Saturday, May 13, 2017

Mount Thielsen (OR) - Southwest Bowl

After struggling to find anyone else that was free for a ski tour, I decided that it was time for another solo mission, which I quite enjoy when the avalanche danger is low. After an internal debate on which zone to head to, I finally landed on Mount Thielsen, based on the weather forecast, proximity to Eugene, and wanting a re-do after encountering less than optimal conditions the last time I was there (total whiteout and breakable crust). My plan was to head out from the Mount Thielsen trailhead parking lot (near Diamond Lake) and skin due east into the base of the southwest bowl. From there I would skin until it got too steep, at which point I would bootpack the remainder of the way up. From there I would drop into either the southwest or northwest bowl, depending on conditions.

I ended up leaving Eugene on Sunday morning at a fairly reasonable time of 6am. After a quick stop for a breakfast sandwich and coffee, I jumped on the highway toward my destination. As I reached Diamond Lake, Mount Bailey's Avalanche Bowl came into view, presenting a very tempting alternative to my current plan. By the time I reached the Mount Thielsen parking lot and got my gear readied, it was ~8:30am and the sun was shining bright, with temps right around the freezing point. Using my GPS and the location of the sun, I started skinning east toward the SW bowl. The snow was rock hard and my progress varied based on the density of the forest, which alternated between open glades and tightly spaced trees. One of the main obstacles within the dense sections was the maze of snow bridges between the worn tree wells, which started off as a fun challenge but eventually turned into a bit of a nuisance.

Looking into Mount Bailey's Avalanche Bowl, from Hwy 138.

At the 3 ¼ mile mark and approximately 2 hours in, I finally reached the lower snowfield, which acted as a continuation of the main SW bowl. The long beautiful run was now in full view and I was itching to get to the top of it! For the last mile or so I had been following some fresh skin tracks that indicated there were at least three other skiers that had the same plan as me. Since they continued toward the same highpoint that I was targeting, I continued to follow the tracks up the face of the snowfield/bowl. As the slope of the bowl rapidly steepened I soon found myself struggling to find traction. In fact, at one point I slipped out and quickly self-arrested by plunging the head of my whippet into the icy surface. Not wanting to risk another fall I decided to switch over to boot crampons, and started bootpacking from my current position.

Getting closer

Skinning up the lower snowfield

With my skis now strapped to my back and my boots armed with aluminum spikes, I marched up the hill with surprising ease. With the slope now fully exposed to the sun, the snow was starting to soften, which added greatly to my foot traction. As the slope angle increased into the low 40s I started to question my skiing abilities to get down with any kind of style, let alone safely. I figured I should take a quick break and eat a snack before making a final decision on whether or not to continue up or to drop in from my current position. This was fairly timely since I was at the base of one of the pinnacles that provided some nice shade and a flat spot to hang out. Furthermore, with the snow still pretty firm, it would give the sun some time to soften it up a bit more.

After a few minutes of relaxing and analyzing the terrain, I decided that it would be good to challenge myself and that I should continue up to the ridge that sat at the base of the summit pinnacle. Just as I was nearing the ridge a couple of skiers came into view and appeared to be coming down from the summit. When I finally reached my highpoint (I wouldn’t be summiting) I found a group of four, who were all from Bend. They were a friendly group of guys and we sat around and chatted for a bit while we all waited for the optimal time to drop in, based on the corn cycle and which was quickly approaching.

Closing in on the pinnacles

Topping out

The other group, at the base of the summit pinnacle and to of the drop-in zone

Cool rock feature looking east off the summit ridge

More great views of Mount Bailey -- The north bowl (on the right) was looking extra tasty!

Looking south, onto the Crater Lake zone.

I was actually quite happy that I had run into them since it would allow me to get some shots with some skiers in the frame, which always helps with communicating the scope of the run and surrounding landscape. I hiked down about fifty feet to setup, which also allowed me to assess how well the snow was softening. Once I felt it was about as good as it was going to get I gave them the signal, and soon after they began to drop down in single file. At the very top it appeared that the face was a bit chattery, but about 100’ down their turns started to become much smoother and I couldn’t wait to drop in myself. Once they had all passed I quickly hiked back up to my gear and readied it for the descent.


The first couple heading down the southwest bowl

Reaching the sweet corn band

Sure enough my first couple of turns felt a bit unnerving, but never out of control. As I hit the softer snow down lower and I had a few turns under my belt, I gained some confidence and eventually started to make a series of linked turns. I’m still at the point in my skiing progression that my legs get tired pretty quickly on the way down and I need to take frequent breaks, which I assume is mostly due to poor technique. Even so, I was having a great time and feel like I’ve been improving every time I get out. When I finally reached the lower meadow, which has a slope angle in the mid 20s, I was feeling really good and skiing nice and aggressively as I finished up the run. From top to bottom the run dropped right around 1,600’, which isn’t bad for the backcountry descents around these parts!

Getting ready for my turn

Looking back up at my line through the upper bowl

Looking back up into the lower snowfield

A parting shot of Mount Thielsen, before heading out.

I debated going up for another lap and maybe even dropping into the northwest bowl, but ended up deciding to call it a day based on energy level and being quite content with my first run. Skiing back out to the car, much like the skin in, was a bit of a mixed bag – easy going when I was in the open glades and tough when the trees got tight. That said, it also went about twice as fast, based on it being entirely downhill and sans skins. Back at the car by 2pm I was feeling pretty good, and now questioning my decision not to do another lap; of course this just gives me a reason to head back, hopefully with someone else to enjoy it with.

My line (in red)

Mount Thielsen’s southwest bowl is a fantastic tour destination. With a ~4 mile approach it makes for a very reasonable day tour, and since the road is always plowed to the parking lot this includes winter as well. The ~1,600’ unobstructed descent is pure bliss, starting with a slope angle in the low 40s and finishing in the mid 20s. Furthermore, with easy/additional access into the northwest bowl, it provides quite a few line choices. I’m really looking forward to getting back in there and attacking some of the other terrain!

My tracks:

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Three Fingered Jack (OR) - Southwest Bowl

Three Fingered Jack (3FJ) is one of the few major volcanic peaks in the area that allows for a reasonable day tour during the winter/early-spring months, based on its modest approach of around 5 miles (one way). During our last tour to the southeast bowl we peered into the southwest bowl and were tempted by its steep clean face and long runout. Although we didn’t have the time to explore it on that day, I knew that I wanted to target that zone on a follow-up trip. That day would come just three weeks later, with a small crew of three – Iryna, Jill and me. Since Jill needed to get back to town by 5pm, we decided to get a very early start, meeting up in Springfield at 4:30am and carpooling from there. Unfortunately there was a bit of miscommunication about the exact meeting place, which would cause us to leave town about a half hour behind schedule. Luckily I was able to make up some time on the drive and we made it to Santiam Sno-Park at around 6:15am, when the sun was just rising above the horizon.

The author peers into the southwest bowl during a previous tour to the southeast bowl (trip report here)
(Photo by Ethan Stehley)

Learning from my previous experience, we decided on a route that avoided the southern ridge, which is heavily corniced and wind-sculpted and brought our progress to a crawl on my last two tours on 3FJ. Instead, we would parallel it down low on its western flank, entering through the bottom of the southwest bowl and bootpacking straight up its face. As with the other approach, the beginning of the tour sent us through a burn area that made for pretty easy skinning, with expansive sightlines that even gave us sporadic views of 3FJ in the distance. Eventually the skeleton forest gave way to live trees and our navigation slowed down slightly as a consequence.

Starting off the tour through the skeleton forest, with 3FJ in the background.

Getting closer

Looking back toward the south gives good views of Mount Washington and the Three Sisters

At around the 5-mile mark and three hours into our tour we entered the southwest bowl, which provided an amazing backdrop for the remainder of the ascent up its face. As part of the pre-trip planning, I had sketched out some possible lines / drop-in zones. Most of these, however, were taken out of contention due to the debris field that had been the result of previous ice fall and wet slides. Furthermore, the snow hadn’t warmed up very much and the summit crags looked like they would prevent it from doing so until later in the afternoon. The best looking line was actually in the far northern corner of the bowl, which was already getting sun blasted and had minimal debris to contend with. After a quick discussion and agreement, we set our sights on that as our target.

