Friday, April 5, 2013

Mission Mts.- Mt St.Mary and Grey Wolf Peak

I have been planning a trip to ski in the Mission Mts. since I first laid my eyes on them three years ago while on a climbing trip throughout the Big Sky state. At that time I had never even heard of the Mission Mts., but when I got home I started researching their back country skiing potential. 

Missions Mts- looking North from East St.Mary
The Mission Mts. begin roughly 50 miles north of Missoula and run about 40 miles north towards the southern-most part of Flathead Lake. They rise at an average of 5,000 feet from the valley floor. Mt. McDonald is the highest peak in the range, at 9820 ft.

When I moved to Whitefish, MT at the beginning of this year I had a feeling that I would be putting in an effort to ski in this range. Coming back from Idaho three weeks ago we passed St. Ignatius- the gateway to the Missions- and thoughts began to pile up for when I could make this trip happen. Texts were sent to many Boyz with temptation to ski in the wild arena. The dilemma I am having now living so far north is having all of these epic mountains to climb, but no Boyz to ski with.

My dependable partner from the North, Dan Koestler, was down and we planned on being in the the Missions for Easter weekend. When he called just three days before we were supposed to go, telling me how he was put on the schedule unexpectedly, I texted again, to no avail. I began to make new plans for my weekend off work.

Then a miracle happened. My closest in proximity and most experienced Skier Boy Friend called and said he would go. YES! Thank You Jay Welz! It was a roller coaster of emotions leading up to getting to the trailhead and even after, but while we were in the mountains it felt like we were supposed to be there. The Missions approved of our dedication to exploration.
Happy Easter! Boyz on summit cone of East St. Mary
To enter the Missions from the west side you need a Tribal Boundaries Pass. A three day pass can be obtained in St. Ignatius at the Cenex Gas station for nine bucks. From there we drove up to St. Mary Lake.  On the western edge there is a pull out with a campfire ring and a cairn marking a trail. The road was mostly melted out, but I was happy to have Truckee.

The trail head
Our main objective in the Missions was to ski the West Couloir of Grey Wolf Peak. I had read many blogs from skiing this line and each one sounded like getting there would be a challenge greatly rewarded. After finding the trail we were surprised that it continued up to the snow line and a skinner was already in. We transferred to skis and followed the skinner to where the mountains revealed themselves. Gorgeous mountains shining bright in the sun and bluebird skies.
That approach wasn't so bad. I could have packed a few more brews

Welz below point 8700 ridge

Grey Wolf Peak and it coolers
At 4 pm, we reached the ridge at 8700 ft.  5 hours and 4800 feet of climbing later, we had a look at Grey Wolf Peak and the couloir we wanted to ski the next day. We ripped skins and skied a beautiful large bowl down 1700 feet to the base of the Grey Wolf where we would set up camp. The bowl is north facing so we carved some creamy archs and wiggles, pleased with the conditions and blown away with our position! After setting up camp we climbed back to the ridge for another descent of the bowl before the sun went down for the night. We cheers'd with a few brews and gulped some chai rum then slept under a Big sky of brilliant lights.
Amazing bivy spot
 The next morning we woke to another sunny day and after a quick hot meal we began skinning towards East St. Mary Peak. Because the snowpack was in a transitional stage and we had a good freeze over night we planned to ski the South face off East St. Mary then back to the Grey Wolf coolie which faces west.

Self portrait with the SOuth East Face of East St. Mary
After two and a half hours of following the Easter bunnies tracks we were standing on top of East St. Mary (9,400) and looking North to jaw dropping peaks and faces. The line has big exposure and its above a hundred foot cliff.  We dropped in before noon, a little bit on the cautious side because of the exposure involved. The corn was perfect off the top and getting towards the cliff it changes exposure a bit and was a bit firm. I did not care, what a line! So fun to be hopping down a big face like that feeling so small and vulnerable.
DAmn thats some creamy corn

Welz dropping off the summit cone of East St. Mary

From the bottom of the bowl we booted 1000 feet back up the ridge on the hard crusted west face. In an hours time we were back up to 8700 and looking over at our next objective, which seemed like we would be timing perfectly because the coolie was still in the shade. Shit! Someone was booting up our line. They sussed us while we were climbing or skiing East St. Mary. We were in awe and didn't know what to do.

We skied down back to camp and decided that the group was either going to wait for the apron to soften up, which would give us time to high five them at the top or they were just going to ski in in hard, scary conditions. So we went up and hoped they were Canadians so we could offer them a Kokanee if we got in their way.

Changing over from skinning to cramponing we waited below some rocks at the bottom of the chute. We began to see some snow pebbles come down through the chute and then some more and felt that the group ahead was descending. Alright, exactly what we were hoping for. We high-fived the gang from Missoula and began booting up the empty coolie above.

Do you think the Easter bunny hid any eggs up here?

Towards the top of the coolie. The terrain in the back ground is point 8700, where we made 3 laps in creamy powder conditions.
After a hour of stepping in and out of the old booter we were on top of the coolie. We enjoyed our position, ate some peeps and looked down the other side of our line to see another beautiful shaded cooler below. Maybe next time? We transitioned and started down this wonderful line. On the left side of the chute there was still dry powder so we hopped down that way and in the middle we got some corn.  By the time we hit the apron it had corned up also, perfect timing for the Boyz! Another amazing line.

Thanks for the Peeps. Now lets ski this line!

Welz dropping into the West Couloir of Grey Wolf PEak

Finding some soft snow in the shade

BAck out into the sun for corn.
PAcking up camp we knew that the hardest wasn't over. To get out we needed to climb back up to point 8700, then ski down the manky southwest ridge and try to find our trail back to the truck. This all was not too bad, mostly because we had spent the past 34 hours in place most skiers don't visit. Many people look up at the Mission mountains and stress how hard it would be to get on top of those peaks, let alone ski fantastic lines. As SKier Boyz, it is our nature to act on the urges of the the unknown terrain that stands above us.

SKiing out of the Missions to finish the mission

Sore feet. This is What we DO!

Getting back to the truck are feet were sore but our minds were at ease. Popping a victory brew we cheers'd to an excellent adventure, 13,000 feet of climbing, 2 memorable lines and a bivy worthy of the effort.



  1. WOW. Growing up in MT I drooled at the Missions so many times. I've not been there in the winter but would love to do this soon! Thanks for the great pics and nice work slaying the white dragon!

  2. Hey guys, I was part of the Missoula crew in the couloir ahead of you that day. Nice write up. We ate peeps at the top too :) As we skied back down to the lake we saw a wolverine running across the lake and wondered if he had been checking out your tent? He ran up and over the St Mary's ridge in a matter of minutes. Such a great day!