Saturday, April 8, 2017

Skiing the Uinta Highline Trail

I have tried a good number of times to embrace the Uinta Mountains.  In theory it's a great zone:  the only east-west oriented major range in the US with tons of great peaks, high elevation, and despite a bit of road access, most of it is quite remote.  But I've been a little frustrated at times:  attempts to kayak the rivers have been met with long marches and lots of wood, backpacking trips have been a bit long, tedious, and wet, and the trails are technical/rocky enough that it's hard to "really" run them well.  But I have continued to try the Uintas periodically and am usually game for a good adventure, so when Chad Brackelsberg invited me to join he and Eric Bunce on a "fast" ski traverse I was intrigued.

The Uintas stretch from near Park City almost all the way to Colorado, with the main ridgeline rolling between 11,000 and 13,500 feet, with a relatively inconspicuous bump on the ridgeline being Kings Peak, the highest point in Utah (the 28 mile round trip to the top is a bit of a rite of passage for most Utah outdoor types).  The Highline "trail" proper goes from a trailhead a little below Leidy Peak at the eastern edge (Leidy is 11,800 feet) to Hayden Pass on the Mirror Lake Highway, and is about 78 miles and has about 15-16 thousand feet of ascent/descent between, rolling over rocky terrain interspersed with lakes, creeks, and marshes.  Chad had done it as a summertime through-run twice:  the first time during a summer thunderstorm (my theory is that the Uintas get hit harder than other ranges in these parts by the typical monsoonal flow because the flow comes up from the south and slams into the long east-west "wall") and he memorably shot a wild-eyed video selfie basically identifying himself and and providing his own last rites because he was convinced that he was going to be struck by lightning. He learned his lesson and waited for mellower weather and he and his wife Emily ran it self-supported under better conditions in about 28 hours.  We knew that the SLC Samurai had given the 2nd "half" a good go in a very long "day" a few years ago late season, and Noah Howell and Andrew McLean made a later attempt that was thwarted before it started, and no doubt there have been other folks who have skied it expedition style, but no one else -to our knowledge - had tried to ski the whole thing sorta fast.

By "sorta fast" I mean that we were on skimo race gear:  yes, the geeky lycra suits, the skinny 160 cm skis, lightweight bindings, and light boots with big gaps in them.  And while our packs felt heavy at 27 lbs (7.5 lbs of food, sleeping bag/pad, bivy sack, repair/first aid, and warm clothes) and made our shoulders sore, it was interesting to note that the total weight  -when combined with my 8.5 lb skis/boots/bindings/skins and 1 lb skin suit - totaled about 36 lbs, and my typical Wasatch day ski get up weighs almost 20 lbs with a 15 lb pack, so it's actually about the same weight that most folks tote around on day tours.

Chad was convinced that despite having a 10+ mile approach to the "trailhead" (it's far too high, remote, and unused to plow to in the winter) it was doable in 3 days with the right conditions, but "right" is sort of a relative term.  If - as Derek Weiss put it - the recently-visited Aleutians are the "Birthplace of Winds" then the Uintas are the bastard child:  the Uintas are famously windy, and when combined with sun, that can make for fast snow surfaces.  But also because they are windy, much of the west-facing terrain gets the snow blown off, and if you wait too long in the spring much of the skiable terrain that never had enough snow in the first place gets melted down to rock.  We had a window of a few days of warm, nice weather after a storm before the next major storm was progged to roll in, so we thought the window might open.

