Monday, February 23, 2009

Carson Pass Backcountry - Round Top

After the big storm cycles we had roll through the Sierras over President's Day, the backcountry was just asking for a visit...after the snowpack stabilized, of course. On Saturday, Brooke, Ed and I headed south to Carson Pass to pay our respects to Round Top. Our prize line for the day was going to be Crescent Moon Couloir, visible from Highway 88. I got to bring the splitboard and skins since Ed and Brooke are skiers; bonus for me!

When we got out of the car at Carson Pass, it was warm, and the wind had already started blowing. Fortunately, the sky was still clear, but our first hiccup of the day had just reared its head: Brooke forgot her skins!

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Brooke bootpacking it

The route is mostly flat from the pass to Winnemucca Lake, and then ascends from there.

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Round Top, quite the misnomer

Being gentlemen, Ed and I each strapped one of Brooke's skis to our packs; this is a team effort, after all. As we got closer to Winnemucca Lake, the wind started picking up substantially. There was a warm (8000'+ snowlevel) storm forecast to arrive that evening, so we did well to get our early start and beat the storm as best we could.

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Ed having a rest; notice the extra ski

From Winnemucca Lake, the easiest route up is to skin up to the ridge west of the summit and to billygoat up from there. We could see where some other skiers had skinned and then bootpacked up the couloir as high as they could go, but there were a grand total of 3 tracks on the whole face.

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Ed skinning up the first part of the ascent

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A good look at Crescent Face. Crescent Moon Couloir to skier's left (right side of photo), and an off-chute to skier's right (left side of photo).

Crescent Moon Couloir is a line that changes a lot with the snowpack. No matter what, it's heinously steep; 55º+ at the top, then mellowing to 45-50º from there on out. With a deeper snowpack, one can ski most of the way down the hanging snowfield to the right side of the couloir in the photo, then traverse in. With our relatively low snowpack right now, though, that hanging snowfield equates to exposure and death, so the true entry to the couloir is the only way in.

The entry follows the fall line down to skier's right past a rock in the middle (barely visible as a sliver in the above photo). A few dozen meters past that rock in the middle, the whole thing makes a turn to skier's left where the slope eases a bit.

The chute to the left in the photo is a slightly mellower affair. It's technically got a narrower entry, but it's not quite as steep and the exposure is a couple notches lower. It also widens up past the entry, just like Crescent, but its wide part is a bit more comfortable than Crescent's "wide" part.

Not too far up from Winnemucca Lake, Brooke yelled ahead for us to drop her skis; she was having trouble bootpacking through the soft snow, and summiting would be unlikely for her. The wind was at full force now, moving snow around the slopes, and the clouds were starting to roll in.

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A view of part of the Sisters, west of Round Top

As we got further up, the switchbacks started on the skin track...I need some serious help on technique for making those sharp turns.

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Ed near the top of the skin track

We got to the top of the skin track and rearranged our gear to climb to the peak, only a few hundred feet away. It took me a few minutes longer than Ed to get ready, as I needed to convert my split board back into a snowboard after I took the skins off my "skis." This splitboard, measuring a healthy 170cm, is a true backcountry assault of both worlds!

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The view to the south from the top of the skin track

Up on this exposed ridgeline, the wind was fierce, and we could see the sky darkening to the west, although we were in no immediate danger of experiencing a storm.

Finally up top, we peered off the edge of the earth as the terrain below us fell away into nothing. A few steps over to our right was the entry to Crescent!

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The entry into Crescent Moon Couloir

It's tough to photograph subtle changes in snow, especially when it's shaded, but there's a very distinct break in the fall line right at the entry. Stay to the right, and you're "safely" in the couloir, but get stuck to the left of that break, and you're committed to the hanging snowfield and its substantial exposure due to the shallow snowpack. Gulp.

Ed and I had a good long talk about the terrain, the exposure, the snowpack, and how they all worked together. "Human factors" are a gigantic contributor to safety in the backcountry, and there's simply no room for bravado. When Ed made it clear that he wasn't comfortable skiing Crescent, it meant it was a no-go for me, too. There's no point putting a member of the group in a position where he may have to follow someone else down a tough line, god forbid, to make a rescue.

So we billygoated along the summit ridge to the east to check out skier's right chute.

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The entry into the skier's-right chute

This couloir is still a burly line, but it's way less exposed, and the entry is easier to swallow than the entry to Crescent. Ed was more than comfortable with this one, so we gathered our gear and got ready to drop in. By now, the skies were gray with storm clouds, but at least we were protected from the wind; neither of these couloirs have seen a glimmer of sunlight for a couple months, either!

I dropped in first, worked my way down the narrow throat of the entry through glorious snow, and went to the safe pocket Ed and I had identified from above. The next 5 photos are of Ed skiing the top part of the chute.

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Ed ready to drop in

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Ed in the couloir...

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...working the narrow entry...

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...showing how it's done in the white room...

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...and down to where it opens up a bit...

Safely to our meeting point, Ed was smiling. The snow was spectacular! I handed the camera off to him and watched him ski the rest of the couloir. My turn! This terrain was steep enough to discourage slab formation, but staying out of my slough was my biggest concern. The snow got heavier lower down, but it was still soft powder. What awesome terrain we got to ride...

The next 6 shots are of me in the couloir from below.

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Having fun, outrunning the slough...

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...checking the speed...

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...the end's in sight; let 'er rip...

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...home free, throttle open...

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...ready for a big heelside...

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...a well-earned turn...

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...and a gleeful wheelie...

We leapfrogged each other down to the lake, enjoying every last turn through the wind-buffed bowl.

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A rock to drop on the way back down to Winnemucca Lake

Once at the bottom, we converted back to skin travel and started out. Brooke had headed back towards the pass with a few snowshoers (who had wine and homemade Ouzo, can't imagine why she went with them), and the skies were gloomy and the wind was strong through the trees for the whole way back.

Reunited at the car, all that was left was a stop for delicious Mexican food at El Charro Avitia in Carson.

For anyone interested, here's a link to another trip report from Crescent Face. The photos in this report do a good job of illustrating Crescent itself and some of the other amazing lines for the taking when there's more snow (pay particular attention to the big air into the right side of the skier's right chute!). You'd all better believe that I'll be headed back there this season after the snow from the next couple of storms becomes safe...

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Danger Rose

I'd like to share something I think is cool and useful:

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Makes perfect sense, right?


What is it? It's a danger rose. It's a graphical representation of avalanche danger on particular aspects and elevations. This winter is the first time I've seen it used in the Central Sierra Avalanche Advisory, but I was in NZ last winter, so they may have started using it a year ago.

In any case, it was developed by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, and they explain what it means here.

Common sense, awareness, and knowledge must prevail while traveling in the backcountry. Advisories like the Central Sierra one and graphical tools like the Danger Rose can play a huge part in keeping that knowledge requirement fresh.

We also have to remember that we're not safe just because we're in-bounds, too. I remember a minor epiphany a few years ago on a 2-3 foot Christmas Day at Alpine Meadows, when a patroller waiting with the impatient throng at the bottom of Summit Six at about 9:10am shouted for a raise of hands from anyone who was wearing a beacon (much less knowing how to use it, carrying a shovel and probe, and riding with friends who were doing the same)...two or three at most out of two hundred raised their hands.

Let's all stay safe out there, especially after it starts dumping on the heels of a mediocre January...

And if you've got a few spare dollars, consider donating them (Paypal link near the bottom of the page) to the Sierra Avalanche Center, so they can continue providing their fantastic service.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Putting the E back in Beantown

Alright, so we'll let the cat out of the bag. I've hinted but not publicly announced that I've applied to grad school. I'm not about to just go "back to school" for the sake of going back to school, but there's a particular program that fits the bill and would be pretty dang cool: the LFM program at MIT. It's a full two-year program that awards two degrees to each graduate - an engineering masters in one's chosen field and an MBA from Sloan. There are plenty more reasons that it's an awesome program, but no need to go into depth right now.

I spent the last part of last week in Boston (and Cambridge), the primary purpose of which was an interview with a member of the admissions committee. Secondary missions for this trip were a daylong open house for the LFM program, catching up with a few old friends, and a refamiliarization with Boston (albeit Winter-Boston). As an aside, airfares worldwide are in the tank right now...

