Gunsight

Gunsight from Comeau Pass


The States’ Glacier National Park is kind of a disappointment to someone familiar with Canada. The climbing is inferior to Canada’s Glacier National Park (i.e. Rogers Pass), and the peaks and glaciers are a lesser version of the Canadian Rockies. With the Going-to-the-Sun road mostly closed, access to peaks in Glacier is low and limited. From the west, the road is drivable only to the end of MacDonald Lake, at 3200 feet. Trails seem to be mostly snow-free up to 6000 feet, and the snow is well-consolidated above that, but the few accessible peaks still tend to require about 6000 feet of gain. Gunsight, a 9000-footer above the recently-burned Sperry Chalet, is one of the easiest summits to reach in the area.

Glacier Basin

It was well above freezing overnight, and the days are long, so there was no reason to get an early start — the snow would be what it would be. A fire last summer had burned a lot of the approach to the Sperry Chalet, as well as one of the Chalet buildings, but the Parks Service had been busy with a chainsaw, and the trail was clear up to where the snow started. It was a long grind up from the lake at 3200 feet to the start of solid snow around 6000 feet, about halfway to the peak elevation-wise. I was pleased to find the snow consolidated, even late in the morning in the woods.

Burned Sperry Chalet

Above the chalet, the trail traverses a ledge to climb a sort of amphitheater, and this ledge was still holding a fair amount of high-angle snow. While I did not need my crampons, I was glad to have my ice axe with me, as a slip would have shot me off a small cliff. Above the traverse ledge, I climbed toward Comeau Pass in a more-or-less straight line, passing mostly-frozen Feather Woman and Akaiyan Lakes. While the peaks mostly seem to have standard white man names, many natural features have Native American names that I suspect were not given by the natives themselves.

Comeau Pass slot

The final 20 feet to the pass is a slot in a headwall that was either blasted entirely, or improved with cut steps and some rock-work. From Comeau Pass, Mount Edwards is a 1000-foot climb to one side, while Gunsight is a 1200-foot climb to the other. I probably should have done both, but I had two more biggish days planned, and opted to only tag the higher peak. I stayed mostly on the rock of the northwest ridge, as the snow on the north face was not as well-consolidated as that lower down. The climb was straightforward except for the transitions between rock and snow.

Summit snow arete

The summit was a narrow snow arete, hard on one side and calf-deep on the other. I tagged the high point, then sat on some rocks on the west side to have a snack and look down at huge Lake MacDonald 6000 feet below. The return went quickly, with a 600-foot glissade down the north face, then some plodding and boot-skiing down to below the chalet. I met a half-dozen people hiking the trail, including two girls with a map, who I encouraged to continue at least as far as the chalet. However, it seems like I have the high country to myself now — I saw some old ski tracks, but no boot tracks, despite the friendly snow. Their loss.

Tupper

Tupper from highway


Rogers Pass may be the best scrambling area I have found in North America. I drove over from the Rockies with grand plans, but discovered when I got there that conditions were completely wrong, and that my plan was better suited to mid-summer. Wanting to get something out of the time spent driving, I looked around and selected Mount Tupper’s west ridge, a classic 5.3 scramble accessible in early season via one of the many avalanche chutes menacing the Pass. With a late start, conditions were near-perfect: just soft enough to kick steps in trail runners on the way up, and soft enough to plunge-step and boot-ski on the way down. The 6-hour outing was far less ambitious than what I had planned, but it was a fun route, and a step toward cleaning up the peaks near the pass.

Looking up the couloir

Thinking (incorrectly) that the lower slide path might be a mess of downed timber and alder, I parked at the Hermit Meadows trailhead, then hiked up a road labeled “KEEP OUT” and into the adjacent, fairly open woods. I eventually realized my error, and bashed through a hundred yards of alder to reach the snow-tongue a few hundred feet above the road. Unlike the normal snow lying around, which was isothermal and wretched after days of above-freezing temperatures, the slide snow was nicely compacted, easily climbable with nothing more than trail runners and an ice axe. I alternated between the main runnel and the snow to either side, then moved to the third class rock and mud higher up, when it seemed easier to do so. I was in no hurry, and the chute climbs over 4000 of the 5000 feet between the road and Tupper’s summit, so it took me awhile to reach the ridge, where I topped out to find a bit of trail and some recent boot-prints in the intermittent snow.

