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.

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 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 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!

Last year Damien and I attempted Cassiope and Saxifrage in the Duffy Lake area of British Columbia. We ended up turning back while trying to bushwhack through the forest to the “swamp.” Too many hazards and not enough snow coverage. We knew that this year we could expect more snow on the ground so we decided to try again. Damien and I dug a parking spot out at km 10 on Duffy Lake Road and started out on the old logging road following the beta and staying left at the junction. At the end of the road we cut right into the forest, once again heading for the swamp. The extra snow on the ground this year did not make the terrain any less hazardous. The short section of forest is a maze of blow downs, tree wells, dense thicket and moats. I’m not sure it was any less dangerous than last year. I think our risk tolerance is higher.

It took a a good 2 hours to battle our way through this pathetically short, but tedious section to the flat swamp. I lost count of how many times I fell into moats, voids and wells and had to be dragged out by Damien! Luckily, skiing the swamp was straight forward. We took a quick break in which Damien noted a road on the other side of the swamp. It appeared that it would not require a bushwhack to get to and this logging road led back to our car! Wished we’d noticed that sooner or the beta had suggested that route instead!

Never the less, Damien and I continued following the small river through the swamp until it led us away into a small valley. At this point our beta suggested crossing the river (which wouldn’t have been an issue) and traversing the open slope on the opposite side. From the high point on the slope we could enter the trees and continue on to the basin and camp at the lake. As an alternative, in questionable avalanche danger one could stay on the same side of the river and travel up the forested slope to gain the lake. Since it was considerable avy danger that day, Damien and I opted against the open slope and began to ascend the trees.

At first we were easily able to skin through open forest and small open areas, but once the trees grew denser and the angle steepened everything changed. Suddenly the bushwhack down to the swamp seemed like a mere saunter down the PCT. The icy ground beneath the layer of fresh snow forced us to remove our skis and begin boot-packing up. We found ourselves in another maze of blow-downs and as we ascended the powder grew so deep that at times we swam through waist level snow! To top that off, we encountered waterfall ice that required us to carefully negotiate just along side it without crampons on icy or mixed terrain. We kept going hoping it would ease and spurred on by the fact that we had worked so hard to get this far!

However, at 3:30 and still 1,000 feet away Damien and I conceded to the mountains. We did not want to be bumbling around in the sketchy forest in the dark. Damien and I half plunge stepped, half fell down back to the swamp. Switching on our headlamps we crossed the open expanse hoping the road we’d discovered on the map existed.

Luckily, we arrived on the map promised road without incident and without battling terrain! In the darkness Damien and I began the process of setting up our tent and melting water. Only, darkness is perhaps the incorrect word. The nearly full moon shown so magnificently bright that the wilderness around us looked like a black and white picture! Everything was illuminated in full detail under the astoundingly brilliant moonlight! It was 10:00pm, by the time we turned in; definitely later than normal for us in the winter!

Damien and I were packed up and moving down the road  to the car guided by moonlight at 6:30am. We wanted to return to the TH with plenty of time to begin the approach of our new objective. Tszil!

 

Damien and I only had a half day to ski on Christmas since we needed to drive 8 hours pack to The States. We opted for a short tour through the Teddy Bear Trees not too far from the parking lot. Who doesn’t want to ski something with that name?! We did not have a picture of the route or a great description, except for a small line on our map. Luckily, finding the junction off the main track wasn’t difficult. Basically we took a right when we reached the first main gully.

Damien and I followed the track though mostly open slopes with some slide alder for several hundred feet before the trail curved into the forest. The Teddy Bear Trees were supposed to be more left than we were headed, but we assumed the trail would curve back over. It didn’t. Instead, Damien and I ascended aggressive switchbacks through the trees aiming more and more right. Finally we stopped to locate ourselves on the map and discovered we were not in the Teddy Bears Trees, but on the restricted Grizzly Shoulder. With avalanche danger moderate we weren’t too worried about the slopes being bombed. All the same, we did not have a permit to be in the area and we prepared to descend. It was getting late in the morning anyway so we didn’t miss much tour time.

The descent from the shoulder was steep, deep and tight tree skiing. Probably the most difficult I’ve done in my life. But it was my type if fun (type 2)! Damien loved it too and made some impressive turns through the forest. It would have been nice if I didn’t need to be rescued from a tree well, but things happen!

We arrived back down at the main trail and skied back to the visitor center. A great end to a perfect backcountry ski Christmas!

On our third day at Rogers Pass Damien and I decided to leave the well traveled Connaught Drainage and explore the Asulkan. Last year we skied down Glacier Crest via the moraines making for the spiciest ski descent we’ve ever experienced. A mess of cliffs, blue ice, terrain traps and glacial junk to navigate! This time we planned to skin up the moraines and make an attempt to reach Pearly Rock. For some stange reason we just had to visit this maze of a moraine again! Damien and I began our journey in the dark skinning up the well traveled main trail from the Asulkan parking Lot. Temperatures were easily around -11 Fahrenheit,; the coldest it had been on our Rogers Pass trip. My nose hairs frozen instantaneously and I feared my eyeballs might freeze solid if I didn’t blink enough!

Damien and I reached the turnoff for the Great Glacier Trail just as darkness began to fade. We switched off our headlamps and crossed the small bridge. The skin track here hadn’t been used since the last snowfall. We could see the tracks vaguely in the forest enough to follow. However, as the track entered the rocky creek-side marking the beginning of the moraine maze, the track transformed to only a whisper that often vanished at times. The creek-bed was snow/ice covered, but we could hear water flowing beneath it. I did out best to break trail along the side where it was open, but terrain forced us into the trees and first large boulders of the moraines. We found ourselves in a labyrinth of massive rocks, cliffs and voids. High above us we could see the familiar upper moraine field filled with ominous terrain traps. Pearly Rock seemed like and unattainable destination. In addition, Damien observed storm slab issues as be took his turn breaking trail and I observed that iI could no longer feel my fingers and toes!

I experienced my worst bout of frost bite in the moraines. I’ve had ‘frost nip’ before, but the searing pain of frost bite brought me to tears. Damien helped me undo my pack as my fingers were useless. We located my hand warmers and I shoved my hands deep into my mittens. There was nothing I could do for my feet, but with my hands warming up the pain in my lower extremities became more tolerable. Damien and I reconsidered our route choice and decided that in extreme cold, no skin track, sketchy terrain and a possible wind slab issue did not fix into our acceptable risk margin.

Damien and I retraced our steps back to the main skin track and followed it further into the Asulkan Valley. Often this route is called A-slog-in because it is a long and endless approach to reach the towering peaks with epic skiing. It is also mostly flat requiring a skier to put their skins back on after a descent. Most people stay in one of the backcountry huts since the approach is long enough to warrant an overnight stay. We knew we wouldn’t get far with only 4 hours of daylight remaining, but we wanted to see the famous valley for future reference.

The lofty, snow covered peaks, were indeed epic as they reared high above us glowing in the afternoon sun… but only for a moment. Damien and I sat down to bask in the pleasant warmth and in ten minutes the sun dripped behind the mountains casting the valley back into shadows! In the winter this far north the sunshine is short lived indeed!

Damien and I turned around just before entering The Tree Triangle and skinned (or slogged) back to the [parking lot). When we returned to the Roger Pass Discovery Center I finally had the chance to look at me feet. The tips of my toes were purple. Definitely frostbite! I’ll have to be cautious for the rest of the season.

On our second day at Roger Pass in Glacier National Park Canada, Damien and I set our sights on a summit. In January we’d climbed Video Peak in the Ursus area and we’d heard that it was in great shape the day before. However, we also wanted to go for a different summit if possible. Therefore, we decided to go prepared for two options. Our main objective was Ursus Minor, a larger peak with the same approach as Video. However, the ascent would be more in an avalanche prone area and require several meters of class 4 scrambling on the ridge to attain the summit. For this reason we packed crampons and an ice axe. If Ursus Minor conditions looked sketch from Hospital Bowl we could easily change course and climb Video again.

We set our from the Rogers Pass Discovery Center along the main trail, turning right at the first junction to cross the bridge as we had the day before. The route to Hospital Bowl follows the Connaught Drainage. In the open area just before the last band of trees we turned right and followed a side skin track through the forest. There are some steep kick turns on this track, but is is well worn and manageable. In seemed much easier than the skin track we first used to attain Hospital Bowl nearly a year ago. After perhaps 1000 feet of gain the trees begin to open up and the grade becomes gentle gaining the last few hundred feet to the tree line and Hospital Bowl entrance.  Gazing up a Ursus Minor to our right and seeing what appeared to be a gnarly ridge and avalanche debris in the chute next door to the ascent route, we quickly turned our attention to Video Peak.

Damien and I continued up the skin track, ascending gradually up the rolls and bumps of Hospital Bowl in long, sweeping switchbacks. This is perhaps the most time consuming part of climbing Video: ascending the bowl to finally reach the base of the mountain. It is pleasant going through and the views of MacDonald and Sir Donald are incredible to behold, especially as a clear day like the one we experienced. Of course clear means cold, and I wore a light puffy the entire time. It was easily -5 Fahrenheit.

Finally we reached the rock band that marks the base of the Video Peak. Here we followed switchbacks up the right side of the mountain. The track is  exposed and we had our whippets ready. To gain the ridge near the upper rocks we needed to remove our skis and boot about 10 feet straight up. From here we followed the ridge and traversed under the summit to reach the broad slope open slope the other side. Damien and I tried to skin to the top, but the area was skied out and our edges wouldn’t bite. Instead, we carried our skis the final few meters to the top. Summit # 40 for the year!

After taking in the 360 degree views, Damien and I prepared for the descent. We were very excited since this time we wouldn’t have to contend with flat light as we had during our January tour of this mountain. To top it off, the route was about half as skied our as last time! Indeed, Damien and I enjoyed rad turns in deep pow all the way back down to the treeline. Descending Ursus Trees was a bit tricky with all the bumps and obstacles on the route, but we managed to descend back to the main skin track and avoid the crummy gully we ended up skiing down last time.We arrived back at the parking lot just before headlamps would have become necessary. Another epic pow day at Rogers Pass!

 

Damien and I originally planned to backcountry ski in Duffy Lake Providential Park for the long Christmas weekend. However, on Thursday evening when the latest avalanche forecast was released it seemed that the snow pack was not settling as well as originally predicted. We checked the status of some other regions and, drawn by memories of epic powder, Damien and I decided to commit to the 8 hour drive to Glacier National Park Canada.

Damien and first visited the Rogers Pass area of Glacier National Park in BC about a year ago en route to Canmore, Alberta. The park is riddled with impressively large and rugged peaks, vast glaciers and epic powder. It is a ski mountaineering mecca! Unfortunately, camping is very restricted during the winter months in the park, so we would have to resort to camping in our CRV along side some nice sprinter van build-outs. At least we learned from last season and brought 4x as many blankets!

After picking up our overnight parking permit from the Rogers Pass Discovery Center, Damien and I headed out on the main skin track into the Ursus Area. It snowed 5 inches overnight and avalanche danger was considerable above treeline. This suited us well as we didn’t want to take on anything too significant after driving through the night with minimal sleep. We set our sights on a simple tour up Balu Pass with a side trip up the Balu shoulder.

The powder was as perfect as we remembered. Once again I immediately fell in love with how my climbing skins glided over the track like a hot knife through butter. Rogers Pass spoils me and Cascade concrete just cannot compare on the up-track. The clouds cleared above and the sun illuminated the majestic lofty summits the towering above us as we skinned up the Connaught Drainage. The peaks here look Himalayan and I am spellbound every time I journey into the valley.

The route to Balu Pass is straight forward. After less than a kilometer there is a fork in the main trail. Damien and I turned right and crossed a small bridge over the creek. Then we continued on through the valley staying on the main trail throughout. Turning left at this junction is also applicable as this trail ends up linking back up with the one we followed, but it is better suited for a down track in our experience. In any case, the main trail leads all the way to the drainage’s end and up to Balu Pass which is nearly always visible throughout the journey. The skin track is well worn in and easy switchbacks lead easily to the pass after 2611 feet of gain.

The temperature was notably frigid as we skinned through the valley, the the wind that blasted us as we crested the pass knocked the temperature down further well in to negative degrees! We tried to find some shelter in the spruce trees that dotted the ridge, but they seemed to have  funnel effect on the wind making things feel even more arctic! Fortunately, the views of distant white mountains and expansive glaciers made all the cold worth it. I continued to wear my puffy as we followed the skin track up the shoulder in the direction of Balu Peak!

The gusts settled as we climbed the shoulder. I think the pass has a wind tunnel effect. Damien and I continued on until about 1:45pm. We decided that with sunset being at 3:25 this far North we ought to begin our descent. Damien and I ripped off our skins… so nice to actually be able to rip off the skins. In the PNW the saturated snow makes it so “ripping the skins off”  can better be describe as detaching the 2 inches of the skin that is just barely hanging on for dear life.

Goggles and helmets on, Damien and I began our descent. Instead skiing off the shoulder and into the valley directly, she skied back to the pass and then into the valley. This allowed for a longer tour and more fresh turns. There we no down tracks from the pass yet! The pow was thick and deep under our boards. Such a strange texture compared to concrete I’m used to. I’m still learning to ski in fluffy, rocky mountain powder, so my turns are cautious and slow. I love it though! Nothing compares to touring Rogers Pass. When we reached the main trail we followed it down until we reached a turn off on the right. This leads to the trail we had skipped earlier. After crossing the bridge we released our heels for a flat section and then removed our skis altogether and carried them up a small incline.  There the terrain again heads downwards and we skied swiftly back to the Discovery Center. Perfect warm up for the long weekend!