Friday, April 14, 2017

Mount Bailey (OR) - Avalanche Bowl

Located across Diamond Lake from the iconic Mount Thielsen is the lesser known Cascade peak, Mount Bailey. For backcountry skiers and snowboarders, Bailey provides terrain that is equally as good as its sister mountain. Furthermore, since it’s not in a designated wilderness area it’s quite popular with snowmobiles and even hosts a cat skiing operation. For those of us who enjoy the human-powered approach to getting up the mountain, the three story Hemlock Butte shelter (reservation only) provides an opportunity for a multiday adventure in relative comfort. I’d wanted to hit this zone for awhile now, so when I got the email invite (thanks Iryna!) I immediately put in for the time off of work.

The weather forecast during the week leading up to the trip didn’t look so great, and I was actually on the fence as to whether or not I wanted to use the days off of work if it was going to be raining the whole time. Luckily, as we got closer to our departure date the forecast became more favorable with cooler temps and snow forecasted instead of rain. Although there were 15 of us who would be staying at the shelter, I wasn’t sure if I was going to have the same itinerary as anyone else, so I ended up making the drive to the Three Lakes Sno-Park by myself. From Eugene, it took about 2.5 hours, and by the time I reached the parking lot it was around 11am and snowing pretty hard. As I was getting geared up and making some final adjustments to my overloaded pack, a few of the others showed up. After some friendly banter I threw my pack onto my back and started the ~3.5 mile skin into the Hemlock shelter.

The first two miles followed along NF-3703, which was firmly packed down by the many snowmobiles that utilize this same route. Between the wide path and the mellow gradient, the first half of the approach went by pretty darn quickly. Following my map, I then made a right turn onto NF-300 which I followed for a short distance before jumping onto the trail that would get me to the shelter. The trail portion of the approach consisted of a narrow skin track, which was also well packed down thanks to the group who had just come back out that day. After an hour and a half from when I started the skin I reached the hut, and quickly discovered that I was the first one there. Before unpacking, I spent about 15 minutes surveying the site to see what amenities we’d have available to us. I must say that I was quite impressed with the structure itself, which included an indoor pit toilet and firewood storage, a table and benches, plenty of room for sleeping (top two floors) and of course a wood stove. Just as I was starting to unpack, Ethan showed up and was equally stoked on our new home for the next couple of nights.

The Hemlock Shelter

Over the next few hours, the remaining 13 people showed up, and although we had plenty of space to roll out our sleeping bags, the common area on the first floor started to get pretty crowded. The hardest part was keeping track of gear and finding a clear space to cook food and melt snow, but it was a fun atmosphere and everyone was super accommodating and having a good time. Furthermore, it’s always nice to meet fellow adventurers, which in this case took the form of backcountry skiers, XC skiers and snowshoers. By the time I made it up to bed it was around 10pm and even with all the peripheral activity I slept pretty well through the night.

The next morning I awoke and had some breakfast and coffee before heading outside the cabin to see what the weather was like. We had gotten a few more inches of snow overnight which brought the storm total to around 8-10 inches. The sky was a patchwork of low clouds and blue sucker holes and I was hopeful that the storm was on its way out and that we would get some more clearing throughout the day. Once everyone had fueled up and packed their gear for the day’s tour, we did a quick beacon check and started our ascent up the southeast ridge of Mount Bailey.

With all the new snow, we had to break our own trail, which we shared doing. At the beginning of the tour we had 11 strong, but we would eventually lose 3 people by the time we crossed over the timberline due to gear and foot problems. Along the way, I spent some time performing a variety of quick snow stability tests (hand shear, ski pole probing, jumping on test slopes, etc.) and I didn’t find any signs of instability. However, once we were able to see into Avalanche Bowl, a red flag presented itself in the form of a recent slide. The crown wasn’t particularly large, maybe 30-40cm, but it covered a fairly wide area and could probably be classified as a D2. This, in combination with the new and wind-transported snow, convinced us that it would be wise to dig a pit before dropping into any terrain over 30°.

