First snow and pizza: September 9th

Well, it happened again. I’d done so well for most of the summer, and then the yearly release of new ski content got me all fired up. As if the weather knew that I was particularly vulnerable to walking a long distance in search of a little new blanket of fluff, a bunch of moisture combined with cooler temps rolled through over the past week. Thus, I wandered up to Comeau Pass in the clouds on the theory that there’d be something fresh to ski on the old snow patches.

Pretty interesting snow structure even for the early season. Rain soaked slush makes up the bottom in the old snowfields, with 3-8″ of groppel under a melt/freeze crust above that. The new snow I was skiing was pretty well welded to the freeze crust down lower. Get it before it’s hot.

#winteriscoming

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Wherever you are: David Steele 14-15

Last week, I unveiled my latest season edit of skiing. Filmed in the Montana backcountry, on Cascade volcanoes, and in the terrain park at Stevens Pass, it’s a pretty good representation of how my skiing still bridges genres.

There’s a wealth of experience in not being just one type of skier. I hope that comes through. Major thanks to family, friends, partners, and especially the sponsors who keep me out there.

Jewel Basin in the rough: anticipating El Nino

For the snow obsessed in my life, the approach of winter offers yet another opportunity to delve into irrational speculation that’s only as deep as the snow we’d prefer to be shredding. Thus, the most predicable thing about the winter is the way that we lead up to it online: winter forecasts start circulating in August, followed by reposts of Farmer’s Almanac quotations and snow maps in September. Then the first winter storm heads for the west coast, and multiple snow news sources write stories about some obscene NOAA point forecast from some high  point (13,000 ft on Rainier) on one of the Cascade volcanoes. This happened at least twice this year, and I’d find it acceptable only if the person who writes these silly things braves the crevasse hazard and red flags of  124″ of new loading over three days to actually go up there and ski it.

October brings that first snow in the hills and the inevitable, undeniable truth of the ocean temperatures: we’re headed for another El Niño winter here in North America. And since this is the second winter in a row of potential Global Weirding in Montana, there’s been an accompanying conversation that I’ve heard in bars, casual chats, and early season skin tracks. It goes like this:

“Wow, El Niño again. Last winter was terrible man, except that one day. It was dry at the hill for, like, a month. Let’s hope this one is somehow better for us in our corner of the world.” I recently heard a skin track addendum: “Gotta get it now [in November] while it’s still good.”

In response, I’d like to offer a series of evidence-based rebuttals from a day of touring this past March 22. For context: things were sunny and pretty dang thin at the ski areas in northwest Montana. The bottom five hundred feet of Griz chair at Snowbowl was completely snow free under the lift. It was spring slush and people were probably playing golf. An early forecast had even called for rain.

Evidence-based rebuttal number one: don’t conclude that a winter is bad based on lift-accessed conditions.

It’s 2015, people. Backcountry skiing and boarding has blossomed into the full, geeky flower of possibility, while lift lines and gargantuan parking lots solidly show the current state of  your favorite in-bounds powder stash. If you’re looking to find good snow without tracks on it, I’d recommend channeling whatever energy was going into complaining about weather phenomenons into walking uphill.

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Fortunately, my friends are on the same page. That day in March, Dave, Gary, Brad and I loaded into the Black Diamond Mortgage alpine bus and rallied for Jewel Basin. It was downright cruchy while we put skins on and rallied up the road in the morning shadows. Suncrust beckoned. And:

Evidenced-based rebuttal number two: it’s not the snow that terrible; it’s the attitude of the people you’re skiing it with.

Brad, Gary, and Dave are terrific in this respect. It’s a decently long approach just to get into Camp Misery, and we had no idea of the conditions we might find up high. March in a more normal year might mean layer on layers of storm snow in the same places we were walking through. Instead, a thin skim of new snow covered the crunchy sun crust, evidence that it hadn’t been quite stormy up there.

Once on the ridge top, it got windy. My ski crampons were a nice addition, as the crust was relatively slippery and rolled away downhill to the west. Props to the rest of the guys for going without.

