Thursday, August 18, 2011

-Trip Report- North Tri-Pyramid Slide (February 2009)

A glimpse of the slide.

There is a serene beauty that envelops you on a winter night in the mountains: a clear sky, a fresh foot of snow softening your surroundings, and the silence of a hardwood forest asleep for the winter.  These are the peaceful memories that sustain you during a stressful day at the office.  It helps however, when you edit out the “port-a-potty on game day” smell of the inside of your tent.

Night closing in.
Gered and I arrived at the Livermore Road parking area in the far corner of Waterville Valley in the waning afternoon light, keenly aware of our late start.  As the hordes of cross country skiers loaded their skis to head home, we stuffed gear into the only remaining nooks and crannies of our already full packs.  Even with a 80 liter Kathmandu pack, I was struggling to find space.  The down slippers made the cut, and so did the crampons, but the snowshoes went back into the trunk.  After all, I was growing up as a backcountry skier.  Luxuries like snowshoes were a thing of the past:  mere training wheels. It was time to learn how to navigate tight trails and blow-downs on my skis. 

For this trip I had chosen my long distance horses, the Karhu XCD's.  Nearly 200cm in length, I was trading maneuverability for speed.  This was a good deal for the first part of the trip as we flew up the wide-open and groomed Livermore Road to the edge of the National Forest.  After leaving Livermore Road we broke new trail up Livermore Trail in what was fast becoming night.  By the time we reached the junction with Tripyramid Trail, we had donned our headlamps.

The next 500 feet of our trip took us the better part of an hour.  The trail steeply descended to the half-frozen, but snow covered Avalanche Brook.  We tried removing our skis to navigate the crossing, however we sunk deep into the snow.  Even after we managed to get across the half-frozen brook on our skis, the far side was even steeper than the side we had just descended.  This made for an almost impossible climb.  When my skis weren’t stuck under a crust, evergreen branches lurking just below the surface trapped the tips making it impossible for me to lift my legs.  Eventually we managed to climb to the top of the other side of the ravine.  Exhausted, and with the temperature dropping steadily under a clear sky, we decided to search for a flat spot to set up camp.
I found him like this in the middle of the night.

I stamped out a tent platform in the snow with my skis while Gered shoveled a kitchen into the deep snow.  We were surrounded by an old growth glen of hardwoods just below North Tripyramid.  The widely spaced trees and lack of foliage gave us a clear view of the crisp night sky.  As the cold quickly descended we ate our meal, and climbed into the warm dry reverie of Charlie Brown’s Anus. 

Maybe the tuna with dinner was a bad idea.  Maybe Pemmican really means “smelly hobo” in Mohawk.  Or maybe those fiber filled dates on the trip up were colon bombs, but my poor old Kiva earned its nickname that night.  It’s hard to fathom how only millimeters of thin cloth can separate the smell of sheer horror from pure, crisp, refreshing February air.  Despite the stench I slept solidly, rousing in the night to take a leak.  It was at that late hour that I had one of those “zen” moments.  As I stood there in the cold night air, with brilliant stars above, and the sound of the wind washing over the top of the mountain, I felt at peace.  Those moments only last so long, though, when it’s about 0 degrees Fahrenheit.  A few bites of chocolate and some water and I was back to sleep.  In the morning we packed light, leaving the tents, for our attempt at the slide.

After some shots of cinnamon whisky and more smelly hobo snacks we were on our way to the slide.  The trail ran along the bottom of a steep slope covered with old growth hardwoods.  Guarded by evergreen scrub on both sides, the slide met us on this approach trail.  Narrow at the bottom, the slide opens as it moves higher onto Tripyramid.  It also gets exponentially steeper.  There was more than a foot of fresh snow on the slide as we trudged upward.  As it grew steeper we cut switchbacks, moving back and forth across the slide.  As we passed the half-way point, the snow became even deeper and combined with the steepness of the slide it was increasingly difficult to move upward.  Any steps we cut into the snow collapsed down onto the lower switchback.  A steeper angled cut simply caused us to slide backwards.  When we removed our skis and attempted to boot pack upward we post-holed up to our armpits.  Satisfied that we weren’t going to get any higher, and under a deadline to return to civilization that afternoon, we abandoned our dreams of standing triumphantly on top of the slide, and decided to ski the bottom half.
Cutting switchbacks near the bottom.

This guy had his own teepee.
Now remember where I said earlier that my 200cm skis were a “good deal”.  Well, in the deep snow on the steep and narrow slide the deal equalized.  With their sub 80mm waist and extra camber the Karhus are far from a powder ski.  It took a lot of leaning backward and leap turning to navigate downward.  After some laborious turns we decided to cut through the evergreen scrub and into the hardwood glades above the return trail.  We soon wished we had abandoned the slide sooner.  With more room to move we sailed through the glades, carving turns between large maples and back to our camp. 

After packing up we flew down the Livermore Trail back to Livermore Road and to our car.

This is the point in the story where we get a stern avalanche lecture.  You’ll notice that nowhere in this yarn did I mention digging a pit to assess the snow’s stability.  This was despite the fact that there was over a foot of fresh snow on the slide, and unconsolidated snow up to our armpits. In fact, looking back on it now, our collapsing switchbacks were a bad sign.  We were probably lucky that we couldn’t make it higher onto the slide.  As it was, we were taking a huge risk without really thinking about the danger.  Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.  If you ever make a trip up to the North Tripyramid Slide, you MUST assess the snow’s stability (preferably not at the base of the slide where it runs out).  The glades, which in some respects were better than the slide itself, would have been a much safer playground that day.

So the North Tri-Pyramid slide remains unfinished business for me.  I hope to return someday with enough time to ski the slide, as well as play around in the glades.   Although next time I think I’ll leave the dates at home.

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