Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Slaying the Sawtooths

I have had the good fortune to do a lot of hut and yurt trips for great skiing and great yuks with friends, and while the latest is always “The Best” I have to admit our trip to the Williams Peak yurt in the Sawtooths this past weekend was definitely in the “unusually good” category with incredible terrain, a foot of new snow that stayed cold/good, bomber stability, and a strong, game, and excellent crew.   

Jeannie Wall was the ringleader, having not only booked the trip a year ago but she’s also been in the yurt 6 or 7 times previously and knew the area intimately, brother Paul was keen to get out of the Wasatch, Mike Elovitz blew in from the mountains of Cincinnati to lay it down at 10,000 feet, John Heppolette came off of new fatherhood and the presidency (I think) of Citibank in NYC for his first days of skiing of the year (one of the few guys I know who could pull that off!), and Derek Gustafson was willing to take some prototype BD boots that bore his signature up into the hinterlands for a few days. 

I have driven and ridden past the Sawtooths several umpteen times and have always said “That looks like incredible skiing” but have never really partaken.  We had a great trip to the Pioneer range a couple of years ago, but the Pioneers aren’t the Sawtooths in terms of either terrain or snowpack, and there’s a reason that Stanley is a bit of a legendary place: one of the coldest spots in the country with big, craggy mountains that rise nearly out of town.  A friend at Black Diamond described it quite well:  “The drama of the Tetons but the sprawling, ridge-like nature of the Wasatch.”  With no people.  A pretty killer combination. 

The week prior we had a major heat wave in the Wasatch that took out a good chunk of our snowpack, and Idaho was not spared either.  We’d been watching the Sun Valley avy forecast and their convoluted report for the Sawtooths seemed grim, to the point where the morning of our entry we were rolling our eyes wondering if we’d even get to ski anything at all, much less the steeps that Williams is known for.  But we trudged in, ever-hopeful that we’d find something “different.” After a quick transition at the hut to dump our food and overnight gear, we tiptoed up the adjacent “Skier’s Summit”; a 1000’ triangular and gladed toe of a long ridge that would prove to be our gateway to the goods as the days went on.  Our initial two runs were promising; our quick pits indicated at least decent stability and the skiing was passable:
Jeannie lapping it up
Mike utilizing his Ohio-honed powder technique
The next morning – after a classic central ID frigid night in the low single digits -  we headed towards the nearby Marshall Lake, again being quite careful and since it was all new terrain and a different snowpack.  But as we skied and poked and prodded at the snowpack, our confidence grew, and noodly glade skiing started turning more into open shots:
Derek layin' it down

And eventually – as the days went on, the weather stayed stable, and the cold temps kept even the late March sun’s heat at bay on the copious and big south facing lines – we probed the steeper, committing couloirs:

Paul diving in....

After emerging

We were able to hit the couloirs indicated here; they all have names I can't remember.

I wasn't much help on the boot pack up the couloirs; the lighter-weight Jeannie and Derek put in nice steps while fat boy just trenched it out:

Jeannie working on her sluff management

Putting that Cincinnati ski hill work this winter to some good use! 
And we hit some bigger lines.....


Here's a shot of the yurt:

and it's very social shitter:

 In keeping with my dorkdom, I have been wearing a bike helmet whilst skiing this winter and have covered the top vents with packing tape to keep the snow off my increasingly-thin pate.  I inexplicably took it off right before my last run, which invariably meant that I was going to take a digger and test the efficacy of the now-absent packing tape:
Ah well.  Despite a bit of a cold head from this one, a pretty extraordinary trip.  As Jeannie pointed out, it'll be hard to go back there because this trip was about as good as it gets! 

Thanks again to Jeannie for setting it up, Derek for driving us all up there, and John for hauling in most of the alcohol! 

