Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sage Advice

It's a late snow season and a cold one out here in Washington State. I waxed my skis in late October hoping for the usual November snows and a few ski days before Christmas. Instead, the days of sunshine continued then a few weeks of warm clouds with no appreciable snow in much of the Cascades - at least not enough to ski down any slope without carving intricate sanskrit marking with rocks on the bottoms of your skis.

Out in Winthrop, where track skiing abounds and the famous cold, dry snows allow for early X-C skiing, there was no snow at all on the ground until 10 days before Christmas.

Then winter arrived - not only to the Cascade range but to the lowlands with actual freezing temperatures and snow that stuck around for more than 24 hours. In fact, it will be a winter storm remembered with the snarls of traffic in downtown Seattle from cars and buses unable to climb its many hills. It was snowing everywhere, it was actually piling up. Entire neighborhoods came out to sled, ski and snowboard on the city streets. Nevermind that if you fall on concrete with 6 inches of snow cover it hurts like hell.

So we return to Winthrop while the snow is falling heavily on the west side to try to break out our ski touring gear for the season. We ski up one of our favorite local routes towards Lewis Butte and find that the sage is only half covered with the 12 inches of snow on the ground instead of the usual 30+ inches this time of year. It is dicey to attempt a few turns in the dry, nearly granular snow. None the less, I've been out every day, checking out the 2 new inches of snow that has fallen every night, hoping that the coverage will grow to allow for some skiing on something other than flat terrain.

Skiing in low cover conditions has many exciting moments. First, the sage snags the tips of your skis and prevents any turning or unweighting of the ski until you have blown through it (at 5 mph since the snow is deep and slow on flat terrain). Second, some of the low mounds of snow that look like sage are actually ROCKS. The thought of a nice deep tele turn with your trailing knee smacking one of those babies really is enticing.

Alas, our vacation's end is looming near. I feverishly scan the weather reports that promise new snow but will it be too little to late?

Dr. Telemark

Monday, June 23, 2008

Chinook Pass Blues

Okay, it's mid-June, the skis are in the garage after a crazy tour over Memorial Day weekend that was a pure bushwhack. It's over, right? The summer blues induced by skiing withdrawal was starting to work it way into my brain. Then I got the call. Bryn and other ski buds were eyeing a ski day at Chinook Pass which is high enough to still be holding the snow. The weather forecast- 70 degrees and sunny.

We arrived at 10:30 and started up the west flank of Naches Peak. Wrapping around the south side, we made our way up to the skier's summit and soaked in the sun and 100+ mile views in all directions. The snow was perfectly consolidated and everything was still well covered, especially the north and east facing slopes. We first took a run down the south face, thinking that later in the afternoon, the snow would soften more than we would like. Then we turned to the north and dropped into the basin east of Naches Peak. Back up again for another run in the bowl in some incredibly nice snow for carving tele-turns.

We ended the tour with the group splitting up and taking two different routes down into the west bowl of Naches peak. For the finale, a couple of us dropped down to below Cayuse pass and were graciously picked up by the drivers of our cars.

It was a day of splendid blues skies that would drive anyone's blues away...

Check out the HD video on Vimeo.

Monday, May 26, 2008


This spring has been a long, slow transition toward summer here in the Northwest. The cloudy cool days abound and colder than normal temperatures in the mountains have led to surprising spring skiing conditions. A group of us went up to Yodelin, an abandoned ski area just east of Stevens Pass, to spend a day skiing in the spring corn. The mountains had other plans. A weather system moved in the night before our tour and dropped about 8 inches of new snow over parts of the central Cascades. We arrived at the base of the Yodelin route with sun warmed new snow covering the trees and slopes beautifully.

The short climb to the upper open slopes brought us to open meadows of dry new snow that were begging for tracks. We skied to the ridge line and decided to ski the north face for the day. The sun was breaking through just enough to warm the south slopes into a semi-dense styrofoam snow, so staying on the north facing aspects was going to be the rule of the day. After the first run, the weather changed dramatically, and we were suddenly climbing up in a heavy snow fall of great new light snow. About 2 inches fell in the next hour as we did our next run, just adjacent to our first descent tracks.

Thus the day went, ski a run, more snow, then another run, then the sun would break through. We yo-yo-ed the slopes about 5 times and completely cut up what was pristine glade of untracked snow a few hours before. We felt sorry that the next people to head up there would have no such experience. Alas, someone had to do it.

See the Yodelin video here.

Dr. Telemark

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


We live in an era where discoveries are either grand or trivial. Most of them don't seem to directly affect our lives so we don't dwell on them much. Until you make your own.

One of the great moments in backcountry skiing is when you make your own discovery - often with a few friends who truly share in the joy of the moment. I had that this week with Peg, Bryn and Jorie. We did a couple ski tours but one of them was to a nearby area that you can access easily from a friends property so we parked there to start our tour. It hadn't snowed for at least 10 days but it had been cold so we were hoping to find a little decent snow in the basin we were heading to. Our friends had never been there in the winter so didn't really know what we would find. We could see the basin from a nearby butte that we were on a few days before which sparked our curiosity about the area.

Our discovery happened in stages. First, as we climbed the north and east facing slopes of the basin, we found a well consolidated 3 foot base with 6-10 inched of medium density powder covering a long series of potential ski runs. Secondly, as we climbed a great route, the views and expanse of the little patch of heaven grew ever more grand. Finally, when we peeled off our skins, the snow that settled in around our feet was superb. We skied soft powder run after run in the 20 degree clear blue skies. And we were alone. The only other tracks in the area were those of the coyotes whose dens we spotted on our second day there. We made a great discovery - sure its a personal one that won't change the world but none the less, it changed us. We will be back to enjoy the fruits of this wintry valley again and again.
A video of the tour will be posted at:

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Returning to Roots

Every once in a while I become nostalgic about the "old days" of skiing with skinny skis, leather boots and long poles. In the late 80's, when Peg and I started our cross-country to telemark conversion, we slowly progressed up the chain of gear that now has become a march of technology that never seems to end. Learning to telemark turn with short leather boots, partial or no metal edges on skis was a chore that I hope to never return to again. But, the physical work was amazingly demanding with the older gear and the strength required to pull off a day in the backcountry (or, God-forbid, a ski area) was exponentially greater than what it takes to telemark ski now. Perhaps we are fortunate though, that as we age and get busy in city life, kids and work, our time is not our own as often so having the new "stuff" lets us cheat our age and out of shape muscles a bit.

Today was a return to roots, kinda. We put on out XC boots and combi XC skis and took off up the Rendezvous trails just NW of Winthrop. 10 km up and 10km down on skinny skis, no skins, cable bindings of big plastic boots. Of course, the skis and boots we did have we capable of skating so after we schlepped up to Rendezvous Pass, we turn around and cruised the mostly downhill run with a combination of skating and classic skiing. The great thing to realize was how much fun it was to be out on a road tour, seeing other families and groups heading up and down the trail. Having light skis with great agility was fun and brought me back to the old days of backcountry touring to a degree. Sure, we weren't slogging up a steep ridge at Rainier in a blizzard, but the memory is there of the lightness and speed of gear that was made to cover distance, not carve up a steep face with graceful tele-turns. It is good to mix it up -- it surely reminds me that times are a changing, even in the backcountry. The beauty of it is that the backcountry doesn't change - the stark beauty, the wild weather, the snow that decides if it you can ski it or not. Time to head out again and see what awaits - in my new gear...