Photo Cred

Monday, February 25, 2013

Powder Skating!

Despite the season's biggest dump over the weekend, I chose to wax up my skate skis and head out for the Alta Freestyle Nordic race with my parents on Saturday.  Put on by TVTAP, it has a well-established history (in its short lifespan) of welcoming racers with atrocious conditions.  At least this year was just powder, unlike last year's single-digit temps and 20mph ground blizzard.  Nick and the grooming crew did as much as they could, but all of that fresh powder is only going to pack down so much.

The racing was fun, a high-quality whupping for my haven't-skate-skied-in-a-month body, but more fun was watching my dad's improvement over last year's race--never had to stop to catch his breath, dropped 5 minutes off his 10km race time!  Pretty good for a dude 2 days shy of his 69th birthday, and good enough to take second-place in the 60+ age division.  Sick.

So here's a little video from the day--thanks for being our camerawoman mom!

Now back to our regularly scheduled powder skiing...

Saturday, February 16, 2013

(Trying To) Get Smart

Ever heard the saying, "I'd rather be lucky than good"?  Unfortunately, as I like to tell avalanche course students, luck is a poor risk management strategy.

I'd rather be good than lucky.

And part of being good is approaching the mountains with a healthy dose of intelligence and humility.  Luck runs out eventually.

Parker and I were really fired up to explore a ski descent of the original Briggs Route on the Grand Teton yesterday, but 9-18" of new snow (depending on which site you look at) combined with strong winds out of the northwest made us suspect that avalanche conditions would be too touchy up there.  So we pulled the plug.

Better to be good than lucky.

The North Face of Buck seen from the South Teton, with the summit of Mt. Wister in the foreground.  The Newc is the right-hand couloir, starting in the notch to the right of Buck's summit.

We shifted our sights to the Newc Couloir on the North Face of Buck Mountain.  (Named after Mark Newcomb, who made the first known descent of it in 1995.)  STEEP, narrow, and long, the Newc faces just about dead north, so the prevailing winds shouldn't have loaded it up and any storm snow instability had probably sluffed out of it.

Working against us was the forecasted cloudy morning and winds; but with the right timing the clouds would burn off and we would be sheltered from the wind in the couloir, right?

Also working against us was that this was our last day off before a long string of guiding and avalanche course work.  In reality, we knew we were going to be a day early for primo weather, but them's the breaks.

Feeling pressure to get after it?  No doubt.

We had a lovely skin up 25-Short in the wee hours of the morning, topping out just after sunrise with gorgeous views into the valley below.  The final ridge showed obvious and significant effects from our recent winds--scouring on the crest with some new wind-slab development on the upper East- and Southeast-facing slopes.

Photo: Josh Parker

Standing at the top, with winds ripping through the higher peaks and a wall of clouds blocking the view into Avalanche Canyon, we knew pretty clearly that the Newc wasn't in the cards.  Crap.

What we could see of the high peaks made us feel good about our decision to forego the Grand--it looked well-loaded up, and there were fresh avalanche crowns on the East Face of the Middle Teton.

This was the view into Avalanche Canyon from the top of the Turkey Chute.  Damn.

We had a good conversation about it, and decided that it was just going to be a good day for powder skiing.  So, with gorgeous pow below us to the east we decided to make an initial run back down the slopes of 25-Short.  And it was damn fine.

After a little assessment...Photo: Josh Parker

...The powder was quite nice.Photo: Josh Parker

"This is the first time I've woken up at 3am to go powder skiing!"  Parker getting some powder turns on the sunny side.

The skin back up was sunny and warm, and when we hit the top we decided to check out the Turkey Chute for a second run on the day.  

The entrance to the Turkey Chute has been blown a bit thin.  At least there's no avalanche hazard.

There was a heavily wind-loaded pocket on the left side, but the rest was boottop, firm powder glued in place.  So how to manage it?  Stay to the center/right and rip it.

Dense, fast powder glued into the Turkey Chute.  Sick.

Yup, that was fun.

And it stayed good all the way to the bottom of the canyon.Photo: Josh Parker

It was a lovely day to skate out of the mountains, but look at the wind up high!  Brrr.

