Lee Cr. Sun. Jan. 23rd 2022

Participants: Peter DiFurio, David and Julie Kahl It was the best of conditions, it was, almost, the worst of conditions, on a bright sunny day. We met at Walmart at 9:AM and left Peter’s truck at the Lee Cr. Campground, on the way up. The campground parking lot hasn’t been plowed like it has in the past and we avoided parking in the deep snow on the edges of the packed drive in lane. We were to Lolo Pass by 10:AM and David and I took our ski boots into the Visitors’ Center to put on, leaving our skis and poles in the back of the pick-up. First, I signed the log book, very important, as its contents is part of the basis for funding the Visitors’ Center. We talked with the rangers about parking, they were saying that already at 10:AM the snowmobile lot was full and the skiing lot was almost full. We noted that the ski lot hadn’t been blown “larger” as it had been in the past. The Idaho DOT plows the highway and the “Rest Stop” truck parking. It was the designation of Lolo Pass as a Rest Stop, and the federal funding associated with it, that was a primary funding source for the building of the new Visitors’ Center and its parking lot, back in 2000, and yet today, why that area is excluded from the recreation parking. Montana DOT plows the parking area, and the big rotary blower is broken. From a FaceBook post by the Snowgoers Snowmobile Club, who groom both the ski trails and snowmobile trails out of Lolo Hot Springs, a few weeks back they were blowing out the over flow snowmobile parking area on the other side of Hwy 12, which happens to be in MT, and someone had built a bonfire and then covered it up with snow, and when the rotor sucked up the fire debris it damaged the rotor. Our parking woes may not end soon. In the meantime, Peter had unloaded his stuff from the back of the pickup and used the bathroom and when he didn’t see either us or our skis, he presumed we had left without him. A misunderstanding as, as trip leader I would never leave without having all of my participants present and properly equipped. When we couldn’t find Peter we presumed he had left on his own as he had been talking about being a slow skier, and he probably wanted to get a head start. It is proper trial etiquette to wait for your party at every major trail junction, so we skied down to the first junction, no Peter or anyone else for that matter. Skied to the next junction, looking for the track of his wide skis on the recently groomed trail.This junction is where the Glade Cr. or the Little Loop leaves the stem trail. Did he think we were going to ski that way first? We stayed on the stem trail down to the next junction, one of junctions of the Little Loop and Big Loop -Packer Meadows Loop- by the bridge. We asked people coming by if they had seen him, no one had. We waited 10 minutes then David skied up to the other Big Loop/Little Loop Junction to look there. No Luck. Now, we skied down to the place where the Lee Cr. Trail leaves the Packer Meadows Trail, hoping to see him there. Nope, but it was obvious someone with wide skis had gone up the trail, but no guarantee it was him. We went up the trail anyway, still convinced he was out there ahead of us. About 1/2 mile up that trail you ski over the slight rise in the trail that is the MT/ID border, down into the China Cr. Basin. He wasn’t at the bridge/culvert over China Cr. a common waiting or lunch spot, so we started the climb up to the Lee Cr. Saddle. It was just around noon, and when we got higher up on the road, out on a west-south facing slope I started to ice up a bit in the sun on snow sections, but worked through it, I didn’t want to put Maxi-Glide on while we were climbing or planning on going down hill. Shortly, the road turned into a more west-north facing aspect with more shade and that was the last I iced up until… more on that later. Coming up on the saddle created more questions, if we went down, and Peter was ahead of us, would he get to his truck and wait what he thought was a reasonable time and when we didn’t snow up, would he leave and we’d have to hitch hike back up to the Pass? He had given David a set of his truck keys, what if we got down there, and he was actually behind us, so he wasn’t there, how long do we wait to see if he shows up? And, of course, we always had the option to ski back to the Pass from the saddle. The problem was somewhat solved when we arrived at the saddle, there were no tracks going down the Lee Cr. side. If we didn’t connect with Peter we would just go back the way we came. The tracks we were following turned onto a side road, on the way to what, I presume is now the new route to the old B Ski Trail route on Wagon Mt. The route we were following (the old A trail) drops down into the canyon, to follow Lee Creek through the bottom. The old B Trail