We had both looked to the north on St Joseph Peak tours and admired the inspiring southeast face/gully of the East Butte. Using the fast and safe conditions, Brian and I hit the trail at 6:07 a.m. skinning up the face of Little St. Joseph Peak.
That first 5,100' climb was in great shape with a skin trail the whole way. Sunrise caught up with us at an overlook over Bass Creek Canyon and the opposite Crags. Another two hours found us dropping off the summit of Little Joe, alternating sides of the ridge skinning through krumholtz and across the steep upper face of the first north side ski run. We crossed a small subridge and began our descent into the main Joe basin's east extremity. It was a steep glade followed by a slide path down and through forest. After the steep section we headed in a direct traverse up canyon toward Pyramid Buttes and dropped into and crossed the South Fork Sweeney Creek at 6,200'.
A nice reentry into the sun was a pleasant break from the winds at elevation, blowing steadily about 10-15 mph. At 10:30 or so we were beginning the climb up the South Face in bright hot sun and warming snow conditions. Reaching the summit around Noon, the wind had continued and the shortwave feature had thrown the occasional cloud between us and the sun. The views at the summit were awesome, surrounded by the higher Peaks of Big Joe, Sweeney and Lolo. The Y gullies on Lolo looked really white and nice.
The descent consisted of a large open face, the east facing aspect of the gully which was very smooth in nature which made the lightly breakable crust very manageable for skiing. Unfortunately I had remounted my 174 K2 Sahale skis in interest of a small weight savings over my shorter 168 Kongurs. A ski reserved for the strictly expert skier, whenever I would be tossed backseat, the weighted ski would lock into a straightline from which I had to fight to regain forward weight composure and an arc to my descent. Fortunately I could stay mostly forward on the boards and enjoyed the 2,270' descent from broad face to nicely constricted rock bound gully to clean apron below.
It was alternately sunny but obviously losing ground and we still had to climb back over Joe Ridge, so I spoke my intention of heading up and out slowly while Brian explored another downcanyon gully run. Resting in the trees in the sun was right for me then, as I dried out warmed up and had some more food. Surveying my position from the open meadow at the bottom of a avy path, I could see the good line cutting through old growth spruce on the north face of Joe before traversing back into the main summit basin. I changed and headed for the creek where I watered up and brought a full liter. Taking it slow, I began skinning out. Trying to take a water break every 20 minutes was a great idea, and I kept snacking...all day. Able to use our descent traverse line a bit later, the line crossed the basin to the foot of the headwall, where after surveying a small bulge feature, I chose to escape east up the 1200' 35 degree slope. I made it skinning only so far, then switched to booting. About to the summit of the ridge, I could see Brian below me, so I waited where it eased off to finish as a skin trail.
By now really light snow was falling and the sun was rendered opaque. Looking across to the Bass Creek Crags, St. Mary's Peak and the Heavenly Twin's Basin caught the eye with impressive features and snowfields. I noted El Capitan on the distant horizon...and then we were ascending the final ridgeline at a moderate angle, a kick and glide moment before the south east descent via the Pin Ball Wizard Gully to Bass Creek. For me much of the trip was new, for all of the descents, I was a virgin. While the snow surface was less than good, the terrain and tour made up for this fact. And the run down the north face of Joe to the bottom of the Pyramid was excellent, dry, shallow powder. No cold wind buff encountered. No corn snow either. After leap frogging each other in the gully, we skied passed a clear set of goat tracks heading down gully and then traversing left to cliffs. I stopped below further and flushed a pair of blue grouse from a Douglas Fir perch they were occupying on the cliffs there. The gully another beautiful ski feature is quite moderate and extremely clean and free of vegetation.
From the top of the Wizard Gully to ski to the trailhead at Bass Creek took no longer than an hour. The trail was fast and extremely difficult to slow down upon and control your speed. Better than breaking trail downhill, but scary. We zipped into the parking lot about 10 and a half hours after we had left, tired and thrilled. What a trip through the mountains that had been. And we had double haul IPAs to celebrate.