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December 24, 2011

First Annual Hyak Vert 120

Sixteen core randonnée skiers showed up at Hyak on Christmas Eve day for a unique 2 hour "time trial" up-and-downhill event in the rain and fog. The format called for putting in as many laps on the frontside of Hyak (Summit East) as possible in 120 minutes, with the rain, fog and grabby isothermal glop over ice making for even more fun (and wetter participants).

As one might imagine, the people who actually showed up in these conditions for a ski competition were the kind that take their suffering seriously, so the pressure was on (at least for the top spots). Everyone professed to have a great time, and hosts Brandon and Heather Kern provided pumpkin pie and hot cider in the lodge after the event. Good stuff! Provisional results: 1.Seth Davis (6 laps, 6,000 vertical feet) 2.Brandon Kern 3.John Mauro 4.Greg Louie 5.Crispin Prahl 6.Heather Kern 7.Holly Walker 8.Kevin Curd 9.John Stimberis 10.Melissa Chapman 11.Elissa Eng 12.Francine Curd 13.Ann Melgaard 14.Cindy 15. Dawn Frearson 16. Katie Smith

Start of the Hyak 120; Seth Davis, Brandon Kern and John Mauro are already stretching it out in front   Kevin Curd photo

December 13, 2011

Happy Holidays!

So many things to be thankful for . . . for those of you not on my hard-copy Christmas list, here's the picture for 2011.

Just the kids this year; the parents didn't care for any of the pictures that included them! Here's to a wonderful holiday season, even better 2012, and fresh snow sooner rather than later.

Jordan and Nick wish you the best!   Yuen Lui photo

December 5, 2011

Feels Like Mid-Season

Even though it's only the first week of December, it feels like the season's been going for a while.

Most of the local ski areas are open, if only on partial schedules, people are stoked, and new ski gear is flying off the shelves in local stores. The northwest seems to be getting the lion's share of the early season snowfall, with normally dependable spots in Colorado, Utah and California just "scraping" by, but they should be getting theirs soon. Alpental opened for the season with all lifts running on Friday, December 2nd. There was very respectable coverage on the upper mountain, and management even saw fit to open Elevator Gate in the afternoon. Soft snow on the upper mountain, sunny weather with few lift lines and a mellow "family" vibe made it an opener to remember.

There's a high pressure system stuck over our area at the moment, and no new snow in the picture this week, but Kevin, Francine and I did an relaxed trip to Silver Peak today under beautiful clear skies. We found a few patches of wind-hammered fresh snow stuck between ridges of icy hard stuff, and covered enough mileage to make the legs sore. Not bad for early season.

Rolling through the meadows enroute to Silver Peak, Francine is digging the new Speed Radicals!   Kevin Curd photo

November 29, 2011

Husky Cycling Fundraiser

It's always good to get the inside scoop on matters of sport straight from the protagonists - tonight was a unique lecture/Q & A event with famed sports psychologist Dr. Dan Tripps and Garmin-Cervelo pro cyclist Tyler Farrar, held at the new Northcut Landing facility across from University Village. Dr. Tripps peppered his talk on commitment and passion in sport with fascinating anecdotes about a diverse range of athletes and coaches including gymnast Kathy Johnson, backstroker John Naber, basketball coach John Wooden, land speed record holder Craig Breedlove and the Mariners' own Edgar Martinez. He made a strong point for trying to exact the maximum from each of our performances and concentrating on doing everything within our power to perfect those things we can actually control, without getting too fixated on the "win." Dr. Dan and Tyler both donated their time, and the event was a huge success for Husky Cycling from a fundraising standpoint, with a standing-room only crowd.

Tyler was just himself, chatting like any down-home PNW dude about winning the biggest bike races in the world. He conceded that the sprint game might be a bit different now that HTC is no longer there and willing to dedicate an entire team to helping one rider win, and let slip a few "secrets" - the Garmin-Cervelo low-gluten dietary regime doesn't seem to make much difference to him, though he eats what they cook for the team at races, he thinks Mark Cavendish is still going to be fast in 2012, and he loves going fast on skis when he isn't riding his bike. He even admitted to being an avid randonnée skier, with a brand new Trab Stelvio XL/Plum/TLT 5P setup that he's been up Granite Mountain and Mount Hood with in the past week. Nice, and great for the cross-training, but it might be better not to tell Jonathan Vaughters about that randonnée stuff . . .

I quizzed Tyler Farrar about his new ski setup after the lecture   Gary Louie photo

November 16, 2011

Season is On

I've been laid up for over a week with the worst respiratory cold I can remember in my life - and missing some of the normal early season preparatory events like the Northwest Snow and Avalanche Summit. The NSAS was held November 13th at the flagship REI store on Yale Avenue, and featured a number of local and imported avalanche forecasters, educators, and seasoned observers hoping to pass on a story or two to help a fellow backcountry enthusiast avoid a similar situation somewhere down the road. The "talent" included names like Karl Birkeland, Karl Klassen, Rod Newcomb, John Scurlock, Garth Ferber, Oyvind Henningsen, Mike Richardson, and Zach Guy. If you missed it this year, you'll have to wait until 2012. In the meantime, there have already been several avalanche incidents and at least one high profile death in the US this season, so shake off the complacency and keep your eyes and ears open.

The snowpack is gradually building as we speak and people are skinning most of the local areas. Crystal and Baker are set to open this Friday, November 18, with Summit West and Stevens Pass scheduled to spin the lifts on Saturday. Here's a shot from Kevin today at Summit West - maybe a little weedy, but the next few days should take care of that. See you on the hill!

Kinda defines the term "meadowskipping," with the meadow still in evidence - my new coat packs about as small as that snowball on her hat!   Kevin Curd photo

October 22, 2011

EVO Turns 10

Crispin and I attended the EVO 10th Anniversary party last night - on the guest list courtesy of Mountain Madness (thanks, Jeremy). It turned out to be a huge bash; Crispin was still in a line that stretched the length of the block when I showed up fifteen minutes late and the beat was already pumping from inside. The venue is a new structure called the Fremont Collective that's part of Bryce Phillips' burgeoning real estate empire - a multi-purpose art/skate/food/retail space on the NE corner of 35th and Stone Way NE that used to be a contractor's tool outlet.

The future of snowsports? Hard to say, but these guys know how to throw a party. Plenty of Red Hook beer, chilled shots of organic Clearwater Vodka (iced in a martini shaker with no mixers, but the Redbull tent was just a few feet away . . .), great fusion Thai food from Bryce's catering company, tons of doughnuts and mini-cupcakes plus lots of souvenir-grade schwag. There was a mechanical bull ride (man, I thought they sent all those to Iraq), a Gore-Tex glove icewater dexterity contest, Nike free T-shirt press, K2 and LibTech snow tool history area, silent benefit auction, slope style fashion show, and much more. I actually didn't see anyone I knew (except former EVO snowboard buyer Gorio Bustamente) and much of the crowd, to be honest, looked like professional "lifestylers" rather than skiers - lots of mini skirts and 5 inch-heeled knee-high boots for the girls, scruffy beards and Hoji-toques worn high on the forehead for the dudes. Quite the cultural enrichment opportunity for us old guys.

My ears gave out around 10:15, but Crispin raved on until the wee hours, saying the imported San Francisco DJ brought out the dance grooves after I left and he felt the urge. Now I know how he stays in such good shape! Bryce's reputation as the only ski bum in the NW who's figured out how to make money is assuming mythic proportions - if nothing else, he could run the "Collective" as a club five nights a week, charge for the beer and vodka, and make a killing.


Shake it, Shake it, Shake it some more.   Crispin Prahl photo

They were eaters and drinkers.   Crispin Prahl photo

October 19, 2011

Ralph S. Eskenazi, 1913-2011

My old friend Danny's dad died on Monday at the very commendable age of 98. In the early seventies, when I was discovering how far a bicycle could take you with a little effort, I would ride out to Danny's vintage clothing shop, Oasis Apparel (later Dreamland) in the University District and come home with cowboy, bowling, and Hawaiian-themed clothing (which my mother would refuse to touch but insist that I put immediately into the washing machine). Often we would spend hours ironing and trying on shirts from his enormous collection of vintage Hawaiian garments - we're talking about duffel after duffel full, including an entire warehouse in Belltown - and listening to early punk, "classic" rock (96 Tears was the crowd favorite) and emerging grunge. Once or twice Danny mentioned that his dad was quite a skier in his day, but I didn't pay it much heed.

Yesterday a post by Lowell Skoog on brought Ralph's passing to my attention; like several other dads of friends he was a pioneer of ski mountaineering in the northwest, and I went all these years without knowing it. Like Mr. Giese and Dr. Trott and Mr. Watson and Dr. Spickard, they were just parents. What could they know? It's sad to think of the opportunities I missed out on by not walking into the kitchen and asking these guys a few questions. A classic video clip, just a sampling of the body of film that Lowell has painstakingly archived and transferred over the past few years from the Mountaineers' collection of films on climbing and skiing, is here, and includes some great shots of skiing on Mt. St. Helens long before the "blast."

Here's a link to the Seattle Times obituary - Rest in peace, Mr. Eskenazi, and thanks for the inspiration.

The All-Jewish Troop 45, circa 1926. From left: Abe Condiotte, Al Caraco, ?, Henry Payloy, Mel Abrams, Ralph Eskenazi, Milton Shindell  Photo courtesy of University of Washington Libraries

October 18, 2011

New Season

It's what I call the start of the ski season - the first time I ski on fresh, clean snow. This year it happened yesterday, when Kevin, Frank and I took a drive to Paradise in perfect fall weather and did a routine hike to Camp Muir. Somehow the Muir snowfield had managed to completely flatten itself over the past month, and the huge grit-topped suncups of September were nowhere to be seen. What we did find was 3,000 plus vertical feet of perfect inch-deep corn, to several hundred feet below Pebble Creek. Bring on the winter!

Frank can't believe how good the skiing is on the upper Muir Snowfield

October 10, 2011

2 New Bindings from Hagan

While Salomon appears to be sitting out this year in terms of retailing their new rando binding, Austrian ski maker Hagan has just announced the availability of their new Z01 and Z02 series. Aimed at new and crossover ski tourists, this binding looks like a Fritschi Freeride Pro that's been put on a diet, with a similar frame and latch configuration and a skimpier toe and heel. With a DIN range from 4-12 for the Z01 and 4-10 for the Z02, this could be a viable option for the "one ski quiver" or a bigger ski that's only going to see limited skinning during the season. The biggest problem may well be finding a pair - Hagan has very limited market availability in the US, even though they are known for making a quality product at very reasonable price points. I recently got an e-mail suggesting I contact the importer, Michael Hagen (not, to my knowledge, any relation) directly through his company, InForm Sports regarding the direct purchase of Hagan skis, and this might work as well for the bindings.

Here's a blurb from the Austrian arm of the company:
“The Hagan Z ski touring binding was developed to serve the growing market for recreational alpine ski touring in the European and U.S. markets,” said Max Kumpfmueller, Operations Director at Hagan Ski headquarters in Austria. “The design priorities were ease of use and adjustability, compatibility with a wide variety of ski boots (AT and downhill), and excellent uphill and downhill performance at a reasonably low weight and price.”

The Z01 retails for $489, the Z02 $389 (not so sure about those reasonably low prices, but you're talking € vs. dollar). The Z01 has an 80mm ski brake, but 90, 100 and 115mm versions are also available. (The Z02 comes with a leash, but the brakes will fit either model). Both bindings come in 3 sizes, small for boot sole lengths of 255-310 mm, medium for 285-340 mm and large for 315-370 mm. A Hagan ski crampon is available and compatible with both bindings.

The Hagan Z02 and Z01 bindings - they look much like a Fritschi but with severely trimmed down toe and heel . . .

October 4, 2011

Bomber Amer Sports AT Binding Getting Close

I've got a couple sets of Marker Dukes that I use on my lift-served skis not because I enjoy the weight or the clumsy touring capabilities, but simply because I've decided life is too short to spend skiing in uncomfortable boots. Yes, I want to wear randonnée boots ALL the time. The Duke allows me to run alpine touring spec boot soles in what is basically an alpine binding, though if the Jester would accomodate my boot soles I'd use them instead.

Now Amer Sports, under the dual-guise of its Atomic and Salomon divisions, is getting in the game with a heavy-duty touring binding (the Atomic-branded version is called the "Tracker") that splits the difference between the Marker Duke/Baron and the Fritschi Freeride Plus, with alloy bars reminiscent of the Silvretta Pure connecting toe to heel. The new binding loses the awkward sliding engagement system of the Markers by substituting a series of four metal hooks that engage the heel unit when you step down. Release is via a smallish sliding flat tab at the very rear of the heel. The binding is still in the testing phase and reportedly won't be available to the public until next season - AmerSports is understandably being very careful after the backwash of very negative publicity following the Salomon Tech boot fiasco.

DIN range is reportedly 7-16. No word yet on weight; the overall structure of the rails uses quite a bit less mass than the Duke, and losing the ramping AFD drops weight as well. Likewise, there is no projected price - all the prototypes seem to have gone to sponsored athletes to flog for the season . . . might be just the thing for comfort-lovers like me or the super-fit cliff hucker in the family. Now how about a Salomon 14 DIN Tech binding?

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Here's a few pics of the Atomic courtesy of Daron Rahlves and Philpug/Epicsnow . . . and the Salomon version in blue, courtesy of

September 29, 2011

The Matrix All Over Again


Arc'teryx has recently and without fanfare introduced a new line of urbanwear based on its stable of proven technical fabrics. Is this move going to prove a hit with the moneyed hipser set? Certainly a Gore-Tex raincoat would be the way to go if I were to own a raincoat, but the downside could be a loss of face among the climbers and skiers who made the brand popular.

