Friday, November 25, 2011

AIARE Level 2 Avalanche Course Feb 17-20, 2012 Leavenworth, WA

Our winter 2011-2012 AIARE Level 2 Avalanche Course will be held February 17-20, 2012 in Leavenworth, WA. The course will be led by Harlan Sheppard, and assisted by IFMGA guides, John Race, and Olivia Race. The classroom sessions will take place at Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort and the field sessions will take place at Stevens Pass ski area and a variety of backcountry locations in the Central Cascades of Washington State.

This is a professional level course and is used to train ski patrollers, mountain guides, and frequent backcountry travelers that want to improve their decision making skills and avalanche knowledge. This course also includes the introductory and prerequisite components for progression to AIARE level 3 programs.

Registration is now open. Full details can be found by calling the Northwest Mountain School at 509-548-5823. Space is reserved on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Why People Don't Start Backcountry Skiing

We have a lot of conversations with people that want to get into Backcountry skiing.  A typical scenario is that we will be at dinner with friends after a great day in the backcountry and the conversation will turn to how great the skiing is at some spot that only the backcountry skiers have heard of.  As often as not people have the impression that backcountry skiing must be extreme in some way.  As the conversation develops we always encourage folks to get out and try it, but there seems to be a pattern of reasons as to why people don't actually make the transition from skiing at the area to skiing in the backcountry.  This got me thinking about what the common obstacles are and wanting to explain how these can easily be overcome.

1. Ability: I think this is the number one reason that our friends do not get into backcountry skiing.  In order to have a good time off-piste you need to be a decent skier.  You do not need to be great, but you do need to be able to get down the hill, in control.  The solution to this is simple: GO SKIING!  It all begins with getting in mileage at the ski area.  Most importantly, go as often as you can in and in the widest variety of conditions possible.  Everything that the backcountry throws at you can be encountered at a ski area.  Don't just go on great powder days and stay off the groomers.  Ski in powder, look for crusts on the edge, learn to "finagle" into tight spots, ski in the rain, ski in the heat, ski in the cold.  The most important thing is that you go skiing as often as possible and that you look for and practice skiing in variable conditions.  You do not need to ski fast, huck cliffs, or be extreme in any way, but you do need to practice all the stuff that you find between the groomed runs.  If you ski often your ability will improve. as will your overall skiing fitness.

2. Gear: I no longer own a alpine setup.  Modern Alpine Touring gear is so good that it is perfectly fine for skiing at the ski area.  Look for a mid-sized ski, but a good AT boot, and buy good AT bindings and use that for all of your skiing.  The ideal ski for me is a straighter ski, generally around 90 mm underfoot.  We are all gravitating to fatter skis so you can go bigger, but generally bigger skis mean more weight, and while they can make trail breaking easier, fatter skis can limit you a bit in pre-existing skin tracks.  The boots are expensive, but will last you for many years and tend to hold their resale value better than regular alpine boots.  Skis with less sidecut (i.e. straighter) are generally harder to turn, but they have the advantage of not turning when you don't want them to.  This is critical in the backcountry as there are times when catching an edge is going to bump you into something.  If you ski your AT skis at the area you will get used to how they perform and this will help you in the backcountry.  Don't hesitate to buy used gear.  Skiers are like road bikers.  They obsess over the latest greatest and often unload last year's gear.  The gear does get better, but not so much better that being on a 3 year old set tup is going to limit you in any way.

3. Avalanches: This is probably the main reason that people don't go into the backcountry.  There is no question that your risk of being in an avalanche goes up radically when you ski outside areas controlled by ski patrol.  Where I think people go wrong is in overestimating the risk that experienced backcountry skiers take when they venture out of bounds.  Most of us are really conservative.  You do need to understand avalanche forecasts, be able to read the weather forecast, and know how to use a beacon, shovel, and probe.  Once you are skiing well in the ski area it is time to take an avalanche course.  A good place to start is with an AIARE Level 1 Course.  As you begin your avalanche education you need to realize and accept the fact that this is an education that never ends.  We read websites, talk with friends, attend lectures and courses, and constantly add to our knowledge.  Once you get over the hurdle of realizing that avalanches do not just mysteriously come out of the mountains and envelop skiers you can start to learn to recognize the terrain that produces avalanches, get a feel for when the hazard is rising  or falling, and learn to avoid dangerous situations.  If you can ski well, there is always a group of more experienced people that are willing to show you the ropes, but the price of admission is being confident with your beacon, shovel, and probe, skills that are easily attained.  A good rule of thumb is to ski the area anytime it is dumping, or the avalanche forecast makes you nervous.

4. Skiing with a pack: Ever wonder why people ski at the ski area with a pack?  I do.  I suspect for many it is the equivalent of having a carabiner on your book bag.  It sends the message that "hey, I am rad."  Turns out this is ridiculous.  The main reason I encourage people looking to get into the backcountry to ski with a pack is that you will need to do this in the backcountry as your pack is where you carry your food, water, extra clothes, shovel, probe, skins, and either glasses or googles.  Skiing with a pack is easy, but it does require you to find a new center of gravity.  This will sort itself out if you are in the habit of skiing with a pack.  Start wearing your pack at the resort simply so that you are used to skiing with it when you hit variable conditions in the backcountry.

5. Fitness: You need to be fit to ski in the backcountry.  You do not need to be super fit, but the more fit you are the more terrain you can see in a day.  The best way to develop this fitness is to skin uphill.  It can be on a closed road, on the edge of the ski area (check with your resort about their rules), or in backcountry terrain that has limited exposure to avalanches.  We have friends in Park City, UT that take a lap to the top of Deer Valley with us whenever we come to town.  We simply drive up in the dark, put skins to skis, add a headlamp and ski uphill for a few thousand feet.  Running, biking, skate skiing, and rowing will also build your fitness.  If you are fit and can ski well people will be happy to have you along on a backcountry tour.

6. Commitment: I think this is the most important step.  Commit to becoming a backcountry skier, follow the 5 steps above, and you will do it.  Think about it.  To get into backcountry skier I need to ski a lot, own backcountry ski gear, get in shape and educate myself.  These things are not obstacles, they are opportunities to feel better and have an interesting winter.  The backcountry ski community is one of the friendliest, most open group of folks you can throw in with.  If people see that you are committed to sampling the beauty of untracked, snow covered mountains in the winter that will be enough to welcome you to their tribe.  Without sounding too soap boxey, the backcountry does offer a better way of living.  Over time I found that I loved all the great untracked powder I get to ski, but what almost seems more important is the time I get to spend chugging uphill, going to the top of obscure, unknown spots, and hanging out with great people.  For me it is not about being rad, it is about being outdoors in a beautiful spot with some of my best friends.

If you need a priority list it would look something like this:

1. Buy AT ski gear.
2. Buy a ski pass to your local ski area.
3. Get in shape!
4. Ski as much as possible in as many conditions as possible.
5. Take an avalanche course.
6. Look for friends that already tour and join them once you feel solid on your skis.
7. Gain experience in the backcountry with people that are solid in their skill set.
8. Consider a backcountry ski course.
9. Go on tours that have a reputation for being relatively straight forward and check with your experienced friends before you head out.  This often means repeating tours you are familiar with.
10. Start to plan your own tours when you begin to feel comfortable with your ability to recognize the hazards and have your game dialed when touring with others.

Being a guide I must plug our new Backcountry Ski Fundamentals Course.  It is designed to mop up all the stuff that we do not cover in any depth on an AIARE L1 Course.  You do not need a course like this to get into backcountry skiing, but it is very valuable to get out with someone solid in their skill set and gain an understanding of things like skinning, kick turns, making transitions between uphill and downhill skiing, and get a sense of how to move through the terrain.  At first it will all seem like a mystery and a puzzle, but if you are committed to getting into the mountains it will eventually all come together. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Haute Route Ski ~ March 27-April 2, 2011 ~ Trip Report

I kicked off my spring ski 2011 season with a Haute Route Ski Tour with Blaine Miller, Vince Close, Mike Newby, and Tom Savelle,  four friends that all rep G3 for Pinnacle Sales NW.  We met in Chamonix, France during a period of warm temps and good weather.  The alps had a low snow year, so we were curious to see how much snow there was on the upper glaciers.  I have run this trip during several very low snow years and always remind myself that it is called the Haute Route for a reason, and being up high and on glaciers generally means that even in low snow years the tour goes well.

When in Chamonix I put my customers in a nice hotel in town, and then spend my nights at a great little Gite called La Tapia (La Tapia's Website) that is just outside of town.  This is the view of Mont Blanc early on the second morning from the Gite.

Chamonix sits at 3379' (1030m), so we opted to head up to the top of the Aiguille du Midi 12,605' (3842m) to see what the snow conditions were like and to ski the famous Vallee Blanche, a 17 km descent that drops you to the Chemin de fer du Montenvers at 6,276' (1,913m) for a total descent of 6,346' (1,929m).  This can be extended another 1000 meters in years when you can ski all the way to Chamonix, but those years are few and far between these days.

We took both stages of the Aiguille du Midi tram up to the top station and then roped up in the hallway for the descent down the arete to reach the start of the Vallee Blanche.  For many folks this is an introduction to skiing in Europe with a guide and the whole experience can be a bit intimidating the first time.  These guys are all good skiers, and experienced in the mountains, so things went well, but there is always a bit of "pucker factor" until you realize how reasonable the exit ridge is.  We roped up, carried our skis with skis and poles strapped together, and wore crampons.

One down on the glacier, we hopped into our skins and started the ski down the glacier.  We took a very conservative line down the most conservative line as the snow cover on the glacier did in fact seem thin and we wanted to get a feel for the conditions.

Here is a view back up at the arete coming down to the glacier from the Aiguille du Midi.  It is equipped with thick woven ropes attached to steel posts driven down into the glacier and is actually quite secure. Of interest, there were ski tracks headed down into the grey ice on the lower right when I returned the next week for another trip.  On the tram ride up, we could ski that at least two skiers had picked their way down the North side of the Midi all the way to the base, a daunting line to contemplate.

We actually ended up skiing down the Glacier du Geant on this trip and then we stopped at the Refuge du Requin 8,278' (2516m) just above the Seracs du Geant as the generally simple run through the seracs looked a bit wild and we wanted to scope the line behind the hut that avoids the seracs section.  The alternate line was quite boney looking and thus we opted to pick our way through the seracs.  We did not need to rope up, but it was as broken as I have ever seen it, and by my last trip 4 weeks later the area had become nearly impossible to ski through.

No ski of the Vallee Blanche is complete without a picnic on the way down, so we stopped just below the Seracs du Geant and indulged in cheese, local sausage, chocolate, and tabouli for lunch. At this point I should apologize for the huge gap in my photos as the next shot is taken the following day when we actually started the Haute Route.

After a night in Chamonix we went through the drill of getting up early, packing our bags to be shipped to Zermatt, taking the bus to Argentiere, riding the tram to the top of Grand Montets 10,840' (3295m) and then descending to the Col du Grand Montets where we put on our skis and skied the the Glacier des Rognon down to the Glacier d'Argentiere.  Ultimately we were headed to the Col du Chardonnet 10,932' (3323m) at the top of the Glacier du Chardonnet. 

The lowers went well on the backside of the Col Du Chardonnet.  We carried a 30 meter and a 50 meter rope, tied the two together, and had more than enough rope.  In most years I find that 70 meters of rope will just do the trick as a better set of anchors have been placed near the top of the lower, shortening the distance needed to get to the bottom.  There is a bergschrund at the bottom of this slope that you need to take care not to fall into.

We then skied down and across the Glacier de Saleina before climbing up to the Fenetre de Saleina 10,748' (3267m), which would provide access to the Trient Plateau and eventually the Trient Hut, where we would spend out first night on the tour.  I have climbed the slope up to the Fenetre de Saleina every imaginable way from on skins, to roped up with crampons and ice axe.  On this tripe we landed somewhere in between and were able to boot up without crampons, something that can change from day to day.

Of interest, the weather was starting to cloud up as the day progressed, and we were happy that we had made it this far in good visibility.  This first day can end up being a bit of a photo finish as you can't get an early start from Chamonix because you are reliant on the trams to get you up high in the morning and they don't start before 8 am and even then don't always run on time.  We did well this time and made it to the hut with time for quick apertif before dinner.

Coming across the Trient Plateau we had decreasing visibility leading to the Cabane du Trient 10,429' (3170m).  In the process of coming across the glacier we dropped slightly lower than we needed to, but quickly corrected ourselves and were tucked into the hut having a beer. 

In the huts the often pair you with other skiers and on this night we shared a table with a nice couple who were also doing the Haute Route.  At this point spirits were high and I think people we relieved to finally be actually out skiing and away from city life.

The next morning we woke to absolutely splitter weather.  No wind, no clouds, just the beautiful Trient Plateau spread before us.  Of interest, a few of those peaks in the background are peaks that we use to acclimate for Mt. Blanc during summer tours where we climb Mt. Blanc.  The Trient Hut has become one of my favorite as a young couple named Melanie Chollet and Olivier Genet have taken over the operation and are doing a great job.  Over the course of 2011 I spent something like 7 nights there, so we have had a good opportunity to get acquainted.

Once you leave the hut you ski down glacier and eventually get to a break over at around 3000 meters.  You can go over to the Fenetre du Chamois by traversing to the NE over steep terrain to the gap in the ridge at which point you need to negotiate a long couloir by either rappelling or down climbing.  Fortunately you still have all that rope from the previous days trip over the Col du Chardonet.  The other option and the one we usually use is to ski down glacier a bit more and then traverse to the skiers right to the foot of the Col des Ecandies (2796m/9,173'), and then climb up about 50 meters to the actual col itself.  We have done this with and without crampons, with and without ropes, and with and without ice axes.  I haver, however, often needed all three, so it is nice to have them along.

Here we are skiing down the Trient Icefall, a bit below 3000 meters enroute to the Col des Ecandies.  It was reasonable on this day, but became a bit more "dodgy" as April wore on.

Here you can see where people traverse over at part way down the Trient Icefall.  This photo is taken from the Col des Ecandies and that is the Aiguille du Tour (3544 m/11,627') in the background.

Here are all Tom, Mike, Blaine, and Vince climbing up to the Col des Ecandies.

The boys looking good at the Col enroute to our ski down the Val d'Arpette, which we have affectionately nicknamed the Val de Crapette as even on the best days you usually manage to find some really bad snow conditions given the vertical loss as you move down the valley.  You generally need to get through this place early in the day as it can be a bit dicey to be up there after too much sun has hit the area, particularly if there is new snow.

On this day we actually had some good snow in the top half of the Val d'Arpette and as we skied all the way from the Col at 2796m/9,173' to the base of the Breya chair lift at 1498m/4,914, yielding a 1,672m/5,486' descent all in the space of about an hour and a half.

Tom Savelle tearing it up in the Val d'Arpette.

Blaine Miller also tearing it up in the Val d' Arpette.

So we get to the bottom, have time to grab some amazing tarts and a cup of coffee, and hop onto the bus to Orsieres (this usually comes at 10:25 am).  We then take the train to Sembrancher where we are looking at a 40 minute wait until we can catch one last train to Le Chable, which will get us up to Verbier.  As we are going to be sitting we all take off our boots and are laying in the sun, essentially killing time until the train comes.

As we sit there, this brand new train pulls up and a bunch of executives wearing orange jackets, suits, and hard hats get out and ask us if we are going to Le Chable.  We say "yes" and they invite us aboard their "special train" and we load up.  The train was on its maiden voyage, there where no passengers, and at one point one of the guys gave us a bottle of wine and a wine glass commemorating the day.  We drank the wine that night but I believe Blaine carried that wine glass all the way to Zermatt without breaking it.

From Le Chable we took trams up to the Mont Fort Hut (2457m/8,061') in Verbier and had a nice lunch.

The Mont Fort Hut always serves spaghetti and it is always my favorite meal of the trip.  During the day it is a restaurant for the ski area, and by night the staff seems to just want to get dinner out as they work huge days.  Every time they apologize for "spaghetti again" and every time I find myself going back for 3rds.  Super good food here.

The next morning we woke up early and climbed to the Col de la Chaux (2,940m/9,646') in really poor visibility.  The avy forecast was not looking promising, but what we actually found was decent stability. We did hesitate at the Col and think for a few minutes before we committed to dropping in and going the whole way to the Prafleuri Hut.  The photo above is well below the col as folks ski into the changeover to skinning up towards the Col du Momin.

So we make it up to the Col du Momin (3003m/9,853') and then start across the Grand Desert Glacier in what remains in and out visibility.

Here we are dropping under the toe of a ridge that runs up to the summit of Rosablanche (3336m/10,945').  Note the good snow!  We worked our way up to the top of the Rosablanche and skied from there.  It was super cloudy on top on this particular day.

Decent skiing in improving visibility on the way down to the Praflueri Hut, which is one of my favorites.

The Prafleuri Hut sits at 2,662m/8,734') and is privately run, meaning it is not part of the Swiss Alpine Club.  Babette is the hut warden and she always takes great care of us.  The hut you stay in now was built in 2001 and sits next the old hut, which is a bit rough as it was used to house workers years ago when they built the big dam on the Lac du Dix.

Afternoon tea and eventually rosti are standard fare at the Praflueri Hut.  In the evening we were serenaded by two employees of the hut playing a saxaphone and a guitar.  They played "knocking on heaven's door" and the whole experience was oddly touching as the sound of the sax filled ever square inch of the hut with beautiful sounds.

As these guys are all from Pinnacle Sales, we made a good showing for G3 outside the hut.  We had more than a few comments on our impressive quiver of G3 skis and bindings.

Up early the next morning we climbed up to the Col des Roux (2804m/9200') enroute to the ski along the Lac du Dix.

The group at the Col des Roux between the Praflueri and Dix Huts on Day 4 of the Haute Route.

The snow held up and we were able to slowly traverse and lose elevation, skiing all the way to the end of the lake with a few short legs of shuffling.  In the background the highest peak in Mont Blanc du Cheilon (3869m/12,696') with the Pigne d'Arolla (3796m/12,455') on the left.  The glacier between would be our objective the next day.

Oddly, this year, the best option at the end of the Lac du Dix seemed to be to take off our skis and boot directly up to the ridge at the end.  This area was problematic for the remainder of the ski season as the snow got so shallow that we started to have slab issues.  Either way, this day went very well.

Looking back along the Lac du Dix to where we came from earlier in the day.

A rest break with the Pigne d'Arolla and Mont Blanc de Cheilon in the back ground.  At this point we have not yet reached the glacier, but we are getting close.  We will work our way up and around the Tete Noir to the Dix Hut at 2928m/9,606').

Climbing towards the Dix Hut with Mont Blanc de Cheilon in the background.

Once at the Dix Hut we opted to have a huge lunch of Rosti and Panache (lager beer mixed with Sprite).  At this point in the Haute Route, people that have been hanging back on spending money on lunch start to cave in and you find yourself wanting to a eat a lot at every meal.  The Dix Hut as really good Rosti.  The hut wardens are Pierre & Beatrice.  Both are very good people, but I always warn my group to be good to Pierre lest you end up on his grumpy side.  They have always treated us very well.

Rosti for 4.  Perhaps the best food in the alps and guaranteed to give you a heart attack if you eat it too often.

Up early again, this day, day 5 of the actual Haute Route, we skied up the Glacier de Tsena Refien towards Mont Blanc de Cheilon enroute to the summit of the Pigne d'Arolla.

The boys taking a break where you finally get into the sun about 2 hours climbing from the Dix Hut.

Great views of the Matterhorn from here.  Keeping in mind that we need to go past that to get to Zermatt about 28 hours from now....

On the way to the summit of the Pigne d'Arolla, seen on the left, you need to climb this steep section of glacier.  It usually works out just fine, but we have had to put crampons on here and rope up from time to time.  This year, all three of our Haute Route groups managed to do this with ski crampons and no rope, but it all just depends on how the glacier forms up in any given year and what the surface snow conditions are like.

Here is the group climbing out of the steep section, with the town of Arolla sitting in the valley behind them.

Mike Newby, Tom Savelle, Vince Close, & Blaine Miller on the summit of the Pigne d'Arolla on day 5 of the ski from Argentiere to Zermatt.

The ski off the East side of the Pigne d'Arolla is one of the high points of the Haute Route and a very memorable view. Amazing, amazing place.

Dropping into the small icefall type feature just above the Vignettes Hut.

Look closely and you can see the hut on the left.  The Vignettes Hut sits at 3,190m/10,466' and is impossibly perched above the glacier.  It was remodeled a few years ago and now is one of the most comfortable huts on the Haute Route.

The next morning we were up super early and had great weather for the very long ski to Zermatt.  Here we are looking to the east from the Col de L'Eveque (3392m/11,129').

Now we have dropped down to the Haut Glacier d'Arolla and are starting the traverse over to climb up to the col du Mont Brule (3210m/10,532').

The climb up to the col du Mont Brule is best done as a boot pack, primarily because of the number of people that go over it, which usually turns the ski track into a mess.

Topping out on the Col du Mont Brule enroute to Zermatt.

This is the last climb of the Haute Route.  It takes a good 1.5-2 hours to climb up to the Col de Valpelline (3560m/11,680') which is just right of center in this photo.

Mike, Tom, Vince, and Blaine at the Col de Valpelline with the Matterhorn in the background.  This is basically the "summit shot"of the Haute Route as once you reach here in good weather, it is all downhill (albeit a long downhill!) to Zermatt and the finish line.  Reach this spot in bad weather and you likely have a long day ahead of you.

We had a magnificent ski down the glacier with the Matterhorn in the background.  My photos do not do this ski run justice in this particular report.  We were so focused on skiing that I did not shoot the whole thing.  Either way, this is one of those skis of lifetime.

We made it to Zermatt in great time and landed at "Take it Doner" which we could not resist given the smell of Kebabs, the fact that it is one of the first food stands you hit and Zermatt and the name is of course interesting.

Many thanks to Blaine Miller for putting this trip together.  It was nice to ski with a group of guys that all know each other, like each other, and work well together.

We ran 3 Haute Route Ski Tours in 2011, all reaching Zermatt successfully.  In 2012 we have three more booked so far, with room for others.  Right now the trips we have lined up include:

  • March 26-April 1, 2012: Haute Route - Verbier Version
  • April 2-8, 2012: Haute Route - Classic Version
  • April 16-22, 2012: Haute Route - Verbier Version

For more details visit: 2012 Haute Route Ski Tours