If you'd like to orient yourself with respect to the geographic locations mentioned in this report, I've prepared a labeled, high-resolution map of Montana that will open in a new window.
In our continuing effort to check out the local backcountry options in the Bitterroot area of Western Montana, E and I went up to Lolo Pass today. Lolo Pass is very accessible from Missoula, and about an hour away from our place in Hamilton. Like Lost Trail Pass, it's another one of the passes that sits on the Idaho/Montana border. For skiing suggestions, I consulted with my colleague Jon who's been in the Bitterroot area for a number of years and has a good grasp of many of the most common backcountry spots. He mentioned three spots off Lolo pass: Mt. Fuji, Crystal Theatre, and the G Spot. With the recent snow this past week, we figured we'd play it safe and try for an area with some trees, so we opted for Mt. Fuji. I really knew very little about the area, but from a quick sketch that Jon drew, I could see that Mt. Fuji appeared to face north and might offer the best snow.
We took our time in the morning, and finally headed out with the though of obtaining a map of the area along the way. Although our local sporting goods/outdoor store in Hamilton had a number of maps for Western Montana/Eastern Idaho, they didn't have what we needed, so we decided to check out some of the stores up near Lolo. Nobody in the Lolo area had what we needed either, so we decided to go without a map. I always like to have a map when exploring a new area alone, but sometimes I guess you have to say "what the hell" and just get out there. So we did.
We had been up Lolo Pass once before, on our trip to ski Brundage in Idaho. What amazed me most was how there was absolutely no snow on the approach to the pass. From the town of Lolo (~3,200') it's about 25 miles to Lolo Pass (5,233') and you really don't see any snow until the last couple of miles. Literally a mile from the pass, the surrounding slopes look virtually unskiable due to lack of snow, but once you hit a point, the snowpack just pops up and everything is well covered. Once at the pass, there was a snow stake measuring between four and five feet of settled base.
There were a number of snowmobile trailers at one end of the parking lot, and closer to the trailhead, there were a few cars we assumed belonged to skiers/hikers. One Telemarker was getting himself ready for a hike, but that's the only other skier we saw in the lot. We had no idea where the skiing would be, although Jon had said to follow the main snowmobile/hiking trail, and that it would take about 1-2 hours to be at the top. From the parking lot, we could see a large white face of a mountain with a smattering of trees about a mile away. We assumed that this could be Mt. Fuji, and even if it wasn't, it looked like a fun slope to ski.
We packed our gear, and set off in the main direction of the face we'd seen, not really knowing how the trails worked, but feeling that the slope was close enough that we could almost walk straight to it. We quickly came to our first trail junction and had to make a decision. Neither trail went straight toward the slope. In fact, they both seemed to split right around it. However, we decided that the trail to the right looked more promising and headed that way. We soon came to another fork, but this time there was a small map to give us a little guidance. It outlined a couple of what were probably Nordic ski trails, and we chose the route that looked like it would take us to the base of the face. There were some fairly fresh skin tracks, so it looked like a promising route. It turns out, we had chosen wisely, and soon after we had broken away from the local stream by crossing a bridge. While taking a shot of the face with the video camera, I thought I saw a couple of people standing atop the slope, and zoomed in as far as possible, eventually confirming that there were in fact two people up top. A few minutes later, we could see them skiing the slope, navigating among the trees. This, along with spotting a number of tracks on the slope suggested that we were headed in the right direction. We soon ran into three Telemarkers who looked like they had just finished a run. We exchanged pleasantries, and I inquired about Mt. Fuji. They confirmed that the face we could see was in fact Mt. Fuji, and we were quite relieved. They recommended going all the way to the top, and said that things were getting a bit soft, but to have fun anyway.
We followed the skin track for a pretty good distance, and didn't have to worry about ruining it since was actually only a small trace of a track in the heavy spring snow. After about ½ mile, we were at the bottom of the face, and the ground was quickly sloping upward. We lost the skin track and found ourselves among the tracks of skiers. The ridge to lookers right look like the perfect pitch for a hike, so we generally cut across in that direction to gain access. Cutting across the fall line in a couple of steeper sections wasn't all that fun, it would be a mess on snowshoes without side crampons. After a few minutes, we had gained the ridge at around 5600', and found what looked to be a snowmobile track that went right up a sweet hiking line. We followed this route, and within about 20 minutes, we had reached the top of the face (6052'). I was amazed, Jon said that this was the longest hike out of the three he had mentioned, and it was already the most accessible slope we'd visited in the Bitterroots. All told, at a VERY leisurely pace, we'd hit the summit in about 90 minutes.
We enjoyed the views for a little while, had lunch, and then prepared for our run. We knew the snow was going to be soft and probably sticky, but it was on its WAY to corn at least, so it could have been worse. I skied the first pitch off the summit and it was that familiar feeling of sticky snow that wants to hold you back. It's kind of hard to explain, but for those of you who've been there, you know what I mean. It feels like you're sticking to the snow perfectly, and always going over the handlebars, but you're not. It's hard to imagine that you're going at a constant speed, yet in a state of perpetual deceleration. Physically, it doesn't make sense, but that's what it feels like. Anyway, I factored the deceleration out, and within a couple of turns my brain/body figured out how to forget all about it. What a fun experience in mind over matter!
Anyway, back to the skiing. We were among sparse evergreens, much like a few weeks ago on Saddle Mountain, and the pitch of the slope was around 30 degrees. There were some fun rolls in the terrain, enough to catch a bit of air at speed. After the first couple hundred vertical, we headed left into the main gut of the face which formed a small chute. If anywhere on this face had the potential to slide, this was probably it, but there were a bunch of tracks in there and the snowpack was quite solid. The couple inches of loose snow on top that had warmed from the sun didn't look like it was going anywhere any time soon. E had one tumble as she figured out her own "Zen of sticky snow skiing", but soon she was ripping up the gut of the chute and enjoying the dips and rolls in the terrain. We finished off as the terrain mellowed out, and followed most of the other skier's tracks as they funneled together into the exit. Even though it was about a mile back to the car, we kept our skis on and walked/slid the whole way. The terrain was generally flat or slightly downhill, with a few short step ups and downs, but it felt quite comfortable even on alpine equipment.
After getting back to the car, we headed to Missoula to finally get a map for the area. At REI, we couldn't get a general map that covered the national forest surrounding Lolo Pass, so we generated a map off their computer right onto mylar. It turned out really slick, getting just the area we wanted and it's waterproof and rip-proof. So next time, we should be armed with a quality topographic map of the Lolo Pass area. Even though the area of Mt. Fuji that we skied was only about 800 vertical, it looks to be a great place to do laps on a powder day. Maybe we'll get a chance to check it out again next season.
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