Sunday, March 27, 2011

West Slabs aka Medusa's Face: All You Ever Wanted, and More

The Straightchuter says this about the Medusa's Face:
Like Russian Roulette--more fun to watch than to play.  This is a good line to skip unless it's really been weighing on your mind.  The angle and settings are superb, but the approach, egress and snow conditions ruin a theoretically great line.  It all depends on the snow pack, but considering the geography, good skiable conditions are rare.  The underlying bed surface is a smooth, high angle rock slab that continually sheds snow, so the pack is never very deep. . . . About the only saving grace of this situation is that there are quite a few small trees that can be used as anchors if you choose to ski roped.  A fall would be graphic and fatal, and you're likely to end up at Einstein's Bagels if you do.
-- A. McLean, Chuting Gallery, p. 70
Mt. Olympus
The West Slabs have been weighing on my mind for a long time.  After a couple of aborted attempts, I thought it was time to give it another shot.  Andy Jacobsen who has actually skied the West Slabs said that he was able to do it in March in "fat" conditions.  So when we got some snow this week, in March, I was optimistic and resolved to give it a go.  When I mentioned it to Brother Sam, without hesitation, he was in.  And when Brother Sam mentioned it to Brother Aaron, without hesitation, he was in.  It appears that we all suffer from the same genetic defect.

Me and Sam on Olympus' summit ridge

So, did West Slabs meet and exceed our greatest expectations?  I guess, it depends.  We were disappointed to find out that we couldn't ski it from top to bottom, but all in all it was a one-stop shopping experience that provided a week's worth of adventure in one compact, exciting package, all within view of Einstein's Bagels.

Beneath her Nose

Everything you could ever want within a 5 minute Drive

This included:
  • Class 6 Buswhack
  • Mountain lion tracks
  • Alpine ascent of Olympus' backbone
  • A ski descent down Medusa's forehead, which was covered with 8 inches of powder, 8 inches of crust, and 8 inches of facets on top of top quality quartzite
  • Jump turns, free floating, hoping and praying what lies beneath is snow, crust, or facets, and not solid stone
  • Jump turning onto solid stone, sliding, skidding, sparks flying, hoping that the ski edges would just bite already
  • Sundog
  • Watching sluff reveal a cold, hard, icy, rocky, face from Medua's nose down
  • Crossing a rock spine covered with thin ice, slipping out, doing a dinner roll, and landing on edges with them biting hard
  • Skiing past rappel anchors
  • Having the actual thought cross my mind that I am about to go through Einstein's roof
  • Rapping off a particularly steep section
  • Downclimbing a rotten runnel with a tool and a whippet with a few rock moves thrown in for good measure
  • Skiing the chalky apron below Medusa's face and then transitioning onto a bowl of frozen debris
  • Trail skiing through the scrub oak
  • Laughing at and with and being scared with and for my brothers.

Sam, apologizing to his skis.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Hulk Hogum

Pfeifferhorn, NW Couloir
This week, brothers Andy and Jason Dorais and I completed a linkup of several prominent lines in Hogum Fork in the backcountry of Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah.  Andy calls it the "Hulk Hogum."  We began with the Northwest Couloir of the Pfeifferhorn; skied a soon-to-be named/identified coolie in upper Hogum, which we thought might be Snap Dragon, but on further reflection decided, not; knocked off the some of the more popular steep lines of Lightning Ridge--Montgomery, the Sliver, Dresden Face, Hypodermic Needle; and finished with a descent of the Coalpit headwall, a traverse to the top of the Y Couloir, and out the Y Couloir.

