Dave touring into the shadows of the Jackson Hole periphery

Dave touring into the shadows of the Jackson Hole periphery

Ski-bum, dirt-bag, ticket-flapper, paid-time-off, career. Those words don’t often run side by side in the lexicon of sking lore. But I’m also somewhat of your a-typical ski-bummer. I remember going to grad-school, working two part time jobs, and working my way through what would be my third 100 plus day ski season in a row since returning to skiing 5 years before. “Sometime I forget you’re going to school too…” a ski partner said one night, as I packed it in to go write another paper. It’s been tough at times, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So when the opportunity to take a week of PTO comes up in March, I take it. Some people think you have to sacrifice a career for skiing, or skiing for a career. Those same people might tell you that the ski-vacation, or skication is expensive. They are wrong of both accounts. 10 days off, 10 days of skiing. It takes dedication, perseverance, diligence, stupidity, and friends. That and thighs of steel and brains of mush.

Big Sky gave way to Jackson, which gave way to the Grand Targhee, which gave way to the Teton Pass. Firm snow gave way to high pressure warm temps, which gave way to spring conditions, which gave way to stable conditions, which gave way to big dumps, which gave way to cliffed out lines and easily triggered slabs. Through it all I rode. 10 days, 170,380 feet of lifts, 12,423 feet of self-propelled. Off the front, back, and side of Jackson Hole, from rowdy trees, to steep chutes, to mellow glades. D-chute, and B-chute. Spacewalk and M&M. Broken Branch and Steve Baugh. Shovel Slide and 1st Turn. Ski cuts and face shots. Thru it all I rode…I crashed on floors, and pull-out couches. I traded for vouchers and bought beers and pizzas for all…and through it all I rode. I punched my virtual check and checked my phone when the direct deposit from the “job” I was “working” went through, I answered a few emails, and let a few co-workers know I was alive…and thru it all I rode.

Life has a way of passing you by if you don’t take stock of it. 81 days into my season I was digging every turn of it. I’m like a dog with a stick sometimes. Sure there might have been bigger sticks, better sticks, but as long as you throw this stick…this one here, today, right now…well then I’m happy. Some people spend their whole lives chasing a dream, working everyday to pay for it. Some people spend their whole lives living a dream, never knowing it’s true cost. Me? I’m working my second year at a full time job in a career I’ve struggled to get. I’m 34 years old, and I’ve skied harder, longer and better this year than I ever have before in my life. I live the dream, and it’s costs.

Thanks to Tele-Dave, who regrettably isn’t pictured in the video, for the vouchers, the crash pad, the laughs, the pb&j’s, and the tour. Thanks to Craig 1 for the vouchers, the crash pad, the laughs, and for being one of the ones who was willing to wait for me those few short years ago. Thanks to Johnney for the crash pad, the laughs, and for being one of the ones from way back who still gets after “it.” Thanks to Jay B. for the vouchers and the talk, and for giving so many “dirt-bags” a shot at it.

 

 

This year marked a new moment in my (ski)  life. It was the first time I had lived in Billings Montana and not owned a Red Lodge Mountain Resort season pass. In years gone by since I began skiing again for real the winter of 2006/07 I have always owned one. There were the fabled years of 2008/09 where I owned a pass at both Grand Targhee and RLM. I tried this again last year with the Big Sky Resort gold pass and the RLM pass. Dual citizenship as I call it. Last year it did not play out well for me. I logged too few day at Red Lodge to pay for the pass, or justify the purchase again this year. So it was with a heavy heart (ok not that heavy) that I pulled the plug on my Red Lodge season on Thanksgiving Day, 2013. I was destined to retrun, sure, only after the bullwheel ceased spinning.

Mother nature would have other plans for me. With two weeks left on my Big Sky pass winter was becoming hit or miss. Firm chalky conditions on the north slope of Big Sky resort still called my name. But the siren song of Red Lodge’s snow report called louder… A full 5″ in the afternoon with 9″ overnight. NOAA’s website stated “The snow will be heavy at times.” Yeah, sounds like it. I packed up the gear and pulled out the phone. I hadn’t played for a lift ticket yet this year (despite skiing Snowbasin, Snowbird, Traghee, and 5 days at Jackson Hole) so the hunt for a voucher was on. Before I entered the canyon to drive out of Big Sky I re-affirmed my decision. Red Lodge’s facebook had posted a snowfall of 11″ by 7:30pm. It. was. ON!

 

Whatever you do, don't look down....wait...what??!!!?

Whatever you do, don’t look down….wait…what??!!!?

I’d like to say the Little Couloir in Big Sky, MT has long been on my “to-do” or “must-do” list. Well it’s been on neither. I’ve seen a few descents of it over the last few years and none of them looked enjoyable. Firm, steep, oft rock-chocked would be better descriptors. Before my move to the Jackson in the winter of 2009/10 skiing “the Little” wasn’t even in my wheelhouse. I was a mediocre intermediate/advanced skier anyways, and whatever aspirations I had to do more, I wasn’t reaching as high as the Little. Now 4 years of 100+ a-day seasons later I’ve moved up the ladder to a mediocre sometimes-expert level skier. And my aspirations still don’t reach as high.

Big Sky Ski Patrol opened the Little Friday 3/14/14. Local BSSP-Pro Patroller Josh Winstead informed me they ran “like 30 people through there.” I was otherwise distracted by ski touring the mirco terrain off the Beehive Basin ridge line launching pillows and bashing branches. Saturday the area was closed and I had my sights set on the Lone Lake backcountry zone off the peak of Lone Mountain for Sunday. Josh had offered to guild what was to be my 1st trip back into this zone.

Josh between the West Wall and Apple Core

Josh between the West Wall and Apple Core

But the Little had other plans for me… Josh as well. The zone had opened back up and Josh was anxious to give it a go. His confidence and stoke was inspiring. Over and over he informed me that “it’s mostly a head game” and reminded me of things to the effect of “just don’t fall, because you’re gonna rag doll if you do.” The Pièce de résistance of Josh’s motivational pep talk centered around his personal testimony that he was “really puckered” and his out the patrol shack commentary on “getting out there and getting on top of it…to see if we can really sketch ourselves out” set the tone. I was inspired…to accidentally drop all the way down the North Summit snowfield. Or at least call my mom and confirm my living will and advanced medical directives.

While standing in line for the tram Josh and I discussed how it would be nice to see someone ski it while waiting. It gives you a little beta on the line, and mostly inspires you to think…well shoot if they can ski it and not die/get mortally injured, I must be able to do the same…right?!?!! Well we got our wish, a party of two posted up top and one dropped into the Little Couloir direct. While our planned route was to take Apple Core off the side it was still nice to see someone skiing the area. Until they fell, and fell, and rag dolled, and tumbled. The tram line exploded in gasps, and shouts of “o s%#t!!!” Both skis off, and a 500 foot fall under his belt the unknown brave sole came to a rest and slowly got back onto his feet. Confidence inspired. Good thing I saw that I thought to myself

At the top we waited 30 minuets for our spot. Just what you want to do when faced with a head game like the Little. The recent victim of the slope’s steep-ness and funky snow? A Pro-Patrol from Big Sky. Grrrrreat, if he’s a pro-patroller, what’s gonna happen to me I wondered? (A recent correction, this might have been a “volly” or volunteer patroller.) I stepped outside to take a leak and get another look. Mostly I wanted to have an empty bladder when I took the tumble. Seriously, that’s what crossed my mind. If I’m going to tweek a knee (or worse) I’d like to not have to use the restroom the whole time. While the patroller received a slow-clap welcome from his colleagues we made our way out into the wind and ridges of Lone Mountain’s Little Couloir.

It’s a quick ski and ridge hike to the entry of Little. Not to bad if the winds were lighter. 50 mph wind speeds would shut down the triple, and the higher gusts on the ridgeline at elevation buffeted us and made every movement a deliberate one. While watch Josh ski one blast would almost knock me off the ridge, my move to steady myself almost did the same to my skis. On top of Apple Core Josh offered to row sham bow to see who went first. That’s a doozie. Do I stand up here and get some beta on the line from watching you ski, alone, in the wind, with nothing but my thoughts and demons to keep me company? Well I had the Go Pro on my head, and the shots of him going in from the top would look better from here, so it was decided. Phil and his demons, and the wind, and his Go Pro could say up here and keep each other company.

The 1st Turn

The 1st Turn

The entrance wasn’t too tricky. The key was to not look down and to the left. You’re going down to the right anyways. The “west wall” as it’s known is a 700 foot plus cliff band you are sliding over for a few moments. Nothing down there but despair (and more demons, although the wind drops away rapidly once you come to a rest in a heap at the bottom of the cliff). Once off the west wall you slide down and into the upper choke. the snow here was loose, punchy with some big rocks sticking out. The move was to side step down those. Not the cleanest way to get in, but a way in none the less. Hopefully with the side stepping packing the sloe in the next round of riders will get a cleaner line with more snow and less rocks. That’s me, always doing my civic duty.

Once into the meat of the Little it’s all about big, energy expending jump turns (the 1st one of which I almost blew up on…niiiiice). I tried a bit to hard to get some style points for the passing tram car, and was thinking about my next turns before I completed my 1st one. After that I reeled it back in. Hard to get steezy with it when you’re in traction at a hospital. I reeled my tram-cred points down and worked it out a little slower. Little comes together in the choke above the apron of the Secret entrance from the Big things get quite a bit mellower. But even on the tram-tastic legs with days of running 16 hot tram laps, almost a million feet of lift service and 200k of backcountry touring by then I was worked. Between the adrenaline, the almost eating it, and the head game I was spent. Linking the turns was do-able but arduous.

Back in the tram line as the triple was shutting down for wind it was all high-fives and red bulls (to quote http://www.backcountry.com). As we exchanged congratulatory remarks Josh waxed phil-low-sophically (as seen at the end of the video) “Nice, well we didn’t tomahawk it, so we got that going for us…”

Indeed we do!

-Philthy

Days: 71, YTD lift assist 945,493, YTD self propelled 185,751

Good things happen for those willing to wait. If you can stand (or in my case relish in) the agony of climbing something for hours at a time the joys of dropping into untracked powder over and over and over again will be yours. Conditions in the Gallatin and Madison Ranges of Montana continue to improve. Stability has risen, giving way to conditions which are low probability, and very high consequence. As the snow pack deepens skiers become way less likely to trigger slides. Still we move cautiously lines will always be there, powder too (if you know where to look). These clips represent a diligent series of moves in the backcountry, and some of them were pulled from days where it just wasn’t happening. The huge slide at the top of Beehive with fellow buzzards Arthur? Well we just turned around and skied back down our own ski track…very, very cautiously.

The buzzards keep reaching new highs for the winter of 2013/14. The snow piles up and the vertical keeps stacking up. While I close in on the 1 million foot mark in lift service I’m happy to take a breather from the lift service hustle and bustle to step out and step up with a few friends in the backcountry. As I crushed past my half way mark for the season in earned turns I’m feeling pretty good about things. 300,000 feet will be my biggest goal yet, all while making my way through the longest, deepest and most challenging (and rewarding) winter yet. This Go Pro edit, shot entirely with self-propelled “earned” turns in Beehive Basin and Lick Creek exemplify what it’s really all about…sometimes steep, sometimes deep, but always untracked….

The Winter of 2013/14 is just getting going. Stoke remains high while the buzzards continue to scrape the meat off the bones of hit and miss storms. I journeyed south to let the Zion Curtain envelope me once again. Conditions were miss, the big storm coming in just after I left, unlike the year before, when I timed it jusssssst right. Filmed on location in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, in Green’s Basin, Wolverine Cirque, The Birthday Chutes, and Mt. Kessler over two differing weekends. The seasons couldn’t have a more different flavor, but the smiles (like the bones) remain just as bright. Sometimes it may not be the “best we’ve ever had” but for the the buzzards, as long as we manage to earth below, sky above….well we always have a good time!

Arthur on the up.

Arthur on the up.

