Friday, May 27, 2016

Temple Crag North Couloir

Just one week after skiing in the Palisades, we packed up again and made the drive across Nevada to the ski mountaineering mecca of the Sierra.  On our previous trip, we had spied this stunning line on the north side of Temple Crag, a peak that is much better known for its climbing potential than skiing.  We could only find obscure references to the North Couloir as an alpine climb with a reported pitch or two of WI 4/5 and steep snow.  The photo below was enough to jump it to number one on our hit list. 

Temple Crag and its North Couloir

We got a pseudo alpine start, avoided getting lost, and soon found ourselves booting up the apron and into this tight recess with soaring granite all around us.  The snow was boot top powder and the position was better than we could have imagined.  We were excited yet apprehensive because of the unknown climbing ahead of us.  

Our rack was small and while we haven't climbed much lately, I was feeling unusually sendy.  I claimed the lead and with Jason belaying, made slow but steady progress to a natural stance on the right side of the steep wall that separates the lower and upper chute.  There, out of gear and feeling proud, I tapped out and set up a belay to bring the boys up.   Jason would have to finish the job after he seconded with two pairs of skis on his pack!

Booting up the lower couloir (photo by Jason Dorais)

Leading up the first pitch (photo by Tom Goth)
Jason and I each took turns doing the dirty work of climbing with two sets of skis in tight quarters

The second pitch was shorter but probably represented the technical crux with some steep face moves that were marginally protected.  Jason had some doubts, but ultimately sent it with aplomb.  Once reconvened above the cliff band, we were completely blown away by the setting, snow, lighting, and overall position.  I think we all could sense how lucky we were to be there and we hadn't even started skiing yet.  

Above the cliff band, there is a Y in the chute, with the left fork taking a more direct shot to the summit.  Since summits matter, we intended to follow it to the top but after a few hundred vertical, it became clear that we would not be skiing from anywhere near the summit.  The summit block was nothing but rock so we clicked in and skied back to the confluence below to investigate the more aesthetic right or direct branch.  

Skiing back to the confluence (photo by Jason Dorais)

Photo by Jason Dorais

Jason skiing the left fork with the non skiable summit block above




This direct branch, continued upward for hundreds more vertical feet and passed over two or three lesser rock bands, which in a bigger snow year would be completely covered.  Although, mostly in the shade, the air was calm and the work of breaking trail in now knee deep powder kept us warm.  

Jason, looking down the main chute from the confluence

About 3/4 of the way up (photo by Jason Dorais)

Photo by Jason Dorais

Topping out the chute, we basked in the Sierra sun for a while and enjoyed our position.  We were about to ski one of the most striking features any of us had ever seen.

JD topping out

TG, letting gravity finally take over

JD from the top

It was tight but the snow was perfect. (Photo by Jason Dorais)
JD skiing through a Sierra hallway

About half way down the angle eased off for a bit (photo by Jason Dorais)

Then it steepened again just before the cliff/rappels (photo by Jason Dorais)

The turns below the rap may have been the coolest of the trip.  (photo by Jason Dorais)
TG below the rap 

Free to finally open it up below the cliff.  (photo by Jason Dorais)

This may have been my most enjoyable day in the mountains...ever.  Good partners, good snow, good weather, and a pretty damn good line make for really good ski mountaineering. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Palisades

It seems the weather has been plotting against us lately by dumping snow during our time off when we want to be skiing bigger lines.  Conversely, during our work weeks when we’d appreciate frequent refreshers, it always seems to be high and dry.  On my iPhone, I keep tabs on the weather in various mountain communities throughout the west.  I have icons for Leadville, Bishop, Lee Vining, Golden, Jackson, Moab, Aspen, and Anchorage.  Fortunately, we have friends in some of these towns that can tell us what the conditions are like on the ground but sometimes we have to rely on what the computers tell us.  Last week, with mostly unsettled weather throughout the west, there was one area of strong sun, mellow winds, and amazing mountains - the Sierra Nevada.  

By the time we tidied up our work responsibilities and got the OK from our lady friends, our adventure window had shrunk to a mere 36 hours.  Being foolish and possessing innate truck driving abilities, we decided to make a pilgrimage to the Sierra to see how much we could ski and see in one day.  We left Salt Lake at 3:30 in the afternoon and while I drove, Tom and Jason hit the internet hard to try and find a suitable objective.  I peppered them with requests to find out which roads were open into the range, to check the current snowpack percentages, and to do research on certain lines we wanted to ski.  In the end, we decided to either head into Whitney Portal or go explore the Palisades.  We’d sleep on it and decide in the morning.  

