Damien and I were just itching to break out the rope this weekend for a technical ascent. With what appeared to be perfect sunny weekend ahead, we decided to attempt Northeast Buttress Couloir (NBC) on Colchuck Peak. Two weeks ago, when we had driven through Leavenworth, we were shocked at how much snow was just in the town! Perhaps this would mean too much soft, fluffy snow in the couloir? We decided to take a chance. If we got out there and found the snow to be too soft, then we could switch summits/routes. As it turned out, were concerned about the wrong thing!

Driving down Icicle Road, Damien and I were shocked to see how far up the snow line had traveled since 2 weeks ago. We could have gone rock climbing in the canyon! There was heavy rain in the forecast the previous weekend. We didn’t anticipate it causing this much melt though. Parking out car near Eightmile Road, we were relieved to find an icy layer of snow on the dirt road approach. At least we wouldn’t have to carry our skis! With packs weighed down with climbing gear, we began to skin up the closed road toward the TH. Damien and I made the journey up Eightmile Road 7 times last year and we are thoroughly sick of it. We continuous say we’re done skiing up it somehow always end up there anyway.

About .5 miles up, we reached a large bare spot and carried the skis to the next stretch of snow. The following bare spot was much longer and lasted about .25 miles. Last year the road was snow covered into April! Yikes. Under the weight of my skis and climbing gear, my pack felt like hell. About 65 lbs of hell. In addition, my beloved Hyperlite pack is at the repair shop and I was wearing my much less than favorite backpack. Ugh. Regardless, Damien and I trudged up the road in high spirits. We knew the couloir would be solid and soft snow would not be an issue!

Eightmile Road finally terminated at the Stuart Lake Trailhead. I feel as though I know every tree on this trail. We continued onward. Normally all the creeks are covered by massive snow bridges, but we found them all to be flowing wildly and mostly unconcealed. The snow bridges that existed were narrow/ thin and, luckily, stable. The snow continued to be solid and covered with debris. At the Colchuck Lake junction, the steeper trail and increasingly more wretched skinning conditions resulted in a massive slow-down of already sluggish progress. Much to my dismay, I found myself sliding downhill on several occasions. I gave up on skinning and, after muttering a few expletives, carried my skis up for 1.5 miles, only putting them back on .25 miles from the lake. Of course, by then it was dark and my shoulders were exceedingly furious.

Damien and I crossed frozen Colchuck Lake in the silence of the cold, moonless night. Normally covered with at least a foot of snow, the ice was mostly bare, and we found ourselves pondering if ice skates would have been better than skis. We are both exhausted and the traverse across the lake seemed to be in a time warp where we never made progress. Still, it was difficult not to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the moonless night.

Finally, on the other side of the lake, Damien and I set up camp on the edge of the ice on a small section of less frozen snow. At this point Damien discovered that he had neglected his freeze dried dinner but managed to remember this spoon!

Damien and I were up and moving again before daybreak. We originally planned to bring our skis up NBC for a fun descent. However, with the extreme icy conditions we decided to leave them behind. Damien and I ascended to the upper basin above the lake in good crampon conditions  arriving near the base of NBC just as dim light illuminated the route. To our surprise, there was a lack of snow in the couloir with an exposed rock section blocking progress on the route. It wasn’t in.  Damien said there had been more snow when he climbed it in May a few years back!

Although it was tempting to retreat to our cozy sleeping bag at camp, Damien and I opted to switch over to Colchuck Glacier. We decided to climb up to the col for conditioning and perhaps attempt the scramble route of Colchuck if time allowed. I don’t know why ascending to Colchuck Col is always so brutal. I always assumed that my freshly sprained ankle was the reason I recalled it being a rather arduous trudge the last time I climbed the glacier 2 years ago. Behold, it was just as character building on this ascent. Of course, blistered feet and ski boots didn’t help! We reached the Col during late morning and were greeted by a perfect view of Mount Rainier. It was too late to climb the scramble route up Colchuck so we descended feeling at least like we managed to make it up to a destination and got in some conditioning.

We descended back to the lake camp in a quarter of the time it took to ascend. I wanted to nap for at least four hours, but I had to settle for 20 minutes. Damien and I packed up camp and began our journey back across the ice, dreading the descent to the car. We carried our skis for the first 3 miles of trail because it was too steep and icy to feel safe skiing. To my already battered body 65lbs felt like cruel and unusual punishment. After crossing the 2nd bridge we switched back to skis. Damien removed his skins, but I did not. I didn’t trust myself at my level of fatigue to turn with accuracy through the trees on ice. Once on the road though I ripped off the skins and switched to ski mode. It was another moonless night as we skidded down the ice skating rink of a road, carrying our skis for the uphill and bare sections. We arrived back at the car thoroughly frayed at 7:45pm. Exhausted, starving and happy to have experienced another sufferfest!

 

Note: Northeast Couloir on Colchuck and Triple Couloirs & Gib’s Sink on Dragontail are also exceedingly thin.

With high avalanche danger, Damien and I thought it would be a great weekend to do our annual xc ski around Goat Peak in Mazama. This 28ish mile loop has little to no avalanche danger and required a 5 hour drive. Thus, we were in the car at 2:30am Saturday morning. We saw before leaving that avalanche control was in progress at Stevens Pass. It started at 2am and was expected to take 30-120 minutes. Damien and I figured it would be wrapping up by the time we arrived. This was a very incorrect assumption. We waited for the road to re-open for 2.5 hours! In addition, once we continued on our merry way we could not travel more than 45 mph for the rest of the journey due to a snow-covered and very slick roadway! By the time we arrived at the Goat Creek Sno-park it was 11:30pm. We’d spent 9 hours driving! Needless to say we were behind schedule!

Damien and I still hoped to push through and make it to the high point of the loop, which is the Goat Peak TH, at 5600 feet (only accessible by snowmobile and foot in winter). It is roughly 12 miles into the loop with 3700 ft of total gain. We were certain making this camp would mean skiing well after dark.

As expected the trail was broken in by snowmoblies earlier that day. However, traffic was low and the heavy snow swiftly concealed the tracks. For the most part we found ourselves breaking through a fresh layer of snow. It didn’t cause much of a hindrance though. The only issue we contended with was when I discovered that the car keys were no longer in my pocket! The inside zipper of my jacket was open. The only time I had removed it was to take off some layers, which was naturally 2 hours prior. We descended back to the spot in 30 minutes and located the keys buried in the snow. But now we had to re-climb the trail setting us back an additional 2.5 hours.

We knew that we could make it to our alternate camp at the Overlook at around 4,400 feet if we pushed into the night. From there the loop was still possible in a long day. Damien and I pushed onward through the fatigue that plagued us as the sun set. Sleep deprived the miles dragged by in slow motion. Finally, at 7:30 under bright moonlight and a clearing sky we reached the “overlook” camp.

Gleefully, but groggily, Damien and I began the process of setting up our home for the night. Pleasantly, the heavy snowfall wavered making setting up the tent less tedious as stars twinkled above. We knew this was only a temporary lapse in the precipitation. More snow was expected. With barely enough energy to hold our spoons, we finished dinner and turned in for the night with the lights of Mazama homes far below us in the valley.

Only .4 inches of snow was expected to fall overnight. The next morning we found 3 inches and heavy flakes still pouring out of the sky. Following a discussion, Damien and I decided not to complete the loop. We did not know if the back side of Goat Peak was groomed by snowmobiles. Normally this would not be an issue if we were starting from the higher camp, but additional uphill mileage and the unknown conditions caused concern. Also, Damien expressed some hesitation with the high avalanche danger since even more snow than antispated.  Instead, we opted to ski to the high point at Goat Peak TH, and then descend the way we’d come.

From the overlook camp the trail continues upward for about 1.5 miles and then drops 300 or so feet. This is a nice break, but also a reminder or the extra elevation you have to regain. Two snowmobilers with AT skis passed us. We saw their skin track and parked snowmobiles a bit further down the trail. Damien and I were surprised folks were skiing in the high avalanche conditions.

