March 8-9th, 2013.
I’ve been unfortunately uninspired to post for the last several months, publishing few of the articles I’ve written. But, I’ve been accomplishing some goals. Most recently I bought a van. It was a bit of a fixer-upper, but it seems to be working well now. The van is white, has tinted windows, and no hub-caps. I named it Candy, for obvious reasons. This past weekend, I joined eleven friends at Birkenhead Peak, near D’Arcy, BC. Seven of us fit into Candy, with all our gear for an overnight ski camping trip, and twelve of us were able to travel up there in just two vehicles.
On Saturday we skied into a basin below the outlet of the Birkenhead Glacier, dropped our overnight gear, then continued toward the summit. Birkenhead Peak, at 2506m, is not particularly high for the region. But, deep valleys are carved around all sides of the peak. It stands with anomalous prominence, 1781m above the pass between the Blackwater River drainage, and Birkenhead Lake.
While skiing up the glacier, we spotted two beautiful, narrow couloirs etched into the eastern sub-summit. When I realized, at the saddle below the true summit, that one can contour to the top of the chutes without gaining elevation on descent from the summit, I told Michal Rozworski I was going to ski the southern of the two lines. (The northern couloir appeared to have some rock exposed in the middle.) He responded with eagerness to join.
Nine of us stood on the summit in perfect weather, indulging in our typical shared lessons on local geography. In turn, we skied down the steep east side of the summit pinnacle, back to the saddle. Artem Bylinskii, Lena Rowat, and Piotr Forysinski joined Michal and I as we traversed toward the east summit and the top of east summit couloirs.
Looking down the southern of the twin couloirs, I was struck by how narrow it was. The drop-in pinched down to just wider than the length of a ski. I side-slipped through the narrowing and then turned down between the rock walls. The snow was firm but predictable, and made for good resort-like turns down the consistent 45° slope. As I dropped off an old avalanche crown, I was glad the previous week’s avalanche cycle had settled down into a stable snowpack.
Artem followed, making attractive parallel turns despite his telemark bindings, then dropping his knee as he opened it up onto the glacier below.
Michal’s run appeared to be going well until I looked up from my camera to see him sliding from about half-way up the couloir. I took a few photos before I realized that he wasn’t stopping. He hit a rock, then about 30m lower, bounced over a bulge of smooth water ice that marked the last bend in the couloir. By this time, Nick Matwyuk, who was watching with us from below, yelled “skins on!”
I grabbed my pack and started boot packing toward where Michal had finally stopped. Fifteen seconds later, I was slowing down, breathing dangerously hard from trying to run uphill in boot-deep snow. Another 15 seconds passed before Nick rocketed past me on his skis. I threw him my pack, with the first aid kit, and the SPOT device.
We were still a ways away from Michal when Lena, having quickly side-slipped much of the couloir, got to him. He was up and walking toward one of his skis and finally called out.
“I’m okay! I’m okay!” he said with familiar eagerness. “Sorry about that.”
Phew. I think we all feared that he’d be badly hurt. But, it seems that Michal got off with a few bruises and a snow-abraded face. After a few minutes we skied a long, mellow run down the glacier, over the moraine, and down to our camp to join the others.
Later discussion of Michal’s fall has not shed much light onto what went wrong. But, a couple factors might be extracted from our conversations. First, Michal locked off the toes on his tech bindings – La Sportiva RT Tech bindings. As such, his skis took much longer to release than they otherwise might have, and he was unable to get himself into a self-arrest position with the skis still attached to his toes. Those bindings are actually unique among tech bindings in that they have an adjustable release value on the toe pieces. With the release value set correctly there should be no need to lock off the toes to avoid pre-release in these bindings. On my Dynafit TLT Speed bindings, I only lock off the toe on descents where a fall would be fatal or nearly (e.g. above big cliffs). Otherwise, I’d rather ditch my skis in a bad fall in hopes of self-arresting. Our couloir was only 45°, and not above terminal cliffs.
A second possible contributing factor was that none of us – and most importantly Michal – expected him to keep sliding. When Michal first fell, I casually took a few photos (seen as a composite above), all the while expecting him to stop within a few metres. It was not until he had slid 30m that I realized his fall could be serious. Michal, too, expressed surprise that he kept sliding, and I wonder if he might have been more passive in attempting to self-arrest in the first few metres than he otherwise would have. Either way, between the firm snow conditions, his skis releasing too late, and possibly a lacking sense of urgency, he was not able to stop his slide early and was soon moving too fast to do anything.
