Monday, February 21, 2011

Mount St. Helens

This past weekend Roanne and I had decided we needed to ski something worthwhile, so after considering a few options we settled on Mount St. Helens. We decided to try it on the Sunday, and began negotiations on how to approach the logistics. It would be a pretty full day (over 5600 feet of elevation gain) and it is a 3.5 hour drive from Seattle so we needed to head down the night before. I was advocating heading to the trail head the night before and pitching a tent in the parking lot to get a nice and early start, while Roanne was advocating heading down the night before and setting up shop in a hotel room in Woodland, an hour from the trailhead. I protested that since getting married I feel like I hardly ever get to sleep in parking lots anymore, to which she replied that I should have married someone who was more adventurous. I replied that I had thought she was adventurous, to which Roanne conceded that, yes, she was indeed adventurous at certain times, but I should have married someone who was more consistently adventurous. I recognized the truth in this, conceded the point, and we booked a hotel in Woodland.

We headed down Saturday night, and after stopping along the way for dinner at "Happy Teryaki #4" (surprisingly good, I can't even imagine how good #1, 2, and 3 must be), we eventually made our way to Woodland Motel 6 which was located about 100 meters east of I-5. After forcing the desk clerk to interrupt his game of Warcraft to check us in, we managed to get a pretty good sleep until we were awoken by an idling truck in the parking lot at 6:00am. We had planned on getting up at 6:30am anyways, so we hopped back in the car and drove the rest of the way to the Marble Mountain Sno-Park where the route started, stopping along the way to sign the climbing register and pick up our permits in Cougar at the Lone Fir Resort.

We arrived at the Sno-Park by about 7:30am, and started gearing up for the days adventures:

I was surprised at how many other people were there, apparently this is a popular winter objective. After we finished sorting out our gear we headed up the trailhead, which was well packed from numerous skiers having been on it previously. The trail gradually climbed and wound through some dense forest, but before too long things began to open up a bit and we could see the expansive white slopes of Mount S. Helens looming ahead of us:

As we continued we eventually emerged out of the forest and things opened up even more:

We eventually reached an open area where we now had a really good view of our objective. Things always look so close when you can see the entire route in front of you, but there was still a lot of elevation to gain before reaching the rim!

It was sunny blue skies ahead, so we appeared to be free and clear from a weather perspective until we looked back behind us and saw some clouds building from the south:

Yeech! Those don't look good. It still looked good ahead though, so we hit the gas and started heading up a ridge. The trees were quite thin by this point and only present on the ridge that we were ascending, here is a shot of Roanne as she heads up this final treed section before gaining the open slopes of the mountain:

The going had been really fast up until this point so we were optimistic about reaching the summit on a good schedule, but once we gained the open slopes we found that the snow was a really hard windpack that made skinning quite difficult. It was too steep to ascend straight up the slope, and too hard to set an edge to traverse, but after a bit of flailing (and wishing that we had brought ski crampons) we finally progressed onto some better snow higher up and resumed our rapid rate of progress. The next landmark was Monitor Ridge where there is a small weather station set up, here is Roanne taking a breather:

After a short break to consume some delicious sandwiches we re-motivated and continued on up the open slopes in front of us:

We had been passing a few parties throughout the day and making good progress, and continued to reel a few people in as we progressed up the mountain. There were a bunch of existing skin tracks, but they had largely been trampled into oblivion by herds of mindless snowshoers (and they weren't direct enough anyways), so I eschewed those in favor of the diretissima line until Roanne informed me that she was going to stop following my track if it kept going straight up.

Having sorted out our philosophical differences on skinning we continued up, with the clouds chasing us up the mountain:

We continued to make good progress in the better snow higher up, and before too long we neared the summit, having moved up above the cloud layer:

After the final stretch we were on the top, though it isn't a very impressive summit, being just the high point on the crater rim. I'm sure it was a lot nicer before the top blew off, but we were feeling a bit tired by this point so we appreciated the fact that those last 1000 feet of climbing are now distributed around the countryside. Here is a shot of the happy adventurers on the summit, with Mount Adams (you're next!) in the background:

We didn't get too close to the rim since we didn't want to fall off the cornice and into the crater, but looking to the north we could see down into the bottom where the dome was steaming, with Mount Rainier visible further north:

Having planted our metaphorical flag and eaten some delicious Safeway cookies (chocolate chip, holy smokes are those things ever good) it was now time to head down, especially since the clouds had resumed their upward progress and it now looked like we would be skiing down through them. Without further ado we descended down into the clouds, here is Roanne making her way down through the variable conditions:

The snow wasn't great, varying between wind pack, crust, and ice, but it would take really really bad conditions before I would stop having fun on skis (like maybe skiing on dirt?) so it was still a good time. We did manage to find some pockets of good powder in some small drainages where spindrift had accumulated, so we savored that before heading back out into the crust. Part way down the sun emerged so we had a break to sit down and eat something and soak up the mountain vibes:

We then continued on our way, and were able to run it all the way back to the car without needed to re-skin or do any appreciable double poling. Roanne was pretty gassed by this point and each time she arrived to a point where I was dutifully waiting for her she would flop down onto the snow and would only regain the upright posture necessary for downward progress on skis with considerable cajoling and discussion of additional cookies waiting in the car.

We did eventually make it though, and celebrated our successful ascent by changing out of our ski gear and driving back to Seattle. Definitely a fun trip and highly recommended for anyone who likes going up and down on skis. Here are the stats, first the topo (we climbed the Worm Flows route which seems to be the most popular winter route) which shows our relatively straightforward out and back:

Next the equally straightforward elevation profile, which shows that we climbed and descended 5600 feet over the course of about 11 miles round trip:

And finally, most aesthetically pleasing, the Google Earth view that shows our trip up and down the mountain:

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Vertfest 2011

Last year I participated in my first randonee race (backcountry ski) by doing Vertfest up at Alpental, and I remembered it as being a good time so I planned on doing it again this year. I registered the week before, but when Saturday night rolled around I checked the weather for Alpental and it said that it was raining at the base and they expected rain for the next day. Stinker! I found myself wishing that I hadn't registered, but I consoled myself with the thought that you can't live in the PNW if you need to stay home and sit on your couch every time there is a little liquid sunshine in the forecast.

I woke up early the next morning to get my stuff packed up, and lo and behold there was a blue sky outside my window! This was great for my morale, and after a delicious breakfast and a molto bene cappucino I jumped in the Jetta and headed for Snoqualmie Pass. I had tried to convince Roanne to join me but to no avail, she had decided that she would rather stay home and read mystery novels. Registration ended at 9:00am, followed by the pre-race meeting, and after that everyone headed out to warm up a bit by going up and down the lower part of the ski hill. It was a bit funny to overhear some of the comments from the "normal" skiers who were there for a day of riding the lifts, they seemed to think that it was completely insane to want to race each other up and down the hill. It really isn't that crazy, I'm sure lots of those incredulous people go on hikes in the summer, which involves walking up a hill and then walking back down. Why not strap some skis to your feet and do it while there is snow so that you can have some fun on the way back down?!?

Eventually the start lines were marked out and people started to assemble, as seen in the photo below (the only photo I took, sorry about that!):

There were two lines, with the first for people on the "race" division who would go up and down twice for over 4000 feet of vertical and the second for those in the "rec" division who would only go up and down once. I had, of course, registered for the race division as I can't turn down the opportunity to suffer a little longer for the same entry fee. After a beacon check there was a short speech to commemorate a local backcountry skier who had passed away two weeks prior in an accident in Snoqualmie Pass, a pretty sad situation.

We then clicked up our heel risers, the gun fired, and we were off! Like last year, many people started sprinting up the hill which is ridiculous in my books since you can't maintain that. I just tried to keep a brisk pace so that I wouldn't get stuck behind too many people, which worked well as I was in the top 15 or so skiers by the time we were all lined out. The front guys were in skin suits and had really small skis, so I knew I had no hope of hanging with them, so I was happy with my position. I felt pretty good and leapfrogged up a few positions before settling in close to another guy who was about the same pace. We headed up around the base of Chair 2, and continued up towards the top of Denny Mountain. There were 2 boot pack sections, at which point the suffering really began. I don't have a fast way to mount skis on my pack so I just carried them up in a really awkward (but faster than stopping to mount them on my pack) manner, also really tiring.

I made it through those, and soon after was de-skinning at the top of Upper International ("Upper Nash" in the local dialect). I headed down, and after a somewhat sketchy drop into the moguls I was on my way down. I felt better than the year before when it had been icy, but nevertheless I really began to suffer about halfway down. Randonee racing is a funny thing, when you are ascending you can't wait to descend, and then when you are descending you can't wait to start ascending again. I guess that is because the only time you don't feel like falling over and throwing up is for the short interval following the transition between skins and no-skins when you have gotten a 30 second rest.

I finally made it down and then managed to convince myself to head back up for the second lap. This was a real grinder, I was in all sorts of misery and ruing the day that I ever signed up for the race, and promising myself that I would never do another randonee race. Regretfully, I couldn't stop thinking about how I already signed up to do the Wasatch Powder Keg randonee race in Salt Lake City in a month, a similar race but longer, more difficult, and held at 10,000 feet above sea level. After successfully powering down my mind I continued on, and eventually reached the top of the second ascent where I de-skinned and headed down again.

I actually felt better this time down and skied pretty well, I have been doing a lot more skiing this year so maybe that has been helping my downhill skills or maybe I just got lucky. In any case, I finally shot across the finish line at the base after about 1:57 from the start. I can't remember my time from last year, but I am pretty sure I was over 2 hours though the course was shortened a bit. I didn't bother trying to do any lift-assisted skiing afterward, having learned the year before that after a randonee race your legs don't work well enough to have any fun doing that. I also didn't stick around to see the results so I'm not sure how I did, but I'll post it when I find out.

So, I guess it was fun. I think an essential skill for people who do these sorts of things is a short memory and transformational retrospective so that things which seemed horrible at the time somehow have a very positive memory associated with them. I am pretty sure that I have these skills, so if you ask me in a few days I'm sure I won't be able to stop raving about how much fun HurtFest was, and how you MUST do it with me next year.