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.
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.