Monday, October 11, 2010

-Trip Report- South Baldface: Secret Stashes and Country Clubs (March 2008)

The snowfields on South Baldface
Should you keep a great backcountry spot secret, or should you tell the world about it? 

I've debated for some time whether to blog about South Baldface in New Hampshire.  I've found the culture of backcountry skiers, by and large, to be protective of primo spots.

Some people like the fresh powder that an unskied slope provides.  Others argue that blogging, writing or otherwise publicizing backcountry spots robs others of the adventure and the impression of being the first to ski a particular line or explore a remote mountain.  And finally, there are those who engage in the country club mentality.  They derive a sense of self-importance from believing that they know more than the average Joe about where to find the best backcountry spots- like they are part of some all important exclusive ski club.

Some people were actually pissed when David Goodman came out with the definitive backcountry ski guide for the east coast.  They felt he had given up the goods on all the great backcountry spots.

Well, this crowd may not be too thrilled with this post because I'm about to give up one that Goodman left out of his book.

Anyone who has hiked South Baldface in the summer months knows about the emerald pool and unrelenting climb up open slabs.  These slabs, which provide a cascade of short drops in the summer, fill with snow in the winter leaving a skiable slope all the way from the summit to the shelter.

The winter of 2008 was an excellent winter for snow.  The snowbanks lining the road to the South Baldface trailhead were well over 8 feet high.  Gered and I had driven from Portland while the snow was still falling, and so we made slow progress.  When we turned off of Route 302 it was almost 11 a.m.

The snow piles under the eaves of the local houses were so high you could barely see the front windows.  The night before, and into the morning, about eight inches of fresh powder had fallen.  The trailhead was recently plowed, although it hadn't been cleared that morning.  We backed into a spot and loaded our packs. Memories of my first trip to Baldface, where I had lugged a 40 pound pack of unnecessary gear up and over South Baldface had me in minimalist mode.

Bow before your snowy overlord
After we geared up, we realized we hadn't seen the actual trail, so we started looking.  We climbed the snowbank on the far side of the road, and spent the better part of fifteen minutes searching the nearby woods.  When we finally located it, a good 200 yards down the road, we were relieved to see that there had already been some traffic up the mountain.  In fact, one of the parties ahead of us had brought a pulk, mercifully packing down the trail.

Hood down, skins on.
Gered, who had put his skis on his pack and donned snowshoes, made a series of critical mistakes.  His skis were too high off of his pack, and he managed to knock the snow off every tree on his way up the trail.  Having failed to put his hood up, the snow poured down his neck.  This came back to haunt him later.  All that snow down the back of his neck became a wet back, and ultimately led to a very cold night.  To this day, he swears that was the coldest night of his life.

In the meantime, I cruised up the mountain on my skins.

About half way up the trail, the pulk had peeled off onto a side trail.  A pair of snowshoers had continued up toward the shelter, but stopped about a quarter mile short.  Up to that point we had made pretty good time.

The last quarter mile of our trip was a brutal slog.  Even with skis and snowshoes we sunk down to our knees in the snow.  By the time we reached the shelter below the ledges, it was late afternoon.

Snow-covered shelter
We spent what daylight we had left shoveling off the roof of the shelter, which was grossly overloaded.  We also set up our tent and boiled water for dinner: dehydrated chili.

My tent, an EMS Headwall, fits two people comfortably.  It is solid in the wind, which was crucial because the wind HOWLED all night.  This, however, was the last winter camping trip I've taken the Headwall on because of its 8 pound uphill tax.  The Kiva (aka Charlie Brown's Anus) is less than half that weight, with more space.

Even though we slept in the tent, the shelter was a welcome convenience because it provided a place to cook and arrange gear without having to sit on the snow. The open front, however, would have made for a cold and windy night.

The next morning was glorious.  Clear blue skies, fresh powder, and most importantly: an outhouse.  After dehydrated breakfast egg soup (ugh... first and last time) we immediately set out for some runs down the ledges above the shelter, zig-zagging our way up the first snowfield.

Looking across the lower snowfield.
I should mention that Gered and I were still pretty stupid when it came to avalanche awareness at this point in our backcountry skiing career.  We hadn't learned to identify all the classic avalanche risk factors:  large recent snowfall, northeast facing slope, 35 degree slope angle, and wind loading.  Almost all of these were in play that day- with the exception of slope angle.

When I jumped into my first turn, the large triangle of snow between my last set of zig zags slid downward as one solid block with me on top.  Luckily it stopped as quickly as it started.  It hadn't been steep enough to sustain the slide.  Spooked, I made a wide turn into some scrub brush to the edge of the snowfield.

Somehow we convinced ourselves that the ledges had enough brush and other obstacles so that the avalanche danger was mitigated.  Faced with this situation again, I might have skipped the open snowfields and stuck to glade skiing.

Justin, our snowboarding friend takes cover
When our snowshoeing friends arrived around noon,  we headed back up to the ledges.  This time we pressed on above where we had turned around on our first attempt.  As we got higher, the angle became steeper, and the wind stronger.   As we neared the top of the ledges the snowcover became thinner.  The wind had scoured it down to icy hardpack.  We were forced to stop  as we hadn't brought our crampons.   In better conditions there were still several hundred yards of skiable snowfilelds above us. 

After stopping at the lean-to on the way back down to pick up our gear, we started on the trail back to the cars.  The glades next to the trail are some of the best hiking-trail skiing around.  The trails are wide enough for linking turns, and there are several steep glades just off of the trail.   All said, I loved South Baldface and can't wait to go back.

So why then, would I want to blog about it?  Why give up such a great ski stash?

Gered: The Telemarking Angel of Death
For me, I think there are plenty of spots for the lot of us out there.  Goodman, for his part, has helped to introduce many novice skiers to the backcountry- including myself.  The growth of the backcountry ski community helps all of us interested in protecting the areas that we've skied, and those that we haven't.

Furthermore, even though a blog entry makes it clear that South Baldface or Mount Washington have been skied before (big surprise), with every new snowfall there are new conditions, a new line, and a new canvas waiting to be skied.

Now that I've let the secret out, be sure to check it out.  Just make sure you leave a little teepee in the outhouse for the other backcountry skiers.

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