Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Line of the Week: SE Face of Mt. Smuts

"You'll want to be at the top by 8"

Those were the words in my head as I left the car at 5 in the morning. Making quick work of the Commonwealth valley as well as the lower part of the massive slidepath coming off the mountain, we looked up and thought we are almost done. Then I looked at my GPS. It said I still had 600 more meters to climb. That can't be right, it only looks like 200 or so. Anyways, we switched to crampons and began up the slope. The slope steepened, the snow got firmer. The summit did not appear to be getting any closer. I would count steps, sometimes one hundred at a time, look up, and I would be in the same place. Eventually, I topped out. There was 600m left to climb from where I questioned my GPS.

I rarely reach the actual summits, but my partner was a climber, so we signed the register at the top. The clouds never really cleared up and we were nervous standing on top of a huge, steep slope, reportedly 55 degrees at the top. So we made careful turns down the firm snow up high, and looked for the cleanest lines through the avalanche debris and runnels down low.
At the bottom
This is a great corn run saved for the spring when the face is filled in, and the snow is firm, but south east exposure means it gets the sun early on, so wake up early (skiing by 8:30!)! The face is a steep, long, and committing line (definitely don't fall), so best make sure your skiing is up to the task with a couple of tests of the steeper runs at the ski hill. The long bootpack and firm snow requires fitness and technique.

Line Length: 950m
Total elevation gain: 1100m
Round Trip Distance: 10km
Top Elevation: 2938m
Other options in the area: Not feeling up for it? The Commonwealth valley has a wealth of skiing: Commonwealth Ridge Circuit, Commonwealth-Pig's Tail Col, Superslope, Smuts Pass and Tryst Lake.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Ken Jones Classic

After a bit of rest coming off of Worlds, and getting back into training, it was time to finish off the season with the Ken Jones Classic race at Lake Louise. New for 2017 was the sprint race, providing

The sprint race took place in the Sunset Gully, and if it weren't for clouds moving in and out, the course was visible from the Top of the World chair. Racers and spectators, when there were breaks between races, also got to enjoy spectating some spectacular double ejections courteous of skiers attempting to tackle the bowl.

Race times were similar length to the course we raced in Europe, which provided a great analogue for what someone can expect from a sprint race course at World Championships. I've always found that once the courses are more than 3 minutes, there's a pacing and strategy aspect that comes into play, of course I had to throw that out the window and find another gear in the fast final round that saw Joel take the win, and Travis beating me out of the bootpack to skin transition to take silver.

The recent avalanche cycle has been described as "epic". Even ski areas were getting huge results on terrain that had been skied all season. Still, the team at Lake Louise and the organisers managed to deliver another quality course, and keep the finishing times roughly similar to years previous.

Highlights included the usual drag race up to the top of the Summit platter followed by not one, but two Whitehorn 2 laps with a long bootpack to bring racers back up for the second of the laps. The course then headed over for 2 laps of the Brownshirt gullies before going over to the Larch area.

It was exciting, but nervous to see lots of new faces, skin suits and skinny skis at the start line. But once the gun went off and I got to the front to set the pace, it was just the usual suspects left. Trail breaking kept the group of 4 (Joel, Me, Travis, and Rob) together through the climbs and the stage was set for the drag race up to the top of Larch (no elevator shaft this year). Unfortunately, Rob started the final climb at a bit of a disadvantage after descending down a route marked by some confusing flags on the previous descent (the ski out from the lake transition the recreational course who only did 1 brownshirt lap?). Joel strung the group out, I managed to stay just behind, it was going to come down to the descent and the "ski out". I lacked the "killer instinct" and Joel got me on the fast groomer skiing, and the tuck and skate ski out for the win. 2nd place. As usual, I finished the day lapping the lifts. Lake Louise in spring is almost as good as it gets.

Hats off to the organizers and patrol staff for whipping together a worthy course. Obviously the pile of skiers who missed the 4th climb shows the importance of really paying attention during the pre-race meeting instead of fiddling with gear or chatting, not blindly following other racers, and skiing/climbing at an intensity and speed that still allows you to sight course flags and transition areas. Some previous race and skiing experience with this venue certainly helped. While the top finishers in the Mens and Womens categories have raced Louise before, none of them missed the climb. My brother was working a transition area and reported that some people were completely out of it: they were unable to listen to simple instructions. Meanwhile, 3rd place finisher Travis always has a nice chat with the checkpoint volunteers while still rocking lightning fast transitions.  Take your headphones out. Do we need bigger flags? Keep in mind that volunteers have to carry them around, snowboarders and kids steal them, and groomers chew them up.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Line of the Week: Mt. French Arch Couloir (Hole in the wall)

The French Arch couloir also known as the Hole in the Wall or the French Finger is actually one of many couloirs not only in the French Drainage, but on the North face of Mt. French. The arch couloir is further back in the French drainage, almost to the col with the Haig glacier. In fact on the particular day I skied the Arch couloir proper, my brother and a friend skied the next chute over. Something to keep in mind is that slough from each chute flows out of holes on the climber's right side wall. So slough from the line my brother skied, flowed into my line! Therefore it is important not only be mindful of the slough from you and your group but also the slough from the next couloir over! The dual sloughing also means that the ski through the arch will be firm and scoured! Bring crampons.

