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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.

Splitboarding Star Peak, ‘June Couloir’

Thursday, May 7th, 2009
5/2/2009

Conditions were less than desirable Saturday Morning. Nevertheless, I had traveled all the way out to Friends Hut with the intention of making an attempt at the June Couloir, so the four of us headed up into a blizzard just to see how far we could get.

We could barely see a hundred yards in front of us, but fortunately there is a prominent North-South ridge that practically leads from the hut to the summit of Star Peak. With the ridge on our right side, we continued to head in a due north direction.

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Visibility was bad

After an hour of skinning, conditions weren’t any better. Two of our party members decided to head back down to the hut. Ross and I continued onward. Eventually I started to visualize dark rocky outcropping dividing the snow chutes on the ridge. More fortunately, actually a Godsend, was that I had torn out a great photo of Star Peak from Lou Dawson’s Book. Together, we would constantly study the photo and imagine what the peak would look like if we could actually see it. For those who haven’t seen it, Star Peak is a triangular mountain face with a long ridge swooping down to the (looker’s) right. From this ridge, multiple chutes drop down like ‘fingers’ to the apron below. As you look from right to left, the chutes get longer as the ridge gets higher. In the exact middle, the longest chute goes directly to the summit. This is the June Couloir, our destination.

When the slope started to increase dramatically, we figured we were on the apron of the south face of Star Peak. However, we did not know how much farther to the west we would have to travel to find the couloir. The only way to know was to climb up the apron until we found the first chute. Then we had to study the photo and count off each chute as we traversed across the apron. Finally, we were certain we had found the June Couloir!

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Entering the June Couloir

Typically, upon arriving at the base of a couloir, I am apprehensive about the challenge ahead. This time, however, I felt as if the challenge of navigating our way to the base of the couloir was the greater challenge. With that task behind us, we raged right into the chute headfirst. I was confident that we would succeed in making the summit in short time.

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About halfway up

Although the snow continued to fall, the visibility was better in the protected couloir. Snow conditions were good for climbing. We did not need crampons as we were able to kick into the few inches of fresh snow that had fallen recently. However, there was a layer of bulletproof melt/freeze below the new snow, and with no sun to warm the surface, the snowboard descent would be hazardous.

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The final pitch

It was a long climb, but I have to thank my partner Ross for leading every pitch. About 3/4 of the way up, we came out to a larger snowfield with a few options. Again I consulted Dawson’s photo. The direct line up appeared to be very rocky, and the line to the left held more snow. Regardless, we kept up the center line, and found our way to the summit.

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The team on the summit!

On the summit, we couldn’t see much of the surrounding mountains. After studying our options, we decided to descend from the line that branched out to the left when we were climbing (hiking down the ridge to our right).

The drop in was very steep and icy. I was pretty rattled after my slide last week on James Peak, so I side-slipped my way down. The snow started to get better after the first hundred feet, although we still made very careful jump turns on the ‘dust on crust’ conditions. After some very careful snowboarding, we found ourselves back on the apron, rejoicing at our accomplishments!

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Ross making the descent

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As we descended down to the hut, the mountain once again disappeared into the white fog, like a mirage. Fortunately, while on the skin out the following day, I was able to finally see the mountain in all its glory.

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Star Peak. Now you can see the distinctive ‘fingers’ leading from right to left, and the ‘June Couloir’ that goes to the summit.

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A close-up of the June Couloir and our climb (red) and descent (green)

Snowboarding Trip Report: James Peak, ‘Shooting Star’ couloir

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

April 24, 2009

Barrows and I took a trip up to James Peak to attempt Shooting Star last week. We hiked in from St. Mary’s glacier and dropped down a pretty nice line into the James Peak Lake area.

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Hiking above St. Mary’s to James Peak

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Barrows dropping into this cool chute that we found to descend to the lake.

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Down on the Mammoth Gulch side, looking back up the way we came.

We set up camp right near the lake and had plenty of time to chill out and relax, and turn in early. Unfortunately, right as we went to sleep, the infamous “Indian Peaks Winds” started to gain strength, and were relentless all night long. I couldn’t get more than a few hours of sleep, with the tent shaking uncontrollably all night.

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Camping out beneath the peak

Finally, we awoke at 3 AM and started to cook breakfast. The winds were still strong, and when I got up to chase down a bag of coffee filters, my sleeping pad took off like a sail into the pitch darkness! The pad was never seen again :(

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Sun rising up over the Great Plains

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Initial views of the ‘Shooting Star’

While hiking up towards ‘Shooting Star’, we found that there was very little freeze that night, and we were post-holing into about 6 inches of unconsolidated snow. The conditions on the apron where a little firmer, but then midway up in the couloir we decided to call it because conditions were getting worse again.

The couloir was very steep. We measured 42 degrees where we stopped, and it was getting steeper. (Other trip reports say the top section pushes 50 degrees.) Needless to say, I’m a little relieved that we turned around. I was totally exhausted from the lack of sleep the previous night, and we still had a 2000′ climb to get back up to St. Mary’s Glacier.

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Looking down at our camp from midway up the couloir

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View of the descent of the couloir

I took the couloir descent first, and mostly side-slipped through the narrow section. When I got out to the apron, I loosened up and started making some high speed turns. Apparently I took it a bit too extreme and found myself flipping over backwards and sliding out of control. Thankfully, I was riding with my ice axe and self arrested after sliding about 200′. It was definitely a wake up call!

Once I found a safe spot to chill, I turned the camera on and took a few shots of my partner making the descent. We made it back to camp by 9 AM and packed up for the hike out.

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Watching Barrows make his descent

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Wide shot. The snowboarder is right up in the middle of the apron

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One last look at the whole couloir

I’m glad I got to make an attempt from the east side of James Peak, as opposed to the summit from the south flanks. Next time, though, I think I will wait until the road opens to the lake, and then make a day trip out of it.

Trip Report: Splitboarding Torrey’s Peak ‘Tuning Fork’

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

Torrey’s Peak (14,267′)
“Tuning Fork” Couloir

‘Tuning Fork’ is a front-range classic. While it is not overtly steep and doesn’t have scary ‘no-fall’ cliffs to navigate, what makes this climb so challenging is its intense size. With a total elevation gain of almost to 3000′, this couloir provides one of the longest snowboard descents in Colorado. However, only those with the highest levels of endurance can reap the rewards of the descent.

I have snowboarded this line before. I remember a long, sustained slope. So long, in fact, that we encountered just about every different kind of snow condition: powder, crust, corn, and hard-pack. However, I’ve never climbed up this route (instead, we had skinned up the standard hiker’s route to the summit and dropped into ‘Tuning Fork’), so I had no idea if I had the endurance to make the entire climb.

My partner and I pulled off of I-70 at the Bakeville exit around 8:00. Fortunately, the road up to Grizzly Gulch was packed down by vehicles and snowmobiles, so we were able to drive up to the trailhead and save ourselves a few miles of skinning.

At the Grizzly Gulch trailhead, we could see the early morning sun start to light up the summit of Torrey’s Peak.

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Torrey’s Peak in the morning sun. ‘Emperor’ is the craggy face in the center. ‘Tuning Fork’ is on the right, and flows down the diagonal grade along the western shoulder of the mountain.

Although my partner and I had discussed ‘Tuning Fork’, we hadn’t made the ultimate decision on whether or not to attemp the ‘Emperor’ . As we skinned up the gulch trail for a few miles, we could had an up close view of ‘Emperor’, and it looked very good. However, when we reached the base of it, we decided to continue on to ‘Tuning Fork’. (I look forward to coming back for ‘Emperor’).

While ‘Tuning Fork’ is somewhat hidden by the north ridgeline of the mountain, we didn’t see the magnitude of the line until we arrived at its base. There was a short, steep headwall directly at the start, and then a plateau. Beyond that, looming in the distance, the couloir climbed up towards the sky.

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The couloir is named its distinct ‘forked’ shape

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A close-up of the couloir

I thought at first we could skin up the moderate part of the mountain. However, the slope was steeper than I remembered, and shortly I traded my splitboard for my crampons and ice axe. I felt much more confident now, although I was worried as to how much the weight on my back would affect my stamina after a few hours.

At the base of the couloir, we were happy to discover that someone else had climbed it recently, and left us with a staircase already punched into the snow. No doubt that this sped up the first part of our climb.

When the couloir ‘forked’, the boot tracks went up into the right line. I chose to take the left variation, because it would come out closer to the summit and had an aesthetic ‘choke’ in the middle of it.

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Approaching the ‘fork’

After we made it past the ‘choke’, it looked as though we were on the home stretch. My estimates couldn’t have been more wrong. The couloir steepened, and the remaining 1,000 feet of this climb felt like an eternity. After leading the entire climb up to this point, I moved over an allowed my partner to lead the final pitch.

At this point, I was almost completely gassed. I focused my eyes on the step directly above each foot, and counted off each step at a time, forcing myself not to look back up until I had reached twenty steps, and repeated. Every time I looked up, I felt discouraged. It looked as if the couloir would never end!

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The end was in sight, but it never seemed to get any closer

Finally, we reached the end of the snow and I collapsed onto the Talus. Rocks never felt so comfortable! We still had a couple hundred feet to reach the summit, but I was relieved to take the splitboard off my back and scramble up, unburdened.

Although the most direct line to the summit would have been up to the west ridge, and then a short hike from there, I scrambled over to the ‘Kelso Ridge’ on the east side, to scope out the entrances to ‘Emperor’ and ‘Dead Dog’. (which, as I discovered both top out in the same location on each side of ‘Kelso Ridge’) After checking them out, I made the short walk up to the summit and took in the view.

I was all alone on the summit. However, when I hiked back down a few feet to check on my partner, and then returned, I almost fell off the mountain in surprise when four other residents suddenly materialized on the summit!

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Four gendarmes guarding the summit

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The team achieving the summit

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View to the west of the 10-Mile Range and Breckenridge ski area. In the center, far off in the distance, is Pacific Peak

It was nearly 4:00 by the time we left the summit. It had taken us nearly 5 hours just to bootpack the couloir.

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As we scrambled down the steep talus to our ski gear, the locals kept on eye on our safety

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Looking down at the descent

While we encountered a few clouds during the climb, the weather had held for us all the way to the summit. However, it didn’t appear as though the sun had warmed up the snow surface much, so we were forced to descend on some variable conditions (reminicent of my previous descent on this line).

Like before, the middle section of the couloir held the best snow, and the angle was moderate enough to take a few high speed turns with associated ‘whooping’ along with them.

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Making turns down the couloir

Approaching the ‘choke’
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The descent was so long, we had to stop to take a few breaks. Finally, we reached the bottom and returned to the snow-covered road. We reached the car roughly 8 hours after we left it in the morning, totally gassed out. ‘Tuning Fork’ is not a climb for the faint of heart or weak of legs. However, the rewards are worth it on one of the most classic descents in Colorado.

Also worth noting was that I had realized early in the morning that we were climbing this route on March 20: the last day of winter. This gave me a strong boost of motivation, to make my first ever ‘winter ascent’ of a 14er.

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The Residences at Little Nell — a job well done

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

I’d like to share an arcticle written about my current job site yesterday.  It has been a very difficult project with long hours and complex problems all year long, but after a final surge of personnel in November, we were able to pass city inspections and acquire a Conditional Certificate of Occupancy on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.  EVERYONE involved deserves a pat on the back for this endeavor.  If you ever visit Aspen, take a walk down Dean Street and you will see for yourself this magnificent achievement.

A photo of the building that I took in September.

From The Aspen Daily News

ASPEN — An Aspen luxury condominium project received a conditional certificate of occupancy, or CO, Sunday just before a deadline that could have led to legal trouble with buyers.

The city of Aspen building department issued approval for occupancy of 26 fractional ownership units at the Residences at The Little Nell, according to Mike Metheny, managing building inspector for the department. The developers must meet numerous conditions before the fractional units can be used, including clearing the main entrance and other public ingress and egress points of construction materials, Metheny said.

The Residences at The Little Nell are located at the base of Aspen Mountain, where the Tippler nightclub and Tipple Inn were located, just west of the lower terminal of the Silver Queen Gondola. The condo project will be one of the most opulent in Aspen or Snowmass Village. It will be managed and operated by The Little Nell hotel, the Aspen’s Skiing Co.’s five-star, five-diamond property.

The building from the outside doesn’t have the appearance of being completed. Landscaping crews planted trees during last weekend’s snowstorm, and patches of exterior trim were missing. Port-a-potties lined the area around the main entrance.

But inside, the interiors of the condos are finished and furnished, said Brooke Peterson, a representative of the company that is the managing member of Residences at Little Nell Development LLC. “They are all completely occupiable,” Peterson said.

The conditional certificate of occupancy applies to the condos, not to the 5,000-square-foot restaurant or 5,000 square feet of retail space or eight luxury hotel rooms in the building. Those areas aren’t completed yet.

The issuance of a certificate of occupancy on a holiday weekend isn’t unusual at this time of year, according to Metheny. The building department makes inspectors available for weekend work in November and December because there is a often a rush to get residential and commercial space completed and opened for the holidays, he said. The building department’s website says developers can request inspection times outside of normal business hours — as long as they are willing to pay an additional fee.

Peterson credited the city building department with being cooperative without showing favoritism.

 

Big final push

The development firm mounted a construction surge to complete the condos and trigger a string of related events. A substantial amount of work needed to be finished this fall to pass an inspection and obtain the conditional certificate of occupancy.

Once that CO was issued Sunday, the development firm notified buyers it was ready to close their contracts, starting in 30 days.

The timing was essential. The contracts called for the closing of deals by Dec. 31. If that deadline isn’t met, buyers had the right to terminate the contracts and get refunds of their earnest money.

It isn’t cheap to buy into the posh project. Six-week interests in the three-bedroom condos started at $1 million and climbed to $1.9 million. Six-week interests in the four-bedroom condos ended up selling for $3 million. Buyers had to put down more than $200,000 in earnest money for each interest purchased.

The 208 fractional ownership shares were about 97 percent sold out. Only a handful of shares in the three-bedroom units remain, according to R.J. Gallagher, a marketing consultant for the developer.

Construction delays threatened the completion of the project by the deadline. A massive retaining wall needed to be constructed in 2005 to stabilize the lower slopes of Aspen Mountain. That threw the project off schedule. The development firm notified buyers in September that the deadline for closing on sales might not be met. It claimed it had a right under a “casualty” provision of the contract to extend the deadline by 90 days, or to March 31, 2009. The unstable soils and need for a retaining wall constituted a “casualty,” the development firm contended.

Four buyers of seven fractional interests already are challenging the developers’ interpretation of the contracts in court. They claim the casualty notification in September allowed them to nullify their contracts and get their deposits back.

Peterson wouldn’t address the lawsuits, although he said the developer still believes it had the legal right through the contract to extend the closings until the end of March. It strived to meet the Dec. 31 deadline for closings to eliminate any potential issues that would make buyers unhappy, he said.

 

National meltdown helped project

Ironically, the national economic meltdown that has stalled several developments in the Roaring Fork Valley actually helped the Residences at The Little Nell. Gallagher said the skilled craftsmen needed for work on the luxury project were difficult to find until about 60 to 90 days ago. As workers got laid off of other projects, they learned about the jobs in Aspen.

That extra manpower allowed the construction crews to make up lost time, according to Gallagher.

Peterson said the developers secured their financing before the credit crunch hit. “It’s never been an issue, and we had great cooperation from our lenders,” he said.

Residences at Little Nell Development will give buyers the option of closing their purchases in January, if they prefer to avoid the deals during the holidays. The first owners likely will occupy the Residences in February, Peterson said. Construction on the remaining parts of the building won’t interfere with the guest experiences, he said.

The Residences could be the last fractional ownership project built in a long time.

One source intimately knowledgeable with the Aspen-area development industry said financing for those types of projects was the first to disappear, for both developers and buyers of fractional interests. Some people buy fractional units with the idea of flipping them at an appreciated price. Some of those buyers might not be able to secure financing anymore, the source said, and the developer might have trouble selling units if buyers default.