Black Hole Couloir

March 13, 2013 | Posted in Uncategorized | By

“Definitely a BIG day, not quite epic, as I rarely feared for my life.”
Josh, you and I have different opinions of what it takes to make a day “epic”. I on the other hand prescribe to the belief that the sheer fact that the day took 20 hours is enough to consider the day epic.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. It was an adventure, and an incredible one at that.
The Black Hole Couloir is a 4000’ vertical foot couloir that rises pretty much straight out of the valley floor, running all the way to a notch at the top of Bandit Peak. It is an incredible line, just begging to be ridden. The problem – Bandit Peak is not exactly the most accessible mountain in the all of the Cascades. The allure of standing at the top, with views of Glacier Peak in the distance, was enough to convince me that it would be a worthwhile endeavor.
Our day started Friday evening around 8:30. Mike and Josh picked me up and we hit the road. Making good time, we were at the trailhead by 11:30 – just in time for a quick nap. We weighed the pros and cons of just starting right then; Josh forgetting his sleeping bag was going to make for an unpleasant bivy in the parking lot. We all ultimately agreed that a couple hours of sleep, three to be precise, was better than nothing and we would be thankful later.
We hit the trailhead at 3:25 am. I recently watched a TED talk on why 4 am is the most miserable hour of the day. At 4 am we were well on our way deep in the woods, having passed several “Private Property, do not enter” signs, a motion activated camera, and a sign that simply read “Shooting Range. No access to road”. By 5 am, we hit the stream crossing. Thanks to previous trip reports, we knew it was coming. The reason we traveled through the private property, was to avoid a much larger river crossing. Thankfully we were following a snowshoe track that seemed to know where they were going, leading us to a makeshift crossing. It wasn’t the best crossing I have ever seen, but it would do and at 5 in the morning, I didn’t have any desire to keep looking for something better.
When the snowshoe tracks disappeared and a skin track emerged, we came to the conclusion that we were following the tracks of someone who knew considerably more about the area than we did. Snowshoes would have made the initial slog through the woods WAY easier. In a similar vein, ski crampons would have made the next leg of the traverse much more enjoyable as well. Hiking through the west bank of the valley, we had the pleasure of dealing with an enjoyable melt-freeze crust that was broken up only by the numerous slide paths full of icy debris.
Despite the conditions, we made good time. We were at the base of the couloir by 10:30. The sun was out and it was turning into a beautiful day. As we sat there, eating a quick snack and preparing for the climb, Josh said exactly what I had been thinking, “My body is ready to turn back.” What he didn’t say, what he didn’t have to say – we weren’t going to turn back. The fun part was just starting.
We threw on our crampons, pulled out our axes, and started to climb. From the base, the couloir didn’t look like much. Small kinks and turns in the col kept you from seeing much more than a couple hundred feet ahead at any given point. The base of the couloir was full of avi debris. The warm weather of the past few days was causing the mountains to shed snow, we were just hoping the couloir would be protected from the sun and we would quickly pass the debris. The debris did not end anytime soon. In fact, after climbing for over an hour and a half, we were still in the avalanche path and still climbing. I paused, looking down at our inevitable descent. It looked miserable. The only thing I could hope is that the afternoon sun would hit it and the icy boulders would soften up considerably. Wishful thinking, I am aware.
Eventually we did make it above the avalanche path and found some good snow. The upper couloir was well protected from the sun and was staying nice and cool. The snow was surprisingly light. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing the snow around modestly and a wind slab was forming. It wasn’t enough to cause us to turn back, but it did give us pause.
After nearly 4 hours, we made it to the top. Well, as close as we were going to get. We decided to not make the final push up a steep narrow constriction, the snow just wasn’t worth it.
The view, was incredible. Glacier Peak was sitting prominently in front of us and steep rock walls guided our journey back down to the valley floor.
We leapfrogged down the upper col, though even going last the snow still rode well. I never felt comfortable opening up and really charging. Between the wind slab up top and the huge debris field below, staying safe was on our minds. On a day with better snow, man this would be one hell of a line.
I borrowed a camera to document the adventure, so in a rare treat, I have more than just a few pictures to share. Enjoy!
I stopped filming once we were back in the debris field. Well, that’s a lie. I actually filmed all of it, but I don’ think anyone wants to watch three guys side slipping an icy slope for 30 minutes. It was, without a doubt, the worst snow (if you can actually call it that) that I have ever had to ride. The icing on the cake was we were coming down in the afternoon, when the west faces were all getting sun. Just as we were getting to the main slide path, a slide came down the mountain. Had we gone 5 minutes earlier, we likely would have been caught in the middle of it. We spent the rest of the journey out of the couloir anxiously taking turns going from safe zone to safe zone. There was a huge sigh of relief once we made it out at the bottom.
But our day wasn’t over yet. We still had the trek back to the car. For the most part it was uneventful. Apart from losing our skin track several times, it was just long. Everyone got quiet and we settled into a rhythm, one foot in front of the other.
At some point we hit a clearing and stopped. I looked up at the stars, which were now out in full. The night sky is stunning. I couldn’t help but lay down for a minute and gaze up into the dark abyss. I could feel every muscle ache, but it didn’t seem to bother me. I just stopped, reveling in what we had just accomplished, and the sheer beauty of where we were. It could have been 1 minute, 5, or 30, I have no idea how long we stopped for. But soon enough we got back up and continued on our way with our heads down, putting one foot in front of the other.
It was around 10 when we hit the stream crossing.  The last thing I wanted was to be soaking wet for the last hour and a half of the hike out. But the crossing wasn’t bad so I wasn’t particularly concerned. It was just an obstacle breaking up the monotony of hike. But, the day had different plans for me. So, with my board strapped to my back, I started to climb down to the shore so that I could get onto the log which crossed the stream. No more than 2 feet from the ground, my foot punched through the snow and, left off-balance, went tumbling head first towards the water. The exact last place I wanted to be heading. Somehow out of sheer dumb luck, I landed perfectly between two large boulders. My headlamp fell into the water, as did the tips of my boards, but apart from that I was dry. Lucky me.
The rest of the hike out was uneventful, we passed the friendly welcoming signs, joking that it was probably good that we were getting back so late. Finally, we arrived back at the car at 11:30, exhausted.
In the end, we traveled over 23 miles, climbed over 6,000’, and it only took us 20 hours. Not bad for having only taken a 3 hour nap beforehand!

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Six Weeks

January 23, 2013 | Posted in Snowboarding | By

I went to my physical therapist last Friday. Strategically one day shy of the magic 6 weeks that bones typically take to heal. The intent was to make sure that I was actually healed and to get a final “okay” to go snowboarding. Well, to be fair both the doctor and the physical therapist both had given me the “okay” to snowboard, but with a strong caution to take it easy.

I didn’t really trust myself to take it easy, so against my strongest desire, I went for a 20-mile bike ride instead. Waiting until this week to strap into my snowboard for the first time in six weeks.

The visit with the physical therapist was somewhat superficial. By the time I set foot in her office I had already made plans to go snowboarding the following morning. She knew it too. She gave me a stern look of disapproval and left it at that. I promised to continue doing my exercises (something I had started to slack on) and the rest of our time was focused on getting rid of the bruise/numbness on my left hip with what equates to a 45 minutes butt massage.

You might think to yourself, “that sounds like a mighty fine way to start your Friday morning,” and I am here to confidently assert that it is, as a matter of fact, not a nice way to start your day. Ever. I am adding it to my list of things I probably wouldn’t experience had I not broken my back. It falls somewhere right behind ambulance ride, getting strapped to a backboard, and CT scan of practically my whole body.

I am getting somewhat distracted. This crazy weather we have been having in the PNW came at an inopportune time. For the first couple of weeks while I was out, it dumped. About two weeks ago the snow stopped. We were left with cold air and a high pressure ridge that kept the sun out and the cold air in place. For a couple days, this is great for riding. But soon a warm front moved in on top of the cold air, making the city cold and foggy, while the mountains – still sunny – warmed up, wreaking havoc on the snow.

So, come Saturday, I was determined to ride, but I wanted to find some soft snow (I am trying to take it easy after all). My crazy logic put touring in the backcountry higher on the list of safe activities than a day riding at a resort.  I had two options. Find mellow north-facing slopes that are well shaded and hope that the warm air and sun hadn’t completely destroyed the fresh snow. Or, we could find some south-facing slopes and hope that they had turned to corn. Neither option sounded particularly thrilling, so we decided to gamble and stick to the North faces.

We headed down to the Tatoosh range, where I knew there was some fun mellow north-facing terrain. The approach was promising. While we did find some impressively large surface hoar, the snow was nice and soft in the shade. In fact, there was nearly 6 inches of snow on top of an unbreakable crust. It was enough snow to have a good day.

Unfortunately, the higher we climbed in elevation, the air warmed considerably, and the snowpack degraded. Eventually we found ourselves on rolling hills that were glistening in the sun. There were pockets of snow that had survived, but most saw the sun at one point or another and were now glistening sheets of ice.

A solo skier with ski crampons passed us, laughing as we struggled miserably to make progress up the hill. It was more difficult than it really needed to be. Eventually we all made it to the ridge.

We ended up relaxing for about an hour. The sun was shining, it was warm, and, what I would consider the reason what Tatoosh is so fun, Rainier is right in your face. Not to mention, Adams, St Helens, and Hood visible behind us. I think I may plan an overnight trip down there. The view is just incredible. Most of us had spent the week trapped in the fog, so the sun was a welcome sight. Sitting on the top of the ridge was a much missed and welcome feeling. The six weeks I was out blew by quickly, but I was ready to be back.

Eventually, we finished our beers and had our fill of vitamin D. I stood on the ridge with my board strapped on. I realized this was the longest stretch I had been away from my snowboard for at least a year. Six weeks to the day was not so bad.

Behind me was a south facing meadow with a handful of tracks in it. We’d seen a couple skiers drop in and the corn looked great. We made up our minds to stay north and hope we could follow the shade the whole way down. I held my breath and dropped in. I rolled onto my heel edged, praying that the snow was soft. My edge held well – better than I’d expected. I opened up a little and took off down the hill.

A friend described the Tatoosh range as a putt-putt golf course. I can’t think of a better analogy. Rolling hills with a couple of points that we had to stop and navigate around. Always a safe way down though. Mostly, it was carefree riding.  We did find a couple zones worth coming back for. A hip with a long steep landing, a ridge with a cornice drop, and a narrow chute begging to be aired into. Not to mention the ridges in the distance, all easily accessible in a day and of course the three prominent couloirs on Lane peak. So much to do, I am sure glad this funky weather is nearly over.
Some people have sun lamps, I have the mountains. 

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Easter. I think I did it right.

April 9, 2012 | Posted in Uncategorized | By

Easter to me has always been a holiday about spending time with family. It has been about eating a nice dinner (lamb and mint jelly) and an excuse to eat lots of candy that was laboriously placed inside plastic eggs and hidden in entirely obvious places. Well, this year most of my family is half way around the world, which makes spending time with them a little…difficult. That also ruled out the nice home-cooked lamb dinner (yes, I am enjoying cooking, no I am not going to attempt to cook lamb myself – mostly because it is not cheap). If you have been following my blog, you would also know that I gave up candy, pretty much destroying the last bit of salvation for this holiday.

I decided to approach Easter with a different tactic. I have been itching to get out in the backcountry for a while now, but haven’t had any luck finding people to ride with. My list of friends with bc gear in Seattle is still a little small. So, I hopped on a random splitboarding forum and found someone looking to tour this weekend. With relative ease, I found someone who had conveniently left their phone number so that I could get ahold of them easily. It turned out that they were sleeping in their car for the weekend up and Snoqualmie and would be happy to go ride on Sunday.

So, I left Seattle at 7 this morning and headed up the pass to spend the day hiking the woods with a random person I have never met. Moreover, I only had a vague idea of where we were planning on touring.

The slot couloir looking down from the top.

It turns out the plan was to go up Snoqualmie Mountain and then play it by ear. A pretty classic tour in this neck of the woods. The approach was 3000 ft of less than ideal conditions. The south face was boiler plate thanks to the daily warm-freeze with the sun. Skinning was miserable, but we made it to the top keeping our fingers crossed that the north aspects we wanted to ride would be better. We headed up to the Slot Couloir first. It was fairly tracked, but the snow was still awesome on the sides.

We hiked back up to the top of Snoqualmie Mountain and made our way to the crooked couloir. We had heard that crooked was better and were not disappointed. Check out the quick video of me riding the top section.

By the time we got to the bottom, we were pretty exhausted. All that was left was the hike back up the ridge and a ski back to the parking lot. Oh and of course, how could I forget this! I brought an Easter egg that was filled with a Jello shot. There was little argument that I took the first ever jello shot on the top on Snoqualmie Mountain.

Our day wasn’t complete yet. Since we were out riding until nearly 5, we were starving and decided to treat ourselves to a quality Easter meal. I think I have a new tradition – pancakes at the pancake house, washed down with an ice cold PBR.

So as a recap, I spent Easter, touring some epic couloirs on Snoqualmie pass, with random person I found on the internet. Took a jello shot on the top of a mountain, in an easter egg (it’s better than candy!), and ate a delicious Easter meal of pancakes and PBR for dinner. I think it was a complete success.

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The Big Couloir

February 28, 2012 | Posted in Snowboarding | By

So I finally made it into the big. The ski patrol only let a certain number of people in each day an you have to sign out with the patrollers before you can go. You also have to have your Avy gear and are required to have a partner. It’s not necessarily a hard chute-I was riding much more technical terrain earlier in the day in the lower a-z’s. It just has an allure, because it comes right down the face of lone peak almost directly under the tram.

Its taken a while to find a day when the conditions were worth it and I had all the gear on me (including a willing partner). We didn’t get in until 2 pm, and so the big was already pretty tracked out. It was still an awesome steep run and the bowl once you exit the chute didn’t have too many tracks, letting me carve a couple big turns floating on the pow.

All in all, it was an awesome run, next time it might be worth trying to get in earlier in the day.

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