The Hookah Smoking Caterpillar – Mt Alice Massif


(note: I asked around and nobody seemed to know any history for this line.  It might be the first ascent/descent, but it might not.  It is still a rad couloir, so I slapped a name on it)

For the past 10 or so years I have been a climber much more than a snow slider. With the amazing ski conditions in the rockies this year, it was time to swing the pendulum back.

Now, while I’m not usually one to complain about endless days of powder skiing.  It seems pretty obvious that the real reason to be a skier in the front range is the spring skiing.  True spring was quite reluctant to come this year, but in the last few weeks, the bigger lines have finally opened up.

This brings me to the point of classic ski lines; Unlike most climbing lines that really must be seen and attempted to appreciate their status, quite a lot about a ski line can be appreciated from a simple topo map. Nowhere is this more evident than couloir skiing. The recipe is very simple:

1) Look for U-shaped contours on map. The deeper the “U”s, the more classic the line
2) Evaluate length of the couloir. The longer the couloir, the more classic the line
3) Evaluate the angle of the couloir. Generally steeper is better, to the extent you can still ski it.

With this mindset, I passed a few hours of our never ending winter staring at maps of Rocky Mountain National Park.

The fruit of my labor looked something like this:
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deep “U”s – check

couloir length = 1600′ + 1000′ of bonus ripping – check

~45 degrees – perfect fun steepness

The next question was whether the line might be continuously skiable, or even held snow. This line turns out to be in a fairly remote region of RMNP; The west aspect of Mount Alice has surprsingly few pictures. Extensive google sleuthing revealed exactly one image:


But, the image revealed what I hoped for. A line choked with snow, even in the middle of summer.

Now, the next challenge was how exactly to reach this line.  It is in a fairly remote region of the national park. There are no trails to the base, or even near it for that matter. Thus, the options included:
1) Skiing to the divide from Bear Lake, then descending to the base (~20 miles RT, ~9000′ vert)
2) Skiing to the summit of Mount Alice from Wild Basin, then dropping in blind (~20 miles RT, ~8000′ vert)
3) Skiing up the North Inlet from Grand Lake (~19 miles RT, 5000′ vert)
4) Skiing up the East Inlet from Grand Lake then dropping in to North Inlet drainage (~18 miles RT, 6000′ vert)

We chose #4, although in retrospect, #3 may have been easier, and would have certainly been a safer exit in the warming afternoon.

The final two ingredients were a stable weather forecast, and a willing partner. I floated the idea to most of my ski partners. Everybody was tentatively interested, but they also had various summer activities getting in the way.

Finally, a free weekend with a good forecast showed up.  I floated out the plan to previously-interested parties, but Joe was the only possible taker.  It took some convincing to talk Joe out of climbing ice in 90 degree temps, and instead having a nice suffer fest on skis.  Joe hasn’t skied much this year, and probably never on a line like this, but he was still game for the adventure and a chance to scope out a less-visited area of the park.  So, we left Boulder on Friday night at 9:30 PM and drove the long way round to Grand Lake.  We arrived at the trailhead around 11:30, then packed our bags and turned in for a whopping 2 hrs of sleep.

2AM – the alarm goes off and we get stirring.  A few minutes later an officer does his rounds through the parking lot.  Luckily we are already awake, so our short nap goes unpunished.  Around 2:30 we set off.

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It was awesome getting to see so much new beautiful terrain.  All sorts of ideas for ice climbing, rock climbing and skiing were inspired.

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The approach is long, but mostly flat (+2k/8miles) to spirit lake.  From there we followed a minor drainage up to the saddle between Mount Alice and Pt 12,241.  The views opened up even more!
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From the saddle, we made a descending traverse to the west aspect of Alice.
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We passed more skiable lines along the way, but these were not what we came for.
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I misjudged the map a bit, so we ended up doing a bit more booting on the traverse than I expected.  Still this saved us dropping down further and having more vert to regain.
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Finally, we got our first view of the line.  The lower half looked great, but it quickly split and disappeared.  Hopefully the lines were continuous and we were in the correct spot.
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Soon we were starting up.  There was some wet slide debris that I though might ruin the descent a bit.  Mostly the couloir provided easy and aesthetic climbing, with a few sections of 45 degree or so snow.
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At the top, I threw down my pack and took a nice break.  Joe followed came along shortly.  Joe was pretty exhausted at the top, and he decided he wasnt up for skiing the couloir.  We discussed alternate descents, but I didnt really want to descend the couloir and ascend the saddle alone in the afternoon warmth.  Thankfully, Joe decided to down climb the couloir while I skied.  The snow stayed perfect the entire run.  The skiing is extremely classic, with steep rollovers and turns revealing more and more beautiful skiing.  Because of the aspect and deep walls, the skiers left side softens more than the right, allowing you to choose whatever snow consistency your prefer.
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After clearing the mouth of the couloir, Joe decided to rejoin the fun for the bottom 1000′.
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At the bottom, we got a nice partial view of the line, and found a great watering hole to hang out for a few hours.
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The final crux of the day was navigating the wet slide prone slopes back up to the saddle and down to spirit lake.  This wasnt fun, but it all worked out ok.
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The long ski and hike out was a bit painful.
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However, an 18 hr day does have its perks.
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We also saw a moose and my first CO bear, which helped seal the deal.  Thanks to Joe for coming along for the suffering.  Hopefully you will forget the pain soon, and be up for another adventure.
The full gallery

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Where’s the Spring Skiing?

From dead dog couloir

We seemed to skip spring altogether this year, going from heavy May snow to 90 degree temps in the course of 2 weeks. My plans for the spring involved lots of great skiing, but unfortunately the means for many of those plans are rapidly swelling the local creeks and rivers. Luckily, I managed to ski one of the classic lines of CO a few weeks back. Even this trip almost wasn’t though. With the weekend nearing, the forecast seemed to get warmer and windier. After waking up at 4 AM on Saturday, I checked the Snotel to find 40F temps and 60 MPH winds. I went back to bed…

The forecast the next day wasnt much better, but we were desperate and decided to go more or less regardless. We modified the plan a bit, waking an hour earlier, and heading for the more difficult Dead Dog Couloir instead of the Tuning Fork. Having never skied a long steep couloir, we decided to boot up it and check it out, rather than taking then standard summit hike and dropping in blind. This also provided Pete with his first experience in steep snow climbing. The route was severely runneled, which made for nice climbing, but foreboding skiing.

From 2010 [05] May – Dead Dog Couloir (Torrey's Peak)
From 2010 [05] May – Dead Dog Couloir (Torrey's Peak)
From dead dog couloir

By the top of the couloir, the snow had started to soften, and skiing was starting to look a little more appealing. We finished the short hike to the summit and relaxed a bit to allow some additional softening.

From dead dog couloir

It turned out that some of the 1st turns off the summit were the most serious of the day. With tired rust legs, one must make a tight turn, where the consequences (however unlikely) of a screw up would result in a potentially bad fall down the main face. From here, we reached the entrance to the couloir. The steepest turns (55 degrees or so) are right off the bat, making for an exciting drop in.

From 2010 [05] May – Dead Dog Couloir (Torrey's Peak)
From 2010 [05] May – Dead Dog Couloir (Torrey's Peak)
From dead dog couloir

Snow conditions in the couloir were pretty difficult, with a choice of the rough runnel in the middle, or the steep double-fall-lined edges. It wasnt always pretty, but we made it down safe and sound, skiing 99% of the way back to the car.

From dead dog couloir
From dead dog couloir

After being out of town the last two weekends, and now staring at a wet and cloudy weekend forecast, this may have been the only real spring trip of the year :(, but I’m still holding out hope that the heat wave will leave enough scraps for next weekend.

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May Powder!!

Well maybe not fluffy powder, but hard to complain for a weekday morning in mid-May. This ski season in CO (my first here) was pretty mediocre, and certainly didnt live up to any of the CO hype. As the lifts started shutting down, the local snowpack was looking pretty grim, and plenty of folks were speculating on whether the spring season (the only reason to be a skier in CO as far as I can tell) would even happen. Luckily, mother nature has come to the rescue in a big way, delivering ample amounts of snow to the high country and occasionally in town. 1.5′ of fresh snow in RMNP was enough to convince me to shuffle my work hours around a bit and get out skiing yesterday morning. As a result of Peter’s bus not arriving in Boulder until 5:57, we made a very civilized 6AM departure, arriving at the Bear Lake TH around 7:15. Surprisingly, the forecast clouds had broken, and we enjoyed bluebird skies to start the day. We were even a bit worried the sun was going to soften the snowpack too much.

From RMNP Skiing

We decided to check out the south facing Dragon’s Tail couloir on Flattop Peak. If it started getting too warm, we’d just have to head down, or change objectives.

Ah, May 13th:

From RMNP Skiing
From RMNP Skiing

As we neared the couloir, we observed that a large portion had slid the day before, leaving behind a pretty hard bed layer. This made for great climbing conditions, but had some of us a bit worried about ski conditions. Although almost completely non-technical, the couloir does provide a very pleasant ascent, with steep rock walls and some narrow constrictions. It was hard to understand how such a trivial climb could receive so many 4 star ratings on mountainproject and summitpost, but now I can see.

From RMNP Skiing
From RMNP Skiing

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From RMNP Skiing

Climbing higher in the couloir, with increasingly variable snow conditions, I became more concerned about the safety and enjoyability of skiing it. At the top, we discussed it and decided we’d rather wait to ski that line until we had more forgiving conditions. Instead, we headed over to the Corral Couloir where we enjoyed great soft snow conditions on more moderate terrain, eventually passing beneath the North Face of Hallet, and arriving at Emerald Lake. All in all, an awesome day in the hills, and hopefully the beginning of a great spring ski season.

From RMNP Skiing

 

From RMNP Skiing
From RMNP Skiing

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Steamboat Springs Skiing

Sam, Pete, Mary and I spent the last few days at steamboat springs. No big snowfalls, but enough fresh everyday to keep things soft, with a few surprises when putting forth a bit more effort. We skied the resort Thurs through Sat, with short backcountry tours Friday afternoon and sunday morning. I didnt put the video camera to too much use, but did take it out for two runs. One is the slack country off Pony Express, the other is a run down Baker Mountain near Rabbit Ears Pass. Unfortunately the footage from Baker mountain is mostly useless due to a fogged up lens. Guess I need to remember to take the camera out of my pack at the end of the day.

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More Weekend Skiing

Our learn to ski plan continued through this past weekend. Saturday Sam, Jeff G. and I headed out to hyak for a late start. Conditions were warm and heavy (no where near the forecasted 2000′ freezing level), but still really fun. Around 2:30 or so we headed back over to S. West for some skinning with the dogs.

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Sunday Sam, Frank and I headed to crystal. A few inches of fresh overnight, more during the week, and high elevation conspired for some really fun skiing conditions, particularly off the King. Frank and I took two runs on the king, the second of which was easily the most fun I’ve had on my skis yet. Here is Frank enjoying the april powder:

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Heading back to crystal again this saturday

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Learning to Ski at Ski Acres

On Friday, Sam’s first skis arrived (Shuksanne 160s), so we rushed in to get them mounted (with Dynafit Comforts) in hopes they might get some use this weekend. Last night we called and they were done, so we rushed by on our way back from the race. We slept in a bit today, then headed up to Ski Acres for Sam’s 2nd day skiing (after 1 rental day at whistler 3 weeks ago). We headed straight for Central Express and took our first run down Alpine Bowl.

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This was a bit of a step up since Sam had mostly stayed on the greens at Whistler, and the easiest way down Central Express was a blue. Anyhow, things went great and Sam figured out her new skis pretty quick, especially considering they are 10 cm longer than the ones she rented.

During the day we took multiple runs on Golden Nugget, as well as a run over on Outback. Silver fir runs painfully slow though, so we headed back to the high speed quad.

In the afternoon we met up with Brianna and took a few more runs.

Eventually we called it good for the lift riding and headed over to the recently closed for the season Summit West to get some exercise for Prusik. We took two short runs, but still enough to get Prusik nice and tired in the deep snow.

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Sam and Brianna Skiing

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Vertfest Alpental 2008

Raced the Alpental treatment of mania Vertfest randonee today. Sam was in charge of a bunch of the setup and planning, so I helped volunteer. Overall turnout was close to 100 racers, with all proceeds going to Friends of NWAC. This was my first time using AT gear and it was definitely a noticeable improvement in efficiency compared to my splitboard. Overall I made a few major and minor mistakes, punctuated by a long sliding fall on the skin track that cost me 4-5 places, and a route finding error on the descent. Still, I felt reasonably fit, and my skiing ability seems to be improving. I am dealing with some fit issues with my boots, but I ordered a shim from Scarpa that I hope will fix things up.

Things I learned:
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  • Starting fast is of utmost importance as passing later is difficult to impossible.
  • Take it slow on sections if a fall is possible
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  • Review the course map

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