4-9-2011 El Capitan

April 10, 2011 at 20:51 | Posted in Backcountry skiing the Bitterroots | Leave a comment

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Brian and I made an attempt on skiing the east face of El Capitan on Saturday. After the tolerably long approach to the bottom we felt confident in the approach up one of the gullies between El Cap and the Lonesome Bachelor. There was a fracture line in the eastern chute that caused some concern for the day, but with the additional settling and strengthening of the snow pack over the passed few days we skinned to the summit ridge without incident, further corroborating the fact that the snow had glued together quite well this week. With a beautiful morning of partly cloudy, windless weather we reached the fantastic view shed of the east face around 12:30. With the final opportunity to inspect the face for hidden obstacles before us,  we took some photos and then continued up into the gathering clouds to the summit where we waited patiently for a break in the snowsqualls to make the descent of the treacherous east face with some visibility. It was not to be. Waiting for hours allowed us to bivy nap and eventually dig a small windbreak. By 4:20 we could wait no longer and prepared for a descent of the face without proper visibility. Brian slid onto the face, first slowly negotiating the initial three feet of sheer verticality to reach the 55 degree slope below. Making quick intermittent turns alongwith sideslipping he eventually disappeared from sight behind some large mid slope boulders and into the whiteout. And then I was alone on the summit with a fresh breeze depositng a steady stream of stellar dentrites onto me and the slope below. Sucking it all up and telling myself to stay calm, I carefully executed the descent onto the sheer face and followed up with sideslipping the powder and making the occasional quick turn with skis in full lock mode. In about two minutes, I was skiing up to Brian, waiting behind a boulder at the end of the 55 degree terrain and at the beginning of the 600 hundred vertical of the 50 degree upper face. The skiing was superb in this stretch of the run and we linked turns in the good snow with no sloughing and better visibility than at the summit. After waiting for Brian to ski to another “point of safety” I proceeded to enjoy the best of the upper face. As I approached Brian I sensed that we were near the sneak exit to the north and stopped, looked at my altimeter, 9360′, and waited while Brian continued down the fall line. He yelled back up that he was off the sneak and that it did not look quite right. Scanning north I identified the triple rocks that mark the top of the crux and signaled to Brian that I was going to start heading north. Slowly negotiating just below a series of rocky outcrops I made it to the beginning of a descending cliff face and snuck around the corner only to realize that I had skied the crux, devoid of a rock band this time and had made it to relative safety of the middle gully. Yodeling for Brian who was out of sight I heard him once and then waited for him to appear, traversing just above the terminal cliff band of the upper face. From that point the skiing was powder, survivable and with increasingly decent visibility. With only one more cliff to negotiate we made our way into the lakes basin below as the weather continued to throw snow in our faces and obscure the blue skies from the day. What an amazing Biterroot classic extreme descent.

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