This is the tale of my recent elk hunting trip to the Uintas. Spoiler alert! I did not get an elk. This story does not have a happy ending. There will be no delicious elk bourguignon; no bacon wrapped elk tenderloin; no elk burgers; no elk stew. I am a bad hunter. If I were living in a hunter-gatherer society, I would be of the lowest status. My tribal name would be, Uwangalaama, which, roughly translated means, “He whom the elk mock.”
Nevertheless, even though I am a failure as a hunter, I had a lot of fun. I started out heading up to the high Uintas, following an abandoned ATV trail in my 80 Series Landcruiser, bumping over large boulders, deep washed out gullies, and heavy mud; crashing over the occasional downed tree, marveling at the total bad-assery of Toyota’s last great off-road vehicle, manufactured in the days when Landcruisers were not designed for going to the mall.
When I drove far enough down the track that I would be pretty much impossible to rescue if I got stuck, I stopped and set out hunting. I headed toward a spot that I had scouted out several weeks ago and had seen elk. After several hours of hiking, I found a tree which an elk had used to rub his antlers on. It was a fresh rub, and the bark was still moist and the gash was just starting to weep sticky resin. From here, I followed the elk’s tracks through the forest, encountering some very recent elk droppings.
Eventually, I heard sounds of the elk in the thick forest. I dropped my pack, and began creeping up on the elk, trying hard not to make any sound. I was feeling very Natty Bumpo, and was stoked that I was about to bag an elk my first day of the hunt. However, there were so many downed trees, it was like playing Jenga on a mound of Pick up Sticks. I was about 30 yards away when I snapped a big twig. The elk (a little spike antlered bull) popped his head up and took off. There was no way to get a shot off. The thick timber was a curtain that did not allow a clear shot, even at 30 yards.
Not wanting to let this elk that I had tracked down escape, I followed him. Trailing was initially quite easy, as he was moving fast, breaking branches and leaving deep tracks in the dirt. Eventually, however, I lost the track. Worse, I realized that I had no idea where I had left my pack. I headed back in the direction I thought my pack was, and soon was not entirely sure where I was in relation to my pack or my vehicle. It’s just a big, thick forest, and all the trees look pretty much the same, and there are no landmarks. So, I did what I always do when I get disoriented (note, “disoriented” not “lost.”) I used the expanding spiral. I didn’t find my pack, but I came across the elk tracks and my tracks. By back-tracking I was finally able to make it back to my pack. This was good, because I didn’t have the gear on me to spend a comfortable night out.
I collected my pack, breathed a sigh of relief, and set out to track the elk again. It took me a while, but eventually I picked up what I thought was his trail. I followed it for a while, and again heard sounds of an elk ahead. This time, I marked my pack’s location with my gps on my watch, and this time, I moved so slowly that I would not make any noise at all. I slithered towards the elk like the Grinch stealing presents on Christmas Eve. However, when I was no more than 20 yards away, the wind shifted, blowing my scent toward the elk. I felt it shift, and a few seconds later, the elk popped his head up and took off. I tried to get a clear shot, but as before, the dense timber would not allow it. I did see that it was a different elk than the first one.
After that, I hunted a bit more, and finally settled in to a spot by a small pond, where I would spend the night. The pond had lots of recent elk sign around it, and two intersecting game trails. However, no elk appeared. I decided to forgo a tent and sleep out under the stars because the weather was beautiful and looked likely to remain so. Howling wolves later on made me question that decision, but while they woke me periodically with their howling, they did not come near or gnaw on me in the night.
The next day, I saw no elk. I followed fresh sign, and fresh tracks, but didn’t see any actual animals.
I decided to hike over a big ridge into the next drainage. It was even further from any road or trail, and I figured there might be elk there that had not been scared by hunters. On a steep descent down into the valley, I blundered into another elk. He was a big, fully grown trophy elk. (Bigger than I wanted to pack out, really.) He was there for about 2 seconds, and then he disappeared into the thick timber before I could even get my gun to my shoulder.
The next couple of days were frustrating. I tried to find places where the elk would be in the open, but while I saw recent elk sign in the meadows and clearings, I saw no elk. Generally, elk hunker down in deep timber during mid day, and are mobile and active in the morning and evening. That’s when they go out into the meadows and clearings and do elky things like browse on green grass and lichen and socialize, etc. However, we had a really bright, almost full moon. It was lighter at 3:00 a.m. than it was at twilight because of the moon. Because of this, the elk didn’t need to move around in the morning or evening. They could hunker down until late night, and then come out and frolic in the moonlight.
I put this theory to the test one night when I couldn’t sleep. I got up at 2 in the morning, and crept to a large meadow near where I was camping. Sure enough, there were four elk in the meadow, and possibly more in the dark timber surrounding it. The moon was so bright that I could see them clearly, and could have had an easy 120 meter shot. However, legal hunting time ends a half hour after sundown, no matter how bright the moon. Inexplicably, I brought my (useless) rifle with me to this late night elk soiree, but neglected to bring my camera, so I was not able to capture any images of these ghostly elk.
My last night in the woods, the beautiful weather took a turn for the worse. It began to rain heavily, and the wind picked up too. I set up my tent in the middle of a meadow to lessen my chances of a dead tree falling on me. In the night, I was visited by an unknown animal. It woke me up with loud wheezing panting right next to my tent. Not knowing what else to do, I growled loudly at it, figuring that a loud growl was the universal animal language for “I’m sleeping. Go away.” The heavy breather mystery beast apparently got the message and left me in peace.
I woke up this morning to snowfall, and hiked out in snow, which made the forest magical. Hunting is unlike any other outdoor activity that I do. When hunting, you move very slowly and are so focused on your surroundings, you see everything around you. You notice little things that you would likely just pass by if you were just out hiking. I saw a cougar den, interesting rocks and trees, lots of animal sign, and even a few elk. Although I didn’t fill our freezer full of elk meat, it was still a terrific experience. I spent five days alone in beautiful, rugged, remote country. I didn’t see another human being that entire time. I didn’t have phone, email, or internet. I’m already looking forward to next year.
In 2014, I had a trip to Alaska planned, to climb the Ham & Eggs route on the Moose’s Tooth. However, icefall closed down the glacier landing access, and the trip got cancelled.
I scheduled another trip to Moose’s Tooth for May of 2015, and kept my fingers crossed, hoping for good conditions.
