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Saturday, February 22 - Lost Trail Powder Mountain, MT - 24 inches new snow
Now that we'd finished our ski trip at Fernie, it was time to ski. Lost Trail had received another foot of snow, but most importantly, the terrain off Chair 4 had been untouched since Monday. They were reporting 24 inches of new off Chair 4, and it was just sitting there for us.
Even though we didn't yet know the exact totals for new snow off Chair 4, it wasn't hard for us to get motivated and start early. We knew that all the snow that had fallen at Lost Trail during our week at Fernie was just sitting there waiting for us. As I recall, we'd reached the point of the trip where making breakfast took a back seat, and stopping at McDonald's on the way to the hill had moved to the forefront. Many of us had been skiing for a solid week at this point, and extra sleep was definitely appreciated.
If you'd like to look at a map of Lost Trail Powder Mountain and follow along while you read the report, click the icon below to open a high resolution image in a new window.
We arrived well before the lifts started to turn, even before anyone started to line up. Most of the guys were familiar with the setup at Lost Trail now, so getting ready went smoothly. Eventually, the lineup at Chair 1 began to form, and we hopped in. Derek and Yvette arrived, having planned the meeting the night before, and soon we were all part of the 40 or so skiers and riders ready to devour the powder. In another 10 minutes or so, we were on our way up.
Derek had been a bit farther back in the line, and as usual, he was amazed that we'd waited the extra five minutes or so at the top of the lift for him. As I've always said, I've never understood this "No friends on a powder day" phenomenon. Why would anyone make plans to ski with their friends, then ditch them? I can ski any day by myself; skiing with friends is what makes things special.
We decided to go for our first run on Thunder below Chair 2. It looked as though few folks had gone that way, and it would give us a good 1200' of vertical in one shot. I could tell that the snow was light. While waiting for Derek, I checked out the new snow and estimated it at around 5% H2O. Still, it was hard to tell exactly how it was going to ski until you were in it on an appropriate pitch. The anticipation of gliding above the headwall of Thunder was crazy... waiting for the pitch to roll over, waiting for the sensation of gaining speed and wondering how much the snow would hold you back. I was ready to rip, and as soon as the message passed up from my skis to my feet to my legs to my brain, I'd know how to do it.
The snow revealed itself as a nice coating of powder, maybe a foot or more, that covered the terrain features underneath. However, coverage was not quite to the point that the terrain features disappeared. I had the feeling for the snow, and it was time to really get going.
Once again, the fat skis displayed their magic, and within a few seconds I was flying down the slope, through, and often over, the powder. I wouldn't say it was effortless, but before I knew what hit me, I was at the crossover of meadow, waiting for everyone else. Not really being a fast skier, I was amazed to look back and see everyone else halfway down the pitch; I blame the fats. Everyone was grinning ear to ear as we looked around and realized we'd nailed what might be the absolute best day of the season. Once we'd all regrouped, I looked down and saw that Corkscrew (the trail directly below the bottom of Chair 2) was basically untracked. It's always been one of my favorite trails on the mountain because of the fun terrain features, so my choice was clear. I blasted off and the fats did their magic again. I didn't get a ton of face shots, but the skiing was like walking on air. I stopped at the bottom of Corkscrew, and saw James and Derek on their way down. Once they reached me, they commented that they could see how the fats were working. If they ever have a CMH fat sell-off again, I know I'll have a lot of interested parties.
We jumped on Chair 2 in preparation for the next run. With the good snow, it was deemed time for some Moose Creek, especially since Weston had yet to even visit the area. We decided on the classic "Derek" entrance, and would meet up with Derek himself after he'd caught up with Yvette. Once we'd reached our chosen spot, I pointed out the huge area of open, untracked snow to Weston. All he could say was "Whoaaaa!". Moose Creek is an area along the south (Idaho) side of the ski area, and it features a lot of open slope with generally just a few large trees. Depending on where you start, you can probably get close to 500' of vertical before hitting the cat track back to Chair 2. The "Derek" entrance is a bit lower, providing maybe 300' or so vertical, but it maintains a nice consistent black pitch the whole time. It looked especially impressive with absolutely no tracks. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and since Moose Creek faces south, it meant perfect video footage from below with the sun behind the viewer. It was obviously time to pull out the cameras. While we were setting up to shoot, Derek arrived, and we shot great footage of the entire group. It was simply powder, powder everywhere. The skiing was so good that we hit it again on the next run.
All morning, we'd kept our eyes and ears open for the word on Chair 4. The patrol and grooming crews were doing their usual preparation and checking of the area after a big snowfall, so it wasn't until around lunchtime that we finally got the word. We knew that the amount of new snow over at Chair 4 was going to make the skiing outrageous, and once combined with some of the terrain we had scoped out the previous weekend, it was going to be absolutely memorable.
Once on the lift, we laughed about a conversation we'd had back at Fernie where, amidst the huge crowds of the first day, we described our ultimate ski day. We weren't too choosey, all we wanted was:
1. 2-3 feet of light champagne powder (anywhere in the range of 3-6% H2O should be fine; any heavier and it might be harder to ski, any lighter and it might not support our weight much above the base)
2. Bluebird day (hey, we love to ski in a good snowstorm, but bluebird makes for better visibility, and more importantly, better video and stills)
3. Air Temperature approximately 20-25 degrees F (This is cold enough to keep the powder light, yet warm enough to ski comfortably.
4. No Wind (Wind, although sometimes beneficial due to the way it moves snow around, will often pack the snow, not to mention make it feel colder. We didn't want any of that messing up the champagne powder on our ultimate ski day.
5. No crowds, we wanted the slopes to ourselves (this point was especially relevant after our experience the first day at Fernie; we didn't want anyone tracking up our powder.)
6. Free food ready at the base lodge, specially prepared for us (this one is not necessarily related to the conditions so much, but it came up in the discussion so I had to throw it in).
Well, when we ticked off our list for February 22nd at Lost Trail, we couldn't help but laugh, we'd come pretty darn close to our dream. We found ourselves on a day with a temperature of 22 degrees F, blue sky, no wind, and 24 inches of 5% H2O powder ready and waiting for us off Chair 4. We'd hit the first four points on the nose, and weren't doing too badly on 5 or 6 either. We didn't have our own ski area, but we only had to share Chair 4 with a couple hundred other folks; that's pretty good. And as for the food, well, the prices at Lost Trail were about as close to free as we were likely to get in the near future. So all in all, we realized we'd been blessed, it was time to ski!
Riding Chair 4 (which is a good 15 minutes per ride) was especially difficult as we watched the first few skiers and riders make their way down the open slopes of the upper mountain. We knew there would be more than enough powder to last the small crowd the whole weekend, but watching it get tracked up was still unnerving. The skiers that had already gone had left an amazing assortment of tracks shining in the sunlight, and although James was getting the shot with his video camera, I radioed to Chris to make sure he got a high quality still. It was an awesome sight.
Our first run was obvious. Despite two feet of fresh snow, the avalanche situation in Hollywood Bowl had been deemed safe enough, and we didn't want to miss out on fresh tracks in the bowl. A few people had gone down the middle of the bowl, so we headed to he right to fresh snow. We found a nice slot, and the snow was absolutely sick. There was easily two feet of light powder, and it worked great with the pitch of the bowl (~35 degrees). Everyone was getting in some great turns, but I was waiting to experiment with a little project of my own for the camera. The big rock that I'd hit my first day in the bowl was probably going to be in fine shape for a launch, and if there was ever a day to do it, this was it. The camera was set up, and I headed down on my run. I couldn't believe how deep the snow was, and I knew that I'd simply be able to run the jump as fast as possible. If I could land it in only a foot of snow without even knowing how big it was, today would be a piece of cake. Despite a drop o 15-20 feet, the jump was nothing like that today. I went off at essentially full speed, but so much snow had settled in behind the rock, I barely left the snow surface. Instead, I just hovered, about a foot above the snow for a good 10 or 15 feet as I dropped downward, then suddenly, gravity won out and I started to drop back to earth. The snow came up around me, up to my shoulders, then over my head. I blew through and virtually UNDER the snow for a good second, leaving a huge plume rising off my head. I recall a phrase from Warren Miller's "Fifty" about "Blower Pow + Huck = Face Shots". Hehehe, you got that right.
For our second run, we met up with Derek, and decided on a trip down the Ripper. With the open powdery slope and the Sunlight, it was once again going to make for some excellent video and stills. As I think back on the snow, it was just like that amazing snow I'd found at the top of my very First run at Fernie, except in this case it we would actually be able to ski the untracked since there weren't thousands of people who'd already been down it. The skiing was amazing, with an especially notable event being an excellent sideways-flipping fall that Derek took. Chris was taking still shots of the run and happened to catch him right in mid air; we laughed our heads off at the shot (and the luck) when we looked at the pictures later that evening.
After the Ripper, we set up for a try at the Hollywood Chutes. Since we were the first ones to head in that direction from the Ripper, it meant making our own traverse to get to the spot we desired. Below the Ripper, we cut right into the sparse trees along the edge of the lift line. Breaking trail was rough work in the two feet of new snow, but we knew it would be worth it. With five of us, we had the chance to switch off the lead a bit and get breaks. It probably took all of 10 minutes, but slogging through the snow it felt like a lot more.
Our goal with the traverse was to arrive right at the top of one of the big open areas in the Hollywood Chutes. We still didn't know the area intimately, but we had a much better idea from our recon efforts the previous weekend. Our arrival point at first was a small snowfield of about 50 yards in length. It was only about a blue pitch, but it turned out to be enough to get some good face shots going. After a fun run through this snowfield, I headed a bit to the right in search of the steeper terrain, and that is when I found the big kahuna.
As I emerged out of some trees, I looked down and saw that the slope below me just disappeared due to its steepness. Somewhere further down, it reappeared above some snow-covered rock formations before disappearing again as it dropped below those. Finally, about a hundred yards below me, the shot ended in what looked like part of the basin below Hollywood Bowl. This was DEFINITELY the kind of thing I'd been looking for. I'm not really sure what sort of pitch it had, since it was a combination of steep rock faces and other intermediate pitches, but I'll guess an average of somewhere around 40 degrees. Although not incredibly steep, the fact that we couldn't see half the slope due to the drop-offs meant that we had no idea about the amount of exposed rock we encountered. We would need someone to scout this line before we could hit it.
Fortunately, Chris was willing to scout, and would also get set up with his still camera below it. While he took a different line to get to the bottom, I began to think about my approach to the run. What I wanted to do was one big sweeping left hand turn, launch the first Cliff into the area of snow below, then keep my speed and launch off the second rock outcropping. From there it would be smooth sailing into a vast open area of snow below. As I thought about this lofty goal, I realized that I was still wearing Weston's 160 cm slalom racing skis, not my own CMH fats. Weston's skis had given me some amazing face shots on the Ripper (certainly more than the fats would have; Weston said he couldn't pull a face shot out of them) but I didn't dare go into a run of this magnitude on a pair of skis I didn't know well. Of course, my experience on the fats told me that if any of the skis available to me was going to let me nail this run, they were the pair. I finally had to mention to Weston that I needed the fats. I didn't mean to steal them back after just letting him hop on them this run, but the circumstances demanded it. He graciously agreed, and then I knew I was going to hit it. The only question remaining was the exposed rock factor, and that would have to be answered by Chris from below.
After what seemed like an eternity (mostly because I was sitting atop this amazing unknown chute with adrenaline pumping and nerves on edge) Chris finally appeared at the bottom of slope. He got into an appropriate position, and then began the process of describing the slope via radio. Derek was one of the folks on the horn, and he took painstaking care to ensure that what was our left, and Chris' left, were eventually explained. I was especially interested in making sure that everything was explained to the letter since I was the Guinea Pig this run. I didn't want to launch off the first pitch and end up on rock. Eventually, the word came through that the first steep rock band was best taken on the skier's left, since on the right Chris could see a bit of exposed rock. That was good, since it fit my plan exactly. Below that, although we could see some rock outcroppings from our vantage point, he didn't indicate that there would be any trouble. This coupled with my previous knowledge from my run in Hollywood bowl of how the snow covered just about EVERYTHING, meant that we were good to go.
Now came the time I'd been pondering for the last 20 minutes, time to really do it. The air was electric with anticipation, and I could feel the level of anxiety among the four of us at the top of the chute. I pushed off and I was into the steep unknown...
It's almost hard to recall exactly what happened since it seemed to go by so fast, but a couple viewings of the head cam footage has helped (even though the view is rapidly obliterated in powder). The first turn went just as I had planned, and then I was flying over the first face. I think I may have been skimming just over the surface of the snow for a while, and then I found purchase again in the snow below. I tried my best to set up for the next air, all the while maintaining speed. I cut right, heading for what I thought to be a nice point for a launch, all the while, powder was flying everywhere. So far so good, and then I was back in the air, exploding off the second ledge in a blizzard of snow. I don't even remember landing, but at some point I was rocketing through the huge snowfield below and I realized I'd nailed it! Woo! I wish we'd had a video camera below, but at least I had the head cam footage, and Chris had been running his still camera. When I finally came to a stop near Chris, I turned around to see the track and my jaw dropped. The slope had a LOT more rock than I had ever imagined! None of it was in my path, and Chris had done an excellent job of describing it, but the surrounding rock outcropping made the slope actually look pretty scary. I'm not sure what this view would have done to me if I'd know what it looked like from the top, but I made a conscious decision NOT to tell any of the guys up there that it was scarier from below. They would be fine, and didn't need any extra anxiety from this end. It was during this time that I noticed an awesome slot between two rock outcroppings in the lower skier's right of the run. It begged to be skied, but it was essentially invisible from above. I thought I'd try to relay the information to the guys at the top of the slope, but I knew it would be tough. It was enough to deal with just skiing this thing without trying to ski through an invisible slot. I switched my camera from head cam to regular to capture the rest of the guys; these runs were going to be caught on film.
Weston went second, and nicely managed to turn down the first steep pitch. He followed into the intervening flatter region, and then chose a line to the skier's left of the chute, a nice exit that didn't require going over the second drop. The zone was deep with settled snow however, and he did get tripped up a bit before finishing off the run. Then it was down into the open snowfield below for some more great powder turns.
Next up on the run was Derek, and he was going to be in for quite an interesting ride. Instead of shooting over the first steep pitch, he made a nice looking technical turn right on it as Weston had done. Unfortunately, the snow lost its bond to the surface below and he set off a mini slide that he rode to the next shelf. He did a great job of keeping his feet below him, even though he was riding waist deep in a mass of snow. Once he was back up, he finished off nicely in the bottom of the chute, taking the skier's left line which had a bit mellower exit than that air in the middle, just as Weston had done. After his ride in the snow though, he did state, "My wife does NOT get to see that video!" I assured him that it didn't look like much more than a slough from this angle, and Yvette has since seen it and everything is OK ;).
Now that Derek had stolen much of the snow from the first steep drop, James would have a bit more of a challenge on his run. He went way around to the right of the steep pitch, then followed out the exit that Weston and Derek had taken. James also got caught up and fell in the deep snow that had settled in the left exit (twice, lol). He got a bit frustrated, but eventually yelled himself back into form.
We haven't really named that chute yet, but once we'd broken the seal (and trail for that matter) others started to visit it as well. Still, we didn't see anyone else take the top line (perhaps Derek took the snow out of there just to preserve our line ;). Below the big snowfield at the bottom (which provided some additional great turns) we traversed through the woods and eventually came to another small snowfield that we hit as well. That whole south face of the Hollywood chutes is amazing with tons of lines just waiting to be discovered. Being in on the ground floor of discovery makes it that much more exciting.
We said goodbye to Derek who was off to meet up with Yvette, and set up for our next run. This time, I wanted to try and hit the slot to the skier's right of the chute we'd just hit. We knew it was going to be tough since it was virtually invisible from above, but with our new found knowledge, we bet we could find it. We skied the Ripper again, and used the traverse we'd made to get back to the chute. It took only a few short moments to cruise the traverse now that it was packed, and since it was visible from the lift, other people had also started to use it. Fortunately, they seemed to head off in other directions and not toward our new favorite chute.
We headed to the skier's right of the chute, estimating a line that would give us access to the slot. Weston and Chris had gone below to shoot the run, as well as help us find it. One we'd gotten a good bead on the slot, it was interesting to watch a couple of other riders come by and totally ignore it. From above, what was visible looked like a rocky mess, but from below we had seen that it was going to be an awesome ride and make for great pictures. Despite the difficulty, James and I both found it, and James had an especially beautiful run with sweet turns and a section where the snow just billowed right over his head. We'd accomplished our goal of finding the slot, and skied it well. Once we'd skied it, our tracks told the story, and we soon saw another skier take it. Well, at least we had the vision first, even if the secret was out.
It had been an amazing session over at Chair 4, but now patrol had to begin the sweep of Hollywood Bowl and the Elk Basin (which usually begins around 3:00 P.M.). The only thing left to do was catch a couple more runs and finally introduce Weston to some of the steeps on the main mountain (he'd hardly seen much of the main area). The skiing was good, but with much more traffic, nothing like the two feet of fresh over at Chair 4. Needless to say, Chris and Weston were not psyched that they had to fly out of Missoula early the next morning. James and I on the other hand, would need to return the next day to track up more of the terrain of Chair 4; after all, somebody had to do it.
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