Thursday, January 19, 2012

Skiing Bald Hill

Rising over 2,000 vertical feet above the Clark Fork River and I-90, Bald Hill is one of the icons of Mineral County.  I have dreamed of arcing turns down it's open southern flank it ever since moving to Superior.  The snowstorm this past week has produced about as much snow as I've ever seen in town, so I ducked out of work an hour early, grabbed the rock skis, and gave 'er a go.  

I accessed the hill from just inside the National Forest boundary, and punched a skin track up the southwest flank.  Snow at the car was a little thin, but I was supremely confident that it would get deeper with elevation.  Much to my dismay, the snow didn't pick up, and the underlying terrain became rockier.  The ensuing run was not the powder epic I had hoped for, and the rock skis were put to good use.  Lack of snow aside, I made turns from top to bottom for what is likely the first ski descent of the southwest face of Bald Hill.
Thin snow, but still optimistic at the toe of Bald Hill.
Looking down Bald Hill to the Clark Fork River and I-90.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sky Pilot, north face, where's the snow?

We need some snow.  In the mean time, Leah, Kyle and I made do and skied the north face of Sky Pilot via Gash Point on January 14.  We left town at a semi-leisurely time and were skinning and walking (see first sentence) from the lower trailhead shortly after 8 am.  Everything went smoothly, and we enjoyed fast travel conditions on the skin up to Gash Point proper (2h 45 min) and on the downhill traverse to Bear Lake.  A couple of pits and a long climb put us on the top of Sky Pilot around 2 pm.  The skiing was fair, and we were soon making our way back up and out via Gash Point.  By tacking on a second Sky Pilot lap, I managed a little better than 9,000 vertical feet.  Also, I spent the day making mental splits and rules for a sub-6 hour Sky Pilot.  So stay tuned for an attempt sometime this winter.  Really nice to be back in the Bitterroot Mountains.

Sky Pilot from Gash Point.  The north face ski route
takes the obvious snow ramp.  Photo: Kyle Scharfe.
skinning above Bear Lake with the east
face looming above.  Photo Kyle Scharfe

Kyle demonstarting impeccable pole technique
under the watchful eye of the Sweathouse spires. 

Kyle and Leah steep skinning on the north face of Sky Pilot.
Leah enjoying the skier's right chute on the north face of Sky Pilot.
We dug a couple of pits on north and south aspects and found some clean shear failures throughout the snowpack, most notably at the new/old snow interface (up to 6" deep CT 11 Q1 and ECTN13), and about 24" down from the snow surface (CT30+ Q1).  We didn't see any suface hoar anywhere.  Bring on the snow!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

2012 Ski Mountaineering National Championships weekend report

I spent January 7 and 8 chasing really fast people around Jackson and Targhee ski resorts.  It was awesome.  My goals going into the race were:

1) Finish within 20 minutes of the top time at Jackson.
2) Finish in the top 20 in the race division at Jackson.
3) Cross the finish line at both races with nothing left to give physically.

I had two clean races and went 2 for 3 in terms of goals realized.

US Ski Mountaineering National Championships (8,000 vertical feet) 
As is typical, the Jackson race started out as a stupid fast sprint, and it only took about 30 seconds of anaerobic effort to realize that I had better throttle back quick.  Even with a cautious starting pace, I buried myself right out of the gate, and never really recovered for the entire race.  The first climb is long and brutal, and I settled into about 20th place at the top of the initial steep groomer.  I maintained position on the cat track, just behind Jacksonite Zahan and Canadian Andrew.  The first run went smoothly, and I left the transition with Zahan.  The second climb was longer than expected, and I bumped up a position when Andrew had to stop due to skin failure.  I skied the second run recklessly fast, but still got pretty well smoked by Andrew.  The third climb was also longer than expected, but I didn't loose too much time, and managed to pass Z at the transition to the headwall boot pack.  After a short down, I settled back into the pain cave, trying to not loose too much time during the longish skin around the base of Corbets.  The second bootpack went well, and I transitioned with Andrew at the top of the tram.  The top to bottom run went well, and I transitioned for the final climb in relatively good spirits.  The final skin track was the crux of the whole race - steep, poorly established, and long.  I was able to fall back on years of experience following steep skin tracks in the backcountry, and quickly passed Andrew and Stevie, but was not able to reel in Teague from Colorado.  I stayed on my feet for the final run, and crossed the finish line at 3:09:48, in 18th place.  At the finish line, I was psyched to congratulate Leah, who easily took first place in the women's recreational division.  race results here.

The starting line - SPRINT!
Luke Nelson, national champion.  Nice work Luke!
Ripping skins while Andrew McNabb from Canada prepares
to crush me on the downhill at the top of JHMR.  Photo: Nate Brown
Nate Brown trying to squash the tetons at the top of JHMR.
Photo: Nate Brown

Trying not to loose my lunch at the end of the Jackson race.
Also, I made the OR race video, snowplowing like a madmen at 1:24.

Grand Targhee Ski Mountaineering Classic (5,000 vertical feet)
I showed up for Targhee feeling OK.  The first climb is relentless, punching up a steep groomer for over 1,000 vertical feet.  I am not terribly fast on steep skin tracks, and just hung on, trying to not loose too many positions before the first transition.  A freezing mist forced me to remove my glasses at the first transition, so the rest of the race was pretty blurry.  I jockeyed positions back and forth on the second climb, and lost several positions on the second ski down breakable crust on the back side of Mary's Nipple.  I didn't take the time to re-fuel before the last climb, and as a result was unable to reel in Nate, who remained a stubborn minute or so ahead the whole way.  Andrew caught up at the last transition and pretty well put me to shame on the final no-visibility downhill.  I crossed the finish line in 2:01, almost exactly 20 minutes behind Jason Dorais from Salt Lake City.
Three real cool guys on the podium at Targhee.  Nice work Jason!
Photo: Andy Dorais
First off, trash on the race course.  I'm no elitist, but racers were leaving GU packets and miscellaneous litter all over both courses.  Is that really necessary?  These races aren't that serious.  But I digress.  On a positive note, thanks to all the volunteers and race organizers at both resorts for putting on two amazing events.

There are a few constants with skimo racing, which held true this weekend:  1)  Everyone is VERY fast.  2)  The races hurt.  A lot.  3)  Each race is enjoyable and engaging.  I had two clean races, and I had a lot of fun.  Still, it is always interesting to look back on past races for ways to improve.

Things that went well:  No equipment failures, maintained a steady pace, especially at the end of the Jackson race, race gear worked well, mohair skins performed well, home made ski hook worked adequately, fueling during the race helped a lot, no crashes on the downhill.

Still, I was a little disappointed in my performance.  Being slightly sick didn't help.  And at the end of the day, my skiing focus remains on touring in the backcountry, yet I can't escape the desire to shave as much as 10 minutes off my total race times.  That means getting A LOT faster.  Hmmm.  Is that possible?  Realistic?  A goal worth pursuing?  I'm not sure.  At this point, I am not interested in investing significantly more training volume or money (for lighter gear).  So the obvious places to go for speed gains are racing more intelligently and training smarter.  So to those ends:

Racing smarter:  Bring more fuel and force it down.  Transition faster, especially skinning to skiing.  START SLOW and wait until mid way through the first climb to pass.  Buy a few more race-specific gear items like a light helmet and real race poles.

Training smarter:  Do more interval training, and incorporate interval training into regular skimo workouts.  Train for adverse skinning, both flat (work on a fast, efficient stride) and steep (develop arm muscles).

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Hyalite/Blackmore traverse, version 3

Previous Iterations
The Hyalite to Blackmore traverse is my favorite tour in the Hyalite range.  I originally did it in reverse on April 24-25, 2004.  During that effort, I spent the first half of the first day skiing the north face of Blackmore with Ben and Nick, so I was excited when both of them were keen to return this year.  The second iteration was December 27, 2010 with Kyle.  It was a great day, and I will never forget skiing off the summit of Blackmore at sunset with my best friend.  Although if I recall, Kyle almost died from exhaustion.  With good stability, fast conditions, and a great crew, everything seemed aligned for another memorable traverse.
Kyle and Me on a cold summit of Mt. Bole a year ago during the
Hyalite/Blackmore traverse, version 2.
The Tour 12/30/2012
The Hyalite/Blackmore traverse can technically be done as a ridge traverse, but skiers usually find it most attractive to ski runs along the way.  There are many options, and we chose a route which hit all the high peaks except Mount Bole, minimized ridgeline traversing, and avoided heavily windloaded east aspects.

After enduring snide comments about my speed suit at the trailhead, we started skinning by headlamp at 6:30 am.  Conditions were fast, and we were on the summit of Hyalite Peak by 9 am, enjoying misty views down into the Paradise valley.  It was discouraging to see illegal snowmobile tracks in the basin.  The next few hours proceeded smoothly, climbing Divide peak via its southeast ridge, and traversing a windy ridge to the headwaters of Maid of the Mist Creek, which we accessed by an aesthetic couloir.

Heading up Hyalite Peak.
Spring weather in December.
Got wind?
Nick escaping the wind on his way down to the
head of Maid of the Mist Creek.
I had hoped to climb straight east out of the Maid of the Mist Creek, but heavy wind loading convinced us to proceed straight north over a small ridgeline and down into the Twin Falls basin.  We were way ahead of schedule, so we climbed and skied a nice couloir at the head of the basin before re-climbing the couloir and dropping into the head of Cottonwood creek.  At this point, the weather had deteriorated, and we took refuge in the trees before sending Nick out to probe a skin track up the south face of Blackmore.  Without goggles, I stumbled around high on the ridge in the full conditions, but fortunately Nick and Ben had goggles, and they guided me to the summit.  We skied the standard northeast snowfields before schussing out to the car.  We arrived at the reservoir in good spirits even though it was raining (rain at 7,000 feet in December.  Really?).  We had a great day, and I am excited to see Ben coming into his own as a solid, super strong backcountry skier.  Stay safe out there Ben!  Also, no one was exhausted at the trailhead, so next time we need go faster or do more runs.

Nick styling his way into the Twin Falls basin.
We climbed, skied, then re-climbed the aesthetic couloir above me.
Ben pondering a whiteout.
Total elevation gain (based on topo map):  8,000 feet
Accomplices: Ben and Nick
Put in:  Grotto Falls trailhead
Take out: Hyalite reservoir
Trip length: 9 hours, 45 minutes ctc
Number of ski runs: 6.25 (only partial credit for the northwest ridge of Divide Peak)
Ski equipment:  Dynafit Manaslus with TLT speeds, TLT 5 boots and a lycra speed suit (Brian), Dynafit Stoke skis with Dynafits (Ben), and Black Diamond Verticts with Dynafits (sorry you had to haul those clubs around, Nick!)
Number of people encountered: 0
Trailbreaking effort:  Minimal
Avalanche conditions:  Stable except for pockets of fresh wind slab, and pockets of depth hoar in thin areas.
Fatigue factor (1-10): 6
Stoke factor that the Hyalites are skiing well as all other ranges around Bozeman languish in a snowless, avalanche prone mess:  10
Number of sexually charged comments (approximate):  Brian: 2  Ben: 5 Nick: 135
Memories to suppress:  Poor kicker skin advice, no goggles, rain at Blackmore lake in December.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Multiple days at Heart Lake

I spent a few days skiing around Heart Lake in early December, taking advantage of the good, stable, early season snowpack.  Heart Lake lies just south of Hoodoo pass, and provides much better ski touring than the terrain closer to the pass, in my opinion.

December 11 - Dalton Chutes to Hidden Lake

I parked at the Freezout pass turnoff on the Trout Creek road, and took advantage of a surprise snowmobile tow to the Heart Lake trailhead from friendly skiers (thanks!).  From the trailhead, I toured on fast snow to Heart Lake, then Pearl Lake, then the pass between Pearl and Dalton Lakes.  Snow stability was good, so I set a track up the Central chute and skied four of the classic Dalton chutes.  Then, I climbed and skied two runs above Heart Lake before making a long climb to the top of the Hidden Lake basin.  I sniffed around for the entrance to the Hidden couloir, but ran out of daylight trying to locate the entrance.  I instead skied good powder down to Hidden Lake, then descended to the trail and skied out to the car by headlamp.  All in all about 8,800 vertical feet and done in 9 hours car to car.

At the Pearl/Dalton divide, looking forward to a fun day.
Skier's Left Dalton chute.
Dalton Lake chute.
Chute above Heart Lake.
December 18 - Dalton Chutes with friends

I convinced Josh, James and Kyle to make the drive out from Missoula.  We got our community service out of the way early in the day by pushing a small 2WD car out of the ditch (seemed like a good idea last night at the bar...)  We quickly approached Dalton Lake and skied two of the Dalton chutes before climbing and skiing good snow down to Heart Lake. Everyone was excited about the good conditions after enduring thin snow elsewhere around Missoula.  Ice on the road had softened considerably during the day, and the Subaru barely made it out.  
Approaching the Heart Lake trailhead.
Making a sneaky passing move while Kyle scopes out the Dalton chutes.
The crew coming up the Central chute, Dalton chutes
James skiing the skier's left Dalton chute.
December 19 - Trio Lakes to Hoodoo attempt

I returned to Heart Lake solo, this time parking at the main snowmobile trailer turn around about 2.5 miles from the trailhead.  I tested out the new Broad Peak skis, and kicked all the way in on my skinny mohair race skins.  A long run to Trio Lakes was followed by a climb to the Central chute.  I had hoped to ski an alternate fork of the access chute, but it looked pretty terrible on closer inspection.  So, ski the access chute, then climb and ski good snow down to Heart Lake.  From there, I bowl bounced toward Hoodoo pass.  The first objective was to return and find the Hidden couloir.  I was successful after some poking around, and was rewarded with excellent snow and interesting skiing.  From Hidden Lake, bowl bounce farther north.  I had hoped to end the day by skiing down Lake Creek, or touring all the way to Hoodoo pass, but it got dark well before I made it.  I instead skied the big meadow down to the trail by headlamp before schussing out to the car.  All in all about 8,000 vertical feet and a bunch of miles in about 8.5 hours car to car.  Also, gear report:  The Broad Peak skis with race bindings did well.  The skis strike a good balance between durable, light, and fun.  They edge like a pair of ice skates (in a good way) and seem just wide enough to handle variable conditions.  Still want to play around with adding a higher climbing post for steeper skin tracks, but otherwise I'm sold.
Dropping into Trio Lakes.
Soupy visibility but excellent skiing in the Hidden couloir.
General thoughts
There is a lot of stable snow around Hoodoo pass this year, and it was great to be able to explore some of the tour options around Heart Lake before the road shuts in for the winter.  Once they fill in, the two steep couloirs at the inlet of Heart Lake are worth a return trip.  The terrain around Heart Lake deserves more ski traffic that it receives, especially in early season before the road shuts in.  Here are a few photos of terrain south of the lake.  

North facing chutes above Dalton Lake.  The bowl to looker's right is also good.
A pair of ski lines worthy of a return trip with more snow.
North facing terrain at the inlet of Heart Lake.  Note the short but fun couloir on the upper left.