Crux corner

Being south- and west-facing, the route was mostly dry, and I crossed only two short patches of snow on my way to the summit. The ridge started out as an easy boulder-hop, then turned to a few fourth class steps as it neared the obvious headwall. The guidebook mentioned several ways to get up the 40-foot headwall, all low fifth class. At random, I chose to climb straight up the corner/chimney, finding secure climbing after a bit of a tricky start. I had expected things to be easy above that, but there remained some very exposed class 3-4 climbing on the crest. The rock on the final part was blocky quartzite, much like that on Sir Donald, so the climbing was always secure, even when steep.

Tupper’s summit fin

Perched directly above the road and Connaught Creek, the summit had a commanding view of the peaks surrounding Rogers Pass, as well as some unfamiliar ones to the north, possibly including Mount Sir Sandford, the Selkirks’ highest mountain. I sat around a bit, entered my name as the first of the year in the register (maybe the earlier party had turned back?), then retraced my steps. I took a different line down the headwall, following some ledges climbers’ right of the corner, which seemed similarly difficult though less sustained. Below, I tried to cut the corner into my slide chute, but mostly lost on nasty mud and choss.

Sir Donald

After a bit of knee-deep postholing up high, I found perfect plunge-steeping in the couloir, followed by excellent boot-skiing in and out of the runnel where the slope eased. I managed to stitch together snow patches to within 100 yards of the road, then clambered awkwardly through brush and deadfall to reach the road. Back at the car by early afternoon, I drove up to the visitor center to see if they could recommend any other similar climbs. I spent some time talking to a friendly and knowledgeable ranger, but as expected, he could think of no suitable peaks that I had not already climbed. Oh, well — so much for Canada this year. Hopefully I’ll be back next summer, when I will need about a week to clean out the rest of the Rogers Pass area.

Hector (and Fairview)

Fairview

Cliffs are dangerous, yo

I thought it would probably be good to give my seldom-used ski muscles a rest after Columbia, so I drove south to Lake Louise to play tourist for a day. I even treated myself to some Montreal Smoked Meat, which is a bit like pastrami without the pepper coating, and only seems to be sold in Canada. Since I prefer “fitness tourism,” I looked around for an easy peak, and settled on Mount Fairview, a 1000-meter trail climb from Lake Louise. The lake was still slightly frozen, and the trail was snow-covered from the beginning, but Canadian tourists are a hardy lot, so there was a good boot-pack most of the way to the saddle between Fairview and Saddleback.

Thank God for this

Near the end of the bootpack, I met a half-dozen college kids, including a couple girls in short-shorts, debating whether to continue. I made some encouraging noises, but I don’t think they went much farther, which was probably for the best. The last half-mile or so to the saddle was fairly wretched, with stretches of crotch-deep postholing through slush. I tried a direct line toward the peak, failed, then continued up the bottom of the depression farther toward the saddle, where the snow was slightly more consolidated. Fortunately, there was a bare rib leading from the saddle nearly to the summit — I would not have had the energy or patience for another 1500 vertical feet of wallowing.

Sheol, Lefroy, Victoria

The view is actually better than “fair,” with Lake Louise below, and greater peaks to the south, west, and north: Temple, some of the Ten Peaks including Deltaform, Sheol, Lefroy, and Victoria. Having nothing better to do, I sat in a sheltered spot on the summit for awhile, then returned the way I had come. The snow was even worse than on the way up, sometimes even too soft for a sitting glissade, but at least it was downhill. I passed another group of kids, these at least all wearing long pants, and encouraged them to try for the summit before skating down the icy trail through the woods to the teeming hordes of tourists by the chateau.

Hector

Hector’s summit at last


What a difference a week makes. When I first tried Hector seven days ago, there was (awful) snow almost right from the road, and I was almost completely dysfunctional with the flu. Today, I was able to hike the first 600 meters or so (to above the waterfall) in trail runners, and finished a bit after noon. The previous night looked like the last cold night for awhile, and I was just about done with the area, so I figured I might as well stick around an extra day to finish Hector. It is one of the Canadian Rockies’ 11,000-foot peaks, an ultra-prominence peak, and best done as a ski, so it would have been lame of me to leave it un-bagged while I was in the area.

