Friday, January 25, 2013

Tobacco Roots Branham Peak couloir extravaganza

A lean North face of Branham peak.  The Good One is the big chute  just right of the foreground tree.  We climbed the Contender couloir (back of the "4"), and skied the Scope, which is the couloir that forms the arm of the "4".  The Backdoor is the clean couloir all the way on the right, and I also skied D+D, which is the couloir just left of the Backdoor.  Not shown in the photo are a couple of lines on the east face, another tree lined couloir out of view to the left, the Green Room above Bell lake, which can be used to access the Back Door, and terrain on the south face.  The windswept face in the upper left also fills in most years.  What a playground!
Nick V. and I made a foray into the Tobacco Roots with an informal goal to ski all of the named couloirs on Branham peak's North face.  The road has not been plowed this year, and we needed a 4WD truck to get turned around at the Potosi campground (a Subaru would probably make it with a couple of pushers).  We didn't have a snowmobile, but the road only took an hour with kicker skins.  We took our time on the approach, and were still booting up to the base of the first chute less than 3 hours after leaving the car.
Nick sprinting across the monster avalanche below Mine peak, with Branham peak clearly visible.
The snow was wind hammered, and the booting was fast.  We booted up the central chute, then traversed the ridgeline east to the Good One.  The skiing was good, as the name implies - chalky, moderate, and aesthetic.  Down in the trees, we took a nice little break to eat some food and stash a bunch of excess gear.  We had both skied the Contender in the past, and it isn't really filled in yet, so we skipped it and instead skied the Scope, ignoring the fact that traverse didn't have any snow.  I am excited to ski it again with more snow, because I think it is the best line on the face - aesthetic, committing, and interesting, and not too scary.
Nick climbing the Contender.
Skiing the Good One.  Photo: Nick Vandenbos.
Nick was a happy boy.
I was also a happy boy.  Photo: Nick Vandenbos.
Scrambling out to the Scope on run number two.  Photo: Nick Vandenbos.
Nick topping out on Scope.
Nick is still recovering from some form of ungodly sickness, so he took his time as I sprinted ahead up the Backdoor couloir and skied down D&D couloir to the east before re-climbing the Backdoor and rendezvousing with him near the top.  The Backdoor skied well.  The ski out was fast, and we were back at the car less than an hour after slipping in the Backdoor.  A stop at the Pony bar rounded out a perfect day in the mountains for team Black Lung (we are both recovering from sickness). 7,800 vertical feet and done in just over 9.5 hours car to car.

Up yet again!
Photo: Nick Vandenbos.
D&D couloir solo.
Note:  Calling all Bozeman skiers - it is normally possible to drive to Potosi hot springs (4 miles from the summer trailhead) year-round, even with high clearance 2WD vehicles.  4WD vehicles can drive another mile or so to the Potosi campground.  As a result, Branham peak is quite accessible to strong parties all winter long without the need for a snowmobile.  Of course if you stay at the highly recommended Bell Lake yurt, you can hit these lines before breakfast.

The face sees a lot of cross wind, does not wind load severely, and the couloirs are often surprisingly safe.  To my knowledge, there are six named runs on the face, and at least two other distinct couloirs, as well as runs on the Northwest, south, and east aspects.  As a result, link up possibilities are pretty much endless.  I can't wait to go back!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Hyalite/Elephant traverse aka Hyalite/Blackmore, Version 4

Eric near the summit of the unnamed peak between Bolle and Blackmore.
This is the peak which juts up behind the Blackmore/Elephant saddle when viewed from town.
With high pressure in the forecast again, I was somehow able to convince Eric to tag along on an attempted traverse around the rim of the Hyalite drainage near Bozeman.  We tried to approach Overlook Mountain from the avalanche path above Silken Skein falls.  This turned out to be a mistake for two reasons.  First, it is an inhospitable place no human should ever have to experience and second, we were unable to find a safe way up through the steep, complicated low elevation terrain.  One good whoomph was all it took for us to head back down to the Hyalite Lake trail with out tails between our legs.
This is where we turned around.  It looks pretty tame, but just
imagine a big whoomph coming out of the darkness.
We had an entire day plus an hour or so of pre-dawn darkness ahead of us, so we headed up the trail for another version of the classic Hyalite/Blackmore traverse.  We ended up having a great day - there are so many options along the traverse and with a little creativity and blue collar skiing, every run ended up being new for at least one of us.

