Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Wallowa Mountains (OR) - McCully Basin


The Wallowa Mountains came onto my radar after living in Eugene for a few years, and once I heard of them being referred to as the Oregon Alps, I knew I wanted to visit them. Oddly enough, it has taken me over a decade to finally commit to doing a trip out to the mountains, with the main deterrent being its proximity -- Located in the northeast corner of the state, it’s an 8+ hour drive just to get to the town of Joseph, the main entry point on the north end of the range. I assumed that my first trip there would be for backpacking (which looks absolutely amazing), but it wasn’t until I got invited on a ski tour/hut trip that I decided to pull the trigger. I would be one person in a group of 10, which included Ethan, Dennis, Zane, Meridy, Andrew, Iryna, Abe, Brian and Adam. With the huts reserved in the McCully Basin from February 9-11th (2017), It would be almost 7 months between getting the invite and the trip itself, which gave plenty of time for planning.

In the last few weeks leading up to our departure date we made final preparations, everything from meal planning to carpooling. My self-assigned role was putting together maps and potential routes, which would help with figuring out our daily agenda, especially in light of the high avalanche danger that was projected for the days we’d be there. By the time I felt like I’d gotten everything prepared for the trip it was time to depart, which we did on a Wednesday morning. The drive from Eugene to Joseph turned into a bit of an epic – starting just outside of Portland the road conditions greatly deteriorated and we soon found ourselves driving at 40 mph through snow and ice, which lasted nearly the entire 400 miles between Portland and Joseph. When all was said and done, we pulled into town around 8pm, 12 hours from when we had started the drive.

As part of our McCully yurt reservation, we were also given accommodations in Joseph at a small house on the main drag. Once we’d had a chance to settle in a bit, we walked through town and into The Hydrant bar, the most happening place at this time of night. Inside we found a total of 4 or 5 other people, including the bartender and a gal doing some solo karaoke, who is apparently a staple of this institution. After a couple of beers we headed back to our abode and waited for the others from our crew to show up. I actually ended up crashing out early while the others made another visit to The Hydrant, eventually closing the place down, around midnight.

The next morning we awoke and got some breakfast before meeting Sage, our snowmobile chauffeur, who would be transporting us ~2 miles from the Ferguson Sno-Park to the McCully Trailhead. Unfortunately, Adam was having some mechanical problems with his Subaru, so he and Zane stayed in town until the mechanic’s shop opened up. They planned to drop off the car before starting the skin in, hoping to meet back up with us before dark. Since the sled could only tow four at a time, it took a couple of loads to drop all of us off. Once we were all at the trailhead, we made some final gear preparations and then started the 4.5 mile skin into base camp.


Getting a tow into the trailhead
(screenshot from Zane's GoPro)

The temperature during the skin in was around 35 degrees, and the storm overhead dropped a mix of rain, sleet and wet snow. Furthermore, the winds were really rippin’, and I was pretty glad that most of the trail was sheltered by trees on both sides. This certainly did not bode well for ski conditions the following days. By the time we reached the yurts everyone was pretty soaked and tired out. It took a little while to get the woodstove going in the one and even longer to find the second sleeping yurt. Eventually we started to get warmed up and hung up our gear, hoping that it would be dry by the following morning. One by one we all gathered in the kitchen hut, where Abe and I started making dinner for everyone, as we had designated ourselves as the cooks for the first night. Just as we were putting the final touches on our meal, Adam and Zane showed up – perfect timing! That night we relaxed and hung out before finally turning in for the night, hoping for better weather the following day.


Our sleeping yurt

The sauna (left) and kitchen yurt (right)

Relaxin' and drying out

The next morning I woke up around 8am and staggered out of the yurt, finding partly sunny conditions with much milder winds, which brought on a renewed sense of hope. Breakfast was served by Ethan and Dennis, and consisted of egg and sausage breakfast burritos, the perfect fuel for our day’s tour. The plan was to head up to Hidden Peak and check out conditions, hoping we wouldn’t be dealing with the dreaded breakable crust. We had picked this location based on its close proximity to our base camp as well as the long continuous runs that were above the treeline. We also chose it based on it having a max slope angle of around 30 degrees, since we wanted to stay on some safer terrain until we had a chance to evaluate the avalanche conditions.

