Powder Feeding Frenzy at Crystal

Exterminator
First tracks on Exterminator.

Day 6: Dec. 23, 2015

It just keeps dumping.

Ten inches new, five more during the day. More than four feet of snow has fallen over the previous three days, so it’s soft and deep.

That said, there are challenges that make this a bit of a difficult day.

For starters, it’s a Ski Dude powder feeding frenzy during this holiday week. Even though it’s a Wednesday, the powder pigs are out in force trying to get some.

I missed opening, waiting in a long ticket line, so I needed to figure out a strategy to find the deep stuff. I took two quick runs down Memorial and even though it was tracked, there were plenty of in-between  shots of fresh snow.

From there, I decided to take the leap on Exterminator, which hadn’t been hit too hard. It was phenomenal, deep, and a little scary, which is what makes Exterminator what it is. I took the far left line, skiing in the trees amid sloughing snow on the steep slopes.

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Mid-run breather on Exterminator.

From there, I went back to the top and hit Westface, which was the run of the day.

Storm winds had dumped waist-deep snow on Westface. Every turn was a face shot as I  found freshies amid the steeps down to Green Valley.

The rest of the day was spent trying to avoid crowds and find untracked lines. Chair 6 opened late and attracted the usual testosterone-rich crowd of powderhounds. The line was ridiculous, so I hit Powder Bowl for an early run, then headed back to Rex for more runs down Right Angle, Exterminator and Westface.

Northway never opened — I think there was just too much snow to deal with.

The crowds packed it in fairly early, so some exceptional late laps on Chair 6 finished the day.

All in all, a very good day, but adopting a crowd strategy was key.

 

Welcome Back, Powder Days on Northway

 

Crystal Northway
Steep and deep on Northway.

Day 5: Dec. 21, 2015

It was the best powder day in two years.

Eight inches fell overnight, and it dumped all day. So much snow fell that it was nearly impossible to get out of the parking lot … but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The day started with high winds rattling the gondola as we ascended through the whiteout. Stepping out into the blizzard, I watched as a couple of my gondola-mates fell down amid the blowing chaos. My kind of day.

Four quick runs down the “front side” on Rex were stellar. Howling wind and new snow quickly filled in skier tracks, making every run feel pristine.

I followed with a quick hike up to the top of Exterminator, then untracked lines down Bull Run.

I headed to Northway just as it opened. I was one of the first down Northway Bowl. It was deep — at least two feet of snow had blown in.

Stellar runs followed: Northway Peak was exceptional, if a bit scary in the white abyss. Turn, slab breaks off, turn, another slab breaks off. Best to keep moving in these conditions. Penny Dawg’s, Paradise Bowl and Right Angle kept yielding fresh lines all day.

Late in the day, fighting through burning legs, I hit the top of the chute Flyin’ Floyd. I was feeling it: Taking a hard turn onto the 45-degree left bank of the chute, I cut a big turn, sending a giant slab hurtling to the basin below. “Yeah!” yelled a skier on the chair as I cut out of the chute, finishing with untracked lines down Paradise Bowl.

The SkiZer’s still got it — at least for one fine day.

 

Blizzard climb on Mt. Spokane

blizzard
Whiteout!

Day 4: Dec. 18, 2015

  • Mount Spokane
  • Vertical for the day: 5,000
  • Year total: 55,000

I pulled out of Spokane at 7:30 a.m. with five inches new snow on the ground, and light rain falling. It’s a slippery mess, and a bit dicey getting up the mountain.

I had thought about skate-skiing again, but that plan changes when I hit the resort area. My car can’t make it up to the Nordic area with all of the new snow. So I head to the Mount Spokane downhill area and start climbing with my AT gear.

It’s blowing 30 mph and a whiteout as I clear the trees on the lower slopes. I know Mount Spokane well, so I’m not worried. Mostly. But it’s a legit whiteout — you can’t see more than 20 yards in any direction. I settle for simply going up in the featureless terrain.

On I trudge. It’s here somewhere, right? Not a sign of any humans, or any human-created shelter. All I see is white.

Then, slowly, I’m feeling like I’m cresting the mountain. Suddenly, the ghostly shape of a park building with ice-crusted microwave towers emerges from the white. I duck out of the wind and take off my skins. A few pieces of ice fly off the towers … maybe I shouldn’t hang out here too long.

I’ve decided to ski the trees on the “backside” of the mountain. It’s a confusing maze on top, but once you drop down, there are some lovely glades to explore. The trick is to find the glades amid the maze.

So I head down through the trees, thinking I know where I’m going.

And then I’m lost. All I see are trees. I had been pretty cocky about skiing the backcountry on Mount Spokane, but maybe I’m being stupid. How many people have gotten lost and fallen into a tree well up here, I wonder?

trees
It’s in here somewhere.

Hmmm. I try a tentative turn to the south. Nope, this isn’t right. I head a little west. It’s looking a little better. Maybe …

One of the glades finally emerges and I know where I am. It’s great. Protected from the wind, it’s soft and feathery. I finish the 500 vertical feet of tree skiing, following a familiar path I’ve taken dozens of times.

I return to the top and ski out through the resort, finding plenty of untracked turns still available at the lift area.

There’s something I love about being in extreme weather — and living on to tell the tale.

 

Day 3: Spokane skate-away

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On the trails again.

Dec. 17, 2015

Mount Spokane

Kilometers skied: 20K

First day on the skate skis. It’s difficult, frustrating and ultimately really fun.

I’ve returned to Spokane to hit some of the best trails in the state. Most west-siders don’t know about Mount Spokane, but I’ve made it a point to come back every winter.

I pull up to about three inches new. A recent windstorm has knocked down trees all over Spokane, and crews are still clearing trees from the trails. Consequently, grooming is just OK, and terrain is limited.

That’s OK. As I slog through the new snow, I’m generally alone. Most people are skiing classic, which is quite good. The occasional fellow skater comes along. As I climb Alpine, a tough hill past the first trail junction, my heart is pounding, my breath is ragged. This is tough.

I power out toward Shadow Mountain and eventually start feeling the rhythm. As I head down Moose Meadows and back to the Nordic lodge, my stroke becomes more fluid and effortless.

It’s good to be back!

 

 

Day 2: I’m an idiot

Dec. 13, 2015

Crystal Mountain

Vertical for the day: 15,000

Year total: 50,000

Backcountry.jpg

Well, so much for my great decision-making.

Another epic storm has hit the region, dumping 16 inches over two days at Crystal. I decided to go for it, despite the fact that it’s a Sunday, which I usually try to avoid. A Sunday at Crystal on a powder day can be a real shit show, but the conditions are just too good. I’m out of bed early — another fitful night for me — and in the parking lot of Crystal by 8:10 a.m.

Plenty early, right?

Nope, shit show. The top lot is full. The “reserved” rich-people lot is full. The nasty B lot is nearly full.

I schlep to the ticket window and there’s a long line of grumpy-looking dudes waiting to shell out their $72.

Not me, I say. I’m not going to be one of those stooges who waits for a ticket, then waits again for a chairlift, then misses all the good snow. Not me.

So I schlep back to the car, grab the AT gear, and start climbing to Silver Basin. About halfway up Quicksilver, a ski patrolman stops and says, “Be really careful. We haven’t controlled Silver Basin, and stuff we set off earlier has been releasing some very big slides.

That’s the downside to skiing by yourself most of the time.

Up I go. I’m following an established track and eventually, I run into the people ahead of me. Three snowboarders are looking up at the ridgeline in Silver Basin at the pristine, unskied slopes. They’re looking a little nervous. I power on, but have already decided I’m not going to the top unless I see someone coming down, giving me some assurance that the slope won’t slide.

I make it to the last bench in Silver Basin and stop to eat. I won’t be going higher today. Too much risk, and I can see a couple of small slides that make me think this place is unsafe.

I ski the low-angle 16 inches of snow and it’s great when I can get enough speed. Mostly, it’s a slog out back to the main ski area.

When I hit the top of Quicksilver, I take a hard left to Forest Queen, a mid-mountain chair where they rarely check tickets, and I head to Chair 6.

