Will Spring Come this Year?
Posted March 28, 2011

Once again spring is trying to grab onto Montana but it is a slow process this year. Many ski areas find they have abundant snow for more grooming and skiing. There will be skiing in Montana well into June and maybe July this year. But...

This is my last post for the 2010-2011 season. I hope you've enjoyed my winter!

So while spring may be trying to go on Spring Vacation, spring will come soon. Even so, I definitely expect the backcountry skiing to be good for quite a while longer. I plan on a trip up Lincoln Peak in Glacier and to other backcountry locations. I might even get in my first campout of the 2011 season, who knows?

I have begun to prepare my skis for groomed trails 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.

My focus the rest of spring will be on backcountry skiing, snowshoeing and training for summer mountaineering adventures. But remember, as of today, it's only 334 days to Birkie 2012!

On Lincoln Ridge in Glacier National Park.

I hope you all have a great fun packed spring and summer. You can bet 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 2011. See you then!

Pray Lake and Sinopah Mountain.

The Mount Brown Lookout, Glacier National Park
Posted March 21, 2011

Much of the winter I ski on groomed trails. I take the occasional foray into the backcountry but not too often.

As winter winds down grooming becomes a little hit and miss. Most areas cannot groom wet new snow and many mornings the snow is hard and frozen granular. Also as temperatures rise the good skiing might only last a few hours.

Alternatives include backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, hiking and climbing. Last week was highlighted by a little snowshoeing. I joined the Glacier Mountaineering Society for a trip to the Mount Brown Lookout.

I've been to the Mount Brown Lookout in winter before. In fact I posted a trip there on Ralph's Blog in March of 2009. But this time was special, as you'll see in the photos.

For anyone wanting to make this trip I suggest a fairly large group. To reach the lookout requires gaining over 4,000 feet of elevation, most of it in deep snow. A large group will pack the trail nicely making for much easier travel. Those in front can rotate to the rear for a rest while a new leader breaks trail. March is the perfect time.

The trail to the lookout begins at the popular Sperry trailhead on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park. The snow there, especially in spring, is usually well packed and even icy if the weather has been warm. For those lower sections most of the group used some kind of traction device like Stabilicers(tm). After gaining 1,000 feet or so we turned off the Sperry trail onto the mount Brown Lookout trail. Here the traffic had been much less and the snow a lot softer.

After another 45 minutes or so we reached a spot that offered a great view of Edwards Mountain across the Snyder Creek valley (above). We rested there, enjoyed a snack and put on our snowshoes.

I think many hikers reach this point, see the beautiful view, rest for a while and decide they've had enough uphill for one day. Beyond this overlook there are fewer tracks and deeper and softer snow.

We continued uphill. There are supposed to be 27 switchbacks on the Mount Brown trail above the main trail to Sperry. Our first resting spot was at switchback number 7 according to our experts. Somewhere between that spot and switchback 10 we left the trail favoring a more direct route to the lookout. We pretty much went straight up a ridge and gained elevation quickly.

The snow was deep and the trees were plastered with rime giving them a ghostly look. The trees began to thin as well. This provided views down to Lake McDonald, now far below. We continued climbing.

In another hour I spotted the lookout. Still some distance above but now seeming much closer than before. Everything was snow covered and beautiful. The trees were ghosts and the lookout was plastered in rime. Photo ops were everywhere. It was partly cloudy and the bright sun, blue sky and clouds were fantastic.

I crested a ridge and saw that most of the elevation gain was done. I only had to walk a quarter mile or so horizontally to reach the shelter.

Once there everyone put on their parkas, warmer gloves and warmer hats. The sun was warm but when a cloud shadow reached us we chilled quickly. The 4,000 feet of uphill was done in less than 4 hours and it was time for lunch. I had a thermos of hot coffee and several high energy snacks. We began to cool down while resting so before long we needed to get moving again to stay warm.

