Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Canyon Peak/Downing Mountain Link Up

Welcome to Sawtooth Canyon - trail to nowhere.
I left the Sawtooth Canyon trailhead at 5:46 am, psychologically armored for the long, delicate hike into the canyon on the icy trail.  About an hour and many slips later,  the ice turned to snow and approach shoes were exchanged for ski boots and skins.  I got lost a couple of times, and the trail took about an hour longer than anticipated.  The climb up Canyon Peak's impressive south avalanche path was enjoyable and fast.  The upper face is steep and avalanche prone, but I was able to stay on fairly scoured snow for most of the climb.  About 200 vertical feet below the summit, an unfortunate and unavoidable wind slab convinced me to turn around.  The ensuing run was fabulous, especially the upper steep south face of the peak.  I will have to return some day to ski it in good style.
The mighty south face of Canyon Peak from about half way down the avalanche path.
 From the creek, ski down canyon for about an hour before starting back up a nondescript avalanche path to the Sawtooth/Canyon Creek divide.  The climb went quickly, and I was soon sniffing a passage way through the cornice that guarded access to a short run into Canyon Creek.  A quick, powdery run and low angle skin in a blustery storm put me on top of Downing Mountain.  I quickly ducked into the south gully, forgoing the craggy true summit. I had a great time following John and Ben's tracks down the south gully of Downing Mountain.  The snow was good, the wild gendarmes were cool, the downclimb around the cliffs was interesting and safe (skier's right), and the length (3,550 vertical feet) was memorable.  The sub-2 hour exit was not too bad, and I was content with only one full out crash and burn during the icy jog back to the trailhead.  Approximately 8,500 vertical feet, and done in 11 hrs 10 minutes car to car.  Sawtooth Canyon is not terribly user friendly, as I expected, but there is quite a bit of good ski terrain, especially on the south side near the top of the canyon.
Cool gendarmes and good snow in the South
Couloir of Downing Mountain.
Content after 26,000 vertical feet of ski
touring over the past three days.
The route.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Bridger Bowl, Skin to Win Race Report


Mens Pro  
(Yeah NFB!)
BrownNate 342.2235 

Womens Pro

(2.2235 = 2 hr, 22 min, 35 sec)

The Race
I arrived early enough to get a sufficient warmup and was generally feeling healthy going into the race.  The le mans start was fair.  I started very hard, but shut it down quickly, a strategy that seemed to work well.  The first climb quickly settled into a lead pack of Ben, Travis and Chris K, and a second pack of Brian H, Nate, Erich, Gemma and me just behind.    There was a sizeable gap before the third pack, headed by Michael B.  I was able to pass Erich and Nate on the steep hill, but was unable to open a gap on the North Bowl Road, despite a full effort.  I transitioned well to bootpacking, but still was not able to open a gap on Nate.  I sideslipped past Gemma into Hidden Couloir, and the skiing was great.

I took a quick break at the bottom of the run to put skins on and pound some electrolyte water.  Nate skied into the transition as I was starting up the motor room bootpack.  I maintained my gap on Nate and was able to largely reel Brian in on the second climb.  I maintained during the second run and third climb, and we all passed Chris K, who was having skin and binding troubles.  My first climbing skin failed at the end of the third climb.  Nate passed me at the beginning of the final climb as I was rummaging through my pack for a backup skin.  I was able to stay close behind Brian and Nate during the climb to the ridge, but my backup skin failed at the ridge.  The weather had turned to a whiteout, and the last thing I heard from Nate before he skinned off into the whiteness was "Gnar gnar".  Indeed.

It got a little western in the whiteout, and my race mantra slowly transitioned from "skin to win" to "skin to finish" to "skin to f*ing survive".  I lost perhaps 10 minutes on the final ridgeline traverse due to two more skin failures, multiple low visibility crashes on the ridgeline, nursing cold fingers, and having to stop to put on my emergency shell.  The final ski went without incident, and I skated into the finish line in a respectable 4th place.  My fingers were very cold, but an intense screaming barfies session and a warm cup of soup was all it took to be back in the land of the living.

The race went well, aside from skin failures, and I was pleased with 4th place.  My pace, my fuelling strategy, and general race execution were all OK.  There is always room for increased fitness, and I will continue to work on that.  Obviously race skins will be reglued, and I will pay more attention to using synthetic skins or better backup skins for races with a high probability of skin failure.  Also, the skin tracks were all too steep.  It may be worth trying to rig up heel lifters for races like this.