Walking the finish to the top of Mt. Aeneas, I wondered a bit about how the skiing would go. Sandwiches appeared, jokes were exchanged, and we decided to give the East face a whirl, hoping that the wind on the ridge had seen fit to match the crust with some dust to scuff around in.

Just before he dropped in, Dave wasn’t unhappy. Which brings me to my third evidence-based rebuttal: you don’t know until you get out there.

A few inches of cream filled in the face. Buttery, soft, glorious stuff. Skiing  that wasn’t perhaps the stuff of legends, but was seriously worthy. We wouldn’t have known it was there had we not gone. We certainly wouldn’t have found it. And after a series of very complimentary things said about the quality of the snow, and the sunshine beaming down, we went back up for more.

Self-righteous aphorisms about earning turns pop up enough in ski writing, even though they’ve been worn more threadbare than a rock-eaten pair of skins. Everyone has their reasons for being out there. Personally, I keep coming back to the same thing: it’s easy to complain about the winter from a chairlift seat. But if you don’t like what’s under your skis, or if Global Weirding has served up another barely recognizable weather pattern, then go explore. Follow weather, seek out aspects, use elevation to your advantage. There’s almost always good skiing to be had if you want to work for it.

After our second lap, we dropped down the chute just below the summit of Aeneas.It was not quite as nice as the east face had been.

Which is the evidence base for my fourth conclusion: skiers are happier when they learn to love hard snow. Don’t get me wrong: pow is great. Soft snow is wonderful. And it’s made all the sweeter by enjoying the hell out of wind scour, sastrugi, icy mank, sludge, suncups, moguls, chicken heads, and runnels. Diversity keeps ski skill up, keeps the challenge hard, and makes the good days feel even more amazing. The winter I worked as a cat skiing guide, skiing powder got a little blasé due to too much repetition. You don’t want that in your life. Dig out the hop turns and find the crunchy stuff to keep it lively. We certainly did in that chute.

It was the nice bit of doodling down the flats back to Picnic Lakes. Gary made some silky tele turns in front of me.

Then, we bumped back up to the ridge to find springtime. Sun had softened the crust we’d skied in the morning, leaving a nice bit of surface corn for the enjoying in Crown Bowl.

Our exit down the road took a while, and eventually we walked a bit, but the day had been ours. It hadn’t rained. We’d found fun skiing and good snow towards the end of a “terrible winter.” And as we wander forth in the coming months, having no idea what this El Niño will bring, I keep thinking back to these good times as a touchstone and motivation to keep getting out, skinning a little further, and reaping the rewards.

 

 

 

Right on, Rainier: a ski jaunt up and down the Fuhrer Finger

NOTE: All photos/videos current to route conditions as of March 5/6, 2015.

Unfolding on layers of rock, or ice, or the accumulated winters of a snowfield, geology and weather can be so patient. On their own time scale, they’re moving right along. But on ours, they fairly stand still, and following their slow lead informs a safer mindset: the mountain isn’t going anywhere. We can come back. There’s nothing wrong with stepping down, turning back, making the harder choice.

The truth, though, is that when something catches my notice, or lodges itself in the folds of my brain, that patience is tested. It’s hard to pick good conditions, good people, plan well, and not succeed on an objective. The thought of turning back when many things have aligned can be burdensome. Worse, it’s the feeling of work not yet done on a big goal that eats at me. Such have been the past couple years on Mt. Rainier. I’ve written about those climbs, both our attempt on the Finger in 2013, and our group attempt via the DC last summer.

The net result of both was that I learned quite a bit, but hadn’t been anywhere near the summit. So for this spring, I’d put that goal pretty high on my list. May or June seemed like the time to do it–until a couple weeks ago, when it occurred to me that with the vicious cycle they’ve been having, a March attempt might make some sense. March might be the new May, to quote a local friend.   Of course, the trip wouldn’t have been possible without partners. Blake Votilla was heading to Rainier to interview for a guiding job with RMI (which he now has–congrats!), so we shuffled dates, brought Miles and Mike on board, and hoped to meet up around 9am Thursday.

Late on Wednesday afternoon, I loaded up and headed on out from Kalispell. The drive was most interesting going over White Pass. Snow guns with lights trained into their tubes of snow made for a remarkable sight in the dark. A kind lady helped me with directions to the Skate Creek Road at 1:30am. Just an hour later, I pulled into Ashford, shuffled gear, and fell asleep. Six hours later, Blake, who must have been out on a walk, casually strolled by. We chatted while I packed, discussed a couple things, and headed into the park to find Miles and Mike. After half an hour of waiting for them in the Longmire parking lot, we realized they were in the ranger station–waiting for us. Our permit secured, we headed back out to organize. Then Miles walked up to the group: “Turns out there’s going to be another group on the Finger. The best part is that my ex-girlfriend is in it.” This set off all kinds of speculation about camp that night, though we’d later realize that the other party wasn’t planning to camp anywhere near us. Everything went into two vehicles for the trip up to Paradise. We reorganized, and were off to a great alpine start of almost exactly noon. Looking out across, with the red line indicating our route. Things went smoothly. We dropped off the main trail near the base of Pan Point, traversed over a moraine, and roped up to cross the lower Nisqually and Wilson Glaciers en route to camp. Blake and Miles took one 30m, with Mike and I behind. Perhaps the biggest thing that I notice every time I’m on Rainier is exactly that: it’s big. The scale is way off for most of the mountain environments I’ve played in. For reference, compare the route picture above. The first line covers about 4000ft feet of gain, while the second is over 5000ft. Another angle on the vastness, of Mike and me: We found things more cracked out than we expected. Paradise, and I assume the mountain at large, has seen only a fraction of its yearly snow, and I remember fewer detours around broken areas from our April trip two years back. Other than that, some fresh snow from a few days prior make for easy skinning. We made it to camp at around 9200’with daylight to spare, and only a little bit of treacherous ice. Mike and Miles sidle in. Citing the good weather, we took a Megamid just in case, but never needed it. A wind drift below a massive rock offered a nice floor and room for bunks. As I’m demonstrating, it’s important to check the softness of your mattress in these wild climes. Once settled, we melted a preposterous amount of snow to rehydrate. Its amazing how much water you go through at elevation, with a medium sized pack, trying to make good time. Past trips haven’t seen me succeeding at drinking enough, and paying a price performance wise. Then, Miles pulled a small deli’s worth of veggies, cheese, and sauce out of his pack, and cooked some incredibly delicious backcountry pizzas. The secret seems to lie in a just add water crust, mixed in a ziplock and then squeezed out to cook in a pan. Rich eating, that’s for sure. Very tasty. Though our kitchen and dining room was nice, I wanted more counter space for making sandwiches. Snow walls make for easy remodels. Somewhere in there, we all bedded down in the alcove, passing off to dreamland. The moon was bright and further across the sky every time I woke up. Then the alarm jangled out of my watch at 3am, and we were up again. We took forever to get out of camp, mostly because we really hit the water hard. I’ll take the blame there. 5:30 saw us skinning across the glacier, ski crampons crunching into the refrozen surface. Navigation happened at the length of a headlamp, and it was strange to watch the beams of Miles and Blake searching the mounds of snow and ice ahead of us for the route across the basin and into the bottom of the finger. Above us, ice and snow hung and loomed in the dark. On my end of the rope, I felt pretty dang small there, just moving forward across the snow in the direction we knew the Finger’s couloir to be, the rope to Mike tugging behind me. Eventually, light came and we began to angle up into the couloir. I dropped the rope to Mike, and continued up. Ski crampons would bite in, then sometimes slide. Switching to crampons would be more secure as our feet punched in through the thin surface of crust, but then we’d lose the efficiency of out skins. The angle forced our hands (or maybe more appropriately, our feet) as the sky began to go those pastel colors you see on Lisa Frank pony coloring books. Here, Mike chews on a ski strap to keep his energy up. Leader shot from Blake, the rest of us chugging along behind him: We had to high side on climbers left to avoid cracks radiating off the Nisqually Icefall towards the upper part of the Finger. There wasn’t enough snow, to our eyes, to allow a glacier traverse. This meant a steep pitch to that top that we belayed up to avoid a roped tumble into the open crevasses below. It’s worth noting that we couldn’t see a good line for a traverse into
the Nisqually, though I know that’s sometimes good route finding, as when Wildsnow did it.
Once there, we found our way across a little pass and onto the summit glaciers. Things were starting to slow down in our rope team. Water and exhaustion were taking their toll as we strolled upwards. Mike takes it in. The Finger proper is down and to the left. Rainier so dwarfs any of the foothills around it that it doesn’t have the feel of Mt. Baker, the other stratovolcano I’ve climbed. Plus, because the base is so broad, the upper reaches feel more like a big plateau than the top of an individual mountain. It goes on, and on, and on. The scale constantly messed with my head. Maybe five hundred feet above where the last picture was taken, Mike had had enough. He’d pushed super hard, but was exhausted. It was smart for him to stop and save his energy for the trip down. With the emergency sleeping bag in my pack, he could bundle up and wait. The weather seemed fine. Part of me wanted to call it off and wait for him, but I’ll be honest–the part of me that wanted to finish what the two trips previous hadn’t done was really strong. I wanted to make the summit. With his urging, I tied in with Blake and Miles to finish the last 700ft or so to the top. Rope snagging on wind sharpened sastrugi, we fairly flew up the last bit of glacier to find the summit decorated with small plates of ice and a bitingly cold wind. I would have liked to hang out, but the wind was fierce. Plus, Mike was waiting. Plus, the gate to Paradise would close and lock at 5pm. It was just after 1pm. We’d need a nearly record setting pace on feet to make it in time. Of course, we weren’t on feet for the 9000ft we were about to descend. We had skis. It was rattley, chattery, and strange. We crossed snow bridges, dodged sastrugi, and made scrapey turns down big panes of wind affected snow. Mike was awakened from his nap by our hollers of glee. Once the whole band was back together, we took off again.

Arriving at the lower part of the Nisqually, we skinned back up to join the main trail. Miles, Mike, and I forwent our shirts for the last bit to Paradise. Whippets and ripped abs, I tell ya…

Thanks to Blake, Miles, and Mike for a terrific trip. Thanks also to Blake for photos.

Headlamp backflips and other nighttime phenomena

Back toward the beginning of January, I went on a four day, three night film trip for Epic Montana to Yurtski, a six person shack of coziness on the southern edge of the Swan Range. We were met with wonderful hospitality by the hosts at Yurtski. Our group of four skiers (Brody Leven, KT Miller, Rachel Delacour, myself) and two filmers (Bobby Jahrig and Tyler Swank) made for an outstanding team, accomplishing quite a lot of safe skiing during a massive storm and the warmup afterward.

An edit from the trip is forthcoming soon, but I wanted to use a post to talk about my mindset and the nighttime shenanigans it lead to.

Film trips are first and foremost a group of skiers and filmers working together towards a common goal of the final product. Add that to the reality that backcountry skiing is complicated enough without the logistical hurdles posed by trying to film it all. Money and time are spent to get everyone there, keep them happy, and produce something worthwhile. In our case, folks drove from Salt Lake City and Seattle to be there. The trip was an opportunity to gather footage not only for the edit, but also whatever film projects come from my whole season of skiing. The stars of making good content align for a brief period, and all of this engenders pressure to perform well.

I’ve driven away from too many shoots feeling like there was more that I could have done, or a trick I should have tried a couple more times, or some other aspect of effort that could have yielded a better product. So in heading to Yurtski, I felt duty bound to drop the hammer as much as conditions and the crew would allow. We found stability in our pits and during the day, communicated well, and managed the avalanche hazards as a group. So with fresh snow, I found myself at the end of our first day wondering about going out for a night ski.

Headlamps are one thing. But fully lighting up the skiing enough to see it well on camera would need a bit more. Tyler provided the perfect solution in a 125 LED array box designed to be mounted the hot shoe of a camera. We rigged it to attach to a tripod, put it atop a selfie stick, and then rigged the whole thing to the back of my helmet with voile straps.

That first night, I toured up and skied a couple laps down to the yurt. The next evening, the whole crew got in the act, and we did some party skiing through a couple neat areas. We all traded the helmet around–here’s KT digging in.

The next day, we woke to clear weather and sendy conditions. Our first lap went fine, and as I was hustling back to the top, a backflip on my mind, when the whole face started to roller ball. It was a bummer, but the warming conditions meant increased stress on the storm snow, and it wasn’t anything to mess with. The day went out with nothing upside down happening.  Dinner came and went, and while sitting at the table stuffed with delicious pasta, I realized that it was probably that night or not again on the trip. Thoughts of the moment and regret I’d feel later flashed through, so on went my boots, and I headed out to find a spot. The landing was zipper crust. The transition was so tight that my skis held me in the air while standing in it. The lip would probably hold. And once the jump was built, I came back to the yurt, the filmers rallied, and we headed back out.

On my first hit, I straight aired to give Tyler and Bobby a sense of where the light would be. Once skinned back up, I dropped in and gave the flip a try, only to underrotate, catch my feet in the pow, and flip forward. On their cameras, the light of my lamp disappeared as I rolled only to pop back up. The second try was the same, and I cursed in snow caked frustration.

Because the lamp lit what was ahead of me, it didn’t extend to the uppermost horizon of my vision–the part most important for seeing the snow surface and then reacting to pull my feet forward and land the flip. Both times, I’d seen the snow too late to land and couldn’t make it work in time. Up I went again, got the snow out of my helmet, and did the flip more by feel than by vision. Trees and Bobby were on either side of the runout down to the traverse road, though they’re hard to see in the video.

I was tired before I even left the yurt. The failed attempts had built up the anticipation. All the fear of not really being able to see what was happening each time, being so exposed in the backcountry, and needing to get this done brooded every time I was skinning back up. So when it all came together for the magical moment, and I rode away down onto the traverse, the yell of excitement became the release of all those tensions into the success of notching something cool there in the midnight darkness.  Landing something scary always creates this feeling of instantaneous euphoria, because the work is all in the prep and then not thinking while you do it–the riding away is all wonderful afterglow.

And as we skied back towards the yurt with its three sleeping skiers, the excitement of adding another solid shot to the edit kept me awake. But as I lay down in my sleeping back, it was the satisfaction of doing something bizarre and making it work that lulled me off to sleep.

Thanks to Bobby and Tyler for staying up late and freezing while I got it done, and thanks to the rest of the crew for dealing with our clanking when we got back.

Check back soon for the full edit.

A Day With David

Skiing and schoolwork made up nearly everything I cared about in high school. Hygiene, which I can barely spell now, was an afterthought buried in dreadlocks. Girls were on my mind, but I thought it prudent to wait for college, where they’d be more mature. Videos now lost to the balance of misplaced DVDs and wiped hard drives could testify to how rad we once were. We’d film each other learning backflips, doing the same tricks in the park, and shoveling snow to hit rails accustomed to skateboards.

The culture that we once inhabited is still alive. Kids no different from us (but who certainly smell better than I did) are filming each other, learning to jump, and navigating those formative years on their skis. I’ve seen what they’re up to on the wondrous Social Media, and thought that it’d be interesting to reenter that world. The plan I had in mind was a park edit style short, but filmed only on natural, in-bounds features in the spring slush (thanks to Sander Hadley for the inspiration). The sun would shine, I’d ski dazzlingly, and we’d all be stoked.

Instead, the Thursday we picked dawned cloudy and frozen. Landings were crunchy boilerplate. Per usual, I’d overestimated how well I could do nose blocks. Reece, Jackson, and Jake all made the best of it with their filming, and I finished the day feeling like I’d not really accomplished anything other than getting the honor of skiing with the current crop of kids we once were.

Stuck in the mentality of what I’d wanted to do, I missed the opportunity while I was in it–these young skiers had the exact mentality we once did. The energy was in just skiing, just filming, and having fun at it without trying to frame it in some expected outcome. And I would have missed all this if it weren’t for the cameras. I’d credit the power of Reece’s edit for showing exactly what the day was–an average day of skiing around. Not perfect conditions. Not perfect skiing. But perfect in how they match the feeling I didn’t even know I was chasing. Perfect in how the circumstances arranged to teach me a lesson I didn’t remember I needed to learn.

Thanks to Reece, Jackson, and Jake for their camera work, and to Connor and Dan for skiing with us.