Montana Headwall » Head Trip

Skiing up a storm

The weather’s wet. The snow’s suspect. The trek’s treacherous. Other than that, springtime in Glacier is grand.

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Frozen June snow covered the steep west face of Trapper Ridge as I zigzagged between wind-stunted Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir, aiming for the tiny saddle above. With each near-vertical kick of boot and ski, skins hissed up the icy snow, sounding like the rhythmic tearing of silk, and my heart thundered in my chest. Lungs raced, muscles burned, and my forehead tingled with sweat, but I didn’t stop. There was no time to spare.

Overhead, a dome of blue sky spilled warm, clarion sunlight across the mountaintops—heliotherapy after days of incessant clouds and precipitation, but also a curse on snow conditions. Temperatures were rising quickly, and direct sunlight would soften the snow fast on the east face of this ridge, where I was about to ski.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • MATT HOLLOWAY

I was particularly nervous about this descent because three nights ago a storm had unloaded 18 inches of heavy, wet cement on the mountains, and since then, I had foreseen this moment—guessing, pining and worrying over what the snow conditions might be. Now the saddle was minutes away, hanging on the beryl horizon, and all I could think about was the other side. Had the face slid already, and lay frozen in a jumbled mess, slowly turning to mashed potatoes? The day before, I’d looked through my binoculars at a crown line half a mile wide on the northeast face of Wolf Gun, at exactly the same aspect and elevation as what I was about to ski. Maybe this face had already broken, too. That would be the best-case scenario. Then I could limp down worry-free.

Otherwise, the possibility of triggering a slab avalanche, or any sort of slide, turned my gut.

Unfortunately, there was no other route home.

Spring skiing in Glacier has always been a roll of the dice, with weather and snow conditions forever changing, sometimes in a fraction of a minute. The general rule of thumb, however, is to expect things to be wet. Rain down low, snow up high, and temperatures hovering around freezing make perhaps the most dangerous conditions for hypothermia.

But, as reward often outweighs risk, the bounty of spring in Glacier is solitude. Few folks are hardheaded enough to slog along rain-flooded trails to ski across blizzard-bound mountains, especially when they can wait a month or two for the sun and warmth of summer to arrive. For those of us willing to face the elements, spring skiing is the proverbial briar patch.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • MATT HOLLOWAY

Like so many trips before, this adventure began under the cover of darkness. At 4 a.m., I met my friends Jason Robertson and Cody Iunghuhn at the Avalanche Creek parking lot, a half-hour inside the west entrance to Glacier National Park. This trip was billed as Robertson’s bachelor party—seven days of ski-touring Glacier’s remote backcountry. (Thank the lord he didn’t pick Vegas, right?) I would have to bail on the fourth day to get home to my kids, but I consider any sliver of time in the wild a blessing.

After quick handshakes and hugs, we traded trucks for mountain bikes and gear-stuffed baby carriers, steered around the gate on Going-to-the-Sun Road, and pedaled into the waning night.

To our north, McDonald Creek rumbled deep and sonorous, complemented by myriad cascades tumbling from the high, melting snowfields of Stanton Mountain, Mount Vaught, McPartland Mountain and Heavens Peak. To the south, water relentlessly crashed from mounts Brown and Cannon. The dank smell of rainforest flew by on the wet breeze: a rich amalgam of red cedar, hemlock, cottonwood, pipsissewa, trillium, fairy slippers, Oregon grape, fiddlehead fern and more plants than I could ever learn. Funny how quickly the other senses compensate when you can hardly see anything in the dark.

Soon enough, robin light filtered through the clouds as we hitched our bicycles to the porch rails of the old barn at Packer’s Roost. We loaded skis, ski boots, crampons and ice axes onto the backpacks and began splashing up the Flattop Mountain Trail. The first half-hour, a light rain came and went, soaking the waist-high thimbleberry and cow parsnip that pressed cold against our pants and gaiters. Beyond Mineral Creek, grizzly bear tracks appeared in what looked like week-old mud. The bear must have dropped from the high country, going the opposite direction of us, leaving shallow digs along the trail.