Entering the southwest bowl

Scouting out our line options

Since we were pretty sure the face of the bowl would still be pretty icy this early in the day, Iryna and I threw on our ski crampons, while Jill, who hadn’t brought any, traversed the bowl to find a good point from which to bootpack. Although the crampons certainly helped with traction while we traversed the bowl, we also ended up bootpacking from the same spot as Jill, since attempting to skin up the steep icy face would have been challenging even with the additional aid. Now carrying our skis on our packs, we kickstepped our way up the face, gaining another 300’ to the top of the ridge. The last hundred feet or so led us through a narrow band of stunted trees with a heavy coating of rime. From the ridge we headed up another 50’ or so to one of the lesser summits on 3FJ, which probably wouldn’t even be considered its pinky finger…

Hiking up the final pitch to one of 3FJ's lesser summits

Great views of Mount Jefferson from the lesser summit

Although the sun was shining, there was a strong breeze and the temps were fairly cold; enough so that I needed to pull out my down jacket and wind shell. It was also corniced and the only good spot to hangout was, well, not that good. After taking in the view and snapping off a few photos we headed back down to the base of the rimed forest and settled in, waiting for the sun to soften the snow into the sweet, sweet corn! We ended up waiting about a half hour, passing the time by telling stories and sharing some delicious treats that the gals had brought – I felt like a bit of a mooch but did promise I had some beers back at the car for a post tour celebration. Even though the snow didn’t soften as much as we would have liked, we were running against a time constraint and decided that we’d have to settle for what the current conditions offered us.

Waiting for the snow to soften

Since I wanted to get some shots of the others coming down, I hiked down a short distance to find somewhere that would provide a good backdrop. One at a time they dropped in, cutting in some nice turns as they descended. They both stopped about halfway down the main face and awaited my arrival, which happened with much less style then they had shown – hey, I’m still trying to figure out this whole dual plank thing…

Jill drops in for her first turns of the day

Enjoying the wide open bowl and views!

Iryna gives chase

Lots of descent to go

Doing my best to maintain form
(photo by Jill Stone)

For the second half of the run the gals decided to get in some party skiing, throwing in some sweet synchronized turns for good measure. As the main face gave way to the run-out, the slope angle lessened, which allowed me to tighten up my turns a bit and actually feel like I knew what I was doing. Of course, the cheers of encouragement didn’t hurt either. Although the bottom of the run turned a bit slushy it never got too soft, and even on the relatively flat section it was pretty easy to carve without digging in too deep.

Setting up for the next pitch

Party ski!

Keeping it synchronized

Closing in on the run-out zone

Now finished with the descent and not having enough time for another lap, we quickly looked at the map to determine the best way out. Instead of backtracking on our previous skin track, which would have required us to put our skins back on for at least the first bit, I suggested that we continue to skin down to the valley, which we could then follow in the general direction back to the sno-park. In hindsight, and to make a long story short, this ended up being a bad decision on my part, based on some unforeseen obstacles (hills, tight trees, etc.). Basically, the terrain wasn’t nearly as easy going as I had anticipated. In the end it took us almost a half hour longer to skin in than ski out, which unfortunately meant that Jill was not going to make it back to town like she had hoped to.

Enjoying the ski out, early on.

About halfway out

Parting shot of Three Fingered Jack

When we finally made it back to the car we were all pretty spent, which was not surprising after a 9+ hour tour. We did get to drink those cold well-earned beers, celebrating yet another rewarding tour, for which I was fortunate to have such a solid crew to help get me to the finish line!

I’m really glad I got to check this bowl off the list, which is one I’d been looking at for the last couple trips to Three Fingered Jack. I would say that the terrain is not as good as the southeast bowls and the approach is a bit more laborious. With that said, it’s certainly worth doing and adds to an already sweet backcountry ski destination. I would love to head back there during the heart of winter, with a foot or so of fresh snow and a little bit more time to get in a few laps, which may require some snow camping.

The tracks from our tour:

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: