Birch Mountain Marathon — Page 8

Skiing Birch Mountain

Descending into Shadow

Ready at last to descend, I turn my attention away from the Palisades for the last time and go to retrieve my skis. Wait a minute—is that a shadow?

Yes, spreading like a dark stain down Birch Mountain's southeast slope: the east face is in shadow. The east face is in shadow. Utter horror overwhelms me. The sun cups—oh my god, the sun cups! How fast will the snow refreeze?

Atop the Summit

Expanding Shadow

Skiing the Summit Snowfield

Skiing the Summit Snowfield

Darkness

Darkness

I look back at Hristo. His face tells me he's thinking the exact same thought. I have a mad urge to race down the hill as fast as possible—anything to stay ahead of that shadow line. But in truth, our fate is already sealed, and has been for a while.

The steeps in the east couloir must be completely dark. Probably have been dark for well over an hour. It is an east-facing slope, after all. A little mad laugh escapes me.

Maybe the snow will miraculously stay soft without the sun?

I snap into my bindings and set off. The first turn reveals the wet snow is already refreezing, alternately grabbing and releasing my skis just like breakable crust.

Pivoting the skis requires a hop to completely break free of the surface, then a careful landing to avoid hooking an edge. There is every reason to suspect things will be much, much worse below. Much as Hristo and I would like to hurry, we're forced to take our time skiing down. It's exhausting work.

When we reach Alvin midway down the face, around 13,000 feet, it's near 5 p.m. Alvin is still doggedly climbing up on skins, and he's got a look in his eye that says he's headed for that summit no matter what. He gets no big speech from me. I am a soloist at heart, after all, and therefore have no place advising people against doing any crazy fool thing they can imagine.

Still, I do take a moment to point out a few of the finer points of our predicament—specifically the fact that billions of sun cups below are refreezing as we speak. Alvin has his own advice to offer: the East Couloir is unskiable ice, he says. He intends to descend via Birch Mountain's south slopes (which are still sunny) into the Tinemaha Creek drainage, which will eventually reconnect (hopefully!) to the road leading to McMurray Meadows.

With our respective warnings out of the way, Alvin resumes his ascent.

Hristo and I contemplate Alvin's plan. Could we really salvage the skiing by switching to south slopes? It's tempting. The downside of abandoning our ascent route—and it is not a trivial liability—is that we'd be skiing into unexplored territory. I didn't scout Birch's south face. I do have vague memories of a steep upper snowfield funneling into what looked like a bare gully, with a lot of snowless bushwhacking below, but that's it.

Hristo suggests we ski over to the east couloir, and assess the conditions firsthand. If it's not possible to safely ski it, we'll abandon our route for the south slopes. That sounds good to me. Every time I've ventured into the unknown in the backcountry in the hope of making my life easier, it's gone poorly. Better, as they say, the devil you know...

next: 7000 Vertical Feet of Hell



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