Lake Tahoe backcountry

Tahoe has long been a favorite ski destination for me, so it was an inevitable inclusion on this circuitous road trip. In fact Northstar at Tahoe is where I began skiing way back on my 2nd birthday in 1987. Since then, I’ve made a pilgrimage to this place every couple years. It always treats me the same, with fresh snow, steep terrain, and bluebird skies.

My buddy Dave kept telling me it was a bad winter and he was jealous of the snow in the Pacific Northwest. But I assured him that storms have been following me around this year, and Tahoe is going to get dumped on when I arrive. Sure enough, a midweek storm left 2 feet of powder on the Sierras, and the sun emerged for a perfect weekend. Dave and I made plans to ski the backcountry in South Tahoe.

Dave is a friend from the old Seven Springs days. We used to ski together in high school, back when learning tricks on jumps was the focus of our skiing. My mom would joke that I made 2 runs per day, one to the terrain park in the morning, and one back from the terrain park in the afternoon. Of course I would argue that we typically bombed Gunnar once, too. We would spend all morning building a massive jump, then all afternoon sessioning it. These were the days before terrain park crews did these things for you, and before the resorts were even cool with it at all. We would borrow/steal shovels from the lift huts and build jumps in hidden places, trying to get a few hits in before getting caught. We had escape routes to elude ski safety rangers in our daily cat and mouse game. We learned to go big, throw nasty tricks, and not to be scared.

It was no surprise to me that Dave wanted to ski some gnarly lines when I came to town. He had been waiting for the right conditions and the right crew to tackle a few crazy couloirs, and this weekend was perfect. I didn’t know what we’d be doing, but I trusted Dave’s judgement. We met Saturday morning and started an early hike up Echo Peak.

The line we skied that day is called “Hall of God”, and it’s every bit as epic as it sounds. It’s a couloir, a steep crevice cutting through a cliff face that holds just enough snow to ski. This one is 45-55 degrees steepness for about 1000 feet of vertical descent, and only about a ski length wide at the choke point. Of course there’s those buggery exposed rocks to deal with also. Here’s a picture of the line from a distance. We skied the middle of the three couloirs seen here, dropping in from the tip of the arrow:

"Hall of God" couloir descent of Echo Peak as seen from Mt Tellac

“Hall of God” couloir descent of Echo Peak as seen from Mt Tellac

I’ve skied plenty of steep chutes, but I’d never done a couloir with this kind of vertical before. Dave also said this was the gnarliest line he’s skied all year. But the conditions were right, and stoke levels were high in our crew. So after digging a pit at the top to verify the avalanche risk was low, we dropped into this beast, leaving our mark as the first sets of tracks since the new snow. The video at the bottom of this post shows Dave’s descent from his helmet mount, so sick.

The next day we hiked Mt. Tellac with Dave’s fiance, Kim. She’d been up there before, and suggested we ski another couloir called “The Cross”. The line we took was plenty steep but not as narrow as the “Hall of God”. Here’s a photo showing the cross, as well as one I took from the top showing the line we skied:

"The Cross" on Mt Tellac - photo taken in spring

“The Cross” on Mt Tellac – photo taken in spring

Scoping our descent for "The Cross" - the line we skied is directly above my head where the tracks are

Scoping our descent for “The Cross” – the line we skied is directly above my head where the tracks are

The descent of Mt Tellac was epic, but it deposited us on some heavy east facing snow. Fortunately, we knew of a ridge to our west that would have some good north-facing snow on the other side. We traversed to cross it and found knee deep pow on the other side. The combination made for a perfect descent from a well-earned summit. What a weekend! Thanks to Dave and Kim for hosting me and guiding me.

Also, shout out to Luke, the VP/Engineer of Moment Skis who gave me a gracious tour of their factory in Reno. Moment skis are right up my alley for powder and big mountain skiing, and I would definitely recommend them to anyone in the market. They have some radical new designs coming out in 2014, particularly their “dirty mustache camber” and “mullet camber” concepts. I was really stoked on a ski called the Deathwish.

Check out the video and photos from this epic weekend in Tahoe:


Mt Baker Road Gap

I have eyed up the Mt Baker road gap for as long as I’ve skied at that mountain. Some day, I thought, that beast will go down. But its no trivial feat. The gap is 50-60 feet long and it steps down 15-25 feet from the takeoff to landing. It’s literally a large jump built on top of a cliff with a highway in the middle. This would take the right day, the right conditions, and the right crew.

When the day began, I had no idea we’d be gapping the road. In fact, I wasn’t even supposed to be in Washington state anymore. I had planned on going south to California a week prior, but I was enticed by another backcountry skiing trip in the Baker area. The same crew from the Mt St Helens trip – Corbin, Kelsi, and I – had planned on hiking and skiing Mt Baker summit, a massive glaciated peak over 11,000 feet in elevation. It was going to be the biggest mountain we’d ever attempted. However, the weather had a very different plan for us. A major winter storm hit, dumping feet upon feet of fresh snow on a poorly bonded interface, making travel in the backcountry treacherous and avalanche-prone. Coupled with the bad visibility, attempting to summit Mt Baker was unconsiderable. So I did what any ski bum would do and headed to the resort for some in-bounds powder laps.

The day was so sweet. Corbin and I shredded some familiar lines and dropped cliffs into waist deep snow. In less than 2 hours we had devoured so many sick lines that we literally had our fill. Then, just as we were about to drop again, I heard someone say “it’s open” and immediately knew they were talking about the Canyon. The Canyon is a really sweet terrain feature at Baker ski resort that has a large circular bowl that funnels into a steep narrow canyon. Its a terrible terrain trap, so ski patrol rarely opens it during storm cycles. But this day was the exception, and we were in perfect position to take first tracks down it. Without a moment’s hesitation we ducked the rope past the ski patroller flipping the sign from “closed” to “open” and swarmed the virgin snow. It was, without a doubt, the best in-bounds run I’ve had at Baker all year, probably ever.

