Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Liberty Ridge Speed Attempt: 7:07 Car to Car

Last week, while at work, I checked the weather for Mount Rainier, looked over at Jason and suggested a climb and ski of the classic Liberty Ridge.  He immediately said, "sure" and we went back to work.  A couple days later reports starting surfacing of a new speed record for the route with a descent down the Emmon's for a car to car time of 9:11.  Sure enough, Eric Carter, Nick Elson, and Colin Haley had laid down a solid time but were modest and encouraging that it could be done much faster with better conditions.  They had faced significant delays by having to break trail for much of the upper route.  Further, all three live at sea level.  Looking at my watch right now in my office, I sit at 4600 feet and Jason lives at 7400; a distinct advantage.  

Reluctant and sheepish to attempt a faster time in the same week, we quickly got over our reservations as we became more and more excited by the mountain itself.  Our main concern was how we would hold up fitness wise as we hadn't exactly been training for a long sustained effort like this.  

Our plan was now to leave home after work on Thursday, stop in Boise, finish the drive Friday and recon the start, and then go for it on Saturday.  This would hopefully allow for another day to ski on Sunday as we had friends converging on the mountain from AK, CO, and UT and it would have been fun to get a chance to actually ski the ridge too.  Then, as is typical, we were scheduled to work on Monday so we figured we'd rally home as soon as we were done on Sunday afternoon.  

Everything went according to plan until about one hour into the effort on Saturday morning.  We felt strong, the conditions were fast, albeit slightly warm, and we were ahead of pace.  That is until I heard a snap while skinning through a small depression just before tree line.  I looked down and the day was over.  My ski was broken and so were our ambitions.  St. Elmo's pass looked just minutes away but we were done before we could even really get started.  

Immediately, I grabbed my phone and started frantically calling Lars Kjerengtroen and Brian Harder, both of whom were en route to the mountain and with whom we hoped to ski the next day.  Neither had extra race skis or access.  We skied/limped out and started texting everyone we knew in the PNW.  Eric Carter gave me Colin Haley's number and he very generously offered his personal skis but they wouldn't be available till Monday.  Patrick Fink put me in touch with Ethan Linck, who did some leg work to find Todd Kilcup, who also very generously offered to let me borrow his race skis.  In another stroke of luck, the bindings were mounted perfectly to my boots.  

Four hours later, we had obtained the skis and were back in the White River area trying to rest for a second attempt.  Unfortunately, we wouldn't be able to ski with our friends but fortunately, they were starting much earlier and we were hoping for a boot track for much of the route.  That was practically a given as the rangers reported a number of parties already high on the route.  

The next morning, around 4:40, we were off.  It was hard to control the pace early but we knew we would struggle with cramps due to the high cadence throughout the day.  We didn't ask for them, but had been given the splits by friends who had talked with Carter et al.  We could tell early on that we were making good time and the motivation was high as we chatted throughout the wooded section.  

I should probably pause and mention how inspirational Eric, Nick, and Colin have been.  Eric has placed highly at the world cup level of ski mountaineering racing and beat our time for the overall fastest time on the mountain.  Nick holds the record for the Grand Traverse in the Tetons (which is mind blowing).  And, we regard Colin as one of the best Alpinists in the world and he's apparently one of the nicest guys too based on our brief text exchange.  

Having said that, I hope they feel that our "rivalry" is good natured and we appreciate them pushing us to do our best.   Sorry guys to go after it so quickly after you did but when the conditions are in....

Back to the skiing...

The view from St. Elmo's Pass

We topped out St. Elmo's pass in just over 1:30, looked out over the Winthrop Glacier, and got really excited.  The whole route was in view and the day had dawned clear and still.  We raced across the glacier, hopping small crevasses, and fortunately found the way onto the Carbon Glacier around the low point on Curtis Ridge.  

Crossing the Winthrop Glacier with the route above. 
We contemplated roping up as we carried standard gear but the route was clear as other parties had found the best way.  There was only one fairly sketchy snow bridge to cross right at the base of the ridge where we stopped for a moment to drink and eat.  2:45 had elapsed and we were still feeling strong.  Further, our friends were visible, heading for Thumb Rock and I was looking forward to the distraction of chatting with them for a bit.  

Looking up at the route from the entry point onto the Carbon Glacier. 

Nearing the ridge

Catching up, Brian and Tyler stepped aside and offered encouragement.  Lars put in a dig to stay ahead to make sure the booter was well groomed.  We tried to get him to rally the rest with us as he is clearly stronger than an ox but he's a good friend and partner and stayed with the other guys.  

Out on the east side of the ridge, the sun was boiling and we started to really slow down.  Both of us thought our hip flexors and adductors were going to betray us as we were starting to feel twinges of cramps.  Never feeling aerobically taxed, we still agreed that a steady pace, even if slow, was the best strategy.  We kept moving....barely.  

We hit the bergschrund, and even though we knew to climb it at the high point, all the tracks heading that way had been erased by a slight stream of spindrift.  There were some fresh tracks heading climber's left that we explored before coming to our senses and committing to action.  

Looking around the schrund for passage. 
Jason, climbing the only technical section of the whole route. 

