigans.  From the summit, I took advantage of stable conditions to safely use the quick route, which takes a detour around the N. side of the last gendarme.  From there, one can rip skins and make a big downward ridgeline ski and traverse to the head of the Pinball wizard.  My fingers finally warmed up, and I was served a full helping of screaming barfies, but they eventually subsided, and it was time to ski.  
Your classic ski shot from near the top of the Pinball Wizard.
The skiing was great for the upper two thousand feet, and reasonable for the lower thousand.  On the ski out, I passed Andrew and Jeffrey, who were deproaching from adventures further up drainage which included a lot of skiing, one broken pole, and two broken skis.  Otherwise it was an uneventful exit.  I made it back to the car in 3.21, ten minutes faster than my previous fastest time.  It would be reasonable to cut ten minutes off, and I can't help but wonder if a sub-3 hr loop is possible with good conditions and some fierce suffering on the climb.
Back at the car.  Wearing my pink hat from the Women's march in Helena the previous day.
I am about as pessimistic as anyone about the next four years, but it was rewarding to participate in
the march, showing solidarity with the movement, and sending a clear message of resistance to the new adminstration.
splits for future reference: First road crossing: 15.30, trailhead: 44; upper saddle 1.24 summit 2.00; Start skiing 2.35. Car 3.21.30.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Bailing into upper Sweeney Creek

I celebrated Martin Luther King day with Jeffrey deep in the Bitterroot.  It felt like an important time to reflect on race relations in light of the recent election, and it was nice to  have some time in the mountains.
Climbing in the South Fork of Sweeney creek on an impeccable day.
Pyramid Buttes in the background.
We headed out from the Bass creek trailhead by headlamp, waiting for the sunrise.  It is always a big climb to Little St. Joe, but we put one foot in front of the other, eventually summiting a little under three hours into the day.  After skiing over the top via the krumholtz laden west ridge, we ripped skins, and skied a good run north into the South fork of Sweeney creek.  The upper 1,500 feet of powder skiing was excellent, with steep glades and a tree lined gully.  After re-grouping, we made a long westward traverse down to the creek and took an early lunch stop.  It is only a short skin to the base of Pyramid Buttes, and we were climbing into the sun in the Southeast gully less than four hours after leaving the car.  To our surprise, the snow had not baked down in the last day or so, and we were immediately faced with thin shooting cracks as we started up.  After a quick avalanche discussion, we climbed another hundred feet and dug a pit to assess.  Even with relatively reassuring tests in the lower snowpack (CT20Q2/3 at 40 cm), there was enough uncertainty with fresh slabs higher on the peak that we decided to bail.
Good skiing into Sweeney creek.
Not feeling it.
It was a little underwhelming skiing the 20 turn run back to the creek, but live to ski another day. With hours of time remaining, we made a quick push into the headwaters, regaling each other with tales of previous bailing experiences.  Next up was an obvious bowl right at the head of the drainage, so we got to work climbing it.  The ensuing 2,000 foot run of moderate rolling terrain and boot top powder was excellent. With  an extra hour in the day, Jeffrey took a big trailbreaking block, and lead us to the top of an nondescript knob on the Sweeney/Lolo Creek crest. The warm, clear views from the summit were unique, featuring the craggiest of the Bitterroot summits all in a line to the south.  Pretty cool. Anyway, the ensuing run was excellent.
Starting down the low angle upper snowfield on the third run.
Big St. Joe in the background.
We skied the obvious knob for our fourth run.
On the knob! Stormy Joe in the background. 
More good powder skiing.
At this point, we had bounced our way all the way to the headwaters, and a simple 1,000 vertical foot climb put us on the Big/Stormy saddle.  My memory of the run down to Bass creek was poor, but it all skied well.  We had to break trail down canyon a few miles, but soon enough we were back on an established track, and enjoyed the very easy exit down Bass creek to the car.  A touch over 10,000 vertical feet done in about eleven hours car to car at a moderate pace that had us pleasantly fatigued at the end.
Heading home from the Big/Stormy saddle.
Thoughts: We could have probably pushed up Pyramid Buttes, but it was nice to instead do something new.  This is actually a great tour, one I would do again.  It does require moderate avalanche danger, but there are a lot of options, and everything flows, aside from shenanigans getting from the Little St. Joe summit to Sweeney creek.  Skiing in the upper S. Fk is vast and it is nothing short of tragic that there is not a Forest Service trail into the drainage.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Sky Pilot and then some via Gash, 2017

