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All I Want For Christmas

Dustin Lemke nearing the top of the Ford Couloir, GTWell, the Tetons finally screamed loud enough that I hear them 3,000 miles away. Got a text from Dina today saying she needed a snorkel on Wimpy’s. Three day storm, lot’s of coverage, the usual Jackson goodness.

Meanwhile, I’m still freezing my ass off here in Alaska, waiting for real snowfall, getting just enough to keep me distracted, fending off the creeping depression. Maybe it’s the fading light and I’ve got SAD (seasonal affective disorder). Could be. All I keep hearing about is “LAST YEAR” like it’s never snowed here before like that. Then some lady in the gear store tells me some years you can’t ski in the Front Range. Arrrrgh!

So, I said, “screw it” today and bought a ticket for points south during Christmas week. Looking for a cold Teton powder embrace to wash away my blues.  I know where to find it. Gonna rally the Lycra crew and hope they’ll wait for my sea level ass as we charge into the hills.

I want to feel the cold of the Ice Box as I skin into the throat of Garnet Canyon, the down-valley wind forcing on layers and watering my eyes.  The Ice Box of Garnett Canyon, Middle Teton aglow in dawn lightI want to feel my pulse rise with my gaze when I search the dark granite walls and the skiable lines that split them, anticipating what’s to come. Santa will be good to me, I hope.

I’m sure this trip will cause some problems, too. My take on a lot of skiers up here is that, once they’ve been here awhile, they forget what they left behind. At some point driving and hour or more to Turnagain or Hatcher Pass for the usual fair becomes, well, just what you do. Problem is, I still remember my usual habit of driving to Bradley-Taggart trail head or Teton Pass in my ski boots and clicking into my skis within 20 minutes of shutting my front door. Here, I’ll spend four hours in my car on a good skiing weekend. I'm still adjusting to that.

But I’m trying not to judge too quickly. My enthusiastic friends love to get on the computer and show me all the tasty lines. We gaze across the valleys from the tops of climbs and they point out how all the alders will be covered and the big faces will be pure white. Nothing but 2,500 feet of TGR turns to the floor. Other parts of the range hold the technical lines I love.A sample of what lies up Eagle River 

The Alaska Factor

I’m looking forward to that and I’m not. The thing about those big faces is that there’s no place to hide. The Island of Safety is 200 meters out from the base when you get to the bottom. No wonder everyone wants air bags for Christmas. I feel like such a wuss. That’s the Alaska Factor. Doesn’t really fit with my style of skiing. I miss being able to hide out in the trees on Wimpy’s or Mavericks while conditions settle. None of that here.

I was surfing the internet last night and found a sensible little article talking about how stupid it is to carry an avy beacon but no form of life support to keep you going until your friends dig you out. Indeed, put like that, an Avalung makes sense, especially considering what I might have to deal with here. Seems like a sensible compromise between what I usually do and having a blow up doll on my back.

I hate those Avalung packs, though. I kicked around Black Diamond’s site last night and listened slack-jawed to the dude in the video telling me about all the awesome technical features of the suspension system, etc. Ummm, I’m out ski touring for the day with a few items in my pack. Why do I need a suspension system that moves independently from me? Talk about marketing bullshit. I guess if I was transporting depleted uranium (it's heavy) it might help but we’re talking a puffy and some GU here. I think my back can handle it.

Just to make my point, I checked out the various options. My go to touring pack is either the CAMP X3 Light (1lb. 12oz.) or, when I’m really cutting weight, the CAMP X3 600 stripped (1lb 1oz.). These are my weights, by the way, taken on my scale at home. CAMP X3 Light

CAMP X3 600They happen to correspond to CAMP’s stated weights, which is not always the case with other manufacturers. Add a 13 ounce Avalung snorkel to my mix and I’m touring with somewhere between 1lb 14 oz. and 2lb. 9oz.

Black Diamond’s packs of similar sizes complete with fancy suspensions and built in Avalungs range from the Alias (4lb. 2oz.), Outlaw (4lb. 4 oz.) and the Covert (4lb. 6oz. – 26L). These are “estimated” weights so I have no idea how accurate they are. They report the same weight for all packs of a given style even though they come in different sizes. I’m going to guess they’re a few ounces heavier in my world. Just to be fair, with the heavier material of the BD packs, they're going to stand more abuse than the lighter CAMP fare. Pick your poison. 

My point here is that I can enjoy the seemingly added safety of an Avalung without destroying my light and fast sensibilities. I never thought I needed it in the Tetons as I typically avoided those situations where slides were likely. Up here, daily exposure is simply greater given the lay of the land. When in Rome…. 

Storm Skiing

Jackson skiers have lots of options when it’s puking. Teton Pass and the Park both have dozens of options for great snow when conditions and visibility require altered plans. I can only remember one Christmas several years ago when the snow came so fast and furious that I hid out on Snow King for a couple of days until we dug ourselves out. It was a rare and crazy storm.

Here's a cheesy video I made last spring before I moved North.

You get the idea.

Here in AK, on the other hand, you might as well get out the Nordic skis or just stay home and drink beer when the weather is raging. I got to see the favored tree skiing this weekend just so I could know where it was. This is where some people go on storm days or when the viz blows. The Tincan trees are a series of steep drops, terrain traps and benches for 800 vertical feet. Not sure I’d drive 2 hours for that. We’ll see. But with tree line at 2,000 feet, there are few options.

Clearly, the goods that brought Doug Combs and company to this vast northern land are still under wraps waiting for more snow. This gold mine of terrain is all around. Of course, Valdez and Haines are a whole other story and well documented in ski porn. But there’s a reason every single frame from those videos is sunny and blue. There’s simply no skiing that terrain in any other condition. So I’ll wait. Seems like none of those guys came up here before March, anyway. Probably a reason for that.

In the mean time, I’m taking a much-needed sabbatical south for some huge days, deep powder and catching up with friends. If I’m lucky, the Chugach and Kenai mountains will be blanketed in the long-awaited winter storm cycle when I return. Bring it.

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Reader Comments (2)

You should add Kilian Jornet new movie (A fine line) on your Christmas list. Watched it yesterday and it is spectacular. Highly worth the 7 Euros for the download.

www.summitsofmylife,com if you want it.

December 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRichard

Oh yeah, Richard. It's on my radar. Heard it was going to be available about now. Thanks for the tip. Consider it done. I know what you're talking about. The teaser clips I've seen make my HR go up instantly.

December 19, 2012 | Registered CommenterBrian

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