The first part of the skin led us through some steep forested terrain but it eventually flattened and we entered a wide open snowfield. At around 8,500’ the rain crust gave way to softer snow, renewing my hope that we’d actually be able to get in some good skiing. Unfortunately this hope quickly faded as the slope became more and more wind-scoured the higher we climbed. At around 9,000’ I needed to throw on my ski crampons just to maintain traction up the final few switchbacks. We all regrouped at a bench about 200’ from the summit of Hidden Peak, where we reevaluated our options -- The one thing we all agreed on was the snow conditions were pretty bad. Looking south toward Aneroid Mountain there appeared to be a small slope that was wind protected and looked like it might hold some decent snow. We estimated that it would provide a 300’ to 400’ vertical drop, not a lot but with a few yo-yo laps we might be enough to salvage the day. With that we made plans for getting over there. Most of the group actually wanted to summit Hidden Peak before heading over. With the windy conditions I just wanted to keep moving, especially since our target slope looked like it would provide a bit of a windbreak. Ethan opted to head out early with me, so I figured we could dig a snow pit and get some stability data before the others showed up.


Taking in our surroundings, early on during our first tour.

Adam breaks out of the trees

Starting the climb up to Hidden Peak

Plenty of opportunity in the McCully Basin

Not looking good high up on Hidden Peak

Closing in on the high point

We quickly determined that the easiest way for us to make our way over to the other slope was to hike our gear across the wind scoured terrain, traversing to the south just below the summit of Hidden Peak. We soon found a slope that held enough snow to ski/ride down to the new zone – it certainly wasn’t optimal conditions but it did help reduce some of the travel time. At the bottom of the intermediary slope I didn’t even bother switching over to skins; instead I simply hiked across the firm snowpack to the new riding area. As soon as we began to climb up our target slope, it started to block the wind and the snow softened dramatically – this might just provide some good lines after all! Just below the small summit we unloaded our packs, pulled out our shovels and started digging, hoping to find some stable results. By the time the pit started to take shape the others showed up, and over the next ~20 minutes we would perform a Shovel Shear Test and three separate Compression Tests. With results between CTH 22 and CTH 26 and a shear quality of Q2 (i.e. Resistant Planer), we felt good about the stability, especially since the slope was just under 30 degrees at its steepest point.

After quickly filling in the pit and hiking up the short distance to the summit, we made some final gear adjustments and dropped in one-by-one. Although the slope was only covered in about shin-deep powder it still provided some nice soft turns, which everyone took full advantage of. At the bottom of the short descent we threw on our skins and started up the hill for another lap. Now back at the top a thick cloud layer had moved in and it began to snow, which was both a blessing and a curse – the visibility went to shit but we hoped it would improve the conditions for the following day. By the time I had switched over to descent mode I was only one of two people left at the top. I quickly determined my line and dropped in. With the poor visibility I had a hard time reading the terrain and ended up taking a nice header. Luckily, I did almost a complete somersault and landed back on my feet, riding it out without it being noticed.


First lines of the day!

Now at the bottom of the run once again, the others had already started climbing up for another lap. With both the low visibility and my low energy level, I opted to hang out below and spectate. After everyone had taken their third and final lap, we started making our way back down to basecamp. The skiers had no trouble getting back through the mixed terrain, but the splitboarders were a little more challenged. Adam was actually able to ride the whole way in snowboard mode, while I immediately switched over to skins and Abe did a combination of both. Per usual, I ended up getting back to the huts last, a bit tired and ready for a good homecooked meal – I was pretty glad it wasn’t my night to cook! That evening we ate some delicious Yumm Bowls prepared by Iryna & Andrew. We also tapped into our slim quarter keg of Oakshire Amber, which was a great way to top off the second day of the trip! Back at the sleeping yurt I drifted in and out of sleep all night long, with the second half of the night getting pretty cold since none of us could muster the motivation to get up and stoke the fire.


The first few days/nights of the trip were plenty windy

Day three started off much like day two, complete with another round of breakfast burritos. Before departing on our day’s tour, we looked over the map and tried to find the best zone to attack. With the fairly stable results we had gotten the day before and wanting to get in some lines that were a little tastier, we opted for the southeast corner of the basin. With extreme winds hammering the basin over the last few days we knew that we’d potentially be dealing with some wind slabs, especially as we traveled into the alpine. Furthermore, since this zone consists of an intermountain snowpack and the potential for persistent weak layers, (faceted snow) we wanted to be extra careful, especially since most of us were not used to dealing with that particular problem. With an established plan we then geared up and headed out for the day.

