Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ski Tour Gone Wrong

Just one more ridge – that is what I was thinking a few weeks back while out on a tour. One more ridge and we would be in the clear.

The one particular thing that stuck with me after completing an Avalanche Level One Course was when the instructor said that just taking the class did not guarantee safety. He told the class that there would most likely be students that were either caught in an avalanche or lost in avalanche terrain because they assumed that the class would keep them safe and make them cocky.

I wasn’t exactly worried about an avalanche - we were safely traveling and the danger that day was low. No – what I was more worried about was getting lost, running out of day light or both of the above.

I digress – back to the story. I got into ski touring just this winter after many years of convincing myself that touring would cause too much anxiety. In my case I have a fairly stressful job as Catering Manager and Wedding Coordinator at The Canyons Ski Resort and figured that the backcountry would just cause me too much strain, while the resort was mindless and worry-free.
What happened this year? I don’t know exactly – I think it just might have been an accident. I think that many women get into backcountry skiing because their significant other would love them to do so. Another percentage of women try out skiing in the backcountry because they enjoy the wildness of the landscape and the peacefulness. Although I’m more the second type instead of the first, when Brendan took up the sport that was the push that my competitive side needed to try out the equipment.

A peculiar thing happened when I tried out my skins for the first time. I completely fell in love with the sport to the point that it was on my mind constantly. I have to admit though – I can’t quite be sure exactly what I liked the best.
Perhaps it was the enjoyment of being out in the wilderness without having to dive through swarms of intermediate skiers accidentally falling directly in your path. On the other hand the beauty of the trees, sky and pure white snow (what I like to call John Denver Syndrome) definitely had an appeal to me. The other option would have been that in a perverse way, I enjoy the pain involved with the uphill workout.

Toll Canyon
In the movies, skinning seems effortless and backcountry skiers make the sport look simple. However, the reality is that the sport of backcountry skiing is much more complicated than resort skiing or snowboarding. The equipment can make you feel like a beginner again – working with skins – a base layer that allows the alpine skier to walk up hill without sliding backwards. Then you have the beacon, shovel, probe, compass and inclinometer to adjust to when you leave the comforts of the resort.

I can vividly recall my first day of skinning up a slope to the ridge top. Looking back it was just a gentle climb without much technical aspects involved, but after working muscles I am not quite sure I have ever used before, I could barely walk when all was said and done.

It was a relief that much like any other sport – the more you skin – the better the shape you are in to go out on longer tours with more technical climbs. I might say there is danger in this though, because the more proficient you become the easier it is for the skier to go farther and make more difficult judgment calls on terrain.

But again, back to the story - the original idea of the tour on the aforementioned Sunday was that we were going to skin from my work at The Canyons to Old Town Park City, where Brendan would be able to boast that he toured right home to his door step. In itself, this might not have been impossible, however, it was the day before the tour that we began to get overconfident and think that we might as well tour from my doorstep to Brendan’s.


Out The Back Door
I live about a 10-mile drive from downtown Park City in Pinebrook. After parking at my condo, we prepared for the trip and then, once our skis were ready – out the front door we went – straight up behind the complex with our eyes on a small ridge line ahead.

The trip seemed easy – we would just skin up Pinebrook – shoot over to The Canyons where we both have season passes – ride the lifts to the southern out-of-boundary gate and head across the adjoining peaks toward town.

As we started off though, it soon became clear that we had underestimated the Pinebrook area itself. A Deer Valley to Pinebrook mountain-bike ride takes approximately 3-4 hours. However, on a mountain bike you are flying along pieces of the trail at up to 20 mph. Climbing uphill with skins, the average speed is somewhere between 2-5 mph (I am not on the faster end of this spectrum). Do the math and statistically we were doomed before we started blazing trail through suburbia.

In some of the more open sections of the first ridge, we got up to a good speed. Just when we’d have a clear view of what we assumed was the summit we would happen upon a grove of pesky Shrub Oak Trees where it was necessary to punch, claw and tear your way through the patch without getting tangled in the web.

In other areas we would come to an end of a ridge near a huge house and decided to wing it – slipping down into the driveway and skinning up the road toward the next ridgeline in site. On one such occasion I confidently swung down behind the end of a ridge – finally getting into a groove when I heard Brendan yell “Stop.”

Unfortunately I didn’t realize until after I had done two hop-turns down the slope that a bull moose was lounging directly in the path that I was planning to take. I obviously couldn’t go that direction and the only other way to go was back up where I came from. I believe that was the point where I was beginning to feel exasperated – I couldn’t go down and the only way I saw left as an alternative off of the ridge was to fling my skis off of a man made mini-cliff and crawl down through the dirt to the street below. I have no problem with natural cliffs – whether jumping them or clawing your way down them it’s all-good. However, man-made cliffs that drop out onto gravel are not so much my cup of tee.

