Friday, April 11, 2014

The parting on the left is now the parting on the right.

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(Little Wildhorse Canyon)

Last Friday I left work early, pedaled home, and helped Laura load the Avalon. By 3 we were on the road; by 8 we were in the Hampton Inn in Idaho Falls. The next morning we gassed up in IF, beered up in Pocatello, and by 11 am dropped off Malad Summit, hit the bump in the highway, and started seeing SPEED LIMIT 80 signs. We were in Utah.

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(Camp at Fisher Towers)

I lived in Utah for 13 years, which by no means made be a native, though my four-year term as the state’s travel writer helped. Although I had great affection for Utah, in truth the state started to wear on me, and my departure was not without mixed feelings. Last week’s return was the first time I had really taken a hard look at Utah since I left in 2002. What’s that about never returning home again?

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(Camp at the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park -- probably the nicest national park campground I've been to)

Our 10 days in Utah after a 12 year absence showed the state to be as beautiful, magical, and stupid as ever. After several years in Montana, Utah’s mountains are less grand but more striking in their juxtapositions.

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(The narrows of Onion Creek)

The city (i.e., the 100-mile north-south sprawl of the Wasatch Front) is both grittier and flashier than I remembered. Moab is nuttier, which means the empty spaces around it are quieter. It’s still possible to roll through the San Rafael Swell in twilight and pitch two tents wherever the sand allows – but it’s no longer possible to do the same in most of Grand County. (As an aside, we found that proper campgrounds usually filled before noon -- Montana this was not.) You can just pull up and hike Little Wildhorse Canyon, one of the world’s great wonders, whenever you want, though now the 5 miles to the trailhead is paved and there are two overflow parking lots in addition to the main trailhead parking.

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(Alone in big landscapes at Arches National Park)

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(Little Wildhorse Canyon)

And the daffy controversies are still there: the second weekend of our visit coincided with the LDS Church’s twice-yearly general conference; highlights included the story of a group of women wanting to attend a men-only priesthood meeting (church officials told them to stop creating dissent) and one of the church’s top apostles accusing other religions of creating contemporary, comforting, head-patting gods who ask little or nothing of their flock. "Talk about man creating God in his own image," apostle Jeffrey Holland said; can I assume he was oblivious to the irony of his statement?

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(If this is Spring Break in southern Utah, then that must be snow)

Moab started to look less like what I thought Moab should look like and more like Pigeon Forge in 2001, when a developer built a scenic gondola at the north entrance to town. The gondola never ran because the county would not give the developer a business license; lines of visitors waiting to board the gondola would certainly not add to Moab’s charm, but in a way the remains of the ride which still greet motorists signal better what the city has become.

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(Goblin Valley)

If you really were hoping on the gondola ride, take heart: just past it are zip lines, Hummer tours, ATV tours, skydiving, scenic flights, breweries, art galleries, and taco trucks. Jim Stiles used to pen zany cartoons of a Moab populated by ersatz tourists, locals, and developers, each of them crawling over the other to get at a piece of desert cliff. Thumbing through a copy of the Canyon Country Zephyr while gassing up in Moab or standing in line at the CityMarket, I felt he was penning a vision of the city I would never see. Turns out he was merely prescient, not delusional.

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(Camping wild on the edge of the San Rafael Swell)

"Moab, thou art my washpot”, noted Edward Abbey, quoting some version of the Bible he found. The full verse adds: “over Edom will I cast out my shoe; over Philistia will I triumph.”

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(Going big at Lindsey Gardens; I lived across the street during and after college)

Friday, March 28, 2014

Return to the outYaak.

A few months ago a co-worker handed me a tourism magazine for northwest Montana, thinking I’d be interested in some of the hikes it described. I was more interested in a photo two-thirds of the way through the booklet – Robinson Mountain bathed in alpenglow:

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I had never heard of Robinson before. It I kept the magazine open to that photo on my desk, and each day the mountain started looking better.

Robinson Mountain is in the U.S. portion of the Purcells. If the road is plowed the base of the mountain is about a half-hour from Yaak, Montana, which is about an hour from Troy, which is about half an hour from Libby, which is … well you get the picture. Remote. I called the county road supervisor in Troy, who told me that Yaak Highway 92 (yes, that’s what they call it) gets plowed to milepost 52. At the time I did not appreciate the difference between “is plowed” and “gets plowed”, but milepost 52 is almost at the western foot of the mountain.