Traveling at a moderate pace we made our way to the southeast corner of the basin, doing our best to avoid thick trees and steep slopes. After a few ups and down our target zone soon came into view and looked amazing. Everyone in the group was smiling and pointing out potential lines, but we still had some work to do before dropping in for some runs. Our skin track for the floor of the basin to the upper peak that we’d planned to ski/ride led us up slope that was no more than 30 degrees, although it was a bit of a gully and certainly could have become a terrain trap, especially since it formed the runout to the steep slope coming off of Wing Ridge – more on this later… I was glad to see that the group had spread out a bit in this section, in case we ended up remote triggering the steep slope. I was also happy that we had made it up and out of avalanche terrain rather quickly and we were soon looking up at the upper bowl we’d planned to ski, which was nice and wide and would provide lots of fun and relatively safe terrain at right around 30 degrees.


Target zone acquired

Starting the climb on our second tour

Spacing out a bit in avalanche terrain

One of the steeper pitches on the way up

Entering the upper bowl

The ascent up the ridge to the top of the bowl was pretty easy going until we got within a 100’ or so from the summit, where wind crust and rocky conditions forced most of us to switch over to bootpacking. The view from the summit included the McCully and Sheep Basins as well as many other peaks in the Wallowa range. Since I wanted to get some photos of the others skiing/riding down the bowl I decided to jump out ahead and set-up. Once I was transitioned over and ready to go, I gave them the signal and dropped in. Although fairly low angle and only dropping about 400 vertical feet, the snow ended up being pretty damn good and produced some nice boot shots and wide arcing turns all the way down to the bottom. Next, I settled in and got comfortable while waiting for the others to take their turns. One-by-one they dropped in, stacking up lines and having a great time doing so!


The final push to the summit

Regrouping at the summit

Looking north into the McCully Basin

Andrew, rips some turns

Coming in hot!

Iryna, getting some boot shots.

Ethan gets in a few final turns

Spectator sport

Once we had all regrouped at the bottom we had a decision to make on which way to continue down, or even hike back up for another lap on the upper bowl. I had been eyeing a line during the approach, which started just a short distance from our location. Iryna and Andrew skied over to make sure it was the drop-in and after confirming it was, called the rest of us over to scout it out. As soon as I laid eyes on it I knew it was the one I’d been looking at. I quickly suggested that we dig a pit to test the stability and give it a go if we found favorable results. Since it certainly wasn’t practical for nine of us to dig a single pit, half the group decided to head back to the top of the upper bowl while the rest of us got to digging. Once the pit was dug we did a quick shovel shear test before isolating a few columns and performing a couple of compression tests. Both CTs produced CTN results, so we were feeling pretty good about the stability. Furthermore, after pounding on each of the columns beyond the 30 official taps, we could only get them to produce resistant planer fracture lines. After a quick discussion and filling in the pit, we decided as a group to give it a go, dropping in one at a time to reduce our exposure if it did happen to slide.


Iryna, mid CT.
(screenshot from Zane's GoPro)

I offered to go first, mainly since I wanted to get some photos from a little ways down the run. I quickly scanned the run and found a safe zone about 200’ down on skier’s left. After transitioning over to snowboard mode I gave the signal and dropped in. I started off with a quick ski cut across the slope before heading down into a series of steep/tight turns. After six or so turns I pulled over to the side, grabbed my camera, and gave the others the thumbs up to let them know I was ready. Andrew dropped in next, slashing up the slope with some beautiful turns all the way down to the bottom. I quickly packed up my camera and followed suit, enjoying the best run of the trip so far! Iryna came down next, also with some really nice lines. While waiting for the other three in our subgroup, we got a call from the crew that had gone back up for another lap on the upper bowl. We gave them the good news about stability results and then sat back and waited for everyone to catch up. Before long, they came into view, stacking lines to save some fresh real estate for the following riders. Everybody in the group had a fantastic time on this slope and we were all excited to skin back up for another run.


Andrew drops in on the second descent of the day.

Slashin' the first line down the face

Iryna, with lots of fresh canvas to work with. 