More than one driver did a double take as they saw us skiing up the snow-covered streets as though we couldn’t find the trail – which was true. The irony is in fact that during the winter the so-called “trail” doesn’t exactly exist.

After three or four more ridges that wrapped in what felt like a circle around Pine brook, we stumbled upon the Mid-Mountain Trail. In its full length, Mid Mountain is approximately 25 miles long and spans from Deer Valley to Pinebrook. As we hopped on to Mid-Mountain, I felt a burst of energy and leapt into the lead. At last we had made our way out of the Tour-De-Real-Estate that we’d been on. However, this newfound energy didn’t last long and within minutes I was stopping often, as if I was waiting for Brendan to volunteer to go first.

The most bizarre pattern I noticed was that once behind I was keeping to a much faster pace. It was almost as if left to the role of a leader – I would relax and lack the motivation to continue at a fast clip. However, as the last in line, my adrenaline kicked in and I would compete to stay at the higher speed.

At one point or another I noted Brendan had diverted off of the Mid-Mountain Trail, and was breaking trail in the direction of the ridge top. I didn’t disagree with this decision, and was content to get to the top of the ridge as easily and safely as possible. Especially because halfway up the slope, Brendan commented that we might stop for lunch atop the ridge. By this time we had been at it for at least three hours and I was fading partly to hunger.

At the summit, I noticed that Brendan had begun to prepare lunch, and was in the process of opening a small bottle of wine. I collapsed in the snow at his feet, and devoured Salami, Cheese and Apple as if we were stranded and hadn’t eaten in days. All of the circles we did trying to climb our way out of million-dollar mansions had taken its toll out of me. Ironically it was about to get much harder. After lunch, I was banging my ski pole on the bottom of my ski boot to rid it of a clump of snow. On the third thump, the aluminum of the pole cracked under pressure and the pole split into two sections.

I had almost put Duct Tape in my pack that morning, but for some reason, I had left out the tape for a Band-Aid package and athletic tape. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a cut or a scrape –the problem was a bit larger than that. Regardless – what are you going to do when you are miles into the backcountry and snap a pole in half?’

My solution was to grab the quarter-inch athletic tape and pretend that I didn’t leave the duct tape behind (seeing that this would not be the last pole to break on me this season – in Brendan’s case he just carries an extra pole now just in case). A couple of sticks later an almost perfect splint was formed. It was a bit like pole surgery, and in the end my pole looked like it had a broken leg.


From the skeptical look Brendan cast my way I could tell he didn’t think much of my remedy for the situation but I was bound and determined to get back to the car with that pole intact. Hesitantly I touched it to the ground – bracing on the opposite one.
About two ridgelines after the surgery, we stared at The Canyons in the distance. From our perch the resort seemed worlds away – particularly since the sun was only an hour or so from setting.

Option one would have been to head up the ridge to our right and hope we got to the top before sunset. Option two would have been to skirt the mountain to the left and hope there wouldn’t be another couple of canyons behind it. Option three was to throw in the towel – realize that we would not make it to The Canyons and head straight down the Canyon to our left – which appeared to dump out at Kimball Junction.

Without a map, option three won out, and after several nice powder turns we were headed into a thick forest of Evergreen Trees. Without Aspens, we really couldn’t see anymore where this path was taking us. Instead we were back to the beginning, now running circles around trees instead of houses. At one point it was clear that we would be crossing a creek – Brendan sped across and I shut my eyes – hoping that I wouldn’t collapse into the swirling ice water I imagined was just below the three-foot snow bridge.

Further down the canyon the trees began to thin, and by complete accident we popped onto some sort of summer service road. I still had absolutely no idea where we were and I suppose it showed because at one point Brendan punched my arm lightly and said, “You’re worrying again, aren’t you?”

I replied that yes I was concerned we would not make it out before dark. In my mind we would still have had a long way to go once we left the canyon because there is a huge field just before State Road 224 from Kimball Junction to Park City. His response was that worrying wouldn’t change anything and I might as well enjoy the scenery around me.
I did try and no sooner than I was enjoying the trees they were gone and we were in the middle of a field of beaver ponds with some sort of summer home to our right. I looked ahead only to see the Kimball Junction Outlet Mall just within sight.

There was no longer any reason to worry about being stuck in the dark. Instead we would have to explain to our pals how a 5-hour tour ended us at the Tanger` Outlets – just a couple miles down from my condo. A quick call to a friend led to a 10-minute ride to dinner & drinks after the story of how it came to be that we were sitting in front of a department store instead of the deck of Brendan’s house.

Note to self – next time we try to ski from house to house – avoid hours of needless wandering through the yards of millionaire’s. Our second tip to ourselves would have been to double check a map or Google Earth when not quite sure where you are going, as ironically on our farthest point we were probably just 45 minutes or less from The Canyons.

Ah well – at least there was an adventure involved which lead us safely to good friends and a nice bottle of wine. Maybe the tour didn’t go so wrong after all!

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