And thus we found ourselves at a random, gated/locked side road off highway 44 at a bit over 7000 feet - almost within sight of Flaming Gorge reservoir - getting dropped off by the ever-generous Jackie who was willing to abet us on our fool's errand:

Fortunately we were able to start on at least a bit of snow right away:

But considering that the treeline in the Uintas is typically near 11,000 feet we had a lot of trees to navigate:

We were looking for a trail that we thought may not even exist, but after some gps-led bumbling through woods:

we suddenly stumbled onto the trail:
We knew it was the trail because the sign said so
now we were able to move uphill more efficiently, which was good, but the heated snow down low had soaked our skins and despite all of us having hot waxed our skins we started "glopping" (a very technical term for snow sticking to the bottom of our skins) as we ascended into colder snow:
skinny skis with even skinnier skins.....still create a fair bit of glop.
the snow wasn't deep to trail break, but the heaviness slowed us down
Ultimately we got to the main road up that leads to Leidy Peak, which had some snowmobile tracks on it:

That made for somewhat easier travel, since the hardened sled snow didn't glop as much and enabled less trail breaking.  After taking 7 hours to go only 14 miles (a bit farther than Chad anticipated) we finally reached the real trailhead:
After 7 hours, let's get going!
And proceeded past Leidy Peak into the rolling hills beyond,

though the snow did indeed get colder, it turned to breakable powder crust, so even though we weren't climbing much more our speed was still slowed by the need to break trail:

Antarctica?  no, eastern Utah...
And this point Chad and I could see that Eric's feet were hurting; every time we stopped he would gingerly pick his feet up one by one to try to take the pressure off of them, and it turned out that marching and breaking trail in the heat of the day had created some quick-onset trenchfoot that was quite painful.  He was stoic about it,
Stoic?!  Eric just laughs at excruciating foot pain!
but it was clear that between his foot pain, the woods navigation, and slower-than anticipated pace we were going to end up a bit short of our goal for the day.   But we found a nice campsite and had enough wood for a fire next to a nicely-reflecting rock:

which was nice because the earlier storm's aftermath had the temps up high get fairly cold; down into the teens.

This was where the "light and fast" thing became a bit more challenging.  We had forgone any kind of shelter, which to traditional mountain folks probably sounds stupid:  doing a late winter/early spring traversed of a remote mountain range between storms with only lightweight sleeping bags and no tents is definitely not recommended in Freedom Of The Hills!  But those guys aren't on skimo race gear nor wearing spandex suits either.   But with puffy jackets and (for me) puffy slippers and mylar bivy sacks we were able to sleep ok.

Another day of trudging over high, windswept ridges followed:

Every once in a while we'd see these forlorn cairns that mark the Highline trail; somebody long ago made sure that these things were big enough to stand up out of the snow!

But we were also able to find a bit of open water to stock up:
best not to fall in whilst quenching one's thirst.
the skiing was sub-optimal:
note the steep pitch that took Eric down!
but we did get a couple of turns:
On ridiculously low angle terrain.  
The Highline trail in this section also drops into some big basins, so we had to do a bit more forest navigating, and despite the warm temps of the day before and the cold temps at night, we still did not have a supportable crust to zip along on, and our progress was still only about 2mph; it was simply not fast enough.
trudging, even downhill
We talked a lot about our options and what it would take to successfully finish, but what loomed large was the storm that we knew was schedule to stomp in hard Friday night/Saturday morning. The timing and ferocity were important, because if it came in early (as the previous storm had) it would really bog us down (or if later, possibly enable us to have more time to finish), and if it came in harder than anticipated we could get into avalanchy situations, or make for even slower, miserable, and possibly dangerous camping/traveling, since we were going pretty light.  
why are those beautiful lenticular clouds forming?
Using the satellite-connected gizmo that was uploading our track to The Interwebs we were also able to get and receive texts from Chad's wife Emily who was updating us with the forecasts, and it became clear that we needed to have a really long day and get a bit lucky to enable us to finish without getting hammered by the storm.  I was pretty dubious, but Chad is smart and safe (albeit a bit obsessive!) guy with not only a lot of silly endurance efforts but plenty of Uinta experience, and he made a good case for our odds of success by charging hard the next day.  But as darkness rolled in and we were still a few miles from our trip high point of Anderson Pass near Kings Peak we pondered trying to get over the pass and ski down the backside in the dark (albeit with great headlamps and a near-full moon) to hopefully find some trees for shelter (the wind was starting to pick up) we decided to camp.
I think our tentless camp at 11,000 feet was featured in this:

As it turned out, the wind did indeed pick up, and it went pretty big.  We didn't get much sleep as the jet force winds started to crank, and by morning it was clear that our thin margin of error had been erased, and it was time to make an early exit.   We had a beautiful sunrise:

Marching into the wind

There's an old saying:  "Red sky in the morning...the GFS and the EU models are in agreement that a major low pressure system swinging down out of Alaska will make for big winds and epic trail breaking!
Chad grumpy we aren't going to do the deal, Eric happy that his trenchfoot may actually heal
Ironically, after we descended from Gunsight Pass and went into the long, flat Henry's Fork Valley
the wind we'd marched into earlier the morning went to our back and the long-sought-after supportable crust finally appeared, and the wind blew us along the flats at 15-20 mph!

And as we got into the long, flat valley that's well known to Kings Peakers we not only finally had the supportable fast crust that we'd been hoping for, but we also had a tail wind that blasted us along at close to 20 mph! But soon enough we dropped out of the wind and into the heated snow, and our trudging through slop recommenced back and forth across the creek:
And it wasn't all that easy:
people think that flat skiing is is, until the snowbank collapses!
until we hit the road and then the three more flat road miles to skin out to the typical wintertime trailhead
At least it was warm enough to make our feet really hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable!
 where our angels Jackie and Brother Paul came for our salvation at our terminus.
Jared Hargrave has a good article in the latest Ascent Backcountry ski magazine about "Bootgasms".  I had one....

My prophylactics
Eric had his own Bootgasm as well
And Chad joined the Bootgasm fest

We could look up and see the spindrift coming off the high peaks, and post-trip checking of weather stations indicated consistent westerly wind speeds in the mid-40's with gusts into the mid-70's, which would have been grueling to march into at best and terrifying at worst with bigger peaks and more exposure looming ahead.  Despite a fair bit of disappointment, it was clear that we made the right decision.

On one hand it was yet another "failure" of an expedition, but despite agreeing to go on these trips I'm more interested in the experience than the actual deed, and this was a great learning experience for me and a good adventure with a couple of great guys that ended well, and that's my real goal.  It's likely that I won't sign on to do the whole trip again, but I am intrigued by "finishing it off" if for no other reason than we were just getting to the meat of the High Uintas.

thanks again to Chad and Eric for letting me tag along and be great pards for such a trip; in skimo races the three of us are pretty evenly matched, and as I anticipated we made for a good team for an outing such as this.

And for Chad's take on this, here's his blog post as well, with some familiar pics and tales

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Skiing Shishaldin - part 0.5

At the time of my last post we were stalled for a day in Cold Bay, Alaska trying to get our last flight of our journey to start hiking towards Shishaldin.  So I familiarized myself with the thriving metropolis:
A gigantic dock that seemed pretty unused, but I'm sure it gets a lot of summer fishing boat action
A fairly bleak phone booth nearby that probably sees less action than the dock
Considering a tsunami rolled through here and took out the town after the 1964 quake that leveled Anchorage, this is fairly real. 
slaying the bar's shuffleboard game
and got antsy for our trip:
Finally we were able to get on the flight to False Pass:

 and get started on our journey.  The weather was promising:
walking up creekbeds to get above the (alder) treeline is important; alders give scrub oak a run for their money as kings of bushwack fests.  
We had a good look at our intended route (in red) to get around the unnamed peak to the left.
and got our first taste of the hard snow.  

it's a bit hard to convey wind in a picture, especially when there's no snow to blow around.  But the wind was cranking here, and just above this we faced the prospect of traversing across those slopes shown in the arrow in the pic above.  We cramponed up and mounted the skis on our packs and started to move, but the wind - that I guessed was in the 60mph range  -was literally blowing us off our feet, especially with skis sticking up over our heads and acting like sails, and making the traverse across 40 degree slopes into the gusty winds with 800 feet of yawning slope below us was unappealing and the day was getting long anyway, so we retreated back down to the creek bottom to a sheltered spot to camp.