One of the boarders gettin' some

 From our current location we had a couple of options, break trail up an adjacent slope or ski down another 100’ or so to our previous skin track. As we were discussing, a few in the group had already switched over and were headed up and making a fresh track – with a decision already made, the rest of us fell into line. As the slope began to steepen the lead skier laid down some nice steep switchbacks and we were making good progress. At this point I was near the back of the pack, and as I was rounding one of the switchies, someone yelled “cracks!”. I looked up to see what was going on and watched a crack shoot across the slope in front of me, connecting the three skiers that were spread out across the main face. At the same time a large ‘boom’ echoed in the distance as a massive slab released from the steep face just to the southeast from us. We all looked on in horror as the slide built up momentum on the way down the slope, bringing with it large boulders and snapping trees like toothpicks before coming to a stop in the valley just below our position, partially covering our skin tracks from earlier in the day.


This bad boy took out some trees on the way to the bottom!

Some of the cracks on our slope
(screenshot from Zane's GoPro)

The main slide -- a D3 with a 6 to 8 foot crown!

Still in a bit of shock we called out to each other and made sure everyone was alright. Once everyone was accounted for, we all agreed to stay put until we could come up with a plan to get out of avalanche terrain as safely and quickly as possible. For those of us who were still low on the slope, we decided that the best route was to B-line it down and across the valley to an island of safety just on the other side. We also decided to go one at a time, keeping a close eye on each other as we made our way across to the other side. Ethan dropped in first, and as planned, straight-lined it with as few turns as possible. Once he was safely on the other side and had given the signal I followed in similar fashion. According to my GPS I hit a speed of over 55mph, which created an impressive amount of downward force on my body as I hit the valley and headed up the other side. I was very happy to be out of avi terrain but I was still anxious about my fellow companions and looked forward to having them by our side.

The next five skiers/riders were also able to make it across, leaving only Andrew and Iryna, who had been at the top of the slope during the avalanche activity. Fortunately we had good radio communication with the both of them and were able to discuss a plan on how to get them down safely. With no real way down without dropping >30 degree slope they had to be strategic about the route. Eventually both came into view, and like the rest of us went one at a time, moving as quickly and with as few turns as possible. When we finally were all back together and out of the danger zone we looked back up at the slope that had just collapsed and briefly discussed how it was triggered. Was it us? Was it a natural trigger? Unfortunately it just wasn’t safe enough for us to head up and analyze the snowpack at the crown of the slide.


Andrew and Iryna's view from up top
(Photo by Andrew Wagner)

A stitched together image, showing all the avalanche activity in relation to each other.
The main (D3) slide is to the left of the image.

After we had a chance to take it all in, we started making our way back to the huts. We felt a bit of urgency since Meridy had stayed behind (due to some pretty nasty blisters) and we wanted to let her know that we were okay, just in case she heard or saw the avalanche. Of course the skiers were a bit faster than the boarders and by the time I had made it back to the kitchen yurt she had already been told and everyone was in deep discussion about the event. After a great dinner prepared by Adam and Brian, and many rounds of Cards Against Humanity, we were able to get our minds off of it and relax a bit – of course, throughout the evening we would come back to discussing the day’s event.

That night I once again found myself in and out of sleep until the sun shining through the windowed ceiling called me out of bed and into the kitchen yurt one last time for coffee and breakfast. Since we weren’t planning to do a group breakfast I broke out a packet of Mountain House Breakfast Scramble and choked it down while still trying to fully wake up. After breakfast we went to work packing up all of our gear and doing some cleaning before bidding our encampment a farewell and starting the ~6 mile skin out to the sno-park. With the skin track well tamped down we made really good progress and before long we’d reached the section of road we’d used the snowmobile to get up. From here those of us that were on splitboards were able to transition over to board mode, which greatly increased our speed getting out. I was pretty happy when the car came into view, especially knowing that both dry cottons and cold beer were awaiting me. We quickly got changed and rolled out, starting what would be a long drive back to Eugene.

Conclusion:
The Wallowas are a spectacular mountain range and I’m glad I finally got to experience them! From an alpine touring standpoint the terrain is pretty amazing and there is a ton of it – Steep faces, wide open bowls, couloirs, glades, you name it! Staying in the yurts, as we did, ensures that you have relatively short approaches for day tours, while preserving some of the quality of life found at home, like heat (wood stoves), bedding (cots and sleeping bags) and a full kitchen. Probably the biggest challenge is reserving a spot, since they tend to sell out quickly. Furthermore, having to book far in advance means that there is no way to ensure you’ll have good conditions (snow and weather) – you really have to go into the trip knowing that you might be confined to skiing protected terrain less than 30 degrees, building kickers, doing beacon practice, drinking lots of beer, or a combination thereof. For our trip we were dealing with less than optimal conditions, which included rain the first day and extreme winds for the first two days. Luckily, the weather got much better on the second half of the trip and we were treated to bright blue skies and cooler temps. Furthermore, the avalanche advisory going into the trip was calling for a high likelihood of both wind slabs and loose wet slides. All that said, we were able to get in a day or two of good skiing. Of course we did have that episode that just reinforced the need to stay disciplined when traveling in avalanche terrain.

Regarding the avalanche event, we’re still not certain what the cause was, even after discussing it with my AIARE level 2 course instructors the following week. What I think we can say for certain is that the cracks on our slope occurring at the same time as the release on the adjacent slope was not a coincidence. The two most likely scenarios are that we remote triggered the whole thing on a deep persistent (faceted) layer, or it was a naturally triggered wind slab (via solar) on the adjacent slope which in turn triggered our slope. Unfortunately the terrain just wasn’t safe enough to evaluate the slide at the crown. Whatever caused the slide / cracks, there were both things we did right and things we did wrong. Here are a couple of my takeaways:

Examples of what I feel we did well:
1. Group discussions the night before and the day of to establish a plan that everyone felt comfortable with.
2. Ensuring that everyone had avalanche gear and knew how to use it. Also, performing beacon checks prior to entering avi terrain.
3. Starting off on slopes under 30 degrees and working our way up to steeper terrain based on field observations.
4. Descending one at a time while skiing/riding avalanche terrain.

Examples of things we could have done better:
1. Spending more time planning out our up route to limit our exposure in avalanche terrain.
2. Spreading out more while skinning up through avalanche terrain. We were pretty stacked up during some of the ascent.
3. Not regrouping at the bottom of the run-out zone after our run. Instead, pull off to the side and/or well out of the way of any visible/ historical slide path(s). I can be especially bad at this when I’m trying to take photos.
4. Limiting the number of people digging a pit to three or less. This reduces load on the snowpack, limits the number of people exposed, etc. Others can always swap out to ensure results are repeatable and agreed upon.
5. Catering our field observations and snow pit tests based on the avalanche problems we were dealing with and not relying solely on Compression Tests for our results. Assuming we were dealing with a persistent slab, an Extended Column Test would have given us a much better indicator of the propagation characteristics; if it was a deep persistent slab, a Deep Tap Test and/or Propagation Saw Test would have been more appropriate. It should be noted that neither of these problems were indicated in the local advisory, however recent online observations had indicated both shooting cracks and whumpfing.

As for the trip as a whole, it was an amazing experience with a great group of people! I look forward to both returning to the Wallowa Mountains for more alpine tours as well as getting more riding in with the crew!

The tracks from our tour:


A sweet little compilation video put together by Zane Wheeler:

Wallowa Range McCully Basin Yurt Ski trip February 2017 from blucycl on Vimeo.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Maiden Peak - Back Bowls

 

I gotta say, when I got word from my buddy Rich that they were planning to do Maiden Peak as a weekend trip I was a little bummed, since it had been on my list for a while and I had conflicting plans. With the aforementioned plans falling through a few days later, I texted him to see if they were still planning to go and if they had a spot for me, to which he quickly responded with a "Hell yeah!". Although Maiden Peak is one of the closest touring options from Eugene, for some reason it has always alluded me. I had been told that the back face (north through east aspect) held some pretty fun lines in the 500’ to 600’ vertical loss range – not huge but with the option for yo-yo laps it could provide a good amount of entertainment. Furthermore, I’d also heard a lot about the Maiden Peak ski shelter and how nice it is, especially when being used as a base camp for an overnighter.

