Photo Cred

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Welcome To The Buck Parade

So a funny thing happened to me the other day--my friend Ben (whom I hadn't heard from in a couple of years) left me a voicemail that Jeremy Jones was in town and looking for a partner to go riding in the Tetons.  A couple of hours and a returned phone call later Jeremy was inviting me to join him and 3 other splitboarders to go up Buck Mountain, maybe riding the East Face, maybe the Buckshot Couloir.  How could I pass on an opportunity to get rowdy in the alpine with a group of splitters?  (It doesn't happen every day...)

Despite having just arrived home for the weekend from a work trip to Lander, Erica gave me the thumbs-up to go for it, so there I was in the Loaf n' Jug parking lot in Jackson yesterday at 5:30am meeting Jeremy, Frank, and Jimmy (two young freestylers from California who are getting all fired-up about splitboarding.)  We picked up one more out by the airport--Nick, an editor/filmer for Teton Gravity Research, who carried a large camera backpack through the whole thing and still managed to rip.

It took us a bit to get everything sorted out at the trailhead, but we were skinning at dawn and watched alpenglow on Albright and Static Peaks turn to a gorgeous sunrise as we passed through the meadow at the bottom of Wimpy's and traversed into Stewart's Draw.

Working our way up Stewart's just after sunrise.  A firm suncrust made for pretty quick travel.

Having "broken trail" all the way up Stewart's Draw to Timberline Lake we were surprised to see 5 skiers ahead of us on the upper East Ridge of Buck, with 2 more coming up behind us.  It was actually pretty nice to have a bootpack broken up the ridge, but having so many other people on the mountain killed Jeremy's plan to have TGR fly in and film the whole thing.  Not wanting to bum out everybody else climbing Buck he called off the helicopter and we changed our focus to just having a fun day of climbing and riding.

Booting up to the East Ridge from the Timberline Lake basin...

...And working our way up toward the top of the Buckshot.

As we climbed we remained hopeful about getting fresh tracks in the Buckshot Couloir, until we watched as the party of 5 in front of us skied the upper East Face and then traversed right into the Buckshot.


Earlier, looking up at Buck from the lake, I was struck by just how deep our snowpack is this year, and how well filled-in the East Face is.  There's a 600' cliff across the East Face about halfway down, so the traditional ski route descends fall-line from the summit and then makes a long traverse to end-run the cliff, but there's so much snow up there this year that I saw a clean line filled in through the cliff that might allow for a fall-line descent from the summit to the basin below.  I had never seen it before, and am honestly wondering if Buck has ever seen a fall-line descent down the complete East Face.

The East Face of Buck, with the traditional descent route in purple, and the fall-line route in orange.

So we re-adjusted our focus again, and with hopes of a sporting adventure into the unknown on the East Face we continued our progress up the bootpack.

Damn, that ridge is airy!

All grins, Jeremy loving life above 11,000'.

How cool to be up in this terrain with 4 other splitters?!  Approaching the final summit ridge, with 2000' of vertical drop down to Avalanche Canyon on the left.

The 2 skiers behind us caught up and passed on by midway up the ridge, and it turned out that I had met one of them at an avalanche awareness talk I gave in Idaho Falls last December--small world.  We saw another pair lower on the ridge when we looked back down, then another, then another about to climb up from the lake--this sunny Saturday was bringing out the full parade of alpine enthusiasts!

Leading out up the ridge.
Photo: Evan Honeyfield

Photo: Evan Honeyfield

We relaxed on the summit in still, sunny weather for a half-hour, taking photos and eating some lunch before rigging up and strapping in for the descent.  A few test turns showed the snow on the East Face to be fairly wind-hammered, but remarkably good chalky edging on a snowboard.

Looking down our route after making a few test turns.  I would typically like something bigger and stiffer to ride in this terrain, but the Voilé Artisan handled it just fine.  Despite my being a longtime advocate of solid boards and approach skis, I am consistently impressed with the performance of Voilé's splits.

I dropped in first, starting with slow tight turns and then letting it run as I gained confidence in the snow conditions.  

Frank comes in for a landing.

Jeremy lives it up in the chalky conditions on the upper face.