Sunrise illuminated the peaks as we neared the base of Hyalite peak, and we were greeted to early morning light and brisk winds on the summit.  We skied the north ridge of Hyalite and booted up to the next bump in the ridge north of the peak for a look down the North evil twin couloir (unofficial name - I'd be curious to hear if there is a conventional name for this couloir), to see if it had enough snow.  As it turned out, it didn't, but we skied it anyway, traversing hard left at the bottom to bypass a snowless cliff band.
Approaching Hyalite peak at sunrise.
Eric smiling for the camera at the top of the north Evil twin couloir.
We had failed on this line 3 times between the two of us, so it was good to finally ski it.
From there, we traversed around the head of the Divide peak basin and climbed to near the summit before spilling over into the head of Storm Castle creek.  A long traversing climb put us at the top of the Skinny Maid couloir, which we decided not to ski due to time and energy, and another long traverse put us on top of what I think is called the Pinner couloir.  I managed to drop all my valuables (keys, headlamp, glasses, cell phone) along this traverse, so we were treated to a short retrieval mission.  Fortunately we found everything without expending too much effort.  Sorry Eric.

The Pinner was awesome.  I think it is one of the prettiest little couloirs I've skied around Bozeman. From the base of the Pinner, we made the long traverse through the beautiful Twin falls basin, and climbed up to a prominent unnamed peak just north of Mount Bolle.  We skied it's hanging snowfield, then descended the peak's north couloir into the head of Cottonwood creek.  There was a rock choke in the middle that Eric managed to sidestep in a display of sheer edge-dulling, rock scraping awesomeness.  Of course, I had to do the same, albeit with a little less rock scraping due to shorter skis.  From the Cottonwood basin, we skinned to the Blackmore/Elephant saddle and traversed windswept alpine grass to the summit of Elephant peak.  We skied the Northeast face, which was marginal at best, with  breakable crust on the mountain, and facets and downfall on the exit.  We were back at the car 11.5 hours after leaving, tired and satisfied from another fun day in the hills.  Not bad for plan B.  8,500 vertical feet according to the topo map.
Eric downcliming into the Pinner couloir.
Alien invasion in the Pinner couloir.
Onward across the Twin Falls basin.
Eric's mantra for the day: "I think it goes."
It did, but it wasn't pretty.
Eric starting down the Northeast face of Elephant.
Descending through the thick forest back to the car.

I think we made the "right" decision turning around due to avalanche danger.  The full traverse is still alluring, but probably with a different approach route.  The standard Hyalite/Blackmore traverse is highly recommended, and should be done as often as possible.  It requires Moderate avalanche danger, but most of the descents can be arranged to avoid steep windloaded terrain, so it doesn't require absolutely bomber stability.  Exiting via Elephanthead is a viable alternative to Blackmore, but it is a nasty avalanche path, so be careful.

For those who want to go there, our tour was:  From Grotto falls, up Hyalite roughly following the summer trial the whole way; down north ridge; up to next bump north on ridgeline; down north Evil Twin couloir; up to west shoulder of Divide peak; traverse down and east to head of Storm Castle creek; up to ridgeline, traverse around the back of an unnamed 10,000' peak at the head of Maid of the Mist creek; drop valuables; retrieve valuables; down Pinner into Twin falls basin; across head of basin, up unnamed 10,000' peak; down north couloir to head of Cottonwood creek; up to Blackmore/Elephant saddle, walk windswept tundra to Elephant mountain; down Northeast face and out to car.

On a gear related note, I was skiing on Scarpa Aliens and Dynafit Broad peak skis with race bindings.  There was a lot of faceted snow, and I think this is the first day ever that the Broad peak skis felt too small to be an effective tool.  The boots, on the other hand, were amazing.  They do have limitations, however.  They are fairly soft in forward flex, and would feel a little undersized for driving skis wider than 100 mm or so at the waist.  Also, I didn't use the supplied gaiters, and with all the gaps around the shell, the liners were quite wet by the end of the day.  