It did sting a bit to turn back from the Newc, but ultimately we made the best decisions with the information we had at the time.  If I had it to do over again I'd do the same thing, and that feels good.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

"Ski Mountaineering"? I Think Not.

I have a few friends who get way into the whole rando ski racing thing, and once I look past the hype and the spandex suits I am totally impressed by their athleticism.  The speed at which they climb and descend on their tiny little race skis is amazing.  I have zero drive to join them, but I admire what they're doing.

Ski mountaineering it is not.

Perhaps it's a compulsive need for honesty in language and communication.  Maybe it's just that I love ski mountaineering and have a deep respect for the sport and those who do it well.  Either way, it strikes me as disingenuous that people refer to rando racing as "Ski Mountaineering Racing".

There's even a non-profit organizing body for it in the US.  According to their website"The United States Ski Mountaineering Association (USSMA) sanctions and governs competitive ski mountaineering racing in the US and promotes and fosters recreational ski mountaineering through access, resources, education and community."

What am I getting at?  There is no actual ski mountaineering in these "ski mountaineering" races!  Doesn't anybody else see it?  It's uphill-downhill ski racing--running up hills to ski back down.  Which is impressive in its own right, but please let us stop calling it what it's not.

Years ago in a fit of questionable judgment I entered the Jackson Hole event on my snowboard, thinking that it might be interesting to test my abilities on some of the more extreme ski terrain in the US.  And then we skinned up groomers and moguls, and skied down a bunch of the same.  The climb up Corbet's Couloir had the potential to offer a good technical challenge, until they put a ladder up it and turned it into just another bootpack.

Hell, in the US most of these races aren't even held in the backcountry, let alone in mountaineering terrain.  The track is set (no route-finding or trail-breaking involved,) the hazards are controlled, and you would have to really fuck up to get yourself lost.  
At least in Europe they race on glaciers, but their "safety systems" are little more than g-strings with dental floss used to attach to one's teammates.  Which is probably appropriate on a controlled course with virtually zero objective hazards.

"But you wouldn't be able to travel at racing speeds while safely making technical moves."  You're probably right.

"It wouldn't be fair to the race leaders if they had to break trail for everybody else."  Debatable, but missing the point; I'm not arguing that the sport be changed, just that we stop calling it what it's not.

By no means am I trying to take away from the remarkable athleticism of the racers out there competing in these events.  They're amazing.  Their accomplishments are amazing.  What they have dangling between their legs is doubtless far chubbier than mine.  (The guys, anyway.)

And there is no doubt that rando racing has propelled innovation in ski touring gear leaps and bounds in the last decade.  The development in equipment and techniques inspired by racing is awesome; every one of us in the backcountry benefit from it.

But it's still not ski mountaineering.

Andrew McLean on the second known descent of the Hossack-McGowan Couloir on the Grand Teton.

Mountaineering is exploration and adventure, challenging oneself to see if that summit is achievable or that range can be traversed, assessing and managing hazards, succeeding or not based on one's skills, endurance, and judgment.  Add skis to the mix and it's all about taking on a difficult descent involving some degree of objective hazard with poise and grace.  "I wonder if that line is skiable?"  "What would it take to link that up?"  Ski mountaineering is an ephemeral thing, with success more often than not hinging on the ability to predict weather patterns and route conditions.

Rando racing does indeed challenge an athlete's skill and endurance, to a point, but it removes any hint of exploration or hazard management.  The terrain is determined, and racers can win by putting on blinders and charging through the course, oblivious to the world around them.  Do that while mountaineering and you'll be lucky to come home.

So what do we call it?  I thought Randonée Rally Racing was pretty good.  Backcountry Ski Racing would work, if it took place in the backcountry.  Dynafit has a complete line of skis, bindings, boots, and poles devoted to what they're calling "Ski Running"; that could make a decent name.  In the end it makes little difference to me what it's called.

I just want to us to stop denegrating the name of ski mountaineering by claiming that this racing sport is anything more than a dim shadow of what it's purported to be.