Category Archives: States

Outings by state

Jackson, Gros

Gros from head of Granite Creek


Real Life has been a real headache lately, interfering with peak-bagging plans, but I have managed to get out a bit, experiencing northwest Wyoming during the snow-free late summer for the first time. I normally use the Gros Ventres as a late spring warm-up, as they are both lower and gentler than the neighboring Tetons and Winds. I had tried to tag Gros Peak this spring, only to be turned back by uncooperative snow, bogs, and general misery. With most of the snow gone and the wildflowers out it proved much easier, with the route past Goodwin Lakes involving about 11 miles of mostly gentle terrain each way.

Tetons from below lake

Curtis Canyon is the closest legal camping to Jackson, so the popular Goodwin Lakes trailhead was much more convenient than the Little Granite trailhead I had used in the spring. I followed the popular trail to the lake, then briefly lost it as it circled around the far end, instead following an indistinct boot-path and some open terrain along the base of Jackson’s east ridge.

Flowers need mowing

I rejoined the trail near the head of the drainage, then took a side-trip to Jackson’s summit. I had already been there in June a few years ago, but figured I might as well make a minor detour for the morning view of the Tetons. I followed the trail back south, then took off cross-country along the ridge to rejoin the Goodwin Lakes trail as it contours around the head of Flat Creek to meet the Cache-Granite trail. These trails see relatively little use, and are therefore partly overgrown with wildflowers, but they are still easy to follow, and the trail junction signs are all intact.

Looking north from Gros

I jogged a bit, but mostly just walked fast on the rolling traverse around to the head of Granite Creek, from which the remainder of the route to Gros is visible to the south. The trail drops down to well-hidden Turquoise Lake, but I left it to head cross-country on a bench leading to Gros’s northeast ridge. I passed east of a large, unnamed, turquoise-colored lake, then found a few cairns as I made my way up the class 2-3 ridge to the northern false summit, passing a tarn nestled a bit above 10,600′.

I found a bit of a use trail along the final summit ridge, and a cairn and benchmark on the summit, but no register. The weather was behaving itself, with the monsoon storms slower to build over the Gros Ventres than their higher neighbors, so I took my time on the summit before retracing my steps, taking advantage of some lingering snowfields to avoid the loose scree. I had the trail to myself up to the turnoff for Jackson Peak, then met a steady stream of hikers heading up as I made my way down past the lake to the car.

Maidenform (and the Eclipse)

The total eclipse of August 21 was notable not just for crossing the whole contiguous United States, but also for the crossing several popular mountains, including Mount Jefferson, Mount Borah, and the Grand Teton. Jefferson was in the middle of a fire, and I suspected that any popular peak would be a zoo, as would the entire Wyoming side of the Tetons. Fortunately I have some obscure peaks on my to-do list, including Maidenform, reachable from a couple relatively obscure trailheads on the Idaho side of the range. This turned out to be a good choice — there were 40-50 cars at the North Leigh Creek trailhead, but I had my peak to myself for a once- or twice-in-a-lifetime event.

Dawn comes late on this side of the range, and I was coming from a timezone to the west, so I got an almost fatally late start a bit before 7:00 AM. There are two similar approaches to Maidenform, so for variety I took the Tin Cup trail to Granite Basin on the way out. I passed some cows and a group of dayhikers just above the trailhead, then a party camped on the trail at the pass over toward Granite Basin, hiking at a steady pace and feeling the altitude a bit after so long near sea level.

Granite Basin and the plateau north to Green Lakes remind me of the nicer parts of the Sierra, with granite slabs and boulders among grass and open woods, and plenty of lakes and tarns. I saw a few more campers in Granite Basin, then left humanity to head cross-country west to the ridge at the head of Leigh Canyon. When I finally got a look at the climb up Maidenform, it looked chossy and slow, and I was a bit worried about making it to the summit on time. I picked up the pace a bit, suffering up some fairly unpleasant class 2-3 choss, and made it to the summit a bit after 10:30, when the sun looked less than 25% occluded.

I had most of an hour to kill before the totality, so I alternately looked at the sun through my eclipse glasses, and experimented with trying to photograph it. I got some mediocre shots through the glasses using manual settings, though nothing spectacular with my wide-angle pancake lens. I tried taking some photos without the glasses, but even at over 90% occlusion, my lowest-light settings of f/22 and 1/4000 exposure were not good enough. I guess that demonstrates how it is a bad idea to watch a partial eclipse without proper glasses…

Maybe 5-10 minutes before totality, the light was noticeably dimmer than mid-day. Even before that, I could tell the eclipse was approaching by my camera’s settings on full auto: f/4 and 1/160 near mid-day, instead of a more normal f/4 and 1/2500 or so. I emerged from my sheltered spot just east of the summit, and prepared to try to capture the thing on video. Maidenform has a clear view of both the Idaho plains to the west, and the main Teton peaks to the south. I hoped to see a dark line approaching along the plains at over 1000 MPH, but the lingering forest fire smoke made that impossible, and it might not be visible even with clear air.

I got a couple of interesting videos, of the eclipse onset:

and of the eclipse end:


I tried to catch a still photo of the corona in between, as well as simply enjoying the brief period where I could stare at the sun without glasses. Those photos sucked, unfortunately. I notice that someone, in a particularly well-timed and baller move, had flown a jet around the Tetons right at totality:

Baller…


One thing I had not planned for is how much it would cool down during the eclipse. I had climbed in a t-shirt, and been fairly comfortable in an overshirt and windbreaker until totality, but my hands were aching by the time the sun returned, and it took awhile for the mostly-occluded sun to warm me back up afterward. It looks like temperatures dropped at least 5 degrees in Jackson, and may have cooled as much as 15 degrees on the peak. (Update: More on eclipse-related cooling.)

I had originally intended to tag Cleaver Peak as well, but by the time I had warmed back up, I lacked the energy to do the mile-plus brushy traverse. I returned to the plain above Granite Lakes instead, then took the Green Mountain trail back to the trailhead, meeting various eclipse-viewing parties instead. Since I had plenty of time, I enjoyed talking to a solo backpacker with his dog on the way down. The “crowd” was beginning to disperse as we reached the trailhead, but I decided to give things a bit more time to clear out. I washed up a bit in the creek, then found a quiet spot to camp for another night before heading back to civilization.

Glacier (North Sauk, 8h38)

Ptarmigans and Glacier


Glacier Peak is the most remote of Washington’s Pacific Rim volcanoes. I first climbed it in 2014, taking about 12 hours on a semi-casual outing, and found it to be one of the most scenic hikes in the Cascades. After about 5.5 miles passing through old-growth forest by the North Sauk River, the trail climbs to meet the PCT in alpine meadows near White Pass. From there, the route follows the Foam Creek trail (not on any maps) below White Peak, then leaves it to cross the ridge north before Point 7520’+. There are bits of climbers’ trail beyond the col, but since the talus plain is covered in snow for most of the summer, most of the long talus traverse is pathless. The summit, rising 1000′ or more above its neighbors in the center of the range, would have a great view on a clear day.

Moss everywhere

The FKT on Glacier, 7h58, was set by Doug McKeever back in 1998, using the now-abandoned White Chuck River trail to the Sitkum Glacier. The new standard route, via the North Sauk, is significantly longer, but I thought I had a chance to beat the venerable record. After a couple of easier days along the Mountain Loop, I settled in to sleep at the North Sauk trailhead. Sometime around 2:00 AM, I woke to the sound of a mouse in my car. Since I had not kept the mouse traps from the last time I had this problem (two years ago, also in the western Cascades), I lay awake until the mouse went to sleep around 5:00 AM, then got a couple more hours’ sleep before downing my beet-enhanced breakfast and hitting the trail at the ludicrous hour of 8:00 AM.

Approaching White Pass

The mornings are surprisingly cool in the wet west-side valleys, so I was comfortable jogging the 5.5 miles to the cabin at the base of the climb, then hike-jogging the switchbacks to the PCT, reaching the junction in almost exactly two hours. I put on sunscreen, moved food to the front of my pack, then continued past a couple scruffy PCTers and a large cluster of mountaineers returning from Glacier with all sorts of heavy gear. The last of these, an attractive young woman putting on sunscreen at the pass, seemed concerned about my safety tagging Glacier with so little gear. She was not entirely convinced by my protests that I knew what I was doing, and skeptical of my fast-and-light evangelism.

First view of Glacier

I continued mostly jogging along the Foam Creek trail, then left at a cairned junction to cross the ridge north, finally getting my first view of the peak. I was nonplussed to see the summit covered in a lenticular cloud, promising cold, wind, and no views. I had done the peak a month earlier in 2014, so the long snow traverse I remembered was mostly obnoxious moraine, barely runnable with extreme concentration.

Broken ice at Gerdine-Cool saddle

After some ups and downs around 6600′ below the much-diminished White Chuck Glacier, the route climbs to a popular camping site around 7200′, then over a minor ridge to finally reach the edge of the Gerdine Glacier. A well-worn track follows the lateral moraine to where it becomes nasty, then drops to the edge of the glacier. I followed the boot-pack left by the several recent parties, putting on crampons near the headwall where the snow is slightly steeper. I remembered the glacier climb as being mostly snow, with one easy crevasse to avoid, but found quite a bit of bare, broken ice on the saddle with the Cool Glacier, making me glad to have brought crampons.

