#21 Mt. Stimson
#21 Mt. Stimson
Story and Photos by Noah Howell
I’d never heard of Mount Stimson and never would have ended up skiing it if it weren’t for the book 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America. This monstrous beauty of a line is way the fuck off the beaten path and from what I can tell it’s only seen a handful of ski descents due to its remote location and horrendous approach. This all added to the allure of the line, along with the incredible full frontal aerial photo in the book. Not much to go off of on how to get there, but just enough to entice the imagination and start fantasizing about making turns down it.
Cody Hughes, Grey Wilde and I ended up on this mission together after a pretty random parking lot discussion a few weeks before in Utah. Montana was having a great season and we had all been keeping an eye on conditions for this route. Schedules and weather finally lined up for the three of us to convene far from home.
Our plan was to hike in on day one and camp at the base of the line. Day two, we would get up early to ski it and then bust all the way back out before dark. Seemed like a good idea at the time. The night before, we got a room at a cheap motel in Kalispell. We scrounged information from the internet from a few previous successful parties, sorted gear and got a good rest. The next morning, we drove out to Glacier National Park, found the correct vehicle pull-out and parked our cars. We crossed the train tracks and headed into the woods to begin seeking out this classic.
The first crux was crossing the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. We borrowed a pack raft from our buddy Ray Hunzinger and planned to cross one at a time to stay high and dry. But after seeing how shallow the river was we just decided to wade across and save the time it would take to blow up a raft and ferry back and forth. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it got much deeper in the middle than we anticipated. The water started lapping up onto our rolled up pants. Cody pulled out his phone to prevent it from getting wet…………and then it slipped………. and I watched him fumble and juggle it……….. in slow motion…………… until it plopped in the water…………… and washed downstream. Maybe the raft would have been a good idea? We stashed it in the woods and carried on.
After a mile or so on a snow-coated road, it was time to cross Coal Creek. We dropped off the bluff on a steep slope through sloppy wet snow. Luckily the creek was well bridged with snow and no feet got wet and no phones were lost. The next crux was a long one—ten miles of bushwhacking hell through thick trees in the gut of Pinchot Creek. We laughed about the heinous schwacking for the first few miles. Then we just hunkered down and suffered through countless ups and downs and all arounds. Luckily, our timing in the season was great and there was plenty of snow to travel up the creek bed and cross back and forth the many times it was necessary.
We caught a few glimpses of the face through the pines and finally broke out into the alpine right near the base of the mountain as the sun was getting low. It had snowed the few days prior and we hoped to get our edges onto the face before the sun did too much damage. It was starting to look like our efforts were going to pay off in a really good way! Our plan was to ski a more direct line through the lower cliff band via the sneaky traverse on skiers right, instead of the “classic” route which traverses off and over the huge cliff to the skiers left.
We set up camp and tried to dry out gear as the sun quickly went away and the temps dropped. This was Cody and Grey’s first time winter camping and they opted for the “light is right” option, skimping on sleeping bags and pads. Turns out light may be right, but it’s also cold. The single-digit temps that night left their mark on the virgins.
Our alarms pulled us out of our bags and into ski boots while it was still very dark. The departure time was aided by the fact that it was daylight savings and so we were blessed with an extra hour of darkness. We continued our way up the valley and onto the south face which we would use to access the summit.
Skinning turned to booting in knee deep snow as the pitch became steep. The slow reveal of the sun was unreal. It was not a bad place to warm up—each of us putting in our 100 steps at a time. The south face is a phenomenal line in and of itself and the snow conditions were primo. It was hard to pass it up, but this was not the slope what we came for.
It felt great to reach the ridge and take in all the views from the second highest peak in all the range! The ridge walk brought us right to the top of Stimson’s 10,141 foot summit. The views were OK, but only as far as the eye could see and in every direction. Turns out “Mountaina” has a lot of mountains.
The rime ice features prevented us from skiing straight off the summit, so we climbed down 2o feet and geared up to drop in. I don’t end up doing much top-down skiing. I try to climb what I’m going to ski, but that’s not always the best option. It’s much more intimidating just hopping onto a slope without getting a feel for it by booting up. The face was fucking enormous, as wide open as anything I’ve ever skied—nowhere to hide.
We used a quick and short hip belay to test things out and get onto the face. The new snow was much more settled out and blown off on this side of the hill, which wasn’t a bad thing. Conditions were mixed—some really good powder and some debris. We took turns skiing huge sections of the face and resting our burning legs. Apparently, the team who descended it first, nailed it in prime powder and shredded the face fast and furiously. Unfortunately, we missed those conditions by a day.
We committed to the direct line as we had planned and traversed around into it. The snow was soft at first, but then became really icy and steep. With the help of ice tools and well placed edges we worked down into it. The day was heating up fast and we were right in the barrel of the loaded avalanche gun. I just wanted to get out of there, so I pointed it through the ice and out into frozen debris. Too much heat and I ate shit, but was glad to be out of there. No harm, no foul. Cody and Grey managed to work through it more gracefully staying on their feet. We finished off with the mellow apron and skinned a short pitch back up to camp.
We sat and stared at the face and soaked in the awesomeness of the descent. It had already been a big morning so we took a break, dried out gear, ate a snack and packed up for the long exit. Ahhh, yes the exit. I would put this down as one of the worst ski outs I’ve ever had. The hard part is that it’s not downhill enough to really ski out. There are so many ups and downs crossing the creek and long flat sections that it’s necessary to skin all the way out just like we did on the way in.
Maybe this line would fit better into the “50 Classic Slogs of North America”, not to say the ski line isn’t amazing, but it’s no gimme to get there and back. Not an easy one on the way in, or the way out.
We made it back out of the woods and crossed the river just as it became dark. Everybody was smoked when we got to the vehicles and we could finally remove our packs and take off the boots. It was a big day! We were on the move in one form or another for the better part of 16 hours. But, we had moved and communicated well, dealt with the obstacles and stuck to the plan. This was #21 of the #50 “classics” for me and I felt lucky to have snagged it with great company in good style. Thanks fellas!