POWDER!

Those familiar with BBC’s “Top Gear” will recall Jeremy Clarkson’s exultant shouts of “POWER!” when driving the latest whiz bang supercar. Today, I expressed similar euphoric cries. “POWDER!” Actually, I never got the word out of my mouth, because every time I tried to shout, my mouth ended up full of snow. This was just fine, as far as I was concerned.

Searching for the Trail

Our start was anything but encouraging. A prolonged drive on slushy roads brought our group of three just past mile marker 167, where we proceeded to park in a convenient pull out. Our guidebook instructed us to hike 150 yards to an abandoned road overgrown with trees. This road would lead to a creek, and the creek to a place where we could ski. It should take about fifteen minutes. We found a snowy path which could have been an old road, but it led directly to a maintenance road for power lines. After an hour of skiing back and forth along the maintenance road, which was anything but abandoned, we still could not find an abandoned road. Significant frustration resulted.

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Consulting the guidebook’s map led us to far different conclusions than the directions had, and we set off confidently, finding our abandoned road after a brisk half-mile ski. Dense woods surrounded and encroached upon the road, leaving only a narrow corridor down the center. Birch trees tried to disguise themselves, blending in with both the snow and the grey clouds lingering just above our heads. The occasional tree, arching across the trail beneath its cap of snow, lent an enchanted aura to the environs. All the while, we steadily plodded up the trail, gaining elevation on the old road’s consistent uphill grade. The road ended abruptly, but we continued straight through the woods for a few minutes. Just as abruptly as the road had ended, the woods also ended, leaving us in a large bowl.

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In anticipation, a shout of “POWDER!” burst from my mind and bounced around inside my head, like an echo ricocheting off mountainsides. But patience carried the day. We climbed a few hundred feet up the edge of a slope and dug a snow pit to determine avalanche danger. A half hour in the snow pit led us to conclude that we had an ECT 12N Q2 on our hands. After rattling off our ostentatious snow rating code, we considered the implications of the test.

The Snowpit

To ascertain whether the snowpack contained avalanche-inducing weak layers, we had isolated the front, back, and sides of a snow column 30 cm deep, 90 cm wide, and roughly 1.5 meters tall. We then proceeded to set a shovel blade on one corner of the column and tap on it with measured force. After 12 taps, a weak layer near the top of the block collapsed, but only directly below the shovel, not propagating across the entire column. Furthermore, the layer which sheared was not well defined, which meant that it was less dangerous than a well defined layer. Having concluded our tests, I skinned 600 vertical feet up the slope above me.

Skinning up the slope

I could attempt to describe the difficulty of breaking trail for 600 vertical feet up a steep slope with 15 inches of soft, fresh snow atop a 7-foot snowpack. But I won’t bother, because it really isn’t worth dwelling on. This unpleasant task is but a means to an end, and a very desirable one at that. During the whole process, the echoes of “POWDER!” still bouncing around my head kept me steaming relentlessly up the hill. Suddenly, I realized I’d reached a good turnaround point. Cliff bands above me rendered further efforts pointless. I turned my skis down the slope. “POWDER!”

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Needless to say, we all made a few round trips on the slope before wearily pointing our skis back toward the car. As much as we all enjoyed skiing, sitting in a car headed for home and hot showers seemed rather nice at the end of the day.

Looking back on a good day

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3 thoughts on “POWDER!

  1. Great pictures. How cool that you guys can do an avalanche test like that – especially to us types that don’t have the snow the way you guys do. Very interesting. Thanks.

    • Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the photos.
      Before I was avalanche savvy, I was very comfortable in the backcountry. But after a two week avalanche safety course, I find the backcountry a scary place! Ideally, that fear will prevent me from venturing out on dangerous terrain.

      • Interesting that. Ignorance is bliss they say! As a young adult I worked for a couple of summers in the States at a summer camp in the Catskills. South Africans tend to be pretty comfortable in the water, especially those of us who grew up at the coast, and so my role was a fairly obvious one – life guard and swim coach. A requirement was that I did an American Red Cross Water safety course – What an eye opener. I never looked at the water and swimming in the same light hearted way that I did before the course, which I guess was / is a good thing!

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