Saturday, May 6, 2017

Tam McArthur Rim (OR)

Although Tam MacArthur Rim had been on my radar, it took awhile for me to actually visit this zone, mainly due to the relatively long approach. In fact, my first tour there was actually during the last day of an AIARE level 2 course I took earlier this year, for which we had snowmobile access. Although the conditions at that time weren’t optimal, I got to see the potential that Tam Rim had to offer and I looked forward to a return trip. Fast-forward to a couple of months later, when my buddy Andrew and I decided to make it happen, only this time under our own power. With a couple different weekends to play with we had a good chance of hitting it under more favorable conditions, which fortunately would come to pass.

We started the 6-mile skin in on a Friday afternoon, after putting in a half day of work. Since Andrew was coming from Salem and I was coming from Eugene, we decided to meet at Santiam Sno-Park and then carpool to the to the Upper Three Creek Sno-Park, located ~11 miles south of Sisters (OR). When we pulled into the parking lot, the temps were in the mid 30s and the sky was a patchwork of blue skies and low clouds. After making some final gear preparations we departed the parking lot, and started up the road toward Tam Rim.

At the start, the road was only partially snow covered and required us to hike a couple of short sections of bare pavement. The weather was a mixture of sun and snow flurries, and created a cool atmosphere and lighting effects. After three hours of skinning. we reached Three Creek Lake, where we’d be setting up our base camp. The skin in really did a number on my feet, which I chalked up to being new to touring in ski boots and being loaded down with a relatively heavy pack, coming in at around 45 lbs. Before changing into my camp booties, I decided to setup my tent and get my area organized before it got too dark. When all my chores were done I was finally able to peel my boots from my aching feet, bringing with it a rather intense bootgasm. With darkness now upon us, we threw down a quick dinner and retired to our separate sleeping quarters, dreaming about the lines we’d be skiing the following day. That night the temps got pretty cold, and I even had my water bottle freeze inside my tent. Luckily I was covered in plenty of down, and slept reasonably warm and sound throughout the night.

Spotty coverage on the first bit of the skin in

Intermittent flurries
(photo by Andrew Boes) 

The author packin' it in
(photo by Andrew Boes)

A view of North Sister on the way in

Getting closer

A nice panoramic view of Tam Rim

The next morning we awoke to bright blue skies. After some coffee and some dehydrated breakfast we readied our packs for the day’s tour on Tam Rim. Before heading out, we took advantage of both the established pit toilet to unload and the natural spring to fill up our water bottles – both of which are quite a luxury when snow camping. Being a fairly popular ski tour destination, we were able to use the well-established skin track which made it very easy to get to our first drop-in zone at the top of Lower Playground. Although the most recent avalanche forecast and observations suggested that the conditions should be fairly stable, we decided to dig a small pit and do some surface level tests just to confirm. What we found was a unconsolidated storm snow that didn’t produce any slab fracture characteristics, indicating that the only real problem we’d be dealing with was loose dry sluffs – everyone’s favorite problem! Happy with both the stability results and the champagne powder conditions, we transitioned over for the first run of the day.

Starting up the skin track bright and early

Beautiful day for a tour!

Looking into our first objective of the day

Andrew elected to go first while I took some photos from the top. As discussed, he put in a quick ski cut, which triggered a nice sized sluff and confirmation of our test results. After the cut he turned his tips downhill and ripped a sweet series of turns all the way to the bottom of the small bowl, where he awaited my arrival. I quickly packed up my camera and prepared for my line, excited to get my first bite of the tasty looking snow. As a veteran snowboarder and being new to this whole skiing thing I dropped in using a more mellow line choice, just to the east. On a face that I would have put in a few turns on the way down on my snowboard, it was now much more challenging on skis, and I found myself taking a more conservative approach, cutting a line that was more perpendicular to the slope between linked turns. Even so, I was having a great time and the snow conditions made my turns feel relatively effortless.

Andrew drops in with a ski cut

Kickin' off a nice sluff

My (wide) turns down Lower Playground

With our first run in the bag, we reapplied our skins and headed back toward the rim, in search of new terrain to shred. Now back at the top of Lower Playground we looked to the west, where easterly aspect captured the morning sun and called to us. The skin from the top of our previous line and our new objective was very straightforward, and it only took another 20 minutes to reach the drop in site. The biggest challenges here were the small ridge cornices blocking the entrance, and the snow which had been solar affected to the point that loose wet slides where very likely, albeit small (≤ D1.5). Once again Andrew went first, entering through an opening between the cornice overhangs. Sure enough, he immediately kicked off a small loose wet slide and roller balls as he cut across the top of the slope. Once it had stopped running he slashed his way down the face, navigating the debris field he had just produced. I dropped in soon after with similar results, but of course with less style than Andrew had. After getting in a few actual turns I met back up with him at our pre-established island of safety, where we discussed our next plan of attack.

