Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Wind, Snow, and Duct Tape

The second tour of my ski mountaineering class was held on the snowiest day of the year.  A huge blizzard had been raging on Mt. Hood, dropping massive amounts of snow.  The avalanche danger was high (the NWAC site actually said "backcountry travel not advised").  Due to the conditions, I really thought our tour would be cancelled.  But when Saturday rolled around, I hadn't heard a peep.  Assuming the class was still on, I met my friends John and Young, and we headed for the mountain.

Young is happy for the snow!

Our tour's destination was Newton Creek.  The trailhead for this route is accessed from the HRM lot at Mt. Hood Meadows.  The roads to Meadows were super-treacherous.  Not only were they snow packed and slippery, the blowing snow brought visibility down to zero at times.  It didn't help we were sharing the road with all the powder hounds trying to get to the resort for first tracks.  We saw a few cars in the ditch, and lots of people who thought nothing of partially blocking the travel lane to put on chains.  It was a slow go, but we finally arrived safely at the HRM lot.  And Alex, our tour leader, was there.  When we arrived, he told us to "get ready."

My "Star Wars" character impression

Yep, today's tour was still on - even though it was blowing sideways and puking snow.  Stepping out of the car, the strong wind gave me an instant chill.  We got out our ski gear, and piled on the layers.  I put on goggles, and pulled my coat's hood over my head.  John commented I looked like one of the characters in a "Star Wars" movie.

Three of my brightly colored tour-mates

Because of the snarled traffic, it took awhile for all of our group members to arrive.  But finally everyone assembled in the parking lot, awaiting instructions.  The big question was:  "Are we really going to ski Newton Creek today?"  Due to the conditions, Alex said we'd do a modified tour.  He planned for us to climb the ridge above Newton Creek, and once on top, dig a couple of avalanche pits and ski back down.  If we stuck to the wooded ridge, the avy danger was fairly low.  Because of the stormy weather, Alex assumed (correctly) that this would be enough for the day. 

Our group, huddled in the parking lot

We began our tour following the runout from Heather Canyon and Private Reserve, Mt. Hood Meadows' expert areas.  Skiers and boarders were streaming down the trail, fresh from pow runs in Private Reserve.  Over a foot of snow had fallen the night before and all of them were in high spirits.  There was much whooping and hollering, and lots of smiles.  Some of the snowriders couldn't figure out why our group was skiing UPHILL in the opposite direction.

It's dumping snow!

The snow was coming down fast and furious.  The wind gusted mightily.  I was happy to be finally moving, as the motion warmed my body.  But not far down the trail, progress ground to a halt.  One of our tour members was having trouble with his climbing skins.  They kept coming off his skis.  He'd gotten snow on the glue, and now they weren't sticking.  Once your skins get wet, the glue is useless.  At this point, there is only one thing you can do - get out the duct tape!

Snow-covered forest

Yeah, when your skins get wet, the only way to attach them to skis is with duct tape.  It's something I learned when I took the class two years ago.  I had this bad habit of dropping my skins in the snow every time I tried to put them on.  The snow made my glue wet and that prevented them from sticking to my skis.  So I went through a lot of duct tape!

Now I'm much smarter.  Instead of putting on skins in the parking lot, I attach them to my skis the night before (in a warm, dry garage).

Big flakes falling out of the sky

So we waited alongside the trail while our poor group-mate duct taped his skins.  It wasn't that bad of a wait.  The new fallen snow made for some incredible scenery.  I, of course, took the opportunity to try and get some photo ops.  But the heavy wind and snow took their toll on my camera.  Not wanting to ruin my good point-n-shoot, the wet, icy conditions forced it back into my pocket.

Checking out the snowbank

Everything taped together, our group resumed its tour.  We met a bunch of Meadows ski patrollers exiting Heather Canyon.  They were getting ready to blast for avalanche control, and were flushing out the skiers.  Alex had planned to turn off the path soon, so it was no problem.  One patroller was really nice and advised Alex where to go to avoid danger.  But then another ski patrol guy whipped by and hysterically demanded that we turn off RIGHT NOW!

Another lost skin

So we left the trail and headed up the ridge.  The terrain got super steep!  We skied through the forest, winding under and around trees.  Some of us struggled to climb the slippery slopes, gasping for breath.  And more people's skins started to peel off.  Even our leader Alex was having trouble getting his skins to stick.

