Category Archives: Skiing

Scratch

“Shit guys, my hands are done.” I hated to be the one to call it, but I had just tipped past “fun” and my hands were giving up on holding my ski poles.  It’s always humbling to hang out with people just a little tougher than you are.

We’d been skinning for a couple hours up the long south face of Mt. St. Helens. Wind-driven snow at 35F has an uncanny ability to turn into liquid upon contact, penetrating every last layer. The gale increased with elevation, but visibility dropped. I didn’t stay focused on self care enough to make sure we hit the summit before the painful wet cold overcame my ability to smile about it. Not being able to see up from down didn’t help the case for continuing, despite Devon’s GPS coordinates keeping us on track.

mt st helens, skinning, backcountry skiing, whiteout

The best visibility we had all day.

This spring storm cycle has been unforgiving for those of us limited to weekend days and smaller plans. Every once in a while, you can’t scratch the itch any other way. You make the long drive, put a smile, and go see what Mother Nature serves up.  The snow was really good on the way down, but we skied some of the flattest, whitest conditions I’ve ever been in. We side slipped together, checking course every 100yds.  There were no visual references. Like the best of friends, Martin and Devon wore smiles all the way. Its always remarkable to me how much better you feel as soon as you slip on a puffy coat, thick gloves, and rip your skins off.

I don’t know why we needed to do that, but I’m glad we did. Maybe it was a test. Or a smackdown. Or just a day out in the mountains, full of acceptance for what we got. For a power much greater than ourselves. In a world where we tend to see the best of everyone else’s days on Instagram, where failures are uncelebrated- an unremarkable day of skinning, freezing, and smiling with friends feels like the best thing we could have done.

Colorado

Despite learning how to ski here, my normal adventure map has strangely omitted time in Colorado. Abigail has cool friends- they celebrated their wedding in Crested Butte, and she managed to find cheap airfare for both of us. It was a good start to February. One photo per day:

lowa mountain expert, altras, outlaws, cobras

Day 0: Packing for adventure schizophrenia.

grand canyon, alaska air, ski crested butte

Day 1: Fly from LAX to Gunnison- Grand Canyon scenic flight for free. #AlaskaAir

crested butte, ski bunnies, ski bosses

Day 2: Meet friends and make new ones. SKI.

snow walkway, shovel, western

Day 3: Vacation. Cute houses, deep snow.

Staircase, crested butte, steep skiing

Day 4: Steep. The Staircase. Amazing.

crested butte, deep throat, bluebird, colorado skiing

Day 5: This place keeps on giving. Deep Throat. Bluebird

ouray ice park, ice climbing, top rope tough guy

Day 6: Switch gears. Every ice climber has to go to Ouray once. Thanks Drew and Lindz

newbie ice climber, grit, never say never

Day 7: Never say never. Abigail swings tools. The girl has grit.

alaska air, crested butte, steep and deep, Big Chute

Day 8: Abigail comes to terms with Big Chute. Steep AND deep. Free lift tix from Ak Air.

sunset, BoiseState plane

My version of vacation might not work for everyone, but it sure does for me.

Snow

It’s frozen water and air. There is a clarity that comes from all simple things. In the waxing complexity of my life, the simple things speak the loudest.

St Mary's road bitterroot, mt

Another good season begins.

Last weekend, Martin and I opened our the ski seasons on St. Mary’s (in the Bitterroot). Our bodies quickly remembered the easy rhythm of pushing skis uphill. Step, breath, step, breath. The closest common feeling is sitting in church. It’s a meditation. Quiet snow under foot, the smell of deep evergreen freezing deep in our nostrils. Perfect. Simple.

IMG_1017

avalanche pit, st. marys bitterroot, 11-23-14

Nov. 23, 2014 Avalanche pit. South aspect at 8000′ on St. Marys ridge. Numerous weak layers between 60-90cm from surface.

It is tempting to get caught in the drama of this world. The simple things cut it away.

For so long, I’ve defined myself by what I do. I have to change the way I think about myself in relation to the way I think about what I do to pay the bills. Some of the most put together people I have ever met have been unemployed or underemployed. I fear for them- and I know that my fear does nothing for them. In light of how I let my job both define me and consume me, their grace in that particular regard has always impressed me.

I should be grateful for having a job- but a lot of days I dread going to work because I feel like there is no way to win. There is no way for me to find peace with my career. There will always been more work than I can do. I will never ask the right questions, do the right things, or plan far enough ahead. I let the mistakes I make eat me alive, or at the very least, they crush my morale. You know all those quotes about all the great innovators failing a lot before they struck it big? I’m starting to wonder if I’ve got the guts for that. More often than not, my career has always been this evil nemesis in my life. I’ve never been able to master it, or even balance it. I’ve missed bluebird days, real friends in places of real need, and probably a relationship or two because I was more dedicated to my desk than my heart. Yet, paying the bills and “being a responsible adult” (e.g. saving for retirement,  compiling “professional experience”, etc.) can seemingly only be avoided for so long. There’s a balance there, and I’ve never even gotten close.

Seen at Costco.

Seen at Costco.

I spent most of this weekend stressed out and worried about how to make a major mistake at work come out right. I’m embarrassed to say that I also spent most of this weekend with 20 totally wonderful people that I feel deeply connected to. People that inspire the best in me. What did I accomplish in my worrying? Not much. What did I miss out on? Probably more than I will ever know.

Thanksgiving feast

So much to be thankful for- and this was less than half of it.. Don’t miss a morsel..

It is easy to think we have it hard, but the real fact is that most of the junk we deal with at the office is contrived. I know that it starts with me. It starts with remembering that I am not my work. That there is more to all of us than how we pay our bills. Indeed for most of us, the everything else is often the part that matters the most.

friends, sky, landscape, montana

These men matter.

I’ve said it before- the only real limits are the ones we create in our own minds. This time around- the only real problems are the ones we make in our own minds. Don’t let anyone, or anything, live inside your head for free.

Magical Mystery Tour

So what of the other 5 days of my recent Alaska trip? We left our intrepid adventurers here:

The cushiest hitch-hiking spot ever (no we didn't hitch in the white truck).

The cushiest hitch-hiking spot ever (no we didn’t hitch in the white truck).

baking in the heat just below Hatcher Pass, trying to assemble the next piece of the plan. Martin was the best possible partner, because he kept saying “where can we have the most fun?” Fortunately, I had the answer.

Kudos to Josh who picked us up roadside, and drove us all the way to Anchorage airport. On the way I booked a cheap rental car, and called another friend:

Mackenzie. On-sites hosting like a boss.

Mackenzie. Hosts last minute like a boss.

My last trip to see Mackenzie was one of the first adventures on this blog, and I frankly I couldn’t wait to visit the amazing corner of the world she lives in again. Along the way, we got some Thai food in the middle of nowhere:

Don't miss this.

Don’t miss this.

and caught rare views of the deepest wild around:

Mt Wrangell, from the Richardson Highway.

Mt Wrangell, from the Richardson Highway.

On a clear spring day, Valdez, Alaska might be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Having left Anchorage early on Wednesday morning, there were still time for turns at Thompson Pass that afternoon:

Stoke on.

Stoke on.

Are we really here? Doing this?

Are we really here? Doing this?

Martin, doing THAT.

Martin, doing THAT.

So I had been itching for a hard core wilderness adventure. Conditions as they were though, it just wasn’t right. I’ve never really gone “vacation backcountry skiing” (or know that existed)- but in spring, in Valdez, that’s the ticket.

Apres ski- Valdez style.

Apres ski- Valdez style.

Staying with Mackenzie, Ben, Hope, and Matt (HUGE THANKS), we had a real kitchen, boat rides after skiing, and a chance to connect with some of the local contingent- just 30 minutes drive from the top of the pass.

Trip highpoint: Girls Mountain. Amazing turns, amazing place.

Just so good.

I work with Martin, and while I’ve never traveled with a co-worker on this scale I couldn’t ask for a better partner. Our razor towards fun served us well, and hope we can share more adventures in the future.

Harbor-side views from The Fat Mermaid...

Harbor-side views from The Fat Mermaid…

Wild harvested muscles over an open fire in Prince William Sound.

Wild harvested mussels over an open fire in Prince William Sound.

Sometimes, you can’t accept what’s presented to you- and sometimes it’s wiser to jump straight into what’s available. We didn’t end up doing anything that we planned. We had a ton of fun, and embraced the truly special place that Alaska continues to hold in my heart. I couldn’t ask for any more.

Valdez Multi-sport day: skiing, rock climbing, beer drinking, and swimming...

The perfect way to dive into this place.

 

 

The Bomber

talkeetna mountains, bomber traverse

Yup, it’s Alaska! Slogging to the Mint Glacier Hut.

Straining against the endless glacial white, my eyes played tricks on me. How hard was it to miss a whole B-29 crash? Day 2 of the Bomber Traverse in the Talkeetna Mountains outside Anchorage, and we were 4 miles up the glacier looking for the namesake of the route. So far the weather had been tame, but a foggy snow drizzle was making our search more challenging.

Bomber Traverse, Talkeetna Mountains, Alaska

With great respect for the 6 casualties. 1957 B-29 Bomber crash site.

We found the crash, pulled up our carpets, and slid for the hut. The snow was thankfully forgiving in the flat light, and we were excited for the first real turns of the trip.

It wasn’t actually supposed to work this way. Not really at all. Looking at the forecast and Snotel data in the Seattle airport our original plans just didn’t make sense. The Eklutna Traverse had almost zero snow for the first 2000′ vertical on the route. With some awesome support from AMH, Joe Stock, and my friends Drew and Lindzey, we re-packed with 5 days of food and a loose plan for the Bomber Traverse in the Talkeetna mountains. If the snow was as good as we heard tell, we’d stay in the range as long as we could. If it wasn’t, we’d get a good workout carrying heavy packs.

The Mint Glacier Hut.

The Mint Glacier Hut.

The trip starts and ends at the Gold Mint Trailhead on Hatcher Pass just north of Anchorage. It cuts a circle through the Talkeetna mountains, stopping at 2 huts maintained by the Mountaineering Club of Alaska and 1 hut that belongs to the AAC. Total distance is about 20 miles, and total elevation gain is approximately 5,000 ft total.  There is boundless good skiing terrain around each of the 3 huts, and the scenery is stunning.

Bomber Traverse, ski mountaineering, alaska, talkeetna mountains

Sunset at the Bomber Hut.

We had amazing weather and navigating the route was straightforward. Warm conditions and ample food meant there was little “suffering” in the way that most Alaskan adventure warrant.

gear drying, ski mountaineering, bomber traverse, talkeetna mountains

Hut life.

Bomber Traverse, Talkeetna Mountains, Alaska, ski mountaineering

Its not mountaineering until you put your skis on your back…

Unfortunately, the snow was boot hard in the morning with a fast midafternoon transition to full-on slush. Warm temps meant sweaty feet and blisters. Sunscreen consumption was far higher than rationed. While the glaciers are clearly melting, there are few cravasses meaning that the ropes and harnesses we brought amounted to training weight as well. While I certainly cannot complain about any of it, our “ski trip” amounted to mostly touring, sweating and eating.

Endless daylight works up an appetite.

Hut life.

Did I mention blue skies?

Did I mention blue skies?

We started on Sunday, but by Monday night we were already scheming other plans. The soft afternoon snow meant that exiting the range needed to happen earlier in the day than later. Despite the finest amenities of the trip at the Snowbird hut (really, you gotta stay there) we pushed past with just a few photos and a shaky plan for the next move.

Nicest latrine in the world?

Nicest latrine in the world?

archangel creek, talkeetna mountains, bomber traverse

Looking back down Archangel Creek.

There’s gotta be more snow somewhere in Alaska and thankfully I’ve got more than a few great friends in the great “not so white” north…

Credit where due: again huge thanks to Joe Stock, and his excellent website for plenty of information and inspiration. Truly the patriarch of modern Alaska skiing. Check out the site, buy the book, hire the man if you need to. He is the source.

 

Stoke

Stoke might be the most over-used word in the adventure community. Usually used in conjunction with phrases like “shred the gnar”, there’s a connotation with it that often carries both excitement and hubris. I’m as guilty as the next guy of being overly excited about my upcoming adventures.

Sitting in the Seattle airport though, my version of stoke is a little different. It inspires me to smile a little wider, breathe a little more freely, and be grateful for the truly varied opportunity that Alaska presents. Our original plans really don’t seem viable. It’s amazing to realize how many friends I have in the great North land that seem to pop out of the woodwork to make things go.

Were well on our way. To the Chugach- I’ll see you soon.

From my last trip to Valdez.

From my last trip to Valdez.

The Tempest

I’m really not a Shakespeare nut, but there’s a classic route in Kootenai Canyon just south of town with the same name. It’s long (33m) and reasonably hard (5.11b), and sometimes confusing. In a good way that’s kinda like life. Skiing Gash point on Sunday pointed to a few more of those lessons.

Sometimes life really bucks your expectations.

 

walking with skis

Walking with skis wasn’t the plan. Simon and Martin smile anyway and keep going.

Or maybe, you can’t see where you are going at all. Things feel cold and scary, and you wonder why you make the choices that you do.

gash point bitterroot, backcountry skiing, avalanche evaluation

Looking into a different sort of tempest. Simon and Madison evaluate the “spring skiing” on Gash Point.

But we smiled into it, and kept going. The cool thing I’ve noticed is that when that is the mantra, good things generally happen. It’s hard for me to admit that sometimes and I don’t know why.

powder skiing, backcountry skiing, boot deep

“Huh… look at all that fluffy stuff.”

(the skiing was really quite nice after all on Sunday)

Life can feel like a tempest sometimes- one that tends to obscure the important parts of ourselves, and our lives as part of our communities. Getting outside is what clears my head and gets me operating properly again.

It’s suddenly a beautiful spring in Missoula. The Tempest (climbing route) has been on my tick list since I first heard about it, but I’ve only touched it once. That first time humbled me, and I’ve avoided it ever since. I promised myself it would be a project this year. Just before I left home this morning I looked at the weather and texted my good friend Michael about climbing outside after work. I didn’t want to avoid looking at the route any more. We stole out a little early, warmed up, and got right to it.

The Tempest Kootenai

Michael clears the lower turbulence on the route.

I surprised myself when I hung all the draws without falling off. I can’t call it my first project of the season, because it only took me one go to send it cleanly. The send matters less than the lesson: with preparation, willingness, and a clear head things aren’t always so hard as they might seem.

It’s gonna be a good season.

“The only real limits are the ones we create in our own minds.”