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February 26, 2011

What A Week

It's been quite the snow week in the Pacific Northwest.

A heavy storm laid down 11 inches on Monday night and 15 inches on Tuesday night, if you put stock in the NWAC telemetry readings for Alpental. Random user samples of the goods didn't leave any reason to doubt the veracity of the sonar, and there didn't seem to be much reason to skin with plenty of powder for everyone at the ski area this week. The International high traverse was closed until late on Friday afternoon due to stability concerns, but deep and dry snow finally began to fill in the lower area and the Elevator Gate was open throughout.

After two runs from the high traverse on Friday, Kevin and I, joined by Matt Karaus, took a breather on Saturday with a mellow tour to Mt. Catherine. It turned out to be just what the doctor and sore legs would have prescribed; cold dry snow, a perfectly laid skintrack, and great terrain on the line we chose - it doesn't get much better.

Kevin and Matt near the summit of Mt. Catherine

Matt gives the Lhasa Pows a workout   Kevin Curd photo

   Kevin Curd photo

February 20, 2011

Hyak Is Back

The ski area of my youth is back in operation.

Now officially known as "Summit East" but consistently referred to as Hyak by locals, the area had the first test run of its new chairlift last weekend, and its Grand Opening on Wednesday, the first lift-served skiing by paying customers since a catastrophic mud and snow slide two winters ago took out the old lift. Stopping in to try out the new chair was a bit nostalgic, as Hyak was where I learned to ski as a child - my father bought our entire family "lifetime" passes, which lasted for years until the area became part of the Web Moffat empire.

Boasting recycled but very comfortably padded triple chairs, and actually starting at the lodge rather than 200 yards up the hill, the "new" lift covers much the same ground as the old Dinosaur Chair but in better style. A separate lift on the back side of the mountain is nearly complete, but has yet to begin operation. The majority of the customers in line were nordic skiers intent on accessing the wealth of skate and classic tracks at the top of the mountain, but the lift is open for alpine skiing as well, and offers a sweet "shortcut" for ski tourists looking to get to the base of Mt. Catherine. With today's perfect weather and Sun Valleyesque groomed corduroy, there were still only a few skiers on the runs at any given time, and it made for a great opportunity to test some freshly mounted skis.

Lift-served is back on the menu at Hyak

February 13, 2011

Vertfest 2011

It's done and over, except for a few more post-race beers.

Vertfest 2011, the rando race portion, is in the books. A day that looked pretty marginal on the DOT webcams at 6:00 AM - driving snow and 33 degree temperatures - turned to sun with just enough heavy fresh to cover the ice and make for perfect skinning conditions. A new record of more than 120 competitors signed up, many if not most sporting stuffed kitties (or last minute substitutions) on their packs. The layer of fresh on top of the ice made it possible to avoid last year's debacle in front of the lodge, and made for a much more strategic race than usual among the front runners, with the fast guys reluctant to spend time breaking trail. We all know the feeling. That said, the overall results were quite traditional, with the Andy and Mike Traslin coming home in first and second. The remarkable Dave Brown rocked his powder rig to 4th place, with Seth 5th, Jan Kordell 6th, and Lowell 7th. Because of the tactics at the front and a higher percentage of super-fit and experienced competitors, the times in Men's Race were closer than ever before, and I was stoked to come in under 2 hours. On a side note, my modded F1 boots (on the feet of Jan Kordel) and Trab Duo Sint Aeros (with Brandon Kern at the wheel) both beat me to the finish . . .

In the mid-pack race, I found myself trading spots with the same guys I usually end up with - Benj Wadsworth, John Spiess, and John Stimberis, along with Ryan Lurie and his giant kitty and Eric Wehrly. On the second lap Benj put the hammer down and I couldn't respond, but backed off enough not to blow and fortunately saved some energy for skiing. Fitz Cahall, the men's splitboard winner, was absolutely flying with a time of 102:13, and local talents Heather Kern and Greg Ireton took their respective Rec classes. Juya Ghanaie took Women's Race and gave all credit to Monika Johnson, who has ruled this event for the past several years - at the awards ceremony Christian Folk announced that in years to come the race portion of VertFest will be named the Monika Johnson Memorial. Finally, there were actually two competitors in Women's 50+ this year, with Tobae McDuff taking top honors.

Ryan the Lyon-hearted carries the load for Monika   Photo courtesy Mill Creek Multimedia

Attentive crowd at the race ceremonies, mid-frame from left: Seth (with blue pack), Holly & Eli, Marg, Trevor and Benj, Jason H. and Juya in foreground

Vancouver's Traslin brothers took their traditional spots at the top of the podium, with Mike (left) in second and Andy 8 seconds ahead in first

Results are a little hard to decipher; look for the class first (ie. MRC = Men's Race), then the time. Jan Kordel should have been 6th and Andy Hill 10th in MRC but somehow didn't get first lap times.

