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.

Thoughts
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. 

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