Sunday, March 23, 2014

University Mountain: A Re-Awakening

Objective: Northwest Face of University Mountain
Vertical Feet: ~3200
Elapsed time: 3 hours 10 minutes

Hungry to explore new terrain on familiar mountains, I ventured onto the unknown - to me - ribs, gullies and faces of University Mountain. The whole affair was hugely impulsive and based on a last-minute panic: should I not get out now - 1PM on a cloudless Saturday afternoon - a pall will be cast over the weekend and I shall return to work on Monday unchanged. 

I disembarked at the 'M' Trailhead, trekking poles in hand and the echoes of Spoon's heady 'Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga' album ringing through my earbuds. My chosen objective for the day was the north ridge/northwest face of University Mountain. Both the ridge and the face, although relatively safe, offer the most challenging terrain of Mount Sentinel's big brother. The north ridge direct can be thought of as the line of passage to gain access to the northwest face, a hanging basin ~750 vertical feet directly below the summit. The recent freeze/thaw cycle followed by a good freeze, portended firm snow and good climbing.

To reach the base of the route, I walked about 2 and 1/2 miles along the Kim Williams River Trail. The north side of both University and Mount Sentinel rise steeply and uniformly from the edge of the Clark Fork River, the water feature which the Kim Williams River Trail parallels. This is fortuitous for the bushwhacking, weekend explorer as it allows for easy and immediate access to the flanks of the massif. 

I reached what appeared to be the base of the north ridge direct (the ridge that rises directly to the summit,  not the false summit), shortened my trekking poles and began the steep bushwhack up the slope. 

The north side of University Mountain is littered with fallen trees and thickets, a bushwhackers nightmare. Fortunately, there remained a consistently thick and firm enough layer of snow to cover the fallen trees and the base of the thickets. What wonderful travel! The lower fourth of the mountain passed as many of the other ribs and ridges of the north side have: an exercise in navigation, weaving in and out of stands of pines and clumps of thickets. 

About a quarter of the way up, I found myself a hundred feet higher than and parallel to a steep snow-covered talus - basketball-sized rocks - field. I descended to its base and climbed the obstruction free slope. Near the top of the talus field (~500 feet from its base) the slope steepened and the snow deepened, effectively covering the stones. The snow was a hard-packed, barely granting the mark of my boot with the full weight of my body applied to its surface. Earlier in the day, I had opted to leave my crampons and ice axe at home, and was now regretting that decision. No matter, I put myself to the work of methodically kicking steps up the slope. One kick, two kick, three kick, four kick, platform, left foot step. One kick, two kick, three kick, four kick, platform, step. And so it went. 

Reaching the top of the talus field I re-entered the dense wood. The slope continued to steepen, but the hard-packed snow remained. Although a fall on the hard snow without an ice axe to self-arrest would have undoubtedly resulted in a good slide, my fears were allayed by the density of the trees and thickets to stop such a fall.

Fifteen minutes later I found myself on the shoulder of the ridge. From this new perspective I was able to see the summit proper and the whole of the northwest face through the thinning trees. My position was a couple hundred feet above the base of the gully that led into the northwest face and about half of a mile to the west. I opted to do a downward traverse to the base of the gully.

Upon reaching the base of the gully, and in effect, the northwest face, I was discouraged - but not surprised - to find a harder snow pack with intermittent patches of ice covering the virtually treeless gully and face. Although a relatively gradual slope (~30-35 degrees), I would not be afforded the psychological and, in all truth, the real protection that the trees below had a provided. No, a slip here here would result in non-stop slide to the base of the gully. I weighed the risk. Had the slope been any steeper, I would have abandoned the route and regained the trees. With time and patient kick-stepping, I knew it could be done safely without an ice axe or crampons. 

So it began: the climb to the top. The face itself isn't anything to write home about, but a fairly special feature so close to Missoula. One kick, two kick, three kick, four kick, platform, left foot step. One kick, two kick, three kick, four kick, platform, right foot step. The snow consistently hard, the rhythm was wholly meditative. This is mountaineering at its best. 

With the true summit out of sight, I oriented myself to what I thought to be the most direct line up the face. As the tempo of my rhythmic steps towards the summit increased, the shadow that threatened to ensconce my weekend in stagnancy began its retreat. Upward, upward, upward! My pace increased. I progressed into my standard heavy breathing rhythm: high-er, high-er, high-er, each syllable an out-breath, followed by a large soundless in-breath. Ah! Sweet, sweet freedom of movement and exploration. 

Several minutes later, I crested the upper slope of the face and was greeted with a view of the towers of University Mountain, marking the summit. I was a mere 200 feet away, the slope laid back, allowing me to walk normally on the shallow grade. I increased my pace and power hiked the remaining distance to the summit. Success!

After a quick gulp of water and a couple of deep breathes, I began the descent down the standard trail. What a delight to walk on even relatively level ground! 

In my life, mountain adventures have become a necessary function of living. My outing up University Mountain this weekend re-enforced this very fact. It is in the mountains that one can pit the mind against new objective; re-invigorate the soul with exposure to the raw, natural world; and challenge the body with formidable physical obstacles. I will return to work on Monday changed. 

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