Had a fantastic adventure hiking up to the top of Gunsight at Alta today. I’ve now skied in 10 straight months. This has been the most epic ski season EVER. Skied every run at Alta in one season, and bagged many bucket list lines I’ve only fantasized about. Made it through the season with no injuries despite skiing in many ultra-expert and dangerous places. In fact, I only crashed and released a ski once all season. Sadly, I think today is the day I shut it down until next ski season.
During the 2018-2019 ski season I started tracking the runs I was skiing at Alta Ski Area by tracing them in a yellow highlighter on the Alta trail map. After marking a few runs the idea hit me to see if I could ski all of the marked runs at Alta in one ski season. Unfortunately that goal was cut short when I had shoulder surgery on my right shoulder on February 14th, 2019.
When the 2019-2020 ski season started I once again set the goal to ski 116. This time I marked the map with a pink highlighter.
I went at it hard and fast, skiing Alta 30 times, not including backcountry skiing there during the offseason. After each ski day I carefully highlighted each run and many of them are all-timers. There were several big pow days in Devil’s Castle, and another big pow day on Wildcat. Then I finally skied the elusive East Castle, which is not open very often. What a thrill and pretty steep at the top. Other very memorable runs included big pow in Castle Apron and Catherine’s Area. Can’t do a greatest hits without mentioning East Greeley. That’s a tricky entrance. It was all great preparation for 116.
Run 116 – Main Chute, Mt. Baldy
This run has been some 30 years in the making. The last and only time I “went down” the Baldy Chutes was with my cousin Phil in 1990. Upon entering the main chute I hit a rock which stopped my ski, throwing me off balance. The chute was so steep I fell over onto a mogul and instantly dislocated my shoulder. From that point I slid, tumbled, cartwheeled, fell hundreds of feet, all the way to the bottom of the chute. During the fall I was calm. Everything was moving very slowly. I was puzzled that I couldn’t stop falling, but when on a slope that steep gravity wins. At one point during the fall I was sliding and managed to get my feet below me. “I’ll just dig my boot heels in and stop now,” I thought. When I dug my heels in I flipped. I remember watching the rocks on each side go by in slow motion.
At the bottom of the chute a ski patrolman was there and asked if I was ok. I told him I had dislocated my shoulder. He said, “no, you’d be screaming in pain if you did.” Well he was wrong. I was so full of adrenaline I couldn’t feel any pain. From the bottom of the chute I skied down with my poles in my right hand all the way to the parking lot. I would end up in the Snowbird Medical Clinic where I did eventually go into shock before they put my shoulder back in the socket.
A week or later my dad was up there talking to someone at Alta in the Watson Shelter and mentioned my crash. I’d become some kind of legend up there for falling all the way down Main Chute, surviving, and just skiing away. Since then I’ve re-dislocated my shoulder two additional times, one last summer hiking at…. Alta.
Each season as I ski Alta I’ve been eyeballing Main Chute hoping to make up for that bad day. Could I do it? Would I crash again? Why even try it? Often times I would ski by and take a picture from below from Ballroom. I always made it a point to say hello and thank the chute for spitting me out alive.
This season at Alta I’ve been skiing my butt off. I’m skiing the best I ever have. I once again set a goal to ski all 116 of the marked runs on the Alta trail map this season and found some incredible, scenic, and difficult terrain I’d never skied before. I was killing it; sure to get in all 116 with several weeks to spare. Or so I thought.
Alta shut down for the season early due to the Covid-19. At that point I had skied 115 of the 116 runs. The final run was the Baldy Chutes. It looked like my goal would not be reached this season, which was a punch in the gut.
I’d been working out for over a year, eating better, and doing backcountry skiing since last spring. I lost some 45 pounds. I’ve built up some very good cardio, strength, and endurance. So this past Sunday I gave it a shot; I skinned all the way from the lower parking lot to the top of Mt. Baldy, 11,068 feet.
It was almost three miles from the parking lot to the top, about 2,600 vertical feet. At the top of Mineral Basin near the top of the Sugarloaf lift, I had to take my skis off and “boot pack” up the side of Baldy with my skis on my backpack. The snow kept giving way straight down so it was hard treading. I almost turned around because it was too difficult to boot pack. But I found some better snow and was able to get better traction. Once up a small ridge it flattened out and I could put my skis, with skins on, back on. From there I was to the top in probably 20 minutes.
That’s where the video below BEGINS.
After all the vertical, sweating, leg fatigue, skinning and hiking up, now I had to ski down with rubber legs. At first glance I was stunned at how steep Main Chute was. Look closely when I meet the other skier at the top of the chute in the video. You can see straight down. I’ve skied some shorter patches of terrain that steep, but this is a sustained steepness with rocks on both sides. It is truly stunning and terrifying, especially for someone who has had 30 years to think about falling down it. I skied conservatively, and stopped often to catch my breath and composure. There are no style points here. Just get down in one piece.
2 for 1
I got down in one piece and completed the 116th run on what would have been Alta’s final day of operation for the 2020 season, and also exercised a ski demon that had been weighing on me for three decades. I have a spring in my step now. I’ll have until next ski season to ponder….
Today I skinned from Alta Ski Area’s lower parking lot straight up the Collins lift. That’s way steeper going up than it is going down. Hung a right after the Watson Shelter and proceeded to the top of Wildcat Lift. From there I skinned up the ridge between Alta and Snowbird to a run off of the side of Mt. Baldy called “Tree Jump.”
One of the most essential items in a skier’s backcountry equipment list is a good shovel.
The shovel must be light and compact for carrying, while being strong and efficient when digging in a rescue situation.
In for review is the Access TS Shovel, which looks to be up to the task.
The Access TS features a telescopic “T” handle with 32cm and 46cm lengths, anodized aluminum blade, and weighs only 620 grams.
I’ve been carrying the Access TS Shovel in my backpack for a few days in the mountains. Have yet to put it through some tests of pit digging and rescue training. I will report back with a full review when I’ve had a chance to fully evaluate the TS.
Finally skied East Castle at Alta Ski Area. This was run number 112 in my quest to ski all 116 marked runs at Alta this ski season.
East Castle is big, steep run which takes a long sidestep hike to get to. The run is not often open due to the avalanche terrain it occupies.
After a pretty strenuous sidestepping hike up, the skier is greeted with a 50 degree angle slope at the top. Rather than sidestepping the hike, I brought my backcountry skis and skins, and skinned up. That was a much better plan and I was dusting people that were sidestepping.
The near the top I couldn’t help notice the incredible view. There was a strong wind coming from the opposite side of the peak and the sun was backlighting the snow as it blew off. It created a surreal photo opportunity. See below:
In this spot the sidestepping trail narrowed and the slope became more severe. I could no longer skin at that point. So I took the skins off and boot-packed the rest of the way.
I was fighting a few battles, so my skiing wasn’t great and I had to rest often. The first challenge was the hike up. Second was the snow conditions. The snow was quite thick and chunky with patches of better powder in the shade. The third challenge was my backcountry boots hurts my feet and make my feet go numb. I need to do some tweaking to improve that. It’s hard to ski well with numb feet. I had to keep adjusting boot pressure and resting them.
East Castle 360 Degree Video
Below is a YouTube video of the ski down. The views and angles are amazing. The skiing, well, I got down in one piece which is my primary goal.
One of the snow study tools I’ll need when in the backcountry is a snow saw. I finally picked one up. It’s a BCA (Backcountry Access) 35cm Snow/Wood Saw.
This is a very solid saw with measurements up to 35cm, and even a snow crystal study card right on the blade.
I’m looking forward to trying this snow saw out the next time I’m in the backcountry. I’ll post a review in a few weeks after I’ve had ample time to test it out!
Now that’ I’m getting more serious about backcountry skiing and in general, being better prepared on or of piste, I needed a better and bigger pack. After a lot of research I settled on the Osprey Kamber 32. This pack is designed for backcountry enthusiasts and holds 32 liters of gear, snacks, drinks.
32 liters is a good fit for slightly longer day tours or even overnights. This pack came in very handy for me during my 4-day Level 1 avalanche training course. I was able to store all my needed avalanche gear, roughly 60 ounces of beverages (hot and cold), as well as all the snacks, cameras, and other gear I needed in all-day sessions. Here’s the Kamber 32 in action:
I’ve had the Kamber on the mountain a few times now. I have a hydraulics reservoir on the way and will be implementing that as well. Stay tuned for me review soon.
I usually tell people that when it comes to backcountry skiing, my limited experience is that it is harder going up than it is going down. That may not have been the case a couple of days ago in American Fork Canyon though. After attempting and failing to go downhill skiing at Alta Ski Area, my ski buddy and I decided to do American Fork Canyon. It is close to where he lives.
The canyon isn’t super high in elevation. I’m guessing 6-7K. As such there wasn’t a 100 inch base, but there was quite a bit of snow in many areas, especially at the peak of our tour at Silver Lake Flat reservoir. That section of snow was deep and we were cutting our own skin track. My calves and knee have been quite unhappy about that since. Vitamin I (ibuprofen) and CBD oil are in play.
Overall the skin up was fun and challenging. The ski down was not worth the effort though. Not enough snow on any slopes worth skiing. So it was mostly skiing back on an access road which was flat in many areas. Navigating flat road without skins on and skis in downhill mode is probably harder than skinning up.
6+ miles, mostly work. There were THREE nice pow turns I made though, right off the cornice on the reservoir’s dam (video below). All in all a fun day, but the reward was small for the amount of effort.
As I get deeper into the backcountry skiing world I’m learning more about the gear needed. One of the most important parts of a backcountry setup is a good shovel. I’m currently testing out the Arva Axe, seen below.
The Arva Axe shovel is quite cool. It breaks down into 3 pieces for easy storage in a backpack. It has two shovel modes, standard and hoe mode. Hoe mode is in the photo below.
I’ll be putting the Axe to the ultimate test in my upcoming Level 1 avalanche training course next week.
After I’ve had enough time in the field and shoveled enough snow to formulate my opinions, I’ll post my full Arva Axe review. Stay tuned.
I’m hammered physically, but in a good way. Had a great skinning session in Little Cottonwood Canyon up Grizzly Gulch to the top of Patsy Marley. From there I went along the edge of Wolverine Cirque, which is a spectacular sight to behold (photo below).
I de-skinned at the top of Wolverine in brutal high winds, then traversed through some south-facing gnarly wind blown crusty junk snow to drop into Alta Ski Area. My legs were hammered.
Had a hard time controlling my left ski and I attributed that to fatigue. When I got to the parking lot I noticed that my left boot was still in walk mode, not ski mode. Duh.