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The Tahoma Traverse, June 21 & 22, 2014

Almost a year has gone by since this trip happened. I started writing this post nearly immediately after but lost motivation to write around the same time I lost motivation to ski one or two weeks later. Summer came and went. By fall the anticipation of the coming Winter distracted me again. Now in March, I find myself with time on my hands. Given the lack of snowfall at low elevations this year, I’m being more strategic about when and where I ski, the only upside of which has meant I finally have time to finish the story.

The Tahoma Glacier and the Sickle arial photo from wiki commons.

The Tahoma Glacier and the Sickle. Arial photo from Wiki Commons.

The plan:

Sometime in early late May, the idea to do something significant, wound its way into an email chain between my boyfriend Nick, myself, and our friend Doug. Ideas bounced back and forth. I knew I wanted to ski off the summit of Rainier, preferably via a different route from what is most typically done, but was open to ideas.

Doug had this one idea he called the “Tahoma Traverse”, something I had never heard of. Probably because the only thing I could find online was this post about Lowell Skoog’s 2003 trip, which sounds like it was one of the first. The basic gist of the adventure would be ascending the DC route (one of the most popular climbs on the mountain, but often a horrible ski) and descending the west side of the mountain via the Tahoma Glacier, and more specifically skiing a feature called the “Sickle”, a smooth narrow ramp of snow amidst a jumble of icefall and crevasses.

After lots of research and praying to the weather gods, we found ourselves a week away from our intended departure date with a perfect weather window and lots of motivation.

We knew we were facing many difficult challenges, in addition to the pain and suffering that comes with ascending and descending nearly 10,000ft with skis and overnight gear. The first would be finding the Sickle from the summit and knowing that it would be skiable. And the second would be negotiating the route on the Tahoma glacier, and knowing which drainage we’d need to end up in, so we’d end up safe and sound at our car at the end of the Westside road a day later. We knew this wouldn’t be easy given we’ve not been there ourselves, nevermind that very few had.

Route finding concerned us so much that we sent Nick down to do a re-con mission a few days early, to figure out our exit, check out the conditions of the Tahoma creek trail (where there would be no snow for miles) and to pick out a few landmarks to help us aim correctly from thousands of feet above.

Nick came back with good news- the trail was well defined. And it would be an easy out once we reaching the lower glacier. His zoomed in photos gave us some worry though. The Sickle looked narrow- so narrow that it almost appeared to have a small cliff of glacier ice at its choke. Hemming and hawing ensued, but we ultimately decided that we’d give it a go and added some ice screws and anchor building gear to the already heavy weight on our backs.

 

The Trip:

I’ll skip most of the uphill report. If you’ve climbed the DC in perfect weather, you know the drill. The specifics of our trip included camping at Muir rather than the more desirable but already full Ingraham flatts  - a bummer in many ways, the most obvious being the fact that we’d get a lower start in the morning, and add over 1,000 ft to our second day.

But we still enjoyed a beautiful afternoon at Muir, napping in the sun, eating a warm meal, and going to bed around sunset. We woke leisurely at 5am, hoping to get moving by 6:00am, long after most guided groups and climbers have made their way out of camp.

 

The crew (minus me) enjoying a sunny camp at Muir.

Doug and Nick, enjoying camp life.

 

Our route up, the ID visible on the right.

Our route up, the ID, visible on the right follows the rocky band on the right.

4ish grueling hours later we were on top. I felt sick from altitude, as usual, but excited to be on top. (!) Our timing was perfect. Since our route would take us down the west side of the mountain, we were planning on a mid-day decent, so that the warmth from the sun would just barely be warming the snow in the Sickle, enough to make it edge-able and fun, but not enough to turn it into mush.

Skiing off the summit towards Liberty Cap was unreal, mainly because the conditions were so good, given the crap we had walked up on the other side. It was exhilarating (and a little scary) skiing off such a massive mountain towards a fairly unknown line. But as far as we could see, conditions were smooth, the weather was good, and, so far, the slope was gentle.

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Skiing Towards Liberty Cap

 

We stopped maybe 1,000 feet down, where the obvious line curved around to our left, to look at a map and consider where we needed to be. We figured we’d be pretty on-point. A map and GPS confirmed we were close. But was it straight ahead, to the left or to the right? just beyond the fall-line veered dramatically left, towards a jumble of icefall descending from above- the Tahoma glacier.

But were we atop the Sickle? The stress of the moment and the next few decisions hit. This steep, smooth, slope looked promising but it rolled over so steeply it was impossible to tell where it went. We decided someone should go check it out. Nick carefully skied down, while Doug and I stayed out of harms way, with our eyes on him. Nick yelled up that he had found a very narrow choke, but would have to go to its edge to see any further. Minutes later he was hollering with joy. It went!

 

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Keeping my eye on the boys as they investigate the Sickle entrance. We found it but, as you can see from this angle, it was hard to tell at first.

 

One by one Doug and I joined him. The choke was barely 10 feet wide- with wind-scoured crappy snow forming a ledge at it’s narrowest point. But it made for a safe place to stand and look at the slope below. On either side loomed giant seracs, and blue towers of glacial ice. We didn’t want to hang out here long. The sun was beginning to warm the snow around us- which made for decent skiing so far. But I didn’t want to be standing near any of these jagged blocks of ice when they started to let go.

Skiing the next part, the bottom three-quarters of the Sickle, was basically pure bliss. A 40 degree slope of perfect snow felt safe yet fun. We finally relaxed a little, shot a few pictures, slashed turn after turn and exchanged high-fives where it began to flatten out.

 

The top of the Sickle. No Ice-cliff to be found! Photo: Nick Webb

The top of the Sickle. No Ice-cliff to be found! Photo: Nick Webb

 

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Nick enjoys the top half of the sickle.

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The sneaky Sickle snakes its way through the Tahoma Glacier. View from the bottom.

And this is where you probably think that the story ends- that we came, we conquered, and we drank some cold beers back at the car. But, by now we were probably only at 10-11,000 feet and we had another 5 or more to go. It looked rugged, too. The un-crevassed line of the Sickle disappeared into a vastness of crack after crack after crack below us. We were nearer to the glaciers skier’s right edge. But, we had some beta that said between 8 and 9,000 feet we’d probably want or need to cross the glacier, and ultimately descend towards its left.

I could write at length about what happened in the next hour. Let’s just say it was the most difficult part of the trip. We navigated a few crevasses until we hit a large mess of them, huge ones to the right, huge ones to the left. We roped up and belayed Doug as he investigated a few narrow snow bridges to the right. Nothing definitive. Nick thought he saw a way through a few long, but slender cracks way out to our left. But do we risk going all the way over there only to discover we’d need to descend Reaching a consensus was not easy.

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This badly stiched photo shows the tremendous amount of cracks on the middle of the Tahoma Glacier from our vantage. Looks sketchy, huh? Here Doug scopes out the right flank of the glacier to see if there is a good way through but ultimately we end up going heading left.

Our saving grace moment occurred somewhere around the time I was starting to loose it. We decided to hold off on the sketchy bridge crossing near massive crevasses and explore our other options. Plus, I thought I may have seen a boot pack higher on the glacier, but to our left. So we decided to head right to see what we could see. A few small crevasses hops were required, but nothing too stressful. We rounded a blind corner, walled by a jumble of ice, went there it was- A WAND. A wand, like you see littered all over Rainier’s south slope, placed by guides so the route remains easy to follow. A wand- a big, red flag atop a metal rod and FOOTPRINTS! And footprints that lead from the first wand to a second, around another blind corner and down a steep roll over to another wand, and another and another. Although it felt like cheating, we were happy to take the easy way out from here.

We found the people at the end of the line of wands, high and up towards the right. A couple who had been out on the glacier for days, attempting to climb the Tahoma Glacier and who had slowly weaved their way up through the crevasses (which are much easier to see from below) to about where we picked up there tracks, but then had to turn around.

We must have looked like a bunch of kooks, skiing up to their camp, excited, but still arguing, dehydrated and full of adrenaline. They were nice to us, though and gave us some water they had been melting in the hot sun. We exchanged stories and beta. We told them the way  to reach the summit, if they felt like another attempt. They told us how they got there from the road.

Hours later, after smooth low angle corn skiing galore, we hit the end of the snow. And, then, the second hardest part of the trip- a long walk out, with skis on our backs, to the car.

Then beers.

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The view back up. We transitioned here and hiked the remaining  4 miles out on foot.

This was most challenging ski decent of my life so far. Not because the skiing itself was hard, but because the route finding was so difficult and the general risk of skiing down anything you don’t climb up, particularly on Mt. Rainier, is high.

I often wonder how the experience would have been different if we hadn’t found the climber’s wands. During the couple of hours of feeling “stuck” I was worried in a way that I haven’t often felt on skis before. Luckily, it was still early in the day and we were low enough on the mountain to be out of any serious danger, with all of our overnight gear and some extra food on our backs. We were communicating well and actively working on solving the problem as safely as possible. I am confident that at some point we would have found our way through. Part of me wishes the wands weren’t there and that we completed this “test” that it felt like the mountain was giving us on our own. But, at the time the wands meant a near guarantee that we’d be back at the car before the sun went down. And I was certainly happy the moment I understood that. And in the end, these “what if’s” that kept popping into my brain, got taught me mountain-life lessons from the safety of my living room all the same.

Aside from lesson’s learned, this trip opened up a new perspective on the possibilities of skiing on Mt. Rainier. To quote Lowell Skoog in his post about skiing the Tahoma Traverse as well as a high elevation circumnavigation of Rainier (perhaps our next Rainier adventure?),  ”Ever since I began ski mountaineering in 1979, I have been captivated by the fact that skis can do more than just slide down hills. They can unlock new worlds. On Mount Rainier’s Tahoma Traverse and High-Level Orbit, we skied up and down Mount Rainier, as many others have done, but we also skied over and around it. We saw all sides of the mountain, but we never once retraced our tracks. More than simple playthings, skis are tools that can take you places.” I certainly felt like I knew Rainier a bit better after skiing up and over it, and I am sure there is much more.

Thanks to Nick and Doug for a good time.

Catching up.

This year has been a big year, but in a different sort of way. I’ve taken more definitive steps in certain directions: I have moved more permanently to Seattle, I work A LOT (this is new), and I am skiing in the heart of winter at a new resort, amongst new friends, and on new terrain.

There are ups and downs but, above all, what’s good about this change is that I feel like I’m constantly exploring. I have no routine to fall back on. Most days are about how to make this new life work. But if I look at every day as the opportunity to have an adventure, whether in urban Seattle or deep in the Cascades, the overwhelming moments start to look more like obstacles on a course than experiences to fear.

The fact that Washington State is so vast and beautiful certainly helps. There are plenty more mountains to climb and places to ski. And I am learning where to go, who to go with and when to do it. And, looking back I realize I’m getting more out of each day I get out.

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I’m also enjoying taking pictures, even if its with an iPhone and Instagram filters.  It allows me to catalog my memories in the mountains. And while it ends up being that I have less photos of me on skis, which used to be the goal, I now have so many from my point of view. The artist in me likes this more.

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I’m not giving up my life as a skier. But ultimately, I’m trying really hard not to try so hard and to spend more time doing exactly what I want to do. All while keeping my priorities and ideals in line and moving one foot in front of the other. My other goal is to slow life down. And in slowing down, I’m getting more time to try new little things. Like corn skiing in the middle of January (above). And discovering the surreal beauty of night skiing (below).

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When I’m not skiing, I want the days I have to work and be creative to count too. After years of bouncing around from job to job without a clear goal in site, I am ready to focus. I major goal of mine for the year was to have my what I do for work be something I’m interested in on it’s own, and not just a way of funding my skiing. And I hope it is giving me experience that I can build on year after year. Probably the most fun thing that happened through buckling down and cranking out work, was the chance to designs my own set of skis. While I don’t get to do this every day, I hope that taking opportunities like this when I can, will lead me to more work like this in the future.

Screen Shot 2014-02-23 at 8.27.08 PM(Check out Maiden Skis, who built these skis for me)

Above all, I’m excited to see dream up what comes next.

 

Good Luck / Bad Luck in British Columbia

duffylakes

Joffre, Matier, Slalok… Too tough to say which was the best run.

I was pretty excited to ski in British Columbia, something I have never done. I had been hearing stories and seeing videos of big mountains, powder, and pillow lines over the past few years and I really wanted to get a taste of it for myself. So, about 3 weeks ago, from Seattle we ventured North, heading straight for the Duffy Lakes area in the Coastal Range. Temps were warm, skies were blue, and although there wasn’t the freshest of snow, the high peaks and their north facing aspects still held some awesome, super stable snow. In two days we were able to ski 3 of the tallest peaks in the area; Joffre, Matier and Slalok all with epic 45+ degree runs.

But the Coastal Range, only about 5 hours north of Seattle, felt a little too close to home. Our sites were set on exploring the interior. After an amazing sunny beach day in Vancouver, we journeyed westward to Revelstoke, BC. Our first move the next morning was to get up to Roger’s Pass. We didn’t get a very early start, but again, the sun, warmth and stable conditions meant we  were soon high on top of Young’s Peak and overlooking quite an amazing view.

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No explanation necessary

The run down started off fine, we decided to make a loop and ski the Illecillewaet Glacier back down to our car. I had a giant blister by this time, my legs were sore, and suddenly, maybe halfway down Nick’s binding broke. To make a long story short he Macgyver-ed his ski to his foot (think ski straps, rope, and one skin) and did a great job getting down, given the circumstances.

The binding would need to be fixed, so we ventured back into town. And so concludes Bad Luck Part One.

Bad Luck Part Two continues two days later, when the binding is fixed but the weather takes a turn for the worst. Rain at high elevations. It looked like it would be days before it stopped. We crossed our finger’s that we could push through the rain and find some sort of snow up high. We stood, dismayed at a trailhead one morning, looking for a non-existant snow line. Moments later deciding that skinning up 3,000ft through rain to hopefully hit some sort of snow, was kind of miserable sounding.

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Killing time in Kaslo in the rain

The rest of our time interior BC included taking ferries and drinking coffee in Nelson, before making a B-line back to our beloved Duffy Lakes zone (where we found some snow) and eventually back to Mt. Baker in the states (where we found a lot of snow)! Oh well…

Next Year.

March 18th, 2013 (Wyoming and Montana)

Towards the end of February I made moves out of Salt Lake City. Nick arrived in Salt Lake for a few days of classic Utah powder and then we hit the road with a goal only to see new places and ski new lines. First stop was made in Wyoming where we spent the week with my family, who were vacationing in Jackson. Good times were had at family dinners and hitting the slopes of Jackson and Targhee with my Dad, Brother, Uncle and Mother. Nick and I snuck away for a few days of touring on the pass and bumped into an old friend of mine. Our last day in Wyoming, Josh showed us around Teton National Park- getting up high underneath the Middle and the Grand with good snow and breathtaking scenery.

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Josh and Nick in Teton National Park

Then, back in the car, we drove North in to Montana. Time was spent in Big Sky, Billings and Bozeman among other places. A certain highlight was spending a couple days in Cooke City, MT a small town on the edge of Yellowstone National Park which, in the Winter, is the end of the road 3 hours from the nearest large town. The town is a snow-mobile mecca. As backcountry skiers we were greatly outnumbered. But there was something kind of cool about it’s unpretentious charm. And once getting up out of town into the mountains around its periphery, the drone of the snow machine soon faded.

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Nick drops in on Mt. Republic

We only skied a few days in Cooke and barely tapped into it’s potential. With more time and energy there seem to be endless lines to explore. I plan on writing a small article about my time in Cooke City, so to not spoil the story- I’ll leave it at that!

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The snow covered streets of Cooke City, MT make for an easy ski home. Mt. Republic in the background.

And before we left Montana and ventured further north, we swung through and rode some lifts at Big Sky. the conditions were warm and springlike and relaxing on the lifts was a nice change of pace.

February 21st, 2013 (Yew-Taw!)

And here I am again, back in Utah. I moved back in early January after spending the holidays with family on the East Coast. Its sort of feels like I never left, but simultaneously feels like its been years since I’ve been here. As I reacquainted myself with old friends and familiar neighborhoods, I felt a distant feeling of being at home here re-emerge.  Getting in the old routine of making the near-daily treck up to Alta to ski came back fairly naturally, too. It is my favorite thing about Utah, after all.

As I prepare to leave Utah again, I will try to smoosh a two month visit into one short post. Upon my arrival there was one quick burst of snow. And then nothing for weeks… D’oh! But after getting slightly depressed about it, I soon started paying careful attention to the avalanche forecast, which, with no new snow and stable base layers, allowed for some descents of routes that are usually too sketchy. A highlight was getting up in to Tanner’s slide path- a route I had always wanted to explore. With no safe zones and walls of steep snow on all sides, we were stoked to be up there in ulta-safe conditions.

The view down Tanners Gulch.

The view down Tanners Gulch.

And then, of course, when February came so did the snow. A few storms came in and my preferred cycle of storm skiing in the resort and then getting into the backcountry for a few days after the storm passed, began. I had some great days with old friends doing everything from exploring new terrain to ripping groomers down familiar Alta runs.

I also got some cool shots with photographer friends, both new and old, which I will share below:

One photographer I really enjoyed working with, although we only skied once, was Tobias Macphee (definitely check out his work). He nabbed this really stunning shot one a great day in the Hallway Couloir:

The Hallway Photo: Tobias Macphee

The Hallway
Photo: Tobias Macphee

And soon the snow set up well and I remembered how much fun jumping off of things can be:

Jumping off thing is fun.  Photo: Dan Finn

Jumping off things is fun.
Photo: Dan Finn

Yep, still fun.

Yep, still fun.
Photo: Gregg Trawinski

I have been feeling an itch this whole time I’ve been back in Utah, like I’ve done this all before and want to experince things and places that are new. Sometimes I have even felt like I have grown slightly tired of the routine- the same old scenery and terrain I have seen and skied for years. But putting together this post reminds me of how far I have come since I first arrived in Salt Lake City, just over 5 years ago. And even in two short months, how much fun I have had.

 

December 28th, 2012 (Early season in Seattle)

The early start to the season has treated me well. As a new-found resident in Seattle, I made a decision to try to get out at least a couple times a week before I’d head to Utah for a month or two. And luckily the Northwest had a great early season. Sooner than later, snow was dumping throughout the Cascades and more and more I found myself with plenty of opportunities to get out and ski.

Snow! and plenty of it!

Snow! and plenty of it!

Highlights include some great days touring around and skiing at Crystal Mountain with my boyfriend, Nick, and other good friends. This was all new terrain for me and I was surprised and impressed with how large of an area the mountain is and how great the backcountry access is.

The view from Crystal towards Mt. Ranier

The view from Crystal towards Mt. Ranier

Another highlight of these few weeks was getting to know Jason Hummel, an amazing photographer and Pacific Northwest local. We spent several days skiing and touring with a few different groups of his friends and other athletes. He also took some great shots!

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November 22nd, 2012 (Mt. Baker’s Beauty)

I was a little anxious to get out and ski this early season.  I ventured out 2 or 3 times only to discover warm, wet and rainy conditions and little to no snow. Very little true “skiing” was done. But one day in late November I struck gold. We drove up to Mt. Baker from Seattle in the, dark with our fingers crossed. But as soon as the sun began to light up the sky I new at least one thing, it wouldn’t be rainy…

Making our way to the zone.

Making our way to the zone.

And in many ways we couldn’t have asked for a better day. The sky was decorated with sparse clouds and although there wasn’t tons of deep, new snow, the conditions almost felt like spring- firm and fast but edge-able with the help from the sun.

Bentley the Dog waiting patiently for the others to top out.

Bentley the Dog waiting patiently for the others to top out.

After a few laps of great skiing, with the incredible views of Mt. Baker in the background, we made our way back to the car. I was struck by a feeling of immense relief- the season had begun.

P.S. I am no photographer but I will say, the scenery of Mt. Baker and it’s surroundings made for some of the best photo conditions I have ever experienced!!

June 30th, 2012. (Cascade <3)

It’s almost July. And while I don’t have to be, I think I am done with skiing for the summer. I moved back to Seattle in mid-April and have completely had my mind blown by the amount of awesome spring days you can have here. The snow recedes, but it doesn’t disappear. And I’ve found that if you are outgoing and excited about getting out skiing, there are plenty of new friends to be made.

Skiing off Ingalls Peak

Not all of my Spring attempts were complete success stories. Plenty of plan A’s have turned to plan B’s. Sunny days suddenly became rainy. But regardless, my eyes have been opened to the possibilities of the Northwest. I have a new list of goals piling up in my brain for next season.

Almost to the top of Rainier!

