THE PLACE TO GO WHEN YOU CAN'T GO BACKPACKING

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alpine touring

Intro to Ski Touring

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ski touring
Read the four things you need to know about ski touring in the Pacific Northwest. Find out where to go and where to get gear for your excursion.  Photo Source: galleryhip.com

Is this the year you start ski touring?  As the weather cools, the leaves change, and the clouds roll in, true PNW folk delve into the joys of fall.  A sense of festivity floats in the air this time of year.  We enjoy long drives full of dark colors, excessive coffee consumption, apple pie, and pumpkin picking.  Yet, for many of us, excitement is building behind all the fall fun—snow is on its way.

Skiers and snowboarders live by anticipating snow.  Our sport is based solely on what Ullr decides to give us, and we wait with open hearts praying to snowboard bonfires and shots of whiskey…please, please bring snow and bring lots.

Ultimately, we are all looking towards the upcoming season and new adventures to pursue. Are you tired of weekend lift lines and the same old runs? Maybe this is the year you step into ski touring.  That leap is not always easy, so here are four basics to get you started.

Four Basics for Ski Touring

  1. What you need. There are a few key items to get into the backcountry. First, you need skis and bindings that tour.  These range from alpine like bindings that transform into touring bindings to something called a tech binding.  The tech binding is significantly lighter, but you need alpine touring specific ski boots.  Either way, you want your ski boots to have a walk mode to avoid blisters and an uncomfortable tour up hill.  You also need skins, which are a synthetic material you attach to the bottom of your skis to glide up the mountain and not slide down.  Finally, if you are going into the backcountry, you always need to have an avalanche beacon, an avalanche shovel, and a probe.
  2. Getting the Gear. It is a lot of new gear to get! To purchase the entire touring kit in one sitting is a large investment.  However, there are a lot of shops around Washington that will rent out this gear for you to try at an affordable price. If you are going to Snoqualmie Pass area or live on the east side, stop by Pro Ski and Mountain Service in North Bend.  They will get you the complete set up. Near West Seattle? Mountain 2 Sound Outfitters will hook you up. Or, are you heading up to Mt. Baker? The Glacier Ski Shop has the goods to get you going. Possibly you live in Seattle, then Second Ascent in Ballard is the place to go. All these shops are local, so feel free to ask them any questions about touring and terrain in the region.  It is a great way to try out touring and shop local!
  3. Education. This year, you want to get away from the crowds and explore the mountains. Just remember, once you leave the secure, avalanche patrolled, ski area ropes, it is up to you and your group to stay safe.  Nature is an elusive, wild, threat, and snow filled mountains present many dangers.  Although this is not to scare you away, every person in the backcountry needs to be aware of the implicit danger that comes with wandering away from ski area boundaries.  Begin by finding a group of people who have experience in the backcountry.  Also, check out an educational book, specifically Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper.  Pick up a copy of this book where you are demoing your gear.  However, the best way to prepare for backcountry skiing is to take an AIARE Level 1 Course (an avalanche safety course).  These are offered throughout the winter by many different organizations. Take a look at the AIARE website to find one that suits you.
  4. Where. You’ve got the gear, you’ve found a group, now where do you go? Start with the side country around the ski area you are most comfortable with. Moreover, it’s always a good idea to pick up a book about backcountry skiing in Washington. One great book to pick up at your local ski shop is Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Routes-Washington by Martin Volken.  Additionally, there is also 100 Classic Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Routes in Washington by Rainer Burgdofer.  Coupled with Turns All Year, which is a great website for backcountry skiers in the PNW.  It’s always a good idea to have a route plan when heading out, so use these resources to be prepared.

Finally, the most important thing about ski touring?  It’s so fun!  Live the life of fresh untracked lines, solitude in nature, exercise, and joining a community of great people.  Winter is on its way, is this the year to leave the ski area?

ski touring
Photo by Hilary Morris.

 

Alpine Touring in Aspen

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Alpine Touring

Alpine touring, or randonee, is one of the more recent and most cherished additions into my outdoor life. Since I began skiing at the age of three, I have explored resorts throughout the Northeast, Utah, and Colorado. Yet,I have never once carved an edge into snow far removed from any lift line or snowcat. That all changed two years ago when my dad and I threw ourselves blindly into the backpacking, hiking, and skiing package during a seven day, hut-to-hut ski tour known as the Haute Route from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland. Since that trip neither my dad nor I touched another pair of skins or AT skis. That was until my alpine touring this past March in the Green-Wilson and Friends huts in Ashcroft, CO, just outside Aspen. Took our alpine tour with the Aspen Expeditions Guiding Company.

Alpine Touring

Our first day started at the Ashcroft Trailhead via the Pearl Pass Road with a 6 mile, 1,780-foot elevation skin to the Green-Wilson Hut. Unlocking my lifters for the first time was like detaching a leash from a dog that has not seen his owner for weeks. That energy combined with that of the sun beaming on the 12-14,000 foot peaks on either side of me swept the monotony of a moderate, 5 hour skin off my mind. The road passes beneath various avalanche paths, and at one point after skinning around a bend in the road, we were face-to-face with aspen trees near parallel to the ground. Our guide, Amos Whiting, shook his head in disbelief of what was probably the worst avalanche of the year in that area.

We cut through alleys of conifers that offered brief relief from the unobstructed sun reflecting harshly off the snow. After almost five hours of road-grade steepness, I was oddly thankful for a steep climb for the last 500 feet to the Green-Wilson Hut. My body seemed to be sick of the unchallenging rhythm, and craved some type of risk, even if it were as small as sliding 10 feet down a short slope.

An hour after arriving at the hut, our ski senses were tingling too much to ignore. We skinned for a mile up to 12,160 feet for a run called The Backyard. Any and all winds were absent, which caused a dominating silence to vibrate from the surrounding Mace Peak, Star Peak and Pearl Peak. We had no one who could disturb our first canvas of S turns that we carved into the packed powder and crust layers.

The next day was all about finding the best quality terrain with the least avalanche danger on the ridge surrounding Castle Peak (14,265 feet). All of this was well above treeline. From the hut, we skinned southwest up the major drainage and swung west towards Castle Peak. Amos’ plans A and B brought us about halfway up the northeast face, but were foiled by unstable, avalanche-prone snow and the dreaded womping sounds filling the whole valley. Most would say that we wasted four hours hunting, but how can time ever be wasted on a bluebird day in the backcountry?

Alpine Touring

Besides, as a result of our aborted treks, I skied my first ever 50-degree slope on a couloir on the southwest side of the ridge at about 13,000 feet. It was one of those runs I look at and immediately give myself a pre-ski pump up talk to ensure I’m not stalemated by either the narrow space in which I am forced turn or the lingering fear of such steepness. “Keep your shoulders facing downhill. Don’t let your backhand drop behind. Link your jump turns. And, please, just make this an epic run after 5 hours of hiking.”

I focused so hard on that last command that the technique flowed from my mind to my body effortlessly. I reached Amos, breathing hard and smiling as intoxicatingly as when I received my acceptance letter from Colorado College. A day like that, and particularly a run like that, were well deserving of Jack Daniels and red wine back at the hut.

The next morning, we retraced our skin track to The Backyard, passed over Mace Saddle and the north side Pearl Pass (12,705), and skied to the edge of treeline where Friends Hut was tucked away in the conifers. In total, the skin was about 4.5 miles, 1,350 feet up and 1,220 feet down. On our way down through packed powder, breakable crust, and wind drifts, we noticed an enormous cornice stretching across the entirety of Carbonite Ridge. To say the least, we wouldn’t be skiing up there.

It again was terrain huntin’ time. Amos and I left my dad at the car stero speaker and 600 degree wood stove equipped hut to skin up to a couloir on the Star Peak ridgeline. It’s funny how many barriers are broken on backcountry trips. Would you ever think a 37-year-old and an 18-year-old could spend a two-hour skin and boot up a 40+ degree slope talking and laughing about shared experiences without even a moment for an extra breath? The lure of the slopes just acted as our imaginary chairlift.

Alpline TouringWe made it with our skis on our backs and ice axes in hand about 20 feet below the top of the ridgeline, where the faceted snow eliminated any stability in terms of both avalanche danger and booting capability. This would be our summit. I couldn’t complain. It’d be a sin to. Another bluebird day. Another 50 degree slope.

That night, as I wrote in the hut log, I couldn’t ignore the fact that we were leaving, that the nights of our potty humor were almost over, and that I wouldn’t have the slopes within reach. I guess that’s just part of reality. We all wish we could stay in the backcountry forever and live as simply and as genuinely as such an environment encourages. The best we can do, though, is ski that final 50 degree slope with bountiful passion and appreciation, and then of course celebrate the ending of yet another invigorating trip with a round of beers.

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