We almost did a little skiing at Stowe on Thursday this week, but it was just starting to rain when we stopped in at the mountain around midday, and with E and the boys a bit under the weather, we decided to hold off. The weather was much better today, so we headed up to Mansfield in the afternoon to make a few turns. Temperatures were up around 50 F in the mountain valleys, and the sky was a mix of clouds and sun, so it seemed like a reasonable spring skiing day. It was only in the 40s F at the base of the mountain, but that was still more than warm enough to soften up the slopes.
One item of note today was that it was E’s first chance to try out her new Telemark ski boots that she bought a couple of weeks ago. After almost six seasons of using the $50 boots that she picked up at the South Burlington Ski Swap, it was finally time to up the fit and performance level of her Telemark footwear. Her boots had always been just a bit on the large side, and she’d just either worn some thicker socks or dealt with the minor inconvenience, but when she got some fatter Telemark skis this season (Black Diamond Element) with a width of 115 mm underfoot, the fit became a real concern. There weren’t any serious issues in untracked powder, but as firmer or more uneven surfaces were encountered, the slop in the boot was clearly making things difficult. Relative to a narrow-waisted ski, getting a wide ski like that on edge takes more pressure, and if you don’t have a snug fit in your boot, you’re potentially going to have problems when you encounter groomed or other firm surfaces. Since I have the standard, slightly stiffer version of her ski (Black Diamond AMPerage) I could feel the extra force required to get the ski up on edge when encountering groomed surfaces, but I found the inconvenience fairly trivial in a good-fitting boot. With that in mind, E got a gift certificate from Outdoor Gear Exchange for her birthday last month so the she could go and get the boot that she liked best without thinking about the price; she’s more than paid her dues the past six seasons in her current boots. E’s birthday has always been timely for ski-related gear, and as is typical, all the current boots are on sale now that we’re near the end of the ski season. After a solid boot-fitting session with one of the associates, she found the Scarpa Women’s T2 Eco to be the perfect fit. It’s a three-buckle boot with a power strap, similar to my Garmont Garas. It looks like they’ll be a great boot for the combination of lift-served and backcountry skiing that we do. It’s also interesting to note that Scarpa T2s were the Telemark boots we tried back in 2002 at Lost Trail Powder Mountain in Montana on our first day of Telemark skiing ever. We had no other reference at that point, but liked the boots a lot.
“As for conditions on the hill, they were a mixture of corn snow bordering on loose granular at the very top, which blended to a softer corn snow below.”
As for conditions on the hill, they were a mixture of corn snow bordering on loose granular at the very top, which blended to a softer corn snow below. I enjoyed the snow a lot, being able to really bite in and carve, although Ty and Dylan felt like they were being pushed around in the soft snow at times. The major downside I found today was that it wasn’t quite warm enough to really soften up the subsurface to where I like it, so there were occasional encounters with firm patches. Both boys were still feeling the effects of being under the weather this week and they didn’t really have their usual levels of energy. With the combination of low energy and what they found to be challenging snow, they ended up going pretty minimal on the number of Telemark turns they made. They stuck with alpine most of the time, but at least they got a bit of Tele practice and were out in the fresh air.
E immediately noticed the security and stability in her new boots. They were noticeably harder to flex than her old boots, but of course these are new, and her old ones must have seen a decade worth of ski seasons… and they had cracks in the bellows as well. The rigidity and support in her new boots must be light years ahead of what she had. E was quite impressed with the increased control she had with the new boots, she said that she could feel the soft snow wanting to push her skis around, but she could overpower that more easily and direct her skis wherever she wanted. She said that she couldn’t do that to nearly the same degree with her old boots.
By our second run, temperatures seemed like they were cooling, because the snow was beginning to tighten up near the summit of the Fourrunner Quad. By that point the boys had had enough skiing anyway, as they were feeling tired. One can always tell when Ty is tired, because he’ll take a seat or lie down when we stop on the trail. He used to do that a lot when he was much younger since he didn’t have any stamina, but if we see it frequently now, we know he’s getting tapped out. We did finish that next run on quite a high note by catching some untracked corn snow on Lower Gulch. Those were some very smooth turns. On a weather-related note, we were very surprised to find that it was actually snowing at times this afternoon, despite the fairly warm temperatures. Clearly some colder air has moved in at the higher elevations to support the snow we saw, because that’s the only type of precipitation that fell.
So E had a great experience with her new boots today, and I think it’s going to be interesting as she tries them out under different conditions, and eventually on her fat, powder skis. It seems like they’re going to give her much more control, but we’ll just have to see what the combination of boots and skis is like. I realize now that after checking them out more closely, that her old boots are actually only a two-buckle model with a power strap; they seem like they might be some Scarpa T3s, and an old well-used T3 from a decade ago is going to be a dramatically different boot than a modern T2. I’m sure we’ll have more boot updates as we move ahead in the spring skiing season.
I just found today that Lost Trail was having a Telemark demo day on Saturday, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to try Tele skiing for the 1st time. E and I had to take care of some things in Missoula in the morning, but we got home as soon as we could and headed to Lost Trail. This meant that we didn’t arrive until after 2:00 P.M., but that’s the nice thing about having a season’s pass. In the past few days, Lost Trail has received about a foot of new snow, so conditions were excellent.
As it turns out, a local Missoula Telemark/outdoor store known as Pipestone was running the demos, everything was free and they had tons of equipment. They were really friendly, and asked us if we had ever Tele skied before, which we hadn’t. From there they set us up with some boots (turns out they were Scarpa T2) and skis (180 cm Atomic TM 22). They gave us a couple of pointers and we headed off to the bunny slope.
We had figured that learning Tele skiing would be like learning to snowboard, so we anticipated spending the rest of the day (about an hour or so) on the bunny slope. I had only tried Telemark style turns on my Nordic equipment, which was pretty unstable, so I figured it would take a while to find balance, as I trust these guys’ report on these matters. Well, this wasn’t the case on this setup. The boots were really stable, and after a couple of turns it already started to get fun. When we got to the bottom of the bunny slope, we contemplated grabbing the rope tow back up to the top, but decided things were going smoothly enough to head on down to chair 2 via the long green slope known as Drifter. We were a little concerned about a short blue pitch on this trail, but soon found out the increased pitch actually helped! Conditions were nice and soft, and the skis bit right in.
After the short blue pitch, we mellowed out to green again, and kept refining our tele-turns. At first during my turns, my back ski was sort of skittish (E didn’t have this problem and I was jealous), so I figured I should put some more weight on it. Shifting the weight back just a smidge took care of that problem, and let the skis act like one big edge in a carve. It really is a lot like Alpine skiing in a slightly different stance. Over at the edge of the trail there was about a foot of nice light powder, so I figured I’d take a shot in there and see what it felt like…
Oooh man was that sweet! (drool)
My favorite part was the feeling of the powder washing up against the knee of my back leg (this is the knee that gets really low). It was just like everyone always says about skiing powder Tele style, you really get down in it. E saw me over there and jumped in herself. After that pitch, she said “Wow, that was like being one with the snow!” We were both giggling like a couple of nuts. We finished off the trail, grabbing a few more stashes of powder and worked on smoothing out the turns and the transitions in between. We got on the lift and it was non-stop chatter about what it was like to ski on Telemark skis.
Since that trail had gone so well, we decided to hit something a bit steeper and headed off in the direction of North Bowl/Speedway (mild blue in steepness). There was lots of nice cut up powder here and we started to really get the hang of turning. Things got a bit faster and we (OK maybe I) got a bit louder. We finished off the trail with a short stash of untracked in some small evergreens. The powder was light and heavenly and we wanted more!
