Monday, April 26, 2010

Spearhead Traverse

I am happy to report that this past weekend I ticked off my 2009-2010 ski objective, the Spearhead Traverse. This is a back country ski tour up in Whistler, it starts at the top of Blackcomb on the Blackcomb Glacier and then travels out and traverses a number of mountains and glaciers in the shape of a horseshoe, ending on Whistler Mountain. The stats are (as we did it anyways): 38 km in length, with numerous ups and downs totaling 8800 feet of cumulative elevation gain. One of the great things about the traverse is the convenient access: to start you can ride the lifts up to the top of Blackcomb, and for the finish you can ski the groomers back down to the base of Whistler (or alternatively you can ski out the dreaded Singing Pass). Due to its length and strenuous nature the traverse is typically done as 2-3 day trip, so we were obviously planning on doing it in one day.

To complete the traverse I had assembled a crack team of high mountain specialists: my brother Fras, Johnny “the savage” Markez (who I had climbed/skied Baker with the previous weekend), Martin, and myself. We had been planning on doing the traverse for each of the past two weekends prior to this one, but each time we had called it off due to high avalanche danger or inclement weather conditions. We checked the weather forecast on Saturday morning and it looked like there might be a break in the rain/snow/fog on Sunday with good avalanche conditions, so I hurriedly loaded up my ski gear and took off heading north for the motherland.

I had crossed the border and was nearing the wolf den (Fras and Car's condo) when I received a call on my cell from Fras: the weather forecast for Sunday had changed and was now calling for an 80% chance of rain. Stinker! After arriving at Fras's place we talked it over and decided to give it a shot anyways, since this was likely the last weekend this year we would try it due to melting snow and interests shifting from skiing over to climbing and cycling. We headed to MEC to rent Fras some AT gear, and while there we bumped into Markez who characteristically was still up for giving it a shot. Martin decided not to join us, he had been turned back previously while attempting the traverse and this had damped his motivation for trying it in less-than-ideal conditions.

The next morning we woke up just after 5:00am, ate some breakfast and loaded up our stuff, and were out the door by 6:00am. We had arranged to meet Markez up in Whistler at 8:00am in order to be sorted out and on the first lift by 8:30am, but there had been a miscommunication that meant John had to rent some avy gear from a local shop that didn't open until 8:00am, so by the time we had registered and bought our backcountry passes ($40 for one ride up the lifts, a little expensive but it sure is easier than skinning up 4000 feet of groomers!) we were about 30 minutes behind schedule. Here is a shot of the 3 musketeers enjoying our easy elevation gain in the Blackcomb gondola:


We ran into another snag near the top where the Showcase T-bar was not running, so we had to take a different T-bar and do a sketchy traverse to gain our starting point at the col between Blackcomb Peak and the Spearhead, looking out over the Decker Glacier. Here is a shot of Fras and Markez getting their gear sorted before we head off down the glacier!


There was one other party also getting ready to set off the glacier, but they were just looking to lap some north facing slopes. Shown below is a map of the route that we took as recorded by my GPS, in case you want to look at the map and follow along with our progress as described in my narrative (click on the image to enlarge it). We started on the upper part of the horseshoe, and the GPS track starts when we exited the final T-bar and ends at the bottom of Whistler.


After a few minutes of orienting ourselves using my GPS and Markezzy's map and compass, we headed down from the col and onto the Decker Glacier. We traversed to the base of Decker Mountain, at which point we donned our skins and headed up and over the shoulder of this peak and then down the other side onto the Trorey Glacier. From here we traversed around the north side of Mount Trorey, and then did a gradual climb up to a shoulder on the south side of Mount Pattison. There had been some other skiers in the area, some of whom might have been heli skiing since there were a few helicopters buzzing around. One of the groups ahead of us had left a skin track that switch-backed up the climb, but we eschewed their pre-set switchbacks and headed straight up, skewering their switchbacks with our direttissima line, with our tracks acting as the backcountry skier's equivalent of leaving someone a post-it note telling them they need to shape up. From Mount Pattison we again removed the skins and descended into a bowl below Mount Tremor, than began a long climb to the col between Mount Tremor and Mount Shudder (scary!). Here is a shot looking back at Fras, with Mount Pattison in the background:


And here is one looking forward at Markez as he treks along the Tremor Glacier towards Mount Shudder with Mount Tremor out of sight above and to the right:


We finally reached the col, and peaked over the top to views of, guess what, more awesome mountains to ski through!


From the Tremor-Shudder col we skied down onto the Platform Glacier, and took our first "sit break" where we ate some food and re-applied sunscreen. We then headed up again to the base of Quiver Peak, from where we did a short descent and then a long traverse along the top of the Ripsaw Glacier:


After this traverse we came around a ridge and onto the Naden Glacier, which took us beneath Mount Macbeth and up onto Couloir Ridge. Here is a shot of Fras coming along the Naden Glacier with Mount Macbeth in the background:


From here we had a nice ski down the Macbeth Glacier, followed by some exciting skinning and bootpacking along a narrow ridge to gain the base of the Iago Glacier (we were now in the Shakespeare-themed part of the range). We then did a long ascent of the Iago Glacier to the shoulder of Mount Iago, followed by a steep ski descent onto the Diavolo Glacier. Here is a shot of Fras coming along the Diavolo Glacier:


Our next task was to climb up Mount Benvolio, and we paused at the base and soaked in the great views of spectacular mountain scenery. One of the most impressive was Cheakamus Mountain, here is a shot of me munching on my last peanut butter-nutella bagel with said mountain in the background:


Here is a shot of Fraso basking in the sun with Mount Fitzsimmons in the background:


After our food break we once again applied our skins (we were getting pretty fast at our transitions by this point) and began the long ascent of Mount Benvolio, with Markezzy leading the charge. Near the top of the ascent we were faced with a choice of going around Mount Benvolio to the north or passing through the col between Mount Benvolio and Mount Fitzsimmons, we chose the latter which turned out to be a good choice. Emerging from the col we skied onto the Benvolio Glacier and had great views of Overlord Mountain, which we bypassed on the north side. Here is a shot of Markez coming around Mount Benvolio, heading towards Overlord Mountain.

By this point it was almost 6:00pm, so while we were enjoying the spectacular lighting from the setting sun, we also realized that we would likely be finishing in the dark. Here is a shot of Markez looking back at Fras as we skied around the north side of Overlord Mountain:

By this point we had rounded the bottom of the horseshoe and were on the homeward bound side of the route, and it was pretty cool to look across and see our ski tracks on the other side of the range. Here is a shot looking across to the mountains we had already covered, notice that our shadows are getting long in the evening light:

From Mount Overlord we faced a descent down north facing slopes in really nice snow, which made for some of the best turns on the trip. Here is a shot looking out across the bowl we would be descending into, you can see Blacktusk on the horizon and Fissile Peak is the large mountain in shadow on the right.

After enjoying the amazing turns in fresh powder we traversed the Overlord Glacier towards Fissile Peak. Here is a shot of Fras making his way along the skin track with Markez in the background adjusting his gear and Overlord Mountain on the top right:

At this point we were faced with another choice, between ascending to the Fissile-Whirlwind col and then descending to Russet Lake, or descending first to bypass Fissile Peak on the north side and then ascending back up to Russet Lake. We chose the former, since it looked like a nicer route (and the preset skin track didn't hurt either). From the Fissile-Whirlwind col we had a nice descent with some good turns in more north-facing powder, following my a long and gradual descent to Russet Lake. We covered a lot of ground fast on this section which was good, because the sun was now rapidly dropping toward the horizon. At Russet Lake we re-applied our skins and then climbed up and over Cowboy Ridge before dropping into Singing Pass. Here we were faced with another choice: one option was to decide we were done with climbing and follow Singing Pass all the way out to the base of Whistler, and the second was to do two more climbs (up Oboe and Flute, two of the Musical Bumps) to enter the inbounds of Whistler and then ski down groomers to the base. Since we were all Singing Pass Accredited (having done it earlier in the winter on a tour of Musical Bumps), we all voted for the latter, wholeheartedly embracing the extra climbing as a way of avoiding the gauntlet of ups and downs on a narrow trail that is Singing Pass.

We donned our skins once again at the base of Oboe, and began the penultimate ascent of our journey. As we reached the top the sun was just setting, here is a shot of Fras getting ready to head down from Oboe with the sunset in the background:

From Oboe we made a short descent and then began the final ascent of Flute before entering the inbounds ski area, with each of us in turn “ringing the bell” by whacking our ski poles on the metal posts that mark the edge of the resort. Great success! Now we just had to make it down to the base of Whistler and we were home free. The moon was rising as we removed our skins and began our descent, here is a shot looking back along our route with the moon coming up over the horizon:

Darkness continued to fall as we headed down Whistler, Fras and I were both skiing super slow at this point since we were really tired and our lack of downhill skiing ability was accentuated by our fatigue. The skiing was a bit tough since the snow had softened during the day but by this time had refrozen into a crusty uneven surface, but as we continued to lose elevation it softened up until we were skiing in dirty slush at the base. We broke out the headlamps partway down once it was quite dark and it became clear that we were skiing through a mogul field (I can't even ski moguls during the day when I am fresh, forget about skiing them in darkness at the tail end of a 40km ski traverse!). We finally reached the base at 9:30pm, clocking in at 11 hours and 45 minutes from the top of Blackcomb to the base of Whistler. By this point we were really thirsty since we had all run out of water about 2 hours ago and had been snacking on snow to try and quench our thirst, which doesn't work that well. We were also pretty hungry, since it is hard to eat when your mouth is dry.

After a rousing cheer we headed into an Irish Pub and immediately slammed two full pitchers of water before attacking some artichoke dip, a vegetable platter, and french fries. Delicious! It felt pretty good to take our ski boots off after such a long day, and we relaxed and reminisced until about 10:30pm when we decided to call it a day and head back to Vancouver.

The totals for the day (as recorded by my GPS track) ended up being 38.7 km in length, with 8800 vertical feet of cumulative ascending. Below is a plot of the elevation profile, starting from the top of Blackcomb:There were 12 separate ascents, so by the end we were getting pretty good at taking our skins on and off. We had also crossed 13 different glaciers, counting the Horstman and Blackcomb Glaciers that we had crossed at the top of Blackcomb before leaving the resort. Here is a google maps satellite photo of our route, the imagery is from later in the year when most of the snow has melted so you can clearly see the ring of mountains and glaciers that our route traversed:

What an awesome day! I highly recommend this tour to anyone who is looking for a big day out in spectacular mountains. This was definitely my skiing highlight of the year, and I was super happy to finally do it and not have to wait until the following year. This means that next years goal will be a different big ski tour in BC: the Garibaldi-Neve traverse, which seems to be about the same length and is hopefully equally spectacular!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Mount Baker

Finally! For the last few weekends I have been trying to rustle up partners for a real mountain adventure, but I kept coming up empty handed. Luckily this weekend my "partner needed" smoke signals happened to drift by the window of my friend John from Vancouver, and he was on board right away. We spent the early evening on Saturday coordinating our plans, and then we each left our respective cities soon after and rendezvoused at the halfway point (Kendall, midway along the Mount Baker Highway) at 10:45pm. From there we continued on to the trailhead, which we found with the help of my GPS. We had taken John's Forerunner to the trailhead, and planned on sleeping in the back of it for a few hours before getting an alpine start at 3am. John's Forerunner is a rolling gear box, so before we could lie down in the back he had to spend about 10 minutes making a small clearing amid the piles of gear. Here he is at the 5 minute mark, it may still look cluttered but this is greatly improved from how it started!


We finally crawled into our sleeping bags and lay down to sleep just past 12:00am, and drifted off to sleep with dreams of the upcoming climb dancing in our heads. The alarm went off at 3am, and we roused ourselves from our slumbers and set about eating breakfast and organizing our gear. The night before we had decided to start the climb at 3am, but had neglected to pack our gear and in setting the alarm had allocated exactly 0 minutes for breakfast and gear prep, so by the time we actually rolled out of camp it was 4am, an hour later than we had planned. This didn't cause too much consternation, as they say in the airlines business we would just have to try and "make it up in the air" (climb faster). Snow on the road had prevented us from driving right to the trailhead, so we spent the first 30 minutes covering the final 2km and 500 feet of elevation gain on the Forest Service Road, and started up the Heliotrope Trail at 4:30am. Here is a shot of Markez at the trailhead with his super-charged headlamp:


The snow in the forested part of the trail was quite soft and easy going, but when we broke out of the tree cover and into the open below the glacier we found an icy crust that made the going quite difficult as our skins did not grip very well. This gave me an opportunity to try my new ski crampons that I had acquired a few weeks prior in Salt Lake City, these worked really well. The only downside is that you can't use them with your heel risers up, so while you don't slip backwards, the actual climbing is a bit more awkward. We made it up onto the glacier (or at least what seemed like the glacier, it was hard to tell since there was snow everywhere by around 6am, at which point the sky was starting to brighten and we had a clear view of our objective:


After downing some food we continued on, and as we skied we were able to spot two climbers starting up the final section from the saddle. The snow on the glacier was much easier to skin up than the icy crust lower down, as it was consolidated wind-packed snow that gripped the skins well. We continued up toward Black Butte and then traversed towards the saddle between Mount Baker and Colfax Peak. Here is a shot of Markez making his way along the track:


As we continued the sun rose high enough to begin hitting the cascade mountains to the northeast of Baker, making for some spectacular views:


It was shaping up to be a bluebird day, though we were still in the shade since most of the slopes we were ascending were north facing and shadowed by Baker. We gained the saddle at 9000' at around 8:30am, and were dismayed to find that the wind was howling like crazy over the final ridge that we would be ascending. We could still see the team of two ahead of us on this section, they appeared to be moving pretty slowly. The last section was too steep to ascend using skins, and since we didn't want our skis on our packs acting as giant sails to catch the wind whipping off the ridge, we elected to leave our skis at the saddle and ascend the final 1800' to the summit using crampons. We headed up into the maelstrom, and after getting blasted by frozen ice pellets we finally made it to a more sheltered spot that allowed for a photo, here I am nearing the top of the steep section:


We continued up and over the final steep section, evidently passing something called the Roman Wall though I never quite clued into what feature that was. We emerged onto the crater (after all, this is a volcano) and a pungent sulphur smell that was evidently coming from an active vent. We then had to cross the crater to ascend the final short section to the summit proper, shown in the photo is John making his way across the crater as the party of two in front of us ascends to the summit:


We met the party of two in front of us on the summit, it turned out that the had started the night before at 10:30pm!?! Holy smokes! We reached the summit together at about 10:20, so at this point they had been on the go for just under 12 hours, while we had been going for just over 6 hours! They were really nice, and we exchanged summit photo duties, here ours:


At this point it was still really windy, you can see the snow being kicked up by the wind in the photo above. There were great views from the summit, with Rainier visible to the south, Bellingham and the water to the west, and Mount Shuksan and many other mountains visible to the west:


(Look at all those mountains! Maybe moving to the PNW from SLC wasn't such a big mistake after all!). After savoring the summit for a few moments longer we headed back down, anxious to get out of the wind. We made it to the saddle in short order, and donned our skis for some good turns on the rest of the way down. The snow was pretty fun to ski in, definitely not fluffy powder but soft enough to easily set an edge and make some good turns. Here is the savage demonstrating his flawless ski technique:


We continued on down along the trail that we had ascended in the dark, and made it back to the car by 1:30pm. We had parked at 3200' (the trailhead is at 3700'), and since the summit is at 10,800' we had completed the 7500' trip in about 9.5 hours, not too bad for a days work! Here are in front of the gearmobile, savoring a day well spent.


Markez had initially suggested that we go get a beer before heading our separate ways, but three factors led us to choose an alternate plan: 1. Had just three hours of sleep in the gearbox, 2. Just climbed 7500' up a mountain, 3. Still need to drive 2 hours back to Seattle. With this in mind, we decided to hit a bakery and drink some strong coffee instead, which we did while making plans for our next mountain adventures.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Bike Park

Today was a rainy day here in Seattle, so I took the opportunity to fix my mountain bike and go check out the bike park under the I-5 Colonnade that is close to our house. The fixing mainly involved bleeding my brake lines, since I had the bike hung up over the winter some trapped air in the lines must have made it into a spot that it shouldn't have been, as I could pull the levers right to the bars before the pads engaged. I was a little apprehensive about bleeding them myself since I had never done anything like that before, but with the help of $15 Avid Bleed kit from eBay it went pretty smoothly and my brakes are now working like new.

After this and a few other minor tuneups I rode over to the bike park, which was interesting but a bit too stunt-oriented for me. I think it would be really good if you like hucking big jumps, drops, wall rides, skinnies, etc., but for a guy like me there wasn't that much too get excited about. It was still fun to check out, and in the afternoon I spent a bunch of time working on the garden that I am digging into our back lawn (pictures to follow in a subsequent post).

