Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Back In The Game, BC Skiing Farmington Canyon, April 28, 2014

“Get busy living or get busy dying.” (Bob Dylan, re-phrased quite well by Red (Morgan Freeman) in the Shawshank Redemption.)

It’s late April but today felt like the first day of the ski season. I was so excited I could hardly sleep last night. It was my first day on skis since mid-March, seven weeks to be exact. In March the doctor tells me I fractured my tibial plateau and “no skiing, no running, and no impact to the leg for eight weeks.” I was a week shy of the doctor’s order, but figured one-week early wouldn’t harm anything.

The fracture came under an odd situation. Back in March I was skiing at Snowbird for my employer, a “customer appreciation” thing, and the “work” aspect helped create the scenario for injury. Before the lifts even opened I got separated (ditched?) from the group when I went for a pee. So there I was, a free pass in hand (courtesy of the boss), and alone at a world class ski area, and I could hear the dissing already, “Sure, take a free pass then bail on the customers, this is gonna look bad on your annual performance review.”  Not wanting to be labeled a “slacker” by the boss, I went on a search and destroy mission looking for the group. Whenever I saw a group of skiers below me I would straight-line it to see if it’s them. Somehow I never find them.     

I’m an avowed back-country skier and I ride lifts only a few times each winter, but, like most b.c. skiers, my roots are in ‘alpine’ skiing. When I was younger I got good enough to quickly get bored with groomers and the chop-suey “powder” one finds at a resort. I wasn't a great skier, but good enough to look for bigger and better things on skis, outside the box of the resorts. When I was in high-school and college I liked to ski moguls, and I still like the challenge of the quick turns on steep technical terrain, so every so often I’ll go ski some bumps. I’m no good at it, but I still like the challenge. I usually come away annoyed with the resort vibe and its chest-thumping, ‘high-school’ bravado, and wishing I had gone hiking for my turns.

So, back in mid-March I was skiing bumps at Snowbird, skiing way too fast, looking for my boss and our customers, when my right ski pre-releases. Still upright I try to maintain control with just my left ski when I feel a hammer blow of pain to the back of my left knee, figuring it was my right ski cart-wheeling. I then fall and tumble another 50-feet, down the Rasta Chutes, a steep run just below Snowbirds infamous Pipeline. Hiking back up to retrieve my ski I feel pain in just below my left knee, but I blow it off, thinking I can “ski” away the pain. I ski for another two hours, looking for my boss, but the pain gets worse with time and by noon I can’t set an edge with my left ski. I figure it’s a lost day as far as work, and decide to call it a day. That’s when the trouble really begins.

I had just purchased some new back-country ski boots (Dynafit TLT-6), and they’re in my truck along with my AT rig. I was done skiing for the day (PAIN!) but then I saw those new Dynafits smiling at me from the back of my truck.  I was in the heart of the Wasatch so it wouldn’t hurt anything to go on a little tour, now would it? My mentality quickly switched from “Poor me, I need a Doctor” to “I’m a bad-ass hero of the back-country, I’m gonna ski Wolverine Cirque on a bad knee.” I rationalized that since my boss had ditched me, the day was now mine.  I could only salvage the day by skinning up to Catherine Pass and check out the offerings. So I drive up to Alta.

My resort kit consists of heavy K2 skis, super-heavy Marker Duke “touring” bindings (anyone stupid enough to  actually hike in those things deserve their monkey-tight hamstrings, and the resulting strain on the lower back), and super-super-heavy Nordica Chargers. I only mention this because after years of back-country skiing on squirrely gear without a hint of an injury, I’ve concluded that burly resort gear, while offering power and control, can lead to injuries. Knees, hips, vertebra and disks aren’t made for the weight and Sasquatch DIN settings of today’s alpine gear. There is only one Bode Miller and one Ted Ligety in the world, and they don’t live at my house.

So, my knee swollen and in huge pain, I load up my heavy resort gear and drive to the upper end of Alta and re-gear, this time with my BC-rig. I’m so proud of my new boots that I hardly notice the quizzical looks I’m getting as I hop one-legged across the parking lot to the snow. It just hurts too much to weight my left leg. I’m the stupid one now, not willing to give up and go see a doctor until I’ve tested my new boots. So I skin up to Catherine Pass, wincing in pain with every step, and when I try to weight my left leg to remove my right skin, my knee buckles and I face-plant in the snow. I get more concerned looks from the granola-hippies lunching at Catherine’s (and on skinny tele-gear and leather boots). But that convinces me; I’ve finally had enough and admit that I’m done for the day. I try to ski down but I can’t begin to weigh the left leg. I end up skiing back totally on my right ski, mono-ski style. The warm temps of early March have made the snow a mix of breakable crust and wet slop, so it excruciating trying to turn one-legged without falling. After numerous falls and much cursing, I weep with joy when I finally see the flat cat–track below Alta’s Albion lift; it’s a sign that I’m almost to the truck.

Hopping one-legged across the parking lot brings more stares, but this time I glare back and they quickly turn away, but I feel their eyes on my back and I hear muted laughter and guffawing when as I slip and fall on the slick asphalt whilst wearing new plastic boots. But I load up, climb into the driver’s seat and just sit – and believe me sitting never felt so good (in a non-Freudian sort of way) - and I then realize that the inherent cheapness that inspired me to buy a standard transmission ten years before is now my worst character flaw: I can’t begin to push in the clutch without huge shooting pain. But, as my sweet, Australian mother taught me, when in pain or frustrated let loose with God’s worst nightmare of linguistics and the weight of the world will momentarily be forgotten. To put the truck in reverse I’m screaming the language of Satan when I notice the family sitting in the Suburban next to me is staring. The mother is glaring and blindly and frantically searching for the power switch for the windows, or the radio (to drown me out), or both.

I make it down the canyon and to the Doctor, and he tells me I’m fine, nothing abnormal shows on the X-ray, but come back in three weeks if it still hurts. He thinks I tore a muscle and nothing more. I ask what to do for the pain and he gets really indignant, and spits out, “I DON’T prescribe any pain meds!” “OK, Doc, I didn’t ask for pain meds, just asking for your thoughts on pain.” He must have gone to med school on some Caribbean Island. He was either hung-over or surfing during the class on bed-side manner.

That was sign enough for me to go see someone else. I wait a week, hoping the pain will magically go away (ice, ibuprofen, no narcotics), but it doesn’t, so I go see another orthopedic surgeon who orders an MRI. That is when my ski season falls apart. He tells me I have a fracture across my tibial plateau and any pounding could shear off the top of the bone, requiring surgery and a long recovery.

That’s it. I go home depressed and start chugging Mountain Dew. For seven weeks I chug Mountain Dew. My aerobic life is shot and I immediately put on ten pounds. I wear the added weight like a red-badge of courage for injured skiers, too proud to go to water aerobics or the spin class at Gold’s Gym. A gym rat is not the life for me.

Now, seven weeks later, a friend posts on Facebook that the Farmington Canyon Road is now open, which means I can drive to my old haunts. Farmington Canyon has great skiing, but, without the road, the additional approach consists of eight miles of gravel road, requiring either a bike or nearly flat skinning, depending upon snow cover. Since its closure four year ago, I’ve biked it several times each year in the spring, skis strapped to the bike frame, boots packed in my day-pack.  Upon reaching the snow-line where the works really starts, I’m usually already exhausted and wondering why I have such weird hobbies, but the excitement of skiing pushes me onward. I should learn to water-color or take up genealogy to fill that void in my soul.

Today I skin up our old approach route, a route pioneered by another friend who was bent on not losing any elevation while traversing the three miles from the parking lot (no parking allowed on the road) to the top of Rice and Mudd drainages. The route, while circuitous, is ingenuous because it crosses three or four sub-drainages in a constant upward climb. As the crow flies it is not the shortest route, but the straight-line route would entail much elevation gain and loss. The genius of the route is realized during the descent, when one is exhausted and in no mood for more climbing, and one can glide across those maddening drainages without re-skinning. I call the route the B.F. Trail in honor of that pioneering mind.

Back on point, I skin to the top of the Rice Bowl feeling surprisingly strong considering I’ve been away from the sport for seven weeks, and now carrying a ten pound Dew-gut. The skiing was fantastic. Five inches of dense, blown-in-snow, the consistency of chalk, but offering idiot proof turning. I ski three runs, and my broken leg feels great. I quit because of a need to get back to help my son move home from college. Plus a wintry storm has blown in, complete with strong winds, zero visibility and heavy snowfall. I ski down towards the approach, but it all looks different now. Many of the eastern aspects, slopes we normally ski for bonus turns, are melted off and I see a lot of brush where in mid-winter they're open snow through glades of aspens.

I get suckered into skiing a thin line of the remaining snow on an otherwise snow free face and ski too far down. Before I know it I’m lost, well below my skin track. I stop and contemplate the quickest escape: continue down the drainage to the road, which would require a mile or so of walking the muddy road back up to the truck, or re-skin and hike back up to my skin track for a glide back to the truck. I choose the later, fearing a brush-fest in the lower drainage. In the fog and heavy snowfall, everything looks foreign and I’m stumbling through a wet, dark forest. I top out on a sub-ridge, thinking my skin track should skirt that ridge, but I find nothing. I continue along the ridge for a hundred yards and the ridge starts descending where it shouldn’t, and I realize I’m way off my approach route. I’m not worried; it’s tough to get lost up here, but a bit disturbed that I’ve lost my way. Stumbling out of a thick stand of firs, out of nowhere I come across another skin track. I’m confused, who else is up here? I then realize the skin track is mine from the morning approach. A weird twilight zone moment.

I make it back to the truck, wet, and a bit confused, but smiling and happy. It was a great day to get back in the game.
The day started mostly clear, but ended in a white-out blizzard.
New boots. I've spent the last four years in Garmont Radiums and loved the way they skied, but hated how they hiked. It was four years of toe-jamming, shin-banging and blisters, but they were beautiful on the descent. This is day two in my new  Dynafits, and I'm impressed. It takes ten days of pain before a boot starts to fit like a glove, so I'm way ahead with the TLT6's. So far they are the best hiking ski boot I've owned and they ski just as well, or better, than the Radiums. As you can see I forgot to remove the size stickers from the toe of the boots. Like any weight-conscious nerd (b.c. skiers, backpackers and cyclists), when I saw this picture I tried calculating the unnecessary, cumulative weight lifted during the day: .0001 ounce (?) X 50,000 (?) steps = 5 ounces unnecessarily lifted during the day!   

Snow is getting thin. In a couple of weeks this road will be buzzing with ATVs. 

Last time I saw this in winter (2010?) the outhouse was buried to the rafters and the sign was under snow.

Warm springs. These seeps never freeze. Some winters this pit is ten feet deep. 

This is our traditional approach (aka the Brett Fuller trail). It has been a few years since I've used this approach due to the winter closure of the road, which required biking to the cabin once the lower road had melted off, then skinning up the Rice/Mudd Creeks divide. My skin track is on the hillside at mid-right, beaver pond below.

That beaver took out about 50, four inch aspens, and from the looks of the pond apparently it has died or moved on.

Beaver's handy work. This slope is our usual ski descent, but the winter snow is gone due to its exposure (east aspect). What you see it from the weekend storm.

Layne's skin track from this morning, (he was headed out while I was headed in), on the Rice/Mudd divide. I assumed the canyon was still gated and, with my leg injury on the mend, I didn't want to cycle up the road as done the last few years, so I figured 2013-14 would be the first year I wouldn't ski Farmington Canyon in over 20 years. Thanks to Layne's Facebook post indicating the canyon was open, I got my chance. I had plenty going on today, I should have worked, I should have helped my son move home from BYU, so with a brief return of winter and the canyon now drivable, I couldn't pass up the opportunity. The skiing was great and my leg felt surprisingly strong.

Layne's turns down the gut of Mudd. Nice turns Layne!

My "skinny" skis look fat in Layne's skin track. My skis: BD Aspect, @ ~ 120-95-118.

Spring below, winter at 8,700 feet.

Upper Rice Bowl. My first run turns at left, second run directly above. Layne's turns from earlier this morning barely seen at right, .

73 inches at about 8,000 feet in mid-Rice Bowl. 

The storm came in while skinning up four run number three, on the Rice/Mudd Divide. . .

 . . . and it was a white-out-blizzard for my run down the Mudd Bowl. 

Descending back to the parking lot, my morning skin track is almost buried from the storm. My back is to the entrance to the Farmington Flats Campground.

In a great year this gate is still covered in late April. This year was a bit below average but ended strong, the storms hit about the same time I broke my leg.  

Muddy parking lot. They (Forest Service or FAA?) use to plow the road all winter for access to the Francis Peak radar facility. Now it is plowed only in late spring.

Should I be packing heat? You just never know when a road sign will go rouge and you'll need to defend yourself.

Support your right to destroy public property.


  1. Dang Owen. I'd really like to start back country next season. I had a great time at Alta this year but that BC looks so fresh.

    1. I don't have any skins or uphill bindings yet, but I'll get some. Ill keep in touch!

  2. Looks like you were in mid season form, long approach, multiple runs, breaking trail the entire way, what a guy! Excellent day for the end of April, glad you are healing well. The winter road up FC has been closed for too many years. There are solutions to that problem, they involve being younger, spending multiple days camping in the area. Another solution would be to buy a sled, but I just cannot bring myself to make such a commitment. What to do? Like you said, time to start living, or dying. But buying a sled? I am getting soft, I should just suck it up and commit to the long approach and spending a night in the area. Why should the lack of drive up access be a problem? Although I am glad you remember the way in, at my age my memory is getting a little fuzzy...

  3. Maybe a dirt bike is the best option? The first few miles are often melted off. The day brought back great memories of our many days up there. We should go before it's gone!

  4. I've missed these posts. It's good to see you back at it!

    1. John, it's great to be back, just a bit late. Did you get out last weekend?

  5. No, I'm ashamed to say it but I haven't been out since late March...hopefully that changes soon.