August Overnight into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness

It’s been a summer of weddings on the weekends and work on the weekdays. My fiance, our friends, and I have managed to get out for a fair number of car camping overnighters with some good mountain biking and hiking during the days but the backpacking has been a bit sparse so far this summer. We penciled in a weekend trip to the Bitterroot valley to visit my long time friend Casey at the farm she’s been living and working on and to spend a night a short distance into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Complex – a land I’ve not yet explored but have wanted to.


Peterson Lake


Casey and I have been friends since the late 90s having met in Fargo, ND during college. Luck would have it that we both found employement in Glacier National Park in 2004 without knowing the other was doing the same and since then we’ve managed to stay in touch every year or so when our paths could cross. It was serendipitous hearing Casey would be only a few hours away this summer so a meetup was definitely in order.


Sam, Torie, Casey, and Gus


We toured the small, farm that is being worked by the sweat (and tears) of just two gals who put in long, hot hours in the SW Montana sun to bring fresh, organic vegetables to the tables of people in the Bitterroot Valley. It’s about as honest of work as one can find.


Sedum


Living in tents and teepees, and cooking at an outdoor cook shanty is about all the camping most people would need but Casey still enjoys getting away from it all and was amped to join us on a short trek up to Peterson Lake in the Sweeney Creek drainage of the Bitterroots.


Cook Shanty


Peterson Lake, Sweeney Creek, Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness


We arrived at the lake about an hour before dark and Torie picked a spectacular zone on the East shore of the lake. The former marshy end of the lake had dried up in the past decades leaving a flat, soft, dry, and grassy acreage perfect for our tents.


Golite Shangri-La 3


We dined on couscous and fresh, organic veggies (of course) and shared whiskey and hard cider after. Fire danger has reached it’s height in SW Montana and with restrictions and a high wind we opted to enjoy the light of the nearly full moon as opposed to some good ol’ “Ranger TV”. The noobs at the other end of the lake must have been blissfully unaware of the fire restrictions for we could see their “TV” blazing from the tree’d zone to the West.


Wood texture


Morning was relaxed, the hike was mostly cool and breezy, and we had time in the late afternoon to swing through Missoula for a late lunch with yet another friend. A weekend full of good times for sure.


The Best Laid Plans and Trips to the Vet

The route was picked last week, the meals were planned, and the gear lists were dialed. Friday night would be devoted to car shuttling and then a gentle valley approach of about four miles to a late night camp. The next day would be an aggressive mountain pass probably requiring multiple miles of over snow travel and then day three would entail a long exit valley out to the awaiting car.


Car shuttling


The car shuttle worked out great. It was a beautiful Friday night in SW Montana for a drive down long dirt roads with million dollar views of snow-capped mountains in the distance. We hit the trail at 19:30 knowing darkness would fall about two hours later so we hightailed it down the trail to walk as far as we could until dusk, then make camp.


The East Fork Mill Creek trail



Scared up a couple bears


Hiking at dusk means a higher chance at seeing wildlife while they’re foraging for dinner. We scared up two bears and two elk on our hike in.


Snow-capped mountains at dusk


My buddy Mike noticed a small trickle of water running across the trail and a good looking game trail that exited off to the side so we followed it to see if it would lead to a good camping spot – and it did. Complete with a little spring, very soft patches of earth to lay our bivies and tarps, and some stout trees to hang our bear rope were to be had.


This ain’t our first rodeo. Cooking after dark.


The sun rose at 05:00 and I leaned over to see if my dog was getting cold and wrap some of my sleeping quilt around him. My watch read 30 deg F and I could see frost on the grass all ’round my tarp. Times like this, lying under your tarp, wrapped in your cocoon of a quilt are some of those that just make you feel alive.


Sunrise


Mike was still sleeping so Gus (my dog) and I awoke, gathered some kindling, and got hot water going on the Bushbuddy. The frost was slowly melting in the sun which was also warming Gus and I and felt great.


Bushbuddy Ultra



Camp cookery


After breakfast we hit the trail hoping to get as much of an early start onto the snowfields we had to cross that hung a few thousand feet above us. We made great time and reached snow as we approached 8,000 ft elevation. All was going great, the trail wasn’t too hard to find, and everything around us was beautiful.

