Monday, March 15, 2010

Wasatch Powder Keg

Ondrej dropped me off at Mike and Laura's place around 5:30pm on Friday after our ski day up at Alta, and after a quick shower Mike and I headed out to attend the pre-race meeting which started at 6:30pm. We arrived in time to pick up our race numbers and goody bags, and found our way to some empty seats. The meeting consisted mainly of the organizers going over the course in a power point presentation, and then answering some questions afterward.

The race seemed really well organized, and they had some sensible rules like requiring everyone to wear helmets (imagine that, mandatory helmets in Utah!) for the duration of the event. The other mandatory pieces of equipment were a shovel, probe, transceiver, and jacket. That last item seemed like a strange one to have to enforce, I couldn't imagine people wanting to head out into the backcountry with no jacket. On the note of personal responsibility, the the organizers also mentioned that in past years people had been caught ditching the batteries from their transceivers out on course in an effort to save weight (!?!). As in the Vertfest race that I had done the week before, there were two divisions, Race and Recreational, and Mike and I had obviously registered for the Race division. The race course was about 15 km in length, with 5 separate climbs totaling 5000 feet of elevation gain and loss. There was one booter which gained 600 vertical feet, considerably longer than the ones last week in Vertfest. Below is the course profile.

This course was longer than the one from Vertfest, but a bigger difference was that there were more transitions, so you could gain time by being fast and efficient with skin removal and installation. The meeting finished around 7:30pm, and Mike and I hightailed it home where Laura and her sister Heather had been cooking a delicious dinner. We spent some time laying out our gear for the next day, then watched the movie “Julie and Julia” while eating dinner. I ducked out a bit early to go to bed, as I had a bit of a headache which may have resulted from my overenthusiastic acclimatization efforts up at Alta earlier in the day.

Another difference between this race and Vertfest was that unlike Vertfest with its civilized 10:00am start, this one was started at the ridiculously early time of 7:00am. I guess this was because we could be skinning up a bunch of the groomed ski runs, but it made for a pretty early morning. The alarm went off at 5:00am, and Mike and I dragged ourselves out of bed and grabbed some breakfast and cowboy juice before rolling out the door at 5:30am.

We made it up to Brighton Ski Resort (at the head of Big Cottonwood Canyon) where the race was taking place by 6:15am, and after sorting our gear at the car we managed to hop on a shuttle from our parking lot to the Lodge where the race was starting.

We went through the transceiver and equipment checks, and then relaxed in the lodge as competitors milled about making last minute gear checks and clothing adjustments. At around 6:45am I headed outside and did a half-hearted warm-up while the organizers made a few last minute announcements. By this time it was pretty bright out, and it looked like a nice day with blue skies and a few wispy clouds. There was a winter storm warning for later in the day, so the organizers (and the participants!) were hoping that it would hold off until after the racers were off the course.