The trip was a guided trip, through Skyward Mountaineering, the guide service owned by Steve House and Vince Anderson. The participants were me, another client named Joe, and our guide, Buster.
The three of us met May 4th at the airport in Anchorage. We rented a car, bought a bunch of food, then drove to Talkeetna.
Talkeetna is a small tourist town that owes its existence mostly to the fact that it’s the jumping off point for Denali and other mountains in the Alaska Range. It’s home to several air services that fly planes into the mountains, including our service, Talkeetna Air Taxi.
We spent the night at the Talkeetna Air Taxi bunkhouse, and then packed up and went to the Talkeetna Air Taxi office at the airport, where we loaded up our stuff into a beautiful 1950’s vintage Dehaviland Beaver and flew to the Root Canal Glacier at the foot of the Moose’s Tooth. As the prize for winning an epic game of Paper Scissors Rock, I won the opportunity to sit in the front seat next to the pilot.
The flight was amazing. Once we got over the Alaska Range, the scenery was breathtaking in every direction. I was a little bit nervous about the glacier landing, but it turned out to be more smooth than most landings on a runway.
We emptied our stuff out of the plane, and a group of folks who had been on the glacier traded places with us and the plane whisked them away, lifting off of the glacier in what seemed to be a very very short distance.
We set up camp, ate dinner, and prepared for the climb. The weather window looked good for the next day, so we planned on waking up at 4:00 and heading out to climb the route.
It never really got very dark that night, but I slept pretty well anyway. We woke at 4, and left camp at 5. We short roped up the initial snow sections, and then began pitching it out beginning with a mixed section that was mostly rock. The climbing was fun here, scratching up granite with ice tools and crampons, occasionally using gloved hands to grasp rock features. After the mixed section, we traversed down and right and established ourselves in the main couloir.
The climbing from here on out was a relatively straightforward mix of neve and water ice of varying steepness. There were a number of bulging sections of steep ice that presented a good challenge, particularly for Buster who was leading them, because the steeper sections of the ice tended to be somewhat aerated and rotten. In a couple of spots I worried that if he fell, the screws might not hold his fall. However, he pretty much crushed everything, cruising up the steep ice in a fluid, controlled style.
Lots of spindrift mixed with ice poured down on us as we climbed. We pulled our hoods up over our helmets to keep our jackets from filling up with snow. On several occasions, I would pull up over a lip, and get a steady stream of snow and debris in my face. In spite of the perfect weather, the spindrift gave the climb an alpine feel.
We were making good time, and had reached 9000 feet, having passed the two crux sections, when I got hit by falling ice. Joe was belaying, and I was just hanging out and relaxing when I got whacked. The ice glanced off my helmet and impacted my neck and upper shoulder. I blacked out for just a moment, and my whole body felt like it was being poked with pins or electricity. Joe asked me if I was OK, and I told him that I didn’t think I was OK. I was dizzy, and was having a hard time moving my neck. I could turn it to the right and look down, but looking up or turning it to the left hurt a lot. I was having trouble with my left arm too, and couldn’t use it very well. I felt like I was on the deck of a moving ship, and things around me seemed to be moving up and down a bit.
After a short while, Buster rappelled down to check on my condition, and by the time he got there, I was nauseous. I kept retching and dry heaving, but my stomach was pretty empty and I didn’t have anything to throw up. I took a sip of water. (And later found out that I had put my water bottle back in my pack without the lid on.)
I felt pretty awful, and Buster wasn’t keen on dragging me up an Alaskan corniced ridge while I was dizzy and shaken up, so we decided to head down. It took us about 4 hours to rappel to the base of the route. By the time we got to camp, I was feeling somewhat better, but had a really really sore neck and shoulder.
I felt pretty bad that we hadn’t been able to tag the summit. I felt especially bad for Joe and Buster, as my injury had messed up their chances to reach the top. It was the first time that an injury had prevented me from continuing on a climb. If we had been able to get to a sheltered spot and allow me to rest and recuperate for an hour or so, I might have been able to continue, but there wasn’t really any good spot to do this out of the line of fire from more falling ice.
We got back down to camp about 12 hours after we had left, only to find that it had been ransacked by ravens. The crafty birds had opened the zippers on our duffel bags, and had spread the contents about. After dealing with the raven damage, I took 4 ibuprofen tablets and crawled into my sleeping bag. We figured that after a rest day, we’d have another shot at the route.
However, the weather did not cooperate. It started snowing that night, and snowed heavily and continuously for most of the next five days. We spent our time sleeping, talking, eating, and digging a snow hole.
After days of snowfall and watching sluffs avalanche down the route, we realized that we were not going to get another shot at climbing Ham & Eggs. We turned our efforts towards getting off the glacier. We’d go and stamp out a landing zone runway for the airplane, only to see our work covered up by more fresh snow. We dug our tents out, ate, and tried not to get too bored.
Finally, the weather cleared enough for the planes to fly again. We stamped out a runway and were rewarded by the sight of a Dehaviland Otter coming to rescue us from our basecamp existence.
We stowed some of the Skyward Mountaineering equipment at the Talkeetna Air Taxi gear stash, then we had dinner and a night at the Talkeetna Air Taxi Bunkhouse. The next day, we drove back to Anchorage and flew home.
Overall, it was a great trip, in spite of the fact that I didn’t make it to the top of the Moose’s Tooth. Several weeks after the trip, my neck is still a bit stiff, but I’m otherwise fully recovered from my injury, and ready to do some more climbing. The trip really whetted my appetite for Alaskan climbing, and I hope to return to the Alaska Range some day. Until then, I will have to satisfy myself with objectives closer to home.
Guided Hut to Hut skiing in Idaho’s Sawtooth Range with Sun Valley Trekking
March 16-20, 2015
For the past few seasons, I’ve done a multi-day backcountry ski trip with a group of friends. So far, we’ve done a traverse of the Teton Crest traverse, a Sierra trip from Mammoth to Lee Vining Canyon, and a trip to the Baldy Knoll Yurt in the Teton Backcountry. This year, we opted for a trip to Idaho’s Sawtooth Range. Rather than staying in tents, we would be staying in backcountry huts. Unlike past trips, we decided to hire a guide.
