Thursday, August 27, 2015


Recap: Glacier National Park was on fire. My NOLS buddy Josh and I bailed on our planned backpacking trip, hung out around Missoula and then climbed Idaho's tallest peak. This post will cover some climbing around Missoula and then my drive east from the Sawtooths into Yellowstone.

I've had the pleasure of climbing with two of my former NOLS instructors since graduating from the school in May. Adam Swisher and I realized a shared passion for one of the East Coast's best climbing areas: Seneca Rocks, West Virginia. I met him there shortly after my course and, with my new technical skills, I was psyched to lead up an iconic route that I've long had my eye on but previously lacked the confidence and ability to climb.

And then in Missoula, after hastily departing the smoky environs of Glacier, Josh and I planned a climbing trip up a feature that he had long wanted to climb, the Shoshone Spire in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Besides the great setting and impressive faces of rock, the two climbs shared one other important thing in common: NOLS instructors have a tendency of sandbagging the hell out of their former students!

sandbag (verb) - to understate the difficulty of a particular climb; to imply a climb is easier than it really is. Origins: adding a "sandbag" (or beer) to a partner's pack whilst hiking, thus making it harder than necessary.

Shoshone Spire is on the right. Our route went up the left side and on the visible face. 
To Josh's credit, information on the Shoshone Spire was sparse at best (which is in direct contrast to Adam's sandbag, when he had climbed the route many times before). We hiked in, camped at the base of the climb, and got an early start the following morning before the sun blasted the south face. We had the following description of the first pitch:

P1: start with a series of cracks starting near the west arete. There are many possible choices, but the left-most splitter is probably the easiest and great climbing. Continue until your rope runs out and belay from a tree. 

Sounds pretty straightforward right? I thought so too. And looking at the route from below it didn't seem all that bad.

It. Was. Awful. But possibly in a good way. Definitely "Type 2" fun, the kind of experience that sucks pretty bad in the midst of things but that you can look back upon somewhat fondly, but only from the safety of a coffeeshop or with beers and buddies gathered around and far removed from the more miserable station in life that originated the story.

I consider myself a fairly solid 5.6 or maybe 5.7 lead climber, comfortable with exposure and runout at that grade. I'm guessing that after I rounded the corner of the straightforward stuff we could see from the ground that things started to trend toward 5.8 and maybe 5.9. My legs started to shake in the "sewing machine" familiar to climbers nervous or tired (I was both). I had to fumble with placing protective gear from awkward stances. My mouth went dry from fear and exertion. Twice my feet cut out without warning from tiny lichen crusted nubbins of granite and I was saved only by bleeding knuckles crammed into cracks for purchase on the rock. None of this is unfamiliar to more experienced climbers, but I was definitely in a fight with the hardest climb of my life. When I finally made it to the tree (it was the most glorious tree I ever saw!) I was frazzled mentally and physically, having operated at redline for 160 feet of hell. Josh, a much better climber than I, arrived at the belay station and announced "that was a hard pitch." No shit.

He took over the leading duties on the harder pitches (yes, things did get more difficult). If I thought my climbing was bold, Josh dealt with more exposure, more dirty lichen, and flaring cracks that didn't offer solid purchase for hands, feet, or protective gear. Heady climbing. I had to yank on quite a bit of the gear to haul myself upward, exhausted from my previous battle. But we made the top. The views were worthwhile and it was a great adventure with a good friend. I think that we grow the most from those situations in which we are challenged nearly to our limits and come out on top. I don't prefer to operate at that level of intensity every time I go out, but I feel it's needed just every so often to keep us humble and better able to handle stressors in the future, like a workout for both brain and body.

Josh on top!
For all you NOLS instructors out there, I still consider myself a 5.6 leader.

After Josh and I parted ways in Idaho, I lingered to backpack and scramble around the Sawtooths. Following a terrific week in the mountains, I returned to Montana with a couple objectives in mind. First was to check out Bozeman's Museum of the Rockies, renowned for its dinosaur exhibits. Montana State University has Dr. John Horner on staff, a forerunner in the field of paleontology, a leading proponent of the "warm blooded and feathers" theory of dinosaurs, and the technical advisor on all of the Jurassic Park films. And yes, I do have a bit of a man-crush on Dr. Horner. Before I decided on the Coast Guard I toyed with the idea of becoming a paleontologist, but what kid isn't enthralled by dinosaurs?

Not three species, but the progression from juvenile (spikes) to mature adult (dome) of Pachycephalosaurus
The club-like tailbone of an Ankylosaurus 
Triceratops' skulls are so dense and bony that they are unusually well preserved  
The big boy himself - Tyrannosaurus Rex! Although Dr. Horner was one of the first to suggest he was just an overgrown vulture, scavenging the kills of other predators and scaring them off with his size. 
A clutch of dinosaur eggs 
The vicious claw of a Deinonychus, a predecessor to the famous Velociraptor!  
Where the magic happens - a part of Dr. Horner's working lab. I think they made the dinosaurs for Jurassic Park in the back...
I thoroughly enjoyed the dinosaur exhibits of the Museum of the Rockies. They also had a Living Farm which still operated like a homestead of the 1800s. Hard work for sure, but there's something about living so close to the land that is appealing even in this day and age.

My second objective for my time in Montana was a drive along the Beartooth Byway, one of the highest (it tops out at 11,000ft!) and most scenic drives in the country. While it does dip down into Wyoming for part of its length, the towns at the beginning and end are both in Montana.

Beartooth Scenic Byway
I particularly enjoyed the town of Red Lodge. I whiled away most of the day in a coffee shop, reading a book from famous western author Normal Maclean about the Smokejumpers since my interest in forest fires was piqued ever since one shut down my Glacier trip. And thus ends my time in Montana, beginning and ending with fire and smoke.

Sunday, August 23, 2015


Returning to the ole USA after my adventures in Canada, I had intended to meet Josh, one of my former NOLS instructors in Glacier National Park for a few days of backpacking. If you haven't been keeping up with western news, Glacier (and most of the west it seems) is on fire. Just driving thru the park to meet Josh I was choking on smoke; my eyes and nose were stinging. Even if we could have gotten a permit (we couldn't) it would have been decidedly unhealthy to breathe that stuff for 4 days. And I can only hold my breath for about 30 seconds so Glacier was out.

Glacier National Park after the Reynolds Creek Fire. Too bad.
A little bummed but we quickly came up with a new plan. We did some rock climbing outside of Missoula, MT (detailed in future post; doesn't fit my "Idaho" theme!) and then travelled to the base of Mt. Borah, Idaho's tallest peak. Josh has climbed a number of state high points, including Alaska (Denali), Washington (Mt. Rainier), and Wyoming (Gannet Peak). He wanted to add Idaho's to the list. I wanted to try myself at the highest elevation I've yet attempted. 

We woke early to climb by headlamp in the cool of the morning. It was a steep 5,200ft in 4 miles. We made it past the infamous "Chickenout Ridge" and to the top in about four hours, a solid effort that we were pretty proud of. Some other guy beat us to the summit for the day, but he cheated and camped halfway up. 

Josh taking a page from my playbook and enjoying a PBJ on the summit of Idaho's tallest mountain 
Being a Saturday, we passed hordes of peak baggers coming up as we were going down. They had all bogged down on Chickenout Ridge, so Josh and I scampered like mountain goats on thin-but-solid holds around them. Based on the amount of trepidation we saw the average hiker exhibit on Chickenout Ridge, then I propose our bypass be henceforth known as "Shityourpants Ledge" and don't recommend it for beginners. 

Josh and I parted ways after Mt. Borah and I continued south and west to Craters of the Moon National Monument. A modern misnomer, as the craters in Idaho were formed by volcanic activity and the craters on the moon were mostly formed by impacts, but NASA did send Apollo astronauts to the monument to study geology before we knew better. 

Craters of the Moon National Monument. Spacesuit not required. 
Two and a half hours north of Craters is the picturesque mountain town of Stanley, Idaho. In an instant it became one of my favorite places in America. The stunning backdrop of the Sawtooth Mountains, sagebrush cattle ranches, and authentic Western charm from the dirt streets and wooden sidewalks. And with a year round population of only 67, there was none of the commercial tackiness that mars other wilderness or park gateway communities. 

Stanley, Idaho
I planned to scramble up the three highest peaks in the Sawtooth Range on an aggressive five day solo backpacking trip that would involve plenty of off trail navigation. Aside from some smoky haze blowing in from wildfires to the west (thankfully nothing in the Sawtooths was burning) I had an absolutely perfect extended forecast so I opted to pack light and used my bivy sack in lieu of my tent. 

First up was the range's monarch, Thompson Peak at 10,761ft. I enjoyed a beautiful alpine campsite and a star filled sky after a 7 mile approach hike. In the morning I made quick work of the 1,200ft yet to go and savored the views from up top, obscured slightly by the lingering smoke. 

Camped below Thompson Peak. And before all you LNTers go batshit crazy on me, that campsite was already impacted!
Smoky views from Thompson Peak
I've been doing my best to represent West Virginia on my trip! 
I descended quickly and caught the shuttle boat across Redfish Lake to begin making my way toward Mt Cramer and Decker Peak. I secretly hoped that this boat ride would go better than the last time I used a boat to access the mountains, which led to one of my more difficult and ultimately abandoned climbing trips

From the dock I hiked along Redfish Creek, underneath the towering granite faces of Mt. Heyburn, the Grand Mogul, Elephant's Perch, The Temple, and Mt. Braxton - impressive and rugged mountains that go a long way to earning the Sawtooths their name. Perhaps I can return with a partner to climb some of the more technical routes. I camped below Mt. Cramer, the second highest mountain in the range, alongside Cramer Lakes in one of the most impressive basins I've ever been in. I think the smoky haze lent itself to an extra vivid red as I watched the sun go down with the peak reflected in its namesake lake. The pretty waterfall dumping into the lake was an added bonus. 

Plotting future climbing trips...
The Temple, Sawtooths Wilderness
Sevy Peak, The Arrowhead, and Mt Cramer viewed from Middle Cramer Lake, Sawtooths Wilderness
Smoky view from Mt Cramer. You can see the lake I camped at previously in the shadows on the far right
Getting from Mt. Cramer to Decker Peak involved A LOT of bushwacking. I was treated to a few alpine lakes that most folks don't get to see, but I also wandered into a few swamps. And tore my favorite pants. I really pushed myself on the final morning of the trip while climbing Decker Peak; I didn't have to save anymore energy for another mountain. I made the top, 1,300ft above camp in 50 minutes! The smoke still occupied the valleys and made the views a little fuzzy. 

Unknown lake, Sawtooths Wilderness
Bushwacking along Decker Creek
Three for three! Atop Decker Peak, the third highest mountain in the Sawtooth Range
All three highest Sawtooths climbed, I made it back into Stanley for some hard earned pizza, beer, and bluegrass music. Despite it's diminutive size, Stanley has an impressive community of adventurers, outfitters, and guides, which naturally lends itself to a number of choice venues and saloons. 

Enjoying a brew in Stanley along the Salmon River
I didn't stay out too late, as the wildfire smoke finally blew off late that afternoon once I was already back in town and I wanted to get up early to hike partway back up Mt. Thompson to a place where I knew the sunrise would be spectacular against the eastern faces of the Sawtooths. I wasn't disappointed. 

Fishhook Creek Ridge, Sawtooth Mountians. Thompson Peak on far right. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Canadian Rockies

I hope Tom Musselwhite reads this post. For two years in Washington I had to listen to his constant entreaties for me to visit Banff and Jasper. And last year when I was "only" 380 miles away I got so much crap for not making the detour. This post is for you, Tom. 

After a long drive across the plains and prairies of North Dakota, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, I picked up adventure buddy (and guest photographer) Trevor Clark in Calgary. Trevor has logged more nights spent in the back of my truck than anyone except myself; he drove with me from Anchorage to Seattle last year.

Our ambitious plan was to visit the conglomerate of parks that make up the Canadian Rocky Mountains UNESCO World Heritage Site and straddle the Alberta/British Columbia border - Banff, Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay. We started our trip with a scenic acclimatization hike up the Iceline Trail in Yoho National Park, with terrific views of Takakkaw Falls (Canada's second highest), glaciers, and rocky moraines. We then road tripped thru Kootenay National Park and enjoyed seeing Marble Canyon, a deep narrow cut filled with turquoise glacial runoff. Our drive around Kootenay brought us within view of the headwaters of the mighty Columbia River and a forehead smacking revelation that that's probably where the province of British Columbia gets its name from. We had always associated the Columbia with Oregon.

Takakkaw Falls, Yoho National Park
Iceline Trail, Yoho National Park. Photo credit Trevor Clark
Photo credit Trevor Clark
Ole Bess making her way into Kootenay National Park. Photo credit Trevor Clark
Marble Canyon Falls, Kootenay National Park. Photo credit Trevor Clark
Acclimatization complete, and with a good weather window ahead, we embarked on the most challenging activity on our itinerary, a climb of the "Matterhorn of the Rockies," 11,870ft Mt. Assiniboine (don't worry we couldn't really pronounce it either. Just say "a cinnamon bun" really fast and no one will notice). We took a helicopter to a lodge below the peak as much for the scenic aerial experience as to save our legs from a 16 mile hike in before we climbed.

Canadian Rockies and Spirit Lake from the air
The approach to the mountain from the lodge to the climber's hut (helicopters, lodges, huts; very European!) was one of the sketchiest I've ever done. We skittered along on narrow ledges full of loose rotten rock with steep, hundreds-of-feet dropoffs below, the very definition of "no fall" terrain but completely unprotectable with a rope owing to the abysmal rock quality. Thankfully we made it to the hut in one piece, where we met a couple of other parties also attempting the climb. Mike was a certified Canadian guide leading a client and the two other guys were climbing bros from BC.

Sketchfactor = Maximum
Talk in the hut turned to conditions on the mountain. In the week leading up to our climb Assiniboine had been dumped with snow. On our flight and hike in, Trevor and I definitely noticed a lot of snow on the mountain but we decided to get up closer and give it a good look. We had planned on and were equipped to cross a little bit of hard, stable, late season snow with ice axes and crampons, but fresh stuff covered the face and clogged the gullies, obscuring holds and anchors and making everything wet and slippery. We were hoping for the more straightforward rock climb indicated in the guide book. After a lot of productive pros and cons, risk vs reward discussion, Trevor and I decided to wait a day for some of the snow to melt before we would climb. The other parties decided to wake up early and give it a shot.

Mt. Assiniboine and Hind Hut. Photo credit Trevor Clark
There was some bustle in the hut at 4am the following morning when the other parties left, but it was nice to be able to sleep in. I spent most of the morning drinking coffee, enjoying the views, and dealing myself a bunch of spider solitaire the old fashioned way with cards. Trevor and I also practiced some rope skills on a small cliff near the hut, often looking up the mountain to check on the progress of the climbers and monitor conditions. They were moving slow. And the snow wasn't really melting despite the sun and warmth. We had another productive discussion, agreeing that the snow was just too much for us and that we would forgo the climb in the belief that discretion is indeed the better part of valor. No sooner had we resolutely arrived at our decision than we heard a helicopter in the distance. It circled the peak and then landed at the hut. Orange-clad mountain ninjas popped out and informed us that Mike the guide called in a rescue for his client. They just couldn't get down safely. We had front row seats as they rigged the helicopter for a short-haul extraction from the summit and brought the climbers down. Nothing like witnessing a helicopter rescue to really take the wind out of your sails for climbing a mountain; it also completely reaffirmed our decision to abandon the climb. Safely back at the hut, Mike said that the conditions were far from ideal. The two bros from British Columbia signaled to the helicopter that they were OK, but traveling extremely slow. We left them some of our spare food in the hut and descended back toward the lodge before they were even halfway down - easily taking 16 hours for a climb that is supposed to take 6 in good conditions.

Rescue technician setting up the short haul. Photo credit Trevor Clark
 Getting them down safe with the ride of a lifetime. Photo credit Trevor Clark
We cooked our dinner on the front porch of the lodge, regaling the guests with our firsthand account of the rescue operations and feeling like minor celebrities. Some folks expressed their condolences that we didn't make the summit, and I'm sure they were just being polite, but I chafed at the notion that we had failed in some way. I didn't really think of it like that. They call the sport "mountaineering" instead of "summiting" because it's far from guaranteed. I've turned back on a number of peaks and not once regretted my decision. The mountains can be malevolent beasts, unfeeling and downright deleterious toward your life and safety. It's best not to get too attached to any mountaineering objective, so it's all the easier to bail when your gut and logic tells you that it's just not right. I've long ago decided that I won't even climb with anyone claiming a 100% success rate. They either haven't challenged themselves and gained the necessary experience from hardship or they are crazy bastards with no regard for their lives.

Maybe next time...
We camped for the night in a beautiful meadow and then made the long and grueling hike back to the trailhead, taking 6 hours to cover what the helicopter did in 12 minutes. We grabbed well deserved burgers and beer in the town of Canmore before heading back into the parks for the remainder of our travels.

We drove along the Icefields Parkway, connecting the towns (and parks) of Banff and Jasper. The Parkway is billed as one of the world's most scenic drives, and we stopped at many of the little pulloffs and viewpoints along the way to take in the waterfalls, glaciers, lakes, and rivers. We visited and had beers in both Banff and Jasper - man, what a contrast! Jasper is a quaint little mountain town and Banff is a mega touristy destination with high end shopping and dining. I prefer Jasper, but Banff supports some of the best adventure films every year at the highly acclaimed Banff Mountain Film Festival, so I won't be too severe in my judgment.

Photo credit Trevor Clark
Canadian traffic jam. Photo credit Trevor Clark
Icefields Parkway. Photo credit Trevor Clark
Trevor doing what Trevor does best. Hanging glaciers and tarn below Mt. Edith Cavel.
Moraine Lake, Banff National Park. Photo credit Trevor Clark
After a bunch of miles hiked, beers drank, Tim Hortons coffee consumed, and good decisions made, I had to return Trevor to America. I dropped him off in Calgary and then started to make my own way back to the States, the land of obesity, a measurement system that doesn't make sense, and FREEDOM!

Mt. Assiniboine, Canadian Rockies

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

North Dakota

I've had a few really cool experiences while road tripping where reality greatly exceeded expectations. Often it's been those few times that my Type-A, planning mentality hadn't gone into overdrive and I just showed up and went with the flow. A good life lesson perhaps. Anyways, North Dakota's Badlands joins Kings Canyon National Park, the Apostle Islands and Prince Edward Island as one of those experiences.

Heading west from Ely across Minnesota, the pines and lakes ever so gradually gave way to farms, plains, and prairie. Western Minnesota is indistinguishable from eastern North Dakota. I got to Fargo and stopped at the tourist information center for a free map. When I mentioned that my ultimate North Dakota destination was Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP), the helpful clerk gave me a brochure for the Medora Musical and said it was a "must see." The show kicks off every summer night at 7:30. With 300 miles to drive it was going to be a close call. I purchased a ticket over the phone, gambling on a 75mph speed limit and a free hour courtesy of the Central-to-Mountain time difference. I made it with half an hour to spare.

Teddy Roosevelt came to Medora to try his hand at ranching. His cattle ventures ultimately failed but he returned east with an appreciation for wide open spaces and abundant wildlife. He left a legacy as a staunch conservationist, befriending John Muir, establishing the first National Parks and using his executive authority to create National Monuments in order to protect important sites threatened by development (the Grand Canyon is one). This legacy continues today - President Obama has the chance to designate West Virginia's first National Monument and permanently protect 120,000 acres of federal land in Appalachia from mining and fracking. Please visit for more information.

Teddy Roosevelt's Medora Ranch cabin
Medora celebrates its connection with Teddy Roosevelt through a country-western musical show full of Rough Riders, classic Wild West, and a hearty dose of patriotism. Broadway in cowboy hats and with real horses on stage. The show is in its 50th year of production and was just a fantastic, wholesome, American experience.

I awoke with sunrise the following morning to make a drive thru Theodore Roosevelt National Park's South Unit before the crowds took over later in the day. As an expected bonus, the animals were also very active.

"Do you think it's safe out there?" "No dude, just stay here with me and squeak some more."
Wild horses
Pronghorn antelope
North Dakota traffic jam
With more accomplished before 9am than some folks do in a day, I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in town before making the 70 mile drive to the separate North Unit of TRNP. When I got my map from the ranger at the entrance station, one glance immediately screamed "PACKRAFT." Once more I got to enjoy the flexibility of having a packraft handy, abandoning hiking plans for a fun trip that I'm sure isn't experienced by many visitors.

I hitchhiked (try that with a kayak!) from the campground out 9 miles to the end of the North Unit's scenic drive (thanks Jim!). From there it was less than a mile down the crumbly badland canyon into the Little Missouri River basin, where I had a 6 mile straight-shot float back into the campground.

The famous and intimidating Class 0.5 rapids on the Little Missouri River 
If this isn't the good life then I'm not sure what is...
The water was pretty shallow in spots; if I drifted out of the channel of deep water my butt would scrape the sandy bottom and I'd have to hop out and walk the raft back into the main flow. But the current moved along at a nice 2mph, so I didn't have to do much paddling as I enjoyed the scenery from a unique vantage point on a beautiful sunny afternoon. Floating the Little Missouri River on a whim thru Theodore Roosevelt National Park quickly jumped into the "Top Five Ways I've Ever Spent Three Hours" and made me even more excited for future pack rafting possibilities.

Sunset over the Little Missouri River, North Unit, Theodore Roosevelt National Park
On to Calgary to pick up intrepid adventurer Trevor Clark for some Canadian Rocky Mountaineering.