The final switchbacks up to the high point are the steepest section of the trek and the snow covered road seemed rather endless. The snow was also deeper here both from being untouched and from the deep wind drifts. After a brief break at the trailhead Damien and I skied back down. Even with the uphill section it took only 2.75 hours to ski the 12 miles back to the Goat Creek Snopark. Such a difference from uphill!

 

 

Upper Greensleeves is in no way related to Lower Greensleeves. They are two unattached flows. I guess thinking of a totally new name was too much effort! In any case, Damien and I decided to check out Upper Greensleeves. It is known to be a wet climb. With all the sunshine we’d been having coupled with temps in the 40’s there was a chance the ice would be completely saturated. Still. we wanted to check it out. From the base of G1 we followed the trail left passing Lower Greensleeves. The trail climbs steeply upward. Some trails branch out and converge, but in the end I’m almost certain all tracks lead to the base of Hangover. From hangover, we continued to traverse left until reaching the bottom of Upper Greensleeves.

The first pitch is several short tiers of W2 and steep snow. From a distance it looked like it could easily be soloed, but when I got up close I changed by mind and asked for the rope! The pitch is wide with many route options. I did my best to stay on the best looking ice. The pitch felt very alpine with the snow and ice mixture in the gully and the winds howling all around us. In fact, there were 80mph winds on the surrounding summits that day!

I belayed Damien from a tree at the base of the W3 pitch. As predicted, there was a liquid waterfall flowing over the frozen waterfall. I made several attempts to climb up the first W3 tier. Most swings, no mater where I placed the pick, resulted in the ice turning bright white. But I also could not clean the dinner plating no many how many time I swung.. It stayed put. I was nervous that the ice would dinner plate once under my full weight. Questionable ice and that fact that I looked like I’d been standing in the rain for an hour from the dripping ice made us decide to skip the second pitch. We barely made it down with one rappel from the tree with a 60m rope. There were other intermittent rap trees so we could have done 2 raps. Certainly a fun route, but do the second pitch on a colder day!

 

Damien and I were enthusiastic to attempt Mount Blackmore after our successful ski ascent of Hyalite Peak two days earlier. We came prepared with crampons and ice axes as the guidebook described the final few hundred feet to be technical in nature with some scramble gear required. This backcountry ski route is a classic and we expected it to have a clear skin track to the summit. However, we decided to depart before dawn just in case we did need to break trail. The route begins at the West Shore TH on Hyalite Reservoir. We got a bit confused as there were several trails taking off in different directions from the parking lot. Damien and I tried following the signs to Blackmore and ended up in maze of XC ski trails. Luckily, using our GPS we were able to navigate the maze and ended up on the correct track to Blackmore. The more direct route would have been to take the left most track at the TH and cross the bridge. I don’t think the roundabout we took costed us more then 15 minutes.

The skin trail through the forest was well packed down and obviously sees a lot of traffic. However, this was a Wednesday so only one party passed us. The trail gradually gains elevation though the valley in a series of long switchbacks and then the track plummets steeply to Blackmore Lake! I hate losing elevation on approaches! From the lake we continued along the left shore and up into the trees; once again gaining elevation. Eventually we reached a headwall and followed the trail to the right switchbacking through some trees until breaking out into the tree line and open slopes. Here we were granted out first view of Mount Blackmore. With a large face and intriguing open slopes, it looked like a phenomenal ski. Of course, we needed to climb it first.

Damien and I skinned through the trees heading upward to the far-right shoulder. As we ascended the track we watched the party ahead of us descend from the near the summit with a black dog bounded gleefully behind them. The little black dot bobbing up and down in the track was rather hilarious! There was a bit of sluffing near the summit as they descended, but nothing to cause alarm. High winds blew over the left shoulder causing snow to pour down the slopes. It almost looked like nearly continuous avalanche action, but this was not our route down and in a contained area. There were some cliffs on the descent route though and we made a mental note of their whereabouts.

