Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Washington begins

We are finally getting consistent snow in the Cascades and it feels great. Although stability in the backcountry has not been great, what with freeze/thaw cycles creating buried surface hoar, and high winds causing leeward slopes to slab up. So instead I have been sampling the finest Crystal and Alpy have to offer, heading to Crystal last Saturday and Monday and skiing Alpental on Christmas day. As evidenced below, the snow was deep and light all day.

Crystal's new Northway lift lays bare all the best kept secrets of Crystal's North Backcountry. This probably bums some people out. But since I was never as familiar as some with the best of these secrets I am happy about the new lift. Resort side-country was never quite as sacred to me as it seems to be to others so the fact that more of Crystal's terrain is open to the masses doesn't really hurt my feelings to much. It's easy to get your fill of "pure" backcountry on the other side of the road.

But let's talk about the snow: it's light, really light. And as long as you can stay out of the wind hammered stuff and ski runs like a lusciously untracked and deep Shot Six that we encountered at Alpental today, it is nothing but the good. A few inbound slides under Breakover today were a little disconcerting but they were mainly loose and did not seem to slow anyone down too much. (Although I have been more and more getting into the habit of skiing with a beacon even at the resort.)

I am heading up to Baker for NYE then to Alaska the next weekend. Hopefully the recent touchy snow will relax enough for us to get into the backcountry a little. And if not, I still have 6 days on my Summit pass until I am skiing for free! Happy Holidays all.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Dumping at the Pass....

We were planning on heading up to Stevens today to tour around the area prior to opening and get some fresh turns. But when the weather conditions at the Summit this morning were listed as "Blizzard", well, who can pass that up? A few pre-opening turns at Alpental would be just what the doctor ordered to start up the season right.

Expecting a massive blockade at the mandatory chain-up checkpoint at mile 34, we were pleasantly surprised to squeek through with minimal delay. So far so good. By the time we approached the Summit, it was SNOWING LIKE CRAZY. I mean, serious blower all over the place. And the temp was holding at 23 degrees. Ok, great, looking good. We took a quick left at the I-90 exit and bee lined it for Alpy.

The road was plowed for about 15 feet and then gave way to maddness. The snow on the road was at least a foot deep and getting deeper fast. Luckily (or maybe unluckily) our Subaru is used to the deep stuff and we powered up to the lower lot. Then it dawned on us as we noticed other cars bogged down in the fluffy goodness that if we skiied Alpental, with no plow in sight, we may be sleeping at Alpental.

So we flipped it and powered back down the road only to run smack into a crowd of folks in lesser cars who had the same great idea to ski at Alpental we had 10 minutes ago. Only they were stuck. And blocking the road. After 20 minutes of pushing, swearing, and a few handshakes, we got back to the main road and headed to Summit Central where, although the terrain was tamer, we knew that at least our car wouldn't be buried while we were skiing.
One note on the mellow terrain: the avalanche conditions today were unstable to say the least. Checking the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center website this morning revealed that the instabilities inherent in our snowpack already this season would be exacerbated by the 13 plus inches expected in all the Washington passes on Sunday. Bottom line from NWAC was "Back country travel near avalanche terrain is not recommended on Sunday."

So we weren't exactly looking for the gnarliest, steepest lines when we pulled into Summit Central. We were just looking to break in the gear and get a few turns. Skinning up, the snow was deep, really deep. But strange. There was a crust near the ground and then about 15-20 inches of unconsolidated fluff on top of that. I had heard reports earlier in the week of foot to two foot fractures and this looked like exactly the kind of thing to do it. So the key was to stay off the steep stuff (i.e. anything 38 degrees or higher).

Easier said than done. Although the snow was wonderfully deep and light, it was also, well, too deep. You literally could not ski downhill. Most folks, after a few frustrating turns, would flop like landed salmon back to the skin track and ski down that. This made skinning up exciting.
So here's the predicament. There is tons of snow. The avalanche conditions require staying on "green light", i.e. mellow, terrain. And you cannot move if the terrain isn't sufficiently steep. The smart thing to do is call it a good recon day and ski down the skin track to the car. Which is what we did. Until I saw a short steep section that just looked "too good to pass up" (those scare quotes are there so you are sure to see where I started to act stupid). I hit the slope, it cracked across the top, sluffed around me, and almost buried me and my dog. Because the snow was so unconsolidated, we were both able to get out unscathed but if the slab had had any time to set up, I am not sure I would be so lucky. So this is a "do as I say, not as I do" post this week. Don't do stupid stuff like the above and I won't either.

It's pounding out there right now. Barring any damage done by this Pineapple Express forecasted for Monday, things could be looking great for next weekend. But don't forget to check in with yourself, your partners and the avalanche forecast if you are heading into the backcountry. Make every trip a round trip.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

A New Season

It's that time of year again - the season pass dilemma. In this area, the best deal going has always been the Snoqualmie (read Alpental) pass - when I was an undergrad it was something like $199 unlimited. These days, without the undergrad schedule, and with backcountry taking up my weekend skiing, I have been opting for the mid-week pass. It costs under 300 bucks and it gets me up a few nights a week to tool around on the bottom half of Alpental.

This year, the Summit went for a strange amalgam of pass options that I am not even going to pretend to understand - instead of a mid-week pass, there is a nights only pass that works on Saturdays too but it basically means that for the entire season, you will never ski the top of Alpental (I like to pretend that once in awhile I will skip work and ski mid-week at Alpy, never happens but I like to pretend). Basically, kind of a bummer. So I went for the unlimited. I figured it was extra money but I could always ski a full day of backcountry on Saturday or Sunday and the other day jet up to Alpy for a few laps in the morning.

Then something magical happened (seriously, it was kind of magical). Boine USA Resorts (owner of Crystal Mountain) bought the Summit. All of the sudden, there were whispers of a synergy between the two mountains, a duel pass? deep discounts? Well yes, kind of. The Summit offered the Big S PLUS pass - unlimited at the Summit plus 5 days at Crystal over the season for $130. Considering Crystal's day pass price went up to $58 this year, a pretty good deal. Then it got better - as an extra "reward" for those who bought their Big S passes early, the Summit lowered the Crystal upgrade to $80. Awesome. Done and done.

The Summit has always done skiers right. A few years ago, when most ski areas in the Western Cascades only managed to open for a few weeks, most folks lost a ton buying their season passes early (i.e. those who bought Stevens and Crystal passes). But the Summit, like water to wine, said "Boom, just use your pass next year." It was some of the best PR they could do and put a silver lining on an otherwise bummer season.

The $80 Crystal upgrade was not quite in the same league but just shows why, despite lots to complain about, the Summit remains a skiers mountain (and I might even ski there on the weekend this year).

Saturday, May 19, 2007

North Cascades = OPEN

The rumors were flying that as Alpental closed and Steven's manked up, the goods were just being revealed up north. So last Saturday we got up slightly better than work-early and headed up to Washington Pass in the North Cascades to get see what Ullr had been sending to those northern giants all winter.

Apparently what Ullr had been up to all winter was planting rows of corn because we spent all day harvesting under blue bird skies and in our t-shirts.

It was HOT. I am used to stripping down to a t-shirt on the way up a climb, especially the steep booters around Liberty Bell and Early Winters. But this was one of the rare instances where when you finally get to a col, and top out, with the wind whipping, you could still sit and eat your lunch in a t-shirt.

Hopefully there will be goods up NC way for another month or so - then it's back south to the flanks of Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier, and if all else fails Timberline (shudder).

Turns all year, baby, turns all year.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Last day at Alpental

I have been laid up with a three week cough that has turned into black lung death after a three-hour run last Sunday over South and Middle Tiger. I was feeling pretty ok on the run (no equivocating there!) but by that night, my compromised immune system gave up the ghost in the steely hands of the black lung death and skipped five days of running. So that sucked, but the health is returning and Nick and I went up to Alpental today for the last runs of the season. It was mash potatos on the bottom, frozen mashers on top so we lapped the bottom, jibbed some trees, hit a few kickers and called it good at one. Not too shabby for the season - up to 26 days and 7 on the pass, i.e. it paid for itself. And NORTH CASCADES IS OPEN - which means next weekend = Washington Pass. Stay tuned.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

April Fools - Chair Peak

Andrea, Jen, and I (and Emerson of course) headed up to Chair Peak today to attempt the traverse of the North Face, finishing with a ski across Snow Lake.

On the way up, light snow was falling on a crust that has been sitting in the Cascades for the past week or so. It was strange snow. At about 4000', I stuck a pole deep into it as is my habit on the skin up to get a sense of what kind of layers are beneath me. After punching through the surface crust, which was hard enough to support my weight, there were a few softer layers and through all, a mushy consolidated glob. It was as if the crust developed over a sunny afternoon corn and sealed the freshness in. I don't know what this kind of snowpack is capable of but there was no sign of recent slides and we traversed steep slopes with no trouble.

At the point where the tour becomes a steep bootpack through a narrow notch to gain the north face of Chair Peak, a fog had rolled in, making it difficult to navigate. As none of us had done the tour before, and ski to Snow Lake involves negotiating steep terrain littered with cliffs (i.e. you gotta know where to go), we saved the rest of the tour for a sunny day and skied down to Snow Lake via a more direct, and visible, route. Although the crust was hard, the 2-3 inches of graupel covering it made for a pleasant ski, as long as the crust was smooth. Not bad for April 1, and the snow shows no sign of letting up up there. Many days of spring skiing are in our future!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Looking to Spring (but the skiing won't stop!).

Ok, so it's been over two months since the last post. Call it negligent blogging but the truth is, we have been working. Of course, we were always working but now we are, like, really working. So if the choice is between getting out into the hills and working, or blogging about working, we skipped the blogging. Naturally.Although February served us up an early helping of crapola, it got progressively better and we had some great days. Andrea took a two day clinic at Crystal, and when the sun came out and corned up, I hit my head over and over at the massive powder boards on my feet. (Wishful thinking I guess.) Of course, we hit Heather Ridge again, this time with Jen and Nick, and had some of the deepest snow he have seen there. And in the beginning of March we headed up to Anchorage to ski the Chugach, hitting good old Tincan Ridge for some of the deepest, I swear to God, I realize I am prone to hyperbole but this was, deepest snow I have ever skiied. It was so deep, you had to keep your tips all the way up on anything under 35 degrees or your skiis would just sink. Oh, and it was a blue bird day. And of couse, we skiied Peak 3 - kick your ass, ride you hard and put you away wet Peak 3. It didn't disappoint - i.e. it was super hard going up and basically sucked going down. But it was also fifteen minutes from Chester's house. And time heals all wounds - the picture below is looking pretty good to these eyes that haven't seen snow in three weeks. And spring is coming, which means new alpine routes graced with hard skinning in the morning and ethereal corn in the afternoons. And sun splashed peaks can feel as good as powder after a winter in the dark. So I am looking forward to spring in the Cascades - the snow will be around for awhile longer and I will get my 30 days this season (that means a full MONTH of skiing). It will happen. Andrea might even do it too. And when the snow finally lets up, there are trails to run. Indeed, the training has already started. (Did someone say Crow Pass?) So my pledge to all three or four of you who are still looking at this site is that I am going to deliver the adventures! If not for you, for me - for Emerson. For whatever, it's going to happen.
By the way, I posted a link to our Flickr site where there are many more pictures from all of our outings. Look right!