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Author Topic: Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014  (Read 10894 times)
cumulus
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Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014
« on: 06/02/14, 11:31 AM »

Since part of our group jumped right into the next five day adventure I'll get this ball rolling...† it was a beautiful day!

Serendipitously our ski dovetailed with the commemorating of the 75th anniversary of the Watson Traverse by Lowell's group, making for a combined total of sixteen people on the Watson last Saturday.† I'm not going to get too historical here--since I'm sure Lowell is brewing up a stellar report--except to add that I'd like to think Dwight Watson (wherever he is) had a big fat smile on his face.† I know all eleven of us did!† Conditions could hardly have been better - -
Sunshine punctuated later in the day by billowing cumulus clouds, and on the Park Headwall snow that almost verged on powder. Mix that with a strong and totally stoked group of friendly rippers... how much better could it get?† yep, screw the puritans, I'm gonna toot!

(just like thank god Dwight did with his 16mm Bolex... only took a couple of decades and a little help from friends to make it on the internet...)







that little ledge/protrusion in the middle of the upper bergschrund is new; wasn't there last year




Park Headwall










looking back from transition station #3














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Stefan
Jake the Brit
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Re: Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014
« Reply #1 on: 06/02/14, 01:06 PM »

Bang on, spectacular, great photo's, including the ironic 6th fluffycloudy one. Man that looks good.
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Donnelly_M
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Re: Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014
« Reply #2 on: 06/02/14, 06:39 PM »

Way to inspire those who've yet to experience the epic adventure!
Great pics by the way!
« Last Edit: 06/02/14, 07:37 PM by Donnelly_M » Logged
hedonaut
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Re: Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014
« Reply #3 on: 06/03/14, 01:23 PM »

yeah purty pics mr cumulus.  with conditions like that on the headwall, darn tootin' you should write a TR...
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Lowell_Skoog
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Re: Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014
« Reply #4 on: 06/03/14, 08:41 PM »

Nice pictures!

Our group of five skied the traverse while taking movies to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Watson-Larson-Hennig trip on May 13, 1939. I'm planning to create a video that combines our footage with some of Dwight Watson's original film. It might be a while before it's done, because I'm super busy.

Thanks for the report!
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Lowell_Skoog
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Re: Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014
« Reply #5 on: 06/03/14, 09:55 PM »

I'm guessing that this and other reports (and the movie I'm working on) will continue to boost the popularity of the Watson Traverse. I think a lot of skiers will want to try the Park Glacier Headwall, since that's the most spectacular route from the summit.

So it seems like a good time to discuss this alternative. For those of you who've skied the headwall during the traverse, I'm wondering what protocol you recommend for the descent. Do you just take a look and drop in, or do you do something more involved?

Traditionally, steep skiers have recommended climbing the route first. It's the only way to really know the snow conditions on the route. But that doesn't work on a route like the Watson Traverse where you're traveling the wrong direction. What would you do instead? I'm honestly curious.

As a strawman, here are some tactics I might consider if I wanted to ski the Park Headwall without climbing it first. I'd like to hear your ideas.

1. Visually inspect the slope from above (of course).

2. Belay someone (with a bombproof anchor) as they descend on foot to check for instability or iciness. Do lots of poking, stomping and testing. Climb back up to your skis.

3. Belay the first skier down as they test the snow, make ski cuts, and so on. Once the first skier is satisfied with conditions, he/she could untie and ski down. The other skiers would presumably follow unroped.

4. Ski with an ice axe easily available (through your shoulder straps perhaps) so you can drive it in if you encounter an ice patch. (Maybe have an ice screw handy too.)

5. Wear a harness so you can secure yourself to the slope if you need to place an ice axe or ice screw.

Can you think of anything else? I might not do all of these things, but I would certainly do some of them before dropping onto a slope like this from above.

Do you guides lead clients on this sort of terrain? If so, how do you do it?

-----

(For what it's worth, our May 31 party never seriously considered skiing the headwall from the summit. We didn't prepare for it, and we wanted to follow Watson's route down from the Cockscomb. Our track angled down from the Cockscomb saddle to the bergshrund, where we found a crossing that didn't require a jump.)
« Last Edit: 06/09/14, 07:34 AM by Lowell_Skoog » Logged
cumulus
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Re: Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014
« Reply #6 on: 06/04/14, 12:10 AM »


Thanks for bringing up the issue of skiing the headwall Lowell. After the elation of finding the headwall in such amazing condition and posting the report, I did feel a small qualm about mediating the experience... but as a whole I choose to trust the intelligence and good sense of my fellow skier to put the pieces together. There is certainly no dearth of information here on TAY and in the greater world about the dangers and mitigating intricacies of ski mountaineering. No need to flog that horse with every report.  Besides, book/media learning is no substitute for visceral experiences in the field, and I can safely say that at least half of our group is well steeped Wink in that realm.