Carefully kept separate from the regular Arc'teryx website (presumably not to alienate the core climber/skier customer base), the Veilance collection is a thoughfully wrought line of functional clothing that seems to be done with Arc'teryx' typical attention to detail, in a combination of hardshell, softshell, and windstopper fabrics once reserved for "true" outdoorwear. Come to think of it, though, the Belltown softwear engineer waiting for the bus in the pouring rain because he's trying to go carless needs this kind of protection just as badly as those of us sitting on Chair 2 at Alpental in driving wet snow . . .

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Some pictures from the Arc'teryx Veilance jacket collection: from left, Sinter Coat, Blazer, Field Jacket SV

The styling is pretty cool, the blazer is a dead ringer for an Emporio Armani suit jacket I have with hidden buttons (yeah, it sounds incongruous, but I'm a sucker for high-end Italian suits I find in thrift stores, and have a closet full of them), plus it has a hidden "money pocket" under the lapel. Take that, you Marseille pickpockets! You can almost see Keanu Reeves dodging bullets in these clothes. And if you're a tad too slow, the shirt's made of Kevlar weave, it might just stop that slug.

So who's gonna be first to start skiing in this stuff?

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From left: Spec Pant, Stealth LS Shirt, Stealth Pant

September 3, 2011


We all come from somewhere.

In the case of my mother's family, they came originally from southern China. No one still living can verify that my maternal grandfather came to America to work on the railroad, or sent for my grandmother as a mail-order bride from the Toisan region (though we heard those stories over the years), but my brother Gary recently made a trip to Nevada to research the family history in the small town of Lovelock where my grandfather put down roots.

Today Lovelock (once known as "Lovelock Gulch" according to my mom) is another sleepy western town, fading in the desert heat and ignored by the drivers that pass overhead on I-80 enroute to Reno. Its most famous resident is arguably O.J. Simpson, currently serving time in the Lovelock Correctional Center for his 2008 convictions on robbery and kidnapping charges, and Mr. Simpson, to my knowledge, has no plans to relocate any time soon. In the distant past, however, Lovelock was home to thousands of Chinese immigrants who worked the railroads and mines; my grandfather "James" catered to them by offering boarding, meals and laundry services and probably a few other amenities as well. When we visited Lovelock as small children, the girls at the local whorehouse (my mother called it the "cathouse") all knew who we were and treated us like royalty.

My uncle Frank Chang, who passed away shortly before O.J. moved to town, was the last Chinese resident of Lovelock, and there's a tiny "Chinese Museum" dedicated to him adjacent to the Cadillac Inn. Frank's US Army dogtags and other memorabilia are on display, along with an odd assortment of Asian trinkets and bric-a-brac. The owner of the motel (Larry deLeeuw) has simply taken a personal interest in this obscure facet of Chinese-American history - he also drove out to the local cemetery to show my brother and cousin what he thinks was once the Chinese portion of the burial ground, with multiple unmarked mounds and various severely weathered markers displaying barely legible Chinese characters. Getting the county to fence and mark the area as the "Chinese Cemetery" was also Larry's doing.

Larry: "You guys want some incense?"

Gary: "Huh?"

Larry: "You know, to pay respects to your ancestors, or whatever you do . . . "

Gary: "Uhhh . . No thanks, I think we'll just shoot some video and look around . . . "

Clockwise, from bottom left: My cousins Bob Louie and John Louie, uncle Bill Chang, uncle Lewis On, Jade and Ken Louie, Wingo the dog,
my paternal grandmother Lily Louie, aunt Dorothy Louie with cousin Elaine Louie on her lap

Lovelock, Nevada. My grandmother with the chickens

My uncle Frank Chang's WWII dogtags, in the window of the Chinese Museum, Lovelock, Nevada   Gary Louie photo

More recent but still pretty ancient history: I'm resurrecting my old ski club, the Sunnyside Sliders, mostly in response to requests from offspring of the original members. I had the original patch I'd embroidered back in 1971 scanned and reproduced with a slightly bolder and more regular font, and the quality of the reproductions is superior. If you see these on the hill at your local ski area, don't be alarmed . . .

For a little more background on the Sliders and how the early freestyle scene developed, check out this 2009 interview with the legendary Wayne Wong by Gordy Skoog. I guess we were more influential than I thought, and it's funny to hear Wayne expound on how he's thankful he didn't have my name or he'd never have made a career out of skiing . . . guess it goes both ways, I'm thankful I don't have to tour with those Anton Gliders stuck on my skis!

A scanned and very nicely executed version of the patch I hand-embroidered in 1971

August 22, 2011

Left Coast Visitors

My friend Jonathan Shefftz, "light-is-right" maven and driving force behind our "rando race gear for everyman" Internet alias, was in town for two days. I had missed him last year, and so busted it down to Paradise to get in a day of August turns with him today. For a pretty nice day, the crowd was extremely sparse, with only a handful of climbing parties on the mountain and no other skiers or boarders. Weird.

We chatted and skinned while catching up on each other's lives, kids, spouses and gear. Jonathan, who seemingly lives on GU while skiing, must have sucked down half a dozen of them during the day. I made do with a package of Shot Bloks and two Hammer Gels courtesy of Husky Cycling . . . This visit was a late replacement for a trip Jonathan had planned earlier in the summer that was cancelled because of the passing of his father, Melvin Shefftz, and he's been performing a touching remembrance ritual to his dad on each of his subsequent ski tours this summer. Afterwards, we did a couple of nice runs on the Upper Paradise, then traversed over to the Nisqually Chutes which still went, albeit with some healthy runnels and suncups - keep in mind this was August 22nd . . .

Jonathan chats up some Serbian tourists - they brought the 1.5 year old baby on an overnight to Camp Muir . . .

Lemurian spacecraft investigates the strange source of energy that is the Nisqually rock fall

Jonathan pays homage to his recently deceased father by reading aloud a newspaper passage, something his dad loved to do in the mountains

The third week in August and the Nisqually Chutes still go

August 2, 2011

84 Months

84 consecutive months of skiing.

I feel like a long-time AA member, valiantly standing up and proclaiming seven years of sobriety. Except in my case, it's been seven years of full-on intoxication.

It's meant the thrill of sliding over snow has never been more than 30 days away; the unequalled feeling of setting edges on some form of frozen water never far from my mind. Come September and October, with the languid heat that's sure to follow, I'm sure I'll be jonesing like Amy Winehouse at the Betty Ford Center - itching to bust out and score, but lucky enough to live in Washington State where, so far, the snow is never far away.

My student Elissa on the peak between the Castle and Unicorn, Tatoosh Range, MRNP - a solid "A" for the mid-term

Rainier wears its lenticular cap for the day, casting an "otherworldly" glow on the upper mountain

July 28, 2011

Still Plenty of Snow

Watching and listening to reports of over-100 degree weather with debilitating humidity in the rest of the country, complaining about our abnormally cool and wet summer in the Northwest makes us seem like ingrates. Indeed, we have it good. So what if some of us needed to put on fleece coats at my son's graduation party kegger? The drizzle just added to the festive atmosphere as we passed the Mirror Pond filled glass boot around . . .

Not to mention the fact that we can still skin from the car at Paradise, Sunrise, and Chinook Pass! Suncups are starting to form on most aspects, but it's still damn fine skiing throughout the region. I expect that some popular spots - Artist's Point, for instance - will not thaw out this season before the snow begins to fall again. It remains to be seen whether the semi-annual "Slush Cup" will take place in the Tatoosh - naturally enough, it requires SLUSH.

Lots of skiing to be had without trying too hard - check out the size of that cornice on Naches Peak!

July 8, 2011

Happy Summer

Summer is officially here, and we've actually had a couple sunny days over 70 degrees Fahrenheit . . . if you're not a fan of the cold, you can take heart in the fine summer skiing that's been available this year, with Sunrise and Chinook Pass just opening last week. This is a month or so later than usual, but the snowpack is exceptional in 2011, and there should be good roadside skiing at least through the end of the month.

My protégé skis into the fog in one of the Sourdough Chutes

Some extraordinary events have been captured on video this summer, among them the the ongoing evolutionary shaping of the Nisqually Cleaver. Just weeks after the first successful ski descents of the Nisqually Ice Cliff, the huge mass of rock and ice directly above the route let go in a series of large slides over the three days from June 25th to June 27th, effectively obliterating the line. Stuff is still falling and it looks like another mass of rock is ready to fall. Check out the video if you haven't seen it, I've probably watched it a dozen times and still can't get over the river of liquid stone and ice flowing down the Nisqually Glacier bed.

Then there's the other summer tradition, the Tour de France. Thanks to the availability of instant replay HD video, I've decided to stop getting up each day at 5:00 AM and have just been watching the finish of most stages (typically around 8:00 AM or so), then filling in the gaps with highlight video from the Internet. One of the coolest things I've seen is Tyler Farrar getting his first TDF stage win and giving his interview to Sporza in Flemish:

June 12, 2011

Refresh for the Talent Pool

It's always fun to help introduce people who are already expert skiers and good athletes to ski touring.

My friend Hunter's daughters Laura and Elissa had been wanting to get out and had already done a couple of shake-down trips on their own with new gear. When the weather for Sunday didn't look too bad, we decided to head to Paradise to take a look at some of the options that didn't lie right on the climber's trail to Muir.

Skinning was smooth and fast and went without a hitch except for a quick boot up about half of the Pan Point Face on still-frozen corn. We veered off the main trail at about 7,800 ft. to the Paradise Glacier side of the divide and were left to ourselves on glass-smooth corn that was just approaching perfect consistency. Skiing ran the gamut, from perfect cruising GS turns next to and under Anvil Rock to steep debris fields with crevasse dodging and runnel-hucking in the Nisqually Chute area, a pretty good introduction to the range of backcountry skiing.

We timed our excursion perfectly, as pouring rain started before we hit Longmire on the drive down. I introduced them to the burger feed after-mountain ritual at Copper Creek, and we practiced with my Mandarin Chinese language tapes most of the way home. I think the girls are stoked.

Laura and Elissa at the top of Panorama Point - frozen corn on the PP Face made for some challenging uphill kickturn practice

Laura Eng goes right

Elissa Eng goes left

June 8, 2011

Insertion Depth

Get your mind out of the gutter, I'm talking about how far the heel pins on your tech bindings go into the boot sockets while in ski mode.

It may seem like a minor thing, but this question has come up recently in a discussion on TGR as well as in a couple of e-mails sent to me from curious readers. All things being equal, it's nice to have a little more pin in the socket so long as the pins don't drag on the hard plastic of the boot sole during step-in or lateral release. An extra millimeter or so might make all the difference between an epic descent in heavy conditions in a steep couloir and yard-saling down on your face.

I posted the below picture of some of my Plum Guides in the thread, and asked for help in measuring the same dimension on different Dynafit models - I normally have a set of Speeds and a set of Comforts around the house for backup, but due to this year's austerity measures those were sold recently. Luckily Jonathan Shefftz came to the rescue and posted the following set of numbers almost immediately (he even had the same digital calipers as mine):

Plum Guide = 11.98
Dynafit Comfort = 12.35
Dynafit Vertical = none w/ me, but should be same as Comfort
Dynafit Speed (09-10) = 10.87
Dynafit Tech (~2005) = ditto
Dynafit Tech body w/ Comfort/Vertical pins = 12.45

Does any of this mean anything? Well, maybe. If you've ever ejected from your Dynafit Speeds when you didn't want to while jump turning in heavy mank, it might make sense to replace the heel pins with pins from a Comfort or ST/FT heel. That way you've got 8.45mm worth of pin inside your boot to hold you down rather than the stock 6.87mm with the recommended 4mm gap. The Vertical ST/FT bindings give you a nearly identical 6.85mm of pin insertion with the 2010 recommendation of a 5.5mm gap, but only 6.35mm with the old 6mm gap. And the Plum Guide, with its 4mm gap and 11.98mm pins (Jonathan's measurement), gives you 7.98mm "in the hole." If I was running Comforts or Verticals, I would be sure I was up-to-date on the 5.5mm gap, and be tempted to narrow it to 5.0mm . . .

While I've released vertically from Dynafits inadvertently and found it "disconcerting" - and thus lean toward the "more pin depth" camp - the opposite can also be problem. Certain big skiers I know who insist on skiing their Dynafits inbounds have reported hard compressions, or decambering (usually when skiing bumps) causing contact between boot heel and heel piece, in some cases bending or breaking the heel pivot post. I've not had this problem, but it seems reasonable to maintain a minimum boot-heelpiece gap of somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 to 5mm. In the case of Speed/Classic owners, I would certainly recommend grinding off the molded plastic bump under the heel pins as completely as possible (the plastic block is rock solid under the bump and the risk of weakening it is minimal). This issue will come up again next year with the introduction of the new Radical series bindings, which interestingly have the bump molded in once again . . .

Food for thought.

11.96mm pin length minus the Plum recommended 4mm gap between binding and boot heel = 7.96mm insertion depth, right?

June 3, 2011

Geburtstag Tour

It's Frank Neumann's birthday this week, and I won't go so far as to broadcast a number, but suffice to say he has a decade or two on most of the people he hangs with.

With State Route 20 open as of last week, we decided on the utterly appropriate Birthday Tour as a celebration. Frank's neighbor Tom Davies and Kevin were in, and we headed to the Washington Pass area on Thursday hoping to get the predicted break in the weather. We arrived at the Blue Lake Trailhead around noon and did a test run up and over Spire Gulch, setting off a barrage of wet snow slides on the way down. This lead to a decision to start early today and hope the snow firmed up overnight.

