AIARE 2, Powder, and Gearing Up!

I arrived in Utah a few weeks ago and days later was on my way back to Colorado for my AIARE 2 avalanche course. The few days I spent in Utah before my course, I settled into my apartment, got a few good ski days in and unpacked my live-in Honda Odysski.

odyski

Honda Odyski

The snow in Utah was pretty minimal and I was a bit less in shape and acclimated than I was hoping to be 1 month out from my start date. For what was not the first time, and I’m 100% sure will not be the last time I started to doubt myself. “What am I doing?”, “Why do I think I can ski 2.5 million vertical feet in a year?”, “did I just trick myself into thinking this was possible?”

I kept it together and headed to Colorado for my avalanche course. It was so great to get back into the snow science zone. Dig pits, perform test, and look at faceted snow crystals under a loupe.

facets

Facets

While skiing was not the main objective of the 5 day weekend, I did meet up with some great friends from seasons past and got in a few good turns before and after class.

fun in the trees with friends

Fun in the trees with friends

After a white-knuckle drive back to Utah a week later everything was different. It had snow nearly 3 feet while I was gone. I was nice and acclimated to the altitude. I was ready to start putting in the long days and big vertical. I made quick work of getting into the mountains and beginning to rack up the feet.

Aaron Rice finds low angle white gold on a high avy danger day in the Wasatch backcountry, Utah. Beginning January 1, 2016 Aaron will set out to break the world record for most human powered vertical feet skied in a calendar year, 2.5 million feet. [photo: Louis Arevalo]

Aaron Rice finds low angle white gold on a high avy danger day in the Wasatch backcountry, Utah. Beginning January 1, 2016 Aaron will set out to break the world record for most human powered vertical feet skied in a calendar year, 2.5 million feet. [photo: Louis Arevalo]

In the 5 days back in Utah I have but in 35,000 feet and am still ramping up. I don’t want to push my body too hard, too fast. The progression has been 5k, 5k, 7k, 8k, 9k. I am hoping to crack 10k for the first time this season tomorrow. We are lined up for a big atmospheric river event and are looking to get 4” of water equating to 3+ feet of snow in the next 3 days! Avalanche danger is surely going to rise, but the low angle trees should be fantastic!

A huge thank you to the Flyin’ Ryan Foundation for the support allowing me to take my AIARE level 2 and safely work towards my goal to earn and ski 2.5 million vertical feet in a calendar year.
Join me on my adventure at:
http://instagram.com/airandrice
http://facebook.com/airandriceski
http://airandrice.com

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Early morning turns to start the season!

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The first east coast turns of the season have been made!

A 5:30am wake up proved to be a tad on the early side. After a nice couple cups of coffee and breakfast I headed to the Stowe parking lot. Bits of wintery mix hit my windshield but there was nothing on the ground…

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Arriving at the parking lot things looked a bit grim. Whatever. I’m here, I might as well walk to the top and see what up there.

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Right as I started walking it began snowing. A quick inch fell! Just enough!

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Snoliage at it’s best! After a 15 minute wrestling match with my frozen boots I got them on, and made the first turns of the season!

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West vs. East …. Grand vs. Cozy

Growing up in subrural (the rural equivalent to sub-urban) New England I was always surrounded by forest and the largest mountains I saw were the White Mountains of New Hampshire. When I first visit “The West” I was in awe. Everything was so big. The mountains seemed like they were 10 times the size and everything was steep. I am certainly not the first east coaster to experience this feeling. When I moved out west after graduating from college I began to really explore these mountains that felt so large. I found that they really weren’t that large. A season exploring an area and it would begin to feel small again. I began asking myself what the true differences were between the East and West Coast.

tight New England trees

Tight New England trees

BIg

Big Colorado expansiveness

I have often described the East Coast as cozy and the West as grand. A 360° view in the East is a rare sight. Only the occasional mountain top or large field has a truly wide panoramic view. The West is the opposite. There are lots of arid area with no trees, and where there are forest, you can usually see right through them. Always being able to see a long distance will make a place feel big for sure. I think this is why people always say the sky is bigger out west.

About as open as it gets in VT.

About as open as it gets in VT.

The West is also steeper. Mountain with 2 or 3,000 feet of prominence can be found all over the east, but generally they aren’t steep. They are essentially a very large hill. For sure, out West there are much bigger mountains, but even the smaller ones seem bigger because they are steeper.

big and steep

Big and steep

I believe that there is still a mentality of westward expansion in the minds of East Coast youth. Whether that means moving to Portland, or San Francisco, or moving to the mountains of Montana or Colorado. When you grow up in the East you are always looking West for opportunity and adventure. I can’t say from personal experience, but I don’t think the same can be said for people that grow up out West. Maybe there is some drive to move to a big Eastern city like New York, but there is certainly no mystery and magical allure like the West has for us Easterners.

Easterners laugh at UT tree skiing

Easterners laugh at UT tree skiing

Growing up in the East, when I moved West I often found myself feeling exposed and out of place. I was endlessly exploring the grand expanses Colorado and Utah had to offer, but I would always be happy to be back in the cozy shelter of trees. I spent almost 3 years on and off in Colorado and Utah. This summer and fall I am back in Vermont. I am very much in the woods. Line of sight stops 3 feet from the forest edge. There are huge white pines surrounding the house and the small yard gets a maximum of 4 hours of sunlight a day. I feel very at home in this setting. However, for the first time in my life I find myself craving the wide view the West offers.

Wide view

Wide view

I’m sure somewhere in the world there is a compromise to be found, and I will just keep looking.

 

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Wouldn’t it be Easier to Take a Helicopter?

When I tell people my plan they either instantly get it, or they don’t. The ones that don’t, start asking questions. “do you count the feet skied, hiked, or both?”, “can you take lifts?”, “how many miles is that?”, and my personal favorite “wouldn’t it just be easier to take a helicopter?”

Some of the answers to these questions are pretty straight forward, “No, I cannot take lifts”, but others are a bit more nuanced, so I will do my best to answer them as fully as I can.

What am I counting?
The goal is to earn 2.5 Million vertical feet of skiing. This sounds simple enough, but actually has a couple complexities. Assuming I start and end the day in the same place (most days), I can count either the up or the down, but not both. For simplicity sake I will always count the up.

On the occasional day where I start and end at a different location, it is not as simple. If I end below where I started and take a car back up to the trailhead, essentially that vertical was not earned, so it does not count. However if I start below where I end and take a car downhill then… I am not sure to be honest. I will have to contact Greg Hill and see.

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South American volcanoes, not Washington…

There is another case as well. Lets imagine it is spring and I am skiing a volcano in Washington. I start the day hiking 4,000 feet through the forest with skis on my pack. Then I hit the snow and skin to the summit. Then I take a few laps and ski down, then hike the 4,000 feet back to the car. Does that 4,000 feet count as earned vertical. I certainly earned it, and I had skis on my back, but I didn’t ski… Again, I have to ask Greg Hill and see what he did. I will follow whatever rules he followed.

Joey Camps. Holds the FKT for the Cali section of the PCT!

Joey Camps. Holds the unsupported FKT for the Cali section of the PCT!

As a short tangent. Breaking Fastest Known Times (FKTs) is a new wave in the ultra running scene. It applies to short hikes and long trails (ie The Appalachian Trail). In this community one of the ways of hiking is unsupported. There is no hard and fast definition of what an unsupported hike is, so whoever attempts an FKT must follow the rules that the previous person followed/created. The rules that the new FKT follows must be equal to or more stringent than the previous rules. It is this logic that I am following in conforming to Greg Hill’s rules.

Distance
The question of how many miles often comes up. I guess this has two answers. I will be hiking 473.5 vertical miles and skiing 473.5 vertical miles as well 🙂 That is 86.1 Everests from sea level.

However, I think the question people really want to know is how many horizontal miles will I be walking. And I don’t really know. Some tours have long approaches and other are just straight up and down all day. Last year I kept track occasionally and it seemed that it was about 1-2 miles per 1,000′ of vertical. And I would assume about 1/4-1/3 of that is the skiing itself. So a very rough estimation would be about 1.25 horizontal uphill miles per 1,000′. So for 2.5 Million feet that is 3,125 miles of hiking. I have no idea how accurate this is.

A long day from last winter. I think this tour was 32 miles.

A long day from last winter. I think this tour was 32 miles.

The real take away for me is that the mileage is really not a concern. Walking uphill 10K per day is the difficult part if that 10K is over 10 miles or 15 miles it doesn’t make too much of a difference. Most importantly though no matter how many miles I hike, I still only get to ski the vertical feet. So bring on the steep skin track!!

Earned

Skinning with a pine bow

Skinning with a pine bow

I will be hiking, skinning, boot-packing, climbing, mountaineering, postholing, side-stepping?, and likely any other self-powered way of going uphill you can think of, for 2.5 million vertical feet. Using these forms of travel to ski makes the skiing earned. I like using the word earned. In many ways the earning of the turns is why I enjoy skiing in the backcountry. It doesn’t diminish unearned turns. I mean if I was walking down the road and someone handed me a slice of pie, I would gladly eat it. But the pie I pick the berries for and rolled out my homemade dough and make a woven top for is just going to taste better.

When earning turns there is no choice but to be where you are at that very moment. As one ski moves in front of another on repeat, every gust of wind is right there. When it’s snowing and the wind is from the South as you walk East along a ridge, the whole right side of your face becomes coated in snow. There is no doubt that the north slopes are becoming loaded and should be of concern. Or skinning up the South face in the morning, it starts rock solid and you are kicking yourself for leaving the ski crampons at home. But right as you crest the ridge it begins to corn up. Now is the perfect time to drop, and the skin back up will be easy, then on to north facing slopes for the rest of the day.

Sometimes, what can be noticed when earning turns is the smallest of things. There was one day a couple years ago, where there was a light breeze coming up Little Cottonwood Canyon from the West. It was a warmish day with a thick layer of fog. I was planning to ski a Southwest facing slope. On the way up I noticed a very, very thin crust beginning to form on the west-facing aspects. The fog was laying down a thin rime crust, not enough to ruin a run, but enough to notice. The due south slopes were enough out of the breeze that they remained smooth and soft. On my descent I carefully stayed just on the South facing edges of the sub-ridges and had a perfect run down.

[Inset picture of me mooning a helicopter]*

So while taking a helicopter may seem easier, the truth is not so simple. Would I have been able to perfectly time a spring corn run? Maybe. Would I have noticed the thin rime crust? Ignoring that fact that helicopters would not have even flown with that much fog, likely no. A helicopter is certainly less strenuous, but it could never provide the experience that I’m looking for.

 

*while I have done this, there is no photo evidence… yet.

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