More results. Heather Kern stomped the Women's Rec division.

Still more results. Men's Rec is ordered from last to first; Greg Ireton took it

Vertfest This Weekend

Lest you forget, or are on the fence or are trying to figure out some excuse for not showing up . . . VertFest 2011 is coming up this weekend, February 12 and 13, at Alpental. In addition to the rando race on Sunday, Saturday will include a host of other activities for skiers of all fitness and sanity levels, including photography workshops with Grant Gunderson and Jason Hummel, a steep ski clinic, snow stability and beacon skills workshops, and an evening film festival at the North Bend Theater. Many of the events at VertFest benefit the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, whose survival is threatened by the current state budgetary crisis, so by all means step up and attend. Here's the link to buy tickets online.

This year I've got neither race skis nor fitness, but I'm still going for it while some of my partners have conveniently scheduled ski trips "out of town" . . . Meanwhile, the real challenge is choosing whether to do "Race" or "Recreational" . . .

Race Kitty @ 125 grams and good on the up, Touring Kitty @ 211 grams = more float in powder?

February 5, 2011

Rest In Pow

I got a voice mail this afternoon from Jan Kordel of the Alpental Pro Patrol, who had gone to the north side of Red Mountain early this morning with the Alpental BARK (Backcountry Avalanche Rescue K9) team. He said that through a combination of good planning and plain luck, they were sucessful in recovering Monika Johnson's body buried in slide debris in the search zone. A volunteer search party composed of several local guides and skier friends of Monika was kept on hold this morning, as the BARK team feared extra human presence in the zone would possibly confuse the dogs, but Ryan and Oyvind were included in the BARK group.

I met Monika in the spring of 2005. She was an instructor in the Mountaineer's Glacier Travel for Skiers and Snowboarders class, and classroom sessions were conducted in the magnificent former Art Deco Mountaineers Building at the foot of Queen Anne Hill. It was early in the course, and one of the students was having no luck at all tying a Münter Hitch, a foundation of both belaying and rappelling techniques. After about the fourth unsucessful attempt, Monika and I looked at each other and a stream of nonverbal communication passed between us. "Oh. My. God."

We chatted a bit about light skis and Dynafit bindings, as skiers are wont to do, at subsequent class sessions, but it was on the class field trip on Mt. Rainier's Nisqually Glacier that I began to find out what she was all about. After the Saturday session of self-arrest practice, pulley system practice, and anchor building most of the students and instructors were pretty tired, but I headed out for a ski run or two and was promptly joined by Monika, who proceded to kick my butt skinning up the hill and matched me going down. Yikes, who was this girl?

In later years we both acted as instructors in the glacier travel class, and skied together periodically. Once she and Oyvind Henningsen surprised us at about 1:00 AM in our bivy at 10,000 feet on Rainier, clanking into camp with their headlamps on, ready to ski the Fuhrer Finger in a few hours. "Hi guys, mind if we join you?" Over the years it became apparent that not only did she possess the heart and lungs of a world-class endurance athlete, she never got grumpy or ill-tempered when things got tough. I remember skinning through blinding wind and snow somewhere between Pan Point and Camp Muir, with her smiling and trying to convince me that it really wasn't that bad. Monika was happy to work twice as hard, break trail all day long, and carry the rope and extra water in her pack, as long as it was uphill. Hiking downhill was another story; her knees were a source of pain on the descent, and she would ask you to take the heavy stuff so she could walk down backward.

For the past three years I had worked on Tuesdays, which were Monika's day off from her work as a physical therapist, but this year I had them free and was looking forward to skiing with her more. We talked about shared interests on a tour three weeks ago - bikes, ski gear, dental implants - Monika suffered a serious bike accident due to a fork collapse a while ago and needed a bunch of implants, while I had recently had molars # 31 and # 18 done; we both finished our treatments at about the same time. A couple of times she tried to convince me to join her crew for impromptu ice hockey at the frozen-over Arboretum, but having neither skated nor played hockey in my youth I opted out. If the positions had been reversed, I have a feeling Monika would have gone and simply learned to skate on the spot. More recently we were discussing buying some mohair Pomoca skins online from Sport Amplatz in Italy . . .

Anyone who's met or skied with Monika will miss her infectious enthusiasm at simply being in the mountains and sliding on snow; my condolences especially go out to her SO Ryan Lurie and Oyvind Henningsen, who seemed to ski with her more than anyone. If the mental image of a lanky girl with a full-face helmet on her pack disappearing up the skintrack gives you the extra energy to get to the top of a mountain sometime this winter or next or the one after that, she isn't gone. Breathe deeper, take your cadence up a notch, and maybe even take another turn at breaking trail. Yuki Girl would want it that way.

