Saturday, May 30, 2009

Spring Skiing at Virginia Lakes

Ok, to preface this trip, I have to point out that I grew up in Georgia, so snow is not second nature to me. Rebecca is from Wisconsin, so she is used to snow, but the Sierra in Spring is something we normally experience in a kayak, not on skis. With that out of the way, spring skiing is the bomb. We got a chance to get our first taste of back country corn with some friends up in Virginia Lake, just up the crest from Mono Lake.

Some friends of ours, Dave and Alison, have a family cabin on Virginia Lake - a super-cool, rustic 50 year-old cabin. In the spring, before the lakes thaw, you have haul in water from a nearby creek, but in the summer, they have running water straight from the lake.

During the winter this cabin is covered in snow...

The Virginia lakes area has a sequence of lakes; Blue Lake, Red Lake, Virginia Lake and Little Virginia Lake (probably more too that I did not see). Pretty much everywhere you look you see sick slopes leading down to a lake - one of the prettier places I've ever been.

We started off the first morning headed for twin chutes; the "bunny hill". Since Rebecca and I have never skied spring conditions, we had no idea what sort of adventure we were about to have...

Starting our journey up

and up..

At first, skinning up was not too bad; the soft snow gripped pretty well to the skins and going was pretty fast. After a while though, the top layer got so slushy that you could not really traverse without your skis slushing downhill. That combined with the fact that it was too steep to skin straight up made the going pretty tough.

A short pause for a snack and a view

After a while, we abandoned our skis to hike up the rocks first (hiking on shale in ski boots is not ideal), then resorted to postholeing up the rest of the way.

Still going up...

At this point, I have to admit that I was about as gripped as I have been in a long time. Here we were staring down this steep mountain, with nothing to stop you from sliding all the way to the bottom, on snow conditions I've never even made a turn on before, on three-pin tele bindings. Luckily, Rebecca was brave enough to go first and show me that it could actually be done - and that it also happened to be really fun.
First Turns

Dave is mister super athlete who normally snowboards, but decided to take tele skis since that is what we were all doing. Of course he had no trouble carving down the slope either, leaving me with no option but to point my skis down and hope for a carve or two - Georgian Style!

As it turned out, I did not have to slide down the mountain on my butt like I thought, and everyone had a ball cruising down the soft, but carvable conditions. By the time we got back down to the cabin, it was definately cocktail hour.

Eric with an Epic IPA after an Epic Adventure

Spring in the Sierra - Nice!

Emboldened by a few beers and fun drinks, we embarked on a late afternoon ski on Red Bowl just to the West. Copper and Lucy were psyched to join after their day of napping at the Cabin, so off we went.

Copper in the up-track

Rebecca once again leading the way

Copper and Lucy pulling in just behind Eric

On day two, we decided to head up to the top of Red Bowl and give that a shot. The way up was not quite as difficult as the day before - an earlier start and a slightly different aspect allowed us to skin up a bit farther. Once we hit the last steep ascent though, we got to a point where we couldn't go up anymore; the problem was that the conditions again made it hard to traverse. So after another gripping escapade across another steep slope, we made it to solid ground. Here we resorted to the hiking method again and quickly made it to the top.

Glad to be back on solid ground
At the top, spectacular views awaited. Eating lunch on the warm rocks looking over this spectacular vally was quite the reward - and we still had skiing to do!

Rebecca at the top

Dave and Charlie soaking it in

Once again, we found ourselves on top of the world; the slope even steeper than the day before, even less to arrest your fall. Dave and Allison were back on snowboards and quickly took off, making sweet turns the whole way down. The only problem was the slope was too steep for us to even see them. Rebecca once again probed for the tele crew.

Rebecca headed down
To make a long story short, we made it down; all pretense of style thrown out the window. The final runout of the slope ended up right along Virginia Lake with its ultra-blue waters welcoming us to the end of the run. All in all, when I wasn't pooping in my pants, I was having a great time. Certainly the beauty of the area and the quality of the skiing was plenty of motivation to get better on our skis in time for next spring...

