Pockets of Blue

musings of my mind

Category: Skiing

I Love Utah

I had a pretty awesome short jaunt up in the mountains today, which proved a couple well-known facts about Northern Utah: proximity and lengthy, overlapping seasons.

8:30 AM: Roll out of bed, make some coffee and breakfast, get on my laptop

9:15: A friend reminds me that I should be skiing right now. I concur, and pack up my ski gear for the first day of the season.

Brighton


Dispersing clouds

9:40: Take off for the mountains.

10:30: Arrive at Brighton after a nice, snowy drive up Big Cottonwood Canyon. It’s not open yet, but all the Utah resorts don’t mind backcountry skiers walking around in-bounds. It’s lightly snowing and in the lower 20s; pretty nice. Put on boots, skis, etc.

10:40: Start skinning up the mountain from the base. I don’t really know where I’m going to go, but follow some snowmobile tracks up a run.

11:40: Arrive at the top of the Great Western Lift (10,400 ft), which isn’t running. It’s snowing the whole walk up, and as soon as I put my pack down to take the skins off, the sun breaks through the clouds, illuminating my surroundings. They’re magnificent. I look forward to skiing a wide open, untracked, deep powder run at mid-day, in-bounds, at one of the most popular ski resorts in the state.

11:45: Click back into my bindings and set off. The top part of the run is untracked light powder, six to twelve inches, and the bottom half is untouched, just-groomed corduroy. The turns are nice and smooth. I’m reminded that it’s November 9.

12:00: Ski right to my car’s trunk in the snowy parking lot. It’s still pretty quiet, but a few backcountry travelers are milling about.

12:50 PM: Return home, three hours after I left.

This was two days after returning from Indian Creek in the desert of Southern Utah, climbing steep cracks in the 70-degree sun. Utah kicks ass!

Holy Pow, Batman!

Spring? What?

Yes, the equinox rolled around last week, but mother nature apparently didn’t get the message — the day after, a storm rolled in, then another, and another! Count 57 inches over five days — nearly five feet!

The insatiable Wasatch powderhounds were busy for a little while, myself included. Thursday was probably the best day of skiing I’ve ever had, when I decided to go up in the morning and take advantage of 17″ overnight at Solitude. I got talking to a dude from Chicago on the lift just when they opened Honeycomb Canyon, the most prized terrain at the resort, so we ended up doing laps on it the rest of the morning — he was ecstatic the whole time, which amped up my own psychedness to make for one hell of a time! Not to mention I picked up a new pair of skis, just in time for the onslaught of snow.

Today brought the beginning of the next wave of storms — only this time it reached the valley, too; I woke up this morning to find three inches in my yard! It’s almost April! Quite giddy already, I was convinced to go up to Alta and take advantage — it was pretty good, but fairly exhausting after the previous day’s tour in the backcountry.

Unfortunately I’m usually too busy skiing to take pictures; thus I’ll leave you with this absolutely hilarious shot from a few weeks ago:

Biff
Yep, that’d be me

Props go to Curt for that gem, which I put right up there with that other fine display of immaculate timing…

2008 Spring Mountaineering Kick-off

This past few weekends I’ve finally gotten to do expressly what I came out here to do: Climb big mountains via difficult routes. “Big” and “difficult” are of course very relative terms, but here I’m using them from the perspective of someone from the East Coast. Perhaps definitions are in order: “Big” mountains here are over 11,000 feet and “difficult” routes require crampons, a mountaineering axe, and some exposure. By that definition there are an infinite amount of “difficult” routes up the 19 “big” peaks in the Wasatch Range.

Technicalities aside, my last three weekends have involved summits or attempted summits up the largest of these peaks. Three weeks ago I attempted the Everest Ridge of Mt. Timpanogos, the second highest peak in the Wasatch. It’s important to get an early start on this climb since it faces southwest and is a snow climb. The sun creates all sorts of problems on a steep snow climb, from exhausting postholing to wet avalanches.

