Photo Cred

Photo: Scotty Palmer

Sunday, February 8, 2015

...And Then It Got Worse

After going for the Sunday Funday Ménage á Trois, and seeing The Nugget looking fat in the distance a couple of days later,

Scotty and I figured we'd take advantage of probable good conditions to give 'er a go.  I mean, 6" of new snow with warm temps and a day of sunshine for it to settle--how could we go wrong?  We just had to be back in Driggs at 6pm to teach an avalanche course, so we had plenty of time to see exactly how wrong it was possible to go...

As I pulled everything together the evening before I settled on skis as the tools for the day, on what I thought was a whim.  I've been splitboarding a lot this year so why not switch it up?  And I haven't gotten to ski these Voilé V6's much yet--it sounded fun to take them for a spin.

It wasn't until sometime late in the day with the advantage of hindsight that I would ask myself if it really was a whim, or prescience.

Skinning under starry skies was quite lovely, down to shirtsleeves with a light vest and still sweating a bit.  Where have our winter temperatures gone?  Even higher up in the South Fork of Garnet Canyon the typical wind-blasting wasn't taking place, and it wasn't until we climbed above 10,000' that the temps finally did drop and jackets went on.

Scotty skinning out of the South Fork of Garnet Canyon with the Middle and Grand Tetons in the background.

Taking the last few steps up to the col at the top of the Nugget.

Climbing up the shady side of the ridge, we were feeling pretty optimistic about snow conditions--chalky powder made for great bootpacking, and would likely be fantastic skiing.  Add that to the tales we had heard of knee-deep powder on the Grand the preceding day and we were all kinds of excited cresting the ridge and peering over the cornice into our entrance.

The view?  Not bad, not bad at all.  Across Avalanche Canyon, Wister and Buck stood proud if a little thin on snow coverage.  Looking down at 2500' of exposure with a smooth coat of fresh snow was exhilarating, and totally sandbagged us.

Scotty skied in first, making a solid cut across the start to a rock island on the far side.  What started off sounding buttery-smooth turned scratchy and crackling and ultimately gave way to skittering edges as Scotty discovered the breakable suncrust with bits of frozen chunder that would comprise the opening 40 or so turns of the day's downhill adventure.

Low-grade jump turns and powerful edging became the techniques of choice for skiing down the entrance pitch and traversing left to the shoulder at the top of the Nugget, where we sat in an alcove under gorgeous orange granite and sipped tea, hoping that the sun would soften things up a bit.  (One could also continue skiing fall-line down a different couloir to the canyon floor, but that wasn't this day's objective.)

Having been discussing snow stability throughout the day, our teatime conversation drifted to a theory I have regarding the differences between thin and thick weak layers in the collapse-driven model of avalanche propagation via wave action in the bending slab.  But it wasn't long before we realized the absurdity of two guys with English degrees from a Northwest Liberal Arts College trying to discuss material physics, and decided that we should probably just ski.

All smiles, and utterly clueless.  Nice skis, though!

Poking around with my pole on the slope below, it looked like the sun had done absolutely nothing to help us, but I figured that the breakable crust hadn't been so bad thus far and would probably ski just fine for the remaining 2000'.  So, with a cut across the start zone of the couloir I made a few turns into the gut and was immediately grateful that I had chosen skis for this day.

The previous day's sun, rather than just settling the new snow, had instead heated said snow to the point that it chose to relinquish its grasp on the mountain and sluff out completely, leaving behind a devious layer of white that looked nice but turned out to be a bastard of a layer of impenetrable ice.

Once I turned onto the ice and regained control after a brief skittering downhill slide, I had to stop and take a few breaths to regain my composure.  I was staring down at a couple thousand feet of marginally skiable conditions with a rappel at the bottom, and the gravity of my position became crystal clear.  This is where the skis vs. splitboard prescience comes in.  Having 2 edges (skis) to work with when making jump-turns on 45• ice is merely scary, encouraging focus and precision, whereas having one 1 edge (splitboard) in these conditions is terrifying, and possibly uncontrollable.