It did. Skinning traction was not a problem, but skiing at the higher elevations involved a little "tail hop" move to initiate turns in the breakable crust. Lower down, the snow was still prone to sliding on the wet corn surface, and this was well before noon. Still, a great day out with friends, plus a really fun overnight in Mazama at Brown's Farm (we rented "Matt's Cabin" for the night - super comfortable accomodations with complimentary home-grown eggs from the chickens next door in a space that would comfortably sleep 6 to 8). Our Spanish tapas dinner (yeah, yeah, I know - TAPAS in Mazama?) at Wesola Polana was a surprise and delight. Thanks Lori for the recommendation!

Frank skins through the burn enroute to Blue Lake Col.

Frank and Tom booting the last few steps to the top of the cornice

Apres-ski Methow Valley style - kickin' it at the kabin

May 4, 2011

Rites of Spring

The calendar reads May, and I'll have to grudgingly admit that spring is here.

With the changing of the seasons come a couple of traditions. I finished off the lift-served season Sunday at Alpental pretty much as the season had begun, taking mellow laps with Kevin and Francine. Mike and Broz, along with the Broznowski kids Sophie and Will, hooked up around mid-day, and Gracie joined the group for a few laps as well in the afternoon. The day was perfect, the snow turned to corn as ordered, and the BBQ's were a-smokin' in lot 4 to wind up what has been a great year.

Another May tradition that is snowfall-dependent and therefore doesn't happen every year is skiing the Nisqually Chutes to the bridge. Once this was a no-brainer, as the glacier reached nearly to the bridge, but in recent years the ice has retreated out of sight up and around the corner. Frank wanted to ski today, as it looked like perhaps the only nice day of the week, so we took two cars and left mine at the bridge parking lot. Surprisingly there were only a few cars at Paradise at 8:30 AM, as the day was crystal clear and there was a nice cushion of 6 inches of snow from the past two days. Frank had never skied the chutes so it was a treat to get it in perfect condition with no tracks . . .

Frank Neumann lays down tracks mid-Nisqually Chutes. It was untracked all the way to the bridge.

April 29, 2011

Fresh Routes, Fresh Snow

The snow keeps right on falling in the Pacific Northwest, and with the record cold month of April routes that haven't been skiable in decades, if ever, are getting done.

The Nisqually Icecliff (Seth Waterfall, Tyler Jones, Andy Bond), Chair Peaks's Northeast Buttress (Dan Helmstadler, Drew Tabke), and burly lines on Bonanza Mt. and Mt. Fernow (Jason Hummel, Kyle Miller) were just a few of the outstanding trips. Many of these are probable first descents and aesthetically cool lines as well. Nice job, guys, and to all the others that I didn't mention or who aren't talking as well.

Meanwhile, 9 inches of fresh at Hyak yesterday made for some fun exercise laps with J.D., Tim and Eric - the sun was out and the quality deteriorated quickly, but untracked is untracked!

Tim T. just happened to be in the backyard with his dog Trooper as J.D. and I skinned up for the second lap

April 17, 2011

Samuel Hunter Eng, 1950-2011

Northwest ski legend and Crystal Mountain fixture S. Hunter Eng ran his last race on Thursday, April 14th, a bit before midnight, finishing a close second to cancer and pneumonia.

Hunter had come from New York in the early 1970's, working his way around the country sampling different ski areas, before meeting some of my CMAC teammates at Mt. Hood in the summer of 1971 and getting wind of the goods at Crystal. When he showed up the next winter with his wild hair, mirrored sunglasses, and scruffy welder-chic clothes, it blew our minds . . . "Who IS that dude?"

He settled in at Crystal Village, worked as a ski patroller and carpenter, and adopted a rigorous macrobiotic diet that centered around brown rice and miso soup; people around him referred to Hunter as "Mistah Nachal" after the R. Crumb comic character Mister Natural. We toured the country in the mid-70's as the Sunnyside Sliders, competing in the early days of pro freestyle and simply living the dream. Hunter picked his lifelong partner, Christina Castle, early on and married her in 1974 (well before marriage became the norm for our generation), going on to have three daughters who grew up ripping the slopes of Crystal.

In recent times, Hunter's life of recovery after recovery from major illness has played like one of those freestyle runs from the seventies. First Hepatitis C, then a series of cancers - liver, bile duct, lungs and brain. Through it all, Hunter skied. Each major surgery or devastating radiation or chemo treatment would leave him wasted, but he kept coming back. In a matter of months or even weeks, he was back up on the hill, or riding his bike to build his leg strength. It was incredible and inspiring for us to witness, as he came back time after time when few people thought it possible. But that was Hunter's style.

Last weekend there was a celebration breakfast for our Hunter Eng "Luckiest Person" Hope on the Slopes team, a team prize donated by the ski area for winning the overall competition at the fundraiser. Hunter, barely able to walk, boarded the gondola and half shuffled, half was carried to his seat, where he instructed his friends to "get him lots of bacon" - the macrobiotic thing had long since gone by the wayside. Hunter was exhausted after the event, but after retreating to their cabin for a few hours, he rallied. Following a heated exchange with Crisi, Stan Larsen and Blair Howe, who argued valiantly that he should NOT go, Hunter insisted on getting into his ski gear and heading up to the mountain. "I'm fuckin' going skiing."

And he did. Here's the video:

Four runs non-stop on Forest Queen until his legs gave out. Hunter died five days later. RIP, my friend, see you in the White Room.

April 6, 2011

Spring Skiing Heaven

Today had everything you love about spring skiing in the Northwest, and a bit of what you don't.

There was the 12 inches of snow that fell last night, combined with 8 or more inches the day before. There was periodic driving snow, combined with sun breaks that threatened to turn it into a mass of mank. And there was the party of five on the Phantom who were caught in a slide just before we arrived at Alpental, with two party members injured and requiring rescue - not good. Plans were underway to transform Alpental parking lot # 1 into the search and rescue command center, and they requested that we not park there, so we drove down the road and did some laps in the Kendall Trees. Trailbreaking was a bit tiring at times with all the thick new snow, but we had three strong skinners in the group so it went well, and turned out to be worth the effort.

Another fine day on the Plum Guides, which functioned flawlessly. I had sprayed the toe levers with silicone sewing lubricant, which I normally use under the arms of the toepiece anyway, and this seemed to alleviate some of the snow buildup on the levers that had led to my boots pushing them forward out of lock mode. I recommend that you do this if you get these bindings, or any of the new bindings with long, CNC'd toe levers like next year's Dynafit Radical series.

Sun, snow, and pow - simultaneously. Crispin again - hard to shoot pictures of anyone else when his orange coat jumps out at you like that.

April 4, 2011

The Snow is Back

After a week of torrential monsoon-quality rains, and almost two weeks of fighting some horrible respiratory illness that seems to be lingering in the collective lungs of the Northwest, the temperatures went below freezing on Friday night and new snow began to fall.

It was none too soon, as the damage - an avalanche hitting and closing US 2, and nearly wiping out a DOT snowplow in a secondary slide, massive natural avalanches inbounds at Alpental and Crystal - was drastic. The slide path on Upper International is bigger than any I've seen, running from nearly the top all the way to the Snakedance gate, and making the middle of the popular run unskiable. Photos from Crystal's Bear Pits and Niagara's show huge amounts of dirt and snapped trees in the debris. Meanwhile, the cold that I've had for the past couple of weeks was just as impressive in duration and intensity, producing a hacking cough and dearth of energy that I haven't experienced in years.

Crispin was a couple days ahead of me in recoving from the respiratory crud, and talked me into a tour with his bike racer friend Dave; we settled on the Crooked Couloir accessed from Commonwealth Basin and the East Summit of Snoqualmie. I felt absolutely horrible on the way up and was lucky to have some strong trailbreakers with me in the foot-plus of heavy new snow. Skiing was surprising good once we descended past the null-visibility zone at the top, the narrow throat was filled in and skiable if a bit scratchy, and I rallied by the time we hit the powder in the exit fan. Good stuff.

The Plum Guides? Pretty much a seamless transition from Dynafit. The binding has a more positive engagement and clicks more forcefully when you step in; the heel returns to center more distinctly than a Dynafit does and there is a generally more solid feeling when you're in ski mode. The autolock feature rarely works, or at least doesn't completely lock when you step in so that you still need to pull back on the lever a bit. The clearance between the locked toe lever and the toe of my minimalist TLT 5 boots is only about 1mm, so if any snow adheres to the flat black lever it can have the effect of causing the toe to unlock or eject - this may call for some silicone spray on the lever. With the long heel pins and the specified 4mm gap between boot heel and binding, there is quite a bit more pin insertion depth (I consider this a good thing) - I chopped out a bit of rubber sole material where the pins were hitting it in the slots with a knife, but no grinding of the hard sole material was needed. The very precisely CNC'd mounting slot for ski crampons had to be filed out a tiny bit to get my Dynafit ski crampons to slide in, and the fit is still quite tight - be sure to lube the slot as well, as dry aluminum definitely doesn't facilitate crampon insertion like the plastic Dynafit baseplates do. Battling through a foot or more of Cascade Concrete, with sudden direction changes and many rapid decelerations, did not produce any unwanted forward releases with the forward DIN set a bit under 11. One nice feature is that the toe lever will click down flat when disengaging, leaving the toe jaws wide open and making ski removal in awkward places easier. For whatever reason, the Plums are easier to step into using the "engage one side and roll" method than stepping in flat, as I had been doing with Dynafits - fortunately I'm equally comfortable with both techniques. All in all, one beautifully realized piece of gear. More to come as I ski them more.

Crispin in p-turn mode, happy to have that heavy new snow!

March 31, 2011

Les Fixations

Look what showed up in the mail today . . . pretty excited to get these mounted up and for the monsoon to stop so I can go out and try them!

Le pastis, le couteau, les fixations . . .

Works of CNC'd art. One toepiece and one heel, without screws = 332 grams

March 13, 2011

Hope on the Slopes

I spent yesterday doing lap after lift-served lap in Crystal Mountain's Green Valley, skiing in support of my old friend Hunter Eng's "Luckiest Person" team in the American Cancer Society's "Hope on the Slopes" fundraiser. Hunter, who's been battling multi-site cancer for the past couple of years, has really embraced this event, and filled the team with a number of ringers in his quest to repeat as winners in 2011 (Luckiest Person also won in 2010). His daughter Wylie took over as captain when Hunter developed brain tumors a few weeks ago, and forged ahead with the enthusiasm and brashness of youth, bringing the team in as leaders in almost every category.

With this group, everyone skis at more or less the same speed (read fast) so the differences in accumulated vertical are due to strategy. Getting up early for the "First Tracks Breakfast" so you're already on TOP of the mountain when the flag drops rather than in the lift line, taking one or two less pee breaks or wearing diapers (don't laugh, it was done), and picking the right singles line when you show up at the bottom and there's a wait or sighting an empty seat just as a group of three is moving toward the chair and "sliding" in makes all the difference. Kind of like ski touring; knowing the little tricks and using them throughout the day adds up.

It was a special treat for me to roll with the old crew again; many of our team members were part of my old Sunnyside Sliders gang, their spouses or kids, or racers I'd known since high school. When a report came back via text message that another team was closing the gap on us, the Luckiest Person group just downed a few Ibuprofens and started skiing faster. The really cool thing was that Hunter, with the assistance of last year's winner Stan Larsen, was able to follow the race in real time with updates every 15 seconds via the website from his bed at the Kline-Galland Home. In addition to stomping the competition, Luckiest Person exceeded their fundraising goal of $15,000 for Hope on the Slopes, with over $16,500 already "in the bank" and more coming in by the hour.

Luckiest Person "kicked ass" (as Hunter would no doubt say), with the team win and 9 of the top 10 in the individual standings (click image for larger version)

Here's the team, minus Hunter Eng and Stanley Larsen who were holding down the fort at Kline-Galland

Hunter follows the action from his command post at Kline-Galland   Stanley Larsen photo

March 2, 2011

Vertfest 2011 Video

It's taken Tim Tietjen a couple of weeks, but the work that's gone into this video will be evident when you watch it, with multiple on-mountain cameras and POV shots to synch and edit into a coherent narrative. It's nice to be able to watch the fast guys in transition, as I wasn't close enough to see it in person. Tim's follow-footage of Andy Traslin blowing by numerous other racers FTW is pretty exciting to watch as well . . .

Andy Traslin, Mike Traslin, Brad Schalles and Seth Davis, ready to rip.

March 31, 2011

Les Fixations

Look what showed up in the mail today . . . pretty excited to get these mounted up and for the monsoon to stop so I can go out and try them!

Le pastis, le couteau, les fixations . . .

Works of CNC'd art. One toepiece and one heel, without screws = 332 grams

March 13, 2011

Hope on the Slopes

I spent yesterday doing lap after lift-served lap in Crystal Mountain's Green Valley, skiing in support of my old friend Hunter Eng's "Luckiest Person" team in the American Cancer Society's "Hope on the Slopes" fundraiser. Hunter, who's been battling multi-site cancer for the past couple of years, has really embraced this event, and filled the team with a number of ringers in his quest to repeat as winners in 2011 (Luckiest Person also won in 2010). His daughter Wylie took over as captain when Hunter developed brain tumors a few weeks ago, and forged ahead with the enthusiasm and brashness of youth, bringing the team in as leaders in almost every category.

With this group, everyone skis at more or less the same speed (read fast) so the differences in accumulated vertical are due to strategy. Getting up early for the "First Tracks Breakfast" so you're already on TOP of the mountain when the flag drops rather than in the lift line, taking one or two less pee breaks or wearing diapers (don't laugh, it was done), and picking the right singles line when you show up at the bottom and there's a wait or sighting an empty seat just as a group of three is moving toward the chair and "sliding" in makes all the difference. Kind of like ski touring; knowing the little tricks and using them throughout the day adds up.

It was a special treat for me to roll with the old crew again; many of our team members were part of my old Sunnyside Sliders gang, their spouses or kids, or racers I'd known since high school. When a report came back via text message that another team was closing the gap on us, the Luckiest Person group just downed a few Ibuprofens and started skiing faster. The really cool thing was that Hunter, with the assistance of last year's winner Stan Larsen, was able to follow the race in real time with updates every 15 seconds via the website from his bed at the Kline-Galland Home. In addition to stomping the competition, Luckiest Person exceeded their fundraising goal of $15,000 for Hope on the Slopes, with over $16,500 already "in the bank" and more coming in by the hour.

Luckiest Person "kicked ass" (as Hunter would no doubt say), with the team win and 9 of the top 10 in the individual standings (click image for larger version)

Here's the team, minus Hunter Eng and Stanley Larsen who were holding down the fort at Kline-Galland

Hunter follows the action from his command post at Kline-Galland   Stanley Larsen photo

March 2, 2011

Vertfest 2011 Video

It's taken Tim Tietjen a couple of weeks, but the work that's gone into this video will be evident when you watch it, with multiple on-mountain cameras and POV shots to synch and edit into a coherent narrative. It's nice to be able to watch the fast guys in transition, as I wasn't close enough to see it in person. Tim's follow-footage of Andy Traslin blowing by numerous other racers FTW is pretty exciting to watch as well . . .

Andy Traslin, Mike Traslin, Brad Schalles and Seth Davis, ready to rip.

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.

January 26, 2011

Down on the Delta

Mike O'Brien had been skiing in Dynafit Comforts for a while, but had been experiencing some trouble with what he considered excessive ramp angle - that is, the heel was enough higher than the toe of his binding (a bit over 10mm) when in ski position that he felt "up on tiptoes" compared to his alpine setups. A recent visit to our mutual bootfitter Jim Mates piqued his interest in fixing this, and after an unsuccessful attempt at installing Voilé plates under the toes, I suggested this remedy.

We rounded up a set of TLT Speed heels from Matt Schonwald, and swapped over the longer heel pins and Comfort top plate/volcano, all of which fit perfectly. As per my usual practice, we ground off the injection molding bump under the heel pins on the plastic body of the Speeds, re-lubed the twisting mechanism, and reassembled the units.

After reading Jonathan Shefftz's account of dealing with the Plum Guide people, who had sent numerous instructions and diagrams to accompany their recommendations for a 4mm gap with their ~13mm long heel pins, I decided to do the same with Mike's bindings. The mount went without problem and the toes aligned perfectly with the heels, so we were good to go with a test drive at Hyak today. Skiing left something to be desired with refrozen bumpy corn the order of the day, but after the first run the sun started to soften the hill up and it got better and better. Success!

We swapped Comfort heel pins and top plates onto Speed heels/bases, thus lowering the pin height from 53.0mm (top of heel pins) to 42.5mm and pretty much zeroing out the ramp angle!

Mike tests out the new setup - he also went from unrockered Baker SL's to this year's rockered Waybacks, but performance was quite similar and ramp angle felt right on.

January 19, 2011

Gear Mod Field Update

The rain let up long enough to get a quick few laps at Hyak on Tuesday and a tour in magnificent sunshine to Kaleetan Peak on Wednesday.

My gear that's been cut up and sewn together, or had pieces retro-fitted to it, is all working well (huge sigh of relief). The pant cutout allows both open and closed positions without requiring lifting up the front of the pant, and has the added advantage of hooking over the buckle to help the pant stay down while booting (we did a lot of that today). If you want to remove or insert the tongue on your TLT 5 boots it will still require lifting up the pant legs, but I've got a system down that either leaves them in all the time or out all the time, depending on which skis I'm using.

The quick-carry addition to the Arc'teryx Silo 30 seems to work great as well; you need to grip your skis by the waist with one hand while holding the loop with the other, insert the ski tails then lift the tips over your shoulder and pull the elastic clip until it goes over both skis. It's a little loose feeling compared to strapping them on diagonally or A-frame style, but they seem quite secure and it saves minutes on each boot-up every time you don't have to take your pack off. There's also a significant safety benefit in not having to deal with stripping your pack off on sketchy steep slopes . . .

Booting up to the col that separates Melakwa Lake from Kaleetan Peak; the skis carry off to the right side but are quite solid    Kevin Curd photo

January 14, 2011

Gear Mods of the Day

Another day of standing water at the Pass meant more tinkering with gear when I should be skiing.

I've been admiring the slick diagonal carry setup on Kevin's Dynafit Manaslu pack - when we hit a boot-up section, he's got his skis on his pack and is disappearing into the distance before I've even got the skis strapped on and pack on my back.

I came up with a workable modification for my race pack using stuff I found in my basement today, making a metal hook from a leftover SKS bike fender support, wrapping it with duct tape and sewing up an elastic sleeve from some 3" elastic I had in my sewing kit. Then I sewed the webbing from an existing loop on my LifeLink rando pack into a round shape and slid some plastic tubing from a Camelbak over it. Works great in the privacy of my workroom for putting skis into diagonal (actually more like vertical) carry mode without removing the pack, we'll see if it's a go in real life.

Playing around with my stuff again. Let's see if Martin puts a ladder section through the Rollen Cliffs this year.

I went to work on my "regular" touring pack, an Arc'teryx Silo 30, in the evening, fashioning a gear loop from folded over 1" nylon webbing crammed into clear vinyl tubing with the help of a bunch of silicone sewing spray and an icepick. The metal hook was again made from an SKS fender support bent to fit my Manaslus, while the elastic was put together with six strands of braided shock cord. Both can be removed from the permanent straps they're attached to. This one also works great in the house - the skis sit against the right side of the pack rather than in the back, but seem secure. We'll see how it works in the field soon.

Braided elastic strap hooks into pack strap for storage

Vinyl-reinforced ski loop is easy to access on the right side without removing your pack

January 13, 2011

Softshell Pant Mod for TLT 5

Sooo . . . five days of pouring rain in the mountains means maybe no skiing, but I still can't help THINKING about skiing.

I've been bothered the past few weeks by my touring pants, mostly different models of Cloudveil and Arc'teryx Schöller models, which weren't really working with my Dynafit TLT 5 boots. I had to pull the pants over the front buckle mass and tongue, but leave the top buckle itself exposed to open and close it. In addition, the pant fabric often got in the way of the top buckle "peg" when closing it down into ski mode, making it impossible to lock and requiring opening the buckle again to pull the pant up . . .

Here's the mod I came up with, cutting a hole roughly 4" x 1" and finishing it off on the sewing machine. I put each pair of pants on first and wore them around the house with the boots on, then marked the actual buckle position with a pencil before cutting. Hope it works out, because I did 3 pair of pants!

