Monday, March 31, 2008

Must Have Been Dreaming

It’s hard to exceed the bar when you start with expectations of the best ski day of the year. Looking back on it now, I almost wonder if maybe my season should be over. It’s March 31, closing out a weekend with the deepest and lightest snow, most aesthetic of lines, all as close to home as we’ve been all season – would you quit while ahead?

Then the reality kicks in. We’ve had over 530 inches on the season and a 143-inch base at the Pass. I have 40-plus days under my legs, but I’d say the season is just beginning. For sure, whoever decided that March 21 was the beginning of Spring forgot to tell La Niña.

As she has done many times this winter, La Niña delivered this last week with a ridge of cold temps and low-density snow. Friday night we scrapped plans for a Saturday tour when reports of high ridge-top winds threatened the possibility of wind slabs on lee slopes. Instead, the work crew hit our new local hill, Alpental, for some of the deepest, lightest conditions of the year. Chair 2 lines were long all day, but the rest time allowed us all to ski bell-to-bell.

(Video from RDLinde, of Elevator at Alpental on Saturday.)

Anticipation built into the night, with calm winds and another 9-12 inches of light, low-density snow making Sunday even better. Plans were formed for an early morning attempt on simply the best ski line in the valley.

(The group heads out. Photos by Graham Gephart)

Five of us started up the base of the Phantom after a quick assessment showed at least 18 inches of unconsolidated cold smoke, all right-side-up with very little cohesion. The sun – a potential spoiler for the plan – stayed put behind a grey Snoqualmie sky and intermittent snow showers. As we rose out of the Alpental valley, 18 inches quickly became 24, and anticipation sparkled in every eye.

(Darrin and Charlie scope out the apron and the exit chute.)

We paused at the ridgeline for a gut-check and a look at conditions in the exit ramp out of Thunder Basin. A pit and kicking around the exit chute revealed deep stable snow. The skintrack depth had changed from mid-shin to knee height, and now it brushed mid-thigh in places. As my new Storm BCs floated up the last 1000 feet to the entrance, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had stumbled onto something I shouldn’t have. How could I be so lucky to be on top of this line, in these conditions, with these friends, at this point in the season?

(A deepening skintrack as Ben and Michelle add vert.)

The couloir has to be North America’s most aesthetic ski line within an hour of a major global metropolitan area. Others might quibble with that statement … but looking down its untracked pitch, it sure felt like it. The entrance is a steep ridge/arête and hanging snowfield that doglegs into the heart of the chute, where vertical rock walls speckled with snowy moss overhang both sides, rising hundreds of feet above the snow. At an average steepness of 40 degrees, it’s just right for letting your skis run.

(Peering over the edge into the line.)

I skied the first ten turns and posted up at the top of the dogleg to watch as Ben carved waist-deep trenches through the new snow and sluff that choked the chute. We leapfrogged down to the top of the apron, laboring to breathe through choking faceshots, until pulling up to watch for Graham, Darrin and Michelle to drop in. We regrouped below the bottom of the left wall and stared incredulously back up our line.

(Michelle heads for the heart of the chute.)

(Cold smoke trails Darrin through the center section.)

(Darrin, looking small under the rocks, heading for the bottom of the couloir.)

Did that really just happen? Did we really just ski those conditions? Everything – goggles, facial hair, helmet vents, jacket hoods, backpack straps – was plastered with snow, and anything that wasn’t became clogged in the untracked 700 feet of blower down the apron.

(Charlie coming down the apron.)

(Darrin finds faceshots all the way to the end.)

If we were taking snow observations at our transition point, it would have read, “Ski Penetration: 18 inches. Boot Pen: Double Overhead.” The exit skintrack went smoothly in fleeting sunlight, and the final bootpack push up the exit ramp necessitated a quick swim through armpit deep conditions. From the small col, our descent took us another 2300 feet down the Phantom path to the car, regressing slowly from blower powder to typical Snoqualmie cement as we descended the south aspect. The exit ice/waterfall was so filled in that we all flashed it easily with skis firmly planted on the snow. We packed up in the lot, awestruck and grinning, and only an hour later we were back at home under sunny skies reflecting off an unusually calm Puget Sound and Lake Washington.

(Breaking trail out to the exit col.)

(Looking down the last face of the Phantom, with Alpental in the background.)

Can it get any better than yesterday? Only time will tell. But rest assured, we’ll be out there to find out.

-Charlie Lozner

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Making Skis Part III

Another dispatch from Nils Larsen, as he builds his own Altai skis:

I tried first to bend the tips in the fire as I saw done in the Altai. The problem with this was that I waited too long and a lot of the moisture that was in the tree when I cut it had evaporated. I tried soaking the tips in water too, but this didn't work either. I had been told by people in the Altai that when the wood was dry they simply boiled the tip for a while and then bent it.

I finally came up with this set up: a 20-gallon barrel over a fire with a slot cut out of the top.

The bender is made from Douglas maple, a good stout wood that grows in the creek draws around here. The benders in the Altai were a mixed lot of whatever they could find, but generally White Birch.

The bender is worked up and down the ski tip to get a uniform bend. I found the thickness and taper of the tip needed to be right in order to get a good shape to the tip.

In my movie, Skiing in the Shadow of Genghis Khan, Gessir tied off the bender to the ski to hold the bend while the ski cured, but I chose to secure as Chokue had. He was the premier skier in the region as well as a great woodworker, and I only had one good bender.

This is the blocking method Chokue uses. The skis need to cure now for a week or two. I plan to have them finished to take to Powder Creek, BC on April 6.

For more on Nils' project, read Making Skis Part I and Part II, and watch a clip from Journey to the Source.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

JT Robinson – Sickbird at CB Comp

Big congratulations today to Karhu Team skier JT Robinson, who took third place at the US Extreme Telemark Freeskiing Championships at Crested Butte, Colorado over the weekend. The podium placement alone is a worthy accomplishment, but JT also received the coveted Sickbird Award for a Lincoln Loop thrown mid-line in the Finals. We asked JT what ran through his head during the run, and here’s what he wrote about the internal dialogue:

"86, you ready?" came the voice from the start gate.

"Yeah, Dead-end Chutes." With that it was into the super gnarly gauntlet of trees, bumps, rocks and consequences of Crested Butte's Dead-end Chutes.

It’s a steep bump field above Bodybag and Dead-end to get to the first feature. "Nice and easy, conserve your explosion,” says my inner guide. "Find the first feature in the top section, it's in line of sight with the caution sign for Dead-end."

"Tips left, tips left... and stick, stick, out right." The ten-foot drop fades behind me, moving across to skier's right of the Dead-end caution sign.

"Smooth, no wasted movement, over to entrance, keep it smooth... And in, now quick tele turns all the way to skier's left side marker... Got it, and in." I approach the beginning of the rocky pillow section. Sun-baked corn under my feet cascades through some severe consequences that lie below.

"Around the tree, tips right for next air to pillow… got it. Get left on that spine, side hop over the pepper through the tip-tail pine field goal aaaaand through it!” On to more gnarly pillows.

"This is the turn; this is the crux move, get solid, go. Hold onto it, hold on. Okay, see the next one, stay close to the edge on this one... Got it, go." The yelling from below intensifies as I jump turn to a six-foot pillow drop above 80 feet of cliffs and rocks. I need to stay small and get back to the right as I come into the last double-stager in the line.

"Too big, too left... ROCKS... hang on! Got it, holy crap, I still got it!" I realize that I am too deep to get over for the last stage of the double I wanted to do. In a snap judgment I go into my "Option B" line towards Hamburger Rock.

"Okay, Hamburger from the nose... Lincoln loop... throw it hard... see it... see it…"
The crowd erupts, bringing me through the finish line, fists punching the sky and screaming at the top of my lungs in triumphant relief.

ADULT MEN (full results here) Run 1 Run 2 Run 3 Total
1 Ben Morello Crested Butte CO 34.60 38.4 38.2 111.20
2 Seaton MacMillan Crested Butte CO 34.80 32.8 35.2 102.80
3 J.T. Robinson Fruit Heights UT 32.60 33.6 35.8 102.00
4 Jake Sakson Carbondale CO 34.20 34.8 31 100.00
5 Phil Spinner Denver CO 32.80 32 34.8 99.60

Way to go JT!

(A quick clip of JT from Tough Guy Productions' Open Windows. If we get any video from the comp run, we'll post it up.)

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Sparkling Snow and Sapling Sting

Arriving a week earlier than me on the East Coast for the Adirondack Backcountry Festival, Nils Larsen found the best – and later in the week at NATO, the worst – of East Coast conditions. “You East Coasters are a bunch of sandbaggers,” said Nils, but he never hesitates heading into a line.

(John Seibert tours up through the sparkling powder. Photos by Nils Larsen)

I left for my East Coast trip on February 28th and arrived that night in Burlington, VT to full-on winter. I stayed with my good buddy John near Bristol and that night the temperature dropped to -15F. The snow was cold and soft, and we went for a tour in the mountains behind his house. The snow was some of the best I have skied out East, cold and soft with lots of surface-hoar sparkle to the top layer.

(Quick turns in boot-top fluff.)

East Coast skiing is a different animal from the West. The trees are mostly hardwoods, and the absence of leaves in the winter makes them appear more open then our western woods. This, however, is not the case. The uninitiated skier (that's me) quickly learns that those innocuous little one inch twigs sticking out of the snow will garrote you just as fast as the birch, beech, and sugar maple. One always skis with goggles and forearms raised and ready to clear a path...


("Open" hardwoods.)

I’d say if he knows the fine art of forearm branch blocking, Nils is well ahead of the learning curve. Is it really tree skiing if your cheek doesn’t get kissed at least once by a sapling’s sting?

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Evan Stevens - A Day in the Office

There are a few vocations that send normal introductory banter right out the window. The question was standard - "What do you do?" - but with the answer, I could care less about describing my own life. I just want know what it's like to be a test program pilot, open ocean whale researcher, professional skateboarder, or backcountry ski guide. Those conversations spur the most of my curiosity and admiration - and admittedly a little jealousy, too.

Along those lines, let me introduce a new Karhu ambassador, Evan Stevens, whose life might inspire some of the same thoughts. Evan brings strong mountain credentials as a certified ski mountaineering guide and board member with the AMGA, and counts his day job as the operations manager and ski guide at Valhalla Mountain Touring, a renowned backcountry lodge in British Columbia. Forget talk of commutes and corner offices; this is a world is filled each day with winter wonder, open skies, skintracks, snow analysis, and finding powder turns with Valhalla's visitors. When the schedule takes him back home to Utah, you'll find him with Exum Guides deep in some Wasatch Powder.

No stranger to writing as a graduate of Middlebury College, Evan tracks the season on his own blog, and his post below, "Another Day in the Office" is a good introduction to his working life. Throughout the season, Evan will be sharing entries with and the blog, and we're excited to welcome him!

Well, now I am back to work up here at Valhalla Mountain Touring, tucked away in a secluded powder skiing paradise. Getting here wasn't with out its adventures though, so here is a bit of a recap, and an insight look into the guide's life.

I flew in to Spokane, Washington to pick up my car, and make the 4 hour drive north via Rossland, BC. I must have brought the snow with me from SLC, because it stopped snowing there and started dumping up here, which is all great and dandy, unless you have to drive at night through it. I know you have all been there, trying hard to get to your destination, but being hypnotized by the Millenium Falcon hyper-speed snowy night driving. Luckily in this part of the world one car passes you in the other direction every hour!

(Night driving BC Style - should I be on a snowmobile?!?!?)

I made it to my destination safe and sound and unloaded my gear on to the snowmobile for my 'commute'. A little bit later I am back at the lodge, my office if you will, unloading, unpacking and getting ready for the next 28 days in a row of ski touring guiding. At an average of 5,500' vertical of touring per day, I am glad my fitness level is high, and that I have been resting for a few days and eating as much as humanly possibly - kind of funny that I spend my days off sometimes resting and eating...

1 pm and the new group of 12 skiers are at the lodge. The frenzy begins: unpack, eat lunch, beacon practice, rescue drill, and a quick 1,200-foot lap of powder bliss out the lodge's front door to whet the appetite for things to come. Everyone is psyched, the snow is good, and more is on the way, time to ski!

Luckily with this job I don't have to fly solo, and I have an
ACMG (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides) Assistant Ski Guide with me - Jonny Simms. He is also one of my good friends and climbing and skiing partners. With our level of training and certification and high amount of trust in each other, it is easy to keep safety as priority number one. And right now there is a lot on our plates in that department. 6 am and we are up talking snow and weather observations for the day to come. The snowpack in British Columbia is plagued by some persistant weak layers right now, and we need to map them out and keep track of their relative strength all week. So while one of us is up front route finding and trail breaking the other one has their nose in the snow, digging pits, poking around and radioing the other guide with the latest scoop on conditions. Decisions have to be made about where and what to ski, as we try and track down the best and safest runs we can all week.

(Skinning up amongst the BC snow ghosts)

Jonny and I work together to keep each other in check and make sure neither of us are missing the million little things we need to watch in the snowpack, weather and terrain to make the right decisions. But after all, that is our job and that is what we love to do: be out in the mountains and make it happen for these folks skiing with us.

(Delivering the goods - 25cms of boot top cold smoke)

Today we woke up to 25cms of new snow with a bit of wind. Up here there is no avalanche bulletin to check out, or at least it covers an area the size of Utah, and is only updated every 3 or 4 days-we are our own avalanche forecasters. So, we venture out to see how the snowpack is acting and figure out what we can ski. More pits, some ski cuts, and careful poking around lead us to the goods, as we skied 6 grand today in boot top cold smoke. Jonny and I even found time to sneak in a few pillow lines and 20 foot cliff drops with the stronger skiers in the group.

(Pillows - so soft and nice)

Ho hum, another day at the office...

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Vermont Rebounds

The state is known for its hardy residents, but this winter, the hardiest thing in Vermont might be winter itself. Big snowfalls came again and again to the Northeast this season, and while heart-breaking thaws followed a number of them, winter refuses to give up its grasp completely. The warm storm that brought rain just last weekend at the NATO Telemark Festival finished with another blast of cold – which stuck around long enough to freshen up the firm.

A week after my trip back home, my dad sent some photos from the Long Trail off Brandon Gap. To help scale the snowpack, the registration box at the trailhead and the sign for the Sunrise Shelter stand at chest height in the summer. Here it is in March, well into what’s often prime sugaring season, and it looks like the taplines will be buried for a while still.

(The trailhead sign-in sits a little lower now. Photos by Jeff Gephart)

(Clouds clearing over Mount Horrid.)

(Not too tough to miss the Sunrise Shelter right now.)

(The handrails on the bridge crossings aren't doing very much.)

(Plenty of snow at the Chittenden Brook junction.)

For a good read on Vermont-related hardiness and happiness, take a look at Ben’s post on WickedOutdoorsy.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Adversity Skiing at NATO

Karhu would be there rain or shine, I said, and well, rain it was. Perhaps using the “R-word” was tempting fate a little too much, but by the time the storm settled on its final track there was nothing to do but grin and bear it.

(VT rep Bill Bruzzese, grinning in the rain. Photos by Graham Gephart)

Saturday morning dawned with an ominous gray overhead, and it looked doubtful that the day would share any of the sheltered soft snow and afternoon corn that had graced Friday. As we set up for the demos, NATO founder Dickie Hall delivered the first conditions report, courtesy of his pre-opening course inspection for the scheduled Berserkebeiner competition.

“There’s a little bit of a zipper crust, but it’s going to ski really, really well once it gets cut up a little.”

Fair-weather skiers would do well to heed Dickie’s outlook, a take-every-opportunity-and-keep-on-smiling optimism that makes it impossible to regret a day of skiing. Heck, fair weather skiers would do well to heed the general population of Mad River Glen, which toed the same line. After all, here was MRG in early March, in the midst of one of the best seasons on the historical record with countless powder days, where patrol had several times opened lines like the cliffs under the Single Chair, and below the Birdcage. Yet while they could’ve easily written off the skiing in the face of a building wet storm and the likely closure, or at least unpleasantness, of even the mellow woods, the regulars were out like it was any other day.

(Peter Wadsworth leans into the wind at the top of the double. Nice vis, huh?)

But Telefest is anything but any other day. The threat of the skies opening up failed to keep car after car from pulling in with telemark gear on the roof, in the truckbed, even sticking out of the car window. The die-hards skied down from the Stark’s Nest on the summit, and soon a line built as people were chomping at the bit to take new demo skis for a run.

(Picking up speed in the demo tent.)

(A soggy Nils Larsen gives a sly smile.)

True to his word, Dickie’s conditions report held. Maybe the crust was a little thicker and tougher than he let on, but it only seemed to challenge us to make more laps – after all, the more we skied it, the better it would be next time. We sought out fun lines held captive by the crust, hoping to free our favorites for the next ride up. If we struggled down it, it was to be expected with the conditions, and when we did connect turns top to bottom, it made us feel like heroes.

(A good day to put gear to the test.)

As the day continued, the deluge picked up again and again. Even those that regularly enjoy a ski in the rain know that you ski until completely soaked through, and if you take a break for lunch or into someplace warm, well, that’s probably the end. But refusing to take orders from Mother Nature, we went back at it, even as the wind picked up and the rain began to freeze over. The crowd continued to ski, and probably would’ve gone into the night had the chairs not stopped. It was time for the beer and tunes to flow, and the party – hardly drier than earlier in the afternoon – went well into the night.

(Freeheel posse under the ice-bound Double.)

I held out hope that the dropping temperatures that night would salvage the storm with snow on its exit. Instead, the thermometer registered a windy, chilly 20 degrees in the morning, with hardly a dusting of new snow. The tree branches, burdened by inches of ice, cracked and rained down in the heavy winds. The snow, well, there wasn’t much to say. The patrol’s lift whiteboards warned of “Expert Only Skiing – We Mean It!” and much of the terrain was closed as it had frozen solid, a jarring, jagged washboard anywhere off the groomed.

(Freezing rain begins to do its damage.)

Yet even in the worst of conditions, there were telemark skiers everywhere you looked. Over 600 turned out in all, as well as the ever-present local population of freeheelers. Down the Practice Slope, groups of enthusiastic learners mastered the mechanics with bright smiles, all in conditions that would make any instructor cringe. Heels dangled free for long stretches up the chairs, and packs shredded up any line they could get to, refusing to concede a point to the mountain or the storm that had since moved on. Snow flurries began to fall in the afternoon, and talk turned to how things might look up over the next couple days.
(A line of freeheels, heading up the Single on Saturday.)

“Just goes to show you how hardcore telemark skiers really are,” said Dickie Hall. “The skiers who joined us at the festival this year lend a new meaning to the old saying ‘ski tough or stay home.’”

Amen, Dickie.
(Jessie-Willow Janowski, showing the spirit of NATO's Telemark Festival.)

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Friday, March 7, 2008

The Biggest Fest of All

It’s coming…

If you’ve never been, it’s a must-attend. Crash a couch, camp in the parking lot, ride up to the Stark’s Nest with your sleeping bag, do whatever you can, because the annual North American Telemark Organization’s Telemark Festival at Mad River Glen is one of the top things ever freeheel skier must try. Come to ski Mad River’s legendary terrain, to take a clinic with the always smiling Dickie Hall, to try your hand in the Bump Buffet, to check out that new pair of skis, to party with Magic Hat after the lifts stop running, even just to chat with hundreds of other telemark skiers in the line-up for the Single Chair. The action starts tonight with a showing of Nils Larsen’s “Skiing in the Shadow of Genghis Khan” at 6pm, and the two-day festival kicks off tomorrow.

For more info:
For a weather outlook:
(Rain or shine, Karhu will still be there)

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Thursday, March 6, 2008

Making Skis Part II

More photos from Nils Larsen in this week, as he continues making progress on his own Altai skis (see the previous entry here).

It's been a while since I split the log, and I am now ready to do the axe work needed to shape the log halves into the blanks for skis. You can see the Altai ski in the foreground which is the template that I am working off of. There will be many hours of chopping and shaping to get the chunks whittled down to a ski. I also found my source for the horsehair skins, with the passing of a local horse. Will be ready to bend the skis and work on the bindings soon.

For more on what inspired Nils to make his own Altai skis, and some history on the project, get to Mad River Glen, VT on Friday, March 7th at 6pm for an evening presentation of his new movie, “Skiing in the Shadow of Genghis Khan.” It’s a great start to Mad River Glen’s annual NATO Telemark Festival, which begins Saturday morning.

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