Saturday, April 19, 2008

Exploring Mt. Ogden's "little" chute

April 12, 2008
In spite of having to work at 1 PM (or was it 2 :-), I went up to the Basin for a good morning of snowboarding. My buddy Gregg brought a camera, and I hoped to get some photos of that "logical chute" high point I'd hiked over last week. There had been a warm spell, then another fresh storm, and northfacing conditions were excellent, but I didn't have time for a long tour, so I did the Logical chute point, and a few extra turns in the quiet of the backcountry, then we booted back inbounds. Mt Ogden cirque was open, too, but I had to get to work, and didn't have time for the hike. We watched some guys tag the steep line down from the summit towers; "Darn! He took my line!" I joked (March 14, 2009: I met Nate Crowther on the Tram; sounds like those were his tracks). Still want to do that one before the lifts are done this year. I want to measure it, too; it looks to be solidly over 55 degrees; one of the steepest lines on Mt. Ogden. A perfect photo day, too, bluebird!

I met up with another buddy from work, Dave, a ski instructor at the Basin, and we ripped some fun runs in the sun, mixing John Paul trees with the Hollywood groomer out the bottom. We looked at some Mt Ogden lines, and I speculated about a tiny narrow chute to viewers left of the summit tower line. "Is that wide enough?" Dave asked. "I only need 165 centimeters" I replied, and we laughed. That is true actually, but as I would learn in a few days, it is not even 165 cm wide; snow on the rocks just makes it look wider.

This was the last day for John Paul and the Mt Allen Tram, and I am sorry to see them go. They are the heart of Snowbasin for me; the key to the north-facing Snowbasin backcountry.

April 16, 2008
Now the Basin is down to the Needles Express and the Porcupine chair, as far as the top lifts go. At least they extended their season for another week! I stopped at the patrol shack at the top of Porky, and talked to the guys about how to access the backcountry now. Dave Jenkins said that the Mt Ogden cirque was treated as backcountry now, and that meant it was fair game. Porky cirque was closed that day, and so the two (possibly three) east-facing lines on Mt Ogden that I'm interested in were closed today, but they said that I could hike and descend Mt Ogden on the north side. So I traversed out as far as I could (being on a snowboard, that is a falling traverse, but what can you do), and started booting. There was about 8" of fresh over refrozen crust, and I felt quite good about the avalanche potential, or lack thereof, but from force of habit (and to set a good example for any viewers/critics), I booted tree to tree, then did a rising traverse to head for the base of the cliffs. I was headed toward the base of the classic Mt Ogden couloir, and also the base of the "little chute" I'd looked at with Dave.

The booting was a little deeper and more unconsolidated than I expected, so I figured I'd go back to the car for the Vert snowshoes. Just for good measure, I did a cut hard skiers right; nothing moving; then some sweet turns down into a glade.

Back at the car, no Verts! Oops, a major oversight. Verts are the best climbing snowshoes ever made; still, in 2008, far better than anything else on the market for climbing 50 degree chutes. Oh well, it was bootable without, but that would make it quite a bit more work. I went right back up, Needles to Porcupine chair, traversed out, followed my boot, and continued up and right. When I got too close to the cliffs, I tended to sink in to the gap by the rock, sort of like a crevasse. That is what you see early season on Superior for example; clearly noone has hiked this line all winter. Understandable, I suppose, but it made booting alot of work; I was really missing the Verts. I struggled to get around a large crevasse-cave that kept going and going, and sunk in deep a couple times. One patroller in a sweep group started yelling at me (I guess; I couldn't hear him very well), from way down in the glade, then they thought better of it, and left me alone. I suppose they got the word that what I was doing was cool. It would have taken them at least an hour to hike up to where I was, too :-).

I continued up and right, up and right, and finally gained the little chute. Up and up; it steepened to 50 degrees, and over; 30 more yards, and a reading of 53; in another 10 yards, 54. At 55 degrees, I felt a little uneasy; I guess its been a quite few years since I'd been on anything this steep and exposed. I reevaluated conditions; it was good, stable soft powder conditions, plenty of daylight, super good. The chute narrowed into the crux choke, at 55 degrees and steepening. Probing the right side, I saw it was rock with just a few inches of snow plastered on it. Darn! The real snow was only a meter wide, for at least 10 feet, maybe more. I might be able to climb it, but this was beyond something I wanted to descend without a rope, and I hadn't brought a rope. Even with a solid belay, it would be pretty abusive to the snowboard, to grind one end down the rock. I have downclimbed something like this before, with a snowboard on, using rock handholds and "footholds" for one end of the board, but its not something I'd care to repeat, and certainly not solo, without a rope.