Both Rich and Matthew wouldn’t be able to leave Eugene until 4pm and were planning to skin in to the shelter under headlamp. I figured that this would be a good opportunity for me to get in a couple of hours of skiing at Willamette Pass and then head over on the Maiden Saddle vs. from the Gold Lake Sno-Park, where they had planned to start from. Unfortunately I not only got a late start but I forgot my avalanche beacon at home, forcing me to backtrack about 20 miles (one-way) to grab it. By the time I reached Willamette Pass and was geared up it was almost 3pm, so I decided just to take the lift up once and head over to the shelter immediately – since I’d not been to the shelter before I wanted to make sure I got there while it was still light in case I had trouble finding it.

From the top of the lift I followed Boundary Pass until it started dropping down to the west, where I peeled off and out of bounds to stay high on the ridge. After transitioning over to skins I started the slog, breaking trail as I followed the Maiden Saddle north toward the shelter. I was surprised that mine were the only tracks, which both made me hopeful the hut wouldn’t be overcrowded, but at the same time a little bummed that I didn’t have a nice skin track laid down for me – oh well, I guess you can’t always have your cake and eat it too… Another thing that surprised me was the amount of fresh snow, which was going to be great for skiing but made skinning a bit more taxing. Even though the approach from the resort was only a couple of miles it took almost an hour and a half, and by the time I reached the general area of the shelter it was starting to get dark. I followed the GPS/map to where the shelter was indicated but it wasn’t there and I started to get a little concerned – I hadn’t really packed for camping in the snow and would have needed to dig a cave. It ended up taking me about 20 minutes of skinning around before I finally located it, and a huge sense of relief came over me. As I approached the door I was greeted by a couple folks who informed me that it was going to be a bit packed, especially with Rich and Matthew showing up later.


The Maiden Peak Shelter

Upon opening the door to the shelter I was introduced to 8 or 10 more people who were all very welcoming. It felt good to take off my ski gear and put on some more comfy attire, consisting of down pants, jacket and booties. Next, I looked for a spot to throw down my sleeping bag, with the most appealing one left being up in the loft and tucked into the corner next to the emergency exit. Feeling like I was finally settled in I went down to the lower level to eat some dinner and hang out with my fellow adventurers. By the time Rich and Matthew showed up it was around 9:30pm, and after a bit of conversation I bid them a good night and crawled into my bag for what would be a very intermittent night of sleep.


A view inside the shelter

The next morning I awoke to stirring and whispering down below. It was around 7am and with an 8am departure time I rushed to cook my breakfast and ready my gear for the assault on Maiden Peak. Strapping into my boards the chill of the air tried to convince me to throw on some more layers, but I knew that it was better to start off cold since I’d just end up stripping them off within a half mile or so. Since we were breaking trail up to the peak it took us a little bit to actually find the route, which was indicated by blue diamonds that were affixed to the trees.


Starting the approach the following morning

Rich, breaking trail.

After a mile or so we reached the intersection with the Maiden Peak Trail, which started off at a mellow grade but began to steepen the further we skinned. With all of the fresh snow I was glad that we had three of us to share the trail breaking duties as I would have been completely blown had I needed to do it solo. We progressed at a very reasonable pace and took in the amazing setting of open forest with trees coated in a thick layer of snow. It was hard to reflect on all the times I had climbed the same route on my mountain bike, as that form of travel made it feel much steeper (ride report here). As we closed in on the summit the trees became more sparse, and we entered a zone of wind-affected terrain. Rime coated almost every surface of the trees and rocks, and that along with the sculpted snow surface created imagery that was straight out of a Dr. Seuss picture book. Although the wind picked up a bit, it never became obnoxious and the final push to the summit was fairly easy-going. Once on top of the treeless summit we were treated to a spectacular 360◦ panoramic view of the surrounding area, with nearby Diamond Peak being the dominant landmark.


Starting the climb

Taking a quick breather on the way up

The grade to the top was fairly modest but we did have to throw in a couple of turns here and there

Blue skies making an appearance

Rich doing some route finding as we neared the top

A heavy coating of snow

Seuss style

Attacking the summit pitch

Diamond Peak from the summit -- lots of fun lines on that one (here and here)!

Summit

After a quick snack and putting on a warmer layer we hiked around a bit to determine which aspect looked the best. Once we had agreement on the most easterly face we dug a pit to evaluate the snow stability. After three compression tests we determined that it was good to go and hiked back to the summit to prepare for the descent.


