Monday, January 31, 2011

40 degrees warmer

By no means do I consider myself experienced in the backcountry.  I've been skiing almost exclusively outside the resort for the past four years, but nobody becomes an expert in four years.  I'm quick to concede the fact that I have lots to learn.

All of this was further reinforced yesterday when, because of a few smart decisions and lucky breaks, I enjoyed amazing powder turns while another more experienced group only a short distance away, because of a few bad decisions and/or shitty luck, spent the day digging out of an avalanche (picture one, two).

This winter's been strange.  One week we'll have -22* and hoar frost; the next week we'll get a Chinook wind and 33* freezing rain.  All of this has wrecked havoc on our local snow pack.  A week and a half ago I noticed numerous natural avalanches at lower elevations.  Yesterday's avy report warned of isolated instabilities at mid elevations.

Nonetheless, with temperatures hovering in the 25* range and a layer of new snow--the type of whether we've been waiting for--a crew of us set out for a few turns yesterday.  Fortunately, we recognized it was time to be cautious.

The Wife getting started:
With a group half-full of greenhorns, we headed back to the same place I wrote about a couple weeks ago.  This place is well known for its predictable conditions and safe slope--the sort of place you should go to when things are sketchy.

Here's Megan (killing it on her first real backcountry tour) and Doug charging up the skin track:
Our skin up was pretty ideal.  Doug heard some significant whumphing at one point--which was consistent with our various warnings--but I saw no first-hand signs of instability.  Once we got above the trees, things seemed to firm up.  

Roughly 1500 feet up, the pitch steepened:
Megan and Doug getting ready for the turn:
The down was ridiculous.  I've racked my brain trying to rank it compared to past days.  It wasn't the best, but definitely was in the top five.  Of course, you'll have to take my word for it because I didn't get a single picture of the main face.  To busy skiing to get a decent picture, I guess.

Evan, after skiing down the top pitch:
Me, coming in for a landing:

Megan and Doug:
Looking south:
The token group shot:
By the time we reached the lower elevations and got back to tree line, we could hear multiple helicopters that we later learned were part of a rescue operation just a couple peaks south (near the left portions of the past two pictures).

At this point in my typical blog post, I'd close with a picture of a beer and write something about how awesome the day was.  But, in this case it seems odd to have enjoyed such wonderful lines so close to where another group had such a terrible, possibly life-ending experience--all in the same day.  My group obviously made good decisions (starting with the decision to go somewhere familiar that had a reputation for being safe) but still. . .

. . . here's to making good decisions . . . and having however much luck is required.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Let there be light!

My vision has gotten progressively worse over the past ten or so years.  I've learned to deal with it while fishing, but the situation is nearly impossible while skiing.  I can wear my glasses under goggles, but the whole shebang fogs up the second I start sweating or stop moving.  Things are doable at the resort--at least until my first fall or about the fifth lap, which ever comes first--but are almost totally unworkable in the backcountry where everything fogs up instantly.

After not being able to see beyond my ski tips for the past couple seasons, I finally overcame my fear of stuff stuck in my eyes and got contacts.  This past Sunday was my first time since in the mountains--and it was amazing.  

Of course, I should mention that it also was wicked cold:
The thermometer hit -22*F on the drive up and read -16*F at the trailhead when we strapped on our skis.  You had to be dedicated.

Neither The Wife nor I had skied this particular spot before, but it was pretty easy to reach and you could easily get 2500ft of vertical on a wide open face: 

Summit Lake is in the background, with Evan, a regular ski partner of ours, and Ryan, another of our friends, making the skin up:
The Wife and I made the turn about 200 vertical feet from the top, just short of a steep wind loaded pocket we wanted to avoid.  We saw no indication of snow instability on the skin up, but several older small-to-medium sized avalanches on nearby wind loaded areas made us think twice about going any farther.
In case I forgot to mention, or you somehow glossed over the first picture in this post, it was hella cold.  There wasn't much if any wind, which kept things bearable, but keeping our hands and feet warm was a challenge.  I stayed reasonably comfortable during the skin up--even shedding a layer at one point--but I had no intention of stopping for any length of time on the way down.

Considering it hadn't snowed in about a week, the snow was amazing.  Except for the first few wind packed turns at the top, nearly the entire descent was on 6-10 inches of fluff.  Of course, my unwillingness to remove my mittens means I didn't capture anything on camera.  At least I could see!