Friday, April 15, 2011

Mammoth Ski Trip 2011

The Caltech Alpine Club, already such a productive font of adventure, has delivered yet again. This time, the order of the day was skiing, instead of trudging into thin air.

I packed in the usual frantic way, made rendezvous with two geologists, and proceeded to a high speed 4 hour guided tour of the Owens Valley. I had previously driven here to climb Mt Whitney, but the days were shorter and I had not seen much of the fascinating scenery in one of the world's most seismically active regions. Previously, for instance, I had had no idea that I didn't properly understand how columnar basalt forms.

As we wound up the road to about 2500m it began to snow heavily, and by the time I'd hired my gear and we'd found the apartment, the roads were quite dodgy. More than 12 inches fell, which was terrific! We were condo stacking, so I picked out a nice patch of floor for my sleeping bag, traumatized everyone by walking around in thermals, and waited while everyone arrived. By breakfast, 18 people had slept over, which certainly kept the place warm. We even had someone sleeping under the table!

Before long we'd driven to the lift and started up the mountain. A few easy runs to make up for 3 years of inactivity, then we hit the turbo quad to the top and powder heaven.

I had last skied 3 years ago while training through Bulgaria, and wearing jeans etc managed to get stuck somewhere in the back country. I survived that time, only to be chased by hungry streetkids that evening at the train station in Sofia...

We decided to traverse to the other side of the mountain and my companions D and E got stuck, as snowboards have poor glide characteristics. Soon after we negotiated a series of ungroomed
nirvana. I stopped to catch my breath, disguised behind ski glasses and an outlandishly enormous Russian fur hat, only to hear a nearby skier say "are you a Caltech grad student?" Why yes indeed.

A, her friends C and T skied with us for a while, with several hilarious crashes and no tree collisions. I got thirsty so filled a ziplock bag with snow and put it in my pocket.

At length we returned to Eagle lift and met with two beginner boarder friends of ours, Z and H. Both were already exhausted, but we convinced Z to go up the lift and come down the run, about 10 times slower than usual. Z was wearing jeans, which were already pretty wet, as were his gloves. His intention to go down the easiest run was dealt a serious blow when he lacked the turning skills necessary to turn away from an intermediate slope. But he stuck it out and by the time he reached the bottom was edging well enough to carve down the last bit. Spectacular took a turn for the sublime when he collided with a lift tower! Fortunately he was moving very slowly. The next day he was still improving, but managed to take out a sign that said 'slow', again, right in front of me.

We headed off the mountain and I passed out back at the lodge. Next came dinner, again everyone wearing their best thermals, white wine chilled in a pile of snow on the balcony, and mountains of food to replenish our reserves. After failing for the 50th time to get the
wifi working, we fell asleep.

Next morning, D decided to try skiing, so after an awful breakfast of corn flakes and mineral water (it seemed like a good idea at the time) we hit the slopes. D stepped into his skis, and boarded the lift with the confidence of man who knows he's wearing 10lbs of body armor. Which he was. The first order of the day was the run Z tumbled down the previous afternoon, and D did not disappoint. He decided to skip the snow plough and start paralleling, and within 30 minutes was linking turns like a pro. I demonstrated how to carve turns for speed (or 'rail'), and succeeded in my efforts to fall over.

A few runs later we decided to maintain the learning curve by heading up Cloud 9 to Ricochet, also known as McCluskie's Eternal Regret. In my mind, at any rate. The first few turns in particular were hair raising, but D didn't fall until the flat bit at the bottom. Meanwhile more than a few hair raising beginners coasted past in outrageous snowploughs, ignorant of their total lack of control. D worked on his pro-valley stance and we tacked inwards to main, caught up with
primary organizers extraordinaire D2 and D3, and ate lunch. During this run D achieved his penultimate and 13th fall on skis, right next to the Mammoth fumarole. It smelt like volcano and made me happy. Mammoth is, to the best of my knowledge, an eroded but active lava dome.

We ducked back to the car so D could get his trusty board (recently repaired after a nasty run-in with a rock), then hit the slopes on the back side of the mountain. The mountain remained uncrowded and supremely awesome. The vertiginous couloirs above us beckoned 'test yourself!', but it wasn't until we headed back that we found ourselves by accident on the edge of a rather steep slope. We dropped over a cornice and traversed the worst of moguls that seemed to grow from cornices and then ripped down the side of the mountain. We raced down the mountain at terminal velocity, reaching the home lift 25 seconds before it closed. One final run on empty sloped, catching some persistent freshies between trees, and then down to the carpark.

Back at the place we packed and cleaned, piled into a car with R, F, H, D4 and me, and herded aggressively back to LA to the tunes of Iron Maiden. We stopped at Lone Pine to stare at Mt Whitney in the sunset and eat some buffalo burgers. The conversation shifted to the pros and
cons of dating within Caltech (hypothetically, of course), and by midnight I was back on campus with only 72 hours of work to catch up on.

Photos and video are in the usual places.

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