Monday, February 29, 2016

Tobacco Root Traverse on skis

It is almost 1 am as I walk in the door to my Missoula apartment, just back from Minnesota.  In minutes, I am cramming my still-swollen foot and ankle into ski boots for the first time in over two weeks since my ankle was sprained. Racing boots are still painful, but the TLT5s feel a little better. Sleep comes easily, but I wake up concerned, re-set my bindings for the larger boots, and grab the thinnest sock I can find for the right foot. Despite all the doubts surrounding the state of my ankle, I have been working diligently with rehab, and know it is still strong and stable, just still a little swollen, and a big day on skis probably will not set the recovery back much if at all.  I let Ben know I'm in for sure, and we are dropping a car near Pony a few hours later. We drive the shuttle to South Meadow creek, and are both are asleep by 9 pm. 
Awaiting sunrise. Cold hands did not stop our forward momentum.
Car to Bell lake
We left the car at 3 am under a full moon.  I had slept well, and was fired up for a big day. We trudged up the road for a few hours, then continued across South Meadow Creek lake and climbed to the ridge top just north of Ramshorn mountain.  The top was very icy, but we were able to get just enough boot purchase to make it through.  As we topped out, the orange full moon was just setting in the west, and the horizon was beginning to turn a pre-dawn grey.  An icy wind kept us moving to a high point north of Ramshorn, where we ripped skins and schussed a short traversing run to the base of Belle point.  I must have been a little intimidated by the length of the day, and suggested we bypass the north couloir on Belle in favor of moving quickly along the ridge.  Ben was amenable, so we kept at it, skinning, walking on bare ground, and skiing a few short pitches as the terrain dictated.  The ankle felt a touch vulnerable on the descents, but it seemed to be holding up well, and a quick stop to tape my left arch was sufficient to keep any foot blisters at bay. Before long, we were dropping off the crest for a nice run down to the headwaters of Mill creek.  A long climb up the beautiful cirque on the back side of Branham put us at the top of the moderate Green Room gully.  At this point, Ben was crushing the climbs and transitions, and I was just holding on, trying not to slow him down too much.  Not surprising though, that guy skis more and faster than about anyone in Montana.  The Green Room skied great. Firm and smooth, and stable. 
Skinning at sunrise. Photo: Ben VandenBos
Ben near the end of the southern portion, about to rip skins and drop off the ridge.

Coming up to the top of the Green Room. Photo: Ben Vandenbos.
Dropping into the Green Room. Bell lake below.

Ben hydrating at Bell lake as I wolf down a burrito.
Bell lake to Hollowtop
We found some open water at Bell lake, and I scarfed a burrito as Ben filled water bottles.  There were a few tracks from yurt skiers, but I was surprised at how many of the classic runs were untouched considering the excellent stability.  We were ahead of schedule, so I suggested we proceed with the Longs/Lonesome link up (it is possible to bypass both on the west), and Ben was game.  With that goal in mind, we made the technical skin and bootpack to the top of Longs. I used ski crampons on the icy ascent, which almost allowed me to keep up with Ben.  We poked our heads over the summit, and were pleased to find adequate coverage on the north face.  After a great run on the north face, I ski cramponed, and Ben booted up the southeast face of Lonesome peak, and we were treated to another long rolling run down the North face all the way to Granite lake.  Still on schedule, we pinned it up Granite.  We saw what looked like wolverine?! tracks in the basin, and it was nice to think about them for a while instead of wallowing in the mounting fatigue.   

Ben jaunting on the final jaunt to Long peak.

