Photo Cred

Photo: Scotty Palmer

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Each Day A New Adventure

Skinning away from the comfort and safety of the car at 3am, I find myself confronted with a challenging blend of emotions: exhilaration, fear, cold, hearing enhanced by the limited vision provided by a headlamp's glow.  Fingertips bite inside gloves, noses drip, skins hiss across hard-frozen snow.  The unknown of the day weighs heavy--will we work for hours to get up there only to be turned back?  Will conditions work out?  Will I fall off of this mountain?

The late Andreas Frannson wrote of it in his journal: "Would it be a game worth playing at all if the outcome was certain?"

Would it?


February's Friday the 13th seemed like a great setup for an adventure, having received 8-10" of snowfall in the preceding week and a couple of mild, sunny days on the 11th and 12th to settle things out.  In the wee hours of the 13th, ignoring common superstition around the date, Paul Rachele and I headed into Garnet Canyon to see how the game played on the Grand.

There is an old Irish blessing/curse that goes, "May you live in interesting times."  The Tetons have seen interesting weather this year, resulting in interesting conditions in the alpine, with strong winds blowing out many of the lines up high and unexpectedly filling in others.  Many lines are unskiable, or at least not worth the effort for the amount of ropework that it would take.  Others are as fat as I've ever seen them.  


The Ford Couloir is the funnel-shaped feature dropping from the summit, and the Stettner Couloir is the skinny one in the lower right.  The Chevy is the gully that connects the two, where the line is dashed.
(Photo taken from the top of the Middle a couple of years ago.)

The Ford-Stettner on the Grand looked pretty well filled-in from the valley floor, and we had been hearing reports that it was skiing well.  There were even whispers of powder turns off the top...


Sunrise from the Teepee Glacier.

So we skinned into Garnet Canyon with a brilliant quilt of stars above and firm, easy-travel snow under foot.  Above the Meadows the previous days' sun had hardened the snow surface to the point that skins were no longer practical, so we stowed them away for the rest of the day and initiated a few thousand feet of bootpacking.  Efficient travel landed us on the moraine at the toe of the Teepe Glacier just before sunrise, where we unexpectedly spent an hour fixing Paul's Dynafiddle heelpieces as the eastern sky turned orange.


Damn these Dynafiddles...

Ah well, at least we were beyond the point where he would need to stand on the Dyna-heels for skinning.  And as long as they kept his boot heels firmly attached to his skis they could avoid being classified as dead weight.




We couldn't have asked for or expected better weather than what we received up there: crystal-clear skies without a breath of wind and temperatures that begged no more than a light windshirt.






Gorgeous.



Upslope winds left some previous party's tracks raised above the rest of the snow in the Stettner--pretty cool feature.


Really, the climbing up to the top of the Chevy went quickly and as easily as could be expected for climbing above 12,000'.  The Stettner ice went easy, though I was a little disappointed to see that there was so little snow in there that taking the time to transition to making turns on the downhill journey would hardly be justified (after rappelling the Chevy,) so we would be rappelling everything below the Ford.  We chose to rope-up to climb the steeper pitch of ice in the Chevy, but almost just as a formality.


Exiting the top of the Chevy, and contemplating our first real views beyond Garnet Canyon.



Phew, still got a ways to go.



What a place.  Exiting out of the top of the Ford and onto the South Ridge, well above everything else in sight with roughly 700' of climbing yet to be done.


And feeling it.

Midway up the Ford things slowed down notably.  Then around 13,500' on the South Ridge the altitude started to really hit, and those last 300' took an eternity.

"Alright, just 50 steps and then take a breather.  Just 50 steps.  You can do that.  Okay, maybe 20 steps--that'll work.  Just get those 20 steps before you stop.  Fuck it, 10 steps.  Just kick 10 fucking steps."  And on...




And on...




Until finally, mercifully, there wasn't any more up to go and we stepped into the day's first wind flowing over the top of our world.



The obligatory summit shot.


We tucked into an alcove out of the wind and reveled in the view for a bit, eating nibbles of chocolate and drinking the last of our water as we slowly made the switch to playfully embracing gravity.  Paul got creative with ensuring that his ski bindings wouldn't fail at some inopportune moment, and we re-discovered the wonder of Voilé's classic orange straps.



Lock those things in there, dude.  And yet he skied with confidence--that is grace.





And then we were off.  Damp powder turns from the top of the highest thing around, with thousands of feet of exposure below.  Like flying, while staying firmly attached to terra firma.  Just enough tingling fear from looking down at that exposure to induce a heightened state of focus and awareness.  A whole different kind of high, brought on by being way up high.


Dreamy.





A whole lot of fun for a little while, and then just like that the Ford ran out and we were forced to resort to ropework to continue downward progress.  It's a funny feature of this route that I inevitably forget how skewed the skiing-to-rappelling ratio is.  There is actually remarkably little skiing when one thinks about it.  Not to diminish the experience of being up there--it's rad to spend a day like that way up in the alpine.  But as a ski objective?  Hmm.





That being said, once we stowed away the ropes and opened it up down the Teepe, all those thoughts melted away in powdery, arcing mach-speed turns to lower elevations.  Fatigue?  What fatigue?  


Gimme more.


Looking back up at the Teepe.  Damn, those were fun turns.
That run confirmed it--I love this board.  After years of questioning splitboard performance and adamantly carrying around a solid deck, the Voilé Revelator has turned me.  Super light and responsive, stiff just the way I like it.  Feels like every gram of energy that I put into this board comes back in snap, precision, and Grrrrr.


So, was Fransson right?  Would it be worth it if the outcome was certain?

No way.

Would we have even gone if we knew Paul's Dynafiddles would malfunction?  Or if we knew how much ice was in the Stettner?  Would we have chosen an alternate objective that offered up more turns?  Not knowing leaves an infinite myriad of possibilities for what might happen and how our skills can be pushed.  Not knowing makes the adventure exciting, and a little bit scary, and challenging, and... worth it.  And it's often the unexpected outcomes of a day's adventuring that become the most memorable parts of the day.


It's the not knowing that makes it all worth doing.


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.



Boing!



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:


Photo: http://www.skiingthebackcountry.com/

Beauty.


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 http://slc-samurai.blogspot.com/




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.


Van.

Scotty.

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...