In anticipation of snow to come and being quite exhausted from our night travels, we took Thursday pretty easy. The snow at Vail was a bit cruddy in the southern exposures but we were able to find some powder caches deep in the woods. Beers and burgers were had and, in the evening, we went out to a backcountry store to buy gear, i.e. avalanche transceivers, probe and shovel for Rees and a jetboil.
At this point I started to lose optimism for the storm that was to roll in. No one seemed to think it was going to fruit.
Friday was much more intense. We joined up with Rees's cousin's friends at Beaver Creek, quickly ditching those who couldn't hang. The one left who could hang was a local and a skier. I wondered, "was I about to get shown up?" We started off on some double black diamond tree runs, finding some excellent powder, then went through the backcountry gates to some steep and tight chutes, picking our way through boulders, cliffs and trees. Our new friend exclaimed that this was the most intense ski day he'd had all year. Ha! This was standard stuff for Rees and I.
Early afternoon we headed back to our car to get the rest of our gear. We had the tent, our sleeping bags, extra clothing, avi gear, water, beer, chef boyardi ravioli for dinner, oatmeal for breakfast, gummy bears, fig newtons and M&Ms for munchies--and it was getting late! We must have caught THE last chair from the base, which got us half-way up the mountain. At the top, with little more than the vague plan that we'd hike to a peak, we threw our skis and board on our backs and started up the mountain.
Immediately a ski patroller came over to question us. We told him that we knew what we were doing and that we were going into the backcountry. He was a little dubious, but he eventually left us alone. We started hiking again. Then the patroller came back with a few more questions, wondering how we planned to get out of the valley off the back side of the mountain with only alpine gear. We explained that we were really just planning on coming back to the front side in the morning. We resumed our hike. Then a different patroller rolled up on a snow mobile, having been briefed by the other. "And what about the timing!" he exclaimed of the falling darkness, thinking we intended to ski the chutes off the backside of the mountain. He warned us of loaded slopes on the verge of avalanche and chutes dead-ending in undroppable cliffs. We repeated our intention to spend the night on the peak and come back on the front side in the morning (our plan now more concrete). Eventually, after taking our names in case we had to call for rescue, he dug what we were doing and sent us on our way.
Darkness was coming quickly and the snow was starting to fall. We reached the top of the resort, breathless and excited. Where was that boot pack the patroller mentioned that leads to the peak? We saw footprints leading into the woods above the lift. They seemed to go in the right direction according to our contour map, so we followed. The snow got deeper and deeper the further we got from the resort boundary, and soon the path disappeared in wind-drift. We pushed on, breaking path through waist deep powder, and finally arrived at a peak.
Was this THE peak? Or was it merely a highpoint on the ridge we were following? Exploring through increasingly thick snowfall and the dim wedge of our headlamps, we determined that it was indeed the peak and that it was also the best place for camp.
How do you pitch a tent on 5 feet of fluff? Good question. We began by digging and trampling an area about 6' X 12' and 2' deep. We pitched the tent using my ski poles to anchor the vestibule, and some branches buried in the snow to anchor the three other sides of the fly. Good enough. Hungry and cold, we crawled into the tent.
Do not jostle the Jetboil! It doesn't really like the cold and if you piss it off flames will erupt and almost burn a hole in your tent. Otherwise, Chef Boyardi never tasted so good.
"Jeez, it is snowing hard." "Yeah man!" "Dude, we're getting pounded." "I know! This is sick!" Such was our conversation for the next hour as around 8" fell. Slapping the walls of the tent wasn't working to clear the snow anymore and we needed to dig ourselves out.
Fifteen minutes worth of digging got us back to our original platform, but we knew fifteen minutes worth of the snow coming down would probably bury us again. We kept on digging. It was fun! At this point we were kids playing in a sandbox, carefully preparing our fort for siege. In the end we had a 3' wide, 4-5' deep moat surrounding the windward side of the tent with a well-formed shelf directly in front of the vestibule. We were bombproof.
Just as we finished the snow stopped for a second and the sky opened up to show intensely bright stars. We gawked in the still air, accepting the moment as nature's approval of our activities. Minutes later the snow resumed and we crawled, once more, into the coziness of our tent.
We woke to light snow calmly falling in dull erie blue light. 16" had fallen on what was already waste deep snow. We fired up the Jetboil and melted snow to make our oatmeal and broke camp at the same time. No time for coffee this morning. We needed to be quick to get first tracks!
Hiking back was painstaking. "This is why we need touring gear!" The thought of dropping the money for the right gear was making more sense with every step. Eventually, breathless, we arrived at the resort boundary. The first couple people we coming off of the first lift. Woops and shouts for joy punctuated the dull glowing fog. It was a powder day in it's full glory.
We dropped down a line into an open glade, letting loose a few of our own woops on the first couple turns--the first of many first tracks we laid that day. A long runout at the bottom of the incline necessitated more trudging, but finally we arrive at the bottom. We ditched our packs in basket storage and hit the lifts to fully engage the mountain.
Bowing to our ransacked bodies, we adopted a slightly more relaxed style than usual that day, but we skied till close.
Our car was literally buried in snow when we got back to the free lot--and it's a good thing too. "It was hillarious when they were trying to tow your car this morning," the guys parked next to us told us. "They were like, should we tow it? We could put cars there and there....ahhhhh FUCK those guys!"
Since Rees's phone had become drenched in snow and I didn't have their phone numbers, we couldn't contact our friends until late in the evening when it dried. Apparently they were on the verge of calling mountain rescue for us!
An excellent trip. The progression is going nicely. Next time we'll have to step it up just a little bit more.