 Over the schrund, a gentle breeze picked up and so did our pace.  We hit the summit ridge, transitioned from crampons to skis, and hit the top of Liberty Cap in 5:27.  Another race transition led to some of the worst skiing of the day on very fatigued legs that were quivering with the threat of cramps.  

Somehow, the governor began to release it's choke hold and we were able to actually skin to the true summit at a more reasonable pace.  We hit Columbia Crest in 5:57 and found about a dozen people on the summit.  The mood was festive and we were quickly outed as two dorks on skinny skis, carbon boots, and tight pants are obviously up to something stupid.  The folks on the summit were kind and friendly, offering encouragement as we transitioned to skiing for the final time.  

Neither of us had skied the Emmon's previously and so we skied with some caution until down to Camp Sherman.  From there's we traversed skier's right onto the Interglacier and rallied with absolutely zero grace through some truly horrific isothermic snow.  Back in the woods, we followed the up track, dodging the Memorial day crowds, until we reached our shoes.  

Jason was interested in pushing for a sub seven hour time but that ship had sailed with other inefficiencies higher up.  We had two miles to run and ten minutes to do it.  Even without the skis, boots, ice tools, etc I would be hard pressed to pull that off with specific training.  Regardless, I pushed harder and harder the closer we got and made one last mad dash through the sloppy snow patch guarding the trailhead.  

While we didn't go sub 7, Jason was satisfied with my effort on the run stating that I just became a man.  That's high praise from that guy.  

We sat on the road for a few minutes, pleased with the effort and how the day had gone, before making some food and waiting for the other guys to finish.  As they walked in like more sane people, we cheered them on and slapped high fives for the successful mission all around.  

Final thoughts: 

1. I've become weak and I don't like driving home after stuff like this.
2. That was perhaps the most fun day of skiing I've had all year.
3. I just like skiing. 

Gear list:

La Sportiva Cubes
Movement and Atomic race skis with race bindings
Grivel Quantum Tech ice tools
Grivel Skitour crampons (steel toe and aluminum heel made for ski boots)
Pomoca mohair skins cut for full coverage
Ski crampons
And other miscellaneous knick knacks


Gel mixed in Gatorade (I hate doing this but it's fast and works). 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

White Rim Time Trial: 5:59

Looking down some of the Shafer switchbacks

Since I hung up the skis in April (earliest ever) I have been dutifully training on the bike for a smattering of races, both road and mountain.  The season was mixed with some good results, some dnf's, and a couple unfortunate flats.  My best results seemed to come against people who didn't know they were racing i.e. Strava! 

One goal for the year was to return to the White Rim in Canyonlands National Park and try to set the FKT for the loop.  I rode it last year with Tom, Jason, and Jason and felt like I could go a bit faster.  When trying to break a "record", it's good to know what that time actually is.  The internet could only tell me that Jeremy Nobis was suspected of having the record with a time of 6:10-20ish. 

In early November, I got an invite from the Simmons boys and Paul Hamilton to try and ride to loop fast as a group.  We started at the top of the Shafer climb and rode counter clockwise, trading pulls until eventually I found myself off the front gunning for Nobis' time.  Bonking hard, I completed the loop at the top of the Shafer climb in 6:09.  I felt a little sheepish about calling that the "record" so I decided I'd have to go back and ride it solo. 

A couple weeks later, a work window opened up and I made to solo drive down to Green River for a night at the Comfort Inn.  All too early, the alarm pierced through my ear plugs.  Packing up, I was anxious to get started. 

This time, I parked at the visitor's center and rode down the Shafer switchbacks to start my loop at the bottom, climbing back up, and continuing counter clockwise.  I reasoned that it would be good to tackle the climb while fresh and then finish on the mostly "false flat downhill" towards the base of the climb. 

It was a cool autumn morning in the desert and I was feeling fairly fresh in spite of the Grandeur laps that I'd been doing in preparation for ski season.  At the junction with the Potash Rd, I stashed a long sleeve jersey, started my watch, and set in for a long day.  It felt good to start climbing and even though I didn't have a power meter, I sensed I had good legs. 

Hitting the pavement in 27 minutes, I was ahead of schedule and told myself to not push too hard so early.  I tried to stay steady until the Mineral Bottom Rd and then use the down hill treading section to maintain a high pace and get in some calories.  At the river, I found the road to be dry and even a little sandy which was not a good indicator of the conditions ahead. 

At one point, I dropped a gel flask, thought about leaving it, but flipped a U to go back and grab it.  I figured the 30 seconds lost to do so would pay dividends later.  I was also glad to not litter.  I was not however, glad about the increasingly sandy road ahead.  The last trip with the Simmons boys held very little sand and was overly wet.  This day was the opposite. 

Spinning out and wasting watts, I was a little bummed to be working so hard to be going so slow. My optimistic goal was under 5:45 but I was still going to be happy with sub 6 hours.  I could feel it slipping away in the sand. 

Fortunately, I still had good power on all the short punchy climbs and didn't experience even the slightest cramping.  Maybe I'm getting better at metering these long efforts, or maybe it's the flask of pickle juice that I started nursing around the 3 hour mark? 

