Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sugar snow slows skiers

Trying to get up in snow thick as sludge will be a trick

Pretty turns
A deep layer of sugar snow beneath a blanket of powder made all the difference in our backcountry skiing plans on Saturday.
We had set out to ski the Nugget Creek option on the High Porphyry-Ranch Creek run.
At first glance the snow looked perfect. A fresh veneer covered earlier tracks on the route that follows the ridge line from the top of the Showdown Ski Area hill south to the intersecting ridgeline that divides Nugget and Ranch creeks.
The ski through the clearcut down Ranch Creek is the traditional route.
Our plan was to ascend the Nugget-Ranch divide, following it and then bail out on Nugget Creek back to U.S. 89.
We thought we were going to nail it because the trail had been broken by snowshoers, providing us a base to the Mizpah Bowls and backcountry cabin.
At that point Wayne Phillips dug a snowpit to analyze the telemark possibilities in the bowls. The pit revealed a 1.5 foot layer of granular sugar snow on the bottom, covered by about 2.5 feet of powder. Just as he finished digging the pit the snow settled to this sugar layer loudly beneath our feet. We were all startled.
Phillips measured the angle of the slope where we were standing and determined that it was about 20 percent, just below the extreme danger angle for avalanche. We couldn’t tell the angle to the slope angling to the south below that. So, Jim Heckel and I pulled telemark turns to the bottom of that safer slope. He and I discovered pockets of soft, settling snow as we turned on the otherwise unmarked snow. It tripped us up.
When we returned to the top and the cabin we lost the snowshoe base.
This is where the real work began because we would break through the baseless snow to the bottom and have to force our skis up through deep powder for the next step. Even though the four of us switched off it was a ton of work.
When we reached the intersecting Nugget-Ranch ridge we found the snow so tough to break we had to make a decision. Did we tediously plow our way up, risking dark, or did we abort our trip and head down the traditional Ranch Creek route. After so more climbing, we headed for Ranch Creek.
Here is where we had the best telemark skiing of the day. Out in the open we were able to turn quite nicely. The open ridgeline above the Ranch Creek clearcut provides magnificent views to the south showing off the Crazies, and the endless mountain ranges of the west. It had been awhile since I had done this, so I found it a treat.
The deep, baseless powder made the turning in the clearcut a bit challenging. At points we would drop off the side of an old logging road, and instead of floating through the powder, we’d have to dig our way out of shoulder high snow.
It is hardly the clearcut we remember from years past. The trees are growing large.
Then it was down the Forest Service Road about four miles to U.S. 89. The first couple of miles were unbroken and tough breaking because snowmobiles have been barred.
Ironically, we were glad to see the snowmobile tracks that packed the trail and sped us to the bottom.
While we had a good time, it was a day of strange snow.
I foresee a season of avalanche danger until it gets warm enough for the snow to consolidate.

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