My glorious winter-travel journey began with a 10-hour layover at LAX, thanks to the storm that battered Boston.

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Really bored at LAX; light grate

About all I have to show for it is a thorough understanding of Terminal 4 at LAX, but there was a special visitor at the airport that day:

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A Qantas A380

Finally into Boston at 6:30am instead of 11pm the night before, Josh picked me up at the airport and whisked me away to Somerville where I promptly slept 'til 11:30am, as the 4:20 nonstop from LAX to BOS doesn't allow for too much shuteye.

I groggily left Josh and Amanda's flat and walked to the Porter Square T station, plunging myself back into the culture of Boston for a big lap through the city.

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Porter T station

My first stop was a transfer from the Red Line to the Green Line to Government Center.

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Boston City Hall

A few minutes of walking later put me on the doorstep of the Only one kind of pizza, too - cheese. Simple, pure, and brilliant.

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Mmm, Umberto

Back towards Government Center is a nice view of the centerpiece bridge of the Big Dig, finally complete.

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Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge

A few more steps away is a very well-known tourist trap, but it illustrates an essential observation about Boston; the coexistence between and overlap of old and new architecture.

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Union Oyster House

A quick blast over Beacon Hill and down towards the Common is the Massachusetts State House.

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Brilliant dome in the cold winter sun

I cruised through the middle of Boston Common, the usual expansive grass under a blanket of snow from two days before. Working my way to the west end of the Common, I walked up Newbury Street and past all the high-end shops, frequently swarmed with socialites during the summer.

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Along Newbury Street

Turning right on Mass. Ave., I headed towards the Charles River, but made a quick detour.

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Corner of Mass. Ave. and Beacon St.

Just meters away from the Harvard Bridge on Mass. Ave. is the place I called home for my undergraduate years at MIT.

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518 Beacon St.

I crossed the bridge for the first time in many moons and traversed the 364.4 (+1 ear) Smoots.

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Boston skyline and a frozen Charles River from Harvard Bridge

Of particular interest to a certain friend with initials JHZD, there were numerous foot-tracks across the ice...

Moving onto the MIT campus, I paused for a quick shot of the front entrance and moved on to the new (since I left in '02) Zesiger Center for a swim in the rad pool, much better than the pit of the old Alumni Pool.

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77 Mass. Ave., the front door of MIT

After a great swim, Josh and Amanda treated me to a fantastic dinner at the Highland Kitchen in Somerville. Mmm, spicy goat stew, gnocchi, and Cambridge Brewing Company Porter, mmm. With Thursday in the books, the real meat of the trip was just a sleep away.

Most of Friday was spent on campus for an orientation to the LFM program. And an interview. And then more orientation. Actually, it was cool to meet a bunch of current LFM students and to get their impression on all sorts of stuff. We did have some downtime during the day, and I used that to check out some stuff on campus that wasn't there when I left.

First stop was the Stata Center, the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence building designed by Gehry. It was under construction when I was an undergrad, and I remember it being a nightmare since there are so few right angles or straight surfaces.

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Front door, but the shady side

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Approaching Stata from the back

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Shiny scales

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Titanium panels, shiny things, and yellow things

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Reflections and shadows

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Inside the expansive Stata Center

I made it back to the Z Center for another great swim, then wandered west on campus to the oft-maligned Simmons Hall, the freshman dorm. I think it's kinda cool.

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Simmons Hall at dusk

I met back up with the LFM crew for dinner in Cambridge. Tibetan food tonight, a first for me and very tasty! Then onto the T and back to Boston for a couple pints of Guinness at the Beantown Pub with Velsko, Wallace, Flamin' Fraiman, Christina, Maling, and Erin, most of whom I hadn't seen since graduation.

Called it an early night, rode the T back to Somerville, but only got 3 hours of sleep before the early flight back to Reno. A nap upon arrival put the finishing touches on the trip. Even though the snow and rain made the streets a mess, it was great to get back into the swing of things in Boston and on campus, if only for a few days.

I've got my fingers crossed in a big way, but LFM doesn't announce decisions until mid-March, 5 weeks from now. The application's been done for nearly two months, and the interview was a huge step, but it's all said and done and a waiting game from here on out.

Stay tuned...

Past Detritus