Once reaching the ridge-line, we easily followed a skin track (exposed at times) until we were about 200 feet below the summit and incline began to get steep. Here we strapped our skis to our packs and continued up on foot, following a well beat in boot track to the summit. No ice axe or crampons needed. Hyalite Peak had been much more technical a summit by comparison.

Blasted by high winds  of 30-40 mph on the summit, Damien and I enjoyed outstanding views of the Gallatin Range. We didn’t linger long with the harsh conditions and quickly ripped off our climbing skis. Since Damien’s boot malfunction on Hyalite Peak, he had acquired a new pair of Scarpa Mastrele RS boots and was excited to see how they performed on the downhill. I have a pair myself and love them.

We eagerly departed the summit anticipating some fun turns and were not disappointed! Damien and I trended slightly skier’s left and bombed down the mostly un-tracked powder (most people descend off the shoulder far left it seemed). The snow was in marvelous condition! Soft, smooth powder that felt like silk underfoot and was a delight to turn in. I think this was my best ski descent to date. It even included a fun half pipe between to cliff bands! Damien was in great form too and was positively thrilled by his Scarpas.

Damien and I reached the trees and descended near the skin track until reaching Blackmore Lake. From lake we had to pack our skis and walk up the hill about 200 or so feet. Back in skis we bombed flew the to down the toboggan style skin track back to the car. Such an amazing and fun ski ascent/descent. I can see why its popular!

 

Elevation gain: 3422

About 11 Miles RT

Damien and I headed up to explore the Mummy Cooler Area mid-week. The trail leads up from just right of the Amphitheater Area near Fat Chance. Several trails seem to branch out from from the main one after gaining a few hundred feet. We kept trending right as all the climbs in the area are in  line along the same cliff. Finally, Damien and I ended up at the base of Matrix which is fatter than usual this year and going at about W4+. We turned right and followed the trail to its termination at Feeding The Cat W3+. A lot of folks were talking about this climb and we wanted to check it out for ourselves. It’s short, sweet and steep. From the bottom it looks like the upper portion is the most technical part. I felt uneasy about leading this one so Damien took the sharp end.

It turned out that the bottom 2qw steeper than it looked! The ice wasn’t in the greatest condition either; really wet and somewhat brittle. Damien asked me to finish the lead for him once he got to the top of the first tier. I climbed up the route, but felt too psyched out to finish the lead. The nature of the ice was freaking me out too. Last time I led on sub-optimal ice I took a lead fall and it still haunts me. We decided to bail on a screw.

Damien later found out that he’d led the crux! The top of the climb appeared worst from the bottom which was a big reason we bailed. However, it was the first tier that was actually the hardest part. Looks can be deceiving indeed. We will be back!

Feeding the Cat

Damien and I were excited to explore Hyalite Canyon beyond ice climbing and venture further into the backcountry. We chose to start our exploration with a backcountry ski ascent of Hyalite Peak. It was listed as a Bozeman area classic with medium traffic. The most famous summit in the canyon to ski is Mount Blackmore. However, the book mentioned that the final ascent of Blackmore was a technical scramble with ice axe and crampons needed. We thought that it was best to start with Hyalite to get a feel for the area first since it didn’t involve gear beyond skis. In the end we discovered that Hyalite was the more technical peak of the two!

Damien and I began our day in the early morning, just before sunrise at the Grotto Falls Trailhead (the end of the road). There is a wonderfully packed down track here used by both climbers and skier’s alike. We continued up the trail through forest making sure to remain on the Hyalite Creek Trail with each junction. The 3-4-mile trail through the forest to the head of the valley seems endless and elevation gain is barely noticeable.

At Shower Falls the track abruptly begins to gain elevation in earnest with steep switchbacks leading up to the tree-line. As the trees parted a large rock buttress came into view. We paused to examine our map. We could not assume that the skin tracks indeed went to Hyalite Peak and felt that it would be wise to double check. As it turned out, the route to Hyalite Peak circled around the left side of the buttress. However, the skin track went right. It a good thing we checked!

Damien and I parted from the well-established track and began to break our own trail. We circled around the buttress to a basin with frozen Hyalite Lake. Here we received our first distant view of an intimidating looking Hyalite Peak. The slopes seemed complex, but we continued to switchback upward generally aiming to the right of the summit until topping out at the lower saddle above Hyalite Lake. Ahead of us was a massive snow field and steep slopes leading to the upper saddle. The upper saddle was guarded by what appeared to be a cornice and we could see sluffing mostly on the left side. We decided to traverse on the right slope upward to avoid the possible avalanche danger and, hopefully, find a way to navigate the cornice.

The saddle appears much further away than it is which was a wonderful surprise. Damien and I traversed the slope which was icy in places but for the most part easy to skin. Near the saddle we encountered windblown talus and removed our skis. To avoid the cornice, we climbed up the talus to the ridge-line about 50 feet above the low point of the saddle where the cornice ended. Here were kicked steep steps up to the ridge and then descended to the wind-blown saddle at about 10,000 feet.

Damien and I left our skis at the saddle and climbed the remaining 300 feet on foot. The broad ridge was strewn with exposed rocks. The final ascent of 300 feet took about 20 minutes. I never experienced attitude issues below 13,000 feet before, but for some reason on Hyalite Peak the thin air made everything take 3x as much energy.

The summit was windy, large and marked by a large carin. Views of the snow caped Gallatin Range abounded in all directions and it occurred to me that this was my first Montana summit. I could not have asked for a more perfect winter ski ascent! The climb was more difficult and rugged than we anticipated, but the rewards are always worth it. Of course, we still had one more obstacle to overcome.

Damien and I returned to our skis (which took 5 minutes) and prepared for the ski descent. I am always amazed at how much better skins stick in powder. In the Northwest the skins are barely hanging on for dear life and nearly fall off as you remove them. In the Rockies you need to actually rip the skins off the boards!

Damien and I broke through a shallow part of the cornice and side hilled down the left side of the slope just below our skin track. The snow had a crust on it making turns awkward. As we reentered the basin near the lower saddle Damien suddenly plunged into the snow. Damien never falls, and I stopped immediately.

Damien’s gear malfunctioned. The pin that holds his boot in ski mode had popped out! Suddenly in walk mode he lost control of the ski and went down. Damien wears La Sportiva Spitfires. They are light weight boots and comfortable, but we’ve noticed that they are on the delicate side and can’t take a beating in the mountains. Some of the straps were already coming apart and one sole is tattered. However, none of this mattered. The most important issue here was that the boot is already not stiff. Skiing down in walk mode was not going to happen without some adjustments.

In frustration, Damien removed his ski and to get a better look at his boot. Naturally the ski eagerly began an independent journey down the slope. Our breaks don’t always automatically engage since the board is so wide. I charged after it. Luckily, it torpedoed into the snow about 300 yards down. Damien now faced the task of descending to the runaway ski. It was quite the sight! He skateboarded down on a signal ski, plunging into the snow every few feet. However, he fell impressively few times all things considered.

Damien resolved his boot issue by tightening every buckle on his boot and adding a ski strap to provide additional support. The fix worked, and I couldn’t see a difference in Damien’s ski performance. He informed me, however, that he was only weighting his good boot and the other foot was being used for balance only. Impressive!

We generally followed our skin trail back to the parking lot with fun tree skiing and a fast ride in the valley on the heavily traveled skin track. It wasn’t the most amazing ski descent, but it was an excellent mountaineering adventure…. and an excuse for Damien to replace his boots with a more robust model: Scarpa Mastrale RS.

Elevation gain:3449 ft

12 miles RT

 

 

Damien and I decided to venture over to The Amphitheater Area on our second day. On Damien’s first trip to Hyalite Canyon about 6 years ago, he and some friends had hired a guide. One of the climbs they did was Fat Chance. On our last trip to Hyalite, Damien and I had looked at this flow and deemed it too difficult for us to lead. It was time to return once again. This time things were different.