The dogs were exploring every which way as we proceeded uphill until something caught Jax dog’s eye. Many a wilderness trip has been shut down by a necessary trip to the veterinarian and unfortunately ours would be no different as Jax decided to pick a fight with a porcupine.


Jax has bad judgement when he comes to picking fights


We reflected on the situation, pulled as many quills as we could and considered our options. Continue hiking over and out to the end (15+ miles) or turn around and go back the way we’d come (8 miles plus backtracking the 2 we’d already done that morning for 10 total miles) and opted for the latter. Back the way we’d come.

Mike and I have been in the Mill Creek drainage three times and two of those times we’ve been thwarted in a larger goal. Once by raging whitewater and the second by a damn porcupine.

We hiked out pretty fast – or at least as fast as Old Gus dog would allow. It was a beautiful day and felt good to be hiking even if it was in the “wrong” direction.


Hiking out to the vet



Gus


We got back to the car and hightailed it back to town to get Jax to the vet for some quill removal. All went smoothly and we then had time for another beautiful drive to go and retrieve the car awaiting at the end of our intended destination. We made the most of the night by grilling some spectacular burgers and drinking beer.


Montana backroads


We’ll get up and over that pass someday. I’ve been at it from three angles and there’s lots of micro-country to be explored around the Boulder Mountain area. Just leaves me an excuse to go back!


Shoulder Season Ski Camping 2012/2013 – Part Two

As mentioned in yesterday’s post I had to keep my snowboarding exploits to a minimum this season due to an out-of-whack sacroiliac joint. The trip highlighted yesterday was in November and was pre-injury and being able to dwell upon how great it was to get out ski camping with a good friend did a lot to keep me in a positive attitude the rest of the winter. I did get out on a few day trips with friends and my fiance which helped as well – but were certainly hard on my back and required some downtime afterward to rest.

Last weekend I was feeling the need to get out for some snow camping and hopefully get to ski some Spring corn snow. The snow line is continually receding higher and higher so I garnered sign-ons from Jon and Kyle to pack up overnight gear and skis/splitboards for a journey into the Northern Gallatin Range of SW Montana.

Kyle had an engagement until Friday evening so we opted to do a nighttime start, hitting the trailhead around 20:00. Darkness doesn’t fall in these parts until 21:15 or so and we were able to get a good chunk of the hike under our belts before the headlamps had to come out. Snowline was somewhere around 8,000 ft (2440 m) at which time we were able to transition from trailrunners to ski/snowboard boots and skis for much easier travel. Having the extra weight of skis and boots on your back when hiking is an absolute nightmare for those of us who practice ultralight backpacking!

The next morning we awoke about an hour after dawn and once coffee and calories were in our bellies we set off for the summit of Mount Blackmore. It was hard to tell whether the snowpack had frozen overnight but I expect it didn’t. If it had we would have needed to wait for it to melt out a bit before we could ski it so not summiting until approximately 9:00 was what we aimed for. Everything was perfectly soft on our approach, our snowpit yielded excellent results, and other than being wary of sloughing snow we presumed we were in for some great riding.

The turns were superb with a few inches of soft, sloughy corn atop a breakable crust and bomber base. We lapped the East face of the peak twice, grabbed our camping gear from our base camp, and were back in town with the whole afternoon to take care of those pesky domestic chores and backyard relaxing.

Shoulder Season Ski Camping 2012/2013 – Part One

I injured my back in early winter and was unable to get out splitboarding as much as I’d like this winter but was able to get out on two meaningful overnight trips (second TR to follow soon).  One of my go-to ski partners, Jon W. is pretty much always up for an adventure no matter how marginal the snow so back in mid-November he and I grabbed touring and overnight gear and headed into the Deep Creek drainage of the Northern Absaroka range.  This drainage had burned almost completely black during the wildfires that raned in the NW U.S. during the summer of 2012 and hiking through this darkened landscape blanketed with white snow was both eerie and beautiful.

Our destination was an offtrail draw which is the headwaters of Deep Creek and located below the menacing NW face of Mt. Mcknight. A trail runs up the E/W length of Deep Creek but we planned to exit the trail at a natural departure point and hopefully find enough snow to ski into the headwaters. We knew snow levels would be low and opted for edged and shaped nordic skis (XCD) as opposed to splitboards which are our usual weapons for powdery descent.

