Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Going to the Sunburn

Posted By on Tue, Jul 19, 2011 at 4:42 PM

It’s 6 a.m. on July 15, and 48 hours have passed since Glacier National Park’s famed Going-to-the-Sun Road opened to the public for the season. Like many ski junkies within a couple-hundred-mile radius, I’d watched the Park Service webcams and plowing updates all spring, hoping to extend the ski season amid Glacier’s spectacular peaks. Now we’re halfway up the Sun Road and getting nervous—partly for the unknown terrain we’ll be skiing, but mostly just about the suspect mid-July snow quality.

Flower-covered terraces above Hidden Lake.

Although massive and late-season snowfall this year caused the road to suffer its second latest opening ever, backcountry ski pilgrims know to expect an experience very different than skiing in the winter. There’s more sunburn, less clothing and never any powder. There are also no chairlifts, so you have to earn your turns, either carrying your skis or snowboard or skinning up the mountain. Neither is particularly easy, but for the hundreds of schussers flocking to Logan Pass every year, the rewards of skiing amid Glacier grandeur are well worth the sweat.

Erik Samsoe fords the Hidden Lake outlet.

The pass has become an annual destination for me, but my ski buddy Erik Samsoe is skiing in the backcountry for the first time. But he’s a good skier with no shortage of enthusiasm, and soon we’re booting up and entering a world of white. Well, mostly white, as strong summer winds have coated much of the area’s snow with various layers of rock and dirt. Although the snow at the parking lot seemed deep for mid-July, snow coverage feels unremarkable—wrinkled by choppy suncups and boot-deep runnels. Some areas are so consistently patterned they look like corduroy groomed by a snowcat.

We soon roll over Hidden Lake Pass and gain a familiar yet phenomenal panorama of towering matterhorns—Reynolds, Clements and Bearhat mountains. All are skirted by dirty snowfields in various shades of gray and brown. Only one patch—quite distant—appears bright white, and we decide it should be our destination. The map indicates a perfect 1,000-foot, 35-degree slope. We just have to get there.

So we rip our skins and traverse high around a cliff band before finding a descent gully, hopping small cliffs on soft and consistent snow. Soon we’re standing next to Hidden Lake’s outlet, clear and cold and pouring from beneath its frozen surface. We strip down to our undies, ford the thigh-deep creek and quickly reboot on the other side.

We find weathered grizzly tracks and follow them through a critical break in the cliffs to our planned destination, an unnamed 7,806-foot ridgetop above the head of Hidden Lake. The high point offers a tremendous view of Sperry Glacier, Avalanche Lake, Heavens Peak and beyond. It’s a wild, breathtaking place, and we don’t leave until dark storm clouds start pushing us from the southwest.

Avalanche lake Overlook

Erik hits it first, laying down a couple cautious turns before blazing a signature of wide arcs across the massive white canvas. I follow, fruitbooting a tight top-to-bottom line. Safely down, we regroup, skirt the lake and re-ascend to Hidden Lake Pass. As the sun paints the Garden Wall a brilliant orange, we drop our packs by a trickling stream, wash our faces and rehydrate on sweet melt water, not at all ready to exit the alpine. But it’s getting dark, and we’ve a big day ahead tomorrow. We drop into a deep runnel and enjoy a bobsled run to the parking lot. We’re soon driving down the road to our dinner and campsite.

Sunset skiing, Logan Pass.
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  • Sunset skiing, Logan Pass.

Sunday dawns clear and blue, a textbook day for summer skiing in the park. Erik and I are joined by three experienced skier friends and we head right back to the pass. Although it’s sunny instead of cloudy, snow conditions are similar to the day before, so we set out on another tour, this time skiing around the 8,760-foot Clements Mountain with hopes of skiing Bird Woman Glacier and the steep hanging snowfield on the ridge separating Clements Mountain from Mount Oberlin.

The sun has burnt off the snow to reveal small cliffs and wildflower-covered terraces. So we strap our skis to our packs and scramble up until Bird Woman Basin spreads out before us. On a previous year’s trip up the adjacent Mount Cannon, we’d watched for 20 minutes as a wolverine crossed through the saddle and ambled around the glacier before digging into it and disappearing for at least an hour.

A steep rollover high on the glacier prevents us from seeing much of anything beneath us. We’d scouted the line earlier from the Sun Road but only knew of two must-miss crevasses part way down the slope. The rest appeared to be prime, open bowl skiing—from two miles away on the road, at least.

Hidden Lake

Following a brief discussion of the unseen obstacles beneath us, we drop in one by one. The 1,400 feet of unskied corn has us all smiling as we lay down carves and dance between glacial cracks.
A sun-soaked climb up Mount Oberlin puts us just one more run from the Logan Pass Visitor Center, and soon we find ourselves laying arcs down the hanging snowfield and returning to the car.

As the sun drops behind our freshly cut tracks beneath Mount Oberlin, we change clothes, pop beers and toast the day. An old Westfalia rolls slowly by, then a pack of motorcycles. Two snowboarders walk by sporting headlamps, heading for moonlight turns. Another truck pulls in, carrying six people and five mountain bikes. They join dozens of cyclists already staged for a full-moon ride down the pass.

It’s been a perfect day and night to go to the sun, the kind you really don’t want to miss. You might think you have all summer to get up there, but don’t wait too long. The road’s seasonal closure is already slated for mid-September.

The Cirque above Hidden Lake

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