Friday, April 29, 2011

The winter of 2010/2011 was pretty darn epic.

Over the past few years, our expectation of snow for Thanksgiving slowly waned as our hope for snow by Christmas grew.  This year, it felt like we were back in the good old days, as a small storm dropped about a foot of snow in early November.  That was followed by several feet of snow the weekend before Thanksgiving, setting things up for a great holiday stretch.  Kirkwood opened up to the top on Wednesday, and had the entire front side operating by Friday.  I was lucky enough, along with a few friends, to be the first of the season into Eagle Bowl and off Baby Kodak.  The next day, it was dumping again, and another great season of skiing was in full swing.

The snow began to fall in ernest come December, with record amounts up and down the Seirra.  What was making these early season storms truly special was that this snow was blower.  Usually, we begin the season with Sierra Cement; the wet, heavy snow that sticks to everything.  While cement makes a great base builder, it is not kind to knees, and not as much fun to ski in.  This year, we had to wait for a lot of lines to fill in, but the light, dry snow was a blast.  Just before the Christmas holidays, the sun finally broke, and I was able to get out with some friends and tour a bit in an area nearby that we dubbed Spurkwood.

Early season doubles are always a blast.  Click here for more photos from December.
We headed east for the holidays, as we normally do, and California was hit with a week of storms, and several more feet of snow.  The New Year rung in with another winter storms, and we found ourselves back up in the mountains with friends.  While Suzanne was taking the year off from skiing to make a baby, that did not mean she could not get out in the snow to play.  She was surprised to learn that things are a bit quieter in the forest.  While a full on winter storm was raging out in the open, in the trees they seemed magical.  So we walked around a bit.

Where's Waldo?
January was a dry month.  The snow stopped falling and the sun came out within a few days of the start of the new year.  Still, with the combination of low sun angle and cold temperatures for the first week, the snow stayed in stellar shape.  What really made the month for me, was the discovery of the Gulch of Doom.  We were hiking around an area that we knew fairly well.  Or so we thought.  On our way to the peak and a coveted pillow line, we came across this ravine that is very well hidden from view, and had evaded our attention for years.  What a nice surprise.  We noted its existence and continues on our way.

The Gulch of Doom
After hitting our planned line, and finding less than stellar snow, we decided that we needed to get back to the ravine.  We then climbed back to the top, and started down in the direction from which we came. We then spent the next few hours jumping and hiking all along a small section of the Gulch.  We left knowing that we would be back to this zone before the season came to a close.  And we shared its location with only a few friends.  It was fun to know about this hidden gem.

Going for it on the tree drop.  More pics & Trip Report here.

The next day still offered up some fabulous snow as we played around back at Spurkwood.  The snow was still light and blower like, even in the sun.  One of my favorite things about January is the snow preservation.  Usually, we still have a thin pack, but this year we had over five feet of settled snow.  

Blower?  Yup.
While the sun stayed out, and the snow stopped falling, the air remained cold for another week.  While complaints began to run around the Tahoe area about the lack of snow in the forecast, if you knew where to look, then you could still find some good snow.  You did not even need to travel far out into the back country.  

Just a few feet outside the resort at Kirkwood.  No need to ski the bumps when you this.

This all changed though, as a system moved through and changed the surface condition.  A little warmth and a little rain was all it took to convince me it was time to hang out in Santa Cruz for a while and focus on something different.  While the skiing went from mid-winter fluff to firm and frozen, the weather and surf on the coast just went off.  Five weeks of 60-70 degree highs and surf that never dropped below head high was all that it took to persuade me to stay at home.  While there was still some good skiing in the hills, the surfing was just epic.

Steamer Lane on what many considered an 'okay' day in the midst of a run of epic days.

Toward the end of the month, a reasonable size storm began to approach the coast.  It was not quite the end to the January thaw, as it looked like it was the only storm that we would get for at least another few weeks.  Although I had missed the resort powder days, I decided to make a trip up to the mountains and do a little touring with some friends.  We met up at Carson Pass to ski a zone that most just skin right past.  The winds were scouring the higher elevations and ridge tops, so this protected north facing slopes above Red Lake would be the perfect venue for the day.  The snow was surprisingly deep considering that just under the new stuff was a rain and sun hardened crust.  We spent the day playing what ended up feeling like a round of mini golf.  Each lap included several short steep zones, with plenty of options for jumping.  It was a pretty spectacular day.