I was excited to see Nate win.  In addition to maintaining a strong, steady pace, his conservative decision to use synthetic skins payed off.  It is also worth mentioning that Nate took the time to help Gemma ski into the entrance of Hidden Couloir, and it was encouraging to see his display of sportsmanship.

The weather was difficult.  10 of the 19 men in the race division did not finish, including several very fast racers.  There were a lot of strong women this year, which was great, although it was sad to hear about Gemma's DNF.  This may be the only time I every beat Gemma - she is fast!  Leah did the race course and can count herself among the few brave souls who finished.  Nice work Leah.  And of course, thanks to Bridger Bowl for hosting this amazing event - I'll be back next year.

Nate's Account
Race Video and results

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Two days in the north fork of Lost Horse Creek

Sunset over Lost Horse Creek.
With partners out of town for President's Day weekend, I made plans to spend two days camped in the backcountry.  It seemed logical to choose the north fork of Lost Horse Creek since the approach is fairly short, the peak to creek ski terrain is abundant, and there are plenty of higher avalanche danger options.

The Subaru made it to the south fork trailhead without a problem, and I was soon skinning up the road to the confluence with the north fork.  The climb up into the upper drainage is fairly steep but doable with help from the summer trail.  A casual pace put me at camp within 2 hours of leaving the car, and the rest of the day was devoted to ski exploration.  I first headed up the next large avalanche path west of the BRIBE gully to check out the Sliver gully, which cleaves the north wall of the Ward 3/4 basin.  The upper couloir seemed safe enough, so I committed to the short but steep line.  The skiing was great, with reactive but shallow wind slabs to keep things interesting.  Skin and boot back out before skiing a long and striking avalanche path back south to the creek.  With a few hours of daylight remaining, I set my sights on a steep, exposed northwest facing ramp off the main/north fork divide, which I was fortunate to ski under a spectacular sunset.  Back at camp, the dark hours were spent with the normal winter overnight routine of establishing camp, cooking, reading, and sleeping a lot.

Looking down the Sliver gully on Ward 3.  The south faces
of Canyon Peak and Downing Mountains are visible in the background.
The Sliver gully on Ward 3 looking dapper with a fresh set of ski tracks.
Second run of the trip.
I awoke to a skiff of fresh snow, and was soon skinning up drainage with the intent of skiing into Roaring Lion Creek.  After several hours of challenging dust on crust skinning, I arrived at the entrance to the Ward 3/4 basin.  Unfortunately the entrance was heavily corniced and wind loaded, and I bailed.  3,000' of powder skiing back down to the north fork was an adequate consolation prize.  I spent the rest of the day skiing peak to creek runs off point 8,729.  Re-using the skin track violated my anti yo-yo skiing tendencies, but each run was a fairly independent line, and skied brilliantly.  5 pm found me hand jamming on a short and akward downclimb into the top of the last avalanche path, and a quick egress put me back at the car right at dark.  10,030 vertical feet according to Google Earth, and done in 10.5 hours tent to car.  For route finding information, see the Ski Route Descriptions Page.

Fresh wind slabs were touchy but manageable.

Just another amazing peak-to-creek run off point 8,729.

Ski run #2 off point 8,729.

Ski run #3 off point 8,729 and time to head home.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Kootenai Point, Normal Tour

Exiting the Gold couloir.  Photo by Ryan Anderson.
I did the standard Kootenai Point tour on February 12 with Leah and Ryan.  We skied the Gold couloir, then climbed to the top of the Exit Bowl, which was taken to the creek and out via the Kootenai Creek trail.  Everyone seemed pleased with the day, even after some pretty significant de-tuning of skis on the rocky and undulating trail.  The Gold couloir is one of the cleaner couloirs in the Bitterroot, and skis really well.  The tour climbed around 6,000 vertical feet and took us a casual 9.5 hours car to car.  See Ski Route Descriptions page for more details.
Ryan skiing with characteristic power and confidence in the Gold couloir.
Leah in the Gold couloir.  Photo by Ryan Anderson

Leah skinning in front of the Southeast Lappi bowl and St. Joseph Peaks.
The bottom of the Exit bowl got a little rowdy.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Boulder Peak to North Trapper Peak/Psychological Warfare Tour

Good snow on the southeast face of Boulder Peak.
On February 11, I completed a long standing project, ski touring Boulder, East Boulder, Trapper and North Trapper Peaks.  A foggy and rainy day on Friday had me wondering if this was a good idea during the evening drive to the trailhead (psychological warfare episode #1).  An alpine start in the fog with gloppy, isothernal snow was less than ideal (psychological warfare episode #2), but soon enough I broke out of the clouds, and a spectacular sunrise improved morale drastically.  I summited Boulder Peak and took a few minutes to recon the northwest couloir before downclimbing and skiing good snow to an arbitrary point below the southeast face of the peak.  A quick snack and skin put me on top of the classic 3,900 vertical foot Goddess couloir.  I heard rumors at the bar the previous night that the Goddess was in terrible shape, so it was with apprehension that I dropped in.  Fortunately the bar rumors were unfounded, and the skiing was great all the way down to rain line.  Snow conditions below rain line were terrible but survivable, and I was soon sipping water on the banks of Boulder Creek.
Sunrise above a sea of clouds.
Near the summit of Boulder Peak.
About half way down the Goddess couloir, looking at Trapper peak across the valley.
On to Trapper Peak
Next up was psychological warfare episode #3, which included not finding the trail and wandering around the bottom of the drainage for almost an hour before giving up and climbing blindly into the mist.  Eventually I climbed above the clouds, and quickly found the correct route up Crow Creek.  A valiant battle against fatigue and gloppy snow was waged during the advance to the highest peak in the range (Psychological warfare episode #4).  Boot tracks on the summit of Trapper were the only sign of humans I saw all day.  Ski the northeast couloir from the summit, which was chalky and fun.  Even with a second wind of energy, it took allmost 2 hours of steep skinning, booting, and scratching up exposed 4th class rock to summit North Trapper Peak.  North Trapper is perhaps the finest mountaineering peak in the Bitterroot Range, and it was rewarding to summit it with perfect conditions in winter.  I brought a little notebook to replace the summit register, which previously consisted of two notebook pages and an unused coffee filter.  I skied the Olbu southeast face route from the highest point of continuous snow about 200 vertical feet below the summit.  Skiing down into Trapper Creek was surprisingly slow with undulating terrain and all manner of bushwacking adversity near the creek.  Nevertheless I was soon on the trail, kicking out to the trailhead, then gliding almost 2 miles out to stashed bike and a cash of water and cookies.  The 8+ mile bike shuttle in the dark wasn't too bad, and before I knew it I was back at the car reflecting on another amazing day in the hills.
The Goddess couloir is the second main gully from the left.
Looking down the northeast couloir on Trapper Peak with North Trapper Peak in the background.
A bunch of my old entries and the new notebook I installed on the summit of North Trapper Peak.
On North Trapper Peak, ready to head home.
Skiing the Olbu southeast face route on North Trapper Peak.
Back at the car.  Yes, it was very dark.
This tour has the potential to be a major classic of the southern Bitterroot range, but it needs refinement.  I don't think it's worth going all the way out to Boulder Peak.  A goddess/ Trapper/ North Trapper tour would be a more manageable length and would flow more logically.  Also, an exit stage right via Baker Lake would provide a slightly longer egress or a viable egress in low snow years.  The shuttle would be longer via Baker Lake.

Slow, gloppy conditions and low visibility added at least an hour to the day.

The Dynafit Low Tech race bindings came loose between the lower post and upper rotating section, and I had to stop several times to tighten the whole rig back up.  I have since removed the bindings and re-tightened the offending screw with lock tite.  I wasn't impressed, since a surprise binding failure in no fall terrain could be life ending.

Total elevation gain (based on topo map):  12,650 feet
Accomplices: None
Put in:  West Fork Bitterroot Highway at Boulder Creek
Take out: Bike stashed about 2 miles shy of the Trapper Creek trailhead
Trip length: 13 hours 5 minutes car to bike
Equipment:  Dynafit Broad Peak skis, TLT low tech bindings, TLT 5 Performance boots, aluminum crampons (not used) one whippet pole, lycra
Avalanche equipment: No
Number of people encountered: 0
Trailbreaking effort:  Difficult below freezing 6,500 feet, minimal above 
Ski conditions: Chalky snow above 6,500 feet, rain crust and mush below
Avalanche conditions:  Stable
Number of flat tires: 3 (2 car, one bike)
Fatigue factor (1-10): 9
Memories to suppress:  Rain, multiple flat tires on the drive, bushwacking down from North Trapper peak to the trail

