TR: Fairy Meadows Day 4 (2.6.2018)
For the second morning in a row, the skies dawned blue. This time Zach and I got up early in an attempt to grab some early morning shots, and hopefully catch the 7am weather and avalanche report that Sorcerer Lodge supposedly would be receiving.
Unfortunately we got nothing from silence from the VHF radio, so we'd continue to be flying blind on weather. Since we had another day of good viz and had begun to gain confidence in the snowpack, we decided it was time to try something in the alpine. We decided to skin towards the Houdini Needles and see what looked good. Anthony, the trip organizer, elected to join us.
It was very cold once again, but up we went.
And up some more...
About this point we dug a hasty, shallow pit to evaluate how the recent storm snow was bonding to the underlying snowpack. We found shallow fractures in the upper snow that would not propagate in tests, consistent with what we had been experiencing the last few days. We continued upwards into steeper terrain.
Not far above this, the terrain steepened a bit, and the snow quality changed. The steeper terrain had sloughed regularly during the stormy weather, and it was now just firm enough that skinning was no longer a viable option. Chris decided that was enough for him, and descended a few feet to a safe zone to transition and wait for us to descend. The rest of us strapped skis to packs and began setting a bootpack towards the ridge.
We got maybe 2/3 of the way up, and suddenly the snow changed again. What was previously firmish snow that increased in density with depth was now a thin, 8-10" thick hard slab resting on facets. Obviously, this was not what I wanted to see.I did a few quick hasty/informal tests and found the slab to be stubborn, but this wasn't the structure I wanted to see in this location.
Unfortunately, as unhappy as I was with the situation, transitioning at that spot would have been dicey at best, and the safest escape was to continue up. Just above me the angle relented a bit and it wasn't that far to the saddle in the ridge. I put my head down and cranked out the last hundred feet.
During our climb clouds had slowly drifted in, and our bluebird day had become very greybird. Despite the flat light, the view of the Gothics Glacier on the opposite side of the saddle was stunning.
Of course, the downside of climbing up to safety meant we would still need to cross that slab again on the descent. While I wasn't happy about it, there wasn't really any other option. We had good eyes from the top and radio contact with Chris, who had good eyes from below. Additionally the runout was clean and wide, so you'd have a pretty good chance if you did get carried. Anthony dropped first, followed by Rick.
Zach dropped next, then I followed last. Once past the firm bit at the top, I breathed a little easier. Plus the snow got good. Real good.
Below the couloir proper, the apron skied extremely well. Although the light was extremely flat by this point, the snow was so smooth and silky that it didn't matter.
The apron was so good in fact that we decided to skin back up and ski it again. We also had a nice little window of sunlight, so we thought we'd ski a little face to skier's right of our previous tracks that was getting the sun on it. Of course, the sun went away as soon as we finished our transition. But the skiing was still good.
After that we skinned, traversed, down-climbed, and went the wrong way a few times to eventually reach the top of Practice Slopes, just above the hut, where we admired the view for a few more minutes before returning to the hut.
After every day of backcountry skiing I ask myself the same question. Did we get it done, or did we get away with it? I'm of the opinion that we got away with this one. I don't think my partners were as concerned, and it's true that the slab didn't seem to have much energy and was probably unlikely to go anywhere. But the structure sucked and there was definitely some risk in skiing that slope. It wasn't a stupid decision, just one that pushed it a little harder than I'd have preferred.
Then again, maybe I was just on edge from skiing terrain that we basically never touch in midwinter in Colorado.
Regardless, we wouldn't have to worry about chasing the alpine again, because by sundown, it was snowing again.
Special thanks to Zach Wilson for the use of his photos. See more of his amazing work at https://zacharywilson.myportfolio.com/