I talked to my friend Matt, a patroller at nearby Turner, who said he’d never skied it. He referred me to a backcountry skier in Libby, who referred me to a distance athlete in Troy, who referred me to a backcountry skier in Columbia Falls – none of whom had ever skied the mountain. I talked to recreation planners in Thompson Falls, avalanche forecasters in Whitefish and Sandpoint, forest rangers in Troy, Libby, and Rexford, and skiers in Missoula. I talked to nordic club members in Troy and Libby, and a ski shop owner in Kalispell. Nothing. (In each of these conversations I introduced myself then said, ‘This may sound odd, but I’m wondering …’. But it was never odd, and actually that’s how a lot of business in Montana -– which has been called a small town with very long streets -- gets done.) On Friday afternoon as I was about to leave work I got an email from a nature photographer in Libby who said he’d climbed it – in the summer. I clocked out, biked home, packed the truck, made two mocha lattes, kissed the wife and baby goodbye, and set out into a classic two-hour Montana sunset. I drove to Troy, slept in the rest area, and was up at 5:45 Saturday morning to make coffee, eat, and drive to Yaak.

Robinson's summit (lost in cloud) from the southwest ridge -- the first clue that I was on the wrong ridge:

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Persevering on the ridge, an hour or so later:

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Actually, I talked to the road supervisor in Troy not once but twice and both times he said the road gets plowed to MP 52. I drove through downtown Yaak but found the recent plowing stopped square at MP 42. In four wheel drive I slid on to MP 51, where the road ended in a big drift. I geared up and started skinning the closed road, but was confused a bit, then confused more when I passed a trailhead I had not heard of. I struck off up the slope and was soon engulfed in a two-hour full body contact soul searching bushwhack which ended in a cliff band. I got through the cliff and finally got a view – only to see I was on the wrong ridge and a long way from the top of Robinson Mountain.

The view north from Robinson:

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I made it to the top of Robinson at 2:30 after 5.5 hours of climbing and about 4,000 vertical feet. Was this a first descent? Unlikely, but having talked to so many potential skiers made me wonder who else was left in Montana who could have been up there. The summit was storm ravaged and encased in thick rime. Below the summit in an extraordinary setting I got in 20 turns in soft snow. All four faces of the peak are beautiful, but what had been light snowfall all day was changing, with dark clouds two ridges away; looking at the rime made me not want to be stuck on the summit ridge in a storm, so instead of real skiing I followed my tracks back down (odd how your uptrack can be a comforting friend in the wilderness).

The international cut line -- Canada on the right, America on the left:

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For Sunday I had planned to ski Elephant Peak in the Cabinet Mountains; a year-round mine nearby keeps Libby Creek Road open. I called the mine dispatcher and she said I could “probably” make it in four wheel drive (she strung the word so it came out as 'praaaaaabably'), but most mine trucks were using studs or chains. I had checked out a second option, Dome Mountain in the north Cabinet, on the way to Troy Friday night, but in the 9 pm twilight I could not tell where the snow line was (3200 feet, it turns out, but I could not see that at the time). So as a consolation I extended my time in the Yaak and on Sunday pulled down Caribou Mountain, which was shorter, had a trail (and no bushwhack), and had much better snow. Turns off the 6800-foot saddle between the north and south peaks were some of the nicest of the season.

Caribou's northeast bowl:

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Snow ghosts at the summit of Caribou:

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So to all future skiers pondering the Yaak: yes, it’s been done.

Appendix A:

We took the baby skiing:

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Appendix B:

View out the truck window on Lolo Pass:

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Friday, March 7, 2014


I might go buy one of these. Not to make shoveling easier, but to make my piles higher.

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Babies love heavy equipment.

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New snow in Missoula.

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Pointless shoveling in a blizzard.

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Given enough new snow, almost anything is skiable.

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Actually, urban skiing on Missoula’s edge occurs more frequently than you’d think, especially if you have a good sense of humor and low expectations. When it's in, the south slope of University Mountain is one of the nicest slopes you'll ever ski. Last week it was legitimate. But given enough snow, you can get this:

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(Avalanche crown on Mt. Jumbo, already filled in again. Photo by The Missoulian.)

And this:

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The last time I remember a Montanan making it on to the Today Show or Late Night or one of those big productions, it was a guide near West Glacier who, with her horse, fended off a grizzly. Before that it was a jogger in Pattee Canyon who was attacked by a black bear. And so this year it is a Missoula boy buried in an avalanche in his back yard. Buried, he licked and ate the snow, then fell asleep. Here’s the scoop:

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There are a number of remarks I feel compelled to make here.

1. In the video, taken in the minutes after the slide, people are running toward the accident, not away from it. That’s standard in America these days, but …
2. …they are running toward it carrying avalanche probes. I don’t know how many of you casually have avalanche probes and avalanche shovels set by the back door, but actually I do, and obviously a lot of other people do around here, and that’s probably one of many things that makes Missoula singular among cities in the world.
3. I don’t know Casey Greene, but according to Facebook we have five friends in common. Also according to Facebook, he was skiing off the summit Mt. Sentinel just two days before the slide. That does not require comment other than perhaps folks should think twice before they say too many evil things about the snowboarders that may have set off the slide that came down on Jumbo.
4. The last two times I’ve seen Casey Greene on television he’s been wearing a different Black Diamond shell each time. Those things are insanely cool – and pricey. Consider me jealous. When it comes to beanies, however, while I admire his style, I think I’m happy with mine. (I'm also betting the studio was sufficiently heated, but whatevs.)
5. Finally, it’s hard to appear on live television and not look like a total doofus, and this family did pretty well. Being interviewed live is like having a very important conversation with a stone cold sober person when you are drunk, and the whole time not wanting that person to know you’ve been drinking.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Mayor John Engen is making me lose my faith what was supposed to be a liberal Missoula City Council.

Missoula has all the trappings of a smug little progressive city. We have more bike shops than car dealers, more breweries than McDonalds, and snowy city streets that can go an entire winter without seeing a snowplow. Why, then, does this city continue to put its stamp of approval on new construction that looks like shit?

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Towns that give a crap about how they look hardly hesitate to form boards whose sole function is to meddle in architectural drawings. In Biltmore Forest, which is about ten times richer than Missoula but not even half as liberal, I once sat through a design review committee meeting where appointees debated for a half-hour if a renovated home’s back doors should be French, French Provincial, or French Country. That’s what I’m talking about!

Fred Van Valkenburg no longer has the moral authority serve as county attorney.

There was a time when Van Valkenburg could have deftly maneuvered the current crisis to appease critics and build a better attorney’s office. That time is long gone . When presented with a 20-page federal report on his office’s shortcomings, he called the contents lies and said the Department of Justice had no constitutional authority to investigate him. He cajoled the county commission into granting him $50,000 to sue the feds – a black mark on an otherwise decent commission. He then went on vacation. Being on vacation made him unavailable to the press, but did not prevent him from personally confronting his critics at home and abroad.

Missoula has enough crap to deal with these days. It ought not to have to put up with an attorney who is causing problems rather than solving them.

And after all that, who doesn’t need a good pancake recipe?

Pancakes for dinner, Southwestern style:

2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
2 cups milk
2 eggs
4 Tbs. vegetable oil
1 can chopped roasted green chilis
2/3 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Mix until incorporated, then cook on a griddle. Serve with a sauce -- I mix 1 cup of sour cream with a generous dollop of hot sauce.

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Oh yeah!

And finally, the blizzard update you’ve all been waiting for.

Missoulia has been host to a historic and record-setting bout of snowfall for the past several weeks, culminating in a real-life blizzard which began early this morning. This storm caused the cancellation of classes not only for Missoula County Public Schools and the University of Utah, but also a host of other public and private institutions – including Hellgate Elementary, which had only closed its doors to a storm once prior to this in the past 30 years. People outside Montana might not immediately appreciate the sort of winter we’ve had lately, but I think you can safely assume that when things are so heavy that even Montanans take notice, then they are pretty freaking heavy. National Weather Service Missoula summed things up nicely this morning in their forecast discussion: ‘The weather will not be fit for either man or beast.’

Montana, it’s so … colorful:

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The map shows the state from border to border covered in watches and warnings of one form or another, but actually many spots in Montana currently have two warnings simultaneously.

The slate of storms has left the mountains with their deepest snowpacks in years, and made possible legitimate backcountry skiing options leaving literally from town. I’ll end this post with some pictures I took skiing University Mountain this week after work:

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Friday, February 21, 2014

The four horsemen of the apocalyptic Chinook.

