Mounting tricks

As has been explored previously here, my tastes in ski gear (well, most gear, actually) is rather idiosyncratic.  Driven by an overvaluation of simplicity and aesthetics, and at the moment, a strong need for affordability.  I say all this as a sort of disclaimer: take my advice, and you may consider yourself misled down the road.

This evening I set out to change the binding setup on our 167cm K2 Summit Superlights.  Great little skis.  Bought ’em new right as we were moving up to Montana for 100 bucks.  I say “our” because with three pin bindings M (women’s size 7.5-8) and I (men’s size 11-11.5) can ski the same skis without futzing around and changing anything.

I started out mounting plain Voile Mountaineer bindings on them, then in early 2009 added some 15mm risers.  After using the Marquettes without risers, but with Voile wedges (an ancient piece of gear, pictured above, that the folks at RMO still have in the back room), I began to reconsider the conventional wisdom, namely that risers add leverage for turning, and are necessary to prevent binding drag on the snow while turning.

Epoxied-in screws need heat to facilitate removal.  A soldering iron on the head for a few minutes does the trick.

The Marquettes are, at 130mm underfoot, wider than the Mountaineers.  I’m currently of the opinion that a binding closer to the snow surface provides a nicer feel, and that wedges serve too purposes: the first is to alleviate the effects of rocker launch, the second to provide a bit of forward resistance when going downhill.


You see, I don’t tele (yet).  I do parallel turns in freeheel gear.  Silly, one might say.  Simple and cheap, sez I.  In any case, I’m sure my “technique” has developed in all sorts of aberrant ways as a result.  For my sort of skiing rocker launch is bad (I notice instep fatigue skiing hardpack), and having the toes ramp up to provide something to push against as you go downhill seems like it should be good, too.  Heel rise might be silly in all shoes, and certainly in ski boots, when you’re to a certain extent fighting directly against gravity.

First rule of ski-teching: measure three times, drill once.  Second rule: have a good beer handy.

So I pulled the risers and remounted the Mountaineers on wedges.  We’ll see how that goes.  The method I’ve evolved for drilling skis, back when all I had was a dremel, was to drill first with a 1/8″ bit, then tap that hole with a 5mm tap.  In this case I just had to drill out the epoxy in the old holes.

I like softish boots and short climbing wires (the metal wires are flipped up and back on steep hills to provide a better platform).  Those are Voile’s shortest (48mm).  My latest ski innovation, however, are anti-ice tapes for the heel pads.  Back on Friday the wet snow on Brown Mountain built up underfoot and stuck to the pads, which made skiing harder than it needed to be.  It tapes work for the toe pieces, why not for the heel?  These are bits of old anti-ice tape glued on with Shoe-Goo.  Very effective, and on all my skis now.

Now we just need some snow.

Alternate Entertainment

I have some work that must be done on MLK day, so cut time by going skiing this morning.  Brown Mountain lookout trail in GNP.  TH at 3.4k, lookout at 7.5, rain/snow line at 5.9.  As one of my Juneau-raised co-workers said, vintage SE Alaska weather = fucking nasty.  I thought I had enough time to make the lookout if conditions allowed, but trail breaking above 5k was absurdly taxing, 16 inches of new snow, and a good 8 pounds of water piled on top of each ski with each new shuffle forward.  I flipped it at 6.5k when I ran out of time (to make an appointment that cancelled), and experienced some interesting skiing down.

It’d be great safe tree skiing with better snow.  As it was, without something as fat and rockered as the Marquettes it would have been unskiable (for me).  Decent speeds to achieve planning above to cement was essential, and stops to scope the line ahead were made at tip-grabbing peril.

The rest of the weekend promises more of the same, with the snowline staying far too high for usefulness all through the weekend.  Avy conditions, and skiing generally, will be horrendous for quite some time.  The rain crust from the last big warm storm, which we saw last weekend but didn’t see fail, has been failing with the past weeks loading.  Not only will that crust be exacerbated by this muck, the rain promises to produce an even thicker crust that will be the source of paranoia well into May.

In short, it looks like a good weekend to go bowling.

Crucial time

We had an exceptional start to the ski season this year. Early snow and lots of it prevented the pattern of anemic snowfalls interspersed with cold spells that made the base of last winter’s snowpack so sketchy for most of the winter. Even better, the high altitude rain I trekked through back in November soaked into the early feet of snow and as a result, in most places around here the base of the pack has been welded to the ground.

But as my avalanche education continues, I learn over and over that the one constant in this area is change.  In the last month various regions across mountain Montana have gotten complex and variable enough weather that various instabilities can now be found, things that must be taken seriously.

Photo from the Gallatin NF Avy centre.

