Sunday, January 16, 2011

Out after dark, but a learning experience

H. Wayne Phillips shows Jim Heckel how to use an slope measuring inclinometer

Phillips does compression test on a snow pit

It began to snow here

A frosty Phillips cruises
Route finding on Nugget Creek is always tricky.
Saturday was trickier than ever.
Despite having the skier who developed the route, Wayne Phillips, along we missed a crucial turn and ended up coming out two hours after darkness fell and a full drainage away on Bonine Creek.
Because I’ve been down this backcounty, off-trail route many times I can’t put all the blame on Phillips. I should have been paying better attention when we missed the turn.
Despite the error we had a great run, probably best characterized as a learning experience.
At the Mizpah bowls we practiced digging avalanche pits and measuring the slopes with an inclinometer.
We’ve tele skied Mizpah many times and know that the slopes are inclined to slough and avalanche.
With our experience last weekend when we set off a big slab avalanche in nearby Weatherwax, we want to practice our avalanche safety protocols as a safety measure.
We had guessed the slopes in Mizpah mostly under 30 degrees, the point where avalanche hazard becomes more prevalent.
The certainty and ease with which we could measure the slopes from the ridgeline above with the lightweight inclinometer made the measurements a fun exercise.
We found slopes ranging from 20-28 degrees with some steeper, probably out of our line of sight.
The snowpits revealed the same hoar frost layers we found last week, with the first layer about 18 inches from the surface.  The layer above the hoar frost was stubborn, but slid after a series of hard taps. A second layer, on top the eight inch ground layer also slid with hard pressure.
With a 22 degree slope and a 200 foot slope into the tree line we made an informed decision to do some turns.
We found the snow, just like last week, with some uneven pockets of collapse to no base and heavy conditions elsewhere, but we had a great time, anyway.
One of the reasons we came out in the dark was that we had to break trail all the way and the collapsing snow made going very slow.
The Nugget Creek route is an option on the old Porphyry-Ranch Creek run across the Mizpah Ridge in the Little Belts. For years we altered Ranch Creek run by doing something we called “High Porphyry” that headed east on a ridge north of Ranch Creek that would come out at the old Forest Green resort.  About five years ago the management at Forest Green, where an old ski hill was located, asked that backcountry skiers not ski across their property.
Because of our route miscalculation we came out inadvertently at Forest Green Saturday.
We had some disagreement over our route-finding on the ridge above Nugget Creek.
Jim Heckel and I had overshot the critical turn a couple of times before and urged Phillips to do as we had, drop down a gully and ski a steep contour through the trees to a spot where an old logging road to the final tele slopes above Nugget Creek emerges.
Wayne didn’t trust our reckoning and argued for a ski through an old growth forest of widely spaced fir trees down to Bonine Creek. We deferred to him.
While the route was a good one for the leader, it was steep and slick and tough to follow.
We lost daylight down on the creek, which we had to cross back and forth until it opened up into pretty meadows and finally the large meadow above Forest Green.
Then it was a two-mile ski down the side of U.S. 89 back to the car at mile marker 23 and the end of a 10-hour trip.

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