Crossing Gerdine Glacier

Continuing up the Cool, I jumped warily across one widening crevasse on the bootpack, then left my crampons near the summit ridge. It was slow going on the volcanic sand and loose boulders above, but I had no trouble avoiding snow on my way to the summit. I reached the top in almost exactly 5 hours, and spent about 30 seconds in the clouds before hurrying down to get out of the cold. I had both my overshirt and jacket on over shorts and a t-shirt, and was barely warm enough while moving. Also, while there was no way I could do the round trip in under 8 hours, I still wanted to put in a decent effort.

All snow last time

I jogged the upper glacier in crampons, then sat on a rock lower down to take them off and empty the volcanic sand from my shoes. I stopped again below the bivy site to refill my water at a stream and take off my overshirt, but otherwise maintained a steady effort on the return. It would have been hot if it had remained clear, but broken cloud-cover and a breeze kept temperatures comfortable as I descended back to the forest. I was slower than I probably should have been on the rolling downhill jog through the woods, but managed to reach the trailhead in a respectable 8h38. This is a runner’s course, so a better trail runner could probably do Glacier in under 8 hours.

Gear notes

I used the same setup for Glacier that I used for Olympus: running-shoe crampons and no ice axe. This is perfect for moderate-angle terrain that might include bare ice, as my crampons are light (600g) and compact enough to strap on my running pack. I thought about leaving the crampons at home, but am glad I did not, as it would have been difficult to work my way around the ice at the Gerdine-Cool glacier saddle, and incredibly sketchy to cross it in trail runners. Going crampon-free on Adams last year worked only because it is popular enough that other people put in stairs.

Northern Pickets traverse (East Fury to Challenger, VI 5.7, 28h32)

Northern Pickets pano


The central northern Pickets are arguably the most remote peaks in the lower 48, so it was only a matter of time before I had to try them. I had visited both ends of the northern Pickets: Challenger in 2014, Luna in 2015, and East Fury in 2016. On this last effort I had been planning to go for more, but I was stopped after a single pea by route-finding errors, a lack of drive, and the realization that I had underestimated my objective.

And so it begins…

While it is possible to pick off the peaks one-by-one, for the sake of efficiency and style I wanted to nab them all and claim the coveted Northern Pickets Traverse. I had estimated that it would take me 24-30 hours with a shuttle from Hannegan Pass trailhead back to my car at Ross Dam. Unfortunately I was unable to set up a shuttle on short notice, forcing me to either hitch, or use a different route. Not liking my chances of finding a ride first thing in the morning after rolling in late to Hannegan and taking a dirt nap, I used a significantly longer and harder route, descending the cross-country Eiley-Wiley ridge to Beaver Pass, then “running” 20 miles of trail back to my car. This put me at the upper end of my estimated time range.

Smoky dawn on Luna

I got a few hours’ sleep at the Ross Dam trailhead, but it is noisy right by the highway, and I was too wired to sleep, so I turned off my midnight alarm, drank my Cup of Sadness fortified with beet nitrates (found at a Walmart full of obese tweakers in Bellingham), and started down the trail around 12:15. The toads seemed more numerous than last year, and I even met a few on the trail down to the dam. It is around 17 miles to where you leave the trail for Access Creek, so this would normally be far too early to start, but I had a good GPX track of the cross-country route from last summer, so I could do it at night without losing too much time. This was key to giving myself as much daylight as possible to deal with the ridge and unknown de-approach.

Upper East Fury

The approach worked about as well as it ever does. I bashed down to the river, where I almost immediately found the remnants of the log bridges I had used in 2014. I wasted only a bit of time dithering (I still hate getting wet), then forded barefoot to try to keep my feet dry and minimize the damage they would suffer in the evening. I found a bit of a boot-pack along the subtle ridge right of the creek that is least brushy. My worst mistake was crossing south one slide path too early, but that did not cost much time. As a result, I reached East Fury’s summit in only 10h15, vs. the 11h30 I took last year.

Luna, East Fury from West Fury

Now it was time to launch into the unknown. The final scramble up East Fury consists of shockingly mobile large talus, and the same continues on the way to West Fury. Beckey’s guide suggests that this traverse takes multiple hours, but I found most of it to be standard chossy 4th class, and reached West Fury in under an hour. The first ascent register was still in good shape, and I was surprised to supposedly be the 19th “party” to visit.

West Fury descent

Up to this point, the best exit would be to retrace my steps. Once I headed down the west ridge, things would become more complicated, possibly involving a long and unfamiliar cross-country route around the north end of the range. I steeled myself, then followed the first ascent route down the west ridge. Starting slightly east of the summit, I descended a chute, then made a descending choss-traverse back west to the ridge. I followed that a bit, then made my way down dirty, ledge-y terrain on the other side to gain the small glacier northwest of the peak. From there, I easily kicked my way back across to the saddle with Swiss.

Good rock on Swiss

I made my way more or less up and over several small pinnacles of mediocre rock on the way to Swiss, a broad NW-SE summit with a permanent snowfield on its southwest side. I found the rock pleasantly solid, climbing a line on its southwest face and descending near the northwest ridge. I stuffed some snow in my Camelbak, then tossed that out when I found running water below the snowfield. This was a valuable find, as running water is scarce on the rest of the ridge, and it was hot enough to be sweating in shorts and a t-shirt on the crest.

Spectre (l), Phantom (r)

Given the time and my longer-than-desired descent route, I skipped “Spectre Peak” without a second thought, then spent some time considering my route to the saddle with Phantom. The ridge itself looked unusably steep, the gully to its west at least somewhat navigable. Looking back, I think a line just right (east) of the ridge would have been better, blocky low 5th on decent rock. My chute was a garbage-fest with a tricky chockstone, and the traverse back to the ridge was outward-sloping dirt and death-choss.

Challenger and Crooked Thumb

The rock was somewhat less chossy on the way up Phantom, but still not great. I mistakenly climbed a lower summit to the northeast, earning zero bonus points, then found the original register on the true summit. It was in bad shape, and probably not long for this world, being protected by only a bashed-up tin canister and a plastic bag. There appeared to be even fewer entries than on West Fury, but I was concerned enough about my position that I did not pay much attention. Phantom is about one third of the way from West Fury to Challenger, and if things continued apace, I would be lucky to make it off by dark.

The misery continued descending off Phantom, with tricky route-finding on rotten rock on its left to bypass steps in the ridge. Considering the prospect of a bivy or a very long night made me think of efficiency: I turned off my GPS to save batteries for night-time navigation, and skipped the ridge crest whenever I thought it would save me time. As I made my slow way north, I was examining my escape route down the west side and up between two of Challenger’s lower summits.

Challenger from Crooked Thumb

Fortunately things improve considerably at “Ghost,” a subpeak of Crooked Thumb. I could have gone up some line along the south ridge, but Beckey mentions that Roper had climbed an “exposed class 4” route on the west face. Good choice! The rock reminded me a bit of the Tetons’ golden granite, and I had my first fun in awhile romping up steep, solid rock with incut holds.

The ridge from this point looks long, but the climbing remains mostly fun, with the best route generally on or near the ridge, and the descents to the north usually easier than the climbs from the south. Reaching Crooked Thumb, I found quite a bit more traffic in the register than on previous peaks, though still only a party or two per year.

Final ridge to Challenger

Since I was not rappeling, I had to make a substantial deviation west to reach the first saddle on the way to Challenger. From there, I stayed near the ridge to enjoy the fine, exposed climbing, deliberately not thinking of the grim headlamp time that awaited. Challenger’s summit ridge is a wonderful finale, a series of narrow fins with the holds angled so that the easiest route climbs right along the spine. I let out a whoop of joy, looked around for a summit register, then made the short downclimb to the Challenger Glacier.

Eiley Ridge

I had three options at this point: exit to Hannegan and hitch (16 trail miles), traverse to Whatcom Pass and take the trail back over Beaver Pass (25-30 trail miles?), or descend Eiley Ridge directly to the pass (20 trail miles). Given the time, I should have sucked it up and chosen the second, but I optimistically and foolishly took the new-to-me Eiley Ridge descent. Things started out great, with a nice hogsback of snow providing a clear path around the yawning summit crevasses, and easy jogging on the lower glacier to Challenger Arm.

I climbed Point 7374′, then was forced to sketch my way down a dirt-chute to the snowfield on its northeast side. I got more water at a tarn near frozen Wiley Lake, then continued making good time on snowfields south of the ridge to Eiley Lake. So far, so good — I thought I would be near the final bushwhack down to Beaver Pass by headlamp time.

Challenger

Unfortunately I made a mistake here, straying too far southeast of the ridge. There are several places where it is temptingly easy to descend directly east here, but they lead to Luna Creek, which is supposedly one of the worst places in the world. When I realized what had happened, I tried to fight though some scrub pines back toward the ridge, then tried side-hilling across steep grass and flowers to rejoin the ridge. Unfortunately the ridge rises again; maybe the correct route goes over Point 4984′, but I have no idea, and that was not an option for me now.

Before it got dark, I had programmed my GPS with a point a bit south of the pass, so I turned it on, turned on my headlamp, and continued via IFR. My strategy was to traverse until the point was directly down-slope, then bash my way toward it. I found plenty of wretched scrub, blueberries, and alder, but also some surprisingly open groves of big trees. Unfortunately all of it was steep and slick, but I suppose sliding on your butt is an efficient way to lose elevation.

I’m a size 10

There was much less devil’s club than I expected when I finally reached the valley bottom, but I reached my random point without hitting the trail. I did my best to bash due east, and almost fell as I stumbled out onto the trail. At the first stream that seemed safe-ish to drink, I got some water, downed a couple ibuprofen, rinsed my feet, and switched to my dry socks. My calluses were all white, soft, and wrinkled, so I knew my feet were in for a beating, but I hoped that the clean (and thinner) socks would reduce the suffering.

Moonset from Ross Dam

On a normal outing, this return would take about 4.5 hours, 3 to Ross Lake and 1.5 back to the dam. I started off at a reasonable jog, but realized shortly after Luna Camp that it would not last. I could motivate myself to jog with a mixture of Rammstein and reminders that the more I jogged the sooner it would be over, but it was a pathetic shuffle. As I neared the lake, I tripped more often, and was worried I might face-plant into one of the toads, which are even more disturbing after 3 hours’ sleep and 27 hours on the move. I could probably have gone to sleep curled up on the trail, but I wanted to do this in a single push, and did not want to be woken by a ranger’s boot or the splat of a toad to the face. I took in the moonset while crossing Ross Dam, and for once was grateful to be finishing in evening headlamp time — at least it wasn’t quite dawn.

Hozomeen the hard way (SW and N peaks)

North peak from SW


Hozomeen, Hozomeen, most beautiful mountain I ever seen. — Jack Kerouac

South peak from SW


Welcome to the North Cascades. Have some choss and a face full of alders. — Hozomeen Mountain

Though not especially tall, Hozomeen’s sheer, isolated twin peaks draw the eye from many North Cascades summits. The peaks are normally reached from the north end of Ross Lake, at the end of a long Canadian dirt road. Since I was passing by on the Trans-Canada Highway, I decided this was my best chance to tag these hard-to-reach peaks. I had hoped to tag both the north (higher) and south (harder) summits, but thanks to some route-finding stupidity, I only climbed the north and lesser southwest peaks. Canada’s flagged climbers’ trails, and especially the Rogers Pass trail system, had made me complacent; Hozomeen reminded me that you need to bring your A game to the North Cascades.

Nice flower

I found the dirt road to Ross Lake in surprisingly good condition, so it only took a bit over an hour to drive to the Hozomeen Lake trailhead, which has both water and nice free camping. I believe the normal route on Hozomeen these days goes up the border swath, but since I was thinking of doing both peaks, this route seemed to make more sense. I woke to horrible smoke, but started up anyways around 6:00, hiking a well-used trail to the lake. So far, so good.

Peak from the wrong place

Beckey says to follow a trail around the east side of the lake to a prominent gully, but I found nothing, not even a fisherman’s trail. As expected, the ground near the lake is a miserable sea of deadfall and devil’s club, so I instead started climbing diagonally northeast, hoping to run into the obvious gully. I found a couple of smaller ravines, but no large, obvious gully, and between the vegetation and the smoke, I had no view of the peaks. It turns out that I should have followed the lake all the way around past its north end but, expecting a straightforward approach, I had not bothered to bring my map, and the guidebook’s aerial photos were not helpful.

North and SW peaks from ridge

After quite a bit of brush-bashing, the trees finally thinned enough for me to figure out that I was well south of where I should be, on the southwest peak’s south ridge. I figured I might as well keep going, and eventually found a class 3-4 path up to the crest. The ridge was fairly pleasant, with fast travel along the crest mixed with short bits of class 3-4 climbing up some steps, and one short, unpleasantly rotten headwall below the summit.

N, SW, S peaks

From my unexpected vantage point, I eyed the steep route on the south peak, then the long ridge to the north, and debated what to do. The south peak is a seldom-climbed Cascades prize, but the day had been longer and harder so far than I had anticipated, and it looked like there might be more difficulties getting to the north peak (and my best exit), so I decided to head directly to the north peak. I descended the horribly rotten ridge to the south-southwest saddle, then made a loose traverse on ledges to the ridge connecting the two main summits.

It turns out there is a reason that people don’t take this ridge. While never especially difficult, the climbing is loose and time-consuming, with several bumps to climb and descend along the way via often-rotten class 4-5.easy scrambling. I was tired but relieved to finally reach the base of Hozomeen’s southeast face, a straightforward third class scramble. Reaching the summit, I found a 1992 register showing only a couple parties a year visiting the peak, mostly via the border swath or northeast ridge.

Starting down gully

I returned to the base of the face, then started down Beckey’s “class 3” gully. It started out about the choss-fest one would expect from a gully filled with snow most of the year, and better than some I have seen. Lower down, however, I found some chockstones and wet steps that were definitely harder than class 3. I even found some remaining snow where I had to stem in the moat.

Beckey says to traverse to another gully farther south between 4000 and 4500 feet, but I was forced out of the main gully a bit higher, making a descending traverse through more- and less-pleasant woods. I did finally reach the other gully, somewhere below 4000 feet. It was blessedly free of vegetation, being filled with unstable talus, so it was faster than hopping blow-downs, but still slow. Where it flattens and becomes brushy near the lake, I angled out to the left, figuring I would hit the lakeshore. However, continuing the day’s theme of Doing It Wrong, I missed the lake entirely, finally following my GPS to bash through a swamp and pick up the trail below the Hozomeen Lake turnoff. What I had hoped would be the shorter of my two days out of this trailhead ended up being almost 12 hours. Ugh.

Snowshoe; also Scotchman

Snowshoe’s east face


Ticking off “ultra-prominence” peaks is sort of silly, but it does lead me to ranges I would not normally visit. The Cabinet Mountains, in far northwest Montana, are not especially high, with generally poor rock and only one small glacier, so I would normally skip them. However, they are home to Snowshoe Peak, one of Montana’s four ultras, so I took the time to visit on my way to Canada, and was pleasantly surprised. The range reminded me a bit of the Cascades, with U-shaped glacial valleys, crappy rock, savage bush-whacking, and even a bit of devil’s club. It also feels much more “redneck” than other parts of the state I have visited. Snowshoe Peak, Mine, and Lake were all named by some miner who spent several frustrating hours nearby repairing his snowshoe.

Snowshoe trail

Driving to the trailhead in the endless evening light, I missed the Leigh Lake turnoff, found an unexpected gated inholding, and ended up at the Snowshoe Mine site. I could have driven back to find the correct trailhead, but I thought (incorrectly) that SummitPost listed a route starting where I was parked, and I was tired of driving. So I settled in and read a bit, then tried to sleep while it was still light out.

Here endeth the trail

Expecting a short outing, I took my time in the morning, starting off around 6:30, which is really more like 5:30 or 6:00 this far west in the time zone. The Snowshoe Lake trail starts off promising enough, heading straight uphill along a pipe that was part of the old mine. Unfortunately, the trail peters out at the first lake, which is little more than a large mud-puddle. From there, a game trail with a few signs of human traffic heads north to a larger lake. I saw one of the white-tailed deer who maintain the trail as I wound through the brush.

Snowshoe, 7718, and lots of traversing

Any semblance of a trail ends in the bog near the upper lake. Embracing the suck, I continued north, eventually breaking out onto a plain of consolidated avalanche snow. Not sure of the best route, I climbed a steep chute west to a saddle, where I oriented myself and prepared for what looked like a long, frustrating traverse to Snowshoe. I followed goat trails through the krummholtz, finding a surprising cairn on 7718, and getting my first view of impressive Leigh Lake and its remaining icebergs.

Typical ledge terrain

After descending to a saddle, things became more complicated. The uplift rock rises to the south or southeast, so the holds are favorable either along the ridge or to the right. However, this means that ledges tend to lose elevation; also, the crumbly towers frustrate attempts to stay on the crest. I ended up splitting my time between the crest and ledges to the right, occasionally doing some 4th class climbing to surmount towers or regain the ridge. It was mostly pleasant climbing on surprisingly good rock, and I couldn’t complain about the view of Leigh Lake cirque, but the constant fight against downward-sloping ledges got old.

A Peak from Snowshoe

Where my ridge joined the standard Leigh Lake route the rock changed, and I found myself trying to follow goat paths through slightly-too-high cliff bands on the left side. After what felt like a few too many false summits, I finally reached the real one, where I was the first this year to sign the register. To the north, A Peak (yes, that’s its name) looked more impressive and just about as high; if I had not just suffered through so much ridge, I would have gone on to tag it.

Leigh Lake cirque

Retracing my route sounded miserable. There were a bunch of register entries mentioning the Leigh Lake route, so I decided to do that, then turn off my brain and hike/jog the road back to my car. After meandering back through the cliff bands, I found a cairn and a bit of trail, and started down the northeast ridge. The rock was not as good here, but the intermittent snow helped. I saw more cairns on the ridge, but lost whatever trail exists on the face, which was still mostly covered in snow.

East face from near Leigh Lake

Crossing a stream down near the lake, I found what I hoped was the start of a robust use trail. However, it faded and I lost it again above the lake outlet, and suffered what felt like a lot of wretched bush-whacking through woody berries and downward-sloping, slippery grass. I clearly need to up my bushwhack game before I get to the Cascades. Just as I emerged onto the real trail near a well-developed campsite, I met a man out for a dayhike, who I greeted with a nonsensical remark about brush. The trail was not in great shape, but at least it was easy to follow, and I was soon back on the road, with nothing but some tedium between me and my car.

Scotchman Peak

Things abruptly turned more redneck as I drove into Idaho, with a roadside quarry and a stack of rusting 1950s-era cars next to the road just past the border. Surprisingly, though, there is a nice trail up Scotchman Peak, reminiscent of the Washington “workout peaks” around Snoqualmie Pass. I had thought of doing this peak in the evening after Snowshoe, but I had had enough, so I saved it for the next morning. If you know roughly where to look, the trailhead is easy to find, with signs directing one to “Trail #65” from the forest road continuation of Main Street in Clark Fork. From the trailhead sign warning about mountain goats, a well-maintained trail climbs steadily to the summit, mostly in the woods.

Since I did this as a run, I did not carry a camera, but the views were partly obscured by clouds in any case. I managed about 3800 ft/hr on the meat of the climb, slower than I probably should be, but not far off expectations. The resident goats were waiting at the structure, and while they were clearly habituated, they were not aggressive, and moved out of the way for me to tag the summit and sign the register. As expected, there isn’t much Strava competition on this obscure peak, so I even nabbed the “record” on the descent, without taking the risks required to truly go fast.

McDonald

Parting view of McDonald


After some slow, unscheduled car maintenance in rural Idaho, I’m finally back on track…

Nice trail work

McDonald Peak, the highpoint of the Mission Range in northwest Montana, made its way onto my radar for being an ultra-prominence peak, one of only a few I have left to do. Nothing in Montana is really “on the way” to anything, but McDonald wasn’t too far out of the way to Canadia, so I added it to my itinerary. The peak can be approached from either side, and I chose the east to avoid dealing with Indian land. I haven’t spent much time in Montana, but I have enjoyed its wholesome atmosphere and well-kept public lands in the past, and this outing had a similar feel.

First junction

McDonald is closed from July 15 to September 30 to avoid harassing grizzly bears as they feed on moths on the summit. I tried not to think too much about where the bears might be now as I started up the trail around 6:00 with my headphones in and some probably-expired bear spray on my waist belt. I passed through some amazing fields of bear-grass, but they apparently don’t eat that, and I was soon at the end of the official trail at Heart Lake.

Tedious uplift

I barged through some people’s camp, then took what started out as a decent use trail. Not having a map of the area other than my road atlas, I didn’t know much about the route other than that I had to cross the ridge to the west, from which the peak would be obvious. As the use trail faded, I climbed northwest out of the trees, in what I realized on the return was the wrong direction. The scenery was nice, but the uplifted layers of limestone made for some obnoxious up-and-down.

Sketchy…

I reached the next side-ridge north, then took off for what looked like a manageable place to cross the ridge, realizing that I was probably off-course. At the crest, I saw I was a bit too far north, but fortunately the other side was wretched steep dirt and grass instead of a cliff, so I got down to the valley floor with only a bit of cursing. The majority of the basin was still covered in sun-cupped snow, but this worked in my favor, covering the bogs and brush, and providing a sketchy snow bridge over the main creek crossing.

West Mac from McDonald

I think the “official” route goes all the way around the south side of the peak to the southwest face, but I took a more direct line up the southeast face on a mix of super-sticky limestone and snow (3-6″ of slurpee on top of harder stuff). I was hot and slow on the climb, but eventually reached the south ridge without using my crampons, and summited about 5h30 from the trailhead. There was still too much snow to see the extent of the glacier to the north, but I had fine views of the peaks to the south, and of West McDonald towering over the valley to the west. Far to the northeast I could make out the higher peaks of Glacier National Park and, possibly, Waterton up in Canada.

Yeeessss…

The return went much more smoothly, starting with a fairly epic boot-ski back down the southeast face. I broke through a snow bridge once, but had enough momentum to face-plant on the downhill side almost before my feet touched the stream. Fortunately the snowpack up here is not like Colorado in May, so I had almost no postholing on my way back to the even-sketchier snow bridge. The correct ridge crossing had been obvious from the summit, and I even found the use trail in a dry patch near the top.

After more glissading down nearly to Island Lake, I picked up a faint use trail around the north side, then left it to drop down some slabs northeast toward Heart Lake. I’m not sure what the best line would be through here, but after some thrashing, I found the continuation of the use trail around Heart’s west and north sides, eventually reaching the top of the official trail. I hiked a bit, then jogged out of impatience, reaching the car a bit under 9 hours after leaving. On to the next.

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.

Buck (East Face, 2900′ ski)

East face from below lake


Clear skies finally returned to the Tetons, bringing with them cold nights, pleasant days, and a fleeting opportunity to ski the fast-melting snow on what turned out to be my best Teton ski day. I had climbed Buck Mountain too many times by various routes, but never descended it on skis. Its broad, moderate east face seemed more my level than the upper Middle Teton Glacier, so I set my alarm for 4:15 to beat the morning sun. Gus, one of the interns, lacked skis but had the day off, so he joined me for the climb.

Balsamroot field

We got started from the Death Canyon trailhead just after 5:00 and, after walking a few minutes past the Stewart Draw “trail,” were soon on the correct path. The trail starts off overgrown, then turns into a bog, then becomes a real trail as it crosses an open meadow of sage and balsam-root. The two “warm-up” creek crossings were larger than I remembered, and with skis on my back, one of them involved wet feet. The main creek crossing would have been Serious Business, but fortunately there was a healthy snow bridge a few hundred yards up.

Slope angle

The snow was no longer continuous from the stream crossing, so I continued hiking in running shoes to the next flat section, a summer bog where Static Peak comes into view. After a bit of skinning, I put the skis back on my pack to boot up the steep, shaded slope, then left them there for the lower-angled walk to Timberline Lake. The snow was still hard in the shaded couloir leading to the face, but softened quickly as I traversed up and left onto the east face proper. Gus turned around here, not comfortable on the steeper snow, while I continued to the summit, following bits of an old boot-pack. The snow was soft enough to plunge nearly boot-deep by the end, but I did not see any slides. The rock band dividing the face was still conveniently covered in snow.

Looking down the ski

After a short break on the windy summit (the clouds were too low for a view of the Grand) I mostly transitioned (I forgot to flip the “walk mode” tabs), then had an excellent ski back to the lake. The face is 38 degrees near the top, but broad and soft enough to make me comfortable linking turns, albeit carefully in the final couloir to the lake. After talking to Gus, I bombed on down toward the bog, getting some serious speed before talking to some hikers and descending more carefully through the rocks lower down. I did another short lap of a few hundred feet while Gus caught up, then switched back to shoes for the hike out. Ironically, the first part of this “hike” involved much boot-skiing with both boots and skis strapped to my back. Though I do not normally condone the use of “cripple poles,” I found them helpful in this strange situation.

Middle Teton (Ellingwood Couloir)

Middle Teton now in sun


After bluebird skies and 80s in the valley for Work Week, the weather turned hostile, with rain in the valley and snow down below 9000′ on the peaks. With Sunday having the least-bad forecast for a few days, I decided to get out and try something in the hills instead of going insane in the Jackson library. I was somewhat at a loss for a suitable outing until Tim suggested the Chouinard Ridge on Middle Teton, a broken, south-facing 5.4 route. I had done nothing on that part of the mountain, so it would be somewhat new, and the rock would be mostly dry if the weather behaved itself.

Entering the couloir

I put crampons and boots in my big pack and left the ranch in running shoes around 5:15, ignoring the clouds. Temperatures remained moderate as I climbed into Garnet Canyon, and I wore just a t-shirt until I stopped in the Meadows to switch to boots next to the army encampment. As I continued up the south fork, a combination of clouds and snow left me seeing very little, and considering other route options. Fortunately the clouds were patchy, so I managed to find my intended route without much difficulty.

Runnels

Dike Pinnacle and Nez Perce

Seeing that the rocks were covered in icicles and a dusting of fresh snow, I decided that it might be wise to choose another route. The neighboring Ellingwood Couloir seemed perfect: it appeared to have already slid and consolidated, and the cloudcover was keeping the snow well-frozen. I put on my crampons, took out my one ice tool, and got to work.

Dike Pinnacle and Nez Perce

The couloir starts out flat enough to French-step, but soon becomes steep enough to require front-pointing. The old snow had formed multiple runnels, into which the fresh powder had drifted several inches deep. The old surface was mostly névé: perfect for daggering a tool, but requiring several kicks to create a step to rest my burning calves. Partway up, I looked back to see two people descending the south fork, and wondered what they had done to be coming down so early.

Nez Perce, Cloudveil, and Gros Ventres

Though I was fairly certain I was in the correct couloir, it was still a relief to climb around the cornice and find myself looking at the familiar view of Dike Pinnacle and the Middle Teton Glacier. I also found myself between cloud layers, able to see between them and through the saddle between Nez Perce and Cloudveil Dome all the way to Jackson Peak and the Gros Ventres. I could have descended the glacier, but the day was young, and it seemed lame not to summit.

Climb from Dike Pinnacle

The final climb up the east side of Middle Teton can be a bit dicey, with snow falling away from slabs as spring turns to summer. After traversing right on snow under some rocks, I followed a runnel to the notch between the two summits on a messy mixture of snow types. A bit of clumsy mixed climbing got me out of the notch and onto the easy snowfield leading to the summit.

There wasn’t much to see, so I hardly paused before heading down the standard southwest couloir, where I passed 5-6 army guys belaying each other down. Unfortunately it was still cloudy, so the snow had not softened up enough to allow much plunge-stepping or boot-skiing. Back at the Meadows, I switched back into trail runners and talked to Eric, the Army instructor with whom I had climbed the previous summer. Then it was a tedious but sunny walk back to the Ranch, to eat glop on tortillas and catch up on my neglected chores.