The above slide was triggered by skiers outside Bridger Bowl on Sunday.  A hard windslab ran on the demon of continental snowpacks, buried facets.  Two weeks ago, some folks just outside Snowbowl in Missoula got lucky when new, dense snow failed on a steep slope, and this past Saturday a snowmobiler was buried and died in the northern Swans not far from here.

Many different reasons to be careful.

At Avy class last night, Stan Bones discussed his investigation of this last incident.  They found the same two weak layers we found on Sunday, though with the Swan getting much more precip than the area we skied, the layers were bigger and the layers between and on top of them substantially larger.  The uppermost layer appeared to be a very thin melt-freeze and/or faceted layer.  I got it to fail at a CT11 Q2 on Sunday, but it did not propagate at all during an extended column.  For us the lower layer was a 2 cm very hard ice crust.  It didn’t fail during the aforementioned tests, and getting it to move during a shovel shear required a lot of force.   Based on this, we felt safe skiing moderately anchored slopes to 30 degrees, as we did on Sunday.

The fatal swan avalanche had the uppermost layer as the weak layer at the crown, but according to Stan the majority of the bed surface was on the lower ice layer, which in the Swans is apparently 4 inches thick.  It seemed that the FS had yet to speak directly with the party involved in the slide, and they don’t yet know where and how the slide was triggered.  Somehow enough stress was applied to get things sliding on the thick ice crust, which produced a large avalanche with a lot of destructive force.

A good part of class last night was devoted to discussing this incident, which was illustrative in numerous ways.  First in the details and the way Stan presents them.  He’s not the most nuanced pedagoge in the world, but is a knowledgable and passionate snow scientist, capable of discussing the many variables while paying due to all the complexities and unknowables.  The second thing of note was observing a dynamic which I’ve seen, to at least a certain extent, at every such event I’ve attended: the desire of people in the audience to rationalize away the danger.

Folks want to hear of at least one clear and egregious lapse in judgment on the part of the triggering party.  In this particular case that was, to a certain extent, possible.  Going into avalanche terrain with a heavy, powerful machine the day after an enormous amount of heavy snow fell, and doing so in the most vulnerable area around, is not the best choice.  At the same time, reading back through all the incident reports found on the three aforementioned avalanche center websites will reveal, over and over, that many incidents contain quite a bit of gray area.  It may be easy to spot the mistake or lapse in judgment but it is also easy to see how those errors were made.  Making hypothetical decisions in a room drinking coffee is one thing, doing so well out in thick of things is another.

Moreso than in any other area of outdoor adventure, decision making while backcountry skiing is complex.  No other natural variable is so multifaceted, variable, and deadly.  No other outdoor activity is as fun, foot for foot, as powder skiing (none).  The two are a problematic combination.

Be safe.


Since I began doing social work post-undergrad, in 2003, it hasn’t been unusual for my work to adversely influence my sleep.  Either the quantity, in the form of insomnia, or more commonly the quality, in the form of peculiar dreams and nightmares.  There are many reasons to not blog, and a number of the classics have applied to me these past days: busy with work and fun, educational and social commitments beyond the usual, and distressing, difficult, complex material percolating in my head.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM, in the standard text on the subject in America.  I use it daily, irrespective of the qualms I have and its efficacy, because my work is paid by Medicaid, and Medicaid requires a DSM diagnosis to approve what I do.  There are many peculiar things to be learned about the DSM if you read closely, one of my favorites being the “clinically significant” qualifier.  It is possible to read the DSM as saying, in virtually all cases, that someone could have enough of the symptoms (6 of 10, etc) for a given disorder, but not experience clinically significant manifestations of those symptoms, and thus not merit a diagnosis.  This segues nicely into one of the more wide-reaching and substantive criticisms of the DSM, that it reinforces the extent to which mental illness is class, race, and gender biased.  In other words, clinically significant symptoms are often those which get one arrested, noticed by neighbors and passersby, or generally confound contemporary mores.  (Which is not to diminish the personal distress which precedes and follows from such public incidents.)

So then, not blogging for a while may be of interest, diagnostically, but isn’t clinically significant.  Until I stop going to work and start shooting the squirrels in our yard.
USFS avy workshop at Big Mountain yesterday.  A full house.

The source of my nightmares lately has been my perceived inability to break the intergenerational chain of trauma, neglect, violence, criminality, and mental illness.  At Eilis’ wedding this summer I was talking with her brother, who teaches in the LA juvenile corrections system.  He corroborated a theory that’s been solidifying in my mind for the last half-decade (and is perhaps not so profound); that the whole system of mental illness and criminal behavior (and it is remarkable how often the two are inextricable) is hereditary.  He said that, were a half dozen families in the greater LA area done away with, crime would drop off dramatically.  At my present place of employment, which has been around for a long time, something similar can be seen in two or three generations of a family receiving services and being in the system for comparable reasons.

There are ways to prevent this, the simplest, most effective, and most illegal being a mandatory vasectomy for all 12 year old boys, with applications for reversal being accepted beginning no sooner than age 25.  The black market in reversals would not doubt be ferocious.

Instead, I traffic in damage control for the present generation, in hopes that they will then have a more stable life by the time they choose or stumble upon parenthood.  I’ve yet to meet someone who has been in my field for more than 3 years and is not an ardent advocate for birth control, if for no other reason but that our work is hard, most of the time almost impossible.  I don’t have unrealistic expectations for what I will and will not be able to do, yet I have and will continue to have nightmares about my work.  I think I’d worry more about myself if I didn’t, given what I see some days.

There are of course many reasons to be fearful of, exasperated with, and even to feel contempt for the world in which we exist.  Avy danger is high this weekend, after a hard warm snowfall on Thursday and some strong winds.  Patrol at Big Mountain set off some small slides with charges yesterday morning, and rumors of burials yesterday are flying.  I did find stable, steepish, high quality powder in the sidecountry, highlighting the futility of generalities.  The C Team is headed out to find low-angle stuff today.

The world is full of such things, which we would be foolish to think of controlling, yet insane to not want to change.  My yesterday at 4, wending my way back down the Big Mountain road, I had already spent a week being pickled in this axiom.  My immersion was brought to its zenith, and my already enhanced tendency towards silent, depressed navel gazing further heightened, by M calling me with news of the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords.  One of the more infuriating things about political media coverage is that while the low approval ratings of Congress are thrown around whenever convenient, the idea that such low ratings have been the historic norm is rarely if ever mentioned.  Even more rarely mentioned is that the vast majority of Senators and members of Congress have high individual approval ratings.  Giffords is the paragon of why this is so; she is an extraordinary person and public servant.  I’ve been a huge fan ever since her first national election in 2006.  More states need more people like her.

To complete this maudlin tour, and end on an appropriately ambiguous note, I leave you with a Camus quotation:

The absurd merely confers an equivalence on the consequences of those actions. It does not recommend crime, for this would be childish, but it restores to remorse its futility. Likewise, if all experiences are indifferent, that of duty is as legitimate as any other. One can be virtuous through a whim.


Todays skiing, and this evenings post, bring you two lessons:
1) Fat skis are good.
2) Perseverance pays off.

Let us address each point briefly, beginning with the first.  Hiding up in those white’d out little trees was 2-3 feet of the purest cold smoke.  More in spots.  The pitch in the far looker’s-left of the picture, which we skied, is between 35 and 40 degrees.  First time getting the Marquette BCs charging in that much super-light snow, and on terrain that steep.

They absolutely kill it.  With a speed limit, certainly, but hoooollleeee shit.  Given how few skis I’ve skied, I can’t tease out the length v. tip rocker v. width.  Let me just say that in the steep and deep the clown shoes perform like real skis.

Pause to grab that camera with these guys and you’re gapped immediately.

I set out by myself today, puttered around looking for a good access to a drainage, didn’t find anything that wasn’t a heinous bushwack, gave up, got annoyed, went somewhere else.  Found a skintrack, went up, recognized Ben amongst a group via his green pants (above).  Tagged along, skied wicked powder in zones I wouldn’t have ventured into alone.

My legs are wrecked (just got a momentary instep cramp in my left foot, sure sign of a hard/good day), and I am happy.


My mom, who got me into this whole outdoor adventure thing in the first place, worries about me.  So, my holiday gifts this month consisted of a MEC Reflex down parka and Patagonia Micro Puff pants, the better to stay warm and safe out in the cold, and the better to extend our Western Mountaineering Antelope MF sleeping bag (rated to 5F).

An arctic front has moved into the US over the last 36 hours, and as last night was forecasted to be cold and clear, I headed out to test gear.  I left work, threw a pack together, drove up to Polebridge, and skied into Bowman Lake, mostly in the dark.

Cooked over a fire, admired the stars, and went to bed.

It was cold.  I slept well, though woke up to a few shivers at 530.  Munched a chocolate bar, did 50 situps, and slept warm until I woke up with the sun at 8.

I heard ice cracking and booming throughout the night as the lake worked on freezing up.

I sat in my bag and ate dark chocolate for breakfast, and watched the sun rise.  The ski out was equally pleasant, the car started (with some initial protests), and I made it home safe and sound.

Snotel has Many Glacier (a bit higher but comparable topography) as hitting -26.5F at 5 am.  It was likely warmer than not, but not enormously so.  The new puff gear gets the seal of approval, especially the Reflex, which is super warm, stupid light for that warmth, and has a nice array of well thought out features.  The gates are now open.

The question of laziness

After getting my ass kicked the last 4-5 times out skiing (or at least not feeling like a powder slaying god), moral has been low. One result is that I’m going through a period of nostalgia for summer. Thinking about mountain biking on dry dirt, or catching trout in clear water.

The other result is that I’ve been obsessing about how to not suck at skiing.  At least, how to suck a bit less.  The most important way is to keep skiing a lot, which I will continue to do (see below for complications).  Another, more remote but nonetheless weighty, answer is that I will buy new gear.   Not this winter, but before next, I intend to plunk down the 1500+ or so US dollars a proper BC downhill rig will run.  The question is, what stuff?

The most obvious answer and sub-question would be a get a Dynafit ski rig, weighing lightness v. burliness.  Most anything would be a massive improvement over doing p-turns with 3 pins and floppy tele boots.  However, I also don’t have all that much invested in skiing per se, which leads to the other option: splitboarding.

Snowboarding is reputed to be easier to learn, and let us face it, is waay cooler than skiing.  Logistically splitboarding is more complex than skiing, but that sort of thing plays to my strengths and is less of a concern.  It’s certainly less efficient on rolling terrain, but I have light tele gear for that.  So my initial thoughts would be to get some used Scarpa F1s and a Voile splitter.  Perhaps.  (I welcome the thoughts of the at least two accomplished splitboarders that read).

In any case, I need to keep getting out and learning, the glories of which I attempted to venerate in the most recent post.  But it’s hard.  Working hard uphill only to get more beat up on the down is not the easiest thing to psyche up and leave pre-dawn to do.  And that ambivalence bleeds out and over.  Yesterday I rallied to skin Big Mountain after work, but didn’t summit after I got into the fog and didn’t want to flail my way back down with no visability in the rapidly rising darkness.  This morning would have been a stellar powder day, but I reset the alarm and slept for another hour.

I am in short, lazy, and lack discipline.  Always have.  Want to get better at it, but always seem to falter (haven’t done regular core stuff since T-day, for instance).  Frustrating, disheartening, the sort of subtle failure that engendered further failure and inaction.

I’m in good company in claiming to be lazy.  Greg Hill told me he is lazy.  Hard to believe in someone closing in on 2 million feet of vertical gain this year.  Evidence suggest that a mountaineer’s mountaineer feels the same way.  Peter Croft, one of the most impressive rock climbers ever, is a notorious TV fan.  In short, it is clear that everyone suffers from the same potentially debilitating shadow when faced with the choices that, in aggregate, make a good adventurer and/or athlete into a great one.  The question is, what enables some to be so much more consistently good at going from idea to reality, from motion to act, and from desire to spasm?

I don’t know.  Practice, I suspect.  Self-knowledge, to a certain extent.  But at this juncture, my explanations are frustrating, primarily because none of them have helped me get much better at overcoming my own shadow.

But I intend to keep trying.  I did my core routine this morning, and in the process tweaked my shoulder doing pull ups.


Arts of learning

Fat ski skintrack on a wooded ridge at 6500′ today.

Backcountry skiing is hard.

It’s worth letting that simple statement rest by itself, because just as backcountry skiing is about using fancy sticks to go up and down hills, the meanings of hard have infinite variation.

When the snow is good, like it has been the past four weekends, skiing can be easy.  When the snow is a bit funky, like it was today, things are a bit harder.  And nightmare snow conditions make backcountry skiing into the most frustrating outdoor activity I’ve ever experienced.  By a fair margin, over even the worst bushwacking.

The terrain upon which the snow rests is equally variegated; bad snow can make simple terrain impossible, and good snow (lots of it) can make impossible terrain easy.  And everything in between.  Throw in altitude, a necessary constituent of skiing, and you can experience an impressive range of conditions and challenges to your skills in the course of 30 minutes.  Which is of course what happened today.

I picked a drainage almost at random, the goal being merely to get out, get some exercise, see some stuff, and do some ski practice.  Only way to get better is to get amongst it, a lot.  I followed a goofy, bushwacking skin track from earlier that day.  Those folks work was much appreciated when things steepened and I was able to fly up the already set booter.  I ended my ascent at 6500′, fearful of getting too high and up into serious avalanche terrain.  For the first 1000′ there was close to a foot of settled powder over the solid crust, and the steep little chute into which I dropped was fast, fun and easy.  As I lost altitude, the snowpack got smaller, the snow got less uniform, and powder layer got thinner, and the terrain got more interesting.

For instance:

See the line?  Such as it was, anyway.  A good learning experience, in extensive side slipping and panic turns.

There’s always more to learn.