Ben midway down Lonesome.  Granite peak looms in the background.
Climbing Granite peak. Up, up, up! Photo: Ben VandenBos
We topped out at 2 pm, with 10k of climbing in our legs, tired but still in high spirits.  The run down Granite was great. We even found some good settled powder in the trees below the peak.  We followed a snowmobile track down South Willow creek for a mile or so before stopping to slap skins on and re-fuel for the last long climb of the day, which would take us almost 3,000 vertical feet up to Horse mountain, then across a broad plateau to Hollowtop.  I was incredibly grateful that the ankle was still holding up perfectly, because the final push to the car was gonna be a bruiser.  After topping off the tank with a burrito chased by gel, we skinned, booted, scrambled, and talus swam our way up to Horse.  Our pace had slowed a bit, and it was nice to just move comfortably, chatting at times, but otherwise grinding out the climb.  The Horse – Hollowtop traverse was completely snow free, so we clunked across as the sun slowly crept toward the western horizon.  On Hollowtop, at sunset, we ripped skins for the last time and made the big descent to Mason lake.  Hollowtop gets ravaged by wind, and we had to take skis off a few times to connect snow patches.
Dropping off the summit of Granite.
Looking back from Horse mountain.  We started at the skyline peak on the far left of the photo.
Ben plateau cruising and closing in on Hollowtop.
Hollowtop peak to car
At the lake, we had our one hiccup of the day, when I was unable to find the road.  Ben advocated for descending directly to Cataract lake, but I obstinately refused.  I think his strategy would have been faster, but mine at least guaranteed that we would not get lost in the dark. We eventually found the road shortly before clicking headlamps on.  We started hitting intermittent bare patches about 2 miles from the trailhead, so the exit was longer than anticipated.  Ben is a fearless intermittent snow skiing champ, and I was skiing conservatively to protect the cankle, so eventually he tired of waiting, and cruised out to the car while I clumped down the road in the dark.  Soon enough, we were back at the car, ski boots off, and super excited to have pulled off a great traverse.  I was totally beat! I did not even come close to making the drive home before getting sleepy.  No worries though – the sleeping bag was still all set up, and I had a great night of sleep near Fairmont hot springs before polishing the drive off the next morning. 

Ben contemplating the lack of snow for out last run on Hollowtop.
Skiers have been traversing the Tobacco Root range for decades, and it was pretty cool to join their ranks.  I suspect we may be the first party to push all the way out to Hollowtop, but if so, that is a very minor style improvement over previous traverses.  It was great to finally get out with Ben.  Having that guy along is like having a secret weapon blazing the way, as he is super strong, positive, and makes consistently excellent route decisions on the fly.  Our route was a good one. Logical with quite a bit of good skiing and options in the second half to make it shorter.  It also does not engage any unnecessarily hazardous terrain, and for the most part, stays out of big avalanche starting zones.

There are many variations which could make it better, or at least different.  For one, travel would be smoother later in the spring when there is more snow on the plateaus. The trek all the way out to Hollowtop was a grind for not a lot of good skiing. In fact, the highlight of that portion was the plateau walk (which is actually quite nice). It would certainly be easier to end at Granite, exiting down Willow or South Boulder creeks.  Also, it would be nice to take at least one ski run in the southern portion of the range, and top out on a peak or two.  We didn’t due to time constraints.  An excellent and logistically simple traverse would be to run from Branham (or Bradley) to Granite/little Granite (either direction), skiing Longs and Lonesome along the way.  There would be no shuttle required, and everything would link up logically.  That said, the traverse is highly recommended for those with a strong set of legs and lungs looking for an adventure.
The route.  Kind of rough, but if you know the range, you get the idea.
Approximate total elevation gain 13,200 feet
Length: ~30 miles done in 16 hours, 20 minutes
Accomplices: Ben Vandenbos
Put in:  Private land boundary on South Meadow creek
Take out: base of Mason lake road near PonyFuel: Burritos, bars, gel, perpetum. Averaged a little over 100 cal/hr.
Equipment:   Dynafit Nanga Parbat skis, TLT5 boots (to protect the ankle), thin sock on right foot for ankle, ski crampons, one whippet. Extra regular sock and two different insoles in case the ankle flared up. Headlamp with extra batteries.
Number of ski runs: 7
Number of good ski runs: 5
Fatigue factor (1-10): 9 (note, 9 is  virtually impossible to exceed in a no-race setting)
Stoke factor (1-10): 9 + stoke that my ankle held up.
Memories to suppress:  Lack of snow on the plateaus.  Painful left shin and 6th toe pain.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Bass Bowl Bounce (Extra Credit)

