Sunday, January 12, 2014

Winter's over, time to put the fat bikes and skis away

The Nordic ski season started early and robustly this season. I skied more times and at more places before New Year's than ever before. Now the long range forecast is looking like a protracted snow drought. I was looking forward to 30k and 50k races the next two weekends, but both are looking very unlikely right now.

I did risk life and limb to get a big ski in this past Saturday. Due to the mild weather and rain, most Nordic centers closed, but not Jackson Ski Touring Center. I had long wanted to ski there, hearing nothing but good things about their grooming and sprawling trail system. The only hindrance is location. It is hard to get to. I went there during the worst possible driving conditions imaginable: freezing rain. I just kind of pretended that somehow the trails would be nice even though the roads were all black ice and there were accidents everywhere. I was in a pretty foul mood heading up solo, taking so long. No sane person would consider joining me. I could have gone to Weston, skied two hours, drove home, showered and be cozy, dry and warm in less time it took me just to drive to Jackson.

It was raining steadily when I got there. There was standing water on the golf course trails. The freshly minted corduroy ranged from frozen rock hard to super crispy. I wasted how many hours to try to ski this crap, I said to myself?

The parking lot and Nordic center were essentially empty. I talked with the nice staff about what I should attempt. A good chunk of what I wanted to ski had been groomed that morning. I didn't know if that was good or bad, given it was raining and freezing. The descents could be death luge runs. They told me four others were out on the Ellis trail system. Four. A slow day indeed.

I kitted up. I didn't have any rain specific XC ski gear, just winter cycling clothing. I thought I could catch a relatively dry part of the day before heavy rain moved in, but no, it was going to be steady drizzle at a minimum before the really heavy stuff moved in in less than three hours. It sucks heading out into the rain, knowing that shortly you are going to be soaked, and the only way you are going to avoid hypothermia is to go hard.

Tree branches were hanging low with ice buildup. It was pretty, but not how I wanted to experience Jackson my first time there. I could feel my boots getting wet before I even crossed the golf course, with a couple inches of water over the trail in places. At least I waxed with yellow HF and used a yellow structure tool to maximize glide in such wet conditions.

When I got on the Ellis River Trail, I was pleasantly surprised by how good the skiing was. The corduroy had a crispy, edgeable texture to it, and most importantly, it was fast. Maybe all was not lost. I immediately headed towards the Hall Trail, which gains more than 1000ft from the village. Parts of it were not groomed that morning, but it did not matter. So little traffic was on it the day before.

As I hit the steep lollipop loop at the top, the temperature rose dramatically, like 15F in 200ft vertical. My glasses had to come off and stay off.  So that's where the warm air was, aloft! There was no ice on the trees up there. The snow also turned into mashed potatoes and was very slow. Usually just the opposite happens, it is colder and icier up top. My fears of icy descents were quickly put to rest.

I cautiously bombed back down to the Ellis River Trail and continued heading up along the river. Some sweet V2 cruising there. It was along there I encountered the one and only person I saw all day away from the village. He too, on classic skis, was amazed to having such good conditions all to himself.

I reached a point where recent grooming stopped and the snow became very soft and difficult to skate. I turned around and began effortless V2-alternate cruising back downstream. I had climbed a couple thousand feet total by this point, ate my one and only granola bar, and was almost out of water. I took only one water bottle, as I didn't expect to last more than 90 minutes in the rain. Most of the time it was a light to moderate drizzle, but there were intermittent downpours too. My boots had long filled with water. Strangely, my feet did not freeze.  All my clothing layers were totally saturated. I gave up wringing my gloves out. My hands were so numb I had trouble putting the gloves back on each time. I did think though, that I could go up Hall Trail one more time on my way back. After all, it was all downhill back to a warm shower from the summit.

I didn't have nearly the snap as the first time up. I think the mashed potato line dropped a little in altitude also. Then I started seeing things I didn't see the first time. What? I don't remember skiing over that icy waterfall thingy before. I didn't think there was any turn that could be missed. Guess I was pretty intoxicated on endorphins.  I kept going. All the trails have to go back to the Nordic center anyway, right?

I did not take a paper map with me, as the rain would have dissolved it quickly. Even though there were maps at all intersections and good signage, I was now far from any maps. The trail went up a lot before going down. With heavy overcast, I had no sense of direction, and I couldn't figure out how to put my new Garmin 510 into compass mode. Out of water, bonking, risk of hypothermia, I continued on anyway. Little did I know, I was continuing onto a closed trail...

When the trail started going down, it got narrow, and it was chocked full of exposed boulders and open drainages. I utterly could not ski it. Super steep. I crashed three times. If I were smart, I would have taken my skis off right there, hiked back up, and took the long way back the way I came. A least I knew were it went, and it was almost all downhill. But no. I'm stupid, and it's been a while since I've found myself in a boondoggle. I think it took me 20 minutes to clear a half-mile section of trail that I thought to myself should have been closed. Later I learned it was. There was nothing to indicate this out there though.

Once I cleared that section, nice wide-open descending resumed. It hadn't been groomed in a couple days, but the crispy surface made for descent control. Now I was scared, as my internal compass said I was heading away from the village, not descending toward it. Worst case, I thought, I could hitch a ride if I had to. I had no idea where I was going to pop out.

I came up to a tree that had fallen across the trail. I tried to go around it off the ungroomed surface. I immediately punched in to my knees. That sucked. I couldn't move in the dense saturated snow. Eventually I popped out at a parking area. Where is this? There was a map there. Son of a bitch! I was as far from the Nordic center as you could get on skis. This was more than half way out to Pinkham Notch on Rt 16. I was totally bonked, dehydrated and getting very cold. I also knew I was not going to beat the heavy rain back. It was about 10km back to the village from there, and there were a couple good climbs along the way.

The initial section of trail is called the High Water Trail. It had not been groomed in a while either, and it looks like high water had made a good chunk of it ungroomable. I had to take my skis off and hike for a bit. Yeah, just like any good boondoggle on the bike involves hike-a-bike, so too does a ski boondoggle. Hike-a-ski. Lot of exposed dirt, rocks and ice in that section.  Once past it, I was back on the Ellis River Trail.

Sure enough, the heavy rain moved in with about 5km to go. It poured mightily. I was in a hallucinatory bonk state. A sobering thought was that if I broke a leg in those conditions, I'd probably be dead in an hour. There was nobody out there. I had seen only one person in the last three hours. I could no longer go hard enough to keep my core warm. Ice was still building on the trees, so the temp in the valley was still at or just below freezing.

When I got back to the Nordic center, I think I was was the last person to come back in. They were vacuuming the carpets and getting ready to close up. My hands were so numb I had to use my teeth to take my GPS and gloves off. I'll tell you, that was the best hot shower I've ever experienced.

I skied 51.2km in 3.6hrs with about 4800ft of climbing. Starting out, I thought I'd be good for 90 minutes tops in the rain, and I certainly didn't plan to ski more than 40km. I got a superb workout in.  I like Jackson. The grooming was excellent for such a shitty day. Waterville would never have groomed on a day like that with extremely light turn-out. I'll definitely go back. Wish it wasn't so hard to get to. Will we get more snow?


The Warrenator said...

Do you do this to get a better blog entry? If so, you succeeded. Thanks Doug, glad you got back safely.

Cathy said...

Sorry that your first experience at Jackson was in such poor conditions. Those trails are THE BEST for skiing anywhere! From where you ended up in Pinkham, the REAL climbing starts if you head up the trail vs. back down the Ellis River trail. Definitely give it another try when the conditions are better.

mkr said...

Awesome adventure. Envious for sure. On a good day, the run back from or up to the lower Pinkham parking lot along the Ellis River is an awesome ski. Last time we did the loop we went counter clockwise and the climb up to Maple Mountain nearly killed us. Nice work!