Uh-oh. Yes, it’s a shit show. A half-hour of standing in line later, I get the hell out of there and head over to Rex. Then Northway, which is has just been opened for the season.

The snow is funky. Big ice blobs from recent warm weather are hiding under fresh snow. When I hit one halfway down the Northway Bowl, I’m sent flying, land hard on my side, both of my AT skies fall off. Epic crash.

The lightweight bindings never really recover and keep popping off. So the rest of the day is spent tentatively turning, hoping the skis stay on. 2:30 comes, I’ve racked up a little vertical, and I head home.

Yes, bad decision-making. Sometimes you need to suck it up and stand in line. Especially when the backcountry isn’t safe.

Day 1: Why can’t I sleep?

Dec. 11, 2015

Crystal Mountain

Vertical for the day: 35,000

Year total: 35,000

It’s 3 a.m. and I’m awake. Again. The night before my first ski day of the season and it’s toss-and-turn time.

It has been this way since I was a little kid. I was always so excited about skiing that I couldn’t sleep the night before hitting the slopes. I would often go to bed early, hoping sleep would come, but at best it was fitful. Did I remember my gloves? Would I have time to eat breakfast? Would I somehow sleep through the alarm? I was so worried about not being ready in the morning that I tried sleeping in my thermal underwear, thinking that would somehow make me ready sooner. It only made me too hot to sleep.

Now I’m 59 and this same busy brain keeps me awake before a ski day. I close my eyes, turn over, and doze. Next time I look at the clock, it’s 4:30. Turn over again, sigh.  Another check — it’s 4:50 — we’re getting there. Eventually, it’s 6 a.m. and I get up, feeling groggy, a little hungover, but happy to be out of bed after a night of not really sleeping.

After battling rush-hour traffic in Seattle, I’ve driven two hours to Crystal Mountain, secured my day pass, and I’m clicked into the bindings of my Volkl AC-50s riding the first chair. Any exhaustion from the lack of sleep is gone — I’m glancing up at the mountain and thinking about my strategy for tackling the foot of new snow sitting on the slopes above me.

Day 1 looks pretty good. It has been a wild week of weather — 100-mile-an-hour winds hit the top of Crystal two days before. Rain, freezing rain, then eventually snow fell. The winds returned, closed the top of the mountain, and finally, today, with colder temperatures and calmer winds, they’ve opened the top of the resort with a foot of fresh snow.

We get ready to unload, and I head to Rex — Rainier Express, the quad that goes to the top.

I hit the “front-side” — the south-facing gladed run with lots of early season obstacles, but also lots of pockets of powder. It’s good — a little windblown because of its exposure to the aforementioned storms earlier in the week, but the masses are staying away from this more challenging terrain.

My overall strategy on a powder day? Take what the mountain gives you, and don’t be in too big a hurry to leave a proven winner. On powder days, many skiers try to chase the latest fresh snow, waiting in long lines for chairs or terrain to open. I try to be more patient, staying put, finding fresh lines amid the trees.

After six fairly quick runs, I’m thinking I’ve done all I can on Rex. I head to Chair 6, which still isn’t open, but the resort sign says it is on “hold.” I know from experience these signs are very inaccurate, and sure enough, I get to the base of Chair 6 and find it open, with a short line of testosterone-rich skiers waiting. I missed the opening by about 10 minutes, but that’s OK. Only a few skiers have made runs so far.

It’s good. Better snow than Rex, and I blast out nine laps before I know it. Great shots down Campbell Basin, and I ski fast and hard.

Then, a run over the other side of Silver Queen into Powder Bowl, which is also stellar.

By now, I’m starting to feel gassed. Lack of sleep, lack of food. I take a break to have coffee and eat some of the lunch I’ve packed. I’m at 22,000 vertical and it’s Day 1. I’m tired all right, but I decide to go for 10,000 more to get my vertical count off to a good start. So after a quick break, I’m back at it — more runs in Campbell Basin, two more down Powder Bowl, and by 2:45 and 35,000 vertical, I’m done.

Good start to the season.