We arranged the trip through Sun Valley Trekking, which operates a number of yurts and huts in the Sawtooth range. It was an “all inclusive” trip that included our hut accommodations, food, and guiding for the week. Not having done a guided ski trip before, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. As it turned out, it was the most decadently comfortable backcountry ski trip I’ve ever done.
We split our time between two huts, the Bench Hut, and the Fishhook Hut. The first day we spent skiing into the Bench Hut. It was a pretty easy day, made even easier by the fact that the guide service had a couple of porters that brought in all of our food on a sled.
The Bench Hut is a large structure made of fabric on a wooden frame that comfortably accommodated our large group of 8 people.
Conditions were not ideal. When we had booked the trip back in November, we figured that mid March would be prime powder skiing season. However, Idaho, like most of the Mountain West, had suffered through a warm, dry winter, so the snowpack was more like it would be in very late spring. On the trip in to the Bench Hut, we were getting rained on, which is never an auspicious way to start a ski trip.
The good news was that the food that the Sun Valley Trekking folks provided for us was terrific. We just lounged around in the hut, while the guides cooked us a great meal. It didn’t feel much like backcountry skiing at all. It was way too cushy. (But I wasn’t complaining about that.)
The next day, we took off to see if we could find some decent snow. It was warm and wet, with low clouds and intermittent rain. The snow was thick and not particularly fun or easy to ski. We skinned up to the Bench Lakes high above the hut, and toured around a bit, but overall, it was something of a disappointment. I could tell that our guides were worried that the trip was going to a bust, in spite of their best efforts to find us some skiable terrain. Sadly, there was not much they could do about the weather and snow conditions.
That night, however, the temperatures dropped significantly, and there was some snow instead of rain. We awoke to clear skies and firm snow. We took that opportunity to hit the trail early and get some skiing in before things got too warm and mushy. We skinned up to a peak above the bench hut, and got some turns on the way down. Then we slowly made our way back to the hut, yo-yo-ing some nice slopes olong the way. It was a fun day, although by the afternoon, the snow was getting very thick and mushy again due to the warm temps.
The next day, our goal was a traverse from the Bench Hut to the Fishhook Hut. Again, it was sort of like cheating, because the Sun Valley Trekking porters took our sleeping bags and other non-skiing gear, along with our food, and sledded it to the Fishhook hut for us. We were able to ski the entire day with lightweight day packs.
The skiing was a lot of fun. Snow conditions were excellent, with a dusting of powder over a nice, firm supportable base.
It was an amazing day, with great snow conditions for skiing, eye-popping scenery, and perfect weather. The fun sort of ran out near the bottom as we approached the Fishhook hut and had to navigate through the tight trees and brush of the area our guides referred to as “the Jungle.” Still, it was an excellent and memorable day of backcountry skiing.
The Fishhook hut was as comfortable as the Bench Hut had been, with an added bonus; It has a hot tub!!! I can’t think of how many times I’ve been in the mountains and thought about how nice it would be to have a hot tub to relax in. This trip, that fantasy came true. It was so amazing to soak my tired body in hot water. Again, it seemed like cheating.
The next day was not particularly memorable. We woke up late, and skied out from the Fishhook hut to the trailhead. The warm weather had taken its toll on the snowpack, and there were sections of dirt where the snow had all melted out. Eventually, however, we made it back to the cars.
Overall, it was a great trip in spite of the marginal weather and snow conditions. The day we spent skiing from Bench Hut to Fishhook Hut really made the whole trip. It was one of the better days I’ve spent backcountry skiing. The Sun Valley Trekking guides were terrific, especially J.P., our lead guide. They took good care of our entire group, and helped make the experience a lot of fun.
However, as fun as the trip was, I think that next year, we’re going to do something a bit less cushy and comfortable. After two years in a row of yurt/hut trips, I think we’re all ready for something a bit more primitive. (although I will definitely miss that hot tub.)
Tower 1 Gully on Mount Helen is considered the premier alpine ice climb in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. It’s a long, moderate alpine ice route that has been on my hit list for a while. Opportunities for climbing ice in the fall are not that common in my area of the country, so I was stoked to finally get this one checked off. Here’s what the guidebook has to say about this route:
“Tower 1Gully (IV Al 3+). The north-facing couloir between Towers 1 and 2 appears especially fearsome when viewed from Dinwoody Pass. With ten pitches and steepness up to 60 degrees, Tower 1 Gully is the Wind Rivers’ classic ice route. It is comparable in length and difficulty to the Grand Teton’s Black Ice Couloir, though never as hard as the Black Ice’s crux.You can anchor belays in adjacent rock.”
(Joe Kelsey. Climbing and Hiking in the Wind River Mountains, 3rd Edition)
I didn’t get a decent picture of the entire climb, so here’s a photo of the climb taken from space (via Google Earth.) The red arrow shows the start of the actual climbing on the route. This photo was taken early season. Our conditions were quite a bit less snowy.
Mount Helen is located in the Titcomb Basin part of the Wind River Range. It’s about a 17 mile hike from the Elkhart Park trailhead just outside of the town of Pinedale. We decided to break up the approach hike into two days. I picked up my partner, Dallen, at 4:00 a.m. Thursday morning, and drove from Salt Lake to the trailhead, stopping in Pinedale for breakfast along the way. With our early start, we were hiking before 10:00 a.m.
The trail to Titcomb Basin is pretty pleasant, with relatively gentle gradients and beautiful scenery. We stopped along the way to fish a bit, but we didn’t catch anything. We ended up camping Thursday evening between Seneca Lake and Little Seneca Lake, about 10 miles from the trailhead. We fished a bit that evening, again without any success. Weather was beautiful, with clear skies and mild temperatures.
Friday, we continued our approach hike in to Titcomb basin. We hiked about five and a half miles, and set up our camp between the upper and middle Titcomb lakes. It was a beautiful spot, with a great view of the towers, including Mount Helen’s Tower 1, our objective for the following day. (Although our particular route was on the other side of the mountain.)
We spent the rest of the evening reconnoitering the approach to the route, fishing, and relaxing. Dallen caught a big, beautiful golden trout, I caught a small rainbow, and we packed up for the next day’s climb. The most exciting thing, however, is that we saw a wolverine walking along not far from our camp. I’ve never seen a wolverine in the wild before. It was really cool to see it there, moving along with its odd, bounding gait. It kept its distance from us, and I wasn’t able to get a decent photo because of how far away it was.
