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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sastrugi and Scree

When we drove over the Pass at 2am on Friday, there were at least 20 cars in the lot, with skiers milling about chatting it up.  After the initial confusion passed, we realized that the full moon had extended the ski day into the wee hours.  Perfectly clear sky, little wind, warm temps--those people were stoked!

Then, driving through Wilson at 3mph trying not to hit drunken revelers wobbling down the middle of Main Street, Scotty said, "Wow--we're up early enough to see them at the end of their yesterday," which struck my half-caffeinated brain as pretty profound.

Brrr, it's early.
Photo: Scotty Palmer

Scotty had a day off from patrolling up at Targhee and Twinkie had come over from Lander for a few days of skiing, so we figured we should do some exploring up high.  The plan was to skin into Garnet Canyon under the full moon and head up toward the Grand Teton for a ski adventure up there.  With last weekend's 3'+ of snowfall and high winds, we figured we had a 50/50 chance of getting turned around by poor stability, but you don't know if you don't go.

So we went.

A lovely, clear, windless morning made us hopeful as we skinned out of the parking lot, and totally sandbagged us about the conditions up high.  Once we got across Bradley Lake and up into the canyon we were breaking trail through 20cm of soft snow in our shirtsleeves.  Amazing.  Under the light of the full moon we could see some spinners blowing off of Nez Pierce and Cloudveil Dome, but we still weren't feeling a breath of wind.

We finally started feeling a light breeze in the Meadows, and the snow turned from shallow pow to windboard.  Leading the charge up the North Fork, Scotty finally called back to say that the slab had started to feel/sound hollow.  So we dug a pit to test the snow and gather some data.

At 5am.

In the dark.

Thump on it!

High strength, with full propagation on multiple tests and poor structure.  Probably hard to trigger, but likely to produce big avalanches.  Predictable?  Sort of.  Manageable?  Not really.  Using our powers that our friend Lynne (The Authority) calls "extrapolating upwards", we deduced that if we didn't like the stability on these wind-loaded slopes at 10,000' we wouldn't like it any better in high-consequence terrain at 12,000'.  Not entirely surprising, but not entirely what we were hoping for either.

I submitted the observation that if we stripped skins and headed downhill we could make it to Nora's in time for breakfast.

Scotty countered that we had woken up at 12:45am and skinned to 10,000' before sunrise, dammit, and we might as well make something of the day.  With my priorities properly realigned, we decided to venture up into the South Fork of Garnet Canyon and see what the Southwest Couloir on the Middle Teton had to offer--different wind patterns, different terrain, different snowpack.

Making our packs lighter.
Photo: Scotty Palmer

So we left our ropes, harness, and ice axes tucked in some rocks and without knowing it left behind good snow and pleasant weather as well.  What was windboard in the Meadows turned bulletproof, then 40cm-tall sastrugi, and finally the snow had been blown away entirely and we were walking through scree toward the north shoulder of the Middle.

Starting to feel the breeze.

Q: Dude, it snowed over 3 feet last weekend!  Where did it all go?
A: South Dakota

In what was now a howling wind, Twinkie inexplicably lost his mojo and decided to turn around and wobble back down to a sheltered, sunny spot for a nap.  Scotty and I continued with the exfoliation, donning crampons when we found hard enough snow that our boots weren't even making a mark.

Check out that wind-etching!

Dude, what are we doing?
Photo: Scotty Palmer

But optimism prevailed.  Maybe the wind would die down when we turned the corner into the couloir.  Maybe the couloir had been protected from the storm's northwest winds and we would find blower pow up there.  Maybe a faerie would flutter past and throw pixie dust on my face, and I would finally be able to grow a beard.

In reality, the snow just got worse as we climbed and while we no longer had a snow stability issue we had to admit that what started as a ski day had turned into a day of climbing into the alpine with skis.  With that change in perspective, we climbed up wind-eroded, rime-blasted, shallow snow in a gale, sometimes scampering over rock where the snow had blown off entirely and sometimes canyoneering up an armpit-deep runnel that the wind had given overhanging walls.

Nice runnel, eh?

Wanna know how to recognize a true adventure?  When you're engaged in a pursuit that you would rather be at home reading about.

No, we actually loved it.  Good character-building fun.

Now that's rime!  Just below the summit.

When we reached the summit, Scotty's toes had gone from cold to completely disconnected from his brain so we dug a sheltered alcove in the sun and did a little belly-warming to bring them back.

Mmm, shelter from the gale.  Happily on top.

It's been a number of years since I warmed another man's feet on my chest.

Then we took a few summit photos, climbed back down 100' to "skiable" snow, and started making "turns" back down the rimed sastrugi in the couloir.

Excellent view of the Grand Teton from the summit of the Middle.

Contemplating 2000' of horror-show skiing.
On a different note, these Voilē V8's are mind-blowing.  Playful, plenty of oomph to plow through thick snow, and their ability to handle these "firm" conditions belied their girth.  Drive them and they will perform.

Just making us better skiers.
Photo: Scotty Palmer

Scotty takes flight mid-turn.

With a few turns here and a bit of downclimbing there we came out of the shade and back into the sun, and turned tail for the canyon bottom and the track back home.  Skis on, skis off, bouncing over/off of sastrugi like it was moguls.  Vicious.

Did we really just do that?
Photo: Scotty Palmer

...And we're outta here.

Below the Meadows the wind magically ceased and we were back to fast powder skiing, bumping off of boulder mushrooms down to a snack in the sun with Twinkie.  With the perspective of a few minutes' separation we were able to chuckle about how bad the conditions were up high, and how good they were down here.

And then it came time to boogie out of the mountains.

Sastrugi and scree--kind of like Leather and Lace, but different.