The Stats

Andy Dorais climbing the Pfeif
- Lines Skied: Pfeif NW, Cham Chute, Montgomery, Sliver, Dresden Face, Hypodermic Needle,Coalpit headwall, Y Couloir
- Vertical: 11,700 up, 14,475 down
- Time: 13 hrs, 41 minutes
- Redundant Uptracks: up Sliver 2x , up Needle apron/Coalpit ridge 3x
- Raps: 1 on Pfeiff NW, 2 on Montgomery
- Collective Gear: lightweight skinny skis, tech bindings, Whippets, minimalist harnesses, 60 meter 6mm cord, tat, a few nuts, a few pins, and 1 ice tool.
- Conditions: not spring, not what was forecasted, WINDY, variable snow--pow, windboard, ice
- Injuries: 1 scraped knee (Jason's), several frost-nipped and now numb finger tips (mine and Jason's)
- Mood: cynical, sardonic, stoked, exuberant, pissed-off (Coalpit Ridge x 3, skin failure x 5), amazed, frightened, inspired, grateful, beat down, and lifted up.
Going Light = Freedom
Free: Andy Dorais, Jared Inouye, and Jason Dorais
In the last few years, I've been inspired by alpinism -- climbing hard and long routes with minimal gear as fast as possible.  Reading the adventures and feats of guys like Mark Twight, Steve House, and now Colin Haley, just to name a few, has left my mind spinning, and wondering.  This is one reason that I've been interested in rando racing, which is all about skiing fast and minimally.  While alpinism and ski mountaineering, ski alpinisme if you're french, are not the same, I think there are parallels and even a fair amount of crossover.  I also think that ski mountaineering has been and will continue to be informed and driven by rando racing, although the two disciplines also have differences.

Rando racing has had a major effect on my skiing.  Nowadays, it's hard for me to clip into my 95mm waisted Manaslus, which weigh 3.8 pounds per foot.  It's even hard to clip into my 78mm waisted Trab Free Randos, which weigh 3.1 pounds per foot.  I often, even on a powder day, find myself clipping into my 65 mm race skis, which weigh 2.1 pounds per foot.  Why?  Because going light = going higher and longer with less effort.  Because going light allows me to ski routes like the Hulk Hogum.  Because going light presents the possibility of one day going big.

Hulk Hogum
Andy in 4wd
If I were to choose one word to characterize the Hulk Hogum, it would be "steep."  All of the lines in the Hulk Hogum, at their best, are between 45 and 55 degrees.  We were lucky to get a couple of the lines in soft conditions (Cham Chute, Dresden and Coalpit).  Some of the others presented a clinic on skiing icy to breakable conditions on lightweight ski gear.  Although I know there were times when I didn't look (or feel) all that calm and fluid, I don't think I ever took a fall, and in my book, that's a success.

Being in Hogum Fork is always special.  Nearly every side of Hogum is rimmed with spires.  In the Wasatch, it may be as good as it gets.

Is this Snap Dragon?  The ramp trending down from top looker's right to lower left is what I now call the "Cham Chute."
The Munter
To accomplish this project, we needed some climbing gear, which would increase what we normally carry.  In trying to go lighter, I brought a 60 meter 6mm cord, used a 95 gram harness, and left my belay device in the car.  I was really happy with the 6mm cord, which at 22 grams per meter weighs less than half of one strand of a twin or half rope.  I carried the cord for the first part our tour, and after I began complaining about it, Jason stuffed it in his pack.   The 6mm cord on a Munter hitch also worked nicely, even on an overhanging rap.

A couple of the lines in the Hulk Hogum required a rope.  Getting into Montgomery from the Sliver required a rope, and then we had to rap the cliffs at the mid sections of the Pfeif NW Couloir and  Montgomery.  The Dorais brothers built the anchors on Montgomery, leaving $30 worth of offerings to the mountain for which they will be blessed, no doubt.

Jason Dorais descending Montgomery
One nut, one pin.
Where is Snap Dragon?
If it's not yet obvious, one of the recurring themes of the day was the Snap Dragon.  Where is it?  I think my partners were a bit annoyed with my Snap Dragon fixation.  Surely, the Cham Chute was a decent substitute, but I would like to find and, one day, ski Snap Dragon.  Help, anyone?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Power of Four

The Power of Four is now being touted as North America's "best" skimo race;   Powder Mag compares it to the classic Patrouille de Glacier.  Certainly, it is the longest at 27.5 miles and 12,800 vertical feet ascended.  My partner Brian Harder summed it up well, calling it "one of the hardest physical tests many of us have faced on skis."  Here are a few of my thoughts:

An Odd Pair
Aspen has seen many odd pairs looking for adventure
The Power of Four is a teams race, meaning that racers must race in teams of two.  As Brian and I rolled into Aspen, I laughed as I thought of the Dumb and Dumber scene depicted to the right (take special note of the snot and the facial expressions).  I was comforted to know that we  weren't the first odd pair looking for adventure in Aspen.