Mmm, sporting.


Mmm, scrapey.

Oof dah.  Having taken a moment and assessed that with attention to not fucking up we could actually ski this thing safely, I brought my emotion back into control and made a handful of turns before pulling out to the side so that Scotty could scrape his way down to join me.  He was in full agreement about how jacked-up the conditions were, but also agreed that we could make it happen, so with due consideration given to our current situation we thoughtfully hopped our way down the steep upper 1000' of the route, moving from "safe zone" to "safe zone" and using the breakable crust on the sides when we could, marginally comfortable in the knowledge that falling really wasn't an option.

Scotty finds a patch of remaining breakable crust to ski through the crux choke.

Scared?  A little bit.  Stoked on the adventure, though.

Then, once we cleared through the choke and banked left around a dogleg the pitch eased back and the walls got wider, and the now blessed breakable crust became more ubiquitous,

eventually turning into even more blessed damp powder.  That felt good.

Mmm, I could ski this all day.

So we finished up with a few hundred vertical feet of fast powder skiing down to the anchor at the "Nugget" chockstone, and the rappel down to the canyon below went easily, where we stopped for a breather and a bite of chocolate, happy to have made it through the route safely and with plenty of time to make it back to Driggs for the evening's class.

At the end of it all, what were we expecting?

Fast, stable powder--that's what.

But really, what we found is what we should have expected; conditions in the alpine are typically pretty variable, and rarely as sweet as we hope.  Scary, exhilarating, focus-enducing, character-building.  This is ski alpinism, after all.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sunday Funday

Nez Perce is one of the closest peaks in your face when you stare up into the Tetons from the Bradley-Taggart parking lot, or from the bar at Dornan's.  And smack down the east side of it is an iconic elevator-shaft couloir called The Sliver:



Then if you work your way around to the north side there are two more Teton classics--the Hourglass Couloirs:

The Hourglass Couloirs form an "x" on the north side of Nez Perce.
Photo: Jared Inouye, via

Between my work schedule, getting the flu, and any number of other excuses of dubious validity, it's been a damn long time since I've had a chance to get up into the alpine, so when it turned out that Scotty:

With the Sliver conveniently rising above the trees in the background.

 and Van:

Angle of repose?

had last Sunday free, ambition kicked in and it was on.  Why not see if we could ski The Sliver, the East Hourglass, and the West Hourglass in the course of a day?

Granted we weren't the first to think of it, but there's a certain aesthetic brilliance to the idea.  All three couloirs are great objectives in their own right, lovely rock-walled shafts of snow that all top out a bit over 11,000', each somewhere north of 1000' tall, and each with its own personality.  The lynchpin of the whole plan is that the notch at the top of The Sliver happens to be the same notch that is at the top of the East Hourglass, allowing one to avoid a fairly long walk from the bottom of The Sliver around to the north side of Nez Perce.

How to make it happen?  Let's start by skinning to the skier's summit of Shadow Peak under bluebird skies with no wind while Jackson lies below, shrouded in its perpetual inversion fog.

Then make our way across the Shadow Peak Cirque to The Sliver and climb to the top,

Where we get wind-blasted in the notch before skiing lovely sun-warmed powder back to the Cirque.



Mmm, good.

Yours truly.

Damn, that was fun.

Then get ourselves back into the climbing game and head back up the remains of the bootpack that we put in on our first trip up The Sliver,

Toss ropes down into the East Hourglass,

And see how many pitches of rappelling it takes us to get down to continuous snow.

(It turns out to be three, with my twin skinny 35m ropes.)

Having stowed away the ropes, we then make turns in unbreakable windboard conditions down to the point where the East and West Hourglass Couloirs converge,

Mmm, scratchy.

