Sunday, February 19, 2012

Potato Hill Backcountry Skiing

Today Chris, Dan Miller and I drove up to Santiam Pass to look for some backcountry skiing.  We had been going up to Hood for the past few weeks but decided we wanted a shorter drive this time, which would also allow me to sleep in a bit longer on Sunday after a night of drinking next door....  

After a few stops we got to the pass around 10am, geared up with our avy gear and headed up the snow-covered forest service road.  It didn’t take us long to gain the ridge of Potato Hill with views over Santiam Pass.  Three Fingered Jack and Mt. Jefferson could be seen peeking through the clouds and I hoped that later in the day they would clear for some photos.  When we got within shouting distance we yelled over to the top of Potato Hill where Anna, Mark, Sarah and John were all skiing.  

By the time we caught up with them they had dug a snow pit to test the avy conditions and concluded that things looked pretty safe.  Potato Hill is basically a burned out hillside from an old forest fire that only left charred tree trunks sporadically across the steep hillside.  It’s common knowledge to skiers that although forest fires do a lot of damage they sure make terrific ski slopes because all the underbrush and limbs are often burned away, opening up sweet lines that would otherwise be impossible to ski.  

All day I had been feeling the effects of a mild hangover from the gin and PBR of the previous night but I was able to manage a couple runs down the slope with everyone.  Both times I dropped in first with my camera to practice taking action shots of everyone skiing down.  The pass had received a few inches of powder on top of a icy crust so it wasn’t exactly ski movie quality face shots but a few of them came out pretty good.  

It definitely felt good to be on skis after the hellish couple of weeks I’d had at work with looming deadlines.  The last time I was on skis was when Chris and I climbed Hood a few weeks back in the worst conditions I’d ever seen.  Even the few inches of powder we were on felt amazing compared to that.  I was supposed to be at Jason and Jen’s helping to decorate our cart for the upcoming Urban Iditarod in Portland but thankfully had talked my way out of it expressing my need to go skiing to maintain my sanity.  

After a few runs Chris decided it was time to give Dan and I some practice with our new avy beacons and probes.  It took us a little while to traverse across the ridge back towards the car and I was amazed at how thin the snow cover was under the trees that hadn’t burned in the fire.  The record rainfalls in January while we were in Disney apparently had apparently struck at this elevation as well because there certainly wasn’t much on the ground and we found ourselves stepping over more than a few logs to get back to the parking lot.  

Just above the parking lot Chris skied down ahead of us and buried his pack so we could get used to using our beacons to find the “buried skier” Both Dan’s Tracker 2 and my Pieps DSP worked well bringing us to within a foot or so of Chris’ bag.  We both pulled out our avy probes and Dan immediately ended up bending his!  Thankfully mine was carbon and a bit stronger so it held up well as I probed the snow for the backpack and quickly found it.  We practiced once more back at the lot after bending Dan’s probe straight again before leaving.  It wasn’t an exhausting day, but it certainly was nice being up in the mountains again and on the way out the clouds had cleared as I had hoped allowing me some great shots of Three Fingered Jack, Jefferson and even glimpses of Mt. Washington.  To top it off we even saw two big bald eagles outside of Lebanon on the drive back to town!

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