Above the upper waterfall we hit snowline and traded our hiking boots for skis, lightening our packs and settling into a new and pleasant motion. Kicking along, we passed through the buried backcountry campground and then up the ridge toward Flattop Mountain. Robertson pushed ahead and out of sight, and Iunghuhn and I loosely followed his tracks. Since I relish solitude in the wild, the fact that Robertson travels at a super-human pace never bothers me. He would be waiting up ahead, as always, but never too far away. Iunghuhn occupied the middle, floating between Robertson and me. In this serpentine fashion we slinked over Flattop Mountain, down across Kootenai Pass, and to the foot of Trapper Ridge. After strapping the skis on our packs and switching to ice axe and crampons, we kicked and stabbed our way up the ridge’s steep east face. Pausing at the saddle, we switched back to skis and dropped to the tiny lakes on the Continental Divide. Here we made base camp and crawled into our tents.

Before we fell asleep, the heavy snow began.

All the next morning we sat in a cloud-choked camp, listening to ghostly avalanches thunder around us. The rumbling hardly stopped, it seemed, and we dared not leave the flats until late afternoon, when the slides tempered. Even then, we skied just a few hundred feet toward the saddle between Vulture Peak and Nahsukin Mountain to feel the snow, stretch our legs and poke around—and then hurried back to safety. The clouds never lifted, and after dinner a light rain turned steady and began puddling between clumps of beargrass. We retreated to our tents and hunkered down to let the weather play out, unsure of what the rest of the night would bring.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • MATT HOLLOWAY

At first hint of dawn we peeked out to moderately safer conditions. The rain had melted the new snow and packed down the rest, but the fog hadn’t thinned a bit. Desperate to explore, we followed our tracks from the day before out of camp and up into the gray void. I squinted and strained my eyes, unable at times to tell up from down, one direction from another. But Robertson pushed on, navigating from memory, and Iunghuhn and I followed. Having passed through this spot several times during the late summer, the route seemed correct, but without knowing exactly where we were, and with the real possibility of avalanches, nothing felt comfortable. We kept each other in sight, silently inching upward, searching the clouds for a glimpse of ridgeline, the face of a mountain, a horizon—anything to orient us.

Near midday the fog lifted, as if we were underwater and rising toward a surface. Slanting rays of sun broke through seams in the sky, and soon we caught sight of Nahsukin, its angular flanks stolid and unflinching. Cheered to see beyond our noses, and relieved to be at a safe spot between the mountains, we stopped on a bare slab of rock and took a break. We strew boots, footbeds, socks, gloves and shirts across the stone to half-ass dry in the ephemeral glimpses of sunlight.

Refueled, Robertson and Iunghuhn climbed to a low spot on the ridge tapering southward from the Vulture saddle and enjoyed a few turns while I filmed from below. As they cruised by, I fell in line and we glided single-file back to camp. While we peeled off our gear, the clouds finally fell away—began to truly dissolve and disappear—and within minutes, the world opened. First emerged a nearby spire, then a distant buttress, a ridgetop, a dentine arête, and in no time we were able to see false Kootenai Peak, Mount Cleveland, Wolf Gun, Geduhn, Trapper and Nahsukin.

We smiled as mountains continued to surface from the vanishing clouds. We found solace in their familiarity and beauty, and for the first time I could remember, there was no gnawing in the back of my mind about snow conditions. I let go of the cerebral and allowed myself to be overpowered by the presence of the mountains—the achy fullness that tugs at the heart when one is in love.

Our excitement didn’t last long, however, as a helicopter suddenly appeared over Gyrfalcon Lake, shattering the silence. The clouds hadn’t been clear for 10 minutes.

“He wouldn’t fly a helicopter in a church, I bet,” I said, deadpan, but loud enough that my friends could hear. Nobody laughed. We waited until the echoing clamor receded from the mountains, following the machine out over Nahsukin Lake.

My spirit dimmed by the intrusion, I reminded myself that if this high-pressure system lasted, tonight’s temperatures would plummet and everything would freeze hard as an igloo. That also meant sunshine and afternoon avalanches. My only chance at getting over Trapper Ridge was to go early.

During dinner, I asked Robertson if he and Iunghuhn might want to ski with me down the ridge.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • MATT HOLLOWAY

“Maybe,” he said, being polite.

If the day proved sunny, I knew they had to push for Vulture. It might be their only window of good weather to shoot for its summit. It wasn’t their fault I couldn’t stay out seven days, like they planned to do. I had to get home to my kids. I wanted to be home safe with my family. And if it snowed more, I would be stuck here again, possibly for even longer.

“That’s why I’ve never come out here in the winter,” said Robertson. “If it dumps, then you’re stuck. Getting back over Trapper Ridge at the saddle is the only way out. I went around the north nose of the ridge once, above Nahsukin, and it gets steep as hell. Total slide territory with fresh snow. The saddle is your only option.”

I knew this was true because I once ventured around the nose of the ridge during summer and it was riddled with cliffs.

His comment reminded me of the other side of the ridge, and the uncertainty of what I would find. The last time I had seen it was on the first day of the trip when we kicked up it with crampons. Would I see remnants of our route? Was that still the safest place on the face?

One more night to go.

I crested the saddle and raced for a peek over the other side. A few large loose-snow sluffs had left dirty tongues behind, but nothing had deeply avalanched and I had to believe that the slope would hold. I had to trust it. With questions partially answered, I ducked into the tallest clump of subalpine firs and hid from the wind. Wasting no time, I ripped skins from skis and double-checked my avalanche beacon. If things went bad, they could at least find my body. I dug my hat and gloves from my pack and suited up. I fastened the heel of my tele bindings and climbed back out into the sun.

I kicked a few steps and hung my ski tips over the edge. Then stopped.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • MATT HOLLOWAY

I couldn’t help but think there might not be a better view in the world than from this saddle: Cleveland, Merritt, the whole Garden Wall, Logan Pass, and a direct line of sight into the Sperry Glacier basin. It was all spread jagged and sublime before me. This is one of the few remaining wild places in the Lower 48, which left me wanting to stay and absorb the lifeblood of the land.

But the snow was melting. I had to go. I couldn’t hesitate, couldn’t wait. Every second counted. I leaned forward and didn’t look back. Three Super-G turns later, I pointed it. I should’ve pointed the whole damn thing, but falling at Mach 1 with a heavy backpack, ice axe attached, and middle-aged tendons and ligaments holding my legs together was as dangerous as an avalanche—especially alone and miles from the nearest trail.

Shooting into the closest timber—the first stand of mature spruce and fir—I skidded to a stop. Under the shadow of an old monarch I looked back at the ridge, my sinuous tracks like pencil marks on an otherwise blank canvas. I lowered my head and caught my breath.

“Thank you for holding, good snow,” I muttered, eyes closed, head down. “Thank you.”

Then I turned for home.

Skiing alone, I swallowed sunshine and wildness, my spirit soaring as I crossed grizzly, wolf, wolverine, snowshoe hare, coyote and squirrel tracks. Ravens quorked overhead in passing, and the sweet, green fragrance of the subalpine blew thick on the steady breeze.

Later that afternoon, just as I dropped below snowline, the clouds returned. From the other side of Logan Pass, a surly mass of wind, hail and rain crested the Divide and poured like black mercury into the Lake McDonald Valley. When I reached Packer’s Roost, sheets of cold rain blew sideways. Not wanting to pause, I said to hell with rain gear and barreled down the Going-to-the-Sun Road on my bike, my camouflage ball cap on backwards, pedaling for the dry warmth of my waiting vehicle.

At Avalanche Creek I tossed my gear in the rig, and fleeing the groves of slicker-laden tourists milling about the parking lot I drove past Lake McDonald and out of the park. I wondered if Robertson and Iunghuhn had made it up Vulture. Had they made it back to camp before this storm? Surely another round of heavy cement was falling in the high country.

Turns out, Robertson explained over the phone a few days later, they made exhilarating turns from the summit of Vulture and landed back in camp just before the snow began. But they never saw the sun the rest of the trip, and packed up a day early and headed for the barn door.

“What did we expect?” we laughed.

For spring skiing in the Northern Rockies, and June in Glacier, we came out safe and all right, even if a little wet.


Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • MATT HOLLOWAY

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