My boss Bruce asked me if I wanted to head for some backcountry skiing in
the Gash Point area (summit elevation ~8,800’) on Saturday.  I was a bit
skeptical about the conditions since we’ve had no new snow in the past three
weeks, but Bruce is such a great guide for the Gash area that I figured it
would be fun even if just for the hike.

When I awoke on Saturday morning, it was in the mid 40s F in town, about
half the local peaks were shrouded in clouds, and there were on and off
spits of rain.  It wasn’t the kind of day that gets you excited about
backcountry skiing.  In fact, it was the kind of day that would typically
cause me to turn around and head back to bed.  But, since we’d made plans, I
figured we should try to see them through.  Bruce even called to see how I
was feeling about the trip, and we vainly tried to talk ourselves out of
going.  We failed.  So, we met up at the Corvallis post office at ~8:30
A.M., and hopped in Bruce’s pickup for the approximately 45 minute ride to
the trailhead.  There are a number of different points from which one can
start the hike to the Gash Point area, and the one you choose depends on how
far your vehicle can go on the snowy forest service roads.  Since we’ve had
below average snowfall this season, and the past three weeks have been dry
weather, we were able to get to the highest trailhead at 5,800’.  I was
amazed to see that the road was almost clear for the entire drive, save for
a few patches of snow and ice in the most shaded areas.  The snow situation
on the drive didn’t suggest great skiing, but at least we didn’t have to put
on the tire chains like last February.

The mostly cloudy skies had broken up into brilliant sunshine, and we began
our hike on bare ground wearing sunglasses and light clothing.  This was my
first chance to try an extended ski/hike with my new Dakine Sequence ski
pack.  Since I’d already put my skins on my skis the previous evening to
save time, I wanted to carry the skis with their bases together to protect
the skins.  I tried the diagonal carry option on the pack, and it worked
VERY nicely.  The weight distribution was excellent, and I hardly knew the
skis were there except for when I’d catch an overhanging branch above my
left shoulder.  I was walking in my hiking boots and carrying my ski boots
in the pack.  The ski boots easily fit in the pack, and the pack’s nice
protective pad meant that there were no annoying bulges poking into my back.
  Anyway, it was the first time I’d carried both boots and skis with this
pack and I say that Dakine gets high marks for a pleasurable experience.  We
made great time on the trail, and in about 15 minutes, we’d reached the area
the Bruce and Rob refer to as “the flat spot” (elevation ~6,125’).  We took
a quick break, and Bruce showed me how to mark waypoints on my GPS.  A cold
breeze hit us while we were stopped, so we quickly got moving again.

The next goal was to cross the creek on this side of the drainage.  The low
snowpack made for fewer crossing options, but Bruce led us to a point where
he and Rob had made a small bridge of logs that remedied these types of
situations.  There was actually a partial snow bridge, and the logs really
filled out the remaining gaps.  We’d been walking on broken snowpack since
before “the flat spot”, but Bruce knew of a couple more spots that might be
melted out, so we waited on the skins.  The snow was rotten at times, and in
these areas we’d occasionally post-hole down a couple of feet.  It was
frustrating and we couldn’t wait to get skinning.  Finally, at an elevation
of ~6,500’, we stopped for a quick bite to eat and strapped on the skins.

Our hike continued through relatively thick woods with consistent snowpack,
and at ~6,800’ we hit the bottom reaches of the south bowl area.  It
actually took a bit of navigating to find a good route up into the bowl, due
to an abundance of exposed brush.  Secretly, the sky had become a bit
cloudier and it was spitting out a few flurries, but we assumed it was a
passing shower.  We worked our way up the lower reaches of the bowl, and
finally moved southward into what are known as the “Swedish Trees”.  In
general, I think people prefer to set their skin tracks in this area because
it is out of any potential slide hazard from the bowl.  I certainly know I
prefer it.  The lower reaches of the bowl had featured more areas of rotten
snow, with the remainder being unbreakable or barely breakable crust.  We
weren’t optimistic about the ski conditions, but we figured we’d keep
climbing and see what elevation did for us.  We were now walking on about ½
inch of new snow that had probably fallen overnight, and it was gradually
increasing as we gained elevation.

About halfway up through the Swedish Trees, I noticed an ominous finger of
cloud snake up from the valley below and begin to fill the bowl.  “Great”,
we though, “there goes the visibility.”  No sooner had the bowl been filled
by clouds (fog) than it began to snow.  We continued our way up through the
Swedish Trees, and all the while, the snowfall became steadier and the depth
of new snow increased.  By the time we’d reach the zenith of our hike
(elevation ~7,600’) there were two inches of new snow on the ground over
what felt like an unbreakable crust.  “These conditions might actually make
for some quality skiing!” we thought.  We debated going higher in search of
even better snow, but Bruce pointed out that the terrain wasn’t quite as
good as the Swedish Trees.  We could do a quick run and maybe go for another
lap, or even higher, if the turns were fun.  We had another quick bite, and
switched to ski mode.  I’d brought my goggles, more out of routine than
anything, because I figured I’d use them instead of my sunglasses when I
skied.  Bruce had brought his as well, and boy were we thankful we had them
now.  It was snowing steadily, and winter temperatures had made a triumphant
return.  It just goes to show you how nice it is to be prepared for rapid
changes in the weather; our relatively warm, blue sky day was anything but
at this point.

We skied cautiously at first, unsure of how the two inches of snow over
crust would support our weight.  As it turned out, we could generally ride
on top of the crust in the new powder at the start of our run… that is until
we tried to turn.  If you edged very hard, you would break through the crust
and the skiing was raised to an entirely different tier of difficulty.  I
was on my 180 cm CMH fats (since they are the only skis for which I have
skins) and even my ~140 lbs was breaking through the crust on hard turns.
Switching to longer, more gentle turns let me ride on top of the crust… at
least for a while.  Bruce, who’s about 180-190 lbs, was on a similar length
ski in more of a mid fat width and he was breaking through routinely.  After
the first couple hundred feet of vertical, the accumulations of powder began
to diminish, and staying on top was all but impossible in any sort of turn.
We were soon into the realm of survival skiing.  I can honestly say that it
was the most difficult skiing I’d done all season.  We went through
breakable crust, unbreakable crust, rotten snow pockets, and probably some
conditions that don’t even have names.  We pulled out the whole bag of
tricks to deal with the snow, jump turns, side-stepping, side slipping,
traversing, kick turns, and even the occasional safety fall.  Actually, I
really enjoyed devising methods to deal with the conditions, it made me
think a lot about various aspects of ski technique.  We made it out alive,
so presumable we’re stronger skiers for the experience.  All I can say is
that my turns at Lost Trail the following day (Sunday) were like lightning,
so perhaps there is something to the concept of trial by fire.

Reaching the bottom of the bowl, there wasn’t even a though about another
lap (at least not that I could tell).  I might have been interested in
checking out the skiing in the higher elevations above 8,000’, but it still
would have entailed a ski through the lower terrain, so it just didn’t feel
like it was worth it.  The snow was coming down in buckets at this point, so
we figured Lost Trail would be getting hit as well, and we could reap the
lift-serviced rewards the following day.  Bruce’s friends Rob and Linda had
also come up into the Gash area for the afternoon, and Bruce had been in
contact with them via radio throughout our trip.  Based on what they
expected for ski conditions, they were mostly planning on exploring a bit
and trimming some additional ski terrain.  Bruce had initially given them a
somewhat optimistic report when we were at the top of our hike, but he
quickly filled them in on the horrible conditions in the lower elevations.
They weren’t sure what they were going to do, but if they did go up they
would go to the top in search of the best snow.

Our ski/hike down was through very heavy (1-2 inches per hour) snowfall and
although the skiing hadn’t been great, our spirits were really high about
the return to winter.  We were able to ski all the way down to the lower
stream crossing, and then we hiked about ½ hour back to the trailhead.  Even
the lowest elevations of our hike that had been totally bare on the way up
were now covered with 2 inches of fresh snow.  It made for a really great
hike.  Fortunately, the accumulations didn’t affect the drive home.  Bruce
called his wife Joan on the cell phone, and we were amazed to find out the
even the valley (elevation ~3,600’) had received an inch of snow during the
past few hours.  Later that evening, Bruce talked to Rob, who said that he
and Linda had found 4-6 inches up near the top and the skiing had gotten a
lot better.  I don’t doubt it, based on the way the snow was falling up
there.  It really got us excited about the potential for skiing at Lost
Trail the following day (report to come).  So it appears the in the span of
a couple of hours, the Bitterroot quickly returned to winter.  The forecast
for this week suggests we’ll stay there for a while.

Some pictures from the day can be found at:

For more information on Gash Point, check out previous trip reports from Feb
15, 2004 & Nov 11, 2001:


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