Sunday, October 31, 2010

Public Land Rant

On the drive down to meet up with my buddy Alex in Laramie, WY I wanted to get out of the truck and move around a little. Looking on the map I found a section of the Medicine Bow National Forest near I-80 and hoped I could find an access point to a trail or a dirt road that I could run on. However, I ran into an interesting pickle: the Pitcher-Brokaw road that provided access to the National Forest wound through private land and ultimately "stopped" with the posting of "Private Road" signs. Not wanting to cause a fuss, I parked the Champ, changed my clothes, and took a jog back down the road.

It frustrates me that private landowners are able to block access to public land. Earlier this hunting season a buddy of mine and I were unable to gain access to some BLM land on an obvious BLM road, due to "No Trespassing" signs on private property. There is also a huge section of the Swan Range back home near Kalispell, from the Columbia Mountain trailhead to the Strawberry Lake trail that has no public access due to a lack of access points across private property. It doesn't seem fair that a landowner can block other people's access so that they can have a large section of land for their own enjoyment tax free.

I understand that we in America seem to have an inherent right to private property, but since we are all basically owners of the public land spread over the country we should have the right to access. I don't really have a solution for various access problems since it all takes money to maintain trails, roads, etc., but I just needed to blow off some steam. If any of you have a brilliant solution, or want to put me in my place, I'd love a response.

Extremely Grand Mountains

When you drive south through Yellowstone the road crosses the Continental Divide three different times, all at elevations close to 8000 feet. The funny thing is that it didn’t even feel like I was driving in the mountains! The Park sits on the high plateau of an extinct volcano and even when mountains jut above everything else, the base itself sits fairly high in altitude. However, crossing into Grand Teton National Park and spying the jagged skyline of the namesake summits is a totally different story.

I really lucked out and caught a weather-window because it sounds like the last week or so has been kind of nasty, with a storm dumping about a foot of snow. But today, although cold, there were strips of blue peaking out among the few clouds that floated across the sky, accentuating the grandeur of the Tetons. I drove down to Jenny Lake, after stopping at every available visitor center to pick up a map, all of which happened to be closed for the year. Not to be deterred, I found signs for a trailhead, geared up, and tromped off into the snow. It was incredible! The trail went around the Western shore of Jenny Lake and then up into Cascade Canyon. Once the trail started climbing and heading west, I had a view of the steep cliffs and jagged spires of the mountains themselves.

Head down and moving hard to make it to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point, I almost ran over a cow and a calf moose who gave me the stare-down. Not wanting to get on the bad side of mama moose, I back-tracked and then broke trail in the snow up the horse path heading to the Falls. The features of the Falls were pretty cool: ice was forming on the rock and choking the water’s path causing it to move down the cliff in an interesting pattern. From Inspiration Point, the view of glass-like Jenny Lake and the low-lying mountains to the east was excellent.

I scampered back to the Champ, made a sandwich and took off down the road hoping to drive through the Jackson Hole area before it got dark. Thankfully the sun held out long enough for me to see the town of Jackson, some pretty gnarly ski terrain, and even 16 massive bull elk hanging out together in a field located in an elk reserve (needless to say I pulled over and looked at them longingly through my binoculars).

The beauty of peaks reaching for the sky, especially when they have snow on them, astounds me. Today I had such an incredible feeling of joy just by rounding the corner and seeing them. They seemed so pure, untouchable, otherworldly. I realized today that climbing, whether on rock, ice, or for skiing, is my attempt at being a part of that.

Glimpses of Heaven in Colter’s Hell

Historical accounts tell of a hard core, mountain man named John Colter arriving back at the trading post for the yearly rendezvous telling stories of water shooting straight into the air out of the ground and rivers so hot you could catch a trout already cooked. This fantastical land was given the name Colter’s Hell and was written off as the hallucinations of a man with no companionship for too long. Then more people discovered the area, Jim Bridger being one. Ultimately the area would become one of America’s first National Parks: Yellowstone.

It was a drive down memory lane for me this morning. I woke up from a camp at a fishing access on the Yellowstone River on Hwy 89 south toward the North entrance of the Park. The drive took me past Pray, MT and the entrance to Yellowstone Bible Camp that I attended several times during High School. I also drove by Corwin Springs, reminding me of Ben and Katie: friends that I’ve come to have a number of great adventures with. The mountains with snow on them standing in stark contrast to the brown of the rolling foothills below took me back to the wheat fields behind our house in Cut Bank, where the stubble of the now-harvested wheat fields swept west until the white peaks of the Rockies thrust up blocking their path. Then there was that family reunion on my mom’s side that brought us all together for a week. But that was a long time ago. It is interesting to see how things look familiar to you and yet totally different. I was looking at the mountains and the rivers with a renewed appreciation, with years of hunting, fishing, and climbing the mountains of my Montana home.

Herd of bison in front of steam coming from the Artists Paint Pots.

In “Colter’s Hell” this morning I was greeted in Mammoth to a herd of elk. It was cool to see them milling around and I had fun trying to memorize their shape, color, and movements so as to help my hunting chances when I get home from my trip. I got to see the beauty of terraces being built from water bubbling to the surface from deep below, depositing the minerals that it carries with it. At one point I ran around the boardwalk at the Fountain Mud Pots and saw a geyser in action, some crazy gushing water (that I found out was created in the ‘50s when an earthquake occurred 25 miles away in Montana), and the mud pots themselves dancing away their curious bubbly dance. Then there was the herd of bison crossing the road, silhouetted by steam from a nearby hot spring, a coyote pouncing on some unfortunate creature out in a field, and a white ermine literally porpoise-ing through the snow. Unfortunately I missed the gushing of Old Faithful by mere minutes. I pouted and begged it to prove unfaithful, erupting early just once for me, but alas it held to its ideals.

Upset after missing Old Faithful, which is steaming just to the left of my head.

In fact I feel like I could go on and on about the wonders of the earth that is available to see in Yellowstone: the blanket of snow created a unique atmosphere, rivers rushing over steep precipices into the boiling channel below, and more mountains than I could take in while driving. What an incredible testament to a Creator! Everywhere I looked it seemed as though I was catching glimpses of Heaven in this place dubbed a “hell.”

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Road Tripping

I'm currently in employment-limbo: just finished a my summer job with the Forest Service and am looking for work for the winter. But it's all working according to plan, since I've been dreaming about a big road trip for the last year or so. My plan is to take a lap, albeit a big one, around the Western States, seeing friends and family along the way and visiting as many National Parks along the way. I'll be armed with my climbing gear, mountain bike, and trekking poles cruising the byways in the Little Champ.

The past couple of days have been filled with pre-trip preparation. I'm setting myself up with a cozy camp (which will move between camp
grounds and truck stops, wherever I wind up for the night) complete with propane-powered heater, stove, and lantern. I've also been trying to rig up a shelter for the back of my truck in order to be somewhat out of inclement weather while preparing meals or jamming on the guitar in the evenings.

First stop is Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, then off to Laramie to visit a college buddy. I'll be updating my blog as wireless internet allows, so stay tuned and enjoy the ride.

Gear Tip: Trekking Pole Baskets

I use my Blackdiamond ski poles for backcountry skiing in the winter and later for off-trail trekking in the summer. The past couple of years I've gotten into a routine of switching my baskets every year, since they get pretty beat up. For skiing, I like the "half basket": similar to a powder basket 3/4 of the way around and a thicker shorter plastic on the other side. But in the summer, that big surface area that's so nice when putting in a skin track in the winter get snagged on brush like crazy in the summer. So I decide to cut them off, leaving a nice trekking-style circle that's much easier to manage in the shrubbery.

Replacement trekking baskets are pretty cheap, around $5, but this is a habit that I've gotten into to have shiny, new-looking, grippy baskets every ski season. However, it's become more of a "changing of the seasons" ritual that gets me psyched about every 6 months than something to do out of necessity.

The One that Got Away

Last Weekend of Bowhunting

No, I didn't sneak up this close behind an elk this season; it's a decoy that Dad and I use while we're calling during the archery season. However, a couple of weeks ago we did get a young raghorn bull to come within 5 yards of me. We were hunting west of town, in an undisclosed location, and essentially scouting for the opening of the rifle season in a week. There wasn't a lot of elk sign to speak of and moral was pretty low. Dad suggested that we just hike to the top of the ridge to look over the other side. Close to the top we got into a pretty elky looking area in an open lodgepole stand. For one last hurrah, we decided to set up and pretend like we were really hot cows.

I can tell you that I didn't take this call very seriously: I didn't even take off my pack to call and we didn't set up the decoy. So it really took me by surprise when I heard movement off to my right and suddenly saw a bull elk running toward me (Dad later said that he thought it weird that I was throwing rocks down the hill, but assumed I was just acting like a small herd. He unfortunately never saw the elk). The bull stopped to look around about 30 feet away directly on the opposite side of a big alder bush from me. There was nothing that I could do except freeze, helpless with an arrow nocked but unable to draw back my bow. He could choose to walk around the bush either way and was looking right at me, so my only hope was to wait for him to walk by me and hope for a shot at him walking away. After what seemed like an eternity of my heart throbbing in my throat and struggling to breath as little as possible, the bull made his way around the bush directly in front of me within about 5 yards. Then he saw me, sensed my shape or color didn't "fit" and jumped back behind the bush. I was able to draw when he dashed behind the bush but didn't have a shot. He wasn't completely spooked because he didn't run away, but deliberately moved down the hill never stopping within bow range.

I feel very blessed to have two bulls within bow range in my first year of bow hunting. It's frustrating to have been so close and not have an animal in the freezer but I have to realize that I have a lot to learn about bowhunting and hopefully a lot of opportunities awaiting me in the future. We're going to be back at it come next September with a vengeance.

Rifle Season Opener
Last Saturday was the first day of the general rifle season here in Montana, and we got out and about in elk country with our "thundersticks." It was huge mental shift for me switching from a bow to a rifle, trying to wrap my head around the concept that you can conceivably shoot something further than 30 yards away. We biked in several miles before it got light hoping to get up high just as the animals were moving back into cover for the day.

We didn't see anything except several groups of mule deer does, although were encouraged by the amount of sign: rubs and droppings. Yet again, we covered a lot of ground and saw some amazing country. The hunting is always good, but we have been lacking in the harvesting of big-game animals the past month and a half (I do have to remember that we have been slaying grouse with our bows). It's tough when success is measured in actually killing an animal and not in the day to day experiences we have while out in the woods taking our bows or rifles for a walk.

Near the end of the day, it started raining on us and a fog rolled in. We decided we had some time to kill before moving to the area we wanted to be for the evening hunt so we set up a "flying-diamond" tarp, built a warming fire to practice our survival skills, and took an hour long nap. It's always fun to feel like you can take care of yourself in the case of an actual emergency.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Adventures of the "Chip Off the Young Block" Climbing Team

I suppose this article could be titled "The Conquest of El Capitan". However, as I hammered in the last bolt and staggered over the rim, it was not at all clear to me who was conqueror and who was conquered: I do recall that El Cap seemed to be in much better condition than I was.
Warren Harding, from the American Alpine Journal about his ground-breaking ascent of El Capitan

I can't recall the first time I considered trying rock climbing. My parents raised me outside essentially, starting out by hauling me around in a kiddy-backpack in the summer and in a sled behind cross country skis in the winter. Dad really got into "peak bagging" in Glacier National Park keeping track of the summits he reached. When I was finally old enough (around 11) he led me up Flinsch Peak in the Two Medicine drainage. I was instantly hooked: being the highest point around, you can see for miles and experiencing travels in the high rock is incomparable. Inevitably though, this youngster wanted to be able to climb everything that he saw, including the smooth looking walls I could see from other peaks. The logical step was to start rock climbing to gain the technical skills to climb in the alpine environment and cut my teeth climbing on the chossy stone of Kila Crag my senior year in high school with some buddies from the wrestling team.