Looking down to Bow Valley

I got a semi-alpine start around 6:20, finding two other cars parked in the small pullout across from Hector Creek. It took me a few minutes to adjust to my new dimensions with both skis and boots on my back, but I was soon making steady progress up the good use trail toward the waterfall without getting stuck on trees. Below the waterfall, I climbed a cone of avalanche snow, then a little third class cliff. After a few more minutes of trail, I reached nearly-continuous snow in the hanging valley around 2200 meters. I skinned up the lousy snow, then stumbled across 50 yards of rocks to reach the continuous snow to the summit.

Skinning toward glacier

The snow below the Hector Glacier was steep enough to require some boot-packing, but fortunately it was early enough for it not to have turned awful. Above, it was low-angle enough for efficient skinning. Rounding the corner, I finally got a glimpse of the well-hidden summit, and spotted a team of four on the upper glacier. They had taken a line well to the left, but it looked like most skiers followed a lower-angle line to the right. At the base of the glacier, I passed their four pairs of snowshoes, their tails stuck in the snow next to a red-flagged wand.

There were scattered clouds wandering slowly eastward, and as I reached the upper glacier, one of them parked on Hector. I wasn’t about to get lost — I had a map and GPS, and there were old tracks — but it was a bit annoying to climb with no visibility, and would be downright unpleasant to ski down in those conditions. I plodded on, eventually finding the party of four’s boot-pack, though I neither heard nor saw them descending.

Summit rock band

I stashed my skis and poles below the summit knob, then took on the final 100 feet of rock, ice, and snow with my axe and no crampons. I had them in my pack, but it would have taken time to adjust them to my ski boots, and this made the climb a bit more of a fair fight. I finally spotted the group of four descending the snow above the lower rock step. They turned out to be three novices and (probably) a guide, roped together and moving slowly. It seems like they had been going at a leisurely pace all day, since they had started around 3:30. I booted past them, then climbed a final 6-foot rock step to the summit, becoming slightly more comfortable climbing in plastic boots.

Time to go fast

The summit was better than I expected: a narrow ridge above the clouds, with a register and some dry sitting rocks. I spent some time looking down to Hector Lake and willing the clouds to depart the Hector Glacier, then carefully downclimbed to my skis. The group ahead of me had maybe a 10-minute lead, and I had to ski carefully up high while in the clouds, but most of the glacier was clear, and I soon flew by them, briefly hitting 50 MPH on a steep section with a good runout. I briefly screwed up below the glacier, heading too far right and having to hike some rocks to correct my error, and the snow was absolute garbage below 2400 meters. Still, Hector is an awesome ski, and would have been even better a month ago, when I could have skied all the way to the car, a vertical mile below. Canadians are so spoiled…

Columbia (10h52)

Columbia summit pyramid


Mount Columbia is the second-highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, and the highest of 11 11,000-foot peaks that ring the Columbia Icefield. Unlike Mount Robson, whose 10,000-foot south face is visible from the highway, Columbia is a shy mountain, seen only from parts of the Icefield and its surrounding peaks. Therefore most people never see it. The standard route climbs the Athabasca Glacier to the southeast side of the Icefield, then makes a mostly-flat traverse to Columbia at its far west side. Depending upon the exact route chosen, it is about 25-26 miles round-trip.

Snow Dome

I had been hanging around the Glacier Discovery Center enough that people were starting to recognize me — never a good thing — but the weather and my cough finally both cooperated, so I could finally tag my peak and leave. The result was painful, as I am not used to long ski tours, but ranks among my favorite days in the mountains. In addition to some incredible and unique scenery, this outing and my other two trips up to the Icefield helped dispel my irrational fear of the Athabasca Glacier approach and the Icefield itself. It’s serious terrain, but as is often the case, it can be managed with caution and mountain sense instead of gear and partners.

First view of Columbia

I had a quiet night in the Sunwapta Lake parking area until a few minutes before my 4:15 alarm, when two trucks pulled in to either side of me. They proved to contain two parties headed across the Icefield, a pair headed for the Twins, and a group of four headed for I-don’t-know-where. I consumed my cup of sadness and started just after the first group, shortly before 5:00, catching them as they put on their skis at the toe of the glacier. Figuring that I wouldn’t be carrying my skis much, I took my new daypack, which has enough room for gear plus stash pockets for food.

Castleguard and points south

I slightly gapped the pair headed for the Twins on the way up the familiar Athabasca Glacier, topping out in around two hours. They had been making good time, but disappeared somewhere in the middle, perhaps taking the long detour left instead of going under Snow Dome’s seracs. I, of course, took my chances on the direct route, and saw no ice fall in the hour or so that I could see the seracs. Judging by the debris, I might get hit if something big came loose, but it would bounce and roll first, cutting its momentum and giving me a chance to dodge. Plus, the detour looks way sketchier, as it parallels a number of crevasse fields.

Bryce from the Trench

The light clouds were breaking up, and I finally got direct sun a bit after 8:00, stopping to put on my hat and sunscreen. With no fog obscuring my view, navigation was simple: head more or less straight on from the top of the glacier, then turn slightly right as you see Castleguard. When Columbia starts emerging, aim at or a bit left of its summit to hit the highpoint of the trench. This part can be a grind, skinning across slightly-undulating, nearly-flat terrain with only distant landmarks. Getting around Snow Dome takes forever. However, the views of Bryce, Castleguard, and the Icefield lit by the sun breaking through patchy clouds kept my mind occupied, and the snow was in near-perfect condition.

Slog, slog, slog

I actually overshot the highpoint of the Trench a bit, and had to backtrack slightly before switching to ski mode to dive in. I tried to gather some momentum, but ground to a stop before making any progress up the other side. From there, it was an interminable skin up the nearly-flat ice peninsula leading to Columbia’s base. The scale of the place makes itself felt on this stretch: the summit pyramid looks small, but is actually almost 2000 feet high, while the almost-flat approach above the Trench is nearly three miles long.

Columbia Glacier

Columbia’s east face had been baking all morning, so despite the cooler night, it was starting to become posthole country. Fortunately, it looked like a couple groups had summited in the last few days, and their boot-packs were still relatively firm. Unfortunately, they seem to have been very tall, because the steps were placed awkwardly far apart. Based on a trip report I had read, I had anticipated stashing my skis and booting both up and down. However, I saw ski tracks on the face, and it is both broad and not too steep (about 45 degrees), so I decided that it should be skied. To my delight, I found that my new daypack can carry skis cross-wise using some external straps, though I doubt that is their intended purpose. Lacking a serious waist-belt, the pack is not super-comfortable while carrying heavy skis, but… good enough.

The Twins

Unfortunately, I basically imploded on the 1500-foot boot-pack to the top. This being May, I had packed fewer calories than the math suggested, so perhaps rationing contributed. More likely, I was just worn out after doing more skiing than I have done in years, perhaps decades. I made my pathetic way up the face, cheered by the view of the Twins to my right, and the prospect of skiing down this thing.

Summit cornice

Following the herd’s tracks left of a 30-foot summit cornice, I sketched across a bit of shallow snow over ice, then popped through the short part of the cornice to emerge on the summit plateau. I could not have asked for better conditions: it was calm, clear in all directions, and probably right around freezing. I spread my windbreaker on the snow, rooted around my unused crampons to dig out my down parka, and sat down to admire the views. Far to the east, I could make out the head of the Athabasca Glacier in the distance, between Andromeda and Snow Dome. Next door to the north rose the South Twin, presenting its fearsome 6000-foot south face. Directly to the east, the Columbia Glacier falls in double ice-falls from the Trench to the headwaters of the Athabasca River. Unknown mountains stretched to the horizon in all directions: the Rockies to the north, south, and east, and the Selkirks barely poking above the cloud deck to the west.

About to dive in

After a sandwich and a brief summit nap, I switched to ski mode, then pitched over the edge onto the east face. My quads were tired from the climb, and the snow was heavy, so I had to stop every dozen turns to recover. Still, going down made up for the horrid slog on the way up. The snow was starting to soften, and the flatness of the plateau back to the Trench made itself felt. Though it was not worth switching to skins, I was forced to do some exhausting skating to get through one stretch. Things improved once the plateau started dropping to the Trench, and after a screw-up where I drifted too far left and ended up on the edge of a huge crevasse, I righted myself, and managed to hit 43 MPH in a tuck down the final slope.

Parting view

Now it was time for the slog. I ate my last granola bar, then began skinning up the other side. I followed an old track for awhile, then switched to navigating by landmark, aiming for the left-hand skyline of an unnamed peak southwest of the Athabasca Glacier. This long traverse is a trade-off between elevation gain on the direct line nearer Snow Dome, and distance on a slightly longer and lower route farther south. The snow was starting to soften, and I was out of water; the day was becoming distinctly less fun.

