Friday, April 26, 2013

The Mythical Otter Body

Yesterday on April 25th, Jason, Tom Goth and I were able to summit the Grand Teton and then descend the Otter Body route.  It was a glorious, strange, terrifying, remarkable, tiring, and joyous day.

Photo courtesy of ZB
Jason and I have been trying to find the time to get out in the Tetons and work on our ever growing project list.  Yesterday was one of his four days off this month so in between working 30 hour shifts, we figured we'd better drive 10 hours, get a true alpine start and get scared a little; you know, make him feel alive.

We have a theory that three people for big objectives is overall faster than two given matched abilities.  I think overall psych stays higher and trail breaking/load carrying can be divided enough to offset the natural delays built into a three person team.  We went about looking for a capable partner and eventually selected Tom.  For a little back story, Tom is a professional triathlete who tore up the ski mountaineering scene this year.  He made the US team, raced well at World's, and beat me in every race.  He's a great skier and has unlimited enthusiasm although it's sometimes muted behind a quiet demeanor.  It may be best to describe his enthusiasm through story.  On Wednesday morning, I called Tom to offer the invite at 11 AM.  "Give me 10 minutes and I'll call you back."  Three hours later he was packed and standing in my drive way after canceling whatever other obligations he may have had.  The caveat(s) were that he had never been to the Tetons.  He had never been ice climbing.  He had never been tied into a rope in the mountains or even rappelled.  Ha!  He was about to get an introduction to all of that with eyes wide open.

With so little time (we had an evening and a day) we wanted to do as much as possible.  I know there are probably a thousand cool things to ski in the Park but it's hard to ignore the Grand.  Our plan was to start there and if all went well, keep skiing until we ran out of psych, time, energy, or as conditions dictated.  Luckily, while driving up, we got a hold of Zahan who gave us the beta on the GT after guiding the Ford/Stettner that day.  "Blower pow from the summit!" he said.  With a full moon and lingering snow from the trailhead, we were amply psyched so as to not get any sleep before the alarms starting going off.

We made good time skinning from the trailhead to the Meadows on refrozen smooth snow.  I barely noticed the heavy pack, energized by the moon light, a fair amount of caffeine, and dancing thoughts of the coming day.  We slowed as we ascended the headwall and then the Teepee as conditions began to worsen.  Breakable crust was hinting at the damage done by the previous day's warm sun and portended struggle.

Below the Teepee Pillar with a full moon (photo by JD)
At the Glencoe col we finally felt full force the wind that we feared after seeing some moonlit plumes on the higher ridges.   We retreated to put on harnesses and spikes on the leeward slope.  I asked Tom if his crampons were on tight and he just replied something along the lines of, "Good to go." He's a quick learner.  Entering the Stettner, we hoped to find the boot track from the guided party the day before but instead found ourselves seriously wallowing as the nasty wind stung our eyes and faces with spindrift moving in all directions.  Heads down we focused on the task at hand and simply booted up, pausing occasionally to catch our breath and to wipe the growing icicles from our eyes.

Self portrait in the Chevy
Suddenly, in the early dawn things didn't look right.  I turned on my new 700 lumen bike/head lamp and we realized we missed the Chevy.  Damn.  We down climbed and were surprised to find the Chevy still fat with only two small ice bulges.  Tom swung an axe for the first time and seemed to enjoy the position.  He intuitively seemed to being doing the right things or responding instantly to instruction.  It would kill him to slow us down so he clearly was always thinking and anticipating to make his actions more efficient.

Jason surmounting the last ice bulge in the Chevy
Finishing up the Chevy (photo by JD)

Out of the Chevy and into the Ford it was like we stepped onto another planet.  The heinous winds ceased, the sun was up, and the summit no longer felt in question.  We plodded along, trading leads up the Ford until we pulled out onto the Southeast Face of the Grand where it surprisingly just made more sense to skin.

Climbing out of the Chevy and into the Ford Couloir (photo by JD)

Jason and Tom nearing the top of the Ford Couloir
The air was still, the lighting brilliant, and the snow while crusty was soft underneath.  We were stunned as we skinned all the way to the summit.  We let out some whoops, shared a frosty Red Bull, and then had to get serious.  I had wanted to ski the Otter Body for a couple years and it felt like the day to do it.  We all voiced whatever doubts we could muster and then quickly rationalized them away.  In my excitement, I forgot to even put one boot in ski mode (that's scary given little resistance Alien's have in walk mode), hip checked first turn and told myself to calm down.  We hadn't fully committed and promised that even the slightest sign of instability or premature heating (we skied off the summit at 8:00 AM) would prompt us to shift back to the Ford.

SKINNING TO THE SUMMIT! And putting Aliens on the Moon! (Photo by JD)

Mostly psyched but I think Tom looks like he's going to cry for some reason...maybe just so overjoyed!  (JD)

We made somewhat enjoyable turns down the sub ridge dividing the Ford and the East Face on increasingly stout breakable crust.  We convened below a small rocky outcrop and it was time to commit.  I traversed out onto the East Face until I could see straight down the STEEP narrow choke to the Otter Body and the abyss beyond.  I wanted to take the fall line and avoid the steep roll over to the skier's right but previous slough and the overnight freeze made me reconsider.  My freshly tuned skis skittered on the icy surface and I turned back.  I was nervous but my desire to get off the face overwhelmed any notion of waiting around to let things soften.  We would just deal with it and ski slowly.
Tom skiing off the GFT for the first time! (JD)
Tom skiing on the moon
Jason sending chunks of crust into the abyss as the East Face begins to steepen

Glacier route on the Middle looking pretty nice...
Jason now took the lead and made a dozen turns over increasingly steep terrain before he was able to traverse left and pull under a small rock that was our pseudo island of safety.  I joined him and then Tom came down.
Jason leading down to get a view of the choke to the OB
Pretty gnarly exposure

Sliding into our pseudo island of safety to join Jason

Tom joins us as I take a concerned look at the choke down to the OB snowfield (photo by JD)

Now on the "sharp end" so to speak, I made one turn at a time above the choke that leads to the Otter Body itself.  I kept stopping and straining my eyes, hoping to see the anchor.  Just the day before I had asked Z if we could just side slip the choke as if it would be no big deal.  Now, it was real.  It felt serious and legitimately terrifying with the whole East Face above me and the very airy Otter Body below.  I quit making turns and started slipping my way to the first rock outcrop where I suspected the anchor to be.   Then I took my skies off and down booted the last few feet only to find that I'd been duped and the anchor was ten feet further.  I didn't care anymore about skiing the whole thing though.  The position was tremendous and although I was able to appreciate our surroundings, I wanted off before it got too hot.

Making increasingly steep and icy turns down to the choke (photo by JD)

Tom's turn as I ready the rappel (photo by JD)

Tom came down as I readied the rappel.  One sixty meter rope just did the trick.  I waited to the skier's left as Tom came down onto the Otter Body as well.  With Jason now on rappel, Tom went off in search of the first anchor and made crisp turns toward the Tail.  Z had told us that the OB had a sort of lip on the outer edge and that it would "cradle" us back toward the rock.  That was utter BS and it felt like it wanted to puke us off the big cliff down to the Teepee.  Still, the main portion of the snowfield was more mellow than what we had previously encountered and I enjoyed the firm turns toward the tail.

Tom rapping on the Otter Body snowfield (photo by JD)
Tom coming off rappel...the first of his life!
Tom leading out toward the Otter's tail

The author enjoying turns on the Otter's body (photo by JD)

Jason approaching the tail and the end of the line for skiing
It goes for some but not us... at least not in those conditions on that day.
As I approached Tom the angle was steepening and the snow getting even icier.  I felt less and less control of my edges and pulled the plug.  I was going down by foot or on a rope the rest of the way.  The others readily agreed and we started down booting in the deep shade of the tail.  Brushing away snow from the rock while looking for the supposed fixed anchors, I couldn't help but keep thinking that we should be skiing the tail.  It was probably 55 degrees but in those conditions, it simply wasn't justifiable given my skill level.  The icy crust would not allow ski penetration and might as well have been bullet proof.  Added to that was the loose snow underneath that wouldn't allow for a proper self arrest in the event of a fall.  Better to keep down booting and looking for anchors.