That was five years ago now, and I am pleased with the things I've been able to accomplish now. I started traditional lead climbing two years ago and was able to pretty much climb year round while going to school in Texas (and it was a good thing too since I couldn't ski as much as I wanted...). Bringing those experiences back home, I've been able to get my dad into rock climbing and teach him the necessary skills with the ultimate goal of climbing the five designated technical peaks in GNP. The past two summers, Dad was influential in getting us up Walton and Blackfoot with his glacier travel knowledge. Then the rock routes up Wilbur and Split fell in one weekend last summer.

The COYB Climbing Team on the summit of Pumpelly Spire. Do we look tired? 'Cause we were...

The apple never falls too far from the tree, but since I got into climbing first, Dad is a chip off the "young block," eh? Hence the name of our climbing team. We were feeling pretty bomb-proof this summer and ready to conquer anything even St. Nicholaus, the biggest challenge of the Five, but ran out of time and good weather. Thus our dreams sat in wait until this summer.

B7 Pillar and Pumpelly Spire
The quote above from Warren Harding quickly became real to us as we did a two day adventure on the East side of the park with the goal of summiting B7 and Pumpelly in sequential days. Neither are on the Glacier Mountaineering Society's original list of the five technical peaks, but are actually more difficult than any of them. As reasonable day trips (or so we thought), they would be a great shake-down to test our team's skills before attempting St. Nick.

Me at the start of the B7 climb. Pretty cool climbing through the Diorite Sill layer: super solid igneous rock with jams aplenty.

We drove over to Many Glacier early Friday morning and parked at the Iceberg Lake/Ptarmigan Tunnel trailhead. While we were getting ready, a black bear and two cubs tromped by in the trees on the edge of the parking lot. Glacier wildlife has an interesting side to it: they don't really feel threatened by people and thus you can see them acting "normally" in their habitat. The sow never seemed to care that we were even there, which was fine with me since I'm not a fan of using my pepper spray... We made quick work of the trail heading into the lake and navigated up the slope above toward Iceberg Notch. We hiked around the North side of the Ptarmigan Wall to the base of our climb: a 5.7 rated route up a weak point in the face. Dad and I climbed it in 2 pitches before scrambling to the top un-roped through class 3 terrain. The wind was pretty unbearable at the top so we snapped a couple of pictures and hurried off the summit, rapelled back to our packs, and hurried back to our truck for dinner and rest. We even got to meet my mom and her hiking buddy, who were also camping in Many Glacier, to eat dinner and enjoy a celebratory Cold Smoke bought in the campground general store.

The next day, still feeling unstoppable, we drove to Two Medicine lake and caught the boat over to the west side of the lake. To approach the base of the Pillar, you hike up the trail toward Upper Two Medicine Lake, and then veer off to the right up a grassy slope to the face on the eastern most point of the ridge that stretches out from Mt. Helen. Someone has scratched an arrow into the chimney that the route follows giving you confidence that you're at least starting in the same spot as a previous party. The ensuing climb was upper-class, sustained 5.7 for 7 pitches, which included two quick hip belays as Dad followed. We reached the summit after about 6 1/2 hours at 5:50, and quickly made the 7 rapels back to our stashed gear at the bottom by 8:30, scrambling to reach the trail again by night fall. We ended up hiking the trail back to the parking lot in another 2 1/2 hours by head lamp feeling very much like the conquered rather than conquerers of any mountain.

