Thursday, March 31, 2016

the vagaries of spring

We gave Sunday a B-.  The weather was schizophrenic, running from partly sunny to high, thin clouds to overcast with flurries to sunny to overcast in rapid succession.  This made it difficult to figure out layers-wise and although I changed my jacket mid-morning, I never felt like I really got it right.  There wasn't any new snow (although a big storm is heading our way for Monday/Tuesday/early Wednesday) so the conditions were quite fast in the morning; the mix of sun and clouds meant that while things softened a little in the afternoon, it didn't get too heavy or slushy.  And there seemed to be an awful lot of cluelessness: H remarked that around 11:00 a.m., it seemed like everyone out on the slopes had no idea how to ski.  Or load the lifts, frankly: I experienced a double not understanding that they were supposed to let a single ride with them on Supreme, and on Sugarloaf, I watched as two of the four people trying to load the chair in front of me fell right off.

The skiing was okay, better when the sun was out and then challenging when the light got flat as it got overcast.  I played around off-piste a little bit (and had one pretty good run through Catherine's Area in the afternoon), but stuck mainly to the groomers since the conditions were variable.  H went to one of the Alta ski shops and rented a pair of telemark skis, just to try out something different.  His tele skis are 98 cm underfoot, which means they are better in deeper snow and not the best for hardpack.  He ended up with a pair of K2s that were 90 cm underfoot.  He didn't love them but could tell that they were better skis for the conditions we were in.  I hope he will be able to pick up a new pair of tele skis like that because he's really progressed.  The right equipment could make all the difference.

We met up at the truck around 3 p.m., his legs thrashed, my patience worn out and both of us ready to head home.  But not before a tailgate beer, of course.  The end of the ski season is in sight (Closing Day is April 17, and then they'll be open just for the following weekend) and it behooves us to toast it whenever possible.

Monday, March 28, 2016


A very nice midweek storm brought Alta a much-welcomed 20 inches of snow and that, plus a sudden drop in temperatures, made it feel a little bit like winter again Saturday morning.  The reported 7:00 a.m./12F mid-mountain temperature caused me to fret about what to wear and I ended up settling on some winter-like gear: down parka, heavy long-johns and my boot covers.  The layering worked very well for the morning; in the afternoon, the sun came out strongly, as it is wont to do at the end of March, and I was way overdressed.  Still, when it began to cloud up just a bit in the afternoon, I appreciated the extra warmth.

Both H and I thought that the snow was really pretty good.  It had stayed fairly cold and cloudy up at Alta through the week, which kept that new snow soft.  It was largely tracked out, with only a two-inch refresh from Friday, but explorations into Catherine's Area and the trees below East Castle/the Apron paid off nicely.  It was definitely warming up, however, and by the afternoon, things started to get heavy and sticky in the direct sun.  The winter conditions weren't lasting long but we enjoyed them while we could.

Gosh, that's pretty

I'm not a naturally outgoing person so I'm not sure why I like talking to strangers on the chairlift so much.  I suspect it's because it's for a very limited amount of time - once you get off the chair at the top, you never see these people again - plus there are so many tourists who have so many questions about Alta and Utah that there's always something to talk about.  Some days bring better conversationalists than others: Saturday actually turned out to be an excellent day for chairlift conversations.  Here's a sampling of what we got:

  • A guy from Swansea, Wales, who works with our neighbor, regularly skis in New Hampshire, was just in Portland (ME) last week and had a great dinner at Duckfat, and who is a Swansea City Swans fan (which is the Premier League team I support)
  • Another Brit who has a client who plays for Leicester City but who, as a lifelong Tottenham Hotspurs fan, was conflicted about Leicester's Cinderella story this year
  • The liftie who was on his fifth day of work, having shown up at Alta as a stop along his Mountain Collective grand tour and learned they were hiring - he was SO excited about his new job, which included a mountainside place to live and a meal plan
  • A woman on tele skis who lived in D.C., although with her daughter living in Grand Junction, CO, and her son in the Bay Area, "the compass is definitely pointing west."  Her family are long-time Altaholics and when we talked about how much fun Alta gets to be in the springtime, she told me that her son once skied High Rustler naked when he worked there for a season
  • An Aussie who had never been to Alta before but who, after his first three hours, was a total convert, gushing over the scenery and the terrain
The people are a large part of what I like about Alta, despite my complaining when the tourists can't figure out the lift lines.  Alta skiers are, for the most part, down to earth and friendly people who are just there to ski.  I am absolutely proud to call myself an Alta skier (in case you hadn't figured that out).

