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.

King George (SE ridge)

King George from the south


Mount King George, only slightly farther north than Harrison, seems to be in a wetter part of the range, making it home to a rapidly-shrinking south-facing glacier. The route starts at an easily-missed cairn along yet another logging road, crosses a river on a sketchy log, then follows an old trail endlessly along the valley bottom before climbing straight into the alpine. I underestimated this peak, and it nearly got the better of me, as I almost downgraded productive peak-bagging to a pointless walk to a glacier. I got it done though, with a loop up the southeast ridge and down the south glacier taking 11 hours with suboptimal early-season conditions and some dithering.

A cheval bridge

Daylight seems lopsided, so I got a lazy start around 7:30, hiking a few minutes down to the river for a ‘nad-flattening a cheval log crossing. I am normally comfortable balance-beaming these things, but the river looked threatening, the log was long, and it had been polished smooth by many crotches. Once on the other side, I crunched through an old clear-cut, then bashed through the woods until I found the old trail on the other side near Fynn Creek. Many logs crossing the trail had been cut at least a decade ago, and between those and recent flagging, the trail was easy to follow along the flat valley bottom. I saw some old bear scat, and more recent moose tracks, but encountered no wildlife for the whole day.

Prince Albert

At the head of the valley, the trail turns directly uphill to get above some cliffs. The first part is covered with downed trees and difficult to follow, but it soon finds an open ridge, heading straight up to near treeline. Emerging from the trees on a large morainal flat below the King George Glacier, I was unsure where I should go, and started up the glacier toward Mount Prince Albert, which looks like a smaller Assiniboine from this angle.

Access gullies

A lot of the glacier was covered in miserable calf-deep slush, and I was thinking of turning around and calling it a day when I recognized the start of the southeast ridge route, two parallel breaks in the cliffs between King George and Princess Mary. I almost turned around again, as I was not feeling too enthusiastic, and the access couloirs were both partly melted out to the underlying wet choss. I went up the right (wrong) couloir a bit, sat on a ledge for a bit, then decided to explore.

Lower ridge

I edged south, then found that with a couple steep moves on incut holds, I could start up a smaller cleft between the two main chutes. From there, I traversed and found class 3-4 breaks in the small cliff-bands, and was soon back on snow near the Mary-George saddle. More importantly, the route-finding adventure had restored my enthusiasm, and I unhesitatingly started up the broad ridge. The route is rated 5.3, but all I found was a class 2-3 mix of turf and mildly obnoxious scree. So far, so good.

This was sketchy

It is still early in the short Canadian climbing season, and things started to suck on the upper ridge, which was partly covered in deep slush. This started out tedious, then turned threatening, as I crossed one sketchy-looking snow arete, then carefully wallowed west of a cornice. At a third snow “feature”, after passing a couple old pitons, I had to downclimb a bit onto the west face and up a gully. The route is not quite in condition, making it somewhat harder than its nominal 5.3.

Summit cornice

Where the ridge flattens out and joins the standard south glacier route, things got easier, if somewhat tedious. The route description mentions a bergschrund crossing, but I had continuous snow all the way to the massive summit cornice. I tagged a summit-ish point safely away from the overhang, then retreated down the south glacier, glissading in a couple places to avoid postholing. After some easy side-hilling, I scree-skied down to the lower snowfield, which was mostly more pleasant than the King George Glacier. Near the Mary-George saddle, I saw a cornice collapse across the way, sending a healthy spray of rock and snow down toward the lower snowfield.

Thinking I was done, I wrung out my socks by a stream, and replaced the cup of old gas station water I had left with a couple liters of fresh glacier melt. I thought I was done, but there was one more tricky bit of route-finding through a cliff band on the return to the King George moraine. I mostly had no trouble following the trail on the way down, only losing it for a half-mile or so in the horrible deadfall near the valley floor. Just before the clearcut, I greeted a Canadian couple headed in for the same peak with big boots, and heavy packs. Sigh… I will yet teach our northern brethren how to bag peaks.