Corbin and I cruised the whole way without stopping and re-grouped at the bottom. The line at chair 6 looked about 45 minutes long, apparently everyone just found out the Canyon was open. It was only noon, but we felt like we already had a full day. Unmotivated by the line, we decided to build a jump instead of waiting for more laps. Then the realization hit us, as if we’d both been thinking about it in the back of our heads for years but never had the right opportunity, we needed to go scope out the road gap. The decision was made.

There are two places to hit the road gap, and both had been hit earlier in the year. We found the old takeoff ramps, and took a guess at what the in-run would be. One side had a bigger cliff, but shorter gap. The other side had a longer gap, but less of a cliff, and more room to prepare yourself for takeoff. We decided we wanted to hit both, but we’d start with the shorter, longer one. If it went well we’d probably hit the taller one too. The spot we decided to hit was about 60 ft across with a 15 ft drop. We’d need to get a lot of speed to clear it.

We built the jump in no time. There was so much snow, and we were so motivated, that we built a jump bigger than my van in less than an hour. Our takeoff ramp was about 12 feet wide and 8 feet tall. The harder part was actually the in-run, since the fresh snow needed packed down from way uphill. About 3 hours into the process, we were ready to try it out. We each made 3 speed runs, getting a feel for how much speed we could get and comparing that to how much we thought we’d need. Each test run ended with the same conclusion, we need more speed. When we finally did hit the thing, we were starting way uphill in the ski resort, bombing full speed across a cat track, ducking the boundary rope, and cruising down our in-run max speed at the jump. We were finally confident we’d have enough speed.

Without discussing it, we somehow both knew I’d be the guinea pig. Corbin got the camera set up, and I made plans to call him 30 seconds before dropping in. I was so nervous, but at the same time I knew I’d be alright if I stuck to the plan. Hit it full speed, no speed checks, if I lose speed on the in-run for any reason, bail. For once, I was way less concerned with overshooting the jump than undershooting it. Overshooting meant you land flat in waist deep snow, probably buried but otherwise unharmed. Undershooting meant you hit a wall of plowed snow at full speed before falling 10 feet onto pavement with traffic. So I vowed not to speed check, prayed for safety, and dropped.

My first thought in the air was that I came up short. I had a sense, a knowing, that I hadn’t gotten enough speed and I would crash into the wall. I panicked and threw my feet out in front of me to try and absorb part of the impact. I was wrong. My carefully calculated speed was just right, and I cleared the lip by about 6 feet, phew! Next time I would have more confidence, next time I might even do a trick, lol. Corbin had the same problem as I did, and panicked mid air only to find he cleared the gap comfortably. We each hit it twice before losing daylight. What a day!

We returned the following day with our friends Brian and James. I’ve talked about hitting the road gap with Brian for years, and he was so stoked to join us. James was not that stoked about it, but after sleeping on the idea the night before he decided he was ready to give it a go. James had to work most the day, but he helped us with the in-run on his lunch break and came to hit it after work.

Brian, Corbin, and I decided to take a run before hitting the road gap. We did a hitch-hiking lap on a low-angle backcountry line called the Firs. It was really, really good. We were so stoked about it that we decided to take our chances with getting a ride and hit it again before the road gap. Worth it. The only problem was that another crew had arrived at the road gap, and they were claiming the taller side, the hit we passed on the day before. We wanted to hit that side too, but we gave them their space and hit the jump we built the day before.

We had a sick session. Of course Brian backflipped on his first hit, that guy is absolutely insane. Then he kicked off a backflip train that got us all inspired to flip it. Cars were creeping by, each hoping to see someone hit the jump as they passed through. Since two crews were hitting the road gap, some cars got jumped by two riders in different places. Lots of people stopped to take photos. We were sort of worried about getting reprimanded for breaking some rule or something, but no one hassled us. The DOT saw us several times, and we even had a ski patroller watching us. Apparently they don’t mind 🙂

The experience was everything I hoped it would be. Everyone cleared the road. No one got hurt. No one got in trouble. The experience was well worth the years of waiting, and we got some sick footage to remember it by. Corbin and I even got to hit the taller side once at the end of the day. In Brian’s honor, I backflipped it on my first and only hit. I knew he would have done the same if he hadn’t broken his binding earlier…

Here’s the video from our epic road gap session, enjoy!

To think we almost stayed home this day…

Let me keep it short, the pictures and video should do the talking here. I met some former Snoqualmie instructor friends in the morning with plans to ski Mt Hood backcountry. We hesitated in the morning, wavering between going and not going. There hadn’t been any new snow in over a week. The forecast was calling for overcast with a chance of rain. Wind was looking strong. We thought it might be a day better spent playing board games and just relaxing. Fortunately, our stoke to ride outweighed our lethargy and we decided to give it a shot. The decision to go for it was well justified, as it always seems to be.

Below are some photos and a short little video to describe our day:

About our crew:

My main motivation to ski at Hood was a chance to ski with an old friend, Deverton. Dev was an instructor at Snoqualmie the year I worked there. We became friends and even lived together in Issaquah for a short while. I’m eternally grateful to Dev for introducing me to slacklining. He showed me how to rig a slackline with some webbing and carabiners, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Dev makes his living with some of the most natural jobs imaginable – all of them involve nature. He worked for the forest service for years as a crew leader doing backcountry hiking trail development and maintenance. Nowadays he has a gig in Sequoia National Park leading crews of volunteers in invasive species removal and management. He and his girlfriend Rhiannon are true outdoors people. Rhiannon is working on her masters, studying endangered butterfly food chains. It seems they both have established lives doing what they love, spending as much time outdoors as possible, living simply, and doing service for the environment. I have great respect for these two.

Schweitzer Mountain, Idaho

I left Rossland Friday morning just as the winter carnival was beginning. Although I missed the festivities, I caught a little of the snow carving – very cool.



I was headed to Sandpoint, Idaho with an appointment to get my broken rear window replaced. I was part bummed, because it meant I would miss a ski day and spend another unexpected $200. However, I was very thankful that the US welcomed me back in with minimal hassle, considering my expired passport and broken window. I got my window replaced in no time, and the repairman even complimented me on my van setup 🙂

Looking for something to do in Sandpoint, I google searched for a climbing gym. I found a great one, Sandpoint Rock Gym. It felt very DIY, and reminded me a lot of Off Belay, the bouldering gym I helped build in Chicago. I was greeted by the only employee there, and he had me sign in between turns in the dyno contest they were having. There was a solid crew of climbers, and they all introduced themselves when I walked in. I never felt so welcome at a gym. In fact, they didn’t even charge me. I didn’t have cash, and they welcomed me in anyway since they were only open for another hour. I was amazed how quickly I felt like friends with the climbers there, what a cool scene. The walls were not that impressive, bouldering only, no top-outs, plain plywood. But they made it a great place to train by the atmosphere they created and the routes they set. Route-setting makes all the difference in a climbing gym. I even got to meet the owner, Christian. He told me about the origins of the gym and how they built a culture of climbers where there was none. This story helped confirm my belief that climbers exist everywhere, whether they know they’re climbers or not. It’s simply a matter of exposing those susceptible to it. He and his crew did quite the job here, well done.

The following day I headed up the mountain to Schweitzer. I rode the bus up and left my car 9 miles below in the lower lot. I met an interesting character on the bus, Owen from Crested Butte. He was on his way to BC to drive the powder highway, similar to what I had just done. I helped him out with his bus fare since he was now the one without cash. We had a great chat about skiing. Turns out Colorado doesn’t have any snow for the 2nd year in a row. Climate change is hitting them hard right now, major droughts. Owen builds sustainable houses for a living. He just finished a 2 year project on a wet clay straw house. It’s a technique similar to straw bale, so we had lots to talk about on the way up. It’s great that people like Owen can make a living doing construction like that, and also have a lifestyle with so much skiing.

Schweitzer has character. On both trips here, I’ve met some great people with hardly any effort. I made it a point to talk to everyone on the lift, so many good people and good stories. I even met a woman from the family that owns it. It was built by a family logging business, and took 25 years to become profitable. I met a guy from Pittsburgh (of course), and a farmer with a geothermal system.

The mountain is really fun to ski. They had some new snow, so everything was fresh and soft. I spent the day picking lines through the trees. Schweitzer has more glades than any resort I can recall skiing. Every run seems to be open in the middle, with progressively denser trees as you move toward the edges. You start by finding fresh snow down the middle, then move deeper into the trees to find the lurking freshies at the end of the day. All day long I found fresh lines. One slight problem with it is the flat spots though. It has these big expansive bowls serviced by a single lift. So you get lots of terrain options, but they all end with a long flat haul back to the base of the lift. Even these sections were fun, because the flats are full of boulders, gullies, and interesting terrain. However, I could see that on a really deep snow day it would be a problem to keep your speed. All in all it was a great mountain and I was glad I made the trip here.



Red Mountain backcountry (Rossland, British Columbia)

I had a great trip to Red Mountain for the 2nd year in a row. It’s a little off the beaten track, but that’s what’s nice about it. You don’t come here for its convenience or luxury, you come here to ski. I was so happy Mike invited me to visit him again here. He rents a cabin every year for the month of January, and he knows the mountains like the back of his hand. He’s been skiing backcountry here for the past 10 years, so he knows where to find the snow and how to have a good time.

I don’t really know where to start describing this trip, but if a pictures worth a thousand words then this gallery should do some of the talking for me (click below)

I had 4 days of backcountry skiing around Red Mountain, BC. Suprisingly, I didn’t ski the hill once. “Ski the hill” is backcountry lingo for skiing at the resort. Lift tickets were $50-$75 per day, so I was glad to save some money by earning my turns instead of buying them.

I arrived at Mike’s cabin just in time for my second dinner. I had eaten early, and when they placed a pile of mussels in front of me with a side of salmon and cauliflower I couldn’t resist. Delicious. This crews knows how to eat well. I came to discover eating well is crucial to big backcountry days. In a typical day of backcountry skiing, you can burn well over 2000 calories. This is in addition to the 1500 calories your body burns per day just to function normally, so it’s essential to eat well to keep up for back to back ski days.

Day 1: Record Ridge with Keith

Although it seemed like a large crew would be touring from the night before, the morning revealed a different story. Mike had joint soreness and could barely move, Jim’s back was acting up, and Rob didn’t feel well. So Keith and I set out on our adventure. We drove up a ways, parked aside the highway, skinned up and started to walk.

Keith is a big time mountain enthusiast. He skis all winter and climbs the rest of the year. He makes his living as a climbing guide, skiing guide, avalanche safety training instructor, and a part-time therapist working for the government. He lives in Rossland, BC, in a straw bale house with his skiing family. His wife and two kids are all backcountry skiers as well.

We hiked continuously uphill for about 2 hours, switchbacking our way up an avalanche chute until we gained the upper ridge. The skinning was easy on the stable snowpack and conditions were very safe. When we reached the summit ridge, Keith checked his altimeter. We had climbed 3015 vertical feet. Not a bad start to the day. The first run was a good one, 1700 vertical on creamy untracked snow. The day was bluebird, and we planned our runs to catch the soft conditions on sunny slopes. Our first run was east facing, soaking in the morning rays.

We skinned back up, reusing our previous track most of the way, then veering left to catch a southern aspect for the second run. Our plan was brilliant, because we noticed the conditions change as the eastern aspect went into the shade. A crust was forming and we were wise to change aspects. The second run was great also. We took it all the way down to the road for the full 3000 vertical. However, the bottom 1000 feet was mostly bushwhacking through thick vegetation in the drainage, one of the necessary evils of backcountry skiing. I’ve always like skiing the woods though, so I never really mind this part even though it can be a challenge.

