June 6, 2007-
I believe my final ski day has come and gone for the winter spring season of 06-07. What a good year it has been with new lines explored and old ones returned to again and plenty of good snow days despite the lack of prodigious dumps. Memories from this season alone to last a lifetime.
I made a trip to Europe in late May for a wedding. In planning the trip I managed to squeak in a few days in the Alps and lucked out with a bluebird day my first day in Chamonix. By noon with friends we had outfitted with rental gear from Proski and had been deposited at the summit platform of the Aiguille du Midi, 3800 meters. As far as the eye could see to the south lay the Mer de Glace Glaciers and the Vallee Blanche. With info gleaned from the web, locals at the tram station in town, shopkeepers at Sneel sport and proski we had the map, experience, visibility and desire. From the platform, mountaineers and skiers open the gate to step directly onto the knife edge ridge sheer exposure dropping a thousand feet over cliffs to the right and four thousand feet of ice sheet and cliffs to the left. Not a descending walk for the faint of heart or those frozen from exposure. After descending the ridge for a hundred vertical the ridge eased and we were at the head of the bowl that descended to the glacier. With stupendous rock formations and the hulking mass of the Mont Blanc (4800 meters) to the right and straight ahead we clickedin into the rental AT gear and began to ski. Mile after mile of brilliant white snowfields, seracs and crevasses without a shrub in site stretched away to craggy peaks all climbable by moiuntaineering. The Vallee Blanche is known as the longest ski run accessed by telepherique and at 20 kilometers long I do not doubt it. Most of the run beyond the initial headwall is broken into pitches of intermediate and even beginner terrain with routefinding the key to a successful ski day. Passing gaping crevasses and swooping past hanging seracs and gawking at loose snow slides off the higher peaks we had entered a mini Alaska Range reminiscent of the higest terrain in the Canadian Rockies. While the snow conditions were decent at best the tour was an epic ending with a 5 mile 1000 meter descent back into town after missing the last train from the overlook station at 530. Coupled with the 300 meter series of ladders climbing slab cliffs at the end of the days our sore and tired legs had logged 10000 vertical. They hurt for days. In so many ways a true highlight of my skiing life and one to look forward to again sometime. Easy to see why so many ace American skiers end up in Europe for the springtime!
All Photos above of the Valle Blanche copywrite by John Lehrman. Arranged from top of the run to the hike off the glacier May 17, 2007. Have a great summer!
4-28 Don and I made another attempt to summit and ski the south summit of Grey Wolf Peak in the Missions. With the recent warm nights, we were unsure of success and decided to start super early, so with two hours sleep we met in Hamilton at 2 a.m. and headed for the trailhead. Three years ago was the last time we had been able to get a chance to go to this great mountain. We found the unmarked trailhead up the two track in the dark a bit hard to locate due to new logging on the main road. Hiking began at 5 a.m. We met snowline at the same place as before just over 6000 and put the skis on the feet. We tried a variation approach by climbing a few hundred feet and then traversing east into the drainage to pick up water and the basin and avoid a high traverse above or a descent back into the basin from the ridge above. It worked out great with a stop for water. We continued on hoping to find some firmer snow in the upper lake basin, but just firmer mush was all we skied through. We skinned up the east side of the basin and took our skis off at the obvious end to skinning where exposure to the hanging cornice forced a crossing of the slope/couloir. We continued on hugging the west side of the gully until the inevitable crossing dictated a traverse right below the cornices. We wasted no time hustling back over to the east side of the couloir where we found the small hidden gem couloir to climb to the south summit snowfield and onto the south summit. Once at the tiny pinnacle, Don began putting his skis on at the very top and inspired by his committment to ski from the south summit, I follwed suit. Getting into the skis, the adrenalin was beginnning to rush as the descent requires a sideslip traverse above 40 foot cliffs. The snow was mushy and ended up being very manageable in skis and as the seconds ticked by with skis on my feet I felt better and better. We staged to the top of the couloir making a few turns on the corniced ridge getting there but none on the traverse above. Dropping into the run was sublime and amidst cascading loose wet snow we skied a run worth dreaming about in powder.
