Sunday, February 28, 2010

Ruby Mnt Adventures: Terminal Cancer Couloir

With stiff, unstable snow in the Wasatch and time on my hands, I decided to head over to the Ruby Mountains for some quality skiing, or more appropriately, some quality living. I recognized that the skiing in the Rubies might not trump that of the Wasatch. None the less, I was eager for a little adventure. Despite their size and splendor, the Ruby Mountains remain unknown to most in the skiing community. Although smaller in range, the Rubies still embody the rugged, massive nature of the Wasatch. I have visited this range several times, but not enough to do it justice- or do me justice. For it harbors the lines of my dreams. Not to belittle my fantasies of preposterous Ak lines or heavenly pillow lines. No, these are the less ostentatious, but arguably more rewarding lines, with plenty of aggressive terrain features to pucker the touch-hole, along with many open bowls to really let loose. I love to let loose. Also, the snow usually parrallels that of the Wasatch, despite it often being less stable. The Utah angel dust graces these mountains as well. The entire combination makes for heavenly skiing. The Rubies are certainly worth a visit.

Like most in the skiing community, I would know nothing about the Rubies if it weren't for my brother, Jamie Laidlaw, and the Ruby Mountain Heli opperation. My brother has been a guide in the Rubies for a handful of years. He is one of the several phenomenal guides there, all of whom are world class athletes and individuals. Like any good little sister, I have taken advantage of my brother's position to ski, learn and hang out with these great characters. All together they have over a centuries worth of experience in the mountains, perhaps more. Needless to say, my visits to the Rubies are always educational. And fun of course.

During this visit, I managed to take a couple of ski tours. Although the snow was less than ideal, the scenery surpassed expectations. During these days the death star was out in full force. The afternoons while touring approached hot, as on several occasions I debated stripping down to my long johns. Yet I refrained. Not out of vanity but out of pure decency for the others. Sheer tights make for great spectacles- or not so great spectacles. I feared the latter. Despite my toasting buns the sun felt divine. The views were stunning. The skiing was a little funky. (My euphemism for breakable crust: "little funky") All in all, the tours were fabulous. Yet, by far the most exciting was my first decent of the Terminal Cancer Couloir.

The name sounds a bit ominous. However, like any ski run deemed a "double black diamond", its name must be slightly hyperbolic. None the less, the couloir is absolutely absurd, not because of its difficulty, but due to its stunning beauty. From a distance the couloir appears unnatural, as its slender, long hallways seem manmade. It looks as if a chainsaw had cut the mountain in two, leaving the snow, like sawdust, to collect between the crack. I had heard about the couloir several times from my brother and the other guides. They often skied the couloir on their days off, which came once every couple of months. My brother encouraged me to check it out. It was an objective I could easily do solo, it was close by and I had the time. Plus, it's a line of a lifetime. So, I went for it.

(Of course I forgot to bring my camera, so the pictures provided are

my brother's from one of his earlier descents of Terminal Cancer.)

Terminal Cancer is accessible enough. It's located up Lamoille Canyon, within a mile of the road. Once parked the adventure begins, entailing: a short skin up the snowmobile road, a creek crossing, some brush navigation and a boney skin to the base of the couloir. From there- post-holing. My brother only disclosed that the couloir was on the right, and that I wouldn't, or shouldn't, miss it. He also noted that skins would only get me to the base of the couloir. From there my boots would see me to the summit. The rest I found out myself.

I had intended on a solo adventure, but while in the "parking lot"( a clustered mess of goliath trucks and snowmobile trailers) I bumped into a young guy, David, looking for some company. He was parked next to me among the massive rigs, pumping blue-grass tunes from his Subaru station wagon. It was quite obvious that he wasn't from around Lamoille. He said he was also going on a solo tour and after inquiring where I was headed, he asked if he could join me. I was happy for the company. Also, he mentioned he had skied the couloir only a few days earlier. Sweet, I thought, he can navigate.

As we skinned up the snowmobile road, Terminal Cancer peeked out from around the corner. I picked up the pace, eager to get a better view. Rounding the bend, she presented herself, full glory. My eyes fixated on the delicate sliver of snow, descending through the cliff face. I hadn't really seen anything like it. Certainly hadn't skied anything like it. My system began pumping with anticipation. I felt my temples start to pulse. I was excited, ready to strap on my boards. But before engrossing myself in day dreams, I reeled it in. There were a few minor obstacles to overcome before I could revel in the decent- the first being the creek.

I must say that I have spent a significant portion of my life on rivers and I pride myself on my ability to rock hop like a little bunny. However, I didn't feel much like a little bunny in ski boots, despite my cute outfit. Nor did I bound effortlessly and graceful like a bunny. More appropriately, I was an awkward colt, unaccustomed to my new pair of legs, trying to scramble across the rocks without getting wet. It was an ugly sight and there were a few close calls, but the colt prevailed.

The next objective was to navigate the brush and skin to the base of the couloir. I decided to follow David. I would flail in the rear. David rose to the challenge and guided us through the "ruffage". The conditions were boney, the brush was thick at times and it wasn't pretty for either of us. But we had a few laughs and successfully made it to the base of the couloir. Now the easy part, or at least the straight forward part- post-holing. I have put some serious time into booting my ass up a hill, so I wasn't phased by the ascent to come. With that, I decided to lead the charge. I was also conscious of David's solid efforts to break trail earlier, so I thought I would return the favor.

The boot up wasn't too difficult. At times the snow was firm and climbing was almost effortless- almost. At other points the snow was soft, light, and unable to hold much weight. This resulted in thigh deep post holing. I was prepared to crawl up the couloir if necessary, so it all seemed pretty good. Most of the time I didn't think much of the climb. I became too preoccupied observing the interesting geological properties of the hallway I was ascending through. The rock had beautiful yellow striations with interesting pockets of conglomerate pebbles and such. The lichens were radiant. There were also cool shelves and fractures in the rock, places I would imagine playing as a kid. I was loving the climb. The final 15 meters proved to be the most challenging. The pitch had increased and the snow was a little punchy. At times I was crawling through the sugar. But the two of us persevered.

(A shot from the summit looking down the couloir)

The summit was breezy and a little exposed, with the backside dropping off precipitously into a large open bowl. I quickly began to layer and strip my skins. I decided to hike down about 5 meters from the summit to put on my skis, as the rocks we uncovered while climbing made me a bit leery. At the top, the couloir is roughly 3 meters wide. The hallway widens with elevation loss, but not significantly.The snow was both punchy and fluffy, with a soft wind deposited layer atop crust. In the beginning I pumped out the hop turns. By the end I was linking turns, making an aesthetic descent of an even more aesthetic line. As I laid down my turns, driving my outside hand forward, I received face shot upon face shot. This was attributed to the steep pitch and the feathering of my turns, as I attempted to shut down my speed. Granted they weren't 8" blower face shots but they were still refreshing. At the bottom water dripped from my face, and my veins pulsed with adrenaline. What a fun ride!

I decided to pull off to the side, finding a good spot to plop down into the snow. As I shoved snow into my mouth like a child, I looked up to watch David shimmy his split board down the narrow shoot. He too reached the bottom- face dripping, mouth grinning.

It's a rough life we live.

Special thanks to Mammut for the support, the Ruby Heli operation for some unforgettable times, David for the solid company and my brother, because your the best.

Erica Laidlaw

No comments: