Ski trip to Glacier: Learning the hard way

Every year on the morning after MSU graduation, my buddy Taylor and I load all of our worldly belongings into his tiny purple Tacoma and drive to Glacier National Park. Glacier is the first stop on our way to Taylor’s home city, Seattle. The rapid transition from the highly social environment of graduation parties to a more isolated mountain environment is something that we both thrive upon.

Glacier National Park is not known for casual backcountry skiing. Dubbed the “Alps of America,” it is as rugged and remote as it is beautiful. While there are few glaciers remaining today, the landscape they carved out in the past is impressive, steep and jagged. In the early spring most access roads are covered with several meters of snow; the only way into the park is on skis or snowshoes.

The first time we made this journey was several years ago. We were, not surprisingly, less than prepared. Taylor and I thought ourselves to be hot ski mountaineers and were eager to put this theory to the test. Five thermoses of coffee, three greasy burgers each and a full tank of gas got us from Bozeman to a closed gate at the east entrance of the park.

We spent the majority of the drive arguing about the necessary time to awake the next morning, given the warm spring conditions. Spring skiing is often characterized by early morning or even late night “alpine starts.” The snow cools at night, and during this time avalanche conditions are safest, and rock and ice fall are less prevalent. In an ideal situation, you would hike/climb/tour during the night or early morning and begin your descent after the sun rises and softens the crusty snow. Taylor argued for a 3 a.m. departure our first morning, his logic being this time provided for safer avalanche conditions. I argued for 8 a.m., given my lack of sleep over graduation weekend. We begrudgingly settled on 4:30 a.m.

After a short night’s sleep under the stars, we awoke to our phone alarms, brewed coffee and starting hiking. We chose to ski a couloir we had examined from our camp with binoculars the night before. A relatively short approach brought us to the base of a steep talus slope that led to the entrance of the chute. High winds had swept away the snow here, so we climbed several hundred feet on loose rock in our ski boots. At this point in our ski careers Taylor and I were still using our resort ski boots in the backcountry. These kinds of boots are barely comfortable enough to walk into a ski lodge, let alone climb on rock. It was decidedly heinous going.

When we reached the snowline, it was still dark. The snow was rock hard, frozen solid from the low temperatures that night. We had no crampons. Taylor had his mountain axe, but I had forgotten mine. Taylor gave me a brief demonstration of how to self-arrest a fall with a ski pole. Instead of being a reminder of how little I knew, this new technique led to a feeling of extreme over-confidence. With our skis strapped to our packs in an A-frame carry, we kicked steps up the icy slope. Taylor led the way. Planting his mountain axe, he kicked hard into the snow, one foot then the other. I followed a short distance behind, swinging my legs in a giant pendulum to try and kick in a little further.

Scarcely 30 feet above the transition from rock to snow, one of my poorly aimed kicks glanced off the ice. I lost my balance and slipped. The weight of my skis caused me to peel over backwards. I let out a curse as I rocketed downwards, flailing like a turtle on its back. Taylor turned immediately and began screaming, “Self arrest! Self arrest! Self arrest!”

I had one or two seconds before I would be careening out of control onto the jagged rocks we had just left. My first instinct was to try and undo the buckles that held me like chains to my bulky pack. Instantly I realized this task was pointless and impossible at high speeds. Taylor’s screaming finally penetrated my mind. I began to kick at the ice and claw with my hands, also pointless. I hit the rocks. Fortunately, the skis that were preventing me from rolling to a self-arrest position on the snow, now acted as anchors on the talus field. A couple of painful rolls, then I was able to fully stop.

Taylor down climbed to where I lay dazed. He quickly looked me over and when I complained of nothing but a hurt knee, he swore first and gave thanks second. He reached into his backpack and pulled out a flask of Old Crow whiskey. I breathed a sigh of relief. We sat where I had landed and sipped Old Crow while the sun rose over the mountains. The camaraderie of the moment, combined with the magical scene laid out before us, nearly brought tears of joy to my eyes, at least, if they weren’t already filled with tears of pain.

A couple butterfly bandages closed the 3-inch gash on my knee. It was just serious enough to throw out any notion of more hiking or skiing in the next few days. Three hours later we were back in the Tacoma, headed away from the park.

“If we drive fast,” I said to Taylor, “we can make it to Moscow, Idaho by nighttime. I’ve got a friend there that will show us a good time.” We both grinned stupidly at the thought. “Nice thing about Glacier, it’s not going anywhere,” I added. “We’ll be back.”