Friday, July 31, 2009

Glacier National Park

Later today I will be leaving for one of my favorite national parks - Glacier National Park in Montana.

Glacier has a very extensive backcountry trail system. I have travelled most of its trails over several visits and have always come back impressed. I can still remember my very first backpacks into Cracker Lake and Gunsight Lake, as well as my last extended backpack over Boulder Pass (pictured above) and into Hole in the Wall. Memories from these trips are plentiful!

For this trip, we will be doing the North Circle - or Highline Trail. We will begin our 7 day backpack at Logan Pass and hike the Garden Wall to Granite Park. We will then continue on to Fifty Mountain before starting the most interesting part of our trip - climbing over the shoulder of Mt. Kipp and descending the Chaney Glacier to Sue Lake Bench for a remote backcountry camp. From there it is on to Stoney Indian Pass before descending the Belly River Valley to Elizabeth Lake. Finally, we will climb to Ptarmigan Tunnel and end our trip at Many Glacier. We also hope to summit a handful of peaks along the way.

I will be joined by my friend Greg, whom I met last year during a climb of Bonanza Peak in the North Cascades. Greg and I really hit it off on that trip and I am excited to be able to spend time with him again while doing what we love - hiking and climbing!

Wish us luck, and hopefully I will be able to share accounts of a successful trip upon our return!

Edit: The Highline Trail is a mere section of the North Circle, which is also comprised of the Stony Indian Pass Trail, Ptarmigan Trail and Garden Wall Trail.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Backpacker Magazine

If you get a chance, be sure and pick up the August issue of Backpacker Magazine. The cover is an excellent scene straight from the Dolomites in Italy, captured by PatitucciPhoto.

Oh, and your's truly is also represented within its pages. ; )

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Back from Mount Olympus!

I'm back from an exciting and successful climb of Mt. Olympus! Of course, for me this was much more than just a climb to the summit (which was plenty exciting with a final low class 5 exposed rock pitch). Equally important to me was our scenic high camp on Panic Peak and being able to share the experience amongst friends.

Of course, I now have a new friend to add to that list. Dave Skinner is a volunteer worker at the UW research hut at the base of Panic Peak (if you look closely in the picture above, you will see the hut to the far left towards the top of the rock).

Dave was full of lots of stories, from Jellybar (a World War II era supply drop that missed its mark and scattered on the glacier below) to days working under Rich Marriot and performing various measurements of the glacier, snow and firn. He shared stories of rescues, climbs and events he watched unfold before him - including the landing of aircraft on Snow Dome for supplies. He even brandished an old black and white photograph of Mr. Fairchild's plane taking off from Snow Dome.

But most importantly, Dave had lemonade waiting for us when we returned from the summit, and lounge chairs sitting on the front deck to enjoy it in while staring at wonderful mountain before us. Does it get any better than that?

Of course, I've started this posting out by serving dessert first. This summit is earned after 18 long miles of trail, beginning in the Hoh Rain forest. The trail climbs out of the rain forest to the grassy meadows of Olympic Guard Station and Lewis Meadows, then enters forest of cedar, Douglass Fir and Hemlock near Elk Lake before emerging in the sub-alpine meadows of Glacier Meadows.

Along the way there is wildlife to be seen, including deer, elk, bear and mountain goats. If you're really lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a cougar - or in my case several years ago, a cougar kill (elk carcase very near the trail).

Above Glacier Meadows at 18 miles, the world changes to that of rock and ice. The change is dramatic and abrupt. Gone are the flowers, brush and trees. Staring you in the face is the rock-strewn ice of the Blue Glacier giving way to white ice and seracs below the summit rocks of Mt. Olympus. The view from the moraine is awe-inspiring.

The lower Blue Glacier is unlike any other glacier I have seen in our state. It would appear to be better served in the Karakorum in the way that it stretches down the flat valley. Of course, like most glaciers in our area, it has receded over the years. Still, it is quite impressive. This view from the moraine at 19 miles is well worth the hike in its own right. It's quite a jewel.

Crossing the lower Blue Glacier is a wild experience as well. On previous trips it has always been snow-covered. Not this time. On this trip we were greeted with bare ice and some very cool features; creeks running down the glacier and deep blue pools of water. It was amazing to see. Of course, the experience of walking on ice with a river of water running beneath you was quite an experience as well!

Once across the lower glacier it's time to ascend Snow Dome. This is where the views expand to include neighboring peaks and out to the Pacific Ocean.

The views become even more dramatic as you get up close and personal with the ice seracs of the Blue Glacier. Much larger crevasses begin to appear as you traverse across Snow Dome towards the summit rocks. Of course, it's hard to watch your feet when your eyes want to wander higher above!

We were fortunate enough to have the mountain nearly to ourselves on the morning of our summit bid, only running into another party shortly after descending from the summit. This was in stark contrast to the day prior when the climbing ranger had 37 people signed out on the mountain. Karma appeared to be on our side.

We also had excellent weather and glacier conditions for our ascent (though the snow would turn soft quickly in the heat of the day).
The direct route to the summit looked doable, but was not recommended due to deep corn snow near the bergschrund. This route has never been available to me on previous trips. It melts out fast.

Instead we made an ascending traverse to Crystal Pass and continued on the "backside" of the Blue Glacier. This area is incredibly scenic and not viewable from the summit due to the obstruction of Five Fingers and Middle Peak. I have always favored this route.

An ascent up the final leg of the Blue Glacier brings you to the top of Five Fingers and offers the gate to the summit block via a snow cirque at its base.

Once in the snow cirque at the base of the summit block, the climb changes from glacier to rock. Sometimes the transition can be made more difficult due to a moat. This was not the case this time and the transition was easy.

We took a different route to the summit this time, following an easy ramp up to a low class 5 pitch on solid rock directly below the summit. The climbing was fun and soon there was no more rock to reach for. We were standing on it.

The summit of Olympus is a fun place to hang out. For me, it offers a different vantage of the sea of peaks comprising the Olympics and identifying them all can be challenging. It's a fun game.

Of course, eventually it all has to end. The trip is only half over and it's time to begin the second half of the journey - the long descent and trek out.

Of course, not before enjoying some lemonade!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Mt. Olympus

Later today I will be leaving for an extended climb of Mt. Olympus in Olympic National Park. We will spend 4 days doing the 48 mile round trip to the summit. If we are successful, it will be my fourth time reaching the summit of this beautiful, majestic peak.

We will spend tomorrow hiking the low forested valley of the Hoh to Elk Lake. Friday we will move camp higher onto the flanks of Mt. Olympus in hopes of a nice sunset and close summit proximity. All this hard work should have us in a position to summit Saturday morning! Our final camp will be in Glacier Meadows before making the long haul out on Sunday.

I will be joined by my good friend Dale (who accompanied me last time) and the film team of Crest Pictures, Robert and Kathy Chrestensen. Wish us luck! And if you are in the area and see us on the trail, say hi!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Wildlife of Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park is such a phenomenal place for so many reasons. Whether you're into geysers, hot springs, waterfalls, canyons or wildlife, there is something there for you.

Having been there many, many years ago, I knew what to expect as far as the geological features were concerned. What I didn't expect was the abundance of wildlife present and available for photographing.

We entered the park via the north entrance from the town of Gardiner, and spent our first couple of days in the Mammoth Hot Springs area. Here I was fortunate to stumble upon a sow and yearling one morning. It was quite fun to watch them interact while eating flowers in the meadows. Word had it that a larger black bear was also in the area. Might it be the one we saw that very evening traversing over to and through the terraces above Mammoth Hot Springs?

Swan Lake Flats was an excellent place to find elk in the early morning before and shortly after sunrise. The steam rising from the lake made the experience very special.

Elk could also be spotted often along the road between Swan Lake Flats and Mammoth Hot Springs, or even resting in the lawn of various residence and businesses in Mammoth Hot Springs! Incidentally, driving south toward Norris found them in numbers as well.

Of course, we didn't have to venture far from camp to see wildlife. We had our own resident bison right in Indian Creek Campground!

Another regular place to see bison in the northwest section of the park was down by Norris Campground. Of course, practically any place in the park is a safe bet to bison!

I spotted coyotes along the Upper Terrace Drive early one morning. With the size of the rabbits I saw in the area, this should not have been a surprise.

Of course, the black bears were my favorite animals to photograph in this section of the park. It's interesting that black bears and grizzly bears do not share territory. In the event that they do meet, the black bear were usually flee unless cornered. If it's cornered, the confrontation will almost always prove fatal to the black bear.

I guess the fact that so many black bears were hanging around the Mammoth Hot Springs area suggested we were likely safe from grizzly encounters!

We also drove by a sow and cub(s) sighting near Roosevelt one afternoon.

Stopping at Pebble Creek Campground for a restroom break, we were treated to a bull moose trotting across the river straight toward us before venturing through the campground to a field on the other side. The sighting was so unexpected that by the time I got to my camera gear he was already nearly gone!

Another treat was seeing a white wolf relaxing in a meadow quite far off the road near Canyon.

Our stay in Canyon allowed me to hike with my 5-year old daughter to the summit of Mt. Washburn. This was a real treat for the both of us! This was supposed to be a popular area to see big horn sheep, but we were not so fortunate during our ascent. Upon reaching the lookout tower, we learned they were hanging out only 1/4 mile down the other popular trail approach. However, we were running out of time and elected not to pursue this option. I believe this is the only common animal we did not see during our visit to this park.

It was during our stay at Canyon that I was fortunate to photograph a grizzly bear near Dunraven Pass for over 1-1/2 hours. I actually had to walk away from this special experience in order to get back to camp in time for check-out! It's too bad. It would have been fun to have had the morning sun light up the area.

The grizzly sighting was quite special to witness. Bear researchers were also present, not to mention several other wildlife photographers with some serious lenses. What I learned by listening is that this particular bear was actually wearing a collar and was numbered. He had been wearing the collar for so long that his fur mostly hid it. He was also significantly scarred. Weight estimates for this bear were 800-900 lbs.

There were other special moments for viewing wildlife too. The Madison area provided excellent opportunities for bison, including a large herd at Fountain Flat. This was a special area because it offered more than just your typical bison standing next to the road. I got to watch calves interacting with one another as well as numerous bison crossing the river, including a cow leading her two calves across. The thermals in the area also made an intriguing background, in my opinion.

I was probably most nervous while photographing here, believe it or not. The herd was so numerous and so spread out that you had to watch your back. I would use the hood of my truck to lean on to help stabilize my camera while photographing the bison, keeping my vehicle between me and them. A quick glance over my shoulder would catch other bison approaching me from behind, a couple of times uncomfortably close - enough to make me change to the other side of my truck!

Of course, elk and pronghorns were also common in the area. This young bull elk was photographed just off the road near Madison, while pronghorns were spotted near the Whiskey Bend Picnic Area.

Yes, Yellowstone National Park is synonymous with wildlife! Opportunities for viewing abound around every bend in the road at all times of day, though morning and evening can be particularly special.

Note: I will be leaving in the coming days for a summit attempt of Mount Olympus in Olympic National Park. Upon my return I will post some of my landscape photography from Yellowstone National Park (as well as hopefully share images and details from a successful Olympus climb - wish me luck!)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Back from Yellowstone!

I just returned from a fantastic trip to Yellowstone National Park. Some of the highlights included photographing a sow and yearling black bear, a very large grizzly bear, White Dome Geyser errupting at sunset, and more! Having taken over 20 GB of images, it will take me some time to edit and share, but share I will!