Peeling out onto a small ridgelet, I watched as the rest of the crew ripped turns one at a time down to join me, and we continued more or less together until we reached the cliffband and our new test route.  Jimmy rode first, going out of sight for about 30 seconds before we saw him railing it out into the basin below.  Sick.

Jeremy drops into our sneaker route through the cliffs on Buck's East Face.

I went last, carving controlled turns through the rocks, ecstatic to be riding with confidence on solid snow as I threaded the line through what I had always thought to be an impassable cliff.  What a high.

High-fives all around when I joined the rest of the crew, and we whooped it up as we traversed above the lake, heading out to a few thousand feet more fun riding down into Stewart's Draw and the lowlands below.

Looking back up at the proud line we just rode.

Having ridden out from here with Z last year, I knew that if we worked our way out the ridge that splits Stewart and Static Draws we would find a pair of lovely north-facing couloirs that were likely to be holding great powder.  What I didn't anticipate was that this season's snow depth had buried the rocks that form the couloirs, so when we arrived we were looking down wide, powder-laden chutes to the Draw below.  Perfect for wide-open, mach speed riding.

So good.

And then we were done.  Conditions allowed us to ride all the way out to the parking lot, where cold chocolate milk (for me) and beers (for everybody else) were waiting for us.

Damn, what a day.  Getting up high in big terrain with a fun crew under bluebird skies?


Crazy how it all came about, but it was awesome being in the mountains with this group of splitboarders--I'm stoked to have made some new friends, and to have found a bunch of new, motivated partners for alpine adventures.


In case you're wondering about the title reference:

Thursday, March 20, 2014

True Grit In True Wind

The Stats:

  • 84 Miles
  • 12,000' of elevation gain
  • 2nd-Place Singlespeed, 8th Overall
  • 7:14:14 to the finish.

That's 18 minutes faster than last year, and I wasn't nearly as crushed at the end as I felt in 2013.  The course was changed this year, a couple of miles shorter but apparently with 2000' more climbing according to Mr. Garmin.(?)  Regardless, I felt faster this year, and enjoyed the race way more.

I was pretty keyed-up in the days leading up to this year's True Grit Epic.  We're buried under snow here in Victor, and the ski guiding season has been full enough that I was concerned about being rested going into the race.  With big guiding outings on 4 out of 7 days prior to race day, lack of rest seemed a legitimate concern.  But that's how the cookie was crumbling--all I could do was try and get good nights' sleeps and eat well.  At least I wouldn't be sluggish from lack of activity.

And it felt really good to drive away from 6-foot snowbanks with my front bumper aimed towards southern Utah.  Mom offered to accompany me to St. George and be my fill-in support crew, as Erica was off on a work trip, so I picked her up at the SLC airport on Thursday evening and we spent the trip's first night cooking up a massive pasta dinner with Mary and Nils before getting a deep night's rest and making early tracks out of town.

Arriving in St. George, the intensity of the sun was pretty intimidating!  70-degree temps felt great, but I could feel any exposed flesh crisping as I stood at the Zen trailhead contemplating an afternoon pre-ride on this legendary slickrock route.  Ahh, sunscreen.

I was surprised (and pleased) at how comfortable I felt riding the technical, ledgy drops and climbs of Zen having not ridden dirt since October.  It just felt fun to rally through sections that made me pause last year.  Maybe visualization really does help?!  Feeling confident after having fun riding Zen, we set up camp at Snow Canyon and put dinner on the campstove to cook while I made a few final adjustments to the LES and Mom went in search of the hot showers.

An 8am start time felt luxurious as I rolled out of bed after a full night's sleep--normally these long races start ridiculously early to make use of maximum daylight hours for everybody to finish the course, but after last year's pre-dawn True Grit start (including postponing for 30 minutes to get us closer to daylight) Race Director Cimarron decided to just plan a sunrise start this year.  It did seem important to be able to see the rocky 2-track we would be riding for the first few miles.

The Men's Open division went off at 8, and then we had a 7-minute gap before the rest of the field would start this year.  It was good to see a bunch of familiar faces at the start line--friends that I hadn't seen since last summer.  Gerry, Trevor, Ernesto, Cheryl...  And, as expected, when we were given the go Gerry took off like a rocket.  That guy loves to start hard!  (I actually heard him tell a newspaper reporter afterwards that his advice is to start slow and build up to pace.  What?!)  This proved to be the start of my day's undoing.