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Jenny Bowl for time

I skied Jenny Bowl after work today for time.  I accessed the Paradise run at Snowbowl ski resort legally from National Forest Land.  The splits were: top of first steep pitch 23 min; exit resort 42 min; summit Point Six 58 min 30 sec; leave Jenny lake 1 hr 6 min; parking lot 1 hr 22.5 min.  There were a few slow quirks including a detour into the trees to dodge a groomer on the climb, 4-6" of fresh snow, accessing through National Forest Land, and conservative skiing in the dark.  It will be interesting to return sometime and try to go faster.  The skiing was great on 4" of powder in Jenny Bowl and fresh corduroy in the resort.  

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Pyramid Buttes via Little St. Joe

Conditions are stellar in the Bitterroot right now.  Unable to sit through an entire week perfect weather in the office, I took Wednesday off work for a long tour with local guru John.  We set our sites on Pyramid Buttes, a collection of three craggy high points in the headwaters of Sweeney Creek.
Pyramid Buttes taken from the Bass/Sweeney divide.  Photo taken March 2011.
The Tour
Lacking common sense, we chose to access the peak via Little St Joe, ignoring the fact that Little St. Joe is over 300 feet higher than our main objective.  John hadn't been up little St. Joe in years, so I played guide up the standard ascent route. We bypassed the final summit block at the 3-hour mark and weaved our way west along the tricky ridgeline to the top of the cirque below the Northeast face of St. Joseph peak. Next up was a surprisingly high quality ski and traverse down to Sweeney Creek.  A quick water break and jaunt up the creek bed put us at the base of Pyramid Buttes, and an hour plus of skinning had us on the summit around noon.  The peak is perfectly perched above Sweeney Creek's two spectacular headwater cirques, and we took some time on the summit to soak in the view.  We skied from the bottom of the craggy summit block, 10 vertical feet below the exact summit.  Snow in the southeast gully was generally firm and quite skiiable, even on John's K2 Sahale skis.  I was impressed with John's ability to ski and climb so well on the Sahales since the outdated design effectively combines the dual disadvantage of race ski performance (aka - terrible) with relatively heavy weight.
John de-tuning his skis on the traverse from Little St. Joe to the head of Sweeney Creek.
Surprisingly good skiing down to Sweeney Creek on the approach.  
John steep skinning on the South Face of Pyramid Buttes.
On the summit of Pyramid Buttes.
Good times at the base of Pyramid Buttes.
At the base, John started the egress back to the Sweeney/Bass divide, and I took a second run, this time in one of the rock lined chutes off the east end of the Pyramid Butte ridgeline.  After wandering all over the hillside trying to locate the correct gully, I finally found it and was once again able to skin most of the couloir.  The ensuing run was great.  After a water and fuel stop at the creek, I jammed up John's skin and bootpack, stopping once to pop a life saving GU packet.  I was slowing down at this point, and was extremely grateful for John's bootpack.  We convened at the Sweeney/Bass divide and made a tandem descent of the classic Pinball Wizard gully.  It is worth noting that the Pinball Wizard gully has already avalanched big this year, further reinforcing its reputation in my mind as a big avalanche performer.  The Bass Creek trail has seen a lot of ski traffic already this year, and we made quick time on the schuss out to the car.  Out well before dark, we had plenty of time at the trailhead for beer and a philosophical debate regarding the relative quality of the Pyramid Buttes via Little St. Joe tour and the mega-classic Sky Pilot via Gash tour.  In the end, John sided with Pyramid Buttes, and I sided with Sky Pilot.  But they are both good, so the only logical option is to do both and decide for yourself.  11,560 vertical feet according to Google Maps and done in 10h 33min car to car.
Photo break about half way down the second gully which I skied solo.
John heading home down the classic Pinball Wizard Gully.
Gear Notes:
I think all the bugs are worked out of the new Dynafit Broad Peak ski/Dynafit race binding setup, and I am still amazed at how well Dynafit has balanced light weight (1340 grams per ski with bindings), ski performance, and durability.  The only significant modifications I have made are adding the ski crampon attachment and heel lifters to the race bindings.  The additional 2 cm of heel lift makes steep skin tracks palatable, and seems well worth the sub-10 gram weight penalty.  Also, I spent the day in the speed suit, which continues to perform magnificently in the mountains.