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Powder at Downing Mountain Lodge

I spent the weekend skiing powder at the Downing Lodge in the Bitterroot near Hamilton.  The skiing was good and reasonably stable despite an avalanche warning issued 2 days prior to our departure.  We spent the first morning driving to Hamilton and approaching the lodge, and the afternoon was spent lapping the skier's right edge of the main avalanche bowl.  Between people and dogs, we put down 29 sets of tracks and had a great time skiing the clean, continuous fall lines in about a foot of settled powder.  Last summer's fire has opened up quite a bit of new terrain, and it was fun to slalom through the stark black forest.
Leah floating through powder at Downing.
The lodge itself is awesome, and we fully enjoyed all the amenities including a hot tub, electricity, running water, a piano, and a spectacular view of Hamilton and the Bitteroot valley.  Leah took advantage of the full service kitchen, and dinner was amazing.  Good times with one of the best crews I could have asked for.
Dinner at the lodge.  Happy Birthday Nate!  Photo by Joshua Phillips.
Joshua was up early the next day, and a spicy breakfast was served upon emerging from bed.  From there, it was out the door and into the cold.  We spent the day bouncing around on terrain below the Wave and the Crown, skiing Nina glades, climbing to the Crown, skiing back down through the Wolf glades to a bench above Barley lake, climbing up and skiing Point Break, then skiing out via the skier's left edge of the Avalanche bowl.  With the relatively high avalanche danger, we resisted some of the more temping terrain including the Crown and the Wave.  At the end of the day, I also opted out of a second hot tub soak in favor of one more run to make it about a 7,000 vertical foot day of excellent powder skiing.  It was with some reluctance that we packed up and headed home.  The only major hiccup of the trip occurred back at the trailhead when one of our cars refused to start, but we made it back to town in one car, and the second car was retrieved the following day, so no harm done.

Just another powdery ski run at Downing.
Ben skiing Point Break.
Ben on the last climb.
I heartily recommend booking a night at the Downing Mountain lodge.  There is endless powder skiing terrain, even when avalanche danger is High or Considerable.  The terrain lends itself nicely to interesting link ups of different bowls and glades, and the views from the top are always spectacular.  The lodge itself is pretty plush, but not too expensive. And the owner, John Leherman, is one of the best people you will ever meet.  Anywhere.  Book a night today, and if not, be sure to get it on the calendar for next year.  I will certainly be back.  For more information on the Downing Mountain lodge, go to the website.

Monday, January 14, 2013

South Teton, Southeast face

Sunrise on the approach to Taggart lake.
Instead of racing at Targhee on Sunday, Leah, Blake and I took advantage of stable conditions and what we thought would be perfect weather to ski in the Tetons.  We left the car a little after sunrise, clad in multiple layers of down, headed for the Southeast face of the South Teton.  We followed the skin track highway to Bradley lake, then up into Garnet canyon.  Blake and I were both feeling the effects of racing, and it was all we could do to keep up with Leah.  Taking advantage of ski crampons, we caught or passed two parties above the meadows, and proceeded past them into the the South fork of Garnet canyon.
Leah shows us the way in the icebox of Garnet canyon.

As we neared the head of the South fork, the weather took a turn for the worse, with increasing winds and light snow, and we were debating the merits of bailing by the time we gained the northwest flank of the peak.  I was able to convince everyone to keep poking upwards, and we continued bootpacking and talus hopping up into clouds.  Eventually, we summited via the normal Northwest ridge.
Weather getting a little western as we near the summit of the South Teton.
From the summit, we followed ski tracks which deviated from the ridge proper before regaining it via an exposed traverse about 100 yards below the summit.  From there, we continued down the ridge proper, taking note of the intimidating Southeast couloir.  I need to return some day with more snow and a good head for steep skiing.  The ridge rolls over about 500 feet from the summit, and we worked our way down through a pitch of 50 degree snow and rock.  Snow conditions were difficult through here, and we did a lot of sidestepping with an ice axe, trying to not think about the gaping abyss far below.   Eventually the pitch mellowed, and we made turns down the ridge before hanging a left into the hanging snowfield at the base of the Southeast couloir.  I was unsure whether the lower choke was filled in at the base of the hanging snowfield, so we instead opted to exit via the next ramp to the east.  This was accessed via a short bootpack to a col just north of Matternought peak.
Blake dropping in to the Southeast face of the South Teton.
Leah working down through steep, icy snow.
I took a minute at the col, perched above the unknown, to reflect on how lucky skiers are to be able to dance around the Tetons in the dead of winter.  From the col, we skied moderate sastruggi for over a thousand vertical feet to a bench, then sidestipped wind-scour boulder fields to more open slopes down to Avalanche canyon.  Unfortunately, the snow on the lower slopes had a nasty ice crust, which was both dangerous and unpleasant, and we were forced to revert to survival skiing for most of the descent to lake Taminah.  From the lake, we exited down Avalanche canyon, stoping only to take in the brilliant orange sunset.  We made it out a little after dark.  In retrospect, the Southeast face of the South teton is truly a classic ski line in all the right ways - committing, interesting, long, aesthetic, challenging but moderate enough to be fun.  Certainly a run I hope to ski again some day.  
Blake starting down the alternate exit north of Matternought peak.
Leah skis powder in Avalanche Canyon at sunset.

We skied the Spoon couloir on Dissapointment peak the following day.
What an enjoyable ski route in an immaculate alpine basin.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

2013 US Ski Mountaineering National Championships Report

Nate Brown tops out on the Corbet's Ladder.  Photo: Alex Simpson.

For the second consecutive year, I joined a long list of fast lycra clad folks in Jackson for 8,000 vertical feet of racing.  This year's course was improved from last year, with more technical skinning on the first climb, a better skin track on the final climb, and the thrilling ladder ascent up Corbet's couloir.  With a strong inversion in the valley, the start was F*%$'n cold, and everyone started with abandon, gunning for warmer temperatures higher on the mountain.  The blow-by-blow went roughly like this:

The start was fast, as expected.  Resolved to prevent a blow-up early in the race, I shuffled along as fast as possible as racer after racer sprinted by.  Eventually, things settled down into a group of about 12 elite racers and a second group of about 7 including Wasatchians Chad Brackelsberg and Tom Diegel, Michael Hagan, Teauge Holmes, Canadian Brad Schalles, and a few guys I didn't know.  I topped out on the first steep groomer in about 15th place, in the middle of this second pack of racers.  I hung with Chad through the cat track and made some gains on both him, Brad and Michael Hagan on the technical skin track up Pepi's ridge.  I lost a little time at the first transition, and skied as fast as possible on the first descent, hoping to close the gap on Chad and Brad.

I took some time getting my skins on solidly and choking down calories at the beginning of the second ascent.  Then it was off through more technical skinning to the top of Tower 3 chute.  Once again, years of adverse backcountry skinning payed off, and I was able to catch or pass about four racers including Chad, who was suffering with skinny race skins.  The second descent down Tower 3 chute was fast and chalky, and I maintained position. I was able to gain more time on the steep skin track at the beginning of the third climb before sucking wind on the cat track, with Brad remaining stubbornly out of reach.  I took a few seconds to swallow a GU packet at the aid station before starting up the first bootpack.  Try as I might, I was unable to summon any pep, so I bucked down as Brad and Tom Diegel opened up a sizeable gap ahead.  A quick traversing descent down Coomb's had me transitioning once again with Chad.

I had a good transition, skiing out a few seconds before Chad.  With no end in sight, this and the previous climb are the psychological crux of the race (in my opinion).  Pushing as hard as possible, I was still fading, and Chad passed me once again at the transition to the Corbet's booter.  I stuck with him throught the ladder and had a great transition back to skinning, passing both Chad and Tom, who was having fits getting his skis of his pack.  Leah's words of encouragement helped me keep the pace up thgouth Corbet's, and I transitioned for the daunting 4,000 foot top-to-bottom screaming run in good spirits.  I was able to rely on adequate skiing skills and good leg strength on the last run, and improved my position significantly, opening a solid gap on Chad and Tom, and gaining on John Brown.  I was not able to close the gap on Brad Schalles.