Off the top in the Mini Golf zone.  More pics and Trip Report here.
Another few weeks of dry warm weather returned me to the surf.  Around mid month, things started to change, and the six weeks of mostly clear days changed to six weeks of some of the heaviest storms imaginable.  A few more feet of snow started us off nicely, returning the mountains to nice mid winter conditions.  We had no idea what we were in store for, so we went out to make the most of it.  Several storms moved in while I was on a Baby Moon down in Big Sur.  It was cold enough for snow to cap the tops of the San Luicias and the mountains around Monterey Bay.  It was pretty epic.  By the time I made it up to the mountains, Spurkwood was the place to be.  We spent a day tooling around, and jumping off of things there.  The following day was a long one that started before 7AM at the trail head near Carson Pass.  I then spent a few hours skiing and having lunch with Ollie and Tracy, before heading back out to re-visit the Gulch of Doom.  It was a good day.

Coming off of one of my favorite hits in the Spurkwood area.  More pics and Trip Report here.
The next day, a full on snowicane hit the Sierra.  The roads into and out of the Kirkood Valley closed.  The lifts never turned.  It snowed several inches and hour, all day long.  In the late morning, a bunch of us waited for over an hour to take a trip up in a snow cat.  I think the ride up was more exciting than the ride down, as the low angle slope and deep snow made for some work getting back to the car.  And it was cold.  For us adults it was just a bit of misery.  For the kids, it was bitter.  But it was still a fun experience.  

Staircase to Heaven.  The walk up to the house was started to become work by late February.

I had been planning to head home that day, but the road closure kept me cozied up in the cabin.  Overnight the brutal storm broke, and in the morning we awoke to clear blue skies.  By the time I dug out the car, and the roads opened, I had already missed my lunch date, so I decided I had time for s few runs.  First, I skied with Ollie.  He wanted to hit the Ditch of Doom, but I knew it would be too deep.  Instead we skied the gully under chair 6.  He loved it.  Next, I met up with two friends and made my way out to the Palisades.  It was one of those days you dream about.  The bottomless snow would create contrails as you cut through it.  

Shawn finding some air off the last remaining rock in Palisades.

Finally, I met up with Tracy.  She was on my wife's powder skis, giving them a try for the day. She had been skeptical of all the new fancy designs, but decided to give them a go.  We hiked out past the Palisade, and all the way to the boundary lines.  While there were a few tracks already placed out there, it was still pretty uncut.  The skiing was as good as it gets.  Not too bad of a way to spend a few hours in the morning before hitting the road and going home.

Tracy figures out what she wants for next Christmas.
And then it was March.  And it was time to get the boys up to the mountains.  Brian had just returned from New Zealand, and Eddie was chomping at the bit to get some turns in.  Another small storm pushed through dropping another fresh foot or so of snow.  While it was not quite as light as the last few storms, it was still pretty darn good.  

Eddie thinking - this sure looks like blower to me.

Eddie and I arrived on the powder day and made the most of what was available inbounds.  He was able to get into Once is Enough, which is a nice fun line off the top of the hill.  It is a straight line that drops you nearly 100 vertical feet, quickly, before opening up allowing space to turn.  If you like speed, this one is fun.

Eddie about to drop into Once is Enough
It was a good day.  Being mid week, and a smaller storm after a series of epic storms, the mountain was pretty empty.  We were finding fresh snow all day long.  Not bad for a guy who only gets up a handful of times a season.  Eddie nailed it.

Eddie laying some turns as he enters into Thunder Saddle.
Brian showed up on day two.  One of the great things about cold clear nights is that the snow surface will radiate, drawing moisture out of the snow.  While the hill had been pretty well skied up the day before, the snow was even lighter and fluffier on day two.  With the help of a little wind transport, we were able to find plenty of patches of good snow.

Brian gets his near Boylermaker.  Left overs can be plenty of fun.
While there was still plenty of good snow to be had inbounds, we started to hike around the boundaries after lunch to get into stuff a little more interesting.  Off into Emigrant basin we hiked, and headed for the Diagonal.  This chute drops steeply between two high rock walls for over 300 vertical feet.  It a taste for what big mountain couliors feel like.  Brian likes.

Dropping in to the steep and deep.  Diagonal Chute, Emigrant Basin.
As March rolled on, the storms kept on coming in.  Most weeks would see one or two days of sun at the most.  In fact, most days were partly sunny at best, keeping the snow surface in great condition.  More days were spent skiing in the resort and well traveled side country, as the back country never really had time to settle well.  

Martin's Point and the Spur on one of few sunny days in March.
In the end, we would receive about 200 inches of snow in the month, and see our season totals push up over 700 inches.  Things got buried.  Cliffs bands would disappear.  Houses would disappear.  Snow banks grew, and some chairlifts would remain closed for days at a time.  For those who live up in the region, it was a tough month.  Even if you love snow, it sure becomes a lot of work keeping the front door clear.

