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Posts Tagged ‘skiing’

Five minutes after leaving the car, I knew we’d spend an entire day swashbuckling through weird terrain with huge packs only to not ski what we came here to ski. Four hours later, I was 75% sure we’d ski the hell out of it. Eight hours later, I was already thinking about what I’d order at A&W on the way home after we bailed.

This continued until we did, eventually, make the decision not to attempt the North Couloir of Dunn Peak.

It started in September when Christina scrambled the peak, which is about two hours north of Kamloops, B.C. I was in Seattle at the time and scanned Google Earth to get an idea of what she was up to.

Within five seconds, I spotted an alluring strip of white plummeting about 2,000 vertical feet from the small col between the west and main peaks. I haven’t shut up about since.

“Holy shit. What is THAT? I need to ski it.”
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The peak’s south aspect is visible from a couple vantages around Kamloops, particularly from the top of Sun Peaks resort. It’s the biggest thing you can see from around town, reminding you during your daily trail run or mountain bike ride that there’s something bigger and wilder you should be doing.

The couloir appears to be the only viable ski line from the summit of the peak, so I was surprised to find almost zero information about it online. Maybe Canadians are more circumspect, or maybe a full-day approach for 2,000 feet of skiing in a province where big, wild lines aren’t rare is enough to turn attention elsewhere.

The lack of internet spray just made the trip that much more attractive.

The chess match of creating a route entirely from scratch was large part of that attraction. Could I finagle a snowmobile ride within striking distance of it? If not, then what would be that perfect time when the roads are melted high enough to make the approach reasonable? And which approach? The couloir is as steep as 60 degrees and north-facing, so what would be the optimal weather set-up?

While on the actual trip, the real-world version of this (left or right over the ridge? Is that a cliff?) is what made not skiing the objective far less painful.

Months of Google Earth dreaming, plying people for information (mostly leading nowhere) culminated in mid-May with the decision to just bloody do it.

I was prepared to do it solo, but a bit of cajoling and logic by Christina led me to Simon, who had posted a video of skiing slopes in the vicinity last summer. At least he’d been there before and skied.

Fortunately, he was more than game, so we set out.

We got a leisurely 7 a.m. start from Kamloops, driving to the burg of Little Fort. A slightly unnerving one-vehicle ferry – really a wooden platform sitting on top of a couple skiffs attached to a wire across the North Thompson River – took us across the river to the dirt road leading past Dunn Lake.
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Past Dunn Lake, a decent logging road delivered us about 11K to 5,000 feet and consistent snow.

Skins and packs on, I took about 10 steps on the road up Baldy Mountain before deciding we were hosed. I expectedly stepped onto the snow expecting a couple inches of soft snow on top of harder, consolidated stuff. Instead, it was like stepping into a mud pit: Two-feet deep and syrupy.

Climbing or skiing very steep terrain in this type of snow is, at best, horrifyingly slow as you sink up to your hips in snow that then grabs your feet at that depth and refused to let go. At worst, it’s dangerous as you can sink into hidden moats around rocks or set up wet avalanches that deliver you onto waiting rocks.

Damn it.

This was a big surprising given that the previous Sunday, Christina and I had done a quick recon on the route and found nicely consolidated snow.

We took a nice break at a lookout at Baldy (about 7,300 feet), a hantavirus petri dish/smokeshack structure bolted to the rocks by the local snowmobile club.
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Simon, a videographer, set up some time-lapse shots and did the first of several running interviews of me for a mini-documentary he was planning about the trip. I compliantly blathered, my mood buoyed by the views east.

From Baldy, we sussed out an approach to our camp spot on Moonscape Mountain. The view from Baldy of the Dunn Protected Area (inspiring name, eh?) is remarkable. There’s little hint from any other vantage of just how much craggy, dramatic alpine terrain there is in this zone. Couloirs, big faces, craggy cliffs, tundra and big alp slopes are everywhere. Spending a week camped out in the heart of the zone would be a very worthy endeavor.

“Maybe we will pull this off,” I thought, basing my assessment on nothing more than positive thinking.

We settled on heading basically due east to Moonscape. Three turns in, Simon got tripped up by a glop hole and went down slightly hard; easy to do when you’re carrying a 50-pound pack on a telemark rig. Added to the ski spelunking that happened on the ascent, this didn’t augur well for getting big.

I knew we were hosed.

After Simon hockey-taped a broken pole, we descended the first of three drainages. The descent started mellow, but quickly steepened to the kind of benchy, pillow-studded terrain common to the Monashees. Needless to say, five-foot drops with overnight alpine packs into deep molasses isn’t laughs.

The rest of the approach was a bit of a grind until things opened up on Moonscape’s western gentle western slope, offering up a front-row seat to the area’s alpine features.

The route finding kept things interesting – in a good way. The terrain between Baldy and Moonscape has three modest ridge-then-drainage cycles; ups-and-downs.

It meant a lot of transitioning and discussion, usually a welcome respite from either hot, slow skinning or quad-busting syrup skiing.
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About seven hours after leaving the car, we happily dropped our packs and set up camp.
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A series of thunder-squalls interspersed with shafts of pastel sun made for dramatic evening light … and a mostly sleepless night.
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Thanks to an overly-optimistic interpretation of the forecast, I had brought only a bivy sack (imagine a sleeping bag made of Gore-Tex with no insulation) and a poncho/tarp hybrid that is good at neither. The wind pressed the west tarp into my mid-section all night, like a sack of wet potatoes. Not the stuff sweet dreams are made of.

The weather made it pretty clear that the couloir wasn’t going to happen. The clouds would prevent an overnight freeze, needed to solidify the snowpack for safe climbing. Without a freeze, the top two to three feet of the snowpack was certain to slide off with our first ski turns. Taking a 2,000-foot ride into the rock cleaver dividing the lower couloir didn’t sound appetizing.

We “slept” in until about 8:30 – mostly tossing and turning and hoping the ambient light was from the moon – and made our way to the ridge just west of the couloir. It was a sunny, very warm day better suited for beaches than couloirs.

The first kicks at the snow revealed the obvious: No overnight freeze. We’re toast.
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The mellow skin to the ridge was glorious: open tundra with front-row view of Dunn’s West face, wild couloirs to the south, and precarious cornices on the north side of Moonscape.

There were also moments when the snow felt like it firmed up a little. Maybe a miracle?

The couloir came into view and was even better in person than it had been on a computer screen. Smooth, consistent, steep and perfectly white; no rockfall. Its lure was undeniable.
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We also found an easy ramp providing access to the north basin that holds the couloir from the ridge. The left side of the lower couloir, climber’s left of the cleaver, looked like the best choice. The right side is much steeper thanks to a nasty-looking windlip.

At the col, there’s a large boulder. To the right, there was a cornice, not something you’d want to climb under. To the left, it’s steep, but passable to the summit ridge.

Everything about the route came together except the snow.

“We’re good wrapping it here, right?” Simon asked.

“Yeah. Fuck. Yeah,” I replied.
No, I’m totally cool with bailing…

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We reversed turned around, packed up camp and gritted out the skin back to the truck. There had been a shocking amount of snow melt in a day. Places we skinned up less than a day before were now completely bare or had the snowy path cut in two by runoff.

Despite being denied the prize, the views, exertion, sun and spending time in a new, wild place made the effort well worthwhile.

As the truck came into view, I was 100% sure I’d be getting onion rings with my burger.

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I live by four seasons, except mine are dictated by snow and not astronomy.

Tease season (Usually late September until mid-December): This is when I alternate between bull-rushing the first faint hints of snow to ski grass, rocks and glacial ice, leaving my skis looking like they’ve been lapped by a road grader, and telling people I enjoy trail running in 45-degree rain with a straight face. Like Radiohead’s recent work, there are a few nice moments you feel almost obligated to like, but in reality it mostly sucks.