Our time was growing short, and we had just enough time for one more run. We decided to go for the trifecta and hit a black trail. We chose Thunder, a standard black run with a few hundred verts of moguls that should be enough to give of the feeling of Telemarking in bumps. In my first few turns, I found my weight shifting back and I had to rescue myself by finishing off the turn Alpine style (this was actually more of a reflex action than a conscious decision). I was watching E, and she was doing the same thing. We redoubled our efforts to stay in the Tele stance through the whole turn, and gradually improved. By the end of the bumps we were both connecting turns well in Tele stance the whole way. It’s a little different than skiing bumps on Alpines because your footprint is larger, but I found that if I hopped from stance to stance, I could quicken up the turns.
Unfortunately, Warren Miller’s new movie “Cold Fusion” wasn’t playing in Missoula this year. Although it was showing in a number of places in Montana and Idaho, all of them were at least three hours away, which meant a substantial road trip. With this in mind, we decided that it would be great to combine a trip to see the movie with some actual skiing. In order to give the snowpack a chance to build up (or even exist as the case was), we decided on the latest showing in the area, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho on December 1st.
As the day approached, it looked as though there wouldn’t be any skiing on our trip, but once we hit Thanksgiving, the snow started to fall. Things still weren’t certain however, as even just two days before our designated date, none of the areas had opened for skiing. Finally however, the base depths piled up to over 40 inches, and all three areas set opening dates, Schweitzer and Lookout on Friday (Nov 30th), and Silver on Saturday (Dec 1st). Silver had already been our frontrunner due to its location, but the chance to hit it on opening day and score some untracked powder sealed the deal.
We left at 5:00 A.M. in the dark, and found good road conditions through most of Montana. Once we approached Idaho however, the weather began to deteriorate (or actually get better if you’re a skier) due to an approaching storm. We crossed over the first pass on I-90 (Lookout Pass – elevation 4,725′) and the snow was really coming down. The road was snow covered and we had to go a bit slowly. Some trucks appeared to be using chains as well. Although it was snowing at a good clip and conditions were cloudy, I was amazed at how long it was taking for the sun to come up (it was already after 7:30 A.M.). I was thinking about how this wasn’t actually all that unusual since we are at the very western edge of the Mountain time zone, when something occurred to me… Lookout Pass marks the boundary between the states of Idaho and Montana, but it also marks the boundary between the Mountain and Pacific time zones! We had forgotten to calculate this fact into our plans, which meant that our timing was now an hour off. Fortunately it meant that we were an hour early, and as you’ll see, we were going to need it.
Once we dropped down from Lookout Pass (also the location of the Lookout Pass Ski Area), the snow began to lighten up, and eventually changed over to mix/rain as we approached the town of Kellogg, Idaho (elevation 2,305′). Silver Mountain Resort is located just outside of Kellogg, and the bottom lift of Silver is literally just off the interstate. Silver Mountain has an interesting lift setup. A gondola ascends from Kellogg, and brings you up to the base of the ski area (Silver Mountain Base is 4,100′). As a bit of trivia, Silver reports that this gondola is the longest single-stage people carrier in the world at 3.1 miles.
The gondola was slated to open at 8:00 A.M., with the other lifts opening at 9:00 A.M., so with our extra hour (it was now 7:30 A.M. Pacific) we were styling for some fresh tracks. We wandered over to the gondola base terminal to get a look around and check on tickets, when we were slapped with some horrible news. Due to high winds up on the mountain (>50 mph) the mountain was not opening today! Noooo! It was almost like a nightmare. We met one of the employees as we walked back to our car, and he said that he was heading over to Lookout Pass to ski, they WOULD be open today. It seemed like a great idea, with Lookout being on 20-30 minutes away. We headed over to the Super 8 motel where we intended to spend the evening. It’s located literally right below the Silver Mountain gondola, and seems like a great place to stay if you are doing an overnighter at Silver. It was obvious that the motel catered to skiers, as they had the local snow report plastered right on the front desk. In addition to the three areas that we had considered for skiing, it also contained snow reports for two other local ski areas in Washington State, Mt. Spokane, and 49 Degrees North. All the areas had received about a foot of snow in the past 24 hours, with 10-20 inches in the past 48 hours. It wouldn’t be hard to find a place with fresh snow.
We finished checking in and considered our skiing options. I could only imagine the number of people that were going to arrive at Silver for opening day, and get turned away. It seemed like poor little Lookout Pass would get swamped. Since we had our extra hour, we decided to go the extra distance to Schweitzer. The locals said it took about an hour or so to get there. Schweitzer was also in the general direction of Coeur d’Alene, so it would work out with regards to seeing the “Cold Fusion” ski movie.
Soon we were on our way again, heading west on I-90. The next pass we had to go over was Fourth of July Pass (elevation 3,019′). Even with this small increase in elevation, the rain changed back to snow and picked up in intensity. The snow stayed with us all the way down into Coeur d’Alene (elevation 2,157′) and kept up as we headed north to Sandpoint, the major town near Schweitzer. Numerous cars were off the road due to the heavy snow, and our going was again quite slow. Even when we finally reached the access road for Schweitzer, our journey was nowhere near done.
The access road for Schweitzer seems like enough of a challenge on a fair weather day, rising almost 2000 feet and containing some interesting hairpin turns, but in the middle of a storm it was a big obstacle. The new snow had brought down a bunch of trees, some of which fell onto the road. Although the major ones had been removed, a lot of debris remained and slowed the going up the hill. This combined with the slippery conditions, and some cars that couldn’t quite make it, slowed the flow of traffic even more. When we finally reached the Schweitzer village (3,910′) the traffic ground to a halt as the attendants attempted to park everyone. As we wound our way up and down around the village in the middle of the snowstorm, the frustration of crawling along in traffic was fortunately augmented by the thrill of exploring a new ski area. By the time we finally parked, in some crazy little parking zone of the village, we had no idea where we were. All told, I bet we spent more than an hour from the base of the access road until we actually parked. We were clueless, but there was tons of new snow, it was still puking more, and we were going to ski some powder as we explored an entirely new resort to us. Who can complain about that?
We were lucky enough to catch a shuttle from our parking area towards the direction of the base lodge, but even the shuttle couldn’t get all the way there due to the slippery roads. We eventually got off and followed the line of people walking towards what we hoped was the base lodge, but we could hardly see a thing in the heavy snowfall. There was a line for tickets, which worried me about crowds, but as it turned out, crowds wouldn’t be an issue at all. I looked up at some of the slopes that were close enough to be seen, and saw that they were deserted. As it turned out, there was all the untracked powder you could want and more… if you could ski it.
We caught one of the main lifts from the base, and headed up. We decided to take an easy cruiser to warm up, and that worked great until we passed a sparse area of trees on our left. All I could see were acres of untracked snow, not even a hint of a track anywhere. Who could resist it? Jumping into the glade, everything suddenly became clear, the skiing was unlike anything I had experienced before. We were essentially skiing on virgin snow, most of which had fallen in the past couple of weeks, with absolutely NO base. We’re talking four feet or so of unpacked powder, and this wasn’t the champagne that you’d find in Utah or Colorado, or Vermont in midwinter, this was 10% H2O+ Pacific Northwest material. Happily, this meant that there was no concern about hitting the ground below, but boy was it hard to ski. If you didn’t keep up your speed and plane on top, you bogged down in the mire, and had to extract yourself and start again. The blue pitch that we were on was nowhere near steep enough to keep us going (and as I found out later, even a pitch of 35 degrees wasn’t enough), so it was time for a reassessment. Off to the left, the trees dropped away at a pitch that looked like 40 degrees, nice and steep. However, the slope only got steeper and simply seemed to disappear. Although I wanted to see if the slope was steep enough to keep moving, it didn’t seem too wise to dive into unknown steeps, especially with this crazy snow. Instead, we traversed our way back to the trail, a very slow process indeed. Even just traversing it was difficult to keep your balance, and you didn’t dare fall over because getting out meant a Lot of work. E fell once at the end of the traverse, just fell to the side slightly. I took her 10-15 minutes to dig herself out. We now understood why the powder was so untracked.
Making our way back to the trails, we decided to figure out this snow in a slightly more forgiving setting. The powder on the groomed runs was at least chopped up, and made things a bit easier, but not entirely. As we worked our way down a black trail with a pitch of around 25-30 degrees, I looked around and noticed that every other single person on the trail was buried in the snow searching for their skis, in the process of falling, or getting up from a fall. Any yearning I’d had for my snowboard was removed after I’d seen enough snowboarders floundering in the powder unable to extract themselves, and then struggle to even get moving again. This was obviously challenging snow. Fortunately, the option of skiing the chopped up areas, then diving into the untracked to experiment, really paid off, and we were soon figuring some things out. Planing on top worked the best, which meant that you had to maintain speed. If you tried to turn too aggressively, it meant the pressure would push you down in the mire. Keeping a uniform platform of two skis was imperative. If you weighted one ski even slightly more than the other, down it would go into the deep and you were in trouble. If you did break the plane of the surface few inches and start to dive, shifting your weight rearward seemed to be the best defense. It was like walking a tightrope of powder-skiing technique. The tolerances were so tight, that normal lapses in technique that one could get away with meant the difference between powder skiing bliss and stuck in the deep (or worse). Anyway, it’s not easy to describe the conditions in words, but they were weird enough to be worth of a couple of paragraphs of effort.
As the day wore on, we explored more of the mountain and found some fun places to work out technique for the snow. The mountain is composed of two main areas, the front side, called Schweitzer Bowl, and the back side, called Outback Bowl. Most of the mountain was open, except for a few steep places that seemed to require avalanche control, and a couple of upper lift sections where the wind was just howling too fiercely to allow people to go up (it was easy to see at this point why Silver Mountain was closed). Thus, we unloaded at the mid station. We actually found some of our best turns on a blue trail called Midway on the front side of the mountain. The wind seemed to have hit it just right so that the snow was a little more compacted, allowing you to sink in only a foot or so and maintain speed. We found a nice area of untracked and worked it for a few laps. We explored the Outback Bowl area, and ate our lunches at a lodge there called the Outback Inn. It was a nice quiet place, but they didn’t have fries, only baked potatoes or “Spuds” as they called them. Seems like an Idaho thing.
By 2:30 P.M. (Pacific Time) it was already starting to get dark (due to a combination of the snowy sky, location in the time zone, and latitude) and we knew we didn’t have many runs left. We enjoyed a couple more on Midway and then decided that we’d better find our car that was buried somewhere in the midst of the village. We put our heads together and gave it our best shot, which turned out to be right on the mark. We skied onto the lower green trails on the front side of the mountain, then hopped onto the street and skied some more. Eventually things started to look familiar and we found the car, in much less time than we had feared.
The snow had lightened up a bit, and the drive out was much easier than the one getting in. As we dropped back down towards Sandpoint, the sky had even cleared a bit in the valley, although a huge mass of clouds still hung over the mountain. We stopped in Coeur d’Alene for a bite to eat and then headed to the Warren Miller movie at the local college (Northern Idaho College I believe). The movie was classic Warren Miller, although the second half seemed to end very quickly. A quick trip down I-90 brought us back to Kellogg where we spent the night.
The next morning was a true test of priorities, as we awoke to clear blue skies, and a gondola outside our door heading up to a newly opened ski area with gobs of bottomless fresh powder. I knew better than to put off the stuff we had to do, but if E had caved I would have done it. I could tell she was tempted as well, but we finally agreed that Silver Mountain would have to wait until another day. As we drove away, I tried not to look up at the pristine slopes (and fortunately they are hidden from view much of the time).