We finished around 3:00pm. It was a great intro and training day for longer days to come. That night we feasted on steaks and potatoes, recovering calories and stocking up for the next day.

Top of the world, Keith on Record Ridge

Top of the world, Keith on Record Ridge

Day 2: Old Glory with Keith, Ann, Jim, and Norm

Mike’s joints were still acting up, so I set out with the rest of the crew for another backcountry tour. We had our sights on Old Glory, the highest mountain in the Rossland range. At just under 8000 feet, it sits at the fringe of treeline. Given the stable snowpack conditions and high visibility, it was a good chance for us to ski the summit. Mike loaned me his ski crampons, a device I’d never used and wasn’t sure I needed. But halfway up the first ridge, we encountered a series of traverses over a frozen crust that the skis wouldn’t break through. Without the crampons, my skis were sliding sideways and I couldn’t use the skins for traction. However, with the crampons on, my skis held and I climbed with ease. These things make a huge difference! Without them, I would have to bootpack for sure.

Ski crampons improve traction on frozen crusty slopes - the difference between skis on and skis off

Ski crampons improve traction on frozen crusty slopes – the difference between skis on and skis off

After a few hours hiking we crested the first ridge and Old Glory came into view. It looked close, but we still had more than 1000 feet of climbing to go. As we rested momentarily and ate a snack, an old man with a long gray beard and skinny cross country skis came strolling up the ridge from a different approach. He wore blue jeans and gators over his boots. His gear showed his age, but he still manages to get around on it. As we marveled at him passing us by, Jim summed up his feelings about the sight, “If we get up to Old Glory and that old bugger shows up, I quit.”

"If we get to the top of Old Glory and that old bugger shows up I quit" -Jim

“If we get to the top of Old Glory and that old bugger shows up I quit” -Jim

We scoped the lines and made a plan to ski from the summit down the east face. This seemed to be the safest choice given the size of our group and the amount of daylight we had. If you look at the picture below, our ascent went from right to left across the base of the mountain, switchbacking up the steep left side to the ridge, and then up the back of the ridge to the summit. The descent was from the direct summit down the avalanche chutes at an angle to the left. Although it looks like a traverse in this photo, it’s a direct fall-line as evidenced by the avalanche chutes. The pitch ranges between 30 and 40 degrees, comparable to a typical black diamond.

Old Glory peak

Old Glory peak

The summit was beautiful. Just as we deskinned and got ready to ski, the sun came out providing perfect visibility and a bright orange sky on the horizon. The top portion of the run skied like crap. Frozen coral reef. But the terrain was really wild and inspiring. I could imagine it on a good day, what a line. The bottom half was actually great. The sun had softened the crust on the lower angle slope, giving us spring-like corn snow. The softened crystals yielded perfectly under our skis and sounded like broken glass as our spray skittered down the slope. We skied right down the center of the avalanche chute in the wide open direct fall-line. On less stable days, this route wouldn’t be possible, but every line has its day.

We finished the day by skinning back up the first ridge (where we saw the old bugger) and skiing Hannah trees. They were steep and north-facing. Although we expected more frozen coral reef, conditions were surprisingly good, the best of the day. I finished the line with a mini-cliff drop into the open snowfield below with a soft and forgiving landing.

View from the top of Old Glory

View from the top of Old Glory

Day 3: Hannah Peak with Crystal

On Wednesday they were calling for snow. Mike was back in action, but he wanted to use the hill (the resort) to access the backcountry. That way he wouldn’t have to push it as hard, and it would be easier to bail if he needed to. I wasn’t too keen on the lift ticket price, so Jim suggested I meet up with his friend Crystal for a tour. We decided to repeat the good conditions we’d found in Hannah trees the day before.

We made 3 fast laps on Hannah Peak, skiing steep glades on north facing aspects. It was fast and fun. Crystal is a strong backcountry skier. She skis telemark and doesn’t slow down for much of anything. She takes a steep skin track, preferring the direct approach over the path of least resistance. I was totally down with that. Crystal is a hardcore outdoorswoman. She works for the Canadian forest service as a firefighter, and loves her job. She gets the winters off but more or less sells her soul in the summer, since she’s always on call. But she gets to spend lots of time outside, and spends her time off skiing and trad climbing. She loves surfing, mout

On our final lap it began snowing, yay! The visibility started to go and we decided to call it quits there, saving some for tomorrow.

Our discussions that night concluded that if there were 20cm’s in the morning, we’d ski the hill. If there were 10cm’s, we’d do another backcountry tour. Everyone kept saying 10cm’s would make the backcountry awesome again.

Day 4: Kirkup with Rob

The morning came with 11cm’s of fresh snow. It came in from the southwest with a little bit of wind, and we figured we’d find the deepest snow on the leeward aspects – northeast. Jim and Mike wanted to ski the hill. I was thinking about the plan from the night before, and decided to hit the backcountry again, this time with Rob. We headed to Kirkup in my van.

Rob is an experienced mountaineer. He lives in Salt Lake, and typically skis and climbs the Wasatch range, but he’s been all over the world for climbing and skiing. He’s had surgery on both knees, but it doesn’t slow him down much. He gets up early, does elaborate stretches, and goes for daily walks to keep his joints loose. He told me the story of his torn ACL. He was skiing backcountry in the Wasatch range on a powder day. The fluffy new snow hadn’t bonded well with the layer beneath, and he triggered an avalanche on a moderately steep slope. “I’ll never forget the way the entire slope began to boil. I instantly knew what was going on.” Rob jerked his skis to the side taking a downward traverse out of the slide path. He made it out, but ended up partially buried with a torn ACL in the process. Had the slide flushed him out with the rest of the debris, he doesn’t think he would have survived. He was skiing alone. It was a fair enough trade.