Thursday, March 24, 2016

chutes, no ladders

To anyone who skis Alta, the Baldy Chutes are pretty much the Holy Grail.  Sure, there are iconic runs like High Rustler, Gunsight and Devil's Castle, but Mt. Baldy's chutes are - literally - above and beyond everything else.  Baldy looms over the front side of the resort so you can stare at the chutes as you ride up the Collins lift.  They aren't often open and you have to do a major boot-pack to get up to them.  The chutes are for experts only and H has been itching to get up there basically since we moved to the area.  On Sunday, H did the Main Chute.

Starting the hike

"Because of exposure to rock below, uncontrolled falls in Main and Little Chutes can have serious consequences.  Uncontrolled falls in Dogleg and Perla's Chutes almost certainly will.  This is very serious, some would say, extreme skiing.  Be very sure of your conditioning and technique before attempting." - The Powder Hound's Guide to Skiing Alta, Brad Asmus
Over that drop-off? Vertical and icy 

For some reason, the conditions have been right enough that ski patrol has had the Baldy Chutes open a fair amount this year.  H had been thinking about getting up there it for a while now but his focus on telemark skiing has put the kibosh on it; skiing Main Chute is, for him, alpine-only.  Saturday evening, he mentioned to me that he was thinking about taking his alpine gear up on Sunday and I knew what he had in mind.  Sunday morning confirmed it: he was taking his Cochises and, if they opened Baldy, he was going to ski it.

Getting ready to drop in

H tried to convince me to do it as well - it really would be more fun with someone, but each time our ski guests have come out, the chutes haven't been open - and while I was tempted, I ultimately decided against it.  I was concerned about what the drop in at the top would be like - I'm not a fan of diving over cornices - and I knew that the hike (600 vertical feet, up to elevation 11,068) would be brutal.  He's so much stronger than I am that I knew he could ski it even after the hike up; I wasn't sure that my legs would be sturdy enough to do the ski after the hike.

Looking back from whence he came

He started up a little before 10 a.m., with just a couple other diehards going that way with him.  Later in the day, we would see lots of people heading up and we knew why more didn't go earlier: the steepest section of the trail, which we have climbed in the summertime, scrambling hand over hand up the rock, is nearly vertical and, when H did it, was extremely icy.  A fall would send you all the way down.  It was very slow, nerve-wracking climbing, as H had to use both hands, as well as keeping hold of his skis and his poles.  (Note: a backpack that you can strap your skis and poles to would be very helpful in this situation.)

The way ahead

Once he got past that icy, vertical bit, it was fairly easy walking up the ridge, and not at all crowded.  There was a ski patroller up there who dropped into Little Chute as H made his way up; another skier, who had done Main Chute Saturday and who was up there to do Little Chute, showed H which trail to follow to the top of the chute.  Once in position, he waited a little, resting his legs.  Then, over the edge he went.
Once you're in, you're in

"Main Chute is the largest of the Baldy Chutes ... It is wider than it looks from the bottom, but still not wide ... Having dropped in, you're in.  The walls are big and steep.  It's like skiing a steep alley between brick buildings.  The chute fades right with a double fall line and gets real narrow about 1/3 down."  - TPHGtSA
Almost out

I had taken a couple runs, figuring the hike would take him about thirty minutes, then skied out the Ballroom traverse to get into position at the bottom of Main Chute.  Once I saw H up in there, it didn't take him long to ski down, even with a couple of stops to take pictures.  When he came out the bottom, he was soaked with sweat from the hike, but grinning and pleased that he done it.  He told me that I absolutely could have skied it but that I wouldn't have liked the hike - both the sketchy icy section and then the fatigue after the climb.  I was a little regretful that I hadn't done it - I sure would like to be able to say that I've skied Main Chute - but I know how tired my legs are after hiking up East Castle, and I'm certain that this Baldy hike would be worse.  Maybe next year!