A few more photos, a pose for a group photo and then we were heading back down the trail. The route was now well packed and we made great time. In less than 3 hours we were back at the trailhead enjoying refreshments.

My 2011 Birkie
Posted March 14, 2011

Race day started with an early breakfast and drive to the start. The temperature was much colder than forecast. -12 F when we arrived at the start area. All of us changed to warmer hats, gloves and vests or jackets. Before long it was time to go!

We're just about ready to enter the start area. Steve Bantz (right) and myself are in Wave 5 and will enter the starting area shortly after this photo was taken. Kyle Bantz, skiing her first Birkie, will start 20 minutes later in Wave 7. Start area photos by Juliane Bantz.

Wave 5 just about ready!

Another look at Wave 5. I'm in the upper right quadrant of this photo looking straight at the camera.

We're off!

I started skiing easy knowing that before long I'd hit the first big hills on the Powerline section of the course. First thing I noticed is that it was cold! Still well below zero F. I hoped I would warm up as I skied.

The second thing I noticed was that my skis were a little slower than I expected. Well nothing to do about that now -- just ski!

I skied easy to the Powerlines and tried to keep a relaxed pace through those steep hills. My left knee hurt some when skiing on the hard trail base so I tended to look for the softer parts of the trail on which to ski.

I began to warm up nicely and felt pretty good. But on every downhill my face got really cold. Putting my hands in front of my face when I tucked on the downhills really helped there.

The first 23 kilometers of the Birkie Trail are hilly. Some say the hills are relentless. Well maybe they are but since I knew the course fairly well each big hill was like a familiar landmark. Some of the steeper downhills were a little icy and I skied cautiously there. Before long I reached Hwy OO.

After OO the feed stations are farther apart and the course skis easier. But by now a fine cold snow was falling. The skis got slower and so did I.

On one of the first steep downhills after OO I was skiing near the center of the trail next to the classic tracks which were on the left. A Classic skier stepped out of the track and immediately fell in front of me. He hit the snow hard and started sliding down the hill. I was aiming right for him! The trail there was pretty icy and control there was problematic. Thinking to go left I saw another skater coming past me so I decided to head to the right.

The ice made turning tough and I kept heading straight for the fallen skier. I began to consider bailing out but just as I was about to crash I managed to slalom around the guy. Wow! That was close. I was so excited I let out a big yell. Several skiers congratulated me on my move.

On and on I skied. The flats and hills kept passing by. Shortly after the feed station at Mosquito Brook there is a long sneaky uphill. A big group of spectators were cheering on skiers there. A big boom box blasted out some hard rhythmic music. It seemed to perk up everyone.

I said it's a sneaky hill. It goes up and up and up. Then we reached the group with the boom box. Several folks pushed hard to reach that spot. But the trail turns slightly there and then the rest of the hill comes into view. I knew that upper part was coming and maintained my tempo all the way to the top.

It seemed quite a few got too energized by the music and had a tough time of it after that curve. Another hill down and only 10 more kilometers to go.

Steve skiing hard on Main Street (left) and shortly after crossing the finish line.

Bitch Hill came next. I was disappointed to discover no one at the top of that monster hill urging us on. Oh well, keep skiing. Some downhills, some up hills and the final feed station comes into view.

One more big uphill after that and a few minutes later and I ski onto the lake. Kyle mentioned that it was a long way across the lake. It does seem to go on forever. But then the shore comes closer and before I can think about how much farther it might be I'm skiing on Main Street.

Skating on Main Street (above) and at the finish line (below). My frosty beard is testimony to the fact that it definitely stayed cold all day.

The re-enactment of the 800-year-old legend that inspired the creation of the American Birkebeiner cross country ski race featured Gale Otterholt and Marv Franson assuming the roles of Torstein and Skervald, the Birkebeiner warriors who rescued Prince Haakon during the Norwegian Civil War in 1206. Gretchen Lindgren, dressed as Inga from Varteig, mother of Prince Haakon. The trio skied from the start all the way to Hayward on wooden skis while dressed in period clothing and carrying battle armor.
Previous Main Street photos by Juliane Bantz.