Doing the math, I could tell that the last hour was going to be tough.  I needed to average around 17 mph to slip in under 6 hours.  I kept telling myself that I was supposed to feel crappy by this point compared to the last effort as I already had done the big climb.  The finish line was the outhouse by the Potash Road. 

On the final rise, I laid down all my remaining watts, which by this point weren't that many. With a short and fast downhill to my finish line, I still had a couple minutes to spare.  I coasted with glee, glad to be done with the torture and stopped my watch at 5:59:30.  To my knowledge, that's the fastest complete White Rim, but as always there are a ton of people that could or maybe have gone faster.  It's a big claim, but I'm a big claimer so I'll take it for now. 

Near where I started and finished.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I picked up my long sleeve jersey where I left it and started to cruise easy back up the climb to my car.  Within five minutes of soft pedaling, I was going cross eyed and bonking hard.  I got off the bike and laid in the dirt for a few minutes.  Somehow, in my excitement earlier, I forgot to stash any food or water for after the TT. 

I alternated walking and laying in the dirt for the next hour and a half and finally, 1:54 after finishing my TT, crested the Shafer climb for the second time.  This "cool down" took significantly longer than the 27 minutes earlier that morning.  It also was much much more difficult and a fitting end to a painfully beautiful day in the desert. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Mount Owen: April 18, 2016

My last ski day of the 2015/16 season was spectacular, albeit humbling.  Jason and I had plans to climb and ski Mount Owen via the Koven Couloir.  The day started somber for no reason in particular but both of us had a sense of foreboding that wouldn't lift until we eventually made the decision to go home.  

Preoccupied with morbid thoughts, objective hazards grew in our minds and it felt kind of like I was walking through a nightmare even though this is a place I have dreamed of fondly numerous times.  With blistered feet, we made our way into the Koven and eventually onto the the upper snowfields.  

The day was actually incredibly beautiful with swirling clouds flowing around the cathedral group but we were just now noticing it, having been stuck in our own heads thus far.  Normally, when one of us is out of sorts, the other will buoy the mood and all is good.  This day, at least until this point nearing the technical climbing, we were reflecting each other's moodiness.  

The Koven chimneys are incredibly easy on dry rock but we suspected the summit would prove more challenging in winter conditions.  Fortunately, as we climbed, we both found ourselves enjoying the motion and setting enough that some legitimate psych started to creep in.  Jason took the first lead up a snow covered rock slab, scraping around and dispatching it without difficulty.  Higher and on the west side of the summit block now, I took the lead and began to feel quite lucky to be scrambling around in such an amazing position.  I heaved myself up the chimneys and onto the summit before laughing at Jason as he followed.  

We high-fived on the summit and then got about the business of rapping down to our skis.  Immediately the buoyancy felt while climbing dissipated and I was once again consumed with thoughts of tragedy.  I pictured Jason falling to his death a thousand times.  Gravity was strong.  

It's amazing how one's mood can affect their skiing.  Full of irrational fear, I skied poorly down the snowfields towards the Koven.  I tried to overcome this by forcing myself to ski the steep upper pitches but only succeeding in pulling out a small wind pocket that broke out at my feet.  

I'd had enough.  I was going to down climb the upper somewhat wind loaded section until I felt better about the stability.  I then dropped a ski and watched in horror as it launched down the Koven.  Gravity was strong and I would now be down climbing 5000 feet to the car.  

As if someone was just messing with me, Jason skied down and yelled up that my ski had stuck into a small snowbank on the side of the chute some 200 feet below.  Feeling redeemed, I gathered my equipment, and skied straight to the car.  

As if someone was still messing with me, I discovered far too late that a small crash near Delta Lake must have claimed my iPhone from an open pocket.  It was a small price to pay for safe passage on my final ski day of the season.  

JD skinning the upper snowfields of Mount Owen with Teewinot in the background. 

Jason only looks dejected here but by this point we were quite happy

Glad we didn't insist on bringing skis to the summit

Coming off rappel with the North Face of the Grand looming in the clouds

JD with East Prong and the lower Koven above his head. 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Last Spring in the Sierra

After the incredible day on Temple Crag, we knew we weren't going to top that with the two days remaining on the trip.  Zoomed in photos of the majority of our objectives revealed that the snowpack was just too beleaguered to be productive in the southern part of the range.  Hoping for some local's beta, we remembered that Dale Apgar was still in Bishop and he immediately dropped his plans for the day and took us on a tour up University Peak.  

As always, the company was as good as the views.  

Nearing the summit of University Peak (photo by JD)

Finding a little sneak chute (photo by JD)

The next day, we made the long slog over Lamarck Col to check out the Mendal Couloir on its namesake peak.  We were foolishly hopeful that it would be in condition (apparently this occurs a few times a decade) but wisely had planned other options in the area.  

From the col, I could zoom in with my camera and it was obvious the Mendal was in better climbing condition than skiing.  Mounts Darwin and Lamarck made for fine alternatives.  

The Mendal Couloir in slim condition. 

Nearing the summit of Mount Darwin

I took the sporty route

TG dropping in

There is a lifetime of amazing skiing potential in just this one basin!

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.