Downing Mountain Slide Hike & Ski, May 19th, 2002

The Bitterroot Mountain Chain forms an impressive wall, rising thousands of feet above the west side of the Bitterroot Valley. Among this seemingly unending string of peaks, perhaps the most prominent natural feature visible from Hamilton is the huge slide path on the east face of Downing Mountain. Align yourself looking West down Main Street, and you can see that it's as much a part of the scene as any of the local shops or restaurants.

For much of the year, snow sits in the slide path, reminding you of its presence with a gleam of white among the otherwise green mountainside. In the colder months, as the snow levels drop and the slide becomes totally filled with white from top to bottom, one can't help but wonder what it must be like to ski up there. From town, or from many pictures, one looks up at the slide and it seems like an interesting run of maybe 1000 vertical feet. But, when you look through binoculars, or perhaps get up close and personal with the terrain, you realize that the small sticks you see are not simply scrubby vegetation, but full size trees! Suddenly it becomes apparent that there are 2000-3000 vertical feet of open terrain up there and one wonders if anyone has ever skied it...

Our story began a couple of months ago, on what seemed like just another ordinary day in the laboratory. Although only an occasional skier himself, Gerry, one of my colleagues, suggested that some of us should go up and ski that big white area of snow that is visible from town. I'm not sure how serious he was, but I mentioned this to Jon, another avid skier in the lab, and for the first time we actually thought that such a trek might be possible. We didn't plan to head up there anytime soon however, since it was still avalanche season. The slide looked after all, like prime avalanche terrain. Not long after the day that the slide-skiing concept was broached, Jon said that he had seen a huge fracture line from a slab avalanche; visible all the way from his house in town. This only reaffirmed our decision to wait until the spring when the snowpack had settled.

A few weeks later, as spring was in full swing and we waited for the right weekend to hit the slide, Jon informed me that some locals he knew had just skied the slide the previous day. We were both amazed, but it turned out that our mythical slide was actually a rather popular backcountry ski destination for the locals, we'd just never heard about it. Fortunately, this let us get the inside scoop on how to ski the slide efficiently, and not waste time trying to find our own route to the top. From our own maps, we knew that the summit of Downing Mountain was at 8,690', and we also knew about the Grubstake. The Grubstake is a local restaurant; one of its claims to fame is that is sits right on the side of Downing Mountain at 5,500' and provides an impressive view. Actually, it is an interesting place, click on the link or the picture to get to their website. From many angles, it looks as though the Grubstake sits right at the bottom of the slide, and one wonders why the building hasn't been taken out by some colossal avalanche. Upon closer inspection however, it turns out that the large gully below the slide path actually veers to the right (south) BEHIND the Grubstake, and the building is well out of the way, several hundred feet up on the gully's northern ridge. A private road leads up to the Grubstake for customers, and gaining vehicle access to this road will save you a few miles of walking and about 1,300' of climbing. All told, this brings your round trip down to around three hours, not a big time commitment at all for such interesting ski terrain. We'd heard that a few locals had access to the gate, but we needed to get in touch with some of them, and more importantly find out what sort of permission we needed to use the road.

Finally, we were able to decide on a date for the hike: Sunday, May 19th. On Saturday evening, Jon contacted me with very good news; he'd obtained access to the gate. His friend Jenny and some others were likely going to head up there on Sunday as well, and they'd set us up to get through. We also found out that the recommended route for the hike was along the north side of the gully; the route of a skin track that many people had used. The next morning, E and I picked up Jon and Gerry at their houses a little bit after 7:00 A.M., and we all made a quick stop in the center of town (elevation 3,560') to get some pictures of the slide. The day was warming up, and already approaching 50 in the valley so we quickly got on our way to the gate (~4,200'). The drive took only about 10-15 minutes, and after a brief encounter with some turkeys, there we were; it was time to see if the combination would work. Jon had the honor at the moment of truth, and as everyone expected, the combination worked. We were in! It was only a few miles up the access road to the Grubstake, and soon we found ourselves at 5,500' in the deserted parking lot. Jon indicated that we could actually take the road up beyond the restaurant a little more for even better access. We finally topped out at around 5,650' before the road deteriorated into something that might be best left to four-wheelers and hikers; it was time to gear up.

We took in the scenery, which included a rather open Ponderosa forest, as well as a host of radio towers and power sources that occasionally whirred to life. It was all a bit surreal to be on this mountainside at the crux between the Bitterroot wilderness and ultra modern communications equipment. I ran Gerry through a quick lesson on one of our video cameras, giving him the tips he'd need to know about power, focus, zoom, and exposure. Jon pointed out an interesting flower on the ground... and promptly picked it up and ate the whole thing. He said it was called "Glacier Lily", and that they were very edible, especially the stalk. I tried one, and it was actually quite sweet (for a flower). I'm still here today, so I'm going to contend that they're edible. Although there was no formal blazed hiking trail, we did find a wide jeep trail, which worked its way up the north ridge around a few stumps from selective clearing and some piles of lumber. After a few minutes we found ourselves in the forest, Jon essentially blazing a trail through the pines. At around 6,400', we began to hit snow, and by 7,000', the snowpack became pretty consistent. We occasionally post-holed along the way, and before long, Jon switched to skins and followed the skin track up. He was quickly out of sight, but we knew he'd be waiting at the top enjoying the view. E and I put on snowshoes, which mostly helped to prevent slippage due to the crampons. Gerry stayed in boots, and it didn't seem like it made life too difficult for him. At around 7,500', I decided it was time for Gerry to find a position along the edge of the slide with the camera, so he broke south to get to the edge of the trees. E and I headed up to the top to join Jon, and kept in radio contact with Gerry to see how his efforts were going on finding a suitable camera position.