Allison and Rebecca traversing the lake

"Can you believe we skied that!"

Saturday, May 16, 2009

MF Tule

Some strange May weather brought rain to the Sierra - enough to bring in a couple of runs that we thought were done for the year. We jumped on the chance to do one of our favorites; the Middle Fork of the Tule.

We had a great group; Adrian a Swiss paddler on an American Cruise, Tim and Chad from back east and our buddy Alex from - well, from the back of his truck. We also had a great level for the first timers, 270 cfs with only a little diversion (felt more like 290). What ensued was pure fun!

Yep, that's pretty much the Tule
The Tule is a nice mix of granite slides and boulder gardens - Clay Wright said it's the perfect introduction for an eastern boater to Cali Creeking. I can't really argue with him; it's got technical moves, fun slides and a few munchy holes.

Alex on the welcome rapid

Chad on the first long rapid

Eric eyeing wallstreet
My favorite rapid on the Tule - Corner Pocket

It is hard to pick a favorite on this run, but I think Corner Pocket is mine; you run a 5 footer into a channel and then catch a micro eddy above a huge sieve (running out the left side of the picture above). From their you bank of the pillow under a huge overhanging boulder and drop the remaining 10 feet into the pool below. Scary but fun!
Rebecca in the pocket

The Tule is one of those runs where there are just too many rapids to count, pretty much all of them in the IV+ to V- range. If you know the run, it is 3-4 hours of read and run with the occasional scout - if you don't it can be a 6 hour marathon of scrambling on the slickest rock in the Sierra (Tule granite is the reason I only use shoes with 5-10 rubber).
Alex at the bottom of another fun one

Rebecca having fun

The only downside of the Tule is the human element; we have had full beer cans chucked at us by some of the trailor-trash that hangs out on the river banks. Also the graffiti is omnipresent (I think every rapid can be named by the graffiti that appears next to it). One of the most impressive works of wilderness art is on one of the last rapids (see my "Fools with Tules post from last year for a picture).
Tim on the Graffiti Slide

Downtime at a safety spot

As I mentioned before, there are a few munchy holes on this run, and as fun as it is, someone usually gets "Tuleed"; this trip was no exception as Tim got his creek-boat rodeo on for a while in the standard swim rapid.

Obligatory picture of the passification of the River Gods ritual

A little vid of Rebecca on the Graffiti Slide
All in all another great day on the river - glad to catch up with Tim and Chad during their California adventure.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

High Water - Low Water

It's that time of the year when the river levels are constantly changing; as the snowmelt starts increasing, you find yourself scrambling to hit the right runs at the right times. Sometimes it doesn't exactly work out...

After the Festival, we had a few folks in town looking to do some runs. Hot weather (I mean really hot) meant that flows were going to start going up fast. We (meaning I) gambled and thought that Hospital Rock would be on the high side of good for the first day out, then maybe the SF Tule would come up. It didn't exactly work out like I had planned

Part 1: High Water

We got to Hospital Rock on Monday afternoon. Knowing the run (at normal levels) only takes about an hour and a half, we decided to head straight for the put-in and get our run in before it got dark. Baby Niagra looked pretty juicy, but I gave it a go. This is one of the harder warm-up drops anywhere since you get about 10 strokes in before you have to nail a boof over a place that is known to be a nasty swim. I felt good, nailed the boof (I mean nailed it) and barely made it across the boil line at the bottom. Hmmm, I think the river is high. Corby followed with a simliar perfect line and skied the Remix before he made it out the downstream side of the boil line

Corby Somewhere in Baby Niagra

After our displays, the rest of the folks wisely decided to put in below the falls and we happily headed downstream. The next drop is fairly innocuous, that is unless you end up in the hole at the bottom at really high water. One of our paddling buddies (the other Eric) must have cracked his boat on the seal launch at Baby Niagra or somewhere else along the way - he headed into the entry move and executed a sweet downstream ender (being full of water already) and then plopped into the hole. After a good 20 seconds of creek-boat rodeo, he swam out. At this point the crack was discovered and Eric headed back to the car (where he came across some boaters with bitchathane, fixed his boat and met us for the last half mile or so of the run).

We proceeded to make our way down the run - lots of drops were still really fun, but the river was definitely pushy. The 420 Rapid was sweet; it was then we realized that we were running 420 rapid on April 20th at 4:20 in the afternoon. A kind of 420 cubed... It wasn't until we got the 420 gorge that I really realized how high the water was. The hydrolic at the bottom of split falls was enormous. I have never walked this rapid, but I was not about to probe (and probably get stuck in) this hole, so for the first time, I experienced the 420 gorge portage - not that much fun.

After that, we began picking our way down the river again. I have to say, Table Rock was the highlight of the trip. The rock boof was still sweet - and if you are curious, I really don't think portaging is a good option here, so if you head in at high water, be ready to run this or seal launch off the big rock in the middle. Having a catcher in the eddy above the big rock is also a good idea...

Richter Setting the Table

From here on out, the run was pretty fun - one rapid that is normally really easy had a rather large hole at the bottom though. We all got our boof on at the superstar boof...

Rebecca on the boof

The lowlight of the trip was getting to zero-to-sixty and realizing that we were not going to run it. We'll maybe it is tied for the lowlight with the 420 portage. Anyway, it was an impressive sight, with no real option but to head down the middle into the maw and hope to not end up in the cave. Not my style. So we shouldered and finished off the run. The run-out was mellow except for the weir at the footbridge - no real way to boof and a fairly good recirc at the bottom.

By the way, the level at the zero to sixty gauge was 5.6 - I would not say that it was too high to run, we still had a good time; but at that level, I think I would run something else in the vicinity. I think the flow at Three Rivers was up over 1400 cfs with the NF not contributing very much.

After getting pushed around a bit we decided reduce the volume. The SF Tule was pushing 35 cfs, so we camped out at Buckeye, loaded up the next morning and headed for the Rez.

Part 2: Low-Water

After getting to the Tule Indian Reservation, we had to wait around a little bit for one of the Tribal Members to get back from lunch to sign our Tresspass Permit. We had a couple of Sammy's on the sidewalk outside and chatted with the locals who were a bit surprised that we were going to run the river.

I have done this run once before at pretty much the same water level. I swore I would not go back unless the guage was closer to 50-60 cfs, but here we were again a 35 cfs. I remembered a bunch of really cool drops and a few portages. What I forgot was all the mank that we ran (and would run again today) that really should be portaged if there weren't so damn much of it.

We met up with a couple of guys (Dan and Scott) who were parked about half way up the run and getting ready to hike down into the gorge. I knew a little secret road that gets you into the river about 1 mile farther up without the hike, so we invited them along with us. We got off the river about 6 hours later...

Rebecca on the First Drop

Richter on some fun slides
Another Silly Slide

Richter running a nice tea-cup drop blind

After a fun half-hour, we started to get into the good-drop/bad-drop section. So many of the bad drops were so close to being good and others that really needed more water to fill in the junk; I guess that's why I swore I would not come back until the water was higher.

Corbs nosing it down by request in one of the nice granite gorges

The fire-hose drop

The Sweet Double Drop
Another Granite Drop


Don't let the good drops fool you though; this run is not a classic. For every sweet drop, there is one you have to portage and one you have to bump down trying not to pin. Throw the infamously slippery Tule Granite on top, and this is basically expedition style boating - great if you're into that sort of thing, crappy if you're not. My take? We'll pretty much the same as the last time I did it. I would go back, but not till it was running around 50 cfs or so. All in all, a great adventure, but not what folks expect when they come out to Cali.

The artistic finish as the sun set sparkles off the spray from the drop
Corbs taking the right line and seeing stars