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!

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