Friday, February 24, 2017

Northern Bitterroot quick hits

Work and family commitments only allowed for short outings during the President's day weekend, but I made the most of it.  I was able to get out for a nice 6-day skiing streak by stringing together an evening University/Sentinel tour, the last Snowbowl community rando race, and a Sentinel tour with Sam.

Bass Creek Crags, Northwest couloir

Through a combination of efficient movement, determination, and luck, I was able to squeeze a full sized tour out of a short Friday afternoon.  An early departure from work had me walking out of the Bass creek trailhead a touch before 4 pm, excited to explore.  I crossed Bass creek and the two canal ditches before wrapping around to the base of the east face of Crown point/Bass creek crags at the National Forest/Private land boundary.  There isn't any real trail or route to follow, so I just nosed up the second ridge South of the Bass creek canyon flank, spooking a few deer along the way.  The climb to Crown point is remarkably efficient, and I put my head down and fought through the terrible rain saturated snow, hoping to hit rain line sooner rather than later. To my chagrin, the rain saturated snow persisted for most of the climb. I wrapped around to the south face of Crown point from about 500 vertical feet below the summit, and made a long, exposed traverse across the South face.  By staying low, I was able to thread a line through the rock ridges which extend down from the summit.  It was a 15-minute traverse to the lookers left Y fork, and I punched easily up to the top.  Topping out at sunset, not sure exactly where I was may have been a bit engaging, but I'll take adventure when I can get it these days.
This is an old photo, but the Northwest couloir drops
from the skyline behind and just left of the snowboarder.
I skied the excellent Northwest couloir into the Bass Creek crag cirque.  The top is quite exposed, with a hanging slab dropping off into the abyss, but aggressive ski cutting and attention to detail seemed adequate to manage the thin slabs.  Soon enough, I was down in the chute proper, which skied reasonably well.  The skiing in the cirque down to brush thrash line was only OK, with lots of frozen roller balls hiding under the skiff of new snow.  The lower 700 vertical feet or so of the exit from the Bass creek crag cirque involves steep and tricky sideslipping and boulder field negotiation, but both went remarkably easily with the exceptional low elevation coverage.  At this point it was pitch black, but the ski out on the trail was enjoyable and uneventful.
Bass Creek Crags, Northwest couloir, approach.
Bass Creek Crags, Northwest couloir, ski run to the creek.
Bass Creek Crags, Crown point detour.
Thoughts: While avalanche danger needs to be reasonable to safely negotiate the South side traverse and exposed, blind drop in at the top, it is still safer than the adjacent Crown point ski run.  And by Missoula standards, this is a quick outing. The exit to the trail does not come into condition every year, but it is about as good as it gets now.  If stability is good, you have a half day to spare and are feeling adventurous, give 'er a go!  Also, it would be longer but more logical to ski the skier's left fork south off Crown point toward Kootenai creek until the skiing gets bad, then climb the skier's right fork to access the Bass creek crag couloir.

Kootenai Point, Gold Couloir
I spent an interesting Sunday morning skiing the Gold couloir on the North shoulder of St. Mary peak.  The tour is best described here.  This iteration was interesting.  I was treated to a frigid barefoot creek ford right away, which was followed by almost two hours of arduous trailbreaking through isothermal snow.  But I persisted, and was soon cruising the upper pitch to the Gold couloir entrance.  With the slow going, the approach took the full 3 hours, ensuring I would be late getting back to the house.
Worse-than it looks traibreaking persisting at 6,500 feet.
The skiing in the Gold couloir was excellent.  It is a great little Bitterroot gem.  From the base of the couloir, I traversed across the mid slope bench (it is possible to ski almost another thousand vertical of good tree skiing), did a quick 10-minute skin, and started out the Exit bowl.  
Beta photo: Gold couloir entrance.
Looking down the excellent Gold couloir with excellent boot top powder.
And looking back up the Gold couloir.

The out of condition exit. Add unskiable isothermal snow to the mix, and you get the idea. 
The egress was quite terrible.  I hit difficult isothermal mush well above the canyon floor, and debris from a large natural avalanche was stacked up for over a thousand vertical feet of the exit gully.  It took about 30 minutes of my most creative mush bashing and log hopping outside the gully to reach the creek, which I forded in ski boots.  The trail exit was surprisingly quick.  Even though isothermal mush and endless puddles kept skiing to a minimum, the trail was packed enough that I was able to jog most of it, making the return trip in the customary hour.  It was a little sad to see the exit so out of condition in an otherwise big snow year, but so it goes.  Good outing, done in about five hours at a moderate pace with poor conditions.

I wonder if it might be just as fast to re-climb the couloir and just reverse the ascent route, rather than fight the exit from the exit bowl and egress down Kootenai creek, as both are so often in poor shape.

Little St. Joe, South Gully early descent
To my surprise, Jeff, Jeffrey and Kyle were all keen for a half day exploratory adventure, so we rolled out of the Bass creek trailhead at first light on President's day.
We skied the gully in the center of the photo.
Little St. Joe summit is visible.
The Pinball Wizard gully is just out of view to looker's left.
Kyle set a perfect, steady pace all the way to the top - he broke trail the entire way and didn't stop once during the almost 3 hour climb to our high point.  Damn Kyle.
The days of skiing from the car on snow are over for the year.
From the top (we stopped about ten minutes from the exact summit), we nosed our way into the gully, with one stop to check the map to ensure we were going the correct way.  I had scoped the gully during the Crags outing a three days prior, but I was not sure that it went cleanly.  At this point we were at least committed to having a look.  After a few turns in the nondescript upper reaches, the gull formed. The snow in the gully itself was a bit chunky, but the ambience and terrain were both striking.  There were two tricky spots which were, to our relief, filled in, and we were soon at the bottom.
Kyle skiing, as the gully begins to form. 
Jeff skiing low in the gully.
From the bottom, I crossed the creek and took the conventional skier exit, while Kyle led everyone else on a bit of an adventure on the north side of the creek.  Needless to say, my way was faster, but no-one cared, and we were soon reunited and on our way out to the car and civilization.  I had a wonderful time exploring, and couldn't have asked for a better morning.

Thoughts: I am curious if this run has ever been skied, and would love to hear about others skiing it.  It takes quite a bit of snow to fill in the mid-gully rock slabs and low elevation exit, but should be skiable during average to big snow years.  And it just seems wrong that a 3.400 vertical foot ski line with good skiing that can be discovered in a casual 4 hour outing should fly under the radar for so long.  So I would encourage folks to consider doing a bit of research and giving it a go sometime, probably soon this year before it melts out.