Our beta was that three double rope raps from fixed anchors is becoming the standard but as we down climbed we hadn't found any.  Since adventure skiing was the name of the game we had brought a handful of pins and nuts and I started looking for a place to build a suitable anchor.  Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw some tat sticking through the snow.  Sure enough, it proved to be adequate and off I went in search of the next one.  Having completed one rap in his life now, Tom was quickly becoming an expert and came down next.  With Jason down too, I rigged the last rap after adding a pin until it rang high and true.

Tom starting the first rap down to the Teepee
Nearly overhanging, the last rap is a joy as the feeling of hitting the Teepee is imminent.  Yelling "Off Rappel!" never felt so good.  Not out of danger yet since I was still exposed to the whole East Face, I was laughing and psyched nonetheless.  Once the others were down I was screaming with excitement.
Tom about to set down on the Teepee with the big cliff overhead
We then made likely the ugliest turns the Grand Teton has ever witnessed down the Teepee through gnarly breakable with heavy packs until we truly were safe to pull over and repack our junk.  Looking back up, I couldn't believe it.  Every route is a different experience for every skier but the mythical nature of the Otter Body will live on in my mind forever.

The author PSYCHED to be on the Teepee (photo by JD)
Yeah, Tom was psyched too!

Thanks to Z for the beta and the hospitality and to Jason and Tom for another great day in the mountains.  It was one of the best!

Gear List:

SCARPA Alien 1.0 with gaiter
Ski Trab Maestro skis
Plum Race 145
Black Diamond Whippets
Ski Trab Race Helmet
Ski Trab Dragon speed suit and wind pant, and gloves
Outdoor Research Centrifuge Jacket, Transcendent Hoody, Helium II Shell, and Luminary Gloves
Grivel Quantum Tech Tools and other assorted heavy climbing stuff...

Tired Tom 

Monday, April 22, 2013

A New Kind of Adventure

I've spent the last few years trying to push my limits by learning to climb and ski and run in the mountains.  As I've pushed my proverbial boat farther out to sea, I've found joy in the rewards of learning efficiency and finding endurance.  Now, I get to watch my boy do the same, except his little boat doesn't go that far.  We just took a quick trip to Castle Valley and it was fun to watch him explore a small circle around the fire.  He would never go too far without casting a quick glance back at momma and papa for reassurance.

Lars (R) with cousin Kyler (L) starting out the trip as all good trip should...with ice cream.  

A painful view from camp with the unfinished portion of the La Sal Traverse visible

The boy, his momma, a little chair, and a big tower

Which way to camp?  I took a picture almost just like this one a number of years ago after being introduced to Castle Valley by a good friend, Andy Carmen.  Exchange Lars for Jason and it would be nearly identical. 

While making breakfast, the sun rose such that we caught a nice tower eclipse of the sun.

Tower eclipse
With camp packed, I decided to beat up my legs on a long pavement run back to Moab.  The first 5 miles are rolling and then mostly flat along the river road.  Actually, it's all down hill but only very subtly so, losing around 75-100 feet over 15.5 miles (from the Castle Valley turn off).

En route, the canyon walls must have screwed with the GPS signal as I broke a world record in the mile.  I put it up on Strava and even created a segment.  For those unfamiliar, is an online resource to record training, be it running, cycling, or skiing.  It keeps track of distance, pace, vertical ascent per hour and a ton of other parameters.  It's most unique feature however, is the ability to create segments from your GPS track, name them, and then keep a public record of everyone that travels over that same track.  For example, in Salt Lake, the west side of Grandeur Peak has become quite the test piece for those wanting to go up hill fast.  Many segments have been created but a couple start from the parking lot and follow the trail to the summit.  Everyone that has done this and uploaded their data to Strava is now ranked and it's easy to compare how fast each person went through every step of the way.  I realize this is just another way for people to spray about how good they are at stuff but it sure does flame the fire of some friendly competition.  As I type, I wouldn't doubt it if Tom Goth is out trying to take down the speedy Burke Swindlehurst on the fastest known Grandeur time.  But Burke's incredible 41:13 (1511 VAM) is still to date the fastest Strava time up this steep trail.  Unfortunately, the rumor of Jared Campbell's sub 40 minute effort up Grandeur doesn't count because it's not on Strava.  Nor does Jason's 42:30 or my 45:XX...everyone know's that if it's not on Strava, it's not legit.  

So join up (Jason).  Seeing my buddies do impressive things is really motivating.  And, in return,  it's fun trying to break personal bests or improve on a friend's time and I think it makes us all better.  
BTW, I have no affiliation with this stupid website... 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Timp on a Thursday with Twight

Today was another one of those days.  Starting out, plumes were visible ripping off the high peaks putting a damper on our eager plans head up one of my favorite ski mountains, Timpanogos.  Mark Twight, who needs no introduction, was my partner for the day and he had never skied the Sleeping Maiden before and was hoping for a good first go.  On the way down, we debated the different lines and although I was initially leaning toward something on the West Face, I'm glad Mark urged us toward the Grunge.  

We hoped it would be sheltered from the wind and harbor stable powder.  We hoped the winds would die down.  We hoped the temperatures would remain unseasonably cold to preserve our nice snow and keep the wet slides at bay.  

We got lucky on all accounts.

Walking back to the truck, Mark quoted the oft repeated phrase, "It's better to be lucky than good."  That's an interesting idea that I've been pondering tonight and might touch on at a later date...

But for now, here are some more pictures of the always fantastic Mount Timpanogos:
Mark and a whole lot of nice looking ski terrain
Aahhh, the object of our affection for the day

The snowpack is looking a little haggard at the lower elevations but up high it's still pretty nice

Looking for a safe spot to put on our skis (photo by MT)
Returning from doing battle with the cornice.  We decided it wasn't worth the effort.  (photo by MT)

Mark nearing our high point 
Ski cutting the upper Grunge (photo by MT)
Mark finding soft stable snow in the Grunge on his first trip to Timp
About to enjoy a HUGE apron with some pretty decent snow (photo by MT)
Mark, a bunch of turns later...
Not bad for a Thursday morning.  BTW, the walk is about to the turn off for the Timpanooke campground with mostly continuous snow from there. 

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Long Day in the La Sal Range

This week I was privileged to spend a long challenging day in the La Sal Mountains to the east of Moab, UT.  My enthusiastic partners for the day were Tom Goth and Teague Holmes, guys that finished first and second respectively at the recent Elk Mountain Grand Traverse.  I knew they'd be strong.

With tight schedules, this trip was to be a 36 hour blitz.  We drove down to Moab and hurriedly grabbed some last minute items at the store, ate a delicious meal provided by Teague's friend Max, and then went about setting up a car shuttle.  We wanted to ski a lot and figured why not start at the south end and ski out the northern end of the range, which happens to be at the head of the idyllic Castle Valley.  We dropped Max's truck, made the long drive back through Moab, found highway 46, and turned up Lackey Basin.   With only one unintentional detour, we managed to drive up to around 8000 feet on an improbable 4WD road.

Gear spilled forth as we readied for an alpine start.  For three guys who tout the "light and fast" philosophy, we had brought a ridiculous amount of stuff.  Paring down the excess and with bags packed, we flicked off our lamps around 11:30 and hoped for a few hours of sleep.

Confused, I could hear my alarm through my ear plugs.  It took me a second to realize I wasn't in my bed but was about to go hike through the dark through Utah's second highest range.  I yelled to the guys in the other tent to get up and get going (Teague had informed me that he would need extra time ready himself).  More shuffling, and just after four AM we started hiking Teton style up the dirt road hoping to hit snow soon.

4:15 AM
After a few minutes, the patches that had halted our progress in the truck the night before were becoming continuous and we switched to skinning.  Tom seemed eager and jumped out front pushing the pace for an all day effort.  Purposefully, I hiked more slowly, thinking about the thousands of feet and multiple peaks ahead.

Maybe an hour and a half after setting out, we found ourselves on the summit of South Mountain, still in the dark, but now with light flurries dancing in our lights.  Oddly, mine had been fading throughout the climb in spite of charging it fully the day before.  And then while ripping skins, my light completely failed.  Luckily, the skiing proved easy and I stayed between Tom and Teague on the descent.  We laughed at the amazing conditions and figured we'd be able to ski the entire range easily.  I drank a Red Bull and set out skating across a long meadow leading toward Tukuhnikivatz. Transitioning to skins, the snow was thickening and the winds gaining strength.  They were already well ahead of the forecasted 8 mph range.  No matter, we were making great time and even though we couldn't see Tuk, or Peale, we could feel them looming above us and we were navigating easily by compass, map, and GPS.

In spite of our assuredness, Tuk didn't come easily.  The blizzard raged on and ascending the summit ridge was a hilarious act of stubbornness.  At this point, I was wearing base layers, a speed suit, wind pants, two soft shell jackets, a puffy, a gore tex shell, large gloves, a beanie, and a buff and still dreaded every kick turn into the wind.  On the highest point of white I turned and watched Tom grow larger.  He seemed to be floating, hovering, suspended in the clouds and I couldn't tell where solid earth turned to vapor and sky.

Floating Tom

We didn't linger and quickly felt our way down the ridge toward Mount Peale.  Ascending toward the highest peak in the range, we came upon a slightly techy step that forced us onto the southern face.  Here, we recognized the first of many signs that the new snow and wind were creating some instability.  Multiple point releases were visible but we felt the danger level manageable.  We slowed down, tried to travel as safely as possible, and worked together to question each move to make sure it was the right one.
Psyched to be on the summit of something... (photo by Tom Goth)
Navigating Peale's rocky gates (photo by Teague Holmes)
Looking for the summit of Mount Peale
Hoods, beanies, and buffs were the name of the game

On the summit the compass/GPS disagreed with the known topography and common sense.  Trying to reconcile the two, we skied a little too far to the east before dropping off the summit toward the Mellenthin complex.  The coverage was poor and we had to down boot a few hundred feet to reach a strip of snow leading into the huge cirque below.  Here, we fully recognized our off heading and climbed back to the appropriate ridge leading to Laurel and Mellenthin.  With multiple false summits and bumps along the ridge, I kept getting the feeling that we were on the true summit of Mellenthin.  The visibility continued in the 10-20 foot range and I kept reminding the guys to watch out for cornices.  At one point I lurched backwards after nearly walking off one into the abyss.

Rock walking was welcome because at least we could see where we were going
"Watch out for the cornices!" was repeated all day long
Disappointment after disappointment continued and I quit saying, "I think this is the summit".  The GPS would tell us and Teague would take us there.  He put in a heroic effort out front to the top where we were faced with a new challenge.  Thus far, getting off the peaks had been easy since we were mostly just following the ridge.  Our initial plan was to ski Mellenthin's large North Face but after descending a few hundred feet along a rocky rib, it became apparent that to continue would be utterly reckless.  Small fractures were breaking harmlessly at our feet and the rocky rib was giving way to a large amorphous bowl.  The choice was pretty clear.  We'd be booting back out.

What the hell are we doing?

I think Tom just likes to be in the mountains no matter what is going on
We were like slow moving old trees, collecting rime during this wild storm.  P.S. the camera is just for show since it didn't record a single thing.

Back on the summit ridge, we pulled out the compass and map again and opted to stick to the NW ridge.  Ridges are safer and we hoped the rocks would provide a visual life line.  We down booted a few hundred feet before finding a nice strip of snow to ski.

We don't do it for the skiing...
Off the peak and moving toward Gyser Pass, we had a back and forth discussion about this ongoing foolishness and decided to pull the plug on the rest of the day.  We'd find a way down to the La Sal Loop Road and then hike out from there.

And then we caught our first break of the day...

The clouds lifted and we could see the Northern Group and more than a few feet in front of our skis for the first time.  Now it seemed foolish to not at least go check it out.

We crossed the long down trending divide between Mellenthin and Tomasaki and the suffering changed from fighting the elements to fighting my own weakness.  I'm getting better at dealing with this dull discomfort though and we kept going.  There were more summits to stand on.

Trading the trail breaking, we tagged Tomasaki, then a couple unnamed peaks, then Mount Maan, and then perhaps Green or Piolet, or maybe just another unknown 12000 foot bump on the ridge.  It was now 6 PM and the lighting was phenomenal.  Why not keep going and hit Waas, Castle, and La Sal Peaks en route to Castle Valley?

As usual, the answer was the tightening noose that was pulling us back to Salt Lake.  Work restraints would require us to be in Salt Lake City by 7 AM.  With a few miles and at least a dozen transitions left along the high ridges and then an unknown exit followed by dirt walking and a difficult car shuttle we knew we were done.  Besides, my headlamp had died before the sun even came up 12 hours ago.

We were finally being forced out of the mountains but it wasn't by severe weather, poor visibility, laughable snow coverage, or our dwindling food and water.  We were being sent packing by the proverbial man.  It didn't seem quite right.

Teague beginning our retreat
Nice lighting after a day in the clouds
But now, reflecting on the absurdity of it all, it was a grand adventure.  We learned a lot and were able to practice valuable skills in the mountains.  We traveled through amazing terrain (even if we didn't see 2/3 of it) and gained an appreciation for another wild Utah mountain range.  Plus, we left a few peaks to ski the next time we're down there.

We skied out Miner's Basin on fast powder in the sharpest spring lighting.  As we descended, the red of the desert was a welcome contrast to the preceding whiteness.  Corn turns on the road were nice while they lasted and quickly we were walking on the Loop Road toward the head of Castle Valley.  Our boots are comfortable but after 15000 vert and 15 hours I was ready for a break.  We shot pictures of each other walking through the desert in ski boots with skis on our packs and enjoyed a really brilliant sunset over one of the most idyllic places on earth.  I was really content...

Tom and Teague running out of snow with Castle Valley in the background

Still quite content...

And then it got dark and we were still walking in our ski boots.  We took them off and walked in the liners which was only marginally better.  The road stretched on and on and we began to wonder if we'd make it home in time.  Then, on cue as we descended into Castle Valley, a lone traveler drove up looking for a camp site.  It was the first person we'd seen all day.  He offered to drive me to our shuttle and I gave him suggestions on local camping.  I grabbed Max's Trooper, picked up Teague and Tom, and we began the next phase of the day - retrieving my truck and making the drive back to SLC.

At 5:30 AM the night time sky seemed to be yielding to the first hints of the coming day when we pulled into Teague's driveway.  It was a flawed journey from the beginning with a horrendously inaccurate weather forecast, but it was successful even without skiing all of our planned summits.  We still liked each other.  We managed to get pretty tired. The mountains still inspire us.  We made it home.

Some Rough Stats:

Distance: ~25 miles
Vert: ~15000 gained
Summits: Eight 12000 footers plus a few others
Calories burned: ~7000

My Gear List:
Boots: Scarpa Alien 1.0
Skis: Ski Trab World Cup Race
Bindings: Ski Trab TR Race
Skins: Pomoca and Coltex race skins (100% Mohair)
Dynafit Ski Crampons
Black Diamond Whippets
CAMP XC600 Pack
CAMP Speed Helmet
Ski Trab Dragon Speed Suit
Outdoor Research Axiom Shell, Transcendent Hoody, Whirlwind Hoody, Ferossi Hoody and Pants, Luminary Gloves.
Julbo Stunt Glasses
Buffs, beanies, avy gear

Salami and Cheese
Honey Stingers
Peanut Snickers x 3
Fruit Leather
Red Bull