Tuesday, January 29, 2008

High Speed Quads? We got those.

Well, after a disappointing early-season effort at Wolf Creek back in December akin to a junior-prom date gone bad, the AAS put together a stellar comeback performance at none other than the steepest patrolled ski area in the lower 48, Silverton Mountain over its first weekend of the season offering guided trips. Together we made up fully ten percent of the total number of guests on the mountain last Saturday.

The weekend started for Paul, Dan, Matt, Eric, Jeff, and Kirk on Friday with a warm-up at Wolf Creek and a few turns down Horseshoe Bowl in practically untouched 10-day old powder. Yours Truly had a day shift at the salt mine, but when the whistle blew it was balls to the wall with my buddy Sean for the six-hour drive to Silverton and the first night at the "rustic" Triangle Motel. Some quick introductions for Sean, and everybody hit the rack in anticipation of the unknown that awaited us the next day. Dreams of sparkling pow, alluring snow nymphs, and miles upon miles of fresh turns danced in our heads, with the occasional oh-my-God-I'm-falling-into-the-abyss nightmare lurking in the shadows.

Saturday dawned early as SherPaul bounced from his evening's rest and set to work cooking madly, a veritable one-man beehive of activity. The other members awoke with varying degrees of sluggishness, bum-scratching, and flatulence, milling about collecting gear, eating hastily-assembled breakfast burritos, and dressing for the day. Our pace picked up as departure time neared...we had guaranteed reservations, but the rest of the Triangle Motel apparently was on a mission to get to the mountain and on the waitlist for any remaining at-large slots. There was shouting, boot stomping, doors opening and closing, and engines lugubriously cranking in the negative-20 degree air.

Soon enough we were on our way, one car at a time. A few minutes out of town up a county road brought us to the only chair, an antique obtained from Mammoth Mountain in California. Next to it was a large canvas tent...the combination check-in counter, rental counter, swag shop, and apres-ski bar. A few customary waivers that no one read, and an announcement was made to assemble in groups of eight at the entrance to the lift line.

We drew Jeremy, a wiry, bewhiskered young fellow as our guide. He quickly assessed our competence, made us prove our mandatory avalanche beacons worked, and gave us a quick run-down of all the ways we could die at Silverton Mountain. Undeterred, we paired up and waited our turn in the longest lift line this mountain would see that day. A few short minutes later and we were hoisted above the deep valley shadows into the sun at the top of a saddle overlooking the quintessential San Juan winter view...another deep, sharp valley hemmed by a sheer-walled cirque to our right and twisting out of view to our left beneath jagged peaks softened by well over seven feet of smooth powder, interrupted only by small blast craters and the occasional avalanche track. Thunder rippled off the peaks and couloirs across the valley as more controlled detonations from ski patrol worked to break up dangerous snow conditions out of sight.

All together, we headed off on a short hike up a rise on the left shoulder of the saddle to a nice bowl above a long, wide chute, over 2,100 feet of vertical drop at a fairly constant 38 degree slope. Some more instructions from Jeremy, and we were off one at a time.
A few wind-blown tracks on top, but otherwise soft turns through week-old consolidated powder...not "champagne" powder, but good nonetheless -- anything fluffier would have probably required SCUBA gear and a personal airbag to live through. About twenty more turns through a chute at the bottom and we were down. A quick hike to a catwalk a coast down to the road, and we boarded the "Powder Coyote" -- a hoopty bread van -- for the ride back to the Promised Land to work for more turns.

The second run took us just to skier's left of the saddle into the same backside valley, this time with the hopes of poaching a little powder stash next to a slide slope just before the runout. Seven of the eight made it there...Sean decided to imitate the Silverton logo and slide headfirst past the point of no return, earning him a long wait at the bottom of a chowdery chute as the seven AAS members made turns in knee-deep powder on a 40-degree slope for the remaining 400 feet of the 1,700-foot run. Back to the Powder Coyote. Matt, unfortunately, was utterly blown from working hard for his turns and decided to sit out a run at the bottom.

Nearing lunch time, we decided to hike to the top of our next run, then break for lunch. This hike took us from the top of the lift line on our high-speed quadriceps up about 500 feet to a small flat spot where we enjoyed a calm, comfortable lunch perched high above the valley at about 12,600 feet.

We suited back up and made one small push around a pinnacle, and there it was...the most amazing 10-foot thick cornice hanging over a mandatory 20-foot drop into a chute of the most dizzying steepness...above the most tantalizing expanse of untouched snow. Good thing there was a cut into the cornice a little farther down. The drawback? Jeremy informed us, "under no circumstances should you go straight in. You need to make two quick turns, and it's all gravy. Totally reasonable."

Yes, totally reasonable. Paul, practically bouncing up and down in anticipation, was straining to be the first one in. I was resigned to give it a shot...the first turn would have been heel-side for me, sort of blind, but I figured I could whip it around and plow a bit in the hard snow at the top if I needed to before turn number two beneath the behemoth looming over the edge above, then I would be home-free.

Just a moment's hesitation from Dan...then a squeak from Kirk, and it was all over. Jeremy herded us back down to the lunch spot for a more sensible entry. The disappointment was practically dripping from Paul, slightly less so from me, but we were good sports about it and ended up with a quite splended set of turns in the best snow that day. Unfortunately, an injury in another party nearby requiring Jeremy's assistance meant we weren't getting another shot at the chute...but we would get one more run.

The final run of the day, and Jeremy turned us loose on the front side at the top of another beautiful chute. The snow was a little harder once we dropped in, but it was fun anyway, carving up and down the steep sides of the pipe. The fatigue was evident in everyone but our guide, of course...even for Matt who had been checking his watch for the better part of two hours since we left him at the bottom of the lift. A quick ride in the Coyote and we were back at our cars, dumped our gear, and clomped up the steps cut into the snow for some brewskis and camraderie in the tent. A couple beers turned into several, the party moved to the snowy, wild-west streets of Silverton, and a few blurry hours later the AAS was snoring away drunkenly in our well-appointed accomodations at the Bent Elbow Inn, with local beta on some backcountry routes on top of Red Mountain Pass churning away in our brains.

After a leisurely, slightly hung-over but delicious breakfast accompanied by disgusting coffee and flat, watery OJ, Dan, Paul, Kirk, Sean, and I were the only remaining hard-chargers determined to get a couple powder turns in before the AAS parted for the weekend. Twisting our way to the top of the pass, we gawked at miles and miles of neck-straining terrain shooting skyward from the flat valley floors. At the top of the pass we were greeted by sparkling, pillowy lines rising at safe angles to our left, and a few minutes later we were skinning our way up. One fun, fresh run deserved another, especially after a comical biff from Paul trying to launch a small rock drop onto a steep slope. Unfortunately, the group split trying to find a better run, and neither ended up with anything worth discussing, so we called it a day., and brought to an end a superb 2008 AAS Wolf Cr...er, Silverton Summit.

We'll be back...oh, yes...we'll be back.

Let it be so recorded, this twenty-ninth day of January, in the two thousand and eighth year of the Common Era.