Sunday, December 22, 2013

Stuart Peak Double-Take

Take one (December 7): 

Two weeks ago Saturday I had a go at Stuart Peak. The high at 7,000 feet (1,000 feet below the summit of Stuart Peak) was -15 degrees with wind chills predicted to be in the -40s. The weather was predicted to be stable, clear and cold!

I made good time, covering the first 4.5 miles in about 1.5 hours. There was 1-2 inches of snow on the ground up to the that 4.5 mile mark. The snow depth increased rapidly from that point (~5,000 feet) up. I donned my snowshoes at about the 5 mile point and began the slog!

The temperature, although in the -10s, was bearable. On my feet I sported two pairs of wool socks stuffed inside of boots rated to -20 degrees. My legs were covered with two pairs of long-underwear under light trekking pants. On my upper body, I wore 4 layers underneath a winter parka (down mittens with over mittens on my hands). And finally, on my noggin, I wore a balaclava, a fleece neck warmer and a beanie.

Labored breathing laden with the moisture of my breathe froze instantly on any  surface within 7 inches of my mouth. Fortunately, the approach to Stuart Peak lies in a well protected gully, making the wind a non-issue for the first 5-6 miles.

That said, the strong winds combined with the snow of recent days resulting in a 2-3 inch crust on top of 6-8 inches of fairly light powder snow. The crust was weight-bearing 5% of the time: slow-going. Every step required patience as I broke through with each snowshoe and regained purchase on the packed powder beneath the crust.

6.5 miles up, the trail rounds a corner providing the first view of Stuart Peak. With the turn of the corner came the first encounter with a bitter wind in the -30s. The last time I felt winds that cold was in Great Falls  in 2008 when I would go for long runs in -20 to -30 wind chills (this required goggles and 0% skin exposure).

I continued slowly for another 150 feet breaking through the crust, gaining traction and taking another step. At such a frustratingly slow pace, I had another 2-3 hours to the summit, which meant another 3-4 hours exposed to the brutal wind that was increasing in strength and decreasing in temperature. I stopped to assess the situation: the tips of my right toes were getting pretty dang cold and required frequently 'wiggle-stops'; exposure to the wind/cold was only to increase over the next 3-4 hours and the wind roared overhead! Uninterested in frostbite in such a low-reward scenario, I opted to make this point (~6800 feet) the day's high point. I snapped a picture and headed down to the warmth (-8!). This trip goes down as the first time in 5 years that I have not seen another soul in the Rattlesnake (on the trail or at the trailhead).

Self-portrait at the high point on 'take one'.
Take two (December 14):

Exactly a week later - and 25 degrees warmer - I came back with a secret weapon: fellow Rockturnal, Lydia Hess. Fueled by Bernice's Coffee and a touch determination, we hit the trail around 7:30AM. 

Since my last trip a week before, about 6 inches of snow had fallen in Missoula and 1-2 feet higher in the mountains. I was glad to have snowshoe packed what there was of a trail up to the 6.5 mile mark a week before.

Lydia and I moved swiftly, hitting the 4-mile point in about 1.5 hours. About a half-mile later, we donned our snowshoes and enter into a pleasant amble through 6 inches of fresh powder. A mile further the snow's depth was closer to a foot on top of the previously packed trail. Accordingly, our pace slowed. 

By the time we reached my previous week's high point and the end of the snowshoe-packed trail, the snow was closer to 18 inches on top of the old trail. The end of the snowshoe-packed trail meant the end of the easy 'cruise' up Stuart Peak. One step beyond the previous week's high point resulted in a snowshoe-post-hole through 12-18 inches of powder onto (and through) a weak 2-3 inch crust and down to the next layer of firmer snow where purchase was final achieved. 

A slice of humble pie! Our pace slowed from 3-4 miles/hour to less than 1. With 2 miles remaining to the summit of Old Stuey, we had a long slog ahead of us. We trudged on, route-finding to the best of our ability, eventually stumbling upon the Wilderness Boundary marker. 

We stopped for a brief snack break at the Wilderness boundary marker. Now in a cloud with 100-200 feet visibility and a 1.5 mile slog ahead of us to the summit, it was all business. We trudged on!

The snow remained consistently inconsistent: powder, crust, firmer snow. We post holed 1-2 feet with every step (likely waist deep without snowshoes!). As for route-finding, thrown off by the slow pace of travel and assuming we were further along the southeast ridge of Stuart Peak, I (I will take credit for this mistake) moved us onto the crest of the ridge too early, resulting in a disorienting, circuitous approach to the summit ridge. At one point, Lydia protested "are we walking in circles!?". She was angry or upset, she had a valid question, and as we came to discover on our way down, for good reason! 

So I (again, Lydia had her senses) led us in semi-circles, combing the ridge for any sign of the drop from the southeast ridge to the summit ridge. Just when I was beginning to give up hope that we would find it with such poor visibility it appeared: a sharp change in the slope up the south ridge! 

We stopped at the base of the summit ridge for about 1-minute to assess our situation, sort of a council of war (we were moving slowly and we needed to get back by 4:30PM (it was 12:15PM). We decided to go for it and finish what we had worked so dang hard for: the summit!

Fortunately, as anticipated, the crest of the south ridge being exposed to some very strong winds was pretty dang firm in spots. Although, we soon discovered the truth...consistently inconsistent snow pack. Onward and upward!

Lydia and I hit the final summit slope with a seriously strong 'let's get this done!' sort of push and landed on the summit around 12:45PM. We killed it! 30-minutes for that final 1/2 mile steep push. 

We exchanged fist bumps, took the obligatory summit photo, honored the fact that we were inside of a cloud and had no view whatsoever, felt the cold/wind and got the heck out of there (we spent 3 minutes on top!). 

On the summit of Stuart Peak!
In an effort to get ourselves warmed up and get back by our self-imposed timeline, we made quick work on the descent. Thanks to our work snowshoe packing the trail and with the steady pull of gravity this took little effort.

The descent was uneventful, save for meeting up with 3 telemark skiers 3/4 mile from the summit (they had followed our tracks from the bottom!).We took one break on the way down to remove our snows at the 4.5 mile mark and soldiered on, making the total descent in about 3 hours. Wahoo!

Onward and upward,


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