Which at the time feels a little rough on tired legs, but will feel pretty good in retrospect once we see the conditions in the West Hourglass:

Ouch.  Where did all of the snow blow away to?

Now we climb ankle- to boottop-deep sastrugi up what feels like an awfully long way to the top of the day's final couloir, and given our new knowledge of the character-building conditions we are about to descend a few pulls of High West Whisky and some Ritter Sport chocolate seem appropriate while looking out at the wonders of Garnet Canyon.

Up here, it's all about the company you keep.

Then it's back down we go; the turns don't disappoint, but they don't impress either.

Windboard in the East retrospectively feels pretty decent in comparison to boot-top sastrugi in the West, and with our cups newly overflowing with character we reach the Meadows in Garnet Canyon and our exit from this day's adventure in the Tetons.

One might ask, why go to all of that trouble for such marginal (horrible?) skiing?  One might answer that you don't know if you don't go, and the turns in The Sliver were actually quite good, and even if the rest of the turns were less than desirable the adventure is really what it's all about.  Sort of like starting a meal with a lovely fresh, crisp salad only to discover that it's actually tofu in the lasagna and the chef inexplicably used carob instead of chocolate in the dessert; not necessarily what you were looking for, but not a showstopper either, and probably good for you in the long run.

Wait, does that splitboard have fishscales?  Hell, yes.  It's Voilé's Revelator BC, and it freaking rips.

At least that's what we told ourselves on the trip across the lake, over the moraines, and back to where the day began.  

(And in reality we did get 2500' of legitimate powder turns from the Meadows down to Bradley Lake, after all.)

Then a couple of days later, I was gazing out across Avalanche Canyon and this beauty of a ski line jumped out at me:

But that's a story for another time...

Monday, November 17, 2014

Ripping One More Fast One

The Stats:

It goes without saying that I was disappointed by the outcome of my 2014 NUE season--I wanted that championship, and was really hoping for the opportunity to join the other NUE division champs at La Ruta De Los Conquistadores.  (That being said, Gordon's overwhelming success down there makes me feel a little better--at least I was bested by a true competitor.)  So when I was asked to join the Twins and Berningman on a 4-Man Fitzy team for the 25 Hours In Frog Hollow ("The Longest 1-Day Race"), I said Hell Yes!  I mean, it may not be Costa Rica, but flowing down gorgeous desert singletrack at 2am with a crew of buddies?  Who would say no to that?

Not me.

Damn, this course is fast.
Photo: Crawling Spider Photography

Some background: the 25 Hours In Frog Hollow takes place on the first weekend in November every year outside of Hurricane, Utah on the legendary Jem Trail.  That weekend happens to be the fall time change, hence the extra hour of racing between 10am on Saturday and 10am on Sunday.  And the Frog Hollow course is the fastest mountain bike race course I've ever ridden.  (15mph is a reasonably fast average on a singlespeed, right?)

Sunset from camp, the night before.

So that's how we ended up in southern Utah on Halloween night, surrounded by hundreds of other cycling enthusiasts and their families, doing our best to "fuel up" (stuff ourselves) before putting out a 25-hour effort.  The scene around camp was super fun--costumes, laughter, kids squealing all over on those Strider bikes.  Burn barrels and fire pans began to glow as night fell and the temps settled, with rock n' roll playing in the distance in The Pit.

Morning came overcast and "breezy", but at least it was dry.  Nervously eating while making final adjustments to bicycles and clothing organization, we got kitted up in a pretty stiff wind and headed over to the start line to cheer George through the obligatory LeMans start.  (As ever, why make everybody run from the start line to get on their bikes?)  And we were off...

