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.

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