|Out of the gauntlet, into the open . . .|
I may have been born stupid but it’s getting better.
I first skied Black’s Peak (aka Burro Mine or Bountiful Ridge) when I was 13 or 14, back in the mid 1970’s. We accessed it by booting up the Rudy’s Flat trail with alpine ski gear tied to our packs, sometimes swimming through hip-deep powder. But that was the whole idea – ski fresh powder. At first we’d hike up the Mueller Park side, but as I got less stupid I realized the North Canyon side was much shorter. My approach has evolved over the years: first booting with skis on pack, then snowshoeing with skis on pack. My intelligence reflected a major breakthrough when I discovered telemark skis with skins. I was shocked how much easier it was to hike with skis on foot rather than on my back. Those skis provided much better float than snowshoes and offered the reward of skiing untouched powder. But those first tele skis (Chouinard-Tua Tele- Tour Neige) were long and narrow (200cm, 73-61-68mm) and those Merrill Super Doubles (leather boots) offered little downhill support. Yet somehow those were days of heaven. Somehow that floundering on skinny skis and floppy boots seemed like total control, like I was flying across the mountains of a perfect earth.
Only now, with the hindsight of perfected gear, do I realize how archaic those days really were. The young guns of today, with so much attitude and the latest SkiMo gear that is light as air, scoff at my fat skis, but they don’t understand my history and how they benefit from the evolution that I lived through. My long skinny skis were cutting edge in the early eighties. I see those SkiMo Dudes running uphill, passing me on the skin track, and I see them flounder on the downhill, and I realize that we’ve almost come full circle. They do fine in perfect conditions, like we did on tele gear and leather boots, but throw in some wind-blown or sun-crusted snow and their light gear does not always lend itself to control on the downhill side of the equation. That, plus a lack of real skiing ability has them flailing their arms and making wild uncontrolled turns, just like me on my long tele skis of 1982.
Yes, the SkiMo races are won on the uphill, but most of those guys could gain some real time, and perhaps a victory, if they knew how to lay down an edge. They should go to ski school. Take a racing class. In my college days I ran gates and skied bumps to escape from the world, which made me the adequate downhill skier that I am today. I got pretty good, better than many, not as good as real skiers, but good enough to recognize that I’d never be world class. Most skiers who think there are great are not good enough to know the difference. During college I entered a time in my life when I could not afford a ski pass, which was a blessing in disguise because it forced me to return to my teenage avocation of hiking for turns. My lack of funds, and maybe a need to get away from the resort crowd, drove me back to the backcountry. Today backcountry skiing is my escape from reality, if only for a day or two each week.
I have skinned up North Canyon now for over three decades. Early on I used the summer trail, which was four miles of meandering switchbacks. As I got smarter I started skinning directly up the drainage, a straight line of two miles (vs. four on the trail) but also required a mile-long gauntlet of tight gamble oak and willow. I didn’t mind it because the open slopes of Bountiful Ridge are pristine and untouched (mostly). Over the years I’ve only met one other skier (John) who skis it regularly. All others use it once and are gone, presumably due to the tough approach. But nothing comes free. Over the years I’ve lost thousands of dollars in shredded Gore-Tex due to the buck-brush.
A few years ago I had an epiphany. It was summer and I was riding my mountain bike up to Rudy’s Flat when, near the top of North Canyon, I noticed a minor sub-ridge dividing upper North Canyon into “Y” shaped drainage. And that sub-ridge was rimmed with big Douglas Fir. When I saw those big firs a light bulb went off in the hollow between my ears: Douglas Fir usually mean little or no gamble oak, which means little or no bushwhacking. So the next winter I started exploring that ridge. Sadly, those Douglas Firs were blanketed with brush, lots of brush. After that one foray I almost gave up, but after some soul searching I kept exploring that ridge. When the ridge-top did not pan out, I started exploring the lower aspects of the ridge. Over two years I tried a multitude of variations, none providing an easy line to the open slopes.
If success is 99% persistence and 1% luck, my persistence finally cashed in. With my latest attempts this week I finally found the Northwest Passage. I found a narrow, nearly brush less approach, the one I’ve been dreaming of for three decades. It is not perfect and not obvious, but with precise route finding the path is direct and clear. Oh, and it is also the shortest route I’ve yet found to Rudy’s Flat.
Without being too specific, I’m still a bit territorial, the path is not located where expected. I almost gave up and went back to the old bone yard approach, but on a whim last week I tried one last route. The entrance looking totally improbable, but, like many endeavors, I pushed forward and found Valhalla, a path through the tight forest that quickly opens and provides nearly a painless skin route to the open slopes of Bountiful Ridge.
Three decades of fighting brush for short, low elevation lines? Like I said, I was born stupid.
|41 inches at Rudy's Flat.|
|8-inches of light density snow, on a sun crust on a 38 deg. slope. I couldn't hold an edge and took a short ride. Should've brought the Whippet for the skin-track.|
|61-inches in Rectangle Bowl.|
|Stupid is as stupid does, sir. The camera was shooting a burst of photo's when an airplane flew over, maybe 50 feet overhead.|
|Sun setting during the descent.|
|Friday night commute.|
|If these old skis could speak, what a tale they'd have to tell, hard-headed people raising hell . . .|
|Merrills. They were the LTL's of their day. I pull them out and ski them about once a year. . . just to stop my whining about needing another new rig.|