Sunday, September 1, 2013

Skiing the Alaska Range

Alaska Range

Incredible company, incredible weather, incredible location, …what more could one hope for while climbing and skiing in the mountains, let alone the mountains of Denali National Park. Clif Bar athlete Chris Davenport, action sports photographer Christian Pondella, globetrotting entrepreneur Jim Morrison, and myself were lucky enough to score 7 sunny days with amazingly stable/cold winter snow during our recent trip to the Alaska Range.

Our plan was simple: To fly a heavy base camp into a remote, glaciated region high in the mountains of Alaska to spend a week enjoying what the mountains had to offer. Knowing what kind of weather AK likes to dish out, we hoped to ski 3 or 4 days out of the 9 planned. Little did we know what Mother Nature and the mountains had in store.  After waiting out a storm in Talkeetna, Paul Roderick of Talkeetna Air Taxi dropped us on the glacier and bid us good luck.  During the next 7 days, we were greeted by breathless, cold clear day after breathless, cold clear day and racked up the vertical, skiing numerous 50+ degrees lines scattered about the area around our camp.
Our ski-zone was located in the sweet spot elevation wise to score deep stable snow. Each day, two morning/mid-day lines, were followed by a big lunch and a quick nap before heading back out for an evening lap. Never had any of us climbed and skied so many steep lines in a week. During our celebration dinner back at the West Rib in Talkeetna, we clinked or glasses together in hopes that we could again visit the AK Range in such amazing condition.  

Thanks to Pondella and Dav who had the vision to get out there, to Clif Bar for fueling our action packed days, and to Patagonia.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Tecnica Cochise Light/Cochise Pro 130

2012/13 Tecnica Cochise Light/Cochise Pro 130 

For years, I’ve been on the hunt for the perfect balance of downhill performance and back country mobility in a touring set up.  I like to ski dynamic lines with speed, to point it, and land good size airs when the conditions warrant. I also want a set up that can lay down carves on wind buff, inspire confidence in steep/technical/firm terrain, and is still playful enough to wiggle though the trees on a storm day. Enter the Tecnica/Blizzard Cochise line.

Tecnica and Blizzard have made a beautiful match and are leading the charge in the Dynafit compatible performance category.  Two boot models are offered, the Cochise Light and Cochise Pro 130. Both answer the call for a high performance tour-able ski boot. In my Cochise Lights, I can rally BC laps in the morning and head straight to KT without changing my footwear (I’ve waited years for this). After 6 weeks in the boot, I can confidently say they are my favorite ski boots …ever, period.  

  Testing grounds:
From Squaw Valley’s Chimney to Chute 75 I’ve rallied these suckers hard in bounds. BC testing ranged from laps on Tahoe’s West shore, to big vert days in the High Sierra on Matterhorn Peak and Red Slate.

The skiing support these boots offer is not only far better than any BC I’ve skied, they rival my fixed flex, race oriented Tecnica Diablos for performance yet walk as well as my previous Dynafit compatible boot, the Dynafit Titans Ultra Light.  Forward flex is smooth and progressive and does not feel like it ‘bottoms out’ at the end of the boots flex range. Ski control is responsive and precise. 
The Cochise Light shells measured 3.3 lbs. on the digital scale at home. For comparison, the Titan UL came in at 3.4 lbs. (Note: Weighing/comparing shells offers a more apples to apples comparison for me because my liner of choice is a Intuition wrap.)
For me, the fit was not perfect out of the box. I chose to drop 1 full size have the boot stretched by a boot fitter. At first I was skeptical that we could get the boot to fit and wondered if I’d made a sizing mistake, but alas, the boots now fit perfectly.  The Cochise Light is a 120 flex, 100mm last boot, the Pro 130 a true 130 flex, 98mm last. Both are a touch big for me in the vertical volume department, hence the downsize/stretch. The stance in the boot follows the current trend in race boots and is somewhat upright. I shimmed my heels and put spoilers behind the cuffs to put me in my preferred position for skiing aggressively. 

Wondering which boot is right for you? I’d say skiers that spend 50%+ of their time in bounds go for the Pro 130.  Spend most of your time in the BC, go Cochise Light. Either way, you’ll be a happy camper in these boots.  Looking for a second opinion? Read what Clem Smith from Stormy Day Sales has to say.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Middel Pallisade - 14,016' & Polemonium Peak - 14,200'

