Posts from February 2010

Welcome Spring!
Posted March 30, 2010

This is my last post for the 2009-2010 season. I hope you've enjoyed my winter!

During the past week, when temperatures reached the 60s I saw bluebirds, meadowlarks, sandhill cranes and flocks of snow geese. It is pleasant hearing the meadowlarks singing on the prairie once again.

Since my focus the rest of spring will be on backcountry outings using boots and maybe snowshoes I have begun to prepare my best skis for summer storage. Rather than repeat the description of the process here I'll point you to a post from March 2008 called Spring Cleaning and Summer Storage.

I hope you all have a great fun packed spring and summer. I'll be out doing my photography thing, camping, hiking, backpacking and climbing. If you'd like to keep track of my summer outings visit the ChoteauCam on my Ear Mountain Photography website.

I look forward to your visit to Ralph's Blog in early October 2010. See you then!


Bike to Rising Sun
Posted March 29, 2010

The snow has melted away at lower elevations so Jen, Ron and I got out our bikes. We headed up to Glacier National Park's St. Mary Valley. The Going-to-the-Sun Road was only open for a short distance beyond the campground but the road was completely clear for another 5 miles.

A few miles up the road we passed 50-100 elk grazing at Two Dog Flats. As soon as they saw us they began to wander farther away. We watched them graze and move for a while then continued on our way.

At a spot where a trail leads down to St. Mary Lake we ditched the bikes. The high winds brought big waves crashing onto the shore. Big snow clad mountains line the lake and the scene was fantastic.

Returning to our bikes we began peddling up the road again. After another half mile or so I felt a jolt on my bike. A weld on the frame had broken! I could no longer peddle so I ditched the bike and jogged and walked fast. Fortunately Jen and Ron stopped every so often to let me catch up.

Past the Rising Sun area there were snow patches on the road so they too parked their bikes and walked with me the rest of the way to a fantastic overlook on St. Mary Lake. We enjoyed the sunshine and had a picnic lunch looking up the valley.

When biking back down the valley the wind pushed us along and most of the way it wasn't necessary to peddle. I walked back to my bike and pushed it up a long gradual hill. Once at the top and in the open where the wind was strong I was able to sit on the bike and coast most of the way back to the gate.

Another nice day in the park!

Back to top of page.


Bluebirds and Meadowlarks
Posted March 24, 2010

The ole saying is that March roars in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. Not this year. In fact no lion has roared weather wise in Northern Montana since early January. Occasional snow, yes, but no big storms.

March has featured plenty of sunshine. I awoke this morning to see a mountain bluebird investigating the nesting box in my yard. And a meadowlark was just beginning to strike up a tune. Spring is here for sure.

I'm also sure we'll get a few more storms, maybe even one like last April when I was housebound for 3 days and the snow piled up many feet deep. Ahh but those snows come and go and the opportunity to ski is definitely winding down.

Spring means diversity. I might ski, hike, snowshoe or climb mountains. What ever the weather lets me do will be fine.

Spring is also a time to check out my gear. I'll check it over, clean it and put it away until next fall. Skis especially deserve some extra loving care in spring and I'll start doing that real soon.

I'll describe how to protect your ski bases from summer dirt and grime next week. Meantime, enjoy this view of the Rocky Mountain Front in spring. It's the view I see every morning as the sun warms the mountains.

Lincoln Ridge Snowshoe
Posted March 15, 2010

I love mountain scenery. Sometimes the best way to get my fill of great views is to snowshoe to higher elevation locations. Recently I joined a Glacier Mountaineering Society for a trek up to Lincoln Ridge.

My day began around 4:00 am when I left home for the drive to Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park. The sky was clear, stars twinkled in the night sky and there was no wind. It promised to be a great day.

The group met at the Sperry trailhead at the end of plowing on Going-to-the-Sun Road along Lake McDonald. We would follow the Sperry trail for the first three miles while gaining 2,000 feet in elevation. The weather in Montana had been fairly warm and dry. Snow at low elevations was pretty thin.

The Sperry trail was a sheet of ice. Hiking uphill on this treacherous surface required using some kind of traction device on their boots. Some just wore their snowshoes, others wore crampons. I borrowed a pair of STABILicers. There are nifty little gizmos that strap on your boots. They have a bunch of cleats on the bottom that grip ice like crazy. I never slipped once with these while going up or down the ice coated trail!

After 3 miles and a couple of thousand feet of up we left the trail and descended to Sprague Creek. We crossed the creek (above) on an ice bridge. Then began climbing up the ridge on the other side.

The snow had a hard crust but not hard enough to support our weight. So we broke through with every step. Those following the leaders had an easier time of it but the going was pretty steep. The trees began to thin as we got higher. Eventually the views began to improve.

The group would get pretty spread out but we stopped to rest periodically and regroup (above). Some places were easy others required some stamina and determination as the ridge began to gain elevation quickly.

As the views got better everyone got more excited. Up, up up, we went, climbing into the bright blue sky. The warm sun started to soften the snow and bring some sweat to my brow.

Looking north I could see part of Lake McDonald, now far below. Beyond the lake are Mount Stanton and Mount Vaught. Closer is Mount Brown.

As we climbed above the trees things really got interesting. The snow lay deep, maybe not as deep as in some years, but deep enough to coat the peaks with a frosting of snow. The view above includes Edwards Mountain on the left and Gunsight Mountain on the right. In between is Comeau Pass.

The ridge began to narrow and the group gathered for a luncheon on the summit of a knob. I stopped often to admire the view.

In photo above by Brian Kennedy I'm hiking up to the top of the knob.

At this point we split into two groups. Some continued up the ridge while several others, including myself, hung out to enjoy the views. After a thoroughly enjoyable time on Lincoln Ridge we began the descend to Lake McDonald.

We followed our own trail back down to the creek crossing and back up to the Sperry trail. It seemed like in no time at all we were enjoying refreshments back at the trailhead.

Back to top of page.


Thinking of New Gear?
Posted March 8, 2010

The Birkie Ski Show is a good time to look over what might be available next year from the various manufacturers. Ernie gave us an assignment to check out boots, skis and bindings. You can rest assured that the results of these test will be reflected in the choice offered in next year's catalog.

Atomic, Solomon, Fischer, Swix and other manufacturers set up tents outside of Telemark Lodge. Our first assignment was to take a close look at new boot offerings from Atomic.

Atomic is introducing a World-Cup Skate boot. That features a ratchet type closure on the outside and speed lacing on the inside. Steve liked the fit of the boot and how it felt while skiing.

Solomon is changing their classic bindings next year. Instead of the Pilot binding that so many had problems with since it was introduced a couple of years ago the new binding will have a bumper. At first glance it looks similar to the old Profil binding but there are some important diferences. The bar on the boot is moved back some giving a slightly different boot location with respect to the binding.

In the photos above Steve is trying to determine if an older pilot binding will work in the new binding. On the left is the new Solomon classic boot. With the change in location of the bar the boot pushed against the binding which will help keep the tip in contact with the track during the classic technique. The old yellow boot, on the right, does not contact the binding and this results in a somewhat sloppy connection to the ski.

Fischer had some new skate boots as well. They have a ratchet tighten instep strap and a standard lacing system. Steve discovered that the boots out for demo were not laced all the way to the top. Using that topmost lace position provided a much better feel to the boot and kept the heel snug as well.

All of Fischer's Carbonlite skis will have the hole next year. If you want a Carbonlite ski without the hole you better call Ernie now.

Some of the annual changes to ski year are true innovations that increase performance or comfort. Others will play out quickly and be discarded. Check back in five years to see which are still around.

Only 355 Days 'til the Birkie!

Birkie Day 2010

Posted March 4, 2010
Photos by Ralph Thornton, Juliane Bantz, Ian Dees and Kathy Posus

The day of the big race, my 31st American Birkiebeiner, finally arrived. The radio announcer said it was 17 degrees at Telemark but that was in error. As the sun came up our thermometer read around -10F. Pretty darn cold!

Skiers began to arrive. The line seemed endless as they kept coming into the start area. They kept coming and coming. In fact, since there were several waves starting after mine, I never saw the end of the line of skiers. 8,000 skiers were expected on the start line!

Everyone seemed to have something to do. Wax skis, warm up, put the clothes bag in the proper truck, the list was endless.

The line at the porta-potties was huge and some folks found other solutions to that last minute problem.

The pace began to pick up and the start area was getting real crowded. After I accomplished all my last minute objectives I headed to the start line to watch the elite waves take off.

These guys really moved out in a hurry. They were all at the finish line over 30 miles down the trail in less than 2 1/2 hours. Pretty incredible. Every five minutes another group of skiers started on the course. They alternated between classic and freestyle skiers.


Left to right are myself, Kyle Bantz and Steve Bantz.

Before long the time approached for Steve and I to begin our journey. We posed with Kyle for a photo. Then we all prepared to ski..

The announcer counted down the time and freestyle Wave 5 was on course. We were required to double pole the first 100 yards. There was pretty much nothing else to do in that crowd anyway. My skis were fast and I kept double poling along as the crowd thinned out on the trail. Steve and I started in the same wave and we skied near each other for almost 10 km.

20 minutes later Kyle began her ski. She was skiing the 26 km Korteloppet race and would be done long before I reached the 3/4 mark of the Birkie trail.

My goal in the Birkie is to ski well and have fun. I pretty much accomplished this. The course is flat for a few kilometers then begins a long series of climbs punctuated by screaming fast downhills. Before long I had passed the end of the power lines and the first feed station.

From here on the trail winds through forests all the way to Lake Hayward. There are lots of hills though. I tried to be patient on these so I wouldn't give up all my energy too early in the day.

Going up one small hill another skier tried to pass me on the right. I was near the left side of the trail so couldn't give her any more room. She skied over the tip of my ski just when I was beginning to lift it for my next skate. My ski stuck to the snow under hers and I did a nifty little spin-a-round and fell.

"Are you Okay?" she asked. "I will be as soon as I get up," I replied and before long we were both off and skiing again.


Skiing down the hill into the Mosquito Brook feed station.

The feed stations clicked by. So did the big hills. Some I remember, some I don't. There is one long climb on the Fire Tower Hill which is the highest point on the trail. Another long climb leads to Hwy. OO near the halfway point of the race. There are other steep climbs between these points as well as some wild downhills.

Many skiers snowplow down the hills. This technique pushes the snow into berms with ice chutes in between. You ski down the chute and push against the berms, hopefully making it around all the tight corners.

Some hills are lined with spectators. They cheer and yell when a skier goes down. You can hear that noise for some distance through the woods. Just thinking of that sound brings back memories of the ice chutes. I got through all of them without falling but there was one close call.

At a downhill known as "snowmobilers corner" the trail makes a steep little drop followed by a hard right turn and a much larger downhill. It's a place made for spectacular crashes and is usually lined with crowds cheering and yelling.

I had been skiing for some time with a gal and we were pacing each other nicely. She was in front of me when we entered the first part of snowmobilers corner. She took the right chute and I followed in the next one to her left. We picked up speed and began to enter the corner. "Oh crap," I thought as I noticed that the two chutes merged right at the turn. Then the gal went down. I moved to my right as close to the edge of the trail as I dared and began to pass her. Just then a huge hole in the snow opened up on the edge of the trail. My left ski missed the hole while I lifted my right ski over it. Wow! That was close.

The gal got up quickly and caught me at the bottom of the hill. I asked her if she was all right. She replied it was an easy fall. We skied on. I continued to see her near me until sometime late in the race.

After Hwy OO the trail flattens out some and the skiing gets easier. This is my favorite part of the Birkie trail. The rolling hills go by fast. Skiing fast down the hills carries you up much of the next hill making for some fun, fast skiing. Nevertheless I was getting tired and the day was getting warmer.

I much appreciated the feed stations along the course. As I skied down the hill toward the Mosquito Brook Feed at the 38 km mark of the race, I spotted Kathy and Tara cheering me on. They provided great words of encouragement as I tried to inhale some Cliff Shot Blocks and swallow several cups of an energy drink.

After the Mosquito Brook feed the trail begins an excruciating climb to a high plateau. It seemed like I'd never make it to the top but the hill was soon behind. A few more twists and turns brought me to Bi**t**ch Hill. This is one tough climb but I was prepared for it. I had eased my pace after the Mosquito Brook climb so that my breathing was easy. Before long I was nearing 2/3rds of the way up the big monster.

I saw what looked like a priest with a megaphone on my left. He was absolving us of our sins, especially the sin of cursing the hill. At the top a nun provided encouragement and gave me a pin commemorating my climb.

"Did this really happen?" I thought later. Nope, it couldn't have. But when I got to the finish line and looked in my pocket I found the pin.

After that hill there comes a nice long downhill run. A few more ups and downs brought me to the last feed station and the crossing of Hwy. 77. There was only one more big, big hill in my way. I again took it easy and made the top just fine.

Coming around a corner the Hayward water tower came into view but well off in the distance. Some fast screaming downhills lead to Lake Hayward and the long flat slog across the lake.

The warm sun and thousands of skiers were causing the snow to be packed hard and skating was a challenge. I alternated double poling in the tracks with searches in the snow for easy spots in which to skate.

Less than 1 kilometer from the finish the trail leaves the lake and goes between the bank and a large grocery store. A hard right turn brought me to Main Street.


Main Street just behind the finish line.

What a sight! The street was packed with spectators all cheering on the skiers. It was easy to pick up the pace and skate to the finish line.

My ski was over but the memories of another great day, my 31st consecutive Birkie, would last a long time. Steve had finished some time before me and was there to greet me. Juliane snapped a few pics as I was given my pin for finishing.

We walked to our car where I drank some recovery drink and changed into dry warm clothes. After a brief rest we headed over to Anglers.

Anglers is a bar and restaurant on Main Street in Hayward. On Birkie day they cook brats and serve beer on the patio between the restaurant and the street. Hundreds of people were there. We pushed our way in, met friends, talked about our race and downed a couple of cold beers while enjoying a brat smothered in sauerkraut.

In a quiet moment while heading back to the car it hit me that the race was over for another year. Of course there were still many skiers still on the course but I was done. I have to wait 365 more days before I can start my 32nd Birkie.