As we approached the top of the ridge, the trees became smaller, and the views became even better. It wasn't long before the ground leveled out, and we hit the top somewhere between 8,000' and 8,100'. We could see off to our right that the mountain continued to rise a bit more in the distance, but our goal had been reached. Jon was hanging out among some rocks looking at the vast terrain to the south and west in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. All we could see were endless mountains, and we stood for a couple of minutes, picking out lines that would be great to ski someday. Finally after a quick bite to eat, we got set to ski, just as Jenny and some friends reached the summit. They were going to spend a bit of time up there, so we bid them adieu and set on our way to find a route to ski. We had been in contact with Gerry on the radio, and he had settled on a spot for filming. His main comment was that it was quite STEEP where he was located, and his position was a bit tenuous. That's the problem with having never been in the terrain before, we weren't quite sure what we'd find for good camera angles.

It was actually more difficult for us to find our way into the slide that we had anticipated. We thought it would be entirely obvious from above, but it wasn't. There were a lot of trees at the top, and we couldn't see the slide at all. We had to go with our best guess, and eventually found that we were on the north side of the slide, just above it. We found about 50 yards of nice low angle terrain with widely spaced trees before the terrain steepened and we got into the slide area proper. Our next goal was to get into view for Gerry, a MUCH harder task than we thought it would be. Although it looks like the slide has tons of open space, there are a lot of dead trees in there, especially in the upper reaches. There's plenty of space to ski through them, but it's amazing how they add up to block the shot when the camera is a half mile away. Since Gerry was off to the side of the slide, it was very difficult for him to get a clear shot. Even at maximum zoom, he had to work hard just to see us. Eventually, he decided to move further down along the edge of the slide into flatter terrain which gave a better shot of the skiers.

We skied a bit of the upper slide, finding well-softened corn, and moderately steep terrain. Surprisingly, the slide was not nearly as steep as we had thought. Jon took two measurements with his inclinometer, recording values of 30 degrees (I'd say this was a common pitch in the area) and a maximum of 37 degrees; nothing incredibly steep, but right in the range of prime avalanche terrain. The terrain continued like this for maybe 1,000 vertical feet before funneling into a very flat area below some rock bands. The snow on our day was fairly stable, although we would set off occasional small wet sloughs and there was a bit of snowballing (these were fun to watch) if you turned in the snow just right. Jon and I took lines through the sparse trees in the middle of the slide, but E took a more radical line through the rock bands. We were in awe as we watched her set off the biggest slough of the day, and jump over a small stream on her way through the rocks. We thought she was pretty crazy, but in the end it was a highlight of the day. Unfortunately, neither Gerry nor I caught her exploits on film. By this time, Jenny's group had also started down, and we got to watch them make their turns down the main are of the slide.

After the steeper section of the slide, the terrain virtually went flat for a few dozen yards before switching to a mellow blue pitch for the rest of the route. It was this area that showed the most slide damage, with a variety of snapped off, downed, and flagged trees scattered about. For a while, the middle of the slope was free of obstacles, but as we got lower, the debris started to fill in. The snow was quite skiable, but the danger lay in some of the snapped off trees that just barely protruded from the snow. They looked dangerous to ski on, and certainly dangerous to fall on. Thus, we cut to skier's right at this point, into terrain that wasn't blasted by slides, but consisted of moderately spaced conifers. This made sense anyway, since the most continuous snowpack was on this side of the slide. We found some great turns among these trees, while Gerry hiked along down the middle of the slide path to our left. The skiable area of snow gradually shrunk until we were on about a 10-foot wide section of snow for the last few hundred yards. We finally had to call it quits at around 6,000', and switched back to hiking mode. Gerry finished off the snow in his own way, demonstrating the good old fashioned way of getting down the mountain; sliding on his backside. This side of the slide was nicely shaded due to the surrounding forest (hence the vestiges of snow) and we were grateful; the sun had really been beating down and reflecting off the snow. We had been baked; thank heavens for sunscreen. I think Gerry was the least in need of relief, since he was still thawing out his body parts after lying in the snow and filming for so long!

The last part of our journey required getting back to the Grubstake area. Since we were on the south side of the slide, we needed to cross to the north side to get back to the car. In this part of the slide, it was just starting it's southward bend behind the Grubstake, and it was much narrower (maybe 20 yards). There was still a lot of debris, and we had to cross over this to get on our way. Jon found us a good route, although it was tricky walking over the downed trees with skis on our backs. Once across the slide path however, it was a very easy 15 minutes to the car; the radio towers serving nicely to guide us back. Later in the afternoon, a group of us got together and watched the video we'd recorded during the trip, which was a substantial amount. Gerry, in his first day running the camcorder, left it on for much of the time and we got to hear all our radio conversations. I'll have to find a way to incorporate the audio into next year's ski movie, it's really quite informative. The real reason for the afternoon get together was a long-awaited viewing of our 2000-2001 ski movie "North American Escapade" with some of my lab-mates. I'm happy to say that they made it through the whole thing without falling asleep, although I know Gerry was working hard to keep conscious after little sleep the night before and a REALLY strenuous day behind the camera!


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