Jon and I both have pretty good attitudes towards getting into the woods and regardless of the purpose of our destination (powder snow, quality singletrack, good whitewater) we don’t let the lack of action intended from that destination get us down. This trip didn’t provide as much snow as we’d like but we still had a great campfire and got to spend a night out under the stars in a pristine wilderness absolutely soaked in beauty.

There may not have been tons of snow but Jon didn’t let that keep him from getting rad on his 3-pin gear.

Packrafting Overnighter – Beartrap Canyon

Bear Trap Canyon

Although many feet of new snow began to fall in the high country on Thursday evening last week and friends were planning bids on a local peak I’ve wanted to ride for sometime I couldn’t get the idea of either bicycle touring or packrafting out of my brain.  The ski trip group was leaving on Friday night and since I had a prior commitment it solidified my plans to head out into the woods on Saturday afternoon.  Rain fell steadily most of the day Saturday and it was cold but my excitement level was high as I drove my trusty Toyota 40 miles to the West to a little chunk of Wilderness called Bear Trap Canyon.


In tow was my workhorse pack, eVent bivy, PFD, rain gear, cooking supplies, and a vintage Alpacka packraft (sans spray skirt).  I left the trailhead at approximately 16:30 planning to hike either until 18:00 or until I reached the base of a class IV / V rapid that would mark my put-in the next morning.  I reached the rapid a few minutes before six and opted to inflate the boat, pack it with my gear and ferry across the river to a level area that looked prime for camping.  I hadn’t been in a raft in a couple seasons so it felt good to handle the paddle and feel the current as it swept me out of the river-side eddy.  My pulse quickened as I paddled at a 30 degree angle toward the opposite shore, then spun halfway ’round to back ferry to a good take-out.

Packing a raft

After about fifteen or twenty minutes of hunting for the perfect flat spot to lay my bivy I was delighted to stumble upon a small chunk of flat ground with a beautiful sandy beach just below it.  One nicety of camping on the opposite side of the river from the trail and practicing Leave No Trace camping techniques is that a pristine and beautiful campsite can be found that puts the typical dirty, packed-out USFS social sites that appear along popular trails to shame.

Alpacka raft and gear along Madison River.

Integral Designs South Col bivy

The beach made for a nice cooking spot located 10 or 12 meters from my sleeping spot.  A bit too close for typical grizzly bear country but I opted to not worry too much and just went with it.  The sand on the beach also allowed me to dig a small pit in which I built a campfire starting at nightfall.  There was plenty of dry driftwood and I was able to remove almost all trace of the fire the next morning leaving my camp very pristine.

I awoke at 6:30 to temperatures around 37 deg F (3 deg C) having zipped my bivy completely closed over my face around 4am to keep warm.  I had chosen my 180gsm synthetic quilt paired with a 240gsm hoody.  For sleeping mats I had a 3/8″ foamy atop a torso-length inflatable.  The foam backpanel from my pack also pulls out and I supplemented my underfoot insulation with this


Around 7am I climbed forth from my cocoon, pulled down my bear hang, lit up my Caldera Cone and brewed up a cup of Nescafe along with some warm water for my granola.  It was early and I savored the time outdoors listening to the river flowing along at 2,700 CFS.  I hadn’t been packrafting in quite a long time so I had feelings of trepidation but was also excited to float this fun few miles of water.

After breakfast I quickly packed up my gear and strapped my back to the bow of the boat after being sure to temper and re-inflate everything so the tubes were as full of air as possible.  The section of river I was about to float had plenty of class II and III rapids and I wanted as much maneuverability as possible.


The boat I’m using is pretty ancient and has no seat nor spray skirt so I folded my inflatable sleeping mat to use as a seat and tucked my rain pants and gaiters in as much as possible to help with the inevitable wave over the front of the boat and pushed off.  The walk into camp the previous day paralleled the river so I was able to make mental notes of the majority of the flow except for the very first section I was to encounter which was hidden below a cliff.  I opted to ferry immediately across the river, exit my boat and scout the upcoming section.  I determined it was too difficult for me to attempt given that I was both out of practice in packrafting and also paddling solo.  I portaged 50 or so meters around the rapid and re-entered the river this time floating the remaining 3 +/- miles continuously except for one break in which I stopped to empty water from the boat and another in which I held onto a rock giving myself a moment to scope an upcoming section of waves.