One of which is to ski Rainier from the top. I was very lucky to climb it, and ski most of it, thanks  randomly learning that an old friend of mine was a climbing ranger at it’s base. After becoming aware of this one morning- I hastily gathered by gear and made it to his headquarters that night, just in time to squeeze in a decent night’s rest. The next thing I know, I am on top! (I wish it worked that way…) And although we left our skis a few thousand feet below the summit, we still had a great 6,000 vert ride back to the car.

Below Eldorado

And several ascents and descents later I am hanging up the skis for the summer. It’s funny to look back on the season; the low snow year in Utah, the trip to Norway, and now, after I thought the season might never pull through, I feel fully satiated- ready to hibernate from snow for a few months, and hope to returned re-invigorated soon!

March 13, 2012 (NORWAY!)

Sometime in mid-February I got a call from Telemark Skier Magazine telling me about this trip to Norway they had been planning last minute. Not knowing entirely what I was getting myself into, I immediately agreed. I mean, Norway? Of course! And soon I was off. There is a lot to say about the trip and all that happened, but because I wrote the TSM blog post about the second half of the trip, I will let that do the talking for now:

“From Morgedal, Josh Madsen, JT Robinson, Kjell Ellefson and I journeyed North. We first stopped at a Vierli, a small but fun resort which had a really nice park with rope-tow access where Kjell made lap after lap hitting jumps and rails. Then we headed off to the small village Gaustablikk, which sits at the base of Gaustaoppen, the largest mounatin in the Telemark region. Our drive took us along winding roads and dropped us into a deep gorge, at the bottom of which lies Rjukan, a charming town. Then we headed up a deep ravine where we could see Gaustatoppen’s peak high above the valley floor.

We made our way to a beautiful cabin at the mountain’s base and soon found our way to bed after a hearty meal. The following morning our hosts took us to the base of Gaustatoppen and we rode up to the top of the mountain via an old NATO train system which is located roughly 400 meters deep into the mountainside. So you ride up through a tunnel inside the mountain. We took in the views from the summit for a while and skied down the long run back to our cars. I will be writing an article that describes our trip and the history of this train in more detail in an upcoming issue of Telemark Skier Magazine, so stay tuned.

Taking in the view atop Gaustatoppen


Kjell’s older brother Sylvan, who is a member of the US Ski Team, was competing in a World Cup Nordic Race in Drammen, so the following morning we made our way there. The event was huge and took place on one of the main streets of the city where racers sprinted around churches and through the beautiful old buildings and squares. It was cool to see how many people turned out to watch it and the amount of enthusiasm there was for the sport.

But as soon as the race was over, we were made aware that a storm was headed for Morgedal, so we hoped back in the van- and headed that way- driving late into the night. We awoke for sunrise. It was amazing to look out of the picturesue village blanketed with nearly a foot of fresh new snow. We spent the day skiing, shooting and enjoying the new snow. Our last run took us to the top of the ridgeline over Øverbø, where we had stayed the previous week. We and a few locals helped to unveil a sign commemorating the slope below us as the first ski slope — ever. Skiing down through the featured terrain, I could imagine Sondre Norheim, telemark’s forefather, laying down his first turns here many years ago.

Sunrise in Morgedal

February 13th, 2012 (Country Lane)

One of my favorite missions each winter is to get up Country Lane (aka Suicide chute) which is right across the street from where I work, off the south ridge of Mt. Superior. I also love how skiing brings together people who might not otherwise know each other. And so early this morning I assembled a sort of random group in the Peruvian Lodge lobby to try our luck up this well known chute.

Light snow fell on us as we skinned up in the humid early morning air. Hitting the choke, we began to boot-pack, suddenly aware of the deep, sugary, snow on top. This looked like it would be fun to ski, but made for hard work going up. Tom lead 75% of the slog up, powering through the thigh deep snow with every step.

I dropped in first, finding a few fun turns, but realizing that all that loose sugary snow on top was pulling out in pockets, so I stopped to watch a river of slough charge past me. To be safe, I skied the rest of the way stopping every few turns to let the snow get ahead of me. The boys dropped in through the choke first, negotiating one small straight-line maneuver before cruising down the apron back to the road. We made our way back to the lodge, decidedly claiming that our journey was “just spicy enough”. I’m looking forward to more.