Sunday, March 27, 2016

Road to Denali, part 11: Skiing, skiing, and Bierstadt

With all the snow we had on Tuesday I wasn't sure about conditions in Wild Basin, so I switched our planned overnight adventure on the Cleaver to two separate days, returning to the house. Actually, that's only partially true. I wasn't motivated to go camping for the entire weekend. We'll go overnight next weekend. In preparation for that, Derek and I skied up Wild Basin on Saturday to check out conditions and make sure Derek was okay skiing out from there. Both were great.

We got a casual start, leaving house at 7:15 a.m. and not skiing until nearly 8:45 a.m. We just went up for an hour and 45 minutes (about four miles) and turned around. Our pace was slow and easy. We had a great time coming out and Derek was really solid and having fun. He led most of the way and I just followed his pace. We didn't see anyone on the way up and only a few people on the way down.

At the Ouzel Falls Bridge in Wild Basin
Sunday we got up at 4:30 a.m. and were driving a little after 5 a.m. Our destination was Mt. Bierstadt with the intention of skiing as high as we could and bagging the summit, of course. We left the car about 6:45 a.m. and made first tracks up the road. We broke trail, but only sunk in 1-2" - hardly noticeable from a broken track. There were a couple of cars in the parking lot, but no sign of the people anywhere.

Skiing out from Wild Basin in a small snow squall
We followed the road up to the summer trailhead (1.6 miles from the winter parking), going higher than we needed to. I went up there, hoping to find a sign of passage, just in case the snow was soft across the willows. We found no track, but we needn't have worried. The snow conditions remained about perfect. We cut down and across the willows, which are no issue at all in winter when most of them are buried, and then started up the slopes of Bierstadt.

We generally followed the summer trail to get up onto the upper bench and then just skinned up gradually. The coverage here was pretty minimal. We could have probably walked from there to the summit, but we kept the skis on. I knew I'd enjoy the ski down, but I also knew it would challenge Derek. He never asked to drop the skis, though. He's eager to learn new skills, but a bit apprehensive in getting in over his head. I was confident he'd get down with enough traversing and kick-turning.
Skiing up Bierstadt
We ended up skiing to 13,500 feet. It was getting too tight with the rocks at this point and skiing down was going to be tricky. We left them and continued the final 500 feet (560 feet actually) on foot. The weather was cold (10 degrees at car at start, -7 wind chill on summit), but gorgeous and no wind until 13,800 feet, thankfully. We went in our biggest mitts right from the car and my toes were a bit cold on the summit, but not too bad. We topped out in 3h50m and took some photos. We even ate and drank a bit, despite the cold, before starting our descent.

Heading up the final ridge
In no time we were back at the skis. Derek started off with his skins on, but was having trouble and I convinced him to take them off. Skins are a great speed brake if you are forced to come down a narrow path - like in Wild Basin - where you really aren't on your edges. But up here, high above treeline where you can go anywhere there isn't rocks, skins hinder things by vastly altering the speed of the ski when it is flat versus on edge. Once the skins were off, Derek did great. We traversed and kick-turned down the upper section, as the snow was so thin that a turn would drive us down to the rocks. Also, the rocks were plentiful up here and navigating them was tricky.
Derek on the final obstacle
Further down, with less rocks and more snow, we started making real turns and I think Derek was really enjoying himself. Lots of good learning was going on and his confidence grew. At least until we got to the crux steep section. This was challenging for us both, but much more so for Derek. He lost a bit of confidence and I told him he could take off his skis and walk down, but he wouldn't. He kick-turned, side-stepped, and side slipped down the steepest, narrowest parts and then let them run over some rolling terrain. He took a couple of falls, but the snow was deeper here and he was uninjured and undeterred. Skiing the lower willow section was fun, as you can ski right through the top of any willows poking out through the snow.

On the summit with Grays and Torreys in the background - we climbed those last weekend.
We hit the lower point and put the skins back on. Fifteen minutes of moderate climbing and traversing and we were back at the road, pulling them off again. It was then an easy, short cruise back to the car. We didn't see anyone until we go back down to within a half-mile of the car and then just one guy. We did however see fresh ski tracks from about 13,000 feet down, though we never saw these guys (either two guys or one guy making two laps).

Derek and I have done five 14ers in the last four weekends: Maroon Peak, Longs Peak, Grays and Torreys, and now Bierstadt. This one was 10.5 miles and 3400 vertical feet and we did the roundtrip in just under 6.5 hours. With Saturday's ski, we've done 18 miles on our skis over the weekend and our feet are doing great - no blisters.


Gayla Wright said...

Another great adventure weekend under your belt. Derek is on his way to being an accomplished skier. Could not get the videos to work.

Charlie said...

Nice work, team Denali!