Monday, April 12, 2010

Spring Training Camp

This past weekend I had been planning to head up to Whistler to attempt the Spearhead Traverse ski tour with Fras, Martin, and Markez, but after that plan was scuttled due to high avalanche danger, I decided instead to put some miles in on my road steed and start building some long overdue cycling fitness. On Saturday there was a criterium in Volunteer Park which is literally two blocks from our house, so with this being my new "home race" I decided I had better participate. I had just learned that I can race in the Masters division if I want to, since you only need to be over 30. This seems crazy to me as lots of pro riders seem to have the best years of their career in their early thirties, I think Masters should be 35+. However, rather than complain I decided to instead do two races, first racing the Cat. 4 race at 9:40am and then doing the Masters C/D race at 11:10am as an extra lucky bonus race.

I slogged my way to anonymous midpack finishes in both races, feeling fairly comfortable in the pack but not quite comfortable enough to move to the front and take charge of things. On that note, I find it a bit funny when people who are cheering yell for their riders to move to the front of the field. Do they think we don't know that we should be at the front? I know that I need to be at the front to win or do anything in the race, the problem is that I am racing against 80 other riders who all want to be at the front, which can make moving up a bit difficult at times. In both races I was caught behind crashes, but luckily stayed upright. In the Masters race someone crashed right in front of me as we were starting the uphill, I braked hard but rode up over his bike a bit, and then the guy behind me ran into my rear wheel and popped the quick release open. Luckily I was able to catch back on after a lap by hopping between groups of similarly affected riders. This was the first time I have raced as a Masters racer, and I found that I much prefer racing against older guys. Not because they are slower (they didn't seem that slow to me), but because they race in a more respectful manner, with fewer people pulling idiotic moves where they try and move up through the middle of the pack by squeezing themselves through gaps that don't exist and forcing others out of the way. This is probably because as you get older you have a better sense of your own mortality, or maybe just because older means wiser. Anyways, I'll keep racing as a Cat. 4 but it is nice to have the option of racing as a Master if the timing works out better. On the left is a shot of yours truly holding down the fort at the back of the pack.

I went home after my races and spent most of the afternoon working on home renovations (the bane of my existence), then Emily, Roanne, and I walked back to Volunteer Park to watch the Cat. 1/2s race. This was super fun, those guys are so fast and it is really fun watching them go flying by wheel to wheel through the corners. A guy from the Elite squad associated with my cycling club ended up winning, he also actually works at Synapse part time when he is not traveling for races, and he had predicted his win at the last company lunch meeting so it was good to see him make good on his forecast.

Sunday I spent the morning doing more home improvement duties, but it was an awesome sunny day so finally at 1:00pm I broke out of my cage and went on a good road ride. It ended up being my longest of the year at 125km with 4000 feet of climbing. I headed around the south end of Lake Washington, then out May Valley Road (awesome section of roads and I had a huge tailwind), then looped back and did three climbs up Cougar Mountain, then back via the I-90 bridge with a detour around the south end of Mercer Island. What a great ride! Below is a map and elevation profile (the distances are in miles, whatever those are).


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Complete Response

Today was a great day, as Roanne received the best possible news in the pathology report resulting from her surgery last week. We had been hoping for "positive margins", meaning that the cancer cells in the tumour were completely encapsulated by normal tissue in what the surgeon removed, this would mean that she would not need another surgery to go in and "scoop out" more cancer cells. The pathology report went one better than this: there were no cancer cells at all detected in the tissue that was removed, meaning that she had what is termed a "complete response" to the chemotherapy and all of the cancer cells in the original tumour had been destroyed. Awesome! This has good prognostic implications, in that the probability she will have a recurrence is now significantly reduced.

We were really, really happy to get this news, and tonight we celebrated with a dinner out at the Volunteer Park Cafe (which is one of my favourite restaurants in Seattle and just happens to be half a block from our house). The restaurant is pretty small and busy (for good reason), so we ended up sharing a table with another couple who were probably about 10 years older than us, and when we got up to leave the women told us that they had really enjoyed sitting next to us, and sensed the positive energy in our interaction with each other. That was really nice to hear, I guess we were wearing the good news on our sleeves!

In other news: you may not know this, but I am actually an avid cyclist in addition to being an aspiring skier. I haven't been doing much riding in recent months since I have been focused on skiing, but I joined a cycling team/club last fall when we moved to Seattle (Hagens Berman, which is the new name for the team that I rode with when we lived here previously). Today I picked up my new kit, and had the pleasure of slipping into some fresh and tight bibs and heading out for a ride. I was so motivated by my dashing new kit that I ended up doing my first actual cycling workout of the year, some intervals at Seward Park. I hope to keep this hot streak going in coming weeks, and maybe even build some fitness and do some races before the snow starts to fly again.