Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The High Pressure Set Up

A lot of snow junkies out there might dread the winter forecast that spells the end to fresh powder. Two little words puts your next fix in question: HIGH PRESSURE. I must say though, that I do love a good week or so of high pressure every now and again. Being up here in the heart of snow country, in British Columbia, it sometimes feels non-stop, and you ask yourself, when was the last time I saw the sun? Now that I have escaped the sun-drenched and snow starved former stomping grounds of the southwest, I feel the need for a good week of sunshine every now and again.

And now we have it. The last 4 days have been crystal clear blue sky, calm winds, accompanied by a settling snow pack letting us venture out a bit further and ski a bit more aggressively. Last week, we had a few storms to track, as my assistant guide Jonny Simms and I lead our group of skiers around this corner of the Valhallas for a total of 40,000 feet of ski touring in 6 days.

Jonny checks out the snow at the end of the last storm cycle

As of Sunday, we have a new group of 13 skiers to show around, and we have already done 20 grand of skiing, but its not the same old operating procedures, because those two words are with us, high pressure. So we have been going big, hitting summits, skiing in the alpine and staring down the spine of one of the most impressive and uninhabited mountain ranges accessible to most of us in North America, the Selkirks.

Looking down our skin track to Shannon lake, with the main spine of the Selkirks in the background. Where is everybody else? There is no one else here...ahh...the Selkirks!

This range is unbelievable, and it is really the home to some of the best skiing in the world, hands down. The mountains and snowpack add up for a perfect combination. It is an 'average' winter here, and the snow pack is a well settled 3m/10'. Just the other day we were looking down the bowels of a 6,500' foot descent that maybe 2 people have ever done. Today we were looking out at the Bugaboos, confronted with the 3,000' granite west face of the North Howser Tower, and off behind it the seldom climbed alpine big walls of the Battle Range. This place goes on and on and on. I feel like every mountain range I have been to in the lower 48 states has a limit to its mountain is never 360 degrees; humans and their impacts are always visible. But up here, it's different, and it makes you feel good about how much adventure there is to be had so close to home.

And today was a day to check out some of those places so close to home. Even after three years of being up here at Valhalla Mountain Touring full time, there are so many runs I haven't gotten to do. Today I took the group down some 40 degree powder shots, with 15 to 20' pillows around to play on...I have been eyeing the line for 3 years and I finally got to do it now that the time was right...and it was so good, we did it twice!

Well, time to rest up for another big day of high pressure tomorrow. Maybe I will get to ski these lines that have never been done:
The group skins up to the summit of Cariboo Ridge, with the unskied north and west faces of Pyramid Peak, right in my 'backyard'

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Another Day at the Office

For those of you who have been coming back to this blog regularly, you may have noticed that I have been away from work for a few weeks, playing down in Salt Lake City, skiing the amazing snow cycle in the Wasatch.

Well, now I am back to work up here at Valhalla Mountain Touring, tucked away in a secluded powder skiing paradise. Getting here wasn't with out its adventures though, so here is a bit of a recap, and an insight look into the guide's life.

I flew in to Spokane, Washington to pick up my car, and make the 4 hour drive north via Rossland, BC. I must have brought the snow with me from SLC, because it stopped snowing there and started dumping up here, which is all great and dandy, unless you have to drive at night through it. I know you have all been there, trying hard to get to your destination, but being hypnotized by the Millenium Falcon hyper speed snowy night driving. Luckily in this part of the world 1 car passes you in the other direction every hour!

Night Driving BC Style - should I be on a snowmobile?!?!?

I made it to my destination safe and sound and unloaded my gear on to the snowmobile for my 'commute'. A little bit later I am back at the lodge, my office if you will, unloading, unpacking and getting ready for the next 28 days in a row of ski touring guiding. At an average of 5,500' vertical of touring per day, I am glad my fitness level is high, and that I have been resting for a few days, and eating as much as humanly possibly-kind of funny that I spend my days off sometimes resting and eating...

1 pm and the new group of 12 skiers are at the lodge. The frenzy begins: unpack, eat lunch, beacon practice, rescue drill, and a quick 1,200 foot lap of powder bliss out the lodge's front door to whet the appetite for things to come. Everyone is psyched, the snow is good, and more is on the way, time to ski!

Luckily with this job I don't have to fly solo, and I have an ACMG (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides) Assistant Ski Guide with me - Jonny Simms. He is also one of my good friends and climbing and skiing partners. With our level of training and certification and high amount of trust in each other, it is easy to keep safety as priority number one. And right now there is a lot on our plates in that department. 6 am and we are up talking snow and weather observations for the day to come. The snowpack in British Columbia is plagued by some persistant weak layers right now, and we need to map them out and keep track of their relative strength all week. So while one of us is up front route finding and trail breaking the other one has their nose in the snow, digging pits, poking around and radioing the other guide with the latest scoop on conditions. Decisions have to be made about where and what to ski, as we try and track down the best and safest runs we can all week.

Skinning up amongst the BC snow ghosts

Jonny and I work together to keep each other in check and make sure neither of us are missing the million little things we need to watch in the snowpack, weather and terrain to make the right decisions. But after all, that is our job and that is what we love to do: be out in the mountains and make it happen for these folks skiing with us.

Delivering the goods-25cms of boot top cold smoke

Today we woke up to 25cms of new snow with a bit of wind. Up here there is no avalanche bulletin to check out, or at least it covers an area the size of Utah, and is only updated every 3 or 4 days-we are our own avalanche forecasters. So, we venture out to see how the snowpack is acting and figure out what we can ski. More pits, some ski cuts, and careful poking around lead us to the goods, as we skied 6 grand today in boot top cold smoke. Jonny and I even found time to sneak in a few pillow lines and 20 foot cliff drops with the stronger skiers in the group.

Pillows - so soft and nice

Ho hum, another day at the office...

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The 10,000 Foot Day

It seems to me that almost every outdoor activity that I partake in has a certain benchmark challenge associated with it. For backcountry skiing, I would have to say that it is the 10,000 vertical foot day of touring. Sure, there are plenty of superstars out there that have pounded out 50 grand in 24 hours (, but to go out and get 10,000 feet of turns under human power is a great achievable goal for everyone (well, almost everyone).

Although to make it a spectacular experience, a bunch of key ingredients have to come together and today was one of those truly amazing Wasatch ski days. It has been puking non-stop here in Utah for weeks now. Alta's base is in the 150" range, the snowpack doesn't have many funky layers in it, and it just finished storming about 3 feet in the last 2 days. Of course I haven't been letting the snow settle for the last two days, with all of the new accumulation, I had to get out on Sunday and Monday, and logged in 14 grand over those two days. But today, Tuesday, was coming together to be the day. Storm snow and avalanche danger was settling down, blue skies were forecast, and the partners, Jasmin (my wife) and Adam were very keen. So the plan was simple, a variation on the famous "Northern Powder Circuit," starting in Alta and skiing down into Big Cottonwood Canyon. We met at 7am at Adam's house, loaded up the car, and bolted for Big Cottonwood Canyon's park and ride lot to stash the car. We geared up and by 7:30am we were thumbing it for a ride up to Alta.

I barely had time to snap a photo, as the first car that pulled over was heading to Alta and had room for the three of us! Perfect.

8 am and we were at Alta, witnessing the results of a classic Wasatch dawn patrol. A handfull of my buddies had just ripped down Little Superior, and we chatted at the cars as they got ready to go to work. They didn't have to say a word about the quality of the skiing, as snow plastered all over their hats was a true indicator. Not to mention the state of a few cars in the parking lot. Check out the antennae I circled:

Time for the first stage of the plan to take effect. Up Flagstaff, back down in the sun to Alta, back up Flagstaff, down Day's Fork. Wow. The powder was deep and light and turns came easy, except for cold faces.

In classic Wasatch style, the backcountry enthusiasts were out in force...bonus for us for the big day, as we didn't have to break too much trail in the 3 feet of unsettled cold smoke. Not to mention the fact that there was tons of room for us to make turns.

Stage 2 of the day got us away from the crowds a little more-but with a catch. We got to the top of a run called 'Banana Days' and skied that shot down another 1,500 feet. As a testament to the beauty of the day, we ran into the Powderwhores film crew getting some shots for their next installment. We pulled onto the summit with a few of that crew, just in time to watch the infamous heli ski operation of the Wasatch, Wasatch Powder Birds, land nearby to ski the same shot as us. Fast transitions were pulled off, and before I knew it Jasmin was ripping down the run, not about to be smoked by some heli-skiers after we had earned our turns!

We skied the lap, and busted a heavy track back up to Banana Days for the next segment of our 10,000 foot operation: The Hallway Couloir, one of my favorite runs in the Wasatch! We worked our way down and found the entrance to the line and enjoyed 1,800' of tight chute and open apron powder bliss down into Cardiff Fork. Here's a shot of Jasmin dropping into the Hallway with a few feet of fresh and a few thousand feet of it below her skis!

We hit the valley bottom and were in the Powder Birds frenzy as helicopters, and heli-skiers were everywhere, skiing the same lines we were enjoying under human power. It was hard not to feel self-righteous - wouldn't you? We stumbled onto another group's track up George's Bowl, as we neared 7,000' for the day. Ahead of us lay 1,500' of more powder bliss, so we took our only double lap of the day on George's was just too good to be true. We managed to find some room for turns, despite the heli-traffic, but it was hard for us not to get into the debate about whether or not heli-skiing should be allowed in the central Wasatch...I would love to hear some opinions on this one.

On top of the second lap, the helicopter flew up, spotted us in the landing zone and turned least they respected our space a bit.

After two runs, and a climb back to the top of George's bowl, our mission was accomplished: 10 grand (and 50 extra feet!). Here's where my Suunto S6 watch is super handy...I can track the vertical all day, while running my log book. Handy mountain guide geek tool altimeter watch that every backcountry skier should have!

Now it was 4pm, we had been at it for 8 hours and reached our goal. It was time for one last rip down Mineral Fork, with a few grand of blower powder waiting to get some tracks in it. The sun was still out, the city was in the distance, and the mission was accomplished. The pub was calling us for some nachos and beverages!
Or so we more adventure besides hitchhiking down to our cars awaited. The trail out Mineral Fork was being guarded by Bullwinkle. And he was pissed off with all this snow, because life is tough when you can't go to the pub for nachos.

We teamed up, tried to scare him down the trail, but he charged us and we skied down into the creek as fast as we could, forcing an unplanned stream crossing, and post hole up to the road.

10 grand don't come easy.