Bart adds some flair to the Jem Trail.Photo: Crawling Spider Photography

Lap 1:  Damn, this hurts.  George scorched the opening lap, so there are really only a couple of guys ahead of us.  Maybe I didn't warm up enough.  How do people do this short-duration max-effort stuff?  I end up chasing Chris Holley until I pass him halfway through the climb to the top of the Jem Trail and then I'm cranking away by myself into the descent.  Briefly.  It seems like I've only been pointed downhill for 30 seconds before I hear Chris behind me and watch him rocket by in his big gear.  How did he get so fast?  I think I've seen 5 other people riding the Pivot LES--stoked to see it becoming the hot ride.  Such sweetness.

George, too.
Crawling Spider Photography

Lap 2:  Damn, this still hurts.  At least it's not hot out here.  Stiff headwind on the climb, but it's a tailwind on the down!  Chasing Brent from the Roosters team, pass him just before the top of the Jem, and then watch him rocket past in his big gear on the downhill just like Chris did.  Crap.  Maybe my superior stubbornness will outweigh my lack of gears and I can pull ahead in the middle of the night.  This lap turns out to be my fastest of the day at 48:46.

Photo: Crawling Spider Photography

Lap 3:  Now this is just plain fun.  It doesn't seem to matter whether or not I bother to warm up--the opening road sprint and climb are painful either way, and before it really takes a toll I'm onto the romping downhill.  This time Bart has landed me ahead of Brent, so I'm hauling ass to maintain our lead.  Damn, this is fun.  If you've never ripped a 36x16 on a singlespeed on desert singletrack, get out there and do it--freaking amazing.  Tall enough to keep cranking away on the Jem downhills, but still just barely rideable on the short-lived steeps of the main climb.  The Lauf fork is perfect for this course--light, fast, responsive.  This lap goes 4 seconds slower than my last one.  Held the lead.  Having a blast!

Jason, racing to stay ahead of the impending rain.
Crawling Spider Photography

Lap 4:  It's dark.  And raining.  Not hard, just enough be chilly and add some grease to the sandstone plates on the Rim Trail at the low end of the loop.  At least the wind has stopped.  Much slower pace with this grease on the course, more tentative riding to stay upright.  Let it fly on the straightaways to clear the mud off my tires, pick my way through the corners to stay on-course.  Especially on those damn plates.

Lap 5:  Still dark.  And awesome.  I love riding by headlights, especially in the desert where the views are long and I can see other riders on the course miles away as their headlights become pinpricks on the horizon.  The rain has stopped and a light breeze is drying out the dirt--course conditions are unbelievable.  Tacky, tacky, tacky and FAST!!!  Even in the dark we're still burning well under 1-hour laps, and 36x16 couldn't be more perfect.  This racing thing is dreamy.  Somebody just handed me a slice of pie as I came through The Pit.

Lap 6:  Still dark.  Still awesome.  Maybe even awesomer.  No more pie, but damn if the course isn't getting even better.  I didn't know that was even possible.  Team Rooster lost their mojo in the rainy dark, so we're a fair bit into the lead at this point.  George and I have been alternating laps to give Jason and Bart a longer rest--we're about to swap that program, so this is probably my last night lap.  I could do this forever.  Probably my intake of caffeine and sugar talking, but I'm totally awake, and totally stoked.  Not sure how that's possible at 2am, but it's real.  I'm so glad that I'm not doing this one solo--this team thing is way more fun.

4:00am:  In the tent, warm under my sleeping bag.  Just got woken up by rainfall.  I think Bart must have beat the rain--he got back pretty quick--but Jason is getting hammered.  This isn't light rain.  No Irish "soft weather".  This is biblical.  Buckets pouring out of the sky.  I'm sure Jason looked at the radar before his lap (the wonder of smartphones...) but I doubt he could have anticipated this.  I wonder if Cimarron will call the race before somebody gets hurt, or the course gets destroyed.

Bart got brutalized out there.

6:00am:  Nope.  She told Bart that if he decided to go out for his lap it would be "at his own risk", and recommended that he wait 15 minutes to see if conditions improved.  But this is racing.  Who's going to wait?  What are we going to do, sit around and watch our lead evaporate?  So he charged out into it.  Jason came in shivering uncontrollably and covered in mud, had to get George to swap in for him so that he could warm up and clean his bike enough to get the wheels to spin again.  Lap times have slowed way down.  Definitely embracing the suck.

Lap 7:  George hands off to me and grins through mud-caked lips, telling me that the riding is actually super fun out there.  He's full of shit.  Except that he isn't.  The rain stopped an hour ago, and the desert air has done its work on the course.  The opening climb flows by with minimal sucking mud and then the Jem downhill is fast enough that I don't even care.  There's mud in my teeth, in my hair, packed in my ears and working its way behind my sunglasses into my eyes, but as long as I lay off the brakes and embrace gravity none of it matters.  This is mountain biking, and I love it.

George brings it in for Team Fitzy.  What a trip.

10:16:46am:  George crosses the finish line after our 28th lap, inexplicably working to retrieve the clothespin "baton" from his jersey pocket.  Who is he planning to hand it to?  We're done.  We took the win for the 4-Man division with a comfortable margin.  2 laps short of the course record, but with the conditions we were given we're feeling pretty good about what we managed to accomplish in the last 25 hours.  Apparently stubbornness does count for something.  And really, given those conditions, that record might be within reach in 2015...

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Where The F@*k Is Gordon Wadsworth?!

The Stats:

Last Saturday brought a season-finale wondrous thrashing at the Fool's Gold 100 in the mountains of Georgia.  Fast, swooping singletrack through the forest, roots, creek crossings, threats of aggressive wasps and hornets, and extended stretches of gravel road riding.  And though they might not be tall by western standards, they are indeed mountains--there is no flat terrain anywhere; everything is up or down, and often steep.

Damn, put on some clothes, man!  It's too early for that.
Photo: Tom Linnell

After racing with Gordon Wadsworth at Pierre's Hole I was pumped to see him again and see how we would compete closer to his home.  It was also a chance to see friends like Dwayne Goscinski and Peat Henry, and Ernesto and Gerry.  Kind of like a "family" reunion to put a cap on the NUE season.

Photo: Tom Linnell

As happened last year, the race started with a somewhat horrifyingly chaotic knobby peloton on the pavement neutral ride to the big Cooper's Gap climb, where the hammerfest started.  Things thinned out pretty quickly, with Gordon pushing a super fast pace at the front and me hanging back with Dwayne and Bob Moss in the pack.  This is where I made a tactical decision that would ultimately make all the difference.

I've had success this season with tempering my pace in the first half of these extraordinarily long races, saving my matches, and then going hot and hard later on.  It works great; on most of these courses, we might be riding together but it's really a test of each rider's individual abilities--the group effort doesn't count for much on singletrack, other than motivation.  What I failed to account for is the volume of gravel road riding at Fool's Gold, where riding with a pack makes a HUGE difference.

So Gordon led the charge with what turned out to be the front pack of geared riders and I hung back with the second pack, "tempering".  Then when we crested the top of Cooper's Gap the lead group just disappeared.  Poof.  Our second pack was humming along pretty well, but with 3 of the 5 of us on singlespeeds (not really very helpful for fast road riding) we weren't able to match the pace of a half-dozen guys on gears, and one who was hammering on his single gear.

As the terrain rolled along and then dropped steeply down Winding Stair our pack spread out and eventually I was riding with Dwayne and Bob, three one-gear wonders spinning ourselves to oblivion.  At the start of Bull Mountain (the day's toughest sustained climb) my Dad fed us the information that Gordon was 2 minutes up--time to shift up and see if he could be caught.

Finishing the descent off of Bull Mountain, all by myself.  Good thing I'm my own best company.
Photo: Tom Linnell

Nope.  Somewhere on that Bull Mountain climb I got out ahead of Dwayne and Bob, and would spend the remainder of the race in no-man's land.  Peat found himself in the same situation, and reminisced afterwards about singing Iron Maiden's Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner to himself for hours.

Coming out of Bull Mountain, Dad gave the word that Gordon had expanded the gap to 5 minutes(?!)--that set the tone for the day.  It didn't matter how hard I hammered myself; Gordon just kept expanding his lead as he put himself in a world of hurt hanging on with the geared frontrunners.  I thought I was doing a pretty good job of putting myself through the ringer trying to reel him back in, but it didn't matter how hard I went.  Without a pack to work with there was no chance.

When I got to the midway point at Camp Merrill, Gordon's lead was 7 minutes and Dad explained that he was working with Jeremiah Bishop, Tinker Juarez, and the others to hold an absurdly fast pace on the roads.  Hope springs eternal (delusional?), but despite my best stubbornness and refusal to back off the pace I could feel that gap expanding as the roads through Camp Merrill rolled on and on.

And on.

That stretch was rough--apparently it was a low-humidity day, but I still felt like I was trying to breathe corn syrup, and despite temps in the 70's I was melting.  Give me dry air at 8000' any day--this low-elevation coastal stuff is brutal.

And the gap was indeed expanding--after the second trip over Bull Mountain, Gordon's lead was up to 17 minutes and it was clear that with 16 miles to go and nobody to share the labor I was going to take 2nd.

So, what else to do but see how damn hard I could ride the day's final singletrack, and how much damn fun I could have without wrapping myself around one of Georgia's plentiful hardwoods?  As it turned out, a crapload of damn fun.  The Jake Mountain and Black Branch singletrack has become 10 miles of my favorite trail anywhere.  SO fast, swoopy, winding through dense forest with subtly but wonderfully banked turns and enough roots and tight riding to keep things interesting.  Between railing the trail and cheering on the 50-milers I periodically overtook, I had a blast.

I never got a glimpse of Gordon.

Over the creek...
Photo: Tom Linnell

The course finishes with a few miles of pavement to get back to the winery, and then a quick romp over the creek and through the woods to the final grassy climb and the finish arch.

...And through the woods.  Still smiling!  I still can't get over how light the Pivot LES/Lauf Fork combo is.  Sick.
Photo: Tom Linnell

And just like that the racing was over, and the NUE season with it.  Blamo!

Oof, that hurt.  For both of us.
Photo: Tom Linnell

It stung to come so close to the championship once again, alleviated only slightly by the knowledge that the win went to Gordon's truly stronger performance at Fool's Gold, tactically and physically.  Where I failed to anticipate the volume of road riding and the tactics that would go with it, he made the right choice and then made himself hurt to carry it out.

But to have it all come down to one race.  Damn.

A bittersweet podium.  Pretty cool that 3 of us were riding the LES, though!  That bike is freaking amazing.
Photo: Tom Linnell

The Pivot LES was ridden to 3 spots on the NUE Series Singlespeed podium as well.
Photo: Tom Linnell

So the NUE season ends.  Looking back, honestly I had a great year--a handful of 1st-Place finishes, a handful of 2nd's, some amazing riding, some incredibly hard riding, an exceptional community full of new and old friends.  I was fortunate to get to ride my bike in some pretty cool races in amazing places, and I am eternally grateful for the support from Erica and my family and friends.

Watching the seasons change here in the Tetons, with rain coming down outside, I can feel a powder-ful winter approaching--skintracks and the silence of backcountry snowfall.  And I've already started dreaming about next year--how will I tweak my training, what races to focus on...

What to do until the snow flies?  The Flynn twins convinced me to join their 4-man team for the 25 Hours in Frog Hollow ("the longest 1-day race") with Jason Berning.  Maybe I'll even toe the line for a bit of autumn cyclocross; I still don't get the need to dismount my bike for these ridiculous obstacles, (if I wanted to go for a run, why would I bring my bike?) but when the forest is a muddy mess...

Fool's Gold 100 Gearlist on AXLPATH