Have you ever had an expectation for an event, and despite best laid plans the result is simply not of which you had hoped?
I could list all of mine, but that would entail about 58 volumes of narrative. In this case it involves my friend, partner, associate and son – Kyle.
Kyle proposes that we climb/skin on skis to the top and then ski down from the peak overlooking Headquarters Canyon and the Wood River River Valley just north of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area main offices He suggests that due to the recent warm weather we make the attempt on Saturday morning just after sunrise, ascend while the snow is firm and then descend to the valley floor on a bed of soft corn-like snow as the day warms. A perfect plan if ever there has been one.
Will Mother Nature abide and follow the directive?
As the sun rises on Saturday morning the temperature at the trailhead is 23 degrees. A weather system producing snow and somewhat cooler temperatures predicted to pass-through the night before is delayed and is starting to materialize as we begin our ascent. The contrasting colors and light are pretty cool. Although the avalanche danger is pretty low we bring and check all aspects (beacon, snow measurement, shovel, breathing apparatus, probes and SPOT) The trip is projected to entail 2,672 vertical feet of gain in 1.70 miles. Off we go and right on schedule.
About 10 minutes in my AT bindings are malfunctioning. Without intention they are moving from unlocked to locked mode. This forces me to take my ski off and reset the binding each time. This task on a steep slope and with heavy pack (that includes avalanche and camera gear) is less than fun. After about the fifth time in the first 30 minutes it is time to establish a fix. First we try a gerry-rigged approach – think Three Stooges. Before we even test the method, Kyle and I determine it will fail. We both I identify and discuss a possible new solution. It works and will so for the remainder of the uphill part of the trip.
Although about 3-6 hours late, the weather front makes its full appearance. The implication is the slope is very icy and the skins on our skis are not holding in the steeper terrain. At about 6,900 feet elevation Kyle looks at me and says something to the effect – I know I am all about the uphill, but was hoping for a lot better than this!
Both of us have shared a treasure trove of great back-country experiences; many where every aspect of the trip falls perfectly into place. However, it starting to look like this is not one of them.
At 7,200 feet elevation a fairly steep section is encountered and will ensue for good period of time. The icy terrain exacerbates the situation. We both agree it is time to put on our crampons. Hey that is the ticket! The steepest portions require us to side-step up the mountain. However, both of us determine there is nowhere near the need to move to boot-pack mode (skis in pack and climb on all fours with crampons).
At 8,000 feet elevation the pitch of the ascent starts to become very straight forward. However, the weather front is producing material snowfall and near zero visibility conditions. We climb for another 750 vertical feet in this setting. Kyle and I both agree that we do not feel the situation is particularly dangerous – just not much fun. We both agree that we can comfortably head back down the we came up – keeping the skins and crampons on until we reach the valley floor.
We climb for another 100 vertical and I have determined I have made a mistake and it will turn out to be a big one if a correction is not made. Although I am about to turn 59 (June) I regularly make these kinds of ascents (with heavy pack) without the need for a full break. Despite being super close to the top (100-200 vertical feet) – I need a full break. Kyle and I agree to stop for 5-10 minutes; get water and share some food. Wow… what a difference.
Kyle starts back up first and within a couple of minutes establishes the summit – which has a 5-10 foot cornice top. He locates a level spot about 10-15 yards to its right. Kyle reaches the level spot and confirms success.
As we sit at the top, the visibility has not improved. We agree to sit and rest for a few minutes and see if the weather conditions improve. And as if on queue, the clouds start to part. The peaks around us and the Wood River Valley make an appearance. Snow flurries continue for about 10 minutes, but it is obvious the storm is breaking up – for a while at-least.
The bowl we originally intend to ski sit directly below our skis. Kyle suggests we change our gear into downhill mode and seize the moment. We do.
Before we leave, I decide I need to get a shot with the snow flurries and breaking sun. Of course the lens cap escapes me and rolls away. Luckily the cap stays above the ridgeline. Kyle skis down to the cap and reclaims it. I take the shot just as he lifts his head.
As we start down the sun comes out in full force – with the clouds becoming puffy pillows on the horizon. The fall line is long and at a superb pitch. I secure my heavy pack and off the cornice I go. The snow condition for the first quarter of the descent is quite good. The middle half of the descent provides the snow condition we desire – soft corn-like that is perfect to ski on a warming day. During the last quarter of the descent the snow becomes heavier. We navigate carefully through the trees just above the valley floor down the the bottom. What a run!
Kyle and I head back to the Jeep, take off and secure our gear. Our next destination – The Sawtooth Brewery in Ketchum to replenish our body’s with the appropriate fluids and a full (not partial) burger with all the trappings.