Category Archives: Skiing

40 on 40 – 40,000′ on my 40th

I had 3 goals for this ski season

  1. Climb over 3K in an hour
  2. Ski a combined ascend and descent of 40K in the backcountry on my 40th BD
  3. Get in some volcano skiing in the spring
I was able to accomplish the first goal pretty quickly in the year at both the Jackson and Targhee races (Jackson was 6,400′ in 2 hours and Targhee I did the first 3,400 in 1 hour). The third goal I am still hoping to do this spring. For the second goal, my birthday was yesterday. As I was thinking of doing this, I knew it wasn’t necessarily a good idea as I would mostly likely be exhausted going into the hardest week of the year (Powder Keg week). But, I would only turn 40 once so a big birthday deserves a big goal.
The weeks prior to this, I talked to several people about where they thought a good spot to go would be. Most people were in agreement that Argenta off of Kessler Peak was the best option as it was a 3,000′ climb right from the road so it maximized climbing and reduced distance. I sent out an email to ski partners and skimo friends inviting any and all who were interested to make a lap or 2 with me. What I cared most about was having someone in the morning on the first lap in the dark and on my last lap (assuming I would be exhausted). With no surprise, Andy Paradis was totally on board to get up well before the crack of dawn and do some morning skiing. Others were planning to come up at various times during the day. The forecast for the day was not looking very promising. Warm and snowy which meant wet.
Andy and I met at 4AM and were skinning by 4:30AM. I took a large pack full of food, water, and spare cloths that we left about 900′ up the skin track and I carried a race pack the rest of the day with just a shovel, probe, ultra light shell, 1 water bottle, and a couple hundred calories. The snow started at 5AM and would continue all day. We were at the top of Argenta at 6AM and were treated to a fun descent in the dark. We stopped when the slope got brushy as it wasn’t worth hooking a ski on a tree in the dark. It was great to have company on the first climb and it definitely made me feel safer not skiing the first run alone in the dark. As we started the second lap, I settled into my own pace that I hoped to keep all day. Andy and I would pass each other at various times as he did another 2 laps. He was also able to get a couple photos
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Lap 3
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Lap 3
I was able to continue to climb a steady 2,000’/hour with the descents taking around 15 minutes. Both the skinning and skiing were challenging. The skin track was steep so I had to re-break several sections to accommodate my race gear with limited risers. The descents were variable snow with lots of brush to navigate. With the stormy weather, I was also wet for most of the day. The wind was also blowing hard enough that I was concerned about wind loading up high so instead of skiing various lines, I ended up skiing the same line each run so that I could sluff the new snow off the slope, then be back there in 75 minutes before too much more snow accumulated.
I had a pretty good rhythm of climbing, skiing down, then climbing ~400′ to my pack, grabbing food and continuing on. From 8,000′ to 11,000′ I was suffering quite a bit and was really starting to question if I wanted to continue. Emily showed up shortly after that and even though we didn’t ski together, it was nice to see someone. On the next descent I ran into Tom Goth and was able to take a short break to chat. The lap after that Eric and Jackie came up for a lap so by now I was feeling better seeing people at various stages of each climb and descent. By 10,000′ my feet were pretty sore from my Scarpa Alien 1.0’s. I knew Brent and Emily S were coming up for a lap so I had them bring my Dynafit boots from the truck. At 16,000′ with 2 laps left, I changed into dry boots and socks which was a savior. I climbed my second to last lap in my normal 2,000’/hour pace, then met Emily B, Emily S, and Brent and we did my last lap together which was a great way to end the day. With 200′ to go to the ridge, I had to take advantage of finishing hard and put in 1 last hard effort to finish fast and strong to the ridge before skiing back to the pack, packing everything up and heading to the car for a much anticipated beer.
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20K of climbing completed!!!!
It was great to accomplish my 40K goal. I was happy with how good my body felt, the pace I was able to climb all day, and the support from the friends who came out to provide some motivational support (as well as some snacks and gear changes).
My Suunto Ambit log
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Gear:
  • CW-X Revolution Tights
  • Icebreaker socks
  • I/O Merino light weight top
  • Crazy Idea skin suit
  • BD Gloves
  • CAMP gloves
  • Buff
  • Patagonia Helium Jacket (Cut to fit over a pack)
  • BD Tracer Helmet
  • Smith Pivlock Glasses
  • CAMP Rapid 260 Pack
  • Salomon Nordic Poles
  • Ski Trab TR Race Bindings
  • Hagan X-Race skis
  • Scarpa Alien 1.0 boots
  • Dynafit TLT Performance boots
  • Pieps DSP Beacon
  • Voile XLM Shovel
  • Voile XLM Probe
  • Lots of music on my iPod

Food

  • 2 bottles Herbalife Prolong with Hammer Sustained Energy
  • 2 bottles Roctaine powder with  Hammer Sustained Energy
  • 2 Red Bulls
  • 6 oz Hammer Gel
  • 4 oz First Endurance EFS Gel
  • 2 Clif Bars
  • 1 muffin
  • ½ loaf pumpkin chocolate chip bread
  • 3 slices potato/egg bake
  • 1 Aussie Crunch Bar

La Grave!

After an amazing World Ski Mountaineering Championship week, Luke, Scott, Micah, Kim, McKenna, and I loaded into one of the team vans and headed to La Grave for 3 days of skiing. We didn’t have much for plans other than get in some free skiing on the slopes and some touring of the neighboring valleys.

We arrived in La Grave around 10AM and had an explosion of gear on the sidewalk to get our ski gear organized.

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Gear Explosion in La Grave

We had a great first day of skiing the steep and fun runs at La Grave. To make it even better, the weather was fantastic.

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The Poma lift at the top of La Grave

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View from the 3200M restuarant

Sunday we had an awesome tour where Scott and I attempted to summit Goleon. We were 30 horizontal feet from the top when we were turned around due to huge exposure and not wanting to take the risk. We still had great skiing from very close to the top and ended up with an amazing 9,300′ touring day.  Here is a gallery of our tour.

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Monday was back to the resort before heading to Turin to fly out on Tuesday morning.

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Panorama looking south from the top of La Grave

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Panorama looking north from the top of La Grave

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Chad at the top of La Grave

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Looking up the valley we toured up on Sunday

World Skimo Championships Coaching

All I can say is WOW, what a crazy busy last few weeks. Things got busy the last week of January with a Tuesday to Friday trip to St Louis. I got home late Friday night and left first thing Monday morning for another work trip to Dallas. I got home from Dallas around 5pm on Wednesday and was off to Europe at 7:30 Thursday morning. All in all, from January 29th to February 19, I will be (or maybe at this point it ‘I was’) home for 73 hours. Add to all this trying to get the Powder Keg plans finalized and running into some permit issues as well as all of the US National Team Logistics, having 2 skimo races the week I get home (Feb 19 and 23) and by the time the Powder Keg is over on March 10, I may sleep for 3 days straight.

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Way too much gear, luckily ½ of it stays in Europe.

Europe started out rocky. Tom, Dom, and I were sitting in the Delta lounge when Tom and I both got a mutual call from Delta informing us our flight from SLC to ORD was 2 hours delayed. This would mean we would miss our ORD to CDG connection. The Delta agent in the lounge informed us there was a flight leaving to ORD in 5 minutes at the other end of the airport. We took off sprinting, but didn’t make the flight. We were rebooked on a flight that left in 20 minutes to Seattle with only a 30 minute layover until we connected to CDG. We made both flights with no time to spare. Waiting to push from the gate in Seattle, we checked out baggage and saw it had gone to Detroit with plans of going to CDG on an Air France flight. Too many hours of flying later, we were in Turin with no bags. Delta couldn’t track the bags after handing them off to Air France, and Air France in Turin didn’t seem to have the ability to track them. We spent over an hour taking care of our bags. Max Taam came in with his bags, then Greg Ruckman came in but also didn’t have his bags. Finally after getting to the TRN airport at 11:30, we were able to leave at 5:30 with 5 of us, but 2 racers had no gear and I had no gear.

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Amazing airplane views

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Team dinner on day 1

Saturday was packed with racer checking (which was a total cluster), spending hours on thephone with Air France tracking our bags, and opening ceremonies. The day ended up being 16 hours of work without a break. By the time I went to bed at Midnight I had gotten 8 hours of sleep in 3 days and I was exhausted. The good news of Saturday was that Tom, Dom, and my gear arrived. Greg still had not gear and had to race on Sunday.

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Parade of Nations at Opening Ceremonies

I woke up early on Sunday to get more preparation work done for the team. Sunday would be the first day of racing with the Team Race and all but 2 of the Matt, Micah, Meredith, and Nina were racing so the US had 6 teams of 2 that would compete on a challenging course. For details of the race and some photos check out the daily blogs I have been posting on the USSMA website. The hight light was the GREAT finish by Janelle and Stevie getting 6th place and John and Max getting 10th place. All of the US Teams did great, but these were the highest finish of any Americans in the Team Race,

Since not everyone’s gear had yet arrived, I loaned my race gear to Greg and I was on borrowed gear a size smaller. I was hoping to get some skiing in after the race on Sunday, but duty called and Meredith, Micah, and I worked on transitions for their sprint race on Monday during the free time. By the time we were done with this, it was time for me to skate and skin the 2.5km to Vallouise (we are staying in Pelvoux) to get our racers registered for the following day’s events. This is followed by the awards and then coaches meetings. Here is a great video of Sunday’s Team Race.

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Meredith and I at the top of the Team Race Course – It was FREEZING!

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Even if I am not face enough to race here, my skis and boots are (Greg R after a hard team race)

A storm moved in on Sunday night and we awoke Monday morning to 6-8″ of snow in Pelvoux and it was still snowing hard. Overall the storm dumped 12-16″ of snow. I spent the morning (10-1:30) helping the team at the sprint and cheering on all the racers. At that point, I had to get some personal time and put on my Scarpa Spirits and Voile Chargers to rip some pow. I figured I had 1.5 hours to ski, but it ended up being 2.5 hours as the snow was just too good. I enjoyed my runs, then skated and skinned to Vallouise for my coaches duties. There are some great writeup sof the sprint race on Andy Dorais site and the USSMA site. The highlight of the day was Nina Silitch winning a silver medal and getting the first ever US podium in a World Champship Skimo race. Nina trains very hard for the sprint races and lives in Chamonix so she is able to race this format frequently. We definitely need more sprint format races in the US.

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The small room that Greg, Scott, and I are sharing. With now having 3 days of wet gear, it is starting to smell really good.

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Skiing from the door of the hotel down the village street to Monday’s race

Tomorrow is the Junior Individual race. The US only has 1 junior so Micah will be the sole competitor. We will all be there to cheer him on, then hopefully have some time to check out the Senior Individual Race for Wednesday. This is the marquee event for most racers.

The strong showing and finishes of the US this year has been great and it has not gone un-noticed. I met Killian Jornet today and he comment about our strong team and numerous ISMF officials and coaches of other teams have also made note. It is a great sign of the progress we have made in the US with our skimo program.

Typical day

  • 6:30-8(ish): breakfast, email, prepare for the day
  • 8-1: races, on the course helping the team
  • 1-2: lunch
  • 2-4: if things go well free time, if not dealing with any issues, helping racers, etc.
  • 4-5: skate/skin to Pelvoux and register racers for the next day
  • 5-6: social media
  • 6-6:30: awards
  • 6:30-8: coaches briefing
  • 8-10: dinner and team briefing
  • 10-12: post blog, visit, etc

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World Skimo Championships Here We Come

In the US, ski mountaineering racing is a little known, but quickly growing sport. I first got involved in the sport in 2003 the first winter I lived in Utah and the first Wasatch Powder Keg was held. In 2004 and 2005, the Powder Keg was a World Cup race (the only 2 times a World Cup has been held in North America). Watching the Euros compete at the World Cup race was an amazing experience. Their speed and skills far exceeded any of the skills found in the US. I dabbled with some other races over the years including the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse (which at the time was actually a nordic race). In 2008, then the organizers of the Powder Keg decided they had enough, Emily, Mark Christopherson, Gambrelli Layco, and I took over the race. We quickly learned as much as we could about being race directors and were able to put on a very successful race our first year. Since that first year, Mark and Gambrelli have retired, we have done the work on our own, and now we have the help of Nick Francis. During this time, we have continued to grow the race at 10-15% and get more and more involved in the sport as proponents and racers. I has been exciting to see the number of races growing as fast as the number of competitors. The Wasatch now has the Powder Keg and the Wasatch Citizen Series and there is the Crowbar in Logan. With the Powder Keg being a 3 day race this year, there are now 14 races in Utah. What a change from only 1 race 2 years ago.

In 2012, I decided it was time to start getting serious about my own racing and purchased light gear (but not super light). After a few races during the 2011-2012 season I was hooked and by the end of the year had a true race setup (Hagan X-Race skis, Dynafit TLT Performance boots). It was also during the season that I started working with Pete Swenson of the US Ski Mountaineering Associated (USSMA) to put together plans to continue to grow the sport. Over the summer and fall of 2012 we were able to come up with 3 year growth plans and get others involved to help. Pete, Bryan Wickenhauser, and myself also attended an ISMF Referee Course. There have been other US Referees, but today we are the only 3 in the US with up to date certifications.

To take my own racing to the next step, this year I moved to the next level of boots (Scarpa Alien 1.0) which are completely revolutionary. When the National Championship Race came up, I was 900g/foot light and this led me to having 2 great days of racing and feeling great about my performance (I finished 16th at Nationals and 15th the following day). I can’t wait to get onto the new Voile Wasatch Speed Project skis. A prototype was shown at Outdoor Retailer 2 weeks ago and I should have a pair to test in the next 2 weeks!

The World Skimo Championships are held every 2 years. This year they are being help in Pelvoux, France. For the US, the first 3 races of 2013 were our team qualification races. The top 3 men and women from the National Championship Race in Jackson, top 2 men and women from the Grand Targhee Classic, and the top 3 men and women from the Heathen Challenge in Sunlight would make up the 8 person mens and women’s team. With qualifying races completed, I was happy to only be 3 or 4 slots back. Since Bryan Wickenhauser and Jason Dorais were unable to go to Worlds Greg Ruckman and Andy Dorais would earn their spots. You can see from the team list at the bottom of this posting that we have a lot of work to do in promoting our sport to women and kids so that we can start filling a full team.

The US Skimo team also needed a coach. In the past Pete Swenson has gone as coach, but with a busy work schedule and new baby, his schedule didn’t leave for time. This opened up an opportunity and thanks to the Wasatch racers (Luke included), my name was brought up as the a good selection based on my own racing, the success of the Powder Keg, and my involvement int he USSMA. I was thrilled and honored by the opportunity. When you aren’t fast enough to qualify yourself, you need to be creative to find ways to join the team. The World Championships is a 7 day event with 6 distinct events: Individual Race, Team Race, Relay Race, Sprint Race, and Vertical Race. To get to be involved in this week long racing event is exciting.

With a full day job, the Powder Keg, and working with the team on planning and logistics for the World Championships, it has been a crazy buy last 3 weeks. As I write this, I am on a flight home from Dallas from a 3-day work trip and will be home for 15 hours before going back to the airport and heading to Europe. I can’t thank Emily enough for her supporting me doing this. I also owe a huge thanks to Emily, Nick Francis, and Eric Bunce as they are all picking up some of my Powder Keg responsibilities when I am gone. I can’t repay the enough.

Here are some links you can use to get more details. I plan to be blogging each day on the USSMA site and will be trying to tweet during the race using @USSMA_SkiMo, @thebrackpack, @PowKeg


RACE WEEK SCHEDULE
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Men’s National Team

  1. John Gaston (US National Champion)
  2. Tom Goth
  3. Marshall Thomson
  4. Max Taam
  5. Luke Nelson
  6. Scott Simmons
  7. Greg Ruckman
  8. Andy Dorais

Women’s National Team

  1. Janelle Smiley (US National Champion)
  2. Nina Silitch
  3. Stevie Kremer
  4. McKenna Douglas
  5. Kim Young
  6. Meredith Edwards

Espoir Team

  1. Matt Burgunder

Junior Team

  1. Micah Thatcher

Tentative Race List
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Mother Nature’s Wrath

Dragon’s live under the hills. Address them properly and they’ll tell you all they know. Ask them the wrong questions and they’ll burn you up. — Fredric Lehman

We are imperfect beings. No matter what you know or how you operate 95% of your life, you’re not a perfect person. Sometimes those imperfections have big consequences. – Mary Yates

I wanted to start this post with a great quote that hasn’t previously been used for a write-up about an avalanche. Not being able to come up with anything great, I referred to Bruce Tremper’s Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain as I know Bruce has a world of quotes he uses when talking about snow and avalanches. So, thanks to Bruce for the 2 quotes above.

This may be one of the most difficult blogs I have ever written even though it is on one of my favorite topics to talk about — snow and avalanches. It is difficult to write about an accident our group had on January 12 and to try to shed some light on why this happened and identify the mistakes we made.

To get the good news out first, our avalanche accident did not result in any injuries so we are extremely lucky. Family and friends who already think the backcountry is dangerous, please do not read on.

The entire details of the weather leading up to our accident and the analysis performed by Drew Hardesty when Andy, Emily, and I went back to the avalanche location with him the following day can be found on the UAC avalanche page.

On Friday night, we had a party of 6 (Chad, Emily, Evan, Andy, Nick, and Gemma) who had planned a touring day on Saturday. The Wasatch had experienced an odd storm that brought more snow to the mid elevations than higher up. We thought Porter Fork would be a great location as it should have received significant snowfall and had some safe areas to ski. On Saturday morning, we visited with several friends at the park and ride. Three of them had skied Porter Fork the prior morning and said the snow was too deep on the less steep aspects to turn and we all knew the steeper aspects were not safe. We had a quick discussion and decided that Alexander Basin would be a great location to ski. This would be a little bit higher up than Porter Fork and therefore should have a little bit less snow making the lower angle terrain enjoyable to ski and there were lots of options in that area.