stayed up on Wagon Mt. (once the wagon route to Lolo Pass), to eventually come down into the Lee Cr. Campground, as the creek-side trail did. We stopped to eat lunch, and Peter came down the Wagon Mt. part of the trail, to join us. He said the trail, made by someone else that had also gone back down it, just went to a high point on Wagon Mt. With 3 of us we opted to break trail down the Lee Cr. side. There was about 8 inches of new power snow on top of an old crust, and the skiing was exceptional, and one could go as fast or as slow as they wanted. I was in front, and came down on to a spot where the road seemed to narrow and go into the shade, around a downhill curve that I couldn’t see what was beyond, and… there was a tall skinny tree handing over the trail with its top bent down into part of the road. Couldn’t really chose a good route, but had to do the uphill, bank side of the road. Between me and the curve was a few feet of snow with the sun shinning on it, trying to ski through that my skis instantly iced up and by the time I got to the tree, shade and curve there was a good inch of snow on the bottom of my skis and I just walked through the curve. On the road on the other side of the curve my left ski broke off its snow layer, but the right ski didn’t. I ended up side stepping down the bank side of the road, with my ski tips “uphill” on the bank, to prevent the clear one from running. As I was doing this down toward yet another turn, David and Peter both came around the upper turn, skiing and bailed out into a fall in the snow, mumbling something about trees. As I got to the next turn I saw a large tree down all the way across the road. As they picked themselves up, I worked my way down to it, realizing I would use its branches to free up my right ski. As is often the case it had fallen with its top on the very edge of the downhill bank, but we could get across that end ok. I half expected to see old ski tracks on the other side of the tree, but there were none. As we had come down the new snow on top of the crust was getting to be less and less and finding ways to keep from going too fast was getting harder and harder, even crust busting steps, weren’t working as the crust was too hard to break though with an easy stomp. Things under the snow, like more fallen trees, were protruding more and we were using our poles in front of us to maintain a pace. As Peter would remark later, we were working up a sweat going down hill. Falls were becoming more frequent and just about half way down, at 2 miles, total of 4 miles on the Lee cr. side of the saddle, we started to find old ski tracks, and a snowshoe trail. David and I opted to take our skis off and walk. Peter skied a bit more and then took his off also. There was a nicely packed ski track to walk on, but a moose thought so, also, and had left foot deep holes in it. Every step had to be carefully placed. The snowshoe trail worked also but it broke through in places. Shortly we ran into a party of 4 people and 3 big dogs going up, they were having trouble with the conditions as well and had just been talking about turning back. For the last 3/4 of a mile the road is “flatter,” a relative term. By now the road-wide surface was a combination of old frozen ski track ruts, snowshoe tracks and critter foot prints, both moose and dogs, with no untouched snow on the edges to make for slower going. The other party passed us going out, most of them were carrying their skis. Skiing in a track, it was slick and just thinking the word “gravity” sent you flying, and you didn’t want to fall here. When we got down to the road gate, we were next to the campground now and David and I took our skis off and followed the side trail through the campground to the parking lot, Peter stayed on his skis, on the road, around the gate to the parking lot. I put my skis down off the packed trail to kneel and put the ski strap on them, but when I stepped onto the unpacked snow, I broke through the crust and lost my footing, ending up sitting down by my skis. One of the ladies from the other party was coming around offering us some chocolate and coconut cookies, I grabbed a handful and the big brown dog sat by me until every bit was gone. We packed things into Peter’s truck and it was just going on 4:PM as we started back up to the Pass. Conditions coming down were grueling, but I’ve skied worse, sometimes it’s glare ice instead of just frozen crust in the lower section. And the very first time I skied this route -in like 1985, probably in March, – we had found the last 2 miles to be bottomless corn snow, like trying to ski-walk in mashed potatoes, even taking your skis off wasn’t an option. Today had been challenging, but we all made it out safely, with the party intact. Success!

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