The next morning, we woke up at 5:00 ate some food, and hit the trail to the climb. The approach hike was steep and unpleasant, with lots of boulder hopping and shuffling up scree slopes. I was really happy when we reached the tongue of the big snow slope that leads to the Tower 1 Gully, and I could use my crampons. Moving up the steep neve snow was much better than groveling up the scree, and putting on my crampons made me feel like I was climbing at last.
We cruised up the snow slope unroped, and roped up when we reached the base of Tower 1 Gully. From the base of the route, we couldn’t really tell how long the climb was going to be. The guidebook says it’s ten pitches. From the bottom, with foreshortening, and no real way to judge scale, it didn’t look nearly that long. We wondered if it was really only going to be 2 or 3 pitches in length.
We began climbing, and it soon became apparent that the route was much longer than it appeared from below. That was a good thing, as the climbing was a lot of fun. The conditions were excellent. The route was mostly solid neve that took axe and crampon placements very securely. The neve alternated with consolidated snow and patches of water ice. The lower pitches were at a relatively low angle, and climbing went quickly. Although ice screw placements were not very common due to the fact that there wasn’t consistent sections of hard ice on the route, it was generally easy to get protection in the rock walls on the margins of the climb, where there were cracks for nuts, cams, and pitons.
The climbing got steeper as the route progressed, and by the 4th pitch, it felt like real climbing, although it wasn’t particularly difficult due to the “thunker” ice conditions that provided for really secure tool and crampon placements. It was really enjoyable climbing, and we were both having a grand time of it.
About the 3rd or 4th pitch, the weather began to change, and we started to get pelted with precipitation, first in the form of graupel, and then changing to snow. It wasn’t bad, however, and just gave the climb a bit more of an alpine flavor.
After 6 full pitches of neve, snow and ice, and one short pitch through the easy rock band at the top, we finished the route and topped out on the saddle between Tower 1 and Tower 2. By this time, the snow was falling hard, and the wind was blowing hard. When I pulled up over the top of the saddle, I got hit by icy wind driven snow. Our climb had been pretty sheltered, but this side of the mountain was getting pounded hard. Our plan for the descent had been to either continue to the top of Mount Helen and descend by the snow couloir, or rappel down the back side, or rappel down the climbing route on V-threads. The snow made continuing to the summit on rock much more challenging than we were interested in, and the thought of trying to rappel down the other side in the wind driven snow was also not appealing. We decided to descend back down the climbing route. We couldn’t use V-threads because there wasn’t sufficient water ice, so we used nuts hammered into cracks as our rappel anchors.
When we got the base of the route, we descended down the big snow couloir by a combination of down climbing, rappelling on a bollard, and a couple of rappels on some fixed gear we found in the (climber’s left hand) side of the couloir.
As we descended the route, the snow turned to sleet, then to hard driving rain. By the time we got back to our camp by the Titcomb lakes, we were both soaked. I was wearing a full waterproof hard shell jacket, but my pants were a water resistant soft shell (Patagonia Knifeblade.) These pants would have been fine for fending off a typical thunderstorm that only lasted an hour or so, but their water resistance was finally overwhelmed in the face of several hours of heavy wind-driven rain. As a result, my long johns were soaked, my socks were soaked, and my boots filled up with water.
The weather was unrelenting, with constant wind and heavy rain all night long. We spent a long, uncomfortable night in wet clothes, and damp down sleeping bags. I didn’t freeze, but I was just cold enough that whenever I started to fall asleep, the cold would make me shiver and wake me up again. I was just happy that it wasn’t 10 degrees colder. Had the temperature dropped a bit, I would have been really really cold, and we would have been facing a hike out in several feet of snow.
Next morning, we hurriedly crammed our soaking wet gear into our backpacks and began the 16 mile death march back to the car. It continued to rain all day, and the trails had turned into creeks, and the creeks into raging torrents. The only good news is that we started off with soaking socks and boots, so when we had to wade through calf-deep water, we weren’t getting any wetter.
After a really long, wet, exhausting day of hiking, carrying packs made even heavier by all the water weight, we finally reached the trailhead at a little before six in the evening. We changed into dry clothes, drove into Pinedale for a terrific dinner at a Mexican restaurant, and then headed back to Salt Lake.
Overall, the trip was very rewarding. The scenery was great, the climbing was fun, and the nasty weather gave us a generous dose of suffering that made us feel like we’d done some real alpine climbing.
2 ice screws are all that is really needed for this ice climb because of the plentiful opportunities for rock protection on the sides of the route. We didn’t place more than two screws on any pitch. We generally followed the left hand margin of the climb and found adequate cracks for running protection and belay anchors. A half set of Camalots (#.75 green to #3 blue) and 3 smaller Metolius cams, a set of stoppers, and 3 Tri-cams, along with a piton (#3 Moses Tomahawk) were more than enough for us to protect the climb and establish belays.
We left fixed rappel anchors along the route (varied between left and right hand sides) consisting mostly of stoppers “welded” into place by hammering them into the rock. If you use these anchors, make sure they are secure before you trust your life to them, as nuts can loosen over time.
After climbing in the Bugaboos, we decided to head back down to the U.S. in search of good weather and good climbing. We ended up at Washington Pass.
Our first objective was Burgundy Spire. We decided to climb it via the West Ridge of Paisano Pinnacle, which is a 5.9 variation that adds 7 or 8 pitches to the regular Burgundy Spire North Face route. We started hiking at about 6:30. The approach was long and steep, and ended with a bunch of scrambling over nasty loose gravely ledges. I was glad when the approach finally ended, and we got to start climbing.
The climbing was a lot of fun, with excellent granite, clean cracks, and good friction. From the top of Paisano Pinnacle, we traversed a bit over to the regular North Face, and headed up that.
The North Face route started out kind of slabby, but steepened up as we got higher. At one point a bit past midway, we had to traverse right and go through a big tunnel formed by a balanced rock slab. By the time we’d reached the top, I was pretty tired, and was happy that the descent was pretty much straightforward rappels.
The hike out was uneventful, and we finished the final bit of the hike in the dark. I was glad I had brought my emergency headlamp (a Petzl E-Lite) in my first aid kit. All in all, it had been a pretty long day, and I was tired. We ate trail food for dinner, and slept on a pull-out camp spot on some forest service land outside of Mazama. The next day, we rested and took it easy at a hotel with a hot tub.