At last, I reached a point where I could switch to ski mode for the rest of the way home. After a fast, easy descent to the head of the glacier, I took the current line skier’s left of its head, which is now a crevassed disaster, then linked turns down the headwall. The snow was getting sticky, so I couldn’t match the previous outing’s speed, but I still made good time all the way to the lower, flat part of the glacier. Unfortunately it was mid-afternoon, and the snow had been baked to a wretched, sticky state; even following the morning’s skin track, I had to constantly double-pole to keep moving. The final stretch was even slower, as I stumbled across the moraine with my skis over my shoulder, crossed the rope barrier right next to the “you will fall in a crevasse and die” sign, then clomped through the tourist hordes to reach my car.

Despite the slow finish, I was surprised to make it to the car faster than I had expected — just under 11 hours. As I have established before, I am usually 10-20% off what an elite athlete can do, even at things I should be good at like uphill running. I was therefore very satisfied to be less than 20% off the 9h18 FKT for Columbia, set by members of the Canadian national ski mountaineering team. Ill-timed illness has kept me from doing as much skiing as I had hoped while in the Great White North, but what I have done has been high quality. Hopefully we’ll have a decent winter wherever I end up in the States next winter.

Nigel

Sunrise behind Nigel


Though I have not lacked motivation this May, I have been engaged in a frustrating battle with the flu. After the Snow Dome adventure, I was completely useless the next day, and decided to rest until at least the fever and headache were gone. By the time I finally recovered enough to ski up onto the Columbia Icefield again, the weather began to turn, so I only made it about halfway to my goal. Still, it was a fun ski, especially the part where I briefly hit 38 MPH descending the Athabasca Glacier headwall. That may be slow by inbounds standards, but it’s not bad for chunky backcountry snow.

Athabasca Glacier and bad snow

While waiting for the clouds to pass, I decided to tag the very British Nigel Peak, Wilcox’s southern neighbor across the road from the Icefield. It had melted out dramatically in the days since skiing Snow Dome, allowing me to tackle its west face with lightweight gear. Where snow remained, though, it was almost always awful, isothermal slop in which one would posthole to the bottom, knee- or even crotch-deep.

It’s a short climb, so I took my time getting started. The trail to the red chairs was mostly snow-free, though still muddy, especially in the trees. I followed it until a couple hundred yards past the chairs, then took off cross-country toward Nigel’s base. Its southwest ridge (which turns northwest) has a number of chutes on its southwest side, one of which is apparently the standard route. I did my best to avoid the lingering snow among the meadows and brush on the way over, because it was all wretched and bottomless.

Up-chute

My efforts to minimize postholing left me near the base of the left of the two most likely chutes, which proved fortunate. The right-hand chute is all scree, perfect for descent but terrible for climbing. The left one, however, is about half exposed limestone, which is solid and sticky even when wet, making for much more efficient uphill progress. Once on the ridge, I traversed past the right-hand chute, then continued along the crest, where I only sunk in shoe-deep as long as I stayed away from exposed rocks. Transitioning between rock and snow usually involved one or two crotch-deep postholes.

Nigel ridge

Thanks to the snow, I stayed closer to the ridge than is probably normal, climbing a couple of fourth class steps along the way. A couple hundred feet below the summit, I contoured left into a gully, finding firm-ish snow near the cliffs, and bare talus elsewhere. After a final short, steep climb, I emerged on the summit ridge, and was soon at the cairn. There was of course nothing to see but the register, where I noticed both prolific Canadian guidebook author David P. Jones, and a hard-core seven-year-old kid with his dad.

Down-chute: hell yeah

I retraced my steps on the descent, then took the downward gully, which was 400 meters of almost pure scree-skiing. The rest of the descent was less excellent, with more postholing and brush-bashing across the flats, and a minor wipe-out on the slick mud when I tried to jog the trail. Still, I was back at the car by mid-afternoon, with plenty of time to eat, repack, and hang around the all-too-familiar Glacier Discovery Center. (If you visit, make sure to see the history exhibit downstairs.) Unfortunately the Asian tourist buses seem to have started up in the past week, so it’s just about time I get out of here. Only one more bit of business to take care of…

Snow Dome

Snow Dome from near Wilcox Pass


The Columbia Icefield, between Banff and Jasper, is the largest piece of ice south of Alaska, and one of the Canadian Rockies’ most impressive features. Snow Dome, as its name suggests, is one of the area’s least impressive peaks. Still, it is one of the hydrological apexes of North America, along with Triple Divide Peak in Montana, and offers impressive views of Mount Columbia, The Twins, Mount Bryce, and other high neighbors.