Snow pack approaching twenty feet and trying to bury a three story high peak.
On the positive side, the skiing was truly epic, as most of the storms came in light and dry, with a few wet ones to make sure the snow stuck to the steeper faces.  Another good storm came through just after mid month dropping several feet of good light snow.  It was beginning to feel a little crazy.

Court decides to hit this little cliff band in lower Saddle.  More pics and words here.

The next day, the sky cleared for one epic bluebird powder day.  The snow was counted in feet.  The water content was near perfect.  The entire resort was able to open, and plenty of folks were out to have a grand ole time.  Nothing at all to complain about.  

Mike finding some fun powder turns deep in Palisades Bowl.
One of the great things about skiing at a resort like Kirkwood is that there are some folks who just like to go big.  Soon after a solid run down through Palisades Bowl, we bumped into a group of friends and decided it was a good morning to go take a look at Once is Enough.  When we got to the top of the line, I noticed a skier marking his take off point and hiking back up hill.  Realizing he was going to hit the lip with some speed, I quickly pulled out my camera.  Given a few more seconds, I could have climbed some rocks to get in a better position.  But it did not matter, as Baby J delivered a sweet shot.

Baby J going huge into Once, making it a good 50 footer.  More pics here.
And then things got to be a little crazy.  Remember, it had been snowing for a month up above about 3500 feet.  Down below, it had been mostly rain.  The ground was saturated.  Then, near the end of the month, we had one last solid rain storm.  During the peak of that system, a wave came through on a Thursday, and it was torrential.  Here in Santa Cruz, the streets began to fill up with water.  It only lasted for a few hours, but it was one crazy day of rain.

Wet and wild in the streets of Santa Cruz.  Home owner trying to sweep a drain clear.
So, obviously, it was time to head up for a few more days of powder skiing.  The resort was in okay condition the following Monday, but the side country was about as good as it gets.  No one had yet ventured out into Emigrant Basin, so that was obviously the place to go.  
Court drops his landing gear as he enters into Main.
We spent a few days with a good crew going out and getting what turned out to be some pretty spectacular snow for late March.  The snow was spongy, which made for some great turns and even better landings.  It was also stable, so we could hit some of the steeper lines that we had been eyeing for the last month.  And the sky was crystal clear.  Spring felt like it had arrived.

And brings her into the gates at full speed.
 On the return from Emigrant Basin, you need to traverse above an area called the Temple (or depending to who you speak to Castle) of Doom.  It is a series of steep and gnarly cliff bands.  Usually, the easiest entrance in will include a five foot drop, to a steep landing, with some sort of crevasse to hop or tree to avoid.  By this point in this season, most of the zone had turned into a mellow, steep roll over.
With Temple so full of snow, it takes a little creativity to make it fun.  Slicing a spine works.
 We did a few laps out in Emigrant Basin, heading further out each time.  We decided it was a good day to spend a little time hiking to get out to some lines that we usually just look at across the valley.  I had been wanting to ski the headwall for a few years, and Chris saw a huge cornice he wanted to tame.  Court mostly wanted to play with his new camera.
Chris finding some rocks to air off of, deep in Radio Tower.
The next morning, we decided to stay a little closer to the front side and hiked up through Spurkwood.  The skin up is on the sunny side of the hill, and it sure felt like late March.  By 8AM, the sun was hot and melting snow off of the trees.  We did one lap, and then decided we should head higher up.  So we took a ride up the chair and hiked from there.  Thunder Bowl was our destination.  This is one of my favorite zones near the resort, as it is surely steep and has a big pucker factor.  While there is a fairly easy way in, often called Broadway, every line from the ridge rolls over nice and steep.  And if you like exposure and no fall zones, it has those too.

Court rips a few turns as he descends Thunder Bowl.
 Well, for me, the season was quickly coming to an end.  We have a baby due tomorrow, so it was getting time for me to stick at home and take care of things around the house.  But, you see, we had this one more good storm, and well, I'm an addict.  It was a nice cold one again, but the sub surface had thawed and refrozen.  It was a fun day, with a bunch of friends, but it really was dust on crust.  It may have been a foot of dust, but it would often blow away as you came in for a landing.  It made for some interesting times.  When I finally decided to just make some turns in a wind loaded area, I found some of my best turns of the season.  It was a good day to end on.

Shawn demonstrates how to huck one's meat properly.  More pics and words here.
Like all good things, the season has come to a close (for me).  There is still a deep snow pack up there.  The lifts are still turning at several resorts.  The big back country lines of Shasta, Tioga and the Eastside are all coming into play.  It is going to be a great spring, so go out and get some.