Making our way up the southeast ridge

A frozen Diamond Lake and socked in Mount Thielsen

Ethan, enjoying a mellow portion of the ascent

Kick-turn practice

Signs of previous slide activity at the top of Avalanche Bowl

We soon found a nice looking line that dropped down the northeast side of the ridge through some widely spaced trees, which everyone was game for. While the rest of the crew decided to check the snow stability at this location, Ethan, Jace and I decided to head up a little further to see what other options we might have. We only had to go up another 100 vertical feet or so to find another sweet looking line dropping down the same side of the ridge, only this time it was a wide open face! It also had a nice roll-in that was free of cornices, which happened to flank either side of the run. I did my best to keep my emotions in check and knew that we should also test the snow here before even thinking about dropping in, especially since the slope angle on the first 100 feet or so was right around 35-40 degrees. Knowing that any instability would most likely be within the top layers of the snowpack, I dug a fairly shallow pit and performed a shovel tilt test and a couple of compression tests (CTs). Unfortunately, my findings indicated two weak interfaces (between wind slab and storm snow) with sudden planer fracture characteristics, at about 25cm and 40cm down. Both fractured as CTMs at 12 and 15 taps respectively. I quickly radioed the other half of the crew who had found more favorable results using similar test methods, and adding an extended column test (ECT). With that, Ethan, Jace and I headed back down to the safer zone.

With the whole crew back together, we discussed our game plan for getting down the run. Since the run was still in avalanche terrain, we followed protocol and dropped in one at a time, waiting until the previous person was out of the slide path. Ethan and Andrew were quite eager and offered to drop in first. I quickly grabbed my camera and was able to get off a few shots of Andrew as he dropped in for his line. Since I also wanted to get some photos from down low, I asked if I could go next, which the others graciously agreed to. It took me a few turns to find my groove, but once I did the ride was pure magic, with both soft powder (by Oregon standards) and perfectly spaced trees. Once everyone had taken their turn, we regrouped at the bottom and celebrated our first descent of the tour!

Andrew drops in for the first run of the tour

Perfectly spaced trees!

Jill throws it down

Looking back up at our first descent, which was about 700 vertical feet. 

Both Mike and Benedikt, who were under a time constraint, headed back to the cabin while the rest of us discussed our next plan of attack. We eventually settled on checking out the south bowl and transitioned over for the ascent up to the drop-in zone. I led the assault up to the ridge, cutting in a series of pretty steep switchbacks, which was fairly easy to do since the snow was nice and supportive. Eventually I tired out and handed over the reins to the next in line to finish up the skin track. Once we had reached the ridge we took a quick snack break, and then continued up another ½ mile and 500 vertical feet to the top of the south bowl.

Heading up to the south bowl

Some nice weather breaks along the way

Since we were on a different aspect we dug another small pit and checked stability. Once again, we found stable results, so we geared up and prepared for the second descent of the day. The visibility that we had enjoyed during our first line was now gone, and it was very difficult to make out the full run through the fog. This, along with the firmer snow, killed a bit of my flow and I certainly didn’t feel as strong as I had during the first descent. Even so it was still a really fun line, and everyone agreed it was well worth the effort. In fact, it looked like there were a few more good lines off the south face that would make for a worthy target on a follow-up trip. The other nice thing about this zone was that I was able to make it 80% of the way back to the hut in snowboard mode, which for around these parts is pretty damn good!

Jace, partway down the south face

Diggin' in

Ethan gets lucky with some relatively good visibility

Stoked on another fun descent!

The lines from our run down the south face

There was still plenty of light when we got back to the hut, but we were all pretty tired and spent the remainder of the time before dinner relaxing and melting snow into drinking water. With half the crew now gone, the hut felt pretty spacious, with a lot more room to hang gear and lay around. That night we drank what was left of the alcohol and told fish stories while waiting for Matthew to show up, who was a late arrival and would be joining us on the following day’s tour. Even with the extra room to spread out and the reduced noise level, I had a hard time sleeping that night and had to go to the bathroom an annoying number of times.

The next morning we cooked breakfast and did some pre-packing for the skin back to the cars after our tour on Bailey. We were able to get going about an hour earlier than the previous day, which was good since we were planning to summit. Since we weren’t sure how sketchy the corniced ridge would be at the top of the bowl, we decided to skin up its northern flank rather than following our tracks from the previous day traversing along the summit ridge. The skin up was actually quite pleasant with overcast skies and mild temps. As we climbed up toward the east ridge, the sun began to poke out from time to time and started to soften the sun crust that had formed the night before. Matthew was in the lead and feeling pretty fresh, which was apparent from his rather steep tracks up the side of the ridge.

Andrew bagging the first descent of the day

Climbing the east ridge toward the summit

Eventually we reached the base of the mini bowl, on the north end of Avalanche Bowl, where I did a quick stability analysis and found the snowpack to be quite stable, albeit a bit on the firm side. From here we climbed up the remaining 300’ to the summit, where we were treated to some winds and nice views between the patches of low clouds. While transitioning over, we shared a beer that Matthew had brought us (what a nice guy), which was quite refreshing even with cool and windy conditions.