Heading up to zone #2

Looking onto the untouched Upper Playground

Looking onto our second drop zone

Large cornices line much of the rim

Andrew preparing for run #2

Dropping in

Navigating the debris field

With the sun out in full force and the snow rapidly warming, we decided to find a more protected northeast slope. Based on the topo map, it looked like the next bowl to the west would provide just that. We made our way down a series of short pitches and through some open glades as we made our way toward our new zone.

Andrew kicks up dust down one of the middle pitches

Finding some open glades

The author nears the end of the second descent
(photo by Andrew Boes)

When the new bowl finally came into view we knew we’d made the right choice! We quickly threw on our skins and started switchbacking up the east side of the bowl, in search of a highpoint to drop in from. At one point I was far enough out in front that I couldn’t see Andrew, who was on the other side of a small rock outcropping. I paused for a minute or two expecting him to come into view, which didn’t happen. Instead, I could hear some loud cursing and then him yelling to me that he was going to drop in from his current position. Since I don’t like skiing in avalanche terrain by myself, I quickly assessed my surroundings to find a place from which to transition over and drop in.

With my skins peeled and heels locked down, I enjoyed about a dozen turns down the face before taking a digger and losing one of my skis. I watched helplessly as it rocketed down the slope in front of me, dropping about 100 vertical feet before Andrew was able to corral it. With no other choice, I stripped off my other ski and hiked down the rest of my line. Apparently Andrew’s bindings had iced up and he wasn’t able to get his skis back on, and bootpacking proved more difficult than it was worth. After laughing off our less than optimal foray into this new zone, we took a quick break and licked our wounds before giving it another go. Our second lap went much smoother, with no icing up or crashes, only some great turns down the bowl. Now back at the bottom, we debated doing another lap, but ended up deciding to head back to camp to rest up a bit, thinking we might be up for another quick tour later on in the day.

Dropping in for the second run on the third zone
(photo by Andrew Boes)

Looking back up at my line

Andrew taking his turn

Getting back to camp went surprisingly quickly, and we soon found ourselves drinking beer and relaxing in the sun. It was actually the sun that had us concerned about the remainder of our trip. The fact that there was a good amount of fresh snow being saturated by radiation probably wasn’t going to bode well for the following day. The conversation mainly revolved around whether or not to pack up and depart that evening or take a chance and hope for some good lines in the morning before heading out. Since we didn’t feel like we had enough information to make an informed decision, we decided to head up for one more lap to see just how wet the north aspects had gotten.

It took us about 30 minutes to reach the top of lower Playground, where we’d dropped in for the first run of the day. The slope above us definitely looked sun beat, with natural release rollerballs and debris from tree bombs. The slope below us was more sun protected and certainly looked better. Right about this time a group of three rolled up and dropped in after exchanging some quick pleasantries. The first guy opted for a more conservative section of the bowl, while the second guy dropped down the main face and released a fairly small wet slide – enough to convince us that we’d be heading out that night. Before doing so we still needed to get back down to camp. So without hesitation, we transitioned over and headed down, getting in one last descent of the trip.

Tracked out

Andrew on his last run of the tour

Back at camp once again, we quickly broke camp and started the six mile skin out. It was now around 6pm, and with only an hour and a half or so before twilight we hoped we could make it to the car without breaking out our headlamps. The first part of the skin was a bit taxing, with lots of ups and downs that drained my already depleted energy level. Luckily the last 4 or so miles were all downhill and at a really nice grade, which allowed us to cruise down that section in about a half hour. It was right around 7:30pm when we reached the car, and the skin out had gone much better/faster than I anticipated. I mainly attribute this up to being on skis instead of my splitboard, which is actually one of the main reasons I’d decided to make the switch. We loaded up my Subie as quick as possible and drove to Three Creeks Brewery for some much needed food and beer!

Heading out

Pretty spectacular views of Mount Jefferson on the way out

Tam Rim is a fantastic tour destination, with lots of terrain and line options to challenge both novice and expert riders. That said, the lines are relatively short and it can be fairly crowded due to snowmobile access and the hut operation. For me it was a perfect place to get some ski touring practice in; sure, I would have been able to drop into some more aggressive lines on my splitboard, but if I’m going to make the switch I need to stay focused. The approach is a little long to make this a good option for a day tour, but if you have good gear for snow camping, have a snowmobile or reserve the huts, it’s a pretty sweet place to get in some turns and take in the spectacular views of the Three Sisters Wilderness!

The tracks from our tour:

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