Kyle Bantz on Main Street (above and below left).

A big smile and giant hug from dad were highlights of my day!

One may ski many Birkies. But you never forget the first time! Congratulations Kyle!

Once I stopped skiing the cold really set in. Fortunately Juliane had a parking space right near the finish and the car was warm. Steve set me up with some recovery drink while I changed into warm dry clothes. A hot bowl of chicken noodle soup completed the warming process.

Another Birkie was over. We celebrated at the Flat Creek Inn that evening. We each relived the events of the day and shared our experiences. Kyle wore her medal to dinner and Steve and I had out pins. It was really nice to see how many people came to our table to congratulate Kyle on her first Birkie. Look back at her photo. Isn't that smile a great testimony to her achievement? That smile the best way to end another great day on the Birkie Trail.

As I write this it is only 348 days to Birkie 2012! I'll be there and I hope to see you all there too!

Waxing for the Birkie
Posted March 11, 2011

My frosty finish on Main Street in Hayward, Wisconsin..

The forecast for race day was a morning low temperature around or slightly below zero F with a high of 17 F and a slight chance of light snow.

The snow conditions on the trail included areas of clean snow, areas of dirty snow and areas of brushed ice and transformed snow all mix with powder snow.

Toko suggested to apply LF Blue, scrape and brush, then apply HF Blue, scrape and brush. Finish by rotocorking JetStream Blue. It was also suggested to add X-Cold Powder to the HF Blue for faster skis.

Swix suggested one layer of Swix Marathon Was (DHF104BW) and one layer of HF$BW. Each layer should be scraped and brushed with a fine steel brush followed then a ultra fine steel brush.

Steve suggested, and I agreed, that we wax with Toko LF Blue and HF Blue mixed with X-Cold Powder. We skipped application of JetStream.

Steve ironing in some LF Blue in the ballroom of the Flat Creek Inn.

We completed waxing in the hotel ballroom around 11:00 AM and spent the rest of the day completing some ski testing for Eagle River Nordic and relaxing. We were confident our skis would be fast.

On race morning the weather threw us a little curve. Temps were -12 F just before the start, much colder than anticipated. And it never warmed up much during the day. Seems like the bank thermometer on Hayward's Main Street said something around +2 when I finished. The frosting on the cake was several hours of a fine, cold, light snow.

These conditions really impacted our skis. My skis were a little slower than anticipated at the start but they were fairly quick. As the track softened though, and the new snow began to fall, my skis felt as if there was some friction device on their base. Things seemed to slow way down. My race times bore this out. My pace time was 5 minutes 40 seconds per kilometer early on and slowed to 6 minutes 26 seconds during the time of heaviest snowfall. As the snow let up my pace increased a little.

We discussed our wax choice after the race and agreed that if we had known that the temps would be that low and stay low all day we might have used Toko Blue instead of LF and HF Blue. But since we can't turn back the clock and re-ski the race we'll never know if that would have been better.

Congratulations to all Montana Birkie Skiers!
Posted March 7, 2011

Montana was well represented in the Birkie this year. Here are all of the Montana skiers who completed the American Birkebeiner or Kortelopet ski races on February 26, 2011. I congratulate everyone on their performance.