Andrew and I rallied out to Sky Pilot mid way through a period of cold high pressure.  Even after throwing around a few more creative ski tour ideas, it seemed prudent to just go for an old favorite tour.  Just a few days after hearing about Ben's avalanche fatality, I was on edge all day.  But it was good to just get out and feel the bite of cold air and mounting fatigue from a full day in the mountains on which Ben thrived.
Climbing above Bear Lake. Ski options abound. Our third run
is visible on the right margin of the photo. Photo: Andrew
We left the car a touch before dawn, and made the standard tour out to Gash proper.  The established track only went to the standard South bowl cutoff, and I think we were the first party past Gash this year, so it ended up being a full day of trail breaking.
Sky Pilot, from Gash, with the shaded North face beckoning.  Photo: Andrew
From Bear lake, we decided to head straight to the North face of Sky Pilot.  To my surprise, two hasty pits revealed only moderately bonded snow interfaces around 40 cm deep, but we continued up through relatively benign terrain to the base of the face itself and dug a third pit.  Extended column tests failed to propagate, and coupled with other signs of stability, we felt reasonable continuing to the summit.  To my minor dismay, chunky wind slabs skied remarkably poorly all the way down the peak.  Fortunately snow quality improved on the rolling terrain back to the lake.
Skiing to the tarn below the North face of Sky Pilot. Photo: Andrew
I had hoped to ski a second run in the vicinity of the lake, and there was just enough time left in the day, so we simply opted for the safest skiers left tree lane above the lake.  It was a big climb to the top, but we cranked it out, and were rewarded with good skiing back to the lake.  The exit climb was long as always, and I had some biting neuroma foot pain, but we were back at Gash soon enough, and the exit ski was fast and quite enjoyable.  By the numbers, 10,800 vertical feet, done in right around 10 hours car to car.

Thoughts:  I still contend Sky Pilot is one of the great long Bitterroot tours.  It was good to get out for a long day, and finally add an additional run to the tour, which makes it into a full and demanding outing.  It was great to get out with Andrew and ski a lot of stuff. For driving, plan on parking at the end of the snow plowing, about 1.5 miles shy of the lower trailhead.

Monday, January 9, 2017


Even days after hearing the horrific news, analyzing the avalanche report, crying alone on the couch, and spending a long day in the mountains in reflection, I have not been able to even begin processing the death of Ben Parsons in an avalanche in Glacier National Park. 

Perhaps I will have something more eloquent to add to the outpouring of memories and grief, but for now, all I can say is that Ben was one of a kind, a great athlete but a hundred times greater human.  I am heartbroken for his family and the community.  He wasn't supposed to die in the mountains.  It could have been me on hundreds of occasions.

To all he touched, we will get through this together.

Miss you, Benny.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Glen Lakes - proper tour

I finally made out to Glen lakes for an exploratory tour on New Year's day observed.  This zone has been a ski haunt for years, but without a snowmobile, I had never devoted a day to skiing around the lakes.  With a cold bitter forecast, we set the start time an hour late and headed out layered to the hilt.  Morning motivation was low. In fact, I kind of just wished I could spend the day on the couch with Sam.
Good times on the skin track.
The approach was fast enough.  We parked at a turnout at the end of the plowing (about a half mile past the Big Creek road junction) and skinned up the road a few miles before setting a skin track directly to the broad saddle east of the lakes. To our delight, there was not a breath of wind in the air, and snow conditions were good.  Motivation spiked to normal levels, and would stay high for the remainder of the day.  We more or less followed the summer trail to the upper lake and climbed to the ridge north of the lake. Short tree runs above both lakes are the obvious ski lines, but we instead skied the 2,000 vertical foot northeast cirque below the lakes, which drops toward Big Creek.  We lucked out by nosing our way into perhaps the best moderate line in the cirque, and were pleased to find boot top powder top to bottom.  After a frosty lunch break, we swapped trail breaking leads on the climb back out, and put a track in to the top of the obvious high point west of the lake.  A quick and enjoyable run, followed by a quick skin on our old track had us poised to ski the 2,000' shot again for our third run.  Our line was not so good this time, but I was happy with just skiing another big run with good powder on what we had all expected would be a cold, bitter, generally unpleasant day.
Climbing toward the sun after our first run.
Cold snow, crisp light, fatigue from a day on the move.
Backcountry skiing at its finest.
Andrew starting down the second run.
From the bottom of the run, we decided to climb directly south back to the summer trail (instead of returning to the lakes).  Fortunately, we spent very little time bushwacking, and the climb was quick and efficient.  We did kind of screw up the egress, but never got hopelessly stuck or lost, and were back at the car just an hour after ripping skins. About 7,500 vertical feet, done in a hair over 8 hours at a respectable pace with stops to deal with the cold.

Thoughts:  I was pleased about the relatively good low to mid-elevation coverage and reasonable stability.  Not a bad early season snowpack.  This was also my third day on new powder skis (Black Diamond Carbon Converts), mounted by the good folks at LB snow.  So far the skis are superior to the Huascarans in almost every way.
Runs in red, Approach/Egress in green.
Ski terrain was about what I had expected.  Although I don't think we took the best route, no matter how you do it, the approach to Glen lakes is long, about an hour longer than Gash, and the egress is fairly complex.  The obvious ski runs above the lake are all good, but short.  I think adding the big run into the day, however, makes the tour a lot more satisfying without a lot more effort.  A basic "proper" tour would be to snag a run just past the saddle on the way in (instead of traversing along the summer trail), ski the normal run above the upper lake, make a short climb back north, and ski the skier's left line on the bowl below the lakes, then exit straight back up to your uptrack at the saddle east of the lakes.  Done in this manner, a fit party should be able to spend a long day skiing good and relatively safe runs without too much approaching and egressing.  There are good options to extend the tour into steeper and deeper terrain.  Hidden peak, chutes south into Sweathouse, and chutes north into Big Creek.  With adequate stability and good fitness, look at a map and get creative.  A snowmobile, used efficiently, would save about two hours of approach/egress.
Looking across Big creek to the Heavenly twins.