Friday, April 18, 2008

A descent of Mt Allen's West cliffs chute

April 8, 2008
One of the other obvious lines I've been looking at for the past three winters is in the cliffs on the west side of Mt. Allen. Its doesn't quite match the ultra-classic chutes of Little Cottonwood fame, but looking up from Ogden's east bench its the most obvious steep line, and it proved to be steeper than it looks, sustained over 50 degrees, with a technical approach, and difficult-to-avoid rocks in the upper section. I've never seen tracks in it, although my tracks were snowed in within two days, so it would be easy to miss tracks in it.
2009 update: I've heard of several others who have done the upper entrance, and called it Crazy Larrys, or Extreme Larrys. The main chute is called Scary Larrys, after Larry Allen, whom the peak is also named after.

It had snowed for a couple days. Alta had a couple feet, but the Basin only got around 5" midmountain. I had a "crack of noon club" start, but my first run in John Paul trees was really good! Stable, well bonded, felt more like 7 or 8 inches of well bonded snow that came in wet, then got lighter; really good conditions. I felt the west Mt Allen line calling to me. "Its good!"; I knew it was good to go. I had a rock board with a good tune (thanks Lucas!), and that was the perfect board to have, since the hard base layer demanded some decent edges, but I could not avoid tagging multiple rocks in the upper chute, and countless surface rocks on the exit.

The Mt Allen tram takes the grunt out of the approach, providing access to the wonderful (albeit experts only) backcountry gate at 9350 feet, with about 4400 feet of vertical down to 27th street in Ogden. I traversed out on the Joyride (hitting an invisible rock in the process), and booted up the logical chute to gain the ridge. I saw old boot tracks up the next little peak on the ridge, and wondered if someone had been out there recently. From that high point, it was a technical 60 degree drop for 40 feet or so, then a steep climb to get up the next mini-peak on the ridge, which was really the top of the chute. Noone had been out there. I decided on a toeside sideslip, since that gives more hand tool control, and did a difficult sideslip; moving back; toward the tail of my board; to avoid a stump. I measured 58 and 62 degrees on the sideslip, with my old Life Link slope meter. At the base of the next climb, I loaded the board on my pack, and started kicking steps up another 60 degree slope which was rocky underneath. It was tough, slabby rock with snow on it. I downclimbed and almost bailed on the project, then tried a line a bit further right with better rock handholds, which worked. Now I could look down on my line, and also down a short but rad double fall line that goes back into the Banana chute; I've never seen tracks on that double fall line either, but that will have to wait for another day.

I was pretty psyched to be on top of a quality new descent for me, that I'd looked at for three years! This mini-summit on the ridge was a difficult place to put on my board. Some spectactors gathered at the backcountry gate, which made me a bit more nervous. It took a few minutes of carefully positioning the board, with no handholds, to get my second binding on. I did 3 Oms, then a careful half turn to get to toe-side, and sideslipped out of view of the spectators, threading some rocks at the top of the chute, but still scraping the toeside nose.

Oh YEAH! It was great conditions; a little hard underneath, but enough new snow to make it doable. I slowly cut left and sideslipped, pushing down a predictable sluff. I measured 53 degrees at one point, which seemed pretty representative of the steeper section. Mostly sideslipping, with a few jumpturns, I moved fairly slowly. Coming down to the wider bowl that opened to the left, I did a big cut left where there had been an avalanche accident the year before, directly on the breakover (the potential fracture line). A local snowboarder had "passed on" here in March 2006 (near the Ides of March). I did some prayers and blessings, working on lifting some of the bad vibe that the bowl had taken on. Indeed, the whole Snowbasin backcountry reputation has taken on way too much negativity and fear, it seems to me, at least to listen to the patrollers and Mt. Allen lifties giving their spiel, and as well as some of the 27th St. locals I've hitched rides with. More people have passed on while driving I-15, but you don't hear stories about how dangerous that is.

Two years ago, on the day before that March 2006 avalanche incident, I had done a NNW chute on Mt Allen. There were a couple spots in there where I didn't like the intuitive feeling of the steep, north-facing shaded slopes on skiers left. "Keep moving, don't stop; don't touch that sidewall" was the non-verbal feeling; and I didn't stop; I straightshotted through those sections quickly, light on the board, without touching the left sidewall at all, even though they were the best untracked powder. In hindsight, those shaded skiers-left sidewalls were the same aspect as the Scary Larrys fracture.

Conditions were totally different today, but I wanted to do the cuts that should have been done that day last year. I have never seen anyone cut this bowl properly. If it was a deeper powder day, I noticed that trees were readily available for belayed jumps and cuts, too. I developed self-belay cut techniques on Alta's Mt. Superior in the late 80s, largely because of the avalanche potential. Then I experimented with steeper self-belayed descents, on 50+ degree descents like the Invisible Chute (AKA Pinball Alley, which I snowboarded in 91 on a Winterstick Swallowtail), and the 60+ degree Wave Arete (which as far as I know is unrepeated, mostly due to obscurity, and to rarely coming in). A self-belay saved me a couple times from binding failure falls, when pushing the limits on hard snow steeps on those old Winterstick Swallowtail buckle bindings.

A 70 foot length of 7 mil and harness is light to carry, and provides a huge margin of safety for ski cuts. It never made any sense to me to walk out onto a slope and dig a pit in the suspected starting zone, without being on belay. And if you are on belay, then why not just jump on the probable fracture line as hard as possible a few times, rather than spending time digging pits? A 200 lb skier + 10 feet of air is approximately equal to a 2 lb hand charge. :-).

Back at Scary Larrys chute, I came in high and did a long fast cut left to a safe zone, then an even longer fast cut back right, all the way past the sluff I'd already pushed down. Nothing moving at all; time to turn!

I've only seen 3 tracks in this drainage all season, and I felt fortunate to be able to put tracks in there in such stable, good conditions. There was only about 6 inches of new at this elevation, but it was just enough to float over the crust underneath; down through bowl after bowl, hooking right, chattering on a suprisingly icy choke, then back in thinning powder, down and into the trees. Now the downside of the whole adventure; a couple miles of very tight trees and narrow hiking trail; with some surface rocks gouging at my board; at least I was the first down in the new snow, which softened the crusty trail. The snow got me to within a 15 minute hike to the road, then a lucky 30 minute hitchhike, and I managed one more run before 4 PM. Three runs was a very satisfying day though, when one of them was a super steep personal first descent, followed by 3000 feet of sweet first tracks. Most excellent!

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