Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Tombstone Pass - Cone Peak (OR)

Ever since my buddy Randy told me about the great tour options at Tombstone Pass, I'd been anxious to check it out for myself. Of the peaks in that area, he specially mentioned Cone Peak, telling of treeless runs from the summit down the south face. Armed with this bit of information I started scouring topo maps and pre-scouting in Google Earth to start planning a route. The biggest obstacle I ran into was the lack of snowpack in this particular area -- even though we had been getting plenty of precipitation the passes along Hwy 20 didn't have cool enough temps to produce the white stuff like it had in some of the other surrounding areas. Although I had to put this zone on hold, I was ready to get to it as soon as conditions allowed.

Fast-forward to last weekend. After we were hit with a cold front and a rather a large storm that dropped a healthy amount of snow at Tombstone Pass, I knew I'd better act fast since it was now mid-March and this would probably be my last chance of the season. The next challenge, as always, was finding some folks to join in the adventure. In the end, my buddy Brian ended up being the only one that was available. Once I had filled him in on the particulars we agreed to meet up in town at 7am. We wanted to get an early start since the weather called for fairly warm temps and sunny skies, bringing with it the possibility of loose wet avalanche conditions.

It was now Saturday, and from Eugene it took us about an hour and a half to reach the Tombstone Sno-Park. By the time we had gotten geared up and starting hiking down the short bit of road to the Cone Peak trailhead it was a little after 9am and the temps were already starting to warm up. Within 100' of the start of the trail we reached a clearing where recent free water melt had etched an impressive array of runnels across the surface of the snowpack. Although it indicated that the quality of the snow probably wasn't going to be very good it was still firm enough to ease our concerns over avy danger. Along with the runnels we also found a couple pairs of skin tracks carved into the snow, which we decided to use as breadcrumbs for our ascent.

Gettin' skinned up

The start of our ascent

Brian cuts across some crazy runnels near the start of the climb

As we continued on a little further, the tracks lead across a small running stream and headed off in a westerly direction. Not sure if we should continue to follow them, I consulted my GPS which had our pre-planned route overlaid onto it. Since I wasn't sure where exactly the other tracks would lead us, we opted to head back in the direction of our original plan, which sent us up and through the trees. Navigating through the maze of trees certainly proved to be more challenging than in the open meadows. Before too long we reached the ridge that would lead us to the bench about halfway up and into full view of Cone Peak.

Route finding through the trees

Our first good view of Cone Peak, from the bench at the base. 

Some good looking lines off of Iron Mountain 

South Peak, from the bench

Looking up toward the summit of Cone Peak, the southwest ridge that we had originally planned to climb was a patchwork of thin snowpack and exposed ground, hardly optimal conditions for skinning up. Since there was still plenty of snow on the main face, I suggested that we just zig-zag our way up, while spot-checking the snow to make sure we weren’t putting ourselves in avalanche danger. As we worked our way up using a series of traverses and kick turns, the slope got steeper and steeper until we were forced to boot pack up the final 200 vertical feet.

Brian scouts out an ascent route

Partway up the south face of Cone Peak

Brain poses for a photo on the south face of Cone Peak

Climbing up the eastern ridge toward the summit
(photo by Brian Watson)

Making the final push

The view at the summit did not disappoint, and we had an amazing 360-degree panoramic of the surrounding landmarks, including almost all of the Oregon Cascade peaks. Although it was a little breezy the temps were mild and pleasant. We spent about 10 or 15 minutes taking in the view and eating a snack before we started our transition into descent mode. The snow, which was getting a heavy dose of solar radiation, was starting to get pretty wet – we weren’t getting any major red flags but I was certainly getting anxious to get in our turns before it loosened up too much. From the summit, we slowly worked our way down the southwest ridge and looked for a good place to drop in, which essentially came down to the place with the most snow and longest bit of uninterrupted turns. I offered to go first and after doing a few test cuts/jumps on the snow I pointed it downhill and threw in some nice toe and heel-side turns. I made sure to pull off to a safety zone that was still within eyeshot of Brian and once I had my camera ready I signaled him down.

Made it!

Mount Jefferson, from the summit of Cone Peak.

The Three Sisters

Mount Washington

Looking down the western ridge towards our drop-in point

Brian makes his first turns of the descent

From our meeting spot we would have to traverse either a little to the right or left, since an island of volcanic rock sat just below us. With a good view to skier’s right we opted for that route, and once again I dropped in first so that I could set-up for some photos from down below. I was now about halfway down the south face where a hard heel-side turn kicked off some rollerballs that gathered snow and speed as they made their way down the hill in front of me. Although I still felt confident with the snow conditions, I threw in a couple more test cuts before settling into a few more flowing turns to the next safety zone. After getting the verbal to Brian, he painted his own lines down the mountain and we were once again reunited.

More treeless turns

Brian reaches the second pit stop 

Now, we were faced with a decision, continue west (skier’s right) toward the bench or drop down to the east to extend our line a couple hundred vertical feet. Since I really wanted to get in some more turns I proposed we go with the second option, which Brian agreed to. With that, I packed up my camera and started down, making as many turns as I could. Eventually the trees closed in a bit and we were forced into some reactionary navigation. As we made our way down the slope, we knew we’d have to skin a couple hundred feet to make our way back up to the bench, but I accidentally led us down a little further than I should have. We ended up getting stopped by thick trees and flanked by a small stream drainage on either side of us. Once it became obvious that continuing on our path would be a bad idea we consulted the map to figure out how we were going to dig ourselves out. With no great options, we ended up boot packing up a steep crotch-deep slope that eventually brought us back toward the bench at the base of Cone Peak. Without going into too much detail, it sucked pretty badly and I’m glad that Brian wasn’t too pissed at me and took it in stride.

Looking down into the second (east) option

The author heads east for an extended descent
(photo by Brian Watson)

Kickin' up rollerballs

Funneling down to the point of no return

As soon as we had reached a point where we could skin again, we made the transition and worked back toward our original ascent route, which we planned to use to get back down to the road. Before too long our old skin tracks came into view, which certainly brought a bit of relief. Instead of using the exact path back, which would have sent us though some pretty steep/dense trees, we tried to link the snow covered meadows, like playing a round of golf. Toward the bottom, the slope flattened out and the trees once again closed in around us and we were forced to hike out the remaining ¼ mile, following the sound of the road traffic. Eventually we reached the highway and made the final leg of the trip back to the car. Although we hadn’t put in an extremely long day or very many miles, I had burned nearly 3,500 calories and was certainly feeling it.

Time to skin again

Runnel art

One final view of Cone Peak

Enjoying some turns in one of the lower meadows

The last bit of skiable slope

For being within 1.5 hours of Eugene, I can see Tombstone Pass becoming one of my go-to zones, assuming conditions allow. Cone Peak itself offers up some really nice turns down from the summit, but as always the ride is over way too quickly. In hindsight, I should have stuck to my original route plan and not have gotten greedy, leading us into the drainage of which we had to hike out. I also would have stuck to our original ascent route as well, or at least done a better job with the pre-planning and built in a couple of options. As for the snow conditions, they certainly weren’t the best but still provided some nice turns on the face; albeit a little wet. There are also some other good looking peaks in that zone like South Peak and Iron Mountain, which I’m really looking forward to putting some tracks on.

Our tracks:
Red = Ascent
Yellow = Descent

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Ball Butte Tour (OR)

During the final day of our 3-day AIARE level 1 avalanche course, we ventured out to Ball Butte to put our training to the test and hopefully get in some nice lines. We had chosen Ball Butte after a lot of pre-planning where we reviewed the avalanche and weather forecast as well as pulling from our observations from the short tour we had taken on the previous day. In the end we determined that our most likely problem would be wind slabs at or above the treeline on the eastern to northeastern aspects. After selecting some primary route options and backup routes we were ready to put our plan into action.

After splitting into two smaller groups of six, (one instructor and five students) we headed toward the base of Ball Butte. We enlisted the help of a couple snowmobiles that had trailers hooked up to them, allowing us to transport everyone at once – since I’d never been on a snow machine before I was pretty excited about this part of the journey! Along the way we kept our eyes peeled for recent avalanches, obvious wind-loading or anything else that might change our initial assessment of potential avalanche danger. The further out we drove the deeper the snow became, and by the time we had reached the wilderness boundary near the base of Ball Butte we had 6 to 8 inches of freshly laid storm snow. Although we were all excited about the possibility of soft untracked turns, we also knew that we would have to exercise even more caution based on the loading that it had also created.

First class transport

Looking up at Ball Butte. The sun-splashed peak in the distance is the summit.

As we made our way up the southern ridge of the butte we stopped many times to make additional observations, like ski pole tests, hand shear tests and stomping on small steep slopes to see if we could shake anything loose. Although we had triggered some very small wind slab chunks, they were pretty thin and there was no major propagation. We also stopped at a few potential drop-in locations and debated continuing up higher or dropping in early for a warm-up run. Everyone in our group was still interested in heading toward the summit and testing the snow at the top of the southern bowl, so we marched on. At one point, our instructor Geoff showed us how to safely cut a small cornice, which was pretty cool to watch.

Doing some quick ski pole and hand shear tests

Aaron, one of our instructors, jumps on a test slope to see how it reacts

Our first view of the wide open bowls

Brett and Rich low on the approach ridge

The crew checks out a row of small cornices


Taking a closer look

Continuing on

As we reached the knife edge ridge that formed the top of the south bowl, we discussed whether or not to traverse toward the center or simply drop in along the south edge. After a bit of back and forth we decided to continue along the ridge, where skinning became a little more tricky, at least for me. The line options on the other end of the bowl looked pretty darn good, with minimal convexities and slope angle in the low 30s where it dropped in off the top. It did look like you'd need to carry some speed near the bottom of the upper bowl, since the run out had a slight incline to get up. Before committing to the drop-in zone we did a few more stability tests which all turned up favorable results. It was now time to transition over to descent mode and determine our plan of attack.

Checking out our line options

Making our way onto the knife ridge, toward the summit.

Almost there

For the first pitch, we would go one at a time and signal the next person down once the safety zone had been reached. Our guide went first and dropped down the face with impressive prowess. Once he gave the signal the rest of us took our turns, waiting for the signal from the previous rider before dropping in. For my line the first couple of turns were a little shaky as I worked off the jitters and settled in for the short but sweet ride.

Dan finishes up his turns on the first pitch

For the second pitch we once again went one at a time since we were still in avalanche terrain. This time I asked to go second (after the instructor) so that I could take some photos of the others coming down. As Geoff dropped in he make a couple of quick ski cuts to test the slope and then painted some beautiful turns down to the next regroup location. My lines on this section felt much smoother and I did my best to stack my line to help preserve the snow for the remaining riders. The rest of the crew soon joined us, with everyone having really nice lines on the way down.

Dan drops in for his line on the second pitch

Chris cuts some turns while Dan looks on

Rich takes his turn on the second pitch

For the last pitch of the first descent we were out of avy terrain with the low angle slope providing a great opportunity for some soul turns. Geoff suggested that we should all drop in together Warren Miller style, which we all thought was a fantastic idea. Since we intended to head over to the north bowl for our next lap, we decided to cut that way before hitting the flats so that we’d cut down on our skinning travel. Somehow Brett missed this bit of info and beelined it into the flats and out of sight. He soon discovered his error and ended up having to do some hiking to the next meetup spot – of course we weren’t about to let this go without a bit of ribbing. Next we ate some lunch and shared some locker room stories before applying our skins and stripping some layers for the next climb.

Looking back up at our lines from the last pitch

Taking a quick break and switching over for the climb up the north bowl

For the climb up to the northern bowl we zigzagged back and forth up the far ridge in a single file line, staying off avalanche terrain and lessening the grade as much as possible. I was actually quite surprised with our progress and the summit ridge came much quicker than I had imagined. As with the previous climb, up we made some general observations of the snow surface and looked for obvious signs of wind loading; although we didn't spend any time exploring deeper into the snowpack. At one point near the top we could see the other group standing at the summit and looking into the north bowl, where it was at its steepest and had the largest cornice buildup. After awhile they disappeared, so we assumed that they had traveled down the southern bowl after some snow stability analysis. We had also reached another decision point in our journey, drop in along the northern edge or go up and over a small rise and try and find a more centered drop zone. After some debate we all agreed to explore further but head back if the snow conditions looked suspect. With that we unstrapped from our skis (or boards) and boot packed up and over to the other side of the small knoll.

Now that we were just below the summit and at the top of the northern bowl we had an amazing view of Broken Top, which the clouds had peeled away from. It also looked like a storm was moving in and that we would probably want to make a decision soon so we didn't get caught in a whiteout. A few hand shear tests showed varying results and although nothing looked too concerning it was enough to give some pause in our decision and had us seeking additional information. I offered to do a couple jump tests which ended up producing results similar to others we had done throughout the day -- small chunks of snow slab with little to no propagation. With this final bit of info we were confident that slope was stable and once again changed over our gear into descend mode.

Gearing up at our drop zone for the north bowl

Taking in one last view of Broken Top before the descent

I dropped in first and as I made a couple of turns down the steepest part of the bowl small bits of the snow surface broke away and raced down the hill in front of me. As with the upper section of the south bowl, the snow was not as soft as the lower stuff, but certainly good enough to hold an edge. Once I reached the agreed upon safety zone I broke out my phone camera and snapped a few shots of the others coming down, all of which had great lines.

Looking back at my line down the first pitch of the north bowl

Brett drops in hot

Rich finds some untracked snow

Chris paints a line down the left side of the bowl

Geoff, showin' us how it's done.

For the next bit, we planned to drop down and exit the bowl on the south end and carry as much speed as possible, so that we wouldn't have to skin as far over to the other side. Once again we were treated to some great turns and plenty of smiles on the way down.

Geoff and Rich carrying momentum across the traverse

Now at the flats again, we needed to decide whether or not to try and get in another quick run. Since the other group was still climbing for their final descent we figured we may as well climb for 20 minutes or so and head down from wherever that brought us to. We knew we wouldn't make it all the way to the top again but we might be able to find a couple of fresh lines on the bottom pitch. Sure enough, we were able to make it to a bench about halfway up the south bowl where we were able to stage our final run down to the snow machines. Just as before, we got in a few nice turns before breaking right and carrying speed into the traverse. Without too much effort we were able to make it all the way out without having to skin, bringing an end to a fantastic tour of Ball Butte.

Before long, the other group rejoined us, all with big smiles on their faces and jubilation in their voices. Once the snowmobiles were warmed back up we loaded in and made our way back to the Mount Bachelor parking lot, where we had parked our cars. To finalize and celebrate our three-day training course we all met at Cascade Lakes Brewing to debrief and have a few beers together. It was ~9pm when I finally got back to Eugene and I was so tired that I barely remember unpacking and crawling into bed -- the sign of a good weekend!

Parting thoughts:
Ball Butte offered up some of the best off-piste terrain that I've had the chance to cut lines into. It didn't offer a ton of elevation in a single run, but the treeless bowls, amazing views and solitude delivered a perfect package for our day's adventure. It also provided great terrain to practice what we had learned over the previous days' training. I will say that I'm glad we had snowmobile access, since having to tour into the base would have made for a very long day; frankly, I'm not sure I would even consider doing it as a day trip unless it was later in the season and there was more available daylight. That said, camping out near the base of the butte would be a great option, especially with the other good terrain in the area like Moon Mountain and Todd Lake.

As for the AIARE avalanche course, it was truly an amazing experience and in my opinion a bargain for the cost. I definitely feel like I am better equipped to make wise decisions when traveling in the backcountry and participating in rescue in the unfortunate event that it's ever needed. Of course this is only the first step for me becoming a prepared backcountry traveler and I'm already looking forward to the level 2 class, which I'm planning to take next year. And finally, a big shout out to Aaron and Geoff at Oregon Ski Guides for providing amazing instruction and guidance during the three days that we spent with them -- truly a top shelf experience!

Track info:

Our tracks, on Google Earth