Archives

Mountaineering

Skiing Gothic Mountain

In the heart of the Colorado Rockies looms a mountain called Gothic. Its austere east face catches dawn’s first light and holds a looker’s awe like a medieval cathedral. Eight miles from the ski town of Crested Butte, Gothic stands sentinel to the West Elk Mountains and is also the namesake of a small townsite at its base, where I happen to live. Every day for the past eight months I have stared up at Gothic and wondered what it would be like to climb and make turns down its snowy face.

DSC_0011

Gothic Mountain in February, ft. white-tailed ptarmigan

DSC_0084

Gothic Mountain, May 25th

 

I knew I had to wait until spring in order to avoid the infamous avalanche danger inherent to the Rocky Mountains. April was very snowy (I was skiing boot-top pow April 27th) and conditions never felt safe enough to climb/ski the 3200′, 40-45º degree face. But now it’s almost June and Gothic isn’t so snowy any more. The first three weeks of May I watched the snow in the crux choke of the east face rapidly shrink. Despite numerous opportunities to ski it, intimidation got the best of me. A line always looks steepest when you’re looking straight at it, which is what I’d been doing all winter. Plus, I’d be skiing it solo. Without a partner to commit with and be emboldened by, motivation had to come from a deeper, more unquestionable place. It turns out this place is also home to fear of regret. Ultimately, I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn’t ski Gothic, or if I didn’t at least try. I realized you can think about an objective all you want, but at some point you just have to get up and go.

I hopped on my mountain bike Wednesday morning (May 25) at 7am, skis strapped to The Raven on my back. The sun had hit the top of Gothic at about 6:30. It was a later start than I’d hoped for, but with a solid refreeze overnight I figured I still had a decent safety window as long as I kept moving.

After a half hour or so I was at the crux of the biscuit. The choke was completely melted. Filled in it would’ve been a steep and fun pitch of snow climbing, posing more of a challenge on the way down than on the way up. Instead, I took off my crampons and sheathed my axe for about 50 vertical feet of class 4 scrambling. If I was more of an alpinist I would have dry-tooled the whole thing and saved time by nixing a transition. Overall the climbing was mellow and well within my comfort zone. Still, I had to be careful to avoid stepping on icy spots.

DSC_0083

The choke, bottom right. From there the route climbs the snowfield up and left until reaching the upper bowl. If climbing Gothic at this time of year, beware of a pseudo crevasse/bergschrund below the choke. You can see it in this picture, barely.

 

My crampons, axe, and whippet came back out after the choke. From here it was a long, 45º snow climb to the top save for two very short sections of exposed rock. I had been playing with the idea of skiing the face and simply down climbing the crux choke, but taking skis off for these sections would’ve been a bit of a nightmare as it was steep and exposed.

I topped out 3200′  from the valley floor in just over two hours. The last 200 feet or so to the summit ridge were quite slow and troublesome due to softening snow. I was post-holing to my knees in some places and couldn’t help but imagine triggering a wet slide. All I could do was climb as quickly as possible, which required using my shins more than my feet in order to maximize flotation. I reckon the top would’ve made for great and fast climbing had I started just a half hour earlier. Thankfully I had already made up my mind not the ski the face.

DSC_0245

Looking south from the Summit towards Mt Crested Butte (left) and Whetstone. The town of Crested Butte is below Whetstone.

DSC_0248

Looking east from the summit. The pyramidal mountain in front is Avery Peak, which I skied earlier this spring when it held more snow.

DSC_0242

Looking northwest from the summit. I walked down along this ridge to the sub peak in the center of the frame, from where I began my descent.

 

My plan was to ski down Gothic’s north bowl. The good thing about starting a little late was the north bowl would hopefully not be completely bulletproof. In terms of timing, the safest option probably would be to start climbing the face at 6 or 6:30 (earlier if planning on taking much longer than 2 hours to summit), then wait at the top for 30-60 minutes to let the north bowl soften.

DSC_0185

Gothic’s north bowl, shot from 4 miles up-valley on May 12. I skied from the sub-peak of Gothic on the right. The true summit is in the middle. Mt Crested Butte is in the background on the left.

DSC_0251

Looking down from the top of the north bowl. Maroon Peak is in the distance. At 9:30am the snow was still a little icy. I reckon by 10am it would’ve been perfect corn.

 

Jump turns soon gave way to mellow and blissful corn, then to avalanche chunder, and I touched down on the valley floor at 10am with feelings of elation and content.