We lined up in the first group with the other Race division participants, and at exactly 7:00am the gun fired and we were off! Having done Vertfest the week before, this time I wasn't surprised as people sprinted like mad off of the starting line, I went as fast as I could but didn't go too crazy since I remembered how I felt at the end of Vertfest and I knew that this race was longer and taking place at 10,000 feet.
The course stayed flat for a while as we traversed the base of Brighton to the east side of the resort, and we then began trucking up a groomer towards the top of the Western Express lift. The climbing was technically way easier than at Vertfest, as there was no ice and the terrain we were climbing was not as steep. Eventually we went off the groomer into some deeper snow, but the organizers had gone so far as to set double tracks on the parts of the course that were off piste, which was very kind of them. After reaching the top of this first climb we removed our skins to prepare for the first descent, and by observing the people around me I clued in to the fact that it was faster to just stuff your skins into your jacket, that way you could keep both your backpack and skis on and save some time. After doing this I started the descent which headed out of bounds into the backcountry. It was really steep and on really nice snow, and would have been a lot of fun if I hadn't been tired from the ascent. I made it down in one piece, then donned my skins for the next ascent.
The next climb switchbacked up through some trees, with steeper terrain than the first climb but not nearly as long so I didn't feel too bad upon reaching the top. At both Vertfest and this race the second climb felt way better than the first, maybe because I wasn't starting it in such a frantic mindset with people sprinting by me on both sides and I was able to settle into a better rhythm. After removing my skins at the top of this climb I headed down the second descent, which was a pretty easy groomed cat track that allowed my legs to recover a bit. After re-applying my skins I began the third ascent, which was a rising traverse along the top of the resort, and not as steep as the previous climb. This ascent was also on the shorter side, and after reaching the top I ripped off my skins and headed down along the ridge.
The course was well marked with bamboo poles and red tape for the descents, and green tape for the ascents. After dropping along the ridge for a few hundred feet I was still following a lot of tracks, but I knew something was wrong as I was no longer seeing any bamboo poles with red tape. I came to a notch in the ridge where I saw some green tape markers, and at this point I realized that I had missed a turn on the descent and cut off part of the course. There were check points at the top and bottom of each ascent, so I knew I had to ski back to the correct descent in order to be recorded at the check point. Luckily I was able to follow the green tape down in the reverse direction of the ascent and connect back into the descent that I should have taken. The slope on this part of the course had a southern aspect, so there was a thick icy crust on top of the snow that made the skiing a little sketchy, but luckily I made it down in one piece and passed the check point before installing my skins and heading back up the fourth ascent that I had just come down in reverse. Here is a shot of me skiing a descent, it is actually from Vertfest the week before (I found it on the internet, thanks to the anonymous photographer) but it is valid since I was earing the same clothes and it hadn't started snowing by this point.

The next climb wasn't too bad, though I was definitely starting to feel it in my legs by this point, and upon reaching the top I headed down the fourth descent which followed a black mogul run before emptying out onto a green groomer that took us right back to the base of the resort. The moguls were pretty difficult and my legs would start burning after every few “turns”, but after making it onto the groomer I was able to recover a bit before reaching the eighth checkpoint at the bottom. As I began re-applying my skins I noticed that it was 9:00am, exactly two hours after I had started. I had been drinking pretty regularly (in part to prevent the hose on my camelbak from freezing as it was below freezing and pretty windy) but hadn't eaten anything yet so I opened up a Luna bar to eat as I began the ascent. By this time the storm had started to move in, and it was overcast and snowing lightly. As I headed out from the checkpoint, the news crackled over a volunteer's radio that the first-placed racer was just finishing (!?!). Man that is fast! I still had 1800 feet of climbing staring me in the face (including the 600 foot booter) and some little monkey was getting ready to kick his feet up in the lodge and start downing frosty pints!
I resigned myself to the fact that I would not, afterall, be catching the leaders and winning the race, and I began heading up the climb. This fifth and final climb was a long ascent to the top of the Milly chair (so named because it was on Mount Millicent), and had the most technical skinning terrain yet as we headed up some steep moguls that had a few icy sections. It was still nothing close to what we had gone up in Vertfest, so I made steady progress and finally arrived at the top of the Milly chair. This was where the booter started, so I removed my skis and put them on my pack (they had a rule making it mandatory to do this, so I finally got to use my new pack for it's intended purpose!) and started chugging up the boot track. Despite being super tired and having my legs almost cramp on each step, this was the most fun part of the race for me as it was pretty cool to be ascending through the mist to the top of a real peak (Mount Millicent tops out at 10,452 feet with a nice distinct summit, shown in the photo below).

The whole way up the booter I was hot on the tail of a woman in a hot pink skin suit, she and I had been trading places throughout the race as she would typically pass me on the descents and I would pass her back on the ascents. Miss Piggy and I both removed our skins at the summit of Mount Millicent, and then she quickly disappeared ahead on the descent. After a short dropping traverse I came to what was the hardest part of the course for me: there was a short rise that we had to surmount, and the organizers had made a rule that you could either skin up it or side step with your skis on, but not boot pack up it. It was too short to make putting skins on worthwhile, so I (like everyone else that I saw) elected to side step. This was so stinkin' hard, as even when I am fresh I find side stepping difficult and awkward, and now I was feeling as tired as I ever have been in my life. The organizers had specifically said that you were not allowed to boot up it, which I think is a bit goofy since you should be able to cover the terrain in the fastest way possible, and it seems a bit artificial to force people into awkward side stepping then it would be faster to just run (or in my case, trudge) up it.
It took everything I had left to shuffle up sideways, and the entire time I felt like I just wanted to collapse onto the ground. After reaching the top I was faced with the descent of my first ever chute, a steep (at least to me) shot with rocks on both sides that forced you to make frequent turns to avoid ramming into the rocks. Shown below is a photo looking down the chute that I found on the internet.

I somehow survived the chute, and then at the bottom I was faced with some pretty deep powder as the descent continued. I found it hard make turns in the deep snow in my incapacitated state, and after building up too much speed I stacked it head first into the powder while trying to force a turn. After digging myself out I realized that one ski had released during my crash, and it was buried somewhere uphill in the soft snow. I had my first real “Oh stinker!” moment of the race, as I thought about how much it would suck if I couldn't find my ski, but luckily after swimming uphill for about 15 feet I managed to reconnect with my wayward ski and after some more awkward thrashing I was finally locked back in and ready to continue my downhill odyssey. I was more cautious after this incident, as I realized that the time I would lose in searching for my ski again in the deep powder would greatly outweigh the time I would lose by taking short breaks after every few turns.
I finally emerged from that section and skied through the last checkpoint and down a short slope onto the surface of Lost Lake (which was frozen, luckily enough!). We had to ski across the lake and then again up a short rise at the end and back into the in-bounds terrain at Brighton for a final downhill run to the finish. Most people elected to forgo skins for this section also, either double-poling or skating across the lake and then side stepping up the final rise. I was so completely exhausted from the last side-step section (and the 5000 feet of ascent/descent that had preceded it) that I decided it would be better to use my skins to get across the lake, because even if I lost a bit of time putting them on and off, I would use way less energy and in my current depraved state it didn't even feel possible to do it without skins. I stopped to apply my skins and then continued across, and I don't think I lost much time since on the ascent after the lake I repassed the side-steppers who had passed me on the lake while I was installing my skins.
I then headed down the final descent which unfortunately was a mogul run, and I had to take a short break after every few turns just in order to stay upright. I finally breathed a huge sigh of relief as I recognized the end of the run (I have skied at Brighton a few times before and vaguely remembered the run that I was on), and skied down final slope to the finish line. OH MAN! I was so happy to be done, I think that this was the most physically exhausted I have ever been in my life, I felt like the cross country skiers at the Olympics who collapse in a heap after they cross the finish line. I gratefully collected my meal ticket, and lined up to redeem it for a burger, beer and chips before heading into the lodge. My finishing time was 3:26 which I was pretty happy with, that put me in 25th place out of 32 participants in the Men's Alpine Touring Race Division. I might have been a little faster without the wrong turn and losing my ski, but hey, that's racin'! I don't think Black Diamond is going to sign me on for a sponsorship deal anytime soon, but it wasn't too bad for a first effort from a sea-level dwelling Seattleite who can't ski downhill.
I happily enjoyed my burger in the lodge while chatting with some ladies from Colorado who had flown out for the race, and before long Mike came rolling in with a time of 4:17, pretty respectable for the 185cm Tele skis that he had been lugging up and down on the race course. I felt so completely shattered on the descents that I couldn't have even imagined trying to make tele turns on those moguls. We hung around for the awards presentation, where the victor (who had indeed finished in under 2 hours!!!) was presented with a new set of powder skis. Though they did have a split board category, the participants were predominately skiers, and when it came time to give the prize for the winner of the splitboard category, someone in the audience yelled “Give him a set of skis!”, funny!

Mike won a new pair of googles in the raffle following the awards, and after collecting his prize we walked back to the car and took a victory photo before heading down the canyon to Salt Lake City where we would spend the afternoon sleeping before heading out for a delicious dinner of yam fries at the Bayou. All in all it was great race, very well run, and I am definitely planning on doing it again next year. I also have a commitment from the rare spotted newt that she will race the Rec division next year, so stay tuned!


  1. Great trip report Cam! Sounds like you can only get that kind of exhaustion on the mountain...

  2. Max, tu sei un animale!! Molto bene!