4-18 and 19-07 Don Lange and I made a couple trips out in the range during the winter storm and found 6-12 inches of snow in the Bitterroots west of Hamilton and south at Lost Trail Pass. The snow loaded in from the north as evidenced in the mountains as well as the noticeable white summit dome at St Mary's peak in Stevi. We found excellent powder skiing especially on thursday. A preliminary report just in from LT is that the snow has begun to crust even on the north facing chutes, I reckon the air temp made it above freezing then. There may be a few good days on higher elevation north facing slopes. Expect east through west slopes to become very sensitive to wet sliding during solar gain and then crusty otherwise. Until the snow settles out completely (3-7 days for a foot of it on solar exposed slopes) there will be only narrow windows of time where the skiing will actually be good. We also found entirely melted out areas with a foot of fresh so beware of late season conditions and rocks, stumps starting to emerge where they were recently covered. I hope we get many more freezing nights this month to set us up for another great corn snow cycle.
4-12-07 I ventured up Boulder Creek to take a look at the chutes off East Boulder Peak that descend directly to the falls. When I reached just before the falls I had inspiring views of the eastern most chutes one with a significant ice fall in the middle of it and the western one appearing mostly a clean line fron the very top where I had scoped from last season. I decided to go for it and crossed the stream with some logs and rocks and immediately was able to put my skis on and ascend through willows to the base of the first crux, a bypass of the waterfall gully on snow covered slab rock slopes. Above this was fairly easy going on hard pan snow first with skis then without. The snow became so hard at times I wished I had my crampons, but travelling light I had left them at home. The next crux beyond the tricky footing on very hard snow was an ice bulge that I bypassed immediately to the left through steep and waist deep powder. Kicking and stomping steps made for good platforms and I was able to avoid stepping on ice at all. Above this there was quite a bit of switchbacking on variable powder and hard snow. Ski crampons were very helpful here, I had not left them behind. I had been contemplating turning around ever since I had the barest grip with my boot toe on the neve but pressed on by continually making short distance goals for myself that once met, I found my time okay, my nerves increasingly relaxed, and my confidence improving. The final crux involved bypassing another ice bulge. Staying right on slopes to 50 degrees I was able to skin above and then began traversing left above the bulge. The snow returned to icy due to the wind scouring and I found myself committed to a delicate traverse above the ice bulge. Once I gained slightly less steep ground I turned to face the final 100 vertical and before long I was sidestepping the last few meters up the steep headwall and onto the ridge. It was then 1 p.m., my turnaround time exactly, I had been on the trail for 7 hours. I rested for ten minutes and then began the difficult downhill return to Boulder Creek. It was a spectacular ski on sun warmed shallow powder, in shady deep powder, on icy corn snow and soft lowest elevation dust on crust. I could not believe it had worked out so well, 4000 feet of vertical from the ridgetop to creek in a direct falline. I recrossed the creek on my log bridge and rock hopping and returned to the trail after 100 yds of bushwhacking. What a spectacular run set amogst some of the Bitterroots tallest peaks with an incredible view of Trapper Peak and its west ridge and never a dull moment when gazing below to Boulder Creek thousands of feet below. Glad to say now that this run goes with no mandatory rappels. It may be the longest continuous open ski run in the range, though I hope not.
4-10-07 Jenny and I went out for a quick run in the backcountry west of Hamilton today after the nights storm laid down 3 inches of snow at home. We found between 7000-8000 feet new snow of the perfect variety between 6-9 inches deep. It was laying on a crust that had not really refrozen but froved very supportable on skis all the way to 5500'. Skiing a northeast aspect with strong winds I was able to cut some large sluffs on a slope at 40 degrees. The skiing was excellent for dust on crust and the temps stayed around freezing through the noon hour. At the lower elevations the snow was warming up and will surely be somewhat crusty tomorrow before warming from the sun. With this new snow event our meltdown is again arrested; however it will take a few days of freeze melt before we have corn snow skiing again on east tosouth to west aspects. Avalanche danger will be moderate to considerable on all slopes that receive solar gain, expect to cut off decent sluffs on slopes above 30 degrees. The good powder should linger on true north slopes for quite a few days or more.
4-3and4-07 Under blue skys and cool weather I made an attempt on El Capitan and the Como Peaks. With the beautiful weather holding all day tuesday I hiked into the base of the Middle Peak and skied a line from the pinnacle between the Middle and East Peak at 9200. With its slight west face it held the best in the late day corn snow and I enjoyed a 2000+ foot falline descent back to the bench and camp for the night. I awoke the next morning to snow flurries, a ceiling that obscured the peaks and a burning desire to summit El Capitan and ski the south couloir. I left camp just before 9 and headed west following the path of least resistance through forest and past avy paths above cliffs and across a high bench following wolverine tracks and through the gap to 8000 feet and the base of El capitan. I built a fire and hunkered down for a spell, scared some squirrels, and watched the mountain weather praying for a break. It did not come and I thought that there would be a better day to ski this fabulous peak. I was tired from the day before and the likely icy descent left me uninspired. I retreated to the point opposite the Lonesome Bachelor and got some decent pictures of El Cap without a cloud before skiing this short 500 vertical north facing powder stash and returning to camp. I packed up and headed out and made the trailhead by 8 o'clock. Great trip out following hefty wolf sign in the spitting rain.
3-28/29-07 We received our first real winter storm for March this year and it dumped about half a foot of snow in the Bitterroots with Lost Trail picking up more like a foot of snow. I was out yesterday and today and found good dust on crust conditions especially on south and east aspects. Ridgetop winds were blowing from the north scouring north faces or giving them a slight windslab. I was able to release small windslabs yesterday on a spot where this is a regular occurence on a north slope. Today I ventured out to Camas Peak and skied lines from the summit to the south and then the east bowl. The south was powder from the top and the east bowl was wind scoured for the first 500 feet or so and then transitioned to great shallow powder skiing. All morning above 7500 feet the temperature hovered at 10 degrees and the wind chill on the ridge made it downright cold in my spring getup. The crusts yesterday at 7000 on an east aspect had deepened to about 10 cms with mush below. If we get a few more good cold nights and clear weather the snow should be able to really set up for some spring skiing otherwise as soon as it warms the crusts beware of rotten snow. The forecast is for continued freezing into the teens and twenties for the forseeable future (five days) at 7500 feet. Great news for spring skiing enthusiasts. With only 6 inches to settle out the skiing should be good when the snow is warmed past its nightime crust formation.
3-26-07 I went out for a tour yesterday west of Hamilton because the overnight lows reached 28 at home. First good freeze in a while. I found the crust very thin in the front country but as I got further back it improved on east faces. I saw a big moose, fox tracks, goat tracks upon the ridge and in the inch of fresh these tracks were likewise. I looked for the goat on a south face explore for a run that did not materialize as the goat did not either. It was still 26 degrees in the shade at 6800 at 1200 which was positive. With the new snow today the 27th and somer freezing nights predicted, we may have a few days of powder and a good refreezing crust. Hope for good freezing night after the storm to keep the melt-freeze cycle alive. The crusts yesterday were only about 5 cm deep so it was bare minimum for supporting a skier.
3-15-07 Skied to Saddle Mountain and descended the north chute in windslab, powder, and dust on crust with a mixture of frozen chunks thrown in for fun. No the best conditions on this north face, but a great line and challenging. I returned to the top and skied the south facing chute with Don Lange and Kiersten in what proved to be ideal spring conditions top to bottom. The 16 overnight low had firmed up a good crust all the way to the bottom of the run and we enjoyed corn snow from the very beginning to end of the 1500 vertical line. I highly recommend this run and at 35 degrees it is not too steep at all.
