Friday, November 16, 2012

Ullr, I ain't complaining, bring it on.

Day 1- Willows Fk. 11.11.12

Adam skis in November... and his bases are still intact.
 Not the earliest skiing I’ve had, but it was the finest November skiing I’ve had. While the gargantuan dump that began on the 9th provoked many to get out and make the first turns of the year, work forced me to wait until Sunday, two days after the storm started, to click into the Verdicts and skin up East Willows for a tour.  Some of the group of six, comprised of both boarders and skiers (what a beautiful example of nonpartisanship in a time when we desperately need it) already took advantage of the October 24th storm to get their first day in, but for me, this was Day #1, and unfortunately the latest Day #1 since 2009-10 season.  In past years, the first tour of the season usually means a heart thumping but predictable skin up Alta’s in-bounds slopes before they close the mountain to uphill traffic, but this storm put down almost 4 feet and we had an abundance of options, including places that normally are barely covered this time of year.  So, unlike the last two years, my first backcountry skiing of the year actually was in the “backcountry”. 

Still some sage brush to contend with
We expected most Big Cottonwood skiers to take advantage of Brighton and Solitude, which we decided to avoid, but while we were making our way up the ridge between Mill F and Willows Fork, Solitude closed off uphill traffic to prepare for opening.  I expect Brighton did the same so most of our AT brethren bolted across the road to hit up the opposite side of the canyon.  When we reached the top of the first knoll above Willows, the sight of almost 20 skiers trekking up USA Bowl floored me.  “Look at the f*@&%!^ train!” I called out.  Certainly nice to know the sangha of backcountry skiers grows with each season.  While decisions on Ski Link (the tram spanning the Park City ridgeline to connect the “Deer Valley wannabe” Canyons Resort and Solitude Resort) will be made in the ridiculously out-of-touch setting of our federal and county governments, the march of AT soldiers to the ridge dividing Park City’s overdeveloped “ski-burbs” from the Cottonwoods’ more balanced resort and backcountry territories indicated the value that the ACTUAL users have for preserving this precious area.  Putting a tram right through the heart of Willows Fork would only take Big Cottonwood one step closer to unoccupied extravagant ski-mansions and $100 lift tickets while spoiling another natural sanctuary.

From what we saw, USA Bowl looked great, but the slope down into Willows had always treated us to great turns through the trees.  Our plan involved making a quick lap there then heading to the ridgeline and traversing to the North Bowl of Willows.  Because the slope we stood above held little risk of a full slide, I thought it might be a good spot to dig a snowpit and see what our 3’ of fresh was sitting on.  Within five steps down the slope to dig a pit, I heard that remote sounding “whoomp” that catches my attention faster than a chick with tele skis on her shoulder thumbing a ride at the park-n-ride.  I froze and looked up at my five companions standing on the ridge.  They heard it too, and our collective breath exhaling told the whole story; for almost 25’ on either side of me, a slight crack in the powder told us that this slope collapsed and thankfully halted its slide against the thick trees just a few feet from where I stood.  Minor, but still sobering.  “I guess we don’t need to dig a pit,” was the consensus and we chose to move on.

Finally, physics helps me out.
The calendar may have said November 11th, but the weather yelled full on winter.  Ullr not only dumped a generous helping of right-side-up storm snow, but he dropped the temp also, and by the time we reached the ridge, many of us were feeling numb in our fingers and toes.  But that wasn’t the only challenge mother nature gave us.  We were also quickly realizing that you can have too much of a good thing.  Not wanting to risk skiing steep slopes given what we witnessed on the knob, we were sticking to the mellower line down the western aspect of the bowl, which was buried in an almost impassible frosting of Wasatch confection.  I pitied the poor splitboarders we had along that struggled to get going, but I had just as much of an issue trying to plow through.  You couldn’t stay on top of it.  I had barely started skiing and my quads were already burning from the violent kicks needed to free my boards from the white quagmire.  First tracks on this day didn’t necessarily equate to glory, in fact, first tracks meant was you were sacrificing yourself so that others could follow unencumbered in your tracks.  In true Mason fashion, I tried to earn some “effort points” by veering out of Jared’s tracks to experience the struggle myself… it wasn’t fun.  To save my legs, I finally resorted to just poling with all my might and plowing a mountain of snow around my knees like some sort of brutish locomotive.  The tour was beginning to take on a “fine and pleasant misery” tenor, but that changed once we reached the open slope where the bowl steepened.  That minor change in pitch proved adequate for giving me my first face shots of the season.  And even though we could see brush poking up in spots, none of us hit a thing.  We were probably skiing 3+ feet of fresh on bare ground.

Our short run completed, it was time to head back for beers.
The descent was short, but we were all willing to call it a day after that.  The trailbreaking on the way up, the trailbreaking on the way down combined with the cold seemed to sap a lot of our spirit.  Yet after the disappointment of last season, I think we all knew how special this day was.  Of course, one storm doesn’t make a season, but I couldn’t help but feel good about this.  Last year on December 31st, my wife and I snowshoed much of this same route and the ground was barely covered in most places.  I can’t deny that if we hit a drought, the same couldn’t happen again this year, but it just seems like Ullr is smiling more than he did last year at this time.


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