"Gerry, wait up!"  That's me in orange chasing Gerry with the red helmet.  Brutal.

A full season of skiing, with some inside riding-on-rollers time mixed in, has been effective for building overall endurance, but I have no capacity for speed right now.  I could feel myself launch right out of aerobic land and into the hurt of anaerobic hell as I gave chase after Gerry and his new full-suspension singlespeed steed.

Coming into Feed Zone 1 for the first time, right on Gerry's squishy rear wheel.

Returning from the Zen Trail.

We went back-and-forth a bit through the first 20 miles, and then he got a jump on me out of the Feed Zone after the Zen Trail and I spent the next 30 miles chasing a ghost--I'd see him for a bit, close the gap a bit, then he'd go out of view around a hill.  The course took us down a romping descent for seemingly miles and miles of banked turns, rolling airs, and pumps with what I soon learned was a tailwind.  Perhaps the most fun stretch of riding I've ever done in a race, ever?  So fast, and so fluid.

And then we turned 180-degrees and started climbing into a stiff headwind that got stiffer as the day progressed.  The forecast was for 5-7mph winds, but when I turned north the first time it felt more like 15 or 20, with a long uphill ahead.  The kind of wind that made everybody take down their tents at the start/finish, and kept NUE Director Ryan O'Dell from setting up the Kenda finish-line arch.  Bucking that headwind was one of my low points for the day, and the knowledge that I would have to do it again on Lap 2 started forming niggling doubts about finishing this damn race.

The climb ended after about 6 miles and we turned onto more interesting, fun riding again, but it had taken its toll.  When we came out of Rim Runner and Barrel Roll I was maybe 200 yards back from Gerry and gaining ground.  Steadily closing the gap helped boost my confidence and stoke me up to maintain a hard effort and get back up with him, and then we hit a steep climb and my legs went into full-cramp.  I gritted my teeth, willing my legs to keep turning the cranks until the cramps passed (I could have gotten off, but that probably wouldn't have helped and my progress on the course would have ceased, and who knows if I could have gotten back on?)  That was when I followed some perfect white chalk arrows in the dirt, right off of the race course.

It was my own fault, dammit, but that doesn't make it any less painful.  Cimarron was clear in her directions to follow the orange flagging tape.  I knew I should be looking for orange flagging tape.  But my legs were staging a revolution and the majority of my brain's capacity was engaged in trying to bring them back onto the team and those perfect arrows pointing uphill to the right seemed like such clear direction to a brain seeking clarity, and so I turned right.

And that made all the difference.  It took a couple of minutes for my legs to agree not to secede from the effort and for my brain to recognize that the last flagging tape was back at that junction and that I had to turn back down the hill I was currently climbing.  When I arrived back at the white arrows it was not at all surprising to see many pieces of orange flagging tape going left instead of right, back toward Feed Zone One.  I had only lost a few minutes, but Gerry was gone, baby, gone.

I spent the rest of the race (the second half) riding hard, willing myself to get Gerry back into sight again, but it wasn't to be.  Re-passing guys that I had passed miles earlier in the race was somewhat defeating.  On the flip side, my legs pretty much ceased cramping and I was able to mostly enjoy riding the second lap.  Eventually I managed to catch my friend Matt Woodruff during the second trip up the Windy Climb and managed to croak out, "Maaaatt.  F*!k this wiiind."  He just muttered, "I don't know how much more of this I can take."

And just like that it started blowing harder.

Riding Barrel Roll for the last time (probably my favorite stretch of trail on the course) I was struck by the added challenge of fighting to keep from being blown sideways off the trail into the copious cacti out there.  Everything was rolling fine and then the wind would shift me a few feet to the right--scary.  I managed to totally blow it on the two most technical moves of that loop--pulling a nut-crusher on a drop, followed by a blown line on the punchy climb 100 yards later.  More lost time, with temporary discomfort-down-under.

Then at the final Feed Zone, Alex Phipps (who had wisely decided that one lap in that wind was more than enough, and was mucho helpful with feeding me water bottles and information) cheered me up with the observation that I just wasn't going to catch Gerry.


So, with that bit of information I was able to focus on finishing the race and having some fun with cranking a fast tailwind-aided pace.  The closing few miles were kind of a blur of pain and dehydration last year, so I was unprepared for what a blast it was romping through the washes and then rollicking over the rocks of the two-track to the finish.  I might not have been winning, but I was enjoying it anyway.

In the end I crossed the line 6 minutes behind Gerry, a bigger gap than last year's minute-and-a-half but without the sensation of being thoroughly crushed.  I was even able to smile a bit.

"How about that wind?"

Despite feeling better at the finish this year, I don't think I could have ridden any harder.  So what learning can I take away?  I'm able to maintain a good endurance base through the winter, but mid-March is early for me to have any kind of speed in my legs.  Planning in a few more days' rest leading up to the race would probably have been good, although I didn't feel fatigued so maybe it wouldn't have really made a difference.  My Roctane hydration/nutrition plan continues to work for me; I know most people feel the need to eat solid food, but I find that I can't stomach anything while I'm racing so liquid calories are what works for me.

And I am still seeking a balance of starting the race slow enough to allow my body to warm into it while going hard enough to stay competitive.

Though I had hoped to take the top spot, second-place singlespeed and top-ten overall make me optimistic about my season to come, and stoked to get back out on the race course soon.  Next up: the 6 Hours In Frog Hollow.  Look out, Gem Trail!

True Grit Epic Gearlist on AXLPATH

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

In For Round Two

I've been wanting to repeat the 'Round Our World tour for a while now, hoping to complete it faster this year.  Without getting lost.  And with better skiing conditions.

So with the Tetons in the middle of a multi-week storm cycle and a DEEP snowpack on the ground, when Scotty said he'd be interested in giving it a go what could I do but say yes?

But how to do it...

There's a big "light is right" push in the backcountry world these days, with fanatics logging 10,000'+ days on skinny little munchkin skis and faerie-slipper boots.  Sure, that's probably pretty fun, but if I can cover 12,000' and 20 miles and have fun on the downhills on some girthier gear, why wouldn't I go for that option?  With that in mind, I pulled my shit together and slapped skins on my new Artisan splitboard from Voilé.  Take that, you aerobic mutant Dorais brothers!

I know, I know--with my historical preference for approach skis and solid boards, it could strike one as an appalling about-face for me to start using a split.  I might even be accused of "waffling", if I were running for president.  But to be honest, my aging back is tiring of hauling a snowboard around, and the thought of having a touch more float and glide while skinning is pretty attractive.

Having had the Artisan out for a single day of guiding prior to this adventure I still had some efficiencies to develop, but what a sweet ride!  Sure, heavier than your honeycomb-balsa-wood-core-skinnies with aluminum edges, but damn this thing was a blast in the pow.  And with the split skis being wider than my boot underfoot it's a trailbreaking machine.

Here we go!

Loved the stillness of being the only people in Mail Cabin.

Not that it felt easy breaking trail out there on Saturday.  We were the first car in the parking lot, and got fresh tracks right from the start all the way to the top of Lone Pine.  Ankle-deep soon turned to knee-deep and heavy, with temps just south of rain resulting in super wet snowfall.

Welcome to the White Room?  No, welcome to the Wet Room.

That said, one of the benefits of breaking trail uphill is that it typically results in breaking trail downhill as well, and the turns off the back of Lone Pine were epic.  Watching Scotty make wiggle-turns as I ripped past him I realized once again that

I                                   LOVE                           SNOWBOARDING. 

(Especially in waist-deep powder that I had to sweat to get.)

We got Burbanked once again this year, wandering around through the nondescript woods of the Burbank Triangle for an hour or so until we finally found ourselves on the map and headed for Oliver Peak.  Thankfully Scotty brought a compass.

I was really wishing for one of Voilé's revolutionary Revelators here--not steep enough to ride but enough downhill to make skins slow and awkward.  A splitboard with scales?!  Sick!

Wandering out of the Burbank Triangle.

Scotty battles sideways snow on the shoulder of Oliver.  At least it was drier up here.

The overall theme for the day became wet-and-heavy snow down low and nuking winds up high, with a powdery sweet spot somewhere at mid-elevations.  We forged through sideways snowfall, little visibility, and a cold left cheek to the top of Oliver, and then made a rapid transition to downhill-mode for a couple thousand feet of amazing powder to Stateline.  Once again, the Artisan ruled the day.