There were some nice clouds in the area; I wonder what those cool lenticulars mean?

We found out.  The next morning we awoke to even higher winds, colder temps, and snow.  We later heard that there were 80mph gusts recorded back down in the village, and we had one of "those days" on expeditions (if being 3 mi from a village was indeed an "expedition") that was spent almost exclusively in our humble little home.  Due to weight considerations we went with a pretty small tent with a vestibule, so we had to sleep head to foot since our combined shoulders wouldn't fit, and realized that only one of us could move at a time.  Fortunately Cameron is a really interesting, funny, and chatty guy so the day passed pretty quickly (tho I had to shut him down a bit to dive into the book I had hauled along!).

The next morning broke with clear skies and somewhat reduced wind, so we packed up and headed up towards Round Top Mountain (we changed course to avoid the skitchy terrain we'd been on prior) which we had to skirt around to get into the rolling terrain that would take us past Isanotski to Shishaldin.  And despite our efforts otherwise, we still found some good Alaskan Thwack:

The wind had stipped the peaklet behind our tent fairly clean
Looking back down the drainage that we had come up

We had mellow, rolling terrain as we got towards the peak:
we had two potential routes around this peak:  right and left. 

and actually some powder had blown into the little protected gullies:

But generally the "snow" looked a little on the hard side:
"Gleaming" is rarely a term I associate with snow
We needed to ascend one of two 35-40 degree slopes to get over the flank of Round Top; here's a bit closer view:

and we started skinning up a ramp that took us to the rocky ramp in the middle of the photo.  It was still cold and windy, and despite the fact that it was already around noon and the sun had been out all morning there was no softening going on.  But again, with both ski and boot crampons it would likely be fine.

However, as I was ascending the ramp I looked down to put my hands into my pole straps and a big gust of wind came up and buffeted me; I staggered a little and moved my foot/ski out to the side to brace myself, and suddenly my skis shot out from under me and I was down on my hip, and was stunned as I instantly accelerated to about 20 mph sliding down the ramp that I had just skinned up.  I was in no danger at all, but could not believe how slick it was.  And this was the formidable pitch I slid down:
all of 15 degrees.  
I finally stopped down in the flats not far from Cameron, who had been equally amazed at a) the fact that I slipped in the first place, and b) the speed that I achieved so quickly, even with my pack dragging on the snow.

As I shook myself off and struggled to heave me and my pack to my feet on the ice, Cameron hollered into the wind "Maybe we should talk about this!"  We had literally never experienced snow/ice like this; sure, I'm a Wasatch-based Middle Aged Powder Pussy (MAPP) but Cameron's a former racer, and we realized that our edges were not having any effect on the snow; a "turn" was more like a controlled downhill sideways slide.
whoahh!  45 years of skiing and I look like this on a little ice?!?!  But The Gleamage was on.... 
We looked around and realized that the prospect of actually skiing anything much steeper than what I had slid down seemed scary; it was so weird to look at slopes that we'd normally slash down with nary a thought about it and have them sorta strike fear in our hearts!  I'm sure that our Vermont friends would have laughed at such child's play ice, but it was odd and intimidating.
Tho this is what our Vermont friends were doing at the time!  
We retreated to a slightly less-windy spot for a snack and to discuss.   As I mentioned in the earlier post, Shishaldin is remarkably uniform and we guessed that its steepness was a consistent pitch of the mid-high 30's for nearly all of its 8500 feet of relief and steeper at the top, which in any other snow conditions would be totally fine, but with that ice - that wasn't even penetrable with an ice axe, much less a whippet (an ice axe attachment on top of a ski pole grip, which is all I had) - and even though climbing it with crampons on was fine, the prospect of clicking in and skiing it sent chills down my spine.  The forecast was for decreasing winds and warming temps, but was it enough to soften the ice on Shishaldin?  We guessed that the temps were still in the low-mid 20's; and I asked Cameron what our elevation was:  "Um, 800 feet."  Ok, I'm no meteorologist who knows all about lapse rates, but I do know that typically temps drop as elevations rise, and the concept of any change in snow conditions happening 8500 feet up seemed low.  And even with the wind at False Pass expected to drop, we had been told by virtually everyone that these mountains - at the intersection of the Bering Sea and the north Pacific - create their own venturis, so it was bulletproof, but at least we'd continue to get blown around on it.

For sure, had we brought ice screws and a rope things could have been different, but it wasn't really a "climbing" trip per se....

So it came down to this:  we realized that the prospect of skiing the peak was low at best, so were we willing to hike for 2 days to confirm the decision and then turn around and hike back, or do we decide now and cut our losses?  It wasn't really a backpacking trip, and even getting over our first obstacle to get to the rolling terrain was clearly "a deal", and the answer seemed fairly clear.  And thus we made our retreat.
skittering along the gleamage.  The noise of our edges was deafening.  

As we got back into the drainage this guy seemed to be sort of mocking us:
but we looked back at the mountains and saw the day's prior skiff of snow blowing off the peaks:
Upon reaching False Pass we were greeted by our fan club:
and retired to the community center:
to await the flight scheduled for the next day.

That night I tossed and turned a bit and started second-guessing our decision:  why not just go for a ramble in the mountains in a remote area?  We'd scheduled the time, the weather was fine, and maybe there was powder up that high?  But as we hung out in False Pass we realized that the "warming" that was forecasted meant it went from the low 20's to the mid-20's:
Cameron chatting with a local all bundled up
and we felt that our decision was validated.  It simply had been a lean snow year with cold temps and tons of wind, and thus the conditions did not invite success.
But it sure did look appealing at sunrise.  Our intended route around Round Top was through the col in the middle of the pic
Not surprisingly, Cameron got the better pic.  Looks like fun skiing!
One of the planes associated with our retrieval back to the real world had mechanical problems, so we got to spend another day hanging out in False Pass.  A few interesting bits about life out there in the Aleutians: Energy is created by generators, and they go through 250 gallons of diesel a day for the 45 residents:
they get grocery delivery by boat - including produce - once every 2 weeks.  And it's a pretty small place:
Where even the labs got some Alaskan husky (eyes) in them:

It's a pretty bleak place to live and the lack of available resources and expense/challenge of leaving for any reason is really interesting, but folks there seem to roll with it just fine.  And there is a nice little hike above town:
vanquished but happy
Alaskan hiking shoes
apparently it's a big migratory route for grey and humpback whales; it's the first real break in the Aleutian chain between the Bering and Pacific.  But apparently there's a sizeable orca population, and the orcas prey on the greys by grabbing the fins of the young whalettes and drown them.  But some folks actually realized that the parents go underneath the mess of orcas hanging onto their young and just push them all up to the surface (and humpbacks have been seen doing the same to grays to help their fellow whales against the orcas).

The plane finally came for the next leg of our journey home:
You can tell we're going home because Cameron's walking the opposite direction than he was in the previous airplane pic!
Back in Cold Bay we appreciated the mellow airport again, that has no prob with a bit of imbibing near the gate:

And eventually ended back in Anchorage, where we were able to check in with Wendy and her man John for some yuks:

That area of Alaska has had a cold, windy, and relatively dry winter, and even though we had more time there, I wasn't keen for hunting and pecking for icy gullies between wind-swept ridges, so I headed home (tho Cameron stayed and the cold, high pressure forecast at Girdwood somehow yielded 8" of powder the next day!)

If you want the security and predictability associated with most vacations, late winter in Alaska and specifically the Aleutians is probably sub-optimal.  And Shishaldin may be a bit elusive even beyond that.  Maybe later in the year, like May?  But with a ratio of 2 monster grizzlies per sq mile there would be an added adventure layer.   Will I be as keen as Cameron and return for another go?  Unlikely.  But despite the lack of activity and the lack of success, it was a fun trip, mostly because Cameron is a great pard for something like this and made the downtime pretty entertaining.
My only view of our objective, from the plane......