Sunday, March 31, 2013

The 2013 Elk Mountain Grand Traverse

Disclaimer: This is a long winded race report full of details to aid me when I'm old and can't remember. For a more succinct report see Jason's write up

I'm laying in a hotel bed outside of Aspen after having slept for 13 hours straight.  Prior to my coma, I had been up for 34 hours and competed with my brother, Jason, in one of the most exciting and unique events in the country.  The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse was held for the 16th time and as always was full of surprises, drama, beauty, and suffering. The main sponsors this year were Gore Tex, Outdoor Research, and Dynafit, who all did a great job with schwag.  Again, Jason and I felt honored to be racing for OR and were determined to do our best to represent them well.

Salt Lake had representation on at least 5 teams (out of over 170!) looking to break up the Colorado dominated race.  Jason and I carpooled with Tom Goth and Teague Holmes with Tom's girlfriend Dominique Maack generously offering to drive the car around to Aspen while we raced.

We pulled into Crested Butte around 11:00 on Thursday night and tried to get as much sleep as possible before heading to the gear check/registration/race briefing/lunch.  While the race starts at midnight and goes till everyone is done on Saturday, this is very much a three day event with a huge party after the race in Aspen as well.  Anyway, after failing our gear check for missing a lighter and waterproof map, we went to the store, picked up some last minute items, passed our check, and went back to the hotel to pack and nap.

I managed a restless hour of sleep and decided I was too amped up to lay in bed anymore.  I strolled down to Teocalli Tamale and made the odd choice to fuel my night with a big Thai burrito.  I figured at least Jon Swain would be proud.  2 pounds heavier, it was time to wake up Jason, get our packs in order, and make our way back to the mountain.

It was Soul Train night as well so a very fitting mix of 70s clad party goers mingled with spandex clad racers with disco beats, smoke, and two stroke exhaust wafting through the air.  And then we were off. 342 racers with headlamps ablaze began their march through the darkness to Aspen.  The first climb is short, maybe 15 minutes, and soon we were flying down the backside of the resort towards the East River Basin.  The groomer was fast and with a nearly full moon, we were skiing recklessly towards the resort boundary when I saw Bryan Smith slam on the brakes as he was launching off a small roller.  A second later, I realized why.  The groomer suddenly had yielded to the most miserable breakable crust imaginable.  With a semi-supportable-screw-you-when-you-least-expect-it surface, falling through the trap door left skiers nearly entombed in rottenness underneath.  Marshall Thompson had just extricated himself after breaking a pole 20 minutes into the race.  I was on my side and quickly realized that three hundred people were about to come raining on my head if I didn't get out of the way.  As our front pack scampered off, I looked back to see dozens of headlamps pouring over the little roller like lemmings all crashing into each other.  It was pandemonium.  It was awesome!

The next surprise came as this hateful crust continued.  Mike Kloser manned up and took the lead, struggling to break trail.  After a few minutes his partner, Scott Simmons yelled at him to quit being stupid and let someone else do some work.  Jon Brown, myself, Marshall, Tom, and others took short pulls but we were moving so slowing that the entire pack of 342 people was all surging at our heels.  Others came running to the front to take their turn and it was great to hear people shout excitedly that they got a chance to lead, even if for a short while, the whole damn race.  It's an awesome feeling.

This continued for two hours until we turned up the brush creek drainage.  Finally, the snow was firm although rather uneven from previous snow mobile and skier traffic.  Here, the pace opened up and the field began to string out.  Mallory and Koons, both on nordic gear were off the front with the rest of us giving chase.  I asked Bryan Smith if he thought they would come back to us and he assured me that the steeper pitches and descents would neutralize their amazing kick and glide technique.  Regardless, I was impressed by the Kiwi Olympian up front.

Jason and I had a plan to go easy for the first half of the race and then push it after that.  We reasoned that after last year's debacle in which we shared the lead early but subsequently got lost, broke gear, and found ourselves moving backwards through the field, it would be wise to exercise early restraint.

We took turns setting the pace and eventually Marshall decided enough was enough and blasted around.  No chance in hell would he continue at that pace we thought.  He only had one pole and would surely tire.  Onward we plodded.