It felt really good to get out on my first post-winter season trip.  It was short but provided the opportunity to make use of both my backpacking gear as well as the packrafting equipment.  I look forward to continuing using the raft on some upcoming trips this summer as well as sharing some words and photos.

SuperUltraHeavy Winter Trip

The United States Forest Service has a series of cabins, fire lookouts, and other shelters available for rental at a nominal cost all over the country. In SW Montana there is a LOT of federal land and therefore there are a LOT of these rental cabins. Navigate your way to recreation.gov to see for yourself.

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Spanish Creek Cabin

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A couple weekends ago my lady, a friend of hers, and myself put some winter gear into a big ol’ Otter Sled (designed to normally be pulled behind a snow machine) that I hand fashioned into a pulk and set off for a four mile ski to the Spanish Creek Cabin in the Northern Madison Range of the Gallatin National Forest.  I was prototyping a pulk system that I will ultimately build onto my Mad River Rocket sled using a far lighter and better performing system.  I plan to cover this in more detail in a later post.

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SuperUltraHeavy Pulk System

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As you can see in the above photo weight was of absolutely NO CONCERN whatsoever.  I set three Rubbermaid tubs on the floor in the living room and told the ladies that if it fit into the tub I’d pull it in the pulk.  Water, food, sleeping bags, pillows, books, wine, beer, slippers, warm clothing, you name it – it all went in.  They each wore a small backpack with the day’s water and food in it and I wore a pack that I put my sleeping bag into (simply to give it some shape).  I attached the pulk with a couple carabiners and set off through the sticky snow.

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The hike into the cabin is along an asphalt road that is not plowed in winter so the gradient is very mellow.  The area is very windblown however and given the low snow levels of the season there were many portions that contained exposed asphalt.  About a 1/4 mile into the ski I removed my skis, placed them onto the pulk and walked for about two miles over asphalt, hardpacked ice/snow, and through minimal drifts.  At about the two or 2.5 mile mark the snow levels increased and I was able to ski with the load behind me.

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The system I was prototyping for the pulk uses a commonly-known method of two five foot lengths of PVC pipe crossed in an “x” pattern and connected to the hipbelt of the pack.  I ran lengths of rope through the PVC pipe for this prototype but the final version will not use rope.  The “x” pattern tracked behind me on uphills and downhills very, very well.  It did roll over on my twice when I was attempting some sidehills that were simply too steep.  I estimate however than in my upcoming design the load will ride much lower (aka no more spacious Rubbermaid tubs) and will therefore allow me to attempt steeper slopes with a lower center of balance.

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This was also the first overnighter I took using the Madshus Epoch skis I procured this year.  In the past years all of my backcountry travel has either been on snowshoes or via my splitboard but I have been entertaining the idea of using a set of skis that would allow me to focus on making miles quickly and easily on trips where descending wasn’t the primary focus (as with splitboarding).  I chose the Epochs because they allow for excellent edging and control in offtrail as well as groomed trail situations.  To complement the ski I went with a vintage three-pin Rotefella Telemark binding and the Rossignol BCX11 boot.

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Madshus Epoch skis, Rotefella 3-pin binders

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Rainier

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The Continental Divide Trail Alliance

I hike on trails a lot so I like to volunteer doing trail maintenance with local trail organizations to keep the trails I like in good shape. Perhaps I just want to keep people on the trail so I can enjoy the off-trail bits in solitude. Or perhaps I just like to give a little back. Where do you do volunteer trail work at?

Continental Divide Trail

Todd, chainsawing

Hikin'

Golite Utopia at sunrise

Scrubfest 2011 – Cowboy Pow

A group of individuals loosely-related via splitboard.com have been getting together atop Wyoming’s Togwotee Pass for the past half-dozen years or so to delve their splitboards into the deep, Wyoming “Cowboy Pow” along the continental divide at the pass as well as on the steep flanks of the impressive Teton Range in Grand Teton National Park. I’ve had the pleasure of joining this crew for the three seasons and each has been a delight not only because of the opportunity to ride exquisite snow in challenging terrain but because of the camaraderie of this fine group of folks as well. In both 2009 and 2010 I shot video and made an edit of those captures. 2011 was no exception and I was able to put together a short barrage of both the toil of skinning uphill as well as the joy of slashing down.