Skiing the Arch!
Skiing out the adjacent couloir.
The French drainage is always confusing to navigate and it is recommended that you are familiar with it via a trip beforehand so that you can get to the line efficiently. The upper part of the chute is heavily wind scoured and might not even have coverage. The top out is not really well defined. As well, multiple parties this season have reported finding windslab in the fans approaching the couloirs, and the couloirs themselves. Something to think about...

Round Trip distance: 16km
Line length: 300m
Top elevation: 3000m
Total elevation gain: 1250m
Other options in the area: Aside from the other couloirs that probably contain heavily wind affected snow, Mt. Maude, and finishing off the rest of the French-Haig-Robertson traverse are two excellent alternatives.

Hillmap route

Fun fact: Not only did we team ski the arch and its adjacent couloir, but I forgot my skins that day and still managed to make my way up the French drainage on foot with crampons and with only minimal wallowing. A legend and mystery to this day!

Other Lines of the Week .
Other Kananaskis lines.  

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

2017 Ski Mountaineering World Championships

The 2017 Ski Mountaineering World Championships in Alpago and Piancavallo in Italy were my 3rd trip to Worlds, having gone in 2013 and 2015. 2013 was very enjoyable for me as I found myself in good form while bumming around in Canmore for the winter, while having lots of fun "training". 2015 was more frustrating as I found myself unable to return to that same form while working a full time job in Edmonton. I decided to give worlds another go for 2017, having finally figured it out in the 2016 season. The deep fields at worlds provide an excellent measuring stick: would I be able to return to the same form as 2013 where I finished the individual race in the low 40's?

It wasn't shaping up to be a very good snow year in the southern Dolomites. Webcams were looking brown instead of white. A dump of snow a couple of weeks before the race allowed for some racing on a similar course the week before. But more melting during the week led to organizers moving the start of the Individual and Teams, conveniently accessed via a 40min hike, right from our hotel!

Agriturismo Malga Cate. Our hotel and conveniently located at the trailhead for the hike up to the Individual and Teams race courses. Excellent food and atmosphere!

Individual Race:

It was pouring rain at the start line before we raced along a short snow covered road that funneled us into a steep, single skintrack climb. While the flat road into the singletrack seemed short, it was sufficient enough to string out the field by the singletrack. Up we raced into a thick fog that made it impossible to see even the next switchback above!

Descending was tricky with poor visibility due to the fog and water droplets all over my goggles, complicated by trying to avoid rocks in a thin snowpack. The course was marked very well so I could just ski from flag to flag. I got rocked by the downhill bootpack, but skied strongly on the 2nd half of the race to gain back some spots.

relieved to be almost at the finish of the individual!

Teams Race:

Eager to get a bit of redemption after the individual race, I teamed up with Travis on a beautiful, clear day. The snow had all frozen from the rain, making for slick skintracks and firm descents. It was difficult staying upright on the first two climbs. I skied well in the ice mogul conditions, but disaster struck on the ridgeline bootpack, where my crampons would not stay on my boots! After stopping countless times to put them back on, we were finally off the ridge and back racing. Travis and I struggled together, but we also fought hard in the second half of the race after our mishaps.

At the aid station, ready to put all of our difficulties behind us.

The individual and the teams race really made me respect the composure and the technical mastery of the top guys. They seemed unfazed by the tough conditions. Skills that can only come with spending lots of time practicing with their gear.

Sprint Race:

The sprint race for most of us is typically a "one and done" as only the top 30 skiers qualify. In the end, I was 7 spots, but just 10 seconds away from qualifying. I paced well, holding back at the beginning, and had clean transitions. But I regret not focussing more on transitions and gear (backpack!) while doing hundreds of transitions at Edmonton ski club, or a more thorough inspection of the course beforehand to nail down my pacing strategy.

sprint qualifying. The "diamonds" were steep. I held back here so I could focus on not slipping, and then hammered the bootpack later on.

Vertical Race:

The vertical race was a highlight for me. I've done well in Vertical races and on the first climbs of Individual race this season. I didn't get a chance to preview the course, but I was feeling awesome and felt like the shorter, non-technical course that kept changing rhythm suited me. Finished 38th.
Suffering hard in the vertical, just ahead of Nick. Note the skier from an 'alpine' nation on the back of the train getting dusted by the full time engineer!


The relays are always a fun way to wind down the week. I also feel they give a second chance to redeem oneself after a sprint with a botched transition or pacing issues (I had a good sprint race anyways). I took the lead leg, but got completely dusted off of the start, but managed to tag off on the tail end of a chase group. Pacing is important in the relays as the race has 2 sprint courses back to back.

2nd climb in the relay lap on the tail end of a chase group

With Brenda, the superfan!

The team, minus Rob Krar

Another fun world championships trip. Always humbling, but I believe I am the fastest I've ever been. I've got a list of things to work on ready to unleash on the Canadian circuit. My girlfriend was there to cheer me on, welcome when I was suffering!