December 26, 2010

Christmas Weekend Pictures

Christmas Day 2010. How can you beat this???

The "Pineapple Express" storm event dropped nearly TEN FEET of snow in the Wasatch, and then the skies cleared just as my parents arrived in Salt Lake for the holiday weekend. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were two of the most amazing days I have ever spent in the mountains... beautiful scenery, sunny, bright blue skies, and warm air temperatures (we're talking T-Shirt weather at 9-10 thousand feet!). On Friday, I took my parents up Big Cottonwood Canyon, and we snowshoed up to the USA Bowl ridge line. On Saturday, we started at Alta and went up to Twin Lakes Pass. I took my skis and shredded a few laps while my parents watched.

I have separate Picasa galleries for each day: Christmas Eve (56 pics (I got a little picture-happy since the sun had barely been out in 2 weeks)) - Christmas Day (25 pics). Lots of great pics in those galleries. I included a few below, but there are lots of other really good ones.

Looking back North towards Solitude

Mom & Dad taking in the views

Looking West, down Big Cottonwood Canyon

Mom & Dad on the ridge. It was pretty much HOT outside in the sun, so we hung out up here for a while.

Looking towards Scott Hill / Pass

Silver Fork

Great way to spend Christmas Eve with my parents!

Heading down through our trench

Jesse James, the best family dog ever, is enjoying being back in snow country this week

Mt Superior, Christmas Day 2010. Views like this beat any and all presents.

Mom & Dad hiking up towards Albion Basin

The final stretch up to Twin Lakes Pass

A fantastic Christmas Day!!!

Little Cottonwood Canyon. Hard to believe I live 20 minutes from here. What an amazing area!

About to drop into Grizzly Gulch and make some Christmas ski turns!

December 23, 2010

What's on your coffee table?

Over the past few years I've started to develope quite a collection of maps, guidebooks, and other reference materials relating to skiing, hiking, backpacking, avalanches, etc. Most of them are located on my bookshelf, but depending on the season, certain "staples" are perpetually in the living room (on the coffee and end tables).

Here's what it looks like right now:

Obviously backcountry skiing is the name of the game at the moment. Chris Davenport's new book, 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America, is the newest addition to the bunch, and I've only had the chance to skim through it. It looks full of eye candy, though. And what makes it especially appealing is that while I'll never even see some of the mountains in the book in real life, I'm planning of skiing some of the "classics" in 2011 (Superior, Shasta, Rainier, Timpanogos, etc.). Davenport's other book, Ski the 14ers, always anchors the other side of the coffee table. I've climbed most of the 14ers in CO, and skied a handful of them, so in addition to incredible photography, this book holds lots of great memories for me.

I really like Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, written by the UAC's Bruce Temper. Its textbook style, but probably the most interesting and relevant textbook I've ever read. Lots of great information. Snow Sense makes a great companion when just looking to review the basics.

So we have Dav's books, which provide the stoke, and a few avy books which provide the knowledge to help us make good decisions... so what's left? Where should we go skiing?!...

Since backcountry skiing is so popular in Utah (and especially in the Central Wasatch), there are some really stellar guidebooks. The 3-part Wasatch Tours books are the best for skiing within an hour of SLC. They aren't as easy to find on Amazon, but you can find them at local REI stores easily. There is also a series of Wasatch Touring Maps which are incredibly useful, but also much easier to find locally. And since there actually is amazing skiing all over Utah (not just in the SLC periphery), I've found that Tyson Bradley's Backcountry Skiing Utah is a good place to start when thinking about skiing all over the rest of the state. The Tushar, LaSal, and Stansbury, and Oquirrh mountain ranges are definitely on my radar for the spring.

That's just the coffee table! How about the end table?...

Well, we have Wild Snow, which has inspired a Cascades ski mountaineering trip I am planning for June of next year (and is written by Lou Dawson, who also has a blog of the same title, which I have learned a lot from). Climbing the Cascade Volcanoes is another reference I am using for the early stages of planning that trip. Freedom of the Hills is the freaking bible of mountaineering. I don't think I could trust anyone who didn't own a copy of it! ;-) And some random books on the Wasatch and Wind River ranges are in there as well. We'd like to get up into Wyoming for a few 3-4 day trips next year... which reminds me that I need to reserve backcountry permits for Grand Teton National Park in about 2 weeks. All these adventures require a lot of planning!

December 21, 2010

Backcountry Skiing: A Risky Endeavor?

Utah Avalanche Center forecasts for this past weekend. On Saturday (12/19) we skied a zone that falls within the area I outline in blue, N/NE aspects between 9-10.5K ft. On Sunday (12/20), when the danger increased, we avoided the backcountry altogether, and skied at Solitude.

It frustrates me when people call me a "risk taker" for participating in backcountry skiing (or many other forms of recreation that I enjoy, such as mountaineering). Early this week, after a major storm buried Utah's mountains under several feet of heavy (20% water weight) snow, the avalanche danger was elevated to High/Extreme in the Central & Southern Wasatch mountains. Despite numerous avalanches all over the region (both natural and skier triggered), a broken leg in Cardiff Fork was the worst thing that was reported. During the same storm cycle, 13 people lost their lives in automobile accidents in Utah.

Andrea and I skied steep backcountry terrain in Days Fork on Saturday under "moderate to considerable" danger (according to the UAC forecast, which we read and analyze every morning before heading out, along with looking at maps and guidebooks in planning which areas we are going to ski). While in the backcountry, we were dialed in to everything happening around us: the wind speed, wind direction, temperature, terrain features, slope aspect, slope angle, safe zones, avalanche paths, snow surface, snow crystal shape, etc. We stood at the top of each run and talked about where we were going to ski and how we were going to ski it. We talked about what potentially could go wrong and how to mitigate the danger. We made informed decisions as a team. We carried rescue gear (beacon, probe, shovel, and the new addition to the 3 essentials, an Avalung backpack). And ultimately, we skied 6 laps of face-shot powder, had a great time, and felt really good about the choices we made. When we got home, we looked at the conditions reports from other backcountry areas, to compare our first-hand observations to what other people saw, and get a better understanding of the snow/weather dynamics throughout the entire region. The next day, when the storm intensity increased and the avalanche risk was further elevated, we opted for a day of lift-served skiing at Solitude Mountain Resort. It was a great weekend.

When I read about how many people died in car accidents during this storm, it motivated me to write this post, as some of these ideas have been kicking around in my head for a while. The thought of lots of people, with lots of other things on their mind, with the ability to accelerate a five thousand pound chunk of metal to 70 miles per hour with just the slight extension of their foot is downright scary to me! Just as the thought of making ski turns on an uncontrolled mountain slope is scary to a lot of other people.

I'm not trying to say backcountry skiing is "safe" ("safe" is a word I hate because very few things we do, and especially no recreational activities that are worthwhile, are completely safe), but I am trying to point out that whether its driving or backcountry skiing or anything else, there are certain rules that you follow to mitigate risk. For driving, there are road signs, lights, lanes, and many other "rules" to guide you. For skiing, you pay attention to all the things I mentioned above in the second paragraph. Sometimes, inevitably, no matter how good your decision making is, you still might be involved in an accident. So when you are driving, you take further safety precautions such as wearing a seat belt and "carry" (in your car) devices that mitigate damage, such as air bags. While you are skiing, you wear a beacon, avalung, and carry a probe/shovel (and are trained in how to use all of those things).

Skiing isn't safe. Accidents will happen. But I'm not going to stop skiing the backcountry. I'm going to do it more and more and more. I feel confident in my ability to mitigate the risk, understand that the mountains are bigger than I am, and the ultimate goal is always to ski another day.

How often are you truly in tune with the dynamics of everything happening around you? How often are you completely dialed into what you are doing? I don't think many people can say that about their driving. Phone calls, radio, eating, drinking, texting - they are all distractions. Other yahoo drivers who aren't paying attention further increase the risk. Yet we all drive cars every single day and don't think twice about it.

I've probably beaten this analogy to death, and by no means did I mean to capitalize on the fact that so many people died recently in car accidents. I'm sure there are some statitistics out there that actually show driving is "safer." That's fine. The point of this was to demonstrate how much thought and training people (like myself) put into safe backcountry travel. Backcountry skiing is not a "grip it and rip it" sport. We're constantly thinking about what we are doing, and the consequences of our actions, a lot more than most people are when they turn on their car and pull out of the driveway. How often do you lay in bed at night and think about where you are going to drive your car the following day, and then are 110% focused on driving when you are actually in the car? Probably not too often. I know I don't. But with backcountry travel, that is pretty much always the case for me. Its a sport with risk, but incredible rewards. With knowledge, tools, and a slice of humble pie every once in a while, you can spend a lifetime skiing the backcountry (and blogging about it ;-).

December 20, 2010

Backcountry Fuel

I've gotten in the habit of running for at least 1.5 hours in the early morning before we go out backcountry skiing on weekends. Since so many people ski tour in the Central Wasatch, skintracks are usally laid down and I don't really have to break trail all day. So that means more running AND more skiing. That also means on days that your running 15+ miles and climbing 5000+ feet, you gotta put some fuel in the furnace. Andrea and I think we've found the perfect food to get the day started right:

For breakfast, eggs with ground turkey, cheese, onions, peppers, and salsa. Its delicious, hot, and filling. Chug a couple glasses of diet dew along with breakfast, and load the skis on the car and head up the canyons.

Once we're out in the mountains, we actually don't eat a lot. We're usually more focusing on climbing and skiing. Quick fuel, like trail mix and little candy bars, are usually in our pockets for transitions. But the #1 snack food that nothing, and I mean nothing, can beat is good old fashioned cheese and crackers.

And once we're home, after dinner, we usually have at least 4-5 flavors of ice cream to choose from! :-)

December 19, 2010

Storm Skiing

Backcountry skiing in Upper Days Fork

Another classic Wasatch weekend... here's the rundown of what we were up to...

On Friday, Andrea and I both got out of work early and headed straight up to Alta. We made quick work of the climb up to Patsy Marley peak via Twin Lakes Pass (1700 feet in under an hour). Hoping for a spectacular sunset (which didn't happen because the storm was rapidly approaching), we settled for nice turns through recycled powder. It was still early enough to make another shorter (600 foot) run off the north side of the pass before darkness fell. Afterwards, we hung out up at Alta for a while before meeting Chris Davenport and seeing his new film about skiing in Antarctica, Australis. Check out the trailer on the Australis website if you haven't seen it yet. I'm planning to write more about meeting Chris and his new book in the upcoming week.

I mentioned that a storm rolled in as we were skiing on Friday. Well, this storm is picking up moisture from the Southern Pacific and absolutely drilling the Sierra Nevadas (total snowfall is expected to be somewhere between 6-10 feet). In the Wasatch, we'll probably end up with about 4 feet by the time it passes through on Tuesday. Anyways, it really started to come down on Friday night, and on Saturday the skiing was fantastic. We skinned up to Emma Ridge from Alta, and skied 5 laps in the Upper Days Fork Cirque, then one run back down to Alta. Six runs, 5000 vertical feet of powder skiing, in about 5.5 hours. Pretty awesome. Avalanche danger was moderate to considerable, but we made good terrain management choices and stayed safe. Sluffing was common on steep aspects, and by the end of the day, the wind had loaded some slopes to the point where I could intentionally trigger small slides with a hard ski cut. Upper Days is probably the best place we've skied so far in Utah - here's what it looks like when the visibility is better.

By this morning (Sunday) the avalanche danger had risen to high, and the snowfall rate had picked up even further, so it was a good day to ride the lifts at Solitude Mountain Resort. Eleven inches of fresh snow was there when we arrived, and it only got deeper as the day went on. Nonstop snow... we were SOAKED... but we skied powder all day, and it was awesome. In some areas, 2.5 feet deep awesome! Solitude is a great ski area... small (like Beaver Creek), but it gets tons of snow, and it seems like nobody skies there... I mean, today was a full-on powder day, and we skied right onto every single lift.

On my picasa site there is a full gallery with 57 pictures from the weekend. Some selected ones are below. Visibility / Light was poor all weekend (snowing and cloudy), but we still managed to get some decent shots...

Little Cottonwood Canyon

Mt Superior. An absolute classic that I can't wait to ski. It scares me and excites me at the same time.

Andrea skinning up to Patsy Marley on Friday afternoon

Andrea skiing the North face of Patsy Marley

Skiing Patsy Marley

Me and Chris Davenport. It was really cool to meet him and chat with him for a while.

Skiing on Saturday in Days Fork. You'll notice I'm wearing a helmet-cam. That's a new little toy... I'll get some footage up soon :-)

Andrea skinning up to Emma Ridge

Andrea ripping it off the top of Emma Ridge

Looking down at the area we were skiing, and the Reed & Benson Ridge behind me

Andrea on the Emma Ridge. We were skiing laps from this ridge down to the meadow on the bottom left of the picture.

Skiing the South side of the Cottonwood Ridge back to the car on Saturday

Skiing at Solitude on Sunday

It was DEEP

Two dozen bottomless powder runs is a great way to spend a Sunday

December 12, 2010

Big Cottonwood Weekend

A quick photo update from the weekend. About a foot of new snow fell on Friday night, so we skinned up Silver Fork with some friends on Saturday and got in about 4500 feet worth of perfect powder turns. Today, Andrea and I headed up Butler Fork to ski the East bowl of Mt Raymond. Visibility was poor to quite poor (fog), but it was nice and warm, and once the clouds lifted, it felt more like June than December!

The weather in SLC has been quite pleasant lately. Pretty warm in the valley (even Andrea was running in shorts this afternoon), and the snowpack in the mountains is deep and relatively stable. Can't ask for much more than that. We've made a lot of quality early season turns, and I've been running an average of ~120 miles a week for the past month, so its safe to say that winter is off to a great start!

Full gallery from the weekend: December 11-12 skiing

Andrea skinning in Silver Fork on Saturday

Hmmm which way was the wind coming from last night? :-)

Ridgeline skintrack

Our crew on the ridgeline

Transition zone

Can you spot me?

Andrea on our last run of Saturday

Skinning up to Mt Raymond today... couldn't see a thing!

The skies clearing on our way out. We skied the big obvious bowl in the center.

Kessler and its big avalanche paths

Andrea walking out the last quarter-mile... coverage was a little thin, and there was no point in letting her new skis hit any rocks.

December 5, 2010

Park City and White Pine

Wow... just a great weekend in the Wasatch...

Exactly a year ago this weekend, we took a little trip out here to check out SLC as a potential place to move to. We skied at Park City that weekend, and there were about 4 runs and a couple hundred acres open. There was no snow! But we still moved here, anyways ;-)

This year things have been a bit different in terms of snowfall. Its been quite an incredible early season, with the upper reaches of the Cottonwoods already having received about 12 feet of the white stuff. Since Andrea just got some new skis as an early Christmas present from me (and then outfitted herself with some lightweight AT boots and Dynafit bindings), we decided a day of lift-serviced skiing at Park City was a good way to get the feel for the new gear. Plus, pretty much the entire mountain was already open... what a difference a year makes! So, we skied PCMR on Saturday... no fresh snow, but there was nobody there, so we had the place to ourselves and got in a full day of skiing. True to what you'd expect from us, even an "inbounds" day included 4 hikes to access some better terrain.

On Sunday we met up with Mark, Lisa, and Sharon and headed up White Pine Canyon for some backcountry action. We were rewarded with surprisingly fantastic snow conditions (despite the fact that it hasn't snowed in 6 days), warm weather, and sunny, blue skies. We skied three of the prominent NW-facing chutes off Red Top, and had a really, really fun day. The total vertical was around 5,000 feet, which is perfect for early-season touring.

Full gallery of pics from the weekend here... some selected ones are below:

Andrea skiing Jupiter Peak at Park City Mountain

My turn

Andrea above Park City

Andrea skinning with Upper White Pine and White Baldy behind her

Our second run of the day on Sunday... our tracks to the right, and Lisa is dropping in to the left

This is probably when I was telling Andrea for the 10,000th time how much I love living in Utah

Enjoying the run out... the chutes we skied are up behind me

This is the zone we skied all day... pretty much tracked it out!

I love this area of the Wasatch

Another landscape scenic

4/5ths of our crew for the day

The Cottonwood Ridge, on our ski back to the trailhead