May 26, 2002
| 0) Introduction |
I had been itching to get into backcountry skiing or ski mountaineering for a while, however, I just never seemed to find the right first time. For my first backcountry ski trip I was thinking of the Dana Couloir or Lassen NE Face - two very popular descents. As it turns out, I had an opportunity to ski Fuji-san first, but then got sick in Japan. Upon arriving back in California, I decided some bronchitis wasn't going to slow me down and that I wanted to ski something. Afterall, this wasn't pneumonia I had and no one ever died of bronchitis I thought to myself. While I was recovering, I decided to accomodate my weakened state by skiing the Crescent Moon Couloir instead of Dana Couloir for my first outing due to the shorter approach. After my first climb of the Crescent Moon on March 2, 2002 I had written this off as too difficult for a ski descent for me but after Richard told me he had snowboarded the couloir back in December 2001 I reconsidered. I also had an extra CA Sno-Park pass which would expire on May 30 and I wasn't about to let that $5 go to waste, so on May 26, 2002 I drove out to Round Top to check out the world of ski mountaineering.
There is a Gear Discussion section at the bottom of this trip report since I spent quite a bit of time thinking about what kind of gear to bring on my first ski mountaineering trip.
1) Round Top - Crescent Moon Couloir - Climb & Ski
I was hoping to get an early start for my day trip so I set my alarm for 3am in the Bay Area. It went off on time but when I opened my eyes again it was 5am already. I took a shower and hopped in my car eager to get on my way. I hadn't driven up to Round Top / Kirkwood for a while and found myself on I-80 heading up to Sacramento instead of CA SR-580 to Stockton. This meant I would lose and hour and it wasn't until about 9:30am that I got to Carson Pass. I dated my Sno-Park pass, packed my gear, and headed up the trail. It was very warm out so I headed up in a t-shirt and shorts. When I came out of the woods and saw my first view of Round Top I stopped to take a few photos. I looked at how steep the line appeared and asked myself if I really wanted to do this. I resolved to press forward since it didn't look anywhere near as steep the last time when I was actually in the couloir. I didn't see anyone on the trail until just below the rise before Lake Winnemucca where I met a couple from Portland, OR. They had camped out the night before and told me it was very windy during the night though there was no wind now. We snapped a few photos for each other and I showed them the line I intended to ski. They seemed impressed, however, in the back of my mind I was still wondering if I was going to do it.
I continued over the rise to the still frozen Lake Winnemucca, which I had bypassed on my earlier trip, thankful that I didn't need any snowshoes. Then I hiked up to the little rise right before the bottom of the couloir. I stopped to take some photos of the couloir and at this time Bruce of San Jose came over the little rise and I started feverishly taking photos of him as he free-heeled his way down to me. It turned out he had driven up the previous night and slept in his car to get an early start. He had climbed the West Ridge to the summit and had skied down the same route. I asked him to take some photos for me, discussed my intended route, and then we parted ways. He was the third and last person I would see all day on the mountain. When I reached the familiar "flat spot" at the foot of the couloir, I put on my gators, crampons, and switched my trekking poles for axes. Unlike March when the couloir was in the shade all day, I found that the couloir was completely in the sun now. Above Lake Winnemucca I had put on a windshirt over my t-shirt, however, I was still wearing shorts and decided to forgo gloves for the climb.
The first time I was here, there were steps I could follow but it looked like no one had been in the couloir for sometime and I would have to make my own way this time. No matter, with 2 straight axes I would make easy steady progress straight up the couloir. I would plunge both axes in and then pull on the heads before stepping up making a familiar "plunge plunge, pull, step step" motion over and over again as I climbed the couloir. The top foot of snow was very soft and loose and my axes would sink in all the way each time. I had to stop to warm up my hands a couple of times but was determined to keep my fleece gloves dry for the descent. While I was worried about the climb the first time around this time I was very confident on the way up and soon found myself at the top of the couloir where I took off my pack. I took a few photos and made a quick jaunt over to the West Summit. Since I had bagged the true East Summit before and I was sick (I told myself), I decided to skip the East Summit this time around and concentrate on my ski descent. For about 2 seconds I thought about wimping out and skiing down the West Ridge but told myself that would negate the entire reason for the climb as well as the long drive.
When I went to put on my skis I had them pointing toward the northwest face (a flat angled snowfield west of the couloir). I got one ski on and while attempting to put the second one on I started sliding down toward the face. I had just gotten my skis waxed and they were way too fast I thought to myself. The first 10 feet of the ski in wasn't so bad but it was a bit exposed. I watched snow debris fall all the way down that snow face each time I made a stop but continued to the 2 exposed rocks at the top of the chute. Just below the rocks, I was breathing very fast short breaths. Up until now, technical rock climbing had been my most exhilarating experience, but now, here alone at the top of a narrow couloir for my first backcountry ski descent I found a new feeling of anxiety. All my gear had worked out, the climb had worked out, all that was left was to ski what I had come to ski. And so with that I made my first few turns down the couloir. I found the snow extremely fast and that each time I tried to push an edge, 8 inches to a foot of snow would give way underneath me and go sliding down the length of the couloir. This type of snow was a completely new experience for me and I quickly came to the conclusion that the same snow conditions meant completely different things for climbing vs. skiing. After the first few turns, I decided to slide down to the bend in the couloir before taking more turns. Soon after entering the chute all my fear and anticipation left, replaced by the same type of concentration I have descending a double black at a resort. There was no question of not making it or avalanche, just concentration to make the best moves for the descent. The lower portion of the couloir is much wider which I found more comforting for turns given the unstable snow conditions. When I got out of the couloir I told myself what I did wasn't "skiing" but more like amateurish sliding on sticks - certainly nowhere near the level I ski at resorts. Still, I was happy with the experience, chalking this up to be more educational than fun. Then I skied the easy slopes down to Lake Winnemucca amazed that I had the entire basin to myself with not another person in sight. This solitude was common for my solo hiking and scrambling adventures but unheard for resort skiing. And it was this, this sense of aloneness in a pure white snow covered landscape on skis, that I found the reason for backcountry skiing, in two words: solitude and freedom. If I could free-solo 5.9 rock I would probably feel the same thing climbing, but since I can't, this is the way for me to find the same sort of freedom within my skills.
I stopped for a moment at Lake Winnemucca to change out of my ski gear for the hike out. The hike out to Carson Pass is always interesting when there is snow because it's so easy to lose your way. I ended up following a completely different way out this time. On the way out I started to get a headache from my bronchitis I thought to myself. I stopped a few times to take deep breaths but always pressed forward. It was a little frustrating not knowing where to go but I just headed towards the direction of Red Lake Peak's summit. I passed a small lake north of Elephant's Back that I did not pass before and noticed that if you aim for the Red Lake Peak summit you'd come out too far east of Carson Pass so I traversed over through the woods before finding the trail again. My car was the only one at the trailhead when I made it back. I put my gear away, happy for another successful adventure, and headed home. Will I do this again - you bet!
2) Gear Discussion
As with any new activity, there are always considerations as to what gear to bring, if any. This is a short discussion on the gear I brought for my first trip. I had some of the gear for climbing, some for skiing, and some gear that I was using for the very first time.