In late January, I was able to join forces with Andrew and Jeffrey for an extended Bass Bowl bounce tour.  The Bass Bowl bounce might be my favorite tour in the range.  Once the long slog out to Bass is in the bag, skiers are posed to knock out as many bowls as possible on the way out to the car, and there are a lot of good variations, even with mid-Considerable avalanche danger.
Jeffrey and Andrew getting their groove on
as they climb the Groove tube above Bass lake.
We met at what is becoming a customary early-but-not-terrible 6 am, and were skinning before 7 by headlamp.  We all had race skins, and made good time to the lake, despite a few stops to manage blisters.  At the lake, we were absolutely blasted with snow and wind, but we put our heads down and pushed across. As expected, the wind subsided at inlet, and we swapped trailbreaking leads into the clouds, and, eventually, to the top of North Bass peak, 5 hours into the day.  With 6" of overnight snow and a lot of wind, we kept avalanche exposure to a minimum, but still had a excellent rolling run down the rolling 1,500+ vertical foot east face of Bass peak.  

Nimble and light got us across the upper Bass creek crossing with skis on.
Still enjoying the new ski setup mounted up by LB snow. Photo: Andrew
In the larch high on Bass peak. Photo: Andrew
Powder skiing on Bass peak.
From the base of Bass, we climbed to the Bass/Kootenai saddle, then continued up the Groove tube, crossed one exposed slope, then continued out to Point 8,285. I have always skied the obvious north bowl, but with heightened/Considerable avalanche danger, we instead skied the 30 degree southeast bowl for over a thousand vertical. Another great run, and a new one for me.  We still had two big climbs ahead, so we transitioned quickly and Andrew busted a nice skin track up and through steep but sheltered terrain to point 8,145 just southeast of Smokey Joe. This was another new run for me, and the thousand plus feet of rolling powder skiing were every bit as good as I had hoped for.
Beta photo: North bowl of point 8,285.
We summited, then skied mellow powder off the back side.
The more "customary" run is to ski the visible bowl.
Top of the Spurge couloir drops lookers Rt from the saddle just in front of Jeffrey. Photo: Andrew
Good skiing off 8,285
Andrew skiing off 8,145
We took a longish lunch break of sorts before the last climb, then pushed up through the burn to Lappi point. We were all tired at the top, which is notable because it takes a pretty long day to tire this crew out. Although in retrospect we should have skied to Lappi lake and out, I forced a run down the skier's left edge of the main Lappi bowl then out via the "standard" steep tree sneak into the west Lappi bowl. We eventually hit breakable crust, but not before skiing almost 2,000 vertical feet of good powder.  The trail exit was fast as always, and we were back at the car well before dark.

Jeffrey above the burn, closing in on Lappi point.
Touchy slabs kept us on the ridge on the ski down to Lappi.
Really nice day out in the hills with a great crew.  Another possible best day of the year so far. For stats, a touch over 9k and out for a little over 10 hours.  If you are looking for a good long day in the hills, go do this tour.
Our route in orange.  Other (more standard) variations are shown in pink.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

February powder daze

Ski conditions have been top notch, so I made a little ski push prior to a two week Minnesota trip. If this is what El Nino looks like, I will take it. A quick summary.

Snowbowl dawn patrol powder  
I took a spin out to Point 6 on a dark and snowy Wednesday morning, and was shocked to find something like 16” of champagne powder.  I modified my work plans, staying out for a few more laps, working late, then returning for more the next day.  I was fun to get first tracks down the prime cuts of the Taint, Totality, (technically no the prime cut since I opted for the safe/non wind loaded entrance), and Jenny bowl.  The pre-dawn approach might have included a little 3 min x 6 V02 max interval workout, but it was forgettable compared to the absolutely flawless snow quality. 
Powder skiing is fun. It took about two turns with snow in my face
to at least temporarily recant my philosophical "powder is over rated" stance.
I returned a day later with Alan, Jeff, and Foote, who joined us at the top after an independent interval workout on skinny sticks.  With work commitments, we kept it to a single Jenny Bowl lap, but I think everyone was quite impressed with the quality of the skiing, and wished they could stay for more.  I sure was.  Also, the sun poked through the clouds right as we dropped off the top, casting a pink sunrise glow on the mountains.  Magic.
Sunrise on the last push to Point 6.
Thanks for the morning spin, guys!
Bridger Bowl Skin to Win Randonee race 
This year’s iteration of Skin to Win included 6” of powder, a notable absence of Ben Parsons and the Curry/Hoffman local posse, and Mike Foote skiing off course when there was no-one to direct him down the second run.  I used a slightly more aggressive strategy, scrapping the HR monitor, pushing the first climb a bit deeper past lactate threshold than in past races, and really sticking to the "if you don't feel like you are going to die, go harder" mantra for the remaining climbs.  I topped out on the first climb in 5th, and moved up to 3rd by the second climb, then took the lead after Mike got lost and 20-year Jackson skier Sawyer blew a skin.  