I told Rob of my desires to ski mountaineer. I want to skin up Mt. Baker and ski down. I’d also like to do Hood, Shasta, Adams, and Ranier. He encouraged me, but also had some strong warnings. He said now is not the time. Do it in the early summer. There’s a reason everyone climbs the mountains then. The risk is too great otherwise. He advised me to look at current trip reports as well as trip reports from the previous year to get an idea when the right time is. People typically post their trip reports online for the benefit of other climbers, a great resource to have. Rob also recommended a book, Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain. He said it’s too detailed for most people, but with my technical background I would understand it and appreciate it. He tries to read it every year.

We had a great ski day. I parked my van aside the highway, and we skinned up the fresh snow, taking turns breaking trail up the north side of Kirkup. We discussed the snowpack and wind effects along the way, observing our conditions. Our first run was sweet. We went all the way to the summit and skied the northwest aspect. The first few hundred feet above the trees were wind-scoured, but the rest was fantastic. We cut the first tracks in the new snow, taking our pick of the best lines the whole way down. We skied one at a time, each person keeping the other in sight. The run consisted of a series of open alpine fields separated by tree bands. We skied an open slope, ducked through some trees, found the next opening and did it again. The run was so good we couldn’t resist a second lap.

On the way up the second time we saw another person utilizing our skin track. He was the only skier we saw all day. The next run we decided to ski a different aspect, dropping over the back of the ridge we skinned up from the summit. It was the northeastern aspect, where we’d expected the most snow. Sure enough, the snow piled up twice as deep on that side. There was an obvious sun crust underneath the snow here, and had some uncertainty about the bonding to the old layers. We decided to ski carefully, one at a time, keeping to the low angle slopes. It was great skiing, and again we took our pick of lines since we were the first skiers to arrive. Here are our tracks on the top half of the run:

Fresh tracks in the boulder field

Fresh tracks in the boulder field

We planned to ski the full descent, but about two thirds of the way down we ran into a fog bank. It was the sea of clouds we’d skied above every day. We got into it, and instantly couldn’t see anything. We couldn’t see the ground. Playing it safe, we decided to skin back up from there instead of skiing into the unknown.

Here you can see Rob descending into the clouds. We had to stop there because visibility was so bad you couldn't see the ground you're standing on.

Here you can see Rob descending into the clouds. We had to stop there because visibility was so bad you couldn’t see the ground you’re standing on.

Once again, it was so good we had to do it again. Rob broke trail up the deep snow, and I struggled to keep up with him. About half way up he stopped and commented how he felt tired, but he sure didn’t show it. This was our fourth lap, each consisting of 1000-2000 feet of climbing. We stopped at the top for a lunch break, it was only 1:30pm. We skied the same slope, enjoying every turn as much as the first lap. On our way back up we decided to avoid the wind-scoured skiing at the direct summit, and instead punch a track up the ridge. It was a steep track, and the last 150 feet were too steep to skin up without ski crampons. We decided to bootpack it. Rob made the track again, carefully assessing the conditions as he went. I stayed clear of his path, hanging back until he gained the ridge. When he gave the ok I started up, following his footsteps straight up. The crust was under about 6 inches of snow. It was too thick to break with our skis, making skinning impossible, but with ski boots we could kick holes in it creating steps to climb up. It worked great, and we were skiing again in no time. We finished the day skiing down our original line. It was our 5th run of the day. I’m not sure how much vertical we skied that day, but it was by far the biggest day of the trip and the best skiing. We hardly slowed down at all, only stopping at changeovers long enough for a drink of water.

But for every yin there is a yang, and we discovered the only downside of the day when we got back to my van. The rear glass was blown out. At first, I thought I’d been robbed. But a closer look revealed a snowplow had broken the glass with its debris as it drove by. The driver probably didn’t even know. Must have been a rock in the spray or something. Fortunately, all my stuff was still there.

No day can be perfect, but this one was close until this happened. Snow plow damage to the rear glass.

No day can be perfect, but this one was close until this happened. Snow plow damage to the rear glass.

Back at the cabin, Mike helped me clean up the broken glass and tape a piece of plastic over the broken window. We cleaned the surface with rubbing alcohol and used a hair dryer to get the tape to stick. It looked like it would be good enough to get me back to the US, where I would get it repaired. All in all it was well worth the experience and the great day of skiing. I’d much rather ski like that and have a broken rear window than not ski and not have a broken rear window. Fair enough trade.

Although I did not get to ski with Mike this trip, it was great to spend some time with him. He is a great person and true outdoorsman. He has also discovered a way to make his hobby of woodworking into a career in historical restoration and remodeling. He showed me pictures of one of his projects. It was absolutely amazing. He built a gazebo and elaborate trellis as part of a landscaping project using massive oak logs. The amazing part was the way it was built. He designed it and cut all the pieces in Pennsylvania, even though the project was in Ontario. Having looked at the arcing roofline and the way he jigsawed pieces together, it looked unfathomable to me to pre-cut the pieces on spec. In my experience building with wood, there’s always a little fussing you have to do to get the right fit because of the living nature of wood. It bends and bows, shrinks and grows, but somehow he got all the pre-cut pieces to fit. He used mortise and tenon joints and tied it all together with wooden pegs. It’s amazing to build like that on the scale he did, using hand-hewn oak logs up to 8″x8″ dimensions.

Mike and Jim have a special friendship. You can tell from spending time with them that they are not only good friends, but partners in adventure. It can decades to find a reliable partner for the outdoors, but they’ve found it. You need someone with similar motivation, interest, time off, and risk tolerance. The harder you push it, the harder these people become to find. Mike and Jim have taken many adventures together, from skiing the backcountry to bike touring across the USA. They had more stories than they could recall, and they were often discussing future adventures in the works. It’s great to see a duo like that.




I came to BC because to me it has two definitions: British Columbia and Back Country. The two are synonymous when I think of this place and its endless snow-covered peaks. They just go on and on for days, weeks, months, years. A backcountry skier could spend a lifetime here and never thirst for another place. I’ve come craving this place.

It was the place I learned about backcountry skiing on a trip to Red Mountain last year. After earning an engineers salary in Chicago for a few years I was finally able to afford the gear I needed to venture beyond the resorts and into the untamed, untracked mountains.

But first, I needed to get into Canada… I noticed too late that my passport is expired, and I didn’t have time to renew before crossing the border. I discovered online that I can use my expired passport as proof of citizenship, and along with a valid driver’s license I should be able to cross. As expected, the expired passport was a red flag for the customs agent and I was sent for inspection. After a long line of questioning, they said I was inadmissible to Canada and would be turned away. Totally bummed, I started asking lots of questions trying to find some alternative. Eventually the patroller came around and said he could grant me a temporary residency permit that would be good for one border crossing and a limited stay in Canada. The fee was $200. Still determined to get here, I decided it would be worth it and I could cut the costs in other ways. I made it.

My first stop was Whistler. I arrived around noon picking up a hitchhiker along the way. He advised me on where to park and start out. Hitchhikers can be great sources of information. I found the free parking and hit the slopes, first dollars saved.

My next stop was the ticket counter. At $99 per day and no half-day rates available, I quickly concluded this is where I needed to make my next bit of savings.


I saw a snowboarder passing by looking like he was headed to the bus. He had a lift ticket on his jacket. I asked, politely, if he was done using his lift ticket. He let me have it no problem. It was the sticky ticket type so I had to peel the sticker back and re-attach the wire, but in the same time it would have taken me to spend $100, I was riding the lift with no hassles.


It was sunny and warm. Although no snow had fallen in several days, the snow quality was great. The snow was firm but forgiving enough to let me lay deep trenches on each turn. I went straight to the top, a journey that included 1 gondola, 2 high speed chairlifts, and 1 T-bar over the course of 45 minutes. Wow, what a huge mountain this is. I ended up on Blackcomb mountain on the same glacier that I visited for summer ski camp at High North years ago. This time, I had my eye on the steep chutes that I’d heard about back then, a run called Sudan’s Couloir in particular. This became my first run, and after loving it, my second run also.

It was steep and narrow with rocky outcrops you had to jump over in places. A fall would mean big trouble in places, but the snow was very secure and falling was avoidable through jump turns and cautious speed control. I saw a skier fall on it while riding the lift. He took a wide line, fortunately, because he fell at the very top and lost his skis. Once in motion, he couldn’t stop until the steepness relented several hundred feet below. He tumbled and slid over several rock outcroppings doing countless cartwheels on the way down. He was totally fine, but it was dramatic to see. This reminded me to ski cautiously without falling.

I view falling in skiing as mostly controllable. I remember being amazed that my dad would go for years without falling. But now I realize that he simply chose not to push it to the point of falling. For me, I would always push it as hard as I could, falling every single day I went skiing. I wouldn’t fall just skiing the slope, I would fall trying something hard, like a tiproll over a mogul or something. But I’ve found that nowadays I can ski at a high level without falling if I hold back just a little bit from the edge of my ability. That’s important in some terrain where falling could be hazardous.


After the light went flat in the steeps, I found the terrain park. This is the Whistler I knew as a high-schooler, when I traveled here to learn new tricks from the pros. Back then, I would spend each morning building jumps at Seven Springs (PA) and each afternoon hitting them. But in Whistler, they had world class terrain parks and other people built jumps for you. This is the place where I learned backflips and railslides, corked 540’s and how to ride a halfpipe. I got to ride with pros like Shane McConkey, Shane Szochs, JP Auclair, Peter Olenick, JF Cusson, and the Three Phils.

Not much has changed. Whistler still has epic terrain parks, surely on par with any other place in the world. But nowadays, the kids are all going huge and throwing down so hard. The biggest change is that the average terrain park rider at Whistler is now as talented as the top pros were when I was training here. Everyone can throw cork spins and zero spins. Everyone can ride switch effortlessly. Everyone can throw 270s onto rails. No big deal. I spent two midweek days in the terrain park, usually off times for throwing down. I saw huge tricks constantly, stuff that would have been well beyond the top of my ability when I was training for it. I saw one guy throw a 1080 over one tabletop, stomp it, throw his hands in the air shouting in excitement for sticking it, then throw a second one over the next tabletop stomping it and shouting again. Another kid threw a switch 1080. Corked spins were commonplace, typically 720s and 900s both forwards and switch. I was blown away. I’ve never seen so much talent. This place is completely void of gapers.

I had a good day taking it easy and just tasting some big air again. Since living in Chicago, I’ve hardly skied in the past 3 years. For the first time in my life, I felt out of practice at jumping. I was rusty. Sure, I could still float a 720 over these perfectly manicured booters, but I was having trouble getting my grabs down and controlling how many rotations I ended up with. I landed several jumps in between 360 and 540 skidding the last bit around. I also had some surprising trouble taking off switch. I could do it, but it wasn’t comfortable like it used to be. These were all signs to just take it easy. I made as many laps as I could before the lifts closed sticking to tricks I knew I could pull off. I tried to perfect them rather than step it up. This is how I’d like to approach terrain parks these days. If I feel the need to throw something huge its going to be in the powder.

I decided two days in Whistler would be good on my limited trip to BC. So today I spent the morning blogging and hit the base area at lunchtime to clip another ticket. Another $100 saved 🙂

Today was pretty much the same as yesterday, except I felt a lot more comfortable on both the steeps and the jumps and held back a little less. I charged a steep line called Spanky’s Ladder that included a cliff drop into a huge bowl. It was awesome. After looking back up I realized I had picked the perfect line, as the other routes had big rocks exposed that would surely damage the skis.

I ventured to the terrain park again for more practice. I’m slowly getting my comfort back. I managed to pull off a new trick I hadn’t done before, 540 genie grab. I intended to do a 360 but underestimated the size of the jump. I like to do tricks no one else is doing, which usually involves some rare grabs or some blend of old school and new school. These kids still have a few things to learn.

I managed to ski Whistler 2 days for free. The only money I spent was on snacks at the coffee shop so they would let me use their internet and electrical outlets for free. I also skied near the top of my ability, but held back just enough to avoid falling. I’m pretty stoked that I can do that now. I like to keep it safe these days.

I have to add a bit to this post since I had a funny night out after writing it. I figured Friday night in Whistler might be interesting, so I ventured into town in search of some live music. I found some at a local tavern, acoustic guitar and drum kit. At first I wasn’t feeling it – lots of people paying way too much for drinks, somewhat of a rich crowd, not really my type. The band went on set break right when I arrived, bummer. I decided to grab a drink while waiting. The cheapest mug of beer was $5, more than my typical meal costs these days. Those are precious dollars for me and I begrudgingly paid for it. Bummer, it’s like paying 5x too much for PBR. Oh well. The cool part was every screen in the bar had on a ski or snowboard movie, and the lines they were riding were sick. I was getting sucked into one when I noticed some people playing a game I recognized, bite the bag! Except it wasn’t a bag they were going for, it was a $5 bill. If you don’t know, bite the bag is where you balance on 1 foot and try to pick up a standing paper bag with your mouth and stand back up without falling over. Once everyone does it, you fold down the bag, making it shorter and harder, until there’s a winner. A dollar bill is about the lowest anyone can go, since it’s basically just a few inches from the ground. It’s pretty tough, but I was feeling confident. After watching many people struggle for 15 minutes or more, I stepped in. I nailed it 3rd try, like a pro. BAM! I won $5 back, making my trip to the bar a freebie 🙂

2013-Winter-77 2013-Winter-78

Avalanche Safety


Mt Baker is my primary aspiration for backcountry skiing. When I worked here, I desperately wanted to venture out the gates into the endless mountains, but held back due to lack of gear and knowledge. But the Chicago career afforded me the alpine touring gear I needed, and now its time to get the knowledge in place. So it seemed fitting that this would be the place of my first formal avalanche safety training.

At first, I wasn’t sure it would work out because the class I needed to take was booked up. But I got on the waiting list and the instructor advised me to just show up anyway in case someone didn’t make it. As so often happens, it worked out because I went for it. Our instructor, Jeff, was a totally rad dude who makes avalanche safety seem cool. It is cool, because backcountry skiing is cool, and avalanche safety is inextricable from it. The science is fascinating, and during the classroom sessions I would probe all kinds of questions sending Jeff way off the deep end at times. But it was extremely valuable for me to have that kind of interaction with an experienced avalanche veteran.

Jeff shared his personal stories about avalanches he was involved in. Crazy. He was buried once in a completely preventable situation in a shallow slide that you’d never expect could bury you. One of the biggest dangers is familiarity and inaccurate assessment of the potential power beneath your feet.

It was great to practice the rescue scenarios in the field. We had a great group of ranging abilities. But somehow we all clicked, and when it came time for testing our skills, we rose to the occasion with enthusiasm. The instructors would bury several backpacks with transceivers in them in hidden locations. Then we would ski to the scene, and they would report the avalanche to us, often saying there were people buried and the weren’t sure how many. One person from our group would take the lead, advising the others what to do and where to go, splitting the search party across the slope and discovering multiple buried backpacks. We had 15 minutes to establish an airway, after that any survivors are likely to suffocate. In all three of our test scenarios we found and dug up all the backpacks within the 15 minutes. One scenario even included a body with no transceiver to locate, simply a glove on the surface that gave you a clue. The instructors were all impressed, I guess we were the first group to find the hidden body within 15 minutes in “a long time”.

The biggest mistake I saw our group making was the tendency to rush. But rushing the locating and probing process wastes time in the long run. The best approach was described to me as a run, walk, crawl scenario. At first you are scrambling to get everyone searching and find a signal as fast as possible. Then when you get within 15 meters or so you need to slow way down, and pop off your ski gear to walk. When you get within a few meters, you literally get on hands and knees right at snow level and find the strongest signal. Its best to take a deep breath and repeat this process to make sure you’ve got it right, paying attention to the location as well as the depth. Then you probe carefully and methodically. Hasty probing can waste lots of time. Then dig from the downhill side into the slope, paying close attention at the depth you need to dig by evidence of the probe strike.

Although avalanches are super scary and I still have lots to learn about avoiding them, I take some comfort in knowing and practicing what to do in case I ever encounter one. If that ever happens, you have to be automatic.

We spent a lot of time reading terrain and looking at recent avalanches as well. This part was super useful. The best indicator of avalanche activity is avalanches, so many lessons can be learned from simply observing your terrain. While doing this, we also observed a unicyclist riding down the mountain (photo below). I love this place 🙂


Best Powder Day Ever

Best Powder Day Ever

After skiing Jackson Hole, I drove through the night (and another snowstorm) to Sandpoint, Idaho, to check out Schweitzer Mountain. I learned about Schweitzer while living in Washington state, and it has a reputation for great terrain and lots of snow. It’s a real skiers mountain that caters to locals more than tourists. It was somewhat on my way, about 13 hours northwest of Jackson.

I arrived at 10am ready for powder. Schweitzer was reporting a 100” base and 20” of fresh snow overnight. I caught the bus up the mountain road and met some very excited locals. They were saying it would be the best day of the year so far. School was cancelled for the day, and lots of high schoolers were riding the bus to the mountain instead. After winding 9 miles up the snowy mountain road in a chain-equipped bus, we were greeted by fierce winds and blowing snow. I got to the lift to find it had been shut down due to high winds. They were reporting sustained 60 mph wind at the top of the first chair. I did some laps on the bunny hill to kill time and get warmed up for the runs to come, but the lifts never opened. At noon, they made the call that the mountain would not open today. I was super bummed to miss out on these phenomenal conditions, since I could not stay another day.

I went back down and continued my drive west. While driving, I found out that the solstice gathering I was headed to was a day later than the original email said it was, so I had an extra day. I was so tempted to go back to Schweitzer knowing that the 20” of powder was sitting there untouched. However, a call from my friend James got me psyched on Mt Baker instead.

Baker is known for having the most snow of any place in the world, and this year is no exception. They were reporting 130” base and 24” in the past 24 hours, still snowing. James told me he skied there on Monday, and half the mountain was closed due to wind. He expected it to open on Tuesday, making this mountain as appealing as Schweitzer. Tuesday morning came with 6” more snow overnight, bringing the total new snowfall depth to 30”. My buddies Nick, James, and I hit the road early to catch first chair.

I can honestly say I’ve never skied so many lines this extreme, this fresh, and this deep in a single day in my entire life of skiing. The visibility was perfect, and the clouds occasionally opened to blue skies and mountain vistas. When it wasn’t bluebird it was snowing, piling on still more snow. Having worked at this mountain a few years before, I knew the lines well, but I was still blown away by how everything skied in these conditions. I was able to ski lines that are normally impossible, far too steep for most conditions.

The truly unique aspect of Baker is the snow. It gets so much, and it’s not as light or fluffy as other places like Jackson Hole and Utah. This means more work skiing, but it also means sicker lines. The heavy cascade snow sticks to everything, including the steepest pitches around, and small pines act like roots for snowpack preventing sluffing. So lines that would not be skiable at most resorts are skiable at Baker. To top it off, the attitude here is to let people ski whatever they want within reason. There are ropes and signs like other resorts, but they act as warnings more often than barriers. They let you know you’re entering dangerous cliff areas, but they don’t stop you from going there or punish you for it unless it’s truly suicidal. They keep you out of the dangerous avalanche areas, but they let you ski terrain that would never be open for skiing at most resorts.

Nick, James, and I spent the entire day on the snow devouring as much powder as our legs would let us. They had a delayed opening on chair 6, so when the opened it mid-day, we had a whole new untracked world to explore. Our first run we got cliffed out, and ended up dropping a 20 footer. The rest of the day pretty much went like that also. A typical run went knee deep turn, narrow chute, waist deep drift, pillow line, face shot, 15 footer, tree jib, no lift line, repeat. I was smiling all day, a huge powder eating grin. Nick was worried about his knee injury, but the snow was so soft he was able to ride all day dropping cliffs and all. James improved his skiing drastically since I last skied with him a few years ago. He went from an intermediate off-piste skier to stomping 20 foot cliffs with confidence, landing in big arching turns between obstacles. All of us had one of our personal best days of skiing ever. When the lifts closed we could take no more, legs completely zapped.


Nick and I loving life so hard :)

Nick and I loving life so hard 🙂

Brie, this one's for you ;)

Brie, this one’s for you 😉

James getting ready to drop

James getting ready to drop

The few, the proud, the midweek powder hounds

The few, the proud, the midweek powder hounds


That grin never left my face all day, except when it was occasionally blasted with a face shot

That grin never left my face all day, except when it was occasionally blasted with a face shot

The Skiing Begins

I wrapped up a very prolific climbing week in Colorado with friends Curt, Andrew, Jeremy, and Fred on Saturday 12/15. On the final day, Curt and I hit up the Animal World crag at Boulder Canyon in some of the coldest temps I’ve climbed in all year. The temperatures were a challenge, but we got in a lot of climbing and had a great last day, including my first 5.12 flash in Colorado, a route called Days of Future Past. My favorite route of the five we climbed that day was an 11c called Animal Magnetism.

So after climbing all day, Curt went to work the evening shift at his restaurant and I hit the west bound road. I’m on my way to Lopez Island in Washington State for the winter solstice gathering. I had been hoping to ski in Colorado while I was there, but the resorts didn’t have enough snow to justify the high ticket prices. I saw that Jackson Hole had some snow in the forecast, and sitting 9 hours west of Boulder it seemed like a logical choice for the next day.

I arrived at Jackson later than expected, but still in time for a Sunday ski session. The wintery driving the night before suggested a good ski day ahead. The mountain had a 65” base with 7” of fresh overnight. It was cold, so the snow was light and fluffy. The constant wind piled drifts on the leeward slopes, and I found stashes of untracked powder ranging from boot-deep to knee-deep. I learned of a new expression for days like this, “free refills”. The snow kept piling on and the wind kept filling the tracks in leaving a fresh line for every run. It was the perfect first day of skiing. I explored the entire mountain nonstop, only stopping to ride the chairlifts. The new high speed chair Casper had some memorable lines. I found a section of trees completely untracked, and the fast chair let me do 6 minute laps. I cleaned out every fresh line through those trees in about 8 laps.

Jackson Hole has a few claims to fame. It is considered the most difficult ski resort in North America. It is also home to the largest vertical drop serviced by any lift in North America – the aerial tram, which rises 4,139 vertical feet above the base area. Although I was disappointed that the famous Corbett’s Couloir and other difficult descents were closed due to low snow levels, I was stoked to ski so much vertical. I skied the tram from top to bottom nonstop, and timed my runs to catch the last tram ride of the day at 3:30. When I arrived back at the base area, I was surprised to also catch the last gondola ride back up at 4:00. This was a full value day.

The aerial tram at Jackson Hole, WY

The aerial tram at Jackson Hole, WY

Straw man. Somewhere in Montana.

Straw man. Somewhere in Montana.

Sheep in road. I saw one of these signs, laughed, then saw a huge big horn sheep right in the middle of the road. How did they know?

Sheep in road. I saw one of these signs, laughed, then saw a huge big horn sheep right in the middle of the road. How did they know?

Snowy driving for days...

Snowy driving for days…