Sunday, March 27, 2011

Red Mountain

On one of my first backcountry outings of the year we climbed Cave Ridge from where we could look across at the West face of Red Mountain, and it looked so awesome that it was clear as day that I needed to ski down it. A couple of months later I made an attempt on it with Jesse and Fras, but we turned back about 600 feet from the summit due to concerns about avalanche danger. I vowed to go back and finish the job when conditions were better, and this past weekend I finally got the chance.

Ryan and I met at my house at 6:30am on Sunday morning, wanting to get an early start in case it was sunny since sun-warming is one of the main causes of avalanche danger at this time of year. We made it to Snoqualmie in good time, and after suiting up we headed up the Commonwealth Basin towards. I was somewhat familiar with the route have just tried it a month or two earlier and we made good time initially, but at some point got turned around and had to do multiple unnecessary stream crossings with various levels of acrobatics depending on the state of the snow bridges at our chosen crossing points. We eventually got back on track, and found ourselves on the ridge leading up to the West face of Red Mountain.

It was overcast and snowing reasonably hard as we left the trees and gained the face, here is Ryan heading up:

At this point there was about 4-6 inches of pretty sticky snow on top of consolidated layers, so the going wasn't too bad. As we continued to move higher on the face the snow became drier and deeper, which made for slower progress as we were slipping a bit, particularly when doing kick turns on the steep terrain. Here is Ryan working his way across the slope:

By this time the snow had tapered off which was nice, and as we continued up we were overtaken by a group of 3 who were making good use of the track that we were setting (there was a very faint track that we had been following, but it was mostly drifted over). With about 300 feet to go to the top we decided to try our luck boot-packing to see if that was any easier (and also since we had packed in our ice axes and didn't want to do the entire trip without ever using them). We chose a suitable spot to remove our skis and I headed up:

Ryan waited and took a few pictures, and unfortunately once I was about 20 feet above him I touched off a small slough of snow which swept by him and carried away one of his gloves. We watched it proceed down the hill and come to rest about 100 feet below, and decided that we would get it on the way down (Ryan had some thin gloves that he could use in the interim). So, we kept chugging up the slope kicking steps which was a little tough since the snow was reasonably deep which made for a swimming technique when things got steep (which was most of the time). Here is Ryan cresting one of the last steep parts:

We reached the top just after the party of three who had overtaken us (they had skinned up the whole way), and chatted with them as we prepared to head down. They decided to stop for a snack before heading down so we did the same; I recently read a book on avalanche safety, and one of the main tenets of survival technique espoused by the author was to always send other people down first. With this in mind, I wanted to try and postpone our descent as long as possible so that we could have three slope testers head down in front of us.

Eventually they finished their snack and headed down, the first guy in particular was a really good skier and made the foot or so of fresh powder on the steep face look really fun:

An added bonus was that somehow the sun had just emerged from the snow and clouds that had enshrouded us during the entire climb, so we had perfect visibility and sunshine to aid us on the descent of the steep face. Here we are getting psyched for some fresh tracks in mad pow:

Before the sun could disappear we clicked into our Fritschis and dropped in, oh man was it ever awesome! It is a super consistent steep slope, and with the fresh snow it made for some really fun turns. We stopped to retrieve Ryan's glove on the way down, and then skied down the rest of the face and back into the trees where we played a great game in which the second guy has to follow the tracks of the first until the first either crashes into a snow back (usually intentionally to avoid gathering too much speed) or hits a tree at which point the second becomes the first and gets to lead the chase. Fun! After some fun with this game, a few more creek crossings and a bit of sidestepping we were back at the car at about 1:15pm. Not bad for a morning out! Here is a topo of our out-and-back journey:

And an elevation profile, we had about 3000 feet of climbing to the summit of Red Mountain which is at 5720 feet:

And finally, the Google Earth view of our exploits:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Chair Peak Circumnavigation

On the first day of backcountry skiing that Roanne and I did this year we headed out to Pineapple Pass from Alpental and while we were there we met a group of four who were headed out on a circumnavigation of Chair Peak. I thought that sounded like a good adventure and put it on my tick list, so a few months later in mid-March we found ourselves headed for Snoqualmie Pass with that objective in mind. Before I begin recounting our adventures, let me put in a quick plug for a book that I discovered recently: anyone who has aspirations of backcountry skiing in Snoqualmie Pass should consider buying this book, it is really good and I wish I had happened upon it earlier.

We headed to Alpental to start the day, reasoning that we might as well make use of our season passes to gain 2000 feet of elevation and speed up the trip out to Pineapple Pass. We headed up to the top of Denny Mountain on Chair 2, and then headed down Upper Nash and through the Nash Gate and set out along the Great Scott Traverse. This was a little sketchy in parts, with the track pretty blown in with all of the new snow making for some precarious inching along over a steep drop while hoping that our skis wouldn't slip out. All drama aside we finally made it out to the bowl beneath the tooth, where we donned our skins and started headed up for the col between Bryant Peak and Chair Peak. Here is Roanne heading up the slope with Snoqualmie Mountain in the background:

There was a party of two ahead of us initially, but we soon passed them while they were busy trying to retrieve a dropped glove. After negotiating a steep traverse that seemed a little precarious due to the drop below we rounded a corner and the Chair-Bryant col came into sight, here I am continuing towards the col:

The going got pretty steep towards the end so we removed our skis and booted up the last 50 feet or so, which was quite fun since the wind-packed snow was really amenable to kicking good steps (I like to have at least one booter on each backcountry outing). It was pretty windy at this point, but as soon as we dropped over the other side we were sheltered which made things a lot warmer. We removed our skins here and descended down to Melakwa Lake on snow that could best be described as variable, ranging from sun crust to wind pack to powder in the trees. Here is Roanne heading down one of the better patches:

We skied right down onto the frozen surface of Lake Melakwa, and then after a short snack we resumed skinning, heading up towards Melakwa pass. This was a nice and gradual ascent which made for pleasant going. Here is Roanne heading down a short drop off a wind feature midway along the climb up to the pass:

And one more of her nearing the top of the pass. At this point we were following an existing track from two skiers who were in front of us, and the keen observer will notice that there is an unused skin track to Roanne's left in the photo below. This is the diretissima track that I had established; when I am following a track that is not up to par in my view I like to correct the error by setting a track of my own. This could be for various reasons such as not doing kick turns, but it is usually due to the pre-existing track using too many switch backs when a direct line is possibe, as it was in this case. Roanne, however, has a different definition of appropriate skin track gradient, and as such throughout our trip she shunned the aesthetic direct lines that I worked to establish in favor of the rather pedestrian low-gradient track.

We eventually reached Melakwa Pass, where we could peer over the edge of a very large cornice down to the frozen Chair Lake. Luckily at one point the cornice was small enough that we could comfortably drop into the bowl and head down to the lake, here is Roanne headed down for the lake and practicing her one-leg ski technique (on tours like this which are so far below her physical bounds she tries to stay entertained by doing drills like this):

From Chair Lake we initially thought that we could just keep heading down the drainage to Snow Lake, but after ascertaining that this would involve skiing off a cliff, we realized that we needed to ascend to a shoulder above Chair Lake before traversing a bit and continuing our descent down to Snow Lake. Here is Roanne on that climb with Chair Peak in the background:

At our high point we removed our skins once again, and before we started the descent we were treated to some really neat looking light on the snowy bumps to one side of Chair Peak above Snow Lake:

We headed down to Snow Lake, skiing partly down a slide path that had wiped out a skin track that looked like it had been set the day before. The snow was again variable, but we managed to find some decent powder hiding in the trees. Upon reaching the surface of Snow Lake we skinned up one last time to head across the lake and up and over the Snow Lake Divide:

The trip across the lake was pretty fun since it was so flat and expansive, and after reaching the top of the divide we headed down to Source Lake and out the bobsled track to return to the base of Alpental. At this point the chairs were still running (the tour had taken 6 hours), so I proffered the idea of doing a few lift-assisted runs, but Roanne politely declined so we headed to the car and back to rainy Seattle. This was a great tour that I would highly recommend, here is the topo of our route:

And an elevation profile, there wasn't all that much climbing since we did a lot of it by riding the lifts at Alpental before traversing out into the backcountry:

And finally, the Google Earth view of our route around Chair Peak:

Monday, March 14, 2011

Wasatch Powder Keg

After skiing slush in the cascades all winter, in early March Roanne and I decided that it was time to head to Salt Lake City for some dry Utah powder. We cleverly planned our trip to coincide with the Wasatch Powderkeg backcountry ski race, and on Friday afternoon we headed to SeaTac and caught our flight to SLC. Our friends Mike and Laura were kind enough to host us for the weekend (Mike was doing the race also), so after meeting up with them at their place we all headed to the pre-race meeting that took place Friday evening, the night before the race. There was nothing too interesting revealed in the meeting, except that they had made the course longer and harder than last year by adding an extra climb (which seemed strange since it had seemed pretty stinkin' hard already last year). Oh well, I had no illusions of actually doing well in the race, having just flown in from sea level (the race started at 8800 feet of elevation and had a high point of 10,600 feet) and being a terrible skier to boot. Misery + more misery is still just misery, so it wasn't too disconcerting to get this news.

After the race meeting we grabbed some dinner and then headed back to Mike and Laura's place where we packed up our gear for the next day before heading to bed in advance of our 5:00am wake-up call the next morning (the race started at 7:00am). Our alarms went off the next morning and after grabbing some breakfast we headed up Big Cottonwood Canyon to Brighton Ski Resort where the race was starting. Here is a shot of Roanne and Mike suiting up in the pre-dawn light:

After getting geared up we walked over to the lodge for the gear check (probe, beacon, shovel, jacket, and helmet) and then headed over to the parking lot where the race was starting. One strange thing this year was that the race was starting with people running a few hundred yards with their skis strapped to their packs, then putting their skis on and starting to skin. If you think walking in ski boots isn't awkward enough you should try running in them, and if you still would like to feel a little more ungainly, do with with some heavy skis strapped to your back. Here is a shot of everyone waiting to start:

The only saving grace for the start was that they had a bagpiper blasting away getting everyone in the mood for the ensuing battle:

At 7:00am the gun fired and we were off, shuffling across the parking lot towards the snow so that we could put our skis on and start having fun. I had made a conscious decision not to completely slay myself on the first climb (or any of the climbs for that matter) since it was going to be a long haul (10 miles with 5500 feet of climbing), so things went according to plan as I chugged up the hill at a good tempo, passing some people but not going crazy. It was perfect weather, calm with no wind but overcast so that it wasn't too hot. I would say that I felt a little better in the race than I did last year, since I am more comfortable on skis now and I knew the course which also helped. Roanne was doing the Recreation Division version of the race (I was, of course, doing the Race Division) which cut out a few climbs, so at one point in the race we got to hang out briefly as I re-passed her after our courses merged again. Here is a course profile for the Race Division:

You can see that there are two big climbs with some smaller ones mixed in; by the start of the second big climb I was really starting to feel it, and by the start of the 700 foot booter to the top of Mount Millicent (the top of the second big climb) I was REALLY starting to feel it. Nevertheless I managed to hold it together during the final descent, though I had some serious leg cramping issues and a few near missed going through a section where I had taken a digger last year.

I was pretty happy to see the finish line come into view as I made my way down the final slope, 3 hours and 35 minutes after the gun had gone off. Roanne had just finished 15 minutes prior (her course was about 3 miles and 2000 vertical feet shorter) so it was nice to congratulate each other and enjoy the post race barbeque. Here we are celebrating our successful races:

Mike finished a little while afterward (he was in the Telemark division, Roanne and I were both in the AT divisions), and we headed out to watch the awards ceremony, where it was very humbling to find out that the winner had done it in just over 2 hours. Holy smokes! That was almost twice as fast I went. I know I have a heavier set-up than most of the people there (Fritschi Freerides and BD Havocs; most people were on Dynafit bindings and many had short and small skis) and that I just came from sea level, but those excuses combined are probably only good for about 20 minutes at the most, that doesn't even get me under the 3 hour mark! I guess I'll just have to spend more time skiing and less time working next winter. Here is a shot of the crowd gathered for the awards:

After the awards and the raffle (where I won a nice green shovel) we headed back down into the valley where we snoozed a bit for the afternoon before heading out to a birthday party in the evening for some of Roanne's book club friends. The next day we woke up feeling a bit sore, but, being in Utah, unless I couldn't stand up there was no way that I wasn't going skiing again. I met up with one of my former graduate students, Ondrej, and we headed up to Alta for an awesome day of riding the lifts and exploring the resort. Here we are the chairlift up:

It was strange to see the sky that color, in Seattle we don't have that (ours is gray if it can be seen at all) and I was also unfamiliar with the glowing orb that moved across the the sky. It was fun to catch up with Ondrej, and we made plans to hang out again in Seattle when he makes a trip out here in the summer. That night we made a good dinner at Mike and Laura's, and the next morning Roanne and I packed up our stuff and headed up Big Cottonwood Canyon one more time for some skiing at Solitude before packing it in around 3pm to head to the airport and catch our flight back to rainy Seattle. What a great weekend, I'll definitely be back for the PowderKeg in 2012 and you should too if you are reading this!

Saturday, March 5, 2011


Ever since I moved back to Seattle I have been meaning to plant an apple tree, and this past week I finally got around to it. We had an apple tree at our place in Salt Lake City and I really liked having fresh apples, so I wanted to have something similar here in Seattle. Roanne and I headed to Swanson's Nursery in north Ballard and picked out a fine young specimen, with four different types of apple varieties grafted onto it. This way you don't need more than one apple tree to pollinate each other. Here I am breaking ground:

And here is the new inhabitant of our front yard:

So far it seems to be doing well, though we won't know for a few weeks how it is really doing when it (hopefully) develops some leaves. Apparently we won't have apples this fall, but there is a good chance that we will the year after. I'll post some more pictures once it gets some leaves.