Earlier this week, we headed into the Beartooths, armed with a perfect weather forecast and some sexy new gear. Our objective: the north face couloir on Whitetail Peak, a mountain that sent us whimpering back home last time we tried it. The route is the big obvious couloir in the picture above.
We left late, but made good time in, despite the heavily drifted trail that eventually became impossible to follow. Much post-holing ensued, followed by a short but insistent rain storm and we picked a camp near Sundance Pass in time to dodge a succession of many more rains.
We left the tent at 3 a.m. on summit day, picking our way toward the couloir in the dark. Rotten snow and unstable boulder fields gave us an early morning workout, accompanied by the clang of ice-axe on rock and the steady background noise of heavy breathing. By dawn we were close to the couloir, but sunrise revealed a black and yellow horizon. What happened to the forecast for clear skies and afternoon thunderstorms?
After much debate, we decided to wait and see (a climbing technique used often in times of duress). We continued forward as the storm rolled blackly toward us. A flash of lightning declared the moment of truth–and the burst of thunder was 8 seconds behind it. I threw the pack cover over my pack and we hunched down to wait out the ensuing rain. It was over in 5 minutes and a clean blue sky opened up. This matched the prevailing weather pattern we’d been observing: frequent small rainstorms lasting 5-10 minutes, followed by periods of partly cloudy skies. We decided to continue.
The snow in the couloir was fabulous and we chose not to rope up. It steepened from about 40 degrees at the bottom to 51 degrees higher up, where a fall would likely have been impossible to self-arrest. As the Queen of Cowards, I would not have continued unroped had the snow not been in such excellent condition. We were kicking deep, solid steps and getting stonker axe plunges. But unfortunately our blue sky disappeared. From inside the couloir, we could no longer see the approaching weather, so we found out about the blizzard when it descended.
At that point, there wasn’t much to be gained from retreating, so we continued upward with many grim thoughts about NOAA. Visibility was pretty low, but all we needed to see was the snow in front of us. And the cornice above. Bypassing the cornice involved a short stretch of 60-70 degree snow, which was exciting.
And the top-out was even more exciting, as I pretty much had to back-step on the cornice, fling one leg over and yell for Bill to grab me if I fell.
After climbing out of the couloir, we met the full force of the storm: 60 mph winds and near white-out conditions. And we were still faced with finding our way down an unknown and rather nasty ridge, to locate the trail over Sundance Pass about a mile and a half away.
The first part of the ridge was a series of ugly boulder fields: wet granite now coated with an inch of slippery snow. The older, deep snow between the boulders was rotten and treacherous and we picked our way down very carefully, with visions of spiral fractures dancing in our heads. Navigation was tricky with the very low visibility.
We got down eventually and found the trail and the whiteout lifted, but Whitetail wasn’t finished with us. Almost as soon as our boots hit the trail, the snow/hail turned into drenching, sideways rain. We raced for the tent as fast as we could, even jumping off the trail in the end for some high-speed glissades. But even our top-notch, much-trusted gear couldn’t save us from a downpour of that magnitude. Anything not in a dry-bag was thoroughly soaked.
Luckily for us, the storm eventually ended and the sun (sort of) came out. We dried our clothes, had a good dinner and went to bed, exhausted. We made good time out the next day, despite the endless post-holing and a painful detour through boulders and deadfall to avoid two big moose grazing on the trail. We arrived at the car happy and hungry and only slightly damp, and not sure if we’d tangle with the Beartooths again in June.
GEAR I LOVED
I had several pieces of new gear that I tried on this trip and a couple of them really stood out.
First, I was extremely pleased with my Outdoor Research Women’s Cirque Pants which stood up to some serious abuse. They kept me dry through two small rainstorms, a prolonged wet blizzard, lots of postholing and several wet glissades. I’m wearing these pants in all the pictures above.
The integrated gaiters worked better than I expected, though I did finally back them up with real gaiters (for postholing). The fabric breathes extremely well and I stayed reasonably cool on the hike in (60 degrees/partly sunny at the lower elevations). I was able to open the ankle zips and roll the pants up to my knees and they stayed put there. They did fail in the final drenching rainstorm, but I wouldn’t expect any softshell to stand up to that amount of rain. And the plus was that they went from wringing wet to dry in just a couple of hours.
The stretchy fabric and articulated knees allowed me to scramble over boulders and fling my leg over a bulky cornice with ease.
One especially nice feature of these pants is that the waistband is adjustable via velcro tabs, so you can ensure a good fit. I was able to fit my Capilene 4 thermal underwear beneath them and forget I was wearing it.
The only real drawback to these pants is that they’re heavy at 19 ounces and include an unnecessary crampon patch that adds weight. Any time I’m wearing crampons, I’m also wearing real gaiters so I find a patch on my pants to be unnecessary. The belt loops are also thicker and bulkier than they need to be. I was afraid they’d bunch up under my pack and maybe cause chafing, but in the end they didn’t.
These pants do seem to run slightly big. At 5’7″ and 125 lbs (give or take, ahem), with an athletic build, I fit comfortably into the size Small with some minor cinching of the velcro when I wasn’t wearing thermals.
This 60 L pack was actually loaned to me by a friend, who happens to be an ambassador for Teton Sports. I’m a hard sell when it comes to backpacks and I’ve been pretty loyal to Black Diamond packs for several years. However, my current 60 liter is nearing the end of its life so I decided to give this pack a try when my friend offered to lend it to me.
The first thing I noticed was how nicely this pack loaded up. I took it on a training hike and was very pleased with how well it carried. At 4lbs, it’s only 3 ounces heavier than my 60 L Black Diamond, but the extra weight goes into extremely strategic padding in the shoulder straps and hip-belt, which allowed me to carry 40 lbs without bruising my hips or collarbones (an ongoing problem for me).
The torso length is adjustable (16″ to 21.5″), which meant I got a very custom fit. The lumbar support is excellent and I love the “wrapped” feeling of the cushy split dual wishbone hipbelt. There are lots of pockets, sleeping pad straps and two ice-axe loops. I easily carried a full load of backpacking gear, plus a snow picket, avalanche shovel and ice axe all attached to the outside of the pack. To climb the route, I used the compression straps to cinch the pack down as skinny as it would go–it carried my load tightly and never shifted or got in my way.
For such a light pack, it really has a lot of features, including a built-in rainfly, which I used repeatedly on this trip. With most packs, you’re forced to drop another $30-$40 on a rain-fly and the after-market ones may or may not fit. And, while there are lighter packs available, they’re usually so stripped down as to be annoying (no pockets) and uncomfortable (skimpy padding). To me, 4lbs is a fantastic weight for a full-featured, comfortable pack like this.
Perhaps the best part of this pack is the amazing price! At only $90 on Amazon, it blows most other packs of this size and quality out of the water. For comparison, my current 60 L retails for $229 (though I bought it on sale for about $170). Now that’s a good deal!
The only thing I could really ask for with this pack would be the ability to pull another inch of slack out of the hip-belt. Also, the fabric is not very water-resistant, but I can fix that with a coating of Kiwi Camp Dry. Other than that, this is a truly well-designed and comfortable backpack that I would recommend to anybody.