Bib # Name City Finish
187 175 155 Randy Beckner Helena 2:25:29.1 Birkebeiner Skate
246 22 528 Brandy Stewart Bozeman 2:30:09.9 Birkebeiner Skate
471 430 2453 Jason A Roberts Bozeman 2:43:35.8 Birkebeiner Skate
473 432 1599 Jeffrey P Lepley Helena 2:43:46.5 Birkebeiner Skate
564 51 544 Bailey Roberts Bozeman 2:47:39.3 Birkebeiner Skate
578 525 10029 Jake K Morgan Bozeman 2:48:13.4 Birkebeiner Skate
749 668 2425 Joseph L Meng Missoula 2:55:38.4 Birkebeiner Skate
940 838 2548 Erick E Sorenson Townsend 3:03:06.6 Birkebeiner Skate
1234 1085 2538 Jeff Clausen Whitefish 3:13:13.2 Birkebeiner Skate
1239 1090 3214 Martin M Miller Whitefish 3:13:17.0 Birkebeiner Skate
1829 249 5440 Rebecca Kurnick Bozeman 3:34:10.2 Birkebeiner Skate
2164 1859 3302 Thomas J Osborne Billings 3:47:48.2 Birkebeiner Skate
2518 2124 10099 Tucker T Haunt Billings 4:04:54.0 Birkebeiner Skate
2519 395 10084 Kendrick A Trostel Billings 4:04:54.1 Birkebeiner Skate
2627 422 4261 Eileen Burke Bozeman 4:10:41.4 Birkebeiner Skate
3003 2498 5075 Larry Jent Bozeman 4:33:41.7 Birkebeiner Skate
3222 561 8300 Erika Kaarre Whitefish 4:54:47.9 Birkebeiner Skate
3370 2758 5010 Ralph C Thornton Choteau 5:14:26.9 Birkebeiner Skate
3467 2825 6415 Martin C Kaarre Rexford 5:32:00.0 Birkebeiner Skate
144 11 12202 Magdalena Bowen Bozeman 3:20:44.3 Birkebeiner Classic
440 391 17215 Mark E Peterson Butte 4:07:48.5 Birkebeiner Classic
1136 938 13202 Jerome E Coffey Bozeman 5:54:10.2 Birkebeiner Classic
1252 228 17343 Jill M Owen Choteau 6:24:09.4 Birkebeiner Classic
1266 1036 16405 Daniel E Bonadurer Missoula 6:27:00.5 Birkebeiner Classic
554 192 9924 Kathryn A Rogotzke Missoula 1:43:08.1 Kortelopet Skate
586 380 7823 Jason Brent Helena 1:44:35.2 Kortelopet Skate
884 356 7859 Minde K Meng Missoula 2:03:56.2 Kortelopet Skate

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The Barnebirkie - A Race for Kids
Posted March 6, 2011

One of the pre-race highlights of Birkie Week is the Barnebirkie kids race. Over a thousand kids ages 3-12 participate and ski 1, 3 and 5 kilometer courses that all end at a finish line on Hayward's Main Street.

The big kids ski pretty fast and come zooming into the finish line. But I enjoy watching the youngest skiers. They are often wearing costumes and look pretty fancy.

Others show the concentration needed for skiing fast. All the finishers receive a nice medal and enjoy cookies and Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate at the finish line.

If your child is photographed here let me know. I'll send you a large digital file of the photo.

The rest of my Birkie story will be posted next week.

No Trains? Here's Why!
Posted March 6, 2011

I prefer to travel to the Midwest by train. Amtrak has daily service from Montana to Chicago on the Empire Builder. But like any other form of transportation it has problems with extreme weather.

Last Sunday I expected to board the train in Columbus, Wisconsin and relax in my sleeper, enjoy a great New York steak dinner with wine and sleep through the night as the Builder headed west. But Amtrak called me Sunday morning to let me know my train was cancelled due to extreme weather conditions in Montana. The service remained suspended for several days.

In stead of heading west, I decided to go south. I enjoyed an evening with Steve and Juliane in Milwaukee and visited my brother in Illinois for a few days until the Empire Builder could resume service. During my stay in Illinois I found this photograph taken by Martin Connelly Jr.

The photo was taken from the overpass on US 2 just west of Browning, Montana. As you can see the snow played havoc with the trains. BNSF had the tracks cleared and freight and passenger travel is returning to normal.