In what has become a winter to remember, the 2011 ski season keeps rocking on here in the Sierra. In Christian Pondella’s and my continued ‘Big Game’ hunt, we ticked off another couple of big lines on Friday. Our primary goal, the NE face of Middle Pallisade (14,016’) had not been in condition since 2006 and we were psyched to give it a go. Three weeks ago, a visit to the base of the face revealed a proper amount of coverage for a decent ski, but the snow surface was tattered by the wind and by slides. We decided to wait for the ‘right’ kind of storm to resurface the face before we skied it.
Thursday brought 11,000’ snow levels and wind from the due west, a perfect combo.  I picked up Christian from his house in Mammoth at 8:30p and we hit the road planning to get a good night’s rest at the trailhead and a pre-dawn start. Our day commenced a touch earlier than we considered ‘civilized’ thanks to a nudge from some fellow skiers aiming to ski the same mountain. Though our 3:30a start hurt a bit, it quickly became our blessing in disguise.  A ¾ moon lit the way perfectly as we ascended 4000’ or so to the base of the climb.  Up on the glacier, Christian rattled off photos in the pink morning light and we soon stood at the bergschrund, and readied for the climb.
Climbing was fairly easy thanks to a supportable layer under the foot or so of new snow. The new snow bonded well with the old and showed no signs of weaknesses or wind affect. We were psyched! We encountered a couple of ice cruxes along the way that were sure to offer a challenge on descent. At 8:30a we stood atop Middle Pal and clinked our poles together as we buckled down for the ski.
The first turns off the top were in glorious Sierra pow, followed by a bit of rock and ice navigation, which led to the main face. We arched turns down the face at a cautiously fast pace due to exposure worked through a bit more ice and rock and jumped the cliff at the bottom. At the schrund we met Ben and Shane, our fellow climbers/skiers, thanked them for getting us started an hour earlier than we had planned and the chance to climb and ski first. We wished them luck and descended the glacier and valley below back to 10,000’.
Now 9:30a, it seemed far to early to return to the truck and snow conditions were perfect up high. We discussed our options and decided to head for the V-Notch on Polemonium Peak (14,200’) for an afternoon ski. This meant heading directly up the South Fork of Big Pine Creek to a notch on Mt. Sill (14,162’)at 13,800’ and a descent of Sill’s NW Couloir. Skinning was easy and the breeze kept us cool. At 12,500’we ran into Bishop’s Dan Mingori and joined forces for the skin to the notch.  At the notch Dan decided to drop back into South Fork and we parted ways pointing our skis down the NW slope. A few scratchy turns led to perfect creamy powder and we knew our senses had led us in the right direction. As we traversed further North onto the glacier, I looked up in awe at the amount of snow stacked in the V-Notch.
V-Notch April 2005
As predicted for the afternoon, the blue skies had turned to grey and a light snow began to fall from above. As we cruised towards our intended line, I called to Christian, “That doesn’t look like the V-Notch I’ve skied.”  He responded with a very positive grin and we pulled or skins out for the climb to the bergie. The snow was of perfect gradient density and conditions seemed almost to good to be true. As we climbed, the skies continued to darken and the scene began to turn from bright and happy to dark and eerie, a welcomed tone for the afternoon ski.  Before we knew it we topped out, and battled the wind and driving snow to 14. A quick buckle of the boots and a jump off the cornice and we were off carving perfect turns down the creamy 50 degree slope laughing the whole way. We took the run well out onto the glacier, scoped the other lines in the area, clanked our poles together in celebration. I called out a few yodels and listened in disbelief as they bounced over and over again off the hulking walls of granite that surrounded us.
Less than an hour later we were back at the truck clinking a toast with our fellow climbers/skiers Shane and Ben as they too had enjoyed success with a ski of Middle Pal. We reveled in the glory of the moment and congratulated each other on a day well played in the mountains. Off to Bishop for tacos and tequila! Christian and I had now ‘officially’ completely skiing all 14 CA 14ers from their highest skiable points and it was time to celebrate.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Split Couloir

Split Mountain 14,058'

Perhaps the most aesthetic snowy line in the Sierra Nevada, the Split Couloir begs to be skied.  In addition to the beauty and grace of the route, there is the problematic year to year snow coverage that makes this line tough to nail, and even more special when skied in proper condition.
In early April, Christian Pondella and I made plans to climb and ski the couloir, after inspecting the snow coverage with a spotting scope from the valley floor nearly 10000 feet below.  If it went, it would be my second descent of the line and Christian’s first. Through the scope, coverage looked to be in the ‘good enough’ category so we made plans to go.
Upon arrival Sunday night, we were surprised to see 3 other trucks at the trailhead.  We figured the others were headed for the South Face of Split, which has become quite the go to line this year, due to fantastic coverage. Just as we saddled our packs somewhere around 4:30a, Andy and Jason Dorais of SLC, Utah walked up, and mentioned they were gunning for the Split Coulie as well.
After the initial ‘uh, ya, whatever’ thought ran through my mind, we said, ‘let’s go!’, half figuring there’d be a good chance they’d fall off the back, somewhere on the approach. Turns out these guys are as solid as they come, and if anyone was going to get dropped, it was Chris and I. These two know how to move in the mountains!

From the Red Lake trailhead, a 5500‘ ascent puts you at the base of the technical ice climb that guards this beautiful, 2000+ vertical foot gash in the mountain.  Whether approached via the hopefully snowy, main drain or via the Red Lake Trail, the approach climb is steep and arduous.
We hopped on snow right at 6500’ and skinned all the way to the top of the apron just 300 feet below the ice.

As we now were a group of 4, we divvied up the tasks of setting boot pack in the upper couloir and building a solid anchor for the rappel on the way back down. Andy and Jason soloed the 60 feet or so of vertical ice, and were off kicking steps up the line.
Chris followed, protecting the climb, and began work on building the anchor on the climber’s right side of the gully just above the ledge and vertical drop below.  Once the anchor was set, Chris quickly belayed me to the ledge, and we were off to catch the brothers from Utah.

From the ledge, fun, relatively easy ice climbing led to boot top winter snow in the upper couloir and the Dorais’s beautiful boot pack.

 Christian and I caught the brothers at the summit, shared some good food, and readied for the descent.  I gave a shout out and shed a few tears for my brother who tragically lost his wife and kids in a plane crash the week before. We clicked in for a amazing ski, with their spirits along for the ride.

The snow was ‘mostly’ good and wintry on descent, but a few patches of refrozen glaze in the center of the couloir kept us on our toes. We snapped photos where we could and made our way to the rappel, choosing to down climb the short section of ice just above the ledge and anchor.

The 30m rappel led to a few more decent turns lower couloir, followed by some more refrozen glaze. We emerged on the apron with huge grins, happy to have safely climbed and skied this beautiful line. 5500 feet of velvety corn snow led back to the desert and cooler full of cold beer.

At the tailgate of the truck, we shared some more stories with the Dorais brothers, talked about other possible ski descents for them to tackle and made plans to ski with them again in the future. It is always a pleasure to meet and share time with good peeps in the mountains, especially on a big day like this one.             Another great adventure in the Sierra Nevada!

Thank you to Christian Pondella for the great photos.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Life above 11,000 feet in the High Sierra is never dull. Wednesday’s adventure to the Hulk couloirs outside Bridgeport, CA helped me scratch my steep skiing itch once again. Teamed up with Mammoth’s Christian Pondella and Nate Greenburg, and joined by Tahoe’s Lorenzo Worster, we struck out to make the most of yet another glorious California sun shiny day.
Climbing was fast thanks to a little help from the wind. Buckle deep penetration into creamy winter wind bluff. No complaints.

Descending the creamy winter snow deep between the granite walls.

Nate slashing next to the wall.

                   After a quick lunch, we skinned up for couloir number 2. Another 1500' to go...

 The second line of the day proved to be more protected from the wind. Climbing was a bit more difficult, but the pay off was POW! Dropping in near the top was steep!

                                                          Not a bad way to spend the day!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A glimspe from my favorite mountain, ...Tallac

Last weekend's snowfall bonded well to the hard pack here in Tahoe resulting in stellar conditions right in our own backyard. After dropping a line with Kip Garre skier's left through the Cross on Monday morning, I returned with South Lake ripper Sean Havastar for an all out pistol fest in the same zone. Despite a kickin' East wind, conditions remained all time. The Tahoe area's ability to transform overnight into a magical powder playground, once again reminds us why we live here.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Another fine day in the mountains...

Another fine day out on the East Side of the Sierra. Today was spent with Dave Schemenauer and Christain Pondella for an all day pow slaying session. After lapping cold north facing pow we dropped a NW line in epic evening light. Christain was freaking out, stoked on the light and pow on the seemingly endless wave that dropped more than 3000 vert into Mcgee Creek. Here is a little footy from the lines we skied while waiting for evening light.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Mendenhall Couloir

This morning, I had the pleasure of sharing company with Powder Dan Molnar and Christian Pondella for an incredible ski in the Mendenhall Couloir, just outside Mammoth Lakes, CA. Conditions were all time! 4000 vertical of blissful, steep powder skiing. Hoping to crack another big line tomorrow.

Mendenhall Couloir High Sierra, CA from John Morrison on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Powder Mag - 2 page spread!

A great journey into the mountains last spring with an all-star crew produced, good times and some lasting memories. Tom Bie tells a great story of the trip in this month's Powder. This is the trip that started my quest to ski a select 14 peaks in CA. Why not?

Friday, April 30, 2010

California 14ers

So I guess it is official. I'm aiming to ski all of California's 14,000' peaks this spring. Here's the list:
  1. Mt Langley
  2. Mt Muir
  3. Mt Whitney
  4. Mt Russel
  5. Mt Williamson
  6. Mt Tyndal
  7. Split Mountain
  8. Middle Pallisade
  9. Mt Sill
  10. Polemonium Peak
  11. North Pallisade
  12. Thunderbolt Mountain
  13. White Mountain
  14. Mt. Shasta
Ironically, I've always tried to stay away from 'lists' when it comes to skiing in California's High Sierra. Conditions vary so greatly week to week and month to month, I've found it best to pick mountains to ski based on current weather and snow conditions. The idea of cranking out a list of peaks can mean skiing in less than favorable conditions, thus taking away from the experience. Well, conditions have been so good this Spring, I figure it is perhaps possible to get them all in reasonably good shape. More to come.....

July 2, 2010 - Skied #14 today, Mt. Shasta.

April 11, 2011  Note: As time allows, I look forward to publishing accounts from each of the CA 14ers listed above. Be sure to read about our recent adventure on Split.