Scrubfest 2011 from samh on Vimeo.

View the embedded video, Scrubfest 2011 on Vimeo.

Experiencing the mountains in winter produces perhaps the most awe-inspiring moments for me. To climb to the top of them and look out over the landscape for dozens, if not hundreds of miles provides a view that little else tops.

Wade and Trevor high up in the Tetons

I had the opportunity to demo a splitboard this weekend – a chance that I jumped at. I’ve not had any experience riding a rockered (aka reverse camber) board so when Will from Spark R & D mentioned he had a Jones’ Solution available I grabbed it for a test with little hesitation. The reverse camber both rode downhill and skinned uphill like a dream and I’ll be researching that technology for my future splitboards.

Jones’ Solution splitboard and Spark R & D Blaze binders

The Grand Teton and the Teton Mountain Range

Rio, Trevor, Wade, and Jeramie atop East Angle Mountain

Trevor earning his turns

Backcountry Forays along Ketchum, Idaho’s Titus Ridge

Ketchum, Idaho is a small, swanky town that is home to Sun Valley Ski Resort. Many of the skiers here are rich fashionistas that never leave the smoothness of the groomed runs and comfort of the ski lifts. There are definitely some badasses that live there also however and for those willing to head only a few miles out their own backdoor a nearly endless sea of peaks and ridges awaits.

Ketchum lies comfortably nestled  in a pocket formed by the Challis and Sawtooth National Forests of Idaho with State Highway 75 the artery supplying fresh tourist dollars and backcountry dirtbags alike to the town.  Mike and I are of the latter category although we did buy some groceries, burgers, and beer while we visited.  The highway passes through downtown and heads North into the National Forest.  On it’s way it switchbacks up and over Titus Ridge, topping out on what is called the Galena Summit at 8700′ (2652 m).  A road that goes to nearly 9,000 feet simply screams, “Come ski me!”

Sam skinning along Titus Ridge away from Galena Summit
The views of the peaks along the drive north from Ketchum are peppered with skin tracks and descent lines but the quantity of terrain combined with the lack of users means plenty of freshies lie in wait for the motivated (and even the not-so-motivated) backcountry skiier or splitboarder.  Driving to Galena Summit and skinning from the trailhead for even just 30 minutes will provide you with enough snow and hillside for a dozen turns through myriad terrain types ranging from steep rocky chutes to open bowls to tight trees.
 
Usage may be low but I’m a powder snob and let’s face it, I like to walk so after our first day of checking out the zone immediately adjacent to the highway it was time to top out at our previous days high point and then continue onward into the next bowl.  It was here that we found a true backcountry destination consisting of a big face with lots of options from couloirs to spines to gladed trees.  
Our destination for day two and three.
This is the kind of face I like to ride.  I’m relatively conservative in my choice of terrain not so much because I’m held back by my abilities but because I’m held back by my confidence.  It was good riding with my friend Loid whom I don’t ride with often (he lives in Ketchum) because he pushed me a little outside my comfort zone, got my adrenaline rushing, and reminded me that I am a pretty good snowboarder.  
We sessioned the face in the photo above on day two, following it up with a repeat of our exit line from day one.  I wasn’t ready to be done so upon arriving back in town I stayed suited up in my ski gear and set my splitboard to walking my way to the top of Sun Valley Ski Resort. This made for another seven miles of walking another few thousand vertical feet.  The views from the top were delightful but I was tired and cold so I took no photos to share with you my blog readers.  
Day three Loid was required to be at work selling ski and snowboard gear but Mike and I were amped to get a half day in before the drive back to Montana.  We opted to head to the same zone as day two and considered hiking farther out to yet another peak.  It would have been nice to hit another face but time was of the essence as many hours of driving were in front of us.  We filed it away for future plans and proceeded to kill a line parallel to the previous day.  
A face filed away for next time we visit
The riding was spectacular all three days.  We were successful in finding snow of superb quality on North-facing aspects and in all stability tests we performed we could not get an extended column to break (I managed to pound one column to a 45 count before my hand started hurting).  The company of Loid who I don’t see all that often as well as Mike with whom I share an apartment was great.  To put it simply this is the kind of out of town trip that will stick in my memory for a long time to come.  
Loid
 Mike