Yours Truly coughing up a lung

When I did Kitchener last summer, I thought that would be my only time on the Icefield, since the normal access is via the heavily-crevassed Athabasca Glacier. So when Bob suggested ski touring up to Snow Dome, I jumped at the chance. When I woke up feeling a bit off on my first morning in the Tetons, I thought I had a minor cold, and skied the Spoon Couloir the next day. When I felt worse the next morning, I suspected something more serious, and began conserving my energy, taking a couple days off on my way up to Canada. Though I was useless and NyQuil-dependent the next day, I managed to cough my way up Snow Dome on a day with near-perfect conditions.

Walking the coach road (photo Bob)

Bob and Matt rolled into the Glacier Discovery Center from Calgary around 10:00, and we set our alarms for 4:00 AM and a short night’s sleep. We started walking up the snow coach road around 5:00, with no need for headlamps so far north. Though it loses some elevation dropping to the receding Athabasca Glacier, the road is still probably faster than skinning up from the toe of the glacier, especially when the road down to the glacier parking lot is closed.

Ramp through third crevasses

From the graded tourist area, we skinned across to the north side of the glacier, then began making our way around the three bands of crevasses leading to the icefield. We easily passed the first, then continued past the second on a good skin track, choosing to scurry beneath the seracs instead of navigating the crevasse around the glacier’s south side. The serac was more active than any I have seen, letting loose twice while we climbed, but there is enough on the glacier’s north side to avoid a direct hit by falling ice and snow. The ramp up the third crevasse band was an easy climb up a good switchbacked skin track, with only a few crevasse issues near the top, where the current track will probably soon have to be re-routed.

Columbia emerges

With no features other than the occasional human, it is hard to judge distances on the Columbia Icefield. We climbed endlessly to a broad ridge northwest of the glacier’s head, with Mount Bryce’s intimidating north face finally coming into view to the southwest. The direct route to Snow Dome’s summit is a broken mess of crevasses, forcing skiers to circle around to its southwest side before climbing. As we circled and climbed, Mount Columbia, the Rockies’ second-highest peak, came into view on the far west edge of the icefield.

Summit conditions

Once we finally had a straight shot at Snow Dome’s summit, it was just an endless slog to get there. The “peak” is not a perfect dome, but an endless series of false summits. Even when we finally reached the summit, we were not sure we were there until we passed it and saw neighboring Mount Kitchener’s south face. Despite magnificent views of Columbia and the Twins, we stayed only long enough to switch to downhill mode. The headwind that had started a few hundred feet below the summit had grown vicious, and none of us wanted to hang around.

Sailing off the summit (photo Matt)

After being helped off the summit by a tailwind, I enjoyed carving fast turns down the hard-packed slopes, roughly following our up-track back toward the head of the Athabasca Glacier to stop for lunch in a more sheltered spot. Other than a bit of cautious skiing at the head of the glacier, we had a wonderfully fast run down to its flat lower section, then an easy cruise to the toe. Taking off our skis, we clomped across the morainal debris, then stepped over the ropes back onto the tourist path, ending our day by climbing the road back to the parking area in the mid-day heat. The whole outing was about 6 hours up and 2 down, and far less intimidating than I had expected. Hopefully I can recover quickly enough to make another visit soon.

Spoon!

Amphitheater


After Drift, I rallied up to the Tetons hoping to do a lap or two on Buck Mountain’s east face, a broad, fun, moderate ski I had done last June. Pulling in after dark, I found that not only was the Moose-Wilson road closed just north of the Death Canyon trailhead, but the road to said trailhead was blocked as well. I suppose I could have walked the road or driven around to another trailhead, but I was feeling lazy and a bit under the weather, so I just slept there, then bummed around Jackson for the day. I have only seen the town during its hellishly crowded tourist season, and found it pleasantly quiet in the narrow window between when Jackson Hole Ski Area closes and Yellowstone opens. Grand Teton is similarly quiet and pleasant — I seem to have finally figured out how to spend the month of May.

Booting up from the trail

Anyways, I drove up to the Lupine Meadows trailhead to camp, figuring I would ski either South Teton or Teewinot the next day. Some guys I met there suggested accessing Garnet Canyon via the winter route between Braggart and Tadley Lakes, but I stuck to the devil I knew. I also stayed up way too late watching Westworld, so in the end I had a late breakfast and headed for the Spoon Couloir on Disappointment Peak instead.

Guys descending the Spoon

There was intermittent snow on the trail right from the trailhead, but not enough to ski, so I hiked to the Burt Wagon Gulch junction in trail runners, then continued up the lower shortcut a ways before hopping onto the snow in the couloir to its left. I tried skinning at first, but it was too steep, so I put my skis back on my pack and slowly booted up the thing, roasting in a t-shirt in the morning sun. I found myself “racing” two men with snowshoes who were headed in the same direction, and chose the ridge to the right for some reason.

View up the Spoon

My aim was a little off, but close enough, and I soon passed Surprise Lake on the right and Amphitheater on the left, not daring to skin straight across. I saw two men making a very slow descent of the Spoon, and picked up their skin track and bootpack as I neared the base of the couloir. There was a bunch of avalanche debris at the bottom, and a nice runnel in the center, but it didn’t seem to be actively sloughing. The bootpack had been partially covered by slush, probably unleashed when the men skied down, but I still found useful stairs most of the way up. I was still dripping sweat in a t-shirt.

Snake River from above the Spoon

It was late enough in the day that I was concerned about snow conditions, so I skipped the summit and transitioned to downhill mode in a lower-angle spot left of the couloir. I saw no sign of the snowshoers, who had been headed for the standard ledges route left of the Spoon when last I saw them. That looked like a bad idea to me, with multiple small recent wet slides, but who am I to judge?

What are you doing?

Transition complete, I cautiously dropped into the Spoon. There was still quite a bit of slush hanging around the upper couloir, so I had to ski defensively, making a couple turns, traversing to one side, then waiting for the slush to stop moving. The surface had been better scoured lower down, so I was able to ski more continuously, but I still made frequent stops to rest my thighs, since the sticky slush made for exhausting skiing.

The open woods and chute below Surprise Lake were decent, and would have been a lot of fun with better snow. This early in the season, continuous snow extends to within 50 yards of the lowest Garnet Canyon switchback, so I only had to walk from just above the junction. After a warm night, the snow on the trail had been just barely supportive in the morning. On the way back, it was less so, and I had to step carefully to avoid postholing. I returned to the trailhead to see 5-6 cars’ worth of skiers hanging out, who I passed in silence to prepare a pot of glop. And to chase a marmot out from under my car — I have no idea what he was up to, but I’m sure it was no good.

“Drift”

Face to be skied


Welcome to the 2018 season! The early part of this season should be a bit different, because thanks to my “Scott sponsorship” (the man, not the brand), I have AT skis. I was hoping to use them this winter, but the dismal winter in the southern Rockies, among other things, scuttled that plan. Maybe next winter I will pick somewhere likely to have a better winter.

Jacque from parking lot

Instead, I started my ski season in May. Just like last year, where my first run in several years was a survival-ski down the Middle Teton Glacier, I chose something hard enough to guarantee more survival than fun. When I climbed “Drift Peak” near Leadville last spring, I traversed from Fletcher, then plunge-stepped down something I thought might make a good ski run. Since I needed to break up the drive north, I decided to return to Mayflower Gulch and try skiing it.

Moonset over popular run

Mayflower is a popular backcountry ski trailhead, so there was one other person camped there, and two more trucks arrived before I started skinning up the road around 6:30. There were the usual spring dog turds melting out of the track, but still just enough snow coverage to ski from the parking lot. I took my time skinning up the road toward Boston Mine, passing one side-road before taking another that seemed to get a fair amount of traffic. I eventually emerged from the woods at the bottom of a broad, gentle slope that looked to be a popular ski.

Sketchy ski-track

There seemed to be several possible ways to reach Drift’s northwest ridge, so after some annoying sidehilling, I switchbacked and booted up one of them at random. I had come up too early, and had to walk along the ridge a little before picking up the skin track, which made its way somewhat precariously along the ridge crest. No doubt this avoids avalanche danger earlier in the season.

Upper north ridge

From below, I had seen a couple of people switchbacking up the ridge’s headwall, and indeed there was a nice zig-zag track. However, it was steep and side-hilled enough that perhaps it was meant for ski crampons. I carefully followed it for awhile, back-sliding occasionally, then put my skis on my back and slogged up the exposed talus to the summit ridge. A combination of lack of fitness, a heavy pack, and altitude made the climb shamefully slow.

Annoying snow in chute

I sat on the summit for awhile, watching people summit nearby Quandary, then switched to downhill mode and carefully side-slipped around some rocks to the face. This seems to be a popular ski run, showing 4-5 recent tracks made by people much better than me, i.e. able to link nice S-turns. I struggled a bit with the crusty powder and frozen snowballs, making a few cautious turns, then stopping to pant and plot my course.

The slope steepens near the bottom (50 degrees?), and splits into several narrow chutes separated by rock buttresses. I almost started down the wrong one, then followed the tracks skier’s right across a few to the correct one. It was still steep, narrow, and slow, but it went. Finally, on the smoother apron below, my old ski racer instincts kicked in, and I was able to carve some nice super-G turns and then shoot straight down the low-angle slope toward the parking lot. I had planned to spend another day in the area, but the spring snow was obnoxious enough that I decided to try my luck farther north.

Griping about packs

It has served me well


In preparation for my soon-to-begin 2018 season, I went shopping for a new pack, as my trusty old REI Stoke 18 is on its last legs. I found something that will do the job, but was surprised at how difficult it is to find a pack that meets my simple needs:

15-20 liter main compartment

This is enough space for a normal winter day or an epic summer one.

2 tool attachments

I don’t do too many things that require two tools, but when I do, it’s nice to be able to strap them to my pack.

Stash pockets

I need to be able to get to food and store small items without taking my pack off, or having stuff in my pants pockets bumping against my leg. Why do no mountaineering packs have stash pockets? Even people doing “Extreme Alpine Assaults” need to eat and store things.

External attachment points

Sometimes I can fit crampons inside my pack, but sometimes I can’t or don’t want to.

Sternum strap and waist belt

They don’t need to be super-substantial, but the pack needs to not flop around while jogging.

Reasonable durability for the cost

If it costs $100+, it had better last at least a few years.

Nothing else

Many packs have all sorts of weird straps and doodads that catch on things and add weight. Sometimes simplicity is best.

Some companies come sooo close:

Gregory Verte 15, discontinued (image: REI)


Take a Gregory Verte 15, add a couple of side stash pockets, and you’d have a condender.

BD Blitz 20 (image: Black Diamond)


The BD Blitz 20 is similar (and no, a “waterproof zip pocket on lid” is not “easily accessible” for anyone with normal shoulder flexibility, as the pack still needs to come off).

UD PB Adventure Vest 3.0 (image: Ultimate Direction)


The Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest 3.0 looks decent, but I’m not sold on vests for everyday scrambling, it goes a bit overboards on bits and bobs, and its 13.3-oz weight suggests that it’s made of tissue paper. I’d happily carry 1/2 pound more (and probably save 30% in material cost) for something that lasted longer.

Anyways, I found something that cost less than $100, and should serve me well for at least a couple of seasons. It has some obvious shortcomings

More Canadian contrasts

I have recently had the good fortune to be entrusted with some old climbing photos from Canada, specifically of the Bugaboos and Mount Robson. The Bugaboo photos were taken in July 1973 by Charles Calef. The Robson photos were taken in 1968 by either Dave Brown or George Bell. The modern photos are mine. The pairs aren’t perfectly matched, but they’re close enough for comparisons.

Bugaboos

The modern photos are from early August, 2014.

Bugaboo-Snowpatch col

Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col, 1973


Snowpatch and Bugaboo from Eastpost

Howser Towers

Howser Towers, 1973


Howser Towers

Robson

The modern photos are from mid-July, 2017. There’s no way I could have day-hiked the Kain Face in 1968, even if the Thoni Trail had existed.

Kain face

Kain Face, 1968


Robson from near col

Summit pyramid

Robson summit, 1968


Summit climb

South face

Robson south face, 1968

Robson south face