We drove up Mill Creek on the unplowed roads and reached the Bowman Fork Trailhead. We donned skis and skins and started to break trail. After about 90 minutes we stopped for a quick snack and 2 groups of about 12 skiers passed us. This was a huge surprise to us as this area usually would not see that many skiers due to the long approach. After about 30 minutes the 2 groups split and we followed a group of 4 up to Yellow Jacket. We had a few short discussions with them about where they were skiing so that we could go to different places to avoid feeling ‘crowded’. They were going to ski something in the vicinity of Toots to Boot and over to Wilson Glade. We didn’t have an exact plan, but thought we would ski a run in Yellow Jacket, and determine our day by the safety of the snow pack. The ~3,600’ climb up to the ridge between Yellow Jacket and Alexander Basin took us only about 2.5 hours which we felt was good time based on the deep trail breaking. At the top of Alexander Basin, we had low light and poor visibility due to the snow still falling. We looked into Alexander Basin commenting on that being a nice line to ski a second run if the snow felt good on our first run. Due to limited visibility and not being as familiar with this area as other areas of the Wasatch, we didn’t realize that we were at the top of Depth Hoar Bowl which had slid the day before. We made a run into Yellow Jacket all commenting at the bottom how the low angle slope was not steep enough to make turns in due to the deep snow.

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Evan skiing powder on our first run in Yellow Jacket  

When we reached the ridge the second time, our group had a thorough discussion about if we should ski the line below us into Alexander Basin or not. We all agreed that we would not ski higher up the ridge as it was steeper and too risky. We talked about the potential to ski 1 line a few feet further up the ridge, but also discounted this. In my opinion, this is where we made our mistake, we didn’t know that this was Depth Hoar Bowl and that it was the location of the Friday slide. We all discussed that this was at the steeper end of our comfort level based on the avalanche forecast that day, but we felt this could be safely skied by slope cutting, moving into a couple groups of trees, then skiing into a safe zone at the bottom. We had some discussion and all agreed that if we were alone, we would never consider skiing this line, but in a group we felt more safe as we had the ability to watch each other and in the worst case scenario, help out.

Andy skied first. He dropped in, did a hand pit, was surprised to find only 6” of snow on the surface, then continued on cautiously. Once past the last group of trees he realized he was skiing bed surface from a previous avalanche. Emily skied second following Andy’s line closely. They met at our island of safety and both commented on having skied over debris from a previous slide.

Evan skied third. He dropped in, made a couple turns and fell (most likely from hitting a chunk of debris). He then cut right towards Andy and Emily’s tracks. Realizing he was in debris, he cut further right into fresh snow. After descending about 2/3 of the slope, he was overtaken by a powder cloud. He at first thought Nick or myself had dropped in on top of him and had passed him (as a note, our group would never drop in on top of each other). He had started the run with his Avalung in his mouth, but after descending just over ½ of the slope onto a lower angle slope, he had removed it. He was then hit from behind by the avalanche. As he was pushed head first down the slope, he fought and swam and tried unsuccessfully to get his Avalung back in. While this was occurring, Andy and Emily also realized there was an avalanche as the snow and powder cloud passed by them.

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Looking up at the slide path. The crown is just below the trees. Evan was caught at the X and buried at the O

Emily and Andy quickly got into the rescue mode mentality making sure they slope looked safe, calling out to Evan, and going through their mental checklist of what they would need to do (get their beacon into search, getting their shovel and probe out, etc). When the snow stopped, they carefully edged out of the trees towards the debris. By time, Evan had his hand out of the snow, had cleared snow from his head, and was yelling for them. This was an immediate and major relief for Andy and Emily as they knew it would make for a faster rescue since his head was out of the snow and he had an airway. While this was going on, at the top, Nick and I had decided to ski a line to skiers left. Since this was a difference avalanche path, Nick dropped in when Evan was about half way down and prior to the slide. Realizing there was a slide, I told Gemma I was going down as fast as possible and for her to wait there until she saw me at the bottom. I dropped in, not know for sure where the crown was and followed as close as possible to Andy and Emily’s tracks. As I was descending, Andy thought it would be faster to take his skis off and walk up what we all assumed to be rock hard avalanche debris. He quickly realized it was a soft slab as he post holed up the hill. Emily kept her skis on and side stepped up. They both were able to yell to Nick who also started to descend to them. All 4 of us arrived within a few seconds of one another. Nick start to dig with his hands to get a better air pocket for Evan and look into the source of the blood on the snow next to his head. Andy and I got our shovels out and started to dig. Based on the position of his head, we thought he was buried standing up. We were lucky that he was actually horizontal so no part of his body was more than 2’ deep. As we completed digging Evan out, Gemma arrived safely at the bottom after having fallen on her descent.

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Digging Evan out. He was not as deep as it looked as he was laying sideways

We were able to confirm that Evan was not injured and had only lost his poles. We all started to put skins back on to ascend the debris and investigate the crown when we heard and felt the loudest collapse any of us had experienced. The collapse was large enough that Gemma who was standing on the edge of the debris dropped 2’ into the snow. As quickly as possible we all headed down slope through the debris to get out of any future harms way. We found a safe area just down slope to dig a pit to analyze the snow that had just cause this slide.

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Snow Profile from a pit we dug just below the toe of the slide

We were all amazed at the snow pit results. The layer that broke was not very reactive and had we dug this pit at the top with the same result, we all felt we would have felt it was safe to ski the line.

Shaken up from the events, we all decided it was best to take the most direct route back to the car and call it a day. The descent from Alexander Basin is long (~5 miles) so we knew it would take us quite a while to get out (it took about 1.5 hours). We got to the car and decided it would be good to get a beer and submit the avalanche/accident report to the UAC together and it would also give us a chance to debrief. We spent a lot of time discussing the accident and all agreed that our largest mistake was not knowing that we were on top of a slide from the previous day. Having said that, skiing 1 day old debris is typically a safe descent route since it would be a rarity to trigger another deeper slide. We feel our slide was probably caused when we ventured off of the old slide surface and triggered adjacent weak snow that had not slide the day before.

On Sunday, Andy, Emily and I went back to the scene with Drew from the UAC. We spent most of the day discussing the accident and the events that lead up to it as well as looking in detail at the slide crown. The photo below was our first view of the slide and it wasn’t until then that we realized it was much larger than we had initially thought (due to the poor visibility on Saturday). The crown was only slightly larger (we estimated 16” and it ranged from 11”-22”). We were also able to get a look at the slide from the previous day. Here is a good annotation from Drew of the 2 slides.

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           Slide patch from the ridge

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            Drew examining the crown

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            Crown from the slide adjacent to our’s from December 11

The biggest thing that surprised us on Sunday were the additional tracks right next to our slide path. These tracks were both on slopes that we had decided were far steeper than we were comfortable skiing. The slide to the lookers left of ours could have either been sympathetic or triggered by one of these 2 groups.

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            Tracks (circled in red) directly next to and just upslope from our slide. Both slopes were steeper than what we skied and were skied the same day.

Since Saturday, we have all spent a lot of time talking and thinking about the accident. We have tried to determine if we made any huge errors and we do feel that our 2 biggest errors were in not knowing we were at Depth Hoar Bowl (Alexander Basin is a huge area and confusion of terrain in this area has been the cause of numerous accidents in the past) and that even through we knew there was weak snow beneath the new snow we thought we could find a safe descent route We also felt that we may have been clouded by the very stable snow we all skied for 2.5 weeks over Christmas. We were happy that we felt like we didn’t fall into any of the common heuristic traps (familiarity, acceptance, commitment, expert halo, tracks/scarcity, social facilitation). We went into the day with no agenda, just interested in skiing safely. Of our party of 6, only 1 person had been involved in a prior accident. With over 60 years of combined backcountry experience, we are lucky for this to have been our first accident and we all hope that we will take the lessons from this and not have another accident. It is very important to us to keep the friends we ski with and ourselves safe as we consider our friends are our family.

Summary of lessons learned

  • Take extra time to know the names of the slopes you are on. In the past this has been difficult as there was not a single resource to find this. With the new Wasatch Backcountry Skiing Map, this is now possible.
  • As our backcountry skills get higher, we venture onto terrain that has the potential to pose a higher risk. As Evan stated, ‘We didn’t see the forest for the trees.’ We knew there were dangers and thought we could safely pick a route down. This almost worked. As a group, in the future we will be looking more closely at our risk acceptance.
  • Don’t let fall into the trap of thinking things are safer than they are based on pre-storm conditions. If the pre-storm snow is stable, it does not mean the post storm snow is. On the other side of this, if the pre-storm snow is unstable, the post storm snow will likely be more unstable.

Please feel free to comment on this blog if you want, but please keep comments constructive.

Skimo Double Header

The skimo (ski mountaineering) race season is officially underway. There have been several small races this year, but the first weekend of January always marks the real beginning with a double header at Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee. Saturday is the US Ski Mountaineering National Championships followed by the Grand Targhee Ski Mountaineering Classic on Sunday. The only way I can describe the Jackson race is that it is hard! There is over 8,000′ of climbing with steep and technical skinning and long booters including a ladder up Corbets Couloir. The descents are typical Jackson steep, narrow, rocky, and full of moguls. This is a full on race. To get up and race again on Sunday is always a challenge. Luckily, Grand Targhee is a little more forgiving. Other than the first climb, the climbs are not that steep and technical and the descents are mellow.

We had a slow start to our snow in the Wasatch so I didn’t do much skiing in November. In addition, it really wasn’t until our Grand Canyon run that I felt recovered from Leadman. Starting in December I did quite a bit of resort skinning until we really started getting good snow the middle of the month. At that time, my work travel schedule slowed down enough for me to really start getting out. My December skiing was split into somewhat odd segments due to work and personal travel commitments.

  • December 1-5: 18,126′
  • December 6-12: 12,900′
  • December 13-19: 26,300′ / ~50 miles
  • December 20-25: no skiing due to Christmas travel
  • December 26-January 1: 30,660′ / 63 miles
  • January 2-4: 1,100′ / 7.5 miles

I really didn’t feel like I had a lot of ski time in and I only had about 8 runs at a resort which definitely hurt my downhill legs. The end of December was such good snow I skied as much as possible knowing that my biggest week ending 3 days before Nationals would not be good, but as I like to say, “Powder comes first”. After being in Crested Butte for the ISMF Course, I decided I needed a pair of Scarpa Alien 1.0. The price tag of this boot is over the top, but so is the performance so I thought I would give it a try. The boot doesn’t fit my foot real well and I am still trying to get the fit dialed in, but I was definitely not disappointed by the uphill performance of this boot – mind blowing is the only way to describe it. Based on my training, I didn’t have super high hopes, but thought if I had a good day at Jackson I could finish in 3 hours and maybe the top 20 (I finished in 3:33 last year). For Sunday I was hoping to be under 2 hours (I was 2:09 last year).

Brent Mitchell and I left for Jackson on Friday noon and arrived just in time to get in a good lap at Snow King prior to race check-in and a Team Wasatch Skimo dinner. There was a great showing for the races from the Wasatch (15-18 Wasatch racers each day) and the Wasatch skimo skin suits looked great. The forecast for Saturday was bitter cold at the base and warming up high (due to inversion). The dinner conversations continually went back to how many layers, how to keep from having an epic skin failure, and who was going to podium. This year is a World Championship year and the top 3 finishers on Saturday and top 2 finishers on Sunday (who didn’t qualify on Saturday) make up 5 of the 8 members of the US National Team and get the honor or representing the US in February. Due to the race being a qualifier. the field was stacked. This would be the fastest skimo race ever held in the US!

Gemma, Nick, Chad, and Eric sporting our Wasatch Skimo suits at the Grand Targhee finish – notice the Alien invasion.JH-GT-Skimo-008

Saturday morning came and the weather did not disappoint us. It was -18F at the base at 7AM. It was rumored to be 20F warmer at the top of the mountain, but we still had to worry about preventing frostbite while warming up and during the early parts of the initial climb. As the race started, the front group as usual took off in a full sprint until the slope pitch picked up. The front couple of racers missed the first left corner and the front pack stayed close and fast for most of the race. For a first hand account of what happened up front, check out Andy Dorais blog that also has some great photos (thanks Dominique Maak) from the race. I was feeling good racing in the 2nd pack on the first climb. One of my ski goals this year was to climb 3,000′ in 1 hour. At the top of the first climb, I had done 3,300′ in 57 minutes. This had me pumped to keep up my hard pace. I suffered through the descents (the 8 runs I have made at Solitude was definitely not enough to build my downhill legs) and felt strong on the climbs. I reached the top of the Corbet’s Couloir ladder having climbed 6,400′ in 2:11. I was stunned that not only had I made one of my season goals of climbing 3,000′ in an hour, but I did double that in 2 hours. From this point we had a quad burning descent of close to 4,000′ followed by a final, long 1,300′ climb. I was able to pass a couple of people on the final descent, then get caught by Teague on the final climb, then pass Tom D on the last descent. I topped out at the last climb 2:50 into the race and pointed them down intent on finishing under 3 hours. The final descent was half big moguls followed by a low angle groomer. I did all I could to ski fast and in control through the moguls with legs that had nothing left, hit the groomer and dropped into a tuck (which was hard to hold with fried quads) into the finish line to finish in 2:55:17 (roughly 1.5 miles and 2,000′ in under 5 minutes) for 16th place.

We all enjoyed watching the rest of the racers come across followed by pizza, beer, and awards. We ended a great race day with plans of another Wasatch Skimo dinner at a Thai restaurant in Jackson to relive the day and plan the next day’s race.

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John Gaston, Tom Goth, and Scott Simmons on the ladder (2nd, 3rd, & 4th places)(photo by Dom Maack)


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Women’s podium and 1st three member of the US National Team: Janelle Smiley (1), Jari Kirkland (2), & Meredith Edwards (3) (photo by Dom Maak)

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Men’s podium and 1st three member of the US National Team: John Gaston (1), Jason Dorais (2), & Luke Nelson (3) (photo by Dom Maak)

A few beers, a restless night sleep brought, and an 80 minute drive the next morning brought us to the Grand Targhee Ski Mountaineering Classic. After the Jackson race, the Targhee race is not easy even though it is only 5600′ climbing. We all found that we needed a solid 30 minutes to warm up that morning to get the lactic acid out of the legs. Luckily, the race has a leisurely 10:30 AM start. After Saturday’s good race, I lined up ‘with the big boys’ in the second row. It was a great feeling a couple minutes before the gun go off to have Luke Nelson turn around and say ‘welcome to the big boys club’ (I can’t remember his exact words). The gun went off and we were off for another sprint to the first rise. The Targhee race is not steep like Jackson, but the first climb is a solid 2,000′ climb up a steep, hard packed groomer. It is a fully body effort to move up this climb quickly. I was excited to find myself close to the top and still have the lead group close and Luke still clearly visible. I topped out this climb in 29 minutes. I had surprised myself at how well I was climbing on ‘day old’ legs. The first descent was a great run with good snow and small bumps. A fast transition and we were into the shortest of the 3 climbs. I topped out the second climb at about 58 minutes once again beating 1 of my season goals by ascending 3,200′ in under an hour and this time with 2 transitions and a descent. The second descent was one of the most heinous skis I have ever done. the run was frozen, chunky, chundery, stump ridden, and just about the hardest thing you can ski on tiny, light gear. I was able to catch 2 people on this descent through some reckless abandon. We moved into the last transition for a final 2,000′ climb that never seemed to end. I was close behind Stano, Jon Brown, and Eric Carter hoping to be able to catch at least 1 of them. I put everything out there that I had and all I could do was hang on to them. They were ascending very strongly and I was not able to close the gap. We reached the top of the last climb for a short powder descent, then onto a groomer for a wicked fast descent. My goal for the day was 2 hours and I was able to finish in 1:53:27 for 15th place. My final descent was 1.7 miles and 2,000′ in 4 minutes!

We once again enjoyed the finish line camaraderie cheering on finishers, enjoying a burger and beer and then packing up for the 4.5 hour drive home.

Photos by Mark Gocke

Photos by Josh Miller

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Womens Podium: Janelle Smiley (1), Gemma Arro i Ribot (2), Meredith Edwards (3)

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Men’s Podium: John Gaston (1), Tom Goth (2), Marshall Thomson (3), Jason Dorais (5) – Tom and Marshall qualify for the US National Team

For the first time since Leadman ended in August, I finally feel like I am functioning at 100% again. I can’t express how good this feels and then to top this off with such strong finishes. Fitness helped, I was not over trained, I had much better gear than last year (see photos below), and I keep asking myself if my new partially gluten free diet (I won’t give up beer and the occasional cookie) didn’t also help.

Gear

  • Hagan X-Race Skis
  • Ski Trab Race Bindings
  • Scarpa Alien 1.0
  • Salomon Nordic Poles
  • Crazy Idea skin suit
  • Black Diamond Tracer Helmet
  • Camp Rapid 260 Pack
  • Camp Crest Shovel

How did this gear compare to last year, well, last year my ski, binding, boot combo weighed 2,608g (per foot). This year, that combo weighed 1704g for a savings of 904g (35%) per foot!

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2012 race ski/binding and boot weights – 1444g and 1164g respectively

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2013 ski/binding/boot weight – 1704g

I have found I don’t need to consume much in a 3 hour race. I ate a minimal amount of food.

Saturday

  • 2 oz First Endurance Vanilla EFS diluted with water to 4 oz (200 cal)
  • 10 oz of water with ½ scoop First Endurance EFS Powder and 1 scoop Hammer Nutrition Sustained Energy (180 cal)

Sunday

  • 2 oz First Endurance Vanilla EFS diluted with water to 4 oz (200 cal)

ISMF Referee Course




Ski mountaineering (skimo) has been a large sport in Europe for many years and some of these races have been around for 100 years. I like to compare skimo races in Europe to 5K races in the US. It seems like every city has a 5K over the summer in the US, just like every mountain village in Europe has a skimo race. Even more amazing is that there are hundreds of racers and spectators at these races. With skimo racing so large in Europe, it is no surprise that they are so organized. They have national teams with coaches and monetary sponsorship so that the athletes can focus on training and racing. Because of this, there are a lot of very fast skimo racers in Europe.

The US is quite a bit behind in skimo racing. Our oldest official races are only 12-13 years old and typically have 100-160 racers (except for a couple team races that exist). The sport has seen rapid growth in the US and there are now 43 races listed on the US Ski Mountaineering Association (USSMA) calendar (not including many town races, bandit races, and citizen series). There are a lot of people in the US that are working to grow the sport through races. The race directors of these races have been an integral part of skimo. The work of a skimo race director is a labor of love with little (and more likely no) monetary return for the hundreds (and often thousands) of hours spent to put on a successful race. In addition to these race directors, the USSMA’s mission statement is “sanctioning and governing competitive ski mountaineering racing in the US and promoting and fostering recreational ski mountaineering through access, resources, education, and community.”

For many years, the USSMA has been a labor of love for Pete Swenson. In the past 6 months, a group of us (Pete, Bryan Wickenhauser, Chris Thompson, and Chad Brackelsberg) have started serious discussions of how we step up the work of the USSMA and continue to build skimo in the US. There have been several aspects to this including a new web site, social media push, setting up a points race series for the 2012-2013 race season, starting work on USSMA membership, setting up criteria to be a USSMA sanctioned race, and most importantly, starting to put together plans for International Ski Mountaineering Federation (ISMF) sanctioned races for 2013-2014 and a World Cup race (either 2013-2014 or 2014-2015). One of the first steps of getting ISMF sanctioned and World Cup races is to get certified ISMF Referees in North America. Pete started putting together plans for a referee course a few months ago and a date of December 6-9 was finalized. This date was planned to be in conjunction with the Irwin/La Sportiva SkiMo Race in Crested Butte. We would get hands on experience during the course by running the Irwin race as if it was an ISMF race. Unfortunately, mother nature didn’t behave and the Irwin race was postponed until April 13 (tentative date). The race postponement did not change our referee course plans.

The ISMF referee course is usually a 37 hour course taught over 4.5 days. We had just over 3 days so we had all signed up for long days. Each morning started with a few of us getting on to the resort for some skimo training followed by a long stretch of classroom and on-mountain training. During the class we covered everything from the pages and pages of ISMF rulesthat govern how a race is organized, racer rules, required gear, penalties, etc., to avalanche education, to risk management, to legal issues that need to be considered when putting on a race (aka – scare the crap out of a race director). The on-mountain component was around course flagging, course routing, how to set a proper course, and more. The course was wrapped up with an on-mountain physical endurance test, written test, and a 9 page written race report. We completed the course Sunday evening with our heads spinning with all the work we need to do for our own races as well as the work we need to continue to do to build skimo in the US.

We spent an immense number of hours Thursday through Sunday concentrating on all of the rules and regulations with specifics outlined above. The participants in this course were Pete, Bryan, Chris, and myself from the US and Kylee Ohler and Brent Harris from Canada. Our instructors were Jordi Canals Fontan from Barcelona and David Dornian from Calgary. By the end of the weekend the 6 of us were certified ISMF Referees (pending our final written report) for North America. Along with David, there are now 7 certified ISMF Referees in North America (and another 2 who are inactive). We look forward to utilizing our knowledge and move forward to create and maintain great skimo races in the US.

Stay tuned over the next few weeks for more details about sanctioned races and updates to the rules required to be followed for a USSMA sanctioned race for the 2012-2013 race year. All of these updates will be on the USSMA web site.

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The new ISMF Referees: Brent, Kylee, Chad, Bryan, Pete, and Chris


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ISMF Referee Course Instructors: David and Jordi


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On mountain referee course work


2012 Utah Snow and Avalanche Workshop

Now in its 4th year, USAW has become a start of winter tradition for my ski partners and myself.  With the unusual snow pack last year, this year’s workshop should be a great learning experience from a snowpack most of us had little experience with.  Whether you are a backcountry veteran or newcomer, I highly recommend this fun and educational workshop.  Tickets are $26 and by clicking the image below.

See you all on Saturday.

Box Elder Peak – The Long Way

As part of my skiing redemption, this spring I have been working on summiting and skiing peaks that have previously eluded me.  Box Elder Peak is only 11,101’ (additional information), but has a beautiful northwest face that, when viewed from the Little Cottonwood Canyon ridgeline (Red Pine, Maybird, Hogum, etc), begs to be skied.

 

Five or so years ago, Chip, Audrey, Emily and I attempted this peak.  We ended up getting stormed out.  On this attempt, we started in Alpine and hiked the summer trail for a couple of miles to reach snow, then continued on skis.  For this attempt, we thought it would be more enjoyable to maximize our time on skis so we decided to start at the White Pine Trailhead in Little Cottonwood Canyon, ascend to the top of the Red Pine ridge, ski down into Dry Creek Canyon, ascend Box Elder Peak, then return mostly the way we came.  This route had a lot of appeal as it would be around 8,000’ of climbing and have 3 descents of 3,000’, 2,000’, and 3,000’.  There are not many places in the Wasatch to get that much vertical in 3 runs.

We didn’t have great snow coverage down low on the Red Pine Trail.

 

We made steady progress up to Red Pine enjoying a chilly, but bluebird day in the Wasatch.

 

We were treated to some fantastic snow on our long, 3,000’ descent into Dry Creek Canyon.

 

I have always enjoyed skiing into Dry Creek Canyon as the terrain is huge and you are looking up at the back side of some fantastic peaks.  Each time I ski the Pfieferhorn, I try to make a long descent into Dry Creek Canyon.  I was excited to get to ski 3,000’ down this time.  Unfortunately, our snow ran out and eventually we were forced to boot back down.

 

Once at the bottom of Dry Creek, we had a few issues finding our route up to the ridge, but we eventually made it.  The skinning was challenging with a mix of ice and new snow that easily slide off of the ice it was sitting on.  Ski crampons were a huge asset here, unfortunately, Paul didn’t have any so he struggle up the icy climb until we reached the ridge.

 

The final 3/4 mile (or so) was easiest done booting on the firm snow.

 

 

Once at the top, we were treated with amazing views of Timpanogos (the south Summit on the left is what Evan and I had skied 2 weeks earlier) and down to Tibble Fork Reservoir.

 

We were excited for our descent, until we dropped into a slope of solid ice.  Making the best of it, we enjoyed a long, scenic descent.

 

Since the snow was not great, we decided to traverse off the slope early to reduce our climb out.  We had also had a great idea that we could reach White Baldy from the ridgeline at the top of Dry Creek Canyon and then we could descent White Pine.  We made great time up the ridge and thought we were getting very close to White Baldy, but we knew there were several false summits.

 

Our route eventually got technical.  At this point of the day, we were over 8 hours and 7,500’ in and we were getting tired.

 

We had to make the decision to continue on through the crux, or down climb and try to find a passage through the sub-ridge rather than have to ski 1,000’+ back down into Dry Creek Canyon and have to climb out again.

 

We chose the down climb.

 

And were treated to some great turns in softening snow.

We were able to find a passage to avoid the long descent (and ascent) in to Dry Creek.

 

At the top of this passage, we still had some scrambling to get to snow where we could descend, but at least we could again see the Pfieferhorn, our descent tracks from the morning, and where we needed to be going.

 

As always, the views down into Dry Creek are amazing.  You can see Utah Lake and Provo 6,000’ below us in the valley and our skin track up through Dry Creek.

 

And finally we were back in Red Pine with it being mostly downhill to the trailhead.

 

Where cold beer awaited

I wore my Garmin Forerunner for the ski day.  Our final stats were just over 11 hours, 8,800’ climbing, and 18.5 miles.

For higher resolution, captioned photos, see the Box Elder Album.

Kings Peak – 3rd Time Is A Charm

A ski descent of Kings Peak is something that has eluded on 2 other occasions, but I was finally able to tackle the beast.  My first attempt was in February 2005.  Chip, Audrey, Andy H, Emily, and I packed for a 3 day trip.  We had full heavy touring gear (heavy tele boots, tele skis, non-free pivot bindings, etc) and were planning to camp for 2 nights.  We had a great trip, but were turned away at Anderson Pass due to weather. 

February 2005 Attempt

In March 2008 as part of our training for Elk Mountain Grand Traverse (EMGT), Chip, Audrey, Andrea S, and I attempted the summit in a single push.  For this attempt, rather than camp in the cold, we decided to leave Summit Park at 1 AM so we would be skiing by 4:30 AM.  We had hope do summit and return to the car in around 13 hours.  Since we would be doing the EMGT on Nordic gear, we decided to use the same gear for Kings Peak since the distance was approximately the same and the vert a couple thousand feet less.  We arrived at the trailhead to a lot of fresh snow and started breaking trail while it continued to snow.  The weather continued to get worse.  The picture below is the high winds we had on Gunsight Pass.  We had a turn around time of 1PM, we continued to push this back until finally at 4PM and just a few hundred feet below the summit we knew we had to turn around.  It had stormed enough that we had to break trail all the way back to the trailhead and finally arrived at the car after an 18 hour push and we still had a 3 hour drive home.  We arrived home sometime after 2AM making it a solid 25 hour round trip sufferfest.

March 2008 Attempt

 

After a second failure, I was wondering if Kings Peak had it out for me.  I had thought a lot about the peak since 2008, but just hadn’t found time to go back.  After taking up skimo racing this winter and having a successful Power of Four race, this seemed like the year to do it.  I had the right gear and a had already done a 26 mile skimo race.  The Utah snow pack was quite low so I figured this would be good and bad.  It would be good as we would hopefully be able to drive closer to the trailhead (previous attempts had us parked 3 miles from the summer trailhead since they don’t plow the road), but it would be bad as it would likely mean quite a bit of walking since there would not be consistent snow at lower elevations.  I sent out the email to some of local skimo racers and Eric (my partner from Power of Four) was in for a day of suffering.  We worked out the logistics and decided to drive to the trailhead on Friday night to camp in his Sportmobile and attempt the summit on race gear (race skis, boots, bindings, poles, and speed suits), but larger packs that would accommodate crampons, a stove & fuel, full shovel, probe, a down jacket, a few spare parts, a small first aid kit, and an emergency bivy.  Expecting hard snow up high, I also decided to throw in my ice ax.  As we expected, we were able to drive just over a mile closer to the trailhead.  We camped for the night and were treated to single digit temperatures in the morning.  Our goal was 10 hours round trip and we wanted to be skinning by 6:30. Our start was delayed since it was so cold that it took a little longer to get our boots thawed and on.  We left the van moving fast to keep warm.  At 10 miles in (Dollar Lake), we were averaging 3 miles per hour with stops and numerous sections of walking (note – we made the mistake of taking the summer trail instead of following the creek, this cost us probably 45-60 minutes).  Our feet were both killing us at this time from extremely sticky snow on the flat trail (we had only climbed 1,450’ in 10 miles) so we had to stop to tape our feet.  We knew the weather was going to be good so we left our stove, Coke, and Red Bull along the trail and continued on with slightly lighter packs.  From Dollar Lake we finally started climbing up to Gunsight Pass.  Things were going very good and we were at the pass in 4.5 hours.  Definitely not blazing speed, but we were happy and figured we could make the summit in another 1.5 hours.  We were able to get a nice long traverse through the rocks off of Gunsight Pass to the approach to Anderson Pass.  We made the decision to stay on the face of the summit instead of going up to the pass and spending a significant amount of time on rocks.   After having spend most of the last month at close to sea level in San Jose, CA for work, by the time we got to 12,500’ I was really feeling the effects of the altitude and I was moving slowly.  The snow on the summit ascent was perfect.  We were able to skin to about 13,000’ and then kick steps in without crampons the rest of the way.  We finally made the summit in 6:17 after a difficult last couple hundred feet through rotten snow and rocks.  The weather at the summit was sunny and calm.  We put on a down jacket and enjoyed a sandwich with views from the roof top of Utah.  We had a few hundred feet of good snow on the descent followed by a variety of breakable crusts and sastrugi.  We opted to cut the descent short and traverse as much of the distance back to Gunsight Pass instead of skiing all the way down to Painter Basin.  A short skin and we were back to the pass and on the descent back to our caffeine stash.  We enjoyed a quick shot of caffeine and started and 10 mile skate through soft snow back to the trailhead.  We were able to make good time back to the trailhead getting a little bit of glide on our skate and following the creek instead of the summer trail.  We crossed the creek over 30 times on snow bridges (most of which held) and had over a dozen spots where we had to walk across rocks and dirt. We reached the van 9:45 after starting.  Thirsty, hungry, tired, but by no means destroyed.  I definitely had not eaten or drank enough the entire day.  My water was frozen for the first 3 hours so I didn’t eat or drink during that time.  I drank just over 1.5L of water (plus a Red Bull) and only ate 1800 calories.

Kings Peak