Mt Hardy, "Open Fly" couloir - March 25, 2005
While relaxing in the valley bottom after Dave and I skied a route on Mt Hardy last year, I saw another
interesting-looking line just a few hundred yards over. I tried to get a complete view of it,
but because it curved, I could only see the bottom few hundred feet (choked with debris),
and the top bit near the "Nancy Drew" sub-summit, 2000ft higher. In between was a mystery worthy of any ski mountaineer-errant
(apologies to Sky).
A couple of weeks ago, inspired by reports of soft re-crystallized snow on north aspects around Washington Pass, I headed up there again for what turned out to be a recon mission.
Turns out it had rained or got warm and cloudy or something, because even shady north aspects were ice. I managed to dig through the cornice, climbed down a little ways into it and realized (perhaps with some relief) that it would be suicidal to ski it in these conditions. For me anyways. But I got some photos of the enchanting slot to help me convince Dave to come along for a look.
On March 25th, we parked a half mile east of the Easy Pass trailhead, and began hiking up the forest on the east side of the highway. The fresh snow of the past week provided a slippery coating on the forest floor, and it was a few hours before we broke out of the trees. This part of Mt Hardy is becoming like an old friend now - take the gradually opening ridge, skin up onto a small old moraine (?), then onto a flattish bench above a large grove, angling towards the first obstacle - a ridge that you have to hit a just the right spot. Then a traverse through some shrubs above a drop-off to a second ridge, which gives you a view of the final slopes.
On this day the final slopes looked non-trivial. The snow was coming down, and we had entered the clouds - the head on view of steep snow and rock looked formidable through the mist and showers. It might have given us pause had we not known from previous excursions that it was actually an easy hike up. So, putting aside what it looked like, we continued on a side hill traverse to the chute, then straight up a couple hundred feet, crossing over another snow rib into a final broad gully that led to the ridge top. There was a certain satisfaction in having the route-finding well-rehearsed.
But now it was time to head into the unknown - perhaps the fog was going to make the unknown unknowable? I crested the ridge and walked over a pile of rocks to the cornice.
Suddenly, I was falling! I stopped once I reached my hips - ah yes, I remembered this little hole from two weeks ago. Oops. A few more feet and I poked my head over - curiously, the fog was non-existant on this side of the mountain, and the view was clear down the slot.
Yes, the view was clear, and clearly the photos I had taken last time, and been looking at it since, had made it look a lot tamer than it looked now. A few minutes later, Dave arrived, and I invited him over for a look, anxious to see his reaction. "Whoa!"
The little grapefruit-sized piece of snow I had kicked down when walking to the edge turned into a sizeable sluff that careened down the couloir, disappearing as it found its way into the steeper narrow section a few hundred feet down. Hmm. I spent a minute loosening TV-sized chunks of the cornice with my shovel and sending them down, but my grapefruit seemed to have set the standard.
We chilled out nervously at the top for half an hour or so, watched occasional spindrift funnel its way into the slot, and quietly got ready. I offered to go first, on belay to check the snow conditions. Or maybe I am a chicken and just wanted a rope tied to me for my first few turns?
I sat down on the edge, and inched my way in. Then I cut across the wide top of the chute, into the steep almost fluted side walls, made a hard turn, and cut back left, hopping up and down. A couple more turns and I stopped to dig a pit. The snow sheared fairly cleanly off the crust about 18 inches down. Not really what I was hoping for, but I was satisfied with my ski cuts, and the snow was not terribly cohesive.
I took off the rope and Dave reeled it up. Soon he popped over the edge ready to go. He commented that the entrance was steep, and maybe he should just hop it. But I didn't think that was a great idea with me right below, so he mimicked my ungraceful sit start.
Ahh, steep soft snow. That's what it was time to enjoy for the next 2000ft.
Some of the jitters were now melting away, except we were still wondering about the narrow section coming up, which from the entrance had tilted away out of view. Dave went first and it looked good (he fit, anyway).
Soon it was my turn - just barely wide enough for comfortable turns, except in a couple of spots where 10 or 20 feet of side-stepping was required, since our skis butted up against the walls. Dave tried to convince me I should straightline the second spot - that would have been good style for sure, and I was tempted (about 50 feet lower it opened up enough that I might be able to execute a successful turn to check my speed), but decided to do the conservative thing, given the consequences of messing up.
Free from the deep constriction, the slope widened and curved to the left. I finally got a good view down, and saw that we were probably through the toughest spot. The angle became a little less here (I measured 40 degrees, on what we called the "flat" section).
At each rest spot, we stared at each other and smiled, in amazement at the fantastic conditions. It's going to sound like shameless chest-beating, but this was just the most aesthetic route either of us had ever skied, and it wasn't letting up - quality all the way down. Our turns echoed off the orange walls, and carried us down through the powder.
The odd geology of the place made it so that looking down the hallway had white walls, but looking back up everything was orange rock.
Finally, after nearly an hour of skiing in "slot world", without being able to see the ends, the slope veered to the right, and the valley bottom was within sight. Here, the occasional hard chunk of buried debris tried to trip us up, but also the powder became lighter.
About three hundred feet above the valley floor, we cut left out of the debris fan of the couloir, into 10 inches of smooth light powder, bobbing down around covered boulders. We collapsed in happy exhaustion a short ways above the stream bed. I broke out the olives. Dave said: "That was the best run of my life."
With our powder, couloir and food appetites satisfied, our attention now turned to the way out. The most likely way back was the basin to the west, except I was worried about having to skin up shady avy-prone slopes to the ridge top. It was the only option we were willing to consider though, as the others all had rather high suck factors.
At 2pm, we began the skin up a narrow gully. Soon we crested it into a large bowl. There was an impressive amount of debris in the bowl, too much to have come from a snow slough. It appeared to be from the previous weekend's cold snow, lightly covered by just a few inches of fresh snow. A large slab must have been the culprit, although it was unclear from where it had come. A short couloir at the head of the left side of the bowl, with a wide headwall above, seemed to be the most probable place. It made me a little uneasy - would there still be windslab up there?
Our route took us up the right side of the bowl, but in the flat light it was difficult to ascertain the slope angles ahead. A quick pit showed a really good bond to the old crust about a foot down. That helped relax me a bit, and I led the way through stable-feeling snow to the crest of the ridge.
Home free! Only 3200ft to descend back to the highway. The first thousand feet had some nice powder. So did the next thousand feet - unfortunately there was no snowpack to support this tasty topping, so a switch was done to boot mode. At around 6pm, we popped out onto the highway, and the day was done.