Notable other occurences included a heroic push by the resort to keep the race on schedule, even with all the new snow, very strong performances by the top two women, Janelle Smiley and local crusher-and-all-around-great-person Michela Adrian, and a strong fourth place finish by Andrew Mayer.
Skating to the finish. video: Mark Story - thanks Dad!

With all of the snow and ridiculously steep skin tracks, keeping skins intact was a nightmare, and I benefited mightily from freshly glued wall to wall nylon skins.  It was a good battle for the duration of the race. Sawyer and I were less than a minute apart for the duration of the race, and Mike caught us at the top of the last descent.  I skied very hard down the last run, and was able to hold them off for a bittersweet win (it should have been Mike’s day) at one of my favorite races anywhere. 

A note on training:  I spent about 8 weeks this fall strictly following a training plan developed my Mike Wolfe.  While all of the major pieces were similar to my normal approach, there were a few key differences.  Most importantly, I got in the gym for a very hard "hour of power" strength workout every week, which was focused on powerful full leg strengthening (heavy deadlifts/squats and plyos with weight) with a healty dose of core and upper body work as well.  These bruiser sessions would leave me wiped out for two days.  The plan also had two focused speed sessions (typically one lactate threshold, and one Vo2 max interval) per week, and one core/injury prevention/stabilization strength workout, both of which I was already doing. And, of course, a lot of time cruising around at a moderate/aerobic pace.  

In terms of translation to performance, the most important factor was injury reduction, as aside from some ongoing low calf issues, I did not have a muscle tweak all fall.  I have noticed a dramatic uptick in core strength and small but noticeable upticks on leg strength (no quad burning on any ski descent yet this year) and time to fatigue at high effort levels (small increase in lactate threshold pace, I think).  Although I am not able to throw down and duke it out with the lead racers, my race performances are a few minutes stronger than in past years.

Bridger range powder  
Andrew and I took an easy post-race spin in the playground near Ross Pass the day after the Bridger race. We skied three runs, enjoying the high quality settled powder skiing.  Although our pit and other skier's behavior suggested we might have been able to push it a little harder terrain-wise, it didn’t seem worth it, and we stuck to the standard sub-35 degree Playground terrain.  Good day.
Good old fashioned fun powder busting in the Bridgers.  Photo: Andrew Mayer.
Rando Radness  
Alan Adams has been spearheading a 6-week community race.  The format is simple, run laps of some kind on Sunrise bowl at Snowbowl for an hour.  The event is also focused on including non-racers, I am excited to see a range of skiers, from aerobic mutants on heavy gear, to every day skiers pushing it and perhaps picking up an idea or two about how to move more efficiently in the mountains.  If you ski uphill in Missoula, you should come out at least one night check it out.  Choose you poison since a good time can be had racing, just grinding a good workout in, or drinking beer and spectating/heckling!
Coach Wolfe and dark horse heavy metal crusher Andrew Mayer at the start of the week two rally.  photo: Jed Zilla
I took it easy the first night in anticipation of the Bridger race.  The second night, I gave it an honest race effort, battling it out with Mike Wolfe (I think he was going at a smarter lactate threshold pace, while I was pinning it to the max), but never reaching out to catch Alan.  I also took a fall on the first run and sprained my ankle.  In a stroke of questionable intelligence, I kept at it for three more laps, exacerbating the sprain.  The first day post-sprain was pretty brutal, but a trip to the hospital did not find any broken bones or torn ligaments, and I am already at the tail end of the 48-hour icing phase, psyching up to be smart about letting the tendons and ligaments (digitorum longus and extensors over the top of foot, and posterior tibial tendon in back inside of ankle) heal before returning to activity. It has been about 24 months since my last formal "injury".  Here's to an even longer injury free streak after turning this one around.
Icy cankle on the mend.  Sorry about the exceptionally ugly toenails.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Trapper peak and Oh my god chute

Alpine.  Accessible.  Striking.  The Trapper cirque is a special place.  After bailing on the Oh my god chute the previous weekend due to uncertain wind slabs, I returned a week later with Kyle to ski the chute if conditions allowed, and continue up into the Trapper cirque and ski whatever looked good.
Kyle climbing to the highest point in the Bitterroot.
This is a big snow year at low elevations, and we parked on the highway.  By cutting switchbacks and sticking to the skin track from last week, the 9 mile road approach to the Baker lake trailhead clicked by in under two hours, and we were on top of Oh my god well under three.  The forecast was for clouds in the morning, but we the weather gods had another idea, granting us blue skies all day.  There were no stability red flags at the top, but I still played is safe, sidestepping in with an ice axe in hand, and stomping all around the starting zone.  It was solid, and we were soon on our way down the chute.  The chute was excellent – a worthy Bitterroot objective for sure.  We skied a few hundred vertical feet below the terminus of the chute and transitioned, preparing for a long push up to the Trapper/North Trapper cirque. 
Kyle at the to of Oh my God.  We entered from the exposed ramp on looker's left.
Slicing and dicing shallow powder about half way down.
Looking 2,000 vertical feet back up Oh my god.
The climb into the Trapper cirque was delightful.  With towering granite walls and larch which bear a vague resemblance to Whitebark pine, I found it reminiscent of the lower portion of Garnet Canyon in the Tetons.  Once in the cirque, we took a few longing glances at North Trapper, but opted out of giving it a go due to marginal coverage and a little more hanging ice and snow than we liked.  So it was on to Trapper, which we climbed via the North couloir. There were some fresh wind slabs up to a foot deep in the couloir, but to our delight, the slabs were never deep and isolated in tandem, so we were able to manage it with confidence.  With almost 8,000 vertical feet in our legs, I think we were both dragging a little on the final push to the summit, but a big lunch break on top had us both back in the game, ready for more skiing.  It is pretty cool standing on top of Trapper in the middle of the winter.  We skied the North couloir, which was great, and continued down to the Gem lake connecting couloir.  Stability was adequate for ascending, so up we went.  Kyle was pretty excited about having a look at the Gem lake couloir, and I was game as long as we could drop in from the top (not excited to climb from the bottom due to possible ridgeline slabs), so we bopped down to Gem lake and fueled up for the last climb of the day.  The climb to the top via the Gem Lake/Trapper ascent ramp was quick and surprisingly easy.
Kyle climbing into the Trapper cirque.
All cued up for the Trapper North couloir.
Kyle at the bottom of the couloir.  Great run.
From the top, it took about two seconds of inspection to determine the entrance was a no-go.  The skier’s right sneak is bisected by the cliff wall (this fills in later in the year), and there was no getting around the cornice.  Ah well, we had still put a big, fun tour together, and the ensuing run down ramps above Baker lake was quite enjoyable.  The shuss out was fast and easy, with good snow all the way back to the car.
Gem lake couloir and ramp from the top of the connector couloir.
Our run is out of sight to the left.
It is customary to ski Trapper in the spring when the road melts out, but strong parties should consider checking it out in winter.  In addition to longer variations, I still contend a Trapper tour via the normal summer trail is one of the best easy ski mountaineering outings in the range.  Also, there is no reason not to tack Oh my god onto a normal early spring Trapper tour.  Also, John Lehrman and Don Lange made the first known descent of the Oh my god.  It was done in a pre-texting era, and I will be disappointed if anyone ever calls it the OMG chute.

It is always a blast being out in mountains with Kyle.  In addition to having a nice laid back approach, our avy assessments align well, we share a love of moving around the mountains piecing fun tours together, and he is a trail breaking beast. For stats, right around 10K vert and done in about 9.5 hours car to car.  This was the best ski day yet this year so far. Good stuff.