DSC_0255

Route finding on the way down was easy. After exiting the bowl, curve around to the right and then straight-line it down this field of avalanche debris for maximum yard sale potential.

 

The past three weeks had been a constant inner struggle with doubt and fear in regards to skiing Gothic, which made my success all the sweeter. Although I was a bummed I wasn’t able to ski the east face, climbing it was perhaps equally rewarding. Kicking steps up the bosom of Gothic connected me to a part of my home that previously had been shrouded in wonder. There are many other lines in the valley I still long to ski. For now, though, I can sip my coffee and look up at Gothic with pride and knowing.

DSC_0145

My home beneath Gothic Mt, May 10th.

 

Caltopo map of my route here

More beta on skiing the east face here

Gear notes: Dynafit Cho-Oyu skis w/ Superlite 2.0 bindings, Scarpa Alien boots, Petzl Sum-Tec 52cm axe, Whippet ski pole, CAMP aluminum crampons, Free Range Raven pack, CAMP Speed helmet, CAMP wind mitten gloves, NW Alpine softshell pants, Patagonia sun shirt, Arcteryx wind shirt.

Mt Hood Circumnavigation Attempt

It is true for many endeavors that mistakes are a catalyst for learning and growth. Two Sundays ago I made a mistake and broke of one of the most important ski mountaineering commandments: Thou Shalt Not Get Cliffed Out. My hope is that by sharing my story I can cement the lesson I learned and help you avoid making the same mistake.

I’ve dreamed of circumnavigating Mt Hood on skis ever since Patrick and Ethan did so in February 2013. After a season with a healthy dose of long days, steep snow climbing and avalanche terrain navigation, I finally felt confident enough to attempt the “High Orbit.” Furthermore, I saw this objective as a capstone to my three years of climbing and skiing in the Pacific Northwest, and I thought it would provide satisfying closure before graduating and moving away.

After climbing and skiing the Wy’east Face and Superbowl on Saturday with Patrick, Taylor and Hallie, my legs and spirit felt hungry for more. I began skinning from Timberline at 4:45 am and soon thereafter found myself transitioning on Illumination Saddle.

IMG_2445

Wy’east casts its shadow past Illumination Rock and over waves of coniferous forest.

Read on →

Skiing Pahto (Mt Adams)

Route: Suksdorf Ridge

TH: Cold Springs campground. Road to trailhead is unimproved. High clearance and AWD recommended.

Map: Green Trails Maps 367S. Strava track here.

Stats: Approx. 12.5mi and 6700′ vert car to car.

Gear: Entirely non technical, but crampons and ice axe/whippet recommended.


Saturday was a long day for all of us, but we were determined to rally and ski Mt. Adams (hereafter refered to as Pahto) for the first time. Shortly following a “brutal” race at the Yakima 50k, Ethan and Richard drove three hours to meet me in Trout Lake as stars began pricking through the sky.

Pahto towers over Trout Lake as a Guardian of Serenity

The guardian of serenity towers over Trout Lake.

Read on →

Spring Is Here, So We Ski It

Figure 1: The illusion of winter.

Figure 1: The illusion of winter.

I’m now resigned to the fact that true winter may never actually arrive in the Pacific Northwest. Though global warming appears to have nothing to do with this unfortunate situation, it sure looks like the sunshine and warm temperatures are here to stay for months to come. It’s not what we had hoped or expected from this season, but frankly, there’s nothing to be done about it.

Fun is where you make it, right? Well, recently, fun has been at and above treeline on warm days. With the exception of one storm about a week ago that left ten inches of 20% density snow, it’s spring skiing out there. Though we tried our best to make it look like winter (figure 1), it’s now Spring.

Sure, as the temperatures warm up, that means more days on the mountain bike, and more miles on the trail running shoes, but I think that the devoted will agree with me that now begins the longest spring-skiing season of them all.

In celebration of the new spring weather, Peter Innes and I decided to pull out all the heavy metal things and go climbing on Mt Hood. Photos follow. We climbed via the Pearly Gates variation of the dog route, with a short but still engaging bulge of 80-degree ice guarding the summit. The ski down was stiff, but we found additional amusements climbing (us) and skiing (me) crater rock, and then by skiing out the White River Glacier from the top with feeling.

The "Hogsback" feature on Mt Hood, which leads to the "Pearly Gates".

The “Hogsback” feature on Mt Hood, which leads to the “Pearly Gates”.

Read on →

Winter Woes and Skiing the Wy’east Face

Peter, frosted but not frosty.

Peter, frosted but not frosty.