And this came at the end of a great birthday week, that started with a great lasagna feast (prepped by Ash) with great folks in SLC (and capped by her incredible carrot cake) and then another awesome celebration with old friends in Portland at the Lucky Lab:
Neil, Blair, the resurrected Michele, Ryan, Martha, Megan, the surprise visitor Bruce, and (fortunately!) not sullying the photo are old Irving St Homies Trig, Paul, and Andrew
And yet another dinner at Kell's pub with the Denecke clan. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Odes To Spring

Given the mild temps of last week and the fast melt of a lean snowpack, it appears that Wasangles Skiers are making their annual migration from skiing to other activities, and as such I was reminded that I did a little ode to this springtime oddity a coupla years ago on Xtranormal:

That said, perhaps we shoulda been doing some mountain biking or running in lieu of skiing on a too-hot day on Friday? see Andy D's great writeup and pics of an interesting outing here:

Skiing Japan - Chapter 3

It snows in Northern Japan.  A LOT.  Here is Ash, marveling at the snowbanks in Hirafu village, near our hotel:

And here’s the info at one of the resorts’ base lodges:

420 cms is – if I’ve done my math right – a 13.8 foot base.  In early March.  Considering that they typically get Wasatch-style  snow densities of 4-5%– and in 2011 we had 750+ inches of snow in the Wasatch by late May that created a 12 foot base – they may likely be in the 1000-inch range for the season?!?!  It basically snows like mad.  British Columbia, with its copious snowfall, gets some amazing huffalumps (my own personal term for huge snow deposits in trees) but those are on evergreens; Hokkaido gets them on deciduous:

The only problem is that when I wacked a few of these to get the lumps to fall off, the branches came whipping up and in turn wacked me in the face!  Or perhaps could actually fall down and kill me:

I didn’t get a picture of it, but in the towns the plows actually now just harvest the snow; that is, they can’t blow it high enough to get over the banks, so like a combine harvesting wheat, they grind up the new snow and pitch it into a series of dump trucks, which of course have to cycle through pretty fast, because it doesn’t take long to fill a dump truck with snow after a foot-high storm!  But it comes in fast enough that the plows can barely keep up – and the temp got above freezing for a while the last couple of days - and we found that by far the most dangerous part of our trip was walking around town, and were wishing we had our little yaktrax-like spikes for our shoes and our ski boots (since we had to do a bit of walking around town in our boots.  Check out the gleaming pavement here:

We couldn’t believe there weren’t more pedestrian and car accidents, especially after seeing the mayhem caused by the icestorm in SLC this winter during the OR show (and considering that the likes of us consistently looked the wrong way when crossing the street!). 

After our one clear weather day, Hokkaido got back to doing what it does best – snowing  - and we decided that the lower slopes of the big Yotie volcano would provide some fun tree skiing:

Armed with Toshi’s maps, we got a taxi driver to take us to a very random spot in the middle of nowhere:

And fortunately were able to follow an old skin track through some very nondescript woods for a coupla kms, to the base of some nice open lines through the sparse trees at the base of the volcano.  Up we went, to pretty much the last possible tree, above which it was pure, vertigo-inducing whiteness.  

But the viz was fine down in the trees, and we were able to ski three awesome 1500-2000 foot runs through classic Japanese birch and pine tree lines:

The only potential problem with this day was that we again didn’t have a very firm exit strategy.  We thought it was a bit unrealistic to schedule a pickup by our taxi driver, but we were dropped off not far from a main road, but we weren’t sure if or how hitchhiking goes in Japan, but we were willing to give it a go.  Fortunately, after only 10 minutes, a super nice guy picked us up and gave us a ride  - out of his way, of course; they are SO nice! – back to our village:

Where our new accomodations awaited, since we freed ourselves from the Aussie Frat house and ended up in the nice BnB….

The next two few days were more of the same:  head to an area armed with Toshi’s maps, ski nice powder, revel in onsens after skiing, and eat great food, sometimes whilst skiing:

Where else can you get nice sushi to eat out on a nice powder tour? (well, I guess Smith's, Safeway, etc....but it seems so ....authentic in Japan!
  Our overall impressions of backcountry skiing in Japan (at least, in the little teeny microcosm where we were):

  1. There aren’t really “runs” per se; it’s either open terrain or very nicely-spaced trees.
  2. People there don’t charge very hard; the pace is slow (many are on snowboards with snowshoes to climb with), they ski half/two-thirds runs, and generally do short days. 
  3. Given points 1 and 2, terrain doesn’t really ever get tracked out, and if it does, just wait a day:  it’ll fill in by tomorrow. 
  4. Since it snows so much and the slopes are generally moderately-pitched, avalanche danger is typically low.  However, our last couple of days the temps and winds both increased dramatically, and as such not only did we see some natural avalanches and were being very careful in our decisions, there were apparently some significant slides on in-bounds terrain.  But it was fairly straightforward assessment.  And we did find some steeper terrain:
In short, if you’re a Middle Aged Powder Pussy (MAPP) with plenty of money to burn who wants guaranteed good powder all winter long without much fear of avalanches, Hokkaido is The Place.  And they do try to address the strange Japanese infatuation with smoking:

Then, it was off to Tokyo.....

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Dispatches from Japan – Chapter 2

After our interesting first day in Niseko we then embarked on a few days of awesome, unescorted skiing in the area, armed with our new maps.  Fortunately, our second day was finally the end of the storm (actually, just a break between storms) so we were able to get up high, ski pretty open terrain, and actually see what our options were.  Niseko has four ski resorts that are clustered around a sort of lumpy volcano, and beyond that is another lumpy volcano and plenty of great terrain.  The resorts are mostly south facing; I think that Hokkaido gets so much snow that aspect (and sun damage) simply doesn’t matter that much despite the fact that it’s about the same latitude as Salt Lake.    Which means that the available backcountry skiing is effectively “doubled” as well.  And across the valley is the imposing Yotie volcano, with a pretty impressive 6000’ feet of vertical:

Our Aussie Frat house had advertised breakfast, but a quick scan indicated that meant coffee, Japanese Wonder Bread, peanut butter, and jelly, which didn’t really fly for middle-aged fuddy duddies who planned on doing decent;y-big days of backcountry skiing.  And though we were open to the typical Japanese breakfast (of rice, fish, vegetables, noodles, miso soup, etc that we had at the airport hotel upon our arrival) Ash is quite good at hunting down a good American breakfast cafe, and the one she found was complete with succulent little pain au chocolates that we stocked up on for lunch dessert as well as breakfast dessert:

We then hopped on a series of three chairlifts to get us to the top of the resort (we had skinned up the lower chairlift under the lights on the evening of our arrival and made it to the top before being very politely told it was not allowed) and then had to wait 45 minutes for the backcountry gate to open.  I was in the mindset that we weren’t actually resort skiers  - we only bought a one-ride! – and that we were gawdam ‘Mericans and we should just charge on past the gate anyway, but Ash correctly just shook her head at me in disgust, plopped down on her pack, and enjoyed the only sun we had all week. 

Just like at Alta, as the time approached for the gate to open the crowds began to gather.  We were sitting a few hundred feet below the ridge, and when the gate opened probably a hundred people started marching up the steep groomer to the ridge.  Up on top we had a glorious view of the entire area, but we didn’t linger long because our fellow “backcountry” skiers were clicking in and commencing firing down the 2000 foot north facing bowl (though the vibe was much more civilized and calm than the typical Alta Powder Frenzy; perhaps due to the fact that it seems to always snow in Hokkaido?).  The resort skiers were able to do a long shuffle back around to an adjacent resort (a few days later we saw some Finnish guys who took exactly the same amount of time to shuffle around and ride the chairs back up the 2000’ run as it took us to skin back up it) while we had our eyes on the adjacent peak across the valley, Iwano Puri (in the background):

We had a glorious day of skiing multiple 1000+ foot runs:

and ended at another onsen (hot spring). 

I’m not sure if onsening is a Hokkaido tradition or a Japanese tradition, but whatever it is, I’m in.  Given Japan’s prime location in the Pacific rim’s Ring of Fire it’s not surprising that they have a lot of thermal activity, and they take full advantage of the the naturally-heated water.  They are “built up”; that is, there are buildings, and once you pay you go into a locker room, “change” (one of the few rules is nakedness), go into a wash area, sit on these little stools and take a seated shower, then – with the “modesty” towel strategically-placed into the hot spring, which is usually half-inside/half-outside (with the latter inevitably ringed by a giant wall of snow).  Even the fancy hotels' onsens are natural, with uneven rocks and boulders.  After a good time of cookage  -with the modesty towel strategically stored on top of your head – it’s time time to head back into the shower room for another good cleansing, this time with much gusto. 

One unfortunate rule was that the onsens are gender-specific, so Ash and I had to enjoy them separately.  And the other interesting rule about onsens was….no tattoos (scars are ok, apparently; no one kicked me out).  Could be a tough one for a lot of Western skiers. 

No pics of the onsens, understandably…..dork or no, I wasn’t going to be the asshole taking pictures of our naked Japanese hosts….

