Wednesday, April 15, 2009

15April2009 - SW Face Mt. Lincoln with Tim & Jeff

(click on any image to enlarge it...)

Lake Van Norden melting out

The thermometer this morning was reading in the high teens as I sipped coffee and considered how I was going to dress for the day. Last night I had set out my gear - skins, avalanche beacon (batteries checked), shovel, avy probe, water in bladder with hose threaded into pack strap, extra gloves, hat, sunglasses, warm hat, extra sweater, chemical hand warmers, leatherman tool, flashlight, whistle, small first aid kit, spare parts for bindings, pole repair kit, duct tape, ski straps, neck gaiter, and the all important lunch. Would the wind be blowing up high? Would the sun come out and bake us while we climbed? No way to really tell. I layered up with one extra item on top and on bottom and headed out the door with Jeff and Tim. How come their packs are so small and mine is so damn heavy (not to mention the bulky camera)?

As we drove by the Van Norden meadow I could see the water pouring over the spillway and the stream melted out. Birds were flitting around the willows and there was bird song in the air - an air that has been silent of such distraction for many months.

Our plan today was to use the Sugarbowl lifts to boost us into the "sidecountry" - that terrain bordering on the ski resort, but not IN the ski resort. This way, our first climb of over 1,500 feet would actually be in a chair lift and possibly we'd use the lifts to fuel a few other laps depending on the routes that opened up to us as our journey unfolded.

This planning for this tour actually started months ago, when I first started eyeing the south west face of Mt. Lincoln from the surrounding peaks. Over the season I had skied on all the ridges surrounding Mt. Lincoln, but this south west face always seemed so foreboding, and unknown.

Here is a photo of the SW face of Lincoln as shot from Mt. Rowton - December 2008. The ski resort controlled terrain is all on the far sides of this peak. All the terrain you can see in this picture is "out of bounds". The ski route we were contemplating started right at the summit (the pointy top) and almost directly straight down - slightly lookers right of the center line. The complication here is that this face is very steep in parts and has volcanic outcroppings of rock forming exposed spines that funnel falling snow, and skiers into ever narrowing chutes. The terrain below tree line was unknown. I was not sure if there were skiable lines through there or if there would be cliffs that would stop us cold.

Here is another early reconnaissance shot of SW face taken Late December 2008. The face we intended to ski is the cloud shrouded slope to the right in this photo. The shaded slope facing left is referred to as "The Palisades" and is occasionally opened for extreme, and in-bounds skiing.

Topo map of area toured (c) Google Maps.

This topo map shows Mount Lincoln with it's four main ridges. Our plan was to ski down at the 8:00pm position just north of the steep gully in the middle of the SW face.

(c) Summer Google Earth view of Mt. Lincoln showing the ski route we took - the orange line. Start at the summit and follow the line down, then up, then across and over the ridge to exit at West Pal - the western most Palisade back within bounds at the resort...

We took the Jerome lift, then skied easily down a connector trail to the Lincoln lift. Up the chair for the millionth time this season we chatted easily - not really concerned about what lay ahead. The sky was clear, there was a mild wind, cold temperatures, and the snow was stable. A few inches of fresh, cold snow had been deposited on top of the old consolidated and baked spring snow over the past two days. Avalanche conditions were low. The route actually has a name - at least for the top part - called the PR (or Patrol Route). It is most often used to access the top of the Palisades by the Pro Patrollers to drop explosive charges back into the resort side of the ridge to release fresh snow deposits before they have a chance to unpredictably slide onto unsuspecting in-bounds skiers below. Here Tim pauses at the base of the wide summit snow field before we begin to tackle the more technical, and challenging terrain below. We've already skied 600 feet down on a firm predictable surface, cutting comfortable turns and looking around at the uncluttered beauty of this side of the mountain.

Jeff takes off near the bottom of the upper snow field, looking for an ever narrowing line between the the rocks. Rolls in the slope conceal terrain below and we proceed cautiously one at a time keeping an eye out for cliffs or sun melted rock bands that might block our way. The going is exhilarating - with consistent, but slippery, compacted snow.

A thin layer of fresh snow sits atop frozen well-consolidated base layer. The skiing is fast and consistent and we are grinning with each turn. I can barely set up the camera and the crew blows by. No one wanting to stop to chat. This is what we came for, and the chairlift ride up has left our legs strong and our egos intact. Now, down below the areas we have explored before, we cut fresh turns in the gullys rarely skied by anyone else.

The broad upper slopes come to an end, and the route now is narrower, as we are funneled down between exposed rock ribs in narrow chutes. Jeff stretches out in linked tele turns - a sign he is confident and comfortable with the skiing. If it got steeper or tighter or the sno deteriorated, his style would compress to an alpine wiggle like Tim and I use.

The rock chutes narrow...and we blast down the mountainside. This is the DOWN that drives our preparations and motivation. The cold wind is driving against our faces. The icy spray from the skier in front lingers in the air as the subsequent skier plummets by following the same line. I know I am breathing, but I can't hear my breath as the scraping sound of metal edges on hard snow overwhelms all sound but the tune I hum in my head to keep a steady rhythm in my turns. James Brown lyrics resonate in my imagination: " I feel goood.."

Then all at once, we are in the trees. The forest swallows us up, but the spacing of the trees and the angle of the slope allow us to keep skiing strongly. Down here somewhere is Onion Creek and we are drawn down and down, through the rolling terrain like an amusement park, swirling around the big trees in banked turns formed by the melting tree wells.

Without warning, the snow field in front of me disappears and is replaced by a 60 foot vertical drop to the creek below which must cascade over this cliff band running as far left and right as we can see. I edge hard, stamp on the brakes and put my arms up in the air forming a gigantic "X" with my body to alert the skiers following closely behind. I don't want to make a sound, as I know everyone is in their special happy place, but I turn around to make eye contact with each one as they come to the same conclusion as I did and stop just short of the lip. Rats - now we have to put skins on and start the uphill work.

At first, we climb comfortably up through the trees, watching for small woodland creatures, and their telltale tracks. Listening to the chickadees squabble over something we can not see in the canopy above. Tim creates a steep track - wanting to make good time on the up so we can try for more down later. Once clear of the trees however, the slope grows steeper, and the firm snow that made such a good platform for coming down challenges us to stay attached to the mountainside. First one, then all of our skins begin not to hold, as there is only a narrow edge of ski touching the steep snow slope. We opt to take off our skis and boot pack the rest of the way - the rest of the long, long way to the summit above.

Jeff and Tim put on a brave face with skis strapped to our packs - the mountain beckoning us upwards towards the sky and more adventures.

The climbing is steep going, with just a bit of toe hold for each step. We use our poles - held low for balance and belay in case a foothold fails when loaded. Each step we kick into the compressed snow and ice. Not wanting to linger too long on any one tenuous foothold we keep moving upwards from one safety spot to another.

Photo by Jeff Kasten

The climb up is steep and exposed - and even though we followed a ridge to stay clear of rock fall and potential snow slide, the precarious footing and extended steep slopes gave us all some concern. We skirt rock bands and ribs, moving around them so that each pitch of steep snow is "protected" by a rock outcropping just below. Somehow the rocks give us confidence to keep moving upwards. As if the rocks would stop us from sliding all the way to the bottom instead of first lacerating us, breaking bones, and then tossing us over their raged tops for treatment by the snow slope and rock band directly below. We're huffing and puffing, and looking around at the amazing sight of being barely attached to this huge snow slope. We move cautiously keeping three points anchored (ha!) to the snow while moving the fourth to it's next spot just within reach uphill.

Photo by Jeff Kasten and his amazing panorama Olympus camera

Lunch stop perched on a snow ledge 1/2 way up the mountainside.

Shortly after lunch we are back on the summit snow field and making decisions about what to do next. Rather than climb all the way to the top and back inbounds into the ski resort, we opt to traverse across the snow field to the ribbed ridge beyond where we can slip back inbounds in the "West Pal" gully, or even into Cornice Bowl just beyond.

Reaching high on the slope in our climb, we begin a traverse across the middle of the upper snow field so we can cross over to the north side of the ridge and ski back down in bounds of the resort. These exposed rock cliffs are the backside of the Palisades - the front of which is shown in the last picture of this post.

Here, I'm still high on the snow slope, and I'm looking down at Jeff negotiating the ever narrowing bands of snow that lead to the ridge. If you look carefully you'll see the route Tim has selected for us. Just follow the snow between the rocks to Jeff's right (Jeff is the small ant near the center of the picture), facing downhill until you reach the ridge. As you might have noticed, there are a few bushes and trees in our way - that were barely and at times NOT covered with any snow. You can see that on the south side of the ridge, the snow and persistent wind has blown all the snow away, and deposited it into cornice bowl on the Sugarbowl side of the ridge.

We ski over the ridge and survival ski down cornice bowl back in bounds and to the meadows below. This slope has not been treated as well as the others by the elements, and the deep tracks left by other skiers on warmer days present significant challenges to our downhill progress. We all check our fillings at the end of the run, after so much jarring and rattle.

Here are the Palisades as viewed from the North side - our route was down behind these minarets on the ridge. We crossed over to this side, just at what Sugarbowl calls Cornice Bowl - just to the right and out of view from this picture. This photo was taken on my way back up the lift to look for more fun with Tim for our afternoon's amusement.

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