Then Scott Simmons and Mike Kloser went by and settled in just in front.  Then Teague Holmes and Brad LaRochelle showed us their backs.  The pace continued easy and we were happy to let a couple teams smooth out the way.  Just before the Friend's Hut the nordic guys looked to be having skin troubles and Marshall and Tom were well on their way up Star Pass.  I glanced at my watch and was surprised to see that it read four hours as we passed the hut.  This was nearly an hour slower than last year but we were still near the front and feeling great.  Everything was going according to plan.

Near the top of Star Pass, Simmons and Kloser seemed to be hitting a low patch and we put in a good move that opened up a little breathing room.  Along the upper ridge the wind was stirring up any loose snow left, stinging my eyes and freezing the left side of our faces.  Jason asked me to stop and pull out a Buff but with everything so tight, I opted to let him suffer.

Off Star Pass, the skiing was better than expected with some loose "powder" over a supportable surface.  The descent was uneventful and as we transitioned by the big fire, where Teague and Brad were just leaving and Wick and Smith just pulling in.  The hearty volunteer manning the fire offered that the leaders were just a couple minutes ahead.  Everything was still going perfectly.

From Star to Taylor, we were fast and relaxed but couldn't close the gap on Teague and Brad.  This pattern continued all the way to the Barnard Hut where Marshall and Tom were just preparing to leave as we pulled in.  With the mandatory 10 minute stop, I gulped down some hot soup, heckled the guys as they left, and encouraged Teague and Brad, who were having an amazing race.

Last year we made the mistake of trying to skin all the way along Richmond Ridge to the Aspen Sundeck.  This year, we were freaked out with Wick and Smith on our tails and we frantically mixed up skiing, skating, running, and skinning.  I was starting to bonk and Jason just kept screaming, "They're coming! They're coming! Hurry up!"  Mounting the final rise, with cramping quads, I was thrilled that we still in the clear.

The long descent into Aspen was a joy.  Hikers were ascending, cheering and taking pictures.  Skidding to a stop after passing through the big arch, it was great to see our friends who had just taken the first two spots.  High fives and hugs were exchanged and a woman with purple hair put a medal around my neck and gave me a hug offering congratulations.  I'm not sure if it was the relief of being finished after racing all night, scoring a spot on the podium, seeing friends do so well, or just the purple lady hug, but I almost shed a tear of joy.  It was a happy moment for sure.

The rest of the day, we hung around the finish, gorging on food and cheering in the everyone that made the same grand traverse and have their own stories to share.  That evening, the festivities continued with more food and prizes awarded at the Elks Lodge.  Age group winners were given handsome prizes and then the overall winners were rumored to have been brought on stage for more well deserved recognition at a block party concert that was getting started.  I missed that though because by 7:45, I was well asleep.  13 hours later, Jason and I stirred to life, packed our bags, and have rehashed the whole thing with Tom and Dominique all the back to SLC.

The Grand Traverse is a headache, a big time commitment, tiring, expensive, and very very hard.  But, it's awesome!  I really can see why people love it and come back every year.  There's this one guy who has raced and finished all 16 iterations of the event so far and I get it.  I missed the first bunch but I think I might have another couple or maybe couple dozen in me yet!

Lastly, I cannot imagine how much work goes into putting on a race like this.  I know the committee has been planning for months and months and really want to thank them for such a great event.

And now for a couple pictures (most by Dominique Maack).
Jason's pre race fuel

Sorting our kits around 11 PM.  Dominique is smiling like always! 
342 people heading out on a grand traverse just after midnight

Just after my hug from the purple lady that I love. 

6 really happy guys 

Still happy on the podium

Liz and Sarah (both from SLC) also finished 3rd in the Women's division

Friday, March 29, 2013

EMGT Packing

We are in Crested Butte getting fidgity to start the race tonight. Gun goes off at midnight and hopefully by the time the sun comes up, we'll be on our final approach to Aspen.

For mom and dad, Jessie, and anyone else with loved ones racing, live tracking is available at the race website.

Good luck everyone!

Can you believe they make us carry all this over 40 miles?  We have the lightest stuff but it's still heavy!  I can't imagine how much some of the packs weigh that I saw at the gear check.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Grunge Video

Here's a little video from our trip up and down the Grunge last week.  I've been shooting all these on a Cannon S100 point and shoot and should probably get a GoPro or something.  I think the mountains around here are pretty enough to justify it if nothing else.