Winter (Dec.-May 5): Defined by the opening and closing days of my local ski area, Alpental, winter always comes too late and ends too soon. No one needs to ask what you’re doing this weekend, only where. It ends with Cinqo de Mayo, which is the Fat Tuesday of winter around here: an atavistic embrace of everything skiing, fermented and grilled.

Volcano or touring season (May-mid July): The roads accessing the higher routes begin to melt, the snow has thickened and become less avalanche prone on steeper slopes and the sun has returned. It’s Eden here in the Pacific Northwest. Thousands of vertical feet of dream skiing to the car and your flip flops and cooler EVERY WEEKEND (saliva on keyboard).

Trail Running/Backpacking season (August and September): The snow that’s hanging around usually resembles a jackhammered  sidewalk by this time, so the trail shoes and tent come out. Sure, you can ski during this time, but you can also mow your lawn with nail clippers. This season is like a family visit: It’s incredibly cool for a short period of time (“Man, this is great, we should do this more!”), but then you wake up one morning and realize you need to get the hell out or you’re going to kill someone.

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This past Sunday, Brandon and I went up to Heliotrope Ridge on Mt. Baker’s northwest flank to get tease season fully launched. After missing the apparently excellent September tease while goofing off in Arizona, I’d have skied on a thick frost.

Thankfully, that spectacle was averted thanks to a foot or so of new snow above about 4,500 feet.

The play in tease season is to get onto permanent snow or glaciers where it only takes about six inches to cover up the old junk. There are also some meadows or grassy slopes that don’t need much coverage to be skiable.

The downside of this is that these places tend to reside at higher elevations on featureless slopes. This being the Pacific Northwet, there’s also a very strong chance that poor weather will leave you with visibility akin to having a sheet over your head.

Therefore, a typical tease season run is blindly hurtling down barely-covered rocks and snow that might as well be rocks. Getting back uninjured is the goal.

So when big patches of sun began appearing on the drive north from Seattle, it felt like a cruel joke.

“We should have run around Green Lake today.”

Ascending toward the trailhead on Glacier Creek Road, the snow began to pile up, and the sun remained.

There was barely enough snow to skin from the 3,650-foot trailhead, but we did anyway, stomping around dirt, blown-down trees and open streams that caked slush on our skins to annoying effect.

About three miles and 1,500 vertical feet later, the snow got deeper and the views better. While there would be plenty of rock-dodging, we’d at least have visibility on our side.

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We’d not have solitude, however, as Heliotrope is among the most popular early season spots. This was mostly fine (save the couple times people decided to fully lie down on the skin track) as there was plenty of space to find fresh tracks.

After a couple hours of skinning, we reached the 6,200 ridge crest and ripped the skins. The view of Baker and its surrounding features was incredible. An ocean of cotton candy clouds heaved and rolled just below our sun hole while ghostly branch-like clouds clawed at the main peak, beaten back by wind only to return again.

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Turning downhill to ski for the first time since mid-June, my longest gap in several years, I took a couple tentative turns off the ridge … then took another maybe eight definitely not tentative turns and was down entirely too fast. It’s very likely there was some screaming.

The snow was a smooth eight or so inches of slightly wind-packed powder that begged you to go faster. Perfect.

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In those eight turns, everything else in the world vanished. Mountainous areas are often described as vast, and spatially that’s often true. But when I’m skiing or running in them, no matter how remote or grand, I’m blanketed with a sense of completeness and comfort that feels close and almost small, as if everything I want is in easy reach.

What was immediately within reach was another lap, which we quickly burned through before doing battle with the barely covered middle slopes. This is not the place to bring new skis.

We soon switched to boots and quickly hiked back to the car as the setting sun sprayed orange pink over western slopes.

The requisite beatdowns are sure to come before winter arrives, but a tease this good is as good a way to start things off as I could ask for.

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