Final push to the summit

Matthew poses for the camera, with Diamond Peak in the background.

By the time we were ready to drop in, we were completely engulfed in clouds, which made riding down the bowl a bit more difficult than it needed to be – even with yellow lenses the flat light made reading the terrain extremely difficult. Even though conditions weren't optimal, skiing off the summit of any mountain is pretty sweet. From our island of safety at the bottom of the mini bowl we’d be skiing terrain that was less than 30 degrees down the run-out of the main bowl. We decided that this would give us a good opportunity to party ski, which we took full advantage of and had some of the most fun turns of the trip!

Matthew, dropping into the mini bowl

Iryna takes her turn

Jill gets some boot shots

Ethan heads into the unknown

Andrew, rippin' it up!

Our line on the mini bowl

Now back at the bottom of Avalanche bowl, it was still pretty early and all of us still had some energy left. Therefore, we decided to get in one last descent, with our target being the line Ethan, Jace and I had backed off from the day before due to stability concerns. The plan was to head up and check the stability one more time, hoping that the extra day had allowed the snowpack to settle. Following the skin track laid down the previous day, we made pretty good time getting to the drop-in, where we once again dug a quick pit. This time the results were much more favorable, although the surface had started to warm up a bit and rollerballs were out and about. During our preparation, a couple of snowmobilers had gathered at the bottom of the slope, which we assumed was to take in the show. Wanting to oblige, we ripped skins in hopes of descending the slope before it got any warmer.

I dropped in first, performing a quick ski cut before committing to some turns down the face. As expected, rollerballs broke away from my track and followed me as I carved a zig-zag pattern straight down the face. One by one, the remainder of the crew took their turns, with the once pristine face becoming more and more bombed out with roller balls. I actually felt pretty bad for the final few in the crew, as it was more about navigating the debris field than laying down some pretty tracks.

Dropping in on the last descent of the tour

Navigating rollerball debris

Right around the time that everyone had finished up, the snowmobilers fired up their sleds and took off, B-lining straight up the bowl and high lining the main face at the head of it. I was a bit taken aback at what appeared to be their complete lack of avalanche awareness, attacking the slope that was likely the most unstable and heavily corniced without a care in the world. I actually became quite angry since I was in the slide path of said slope, and my yells were completely drowned out by the roar of their engines. I quickly collected my gear and left the run-out as quickly as possible, joining the others in a much more protected spot.

Once I was finally able to simmer down, we discussed our plan to get back to the hut, and unfortunately there wasn’t much of an option for me to stay in snowboard mode. Not wanting to hold up the others, I told them to start without me, while I transitioned over to skins and headed back at a much slower pace. Since most of it was a side-hill traverse, it was pretty laborious getting back to the Hemlock shelter, and I was happy when it finally came into view. Almost everyone had already packed up and were on their way out, except for Iryna and Andrew, who were planning to spend another night. I quickly packed up my things and melted enough snow for a Nalgene bottle of water before heading out. I put in my earbuds and listened to some tunes, which helped pass the time. When I finally made it to the snow-covered road, I ripped my skins and skied the rest of the way out, in a semi-controlled fashion – skiing on a splitboard is much more difficult than one might assume. Back at the car I couldn't wait to take off my boots and slip into some cotton socks and sneakers. Once I was packed up, I started the long lonely drive back to Eugene, reminiscing on yet another great tour.

Parting shot of the shelter

As a package, the Hemlock shelter and terrain on Mount Bailey makes for an amazing tour / hut trip! I’m really glad that the temps dropped and we had some pretty good snow conditions. The only way it could have been better is if the stability would have allowed us to attack some of the bigger lines at the head of the bowl, but with the rather large cornices and heavy wind loading it just wasn’t in the cards. Even so, there was still plenty of terrain for us to play on. In fact, there was lots more we could have explored with more time, such as the whole north face, which has been on my radar for a while. Regarding the shelter, of the few I’ve had the pleasure of staying at, this was by far the best – with three stories, a wood stove, an inside bathroom and wood storage it's really hard to beat. The only downside is that it can be pretty tough to get a reservation since it books up so quickly. Really, the only downside to Mount Bailey is the snowmobile traffic and potential for conflict like with what happened on our trip. That said, I certainly don’t feel that my form of recreation is more important than others, and they have just as much right to be there as I do. I’m already looking forward to the next tour at Mount Bailey, which may even be sometime this spring and hopefully on the north face!

The tracks from our tour: