Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Proper and the Library

Christmas 2015 promised one day of calm, cold weather and stable snow, and an endless line up of storming and warming thereafter.
With single digit temps at the road in Turnagain on Christmas Eve, Nathan and I headed for a Library mission.
We debated going in a-la Center Ridge, but decided to take the Tin Can uptrack and make a run down the south face. We had both already skied Proper south face earlier in the month on a glorious blue bird day with a deceptively shallow snow pack. That run was 1/3 thin rocky, 1/3 fat and deep, 1/3 rain crusty. We hoped for something more redeeming.
The early signs of the impending pattern shift were present almost from the outset, with high stratus clouds moving in not long after we set off.
The climb up Proper was far less spicey than 2 weeks ago and we weren’t the first to punch to the top as with last time, though our chosen run was untracked. Nathan went down to the first knoll a few hundred feet off the top. I came down next. I admit, the delightful snow had me running a little hot, and as I neared the post up, a sudden change to wind slab caught me by surprise and I unintentionally popped into the air. I came in a few feet above and behind Nathan, crawling in slowly enough. In my mind, I’d come to a stop, but video revealed otherwise. The knoll Nathan and I were on was covered by a 20x20x1.5 slab that popped as soon as I came along side. Nathan was directly over rock and tundra and came to a stop as soon as he sat down. I was in a little deeper and blocks over the tips and tails of my board dragged me maybe 5 feet as I punched into the soft bed layer looking for an anchor. For all of a second, it looked like a really bad situation was about to go down: the run narrows and thins through a gully below, followed by another 1,500 feet or so of mountain…
As it was, the slab was small, and the blocks hit the deep surface facets and skittered away.
It wasn’t so much luck that we didn’t get into something bigger – the next level slide would have been catastrophically deep and likely involved a whole face – but bad luck for finding and triggering this small surface patch where we thought we were safe to post up and assess the next gully section. The small south-easterly facing slab was likely formed by the 30+ mph north-northwest winds that had blown over the region in the last week. 30-50 mph outflow (north-west) winds are the scariest in my mind: they easily form slabs, but don’t hammer hard enough to either cement or pop the slabs, as is more common during storm events. They also tend to occur during dry spells when snow has lost moisture and bonding potential. It was a scary reminder nonetheless of just how fast these slabs, big or small, can pop.
We leap frogged the rest of the way down the face, kicking off some impressive sloughs along the way, but never again finding evidence of surface wind slabs.
It wasn’t the greatest, though far better than our previous run down this face.
Next up, we lined up to climb one of the many sub peaks that make up the Library.
Verts on, we plowed upward.
Booting was variable: we wallowed waist deep, and we walked easily in boot top on a supportable base; the angle oscillated from comfortable to numerous pitches of 50+. Just because, it seemed that the steepest sections always had the deepest snow. Our chosen rib got too steep at one point, and we were forced to make a lovely down climb, and move laterally onto a lesser spine that was backed off in pitch. The full effect of the face’s variability was made apparent as we went from waist deep to 6 inches over shredder rocks and back to waist deep in 30 feet of lateral. So ya, that’ll be fun later for crossing spines.
Spacing out was a challenge. Our experience with the wind slab had us on edge, but at the same time, the sloughs were moving deep and fast. Each step promised to kick off at least a small cascade, and some grew to 20 feet wide and a foot deep in seconds. Getting too far behind was risky for the low man with no place to hide.
As we neared the top, we were able to abate some of our slab/spacing concerns by seeking refuge behind rock outcrops. I was thankful for the cold temps and subdued sun as I stood on thin snow next to the black rocks.
From the top, optimism resumed. We had deep, light snow, descent lighting, and a few playful spines to choose from.
Given the heavy sloughing and lack of safety spots, we agreed it was best to ski the run in its entirety rather than try and leap frog. Of course, one of my radios had failing batteries.
Nathan dropped in first and I sat tight for two very long minutes.
He eventually appeared below.
In I went next.
It was obvious this wasn’t going to be glorious within a few turns.
The slough built up fast and I was immediately heading for a high spot to let it run.
A few more turns down and I saw that Nathan had un-intentionally broken the main spine. The ensuing slough out was huge: it had picked up so much speed it wiped out some of the lesser spines along the way and entrained quite a bit of snow. Even in the gully, the remnant slough acquired speed easily, and the trench offered no safety. I worked my way down slowly, making 3-5 turns at a time before having to clear slough, holding one broken spine as long as I could before it either rolled into ledges or broke and I had to jump to another. It was easily the heaviest slough management I’ve had to deal with. The consequences of getting dragged were ever present.
The variability of depth and need to stay high on the spines guaranteed we both spiked some mean gremlins along the way too.
I’ve navigated some technical lines in spring in northerly facing stuff in Hatchers that required maneuvering through or over ledges. It can be a lot of fun, and reminds me of rock climbing, but in reverse. It’s a puzzle to solve. In this case, the puzzle was a little too intense with the depth and speed of the slough, and nothing ever felt like it clicked.
I was glad to be at the bottom after several minutes.
We watched a group of three ski a line farther down the way. It seemed they had a similar experience. Their lead skier had a beautiful run, but in the process kicked off a large slough that billowed up an impressive two-story-high powder cloud. The following two skiers seemed like they were forced to pick their way down with a lot more care, probably a result of reduced snow quality.

Smiling is reserved for easy booting and moderate pitches

Looking over at Proper

Discolored area is a view of the slab that popped

The forecasted storm series rolled in and started dumping lots of heavy new snow in north Turngain, but hardly a flake fell elsewhere. In an attempt to avoid crowding at the popular locales, we went to Summit on Saturday and skied the variable wind effect in the sun on Glider. It was a nice little foray, but not worth more than one ridge to road run. We went back to the truck and back to Turnagain. The Sunburst lot wasn’t plowed, but we shoved the truck through the DOT snow berm anyway and did a lap down the gaper slope in a total white out. There were only two other skiers on the hill plus one lone guy wallowing on snow shoes with no skis. The lack of viz was inconsequential: the snow was ridiculously good and compensated for everything. Sunday we went to Tin Can with everyone else. Off and on snow showers and 3 feet of fresh were the conditions of the day. Visibility was never really great, but we found really nice consolidating powder from the top of Common to tree line, that transitioned into much deeper unconsolidated powder pallooza. Turning was stupid, but dropping cliffs and pillows was ridiculously fun and every landing was Charmin soft. A look at the altimeter back at the car at dusk revealed we’d logged 7,000 feet of great storm skiing!
Chilly Xmas day spin in town.

Summit Pass skyline from the skyline ridge of Summit Peak,

Blurry, but I still like it. Snow wasn't great though.

Great snow, bad light, making an exit from Sunburst. Viz never really got better on Sunday, so no pics, just smiles and snow.

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