Saturday, April 12, 2014

challenge[r] accepted

As happens so often in the early and late ski seasons, we were on the fence about skiing this morning.  The forecast was for warm temperatures (high 40s-low 50s), with increasing clouds and possibility of snow/rain and thunder after noon.  We hemmed and hawed for a while and then threw our gear in the truck and headed up to Alta.  It was a demo day up there, with a bunch of ski companies displaying their wares (I have a hankering for a pair of Soul Poles myself, but they're far too expensive for frickin' ski poles), but the parking lot was only about a third full when we looked back from the Collins lift.  Alta is starting to close down - this is the last weekend for the Supreme lift and next weekend will be the last for the Sugarloaf lift; after 4/20, Alta will only be open Fri-Sat-Sun until 5/4, which is closing day - and it makes sense as they can't be selling many day tickets.  If it had been bright blue skies and sunshine, there would have been more folks there, but it wasn't and there's weren't.

Before the clouds closed in

We did one run off of Sugarloaf before moving over to Supreme, which is where we would stay for the whole day.  With the sun peeking in and out of the gathering clouds, it took a while for the snow to warm up.  By 11 a.m., however, most of the groomers had softened nicely although off-piste was still a little crusty.  We did laps on Supreme's intermediate groomers (3 Bears, Rock N'Roll, Big Dipper) before settling on Challenger for numerous runs.  Challenger is usually one of my least favorite runs as it tends to get super-bumped up and skied off between the giant moguls or, alternatively, completely skied off since it's a popular trail.  Today, however, it skied really well, softening into creamy mashed potato consistency and never getting too sticky.  We did it a number of times - and I can't tell you the last time I happily did it more than once (other than when I was just using it to access gates into Supreme Bowl.

Things started to get sloppy after lunch, resulting in "red light/green light" snow (as one lifty described it) that slowed us down and grabbed our skis so that we lurched through the sticky spots.  Catherine's Area had been open all day but we waited until after lunch to go in there, waiting for the snow to soften.  We went all the way in, to the Catherine's Pass overlook, and cruised through Last Chance.  I had a very difficult time turning - the off-piste snow was heavy and grabby and my short skis struggled to turn; H did better with his stronger legs and longer, wider skis.  The last pitch out skied well but we figured we didn't have to go in there again.  If they don't open Catherine's on Sunday, that will have been our last run in there (for probably eight months) - not great but good enough.

After the clouds closed in

We took a few more runs as the snow got stickier and stickier.  At our old mountain in Maine, spring conditions tend towards corn snow which is wet but easy to ski in.  Out here, where the snow is drier (and not so much man-made), we get mashed potato-consistency which is soft but sticky and very heavy.  As the clouds gathered, wreathing the surrounding peaks with falling snow and/or rain, we figured we'd had enough for the day.  It had exceeded our expectations and we'd gotten a lot of runs in ... and then we hightailed it out of there before we got drenched.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

way, way better than expected

If you like to ski this time of year, you have to be flexible due to the vagaries of spring conditions and weather.  For instance, we were on the fence Saturday morning, hemming and hawing and checking Alta's webcams and staring out the window up the canyon; we ended up not going, instead spending the day doing laundry, working on our computers, making peanut butter cookies.  That meant we had to go skiing on Sunday: that would be ski day #40 for me and #48 for H.

A little storm had settled in over the Wasatch Front (the last for a while, as a high pressure system is due to move in for the next week), which would drop seven inches total and about four inches from Saturday afternoon through Sunday afternoon.  We got into the storm as we passed Snowbird, heading up the canyon road; although it was only supposed to bring a scant inch, it snowed steadily all day up at Alta - and sometimes quite hard.  The resort was sparsely attended, people either not interested in April skiing, at church or put off by the prospect of skiing in a snowstorm.  Indeed, it didn't feel at all like spring: we were in midwinter the whole time we were up there, except that the temperatures were 20-30 F instead of 10-20.  The visibility was less than ideal, with heavy cloud cover landing low on the mountains.  The light was very flat, whether we were skiing in the clouds or the snow squalls.

Looked like the end of the world
on Sugarloaf lift today

As we moved from Collins to Sugarloaf, H immediately declared that he was using the wrong skis.  We really didn't know what to expect snow conditions-wise and he had worn his Volkls, expecting hard pack.  The groomers were plenty soft, however, and once we moved over to Supreme and started skiing in Catherine's Area, we realized that there was quite a lot of snow stacked up in there - after our first run through Catherine's, I admitted that I - also on my Volkls - was also on the wrong skis.  The snow in Catherine's Area was fantastic, deep and not too heavy, clearly not what we thought we'd find.  We did runs in there all morning and then, after lunch, went back and did more Catherine's runs until ski patrol closed the area at 3 p.m.

Catherine's Area - woohoo!

Our legs did get fatigued: since we weren't wearing our powder skis, it took a lot more effort to turn in the deep stuff.  I had to stick to groomers for the last couple of runs we took off Supreme, although H opted for playing in the trees near 3 Bears.  The day's snow was starting to pile up and the wind picked up in the afternoon, driving the graupel painfully into our faces.  Ski patrol started closing avalanche-prone areas like Rock-n-Roll and the Backside; to ski out, we had to ski through the bunny slope and drag across the rope tow since they closed the EBT too.  We got back to the truck just before 4 p.m., amazed that we'd skied that late and amazed at how good the snow had been.  This day just got added to the list of best days of the season - a pretty exclusive list (this past Monday, two days when my brother was here and one more) this season thus far.  That it was a complete surprise only made it more fun.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

annual ski guests, 2014 edition: day 3

The storm that got such a late start on Sunday really delivered overnight, leaving an additional 11" of the goods (13" storm total), all of which fell after the lifts stopped turning.  Because of this lovely layer of new snow just waiting to be tracked out, not to mention the bluebird skies, Monday morning at Alta was quite a bit busier than it would have been otherwise.  We were there too, powder skis on and ready to shred.

The first couple of turns in Gunsight

H suggested that we try a frontside run first, before it got completely trampled, but as we cruised out on the High Traverse, he saw the sign saying that Gunsight was open and headed up there instead.  Both C and I were skeptical - Gunsight without a warm-up run first? - but the run turned out to be fantastic.  We didn't get first tracks but it was stuffed full of soft, deep snow.  C took his first fall of the day with his first turn, burying the tips of his tele skis and somersaulting over them; he wiped out another three times on that run alone (and then I stopped counting but he fell a lot, all day, just not used to skiing in such deep powder).  Not to be outdone, I buried my own tip halfway down, but I would actually ski pretty well all day and only fall one other time.  H didn't fall at all, his powder skis carrying him through everything seemingly effortlessly.

C in motion, bottom of Gunsight

After skiing out of Gunsight, we went down and caught the Sunnyside lift to get back to the Sugarloaf lift.  From there, we skied around the EBT and went into Yellow Trail and East Greely, hoping to get a good run there before the sun baked the nice snow.  East Greely in particular was great: people had been in there but it wasn't chopped up too badly.  We could hear bombs going off (and see the smoke) across the valley in the Supreme Bowl and as we rode back up the lift, we could see that patrol had opened Catherine's Area.  We made a beeline for there and then pretty much stayed there all day.

C crashed out / me in motion, bottom of Gunsight

Skier traffic was pretty high into Catherine's but most folks didn't go much further than the So Long clearing, the first one you come to on the traverse.  As we hiked in there again and again, we consistently hiked further in, finding fantastic and untracked snow in the Snowshoe Hill and Last Chance areas.  C preferred skiing the narrow chutes and trees, liking the forced, quick turns, while I reveled in the wider glades.  H just skied everything.

C and me, both upright, East Greely

After lunch we did a run down Chartreuse Nose (chopped up but still deep in spots) and then went back to Supreme.  My legs were starting to fatigue and I stuck to a groomer as the guys went into a low chute in White Squaw.  The next run was back in Catherine's where C's telemark turns were taking a toll on his legs.  The clouds rolled in and the light went flat and yet the snow was too good to quit.  We finally skied out at 3 p.m., C's and my legs so cooked that we had to stop to rest even though we were taking a groomer.  This was C's last ski day of his trip and we did all we could do to show him a good time - having the weather cooperate and bring new snow for one of the best days of the season was pretty sweet.  It was a great visit - can't wait for next year!

