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

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