Downing Mountain is the high point on the ridge west of Hamilton. Public access to this ridge is through Sawtooth Canyon or Canyon Creek. From Canyon Creek the preferred route to the summit involves skiing two miles upcanyon to just passed the wilderness sign. At the sign look for a place to cross the creek and work your way up the snowed in talus field to the hanging valley at 6500-7000 feet elevation. From this beautiful grove of old growth spruce continue up staying east at 7000 feet to ascend glades that eventually land a determined skier on the summit ridge east of the rocky summit. Follow the ridge and then south side to make it to the summit. One can ski a long south run into Sawtooth from here with some cliffs to negotiate or return to Canyon Creek via the uptrack or skiing the summit bowl via the north ridge and then descent via a narrow passage through cliffs into main part of north bowl. This is an advanced tour requiring good route finding skills and avalanche awareness and requires quite a long approach on some rough terrain especially the talus field which consists of large boulders. Best done with a good winter snowpack.
Little Downing Mountain is the slide above Hamilton accessed via the Grubstake rd to the Downing Mountain Lodge. The skiing above the lodge consists of 3000 vertical feet of bowls, chutes, glades and faces. There is great skiiing on North through South aspects with runs descending towards Canyon Creek into Barley Creek, and the forks of Owings Creek.
3-29-09 This last week was filled with good ski days and powder filled skies, light to heavy winds, and the occasional break with blue sky, bright sun though cold higher elevations. With chronic likeness March has produced abundant snowfall virtually doubling the snowpack since the end of February. With these storms have come natural snowslide cycles as well as human triggered events.
We paddled the Bitterroot again Monday with the meltdown, but by Wednesday another storm had laid down 6-15 inches at Downing Mountain 7000-8000’. With the bomber crust underneath it was a cold light powder on hard pack event. We opted for the south side as it was going to be good with the new snow and I had not been all year. The snow was a bit warmed but still good skiing. When stopping the snow would pile up, consolidate, and begin sliding. As we descended we kept triggering small loose snow slides that would stop. At the bottom of the long part of the run, I watched as another big river of snow slid towards me pushing up a small powder cloud in front. It accelerated enough to cause me to back off and put away the camera as I watched the 8 foot deep pile cruise by me in the gut of the bowl. Hiking out was hard with some breakable crusts, difficult postholing, and edging for nothing, hanging on our poles, slipping and falling, digging fingers into the crusts.
We switched to east faces then and found much better colder snow . The snow was flying everywhere and the first couple hundred feet were with blower face shots in perfect unconsolidated powder. It seem ripe to slide and sure enough when we got on the rollover it was sloughing fast and then fractured at the “role of doubt” this season’s bad spot. Quite small compared to the south side but scary nonetheless. We reascended for one more and enjoyed the full 2500’ powder run out to the lodge.
My good friend and his brothers arrived at the lodge that afternoon and we all spent the night and had dinner with Matt and Pearle. In the morning on Thursday the sun cracked over the Sapphires and shone on a cold bright mountain of fresh snow. This was to be the most beautiful day in a spell. We all headed up for a run and enjoyed sparkling sunshine on cold powder for the entire climb. We stopped at Mario’s lunchsite before skiing down along the length of the ridge to the far east end.Then dropping into the powder below the wind blown ridge, they all skied well and I shot some photos and watched Jenny ski down last after catching up with us on the trail.
I went to the valley for the night and drove to Bass Creek in the morning to try for the crags there. We found low motivation at the trailhead with gloomy skies and wind up high. Feeling sluggish we started up the trail and skinned into bright blue skies within 30 minutes. Feeling better was the half of it and the motion and repitition of the trail and conversation made the sleep fall away to the rear and the promise of a high visibility and splendid day in the mountains materialized. We climbed up from the creek into a rock buttressed cirque with none but a double hidden couloir reaching to the ridgeline. Skinning to the bottom we switched over to bootpacking and began a 1000’+ wallow to the ridge. Digging and excavating away and floundering around for many minutes to reach the final couple hundred feet, hungover by the rook’s tower and in a splendid chute of snow the sun glinted off the swirl, my lungs heaved and my legs rose relentless.
We breaked in the sunshine for awhile before heading west along the ridge to the drop in locations for the chutlets we had passed on the way up. Colin took the king and I squeezed into the queen and we skied our own lines for 800’ before they merged. The snow was decent with a windslab deepness and resilience to it. Further below in the open bowl, the sun was shining on fast perfect turns on a wide blank canvas punctuated by a few larch and backset by the 1000 foot crag towers, black and guarding. Returning to the trail was more difficult with some steep tree skiing, brush and rock drops and talus before hitting the trail for the customary schuss out, which due to warming was fairly slow. Back at the car it was 45 degrees and melting, up in the chute my fingers had been freezing and I had my hood on from the wind effect, nice difference.
Today my good friend and the lodge Chef Matty McKean left in the early morning, catching a flight to Minneapolis and onto Montreal where he will reside next. With him Tim left as well and so has the first season of the lodge. We are closed and will be wrapping up the lodge for Richard’s return to the Grubstake. It has been such a great winter, I think just what I yearned for awhile. We plan to open the lodge again next year and will be taking this year’s learning and applying it to next year’s season.
A warm thank you to all our guests who helped make this reality a possibility for all of us. Please keep in touch.
3-16-09 Monday morning brought some deep powder skiing with about two feet on the hill above the lodge. We were hosting a family from Bozeman and touring with the parents and another friend in from NYC when possible. With great opportunities for photography, we had a great time sharing the mountain with the various visitors. We are anticipating an article in Backcountry Magazine next season and this week provided the perfect backdrop for the writer and for photography. Tuesday brought some more deep snow skiing and by Wednesday we were able to tour out in clearing skies to the crown and the wave. There was enough heating in the morning to leave a centimeter thick zipper crust on east faces while north faces remained cool powder. Thursday and Friday were very warm and I did not get out in the mountains. The reports I received from others was that Saturday was quite rough but by Sunday the snow had settled enough to make for some better conditions. Saturday we took King Bob out on the Bitterroot River for a trip by canoe. With a warm wind and great views of the mountains we enjoyed paddling by geese, eagles, and a swarm of fishermen chasing skwala stoneflys. Seeing my friend Brock out on his one man cataraft, I tried swinging a deal for his four buckle Dynafit boots for Don while we shot passed in the Northwind. Maybe next week when he is back from a work trip. With the end of the first season at Downing Mountain Lodge coming up fast, I have been reflecting often on the winter. From deep powder skiing to south facing January corn snow, to the ice road of February and continuous plowing of January. Groups of familys, telemarkers, randonne skiers, split boarders, and snowshoers, we hit a broad cross section of the outdoors minded culture and had a great time meeting and offering the lodge to all. Dinners of striking variety mixed in with Euro style hut lunches and good wine,, the lodge business provided fun and filling fare. I will be getting out into the mountains all spring and looking forward to some fine touring in the long days of spring. With rock climbing and paddling season coming on now I will be jumping into these options when the snow seems marginal. Glad for the last month’s 6 feet of snow it should keep us in the winter for awhile yet. There should be more on the way as well, like last night with 12 inches in the Pintlars and 6 inches at the Twin Lakes Snotel.
photos by Don Lange
3-9-09 Digging a good pit today started off what would become one of the best ski days of the year. Feeling strong and fresh we stopped below the tarn to dig the top layers and see about the crusts and new snow. What we found indicated increasing strength from earlier in the storm cycle with clean shears taking quite some force to move. The concern seemed to still be the boundary of the drought breaking event and the snow on top now about three feet deep. With CT scores in the 20s we were feeling okay about the stability, willing to step up to the crown and kiss a jewel or two. That feeling of dropping into a familiar bowl, steep and powdery fresh, confident in your turns and heading down the fall line was relaxing today, and taking a conversational pace through the day we skied a few thousand vertical on the back bowl. Starting partly cloudy, we walked up into the sunshine and felt warmed in the arctic air. Staying high and blue the sun shone for a few hours fairly steadily through the early part of the day before relenting to snow showers. We could not get enough of the great cold snow and talked on the track and skied run after run of perfect snow on Little Downing Mountain. Pearle waited for us at the bottom of the run curled up on my jacket, or followed us up and stared intently at the bottom. Once I watched her walk out of the woods to sit and watch us come down, always excited by our arrival back at the bottom. Skiers Anon came up and we laughed about or fetish for the mountaintop powder and delighted in its presentation today. Days without wind in the mountains are gems, gifts to be cherished while memories and experiences of storms scare and prey on the senses. With sun shine and snowflakes blowing out of the sky, we just kept skiing.