Me, pausing and grinning, East Greely

Monday, March 31, 2014

annual ski guests, 2014 edition: day 2

Sunday started out less than we expected and ended up pretty darn good.  All the weather forecasts said that snow was coming: the winds we've been having were the forerunners of the cold front, which would bring snow to the Wasatch late morning, with it getting heavy in the afternoon and finally petering out in the evening as the front moved eastwards.  Predicted totals ranged from 3"-7" (National Weather Service), 5"-10" (Wasatch Snow Forecast) and 6"-12" (Alta).  C announced that he figured he only had about five hours in his legs so we decided to go up late and plan to ski through until closing.  We got up there after 10 a.m. to fairly warm temperatures, overcast skies and very strong winds.  Clearly not many other people thought these were good skiing condition as the parking lot was less than one-third full and the parking lot attendants were conspicuously absent.

New ski pants in Catherine's Area

We rode through a brief spate of graupel on our first chair ride, swirling through the winds.  There had been no new snow overnight and today's storm didn't seem to be coming any time soon, so we headed over to Supreme where the chairlift tends to be more protected in strong winds.  The conditions weren't great (same as Saturday: bumped up and a little crunchy) but we made the best of it, trying some of the lower chutes in Supreme Bowl.  The bumps were big and forced us to ski certain lines.  C suggested that we try way, way deep into Catherine's Area.  Fighting against the headwind, we went all the way in and indeed found the best snow of the weekend there, deep and soft and not much tracked out.  We did several more runs in Catherine's, consistently finding pretty good snow the further out we went.

A and C discuss possible lines

Since we'd had a late start, we went in late for lunch (after 1:00 p.m.).  As we munched our french fries in Alf's, the called-for snowstorm finally rolled in.  Better late than never!  It started snowing really hard and by the time we finished lunch, it was actually starting to accumulate.  Because of the winds, they were running the Sugarloaf lift slow, so we hopped on the little Cecret lift which took us back to Supreme.  As the snow kept falling, the conditions kept getting better.  Challenger, No. Nine Express and the gullies got coated with smooth snow; the wind blew snow drifts into the Supreme Bowl chutes.  Catherine's Area got quite good and we did runs in there until they closed it at 3 p.m., at which point we switched to the chutes until they closed the chairlift at 3:30 p.m.

Storm ridin'

We moved over to the Sugarloaf lift, now running at regular speed, and did a couple of runs there - there were so few people skiing that the snow was even starting to pile up on the groomers - until that chair closed at 4 p.m.  Finally, we were forced to take the rope tow back to Wildcat base.  The guys took one more run off Collins while I went to the truck to thaw my frozen toes (the temperature had dropped to 24 F at this point, making the snow fairly dry for the end of March).  The drive down canyon was a little sketchier than we thought it would be as the snow level dropped all the way to the valley floor, but we got home safe and sound.  Looking back up towards the mountains, it appeared to still be snowing hard with no sign of stopping anytime soon.  That would be ideal: a late start and a late finish could mean fresh tracks for us on Monday.

Possibly the last ice beard of the season

Saturday, March 29, 2014

annual ski guests, 2014 edition: day 1

After some last minute work-related rescheduling, our annual ski guest (only C this year, as A couldn't make it) arrived midday Friday, telemark skis in hand and ready for three days of skiing.  We'd had a wonderful storm earlier in the week that dropped a reported sixteen (!!!) inches in Little Cottonwood Canyon before moving out Friday morning.  Although the timing of the storm meant that we wouldn't get fresh tracks anywhere, not to mention the late March date meant the snow would be heavy and not fluffy, that much snow is always welcome.

The forecast was for partly sunny skies, growing cloudy in the afternoon as the next storm moved into place, with warm temperatures and gusty winds.  We didn't rush out of the house in the morning, trying to give whatever snow might have frozen up overnight the chance to soften a little.  We pulled into the parking lot at the Goldminer's Daughter around quarter to 10 and it was only about a third full.  Clearly folks have shifted gears and are not so much thinking about skiing these days.  That, plus all the locals probably called in sick on Friday to get all the freshies - as there were none left for us.  Even without the opportunity for fresh snow, the conditions were still pretty good for late March.  Ballroom, the Baldy Chutes, Devil's Castle and East Castle were all still closed, due to the recent storm and the current winds ushering in the next storm, but everything else was open.  The groomers were nice and quiet; the off-piste stuff was variable: a little crunchy wherever it had baked in the Friday afternoon sun, super-soft and deep in the trees and shady spots.

C catching his breath in Gunsight

After getting out of Collins, we did several runs on Sugarloaf, with the boys getting into the Keyhole and all of us playing around on Chartreuse Nose.  We did a run through Cecret Saddle and headed over to Supreme, where we poked around in Catherine's Area and Supreme Bowl for a while.  Again, the snow was variable: fantastically deep and soft in amongst the trees and less so where it had baked in the sun.  We took a quick lunch break at Alf's, then moved back to Collins.  I changed my skis - swapping out my Rossignols for my Volkls - and the guys took a run.  I waited for them for longer than I thought I would and when I finally spotted them heading my way along the rope tow, I realized that they had taken the High Traverse and done a run off the backside.  They confirmed this, having chatted up the patroller they rode the lift with, who told them that Gunsight was full of great snow.  When we got to the top of Collins, it was determined that that run was good enough to do it again.  Off we went: the sidestep up to the cut through the ridge was a little sketchy but the chute itself was great, stuffed to the edges with soft (albeit tracked out) snow.  The only problem was the run-out at the bottom, which was sunbaked, chunky and very difficult to turn in.  H had no problem but C, with his sea-level lungs, and I, with my puny legs, didn't much care for it.

Poised in the Gunsight notch

The clouds had moved in around lunchtime and as the afternoon wore on, the light got very flat.  We tried to go back to the Chartreuse Nose run we'd had success with, but it wasn't nearly as good as it had been in the morning.  A few more front side runs (the tree skiing was holding up well) and then we called it quits a little after 3:00 p.m.  The clouds were building ominously as we headed down canyon - the forecast was calling for storm skiing on Sunday, and a predicted 5-9 inches.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

ticket to ride: park city mountain resort

The days are getting longer and warmer, meaning that the end of the 2013/2014 ski season is just around the corner.  With that in mind, we realized that if we were going to use any more of those reciprocal ski tickets to Park City/Deer Valley/Snowbird, we'd better get to it.  We decided to hold off on Snowbird since it will probably be open through the end of May and we'd already given Deer Valley a try on a bluebird day with no new snow.  That left Park City Mountain Resort.  Off we went!

We got a great parking spot, just steps from the Eagle lift.  After flashing our Alta season passes at the ticket window to get our day ticket, we quickly consulted the trail map.  Although neither of us had skied at PCMR before, we've spent some time there hiking and MTBing and we figured that we'd want to get to some east-facing slopes for maximum snow softness.  We got stuck in a terrain park at the top of the Eaglet lift before a friendly young PCMR staffer told us how to get out of there.

I have no idea where on the mountain this is

The day was absolutely spectacular and pretty warm, although the snow did not soften very quickly, having frozen up hard overnight.  We spent the day travelling from lift to lift, trying to find the softest snow.  By noon, some of the long runs in the "Crescent Mountainzone" were nice and soft; H even tried a run through the glade adjacent to Silver King, finding a thin crust on top but breaking through to skiable snow.  Because of the frozen conditions, we had to stick to groomed runs, looking wistfully over at what looked like fun terrain in McConkey's Bowl and Molly's.

We had lunch at the Mid-Mountain Lodge, then tried some runs off the Motherlode and Thaynes lifts.  Despite the sun shining strongly overhead, the snow over there refused to soften which was a little disappointing.  We didn't even get to the Jupiter lift, although we did note the mine ruins above the Thaynes lift with an eye to hiking into them this summer.

Good trees to ski in

It was unfortunate that the snow didn't soften into true spring skiing conditions (except for the beginner area by the Crescent lift which was just one step removed from pond skimming by the end of the day) because we really didn't get to try out PCMR's terrain.  If we go back sometime with better snow, I'd really like to give the Jupiter area a shot, as well as stuff off McConkey's and the Motherlode Meadows.  What we ended up skiing was fairly bland but I'm sure there's better terrain to be had.  Even with the less than ideal snow, it was a beautiful day and we had fun exploring a new ski resort - and you can't ever complain about that.

Lifts ridden: Eagle, Eaglet, King Con, Silverlode, Motherlode, Thaynes, Bonanza, McConkey's, Pioneer, Crescent, Payday.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

in which we conquer east castle

We checked out the Alta forecast Friday night as we sat at the bar at the Cotton Bottom (mmmmmmm garlic cheeseburgers) and were less than thrilled with its partly cloudy, blustery, snow showers before noon, high of 30F.  With just over a month left in the season, we want spring conditions (unless it's going to snow like a sonofabitch and then we want that) and it just didn't sound that pleasant.  The alarm went off at 7 a.m. Saturday morning and we both rolled over, not excited to spring out of bed for cloudy/blustery/etc.  When we finally did get up to take the dog out, however, it was evident that the cold front had moved through faster than expected.  It was sunny up Alta-way.  Time to stop lollygagging and go skiing!

That's where we're headed

The cold front had left chillier temperatures behind, sunshine notwithstanding, and I was a little cold for our first ride up Collins and two runs off Sugarloaf.  The snow was fairly good on the groomers but was more dust-on-crust on the off-piste areas that had gotten sun-baked the day before.  As Sugarloaf started to get crowded (not terribly so, compared to Christmas week), we moved over to Supreme and as we buckled our boots at the top, H suggested that we take a hike into East Castle.  I've wanted to get in there ever since we started skiing Alta so I said yes.

Early in the hike

East Castle is rarely open.  The avalanche danger is often high there and so the conditions must be just right for ski patrol to open it.  This is our fourth season pass season at Alta and if East Castle has been open ten days in those four seasons, I'd be surprised - some years they don't open it at all, if there's too much snow or not enough snow.  They had opened it on Wednesday and so it was all tracked out but we didn't care: it was open and that meant we could get in there.

At the top

That also meant that the traverse would be well-established.  The hike up into East Castle is the longest in-bounds traverse at Alta, starting off the cat track from the top of Supreme and following the cliff line up.  I was worried that it would be a side-step all the way up (which would be brutal) but luckily folks had established it as a boot-pack instead.  It took us 35 minutes to hike all the way up.  We kept our heads down and our feet moving and ended up passing eight people on the way up, most of them younger than us.  At one point we climbed by four 30-something guys who were resting by a rock.  I grinned at them and asked if they were going to let a girl beat them to the top.  "YES!" exclaimed one of them, clearly feeling the elevation.  I laughed and kept on going.

Mount Timpanogos, looming large

It felt like we were on the top of the world when we finally got up there, as far as we could go.  The summit is at 10,900 feet (although the Supreme lift lets you off at 10,450, we lost some elevation getting to the entry gate so we figure we climbed about 600 feet) and the views are absolutely spectacular.  We were WAY up there.  After some picture taking, we put our skis back on and peeked over the edge.  We were at the top of 1st Chute; there are other named areas in East Castle, lower down on the hike, like 2nd Chute, Hi Heathers and the Eagle Peak Chutes, all of which bring you down the open face, exiting across Evergreen or the Lo Heather apron to Rock-n-Roll.  Most everyone else had skied down earlier, leaving the 1st Chute all for us.  H went first, reporting that skier's left was softer, with less avalanche debris.  I dropped in and after three turns realized that although I hadn't thought the hike up was that difficult, my legs were definitely fatigued.

Um, I gotta ski down that now?

The top of 1st Chute is dang steep but there was plenty of snow so it was only a little intimidating.  I didn't ski it that well, turning cautiously and stopping to rest (it is the longest run at Alta, top to bottom).  I wished my legs weren't so tired because I would have liked to have skied it better - but still, it was pretty awesome.  I joined H at the bottom and we looked back up at what we'd just skied.  That was a bad-ass run for sure.

Tiny speck = me

Our legs were pretty well wrecked for the rest of the day, however, so we cruised groomers and some easy trees.  Each ride up the Supreme lift I couldn't keep from staring at East Castle, giddily grinning like a fool: I just skied that!  Despite our tired legs, we managed to keep going until 2:30 p.m., taking one run into Catherine's Area before skiing out.  We had a celebratory beer on the sun-soaked Goldminer's Daughter patio: the toast was to East Castle, of course.  I can't wait to ski it again.

View of 1st Chute from the bottom