It’s Always Sunny In Washington

…lately.

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Oregon Multisport

Bad weather forced us south and east and into rock shoes.  A few days of climbing at Smith Rock and beers in Bend while we waited for things to clear out.  Some mellow consolation skiing on the Hoodwand on the way home.

Food highlights: Bacon chocolate cake at Deschutes Brewery, beers in the Soaking Pool at McMennamins, giant baked potatoes in Timberline Lodge waiting out the snowstorm.

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Lube It or Lose It

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That is what the heel springs and thimble bushings of my Dynafit Verticals looked like after 6 years of heavy use.  They didn’t fail but they probably would have at some point.

Here’s how to do it: Here and Here

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Year Of The Bail

The snow is melting fast at lower elevations.  We are having a more typical spring than we have had in several years.  The sun feels good, even though I’ve become accustomed to a long spring ski mountaineering season.  It’s time to set sights on volcano skiing and rock climbing.

Every season has a different profile.  We had a fantastic number of stable, sunny powder days this year.  December was as good as it gets–consistent cold and snow the entire month.  We had the usual high pressure bouts in January and February and March was strangely quiet but snowfall kicked back in late in the season.  After January we didn’t have any prolonged snowfall cycles but great conditions came remarkably consistently–never more than a few days away it seemed.

As far as big projects are concerned this season was a bit of a dud.  I will never tire of skiing powder but my current tastes are for big faces, seldom skied routes and trips well off of the beaten path.  These types of trips are the most satisfying for a lot of different reasons.  Successful or not, this year brought with it quite a bit of reflection in regard to motivation, perseverance, and risk.

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Three Fingers East Face Couloir

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The East Face Couloir of Three Fingers had been occupying my thoughts (both waking and sleeping) for nearly a year.  After a recon hike to the base of the face last spring it seemed a little more tangible.  There were no documented descents of this line though we think it had probably been quietly slayed by some hermetic Cascades hardman we’ve never heard of.  Several have tried but the tedious approach (20+ creek crossings over six miles) combined with an enormous face that sheds rock and snow with the first rays of sun each day have kept this area off the radar of all but the most depraved skiers.  We made two attempts in January and were turned back first by avalanches and then by deep snow wallowing.  The unknown nature of this trip made for an interesting mix of despair and adventure as we skied in the dark toward a huge, steep, mysterious wall at the end of a scrappy valley slog.

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Extreme skinning.

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Oh, that’s why we’ve been fumbling over the river and through the woods all night.

In round one, we willed my truck up the snowy road as far as it would go, slept three hours and then nailed the approach, I’m proud to say.  Unfortunately, the Squire Creek valley seldom sees the sun and we found ourselves struggling through waist-deep snow and arriving at the base of the couloir just as it unleashed its daily fury of snow and rock avalanches.  It was quite a spectacle, but the 2k’ of deep powder we skied in retreat was unsatisfying.

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Slow going.

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6.5 hours to the base, sun starts to do its work on the face.

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Consolation pow. Couloir entrance in the background.

In round two, our group of three grew to five and we skipped sleeping altogether in hope of climbing the couloir before sunrise.  As it turns out, the snow was even deeper this time.  Wallowing, equipment failure and route finding in the deeper snowpack put us at the face only slightly earlier than the last time.  One difference was the very cold temperatures we had this time which kept the debris to a minimum and allowed us to climb the first 1/3 of the couloir.  It was big and steep and intimidating–a beautiful line.  But fatigue and frayed nerves proved too much when trying to break thigh deep trail up a 50 degree snow couloir.  Again, we skied bittersweet powder to the valley bottom, contemplating the value of gut feelings and fear versus objective decision making.  We resolved to return in firmer conditions and make it a two day trip as even these failed missions were taking about 15 hours car to car.

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Debris hanging above, 100′ cliff below, 50 degree knee-deep trail breaking.

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Welcome to Squire Creek! Twenty foot drop to the icy water below.

It honestly came as no surprise when a certain skier ventured up the valley in his typical cowboy style (solo/unstoppable) and skied the couloir after bivying at the end of the valley.  I must admit this takes some of the intrigue and sexiness (and terror) out of the project but I hope to return and ski it from the summit of the Middle Finger which even Super Dan failed to do.

With our thirst for suffering sufficiently quenched for the time being, the snow returned and we skied lots of local classics in perfect conditions. Still, the big trips beckoned while the weather failed to cooperate.  There is a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that come with succeeding on something big–it’s adrenaline, athletic achievement, knowing that few have done what you are doing, the experience of being fully committed to a goal and out of one’s comfort zone.

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Perfect powder and short drives will have to suffice for a couple months. This is Snoqualmie Pass where it only rains and the terrain is boring.

In April, our obsessive ski mountaineering psyches became refocused on the Triple Couloirs on Dragontail Peak.  It is a classic mixed climb but has only been skied by a small handful of people.  From a ski mountaineering perspective it has it all.  It’s steep, exposed, technical and aesthetic.  With the winter closure of the Eightmile Road it makes this a 25 mile day with just shy of 8ooo vertical feet of elevation gain.  Given that, and the burdensome load of rock gear we were carrying to rig rappels and deal with whatever conditions we might find, it was hard to pull the plug on what I can say is one of the coolest ski lines I’ve ever stared down.  One of our group of three twisted minds was optimistic about conditions, one was mentally out of it from the time we left the city, and the other was dubious at best.  We have all occupied each of those mental states at one time or another and it isn’t the sort of thing you should convince yourself or others to do, so it was an undisputed but disappointing decision to turn around.   Once again we found ourselves skiing thousands of feet of alpine powder with frowns on our faces, mulling the dynamics of group decision making,  the legitimacy of risk-taking, and the nature of motivation.

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Dragontail and Triple Couloirs. We planned to ski the North Face variation between the upper and lower couloirs.

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Ski down there, don’t fall in the lake.

With bigger and more technical trips comes a lower rate of success, I guess.  It wouldn’t have the same appeal if it were easy or if success was guaranteed.  Bailing sucks but it is all about perspective.  I can say confidently that the decisions my partners and I make  almost always err on the side of safety.  Better to be persistent than reckless.  Most big descents can be done relatively safely if you are patient.  The impulse to be safe is stronger than the impulse to execute and i think that is really saying something.

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“So here I am again in this game with the mountains. Could you get the thrill of your life and feel truly alive if you knew they were perfectly safe? Would your consciousness be completely in the moment if you didn’t know this was serious business? Would it be a game worth playing at all if the outcome was certain?”  Andreas Fransson

“I’ve learned that risk can be managed. Not all of it, or it wouldn’t be an adventure. But it’s also not as black and white as the Times or others suggest, where you’re either likely to die doing something you love or you simply don’t do that thing you love. That big grey area in the middle is where you find adventure, where you find risk, and where, to me, the best of life begins.”  Steve Casimiro

“The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.  He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he cannot learn, feel, change, grow or live.  Only a person who risks is free.”  William Arthur Ward

“To those who have struggled with them, the mountains reveal beauties that they will not disclose to those who make no effort. ”  Sir Francis Younghusband

“Anything that produces this much joy in people’s lives is worth a certain amount of risk–physical risk, emotional risk, whatever. But how much risk it’s worth is an open question.”  Lou Dawson

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Shuksan North Face and BYS Couloir

It was my last chance to ski before sinus surgery and with warm temps forecasted we headed back to the Shukhorn.  I’m now in recovery mode so reminiscing will have to take the place of actual skiing for awhile.  Shuksan is a quick hit.  Easy to get up high, dozens of interesting routes and good north facing options.  It is a beautiful mountain and seems to always give it up easily.

We’ve been carrying a lot of gear lately on our way to failing on some impressive ski lines.  We decided against the Hanging Glacier Headwall so we wouldn’t need to carry a second tool and set our sites on the NF/BYS.  What does BYS stand for?  I have no damn idea but I have a few colorful suggestions after skiing it in the conditions we found.

We did a slightly descending high traverse from the ski area this time which is a lot easier than dropping straight down into the White Salmon valley (when it is in–and it isn’t always).  One less transition, less avy debris, and less vert on the climb back up.

We plodded up the White Salmon and enjoyed some spectacular serac fall avalanches on the Hanging Glacier.  This seems to happen like clockwork right around 7 or 8 am.  It was  surprisingly cold compared to the warm temps we were expecting but I have found that this side of the mountain stays pretty cool even in a heat wave.  We took a leisurely pace to the north summit where the wind was howling.  We skied down to the top of the north face to scout some options and eat some food out of the wind.

The north face was wind affected but fairly consistent breaker over soft snow from earlier in the week.  I would not call the skiing conditions “good.” The rollover was a blast as it seems like you are going to fall right into Price Lake thousands of feet below.  Too quickly the pitch eased off from 50 degrees to 40-45.  We even found some leftover pow in the shade.  We stopped to peer into the NW Connection which seemed quite filled in, with perhaps some creativity required where it spills into the NW Couloir.  We continued to the entrance of the BYS.

“It can’t be any worse than that.  Let’s go for it.” I skied into the upper BYS assuming it would be well on its way to becoming corn as it was getting direct sun at this point.  It was firm but smooth and the the rock walls bordering consistent 45 degree skiing above exposure made for a spectacular setting.  I had Todd ski past me so I could take his picture.  I didn’t take my camera out again till we were out of the couloir.

Rather than improving, the snow got firmer and firmer becoming white ice, then blue ice.  I recall making a short windshield wiper turn to switch directions and landing on a seam of water ice which caused me to slide about 20 feet downslope before my skis regained enough purchase to bring me to a stop.  At that point, the 200-foot closeout cliff at the bottom of the couloir seemed a little more serious.  It probably took an hour just to ski the couloir and we were glad to have our axes tucked into our pack straps–we used them often.  After the steep exit traverse, Todd thought we were out of the woods and the snow was softening.  He changed his tone about half way down the direct exit, “Do not come down here!  It’s f-ing blue ice.”  I transitioned and waited to see if he needed a belay.  After several tense minutes of struggling for boot purchase he was out of the worst of it and we booted to a relatively flat spot to rest.

Times like this aren’t really scary because in the moment, your focus is completely singular.  You can’t really afford to let your mind dwell too long on the physics of a few millimeters of ski edge teetering on 45 degree ice.  You can’t think about what a fall would mean when it isn’t a viable option.   The cobwebs come off in a hurry and all of life’s other bullshit fades away.  That’s a huge part of the draw of steep skiing.  It’s a difficult thing to explain.  I guess it is a type of escape.  To be fully committed to the moment, to a very serious purpose.  I’m not sure where else to find that feeling.  This one pushed the needle from stoke into survival territory briefly but the endorphin high after the fact was just as intense.

We realized we were seriously thirsty, sunburned, and soaked in sweat.  We addressed those issues and numbly reflected on the experience with a lot of relieved laughter and some high fives.  This was supposed to be a cruiser fitness day but it ended up being full-value steeps.  At the time, we felt a little dubious about skiing the couloir in such bad conditions but it was a lot of fun–especially after the fact.

We skied the best low angle corn conditions either of us had ever seen back to the valley bottom.  It was fast and effortless and a mindless pleasure.  Todd wondered out loud, “I wonder if it is really that good or if it’s like when you are really hungry and a Cliff bar actually tastes good.”

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The Shukhorn: Northwest Coolah

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Der himmelschralp.

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Wutcha gonna do with all that pow?

Here are a few signs that you are having a good ski day:   1) A professionally laid skintrack leading directly where you want to go   2) Powder hitting you in the face on a 50 degree slope  3) Strangers supplying Girl Scout cookies and champagne at the bottom of your run.

There has been a lot of good skiing this year.  A lot of powder skiing and a lot of skiing old favorites in good conditions.  Unfortunately, multiple failures on an objective that occupies the top of my hitlist has put the rest of the year’s bigger goals on hold.  I saw last weekend’s snow/weather/stability trifecta coming a week in advance and decided, “If at first–and second–you don’t succeed, try something else before you try again.” It was a great day and nice to get on something a bit larger for a change.  Vitamin D and endorphins go a long way for my sanity.

If you live up in the upper left you’ve gotta have patience.

Click HD.  Music:  North By Northwest by Blue Scholars

The NW Couloir got skied by no less than 8 people on this day.  It’s an awesome line with a fun amount of pucker though less than I was expecting.  Lines that were seldom skied just 5 years ago are ravaged in a hurry these days and it takes a bit (just a bit) of the intrigue out of it.

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Deepcember 2012

It’s been quite a fall and early winter so far.  “El Nino” was over before it began and in September “La Nada” (neutral) became the new long-term forecast.  If this is what nothingness is like, give me more of it.  The PNW is once again  sporting one of the deepest snowpacks in the nation.  That’s the third (so far) big snow year in a row for us, and snow depths are well above normal for this time of year.  The January outlook calls for above normal snowfall. Yahtzee!

Not a lot of big objectives getting ticked off the list as of late.  Just a lot of deep powder skiing.  There has not been a rain or warming event in weeks and the skiing has remained consistently excellent as a result.  Once in awhile the sun has come out, if only briefly.  Below are some photos of what was the backdrop to one of the top 5 best powder runs of my life which produced an intense high lasting through the evening and into the next morning.

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About to ski down in a cloud of smoke with Shuksan ablaze.

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With all the snow came a close call for a woman skiing in the Northway area of Crystal Mountain.  Cheers to Xtal locals. Wouldn’t it be nice if every avalanche burial came with 30 people immediately on scene to search for the victim?  The woman is found about 11 minutes into this video:

On that topic, there’s been a lot of chatter about the NY Times article on the Tunnel Creek avalanche last February.  It’s a worthwhile read for skiers and non-skiers alike.  It doesn’t really offer much information that skiers from around here didn’t already know from the initial media coverage, word 0f mouth and accident report.  It doesn’t overtly comment on the decisions made by those involved.  It does, however, personalize the people involved and methodically explain the series of events and heuristic traps that led to the accident.  It wasn’t the biggest or most fatal avalanche of last year.  The notoriety is likely due to the fact that it involved several very visible industry professionals thoroughly connected with the ski community,  a lift-accessed backcountry area, and–at the time–a fringe piece of safety equipment that has since become mainstream.  It is a long article and makes use of a very effective type of multimedia journalism (photo/video/audio/computer animation) that really enhances the story from an emotional standpoint.  There are a few lessons to relearn there and another example to store in the back of your mind when decision-making in the mountains.   The story can be found here:  Snow Fall: The Avalanche At Tunnel Creek

 

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