The Grunge from andy dorais on Vimeo.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Timp W Face Video

Timp West Face From Battle Creek from andy dorais on Vimeo.

Some highway lines are stared at by millions.  I've stared at this one millions of times.  This was the second time that Jason and I have been able to ski it and the conditions were just so-so, mainly because we were too impatient to wait for the face to soften.  Maybe next time it will be in stable powder while the sun sets with brilliant evening alpine glow.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Grunge Couloir Photo Report

After a string of night shifts, I needed to switch my schedule back to the one normal people keep.  I figured the best way to do that would be to stay up and ski.  VWD was keen on Timp and didn't have to work hard to convince me.  Nick was added on as a blind date of sorts at the last minute and the trio was set. 

The day was an amazing mix of spring conditions on the multi thousand foot approach, and a wintery mixed bag in the couloir.  The top out was firm, but at least the cornices weren't too threatening.  The descent of the mythical Grunge itself was memorable mainly for the ambience - rocky, consistent grade, remote - but it was the thousands of feet beyond this that really made the day.  Gang skiing perfect corn in that remote amphitheater and eventually ending in a T-shirt at the car made for a lot of smiling.  

Virgil and Nick wondering if the apron will ever end (to the skier's left there was smooth perfectly timed corn on the descent)

Virgil and his black baggy pants.  Tom Evans would be furious!

More of the man in black moving through the lower crux (the upper crux would have to be just getting into the Grunge from the ridge - we down climbed to a nice stance)

It gets slightly  more interesting near the top


Looking North from just below the top. 

Looking south from just below the top out - True North Summit 

Virgil rallied and beat the deadline by 10 minutes (and was still barely on time to work)

There's this for anyone who wants a belayed ski cut or rap into the thing

Getting started

Navigating the cruxy choke

Lower Grunge with some lingering powder

The Grunge
For anyone who cares, on 3/19/13, the road was melted out for about 10 minutes and then one could skin or boot the rest.

But there's a rumor of snow later this week...

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Provo Traverse: Attempt One and Lessons Learned

Yesterday I thought we could outsmart Mother Nature by starting early and staying high.  I cooked up the idea to start in Hobble Creek Canyon, climb up to the massive ridge that connects Corral, Provo, Freedom, and Cascade Peaks, and traverse to Provo Canyon.  Essentially, this is the whole ridge above the town of Provo.  Never mind the major problem of getting off Cascade late in a 70 degree day, that was so far away we would "just figure it out".

By late morning, we would discover that our plan was hugely flawed well before we even set foot on Cascade.  What followed was a lesson in idiocy, avalanches, risk management, and good luck.  

What's a reasonable time to wake up?  My brother would probably say eight or nine, so leaving my house at five AM felt pretty early.  I picked up Tom and then drove down to REI to meet Teague.  Teague was no where to be found (actually he could be found at the 33rd South REI), so after 5 minutes, patience exhausted, I started texting and calling.  He promised to hurry and I was glad to be entertained  by Tom's stories while we waited.

We were surprised to find the Squaw Peak road as accessed from Hobble Creek Canyon impassable from snow after only perhaps a quarter mile so we backtracked to the gate and started from the bottom.  Skinning frozen sled tracks for a couple miles was easy enough and then it was time to pick a ridge to gain the main ridge which was our objective for the day.  Our choice proved difficult as we battled sloppy snow with a scant crust that would inexplicably thin, at times leaving us sinking to our knees. 

However as we climbed, conditions improved, and once one the ridge proper we found firm fast travel.  A light breeze was soothing from the west and we thought we'd be fine.  
Along the ridge, conditions were smooth and firm

Tom Diegle with Buckley and Utah Lake in the background
Teague and Tom on a brilliant summer day

Tom skinning up a steepish SE facing slope around 11 AM with nice corn underfoot

Provo Peak Summit
To this point the day was going as planned (other than being about 2 hours behind my overly optimistic schedule).  We were enjoying the undulating terrain, high in the sky, and still thinking that just maybe we might make it to our rendezvous point by 3 PM.   Teague then skied the east facing ridge between Provo Peak and the next peak, an unnamed 11,000 foot point on the ridge.  It looked a little wet but not overly so.  I went next following his path, and on my third or fourth turn let loose a wet sluff that entrained a legitimate amount of snow.  It poured over some rocks and ran slowly into the basin maybe a thousand feet below.  I sent a quizzical look back up to Tom.  This was definitely in the cards for the day but not ours.  Gathering on the ridge, I suggested we pull the plug.  If we were ripping slides at 11:30 in the morning, it was going to be a war zone by late afternoon.  Tom and Teague seemed to happily agree and we enjoyed a nice shot to the NE into the basin formed by Provo and Freedom Peaks. 
Tom finding a nice little shot to the NE on Provo Peak

More Tom

Nice firm snow!
From there, we should have exited out Rock Canyon. My sister, Aimee, was available to shuttle us back to Hobble Creek and it wasn't getting any cooler out there. But as is often the case, we weren't done and wanted to ski some more variable junk and stand on another summit - even if it didn't have a name. Besides, we had changed aspects and were now ascending from the northwest.

Up we go, overstaying our welcome

Teague, Provo Peak, and Utah Lake

Cascade, Timp, and the Central Wasatch

A new perspective of Provo Peak from the unnamed summit to the east
Up top the next peak, I was really psyched we had made the effort.  The views were new and really quite stunning.  We relaxed and shared food and talked about our next move.  Everyone agreed we should descend.  The main question was how. 

I looked down and could see the Hobble Creek Road high in its drainage.  Could we maybe get down safely and avoid the hassle of a shuttle?  Well, there was a ridge with a western-ish aspect.  And maybe we could quickly cross the massive terrain trap gully and stick to more northerly slopes lower down? And maybe the snow would take us all the way to the road where google maps told us we would only be up canyon a short distance from the truck.  With the combined experience of the group, we should have seen the flaws in the plan but it really did seem plausible at the time. 

Here's Tom when things were still going well

And here's Teague, still liking the descent
Suddenly, I was face first in the slush with snow in my ears.  The modestly supportive surface had just given way as we must have crossed the isothermic line.  The snowpack no long had any structure and we were screwed.  Climbing back out seemed unlikely.  Pushing onward might work since from above it didn't seem like we would have to descend anything steep.  If we just payed attention to steep slopes above and avoided terrain traps, we would just have to endure the worst type of back seat skiing (insert Teague's motto that, "there is no bad skiing, just bad skiers!)

Our plan was working and it was funny watching each other nearly go down every time our speed would slow and our skinny skis sink even further.  I was try to keep a little momentum, while applying significant rearward pressure to my cuffs when the slope angle steepened.  I failed to appreciate this until I was mid slope in a slightly more open area.  With gullies on either side, I hesitated and glanced back to look for the other guys. 

Then I saw a wall of white cement tumbling toward me.  I tried to outrun it in my current trajectory but it was clear I lacked the speed.  Turning around, the slide was trying to outflank me.  Within the couple seconds that ensued, I changed my mind multiple times as to whether I was certain to be caught or not.  Moving absurdly slowly, I managed to get ahead of its path while grabbing on to the sturdiest looking tree I could find.  Moving any further also seemed like poor judgement since I was moving toward an obvious gully. 

It just missed me.

This is where I was as the slide passed by.
Taken from the UAC (photo by Tom).  Here is a link to his full observation.

I don't think it was until this point that I yelled, "AVALANCHE!" to the other guys just in case they weren't aware of what was happening. It was like yelling, "FIRE!" after the fire department shows up and is already spraying a burning house.
Tom was across the gully, and I could see Teague skiing the debris above me. We took a minute to assess what just happened and concluded that either I had triggered the slow moving wet slab as the angle steepened or Teague had remotely triggered it as he approached from above. Either way, it was time to get going as we still had a couple hundred feet of terrain to navigate until we were home free on a road with snow mobile tracks.
Our solution was to slowly side step anything steep with our roller ball slough leading to mini slides that cleared the path immediately in front. From there, we skied a creek bed to the road and freedom.
The trail of freedom

The sun was now our friend as we felt instant relief once on dirt. We laughed at our idiocy and began to wonder how far we'd have to hike on dirt to get back to the main canyon road and our ride. Just then a SUV full of high school seniors pulled up. I grabbed my pack and ran up asking for a ride out. I probably scared the kids a bit but they happily obliged.
Thirty minutes later we were enjoying some authentic Tacos, Tortas, and Quesadillas from a delicious hole-in-the-wall place just north of Springville. Talking the day over, it was obvious we could have planned a little better but once "in the thick of it", we seemed to manage risk and avoid any major catstrophes. Tom observed that no matter the plan, things always will come up.  Today was definitely a lesson in flexibility, risk managment, and ongoing decision making. 

While we didn't make it to Provo Canyon (or even to Freedom peak, or Rock Canyon), we did enjoy a really nice portion of the ridge and learned something about wet slab behavior.  Hopefully we experience a return to winter shortly.  It will be fun to go back and explore a little further.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Timp From the Top

A few years ago Jason and I ticked a lifetime goal by skiing the West Face of Mount Timpanogos.  Plainly visible from anywhere along the I-15 corridor throughout Utah County, the peak has over 7000 feet of prominence and is often confused as the highest peak in the Wasatch.  Our parents live on its western flank and although we have departed from their house numerous times to ski the North Summit, we haven't climbed and skied the true summit from the west.  

Had we been a little more awake (or maybe if Jason had woken up on time), we might have insisted on hiking from their doorstep, but we cheated a bit and started a mile down the road at the mouth of Battle Creek Canyon.   Eschewing our ski boots in favor of running shoes, we hiked a couple miles on dirt intermixed with lingering ice and snow until it was clear we could skin continuously; hopefully all the way to the summit.  

The morning dawned sharp and colorful as we ascended above the western foothills.  The snow was firm and the rising sun portended good things to come.  We switched between skinning and booting as dictated by the slope angle and degree of iciness.  Unfortunately, the conditions were perfect for ski crampons.  Those would be very firm while skinning but with an icy crust just weak enough to punch through while booting.  With ski crampons tucked away in the garage, we endured intermittent icy skinning admixed with some breakable, spiteful shin bashing crust, and every now and then firm perfect booting.  

Quickly enough and feeling surprisingly fresh after very little sleep, Noah, Jason, and I made ourselves at home in the summit hut.  Jason shoveled some snow against the openings to create a wind block, and we settled in to let the rising sun do its work. 

Maybe an hour later, shivering in the warm March sun (are we really already accustomed to 60 degree weather?), we impatiently cast off.  For those unaware, Timp is huge.  From afar, its slopes look nearly vertical but while on the face, the angle lessons (maybe high 30s with a tad of low 40s at some crux chokes) and everything appears quite easy.  

And it should be.  Except today it was glistening with the sheen of yesterday's melt/freeze.  We wanted to ski fast but were reduced to a turn at a time accompanied by the deafening roar of metal on "ice".  I don't love this.  I used to, but the reality of a blown turn on big terrain is more real now.  I have a rad little boy, a darling wife, a good job, and a lot more than I deserve.  It's just something I think about more often now.  

Anyway, soon enough, the combination of decreasing elevation, warmer temperatures, and shelter from the wind worked together to produce a nice layer of corn for a couple thousand feet of the descent.  We grew up in Indiana and ate more corn than was intended for humans.  Now the only varieties I enjoy are popped and under my skis.  Now carefree and thoroughly enjoying the spring weather, we gang skied until the snow turned isothermic and then yielded to dirt.  

With pants rolled up and flip flops on our feet, we then drove directly to Fong's Chinese Diner in American Fork for some of the best Pon Pon and General's Chicken in the region.  

Nice morning colors
Approaching a rotten rock band with rotten snow that we avoided on the descent

Good step, good step...Crater...

More spiteful crust terrorizing my thighs (photo by Jason Dorais)

Photo by JD

One crater even tried to swallow Noah

Jason was on mohair skins and Noah on nylon.  Jason preferred kick turns but Noah plowed straight ahead.  On problem for Jason was that his skins were too narrow but with really light gear where a faster cadence is easier, I think kick turns are probably more efficient. 

Nearing the summit hut

Last few meters to the top (photo by JD)

Looking down toward Aspen Grove (photo by JD)

The view to the south

Noah being greeted by some nice conditions 

Getting a little better (photo by JD)

Jason didn't care that it was icy and variable

More JD with the Oquirrhs in the background

Noah and a rapidly thawing Utah Lake

The exit tube...

...was a little dry in places

Then it pinched down...

....and spit us out on dirt

The umbrella at Fongs was broken so we found another use for Voile straps