Dan enjoying late season ice on a northern aspect above Cascade Lakes
Surf's up for the Mountaineer's Eleventh Annual Backcountry Skifest
In the Adirondacks in winter, there is pretty much always ice- or some form of 'mixed' or 'winter' climbing objectives- to keep climbers entertained. One of the things that makes ice climbing special is that it is ephemeral and dynamic, with conditions forming and changing every day through the season, before slowly disappearing altogether in spring. As ice climbing gains more enthusiasts, many progressing from rock or gym climbing with a focus more on a specific objective, rather than the experience - there is a lesson in this: just by 'having done' an ice climb (or a ski descent), doesn't necessarily mean that one has mastered the wealth of experience to be gained on it. Fresh tracks on ice up a steep, brittle pillar in January is nothing like hooking up a mid-season pegged out column, or a late season plastic ice flow, no matter what the grade in the guide book or richardpumpington posted on NEice.com about his last weekend's conquests.
When coming up with a plan for the day, conditions should be a more important determinant than the objective. A few years ago I read a good story that Majka Burhardt had written about climbers in the Mt. Washington Valley. After getting the slap down on a local testpiece, humble hardman and guide Bayard Russell had patiently explained to her: 'You don't do that route when YOU are in condition, you do it when IT is in condition.' How's that for pragmatic Yankee wisdom?
When our newer guests book a day of climbing or skiing well in advance, they often ask which routes or tours will we do that day. I always reply that we'll make the decision that morning, based on whatever we decide is the best objective for us, in the conditions that day. It's about the experience, not the objective. 'You can't surf if there's not waves,' I often say.
Having spent a lot of time bobbing around in the waves (or waiting for them) as a teenager, this lesson seemed obvious to me. I don't spend much time at the beach these days, but I spend a lot of time on and in frozen water- whether ice or snow- and the lesson has stuck with me. While the Adirondacks are a reliable climbing venue and have a long history of skiing- from the early origins of the sport to hosting two Winter Olympics, and include some of the most expansive mountain wilderness in the East, the backcountry skiing is a lot more fickle than the ice climbing. When the surf is up, you better get on it, because it may not be there tomorrow. In mountain terms, the mantra is simple: climb when it's icy, ski when it's snowy.
Jake on the Kilburn Slide mixing in some skiing with his climbing...or is that climbing with his skiing?
Sometimes it's ski mountaineering, sometimes it's mountaineer skiing.
Since we climb ice and ski with equal passion, managing our own (and our guests') focus and energy between the two can present a dilemma. Over time, we have learned that the best way is to prioritize ice and winter climbing for the first half of winter, and then prioritize skiing for the later half of season and on into spring in the higher alpine. So while plenty of fat ice remains on higher northern aspects in the Adirondacks, ever since the Mountaineer's 11th Annual Backcountry Skifest, we've been pretty busy skiing.
A descent from the summit down the classically eastern-style Wright Peak Ski Trail is a Skifest tradition
While I played out the ice game in early March, Emilie worked with Sarah Carpenter (AMGA Ski Mountaineering Guide and co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute in the Tetons) to provide a three-day Level One Avalanche Education course here in the Adirondacks. Given our region's unique 'slide' terrain and a history of rare but consequential avalanche incidents, we all feel a responsibility to provide professional education and a knowledgeable perspective for the growing number of backcountry enthusiasts in the Adirondacks. The High Peaks present some unique challenges for avalanche education, with lengthy approaches to real avalanche terrain and an 'in your face' transition to exposure on the steeper slides. While the snowpack is definitely arctic maritime- with snow, rain and freeze events possible at any time, it is also relatively shallow and exposed to very cold temperatures which can create unstable layers of faceted grains and ice crusts over the steep bedrock. So there's often something interesting to observe in the snowpack. This inaugural course was a good start on what could become an annual offering with AAI, geared specifically toward backcountry skiers with the prerequisite experience to handle long days and lengthy approaches. With a good foundation, graduates can progress with confidence into one of AAI's Level II courses that are offered seasonally on more complex avalanche terrain in the Tetons and Wasatch.
Looking at snow crystals and practicing strategic shoveling at Chapel Pond
Practicing self-rescue skills below Bennie's Brook
Sarah found the Adirondack approaches up icy streambeds to be quite entertaining.
Emilie spent the end of March teaching an intensive week-long mid-level course in Backcountry Ski Process for nearby Plattsburgh State University's Expeditionary Studies program. In addition to having the 6 million acre Adirondack Park in their backyard, this program is distinguished by an academic and intellectual approach to expedition and outdoor studies, and produces graduates that have both technical skills and intellectual skills that they can apply to whatever they choose to do for the rest of their personal lives or professional careers.
When split-boarders go cross-country touring...
Yep- he's getting academic credit for figuring out where, when and how to do that well.
For the last two summers we have developed a good relationship with Exum Mountain Guides in the Tetons, guiding private guests on alpine objectives and instructing/guiding Exum rock schools and Teton summit climbs, a rich tradition that has empowered Americans to successfully climb one of our country's most iconic peaks (The Grand Teton) for well over 60 years. In later March, two of our regular guests in the Adirondacks, both avid skiers from Saratoga Springs, joined me (with Exum) in the Tetons for a few days of backcountry skiing in Grand Teton National Park. Matt and Dave rolled in right on the heels of a very consolidating thaw, followed by several days of snowfall that adhered nicely to the melt-freeze crust. Aside from some isolated instabilities resulting from subtle density changes during the snowfall, this resulted in a half-meter plus of 'the best skiing since December' according to Exum co-owner and AMGA / IFMGA guide Nat Patridge. While were we knee-deep in stable freshies at lower elevations, Exum's top guides were busy guiding guests and professional athletes on the first two guided descents (ever) of the Grand Teton's super-exposed Otterbody Snowfield on the East Face.
Matt practicing optimal body position for bottomless pow
Dave's definitely not thinking about filing those TPS reports by Monday.
Everybody gets some
Milking the last turns of a 3000' run. As you can see from all the tracks, a lot of people made the most of their Saturday!
The view of the Grand Teton helps the slog out
After two days in deep backcountry pow, Matt and Dave also felt the lure of Teton Village Resort's (aka 'Jackson Hole' ski area) expansive lift-service and gate-accessed backcountry. The American Avalanche Institute also teaches many of their avalanche courses just down the road on the easily accessed terrain at Teton Pass. It is exactly this diversity and depth of ski experience available in the Tetons that makes it one of our country's premier backcountry and ski mountaineering venues.
Sean took his Adk game to the Tetons a few years ago...and stayed.
Exum guide Gary Falk skiing above the cliff rappel on Chuter Buck
Below the Chuter Buck rappel. Note where our sluffs collected at a pitch change, and then slid (below us) on the noted density change when ski cut.
Dave is back at his desk now, but he'll never forget what this felt like. At least until next winter when we do it again...
While I wrap up my time in the Tetons on a few personal forays with fellow mountain guides, Emilie has headed south to Connecticut to kick off the rock season by co-instructing an AMGA Single-Pitch Instructor course with our friend Matt Shove at Ragged Mountain Guides. There is plenty of skiing (and ice, mixed and alpine-style) climbing still available up high in the Adirondacks for a few weeks still, but down in the valleys, rock season is just around the corner. And if you can climb rock in the Adirondacks, you can climb the Grand Teton too!