Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Mt. Blaze, redux

Sunrise in the Spanish Peaks
Any grand adventure is bound to go wrong at some point along the way. The adventure doesn’t really start until then. Mountain trips are particularly finicky in this way, dependent on weather and snow conditions and the temperament of the mountain itself — sometimes it’s determined not to let you on. August’s ski trip was one akin to that.

I went to bed the night of Aug. 19 happy about the elevated platform I'd built to house my ski gear and stoked about a trip planned for the upcoming weekend to ski the Whitetail Couloir. Then I had something of a prophetic dream... I found myself at a bar in western Pennsylvania not unlike one I visited once in high school after skiing Seven Springs Resort, my home mountain then.

Outside there were two lifts servicing a poor excuse for a mountain. But it had a decent enough angle to get turns in and the snow looked deep, despite it obviously being mid-summer. I was on the lift looking down at my skis when all the sudden I came tumbling down many feet into the snow below. The fall left me unhurt but I was stuck in the deep pow with my skis on unable to truly maneuver. My mind went blank as I unclipped and worked my way until the skis were on my pack and I was ready to trek uphill and earn my summer turns.

When I looked at the path ahead, though, the snow had melted. A rocky, depressing incline rose before me after all that falling terror and work to get myself unstuck and ready to rock.

The next morning I called the good people at Sylvan Mountain Sports in Red Lodge to see if anyone knew of the snow conditions on Whitetail. No one really knew, but I was given camping tips and felt solid about the recon. That dream kept nagging me in the back of my mind, so I posted on the shop’s Facebook wall to see if anyone frequenting the page had recently made the trip.

It was passed along that a climber up there had seen 'very grim' snow conditions -- a narrow strip of ice at the top and an icy gravelly mix stretching halfway down the scenic couloir.
You say "grim," I say east coast conditions. Although it isn't the Whitetail Couloir

Things started falling apart from there. Skiing buddies were blowing out their knees, moving to new houses around town, leaving for weddings. Meanwhile, wildfires started popping up around the area and temperatures were consistently hitting the 90s. The Whitetail Couloir trip was scrapped and it certainly looked like the world was conspiring against anyone skiing in Montana in August.

I hit up my buddy who made the drive from Phillipsburg to Bozeman the prior weekend to see if there was snow on the Blaze, just trying to scrounge a backup plan for August. He didn't really look and couldn't say. Another buddy who trekked up to Butte that day didn't make it back until dark and couldn't say either.

I made up my mind to make a lightning-quick solo mission up the Blaze to claim whatever turns were to be had, if any. It was disappointing that the Whitetail trip fell apart because, in addition to being an aesthetic line, it would’ve required a little bit of mountaineering along the way.
Sometimes you take weird pictures when you wake up three hours after heavy drinking to hike 14 miles.

So in the spirit of using the summer to practice techniques to be used during winter, I went out and partied downtown until the bars closed as a little warm up for the classic endurance challenge of “last call, first chair.”

Waking up at 5 a.m. after a night that started off with pint of Jack & Coke was a little rough, but I got on the Spanish Creek trailhead in an hour and a half and was feeling pretty good, if not a little cold, tromping around in Chacos. The first hour or so of the hike flew by, probably because I wasn’t fully awake or sober at that point. Then I climbed the first couple switchbacks wrapping around the Blaze and looked back across the drainage at a black bear apparently munching some berries not 30 yards off the creek I had just crossed.
Summer backcountry skiing holds somewhat different dangers

Much more concerning was that there wasn’t any visible snow at that point. I was starting to get more than a little concerned that this was just a speed hike, until I got off trail and started bushwhacking toward the peak. The view from the scrub pine revealed a short, thin strip of snow — what turned out to be 250 vertical feet.

A group of three mountain goats showed me a path up the rocky slope. The Chacos didn’t afford much protection from falling rocks and protruding ledges, but my bruised feet carried me to the top of the snowline by 10:30 a.m. or so. The sun had just peeked over the top of the mountain and hadn’t softened up the wavy, icy snow.

Ready to get weird atop some classic east coast packed powder

The strip of snow was wide and long enough to slide around and string together around 15 turns or so. I thought about heading back up for another quick run after reaching the bottom. I’ve adopted the Montanan habit of packing everything humanly possible to do in one day into each summer weekend, however, and had to run back into town for a friend’s afternoon party.

I headed out hopeful for September’s adventure and pretty stoked that the August gamble paid off.

Here's hoping we get some new snow in September

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