Sunday, January 28, 2007

Alaska Mountain

Alaska Mtn, WA
South Face Ski
January 27 - 28, 2007

Alaska Mtn from A. Toyota on Vimeo.

Ah, another picture perfect Winter weekend in the Cascades! Okay, wait a minute, what the hell's going on here? This is our 3rd overnighter within a month and another great forecast. Not sure how that's possible but may as well take advantage of it.

This was another one Pete's had his eye on for a while. The south face of Alaska Mountain. We started out early Saturday, not sure how long the route in would take. The approach up Gold Creek went pretty easily, with just a couple tricky stream crossings, and we made it into camp with plenty of time to take an afternoon ski run.

Sunday we started somewhat early, though not as early as we planned. It's hard to get moving when you wake up with temps in the teens. But we made quick work cramponing up the southwest rib, and reached the summit at 10 o'clock. Tundra was most impressive, clawing his way up the steep frozen snow even though it was steep and probably pretty scary for him. The snow was still frozen pretty solid when we got tot he top, so we sought shelter from the wind while we waited for the sun to heat things up a little. Finally, a little after 11 o'clock it seemed like the snow was ready. Kirsten, Marcus, Anastasia and I skied our ascent route, while Pete, Becky, Andy, Mica and Tundra traversed over to a more central rib on the south face.

The snow corned up quite nicely -- corn skiing in January, imagine that! Kind of a strange experience, but I won't argue -- it was fun. The only sad part was having to pack up camp as soon as we got down instead of staying another night and relaxing.

Other Links:
- Pete's TAY post

Monday, January 15, 2007

Preacher Couloir - Part II

Snoqualmie Pass, WA
Preacher Tour
January 13-15, 2007

The Preacher Confessional

Six days, two couloirs. That's what this pair of trips to Preacher Mtn yielded. The forecast for MLK weekend was looking good (although cold), and Becky, Pete, Kirsten and I were pretty resolved to get back in and finish our business, so even though snow conditions were not encouraging, we went for it anyway. I also had my new AT setup which I was excited to try out on a big outing. The report on the snow was that there was six inches to over a foot of loose powder sitting on a boilerplate crust. We feared that if we made to the entrance of the couloir, that after one or two people skied it, there would be nothing left but the unbreakable crust.

We left early on Saturday, and Marcus and Anastasia joined us this time, but no Murray. It was 15 degrees at the pass. It was going to be a cold trip. We went all the way in to Lake Caroline this time, so we would be in a better position get up Preacher. The going was very difficult. Skinning up from Snow Lake to the Roosevelt saddle was terrible as anytime it got steep, the snow just kept sliding right off that crust. Eventually we just had to boot it, and that became the technique of choice for getting up anything steep the rest of the weekend. We rolled into Lake Caroline after 8 hours, shortly before sundown and quickly set up camp.Snow was falling and it was late, so we didn't build a group kitchen this time. I nearly spoiled the entire trip by spilling Kirsten's and my pasta while I was trying to drain it. Fortunately, pasta is one type of food that is easy to pick up off the snow, so other than having it cool a little faster than we'd like, it turned out fine.

We got a much earlier start for our "summit" day -- got up at 6:30, an hour before sunrise and headed off by 8. Marcus and Anastasia stayed behind because they were a little tired from the ski in. And given the uncertainty of how many people the couloir would be good for, they decided their day would be better spent sleeping in and skiing around Lake Caroline.

After skiing nice powder down to Hatchet Lake and crossing the lake, we started the steep climb up to the east ridge of Preacher. Boots & crampons for most of this before topping out on the ridge. The next phase was a ridge run up to the top of the couloir. This was not as straightforward as we hoped. The ridge cliffed out frequently, so we were forced on to the north side of it. After skinning and booting across snow ranging from knee deep powder to wind crust, we reached the couloir. Our hearts sunk and stomachs churned as we looked down the first entrance. It was shiny, wind-scoured ice. We moved up a little further to the higher entrance, and thank the preacher, it was protected enough from the wind to have plenty of decent quality snow all the way up. We looked down the gully with it's steep rock walls and gazed around the deep valleys, jagged ridges, and frozen lakes all around us and Kirsten said, "I can't believe this is Snoqualmie Pass." It was true, the landscape just seemed so dramatic, it was hard to believe we were only an hour drive from home.

The question now was how would the snow hold up on the crust. Would it all slide down the couloir? Conversation turned off as we got ready to ski. Pete entered the chute, took a couple awkward turns on punchy snow, then gradually, turn-by-turn, he seemed to be skiing easier and pausing less, then before long he was linking one turn to the next. A couple hundred feet down, he called up, "It's good!" We all breathed a sigh of relief and one by one we all headed down. There were a few nice pockets of unaffected snow, but most of it had a pretty thick suncrust on it and the bottom was all sun-softened avalanche debris. Thank God for my fixed heels. Below the couloir the snow in the shade was nice, cold powder.

It was 1:30 when we reached the valley bottom, and even though we were satisfied having skied the central couloir, we agreed to push up the second couloir until 3:00. As we rounded the large buttress that hides the second couloir, we were all inspired by the awesome line and worked hard to get up as fast as we could. We pushed our turn around time to 3:30 and got most of the way up the couloir before turning around because the sun crust was getting worse towards the top. Most of the couloir was fairly tough skiing, but like the first chute, below it in the shade, it was real nice. We rolled back into camp at 5 after a nine hour day. Normally on these winter snow-camping trips when you're in bed by 8 every night, it's tough to sleep straight through the second night. Not this night.

Sunday morning we broke camp early and started the trek home by 9. On our last trip, Pete had scoped out a nice gully above Upper Wildcat Lake that gave us a great exit from Lake Caroline. As I stepped into my bindings after crossing the lake and reaching the drainage above Lower Wildcat Lake and getting ready to ski down, I noticed something pop off my boot. It was the Dynafit heelpiece fitting! My boots were less than two weeks old and the screw had completed stripped out of the boot. We tried to cement it in place with Kirsten's dental repair kit, but that didn't work, so I just stepped in the binding and Marcus strapped my boot down with a couple Voile straps. Those and the plastic molding did a good enough job to keep my heel down and I was able to ski the rest of the way out without too much trouble. I sure like having a fixed heel with a heavy pack.

So yes, it may be true that we spent six days of our lives trying to ski two couloirs. But it was so rewarding to take an idea that is not in any skiing book, that Pete just cooked up when he saw them from a distance on another trip. Then to work so hard to get it, in an area that is so remote and seldom-visited, and despite uncooperative conditions. I'd say it was definitely worth the six days.

Other Links:
:: TR
:: Pete's post on TAY

Monday, January 1, 2007

Preacher Couloir - Part I

Snoqualmie Pass, WA
Preacher Tour
Dec. 30, 2006 to Jan. 1, 2007

New Year's in the Cascades backcountry! The forecast was looking pretty decent for most of the three-day weekend, and this time of year "decent" means good. So Murray, Becky, Pete, Kirsten and I headed out early Saturday morning. The objective was to ski at least one of two chutes on Preacher Mountain that Pete had noticed on a trip last spring. We had about 4 miles and 2500 feet to travel to our camp at Upper Wildcat Lake. We figured it would take 4 hours at most, and once we got in we could take some turns on the surrounding slopes. The weather turned out much better than we expected -- clear blue skies for most of the day and barely a flutter of a breeze.

But not all things worked in our favor. Avalanche conditions were tricky. We came across a couple recent slab releases due to a considerable wind crust that had formed. These conditions convinced us to take a more gradual route to camp--one which was more tedious. We made it to Lower Wildcat Lake quite a bit later than we expected and decided to make camp there instead of continuing to the upper lake. By the time we pitched our tents and dug out a group kitchen there was only an hour of daylight left, and we stayed in camp for the rest of the day. This was much to Murray's dismay as he planned to head back on Sunday instead of Monday with the rest of us. That meant that not only did he not get to take any real turns today, but because the route took longer than we expected, he decided he did not have time to tour with us tomorrow. Instead he would have to head back in the morning, so he wouldn't get in any real turns tomorrow either, aside from the few slopes he would have to descend on the way out.

Murray made the most of the situation though, and taught us how to build a great fire in the snow, and after dinner, when the sun had been down for a couple hours, he surprised us with a firework show! He brought in about a dozen bottle rockets and half a dozen roman candles. He lit off most of them, but left a few behind so that we could use them to celebrate New Year's the next night.

After getting a much-too-casual start to the morning, we bid farewell to Murray and headed off on our tour. After negotiating our way up steep slopes above Upper Wildcat Lake, around wide cirques above Derrick Lake, and across three lakes, we neared the couloir. Unfortunately, it was one o'clock -- getting close to our 1:30 turn around time. We figured it would take at least another hour, maybe an hour and a half to get to the top of the couloir, so we cut our losses and took the scenic route back so that we could hit a couloir on Mt Caroline. The weather was perfect and we had headlamps, so why not!

We traversed across the long eastern face of Mt Caroline, and finally after a full day of what seemed like endless up we got to take some turns. It was about a 1,000 foot, mostly fall-line descent of probably about 30 degrees. The snow was pretty variable, from unbreakable crust, to soft crust, to old powder, the latter of which was a joy after the extensive range of crust variations we had come across thus far on the trip. It was also a joy to watch Kirsten bouncing in and out of the crust on her new, super-fat, dynafit-mounted Janaks! Pete and Becky also skied it very well, but have to mention Kirsten's performance because, well, she's my wife, naturally, but also becasue breakable crust used to be her nemesis, so it was pretty sweet to see her bust through it with ease! I, on the other hand, being the flailing tele skier of the group, barely made it down with all my ligaments still holding all my pieces together.

After reaching the bottom we found our skin track from the morning and followed it out, arriving back at camp just as the last rays of sunlight were starting to fade. The sun gave way to a spectacular moon which cast shadows on the surrounding terrain all evening and lit up Mt Roosevelt right outside our "kitchen window." We prepared dinner and Pete lit off the remaining fireworks, a few of which did not take off, while I struggled to keep a fire limping along and managed to blow up our lighter when I didn't notice it had slipped down next to the stove. Clearly we are not the pyrotechnicians that Murray is. At 7:00 we celebrated New Years in Greenland, and wandered off to bed around 7:30.

Amazing how the weather can change during twelve hours of sleep. We woke up at 7:30 to weak daylight filtered by storm clouds and the sound of snow sprinkling our tents. We ate breakfast and broke down camp in a hurry because it was apparent worse weather was on the way. We hustled out of there, pausing only for a few minutes while Becky picked up the fireworks debris. By the time we left, big fluffy flakes were falling. After a couple hours of traveling and descending to Snow Lake, the snow gave way to freezing rain and a stiff wind. We were getting coated with ice and the ski conditions were getting worse as the rain softened the wind crust.

Our final ski descent was on leg-breaker snow, like raw cookie dough. We skied cautiously with our heavy packs and made it down. We reached Plum around 1:00 coated with a quarter inch of ice. A nice, dramatic ending to a great weekend. With unfinished business left to tend to, we plan to head back and try and knock off Pete's latest obsession as soon as possible: the Preacher Couloir Project, or PCP!