After a day of rest and relaxation, our next objective was the Early Winters Spires group. The plan was to do a traverse, starting with Liberty Bell, and working our way across the spires, up and down each one of them.
The morning was cool, with mist, clouds, and light rain. We were alone as we began the approach up to Liberty Bell, which is pretty unusual because Liberty Bell is one of the more popular peaks in the Cascades, and we were climbing on a Saturday, on Labor Day weekend. The climbing was pretty straighforward, but I was struggling with it much more than I should have. I realized that I was getting pretty worn out from my week of climbing. By the time we reached the top of Liberty Bell, I’d pretty much decided that I didn’t have the traverse in me, and would be happy to call it quits with just the Liberty Bell summit.
We rappelled down Liberty Bell in intermittent rain, and then made our way down the trail. In spite of ever improving weather, I was happy with my decision to call it a day after tagging the Liberty Bell summit. It had been a good day, and I was pretty much done with climbing for a while. On the way down, we saw lots of people headed up to climb in the spires, and we also ran into a family of mountain goats, who were not at all afraid of us.
We drove back to Bellingham, I dropped Chad off at his home, and then caught an early flight out of Seattle back to Salt Lake.
The trip had been a real success. Between the Bugaboos and Washington Pass, I had climbed over 40 pitches of beautiful alpine granite. I was tired, but happy, and already dreaming about what to do as an encore next year.
It has been more than 20 years since I last visited the Bugaboos. I had planned three trips since then, and actually bought plane tickets twice, but my partners always seemed to drop out on me, usually at the last minute. Every year it seemed like the Bugaboos was on my list of places to climb, but every year it always seemed to fall through.
This year, my plans finally paid off, and I got to go back to the Bugaboos again. My success in getting to the Bugs was mostly the result of just giving up on going with any of my climbing partners and hiring a guide. I scheduled 9 days of private guiding through the American Alpine Institute. My guide for the trip was a great guy named Chad Cochran.
We met in Bellingham early Saturday morning, and spent the rest of the day driving. Spent the night in a cheap hotel in Golden, B.C., then drove up to the Bugaboos trailhead and hiked up to the Conrad Kain Hut. The Kain Hut is super nice, with luxurious cooking accommodations and comfy pads to sleep on. It’s a great alternative to tenting, especially for a climber like me with old bones and stiff joints.
The weather forecast for the next few days was good, and we were stoked to go climbing. We picked the SE Shoulder (Weissner Route) on Snowpatch Spire for our first objective. It’s long, (17 pitches) but of moderate difficulty, so it seemed like a good route to start out with and get our systems, communications, and changeovers sorted out.
We left the hut Monday morning at about 5:30 and we were scrambling up the rock to the base of the route about an hour and twenty minutes later. After we scrambled up to the saddle where the route starts, the real fun began. What a terrific day! We were all alone on the route, and the weather was perfect. We had blue skies, comfortable temperatures, and great climbing. We pitched out the lower sections, but we simulclimbed the easier parts along the margin of the big snowpatch, which saved us a lot of time.
There was a lot of great climbing on the route, with my favorite pitch probably being a beautiful open book section a couple of pitches below the snowpatch. The views were amazing, and the summit dramatic. This is truly a stellar route. It took us a little over 6 hours from the time we began climbing to the time we topped out. That was a pretty good time, attributable mostly to Chad being a serious rope gun who made short work of the technical pitches.
The descent down the back side of Snowpatch was simple but tedious. The first rappel station is right below the summit blocks, and we just rapped down on fixed anchors, taking in gorgeous views of Pigeon Spire. Once at the base, we had to work ourselves down and left (skier’s left) around to another series of fixed anchors on the West side of Snowpatch Spire that drop you down to the glacier and snowfields on the South side of Snowpatch. This descent route was required because the Bugaboo/Snowpatch Col was not in condition for descent. When I was in the Bugaboos 21 years ago, the Bugaboo/Snowpatch Col was a nice ramp, covered with snow and ice. Straightforward cramponing was all that was required to get up or down. However, in its current state, this avenue is a horrific death trap, with lots of very loose rock, and big slides coming down it with frightening regularity. Luckily, the new descent route on the West side of Snowpatch was pretty straightforward.
We were back at the hut in time for an early dinner, and made plans for our next day. I wanted to try something technically a bit harder than the Snowpatch Route, but not quite so long, as I was kind of tired from our long outing. We decided on a climb of McTech Arete, a 6 pitch 5.10 on a buttress in the Crescent Spire area.
We got up late, and strolled over to McTech Arete. We were in no hurry, because the route doesn’t get any sun until about 10:00 or so. About 10:30, we began climbing. This was another stellar route. Unlike the Snowpatch route, it didn’t feel really alpine, but the climbing was great, and the views were amazing. We had excellent vistas of Snowpatch and Bugaboo Spires, with glimpses of the Howser Towers peeking out from above the col. The climbing was definitely harder than the climbing on Snowpatch, but I managed to only fall off once. Just about every pitch was really enjoyable, and the experience was great. It was casual cragging in an alpine setting.
After finishing off McTech Arete, we headed back to the Hut. I was pretty tired at this point, and was in need of a rest day to recuperate a bit. The weather report indicated that the weather window was closing and the weather getting more unsettled over the Bugaboos, so we decided to leave the Bugs and head back south to Washington Pass in search of more good weather and fine granite. We packed up and took off the next morning, However, I had already decided that I was definitely coming back with Chad next year. Next time, we were going to start out on the Beckey-Chouinard, a route I have been dreaming about much of my life.
For now, however, I was satisfied. I’d climbed a big route on Snowpatch that I had wanted to climb for a long while, and had a great time in the mountains. I got some much needed rest and relaxation on the drive back to Washington.
For the past three years, me and a group of friends have done a backcountry ski tour together. Last year, we did a Sierra tour, and the year before, we did a tour in the Tetons. This year, we got back together, but rather than do a point to point traverse, we decided to rent a yurt to use as a base camp, and do day trips out from the yurt. I’ve done a fair amount of backcountry skiing, but up until this trip, I had never stayed in a backcountry yurt, I’ve always slept in a tent or a snow cave.
The yurt we chose was the Baldy Knoll Yurt, in the Teton backcountry, run by Teton Backcountry Guides. We were there the third week in March. The first day of our trip was mostly spent driving to Victor, Idaho, on the Wyoming border, and then skinning up to the yurt. The climb up to the yurt was a long, steady uphill grind that took us about 4 hours. We probably could have gone faster, but we were carrying very heavy packs (or pulling a heavy sled, in my case.) Not long after we started skiing in, it began to snow heavily, which was a portent of good things to come. We had a guide who took us to the yurt, and showed us how everything works. After that, he left, and we were on our own.
The yurt is pretty comfortable, especially when compared with a tent. It has a wood burning stove for heat and melting snow for water, and a two burner gas stove for cooking, along with pots, pans, and cooking utensils. There are gas lights. 3 bunk beds and 2 cots for sleeping. A covered outhouse nearby. Overall, about what I expected.
The next morning, we woke up to over two feet of fresh powder. We were pretty stoked. We spent the next three days trying to track out as much of it as possible. There was great skiing right next to the yurt, and we started with that. After lunch, we ventured a little further afield and skied the terrain on the South side of the ridge connecting the yurt with a peak labeled 10024 on the map, which is East of the yurt.
The snow was sublime, nice light powder. Definitely the best powder turns I’d had all season. When we were done skiing, we came back to the yurt and had dinner. The heavy loads we carried on the trip in paid off, as we were able to eat really well all week long. No freeze dried food on the whole trip. It was all fresh and tasty.
The third day, we skied up to the top of Peak 10024, and spent the day skiing Peak 10024 and the ridgeline just to the south, across the valley from Peak 10024. The snow continued to be amazing, and there were sections of full-on knee deep powder in the wind loaded pockets. It was too good to stop skiing for lunch, so we didn’t go back to the Yurt until evening. We were treated to a terrific sun set, and cooked another great dinner, then off to bed to rest up for the next day.
The bluebird sky and bright sunshine of the past day had begun to bake the South facing slopes, so we ended up skiing the North facing slopes right off of the ridge that leads to Peak 10024. The snow was not quite as light and fluffy as it had been, but it still was a lot of fun.
We opted to leave that afternoon rather than spend another night out in the Yurt, so we left that afternoon. It only took a little over an hour to get back to the car, which was much better than the 4+ hour approach on the way in.
Overall, it was a terrific experience. We had great weather, great snow, and a lot of great skiing. For anyone looking for a great backcountry yurt experience, I would highly recommend the Baldy Knoll Yurt. The yurt is comfortable, and the terrain it is close to is ideal for “earn your turns” backcountry powder skiing.
Hidden Haven is a red rock canyon in southern Utah. It’s not far from Parowan, on the road to Brian Head ski resort. In winter, the falls at the top of this narrow canyon freezes up, providing one of the most aesthetic ice climbs I’ve ever experienced. I’m used to climbing frozen waterfalls, but climbing frozen falls in a sandstone slot canyon is a visual treat.
The climbing consists of 4 distinct steps, separated by some walking up the canyon. The first three are all pretty short and relatively easy at WI 2 or 3, and the last pitch is the longest and steepest, about 110 feet and WI4.
I climbed this in March. The ice in Utah’s Wasatch Range to the North had all pretty much melted out due to unseasonably warm temperatures, but because of the narrowness of the sunless canyon and the elevation (a bit over 6000 feet) the ice here remained climbable (albeit kind of wet.)
Once you get into the canyon, it’s very beautiful, and you traverse from one pitch to the next along the gentle frozen creekbed that flows along the canyon bottom.
The real payoff of this climb is the fourth and final pitch. The final falls is set in a tall amphitheater of red sandstone, with a ribbon of ice ascending to a narrow slit of sky above. It’s a gorgeous setting. The ice is steep in places, but not particularly difficult. Like all ice climbs, the difficulty varies depending on conditions. When I climbed it, it was probably WI3+ or 4-.
I really loved this climb. I’m definitely going back next season, but this time, I will bring some more friends so I can set up a photography perch on top of the 4th pitch and get some better pictures of this outstandingly beautiful route. Gear Notes: I brought rock gear, but didn’t use any of it. Ice screws are all that’s needed. The descent is simple. There are fixed slings and rap rings on trees above all of the steps. A single 60 meter rope will get you down the rappel on the 4th pitch.
Skyward Mountaineering is a guide service operated by alpinists Steve House and Vince Anderson. In addition to offering guided climbs both locally and internationally, they also teach instructional workshops focusing on various aspects of climbing. I was lucky enough to participate in their three day Winter Alpine Climbing Intensive Workshop.
The workshop took place in Ouray Colorado, from Monday to Wednesday. Including me, there were four students. Steve and Vince were the instructors. The first day was spent climbing in the Ouray Ice Park. Vince and Steve coached us on various aspects of ice and mixed climbing. We spent time learning how to move on low angle terrain, climbing moderate ice, downclimbing, and climbing steep ice and rock. The emphasis was on moving efficiently with the least possible expenditure of energy.
I’ve done a fair amount of climbing in the past, but this training day was super helpful. Viince and Steve would watch us climb, and give us pointers on our technique. The instruction on climbing rock with crampons and ice tools was particularly useful for me, because I haven’t really done much dry tooling and mixed climbing. By the end of the first day, I had climbed the most difficult rock climbing I’ve ever done in crampons, and was getting a much better idea of what I needed to do to stay balanced and in control on rock.
Day two began with a presentation by Steve and Vince on various skills and techniques needed for alpine climbing. Vince talked about preparation for climbing, with a focus on mental preparation. We discussed strategies for balancing speed and safety, and minimizing danger on route. We got to see pictures and hear stories about various climbs he’d done to illustrate his points.
After Vince’s presentation, Steve led a discussion on gear and clothing systems. He brought duffel bags full of gear and clothing and Steve and Vince talked about what they used and why. I was in gear geek heaven. We talked about clothes, stoves, cams, ice screws, tents, sleeping bags and other stuff. We got to see the sleeping bag that Steve made for their ascent of Nanga Parbat. Steve talked about how gear and clothing design is evolving and gave us some hints about what we might see in the future.
After the gear discussion, we headed off up the Camp Bird Road to put some of the theories we’d learned into practice. At the ice and mixed climbing spots near the road, we had some practical, hands-on instruction on the logistics of bivouacs, rope management, belays, anchors, communication, and other aspects of climbing. We practiced belay changeovers, and set up a simulated bivi site on a narrow ledge.