Done! Someone get that man a beer!

The rest of day was business as usual for us, except that we skied together a little bit more and I couldn't beat H to the lift because he skis so much faster on his alpine gear.  After lunch the strong sun took its toll on the snow: some places were nice and soft, others were heavy and sticky, depending on the angle of the slope.  Around 2:30 p.m. my legs had had enough of pushing around the heavy stuff and we skied out.  We'd brought our cooler again and did a tailgate toast, this time to Main Chute.

Monday, March 21, 2016

spring has sprung

We got a nice midweek storm - 19.5 inches Monday into Tuesday - and H was lucky enough to have planned to take Tuesday off to ski with a coworker.  They had storm-skiing all day, much to their delight.  H skied on his Blizzard Cochises and came home with a grin on his face, having enjoyed skiing on his alpine gear for a change.  He's still motivated to improve his telemark skills but alpine is really so much easier.

Looking at Superior from Catherine's Area

The storm moved out and the temperatures warmed up for Saturday.  Well, they didn't warm up that much at first: it was 20 F at the top and 26 F at Wildcat base when we rolled in for first chair.  The morning corduroy was firm, therefore, but things did soften as the sun came over the mountains.  Rather than messing around with the frozen corduroy on Collins, we went directly to Sugarloaf, where the sun hits first.  Both Extrovert and Razorback were pretty good.  Mid-morning, we split up: H, on his tele skis again, went back to Collins to give the Ballroom a try while I scooted over to Supreme.  Supreme is the first Alta lift to close and so I am trying to get as much time in over there as I can.

The Ballroom, with Baldy's chutes above

I stuck with the groomers for the most part, as things warmed and softened; I did one run in Catherine's Area right before lunch and the bottom third was still crusty from having baked in the sun Friday afternoon and then frozen up overnight.  After lunch, however, as we both skied Supreme, the sun softened things up so that my last run through Catherine's was quite good:  soft at the top, where it doesn't get direct sun, and soft at the bottom, where the sun loosened the moguls into nice corn snow.  I also did a run through a chute from East Castle to the Apron; there hadn't been too many people in there and the snow was light and deep.

Still soft and deep if you know where to look

H and I met back up at the truck at 2:45 p.m., where we had cleverly remembered to bring a beer.  Spring skiing is fun for lots of reasons, not the least of which is tailgating in the sun with the snow-covered mountains looming overhead.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

change in the weather

More like changes as the weather on Sunday just couldn't decide what it wanted to do.  From what we read, we thought it would be overcast, with maybe a few flurries, and getting worse as the day went on.  It was overcast when we started skiing; it started snowing - more than just flurries - mid-morning through lunch; and then it cleared to mostly sunny skies in the afternoon.  This made it very difficult (for me) to figure out what to wear but also made for a pretty nice day conditions-wise.

Spring skiing always means variable snow but the later start to the warming meant that conditions didn't get too sloppy.  The groomers were not nearly as firm as we had feared and were very skiable, although the light was very flat until after noon.  It was a little crusty off-piste in the morning - covered by a scant inch that had fallen overnight - but if you stayed off the areas that had gotten really wet Saturday, you'd be okay.  Challenger and Sleepy Hollow were not at all good but Catherine's Area was, especially after lunch when the lower portion had softened.  By mid-afternoon, all of Collins had softened nicely to mashed potato consistency at the top and corn snow at the bottom.