Speaking of sleep, our options were a roach motel, sleeping out at the yet-to-be-determined trailhead, or phone a friend.  We chose the latter.  Graham Kolb is a former climbing partner who now resides in Bishop with his long suffering gal, Anne.  He still crushes the juice from granite crimpers, and while I haven’t climbed with him in years, I called and left a message saying we were rolling through town.  He called back and also left a message saying that he didn’t recognize my voice but that since I knew his name and that he lives in Bishop, we were welcome to crash at his house.  What a guy!

With their deluxe pad to launch, we hastily packed and set the alarms for four hours later.  

In the dark, at about 7400 feet, we started hiking on dirt in our ski boots.  That was the first of many mistakes that would come back to bite us later, Tom most of all.  We tried to follow the South Fork of Big Pine Creek but were quickly entangled in the densest, thorniest, brush imaginable.  Jason lost his Julbos, and having experienced snow blindness once before, halted to find them.  Eventually, we broke through the briars and started linking up small patches of snow before switching to skins after an hour of hiking.  We had gained maybe 500 feet by this point.  

We kick turned our way up a headwall, excited to get a glimpse of our main objective for the day.  We had hoped to climb and ski the NE face of the Middle Palisade but our hopes were dashed when at first glance.  

Our desired line definitely wasn't "in". 
Fortunately, the Palisade region is dense in worthy ski mountaineering objectives and part of our goal for the day was to familiarize ourselves with the terrain anyway.

At this point, we took a relaxed approach to the remained of the still young day and decided to just hike around and ski whatever appealed to us in the moment.  Heading north toward the Palisade Crest and up the Norman Clyde Glacier, we saw a nice looking chute that drew us in for a look.
There were dozens of sweet consolation prizes like the North Couloir on Norman Clyde Peak.

JD nearing the top of the Norman Clyde Chute
Photo by JD

Photo by JD

TG dropping in and delighting in the surprising Sierra powder.
Photo by JD
Little JD
We were completely surprised by the cold soft powder and pretty psyched that we weren't sweating and getting sunburned as we thought would be the case.

Once out of the cold north chute, the good feelings didn't last long.  Stripped to T-shirts and with sweat stinging our eyes, we made a navigational error and cliffed out while trying to traverse over to Mount Sill.

We sat down and actually ate lunch.

Eventually, we became motivated to continue exploring so we backtracked and skied sloppy corn before traversing over toward Mount Sill.  With the day getting on and a long drive ahead of us, we made hast of the climb and got a look down onto the Palisade Glacier and its surrounding peaks.   High on the North Face of Sill, we found a rocky sneak into the North Couloir.  The skiing was mediocre but the setting sublime.  

Booting up Sill.  Photo by JD

Photo by JD

Photo by JD

Photo by JD 
We debated for a few minutes trying to blast up the V Notch but it was already 4:30 Mountain time and I had a hard deadline of being home by 5 AM.  It was already going to be close so we decided to save the Notches for another trip.

On the way out we added about a dozen other lines to the list.  We also found out that I'm the only one with balls in the group as the others walked around the clearly frozen albeit slightly slushy lake.
Photo by JD

This one would lure us back...
Since we were making a loop, we didn't know the North Fork exit which led to a few wrong turns before finding the trail.  We also didn't have shoes for the three or four miles of dirt.  It wasn't that big of a deal, except Tom's carbon boots were apt to break and being a size too small, were crushing his feet.  
Tom is starting to hate life by this point. 

On the approach in the dark, we somehow managed to get lost in the only patch of trees up this wide open basin. 

Ultimately, we made it home at 3:15 AM with plenty of time to spare!  

Total time was just under 36 hours door to door and it was completely worth it.  The Sierra just might be the best range in the lower 48 for ski mountaineering.  

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The White Baldy Ramp

The hanging ramp on the north face of White Baldy has always interested me but I have always been en route to other objectives when in the area.  Last week, I had a short window before work and it seemed to fit the timeline.  Thankfully, Matt Galland was willing to wake up in the dark to also accommodate my schedule.  

Once above the ramp, I was actually excited as it's reminiscent of a mini Otterbody snow field minus the rappels, the degree of steepness, and the grand scale of the Grand.  Nevertheless, it still gives one the experience of skiing out into space.  

Looking down from the top