23 March 2014

A Poorly Planned Production

When you arrive at Grand Targhee, the front of the resort is very unassuming. It's mostly broad runs interspersed with avoidable nontechnical tree groves--for anyone seeking more bang there are a couple of respectable cliff lines and tight powder trees to be found but for the most part it's a solidly intermediate mountain.

Once you crest the resort boundary and drop down the other side, towards the Grand, away from ski patrol's purview, into no-man's-land...Targhee is a completely different beast. The peaks that make up the resort appear to have been bluntly bisected along their north-south axis and its east faces are a multi-storied stack of increasingly massive cliff bands and stark faces. Now that the snowpack has far surpassed a hundred inches, everything previously rocky or bushy has filled in and while the resort is clogged with Mormons and young rippers, we prefer to partake of the Playground, the very accessible but very daunting area below the initial huge cliff band, where the record is held for the largest cliff jump, where (if you are so inclined) you can easily huck ten foot wind-established cornices or fifty foot dun and tan diving boards that loom above the supple powder field. 
Behind the resort...take one lift, kill yourself
As I said, we've been down there plenty of times, but on Saturday we came with a burlier objective; the cliff band below the Playground, where hundred footers are the minimum, is breached by a single couloir, the Tube, a 700 foot drop that seemed to contain no mandatory airs, according to our aerial guidebook. 

We brought a span of rope (along with our friend Dapper Dan who actually knows how to use rope) because, why not? Ambitious lines require ambitious precautions, right?
After a week of moguled, sun-baked, wind-scoured snow, the powder in the couloir was a delight--each aggressively charted turn on the 50° slope was joyous, if a little nerve-wracking. We reconvened halfway down to take inventory and consider the narrow chokepoint at the bottom. Tyler, being the best among us, took the initial path as usual, and straightlined the choke with aplomb. I followed but was bogged down by hesitance, inexperience, and poor form. A sharp turn found me minus a ski and being dragged down the Tube by my own slough, and the seconds slowed as I plunged my fists and boot into the deep snow hoping to self-arrest before the narrowing of the rock walls. I managed to stop finally and dug deep into my little shelf to calm my rattled nerves. So that's what a slough slide feels like.
Ben eyeing the crux
Pics courtesy of Dapper Dan
After a quick pow wow the guys behind me finished the couloir. Tyler had unearthed my wayward ski at the bottom so I had only to wait, growing colder in the shadows as they made their way back up to begin the difficult ascent. I hugged the slope for a long time, curiously watching them mill around at the choke point. Finally Dapper booted up to me, using my errant ski as an anchor, and let me know that our slough had uncovered a head-tall cliff at the bottom of the couloir and that he had clambered up with Ben and Tyler's help and now would attempt a rescue by rope. 
The boys stranded under a newly-exposed cliff
 I had nothing to contribute to the alarming situation below so I directed my energies upward to establish the bootpack. I falteringly strapped one ski to my pack and used the other to hoist myself inexorably up the Tube. Dig ski into snow above head, kick four times into powder with left foot, hope step will hold, weight left foot, raise right foot, repeat. It was brutally slow and scary but I had flat land and sunshine to look forward to and the couloir was still beautiful--rock pinnacles surrounding me, tiny determined pine trees reaching heavenward away from the snow-choked chute, the wind-stirred powdered sugar sifting down the slope in the late afternoon luminescence.
The climb out into the sunshine
One last gasping lunge through hip-deep snow and I had cleared the couloir. Then I sat and waited, watching big mountain skiers hit huge lines in the Playground, oblivious to our crisis just below, and tried to quell my panic and make a game plan just in case. After twenty minutes, to my enormous relief, I saw Tyler's ski tips bobbing above his pack as he crested the pitch, and Dan and Ben followed. The jerry-rigged rope rescue had succeeded thanks to Dan's know-how, they'd survived the cold and the bootpack, and now all we had was a strenuous but familiar exit and we'd be back on groomers in no time. We hugged and high-fived, jittery with adrenaline, knowing that'd we'd gotten away with it, and that soon this would be just another one of those superlative-filled, wide-eyed skiing stories to be told around the campfire. 

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