Archive for the ‘Personal Blog’ Category

Splitboarding Mount St. Helens, 5/18/2009

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009
5/18/2009

My 10 day long tour of the Pacific Northwest took me midway up the slopes of Mt. Rainier, trekking the urban streets of Seattle, touring the wilderness of the Olympic Peninsula and the Hoh Rain Forest, body surfing on the sandy beaches of the Oregon Coast, and the greatest “slackcountry” turns I’ve ever had making yo-yo laps on Mt. Hood until the sun went down.

On the final day of my trip, we awoke at dawn at 2700′ in the Marble Mountain Snopark, 5665 feet below the summit of Mount St. Helens. To be honest I wasn’t looking forward to the huge climb ahead, for I was all but done with my vacation and a bit homesick. But I figured “hey, I’ll just start up and see how far I get.”

There were already a lot of people ahead of us. We only caught a glimpse of a few skiers, some on skins and others with snowshoes on their feet and skis strapped to their pack for the long ascent.

The trail wound through the forest for a few miles on a long, flat approach on pine-needle covered brown snow very similar to most Colorado 14er approaches. Finally, we emerged from the trees and had our first view of the monolithic south slope of the volcano. It looked huge (just as Rainier and Hood had before), but most of the slope was low angled, which meant we could maintain an efficient pace with climbing skins.

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First view of the whole mountain.

It was already getting very warm in the morning sun. Forecasts were predicting over 80 degrees at our elevation. As I climbed I could see Mount Adams dominating my view to the east. While on Mt. Rainier the week before, I looked to the south at these two mountains, and although they still looked very big, they were very far apart. Now, Mt. Adams appeared to be right next to St. Helens. The immense size of these volcanoes plays weird games on your perception.

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Mt. Adams

As we kept climbing, I wondered when we would decide to turn around. Funny, however, that the farther up I got, the stronger I felt. At every stop, we set a new goal, whether to get to a rock outcropping, cornice, or ridge. Before we knew it, the summit was in sight, and felt attainable. There was a group of telemark skiers already on their way down, but I could see at least three other groups still heading for the summit.

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Heading for the summit. It was so relieving to be able to skin up the whole thing!

At this point, some dark clouds began moving in. I have heard many things about Cascade weather, that when it comes in, it comes in STRONG. I was a little nervous about the oncoming clouds, but we hurried our pace and set out for the summit.

On the way up, I saw a lot of hikers “glissading” down. Some of them were on plastic garbage bags. Still others had on nothing but jeans and tennis shoes. I couldn’t believe they were up here, soaking wet with clouds rolling in, but I am no one to judge.

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Are these people for real?

By the time I could have seen the summit block, it was a total white out. I could barely make out the figures of the group of climbers on the summit, and finally met my partner and celebrated our accomplishment. For not really being “in the mood” at the trailhead, I had made it to the top of the mountain roughly 5 hours later!

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Conditions on the summit

On the summit, one man asked us “Did you guys climb this because it is the 29th anniversary of the eruption?”

We both looked at each other in surprise. We had no idea of the historical significance of this day, but thought it was really cool, almost ironic, that we had climbed to the summit on this day. I tried to peer over into the crater rim, but could barely see anything but some very steep spines that disappeared into the white abyss.

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The team on the summit with the inside of the crater barely visible behind us

We tried to wait for some sort of sun break to make our descent, but finally realized we would not have the luxury, so we made some careful turns down the upper face of the mountain.

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Dropping into a total white out

Once we got out of the clouds, however, it was sunny spring conditions again, and we were rewarded with 5000′ of excellent corn snow on the descent!

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Brian making great corn turns

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The author slaying the volcano

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Life is not better than this!

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Brian hucking the cornice

This trip has been a series of milestones after another. But the final day was the best of all, as I had finally snowboarded off of the summit of a Cascade volcano. I can’t wait to come back!


Splitboarding Mt. Rainier attempt, via Nisqually Glacier

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

5/9/2009

I landed at Seattle-Tacoma airport on Friday, fully loaded with gear and ready to head straight for Mt. Rainier. I took a bus from the airport down to Tacoma, where my partner would pick me up. Much to my surprise (and aggravation), when I asked the bus driver to open up the under-floor cargo space for my gear, she said “No, you have to bring it all on.” So there I was pushing my snowboard bag down the crowded aisle while bumping people with my backpack and duffel bags. Finally I found a bunch of seats at the back of the bus where other travelers had piled up their luggage, golf clubs, etc. We all thought this was the stupidest thing we’ve ever heard of. The driver never gave a reason for not opening the cargo bays.

After a few hours of traffic, I was dropped off at a mall south of Tacoma and waited for my partner to arrive. The weather was gorgeous. Blue skies, sunny, green trees, no wind. It was not at all what I was told to expect of the Pacific Northwest. Finally my friend arrived and he said that this weather was “the exception”. As we drove out of the city and through rural pastures, the scenery reminded me more of the western coast of Michigan than anything I’ve seen in the mountain west. Suddenly, the clouds to the east broke open, and my friend said “there she is!” Mt. Rainier was peeking out of the clouds, and I had my first physical view of the summit.

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The mountain peeking out from the clouds

All the way to the Park, all I could see was endless miles of trees. Huge masses of light and dark greens, all neatly grown in a row. My friend called these “new growth” forests. The forests were so much more lush than anything I’ve seen in Colorado. Driving into the park, it was still miles of trees with no view of the peak. Finally we rounded another bend, and I had a real quick view of it, before it disappeared. The image dominated my frame of view. It was like we were right next to the summit, but in reality we were over 10,000 feet below it.

It was nearly dark when we arrived at ‘Paradise’, the main winter visitor area and trailhead. Being such a popular mountaineering site, there was a bit of paperwork and registering, with payment, that we accomplished in a small A-frame structure at the trailhead. Then we settled in an camped in the van. The air was getting very chilly. I thought about how we had traveled essentially from sea level to 5,400 feet in less than 100 miles by van…the only other time I’ve made that elevation change was from Chicago to Denver, across over 1,000 miles. Strange.

The next morning, we woke, ate a hearty breakfast, and geared up for the initial climb to high camp. Our intended route to the summit was the ‘Fuhrer Finger’ route. According to the guidebook we had, there were two ways to get there, both via the Nisqually Glacier. The standard route was to cross the glacier down low, and climb up to the left of the glacier via a snowfield called ‘The Fan’. However, the guidebook mentioned an ‘early season variation’ directly up the Nisqually Glacier. Apparently the route is not good late in the summer because of crevasse navigation, but the snowcover was very deep this time of year, so we went for the direct route up the Glacier.

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Starting our adventure from Paradise

As we skinned up from Paradise, we met another splitboarder, and a group of four mountaineers, all heading up the ridge toward Camp Muir. The splitboarder seemed obligated to give us a report “two feet of snow up high in the past few days; a lot of sun yesterday; watch yer-selves!” and with that he was on his way. We were the only group splitting off from the main route and dropping off from the high point above paradise down to the Nisqually Glacier. Once we dropped over that edge, we were alone in the wilderness.

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About to drop down off of the Paradise trails onto the glacier. The summit looks so close!

We roped up at the base of the glacier and headed onward on skins. The skies were clear, and it was getting very hot. The average angle of the climb was about 20 to 25 degrees, and as we moved along at a good pace, we were both sweating profusely. Still, I felt really good about my conditioning and our pace, and possibly even making the summit the following day. First things were first, and we had to make it to a high camp. We encountered about a half dozen crevasses along the way, all of them had very good snow bridges which allowed us to cross without incident. It was the first time I had ever been on glaciated terrain, and staring into the mouth of the first crevasse (which we nicknamed ‘Jaws’) was very intimidating.

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The first of many crevasses. Snow bridges were excellent this time of year.

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Breaking for lunch, just below the final push to the Nisqually Ice Fall.

By mid-afternoon, we had made it to the part where the Nisqually Glacier transitions into the Nisqually Ice Fall. From there, we would leave Nisqually and move left onto the Wilson Glacier towards the base of the Fuhrer finger. After about 3,000 feet of climbing (a typical Colorado summit!) we were still some 6,000 feet below the summit of Rainier. I suggested we continue climbing for at least another 1,000, to lessen the next day’s efforts. However, the terrain above us was much steeper than we had been on, and dominated by a rocky headwall that was shedding volcanic projectiles down the slope from the hot sun. The guidebook mentioned a camp across the Wilson Glacier at a high ridge labeled as ‘point 9,200′ which would have made the best camp. However, that would mean crossing the Wilson once to get to camp, and again the next morning to get to the couloir. Instead, we made camp on a high plateau at the base of the Nisqually Ice Fall, safely out of the way from falling rocks, and also out of the fall line of a potential avalanche or tumbling serac. (or so we thought, but for the rest of our time there, we couldn’t help but have a general uneasyness ever time we heard movement from above!)

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Here, we were supposed to go left around the big rock ‘cleaver’, and onto the snowcovered Wilson Glacier.

It was early when we made camp, and I still had a really good feeling about making it at least above the Fuhrer Finger, if not the summit, the summit the next day. If we had moved 3,000 feet today, we could do another 3,000 the next day, and at least tackle the finger. We spent about an hour relaxing at our camp and checking out the jaw-dropping views of the Tatoosh Range. In our panoramic view, we could see the other Cascade volcanoes, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, and far off in the distance, Mt. Hood. I was amazed at how these volcanoes just dominate the skyline above all the other surrounding mountains.

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The author posing in front of Mt. Adams (covered by clouds)

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Cool looking seracs

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Brian chilling out at camp.

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Camp robbers in the alpine zone? We must be in a National Park.

We turned in early, even before sunset, for the plan was to sleep during the warmest part of the night, and wake up at midnight and make our push for the top. We agreed that 10:00 am would be our turnaround point, summit or not. When we woke, it was close to 2:00 am, and I got out of the tent to check out the snow conditions.

Up until now, I had some good feelings about the trip. However, I had my first doubts when I walked around camp and found a very thin layer of crust, with unconsolidated snow underneath. This condition was very similar to my aborted attempt on James Peak a few weeks ago. It would appear that the “two feet of new snow” that the splitboarder talked of the previous day hadn’t had enough sun to consolidate.

Now we had serious doubts, but since it was still way before dawn, we could either sit around in our tent for the next 8 hours, or at least make an attempt at climbing. We geared up with crampons and started up the slope. The 30-something degree slope would have been a breeze if we were able to toe-point on solid ice. However, we were breaking right through the crust and sinking almost to our knees with every step, moving just inches at a time, and burning a ton of energy. I kept hoping for better conditions as we got higher, but just like the James Peak experience, it only got worse. With heavier snows up high and less daytime warmth, we were pretty much discouraged from going any farther. We both knew our limits, and the energy drain that the conditions would do to our bodies, and decided to abort. It was way too early to ski, so we carefully downclimbed back to camp.

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Post-hole hell

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Sunrise over the Ice Fall. This place reminds me of Superman’s “Fortress of Solitude”. Haha.

Now all we could do was sit an wait for the sun to come out and heat up the lower part of the mountain and provide us with some good corn snow to descend. The weather was clear, so we just waited and waited, enjoying the view. We saw a lot of rockfall across the opposing slope on the Wilson Glacier, but no signs of snow instability.

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Mt. Adams

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Mt. Hood

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Mt. Saint Helens

Finally, when we thought we’d given the snow enough time to corn up, we made our descent. At first we tried skiing roped up to cross the crevasses. However, this proved to be too cumbersome, so we unroped and carefully made our way past all the crevasses by following the previous day’s tracks. Once we made it past the scary part of the glacier, we happened to find the best corn snow, which we rode down for another 3,000 feet, far below our starting point and arrived at the bridge where the National Park road crosses the creek. From there, we climbed up and hitched a ride back to the visitor’s center.

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Brian skiing down

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Whoah! Watch the hole!

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The author descending

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Back to civilization

In retrospect, I first always view a trip as a success just for making it back without incident. On this trip, I was also completely satisfied with our accomplishments. We had performed a ‘DIY’ mission, on skies, up a very challenging mountaineer’s mountain. The snow conditions may have deterred us from going further, but I think the greater challenge is just the sheer size of the climb. 9000 feet is 9000 feet, and it was pretty much exactly how I expected it to be. I feel that all the conditioning I’ve done up in the Rockies really helped. I felt very strong during the trip. However, If I have future hopes on making it all the way to the summit, I think I’d like to go up via a standard route, in summer, mountaineer-style. Once I’ve made it to the top that way, then I can think about doing it with a splitboard.

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Final view from the road

Arriving in Washington

Friday, May 8th, 2009

I’ve already made a few observations shortly after arriving in Seattle.  First off is how GREEN everything is!  There was a heavy cloud cover as we flew in, but as soon as the plane dropped below the clouds, I had my first view of the area.  It looked like a jungle rain forest dotted with thousands of houses.  Which leads me to my next observation…this place is CROWDED!  Seeing all those houses built up and down the lush rollings hills reminded me of last summer’s trip to San Francisco.  I guess I just always forget that the West Coast is so populated.  It kind of makes me feel like I take the peaceful spaciousness of Denver for granted.  Yeah, we have traffic there, but NOTHING like the messes of gridlock I’ve experienced in L.A., San Fran, and now Seattle (I took a bus from the airport to Tacoma and it took almost two hours!).  I can’t even imagine what the ski traffic is like.  I guess my little mile-high cattle town really isn’t that bad after all.

I’ve talked to many people about my plans to attempt Mt. Rainier and have gotten pretty much the same response.  They are quite shocked.  I won’t even mention their reaction when I tell them we plan to ski it!

When I brought my splitboard on the bus, two separate groups of people asked me “where did you snowboard at?”  They naturally assumed I was COMING from someplace else (like Colorado, maybe?)  I guess Seattle people aren’t thinking of snowboarding anymore this time of year.  Again, they were surprised to hear that I actually came FROM Colorado to snowboard in Washington!

Now I’m chilling in a small suburb of Tacoma waiting for Brian to pick me up en route to Mt. Rainier National Park.  If all goes well, we will summit shortly after dawn on Sunday.  If not, I’m sure we’ll still have an enjoyable experience.  Then I will return to the coast and spend the rest of the week seeing the sights of the Pacific Northwest.

TR: Greg Mace Peak

Friday, May 8th, 2009

5/3/2009

On the way out from Friends hut Sunday morning, Ross (‘srossand’) and I split off from the rest of the group and climbed up the west ridge of Mace peak. It was a short climb from Mace Saddle (above Tagert Hut), and we were even able to skin most of the upper section. From the summit (not the true summit which was much father across the long ridge), we identified an aesthetic couloir which dropped north to Castle Creek.

We dropped in and discovered some rare winter-powder in this nicely protected couloir. Therefore, we had probably the best turns of the entire weekend. Greg Mace Peak makes for an excellent day trip due to its relatively low summit at 12,552′ and quick access from Ashcroft. Furthermore the numerous couloirs on the North Face provide multiple options.

Enough talk, here’s the photos.

Heading up the ridge
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The first summit
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The true summit, we chose not to make the trek
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The crew
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The line

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Ross
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Perhaps my favorite photo of the year
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Myself
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If you wonder why there’s no more pics of me…this is what happens when you give the camera to an amateur :wink:
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A final look at the couloir
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Splitboarding from Ashcroft to Friends Hut via Pearl Pass

Thursday, May 7th, 2009
5/1/2009

This past weekend was my second annual spring hut trip. Last year, we had a fun group of couples for three nights in the Green-Wilson Hut, in which I was able to tag a line up and down the Conundrum Couloir as well as an unnamed couloir on the east face of Castle Peak. This year, instead of a couples trip, I recruited a solid group of three other splitboarders for a backcountry ‘bro-fest’.

We camped out in the parking lot of the Ashcroft Ghost Town on Thursday night, just as the town’s inhabitants had over 100 years ago, gaping in awe of the same enormous mountains surrounding us.

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The view from Ashcroft

We awoke at dawn on Friday, still missing one splitboarder. Nevertheless, we left a note and started out on our way. One skier was with us as well, but he would not last through the days journey. We skinned up the entire route on Castle Creek Road, and later Pearl Pass Road. It is because of these ancient mining and transportation routes that makes this area so popular and advantageous for backcountry skiing and snowboarding. The first portion of the trip was a very moderate 3 miles, which gave us plenty of time to gape out at the huge avalanche paths that we crossed along the way. While we were safe from those slides since we had a stable spring snowpack, we couldn’t possibly imagine the fear of crossing these things in the dead of winter!

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Starting up the road, crossing the avy chutes on Greg Mace Peak on the left.

After a few hours, we arrived at the popular Tagert and Green Wilson Huts. Although this wasn’t our destination (as nice as it would have been), we stopped out on the porch for a break. Not ten minutes after we stopped did another splitboarder approach us. It turned out to be our missing teammate, Ross. Happy that the group was united, we pressed onward above treeline for the much more difficult portion of the trip.

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The soldiers march on above tree-line
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The east face of Castle Peak, looking like bad conditions.

Unfortunately, the skier in our group just couldn’t cut the mustard. As much as we tried to convince him that it would be worth the trip to the hut, he eventually decided to ski down. I took a few action shots before continuing on up.

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Making our way across ‘Mace Saddle’

From here, routefinding was very important. We did not want to accidentally descend into Cooper Creek (only to end up back at Ashcoft after a nasty bushwack), and we didn’t want to cross over the Elk Range at a location other than Pearl Pass, which could have deadly consequences. Finally, after rounding the southest buttress of Pearl Mountain, we could see a sign far off on the ridge, which looked like a person standing on top of Pearl Pass.

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Pearl Pass sighted, but it still looks so far away!

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Getting closer…

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The final pitch was the steepest of all. With the low avalanche danger, we stuck to the road and skirted around the headwall.

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Mike nearing the top of the pass, while I scoped out some cool rock crags. I wonder if anyone climbs them in the summer?

I was the first one to reach the top of the pass, and let out the loudest yell my tired lungs could muster. After eight hours of travel, we finally reached the height of our climb, at 12,705 feet! The sign said we were 18 miles from Aspen and 19 miles from Crested Butte. The four of us took in the fresh air and solitude of being so far away from civilization.

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Pearl Pass conquered by splitboarders!

By now, it was nearing five o’clock, and we still had to find the hut. Thankfully, Lou Dawson was nice enough to supply the GPS coordinates in his guidebook, which I had already pre-programmed into my Garmin. From the top of the pass, we would have to take a leftward trend into the bowl, and the hut should be right at tree line. I watched my three teammates descend into the bowl before I brought up the rear.

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Talking over the descent. After eight hours of climbing, we were finally able to snowboard!

Mike dropped in first…
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Ross ollies the drop
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Followed by Ed
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Finally, I spotted the hut, right where it was supposed to be!
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We made a few more turns before taking the boards off for good.

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Up next: The June Couloir of Star Peak in a blizzard!