A topo from our climb up the Pillar.
St. Nicholaus
We almost ran out of time again this year to climb St. Nick. With a late starting alpine season due to a cooler, wetter May and June, then climbing B7 and Pumpelly in August, and bow season starting the first of September our dream was going to have to wait yet another year. However, a week of high pressure moved in and we suddenly had a gorgeous first weekend of October. What better to celebrate a nice Indian Summer than with some climbing, right?

Our route in to climb the most iconic technical peak of Glacier followed Muir Creek, none of the 6 mile approach being by man-made trail. We followed a series of elk trails in on Friday morning after fording the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, up and around a ridge and camped at a beautiful small lake nestled in among small trees on the edge of a boulderfield very reminiscent of Longs Peak in Colorado. The next morning we trudged up to the Great Notch, dropped our packs, roped up, and sent one of the coolest mulit-pitch climbs I've ever done. The first 30 feet were the steepest and hardest to protect but were some of the most enjoyable, with some really airy exposure. The rest of the climb was lower fifth class climbing with the exception of a cool 25 foot section of hand and fist jamming. In all, we climbed 4 roped pitches and then rapelled 3 (we carried another 60 meter rope with us to get full-length rapels). After some unfortunate SNAFUs while rapelling, which took more time than really endangered us, we didn't get back to camp until 3:30 and still faced a 5 hour hike back to the River crossing. To our dismay we were deep in the bottom of Muir Creek when it got dark at 8 o'clock slowing our pace to a crawl.

Dad following up a superb section of rock on St. Nick, pitch 3.

While hunting this Fall, I've really begun to have a Love-Hate relationship with elk, but our St. Nick epic has definitely helped by appreciation of them. We were having to hop the creek back and forth to find ground to travel on and becoming worried that one of us was going to fall and hurt ourselves on the slick rock. After saying, "Just a little further" about 50 times until 9:30 we sat down for a final snack break and seriously contemplated bivouacking until it got light again. However, I had remembered that there was coulee that we crossed on the elk trails I mentioned above and saw on my GPS that we had stopped right next to that small drainage. Thankfully we were able to find the trail again and started to really be able to move again high above the creek bottom. It was still extremely difficult to find the trail back down to the level of the river again, and we hiked up and down the hillside several times getting cliffed-out. Finally we found a steep elk trail that led straight to the mouth of Muir Creek: we never would have made it without the elk! I was so tired that I stripped down to my underwear, waded across the river, and walked half-naked the last half mile to the truck.

Dad and I on our fifth technical peak.

It is interesting to think that the epic of St. Nick was really found in the approach and escape, not the climbing itself. The rock from the Notch was fantastic: relatively solid (by Glacier's standards), held protection well, and had great exposure. After all our technical climbing training, practice, and preparation the pinnacle of the summit attempt went like a breeze. It was the bushwacking, carrying heavy packs, and off-trail navigation that worked us over; stuff that we've been doing for years before even thinking we would ever get into climbing vertical rock. But maybe that's the way of things: you can never take things for granted in the mountains. And even when you think you've got it made, the climb in the bag, and the peak conquered, it is the mountain that will always have the last laugh.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Reflections from Forest Fires

I’ve been in the woods a lot this summer, both for recreation and for work. It is surprising to see just how many different “types” of wooded areas there are just in our little spot in Northwest Montana. Although the trees are all the same, there are places that have been recently logged, places that are super-overgrown with underbrush, places where the Lodgepole pine are so close together that you couldn’t hope to get through them for miles, places that have burned within the last couple years, etc. To be honest the most beautiful places are those that are growing back after a logging or clearing operation or after a fire burned through the area.

For the last century or so, the national policy was for absolute fire prevention allowing fuels and undergrowth to become out of control and fires of today to burn hotter and faster. Thankfully we are realizing that fire in the woods is a natural cycle; many trees, plants, birds, and animals need it for their life cycle. We can do it on our own too: thinning/fuels reduction projects and controlled burning can achieve the same results as natural fire without the possibility of property damage or loss of life. Unfortunately I feel like these projects don’t happen as often as they should because people are turned off by the initial damage caused, don’t like to see dead trees or blackened trunks. They would rather see a forest “full of life” with lots of green, leafy foliage.

I wonder if it’s an innate human desire to cling to life and want it to be eternal. I believe we were created by God with a longing for an everlasting life with Him. Trying to fill that void with lots of “life” in other forms comes from not having a hope of eternal life after this world. Just like the fire cycle in our forests, we will undergo a death in this life but be regenerated into a heavenly life that we can’t even begin to imagine now. I look forward to that day with as much excitement as I have when I see new plant shoots growing out from underneath blackened, charred soil.

Calling in a Bull

It actually works! I’m not a horrible hunter after all… Although I still haven’t shot my elk this hunting season I came heartbreakingly close this last weekend. A friend of mine and I traveled down to Avon Valley for a three-day hunt in an area that we hoped had more elk than what we’ve been hunting. (I mean, I’ve hunted hard for 10 days before this trip and have seen one elk!)
We were in exploratory mode on Friday and Sunday getting absolutely skunked: not seeing any elk or even much elk sign. But Sunday morning changed all that. About 8 am we set up about 100 yards apart and started calling like crazy, pretending to be hot, good-looking cows looking for a handsome bull. And to my absolute disbelief a bull bugled about 150 yards away and came walking in looking for some action. I don’t know how to begin to describe how I felt when he came into view. One minute I was looking at a misty early-morning forest when suddenly that bull came into view. It seemed as though the rest of the forest went blurry and this huge animal became ultra-focused, even glowing a beautiful tan. My heart was pounding in my throat and I couldn’t breathe, I can think of very few times when I had so much adrenaline in my system! He walked within 20 yards of me, stopped and looked straight at Brandon before walking right in front of me at about 17 yards, in what should have been a perfect shot. However, I couldn’t pull my bow back because he would see me. When I thought I was safe with his head behind a tree, I drew back only to have him veer back downhill and trot away. I don’t think he saw me and didn’t act all that spooked, but he may have heard me and figured something was wrong with the situation and decided to skedaddle.
I don’t know how long it’s going to take to get over the fact that I blew the only opportunity I’ve had all year at an elk, but I do know that I’ll never forget that experience. I just hope there are a lot more opportunities like that in my life.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Hunting Update

Three grouse with a bow. Not out of the air, mind you, but I'm still pretty proud.

Archery season is winding down up here in the mountains of Montana. The weather is feeling more and more like Fall, minus a week or two of Indian Summer. The foliage is changing colors and after watching a ski flick last night (PowderWhore Production Tele-vision) it's tough not to think about snow coming soon. I haven't been able to track down the elusive elk that haunts my dreams yet, but Dad and I have been very successful shooting grouse: I even got my limit of three with my bow while out a couple of weeks ago. A friend of mine, Brandon, and I are heading out for one last big push this weekend to try and get a shot at a bull a few hours south of the Flathead Valley.

One man's trash is another man's treasure.

Car Camping Tip #1:
For your reading pleasure, I thought I would also include a tip Dad and I discovered two weeks ago. We were planning on camping out of the back of my dad's truck on a Friday night, cutting down on driving time to hunt for two days in a row. In the mornings, we don't really have time to have coffee while wolfing down a quick breakfast before heading out before light. So we've gotten into the habit of having some fresh-brewed joe after we get back from the morning excursion. However, in the midst of packing, we forgot our pot to boil water in on the ol' Coleman stove. We tried making a bowl from some old tin foil but it had a small hole in it and leaked out before the water could get hot. Not to be deterred from our savory beverages, we found some old beer cans in the ditch and boiled some water in them! Living out the Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle ethic, eh? And it worked very well. Necessity is the mother of invention...

Ahhh, that hits the spot!