Supreme chair selfie

H and I skied together for a couple of hours in the morning .. until I had to go back to the truck for some layering adjustments.  After lunch, we did a few runs together at Supreme ... until I felt the urge to check out Catherine's.  He has improved his telemark skills so much this winter, to the point where now he feels like he needs to go off the groomers to work on quicker turns.  A different pair of tele skis will really help too, I think: the ones he has are pretty wide, good for deep snow but more difficult to turn; a pair that have some side-cut to them will make a big difference.  Time to start shopping the sales and second hand shops!

With the changing conditions, there was something for everyone, and that made for a fun day.  We were happy to be back on our skis after last weekend's less than successful showing and we were very happy that the conditions turned out to be so much better than we expected.

Monday, March 14, 2016

why, yes, another alta ski day

We were hoping that we would get more skiing in this Saturday than we did last Saturday, but just to be on the safe side, H took Friday off and spent the whole day at Alta on his tele skis.  When we got up to Wildcat base just after 9 a.m., therefore, his legs were already operating at a slight deficit: they weren't sore yet but he knew the fatigue would build quickly.  He's doing really well on the groomers but it is such harder work than regular alpine skiing that, even with his strong legs, he gets tired.

Free-the-heel Friday

The crowds weren't terrible: the lift lines weren't nearly as long as they have been the last few weeks, but it did seem as though there were a fair number of people out on the trails.  Lots of tourists too - I rode with folks from Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Hampshire, Vermont and California.  Everyone seemed pretty happy with the conditions, despite being between storm systems; it was partly sunny but the snow warmed up pretty well, going from firm and a little crusty in the morning to corn-snow moguls and mashed potatoes by the time we were heading out.

Tuscarora, all in white

H and I skied together for a while first thing, then I moved over to Supreme, hoping I wouldn't have to do so much dodge-em over there.  I stuck to the groomers for the morning - you could hear the crusty scraping when skiers came out of Catherine's Area - but did a couple of runs into Catherine's after lunch.  I went all the way in to Last Chance and was surprised to find that the snow was really holding up well there; so few people had gone in there that I found a stash of fluffy, soft turns, plus had them all to myself.

Lots of selfies when you ski by yourself

The clouds, which had been flirting with moving for most of the day, finally settled in after 1:30 p.m., sending out light flurries and making the light very flat.  H's legs cried uncle at that point but I stuck it out, battling the bad visibility but enjoying the softening snow for another hour.  I could feel the thigh-burn on the last run, however, as I skied out, slightly regretting coming down through Corkscrew with its heavy, clumpy bumps.  The weather wasn't calling for much accumulation overnight so hopefully the groomers will smooth everything into shape for the next day.

Thursday, March 10, 2016


Well, Sunday was a total bust.  For us anyway: we woke up to rain and wind in the valley, and although it was technically snowing at Alta, the temperatures were hovering right at the rain/snow margin.  Alta's webcams showed terrible visibility and we knew from experience that if it was this windy down in the valley, the winds would be even worse at altitude.  It didn't take long for us to make the call not to ski.  We'll ski in some pretty terrible conditions that most Utahns would never consider - below zero temperatures, snowstorms, slush and crust, fog - but I have to draw the line at rain.  Oh, and there was the potential for thunder-snow and lightning as well, which is just dangerous as well as miserable.

Monday, March 7, 2016

making the best of it

We weren't expecting much when we headed up to Alta Saturday morning.  There hadn't been any new snow for ages and the day was overcast, which meant that the springlike conditions and freeze/thaw cycle wouldn't soften up very quickly.  Still, we were determined to ski at least until lunch - how else could we justify getting fries at Alf's?  The first couple of runs, off Collins, were an inauspicious start, with even the groomers being crusty in spots.  H, on his tele skis, was unimpressed with the conditions, and the light was very flat too.  When we shifted over to Sugarloaf it was a little brighter and the snow was a little softer.  There seemed to be a lot more skiers there too and after two runs of dodging people, I couldn't stand it any longer, heading off to Supreme with the plan to meet H at Alf's at 11:45.  

The corral at Supreme was filling up quickly but the singles line was practically empty, so I hopped right on a chair.  At the top of the lift, the view to the west was ominous, with dark skies looming behind Superior.  I didn't dare try a run through Supreme, figuring that it needed more time to warm up and soften, so I did a run down Rock N' Roll.  As I moved up through the singles line, I saw H pull up outside the corral.  He waved me out of line and when I got over to him, he reported that his binding was broken:  he's been hit from behind by a thirteen or fourteen-year-old kid who had knocked him down and broken his binding.  H exercised good self-control and didn't cuss out the kid (or the kid's father, who skied up shortly thereafter), but he did point out that the downhill skier (H) had the right of way.  Neither the kid nor the kid's father said anything - didn't apologize for hitting H, or breaking his equipment, NOTHING - just stood there for a bit and then skied away.  [Who does that?  Who doesn't even say anything? What is wrong with people?]  Luckily, H wasn't hurt but the damage to his binding meant our ski day was over.  He valiantly volunteered to hang out in the lodge while I skied longer, but I didn't feel the conditions were good enough to warrant that.  So, at 10:30 a.m., we skied out and back to the truck.

After stopping at the house to clean up, we drove up to SLC to the Wasatch Touring Company, a funky ski/bike/paddle shop downtown (702 East 100 South).  H had been concerned that the damage to the binding might have affected the ski itself but the man at the repair counter (one of the shop owners/founders) seemed confident that they could fix it.  We don't go downtown very often - since I work in SLC, we're not that eager to do the drive on the weekends - but figured we should make the best of it since we were there, and went to the Beer Bar (161 East 200 South) for lunch.  There was hardly anyone around when we got there a little after noon, so we were able to eat our sausages (a Louisiana Hot with carmelized onions and sweet peppers for me and a linguica with sauerkraut and hot peppers for H) and drink our beers (Epic Session IPA and Lagunitas IPA) while watching British Premier League soccer, without jostling for table space.  It wasn't the way we had envisioned our Saturday going but we salvaged it as best we could - and determined that Sunday, with the snow-bringing storm moving in, wouldn't be such a bust.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

freeze and thaw

Sunday ended up being very similar to Saturday, although H and I were once again on our own.  It was clear and sunny, not nearly as windy and slightly cooler, which meant that it took a fair amount longer for the snow to soften.  Off-piste was pretty crusty, especially in places that had been sun-baked Saturday afternoon and then frozen up overnight, like the run-out of Catherine's Area, so we had to stick to groomers - or areas that didn't get direct sun - for the first part of the day.

View from Sugar Mountain

H continued his dedication to his tele skis.  He's really improving: he's much, much faster now and more comfortable with carrying a little speed on these skis.  What he thinks he needs to focus on is making quicker transitions in his turns, from foot to foot.  I'm very impressed with his progress and his willingness to work for it - and the one good thing about the dry February we had was that with no decent new snow, he wasn't tempted to ski on his alpine skis.

After lunch, I did several off-piste runs, touring the mountain to see how the snow was faring:  Yellow Trail to East Greeley (snow was soft but not slushy, the colder temperatures keeping the snow in better shape); then Devil's Castle, which was definitely keeping the best snow (I'd done a morning run in the first bit so this time I went in a little further to the Sugar Mountain area); and then into Catherine's Area (the top was good but the run-out was still just a little crusty in spots).

Superior from Supreme

H and I rejoined each other in the afternoon for a few groomer runs as our legs began to feel some fatigue.  At 2:30 p.m. we decided that we'd had enough, although I wanted one more go at Catherine's.  Even though I was tiring, it was a good run since the run-out had finally softened into wonderful corn-snow moguls - just what I had been waiting for!  I found H at the Goldminer's Daughter patio and we each had a beer in that warm February-feels-like-April sunshine.  If you can't get a snowstorm, at least you can work on your goggle tan!