One of the most useful parts for me was the discussion on rope management and minimizing time spent doing changeovers at belays. When I’m climbing, it always seems like the belay changeover takes way more time than it should. They taught us a dozen little tricks to shave time off of the exchange.
Interspersed with the instruction on non-climbing techniques, we also did some more climbing, and Steve and Vince coached us on our movement skills.
We wrapped things up as the sun was setting, and later on that evening, we all met for dinner, where we chatted, listened to Steve and Vince’s stories, and generally had a great time. It was at dinner that we learned of our objectives for the next day. We were going to split into two rope teams of three, and climb two multi-pitch routes that are right next to each other. My team, led by Vince, was going to climb Bird Brain Boulevard. The other rope team, led by Steve, was going to climb The Ribbon.
I have to admit that when I heard we were going to be attempting Bird Brain Boulevard, I was pretty worried. It’s seven pitches (1200 feet) long, and rated WI5 M6, which is significantly harder than anything I’ve climbed before. I’ve known about this route for years. I remember seeing pictures from the first ascent it in an old Latok Mountain Gear catalog. It holds a somewhat mythic status in my mind. It’s a climb that is out of my league, even on top rope, with a guide. I spent a mostly sleepless night that night, worrying about flailing, slowing the party down, and making a fool out of myself on a route that was too hard for me to climb. We were planning a pre-dawn start, to ensure we got on the climb ahead of any other parties, but I was awake well before my alarm went off at 4:15.
Vince picked me up a little before 5, and we drove off in the dark to the trailhead. We were all relieved to see that there were no other cars parked there. We would be on the route first, which would minimize objective dangers of other parties knocking rock and ice down on our heads. We took our time getting gear ready and took it easy on the approach, waiting for the sun to come out and give us some light to climb by. We actually started climbing about 6:00, just as it was getting light enough to see. The climbing was steep, and I had to keep in mind what I was doing, but none of it was beyond my abilities as long as I stayed calm and focused.
At the top of the first pitch, Vince and Ollie had already gone ahead and I was bringing up the rear, breaking down the belay anchors. I unclipped the clove hitch that tied myself to the anchor, and was reaching out to unscrew an ice screw that was last remaining piece of the belay anchor, when my feet sheared through the snow, and I pitched right off the belay ledge. I felt like a complete moron. I’d climbed steep ice and rock up to this point without falling, but somehow managed to fall off of the belay ledge. Luckily, I was on a top rope, and the only thing injured was my pride, so I climbed back up to the ledge, retrieved the ice screw, and proceeded up the climb, a little shaky from some extra adrenaline in my veins.
The climbing all along the route was pretty sustained. Every pitch had some part of it that made me wonder if I could do it. However, I just kept thinking back to the training of the previous two days: “Place the tool. Test it. Believe in it? Then trust it.” “Keep your picks and your crampon points quiet and still once you place them.” “Always keep in mind the direction of pressure when you choose a crampon point placement on rock.” Find a crack and torque the pick.” Vince and Steve’s coaching was fresh in my mind, and kept me progressing steadily upward from one section to the next.
The most tenuous part of the climb was a section that was mostly devoid of ice, and required stemming on bare rock up to a lip that had some frozen moss that would take (gentle) sticks. The most strenuous parts of the climb were a series of squeeze chimneys, where I had to wriggle up, thrutching my way higher, with my back pack dangling below me hung from a runner, wishing I wasn’t quite so thick.
Finally, we topped out, and then traversed and rappelled our way over to the Ribbon, where there is a series of fixed rappel stations. I was worried that our ropes were going to get stuck in the trees along the rappel route, but we managed to avoid that hassle. We got back to the car without incident, a little after 1:00 in the afternoon, which was a respectable time for a guided group of three people. (I was glad to only have to use my headlamp for the approach, not the descent.)
I was really happy with how things had gone. Other than my ignominious tumble off of the belay ledge, I’d managed to climb the route with no falls and no hanging on the rope, which was certainly better than I had feared. It was the perfect end to a terrific three days. I went back to town, soaked in a hot tub for a while, then met up with Steve and the rest of the group for an early dinner/late lunch at the local brew pub. (Vince had headed back home to take care of some business.) We chatted and ate, and then I finally said goodbye to my new friends.
The workshop exceeded my expectations on all levels. I can’t think of a better way to tune up my alpine climbing skills than to spend three days with Vince and Steve, learning from the best in the business. It was truly a terrific experience, and I’m already dreaming about climbing with them again.
The last week in March, me and 3 friends skied from Mammoth Lakes to Tioga Pass. We started skiing Tuesday morning, and reached the car Saturday, early afternoon. We passed through some truly spectacular country. Here are some details of our trip.
We drove to Lee Vining, and left our car at a parking lot near the winter gate that closed the road up Lee Vining Canyon. We used a shuttle service, Mammoth Shuttle, to pick us up from there and drive us to Tamarack Lodge. We spent Monday night at the Tamarack Lodge and had a great dinner at the Lodge’s restaurant. Tuesday morning we headed out on our adventure. The touring started on the groomed Tamarack Lodge x-country ski trail right outside the door. We took the left fork at the warming hut, and were on our way.
We skied along the gentle, groomed trails following the signs to Horseshoe Lake. Then we left the groomed trail and headed up and over the broad slopes of Mammoth Pass and down into Red’s Meadow. From the meadow, we decided to take the road north, following snowmobile tracks, and eventually taking a left fork that brought us to a bridge crossing across the river.
From here, it was a long, steady climb up towards Minaret Falls, through open forests. We had planned to reach Minaret Lake the first day, but we were getting a bit tired, and decided to make camp in the drainage a ways below the lake. The camp spot was sheltered and pretty, and surrounded by big trees, but if we’d known how scenic it was at Minaret Lake, we probably would have pushed on the extra hour to reach the lake. GPS coordinates for our camp site are: 37.653633/-119.112911
Next morning, we followed the drainage up to Minaret Lake. When we finally crested the steep rise and saw the basin, we were treated to some really beautiful alpine scenery. In fact, from here on, the terrain became much more rugged and alpine in nature, with sweeping vistas and granite peaks replacing the pine forests we had been traveling through.
