Obsession can have a bad reputation, stemming from normally adjusted people not understanding such dedication to a particular cause. But in some cases, and for some projects, obsession might be the only way to make a goal happen. To whit: three years of waiting.
Three years of looking at one line. Three couloirs connected by lateral bands descending 3000ft or so on the northwest face of Mt. Allen in the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park, Montana. In that time since I first spotted this option, I've learned. My abilities as a ski mountaineer have grown. With that hard-won little bit of experience, the waiting game has taken a patient edge: if the snowpack doesn't work this year, maybe it'll be better next winter. Maybe the stars will align.
Given the half-sized winter we had, it seemed unlikely this year would be the one. But as I crested a ridge to the north on a separate climb, there it was, all filled in, ready and waiting. Once home, I scrambled to find a buddy with some free time. Carl was down to make it happen. We'd just need the weather to cooperate. Instead it gave us this forecast:
Carl summed it up with one adjective: "Western." I had visions of people busting through saloon double doors with skis on their back, but it seemed like we were sunk for planning ahead. Then Tuesday came and went, seeming not that bad via the webcams. Maybe we'd get kind of a window. Driving the three hours over that night, the Subie tore through curtains of rain on the Rocky Mountain front. It dried up for a while, then rained on the tent as we were going to sleep. Not too encouraging, but with three years of waiting, I was ready to make this thing happen.
4am was our wakeup. By 5:30, we were on the trail. Unlike the tourists we'd encounter on our way out, the sow grizzly and yearling cub didn't seem too surprised to see two skiers walking that early in the morning. She hardly seemed to care, and kept coming towards us. So we backed up, eventually crossing a bridge. The bears followed us across, then split off into the woods. They, like us, didn't feel like getting wet on an overcast morning.
Four miles of trail went past before we dodged east and into waist high thickets of shrubberies. Elk trails peppered our approach line, and they'd make for a few hundred yards of easy going until ending abruptly or going sideways across the hill. Once past the snow line, we stashed our shoes in a tree and got to skinning around the shoulder of Mt. Allen.
Though low, the cloud ceiling had been going steadily uphill all day. Maybe we'd get clear weather for the summit and descent. Directly under the line, staring up, I second guessed our location a few times--had I picked the wrong spot? Was this it? The fog, and the way that the line sidestepped twice made it hard to tell.
Cracks I couldn't see from the photo a few days previous were now visible, but seemed manageable. Skins took us up the apron, and then we threw skis on our backs to boot our way to the ridge.
Carl opens up the first hallway:
Me, following along:
In the choke of the first hallway:
Instead of spring corn, our boots sunk to the ankle in isothermal mush. The rain had done its work, and if the line had been one giant slot, the wet slide danger would have turned me back. Instead, the lateral bands would safely funnel anything coming down from above to the side, making our exposure a bit shorter. We talked it over, and agreed that we felt fine. I took over the lead into the second hallway, with Carl close behind:
The year previous, I'd looked down the line from the top, but couldn't see the middle sections. I would have guessed the middle sections would have been extra steep, hence bringing our ice tools. Instead, we booted along in soft conditions that would have been fine with just an ice axe or whippet. The angle never went past 40 degrees, even in the steepest choke. Sure, it was exposed, and a fall or slide could have been a game ender--but aside from the soaked snow, the ascent which I'd assumed to be gnarly proved to solidly classic.
As we neared the top, the fog swallowed us again. Pockets in the clouds would open for a few minutes, then envelope us back into the murk. Hence why I don't have a summit shot. Instead, we started skiing.
After pushing some of the goopy, sludgy mess down the hill on a series of ski cuts, we realized that it was a sort of slow slough management. Schmoo would pile up in runnels, only to pour over our skis anytime we got further ahead of it than we should. Essentially, we ski cut the entire thing, both of us keeping it conservative lest a rogue patch of less sticky snow come pouring down on us after we'd kicked it off.
Carl leapfrogs down the third hallway:
Stopped above the second choke:
Carl works it out into the bottom hallway.
Even once on the apron, the snow remained sticky. We made a few wider turns, gave some high fives, and skied back down to our shoes. From there, it was all about linking together patches of snow. Or not snow. It didn't seem to matter very much to Carl.
At some point, my skis went back on my pack. Then both of us went back into the thickets, as it started to rain.
The walk out was muddy, rainy, and pretty quiet compared to our chatter on the trip in. On one hand, it felt really good to have sorted the approach, climbing, and safe skiing on the line. On the other, the wet snow made for mediocre turns. Perhaps it's nitpicky to not be entirely stoked, but we were both hoping for better snow conditions. At least it wasn't dropping lightening bolts like the forecast suggested.
Likely, the line is melted out for this year. And I can't help thinking that maybe next spring, it will fill in again.
Though likely, it's really hard to know whether we nailed together a first descent given the quiet nature of ski mountaineering in NW Montana. But arguing over that isn't the most interesting to me. Instead, the exploration of a new line in my backyard, and discovering that it wasn't as steep or gnarly as I'd supposed are the biggest takeaways. If it had been, if we'd been gripped, I might not want to go back--but under firmer snow conditions, it'd be a classic, fun ski mountaineering route in a spectacular area. Which makes a cooler discovery for me, because I immediately think of friends who would love to go and do it. Here's to not just first descents, but lines that are worthy of second and third ones too.
Thanks to Carl for his company, shots, enduring rain, and cutting his south american packing time to make this happen. It was an honor to be out there with him.