Duct tape fixes everything

Out came the duct tape!  (What can't this stuff fix?)  Our group used a huge amount that day.  Alex exhausted his supply.  John used most of his tape stash.  I was one of the few people not having climbing skin problems.  They stayed stuck tight to my ski bottoms.  I think it was 'cause I put my skins on at home, instead of fighting the blowing snow in the parking lot (which I think was the culprit that got everyone's skins wet). 

In the end, a couple of guys in the group couldn't get their skins to stay on, even with duct tape.  They gave up, took off their skis, and boot-packed it the rest of the way up the hill in deep snow.  Talk about a workout!

Digging avy pits in a snowstorm

A dense forest covering the slopes provided shelter from today's howling winds.  But once we reached the open ridgetop, our buffeting resumed.  The temperature seemed to drop, and visibility decreased.  Alex proclaimed we'd stop here and practice digging a couple of avy pits.  With all the fluffy, new snow, it was a perfect chance to check out snowpack stability.

Doesn't this look like fun?

Once you've reached your destination after skiing uphill, it's a good idea to immediately put on some warmer layers.  Otherwise, the sweat cools, and you get cold quick.  Most everyone carries a down jacket (aka a "puffy") that gets donned upon stopping.  When we stopped to dig avy pits, I should've put my puffy on right away.  But I didn't.  I was so warm from climbing, and assumed I'd keep warm digging in the snow, that my puffy stayed in the backpack. 

Well...... I didn't dig continually, and it only took a couple minutes of standing around before I was freezing cold.  I went to my pack to switch on my puffy.  I took my gloves off to aid in zipping and unzipping jackets, and it took about a minute for my unprotected hands to turn into ice. 

Checking out all the snow layers

My hands began to lose feeling.  I couldn't grasp the zipper of my jacket to close it up.  My fingers wouldn't work.  Uh-oh, this was not good.  I started to freak out.

Luckily, Julie came to my rescue.  She got out a couple of chemical handwarmer packets for me.  I stuffed those babies in my gloves.  Instant warmth!  Crisis averted.  One of the guys in the group suggested I buy an oversized puffy to fit over top of my outer jacket.  That way, when you stop, there's no fumbling taking off and putting on clothing - just plop the puffy over top of everything.  Lesson learned.

Ready to ski!

We dug our pits down about three feet into the snowpack.  It was interesting to see all the different snow layers.  The most recent storm had deposited about 15 inches of dry, fluffy snow.  Then underneath was a dense, wet layer.  Hood had rain the week before and we surmised this layer was last week's soggy snow.  Instead of shearing off in a slab, the top portion of the snow compacted and sluffed off when hit with a shovel.  Interesting stuff.  I just wish the weather had been a little better.  After an hour of standing in near-blizzard conditions, I was ready to get the heck off this ridge.

Heather Canyon was closed

Then came the fun part.  We took off our skins (those that were still stuck to our skis that is) and swooshed down the ridge through the forest.   The new-fallen powder snow was an absolute delight to ski.  We whooped, hollered, and laughed, dodging trees all the way.  A few of us crashed and burned (but it was a soft landing).  Although a lot of my turns landed in the "survival skiing" category, it was still a blast.  But due to the tight tree spacing, I didn't make one telemark turn... :(

Heading back

Sadly, the trip back down to the ridge was quite a bit quicker than than the time it took to climb up.  My group all agreed it would have been wonderful to have another 1000 feet of descent.   But we weren't ready to climb that ridge again!  

All of the skiers arrived at the parking lot, cold and hungry.  Time to visit the local watering hole for some pizza and beer!  Which is exactly what we did.

I survived another ski tour in less-than-stellar weather.  Enduring bad conditions makes one tougher. It prepares you to tackle the next challenge, and also bestows bragging rights.  But most important of all - it provides a good story for my blog!  :)



  1. Wow - what a day! The snow looks amazing. We still haven't had anything to speak of here. In fact, I just realized that I never even pulled out my snow suit or boots this year. Enjoy your skiing adventures. Isn't the season almost over with already?

  2. Snow!!!! What my kids wouldn't give to revel in that!

    But I don't think they'd groove on what you were doing in all that white stuff!


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