For a while there it seemed like the season never ended. Then I disappeared to California and last year’s below-average snowpack (and a generally different climate than the PNW) made summer touring basically impossible. I picked up a mountain bike and started climbing more frequently. Between the two, I didn’t seem to mind the lack of snowboarding. In fact, while the snow has been falling since the beginning of October, just this last weekend did I finally manage to get out.
The first day out, you are going to be a little rusty. Whereas last year I could pack in my sleep, I found myself scouring my closet for gear, laying it all out all over the place. Packing, then repacking, then repacking again. How did I used to pack this thing? Skins, right! The process went on for longer than it should. But eventually I had everything and was ready to go.
I forgot how to layer. Sorry, I didn’t forget how to layer, but I was rusty at paying attention to when to wear what. I started off with my heavy jacket on, regretting the decision immediately, but too stubborn to stop and take it off. Eventually I did, but being able to predict what to wear while hiking is just one more thing that I seemed to have forgotten.
But I wasn’t the only one that was rusty. We all were. The rust shows itself in different places for everyone, but the one that stood out was communication.
We headed up to Heliotrope Ridge, along with what seemed like the entire backcountry ski community. Seriously, it was a zoo out there. Not to be deterred by the crowds or the flat light, we managed to find our own stashes of fresh snow. Not to mention, the whole experience was a whole heck of a lot better to the crazy wind gusts we found last year, preventing us from ever reaching the ridge. The marginal snow on the hike in was a little disconcerting. Once we got above treeline, the snow got immensely better. By the time we were nearing the ridge, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the snow we were finding. It was deeper and lighter than I was expecting.
I’ll admit, the snow was starting to get a little sun and wind affected. It was still awesome to ride, but there was definitely a crust starting to form. As this next weather system moves in, I’m a little concerned that we are going to bury a weak layer pretty deep in the snowpack. Hopefully it consolidates well, but it’ll definitely be something to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.
So, after kicking off the season with some sweet pow turns on the upper ridge, we made a decision to continue down the fall line instead of hooking right, following the general route that we’d skinned up. The lure of more fresh tracks and fewer crowds was appealing. Totally worth it. We found easily another 1500′ of fresh snow and we were the only ones out there. Soon, we kind of understood why. We hit the treeline and realized we were about three gullies away from the trail we wanted to get to. We had two options, stay low and cut through the trees and through at least one exposed stream crossing, with potential for more. Or, we could hike up around the cliff band we were now sitting under and pick our way back to the trail from above the cliffs.
Our group was split on what to do and we weren’t communicating our rationales for either option well. In a tense moment, we ended up splitting up. Ultimately both routes probably would have been fine. We weren’t in any immediate danger, but splitting up was the wrong thing to do. Eventually, we reconvened and all committed to going up over the cliff band together. Sure, it was a bit more hiking than we’d anticipated, but we did it together. The upshot, we managed to squeeze out a few more quality turns.
Making decisions is a big part of traveling in the backcountry. That’s part of the fun of it. You have options and freedom to choose where you want to go. We were a little rusty, but we all came back, reminded of the importance that good communication can have.
Hopefully this weekend it wont take me three tries to get my pack loaded the way I like it.