Things are looking good.

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Better if you go up a few feet.

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Some things are so close but so far away.

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How deep is the snow? Ask California Creek.

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I hate to see that sun go down.

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At Maverick, the party is in the bar, where the ski patrol band was playing "Wagon Wheel" and we were invited to the baked potato potluck fundraiser.

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The baby, however, finds the party out on the ski rack.

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The state highway over the Continental Divide roughly from Anaconda to Wise River is never short on adventure. This year the north side of the pass featured the largest frost heave I've ever seen (and that includes the Alaska Highway). Last week the south side was featuring an ice dam which had forced French Creek across the road. For more than 100 yards we had thick hard ice, running water, and deep ruts. We traveled the entire route without seeing pavement, and often having to power through drifts crossing the road.

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Technically, "chinook" referns to a wind that is warmed by the downward rush of air from a mountain. Colloquially, it's used to refer to almost any spell of warm weather. We had the colloquial version last week, which sent the temperature from -23 to 44 in four days, and removed about a foot from the valley's snowpack in seven.

Thankfully, it's snowing again.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Single speed, single digits, single lanes

Fresh studs work wonders on hardpacked streets – and are ungainly and awkward on dry pavement.

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Somehow I wound up with a bunch of Kenda tubes for these 26 inch wheels. Kendas are nice and cheap but I’ve been troubled by the seams cracking and splitting, especially when the temperature dips toward minus 10. Seam cracks are impossible to really fix.

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Single speeds are not that bad for winter biking. Given enough slush, mud, grit, and grime, most geared bikes will eventually go single speed on you anyway. The downside is that the Cannondale’s single speed is cogged for city riding, so deep snow, icy hills, and strong headwinds make for a spicy commute.

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Missoula’s legendarily lax street plowing routine, and a recent spate of high-test weather events have produced some memorable biking and Chariot pulling.

Whoa – lookie there. The Clark Fork, totally frozen. (I heard people are ice skating on McDonald Lake.)

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A deep day on Lockwood, looking out to Potomac and Montana 200.

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An after-work run up to the tippy top of Marshall. If you could stand the fact that it was -20, it was actually pretty nice.

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Everybody jump!

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Friday, January 31, 2014

Will someone please tell Atlanta to man up and stop being such a wuss?

My apologies. This blog post was going to be an epic rant calling out one of the world's most powerful and affluent cities for being stymied by 3 fingers of snow. The nexus for this rant was a diatribe from this apologist.

That's right. He called all y'all "assholes".

Instead of a rant, let me just point out a few things. (And let me disclaim that perhaps because I lived in the city for a while perchance I'm more prone to want to criticize it.)

(a) For Pete's sake slow down.

(b) Unless your streets are laser leveled, you can’t even plow 2 inches of snow. (The streets are not smooth in Missoula either, though that’s one of only about 50 reasons why our fair byways never get plowed. I think “laziness” is also a factor.) And you can make your own fancy pants sanding truck by filing a dump truck with dirt and having two guys stand back there and shovel it out. Bam! Any two-bit town manager can figure that one out.

(c) Big city people are disconnected from nature. The bigger the city, the bigger the disconnect. Hence, the issue is not that poor Atlantans don’t know to steer into the skid when sliding, it’s that they don’t consider that something like the weather can stymie their forward progress because they so seldom encounter anything that can’t be mitigated by a smart phone.

And (d) the people of Atlanta, like most people in America, are completely unable to perform even the simplest of tasks without getting into their cars. This is in part because they live in neighborhoods designed specifically to eliminate pedestrian activities; this is in part because people have consciously chosen to live stupidly absurd distances from where they work, where they shop, and where they go to school; and this is in part because performing daily functions as a pedestrian has become a quaint footnote in our development as a species. For inspiration, read the Snowed Out Atlanta Facebook page and note how many people marooned in their cars did not think they could walk for help.

Let's just go over a few points and then end today's lesson on a more positive note:

Atlanta, one of the most powerful cities in the world:

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(AJC photo)

Atlanta traffic after 3 fingers of snow:

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(Something I stole off Twitter)

A cool map someone put together of what it takes to close school:

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Instead, here's a photo of (sniff, sniff) my proudest moment yet as a parent:

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