I started up the final climb in good spirits - legendary Jackson racer Cary Smith was in sight, Brad was just out of reach, and John Brown, Tom, and Chad were at least 30 seconds behind.  I was able to reel Brad in, bu much to my surprise, Stano Faban came out of nowhere, burning up the track on hot pursuit.  I pushed as hard as possible, but Stano caught me at top of the last climb.  Stano got out of the final transition about 10 seconds ahead of me, and I snuck out about 10 seconds ahead of Brad.  Both of those guys can ski, so I headed down Tram line with reckless abandon, refusing to turn until I passed Stano.  Soon enough, I was tucking it down the groomer.  I kept my position, crossing the finish line in 11th place, 5 seconds ahead of Brad and 7 seconds ahead of Stano.  What a nail-biter!

I also found this video, shot by Mark Smiley.  I can be seen at 1:24 skiing pretty out of control but passing Chad, and at 1:42, topping out on the last climb.  The start of the descent is where I refused to turn until I was able to get out ahead of Stano.
Last minute skin prep.
The start.  You can't see me because I don't start fast.  Photo: Dominique Maack
The leaders at the top of Corbet's, benefiting from Jason Dorais'
strong work on the bootpack.  Photo: Dominique Maack.
Worked at the finish line.
Men's Podium.  Photo: Nate Brown
In summary, I was satisfied with the race.  I benefited from knowledge of the course, better fitness, and better equipment.  I raced smarter, starting slower, fueling more consistently, and keeping my mind focused on moving fast.  In terms of metrics, I cut 17 minutes off my time from the previous year, and improved my position by 7 places.  I also really enjoyed being in the middle of the second pack of racers, and had great fun swapping spots with Chad, Tom, Brad and Stano.

Thanks to everyone who volunteered to host the race.

The top 8 positions were amazingly tight, which is exciting.  Each of the top 8 racers finished faster than the winning time from last year, which is an indication that the sport is progressing at the top end in the US.

The women's field was thin this year.  Janelle and Jari were fast as always, but I missed having Gemma, Sari, or Amy Fulwyler come flying by as if they were out for a stroll in the park.  Also, a bunch of long-time racers were absent.  Everyone missed Chris Kroger, Brian Harder, Jared Inouye, Zahan, and Reiner's presence.  Finally, Montana racers were few and far between.

A big thumbs up to Blake Votilla, who finished a strong second in the heavy metal division.  Watch out for this guy in the future, or for that matter, on any skin track around Missoula since Blake gets out a lot and is fast.  

I was able to accomplish several specific goals from last year, specifically fuelling more efficiently and starting more slowly.  I was pleasantly surprised to find myself gaining times on the downhills, which I attribute largely to new race skis.  I am fairly content, but it is always interesting to try to faster.  Or at least maintain.  Big gains in time are becoming increasingly hard to find, but a few ideas are:

Fitness:  This is a tough one.  I am having trouble finding the desire to devote more time to race specific training.  If anything, training volume is likely to decrease as life responsibilities increase.  So, how to train smarter.  One thing that comes to mind is intervals on skis, which I haven't done because it sounds brutally painful.  Another is my surprisingly lackluster performance on the bootpacks.  I thought all the running I did would pay off, but it really didn't.  Interesting.  The only other obvious source of inspiration would be from training with like minded fast skiers.  Any Missoulians interested in some fun/painfull ski training sessions?  Blake, Ben, Josh?  Any bikers interested in getting in on the fun?  Let me know!

Racing smarter:  I am still slow at transitions, especially under the pressure of racing.  Also, I still should be able to make some time gains on cat tracks with better technique.

Tricks:  I have an unconfirmed theory that full width nylon skins and higher heel risers would speed things up for technical courses like Jackson and Bridger.

Finally, while racing is rewarding, it is engaging and interesting tours in wild places that fuel my ski aspirations.  And to that end, I am excited to continue using skis as a tool for inspired and efficient movement in the mountains.  Over the past few years, racing has introduced me to a great ski community, inspired some increased fitness, and taught me a whole host of little tricks for moving fast.  I'm excited to see where it all goes.