Editor’s Note: I’m excited to introduce you to Mountain Lessons’ newest contributor, Peter Innes. Peter and I met mountaineering in Wyoming, and after he relocated to Portland, he’s become a frequent partner on my adventures. Pete’s a collegiate cross-country runner for Lewis and Clark college, and precocious ski-mountaineering upstart. You may recognize him from photos here and on instagram (@alpenflow). Now, here’s Peter:


 

For the past month my news feeds have been rife with the woes and complaints of skiers bemoaning the disappearance of winter in the Pacific Northwest. January has become “Juneuary,” humorously summing up the recent weather and conditions of the Cascade Range. In many places the snow pack looks worse that it did last July, especially on Mt Hood. Large islands of rock restrict eager schralpers, gullies are sporting muddy guts, and from afar one cannot help but grimace at the brown shading of the snow on Mt Hood’s lower flanks. Time to ditch the skis, lube the chain of your mountain bike, and beg for a refund on your season pass, I suppose.

No! Surrendering in a mopey cloud of “throwback Thursday” instagrams of skiing powder earlier in the season surely won’t bring about the graces of Ullr, and nor will booking tickets to Japan. The way I see it the only way to improve the situation is by embracing what we have and getting creative. After all, Juneuary has its upsides, even for a skier. Avalanche danger on Mt. Hood is low as a result of over two weeks without snowfall (correct me if I’m wrong, it’s been so long I’ve lost track), and several days of melt-freeze cycles have smoothed out the icy chicken heads that previously riddled Hood’s upper slopes. If that isn’t a recipe for some good-old-fashioned Cascade ski mountaineering, I don’t know what is.

IMG_1919

Ethan approaches the Wy’east face amidst the morning alpenglow. The route centers in the obvious face.

Read on →

The Ideal Ice Axe for Mountaineering

A friend asked: If you could have only one ice axe, what would it be? There are ice tools, ice axes, piolets, hammers, glacier walkers, third tools, and oh my many more. But one axe to do it all? That’s a tough question. Still, winter is right around the corner, and I have an answer for you.

black diamond, petzl, and camp ice axe

Many choices

Firstly, it’s important to clarify that I am not going to include a discussion of ice tools. An ice tool is a specialized axe that is designed to climb steep to vertical ice and mixed terrain. They come in many shapes and sizes, and they are, for the most part, very specialized tools. The average ice tool is shit for walking on a glacier, self-belaying on steep snow, building anchors, etc. They still carry out these tasks in skilled hands, but they’re far from ideal.

For most climbers, a more all-around tool will be much more useful. When selecting such a tool, it is important to consider length, material, shaft style, and head: Read on →

Climbing Mt Hood By Bike

There is no end to the adventure available within a single day. It’s a fact so easy to forget, when my day can so easily glide by in a mindless stream of must-do’s and have-to’s, interrupted by entertaining media and gustatory distraction. But as I lifted my bike into my car yesterday morning, arms empty of effort, body drained of gusto, yet full of what I knew would be satisfaction once I could only sleep, I felt this thought poignantly and clearly. A man walked past with a tiny dog and a newspaper under his arm.  His day was just beginning, maybe to glide by as mine often do. He couldn’t know the depth and infinite length of my day, which had begun the calendar day before, leaving this house at 3:30 in the afternoon to climb Mt Hood by bike. Had I looked at me then, I might not have seen it either. I might have smelled it though.

The Author and his steed, moments before the bike to Mt Hood

The Author and his steed, moments before the bike to Mt Hood

Read on →

The Walk Back – A Winter Attempt on Dragontail

I love the feeling of being completely thrashed.  Not at the bar, not after a party, but after dragging my arms and legs around the mountains for hours or days on end.  The feeling comes after the action, after the main show.  It comes during the big slog, on the way back to the car, or while melting water in a storm.  It is the feeling that I and my body know how to keep going, in spite of everything, even having savored everything.

On Tuesday of last week, Colin called me to ask if I wanted to go climbing.  When I asked where, he blindsided me with the suggestion that we take advantage of the forecast weather over the weekend to go to Dragontail Peak in the North Cascades.  There’s a route there called the Gerber/Sink which has seen more traffic in recent years.  How could a 1000 meters of moderate mixed climbing not?

Dragontail Peak in Winter

Colin approaches Dragontail Peak across Colchuck Lake. Parts of each of the Triple Couloirs are visible cutting the center of the peak, and the Gerber Sink follows runnels connecting prominent snow bands to the right of center, finishing in the 3rd couloir.

Read on →