Bloody Bike & Ski — Page 8

Skiing Bloody Couloir

The Descent

I snap my skis on beside Bloody Mountain's summit cairn and traverse the narrow strip of snow between the west and east summits. From the day's ignoble start—floundering in the lower Laurel Creek Drainage—it is a dramatic change of fortune to be skiing now from the very top of the mountain.

I stop at the top of my chosen descent route. The slope has a bit of a roll to it, so that the couloir itself isn't visible from above—a good reason to always climb what you intend to ski. As I peer over that roll, contemplating what lies beneath, I have to admit I'm intimidated.

Bloody Couloir Andy Lewicky Skiing the Couloir Bloody Mountain Colors Inside Bloody Couloir Bloody Couloir & First Pillar Ski Tracks and Skier Ascending Bloody Couloir Overview

This has little to do with what's happening around me and everything to do with what's happening in my mind. 50°, my mind is whispering.

Do I ski 50° slopes?

Yes—and steeper. But I don't usually stop to measure them. This objective bit of data cuts both ways: it raises my mindfulness of risk, which is good.

But it also raises my anxiety—and this is no friend of the steep skier.

I drop into the chute carefully, bouncing my edges to get a feel for the snow and the steepness. If I'd been hoping for consolidated spring corn, the reality is much less pleasant—crusty, transitional, unconsolidated mank laced with ice balls.

For good measure, the snow is also cut up with skier and snowboarder tracks from the previous week's storm.

This will not be easy.

One of the most seductive aspects of skiing the steep, I find, is the intense confrontation it forces between faith and doubt.

Perched high on a snowy slope with slippery sticks strapped to one's feet inevitably rouses the ancient howl of our self-preservation instincts. Here, with the forces of doubt screeching in all their overpowering glory, the steep skier learns not only to cope but to thrive.

The first turn is literally a leap of faith—in your skills, your experience, your judgment, yourself.

Time and again, I have stared down that void and wondered how I was going to make that first turn.

And each time, as I do now, I quiet my doubts, plant my pole, and drop in.

Beyond the mental challenge, a key technical aspect of skiing steep terrain is getting an efficient unweighting motion. Inexperienced skiers, experts included, may try to use vigorous upward motion to initiate their turns on steep pitches.

These attempts at 'hop' turns break down as the angle exceeds 45°. An alternative is to ski not up but out, using gravity and the airy void beneath your body to create separation from the hill.

Begin with a subtle upward motion—a sequential extension of the legs.

Simultaneously, allow your upper body to flow out and down (the brain loves this maneuver).

Pivot your skis through the resulting space between yourself and the hill by flexing (raising) your legs in one deft motion.

This technique is based on the turn developed by French Extremists Anselm Baud and Patrick Vallencant in the 1970's to cope with the horrifically steep slopes of the French Alps. Frozen via photograph, skiers will appear mid-turn to be skiing directly down the hill, shoulders square to the fall line, legs together and flexed.

When executed correctly, the turn is extraordinarily fluid and graceful. My efforts today are greatly hindered by the crust, which forces me to break my skis loose before I can pivot them. But my descent is safe and steady—and that is the ultimate goal. Skiing that cranky crust through the upper steeps and then the main body of the couloir proves to be an exhausting endeavor.

I keep hoping the snow's surface will smoothen, but the snow remains quirky all the way to the bottom of the couloir. There, at last, the surface consolidates, and I am able to make sweeping GS turns as I schuss down the apron. Midway down, I stop to swap information with a skier making a late ascent of the couloir. I offer the requisite warnings about the warming snow, and then I'm off. A few turns later, I reach the end of the line.

I stop to look back up at Bloody Mountain's north couloir, studying the line I've just skied. Unquestionably, it's a classic—as that well-tracked face attests. Now, the task ahead shifts from climbing and skiing to packing up and hiking down. But wait—there's a bicycle waiting for me at camp. If all goes well, I'll be cruising down that road in no time.

Surely, I think, I'll be able to ride my bicycle downhill. What could go wrong with that?

next: Bloodied, But Unbowed

About SierraDescents

When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

Pray for snow.