One problem that we had yet to address that day was how to get home.  It was late in the day, we were 2000’ below the top of the ski resort we had started on, it was a long, circuitous drive from town up an obscure and small dead-end road, so there was no bus service and certainly no taxis.  We were simply hoping to catch a ride home with fellow onseners.  In one of the pools I immediately met a couple of Americans (one of whom grew up about 10 mi from me in Oregon) who had been out on a tour that day with Toshi, who apparently was nearby (another of the Americans seemed to have the build and appearance of our departed Brit friend Giles, so I was glad that we had been on our own that day).  I was stoked; here was our ride back.  However, they had too big of a crew and couldn’t fit us in the van. But Toshi pointed out that a 10 minute, traversy walk put us over a ridge that then descended back down into one of the 4 ski resorts, where we could catch a shuttle back to our village.  So even though we had to pull our sweaty clothes and ski boots back on after our nice onsen cleanse, we had a really nice walk in a glorious sunset and a quick cruise to an awaiting bus.  As ever, winging it can have its frustrating moments and its great opportunities. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

Skiing Japan - Chapter 1

Dispatches from Japan - chapter 1
The most obvious question regarding flying to Japan to go powder skiing when we have comparable snow and steeper terrain is.....why?   And admittedly, we have never really had a yen (so to speak) to go to Japan or much curiosity about the culture. However, that all changed a little over a year ago when our friend Brett Keyes went to Hokkaido last year and when I sent him an email asking how it was he simply sent back a photo of his head and hands roaring through epic powder.   It was definitely something to make you say "Hmmmm. Maybe I should go there."

Later he gave me more details and summarized it by saying "Those guys get it. Awesome food, hot springs (onsens) everywhere, super friendly and helpful people; it just feels 'refined.'  Now, "refined" is not necessarily a word that is often associated with me, but I need all the help I can get, and further discussions with other friends and the realization that interesting travel to unique culture, great food, famously-nice people, and skiing untracked blower come together perfectly in Japan.

Initially we thought that going to the Japanese Alps (centered by Nagano, the '98 Olympic host city) would be best for a quick trip, and it apparently has bigger, wilder terrain than Hokkaido, but with a quick flight to Sapporo we could be in the classic Hokkaido ski experience in the same amount of time. Also, about the time that we needed to decide where to go the Wasatch Weather Weenie (        ) had a paper published about the phenomenon of lake-effect storms that shed new light on them, and in it he happened to mention that Hokkaido is the world's capital of lake-effect due to the combination of Siberian storms and the Sea of Japan. We are big fans of
SLC's lake effect storms, so how could we go wrong in the world capital?!

One aspect of the trip caused me a bit of angst: pre-trip planning.  Historically we have just chosen a place to go, bought the Lonely Planet guide book the day before we leave, read it on the plane, and then wing it.  However, everyone we talked to strongly encouraged us to do a bit of pre-booking of things, which always makes me a bit nervous; I get twitchy getting locked into plans, since one of the beauties of traveling is the ability to be spontaneous and flexible. But book ahead (a bit) I did, and I must admit that all went smoothly.  Until, that is, we walked into our intended lodging called the "Hirafu Backpackers" where I had booked three nights. I can't remember how I found it/why I booked it, but it's very much a hostel, which is almost - but not quite - "hotel", and I had sorta forgotten that "hostel" seems to be Aussie for "Frat House."    It was a stark reminder that Ash and I have more or less moved on from meals of Top Ramen, skanky beds, drinking games, wanton drunkenness, and late night yelling to staying at cute b and b's owned by local characters, good food, and having fellow middle-aged fuddy duddies to exchange info on where to get the best organic meals. Which of course we found and moved into in due course.  Embracing our inner dorks indeed.

On to the skiing.....all the beta we had received was strongly encouraging to have a guide.   Getting to the trailheads via public transportation could be challenging even if you knew Japanese, and the fact that it snows ALL the time so it's hard to see the intricacies of the goods means that local knowledge can be super valuable. So another thing I booked prior to leaving the US was a guided trip on our first day.

