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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Anonymous said...

Wow. That is insane Charlie! I hate to say it but I've been on snow for over 25 years and don't know the first thing about avalanche safety. After reading this and looking at the photos I need to get my ass in gear. Amazing. Thanks for sharin'. - fank

audrey said...

AWESOME!!! So happy for you guys! The tiny window of perfection opened up and you were aware enough to go get on top of that line. You guys SLAYED it! Thanks for sharing the stoke.

Anonymous said...

Very very nice. Brings back memories of my 14 years at Alta! Philip B.

Anonymous said...


Darrin, you should thank me for getting you into skiing (ha-ha)
-Your brother

Anonymous said...

You are right, thanks! And YOU should visit more often so we could ski this couloir together!

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks for breaking trail guys. That route was amazing even with your few tracks in there. I was excited that I didn't even need my non-existent ski edges and I will be sure to bring my avalanche safety gear next time around. Danger is my middle name:) Do you know of any upcoming avy clinics? They always have them on weekends when I'm getting sick in the u-jump at Central.

Anonymous said...

So good to see washington is being good to you!! Keep living well...

Ben said...

Ha, You had no idea how good it gets. Believe it, glad you guys got it. Ben