Monika Johnson, Queen of the Pacific Northwest Backcountry. 1970-2011

February 4, 2011


Just got off the phone with the King Country Sheriff's Department, who wanted a detailed account of how Kevin and I came upon Monika's gear and determined that she may have fallen from the cornice on Red Mountain Tuesday.

The authorities are consistently mystified by how we could have identified her gear so positively to have called her work and friends in Seattle from the summit of Red. This has come up several times; they just don't get it. We SKI together. It's like a cop being able to identify their partner's firearm and shoulder holster or the license plate on a stolen Honda. We're skiers, and as much as we try to deny it, our gear is our signature. When I saw the Dynastar Little Big Troubles with the purple Ascensions, the Grivel Evo axe with hammer, and red Arc'teryx pack I knew right away. When I lifted the pack and revealed the silver Giro full-face helmet there was no question. Oh shit, that's Monika's stuff.

In a way I suppose it's good that we happened to be on Red the next day; the Sheriff said no one seemed to have any idea where she was skiing, though with her car parked at Summit West it would have been a natural progression to search Kendall, Red and Lundin. For the moment, the search is still on hold due to the nasty weather and avy danger, though if the weather clears enough they have plans to take crews and dogs in by helicopter rather than send ground crews. Meanwhile, in the city, the news outlets have begun identifying Monika by name and a huge outpouring of love and support has sprung up on the most appropriate spot,

Greg Ireton's come up with an idea for a tribute to Monika for those participating in Vertfest next week - strap a stuffed kitty on your pack for the race. I'll be down at Goodwill looking for one that weighs less than 500 grams.

The news media are all using this photo without my permission, so I may as well use it too. Paradise, MRNP, October 30, 2005

February 3, 2011


They postponed the search for Monika indefinitely today, due to abysmal weather conditions, namely freezing rain and expected 6,000+ foot freezing levels.

Search and Rescue crews who had gone in on foot and skis no doubt spent a miserable night, but managed to concentrate the search area into a roughly 100 x 300 meter grid after finding some articles of clothing. Unfortunately I was in no condition to go back up last night, being beat and having no bivy gear or food.

King County Sheriff's Department now terms it a "recovery" rather than a "rescue" mission, and will send crews in as weather and avalanche conditions allow.

Monika swam under the surface of Mowich Lake then suddenly popped up, creating these ripples. July 18, 2006

February 2, 2011

Sad, Sad News

Today's tour started out like many others, with sunshine and the chance of fresh snow above 4,000 feet or so in the Washington Cascades.

Kevin had a plan to try a circumnavigation of Red Mountain, which sounded promising, and we headed up through the Commonwealth Basin with a trace of new snow over a scratchy frozen mess, first heading to the northwest ridge. Along the way, we met up with a guy who turned out to be a good friend of my nephew in Ellensburg as well as a power trailbreaker. The route down from the ridge proved to more than any of us wanted to venture, at least without a bit more snow, and we turned around to ski the SW aspect back into the normal Red Mt. route.

With our new friend John breaking trail, we decided to do another run down Red Mt. proper, and gained the summit quickly utilizing the power bootpack method. A strangely familiar set of skis and pack were sitting at the summit, but I didn't investigate too carefully at the time, assuming the owner would be back shortly. John had to go down straight away, to "feed the cows" he said, so Kevin and I relaxed in the sun and had something to eat and drink.

When no one returned to the skis in 15 minutes or so, I went up to take a look and immediately recognized the skis, pack, ice axe and helmet as belonging to my friend Monika Johnson. A closer look seemed to indicate the skis and poles had been there for a day or so, as they had melted into the snow surface a bit. Knowing that Monika normally works on Wednesday we had Francine check to see if she had made it to work today, but the answer was negative. After looking around and trying her cell phone, we noticed a small notch in the huge cornice overhanging the cliffy north face of Red, and assumed the worst.

After notifying the Sheriff's Department and ski patrol through Francine, we made an effort to descend the north face of Red, but the first two promising spots appeared to be cliffed out. Blazing afternoon sun had turned all the south facing slopes into a wet avalanche heaven, which was also a bit disconcerting, and by the time we located a "go" notch on the SE ridge it was almost 3:00 PM. Realizing that we would almost certainly run out of daylight if we went over the ridge, and not being prepared for an overnight, we decided to head back to the car.

As dark was setting, Oyvind Henningsen and Monika's boyfriend Ryan, both SAR guys, were starting to organize a headlamp search party at Summit West.

Here's a link to KIRO's helicopter footage from Wednesday, they were there within minutes of the King Co. Sheriff. Keep in mind that a lot of the tracks around Monika's gear were made by Kevin and myself trying to figure out what happened, but there were definite tracks leading to the notched section of cornice.

Screen grab from KIRO 7 news copter footage of the north face of Red Mt., black rectangle shows approximate area of cornice collapse

Kevin enjoys some turns before the day goes south.

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