The mild cold I’d been suffering for a week worsened as I tried to re-inflate a leaking sleeping pad every 45 minutes throughout the night without the ability to breath through my nose. By morning I’d melted a body-shaped hole in the snow and was feeling relatively miserable. From our camp, we could see the Birkenstock Couloir – a steep, narrow couloir with 700m of vertical relief that I’d often considered climbing – cutting down an arm of the Birkenhead Massif named Kafir Peak (a.k.a. Microwave Ridge). Several of us wanted to ski it, but were quite intimidated by the striking narrowness and steepness of the top 100m. My motivation for skiing in general was weakened by the coughing and sniffling. But the Birkenstock Couloir has a revitalizing magnetism. I decided that I was either going to stay in camp and sleep (on someone else’s sleeping pad), or go ski the couloir.
The previous day’s couloir had actually made me feel much more confident. This would be my third day on new ski boots – Dynafit TLT 5 Performance – and I was already blown away by how much better they skied than on my Scarpa F1s. I felt that the ski racing, park riding, cliff jumping teenager I’d been before I took up telemark four seasons ago was back in me. And with this, a hell of a lot more mountain sense and backcountry experience.
Artem and I wanted to ski back up the glacier and drop into the couloir from the top, but we didn’t like being only two people alone on that side of the mountain, in case something went wrong. Nick, Lena and Phil Tomlinson were interested in the couloir if we boot packed up from the bottom. That way, the run would be less committing and we’d have a chance to assess the conditions before skiing down. I’ll admit, I was a little turned off by the idea of boot packing. For one, the 700m climb would be exhausting, monotonous, and more dangerous than skinning around. That is, we would be exposed to the objective hazard of the couloir for a long time. Further, I was concerned that the group would want to turn around and ski down below where the couloir narrowed. To climb part-way up, and ski down part way would rob the line of much of its aesthetic. To me, the upper entrance and exceedingly narrow crux section holds the artistic value of the Birkenstock Couloir. This improbable line extends from valley bottom to ridgetop through exceptional narrowness, surrounded by plumb cliffs. And therein lies its beauty. That it can even be skied is remarkable. The upper section is the key to making this more than a contrived challenge, it is the riddle that unlocks this line as a mountain route, a viable ski descent off the peak. To ski it from the top is to experience and connect with the mountain.
Having unexpectedly acquired Michal in the couloir-skiing group, the group turned toward another, milder objective. We ascended up a wide gully west of the Birkenstock couloir, bootpacking firm sections, to a col on the Microwave Ridge. From there, only Artem and I continued along the ridge crest to the top of Birkenstock. Peering over the cornice, a quick evaluation confirmed that we both really wanted to ski it. We spent fifteen minutes shoveling a staircase through the 2m cornice to a 60° surface where we put on our skis.
Once set-up in the couloir, I side slipped down the first 100m pitch of continuous 55° incline. Through this section, the skiable snow was never wider than about 2.5m, and at several points much narrower. A few times, my 178cm long Ski Trabs scraped over rock on both tip and tail – the couloir was 10-15cm narrower than my skis. Artem’s skis are 14cm longer than mine.
Below this it widened into a 20m wide couloir and remained near 50° almost the whole way down. Artem and I leap-frogged down pausing to let our sluff go by when we could no longer out-ski it. At one place that I stopped, I could reach out and touch the snow beside me while standing upright.
The snow was firm, much as the day before, since the sluff from chopping through the cornice had scrapped off any loose snow, but it was mostly predictable. Nearer to the bottom, some soft snow remained undisturbed and I was able to legitimately out-run my sluff for several turns. Down in the open bowl, we joined Nick and Phil, who had been patiently watching, and skied back down to camp in a few minutes.
My new boots have removed the ankle-slop that apparently limited my skiing ability. The steep skiing of this weekend awoke an old beast in me and inspired a new one. Technical climbing and steep skiing do not have to separate sports, I’ve realized. They are both part of movement across verticality in the mountains. A ski descent down some improbable face is as beautiful and exploratory as a direct climb on an unknown wall. Now I just want to put these two together. It seems as though I’ve found a partner in Artem, too.
With full packs, it only took us about a half hour to get through the forest, down the logging road, and back to the cars. Once again, seven of us piled into my van and headed back down to Vancouver. Thanks to Tim Blair, Jane Millen, Sean McHugh, Erica Lay, Knut Kitching, Piotr, Lena, Nick, Phil, Michal and Artem for an awesome weekend!