After two days of getting sendy, Taryn and I decided it was time to get back to our roots. Feeling antsy for an early start and craving the simplicity of dialed partners, we made plans to ski with Duncan and Shanna.
I’ve always considered myself pretty impatient when conditions are good and I want to get going, but Duncan takes it to a whole other level. No one gives off as much bored-sheep-herding-dog-about-to-be-taken-on-a-walk energy as Duncan does in the mornings. Every morning we had watched Shanna try the console a fully-ready Duncan as people stumbled around in their base layers looking for socks and coats and gloves. So we knew he would have us out and moving early.
Our days route ended up being the following:
We left the hut promptly at 8:30am. The sky was once again cloudless, but the temps were extremely cold, by far the coldest day of the trip. We quickly made our way up the ridge above the hut, trying to build up some warmth before stopping to rope up as we crossed onto Granite Glacier.
We followed the worn skin track west across the glacier for a second before cutting south towards Pioneer Pass. Some members of the group had skied up towards the pass the day prior and we happily took advantage of their tracks. Those friends had reported turning around upon reaching broken terrain higher up on the glacier, and as we drew closer we could see that we would have to do some non-trivial navigation in order to reach the pass. As we made our way up towards the looming crevasses we distracted ourselves by marveling at the fact that the very steep and very icy-looking 505 couloir had been skied before (albeit in much snowier conditions).
We soon reached the end of the established skin track and the beginning of the exposed crevasses. The way through was indeed uncertain, with various rolls preventing us from scoping a complete line through to the pass. Duncan once again took over as the group’s crevasse-navigator extraordinaire, proposing a circuitous path through the crevasses and offering to go first on the rope.
Duncan’s instincts were again proven correct, and we wound our way through the terrain, always finding the necessary snow bridges to keep making progress. Taryn, Shanna, and I had our moments of doubt, especially when we arrived at an impassible looking jumble of ice and Duncan suggested that the only way forward was to descend down into and cross into a partly-filled-in crevasse. But the snow floor held and we were soon out of the crevasses and at the base of the final steep climb up to the pass.
Quite cold from the slow navigating, we gladly unroped and worked our way up to the pass. Cresting the top of the slope we again laid eyes on the majestic expanse of the upper Gothic Glacier. Deciding to take advantage of our proximity to Pioneer Peak, we decided the nearby summit would be our first objective of the day.
We looped around and began working our way up the broad east face of Pioneer Peak. As we got closer to the summit, we realized that from the north and west the true summit of Pioneer Peak was protected by a sheer cliff. Looping around to the snow covered southern aspect seemed like a lot of work for not much additional skiing so opted instead for the northern sub-peak.
The ridge leading up to this sub-peak still offered some excitement as we navigated snow-plastered rocks with steep terrain on either side.
Eventually though we scampered over the final rocky step and stood on the summit. The views in all directions were truly stunning. To the north we looked down onto Granite Glacier and all the terrain we had explored earlier in the trip. To the east spilled the Gothic Glacier, over a mile wide and framed by massive cliffs along its lower stretches. And to the west was the jagged Adamant Mountain with it’s massive flanks just partly in view.
We clicked into our skies and made a few steep turns off the summit before joining back with our skin track and retracing it through a few massive crevasses back to the center of the Gothic Glacier.
At that point it was only 12:30pm so we decided to go check out the cool-looking jagged peaks that line the south side of Gothic Glacier. The sheer vastness of the glacier made scale hard to reason about, and we ended up covering over a mile of undulating terrain before we arrived at a climbable looking slope on the east flank of Mt. Fria.
The snow on the east slope was disappointingly wind-affected, but the hard wind-board made for easy travel upwards, and we soon arrived at the col between Mt. Wotan and Mt. Fria. From here we got our first good look at the extremely imposing Mt. Sir Sandford. Looking every part its title as tallest peak in the Selkirks, Mt. Sir Sandford towered above the surrounding terrain. Every aspect of the mountain is impressive and its easy to see why it is a coveted goal for skiing in the region.
I scrambled along the exposed ridge to tag the summit of Mt. Fria and then reversed back to the rejoin the rest of the group. The skiing back down the shoulder was some of the worst of the trip, grabby and wind-blown, but we all agreed, upon reaching Gothic Glacier, that it had been a worthy excursion to get such a good look at such a remote part of the range.
In order to maximize good skiing while minimizing further uphill walking we decided to cut directly across Gothic Glacier and descend over Friendship Col. We felt like the endlessly charging knight from Monty Python trying to cross the glacier, but 45 minutes of slogging later and we were atop Friendship Col, done with the day’s walking.
The snow on the descent was, once again, nothing short of spectacular and, having already done the descent on the first day, I was able to fully savor the 3,000 feet of skiing without any worries about route-finding.
We arrived back at the hut and settled into another blissful night of friends, food, and beautiful mountain views.
The next day was our second to last day at the hut and, according to our weather forecast, the last day of sunny weather for the trip. Feeling like we had some unfinished business, Taryn, Shanna, Duncan, Jake, Zack, Luke and I decided to head back up to the top of the “Beam Me Down Scotty” couloir to hopefully ski it this time. My day’s route ended up being the following:
We took the now very familiar skin track out across Granite Glacier and underneath Colossal Peak. Reaching the shoulder of Colossal Peak we stopped to figure out plans. There was clearly still some wind effect from the storm a few days prior and we were worried about wind loading at the top of the couloir. Duncan, Jake, Zack and Luke were still psyched on checking it out, whereas Taryn, Shanna and I were a bit more on the fence. We decided to split up, with the boys going down to the couloir and Taryn, Shanna and I deciding to continue heading up to try to summit Colossal Peak.
As we watched the boys ski away, I couldn’t help but feel a little regret. As much as I like to think that I’m not very ego driven, I definitely get satisfaction “checking-off” objects. Seeing a bunch of friends heading to ski a line I really wanted left me feeling competitive and had me questioning my decision making.
Taryn, Shanna and I skinned another 300 vertical feet and ended up beneath a steep face guarding the summit of Colossal. Although short, the face was extremely steep, made up of a patch-work of snow, ice and rock. More concerning was the in-obvious bergschrund. We could see a large gap in the slope in various places along the length of the face, but it was impossible to tell how wide or how deep the bergschrund was above us. Shanna and Taryn indicated they were nervous about the terrain but I thought it was worth at least checking out and talked them into continuing.
We started skinning up the face but it quickly grew too steep and we took off our skis to begin booting. Stepping out of our skis, we immediately sunk up to our hips. The snow on this aspect was faceted and poorly bonded. Any snowbridge over the bergschrund was unlikely to be supportive. We had a rope, crampons, and ice axes and my ego really wanted to reach the summit. I suggested wallowing upwards. Taryn and Shanna wisely voiced their desire to bail. Disappointed, but also a bit relieved at what I knew was the right decision, we transitioned and skied a few gloriously soft turns back down the face.
Our plans foiled, we brainstormed what to do next. Still feeling the pull towards “Beam Me Down Scotty” couloir we decided to ski down and check out what the boys had been up to.
Reaching the top of the couloir we were psyched to see that we had missed almost nothing during our detour up Colossal. The group had spent a while locating the couloir and the rest of the time chopping out a rock to use as an anchor. When we arrived, Luke was just getting to rappel in to check out the snow’s stability.
Luke made his way down over the wind-scoured entrance and into the couloir proper. With the roll of the slope it looked like he was standing at the edge of world. He spent a while digging and stomping and then yelled up to announce his findings. He reported tricky, variable snow, but no signs of instability. And then he announced he was going to go for it. We watched with bated breath as he detached his belay device from the rope and double checked his boots. He down-weighted and then executed a perfect jump-turn, landing hip into the slope. He paused for a second and then made another turn. A few more and he was out of view. A few minutes later we saw a dot emerge out onto the glacier below and he radioed up that he had made it.
Feeling emboldened by Luke’s success, Zack offered to go next. Zack was one of the newer skiers in the group, but had shown a willingness throughout the trip to really go for it. In an act of potentially misguided confidence, Zack chose to forgo the rope and eased in next to the cornice. His tips snagged on the firm snow and it looked for a moment like he might pitch over backwards. He somehow managed to stay right right side up, and sidestepped into the couloir. Deciding he was facing the wrong way, he proceeded to execute the sketchiest step-turn I’ve ever witnessed. Taryn and I both found ourselves looking away as he teetered facing out, his skis pointed in opposite directions. Once again, he somehow kept it together and began making loose-looking jump turns down and out of view. We were all relieved to hear Luke’s radio call that Zack had joined him down on the glacier.
The remainder of the group now had to make a decision. Certainly none of us wanted to feel how Zack had looked. Taryn and Shanna had seen enough and announced that they were going to skip it and ski on down the shoulder. Jake and Duncan were all-in on still skiing it. This left me. I felt confident in my abilities, but I also wasn’t sure if I was letting my earlier emotions affect my decision. I was also aware that, with nearing the end of my 4th season skiing, I was in prime Dunning-Kruger territory.
In the end I decided to go for it, telling myself that I could always climb back out if I felt the snow and decided I wasn’t feeling it. Duncan dropped first. As usual, he looked rock-solid and soon radioed up that he had pulled off in a safe zone. It was now my turn to go.
I eased passed the small cornice and onto the snow below. To my relief, the snow felt softer than I had expected. Also the slope, while indeed quite steep, felt considerably more manageable now that I had a full view of the line. I took a deep breath and committed to the first turn. My skis easily found a solid landing and I started carefully picking my way down, the biggest psychological hurdle out of the way. As I grew more accustomed to the slope, I allowed myself to stop and marvel at the incredible backdrop and the speck of waiting friends on the glacier far below.
Pulling into a safe spot I yelled up to Jake that it was safe for him to drop. Now convinced of my own ability to safely descend the chute, I was able to fully enjoy the spectacle as Jake leapt down the couloir, ice-ax in hand.
Duncan, Jake and I continued to leap-frog down the couloir, and soon found ourselves opening it up on the apron as we joined Luke and Zack down on the glacier. We took a moment to lounge around in the sun and admire the perfect line above us.
Taryn and Shanna soon joined us and, although she was being gracious, I could tell Taryn was upset. Despite our best efforts, we often find ourselves feeling competitive with one-another. Taryn is at least as strong a skier as I am, so I understood that seeing me go for something that she bailed on had to have her questioning both of our decision making.
I could still feel some distance between us when we got back at the hut. It was only 1:30pm so I suggested to Taryn that we should go check out the couloirs in the Houdini Needles. She readily agreed and we set off up above the hut.
It felt great to get some one-on-one time after many days of group skiing. As we made our way to the base of the Houdini Needles we discussed risk tolerance, loss in the mountains, and the age-old question of “what makes it worth it?”. It had been a very full week of skiing (and partying) and some space to reflect provided a wonderful contrast. I apologized to Taryn for some of my decision making and Taryn apologized for letting her ego influence the discussion. Feeling close once again, we started up the main couloir.
We made speedy work up the bootpack and were soon at the top of the line. From the notch we soaked up the dramatic views towards lower Gothic Glacier and back across Granite Glacier.
We took our time transitioning, savoring each other’s company and taking in what we knew might be the last clear views of the mountains for the trip. The shadows began to grow long and it was time to descend. Taryn did the honors and made quick work of the steep turns up top. I joined her part way down and we opened it up down the remainder of the couloir. We coasted back down to the hut under the soft evening light.
We barely had a chance to take off our backpacks when it was announced it was quaffing time. The group had first discovered its love for quaffing in Cooke City the year prior and we didn’t intend to let a lack of plywood stop us from partaking in the joyous sport. Two of the hut benches were deemed an appropriate replacement, and we all bundled back into our jackets and headed back into the snow.
Steins were slid, half-frozen beer was drunk, teeth were left intact, and the freestyle quaffing game was elevated to new heights. It was a perfect evening.
The weather the next day was almost as cloudy as our hungover brains. A thick layer of fog had enveloped the range, limiting our desire to get into the high alpine. It was our last day however, so Taryn, Hunter, Shanna, Duncan and I decided to go check out an aesthetic-looking couloir we had been eyeing to the north of the Houdini Needles. Our day’s route ended up being the following:
Leaving the hut, we followed the well-trodden path up above the hut and east to the ridge that lead to the pillow zone. Rather than descending the ridge we wanted to drop north, descending into the next basin over. Finding a safe place to descend off the ridge proved challenging with the extremely flat light, but eventually we found a place that we knew was clear of cliffs and scored some excellent powder turns down to the base of the couloir.
We started skinning up the couloir, the mountains feeling moody and mysterious in their shroud of clouds. The snow felt a little denser and heavier than the previous days so we stopped about a third of the way up to dig a pit. The results were borderline. The wind had clearly been loading the couloir and the warmer, wetter weather overnight had seemed to cause some weird layering. Given the poor visibility and consequential terrain we opted to turn around. A few vertigo-inducing turns later and we were all back at the base of the couloir, pleased with our decision making.
The group was still eager for some skiing so we decided to head down into the trees below for the remainder of the day. As we descended down and our of the basin the clouds lifted and we got a quick view of the entire line. Definitely something to come back for!
We got back to the hut around 4pm. It was time to celebrate what a magical week it had been. The helicopter would be arriving in a little over 16 hours and for fuel efficiency reasons we needed to ensure no alcohol would need to be flow back out. We got to work.
Beyond grateful to Garrett for organizing the trip and for the amazing friends who shared the amazing moments. Truly a trip of a lifetime.
I’ll let a few photos and a short bit of prose I wrote do the rest of the talking.
So You Want to Build A Quinzee? "You better sign up for a job soon if you want to avoid poop duty" Garrett warned us. We pulled up the spreadsheet. There was one remaining job: "Quinzeee Lord", duties: "self explanatory". "What does this entail?", we asked. "It's perfect for you two", responded Garrett. Requirements were provided when we got to the hut: "All twenty people must be able to fit inside and Brett must be able to stand up without hitting his head." "That sounds like a lot of digging", we complained. "It's perfect for you two", responded Garrett. So we selected a suitable hillside and began moving snow. Each day after touring we crawled into our damp, dark hole and dug and dug and dug. Occasionally a friend would stick their head in and comment on our progress, but mostly we worked at it alone, two energizer bunnies getting their additional workout in. We wrapped up our work with a few days remaining in the trip. We carved a row of seats, we carved a loft. But the qunizee remained unused. We dragged a few people in to show them the finished product, but the warmth of the hut was hard to compete with. Our quinzee felt dark and cold. And then the final night rolled around. Beers were cracked and shots taken. Suddenly, someone suggested moving to the qunizee. Leading the way we crawled in and our friends followed. One by one their heads emerged from the entrance tunnel and their eyes grew wide as they saw the qunizee in all its glory. And soon all twenty people were in. And soon Brett was standing. Lights lit up the space and body heat warmed the air. Friends laughed and danced and shared stories from a magical week. We made eye contact and gave each other knowing smiles. Garrett had been right. All the damp evenings and back aches were suddenly worth it. The ability to use our boundless energy to build a space for friends to come together, it was indeed the perfect job for us.