Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Kickstep in the Clouds

With a big front barreling north and heralding the return of the incessant storm cycle, Cody, Nathan, and I went for Kickstep Mountain on Friday. We got the line, not the summit.
The initial plan was to go for the so-called Snake Couloir on the mountain’s eastern shoulder. The idea was to skip the long west ridge accent and associated cornice tramping, and boot the line head on.
While Kickstep is an iconic mountain, and a coveted Turngain descent, it’s not actually that big. Top to bottom, its maybe 1,200 feet of vertical. If you ski the mountain’s west fin, which seems to be the run-du-jour for many, you lose a lot of vertical traversing the summit ridge, scoring around 800 feet of very steep wall. The main run goes right from the steep summit cone and threads down through a narrow couloir, but once out of the choke, its wide open apron skiing. The Snake goes from fairly close to the eastern summit, and sustains its pitch as it winds between 1-2 sizable cliff bands (depending on the snow pack, there was only 1 this year) almost the entire way to the valley floor.
When we squared up below the Snake though, we were greeted by the sight of epic wind loading on the eastern side of the line. The glacial bulge of snow that would over hang us for the remainder of the day if we headed upward was hardly confidence inspiring. Topping out seemed unlikely as well: big broken cornices were peeling away from the eastern summit nub, and a pair of twin grooves ran down the entire Snake from where a pair of car-sized chunks had tumbled down the face…so, huh.
On the bright side, the main Kickstep line (Is there a name?) that goes from the summit and sneaks through the massive cliff band was in, and fat. We decided to stick with the plan of booting this line head on as well. In retrospect, I’m glad we did.
The line begins its descent off the steep, west summit cone, and sends skiers into a pair of adjoining v-shaped basins that drain down through a narrow couloir, spitting skiers back out on a big apron.
If one has ever wondered what it’s like to get flushed down a toilet, this is a good place to find out.
As we entered the couloir, we found it had been crusted up. I’m going to blame sloughing as the main culprit, but even though the chasm isn’t even ADA-certified width, the west side was bullet proof, while the east was punchy, so definite sun-effect as well. I’m sure the wind got in on the action too.
At the top of the couloir there was this awesome, wall-to-wall, bullet proof section of snow, with what we will call, an “ice bollard,” a 6 inch rock hard pylon, right there at the top of the choke. It was probably an old piece of chunder that arrested, got buried, and now promised to pop someone off their ass right before things got real.
At times, the Verts were as much a liability as a help, struggling to dig in more than a meager toe hold.
Above the couloir conditions improved a bit to breakable and then to soft snow.
We hit the ridge with the wind swirling snow flakes down on us. The final 200 vertical feet to the now cloud-encased summit were to be conquered another time, conditions hardly warranted our current presence.
We transitioned and began the descent, which went pretty much exactly how one would expect given the surface conditions encountered on the climb.
Nathan set the line off the ridge and got us above the choke. No surprise – the guy who seems to ride the fastest when the going gets rough and narrow – he pretty much blasted through the chasm, que up the Delia Banana Couloir (LINK).
Cody and I came through next, skiing far more conservatively. The ice bollard was the biggest pucker factor in my mind, the last thing I wanted to do was slide across it and get tossed into the narrow casm below. I crept down into the last meters above the choke until I was finally able to ID the bollard’s location amidst the flat light: it was easy, the cascade of broken chunks of slough that were tumbling around me were catching it and jettisoning off into the atmosphere.
Re-grouped on the wide apron, we party skied back down to the valley floor and made our way through the increasingly milky conditions.
Kickstep is a coveted ski in Turnagain Pass. It’s iconic, and looks like it could host a line or two for a ski movie. That being said, it’s also way more common to see tracks on Kickstep these days then it was 5 years ago. It seems like within 24 hours of the end of a storm cycle, someone will have nabbed a line on it. It’s a worthy ski for sure, and I would like to go back some other year. In fact, maybe if we’d been skiing with a foot of slough-tastic dry snow that wanted to sweep us away and flush us down that chute, I would have felt differently, but other than being annoyed by the marginal surface conditions, I wasn’t intimidated. I can’t qualify exactly why either, but I was way more gripped dropping into Grand Daddy Couloir in similar conditions earlier this year than I was dropping into Kickstep. I guess that’s fodder for another post though.

Kickstep, early March 2013.

Upper portion of Kickstep, seen from Pastoral in February 2013. Green line was route skied 2016, red is so-called snake couloir.

Great views.

The last couple 100 feet to the top. Not worthy.

Into the flush.

Posted up above the crux. Photo C.G.
Down the tube. Photo C.G.

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