3-14-07 It is truly shameful to nothave a more recent post. To sum up the passed month of skiing does not take too long though. When I returned from my mother-in-laws wedding (like that...its true) it was the beginning of the last week of February and we had just received another fine coating of powder. I managed two days out with the first the powder deep and quite slabby where I was. However by morning the the new snow has settled out and was more supportive and the skiing excellent. My journal would put thisbest day as the 22 of February. I left again on friday the 23 for Utah and some...more skiing. We spent a week in Big Cottonwood Canyon skiing Solitude and Brighton with over three feet of new snow while we were there. I wore out my quads between Mon-Friday and had manged to ski in a skate ski race on the first Saturday. 20Km in 1 hr 23 minutes, not bad for being out of this kind of shape. When we returned home on Sunday the whole Rockies were in melt down and while I gazed forlornly at the tracks from the passed week in the Bitterrroot Range which had received another 2 feet of snow, the surface conditions were going to hell and I got the flu. Good week for the flu! I worked, rested and finally today felt good enough to get out, and whats that you say, cooling temps and a skiff of powder had me out the door and up at Lost Trail Pass where I toured into May Creek cabin for a looksee on horribly rotten isothermic snow and then a retreat to Saddle Mountain where I managed to ski decent new snow on aspects just north of East, even here at 8000 ft the souh faces had warmed for days and were isothermic mush. Oh for the cold days of Decemeber and January brief as they were. Do Not ever let those days roll by ever again... With freezing temperatures again tonight skiing may be decent again tomorrow, but the forecast is for another warm up so look to the north and keep off the south and just about everything passed midday until our wretched meltdown blows away to Mexico and we get a refreeze. One thing I have noticed about refreezing is that is a definite lag time between when the temps do drop and the snowpack freezing up again. As much as a couple days depending on the temps. Sorely tempted to go to Alaska where I have heard of deep snowpack and some good cold lingering, despite windslab, I'll take that any day over mush.
2-15/16-07 Another short series of jaunts out into the Bitterroots west of Hamilton. The new snow was 6-8 inches deep at 8000 feet whereas just east in the Pintlars they had already picked up 16 inches or so claimed at Discovery Basin. This was good however as the new snow was NOT bonding at the interface with the old snow and crusts very well and was pulling out as fair sized sluffs on steep terrain 35 degrees and above on north faces. The skiing was good and I even poked onto a south facing slope and took a run on 2-3 inches powder on a spring corn base that was just starting to refreeze below. It was isothermic and wet below the top three inches at most but still supportable to an elevation of about 6000. Spring skiing on these south faces may be just around the corner early this year due to the abundant springtime temperatures and the settled snow on the south faces. If we do not get much more snow this weekend start looking to these south faces for corn snow. However, if we do receive more snow and it loads to any depth greater than three inches beware of wet slides when the sun emerges again. Dig down to see if the base has refrozen and how deep, remember to ski cut slopes from point of safety to point of safety with speed, watch your back and have a partner spotting you.
2-3-07 I managed a quick trip into the Bitterroot Backcountry after the recent storm to find 4-6 inches of super light density snow which was sluffing after fracturing at 2-3 inches on a 38 degree cross loaded slope facing north east. Great skiing where there were no old tracks and where there were old tracks it was still quite good. We did numerous tilt tap tests and tried perfecting the chronology and isolation by sawing out the column to 18 inches removing it with as little disturbance as possible then tilting it to 38 degrees based on actual inclinomater measurement and then giving the bottom of the shovel light taps while so inclined. It pulled out the first 2 inches with the second tap, then the next 2 inches with the 6 tap and then the next 2 for a total of 6 inches of lighter snow on tap 12 before reaching the dense old snow. Sliding surfaces seemed to be new snow boundaries coming in with little to no wind and perhaps some surface hoar, but I have been out of town so do not really know. Excellent touring conditions again with temps in the 10-15 range and light to moderate winds on Friday.
1-24-07 Don Lange, Joey Palumbo, and I skied up to Trapper pk with great weather and terrible surface conditions. The wind had scoured most aspects especailly at high elevations making for great traveling up and challenging on the way down. Taking the standard approach from the trailhead into the Baker Lake drainage and then climbing to the ridge we went only as far as the East Peak from which there were great views down and out across north toward El Capitan and North Trapper as well as south to Boulder peak where we had been recently. This is a really fun tour which I usually do in the spring for a descent of the Gen Lake Couloir. It usually has ice at the top and is very overhung with a huge cornice even in May and makes skiing from the ridge generally inadvisable. I thought we may be able to catch it in a stable powder cycle and ski this great line to Gem Lake. We were thwarted by hard snow and a descending traverse that required not only a rope, which we had, but protection from a pendulum fall. With conditions less than ideal we opted for the multi pitched descent via the climbers descent route below and east. It was challenging and fun and we arrived at Gem Lake grinning. Conditions were so warm this day that an elevated south and west facing wet slide hazard had evolved and returning to the trailhead was on rotten and shallow thoroughly warmed snow. No slide however. Great touring day and I look forward to returning to this spot again soon.
Report from 1-14-07 With cold temperatures still dominating the region and brilliant blue skys, there is not much better weather for touring than this. I headed out to Lost Trail Pass to ski Saddle Mountains south face run into Camp Creek. Touring along the MT/ID border ridge there were great views of the bowls and Saddle Mountain and with windless sun it was warm enough to take some layers off. I ran into another party of local ski tourers and enjoyed some nice conversation before they headed down into the bowl and I struck out for the summit. The north facing chute off the summit was filled in nicely and though tempting, I wanted nothing more than to stay in the sun. Expecting crusts but hoping for powder I was extremely happy when five turns into the upper, south face run I had cleared the shallow rocky area and was sinking into great, shin deep powder which continued down into the gully where there began to be a manageable crust. I hiked east and back to the summit for another run and found decent snow all the way down to Camp Creek. In the sun was nice, but once down in the treed hollow it was neg 5 F. Skinning back out from the creek was quite good with open lodgepole prevalent enough to avoid branches and I eventually hooked up with another skin trail that delivered me back to the ridge. This was a committing 35 degree run with terrain trap gully at the bottom. I was willing to ski based on low hazard rating on the south face and exceptional settling before the cold snap. With the skiff of new powder on top of it all, I lucked out with great surface conditions.
Report from 1-11-07 Arctic air has filtered into the region causing temperatures to plummet and snow to get squeaky and slow. While the sun shines it is generally warm enough to tour but take caution from any wind. The snow is stabilized nicely allowing for decent touring and the wind event that preceeded the storm generally cemented the snow in place in stiff slabs. With the small round of snow showers on tuesday and wednesday, surface conditions improved from tuesday's warm wind slabs. The bitter temperatures should recrystalize the surface snow as well and make for better touring into the weekend and next week as the artic air continues. Bundle up out there and swing those hands and feet to maintain circulation to the extremities. Watch for frost bite on the ears and nose and play it safe as getting hurt or stranded/lost in these conditions will require all your winter knowledge to stay alive.
Report from 1-3-07
Another round of winter storms have entered Weestern Montana today
and it looks like the forecast is for them to continue through the weekend.
This of course is great news for all the snow and water related activities
we pursue during the winter, spring and summer. While the climatologists
have been forecasting another El Nino and snow line has indeed been
consistently high during the heaviest snowfall, above 6000 feet winter
is well entrenched in the mountains of Western Montana.
Report from 12-19-06
Don Lange, and I made a trip to Camas Peak in the central Bitterroots. With perfect weather to anticipate we made an early start, making it to the summer trailhead by snowmachine before dawn at 7:15 a.m. The road was drivable with a 4*4 to the Moose/Camas rd junction. We made an ascent of the subridge separating Camas creek from Hayes Creek and skied the north glades down toward Kidney Lake for an initial run of 800 vertical on variable snows from dried out powder to manageable breakable crust. The ascent to the peak was then about two hours away and we summited by 1:00 p.m. for a five hour approach time. The wind was blowing from the NW at the summit and loading the east bowl while scouring the north face, which looked in marginal shape. We noted only one natural slide on a east face below a rock band in what looked to be a windloaded feature. The crown was fairly filled in again and distant making any assessment from it difficult. We dug two pits one at the top of the glade and another on the east bowl right off the summit. Conditions appeared in both places to be of decent stability despite multiple layers from the last cycles variability wrt snow type and wind. The views from Camas Pk are stunning with unrestricted sights south to El Capitan and The Shard. Northern views are dominated by Ward Mountain with its impressive array of lines on the south face. Canyon Peak, Blodgett Mountain, and the heads of North Fork Lost Horse and Upper Lost Horse are all visible on such a clear day. There was overall 3-5 feet of settled snow in the traveling area and a supportable crust made trail breaking easy at low elevations. The crust eased at 6500 and we were once again in soft snow well settled and dried out. It was sunny enough to be hot at times and give our faces the suntan of winter, and the air stayed cool between 5-20 all day. We found the east bowl to be in good ski shape and with a high level of excitement after a good pit dug on belay rope showed only moderate stability, Don dropped in to what looked like ideal conditions and carved up perfect turns to the larch band mid slope. I followed skiing right around the rock and carving perfect turns on a sunny face to the toe of the slope 1400 vertical below. What a great day for touring, skiing and photography. With no other tracks in the Kidney Lakes basin either skier or snowmobiler we had a very aesthetic experience on our earliest summit/ski of Camas Peak.
Report from 12-06-06
Two partners and I made a trip to the high point above Glen Lake and found delightful views, good terrain, a fresh burn, and generally filled in snow pack although shallow still. The weather never cleared out until evening, and with the cloud cover and slight wind and flurries we had ideal touring conditions in settled dense powder. We were able to drive the 4 by 4 quite high with chains on all wheels making the approach reasonable. In three hours we were on the summit gawking at the Heavenly Twins, Bass Peak, Gash Point and Sky Pilot, all great ski destinations for the intrepid. The new burn is quite prolific and affected all but the upper most basin with a crown fire. It was nice therefore to make it into this upper basin and ski the green glades before returning to the burnt approach. Below the lakes looked like it needed more snow before filling in nicely. For a day with fast conditions and a settled snow pack this was the perfect tour with a total roundtrip from the truck of only six hours.
Report from 11-30-2006
winter has come. With three to four feet of
settled snow in the higher peaks of the Montana Bitterroots, Mission
Mountains and Swan Ranges, the backcountry ski season is underway and
the snow has been fantastic. Starting the wednesday before Thanksgiving,
new snow piled up by Friday to a depth of 15-20 inches of new fluff.
It came in without wind and at 25 degrees bonding was good and the stability
November 15th: After much waiting through small snowstorms, a tremendous rain event on November 6-7, and hearing great ski news from Colorado, Montana's Bitterroot range came into its own at St. Mary's peak with a well settled three foot snow pack in the east bowls. I was able to get out twice to the bowl again on the 17th when the powder was light and my partner and I were able to really let the skis run as most rocks were covered or obvious. The road to the trailhead at 7000 feet was manageable with a 4by 4 and good tires and from there it is an easy two hours to the top of the bowls. With another round of storms progged to come through our area over this Thankgiving week we should have more great skiing coming our way by Thursday and Friday with lowering snow levels and better coverage.