Harrison (W ridge)

Harrison (l) from camp


After a morning jaunt up Abercrombie, the northernmost ultra-prominence peak in the lower 48, and one of the lamest, it was time for me to head north in search of real mountains. For whatever reason, I had my least unpleasant Canadian border crossing experience; after a few questions, I left a couple apples in the freezer with everyone else’s, and headed northeast on highway 3. I had thought of skipping Harrison, the southernmost Rockies 11er, because it is buried 75 km down a network of logging roads. However, I was sick of highway driving by the time I got to Cranbrook, so I turned off toward Whiteswan Lake, making it within a few kilometers of the road’s end before being stopped by a washout.

North face couloir

The recommended route on Harrison is a prominent couloir on its north face, but I didn’t want to hike the final bit of road in boots, so I chose the more running-shoe-friendly west ridge instead. Finding no trail at the end of the road, I side-hilled too far east to get out of the forest, then descended a bit to return to the standard route where the faint trail ends at a cascade. Three mountain goats, the day’s only wildlife, moved out of my way as I climbed the gradual slope to the base of Harrison’s west ridge. The rock layers rise to the south here, so the other side of the gentle-looking saddle was forbiddingly steep.

Wow this sucks

Apparently Harrison sees little traffic, as there is no use trail beaten into the scree on the long side-hill traverse to the standard southwest face. Wanting to minimize my exposure to that, I instead continued straight up the west ridge. The uplift is a bit too steep to traverse on the north side, so I mostly stuck to the ridge, sometimes following ledges right and climbing low-5th-class terrain back to the crest. The ridge changes at a notch, where I crossed a snow-saddle, then made a wandering ascent on the northwest face to the final summit ridge.

Final summit ridge

Patchy clouds somewhat obscured the view, but what I saw looked surprisingly dry and unglaciated for the Canadian Rockies. The register showed perhaps fewer than 10 summit parties per year. Canada has 54 Rockies 11ers to match Colorado’s 14ers, but they see a tiny fraction of the traffic, and only a handful of people have summited them all.

Looking down ridge

I lazed around a bit, then took off down the standard southwest chute, where I found a bit of an old boot-pack. The slush/ice was a bit steep for my running shoe crampons, but I made it work, and was soon down on the horrid scree. I found a couple cairns and a faint bit of use trail at first, but both soon disappeared, and the rest of the traverse was a wretched mix of scree and slush. If I did the peak again, I would bring boots and climb both up and down the north couloir.

Avalanche wreckage

I found the faint, flagged trail on the way down, following close to the stream. I also found why I had not seen it on the way up: it has been completely obliterated by avalanche debris a half-mile from the end of the road. I balanced and thrashed through the wasteland, then jogged back to the car.

I had noticed the Lussier hot springs on the drive in, with a handful of cars parked near the sign. I normally don’t go for such things, but I asked myself “what would Renee do?” (also, “when will you next bathe?”), and stopped for a quick soak. It was more crowded than the day before, and with the exception of one surgically-enhanced Asian woman, the bathers should have worn more suit, but I soaked in the hot pool for awhile, then rinsed the sulfur off with a quick dip in the river before returning to the highway, then to yet another endless logging road.

Oh, Canadia…

Other side of saddle


The Great White North has some wild and impressive mountains, but every time I visit Canadia, I am reminded that its economy is still largely pillage-based, with a few humans living on the profits of clear-cut logging and strip mining. In both good and bad ways, Canada today is like Colorado in the 1800s.

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 Glacier ski

Dike Pinnacle panorama


I had done only cross-country skiing for over four years, but I needed to get out and try some new-to-me AT skis. With a decent forecast and a more experienced skier (Jack) around, I decided to remember how to turn by skiing the Middle Teton Glacier. This was perhaps not the best terrain on which to remember and practice, but my fun-to-fear ratio was at least as high as on a typical mountain bike ride.

Way too much stuff

In previous years, I have laughed at the people toting skis up into Garnet Canyon in mid-June, but today I found myself one of them, leaving the Ranch at 5:00 with skis and boots strapped to my pack in an awkward A-frame. This meant not only that I was taller and wider than usual, but that I had to stride carefully to avoid bashing my calves against the skis’ tails. Fortunately the trail up to Garnet is relatively wide and smooth, so I made it to the snow without getting caught on too many obstacles. However, I quickly felt the unaccustomed weight of the tool-shed on my back.

Middle Teton from meadows

Once on solid snow at the boulder-field, Jack and I put on skis and skinned up through the meadows toward the winter route to the Lower Saddle. I much preferred having the extra weight on my feet instead of on my back, and didn’t mind the unavoidably slow pace. Someone had installed a convenient boot-pack the day before, so we could turn off our brains and plod on the climb to the moraine.

Starting up glacier

The boot-pack disappeared a bit below the glacier, and I began installing my own through the upper moraine and up the glacier. The snowpack was about what I had expected — 6-8″ powder over a rock-hard crust — but the powder was heavy and, perhaps thanks to the cloud cover, not yet prone to slide. The route up the glacier was a careful slog, meandering slightly to find snow deep enough to kick supportive steps without unnecessary wallowing.

Grand poking out

We took a break where the glacier turns west, then continued up steeper and more tiring terrain to the col between Dike Pinnacle and the Middle Teton. The sun came out near the col, revealing an impressive view of the Nez Perce to South Teton ridge to one side, and occasional glimpses of the Grand to the other. A helicopter which had ferried two loads of people to the Lower Saddle returned twice hauling supplies while we took pictures and switched to downhill mode.

I suck on steep things

The upper glacier was definitely not a beginner run. Jack made it look doable, though not easy, making a series of traverses and jump-turns toward the bend. I was shamefully unmanned, making a turn or two and side-slipping most of the top part. Skiing is all about one’s confidence, and when faced with a rock wall on one side, a snow runnel on the other, and a small crevasse below, I found mine lacking. Below, however, I was in my comfort zone, linking turns down the broad glacier and snow-slope to the moraine.

… but I can sort of ski some stuff

The snow below had softened alarmingly quickly in the sun, so our skis began to stick as we cruised across the flat and down the headwall to the Meadows. We took our skis off at one point in the boulder-field, then put them back on to glide a bit more and minimize the miles spent carrying them on our backs. I never enjoy the descent to the Ranch unless running, and it was far worse carrying skis. I resolved to avoid Burnt Wagon Gulch and Garnet Canyon for the rest of my visit.

Thanks

My thanks to long-time (and sole) sponsor Scott, who provided the AT gear that made this possible. I doubt I will ever get into “extreme” skiing or randonée racing, but the new tools will give me more freedom in the hills. Plus, skiing is fun.

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.

Sopris

Sopris from approach


Though short of 13,000 feet, Mount Sopris is striking thanks to its position as the far western corner of the Elk Range. It is also a convenient quick outing for a driving day, and after a pointless screw-up the previous day, I wanted to do something straightforward. (Notes: Snowmass Creek is hard to cross; there is a faint trail up Bear Creek; the Pierre Lakes Basin looks like the Sierra, though I gather the ridges are rotten.)

Sopris east bowl

I got a lazy start from the Sopris trailhead around 6:00, slightly behind a skier. The trail was dry to within 1/2 mile of the lakes, and well-trod until the base of the first lake. Beyond that point, each person had chosen his own path through the woods to the east bowl. I saw several old ski and boot tracks, but somehow managed to pass the skier I was following without seeing him.

Summit cornice and Capitol

The snow lower down was nicely consolidated, but the east-facing bowl higher up was already getting annoyingly soft, and my running shoe crampons were only semi-useful. I tried to follow the old boot-tracks on the way up, which offered a bit more solidity, but even they were starting to decay. Looking back, I saw the skier skinning up with frightening speed, and I pushed myself to stay ahead to the ridge, where the snow solidified and Capitol Peak appeared to the southeast.

Down east bowl

Despite a false summit or two, it was an easy walk to the east summit, where the tracks stopped. I looked over at the west summit, then thought “meh,” admired the steep couloirs on the north side, and headed back before the snow got even softer. I talked to the skier for a bit, a young guy who had moved to the tiny town of Sawatch a couple years ago for unknown reasons. After jogging down the ridge, I dealt with the soft snow via a couple of long glissades (with free slurpee enema), then jogged and boot-skied the better snow lower down. The skier caught me near the bottom, but I ditched him again on the trail, where I could jog and he probably could not.

Okay, that’s enough Colorado for awhile.