Nevertheless there is the allure and semblance of ease when ten people or more drop that headwall... and indeed we did look back and see at least three people follow us one of whom seemed frozen in place 1/3 of the way down for a good 10-15 minutes. It's steep. There's a big bergschrund you can fall into. It's not trivial. Especially when conditions are less than favorable.

Personally speaking I've skied the headwall once before via the Boulder Glacier, i.e. climbing what we skied. I highly recommend this method. We probably would not have skied the headwall that day had we not, since conditions were much firmer. But having climbed it we also knew there was no ice.

For last Saturdays descent conditions more than less matched my anticipation after having watched the weather (precip, temp, elevation) the week prior. A couple days of settlement. But you never know. It could have ended up much crustier. The headwall gets a lot of wind. Etc. We got lucky with the conditions.

Prior to skiing I also had a discussion of conditions with one other fellow skier, who happened to have summited Baker 160 times and was for many years a patrol at Baker... always good to have along!

Given the particularities of our little window and group we didn't extensively test beyond the initial drop and stomp test. The first skiers skied closer to the Boulder/Park headwall divide where you can see rocks protruding.  Later skiers moved more towards the middle of the Park headwall.

So that was our ski. Conditions change. Constantly.

And for that, Lowell's list of tactics are really handy. Thanks!  I wholeheartedly endorse them.
The only additional thing I can think of to potentially test the slope would be to drop a cornice (if extant).
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Stefan
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Re: Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014
« Reply #7 on: 06/04/14, 07:35 AM »

Looks like it was in great shape!
I used Lowells #4 technique with an ice axe one time and the slope was too firm on my first turn.
Some tense moments for sure. I had nightmares about possible consequences for some time after.
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Lowell_Skoog
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Re: Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014
« Reply #8 on: 06/04/14, 07:47 AM »

Thanks Stefan.

Good suggestion about trying to drop a cornice (if possible).

My purpose in bringing this up is in no way criticism of your group. When I got to the summit and looked down the headwall I thought "man does that look perfect." I think the conditions on Saturday were about as good as they'll ever be.

Our community has guides and avalanche courses and NSAW (and more) to discuss the process of dealing with avalanche risk. We haven't developed anything similar to discuss the process of dealing with the risk of steep skiing. But people are doing it more, so it's good to talk about the process. This thread is a good place for it.

Here's a little more about what my party encountered that day. Some of us talked briefly on the summit about whether we should consider skiing the headwall. We decided (without much discussion) that we shouldn't. So we started skiing down the NE ridge toward The Cockscomb, Dwight Watson's original route. Around the point where the ridge rolled off and became steeper (clearly visible in your first picture) we encountered bulletproof snow-ice on the Roosevelt Glacier side of the ridge. (Watson's movie shows them descending on foot there.) We stopped and concluded that it would not be safe to ski that snow. We would need to remove our skis and descend on crampons.

Before making the switch, we went over to the ridgeline and looked down the headwall again. This was roughly at the point in your second picture where the rightmost ski tracks descend and the little cornice disappears. I took off my skis and downclimbed a few feet onto the headwall. The snow felt good. I was tempted to descend there, but in the back of my mind I was thinking, "How do I really know this is safe?" I started working through the ideas I mentioned in my previous post. We hadn't really prepared for or discussed this process, since skiing the headwall wasn't in our original plans. But the ice on the ridge had thrown in a monkey wrench. (We were also concerned about the bergschrund below, because we couldn't tell how wide it was from above. We had a deadman anchor for a rappel, but weren't really looking forward to using it.)

I climbed back up to the ridge and we decided to continue toward The Cockscomb. At this point, we noticed that there was a narrow lane of soft snow on the ridge near the edge of the headwall that we could side-slip down. We started following this and it provided a reasonable way to descend without having to transition to crampons. At the Cockscomb saddle we saw a way to descend to the bergschrund in a rightward traverse where the headwall was shorter and less steep. One of our party members had skied that route about a month earlier. We went that way and everything went fine. From below, we enjoyed watching your group ski the headwall from the top.

So this experience got me thinking that I should have a protocol in mind for dealing with the "drop in from above" scenario, rather than making it up on the spur of the moment. I'll be eager to hear anybody else's ideas. Just like with avalanche risk management (which is certainly part of the game here) management of steep slope hazards (including hidden ice layers, schrunds and such) works best with a framework and good communication.
« Last Edit: 06/06/14, 09:07 PM by Lowell_Skoog » Logged
Jason4
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Re: Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014
« Reply #9 on: 06/04/14, 09:13 AM »

Lowell-
I'd propose starting a new thread on steep skiing.  It's a very interesting topic and one that is only briefly related to the Watson Traverse and can fill pages with detailed information.  Wildsnow has a decent link on how to grade a line but snow changes so grades seem to only apply to certain aspects of a descent.

http://www.wildsnow.com/more/ski-descent-rating-system/

Great job on the traverse to all involved!  Hope you got permission from Mr. Watson to share his secret.  Wink
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Lowell_Skoog
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Re: Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014
« Reply #10 on: 06/04/14, 09:49 AM »

I'd propose starting a new thread on steep skiing.† It's a very interesting topic and one that is only briefly related to the Watson Traverse and can fill pages with detailed information.

That's a good suggestion, certainly. But I think this may be a better place to discuss the specifics of dropping in from above on the Park Glacier Headwall. Here's why I think so:

1. This trip is going to become uniquely popular. It is, after all, a day trip with variations that will attract skiers with a range of abilities.

2. This trip is unusual in the North Cascades because of its high elevation, true glacial conditions, and top-down route finding.

3. People thinking about skiing the Watson Traverse (and possibly skiing the headwall) are more likely to find this thread than a generic thread about steep skiing.

So I'd rather discuss the topic here where people thinking about this route are more likely to find it.
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cumulus
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Re: Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014
« Reply #11 on: 06/04/14, 10:02 AM »


both ideas make sense to me. Thanks for the suggestion Jason.
Being as Mr. Watson was a pioneer in mediating the alpine experience I'd like to think he would have enjoyed watching his legacy play out...  Wink

Looking forward to the vids, both Lowell's and Shred's...

And thanks for sharing your experience Pinch and Lowell. As is well demonstrated in your description, a slopes condition can change quite dramatically within a short span of space often correlating directly with its change in angle with the sun and wind. Probe and test as you go (and be prepared to transition) is definitely a good approach.

One more tip occurs to me when skiing down: wear goggles. The first time I skied it I left my sunglasses on and with every left hand turn the wind blowing up the headwall would pelt me with spray, which accumulated under my sunglasses, so much so that I had to stop to clear them out because I couldn't see. Always good to see where you're going...

Thanks Jake, Donnelly and Hedonaut for the friendly comments!
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Stefan
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Re: Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014
« Reply #12 on: 06/04/14, 10:09 AM »

Does anybody rope up for skiing that glacier?  It looks like a minefield of crevasses....never mind the gaping bergschrunds.  Doesn't look appropriate for "skiers of all abilities"...unless they don't mind falling in.
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Jason4
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Re: Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014
« Reply #13 on: 06/04/14, 01:43 PM »

I agree that it makes sense to keep specific techniques for the Park Headwall in with the TR.

We could have a great conversation about good techniques, how to report variations, what information is critical to success and safety, and how to determine when lines are in.  We have an entire subforum for discussing avalanche conditions and it would seem appropriate to have a similar conversation about other objective hazards.

*running off to start a new thread*
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ebeam
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Re: Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014
« Reply #14 on: 06/04/14, 02:16 PM »

It looks like a minefield of crevasses....never mind the gaping bergschrunds.† Doesn't look appropriate for "skiers of all abilities"...unless they don't mind falling in.

Iíve only done the Watson once and did not ski the headwall so I didnít have to wonder about itís condition. However, I thought the lower half of the Park Glacier was the most hazardous part of the trip. The main reasons are: 1) you have to navigate on the descent and 2) you can get lulled into thinking the hard part is done and let your guard down.

The crevasses are huge, not always in the same patterns, and the slope angle is such that it is difficult to read the terrain and bridges when descending. If you are not used to seeing the big features, it would be easy to put yourself in a wrong place well before you recognize it. In the first picture of this trip report, down about half way, you can see a group of skiers crossed a couple of large bridges. They are big enough that it looks like they made multiple turns on the bridges. I have no problem with skiing over bridges. I just like to know that I am doing it and know they are safe. The picture points out the size of the terrain up there.

When you ascend such an area, you get a chance to study it from below. Even if the slope angle is relatively low there is a foreshortening effect that helps you figure out the route. Very different than descending.
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ryanl
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Re: Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014
« Reply #15 on: 06/04/14, 05:17 PM »

Sweet pics Stefan!! And a great trip. Way to time the conditions.

With respect to the best way to drop in blind, I think all of your suggestions are sound Lowell. Seems like everyone has their preferred method. But for those who might be looking to this forum for guidance I suggest reading what Dan H did a few years ago:

"Once on the summit, I downclimbed the Park Headwall to the shrund at the base -- to scout out conditions, looking for ice etc... All clear! SICK!!!!! I quickly climbed back to the top and dropped in with skis. Ripper conditions... A slough caught up with me at the bottom, but i dug my whippets/hands into the snow and braced myself 100%... I was so stoked, I had to ski it again, so I climbed back up and dropped in again, this time however -- the sun was leaving the face (or at least it's direct rays) so the snow surface crusted -- but still skiied excellat. I climbed back up for a third time, then skiied the CD -- which is still in quality ski condition, albeit a little tracked up."- excerpted from: http://cascadeclimbers.com/forum/ubbthreads.php?ubb=showflat&Number=971077
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Donnelly_M
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Re: Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014
« Reply #16 on: 06/04/14, 07:06 PM »

I have been Touring up near Mt. Baker for the past three seasons, and have always looked at wanting to complete this route.  I often venture out to the Sholes Glacier and a little beyond in the Months of August and September. After seeing this trip report and how the conditions look, I'm hoping to find someone to do it with this Saturday. It does have everything I'm looking for in a Tour: steepness, endurance, high speed turns, air, and sense of accomplishment I'm sure for those who've done it. 

It is interesting to see how trip reports like these share the adventures and potential the NW has to offer for ski touring and to think that these pics show how popular this and other routes are becoming.  I remember in my in the late 90s and early 2000s when I would be the only skier on the Coleman-Deming route, Muir, Interglacier, among other areas now with heavy skier/touring traffic.

This trip report is a great example of how ski/splitboard touring has evolved.
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shred
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Re: Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014
« Reply #17 on: 06/05/14, 09:24 AM »

Good discussion on steep skiing protocol.
I have a protocol for pretty much every time I ski something that is out of bounds, (and sometimes in bounds).
It is almost instinctual now.
1. Is the snow going to move?- Most likely yes.
2. How much is going to move? Sluff? Slab?
3. What is my exit options and zone of safety? I like to have at least 2 exit strategies ( specially on exposed terrain).
4. If ice. Do I have the option to reascend? Or a safe exit?
5. Is this line within my personal abilities?
6. Am I mentally & physically prepared?
7. One ski cut. Stable? Go!

As far as others repeating what we did: We had optimal conditions to ski the Park Headwall with lower risk of the shrund danger. Conditions on steep high pitches can change almost instantly with wind, solar radiation, etc.etc.
I recommend not taking this ski lightly.
 Also I may add: that everyone that skied this tour was almost as strong as they get, in regards to Knowledge, Stamina, Skills and Experience.
Be prepared and be ready to back away if its not in.
"Live to Ski another Day"

Here is a short video that captures the near perfect conditions:

http://thesnowtroopers.com/2014/mt-baker-wa-watson-traversepark-shred/
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skykilo
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Re: Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014
« Reply #18 on: 06/05/14, 10:39 AM »

These pics are very nice and that looks like a wonderful tour; I'd like to ski it some day.

Dan exhibited much better judgement than just dropping it blind from the top in September and October.

With respect to the best way to drop in blind, I think all of your suggestions are sound Lowell. Seems like everyone has their preferred method. But for those who might be looking to this forum for guidance I suggest reading what Dan H did a few years ago:
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kerwinl
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Re: Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014
« Reply #19 on: 06/06/14, 02:03 PM »

Did you approach via the summer trail, or grouse creek? Looking to go for the traverse this weekend and would like to make a run up grouse creek if possible.

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Lowell_Skoog
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Re: Watson Traverse, Mt. Baker, 05.31.2014
« Reply #20 on: 06/10/14, 08:36 PM »

*running off to start a new thread*

For future reference, here's a link to the new thread.

And here are links to my trip report commemorating the 75th anniversary of the first traverse in May 1939:

http://www.turns-all-year.com/skiing_snowboarding/trip_reports/index.php?topic=31939.0

http://alpenglow.org/skiing/baker-2004/index.html
« Last Edit: 06/18/14, 08:48 PM by Lowell_Skoog » Logged
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