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Emigrating Out of Bounds

“Let’s stick to the plan. Why don’t we just stick to the plan?”

I can be stubborn when it comes to planning. Obviously, a plan is just a starting point. Sometimes, it’ll fly out the window at the first sign of the unexpected. But a good plan anticipates these things and gives you those all-important first step few steps with purpose and destination clearly in mind. I suppose that’s how I justify this particular compulsive tic of mine; while I love to improvise when fate forces my hand, I do not like to change backcountry travel plans on a whim. When there are risks to be managed, it just rubs me the wrong way. I try to remind myself to roll with changes and welcome the adventure I seek in the first place, recalling the words of the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen: “Adventure is just bad planning.”

On this particular Saturday, the plan (or so I thought) was to ascend and ski Red Lake Peak, with an option for Little Round Top. The plan, in its original incarnation before it fully materialized some hours earlier, was to pick a tour from some routes we had discussed and researched. A game-time decision would be made based on the conditions detailed in the local avalanche bulletin. A persistent weak layer buried in the snow, faceted crystals combined with hardened rain crust, continued to make for sketchy situations on north facing slopes. Such aspects are more sheltered from the consolidating effects of radiant energy from that giant flaming ball of gas in the sky, prolonging the north facing danger. We planned to avoid northern aspects and headed to Carson Pass.

But in the parking lot, my good friend Chrix played a wild card he had been holding close to his chest: continue down highway 88 to Kirkwood, ride the lifts up and access the sidecountry. I had not been in Kirkwood’s sidecountry before, I hadn’t researched it at all, and we had not previously discussed it as an option. Personally, I like to have a mental picture of where I am going when I head into the backcountry. Where are we going, what are our primary options and considerations? In this situation, I didn’t know where we were going or what we were getting into. I don’t like to fly blind and I bristled at Chrix’s suggestion. But he was persistent in his conviction and after some deliberation, I relented. After all, I place significant value on having friends whose judgement I can trust. And so I checked out our maps, grabbed my lift pass, and followed Chrix into Emigrant Basin.

Four chair lifts plus one t-bar later (seriously), we finally stopped to put skins on our skis and head out of bounds. As we did, a lone skier came over the ridge and traversed towards us.

“You guys skinning up? Mind if I join?” Well, you got a probe, shovel, beacon and know how to use ’em?

“Yeah. Probably better than you,” he retorted. Great. Maybe you can teach us something.

“I hope I don’t have to,” he smiled. Yeah. Good point.

We headed straight to Melissa Coray Peak with our new friend, Brian, and debated our options. It was too late in the day to consider heading down anywhere that would require a significant hike back. We had started too late, debated too many options, waited too long in too many lines. We stopped for lunch, poked around the weather station curiously owned by the East Bay Municipal Utility District, and admired the fortitude of Melissa Coray, who according to the summit plaque was “a heroic pioneer woman who crossed this pass in 1848 setting an example for those who followed.” I can only imagine. In all sincerity, I was inspired to think of the hardship endured by the early pioneers, crossing these passes on foot with mules and horses. The history of Carson Pass, of Kit Carson and the Fremont expedition, is the history of California itself. But that’s another story.

Looking back in the direction we had come from, we revisited Emigrant Basin with fresh eyes. We had initially disregarded it out of hand because our most obvious options were north facing, the highest risk aspect on the avalanche bulletin. The steepest chute opposite us, with a roughly west-northwesterly aspect, had a visible natural avalanche crown. Inspired by mixed spirits, one part scientific inquiry, one part trailblazing pioneer, and one part self-preservation, we decided to dig a snow pit and see what we could find.

There are many acceptable ways to dig a snow pit, but the general idea is find a slope you are interested in skiing, dig a pit in the snow on the same aspect, isolate a block of snow on all sides, and observe the response of the layered column to measured amounts of downforce. This replicates the weight of a passing skier. The snow pack is inevitably layered, and it is the presence of weak layers that are one of the crucial ingredients for an avalanche (the four ingredients being snow, a slope, a weak layer, and a trigger). This information is basic stuff when it comes to avalanche awareness and if any of this is news to you, I highly recommend enrolling in your local American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) level one avalanche education course before you plan on heading out into winter alpine backcountry.

Chrix and I eagerly dove into digging our pit, anxious to get more experience evaluating the snow pack. Brian was thrilled with our enthusiasm and more than happy to sit and manage the excavation. “I’ve probably dug a thousand of these in my life,” he quipped with only a hint of sarcasm. As we neared completion, another lone skier ambled up to our pit. We quickly learned that this man was a semi-infamous Kirkwood local, Ian Kent. He had been skiing Kirkwood for twenty-five years, though for five of those he had been blacklisted from the resort. What for? “This and that. Growing up here, you find plenty of ways to get into trouble.” Anyway, if you want to get a massage at Kirkwood’s mountain club or huck 120 foot cliffs off of Hospital Air, Ian’s your guy.

Ian pointed out several of his favorite lines across the basin. “I know just where to find some fresh winter snow.” He was very interested in seeing the results of our test. Chrix went through the requisite thirty thwaps and the column stood. So what do you do after thirty?

“I think that’s an indication of…” Brian started.

“You ski!” Ian exhorted.

“… good stability. Yeah.”

Chrix continued whaling on the column with his shovel and nothing moved. However, this brutality did reveal the presence of a deeply buried weak layer that cracked and did not slide. Direct pressure applied to the back of the column afterwards via a shovel shear did reveal several layers. The shallowest was due to windloading on the exposed slope. All layers broke under force with clean Q1 shears, not what you want to see. While the results of the compression test were positive, this evidence confirmed the presence of numerous dangerous, dry, weak layers. The snow had simply bonded well enough to withstand sufficient weight. By our measurement, anyway.

So we prepared to ski. Ian was dead-set on a purely northern aspect, sure to hold the best snow, but also slightly different than where we had dug. I felt hesistated to ski the same line, given the reported sketchiness of that aspect, but the world makes way for a man who knows where he’s going. Ian reassured us that he had worked with Search & Rescue and that he had a radio on him, just in case anything happened. Reassuring, maybe. Ian headed back uphill, intersecting with yet another stranger who had stumbled upon our little pow-wow, as the three of us were preoccupied with scoping out our line, sneaking into the bowl via a safer easterly aspect. Ian took position opposite us and gave the go-ahead. We dialed down our boots and, not without some trepidation, took the plunge.

The first turn around the exposed rocks was steep and ginger, but the slope opened up beautifully and our turns followed. While all the other snow we had encountered on the way up was either wind-scoured or nicely cooked, we had stumbled across soft, delicate winter snow hiding in the shadows. Regrouping near the rocks at the far run-out of the first bowl, we waved Ian on as he descended, painting perfectly linked tracers all the way down. The exhilaration of making turns in exquisite snow never gets old, no matter how thick your skin is, how many people you’ve fired, loves you’ve lost, or cliffs you’ve hucked. It is a pure and simple joy.

Imagine then, the level of our excitement as Ian informed us that the other skier he had just spoken to had a parasail stashed away with him and was about to fly down the mountain. What?! Yeah. So we waited, anticipated, cameras ready. I have seen someone kite-skiing, once, at Independence Pass in Colorado. And I have been paragliding, once, outside of Jackson in Wyoming. But ski paragliding? What’s even the proper term? Some light Googling has not revealed the answer to me, so I’m going to go with ‘ski-gliding’ and hope it sticks. So, we waited, with bated breath, for our minds to be blown. And we waited. And waited. For maybe twenty minutes. Somebody looked at their watch.

“If he doesn’t send that cliff in the next five minutes, let’s go,” Ian said impatiently.

And then there he was.

He sailed off the cliff and within seconds he was soaring overhead. “Shit, he’s going straight past us, we’re not gonna see him,” Chrix muttered, scrambling up rocks like a billygoat to catch a better glimpse as our friend buzzed uncomfortably low and disappeared behind the cliffs into the basin below. We hooted and hollered and gave chase all the way down to the lake. Ian pointed out a number of other popular chutes and lines along the way. You could spend a whole season exploring every way into this basin. Down at the bottom, on Emigrant Lake, Ian was already hustling back, leading the charge back in bounds and to free lift-served elevation gain, just in time to make it back for a 4:30 massage appointment. What a life.

I lagged behind to thank our pilot for the good show and congratulate him on the safe landing. Skating across the frozen lake, I stopped and thought about alternate approaches and what we would do and where we would go if only we had more time. A common refrain. If only. Next time.