So I cut out a platform at the highest spot that was board width (164cm between the rock walls), and started gearing up. The kneepads were already on, so I put on the tailbone pad and back wrap (a Home Depot black elastic back wrap, with the suspenders cut off, that I've taken to wearing this year), tightened up the boot buckles, drank water, did up all the vent zippers, pack buckles, pack on, then got ready for the critical operation of putting on the board. I pounded out solid handholds, carved room to operate the toe throws on my Burton race plates, and eased into the rear binding, then the front binding; no problem! Its always a good feeling to get the second binding on in supersteep terrain. Readying my two self-arrest grip Lekis, I began a controlled sideslip with arrest grips planted; so far so good; pushing down a predictable sluff, as usual. A cut left, then a jump turn to heelside, and a rip down a fun powder ridge, dodging left to miss a rock. Powder!!! Great conditions! There was more than twice as much up here as was reported, a foot and a half, with a softer base than I expected. I cut right to go push snow down into the crevasse-cave I'd struggled to get around, for no particular reason, then opened up the speed for some awesome powder turns, even a couple faceshots in the wind. The mountain was quiet and empty now, over an hour after closing. I dropped left and poked around in the trees looking for powder, then cruised down to the deserted base facilities. Another fine, fine day at Snowbasin!
(March 14, 2009: someone put tracks in this line, from the summit. See the photo in the March 15 2009 post).

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!

Ben Lomond's south face: finally got up there!

The south face of Ben Lomond. 

April 5, 2008
I'd checked out the south face of Ben Lomond through binoculars almost every day for three winters now, at breaks from work. Its the most striking alpine face in the Ogden area, and one of the prettiest in the Wasatch. Even though the runout was melted out now, I didn't want to let the whole face melt out again, and decided to give it a go. Couldn't find a touring partner, but I got motivated enough for a pre-dawn departure, and hoofed up the new construction dirt roads to a water tower well before the sun hit, then through the scrub oak into the main runout gully. At a large boulder in the gully, I put on my boots, huddling on the downwind side in the chilly breeze. Tree trunk fragments everywhere told the tale of huge midwinter powder avalanches. A welcome sun hit, as a hawk circled over the foothills. Slowly crunching up the hard corn snow, the gully was long and mellow; the slopes above were another story.

Multiple cliffs rose in front of me as the couloir snaked right, into the shade of cliffs on the east. Around 9:30 some small rockfall bounced down the snow, so I decided it was a good time to put on the helmet. It occurred to me that mountain goats would love this terrain, and they are notorious for knocking down larger rocks (Hellgate memories ;-), but I didn't see any. I pushed out of the shade and into the sun again, and stopped on a ledge for a rest, and to contemplate a choice. The line I'd chosen through binoculars had a strange ice bulge section, and I hadn't brought crampons or ice tools (just my trusty old Leki self-arrest grip poles, and the Vert climbing snowshoes). So I opted for a more direct rock band. I had cell phone coverage, and called my buddy Gregg, who was set up with his 400mm lens, but the distance was too great, and even the 400mm lens wasn't enough for him to pick me out.

The rock band didn't look too hard, but as I moved up it became deceptively smooth. Contemplated some tough moves in ski mountaineering boots, acutely aware that I did not want to down climb this. It was probably possible to traverse very far left on the descent to avoid the downclimb and the ice bulge, but the snow was shaded and hard over there. That would make it a serious, difficult traverse, rather than a fun soft corn descent. Suddenly some small rockfall pelted my elbow. Leaning in to the cliff, I tried to hide under the helmet; super glad I had put it on. Time to head down, even though the snow was still not that soft here either.
Downclimbed, put on the board on 45 degree hard corn, and gingerly sideslipped through rock solid old wet slide chunks, down into the main chute, where it was much better, a couple thousand feet of sweet soft corn. Didn't hit a single rock somehow (with the snowboard anyway ;-). Quite an impressive face, with loads of limestone cliffs, more difficult than I'd thought to get through.

So the most direct south face lines would require a rappel now. There are some other options that start down the southwest ridge, then cut into the south face on some SE slopes that catch more direct early sun. They would need a bit earlier start, but they would be more consistent soft corn. They also aren't under the myriad of cliffs that ring the central couloir, so there should be less rockfall. I hope to try one of those lines before they are gone this year.

Did you ever read about Marco Siffredi, the young man who did the first snowboard descent of Everest, with *no* sponsors? Incredible story.
The Disappearance of Marco Siffredi

Heres the first half of the Siffredi story, with some classic steeps photos: worth reading to the last sentence:

My old touring partner, Dan Caruso, came up with "playing in the gravity fields", when we were talking about our descents on Mt. Superior, and climbs on the Hellgate cliffs. Whats up Danny!?