On paper, we are unlikely teammates.  Brian is tall, I am not.  Brian is 10 years older than I am.  I like to start fast, he does not.  His diesel engine is indefatigable; my rice burner? not so much.  Nevertheless, we were joined together by one common objective: to race as fast as we could against and on Aspen's best.

The Power of Two
In an individualistic sport, the team dynamic is interesting.  One of the more satisfying things I discovered at the Power of Four was the power of two.  I think that as a team we ended up being faster than either of us would have been individually.  We both had strong moments and we both had weak moments.  And with each other's help, we made up for one another's deficiencies, harnessing one another's energy, enabling us to push faster to the end.

Highlands Peak and the Bowl
One of the key moments in the race occurred as we were on our second major climb, a 4400 foot climb from the bottom of Aspen Highlands resort to the top of Highland Peak (12,392).  I was excited because we had acquired a decent gap on the teams of  Brown/Koles and Hagen/Schilling.  We were in third place, and second place was within striking distance.  But Brian started vomiting.  The sounds were a bit disconcerting, so I didn't look back at first.  When I finally did, he was standing there, leaning on his poles, and looking a bit worried.  I pulled out the bungee cord and offered it to him, and to his credit, he took it, and we proceeded "on tow."  By the time we hit the bootpack, he had recovered.  By the time we had reached the top, we had pulled into second place.

Photo Credit: Pierre Wille
The second key moment in the race occurred at the beginning of the demoralizing 6 mile final climb to Aspen Mountain.  With 10,000 feet and over 20 miles in my legs, and not enough food, I was fading.  At the start of the climb, I gulped down an energy bar that I grabbed at an aid station.  As soon as I did so, however, blood went to my stomach to digest, and I lost some power in my legs.  I was struggling to match Brian's pace and I could see the team of Brown/Koles closing in on us.  I took the tow rope out and said, "Brian, I need to go on tow."  He nodded, and I clipped in.

I was relieved that the pace-setting burden was squarely on his shoulders, literally and figuratively.  I gritted my teeth and did my best to keep some slack in the line.  The tow line works a bit of magic.  Mentally, it forces the leader to set the pace and try to keep some tension on the line, and it forces the follower to keep pace to try to keep tension off the line.  It's a little game that makes a team go faster.  Further, when the follower begins to drag, the line gives him a tug, urging him forward, again making the team a bit faster.

Booting up Highlands Peak
Photo Credit: Kevin Krill
Because I am a bit proud (or so my wife says), I was slightly sheepish about going "on tow."  I think that was probably the case for Brian too.  But in a teams race, you have to be honest and humble enough to know when you need help.  You have to know when it's time to be the leader and when it's time to be the follower.  It would be unusual not to play both roles during a long race.  One of the more satisfying aspects of the race was that we were able to rely on each other.

The Battle
The Final Climb      Photo Credit: Kevin Krill
After the first climb, the leaders (Wickenhauser and Smith) were out of sight and out of mind.  But after 10,000 feet of climbing and nearly 5 hours into the race, three teams were within one or two minutes of another, gunning for second place.  The final positions would be decided on the 6 mile climb ahead of us.  40 minutes into the climb, the team of Koles/Brown overtook us.  We exchanged encouragement as they passed, but inside, I was disappointed. I wanted second.  The problem was, I could only go so fast--I could barely match Brian's pace on tow.  Even worse, Kroger/Taam were visibly closing in on us.  Brian said, "I guess 4th would be ok too."  As if I had control over the matter, I said, "no way."

For the next hour, we gutted it out.  We needed food, but we didn't have any.  Every step was difficult.  I began making some weird growling/grunting noise with each step.  The gap between us in 3rd and Kroger/Taam in 4th seemed to hold as did the gap between Koles/Brown in 2nd.  All of us were suffering, but none of us would let up.  It was a moment of pure competition.  It was also a moment of self discovery.  Would we, could we push through?

In the end, we did.  About 25 meters from the top of the climb, we overtook the Koles/Brown team.  With snot all over Brian's face and me screaming bloody murder, we topped out, ripped skins and secured our 2nd place finish.  Didn't I tell you to take note of the snot and expressions?
Dumb and Dumber?

Brian Harder and Jared Inouye finishing at the Power of Four  Photo Credit: B Wick