Crossing the log over the creek at Stateline.  We were already soaking wet, but an unintentional swim seemed like a bad option anyway.  (It's probably thigh-deep here.)

Down at Stateline we discovered that the Pass highway was closed, and that the enormous parking lot was nearly full.  Thankful that we weren't trying to drive anywhere, we crossed the road and started skinning up through the forest towards Talbot's and the West Ridge of Mt. Taylor.  This was the one stretch of the day where we had a track broken for us--someone chose the south-facing aspens for their powder turns and had put a track in to the ridgetop.

Walking a mile in someone else's track?  So good.


And then it ended.  Skinning 4 miles and almost 4000' from Stateline to the top of Taylor takes a long time.  Add in knee-deep, thick trailbreaking and it takes a really long time.

Getting close to the top of Mt. Taylor.(?)

The breeze picked up as we gained elevation, pleasantly drying out our saturated clothing, and turned gale-force as we neared the summit of Taylor.  It's difficult to describe the experience of stumbling to the top of a mountain in shrieking winds and snowfall with absolutely zero visibility and realizing that though you're not sure exactly where you are you know you're surrounded by major avalanche terrain.  It's daunting.  And mildly scary.

I called Erica from the summit (once I discovered that it was 4:30pm) to ask for a raincheck on date night, and forgiveness for having to ask such a lame favor.

Bad husband.

Saintly wife.

The view from the top of Taylor.  Sweet.

Back to business, I put on all of the clothing I had with me and we started the process of figuring out our trip down.  With the heavy snowfall and high winds, we knew that we had to thread the needle down the Southeast Ridge to avoid big avalanche terrain.  The trick was how to find the needle.  We weren't even totally sure we were actually on the summit, and could barely make out the surface of the snow let alone terrain features below us.

A little bit of guesswork and brief views of a rock or a stubby tree led us down to the false summit and then to what seemed like the Southeast Ridge, or at least a relatively low-angle route downhill.  After ripping skins and committing to downhill travel, Scotty broke out his probe and employed some advanced route-finding technique while I fought off a vertigo-induced urge to vomit.

Sometimes this is the only way to tell where the ground is...

And then we made out a familiar rock outcropping and there we were--smack on the Southeast Ridge!  Some combination of dead reckoning whiteout navigational skill and good luck put us right where we wanted to be, with a couple thousand feet of deep powder and safe terrain to the bottom of Coal Creek.  Good thing too--every little roll and drift that we ski-cut on our descent shattered and released in small avalanches.

But the turns were damn fine...

Scotty takes off down the Southeast Ridge of Mt. Taylor...

...And disappears into the foggy pow.

"That's where we need to sneak through the cliffs below."  Threading the needle.

And finding the goods.

Mmm, deeeep.

Mmm, deeeeeper.
Reaching Coal Creek at 5:15pm, we reluctantly had to admit that it would be unwise to start the 3000' ascent up Mt. Glory to continue the tour.  We might have been able to break trail to the summit before dark, but we would be fully committing ourselves to navigating by headlamp through big avalanche terrain with reactive new slabs on the trip down to Teton Pass.  And then making our way through Edelweiss, Columbia Bowls, and back into Mail Cabin by headlamp as well, in heavy snowfall, seemed like a continuation of a bad idea.

So we pointed ourselves down the luge run and banked turns to the parking lot, where we once again had it all to ourselves.

"Dude, where's my car?"

First in, last out; "Bell-to-bell," as Scotty put it.  Standing back at the beginning 11 hours later, with 12" of fresh snow on top of the car, we had to question what the hell we had just done.  16 miles and 8,000'+ of brutal trailbreaking in a sometimes-sideways blizzard--oof.  We had some phenomenal powder turns, to be sure, but an absurd amount of travel to get to them.

Though I would like to say that we got to see a ton of amazing country, in reality we couldn't see much of anything for most of the day.  Lots of shades of white and grey, with dark trees and red backpacks to add spice.

Good workout?  Check.

Good adventure?  Yup.

Good fun?  Sure.

Would I do it again?  Absolutely.

I guess this is just what we do when storms and stability keep us from getting too rowdy in the alpine.

Splitboard and all.