Tags: Backcountry skiing Montana, Skiing Mac Donald Peak, Skiing Sheepshead Peak, Skiing the Mission Mountains, Spring Skiing Western Montana
With perfect weather forecast for a powder thursday, Brian took the day off of work and called me for the early start into the Missions. At first I declined, tired from my trip to Idaho and a return to heavy labor at the lodge. I awoke Wednesday thinking about nothing but the peaks, refreshed from a nights sleep and eager for a trip to these two iconic back to back peaks in the St Ignatius area of Montana. Brian was planning to camp out and we set a meeting time in the Mission Valley for 3:45 a.m. I rolled out of Hamilton just as the bars were closing, amazed at the few cars on the road, but no troopers to be seen. I cruised at 60 mph until Arlee when it seemed I was running a bit late. I picked up Brian at Lake MacDonald and we headed for the Ashly Lakes Road and trailhead. We drove the unmaintained road to a turnaround at a switchback and headed out at 5:15. Four hours later we were standing on the summit of Sheepshead Peak after ascending the direct line to the ridge and when it became corniced and wild we opted to traverse onto the face and work our way up the series of gullies and ribs that guard the upper mountain. Using both harscheizen and boot crampons we made our way quickly and efficiently and securely to the summit. It was a fun climb as the sun rose and we noted fox tracks only and no new snow until the upper mountain where there was 3-6 inches.
Neither of us had ascended or descended the east ridge/ face of Sheepshead to the classic NW face of MacDonald peak and we were curious of its functionality as a route to the interior. Skiing from the summit of Sheepshead was good with a traverse along the moderately steep ridgeline followed up by a nice powder descent into the upper basin of MacDonald Peak. At 9:30 the snow was still amazingly good winter powder, the best snow of the day. Skinning up to the summit of MacDonald Peak was completed in short order, watching the sun and jet contrails streaking the sky. The objective of the day was the north face of MacDonald Peak to the MacDonald Glacier below. Brian had partially scouted the line a couple weeks ago and we went to the break in the ridge and peered down into the abyss. The line was not guarded by a cornice, but there were two obvious steep and narrow chokes on this 50-55 degree line and we could not see the exit to the glacier at all. Brian was going to drop in while I decided that it was not for me that day. Not having climbed the line, I was nervous about being cliffed out and having to negotiate the rocky, narrow chokes. We made a plan to regroup at the eastern terminus of the big peak at Cliff Lake. I watched Brian descend the initial few hundred vertical feet and then waited for him to emerge on the bottom apron. When he did not after 15 minutes, I noticed that he may have snuck through below the cliffs to the east exit. I then left the summit and descended the fine glisse east face of MacDonald in a continuous 3,000 vertical foot run to Cliff Lake, where I hiked to the top of a hill to watch for Brian’s return. After waiting for another half hour I was considering my options and contingency plans, more than a little worried for my ski partner. When he appeared at my cut off time of 12:30, I yodeled with pure joy for his safe descent of the North Face of MacDonald. Turns out once Brian had negotiated what appeared to be the final crux in the run, he ran out of snow field about 20 feet above the glacier. Wooops… so after many minutes of consideration, negotiation and deskiing, fixing skis to packs and pulling out ice axe and downclimbing a small chimney, Brian was left with no more than a 10 foot jump. First pack then body and he was safely back on moderate terrain. After learning this, I was pleased with my own decision, as having not climbed the run, circumstances like this are not unusual on extremely steep cliff bound faces. Brian is a master of the steeps and managed the objective hazard as carefully and conscientiously as possible. I would have been less cool and jacked with adrenalin could have made an unresolvable error aka accident.
We skinned back up passed Icefloe Lake and over the pass into Ashley Creek where we half piped the 2.5 mile run back to the Lower Ashley Lake where we popped the skis and crossed the creek to dry ground. Successfully off the mountain we stripped to sneakers and t-shirts and enjoyed a pleasant walk out to the car. The drive back down the Ashley Lakes trailhead was horrible and took an hour of 4 wheeling over rocks and through erosion ruts. Not a road for anything but 4wd vehicles. Fortunately the bridge over the canal has been rebuilt and no longer breaks when driven over…