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.
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.
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.