Tuesday, May 4, 2010

-Trip Report- Whitewall: Abundance of Caution (January 2010)

                                                      Going Ninja on Whitewall

The thermometer registered 9 degrees above zero as we pulled into the parking lot.

It was already 7 pm and dark.  The plan was to get up to Zealand Notch, camp overnight, ski Whitewall in the morning and then possibly ski Mt. Hale on the way back in the afternoon.  We calculated a total distance (round trip) of around 12 miles-- even without a trip up to the top of Mt. Hale it was ambitious.  Gered and I had already spent the better part of the afternoon braving high winds and zamboni grade ice at Cannon Mountain.  Our legs were tired and our spirits were low.  And we still had a long two days ahead of us.

It had dropped to 8 degrees above zero when we peeled out of the parking lot and down the road to a local pub. The answer to our low morale was obviously to be found in a cheeseburger and a pint of Trout River Red.  Unfortunately our refueling point was closer to the AMC Highland Lodge than the Zealand trailhead.  So when we finished, and still in our weakened state, we managed to convince ourselves that sleeping in the unheated bunkhouse was still an adventure.  And so we drove over to the AMC flagship.

All we needed to do was check in at the front desk.

Fortunately, between us and night in the bunkhouse stood a very annoying woman who was interrogating the poor AMC employee on how much of the $30 nightly fee went toward breakfast, and how much was for the shelter.  I listened to about five minutes of this until I looked at Gered and we marched out the door into the frigid January wind with a steely new resolve to get away from civilization.

And so it was 7 degrees above zero when we pulled back into the tailhead parking lot, loaded our bags, turned on our head lamps and headed out on Zealand Road on skis.

I was a little worried with my ski choice.  I had opted to go with Rudy, and instead of using skins, I chose to use temperature wax for grip.  My last long distance trip with Rudy was a disaster.  Hopefully, with wax instead of skins, I could glide more easily, and avoid a repeat of the Carter Notch debacle. 

The trail up to Zealand Notch runs along an unplowed road for about 4 miles, then another 2 miles on a low grade rail bed.  This was similar to the distance that we had covered when we tried to ski up to Carter Notch a couple years earlier.  I could have chosen my longer, and faster Karhu skis, however I wanted to be able to ski the steep slopes of Whitewall without worrying about tight turns.

I was pleasantly surprised when I cruised up the first hill without much slipping and sliding. Gered and I flew along, following a narrow track up the middle of the unplowed road.  We doused the lights and chugged along in the dark.

Despite our fast pace, it seemed like Zealand Road was twice as long as I remembered.  We finally reached the summer parking area, and several hundred yards further up the trail we found a flat area to camp.  Gered set to work preparing a kitchen area while I stamped out a tent platform.

My Mountain Hardware Kiva Lite tent has become the staple for our winter camping.  With room for three, it is the perfect size for two people with gear.  It is extremely light, but because it has five sides (and I'm an idiot with spacial relations), it can be a challenge to set up.  Often I can't get all the sides pulled tight so it tends to sag, which led to the initial nickname of "Charlie Brown" (as in the sad looking tree from the yearly Christmas special).  However, after a particularly long night of enduring Gered's bowel creations, I laid there staring up into the crinkled, orange ceiling, and with a vague idea of what a colonoscopy looks like, I decided to rename it "Charlie Brown's Anus".

We fired up the stove,  had a  warm drink, a power bar  and quickly fell asleep.  Despite the frigid temperatures, and being slightly damp from overheating on the trip in, I slept like a baby all night.

The next morning, we left most of the gear with the tent, had a cold breakfast and started out toward Zealand Notch.  The Zealand Hut was buzzing with hikers by mid morning and greeted a group that was heading out toward Thoreau Falls.  This was a relief, as we would not have to break the mile or so of trail over to Whitewall.  We lingered at the Hut for a warm drink and admired our goal across the notch.

                                      View from the Zealand Hut Porch with Whitewall on the left

We found a few turns on the hill below the hut, and navigated the narrow, and winding trail toward Whitewall.  As we struggled through the woods, I was reminded of the Carter trip.  The short ups and downs, twists around trees, and over blowdowns were too much for the wax.  I slipped, slid, skidded my way the last mile or so to Whitewall.

We finally emerged from the woods and admired the large, open snow fields above us.  A scattering of rocks, with an occasional bush broke the untouched face of the mountain.

There had been a big dump of snow in the notch in the week prior to our trip there, and so we were unsure if the snowpack had settled.  We decided to dig snow pits so we could check the stability of the slope, and to make use of the shovels we had just schlepped for six miles.

                                                          I don't like hidden rocks.

The Rutschbock Test involves isolating a column of snow then stepping onto the column to find out how easily it slides.  It does not involve describing how you feel about the block, or what you think that the block represents.  It does show you, however, how easily the snow moves, and it also gives you a better look at the different layers of snow.

Both Gered and I dug our pits and got the same result.  Stepping on the column didn't cause a release, but a small jump caused it to shear off.  The fact it took a jump was an indication of strong cohesion between all layers: this is a good thing. However, the layer that was left on top was smooth, as opposed to rough.  This was a bad sign, as it showed an entire layer failed in unison: an indication of strong propagation.

There were a number of other negative factors.  The slope angle (between 35-40 degrees)was ideal for avalanches.  This in combination with a large recent snowfall,  sand ome areas that looked wind loaded with additional snow, made us wary.  The fact we had no avalanche beacons, and were long way from help also didn't help.  We contrasted this with some positives:  indications of strong cohesion between snow layers, terrain features to hold snow in place, a southwest facing slope (as opposed to avalanche prone northeast facing slopes), and whiskey.

Unfortunately there just wasn't enough whiskey to overcome the negatives, and so we packed up our shovels and headed home.  As a consolation prize we skied powder along the rail bed back to Zealand Road, and eventually found our way back to the car.

Whitewall would have to wait for another year. 


  1. boston globe reporting on our failure: BC skiiers get F'd in Charlie Brown's Anus.

    i have a few colorful adjectives to add to your description of the women at the AMC desk. but you are a lawyer and they would probably get you disbarred.

  2. I'm sure she's too busy reading Harpy Weekly to read my blog.

  3. yikes if those are "open" snow fields I'd hate to see the brushy ones