We waited a bit to get on the route since it was Sunday at the canyon and crowded as usual. The team before us went up the steep center section of the falls. When it was Damien’s lead he decided to angle more left of the main flow. He thought this route would be a bit easier than the intimating steep face. However, upon following Damien and then doing some laps on the center on the face as well, I think he ended up taking the more difficult way up! The center was steep and long, but extremely picked out making is a very easy climb. The left side, on the other hand, was nearly untouched and, though shorter, featured a steeper angle and more awkward moves! Damien crushed it!

Fat Chance is certainly a great route, but it does draw crowds. Get there early. It is easy to top rope and rappel from tree anchors.

Damien and I were excited to return to Hyalite this winter. Two seasons ago during out visit ,we’d spent our time perfecting technique and doing laps in the top roping area: G1. This year we hoped to tag some classic lead routes in the canyon. Our first stop was a noteable combo: Lower Greensleeves to Hangover.

Lower Greensleeves to easy to find. Upon reaching the popular G1 area continue left along the trail. In a few feet there is a small W2 flow (Willow Gully). A few yards later there is a larger and taller flow. This is Lower Greensleeves. It is rated W3, but many agree that it is really a tall W2 route. It’s a great warm up climb to get in the swing of things (literally) and a confidence builder. Damien easily led up the climb and belayed me up after him to a tree anchor. We stuffed the rope and screws into our packs and continued upward.

We followed a trail left from the top of Lower Greensleeves for several yards. Several trails branch off here and there. We stayed on the main one. It seems that all other trails eventually converged back together leading steeply upward and depositing us at the base of Hangover. Luckily there was only one team ahead of us and they moved swiftly up the climb taking the right variation. Damien and I opted to climb the traditional left variation.

It was my lead so I geared up and began to swing my nomics. I chose to stay in the far right corner of the falls near the rock. This seemed like the easiest way up, but in the end there were some awkward stemming moves in the ice chimney and then some technical and exposed moves to leave the chimney and get onto the open face of the flow. So much for taking the east way out!

There were several different belay anchors all on trees when I topped out of the tier. I continued up W1/2 ice and snow to the highest tree near the base of the 2nd tier before belaying Damien up. For the second pitch I stayed far right on ripply and dripping ice to an upper belay tree. It’s best to set up a top rope rather than belay from above since the tree is hanging over the falls. It is two rappels from trees to the base.

Damien and I returned to this route a few days later. This time Damien led up the center of the first pitch. It felt more exposed, but was not awkward. I led the second pitch again, but this time going through the center of the flow. From a distance it looks tame, but up close the ice reared upward and is very vertical. Luckily I got through the exposed moves amd completed my steepest pitch to date!

 

 

Damien and I were feeling a bit drained from driving the long commute back and forth to Canada for the past few weekends. Although the avalanche danger seemed decent in Duffy Lake, we opted this weekend to take a “rest” and go for a more local objective. After some discussion we settled on an enchainment of Granite Mountain, Tusk O’Granite (aka West Granite) and Pratt Mountain. There is very little ski beta for Granite and no ski information on the other two peaks, let alone a ski enchainment. However, all the summits are winter scrambles, how difficult could it be in skis? Ah famous last words.

We expected cloudy skies on Saturday morning and a few raindrops here and there. However, when we pulled into the Pratt Lake TH parking lot the pitter patter of water on the sunroof was rather consistent. Armed with full Gore-Tex coverage, Damien and I shouldered our packs weighed down by out skis and began up the well-used trail. We expected to reach the snow line within the first mile as we had in Dec 2016. However, instead of snow, we found dirt gleefully decorated with long sheets of ice. Dancing around on slippery ground while lugging skis with no traction resulted in some very fancy footwork.

Damien and I were unable to convert to skinning until about 4300 feet, just above the tree line. By then I felt fatigued from the long journey uphill carting my skis and, on top of that, wearing new boots. In whiteout, stormy conditions Damien and I pressed upward, following a recent snowshoe track that was already getting concealed by the powerful winds. Following the East Ridge, Damien and I summited Granite Mountain mid-afternoon. After admiring a marvelous, close up view of the clouds we began to contemplate our descent to the saddle.

We continued along the windblown ridge, digging our edges into the icy slope. The gentle ridge, dropped off aggressively after several meters. Again, Damien and I strapped our skis to our packs. We faced inward to the slope, using our whippets to slowly descend the steep, icy slope and navigate through some protruding rocks. We even saw blue ice in places!

Once again on soft snow near the low point of the saddle back in the trees, Damien and I put our skis back on and searched for a suitable campsite. We found a small flat area, protected from the fierce winds. For good measure we dug a giant hole for the tent and constructed a fort. We had a three-season tent with us this trip and, thus, didn’t want to take any chances.

Damien and I had a difficult time emerging from the tent the next morning. It’s always a taxing event to get out of your sleeping bag in the winter when you’re so warm and cozy! Eventually, we scampered out of the tent to have breakfast and pack up our home. Due our unhurried pace, we weren’t in our skis until 8:50am, but there was no need to rush.

Damien and I continued along the saddle until it slowly began to rear upward toward the summit of Tusk O’Granite. To our delight, we were able to keep our skis on for the ascent and encountered no ice on the open slopes just before the top. Again, we were granted with mostly a closeup look of the clouds on the summit, but this time we could also see the faded outline of nearby peaks like Katleen and the ridge of Granite Mountain. We descend a few yards down the other side before ripped our skins off in the shelter a small stand of evergreens. Finally, it was time for some turns. The snow was extremely stable and, although it was not powder, it skied well. In fact, Damien and I experienced some very enjoyable turns through open trees and then down a steep, open slope leading to the saddle between Pratt and Tusk O’Granite. I was super stoked with my new ski boots and the stiffness gave me confidence in my turns. Maybe too confident as I crossed my skis on the black diamond hill and took a long, high speed fall somehow missing every protruding rock in my path. My whippet wouldn’t bite, but I managed to stop myself with my ski. After that I was a bit less bold!

We continued down until we reaching the stamped out trail above Olallie Lake on the saddle at 4200 feet. Damien and I took our skis off here. Even though there was snow at this elevation it was extremely hard and iced out. Instead we adhered our climbing skins back to our skis and strapped them to our packs. It was a simple, mostly flat walk along the well-traveled trail to the base of the ridge leading to Pratt. It appeared that the winter scramble route had seen lots of visitation lately good boot pack led right up the ridge. We followed the first few hundred feet in our boots, but converted to skis when we felt the terrain would allow for descent skinning. We had to carry them a few times to get over extremely steep areas near boulders and dense trees just before the tree line. However, once the trees parted Damien and I had a wonderful, easy skin up a gradual incline to the summit. Another view of clouds!

The ski descent from Pratt back to the trail was once again excellent, but short-lived. Once we entered the forest and tried to ski the trail things got a bit spicy with icy snow, steep terrain and dense trees. Basically, it was survival skiing and once again the skis came back off. Luckily, the terrain mellowed out once we returned to the saddle and were able to ski a bit more before we hit a series of creeks forcing us to shoulder our boards again. They stayed on backs for the rest of our long, five mile march out.

There is a reason no one does this enchainment by ski. I don’t think many folks are willing to spend so much time carting their skis on their back! We thought it was fun though… maybe type 2 fun, but we like that kind!

After having to bail on Cassiope & Saxifrage, Damien and I ventured back out into the wilderness on our quest to summit a Duffy Lake Rd. peak on New Year’s Day. After we returned to the car from our attempt of Cassiope/Saxifrage, we drove 3km down the road and parked at the Joffre Lakes Trailhead. Our plan was to complete the approach for Tszil Mountain. Then we would set up camp and continue as far as we could up the mountain to get a lay of the land and, perhaps, break trail if need be. On New Year Day we would wake early for a summit bid.

Damien and I departed the parking lot at 9:00am. After bushwhacking and battling the day before, having a well-traveled trail to skin on felt like quite the luxury! The sign at the trailhead claims that it is 3km to the edge of Upper Joffre Lake and our book described it as a gentle stroll through the valley. It does not mention that all 1300 feet of gain is done more or less in only 1.5km! In other words, the track was aggressively steep in many sections. Still, it was comparably tame related to the day before, and Damien and I were distracted by the excellent views.

In late morning, Damien and I reached the edge of Upper Joffre Lake in the shadow of massive Joffre Peak and it’s many hanging glaciers. The blue ice of the seracs beckoned and I wished there was a safe way to climb them! Instead, we continued on crossing the frozen lake aiming for the continuation of the valley and Tszil Mountain which could be see at the far end alongside Taylor.

On the other side of the lake, Damien and I touched land again, but found that the track did not continue into the valley to the mountain. We began breaking track through a talus field to a large bench above the lake. We opted to set up camp here using some boulders as shelter. As were we preparing to continue our exploration and telemark skier appeared from behind the boulder. He inquired as to if there was where the track ended which we verified. He said that he was heading for the saddle between Tszil and Taylor and sped off. Damien and I could not believe how swiftly he broke trail!

With lighter packs Damien and I continued down the valley, grateful for the telemark skier’s skin track. Although we were going to a different saddle (between Tszil & Slolak), we were happy to save some energy on the final approach to the base.

The valley gently ascends with rolling bumps to an upper, open bowl. Here the bumps increase in angle. At the end of the valley is the slope leading to the saddle between Tszil and Taylor. We would need to turn left to ascend the glacier on the left side of Tszil. From a distance the slope to the saddle looked violently steep and it seemed that in order to access the summit slope we would need to cross a sketchy, exposed ramp. Damien and I hoped it was an illusion and just the angle we were looked at the mountain from that made it appear intimidating. Indeed, once directly under the saddle at the bottom of the moraine pile, we could see that the slope was a series of gentle humps and not a straight up shot. Damien and I left the telemark track and began to break trail up Tszil. After 48 minutes we reached the toe of the glacier. It was 3:00pm and we opted to call it for the day. In the morning we would only have 900 more feet of track to break.

Damien and I ripped off our skins. The slope was pristine with only our own skin track to mark it. Fresh pow! The ride down to camp was by far the best backcountry ski run we’d ever experienced in our lives. Soft powder that wasn’t too deep over a firm base. The best of both worlds! We were stoked to top out and do the full ski run the next morning!

 

Damien and I started off from camp at 7:00am by headlamp the next morning, the first day of 2018. In two hours we reached our high point at the toe of the glacier from the previous day. Damien and stepped onto the glacier and began to break track once again. White clouds hung low in the sky as we ascended, and we wondered if they would burn off in time for our descent. Skiing in flat light is never fun. Luckily, as we continued up a tiny patch of blue appeared on the horizon and it slowly expanded!

Damien rounded the glacier trending left, away from the steepest of the slopes keeping them track free and also avoiding prolonged exposure to some cornices hanging off of neighboring Slalok Mountain. As we ascended we could see that the sketch ramp that appeared to lead to the summit from the base was worse that it appeared, but also not the way to the top. From the ground you cannot see the true summit, nor can you see the wide-open slopes that lead to the summit dome! It looked fantastic!

Damien and I paused for a bit at the saddle to eat and put on some layers as the winds were picking up at this attitude. Then I broke trail up through the gentle, boulder slopes to the ridge of the summit dome on the far right. From here it was a simple, straight ascent up the snow slope to the wide open and flat summit.

Our first 2018 summit! Damien and I felt that we’d started the year off appropriately! After taking some time to admire the 360-degree views, Damien and I ripped off our skins and prepared to descend. This was our first time skiing down an untracked mountain and our first time skiing on the glacier. I hope we do this more often. It was epic with snow conditions just as pristine as the day before! Damien and I didn’t want to journey down to end we and were tempted to skin back to the summit! Unfortunately, it was time to return to camp and then to The States.

The ski down Joffre Lakes Trail resembled skiing down a steep and narrow toboggan. I don’t think I have ever used the “pizza” stop so much in my life! Somehow it was also enjoyable, and we reached the the car with huge smiles and on the massive high from the weekend adventure. Bring on the 2018 escapades!