Category Archives: Backcountry
The Devil’s Bedstead
Unfortunately, I was relieved of much of my camera equipment in Argentina, so I had to scrape together some pictures from the few I had uploaded on other sites. (I am aware there are no pictures of us actually skiing):
I’m already regretting my decision to bivy at the base of the Devil’s Bedstead and I haven’t even fallen asleep. While the freezing temperatures ease my concerns about skiing in the morning, the temps aren’t doing a whole lot for my current sleeping situation. Located in the Pioneer Mountains, the Devil’s Bedstead rises roughly 4,800’ from the valley floor and is defined by a 2,800’ face that looms over the Kane Creek drainage.
The view from the headwaters of Park Creek
Despite the cold temperatures, I manage to sleep until just after 3am. With a rather leisurly start to the day, we begin the bushwhack to the base of the mountain just after five. The route up the Bedstead is pretty straightforward, with the exception of gaining the basin at the bottom of the face. For anyone trying to replicate this here’s the key: go several hundred yards pass the drainage that, on the map, gives access to the basin (there’s a faint trail). At this point start heading up, through steep, yet open forests. Going directly up the drainage is possible, but it’s steep, heavily wooded, and pretty much fubar.
The face of the beast
Scrambling through the loose rock and dirt, we eventually make it to the subtle basin below the daunting face. Any concerns about the snow setting up are immediately dismissed once we reach snowline. The snow froze, and it froze deep, allowing for a long, but essentially straightforward route up the face. As we gain elevation, our crampons and ice axes provide less and less purchase, and I can’t help but think how good an idea not falling is. After a scramble over a windswept scree field, we eventually reach the summit, just as we think the snow is beginning to warm. Relaxing on the summit, we predict that the snow should be turning to corn in the next hour, considering the face has been catching light since six thirty.
Ketchum from the summit
When it comes to skiing (and most other things I suppose) I have the patience of a virgin on prom night, which is probably not the best quality given our current situation. So, after a casual lunch on the summit, I deemed the snow had reached sufficient softness and it was time to drop in. Wrong. The first mid radius turn I ambitiously made was nothing short of terrifying- I thought the teeth were going to chatter out of my jaw. Time to safety ski again…super. Luckily, midway down the face the snow began to soften and we got some of the steep, spring turns we came for.
In retrospect, it’d be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get the entire 4,000’+ descent in good condition. Had we waited for the top to corn up, I think we’d be in real trouble at the bottom- both in terms of snow quality and stability. I think in this case, being impatient wasn’t the worst thing.
Pretty belated, but I was just going through some pics and it reminded me of how cool this line is- despite skiing it in less than all-time conditions.
The Sickle from the Fish Hook drainage
Approximate date: May 26, 2009
There are a lot of epics in the Sawtooths, but for whatever reason the Sickle has always stuck out in my mind a bit. Maybe it’s because you can see it from Stanley, or maybe because it’s such an awesome sliver- either way, it’s a good one for the Idaho hit list.
Drew and I set out one day in late May to see if we couldn’t find some descent snow still remaining in the upper reaches of the ‘tooths.
Referred to as the most aesthetic peak in the Sawtooths, Horstman Peak rises to 10,470’ and is defined by the Sickle Couloir. Usually conquered in two days in the winter, the couloir provides a rather lengthy day in the spring due to the approach. Highlights of the five-mile walk into the basin included me collapsing a snow bridge and falling into a creek up to my waist, countless post-holes in isothermic snow, and Drew loosing his balance and testing his self-arresting skills.
Base of the couloir. Things look good, right?
At the base of the couloir things looked promising: it seemed that the snow in the shade was still frozen and there was what looked like a previous boot pack. Once we got inside the couloir, however, things were not so reassuring. What we perceived to be an old boot pack was nothing more than a debris trails from a large rocks that had rolled down the couloir- this was both frustrating and unnerving. To make matters worse, snow had frozen, but only the top couple of inches. Thus, while you could kick-in with your boot, the moment you transferred weight you’d immediately post-hole.
Half way up the couloir, when things start getting really harry
We pushed on despite the marginal conditions. Midway up the couloir things went from bad to worse. The snow had frozen much deeper and, while it would now support weight, it was virtually impenetrable- even with an ice axe.. Scrambling up the 45 plus-degree top section, the light was just beginning to heat up the snow on the top twenty feet of the couloir- we’d at least have one good turn.
The final steps where we started getting purchase again.
The Sickle Couloir is walled in for about 1,000’, varying between 45 and 55 degrees. Given that sections of it were so frozen they were impermeable with an ice axe, I’ll admit that we were a bit puckered as we dropped in.
The first, and only good turn.
Dropping in, I admit I was pretty puckered. The majority of the couloir was steep, narrow, had few safety zones, and was made up of coral. Needless to say, if you fell, you were going for a ride, probably pin-balling to the apron. We made the call to ski with ice axes in hand for self-arresting reasons.
The first turn, which had been baking in the sun for about an hour, was buttery. The next twenty turns, however, were nothing short of terrifying. The combination of steep, runneled, and boilerplate snow through a walled-in couloir tested our survival skiing skills. We eventually made it to the apron that had been heating up in the sun for quite some time now, and made some more natural turns to the base of the snowfield.
As I said, the Sickle is one of many epics in the Sawtooths, particularly if the conditions are right…or so I hear, as I’ve never come close to hitting it right.
With this in mind, Drew Tabke and I set out to ski 17,795’ Cerro El Plomo, the massive glaciated peak east of La Parva Ski Area. Plomo is typically climbed during the summer months over 2-4 days, including the approach. While Drew and I had no shortage of energy and blind ambition, time, however, was one thing we were lacking. We made the call for a one day push, hoping that by saving weight we’d be able to travel a little quicker. We announced our plans to the director of ski patrol and, while he thought that we were crazy and would either fail or die, he happily agreed to let us stay at the refugio at the top of La Parva.
…Or maybe not, I think to myself as we shot the first takes. What seems like a blanketing of fresh powder is nothing more than a wind drift, with the rest of the terrain all but stripped of decent snow. Nonetheless, we work the surrounding terrain that is defined by cartoonish cornices, glaciers, and ramps that, given the right snow conditions, would be right up there with anything in Alaska. After some not-so-impressive attempts at some more ambitious lines I concede to the conditions and tone it down a bit, enjoying the scenery as much as anything. After all, in a place as beautiful as Patagonia, even for me, the skiing is just a bonus.
To paraphrase Thoreau, many men spend their entire lives searching for good snow, when, in the end, it’s not the snow they’re really after
“Brrraaaaapppp,” goes the 900 Polaris RMK as we tear across the frozen lake in a volcanic crater. I watch with amusement as little pieces of white shrapnel eject from beneath the sled, harmlessly hitting the rider I am shuttling to the top of a 3,000-foot face on the Argentina-Chile border. It is September and through some random connections, I am snowmobile skiing. It is the first day of a multi-day commercial shoot for a large South American cell phone carrier. It’s rare that mainstream companies look toward skiing, particularly big-mountain skiing, for their marketing content, and I’m glad I happened to be in the right place at the right time.
The e-mail came about a month ago. “Hey, we’re filming this commercial and need an American skier for a few days of sled skiing and heli time. Do you think you can make it?” wrote my friend. Hmm, I think I can make that happen, I thought to myself. After a few weeks of waiting, we are in our own private winter playground just outside of the Argentinean town of Caviahue. Located six hours north of Bariloche, Caviahue is like nowhere else I’ve been on Earth. The combination of the lakes, mountains, and trees creates a prehistoric atmosphere that makes me feel like I’m on the set of The Flintstones. As far as sled skiing goes, the terrain in Caviahue is about as good as it gets. The north- and west-facing aspects are low angle and have harder snow, allowing for easy shuttles to the south faces, which are more sheltered and shaded, holding snow long after storms have moved out.
So, here we are—two skiers and two snowboarders—providing content for an upcoming advertising campaign that will air at the end of the season. For the next two days we ride countless lines accessed by some of the only sleds in Argentina. Secretly, I’m worried that we’d get material that was “too good” and they’d cut the heli out of the budget. However, at the end of the last day of filming I am informed that, while the footage we are getting is good, we really need a heli for the appropriate branding for the ads. So, we have to travel back to Bariloche to meet the heli, and then head deep into Patagonia to finish up the shoot.
“We would like to make invitation to make cat-skiing on Thursday,” says Trinidad, director of marketing for The North Face Chile. While there were a few words missing from her statement, I got the gist of it and the answer was pretty simple, although I tried to act like I was busy and could possibly have more important things to do. “Um, yeah, I could probably do that, I’ll just have to touch base with some other people and make sure it’s alright,” I reply, half lying. And just like that I am off to Arpa—the only cat-skiing operation in South America—to ski some un-tracked.
Ski Arpa isn’t exactly on the beaten path. Roughly an hour and a half from Santiago, Arpa provides fairly easy access to some amazing terrain, once you get there. We arrive at the staging area for the cats and began to get situated, which takes some time given that we are a group of 16. As I buckle my boots one of my group members enthusiastically says, “Feliz Cumpleaños!” I look at her confused and say “si” (“si,” along with “bueno” and “gracias,” have become my go-to words when I have no idea what the hell someone is talking about). Although, I was pretty sure from my high school Spanish class that this meant “Happy Birthday.” I shrug off the incident and load up into the cat. We climb in the shadow of Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America, to the top of the property that contains countless acres of un-tracked powder.
Our group is comprised of TNF athletes and photographers, TNF guests and employees, and some randoms that have gotten on the right (or wrong) snowcat. Needless to say, we are three teams with three very different programs. While we hustle to set up photos, the other groups casually schuss their way back to the cats waiting at the bottom. For the first two runs we are bringing up the rear—taking time to shoot photos on the way down—and it seems that the guides and other clients are beginning to become irritated with us. They continue to say ” Feliz Cumpleaños” to me, which at this point I have decided means “get your shit together.”
By the end of the day, however, we’ve worked out a pretty good system. We’d take our time getting photos in more difficult terrain while the others would make two runs. Our last run is nothing short of amazing: A 3,000-foot bowl filled with spines and natural features. I watch local TNF athlete Chopo Diaz rip the thing to shreds. He can read terrain and spin off natural features better than anyone I’ve ever skied with.
We make our way back to the refuge where we devour sandwiches, chocolates, and, Crystals—a beer which I have been told is the Pabst of Chile. For the record, I think it’s delicious. As we are being treated to one of the most amazing sunsets I have ever seen, the group breaks into song—the Chilean version of “Happy Birthday.” Like an idiot, I attempt to join in and looked around to see whose birthday it is. When the cake arrives in front of me I put it all together: The kind people at TNF had told everybody it was my birthday. I didn’t have the heart to tell them they’d been had, so I just smiled and blew out the candles. Although, I suppose that had it been my birthday it would have been a pretty good one.
We skied Horstman Peak, via the Sickle Couloir a couple weeks ago and I got my first real good look at “The Shield,” the face of Horstman Peak. It’s gnarly, to say the least. It’s been skied once, with a rappel. I think, under the right conditioins, you could ski it without the rappel. I’d guess its about a 60-80 foot mandatory at the bottom. While that’s big, it’s steep, and the Sawtooths get a lot of snow. If you pulled it off, i’d venture to say that it’d be one of the burlier, if not the burliest lines skied in the ‘tooths. Have a look for yourself:
With spring temperatures and fresh snow into June and for those willing to slog a little further, summer is merely an option in the Sawtooths. While most of the Custer County population was content drinking PBRs on the lake, we had our eyes set on the remaining snow in the Chockstone Couloir at the northwest end of Redfish Lake.
The Chockstone Couloir, or the Boy Scout Couloir as it is known locally, prominently divides the Grand Mogul, which overshadows Redfish Lake and serves as the backdrop for countless family photos throughout the summer. Besides the roughly 1,000 vertical feet and 40-50-degree pitch of the couloir, it is distinguished by a large piece of granite lodged in the middle of the route. This chockstone is the crux of the route on the way up, offering a 5.5 pitch of rock and ice depending on the time of year. On the way down, it’s either a sizable, must-land mandatory, or a section of rapelling depending on how ambitious one’s feeling. Either way, the route offers a challenging snow climb and rewarding ski descent well into summer.
Up at first light, we began the approach as our campmates-other skiers from the Sun Valley area-were considering calling it a night. The hour and a half bushwhack and scramble across scree fields to get to the snow and loaded down with ski and climbing gear, served as an appropriate warm up for the climb. Gearing up at the bottom of the snowfield, a big-block engine size piece of rock released from the top of the couloir and cartwheeled to our position at the bottom sending us running. The incident provided the necessary motivation to gain the protection of the chockstone as quickly as we could. As the lower half of the climb is particularly walled-in, one can’t help but feel somewhat vulnerable. From the chockstone, Bryce led and set several pieces of protection through the zone of loose rock, rotten snow, and generally untrustworthy conditions. Feeling exposed while climbing the crux, we both scrambled through as quickly as we could to the general safety of the snow above. With a somewhat faded sense of urgency after the crux, we completed the roughly five pitches to the top at a more leisurely pace, summiting just as the snow was beginning to turn.
The sense of accomplishment that could be expected was somewhat absent at the summit. Instead it was replaced by an unspoken anxiety about dropping into a no-fall zone for our first turns in several months, hoping the gnar switch still worked. Luckily it did, and the steep turns at the top of the couloir lent themselves to April skiing rather than July skiing. While there was big talk-mostly by me-at the campfire the previous evening about sending the mandatory chockstone section, on the way up we deemed that it would be reckless, stupid, and virtually impossible to stick Confident with my rapelling abilities, I chose not to put my crampons back on. I can now attest to the fact that in ski boots, on smooth, wet granite, one has little control over the direction that he or she rappels, and is mostly at the mercy of gravity. After I had clumsily reached the bottom of the pitch and Bryce rapelled, we continued down the lower, more sun-baked, section of the route. Skiing as far as we could on what was quickly becoming less and less skiable snow, we reluctantly swapped our gear when we realized we’d exhausted the snow. Within two hours of reaching the summit we were back at our camp to greet our awakening campmates. While sitting on the lake and drinking PBRs may have not sounded too good to them at that particular hour, it sure sounded great to us.
The top is a good place, be it ideological or physical. In our case, as we sat on top of the chute that ran across Cobb Peak’s north face, it was particularly good, for several reasons. First off, we are skiers and as such are permitted to celebrate the achievement of a goal, regardless of it only being halfway accomplished. Like a hockey team celebrating in the second intermission or a baseball team celebrating during the seventh inning stretch, we sat there grinning, snacking, and congratulating one another on a job well done. To us however, this was more of a celebration of the entire season. After a couple of tough weeks in the freeskier world, it was safe to say that we were both simply happy to be there, about to embrace some of the last turns of the season. I’m a firm believer that it’s crucial to have that one last good day toward the end of the year, as this ultimately dictates the enthusiasm someone brings to the next season.
Reflecting on our approach that took an impressively inefficient five hours, we gazed around and took in winter one last time. Snow was absent from many of the surrounding hills, with entire drainages looking brown- abandoned by winter but not yet embraced by spring. As a skier I hate moments like this. I can’t help but feel a combination of loss and nostalgia. Turning my attention back to the chute, these feelings were replaced by excitement and anxiety as I began to examine what we were about to ski, and thought about how much I love moments like this. At 11,650’ Cobb sits at the South end of the Pioneer Mountains and, because of its southern location, is one of the most prominent peaks in the range. The North face is largely unskiable except for a steep, narrow chute that runs slightly east to west. While the snow was by no means exceptional, it would serve as a means to an end. It provided an unforgettable last day- making the inevitable arrival of summer a little easier to handle.
The descent quickly became more intense than we had planned for. The geography of the chute and the chalky snow made sluff management a serious issue. However, the safe zones that we had inspected on the way up were well-spaced and provided easy relief. We straight-lined a bit out the bottom into the massive basin and began the trek back to the trailhead. Dropping nearly 4,000’ on the way back to trailhead, the signs of summer were ubiquitous. Although still somewhat filled with a sense of loss, it is difficult to be disappointed with the approach of summer after a day like that. Every skier needs such an adventure toward the end of the season, if for no other reason then to ensure that the proverbial stoke fire stays lit through the summer
After a month and a half of intense competition, empty miles on the road, and countless Coronas it was time to, well, ski some more. As the hangover from Crested Butte ebbed, we loaded up the sleds and headed north, home to Idaho to tap into zones in the Sawtooth National Forrest that had been beckoning for years. Although conditions were by no means ideal, we were willing to sacrifice powder for snow stability and the accessibility that the hardpacked conditions granted. Fittingly, and in the spirit of competition, we were once again faced with making the best of the conditions in the time that was allotted.
After several days of scouting we had a zone lined up that would deliver the goods- long, steep, and exposed lines that had a rather simple shuttle up the back side. With a bluebird forecast for the next day we avoided the highly anticipated Sun Valley Suns- Jackson Hole Moose hockey game and prepared to catch the sunrise. We pulled out at 5:30am, stoked and geared up, when we heard the sound that will spoil any day- the “thump, thump, thump, thump” of a flat tire on the trailer. After cursing and undoubtedly waking up several neighbors, we were attacking the situation with ruthless efficiency that would make pit crews jealous. After all, the sunrise doesn’t wait. Staging as fast as we could, we began racing out to the zone as the pink alpenglow was brilliantly lighting up the peaks we were supposed to already be on top of- we were officially blowing it.
We arrived at the zone and quickly went to work organizing shuttles and taking advantage of the light that, although fleeting, was still amazing. Over the next several hours we skied all the lines the zone had to offer and left content, at least for the day. We’d try several other times before we had to leave, getting skunked each time by snow, light, or whatever else could go wrong. Much like competing, conditions were not necessarily ideal and nothing went as planned, however, after years of competing we’d likely be lost if anything did go as we’d imagined.