Category Archives: Skiing

Buck Mountain (SE chute)

Skinning toward Buck


It’s spring in the Sierra, and some of the big east-side ski lines are coming into prime condition. Of the roughly 10,000 feet of elevation between the Owens Valley and the highest peaks, 5000 feet or more is skiable in many places, often with minimal desert hiking carrying skis. With clear skies and a higher sun, the snow refreezes overnight, and softens up enough on south- and east-facing slopes to be pleasantly skiable by noon or 1:00 PM.

Buck Mountain, and its neighbor Alice, are unattractive sand-piles east of the much more dramatic Palisades. I had climbed both for the Sierra Challenge, and not particularly enjoyed doing so. Both mountains are much improved by snow, however, with Buck’s southeast face and gully offering just over 4000 feet of moderate skiing. With the Glacier Lodge road currently closed about 1.5 miles short of the summer trailhead, there is a bit of an approach, but nothing obscene, and it was still mostly snow-covered from the small parking area.

Skinning toward Clyde

Dan and Kim had camped at the trailhead, so they probably got more sleep than I did, waking in the dark to drive down from north of Bishop. After the usually gear wrangling, we were skinning up the road on a chilly morning a bit before 7:00. This was my first time using Dan’s old boots and backup skis. The boots in particular are much lighter than my current gear, and while this made skinning easier, I was curious how they would perform going downhill.

Lower gully

We eventually reached the summer trailhead, and had to remove our skis for one short stretch of south-facing trail passing the cabins. Beyond, we followed an old skin track up across the bridge, then into the open South Fork of Big Pine Creek. High clouds and a breeze kept temperatures cool, and we were concerned as we skinned west that the snow would not soften enough to be fun.

Climbing toward lower gully

Just past the summer stream crossing, where the trail begins to climb the headwall toward Willow Lake, we finally saw the start of our route. After waiting awhile for it to warm up, and almost giving up, the clouds looked like they might be blowing over, and we fortunately decided to go ahead. The snow was still solid on the way up, and as the slope steepened, Dan and Kim put on their ski crampons. Not having such esoteric gear, I carefully skinned as best I could, then put my skis on my pack to boot up a couple of the steeper sections.

Sill and North Palisade from Buck

Above the initial chute, we found a good skin-track switchbacking up the open slope, which made it possible for me to carefully skin up to the shoulder, then around to the final south-facing slope. While Kim waited for Dan, I continued up the track toward the summit ridge. I stashed my skis in a sheltered spot, then followed a boot-track to the true summit, where I found the register in good shape and completely exposed. It was unfortunately too new to include the Sierra Challenge, but I saw some familiar names, and it was warm and calm enough to hang out on the summit, have a snack, and admire the Palisades in all their snow-bound glory.

Palisade Crest

By the time I returned to my skis and figured out how to switch Dan’s boots to downhill mode, Kim and Dan had reached my sheltered spot. It was getting late — around 1:00 PM — so rather than continuing to the summit for a clear view of North Palisade, they briefly looked over into the North Fork, then prepared to descend. I was worried about some plastic poking me in Dan’s boots, but as is often the case with ski boots, once you start going downhill, either they sort themselves out or you stop noticing the pain.

Yours Truly stylin’ it (Dan’s photo)

After a couple turns of hard crust, the snow became pleasant on the upper face, and I descended in swooping GS turns. The snow below the shoulder was similarly pleasant, except for a shaded part of the lower gully that had already refrozen, and I got up some serious speed on the final runout into the South Fork. I wish I knew my top speed, but unfortunately I was not recording the ski.

Rather than following the summer trail, we stayed on the south side of the creek, following some ski tracks that eventually deposited us among the surprisingly large cluster of cabins. I debated putting skins back on for the slightly-downhill road back to the car, but eventually decided not to: the skins had left nasty glue on the bases on the way up, and it was downhill… So, much strenuous skating and double-poling later, I finally returned to the car, and was home again by late afternoon.

Wheeler Crest

Northern crest with chute


One incongruous bit of good fortune lately has been the snow cover lingering well down into the Owens Valley, kept alive by fresh showers and cold temperatures. This has made it possible for me to put on skis less than a mile from my winter abode. There is not a whole lot of skiable terrain nearby, but there are numerous chutes all along Wheeler Crest, a long ridge between Pine and Rock Creeks west of the Sherman Grade, where Highway 395 climbs from the Owens Valley to the higher plateau south of Mammoth Lakes.

Southern crest with Mayfield Couloir

I had tried the Mayfield Couloir on the southern end, finding too little snow and too many exposed willows. However, the couloirs farther north, west of Swall Meadows, seemed to have better coverage. I first tried on a storm day, skinning up the powerline road southwest of Swall, then blindly following a couloir to around 8500′, where the cold and wind convinced me to turn back. I found some decent powder on the way down, but it was tricky skiing without being able to see surface features and obstacles. The route clearly had potential, though, so I returned the next day to try to finish it.

Skinning away from White

The forecast predicted calm, sunny conditions, so I got a fairly early start around 7:00 AM despite its only being around 20 degrees out. Like the day before, I hiked around a mile from the house with skis and boots on my back, then switched as quickly as possible with rapidly-numbing fingers before skinning up the powerline road. Beyond the road closure, I found it much easier to pick a line to the couloir’s entrance now that I could actually see things more than a couple hundred yards away.

Lower chute

I made better time to my previous highpoint, finding my tracks from the day before mostly filled in but still faintly visible. Above, there are numerous branching chutes. I tried to pick the broadest ones with the fewest trees, aiming a bit south of Wheeler Crest’s summit. As the chutes steepened and narrowed, I was forced to make more switchbacking turns, which were slow and laborious in the heavy Sierra powder. I eventually got tired of the turns, but I sunk in knee-deep without skis, so I tried to make longer traverses across the lightly-treed slopes. This approach was probably a bit faster than staying in one of the narrow chutes, but was still a grind, often sinking

Summit from top-out

I eventually traversed north to the northeast ridge of Point 11,485′, where I found pleasantly wind-packed snow and easier travel. I neared the point around 1:00 PM, and was tempted to skip Wheeler Crest’s summit, which still looked far away. Telling myself that there was still plenty of daylight and I needed the exercise, I skinned on, finding much easier travel near the wind-scoured crest. The final 50′ to the summit was mostly bare rock, though the register (if any) was buried enough that I did not bother to look. I took a few quick photos, checked out the views of upper Rock Creek to the west, Tom, Humphreys and the Palisades to the south, and the White Mountains across the way, then locked in my heels to ski back toward the chutes dropping from 11,485′.

Ready to drop in

I tried to build up some speed going through the saddle, but still had to do some miserable slow-motion struggling to get back to the ridge. It might have been faster to put my skins back on, but I am very slow at transitions. While cornices had formed elsewhere on the ridge, there was just an initial steep slope on the chute I chose. The upper slopes were covered in wind-crust hard enough that I did not sink in. Unfortunately, the crust became less predictable lower down, and I managed to tip slowly and embarrassingly downhill several times when I unexpectedly broke through and lost my balance. Finally, just above the previous day’s highpoint, I found more consistent powder, and enjoyed some nice turns down to the desert brush. I picked up the powerline road, glided just past where I had put on my skis in the morning, then hiked back home.

Various eastside skiing

While I have not been getting out as much as planned this winter, it has still been slightly more interesting than usual. Here are brief descriptions of a few backcountry ski outings.

McGee Mountain (east couloir)

McGee chutes


McGee Mountain, a peak west of the southern end of Crowley Lake, has numerous couloirs on its east and south faces. This one lies above the old rope tow for a ski area that predated Mammoth Mountain. The snow lower down was thin, but I was itching to get out, so I parked at the historic marker for the old lift, and started skinning up some defunct road toward the couloir’s base. While this was not the most direct route, it avoided the sagebrush that the thin snow failed to cover.

Beyond the end of the road, I continued switchbacking up the hill left of the couloir, occasionally crunching through brush. I eventually moved to the gully below where it narrows, removing my skis to kick steps and wallow through the choke-point. A bit above, I was able to put my skis back on and switchback to the top, eventually exiting via the melting-out right-hand side.

The northwest-facing plateau above was badly wind-scoured, and I carefully picked my way through rocks and grass on the long, gentle climb to McGee’s summit. I took some photos, sent some texts (once again, I had no signal at the trailhead, but a clear one at the summit), then transitioned to “fun mode” to carefully dodge obstacles on my way back to the couloir. Unfortunately I overshot the top, and had to shoulder my skis and hike back up the ridge before dropping in.

I had not been on skis in awhile, but I quickly remembered how to turn in the upper bowl, and was having fun by the time I reached the choke-point. I got in some decent turns below, then exited to the slope I had ascended. Things gradually got uglier lower down, as I was forced to dodge sagebrush and turn gently to avoid carving through the thinning snow. I finally returned to the car via a slow, thigh-burning snowplow down the road.

Mount Dade (Hourglass Couloir)

Hourglass


With the Upper Rock Creek Road gated at the winter closure, anything at the back of Little Lakes Valley is a long trek. The snowmobile-groomed road to Rock Creek Resort helps, but the distance still keeps most people away, leaving more snow for me. The high trailhead and packed snow also help in the dry early season, when other approaches would require hiking.

I got a semi-early start, skinning happily up the smooth road, then continuing along a single snowmobile track to the Mosquito Flat trailhead. I was happy to find a ski track beyond, probably left by whomever had driven the snowmobile. The lakes were still not quite trustworthy, so I followed the skin track that skirted them, more or less along the summer trail. Beyond Long Lake, I followed the drainage up toward Treasure Lakes, where there is a decent use trail in the summer.

The Hourglass Couloir was obvious between Mount Dade and Point 13,268′. I had descended it in dry conditions on a backpack several years ago, finding loose and wretched scree. This time I was doing things right: it was full of snow, and I had skis.

I skinned up as far as I could on the slope below, then began booting the steeper part. This was mostly okay, but the steeper part was a bit intimidating with neither crampons nor ice axe, and with ungainly skis on my back. I was able to get just enough purchase with a sharp ski-boot kick, but if I had stumbled or been blown over by the wind, I probably would have slid helplessly and slowly back down to the bottom.

Topping out at the saddle, I saw that the slope to Dade’s summit had been mostly scoured down to the talus, and decided this was far enough for the day. I dropped my pack, hiked around for a bit, then switched to “fun mode” for the descent. There had been no recent snow, so the couloir skied a bit like a groomed run, with just enough soft surface snow over the wind crust to make confident turns. Taking a bit of care to build momentum for the flats, I managed to glide all the way to the flatter wooded section just above Long Lake. From there, I skinned to just below the summer trailhead, then slid down the road to the car. The whole thing was 19 miles and about 6h45 — a good day.

Esha

Esha Peak


Esha Creek is a side-stream of McGee Creek that is ignored during the summer, but becomes a popular ski in the winter. It had been on my radar since a friend mentioned it, and I finally got around to skiing it before a major storm turned everything to avalanches. While the snow was a bit thin — it had been awhile since the last significant storm — there was enough coverage to make it a fun run from near 12,200′ down to McGee Creek at 7800′.

The road up McGee Creek had been packed by snowmobiles and partly wrecked by snowshoers and hikers, so it was easy going up toward the old northern lateral moraine. The road curves around its lower end, but I saw a skin track cutting the corner and decided to follow that. It turned out to be a bad idea, as the track trailed off on McGee’s melted-out south-facing slope above the corrals. I took off my skis, boot-skied down some scree, then carefully slid back down to the road with my heels free and skins on, dodging sagebrush.

Back on track, I regained the skin track I knew would be there. It led to a sketchy iced-over log crossing McGee Creek; fortunately ski boots are waterproof, so I could step in the creek without fear. Beyond, I followed the skin track up Esha Creek. It became too steep to follow in a couple of places — perhaps its creators had ski crampons — and I had to kick steps in the hard crust. There were a couple bands of bare talus in the bottom of the drainage, avoided to the west.

I passed the frozen lake just below 10,600′, then booted up toward the various couloirs on “Esha Peak’s” face. I would not have known which one was correct, but fortunately I could follow the boot-pack from two days earlier. Slowly, painfully, I dragged myself up the couloir, finally sketching my way up a steep headwall to the peak’s northeast ridge. I dropped my skis and pack, and hiked to the summit to take in views of Red Slate, Baldwin, White Fang, and McGee.

Returning to my skis, I carefully side-stepped down the headwall, then made a couple of cautious turns to check out the couloir. It proved less scary than expected, with enough soft snow to make for good skiing. I paused a couple of times to catch my breath, including once above the 25-foot constriction that I thought would be the crux, but which turned out not to be that bad. I had to build some momentum to cross the flat by the lake, so I went straight down the last couple hundred vertical feet. I reached barely-stable speeds across some old avalanche debris, but managed to carry enough momentum to carry me across the other side. The crust was still rock-hard, and my edges often chattered as I carved turns. It reminded me of my ski racing days as a kid, except for my being out of shape and having to pause and gasp from time to time. Still, I reached McGee Creek about 30 minutes from the summit. After crossing the creek, another 30-minute glide got me back to the car.

Elderberry

12,000′ above Elderberry


Elderberry Canyon is a classic Eastern Sierra ski descent. Starting from down in the desert where you have to park your car — probably around 5500′ — the wannabe skier follows an old road and trail to the Lambert Mine at almost 11,000′. From there, numerous couloirs ascend to Mount Tom’s north ridge between 11,800′ and 12,800′. Trying to sneak in a final ski ahead of a round of avalanches, I caught it in non-ideal conditions, with skiable snow starting at 7100′. Still, by climbing to the ridge at 12,000′, I managed to find 4900′ of enjoyable if crusty skiing.

For the first time since last summer, I started out with my skis and boots on my pack, hiking the old mine road, which no longer seems drivable past around 5800′. I reached Elderberry Canyon at 6400′, and briefly explored a road continuing south before returning to find the near-invisible trail up next to the creek. After a bit more confusing near a constriction, I crossed the creek where it turns south around 7000′, bashing through some willows and picking my way through nasty wild roses.

I finally put my skis on at 7100′, skinning carefully up hard crust and around bits of old avalanche debris. The valley narrows somewhat, then widens and flattens as it turns slightly east around 9600′. I continued over rolling terrain, eventually ending up west of where the Lambert Mine is shown on the map. The weather was still decent, with thin high clouds and little wind, so I chose a broad chute and booted west to Tom’s north ridge around 12,000′.

The summit was another 1600′ and 1 mile climb away over mostly-bare talus, so I spent a few minutes admiring Pine Creek and Bear Creek Spire, then locked in my heels and headed down. Above the mine, I found some powder mixed with breakable crust. The best skiing was from the mine down to 9600′, solid snow with a smooth, soft surface friendly to sweeping, carving turns. Things were crustier and a bit trickier below, but still fun and skiable back to 7100′. From there, it was a moderate hike to the car, shortcutting the road through sagebrush and sand. I was surprised to find another skier parked next to me, who got a later start and turned around lower. Satisfied, I drove home and waited for more snow to arrive.

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.

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.

Joffre

Headwall and boot-pack


Many Canadian Rockies peaks are named for British or French nobles and officers. Joffre(y) is unique, being named for a Westerosi leader, King Joffrey, whose sadistic rule came to a premature end when he was poisoned at his own wedding feast. It is bounded on the north and east by the large and rapidly-retreating Mangin and Pétain Glaciers, the former being the standard route. Looking south from peaks in the Kootenay or Canmore area, Joffre is a striking white wedge. I had seen it up close from King George, and it looked like it needed to be skied, even if doing so involved much walking. After being demotivated by the slush-slog approach to Sir Douglas, and some sketchy-looking cornices on its west ridge, it was time to do something absurd.

Scree trail on descent

I woke at 5:00, assembled my ungainly ski pack, and started hiking around Upper Kananaskis Lake just after 5:30. After what felt like about 5 km, I saw two bits of pink flagging, and a use trail leading into the woods. The trail quickly turned wretched with deadfall, but the flagging continued, so I thrashed on, eventually intersecting what turned out to be the correct, well-maintained Aster Lake trail near Hidden Lake. Had I continued along Kananaskis Lake for another few hundred yards, I would have found an obvious, though unsigned and unflagged, junction.

Lyautey and Fossil Falls

I made better progress on the correct trail, though I still occasionally caught a ski boot on a tree. The route rounds the lake, then climbs out of the trees onto an open scree slope, with views of Fossil Falls and Mount Lyautey to the west. After passing directly through a small lake, the trail crosses a stream and turns downhill. This seemed like a stupid direction to go, so I left the trail and went cross-country across a rounded ridge, only to find the trail heading back up the main branch of Foch Creek, near Aster Lake’s outlet.

Pimpin’ campsite

Given the primitive trail, I was surprised to find a well-maintained outhouse and bear box, and two couples camping. The more talkative two were just heading out to do Warrior and Cordonnier, two lesser peaks north of Joffre. After making its way around the lake, the trail fades out in some gravel flats with braided glacial melt-streams. I hopped across a dozen or so channels, then made my way up toward the Mangin Glacier, finding the occasional cairn or bit of use trail. I think the “correct” route is farther south, but this one worked.

Slope angle and King George

I transitioned to skis too early, and guessed wrong about where the glacier was longest, so I ended up taking my skis on and off a half-dozen times to walk across slabs and rubble before finally having a clear shot at the summit. Three or four people had put in a nice staircase over the Canada Day weekend, visible from far away, and I skinned up to intersect it near the headwall. I was able to skin surprisingly far before transitioning back to boots. The snow was soft enough that some of the steps collapsed, but they mostly held, and I felt no need to even take out my ice axe.

Petain Glacier

I began wallowing a bit more on the summit ridge, but it was fortunately broad enough that I could easily ski from the very summit. It had been t-shirt weather for most of the climb, but it was windy and cooler on the summit, so I only spent a few minutes taking in the views of the Pétain glacier to one side, and Mount King George across the Palliser River to the other. I finished switching my skis to “fun mode,” then skied experimentally back to the headwall.

Up- and down-tracks

I was worried that I might find sketchy, sticky, deep slush, but the face was still hard enough that I could link turns all the way down. Once on the flatter part of the glacier, I tried to plot a course north that would let me ski as far as possible. I eventually gave up at the terminal lake I had passed on the way up, switching back to running shoes, then ironically boot-skiing about half the way back to the gravel flat.

There were different people at Aster Lake, though I passed the couple I had spoken to shortly below. I am not normally a user of “cripple poles,” but I found they came in handy on the long, steep scree descent past Fossil Falls. Though my current ski gear is far lighter than the inbounds gear I grew up with, it is still ungainly when strapped to my mountaineering pack. Passing masses of tourists in the final mile, I reached the car a bit over 11 hours out (including 10-20 minutes skiing), and gratefully dropped my awkward pack.

Moran (Skillet Glacier ski)

Base of the snow


Mount Moran rises 6000′ directly from Jackson Lake, and the Skillet Glacier and its snowfield cover most of the slope, offering up to 5000′ of continuous snow well into June. Unlike on my previous outing, snow conditions were wretched — loose and slushy up high, dirty and sun-cupped down low — but it is an iconic line, and I was glad to tick it off the list. The whole thing took 10 hours car-to-car, including 3-4 hours trail hiking, 3.5 hours boot-packing, 25 minutes skiing, and some time fighting brush with skis on my back.

Climb from the pan

I woke at the stupid hour of 3:15, made myself a hot Cup of Sadness, and drank it on the drive up to String Lake. I started hiking by headlamp at 4:00, stashing the light at 5:00 near the north end of Leigh Lake. The commute to Bearpaw Bay normally takes me about an hour, but the skis on my back limited me to a fast walk. I had no trouble following the use trail to where it crosses the Skillet’s outlet stream, but foolishly decided to ascend the south side instead of crossing. After most of a frustrating hour of deadfall, pines, brush, and aspens, I finally emerged at the foot of the snow.

Airborne avalanche

I tried skinning a bit, but soon lost traction on the hard, sun-cupped snow, and put my skis on my pack to boot the rest of the way. Someone had installed a boot-pack in the prior few days, saving me a bit of energy, but the Skillet is still an interminable climb. It was also intolerably hot. The Skillet is not just east-facing, but also sheltered from wind by ridges on both sides, so I was dripping sweat in a t-shirt nearly the whole way up. The snow also softened alarmingly fast, and I was treated to regular wet sloughs coming down the skillet handle’s central runnel, and even small projectile avalanches off the ridge to the north.

Time to drop in

Much wallowing later, I emerged on the summit ridge, where I dropped my pack to tag the summit, then put on my skis for the descent. The first few hundred yards are steep and narrow, but the slope quickly opens up. However, every turn kicked off a small wet slide, so I had to make a few turns, then traverse to one side to allow them to pass. I stayed left to the base of the handle, sending my sloughs into the convenient runnel, then crossed it to get around the bergschrund on steeper snow on the far right.

From the pan onward, I was out of sloughing territory, but skiing over sun-cups and around small rocks was still tiring, and my legs were shot from the hike up, so I still had to stop frequently. After taking off my skis, I easily found the faint trail on the valley’s north side, and only lost it a couple of times on the descent to the creek. From there, it was just a hot, thirsty walk to the car. Passing the tourists along Leigh Lake with their boats and swimsuits, I felt out of place and a bit foolish with skis on my back.