Taking a quick break before the descent

Matthew and Rich check the snow stability

I dropped in first since I wanted to grab some shots from part way down. Although the slope didn’t hold the soft/dry snow that we had during the skin up, it held a good enough edge to throw in some nice turns. Once I had dropped down a few hundred feet I traversed over to the side and set up with my camera. Matthew came down next, laying down a nice track as he descended the face just to the south of me. Once he had stopped I gave Rich the all clear, who also painted some great lines down an untouched portion of the face. Once both had made it to the bottom, I packed up my camera and dropped in for the second half of the run, which provided much softer turns.


Matthew dropping in for his line

Cuttin' it up!

Rich drops in for his

Rich enjoying the view and some turns

About halfway down the run

The author kicks up some white smoke
(photo by Rich Dana)

Coming in hot!
(photo by Rich Dana)

Looking back at our lines on the skin out

It was now around 2pm, which was our agreed upon turnaround time. Being at the bottom of the run about 600’ from the summit, we had a decision to make – boot back up to the summit or traverse around the south side of the mountain until we reconnected with our skin track. The latter seemed like the obvious choice as it would mitigate the climbing, so we slapped on our skins and proceeded to make our way around to the other side of the mountain. Rich was on fire and broke trail the entire way, with little delay. We did traverse across an open face that looked like it would provide some fun ~300’ lines but since we were on a schedule we had to pass it by. This area also gave some nice views of Diamond Peak and I caught myself daydreaming of the lines that we would surely be laying down there during the late spring / early summer months.


Rich breaks trail once again

More great views of Diamond

Before too long we reached our skin track, which was a relief since it would be much easier going and we wouldn’t have to do anymore route finding. The 2 mile skin down to the shelter was fairly uneventful but did allow me to practice my downhill skinning on dual planks, which definitely isn’t my strong suit and seems to be the bane of all splitboarders. By the time we got back to the hut I was starting to feel pretty pooped and I knew that the 6 miles skin out from there was going to be the nail in the coffin. Before departing on the final push out, we relaxed and ate a snack and filled up our water bottles with what water remained in the pot sitting next to the wood stove. As we left the shelter I got in one final photo and snapped my camera into its case, ready for the long haul out.

Over the six miles we dropped a little over a thousand feet, with a majority of the descent in the first half. Although no particular pitch was very steep I had to slow myself down in a few spots to stay in control. The well bedded down path acted as a slot car track and really locked you into a pre-set trajectory. The final two miles of the skin out was actually on the Gold Lake Road, which was nice since it was getting pretty dark and allowed us to continue without pulling out our headlamps. It was in this section that I reached down for my water bottle and noticed that my camera had fallen out of its case…. F#%K!!! With it being both too dark and having no energy left, I just couldn’t work up the motivation needed to go back and look for it, especially with 12+ inches of new snow and not knowing where in the 6-mile stretch I would have dropped it – I figured it would be like finding a needle in a haystack. Feeling pretty deflated I skinned the remaining ½ mile to the road where I met up with the other two and lamented about my camera. Of course they both offered to go back and look for it after we had eaten some dinner, but I knew the best thing would probably be to look for it after a good night of sleep and while it was light out. With that we loaded up in our cars, drove into Oakridge and reminisced on the good parts of our tour, which as a whole was pretty damn amazing!

As a quick follow-up to the camera story, I ended up skinning all the way back into the shelter a few days later only to come up empty handed. However, a good Samaritan had posted to the info board at the Gold Lake Sno-Park that they had found the camera. To top it all off, they flatly refused to accept any type of reward and said they were just happy to get it back to me. I must say, my faith in humanity was slightly restored on that day, and they certainly banked some good karma!

Conclusion:
The back face of Maiden Peak certainly contains some pretty sweet terrain. However, it’s a lot of work for 600’ shots. Had I to do it all over again I’d plan on two nights at the shelter and the day in-between used for kicking out 3 or 4 laps, which would make for a much better payoff. At the very least I’d get a much earlier start leaving the shelter, since we were really turned back by fear of losing daylight. The Maiden Peak Shelter itself is pretty sweet, complete with a woodstove and firewood, sleeping loft, table and chairs, as well as a few things like a book and playing cards. It can also sleep up to about 20 people, but be aware that on the weekends it can fill up quickly. Plus, with that many people it’s pretty hard to get a good night’s rest. My one piece of advice would be to bring some earplugs.

The tracks from our tour. Please note that I didn't start my GPS until we had reached the Maiden Peak Trail on the second day: