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

Dreamland

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

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