 

 

Hangfire

Hangfire

The www.mtavalanche.com forecast for the day said it all: “If there was ever a day to stay out of the backcountry – today is it.” Still the intreptied travelers that we are (read: oft thought of as brain-less), Arthur and I skinned up Beehive Basin for an early morning lap before venturing onto the relatively safer confines of Big Sky Resort. The plan was tentatively to make the east Beehive Basin ridge line and ski back down the skin track. Possibly digging a pit up top to add to my developing profile of the upper reaches of Bear/Middle Basin confluence ridge lines.

Strong westerly winds at mid-slope behind Arthur.

Strong westerly winds at mid-slope behind Arthur.

When we arrived on top we were met by strong winds from the west. When I say “met” I mean we had been practically blown up the Beehive Basin skin track by them. Down low the wind effected snow was everywhere. The ava report had placed wind loaded slopes at “high” risk for the day, meaning the descent would be a cautious one, with eyes glued on slopes above, particularly on staying out from under ALL slopes above us, including the recent culprit in a slide a few weeks ago, which covered part of the far left up-track (I tend to stick to the middle benches and avoid that slope before venturing onto the “skinners-right” ridge line above the “Exit Chute”). In addition to high winds Arthur and I found large cornices forming down the ridge line, growing in size. They began just to the left of where the up-track gains the ridge, forming off the steep knob to skinners left of the skin track. They had added a huge amount of size to the large cornice that has been sitting at about mid slope as well as creating a whole slew of new ones.

I moved just the edge of the base of the aforementioned steep knob, at which often people will set the skin track out and around onto the Bear Basin side to continue up the ridge (in the last photo you can see the old small cornice under which this track has been set a few times this year). The snow was firm and there was no new cornice growing at about the spot where the skin track might normally swing off the ridge and onto the east facing slope. I then stepped down about 2-3 feet down the ridge line to a small cornice that I observed as a new growth. I kicked off one small piece of it with ease. (We were the only car in the lot at 7:30am, allowing us the relative certainty that no-one would be below us) The chunk was about 18″ long and 12″ in width, it broke and tumbled down the slope entering only the new snow around it, not running far and not stepping down into old snow at all (new sluff-ing only). I moved down again to break off a piece of about the same size. I stepped with one foot firmly a few times, getting no movement off the cornice chunk. I fastened my heel piece in place (skins still on) and tried again, on the second stomp the (desired) piece broke loose (maybe 24″ by 12-18″) as the entire slope propagated (undesired). About 15 feet up ridge from me to about 100-150 below me the cornice line cracked. The slope below ran in two spots, one immediately below me was about 50 feet wide, with a crown of about 3′ feet

Propagation up-ridge

Propagation up-ridge

Another sympathetic release that was about the same size in width at the crown, but appeared to be smaller in height also went down the ridge (We did not feet comfortable venturing down giving the cracking FAR back from the edges of the cornices).

Sympathetic release further down ridge.

Sympathetic release further down ridge.

Pieces of cornice and wind slabbed snow that ran down to the trees below (50′) were easily 5 feet long and 3 feet in height. Being pinned against the trees by these would have been miserable, and would have resulted in life threatening injuries, if not much worse.

Debris pinned against the trees below

Debris pinned against the trees below

The entire cornice laced ridge line below cracked at the same time, easily a few feet back from what might be considered a “safe” zone. By now, with wind loading we both hopefully predict that these time bombs have collapsed down-slope on their own.

Shooting cracks 150 yards down ridge

Shooting cracks 150 yards down ridge

I am thankful that we paused and didn’t venture onto the lee slope to move up the ridge, a common practice at this feature. I also think in hindsight we were too closely grouped together on the ridge which, had the entire ridge line disintegrated, could have been disastrous. Arthur was back further behind me, and was not next to me on the ridge, but still…better safe than sorry. We took a few photos, conversed about the happenings, stripped our skins, tucked our tails between our legs, made our way to the safety of Big Sky Resort after retreating from Beehive Basin.

3 foot crown where the skin track often wraps around the knob on the ridge.

3 foot crown where the skin track often wraps around the knob on the ridge.