Bishop bouldering and highline

Not a bad view around here...

Not a bad view around here…

Bishop, California is one of America’s top destinations for bouldering. Although I typically sport climb with a rope and harness and such, I’m growing to like the simplicity of bouldering. Each problem is only a few moves, and relatively low to the ground. You can try really hard moves again and again with low consequence to failure. This is not true on a sport climb, since each attempt takes several minutes of preparation tying into the rope and getting to the crux. With bouldering, a crew of climbers can set up crash pads and try the same problem as many times as it takes to pull it off. With bouldering you can do harder moves. It’s a very pure approach to climbing, since it’s just you and the rock, no extra weight to drag along and no gear to distract you.

I’ve come to Bishop to get stronger, and test my limits with outdoor bouldering. Before this trip, my hardest outdoor bouldering send was V5. Even though I’m coming off a rest season, I’m feeling really good and have high expectations for this trip. I already sent two V6 boulder problems and several other V5’s. Since I’m planning to be here for another week, I think I’ll be able to step it up again before leaving. My goal is to pull off multiple V7s or a single V8… exciting new territory for me.

I met a cool crew of climbers from Casper, Wyoming. They were setting up a highline between the two largest boulders in the Buttermilks. I went to check it out, since I’ve been wanting to set up a highline for years. The guy on top, Ryan, invited me up immediately to try it. I was hesitant at first, but I decided to at least check out his set up to see how he rigged it and such. It was the safest setup I’ve ever seen. The line was 1″ webbing, standard slackline material and length. Taped to the bottom of the webbing was a dynamic climbing rope as a safety backup. Each side had three expansion bolt anchors, the same type I trust my life to when climbing. He also used a dynamic rope for a tether, attached from the climbing harness to the highline by a figure 8 rappel device. This was backed up by a secondary tether as well, an unnecessary but comforting extra backup. After examining the setup, I felt totally comfortable taking whips out there. I decided to give it a go.

Ryan advised me to start the adventure by jumping off the boulder and taking a whip right off the bat to get the jitters out. I wasn’t afraid of the whip, but I decided to suss it out differently. I scooted out a safe distance from the boulder, and tried to stand on the line from a sitting start. This is more difficult than walking onto it, but I wanted to get a feel for the line in a safe location. I didn’t want to fall right next to the boulder and risk hitting it on the swing. Eventually, I was able to stand, but I wasn’t comfortable enough on this line to walk it yet. After several small falls, I took a full value whip on the tether, swinging from the line upside down. It was a little scary as expected, but the rig held no problem and I had taken care of my jitters. I climbed over to the opposite boulder, walked onto the line, and crossed it successfully the very next try. Ryan and I were the only ones to try the line that day, and he had sent it on his first attempt before I arrived. Double send!!! 🙂

 

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Dianna

I just learned of a dear friend’s tragic passing, so unbelievably sad. It reminds me that life is a fragile thing, far too precious to waste. For this reason we must live every day, truly live, so that when that inevitable day comes we will not be caught with unfulfilled dreams. Dianna lived to her fullest in every moment. I have never met a person more alive. She will always inspire me to live life like that.

There’s not much I can do when a dear friend is lost, but I feel inspired today to record a few of my favorite memories of Dianna. They will live on with me for life.

I first met Dianna at pre-season ski instructor training at Mt Baker. A core group of us newbies quickly formed, including James, Max, and Barbara. We carpooled to the mountains most days. Unable to contain her excitement, Dianna would always convince us to get up way early and be the first instructors at the mountain. We spent the morning playing in the new snow, doing acrobatics in ski boots, setting up pranks for the other instructors, or causing some kind of ruckus. To Dianna, everything was a game, and you never knew what was coming next. The only guarantee in hanging out with her is there is never a dull moment unless she’s preparing a surprise attack. Dianna was the kind of person who might dive tackle you at any moment, hit you in the face with a snowball, do a flip over your head, or give you a giant hug. She wore a fuzzy hat with cat ears, and dressed up in animal masks whenever possible. She loved animals and loathed children, but I guess she just had more fun bringing the kid out in adults.

I spent New Years 2009 with Dianna and Max. It was a crazy night. We ended up at a house party with a stripper pole in the middle of the room. While most people were standing around talking and getting drunk, Dianna started pole dancing in a room full of strangers. Of course she was upside down spinning in circles in no time, whipping around the pole at dizzying speeds, and convincing as many people as she could to join in the fun. To her, restraint was never an option worth considering.

Of course we had many good times skiing at Baker, but one early season session in the natural halfpipe was particularly memorable. Dianna, James, Arielle and I spent the afternoon attempting handplants on the steep walls of the natty, then doing polish bagels and wormrolls on the groomers. Dianna was of course the least afraid of us to fall or get snow up her jacket. She loved rolling around in the snow and getting others to join in with her.

And then there was the epic party at Dianna’s where she entertained us by launching toilet paper rolls out of a water balloon slingshot from her balcony, sending streamers over passing cars. That night also featured many flips over random objects such as couches. Dianna was a gymnast and she didn’t hesitate to do a flip off of anything or nothing. She also had the ability to absorb brutal crashes of all sorts with her body somehow coming out unscathed and laughing. So she frequently used her body as a missile. She gave me a good surprise that night when I was standing next to the kitchen table. She came flying full speed head first through the open window from the balcony into the apartment, sliding across the table into a group of people. You just never knew what would happen next. When I asked her about the homemade alligator mask hanging on her wall, carefully crafted from cardboard and wrapped in aluminum foil, she casually explained it’s what she liked to wear when having sex. Somehow I don’t doubt it, lol. She made sure everyone around her was on a constant adventure. Laughter, fun, shock, and awe were inevitable and constant in her presence.

Dianna knew exactly what she wanted to do, and it suited her personality perfectly. She trained exotic cats, the bigger the better. Tragically, the career she loved is what took her life. I’m confident in her short years that she lived a fuller life than most people ever achieve. I remain inspired by Dianna’s quest to fill every moment with adventure, spontaneity, and laughter. In these memories and so many more, she lives on.

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A few peaceful days with Grandpa Brian and Grandma Cindy

An important part of this journey by van is visiting my scattered network of friends and loved ones along the trail. I had the pleasure of visiting my Grandpa Brian and Grandma Cindy at their recently constructed home in Chico, California. It was a great visit and a pleasant retreat after my many exhausting adventures in the backcountry.

Our activities featured a tour of Sierra Nevada brewery, a hike in the upper Bidwell Park in Chico, and a longer hike to Feather Falls. I’ve included a short video of the Feather Falls hike at the bottom of this post. In general, our days were very relaxing. We spent lots of time talking about family, politics, and watching home videos from years past.

The brewery tour of Sierra Nevada was particularly impressive. I was amazed to learn what a great company they are, and I really can’t say enough positive things about what they do – in addition to providing great beer :). Sierra Nevada produces about 80% of the electricity they consume on site. About half is accomplished through solar panels and the other half fuel cells. Sadly, the fuel cells run on natural gas, so they are not renewable energy sources, but they are a better alternative than electricity from the grid. On the upside, they capture waste heat from the fuel cells and use it in their brewing process. They were also an early adopter of fuel cells, helping to promote the new technology by installing their system eight years ago. In addition, they treat all their waste water on site in a very impressive sounding process that includes a biogas digester from which they capture waste methane and, once again, re-use it in their brewing process. Since they produce their own electricity and treat their own water, they have gone to great lengths to conserve both water and energy throughout their entire operation. They have been chosen as the US EPA green business of the year 2 years in a row. They also treat their employees extremely well. Employee benefits include on-site day care, company medical office, company masseuse, land provided for employee gardens, pet insurance, and a case of beer with every pay check. As a person who likes to vote with my dollar, I’m planning to buy much more Sierra Nevada after learning of these commendable values. Surprisingly, this free tour included samples of 9 beers, including 2 quads, a barleywine, and an imperial stout. Clearly they enjoy experimenting with new recipes, and they produce limited releases regularly that won’t ever be seen again. They had a new quad made with prunes, and another that was aged in brandy barrels. They also had a beer made with shiitake mushrooms and a hint of rice. So rad!!!

My Grandpa Brian is a really interesting character, and I would like to say a few words about him. Although he’s turning 75 this year, he’s in better health than most Americans. Both GB and GC have gone to great lengths to live healthy lives, and he said he doesn’t feel any different mentally or physically than he did in his 30s. He’s very interested in politics, and we spent hours debating and discussing global issues. His wise conservative perspective often clashes with my educated liberal view, but as open individuals we were able to dive into a broad range of issues and see eye to eye. It was enlightening discussion, leaving us both with food for thought.

Grandma Cindy made wonderful meals, both healthy and delicious. We enjoyed talking about food and exchanging recipes. I also got to make them a meal one night, Thai coconut curry. Their new house is very comfortable, and I felt right at home. They have a nice plot of land with vibrant landscaping and a surprising amount of wildlife. I was delighted one morning to see my first bobcat in the wild – the wild being their back patio, lol. It strutted across like it owned the place. In additions they commonly spot coyotes, rattlesnakes, a variety of birds, and even mountain lions in their yard. How cool is that?

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!

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.

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Skaha (Penticton, BC)

After the climbing day in Squamish, my partner for the day Dmitry told me I should visit a sport climbing area east of Vancouver. He figured it was on my way to Red Mountain. Overhanging sport climbing, the best in BC. I was intrigued, but hadn’t figured out my next day yet.

So that night, I spoke to my buddy Will, a local Squamish climber who I met in Mexico. I found out he was in the area, Whistler! But he was in rehab from a climbing injury he sustained in Yosemite. He’s a soloist from time to time, likely out of necessity when he’s traveling alone.

He typically solos with a gri-gri, literally belaying himself up the climb. This is a slow procedure, because you have to tie down one end of the rope while leading the pitch. Once anchored, you have to clean the route and retrieve the tied end. That’s fine for single-pitch, but a climb 12 pitches long may not be possible in a day with that method. Sometimes Will free solos to speed things up and conserve energy on multi-pitch.

Unfortunately, he took a fall while free soloing in Yosemite a few weeks ago. This means no ropes, ground, smash. I asked him which pitch. “The first one”. “How many pitches were there?” “Fifteen”. “Lucky dawg”.

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Climbing with Will in Mexico, Land of the Free, 1000ft 5.11d

Will is healing up from some busted bones, nothing major thank goodness. I won’t get to climb or ski with him this trip, bummer! But stoked of course that he’s alright. So glad for him. I’m sure he had a good scare, and now has a great opportunity to learn from it. So do I. Free soloing is bad news. Will also mentioned he felt off that day. Some plans had been cancelled earlier and the entire day went south. Perhaps there were some signs. Free soloing is very mental, and you have to be all there. If something takes you out of the zone you’re not safe. This isn’t how I like my climbing.

Will also told me about Skaha, said it’s sick. There are some south-facing walls, so if the sun is out there may be climbers. I decided to drive there right away. It was 8pm and I was 5 hours away. I slept part way there to break up the drive and arrived the following morning. I didn’t have directions to the crag, so I stopped in the main town nearby, Penticton, to ask.

The first thing I saw in Penticton was an alley with the sickest graffiti murals I’d seen in a long time. I haven’t seen good graffiti like that since Europe, and I had to stop to take a closer look.

I got directions from the local gear shop, and I was on my way. The town seemed cool, probably a great place to live. I drove up the road toward the parking area for Skaha Bluffs. However, the gate was closed, so you have to park about a mile downhill from the lot and hike in. Everything is covered in snow. It wasn’t a sunny day, so I didn’t expect climbers in the -2°C cold. But there were a few other cars, so you never know.

I ran into a fellow when I was hiking up the road. He was a route developer, and uses the winter season to develop new sport routes. I told him I’m getting into this as well at the Red River Gorge. He said the rock was very cold and wet many places, so he wouldn’t expect climbers out today. He asked if I was going to climb solo. Thinking of Will, no way man. I’m going for a hike and to see the crags, but no worries it’s just nice to be outside. I trudged up the hill through the snow.

The climbing at Skaha looks amazing. I definitely want to visit here to climb someday. The route developer on the trail said April and September are the ideal months. Other times can still be good but those are your safest bets. He said on sunny days he would climb all winter, but its always cloudy in winter, so its too cold. In summer it gets hot, 35°C. If anyone who reads this wants to take a trip here in the fall let me know 🙂

Whistler

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 🙂

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