The pass above Minaret Lake leading to Cecile Lake was steep and icy. We strapped crampons on our boots, and strapped our skis on our packs and headed up a left-slanting couloir the led up to the top of the pass. If we hadn’t brought crampons and axes, we probably could have booted up it, but it was quicker and more secure with our ice gear.
From the pass above Cecile Lake, it was a nice, mostly downhill run down to the valley above Ediz lake. From there, we had to climb again, and by late afternoon had arrived at Nydiver Lakes. We were tired, and the weather was cold, blowing and the skies were filling with dark clouds, so we made our camp on the edge of the lake.
Because of the winds, we took our time preparing our camp, pitching our tents behind a rocky knoll, and constructing snow walls to shield us from the heavy gusts. I treated myself to an extra cup of hot cider that evening to ward off the cold.
GPS coordinates for 2nd night camp by Nydiver Lake: 37.693705/-119.172778
The next day, we made short work of the 2 passes north of Nydiver, and then traversed the wide expanse of Thousand Islands Lake. Then a long, steady climb up to Island Pass.
The descent down from Island Pass was quick, and we crossed the creek right above Waugh Lake. The climb out of this drainage was strenuous, and by the time we got to the headwall/pass below Lost Lake, I was pretty beat. We made camp in the valley, with views of the Palisades to the East, the Pass to the North, and the far off peaks we had passed earlier spread out to the South.
GPS coordinates for 3rd night camp: 37.769840/-119.203715
The next morning, we were faced with a bit of a conundrum. We were not sure how best to tackle the pass up to Lost Lake. Some of us thought that the couloir North/Northwest of us would be the best option. Others (myself among them) figured that contouring around to the East and Northeast looked like an easier option. In the end, we decided to contour around on the less direct Northeast route. This way turned out to be pretty easy, with a relatively gentle slope. (The direct route up the couloir might have been fine too, but I guess we’ll never know now.)
After the pass above Lost Lake, we traversed Northwest until it was time to turn Northeast and make the long climb up to the Kuna Connection pass. We had been fearing the Kuna Connection for the whole trip, as it was reputed to be the steepest slope we would encounter. If it was icy, then descending could be quite challenging.
When we finally arrived at the Kuna Connection pass, our first emotion was dismay. It looked dangerously steep and pretty scary. However, the South section of the pass was much steeper than the North, and as we traversed the ridge Northward, we found that the angle eased up quite a bit. It was steep, but not suicidal. However, there were a lot of large rocks midway down the slope that could make things quite painful if a skier were to fall here. My friends all skied down. I decided I wasn’t too sure I could get down without falling. I knew I could get down walking, however, so I clipped my crampons on my boots, strapped my skis to my pack, and down climbed the steepest section before putting on my skis again.
Looking at my friends, who were all very far ahead of me by this time, I was in a hurry to catch up to them. I opted not to de-skin my skis and skied down the slope with my skins on. This turned out not to be a very good plan, as it made skiing quite difficult. Making turns was very challenging, and the skins would grab at inopportune moments, throwing me off balance. I made it down, but would have been much happier if I’d taken the few minutes necessary to take my skins off.
With the dreaded Kuna Connection behind us, we had a long slog out the gentle drainage towards Tioga Pass. The snow was deep, wet, and soft, and breaking trail was a real challenge. We alternated positions in line, with the trail breaker rotating to the back when he got too tired. Finally, we set up camp in the drainage along the creek. It was noticeably warmer than it had been up at our higher elevation camps. It was our last night on the trail. The technical difficulties were behind us. I was getting excited to get back to civilization.
GPS coordinates for last night’s camp by Parker Pass Creek: 37.874025/-119.242558
The next morning, the soft deep snow had frozen from the overnight low temperatures, so thankfully we didn’t have to slog through it breaking trail like we had the previous afternoon. On good snow, the descent went pretty rapidly, with our biggest challenges being a couple of stream crossings.
We left the drainage, and headed north up a broad open valley with beautiful views and under sunny skies. Finally, we reached Tioga Pass. We were able to ski from the pass to just below Ellery Lake before we had to strap on our skis and start walking down the paved road to where our car was parked at the gate. We all knew that a hike down the road was part of the trip, so we had packed running shoes to wear for this section. I strapped my skis and boots to my pack and motored down the road, fueled by thoughts of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The hike down the road took several hours, and I was pretty happy to finally see the parking lot with our car in it. The trip had been challenging and amazing, with gorgeous scenery along most of the way.
I can’t seem to figure out how to put in a downloadable link to a Google Earth track of our trip from Tamarack Lodge to the top of Tioga Pass. However, if you contact me, I’d be happy to e-mail you the KML file.
List of gear I brought on the trip:
Mammut All-Year top
Craft boxer briefs with wind panel
REI running pants
Black Diamond AT gaiters
Full side zip precip pants
Patagonia Piton Hoody
Mountain Hardwear Quasar pullover
Brooks Range down hoodie
OR Sun runner cap
3 pair Smartwool ski socks
Dynafit “TLT-5” boots with inserts
Rab phantom grip gloves
OR Supercouloir gloves
Kelty Cloud Spectra backpack
Adidas Terrex Pro sunglasses
MSR Hydromedary 2.5 liter water bag
Petzl Zipka headlamp
Suunto Vector altimeter watch
Android cell phone
4 paper towels .7
Sony RX100 Camera
Extra camera batteries, lens wipes
Life Link probe ski poles with powder baskets and self arrest grips
DPS Wailer 99 skis with Plum Guide bindings
Mammut Barryvox Avalanche beacon with new batteries
Grizzly Folding shovel 21.4
Velcro ski straps .8
Ushba ice axe
Camp Aluminum Crampons
Personal Camping Gear
Snowpeak Titanium cup and lid 3.8
Titanium Spoon .3
Thermarest XTherm sleeping pad
Marmot Helium 15degree sleeping bag with Granite Gear compression stuffsack
2 Person Group Gear:
Pyramid tent with pole adaptor
MSR Reactor stove 20.1
Snowpeak titanium bowl 1.8
3 Fuel canisters (12.5 each)
Entire Group Gear:
1st aid kit with firestarter, duct tape,
Compass with inclinometer
Epoxy, steel wool
Brooks Range Ski Multi Tool
inReach satelite transciever
10 energy gels
10 shot blocks
10 energy bars
5 packages of pepperoni
5 Baby Ruth candy bars