Apparently Dynafit has a pant like this you can buy retail, but I've never been able to see a picture of it from the back . . .

January 11, 2011

Before the Deluge

Got out for a quick morning tour today with Josh and Monika, blasting up to Kendall to enjoy the windcrust in 10 degree weather with 35 mph gusts of wind. We needed warm gloves, hats and goggles skinning up to stay semi-comfortable! Good to see Monika again, and Josh got to see a few new possibilities around Kendall before we headed over to Alpental for some laps to try out my new Dynastar Sixth Sense Huges. Definitely a quicker-turning ski than the Legend Pro Rider 115's that I've been herding around the ski area, with good edgehold on the hard stuff and with the benefit of being able to choose between carving and smearing the turn. Forecast calls for 5,000 ft. freezing levels coming in tomorrow afternoon and for a couple of days, so we're happy to have made it up today . . .

What most people see all day when they go out touring with Monika . . .

January 7, 2011

And for the Guy Who's Got Everything . . .

You know the guy who mounts everyone in the neighborhood's skis in his basement, who never takes money for doing it? Here's the perfect late Christmas present, thanks to Mike and Frank!

Uhhh . . . not the washing machine, but screws for mounting most any binding you might imagine on pretty much any ski . . .

January 5, 2011

Marmot Mt. Works Demo Night

With what's becoming almost a tradition, Marmot Mountain Works' annual demo night at Summit West took place in very damp conditions tonight, after threatening clouds let loose around 1:00 PM on Wednesday afternoon. I made an attempt to beat the rain by showing up for the early 4:00 PM session rather than the 6:30 one I had reserved for, to no avail - it was already pouring when I pulled in behind the Summit Learning Center. I briefly considered eating my lunch in the car and heading home without skiing, but eventually got out and pulled on the TLT 5 Performances.

Lock Miller and staff, along with dedicated backcountry ski reps from G3, Black Diamond, Dynafit, Rossignol, Scarpa, Garmont and K2 (sorry if I missed any) were already in position and adjusting bindings for those with flexible work schedules - a few of the die-hard semi-retirees like Zap and Silas were wandering between booths and making a game plan for the evening. I headed straight to the Dynafit tent and determined that the 173 Stokes were vacant and that the 182's were unfortunately mounted in the outer set of holes and wouldn't adjust short enough to fit my 297mm boot soles . . .

What did I like? Among the winners were the 173 Stoke, surprisingly nimble at 105mm underfoot, with a seamless transition for those of us who habitually ski a 178 Manaslu. Easy turn initiation, ability to make both quick and large-radius turns equally well, and a "small" package feel for such a wide ski make it a real contender for a big ski you can actually take on a tour. The Dynafit guys even had several pair of TLT 5 Mountain boots on hand for people to try out!

In the frickin' huge category, I liked the Black Diamond MegaWatt 178 a lot. Very maneuverable, especially for a ski that's 120mm underfoot and again pretty darn good at both short and long turns, it didn't especially like the two patches of icy crust I hit mid-run but railed well in the wet corn. Surprisingly, it felt more precise and held direction better than the 175 Justice I tried immediately afterward. Too bad I couldn't have taken a few runs in 18" of wet mank with frozen avy debris underneath through the Alpental trees . . .

Hats off to the Marmot crew and reps who stood through the night in the pouring rain adjusting bindings and giving people the rap on this year's gear! Hope our Northwest weather doesn't prevent these guys from coming back next year, as this is a great event and invaluable for those wanting to test a bunch of backcountry ski gear in a concentrated period of time.

Lawrence sets up the 182 Stokes for Zap early in the evening

January 4, 2011

Boots Pretty Much Dialed

I took a quick lap at Kendall Peak today with Josh Marvel, in between breakfast and work. Well, work for Josh and "applying for jobs" online for me.

My main purpose was to check on my progress boot-wise, to see if they skied any better with the cut-down tongues. Skinning up worked well, both because the track had been "groomed" by dozens of snowshoers since last week and because I no longer had to loosen the velcro power strap on the TLT 5 Performances and slip it in back of the tongues (or remove the tongues and put them in my pack). With the lower tongues there's nothing restricting the rearward movement of the cuff and you can just leave the strap in place for both skinning and skiing. Nice.

Skiing-wise the boots are just about perfect. The snow off the top of Kendall was again variable, with 8 inches or so of thick wind-deposit interspersed with some crusty goodness, and my stance seemed to be back to what I'm used to. Next I suppose I should try them on something a little steeper, where I tend to crouch down in between extensions at the turns. Good times except for hacking through the Kendall trees which is still heinous, and a good "mind clearer" for both of us. The boots seem good for tomorrow's Marmot Mountain Works AT and Telemark Demo Day (night, actually) at Summit West, more to come on that in a day or two.

Josh is getting a good introduction to Northwest skiing; he's independently hooked up with many of the people I ski with both on and off the lifts

January 2, 2011

TLT 5 Performance Boot Mods

What is it with backcountry skiers? They've got some innate DIY gene that calls out for modifying gear, and I'm no exception. After a few days of touring on my boots and a little lift skiing in them, I decided that the boots with the auxiliary tongue in were TOO stiff, or at least stiff too SOON in the flex progression. That, combined with a perceived slightly lower heel position was putting me in an unaccustomed "back seat" stance. I decided that I still wanted the additional stiffening, at least with my wider touring skis (normally Manaslus), but didn't want the full height of the tongue above the top buckle.

So after removing all the velcro from the liner, including the "hook" that was sewn to the outer edge plus the un-used velcro from the power strap (about 1.5 inches) and the chrome cat face from the rear, I've gone ahead and chopped off a good portion of the auxiliary tongue. So far it seems that I've succeeded in getting the progressive sort of flex I'm looking for, though I haven't skied them yet. My goal is to have only one thing to do with my boots when transitioning (ie. close the top buckle or open it) and not have to screw around with taking the tongue out or putting it in or stashing it in my pack. The plan is to ski the boots with no tongue in light, summer/spring mode (with Mustagh Ata Superlights) and the cut-down tongue in all the time in bigger ski mode (with Manaslus). More to come later . . .

I cut about an inch and 7/8 off of the tongues at the level of the top buckle strap, amputating just a bit of the big and second toes in the diagram . . .

Tongue (light grey area) now sits at the level of the buckle strap; you can leave the velcro power strap fastened when you transition to tour mode

January 1, 2011

Happy New Year!

Kevin, Seth and I opened 2011 with a tour around Mt. Roosevelt in beautiful but cold weather today - the temperature at the parking lot was 9 degrees when we set off at 8:15, and most probably a bit colder as we traversed Snow Lake a little later with a 40 mph tailwind. Really nice turns on the back side of Mt. Roosevelt, and again coming back into the Snow Lake Basin . . . stopped in at the Walker condo after the tour to see Holly and baby Eli, what an expressive sleeper!

I might have put on a few pounds during the holidays, but those are my skins inside my coat!    Kevin Curd photo

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