We were rescued from the hostel by Toshi, a great guy who was our guide for the day, and hopped into the van that had a coupla of other clients in it already. My heart sank a bit when I saw that Giles had a pretty healthy double chin, and a bit more when he announced he was from England. Toshi later admitted that when he had Scandinavians and Americans tell him that they were good skiers and had backcountry experience they actually were the former and did have the latter, but Englishmen generally either lied or were clueless about both.  Giles' buddy was Shingo, his Japanese work compatriot, and when we got to the tiny, one-lift resort we were going to start from I looked over and saw Toshi showing Shingo how to put skins on the skis (which were huge Armada skis with heavy Marker Duke bindings, but at least he had full alpine boots with no walk mode!) and how to deploy an avy probe.  Given that we had been cooped up travelling for a couple of days and were ready to charge, it was clear that Toshi was going to have his hands full with client management!  And the fact that it was snowing quite hard, they'd had a major storm the last two days, and was windy meant that the avy conditions weren't a gimme, so needless to say weren't going to be looking to Giles and Shingo when the shit went down!

We started marching up into the gloom to ascend Chisen Puri, the local peak ("Puri" is the Hokkaido natives' term for "mountain") and after not very long  we glanced back and saw that indeed our fellow clients were barely moving. Soon enough we got onto some wind hammered, 30 degree slopes that were a little slippery, and knew that things were only going to - literally - go downhill from there.  We got to the very cold, windy  summit and quickly decided to do a lap, so down we went, and when we got to Toshi - who was still with Giles - he was happy that we had decided to do a lap (would an American or Canadian or Swiss guide be so amenable so quickly?).  We skinned back up and saw that indeed Shingo was struggling with the technical skinning. We gave him some token encouraging words and headed back up to the summit, where we saw Toshi coming back down to Shingo.  We bundled up and chatted with Giles and wondered what Toshi would do.  After a fair bit of time Toshi reappeared and said that Shingo was headed back on his own, which of course made Toshi very nervous; leaving a client - particulalrly a newby - to fend for himself, even in a relatively benign situation is far less than ideal for a guide.  But promises to check in via cell phones helped enable a successful outcome to the first issue.

It was then time for the four of us to ski the main line off the peak on a slightly different aspect.  It was windloaded but a quick pit indicated a pretty good bond and it wasn't very steep, so we felt ok about it.   A typical Canadian guide would set the first line for a "handrail", but Toshi offered it to us. We figured that skiing a thousand foot line of untracked blower powder would pretty much be the best run of our portly English friend's life, so we in turn offered it up to him.  He slowly and dreadfully skied about half of it, then stopped dead center and looked up at us expectantly, while we screamed over the wind to "keep going!"   He must have gotten that, so he did.....for another 10 turns or so, then stopped again.  We agreed that by this point the slope had been successfully tested, so I blasted on down past Giles into the flats at the bottom.  Giles followed, and unfortunately didn't see a small wind-roll and pretty much dove over it en route to a spectacular faceplant.  But as expected, he was buzzing hard after what indeed probably was the best run of his life.

Despite the fact that we had only done a couple of runs we'd been out for quite some time and were pretty hungry so we rustled around for some snacks.  Given our long wait on top we were a little chilled and were hoping for a quick bite and transition, but when Ash saw Giles plop down on his pack she said "where are we headed?" And started marching in the appropriate direction. Toshi shook his head and said "she's very strong" and I agreed.  Giles just smacked his lips over one of the two candy bars he brought as "lunch."

Ash put in a nice, guide/client-friendly skin track up an 800 foot glade, which we then skied.  We did another lap, and on the next trip up I saw Giles sort of half-walking, half-skiing down the steepest part of the glade.  "Giles, what's going on?  What are you doing?  "That skin track is impossible!  I fell off of it! Wait til you see that section!"  I looked up just in time to see Ash blissfully stroll past the impassable section. I just shrugged and followed her on up for another run.

Eventually we all ended up on top of a ridge at the same time and skied a nice thousand foot home run that ended near a big thermal pond. It was a bit disconcerting because not only did the steam create a dense cloud, it also steamed up glasses and goggles and Ash almost skied into a "crevasse" that dropped 20 feet into open water.

But soon enough we ended up at a "real" onsen for a great soak in perfect-temp water for a very civilized ending to our day (more on onsens later).   And the disparity in clients ended up well for us, because Toshi felt so bad about the situation that he took us to the local outdoor gear shop and after we bought some topo maps showed us where all the goods were and how to access them for the remainder of our week!

More to come....with photos. (cant quitえ figure out how to upload them)