Spoon!

Amphitheater


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

Booting up from the trail

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

Guys descending the Spoon

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

View up the Spoon

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

Snake River from above the Spoon

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

What are you doing?

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

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

“Drift”

Face to be skied


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

Jacque from parking lot

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

Moonset over popular run

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

Sketchy ski-track

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

Upper north ridge

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

Annoying snow in chute

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

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

Griping about packs

It has served me well


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

15-20 liter main compartment

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

2 tool attachments

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

Stash pockets

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

External attachment points

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

Sternum strap and waist belt

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

Reasonable durability for the cost

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

Nothing else

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

Some companies come sooo close:

Gregory Verte 15, discontinued (image: REI)


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

BD Blitz 20 (image: Black Diamond)


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

UD PB Adventure Vest 3.0 (image: Ultimate Direction)


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

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

More Canadian contrasts

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

Bugaboos

The modern photos are from early August, 2014.

Bugaboo-Snowpatch col

Bugaboo-Snowpatch Col, 1973


Snowpatch and Bugaboo from Eastpost

Howser Towers

Howser Towers, 1973


Howser Towers

Robson

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

Kain face

Kain Face, 1968


Robson from near col

Summit pyramid

Robson summit, 1968


Summit climb

South face

Robson south face, 1968

Robson south face

Glacial contrasts

Athabasca Glacier


I recently tracked down these historical photos for a presentation. The pairs aren’t perfect, because I took my photos before I saw the old ones. Still, the comparisons are revealing.

Mount Robson, Kain Face

2017

1950s

Illecillewaet Névé

1908

2014

Illecillewaet Glacier

1902

2017

Buckskin

Kite Lake road and Democrat


I had taken my skis up to Denver, hoping that enough snow would fall in two weeks of winter to make some easy peaks skiable. Buckskin is one of the last of Colorado’s top 100 peaks I have not climbed, and possibly the last I will bother with. Located near the town of Alma, with a high winter trailhead well above 10,000 feet, it should be skiable from the car this time of year.

Democrat, Lincoln, Bross

I slept at a parking area near the mill on the way to Kite Lake, then got a late start because it looked cold outside. I skied about 100 yards up the side of the road, saw bare dirt ahead and bare slopes above, and returned to the car, driving most of another mile up the road before parking near where I almost got stuck in a snowdrift. I set off again, this time with just mountain boots. Other than the occasional drift, the road was dry with patches of ice all the way to the summer trailhead.

The patches of snow were annoyingly breakable crust over sugar, up to knee-deep in the willows, but they were mostly easy to avoid. I slogged up a talus-slope, then made a short, windy traverse to what I guessed correctly was the summit. After looking around a bit, I decided to plunge-step down a snowy gully for a change, then retraced my steps to the road and the car. The drive home down highway 285 showed more bare slopes, even on the eastern side of the Sawatch where they would normally be wind-loaded. Overall, conditions in central and southern Colorado seem to be about like early November of a normal year. No skiing for me this winter.

San Cristobal

My one souvenir (photo by Ted)


One final image post from the South America trip, this time from San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos. While doing some island peak-bagging, I found my one souvenir from the trip. Amazingly, though US customs was very unhappy about the two small pieces of fruit I took from the airport lounge, they had no issue with my bringing an enormous tetanus-blade into the country.

Santa Cruz

I don’t normally do image posts, but in this case it seems appropriate.

Birds

Iguanas

Tortoises

Crabs

Miscellany

Chimborazo and Guayaquil

Sunset on Chimborazo


After getting done with Cotopaxi around 7:30 AM, I hung out a bit, got a ride back to the park gate, then spent the rest of the morning finding internet and rejoining Ted. We continued south on the freeway, then stopped at a chicken place in Ambato before heading up an impressive road that climbs to over 14,000 feet on its way around Chimborazo and neighboring Carihuairazo. The weather was improving, and we were lucky enough to see their peaks in their entirety. Much of the area around the peaks is a breeding facility for vicuñas, a smaller, wild relative of the llama that was once extinct in Ecuador. The program appears to be working well, and we passed hundreds of the muppet-ish creatures on our drive across the high plain.

Vicuña

Unfortunately, our luck with petty local bureaucrats had worn out. We pulled up to the Chimborazo park gate at 4:15, to be informed that the park closed at 4:00, with no exceptions. The guard did not seem susceptible to bribes, and was not going home for the evening. We pulled across the road, and sat to watch the sunset and debate whether to hike the extra 4.5 miles each way to the peak. Neither of us really wanted to sneak into the park, and unfortunately the trip’s tight schedule would not allow us to try again the next day, so we took off for a long, winding drive dropping 14,000 feet to the port city of Guayaquil to be tourists.

Unlike Quito, where driving is easy thanks to good roads and lane markers, driving in Guayaquil can be stressful. For one thing, many of the streets are one-way, enough that the two-way streets are actually signed as such. Even some of the nominally two-way streets can end up a single lane wide, with solid lines of cars parked along both sides. Most of the wider streets do not have lane markings, and traffic flows in an unorganized mass, drivers communicating via frequent friendly honks. Buses, of course, do whatever they want.

I’m not a very good tourist, but I did manage to amuse myself for most of a day. The city has turned part of the Rio Guayas’ shore into a pedestrian mall, with various shops and Simon Bolivar statues. One end has a free museum of both contemporary art and native artifacts. I was able to mostly puzzle out the Spanish signs, and spent several hours looking at various sculptures and pots, including what I think were whistling ceremonial drinking cups. The shoreline south of the museum was a pleasant walk, with the nearby water moderating the otherwise oppressive heat and humidity. One park-like section was populated with local flora, waterfowl, and iguanas. I would rather have been climbing, but… oh well.

Cotopaxi

Summit view


Cotopaxi is an almost-perfect cone rising 7000′ from a 12,000′ plain, clad in snow and shrinking glaciers. Though it is not Ecuador’s highest mountain, it may be its best known and most sought-after. It is also a fairly active volcano, and although it has been open to climbers since last October, the stink of sulfur was distinctly unpleasant even at the hut. I had about 3,500 feet to climb from the hut to its 19,300′ summit. Given my performance on Orizaba, and my understanding that the snow turned to horrible mashed potatoes once the sun hit it, I conservatively allotted four hours for the climb, starting at 2:30 AM.

Sunset on Cotopaxi

Burrowing into my bunk at 9:00, I set my alarm for 2:00 AM and pretended to get some sleep. This was of course impossible, since I had forgotten my ear plugs, and guides allocate 6+ hours to drag clients up the peak. So I lay in bed until 11:00, listened to people clomping up and down the stairs in rented plastic boots until 12:00, then lay in bed until 2:00 before suiting up for the climb. Unsure what to expect, I dressed more warmly than I had for just about anything else: long johns under soft-shell pants, four layers on top, double socks with bread bags in between on my feet, and chemical hand- and foot-warmers in my pack just in case.

It sucks up here

I moved fast through the common area, worried that some official-ish person would try to stop me, then stopped at the bucket-flushed toilets before heading up the boot-pack. There are two semi-standard route up the peak: a direct one through the crevasses, and a longer one to the right which mostly avoids them. Being solo, I started up the latter, but ended up following a slightly more direct boot-pack with only two crevasse crossings. I put on some aggressive music, and was prepared to try to outrun anyone who shouted at me for breaking made-up laws, but none of the groups I passed gave me any trouble. The lower climb was surreal, slogging up a high-altitude snow slope under the light of the moon, stars, and headlamps of the groups ahead of me. My super-bright BD Icon headlamp contended with my tinted goggles, and the swirling clouds deposited frost on my jacket.

I eventually passed the leading group, and was on my own below the northwest ridge. The big crevasse below the ridge was nicely bridged. I panted up the steep snow-slope above it, then continued to follow the tracks along the ridge’s right-hand side. The sulfur fumes were unpleasant, but not bad enough to make me gag or vomit. I suffered from the altitude on the steeper pitches, but the temperature was just about perfect, cold enough for the snow to remain solid, but warm enough for my hands and feet to be comfortable.

At around 5:20, I reached something that seemed like the summit, though it was both cloudy and dark. I had badly overestimated the time it would take me to complete the climb. Since I would never return to this place, and had plenty of warm clothing, I put on my down parka, turned off my headlamp, and sat on my pack to wait for sunrise.

Sunrise on descent

I stuck around the summit until about 6:00, occasionally stomping around to keep my feet warm. I had hoped to see the classic sunrise shadow on the plains below, but the peak was creating its own clouds, so I eventually gave up and started descending without even seeing the summit crater. I passed two Americans on the way, wearing masks against the sulfur, who were probably the only others to summit that day. The clouds broke up a bit at sunrise, allowing me to see some of the neighboring volcanoes, but it was getting colder as I descended, so I hurried back to the hut.

The Canadian woman was waiting outside the hut; she congratulated me on my summit and informed me that her Danish companion had succumbed to the altitude. His 30-year-old rented plastic boots, non-waterproof army suit, and wooden-framed pack might have also contributed. I hung out in the hut for awhile, eating an undeserved, weirdly meatless tamale, then embarked upon an odyssey toward civilization and the next mountain.