Today I skied the longest run on the Trans-Canada: Mt Vaux west face. Two thousand meters of vertical, straight down. No flat section, no traversing, no trees to dodge, just a massive run straight down. If you dropped a ski, you could potentially have a very very bad day.
A few days back I noticed conditions lining up for this thing. It comes to such low elevation that it really needs to be done before March. Otherwise, the bottom isn’t skiing. Perhaps there’s still isothermal mush in March on a good season, which this certainly isn’t for Vaux area. So how else do you get good and safe conditions on such a massive line? A bunch of heating to punch out any crappy layers that are on the brink, then a good freeze to make a hard crust to bridge the rest of the layers, then a good bit of cold, windless (west aspect, big mountain, remember?) snow to freshen up crappy crust skiing. Well it just so happens that all that just went down, so I took a day off work during the closest thing to a high pressure window before the incoming pineapple express.
I was going to do it with a buddy, but he wasn’t feeling it. I was considering delaying to get another partner, but there was only one day of window and I was really sure that it was as good as it gets. A partner doesn’t really add much safety margin on this line, you’re ascending right up the damn thing, and as with every other season, the problem layer in the rockies is basal facets, so pulling off to the side while your buddy climbs a section is a good way to step on a thin section landmine near the rock you’re trying to use for cover. So I soloed it.
I was stepping away from the highway toward the line at 7:30. The lower part was awful, just awful. Such a sad excuse for a snowpack, patches of bare ground near every tiny bush. Between 1100 and 1900m there was 30-40cm of snow for base. No wonder it melts so early. The crust did its job well though, and the 5cm of fresh pow was nice. I ascended straight up the path for a time, and where it turned to a canyon I pulled off and went up the trees well on the side. After the path opened up a bit I went to check it out. No natural slides have yet made it into the lower avalanche path, so I figured I was safe in the dark in some of the most stable weather we’ve had this season going straight up the thing. Pity it hasn’t slid, it would do wonders for the skiing with a reasonable amount of snow on the ground. If I were to go back, that would be one of the things I’d add to my “good to go” criteria.
Somewhere between 1900m and 2100m the snowpack went from 40cm to 150cm. And 5-10cm of fresh snow dusting. Now we’re talkin’! I was surprised to see it was only 9:30 when I got to 2100m, 500m/h of ascent. I thought the crappy thin snowpack was taking a ton of time to move through, I guess the crust made up for that and more. It was so early though, that I decided to move slower, as the weather was supposed to clear in the early afternoon.Standing around at high altitude sucks, it’s cold and windy and miserable. So I started eating bars instead of gels and slowed ‘er down. Above 2500m the dust component of dust on crust got fatter, to 20cm, and a little after I started booting the chute at 2800 it increased to 40cm. It didn’t seem to want to move at all, and there was a complex of crusts underneath which provided a very strong bridge over god knows what underneath. The chute had slid in the warm spell, along with many other shots, and the bed surface was super solid. I tried to stay on these all the time; it’s wintertime rockies after all.
I topped out on the chute at ~3140m (the changing weather threw my watch off) around 2pm and waited for the cloud to blow off; I was hoping to shred the crap out of the line in full sun. The air was pretty much stagnant though, which I found surprising given the aspect and elevation, so I gave up at 3 and dropped in. The chute skied amazingly, all the fresh snow hardly even sluffed. After that, it was a memory game, skiing one side or the other of my uptrack where I had noted good snow on my way up. After the steeper part of the face was done, there was a massive slope, the pitch of an easy blue run. Big turns were made through the consistent shallow pow, and around 1900m the ravine draining from the face started, and skiing got progressively worse. It did ski clean though, so I probably shouldn’t complain. After battling breakable crust for quite some time, I emerged on the highway, tired and content.