April 5 | Mt. Timpanogos: first attempt

Thus, I was out of bed before 2am and on the trail by 330. It reminded me of my Mexico mountaineering trip; climbing steep snow in the dark by headlamp with a fantastic view behind you. The biggest differences here was the metropolitan area 3 miles away the luxury of going from my warm bed to a mountaineering route in two hours 🙂

Eventually I ran into a few people from the Serac Club (a local mountaineering club out of Orem) on the ridge. They were turning around because of some problems routefinding (been there, haha) and a pretty nasty storm was rolling in. We were at about 11k feet when a driving wind picked up, pummeling us with horizontal snow pellets. I hadn’t anticipated the weather and was dressed a bit lightly, but decided to at least go up a bit higher and scope out a route. After some hairy scrambling and numb fingers I decided to turn around, a bit dejectedly. I always hate retreating from a climb.

April 12 | Mt. Timpanogos: summit!

So, I decided to tackle it again the next weekend. The weather forecast called for clear skies so once again I was up before my roommates had gone to bed on a friday night and set off from the trailhead at 2:45am. I was surprised to find some footsteps in the snow and saw the faint glow of headlamps far up on the ridge. It was nice to (again) have someone else breaking trail. By about 7:30 I made it up to my high point from the previous weekend and took the same route, a 4th-class scramble up some short vertical rock and 70° snow. It was a ton of fun, and before I knew it I had gained the summit ridgeline and was traversing over to the main 11,750 foot summit.

At the main summit I ran into the two guys I had spotted from before hanging out in the summit tower. One guy, Jeff, was a bit shaken up from having almost broke through a cornice right at the summit.

TraverseTraversing on the Timpanogos descent
He asked about possible descent routes, and I admitted that I didn’t really want to traverse back to the ridge again and suggested heading straight down a ridge directly below us. It was a spectacular clear morning, so I briefly took in the view, snapped some photos, and started the 6,000 foot descent back to the trailhead.

Routefinding on the way down was non-trivial, we were constantly getting caught above cliff bands and having to traverse steep snow slopes to go around them. A few wet avalanches had released the day before in the gullies nearby, so we avoided the slide paths and glissaded for thousands of feet until we ran out of snow. It was sweet. A grueling ten hours and 12,000 vertical feet later and I was back at the car.

I’ve got several more climbs on my wishlist for this spring, but most are either too dangerous to do solo or have access problems due to ski resorts. So, at around 11pm last night I decided to do some ski mountaineering on the 6th highest peak in the Wasatch, the Pfeifferhorn. It’s one of the most striking peaks in the range, with any route to the summit involving at least 3rd class scrambling. The main hiking trail takes a ridge to the east of the peak, spreading out the vertical gain. I, however, decided to directly ascend the headwall just east of the peak, with the hope of skiing down it afterwards.

April 19 | Ski mountaineering on the Pfeifferhorn

The morning was comparatively leisurely; I slept in til 6 am and wasn’t on the trail until 730 (stupid Salt Lake Marathon blocking traffic). This time, though, I was cruising on my AT skis, and having skied in the area before it was pretty comfortable. I set out from White Pine in Little Cottonwood Canyon (just below Snowbird ski resort) and made my way south. I followed some well-defined ski tracks all the way to upper Maybird Gulch, where the Pfeifferhorn completely dominated the scenery. From there I took off my skis, strapped them to my pack, and started the 800 foot or so climb up the 40° slope. Again, mellow 🙂 After gaining the ridge it was another steep 300 feet to the summit, which was surprisingly large and non-threatening. I took a 360° panorama, glissaded back down to my skis, and eagerly strapped in for the descent.

It was pretty awesome. I think I found the only powder in the entire Wasatch mountain range this late in the season, a stash at 11,000 feet on a northern aspect. I hate to admit it, but I pretty much wasted the first half of the descent falling after every other turn. I’m a bit rusty, especially on such steep terrain. Once it mellowed out to about 30° I was back driving turns again. The entire ski out took about an hour and a half, where the snow changed consistency constantly, from mashed potatoes to icy sun crust and back again. Staying on my feet was challenging, to say the least, and I was very happy to make it back to the canyon road a little more than five hours after setting off.

Conclusion

So there were a couple firsts here:

  • First real mountaineering experience in Utah
  • First time ski mountaineering (so awesome!)

And the spring’s just begun! I’ll be writing about my next few climbs as they happen, so stay tuned.


Pictures from Timpanogos

Pictures from the Pfeifferhorn

Takin’ er Easy

Or not. I have been using my still-broken clavicle as an excuse to get back into some activities I’ve been neglecting lately, mainly mountaineering and snowshoeing. From the second weekend after the accident I’ve been out in the mountains in some form on a weekly basis. I started slowly, peddling around Ferguson and Mill Creek Canyons but have been steadily stepping up to longer, more strenuous days in the mountains.

My weeks are still pretty boring since I can’t night ski or climb at the gym, but I have been making up for it each weekend in spades. This past weekend I put in about 20 miles in the mountains with ascents of Mt. Olympus (a walk-up except for a short steep stretch at the end) and a long tour six miles into the backcountry in Mill Creek Canyon. The latter was awesome; the first bona-fide backcountry day in the finest deep powder Utah has to offer. Over the next couple of months I’ll be focusing more and more on the mountaineering aspect as the avalanche danger subsides and my shoulder gets stronger. For now I’m happy going on long tours (with one ski pole..) until I have built up some strength in both arms to use ice tools or do some scrambling.

My shoulder has gotten remarkably stronger over the past few weeks, which has made life much more pleasant and allowed me to resume right-handedness. The climbing will come back with time; otherwise things are pretty much back to normal.

Photos from my weekend jaunts will be up soon…

A Day In the Life

Edit: updated to work in the Devil’s browser (commonly known as Internet Explorer)

I went touring (backcountry skiing) with a buddy a couple weeks ago and he took some interesting photos of one of my descents. Not content to just let them sit on a server somewhere, I moved them over to my site (and captioned them appropriately). Enjoy!

'It's Go time! Whhoooo yeah!'


Snap, Crackle, Pop, Sharp Painies!

On Wednesday night my (miraculous) streak of no major injuries came to an end. I was skiing up at Brighton as I do every week but was having an especially good night, powering through the moguls and stomping 180s and boxes with ease. Perhaps this put me in an elevated state of perceived immortality, who knows, but a few largish jumps in the uppermost terrain park crushed this state of mind like molars on Rice Krispies.

I have never landed a 360 before; indeed, it was one of my goals for the ski season. These jumps seemed like a great opportunity to practice, so I did. My main issue with 360s is the terrifying feeling of careening through the air, blind if just for a second as you rotate around. On the first attempt I lost my momentum about halfway through and landed awkwardly on one ski at about 270°. The other ski popped and I thought, well, that wasn’t so bad, I just need more speed to rotate that last 90. So the next time I went I still didn’t have enough momentum and instead landed a solid 180 at high speed, my ballsiest successful spin yet. It felt good, so I reassured myself that I wasn’t going to wuss out the next time and just go for it. So I came down, skiied over the first roller and set myself up for the spin on the next roller (a jump without much of a lip, these just cut sharply down on the other side with the landing steep and much below the lip). However I started to spin a split-second too early and caught my right edge on the top of the lip. Since I had so much speed it jutted me sideways and I went careening through the air, Superman-style but sideways. I can’t remember exactly what was going through my head at this time but I feel like I was still pretty relaxed somehow. I distinctly remember landing on an outstretched arm way down at the bottom of the landing, at least eight feet below the jump’s lip. My outstretched arm, shoulder and head (with helmet) impacted on the icy landing and I got the ol’ white flash for a split second on contact. I immediately popped back up (somehow) and literally threw my skis out of the way of the landing, furiously. What the HELL was that, Alec? was the gist of what was going through my head. At this point nothing seemed wrong (I was still in shock I guess). I put my skis back on and continued down the hill.

Various thoughts flashed through my head as I skiied to the bottom on gentle slopes, mostly revolving around not being able to ski or climb again for a long time, but also on the pain associated with a broken bone fragment poking up into your shoulder. Having never broken anything before, my thought process went something like this:

  1. I hate to waste the rest of this run, maybe I’ll traverse and hit that sweet box over there!
  2. On second thought, this kinda hurts, I should probably head straight down to the medical office…
  3. Yeah that definitely hurts, I think I might have broken something…
  4. Shit, I don’t think I’ll be skiing for a little while…
  5. Wow, that really hurts, is that my collarbone I can feel sticking up out of there? Uh-oh…
  6. Well, so much for that climbing trip down to the desert this weekend…

Yes, it entered my mind to hit a box or two immediately after snapping my clavicle in two…my body’s natural defense mechanism turned that idea around pretty quickly…

I popped off my skis at the bottom, wandering around the medical office until an elderly woman greeted me with an “uh oh, looks like you’re carrying your arm there.” I replied sheepishly, “Yeah I think I broke my collarbone” while holding my right arm as if it were about to fall off.

The next few minutes involved me sitting in a chair answering questions while the room turned a milky, spinning white. “Uhh I’m getting a bit lightheaded,” I uttered before finding myself on a hospital bed concentrating on my breathing. I never fainted but came as close as I ever have. During this time I called a friend and he graciously dropped everything (probably a plastic Rock Band guitar) to come with a friend and pick up myself and my car. (Man, I owe you guys. Cam and Chris, thanks so much again.)

The rest of the night wasn’t all that interesting, I went to the ER and they took X-rays and referred me to an Orthopedic Surgeon. More on this later, I don’t want to needlessly freak anyone out with speculation when my appointment isn’t til Monday afternoon. And that’s that for now, there’s a lot more to say but typing with one hand is agonizingly slow.

Stay away from the Rice Krispies, kids…

Holy Snowness!

Well, it’s been about five weeks since it started dumping snow in the mountains here in Utah. Alta got 12′ in December (that’s one tick mark) and January has started off with a bang with a massive storm that pounded the Sierras and Lake Tahoe area. Alta got 38″ from Friday til the skies cleared Monday morning. Pretty killer stuff.

So far I’ve had three awesome powder days, with this past Sunday being the best. The day I flew back to NY would’ve been even better I think, if it hadn’t been for a little debacle getting up the canyon. I tried driving up with my 2-wheel drive Acura (w/ snow tires), got pulled over and promptly sent back down the canyon. I didn’t get my first run in til 11am, and only got three in total (all wicked powder runs though) before I had to jet back to Salt Lake to catch a taxi to the airport.

But let’s talk about Sunday. The weather was unstable to say the least, and learning from that past experience I elected to take the bus up. Unfortunately I didn’t get to the park ‘n ride until 8:45 and it took two hours to get up the canyon due to a massive traffic jam (and cops checking cars for 4×4/chains undoubtedly) so my first run again wasn’t til 11. However, this time it didn’t matter because it snowed another 8″ while I was there, from 11 to 4. Almost every run was in knee deep powder and I found numerous stashes of untracked deep stuff each time. Some steep untracked tree runs had me grinning and whooping the whole way down. I wasn’t in the condition to huck cliffs due to a minor knee injury on Thursday but made the most of it anyhow. It was epic; the best ski day of my life thus far.

Best part is, it’s only gonna get better — hell, it’s only January! And I hear there’s another storm rolling in tomorrow night…

It Begins

Yesterday I finally got to experience what I originally moved here for: a day of skiing at one of the best resorts in the world. Friday night we got about 5″ of snow here in the valley and over a foot in the mountains. When I woke up yesterday morning to see a nice blanket of snow covering everything, I was beyond psyched.

Due to some necessary preparations I didn’t make it up to the mountain until about noon, so all the main runs had been pretty chopped up already. Only about 1/3 of the mountain was open at that point (Two lifts actually) but it was still pretty sweet. They had a good variety of terrain open, from steep bowls to moderate groomers to hairy tree sections. People had set up a few kickers here and there, and I could already spot a few natural features that could give way to some awesome air, that is for those with a little creativity and a lot of balls.

It snowed all day which made visibility an issue due to poor contrast, but I did manage to get some fresh tracks with a little exploration into the tighter trees. Overall I got in a little over four hours of skiing. I took my fair share of spills, but that was expected on the first day of the season on such challenging terrain. What doesn’t kill ya makes you stronger, eh? 🙂

Today I came down with a cold, otherwise I would’ve headed up there again. Next week Brighton should open their night skiing, though, so I’ll probably head up there a few times. Man, I love winter!

The Weather out West

I haven’t even come close to understanding the weather out here. It was crazy hot all summer (upper 90s every day) and I was blasting the a/c all the time. Then, all of a sudden, it’s snowing in the mountains and freezing in the house. There wasn’t really a transition at all. Is there a spring and fall out here, or have we been reduced to two seasons?

Just this past weekend I went for a hike, and had to turn back because I ran into five inches of snow! It’s September, man, wtf?! Well, yeah, it was at 11,000 feet, but still! I guess the hiking season in the higher peaks consists of July and August.

I’ve gotten lazy the past couple of weeks and have started driving to work more and more. All summer I biked to work 70% of the time, but since it’s gotten colder I’ve stopped. Maybe I can get in the habit of riding Trax this winter. An extra half-hour of time dedicated to reading daily would be pretty sweet…

In other news, I’ve been climbing 3-4 times a week in the gym and at various crags in the Wasatch. I’m trying to beef up my endurance so I can stay on harder routes for longer. I am a member of Momentum so I have been lead climbing and bouldering quite a bit: I still need to rest once on the long overhanging 5.10 routes, but look forward to sending them with ease (and more!) by the spring.

I’ve picked up a new set of skis (fat twin-tips for the park and powder from a local company) and bindings, and am looking at an Alpine Touring setup next. Hopefully I can afford to pick everything up by the beginning of the backcountry ski season in early November…

The Austrian Alps

Skiing in the Alps lives up to it’s hype…and then some.  It was easily the best skiing I have enjoyed in my life, and I don’t think there exists a better place for it…there’s a reason why all the winter olympic alpine competitions are dominated by the Austrians and Swiss.

I spent five full days and six nights in Bad Gastein, Austria.  The train ride down was around 10 hours, but passed fairly quickly as I had reservations on each train and slept for at least half the ride.  Very nice, since I was battling a pretty fierce cold at the time.  I changed trains at Hannnover and München, and rode all the way into Bad Gastein, directly south of Salzburg and in the heart of the Alps. 

In total there are three villages and five very skiable mountains in the spectacular Gastein valley.  Some of the mountains are connected by trails, but most you have to take a bus to.  Check out this link for a map of the area (Just download the .gif provided at the bottom if the navigation doesn’t work).  Each mountain has it’s own character, and fantastically varied trails are abound (supposedly 860 km of them total in the valley).

So at 4:30 PM or so I arrived in Bad Gastein.  By then it was dark out and snowing very heavily.  Hardly anything was plowed so I had to haul my enormous suitcase through 3-4 inches of snow until I finally reached the hostel.  After checking in and taking a shower I headed upstairs to have some dinner and a few beers with a few English dudes, who I ended up hanging out with for the first few days.  The hostel was really great, the dorms were downstairs and had a nice, big, clean shower/bathroom/washroom area.  Upstairs there was the reception area connected to a large, cozy TV room area with a few computers for internet access.  I must say I have missed TV in my few months here in Germany, so I spent a lot of time soaking up its glow.  Also there was a dining room (serving delicious Austrian food) and two bars, the downstairs one looking more like a sauna than a bar.  It was completely decked out in wood from ceiling to floor and was pretty cozy.  In another room was the (free) breakfast-eating area, with a view of the slope across the street.

Sometime that night I had a weird feeling of fluid build-up in my ears…turns out they had gotten inflamed during the day.  Thus, the next morning I woke up early and sought out a doctor (never had an ear infection that I can remember), who gave me some antibiotics.  After picking up skis and a lift ticket, I headed to the mountain. 


100_0662_1
The view from the hostel, looking at the bottom of
Stubnerkogel (click to enlarge)

The lift you see there is the one I headed up after a short wait.  It is a nice, fast gondola going all the way to the summit.  I never timed how long it took, but I want to say around 10-15 minutes or so (Definitely longer than it would take to get down 🙂  So I skiied all day, all on Stubnerkogel’s front slopes.  It was a pretty messy day and I spent a good part of it tumbling down the slopes after mishandling a ski/myself/my speed.  Soon this would change, and by the end of the day I had almost gotten my legs back.

The next day I got up early (it had snowed all evening) and was determined to hit some of the fresh show.  And did I ever, oh my.  It was a bit clearer that day (first day at the summit the visibility was about 20 meters) so I realized there was a trail I hadn’t realized existed going to the back of the mountain.  I took it and was rewarded with the finest skiing of my life.  The slopes were nice and steep, but more importantly with a fresh 3-4 inch layer of white, crisp, virgin snow.  I was in ecstacy the first few runs; it’s indescribable how enjoyable carving nice long turns is in such snow.  Furthermore, it was still snowing, and the kind where you can see the unique character of every single flake as it lands on your glove.  Fantastic.  After a view luscious runs I made my way down to Skizentrum Angertal, then up the facing mountain, Schlossalm, for the first time.  It was still early enough that the wait was short, and I headed up.  For the first run I took one of the intermediate side trails all the way to the bottom, and it was great.  Like skiing through butter.  It wound back and forth, both down gradual and very steep pitches under arched bridges and sharp, narrow paths to the bottom.  That ended up being the most enjoyable run of my life, and I never did run it again because I knew it wouldn’t compare to the first.  At the bottom I waited forever to get onto the lift up (by this time I was in Bad Hofgastein).  The lift here was actually a kind of railway shuttle that took 85 people at a time.  Once you got off that there was another wait for the next type of shuttle to carry you to the top (Think of a gondola, but 15x bigger and carrying 85 people at a time).  At the top I did a few runs and spent most of the day on Schlossalm, eventually skiing my way back to Bad Gastein by 4 PM.

The next day was clear and beautiful.  The downside was a lack of fresh snow to ski on.  Ah well, I can’t have everything.  My goal for the day was checking out the rather intimidating expert trail on Stubnerkogel as well as the 14km (8.7 mile)-long H1 trail on Schlossalm.  The expert trail was kinda dumb, just a steeper version of the trails above and nice and icy where everyone had scraped the snow off.  My solution was finding pockets of collected snow to turn on, otherwise I would just slide down the ice and wipe out.  The H1 trail was legendary (it runs behind a large shoulder of Schossalm, separated from all the other trails) and I took a lot of pictures.  Eventually I made it back up and wanted to take advantage of its layout without stopping to take a picture every 100m.  So I bombed down it like it was meant to be skiied.

By the fourth day I had tired of Stubnerkogel/Schlossalm and wanted to check out something else.  At this point I was a better skiier than I had ever been and was feeling pretty confident, so I was looking for some more challenging runs.  Apparently Sportgastein had some unmaintained "natural" runs so I wanted to take a bus over there.  Unfortunately (at the time), the first bus I hopped on went to Graukogel instead.  So I thought I’d check out the runs and head over to Sportgastein for the afternoon since this would be my last day of skiing.  Well, after a few runs I realized that Graukogel was pretty kickass in its own right (even though the lifts were slow 2-seaters).  It had 3 real nice expert-level trails, 2 of them covered in moguls.  I was totally into moguls by this time as they were the only real challenge left, and ran them for most of the day.  The blue side trail was very nice too, winding with lots of room for creativity (read: taking "shortcuts" through the woods).  I never made it to Sportgastein for I was having far too much fun.

Most of that evening was spent at the bar, and eventually at a club down the street with a few Aussies and other Americans.  The next day was pretty slow, so I sat around watching movies and eventually  checked out the spa cuz it was supposedly world-renowned.  Well, it was pretty damn nice and put the spa here in Osnabrück to shame.  The best part was the outdoor heated spa area.  You sit in a pool of bubbly, 32°C water while breathing in the fresh, crisp mountain air.  Then you go and run around in the snow for awhile, pegging one another with snowballs until you realize you’re freezing, at which time you jump back in the water.  Fun stuff.

That night I was to catch a 9 PM night train to Essen in northern Germany.  Well, I showed up at 9 and looked at the board (each train station has a board listing the daily train schedule for the stop) and realized my train wasn’t there.  This put me off a bit but I waited for a half-hour or so anyway, then walked back to the hostel thinking the train didn’t exist.  The really nice kid at the desk heard my story and called Die Bahn, who said the train was late, really late.  So I headed back to the train station and waited for an hour or so before running into the conductor, who graciously told me my train had come and gone.  Thanks for the announcement at 9, asshole.  So I booked another night at the hostel and took a 9 am sunday train back to Salzburg, München, Hannover, and eventually Osnabrück.  Sans reservations, which sucked.

Looking back on it, I should have bought a five-day pass and explored Sportgastein that fifth day.  No matter though, for I will be back.  Someday, I promise.  It’s just that good.

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