Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The West Face of the Hausberg

The snowstorm that began February 10th left about a foot and a half of incredibly heavy, wet snow. Winter will do that sometimes around here, suddenly trying to catch up with itself after delivering little for the first month or so.

I had to work until Monday, so I missed the colder, drier spell that followed the storm itself. I didn’t get out until Tuesday, the day after Valentine’s Day, after another five inches of glop. The temperature was like spring, but the snow was not the consolidated base of a well-seasoned March.

The Hausberg rises from my back yard. Visitors from Germany called it that. It means “home mountain” or, I suppose, “house mountain.” It elevates the local lump to alpine grandeur.

The West Face has many routes. It’s really just an uphill bushwhack through the mixed forest. There are hemlock groves, stands of pitch, white and red pine, and a lot of beech and oak. At about half and three-quarters of the way up, bands of rock present bouldery prominences. In winter, these fill in with snow to look more dramatic than they really are.

Wanting an hour of steady exertion, I set out on the old beater skis to look around.

A local logger has done extensive cutting out there. I have been climbing this mountain since 1989. Until this year, the West Face was forested, with very little sign of recent human passage. Now it looks completely different. There had been some cutting over toward the South Ridge, but my usual route had been mostly untouched.

Big clearings have replaced what were hardwood glades. Since I navigated as much by the trees as the shape of the land itself, I have to get used to new landmarks. But I can remember from the swell of the slope what used to grow there.

You might think that a cleared patch would make a dandy downhill ski trail, but not always. There’s a lot of slash and junk. The warm snowfall blanketed a lot of treacherous snags and hollow spots. Powdery snow would have sifted down into the clutter, filling it properly. Warm, sticky snow formed a dense layer over top, like a thick quilt laid onto open bedsprings.

Farther north on the face, and farther up, the glades remain, so the skiing is unchanged.

The sunny afternoon enticed me to climb longer than I’d planned. I had not reached any summits in a while, so even the home mountain seemed like a worthy goal. The forest is full of memories.

The dense snow provided very good climbing. Skis climb somewhat like an airplane. A wing can only climb to a certain angle before it stalls. Likewise, a ski can grip up to a certain angle before breaking loose. But the angle varies depending on the ski and the snow.

I like to sneak up on a climb, angling up along a contour, looking for places to tackle a little more elevation with a few well-placed sidesteps. I may not get to the top first, but I’m usually alone. I do get there with enough energy to keep going. And often, in a group where we each pick a line, I can spot and follow a nice, steady approach and arrive ahead of the vertical chargers who will do heroic sections of herringbone technique straight up the face.

On the other side of the ridge, loggers cut some clearings about eight or nine years ago. I had gone over there and skied the clearings and skidder trails, one or two of which went straight down. On a powder day, you couldn’t ask for anything better.

From the summit of Hausberg, I skied over there now and started to laugh. Saplings have grown up in impenetrable chaos. I hadn’t gone back to check in quite a while.

I could still look north and see Mount Washington and the whole panorama, Chocorua, the Moats, you name it, from the Sandwich Range all the way around to Maine.

Skiing down, I had to weight the skis lightly to stay up in the snow, above the snags. The heavy snow kept the skis from turning readily. I’d chosen the skinnier, longer skis because they would accelerate better in the heavy snow. The long, soft tips would come around easily in a narrow stance. That was the theory, anyway, and it mostly worked. I would have had to run right out with my short wide skis to ski the identical conditions immediately to see what really would have been best. Not today.

Telemark turns allow you to lead with one ski, which is helpful when you have obstacles under the snow, or dense snow that might cause you to slow or stop suddenly. The lead ski acts like a probe. It also cuts a track the trailing ski can follow.

I skied straight down the fall line in many places, switching leads delicately so I wouldn’t drive into the snow and stop. Don’t over-turn in heavy snow. Even if you want to bail out and stop, you won’t have to turn very far to do it.

In general, use the telemark position as your downhill cruising position if you are at all unsure of the trail. If you work from down to up rather than up to down, you’re ready to unweight and switch leads or to weight harder and turn sharper, without the risk that you’ll get caught between your skis, standing up with them just a little too far apart and evenly weighted.

Frankly, I don’t know how people ski heavy crud in parallel on skinny skis. I see them do it. I just don’t know how they’re doing it. Most of the ones I see doing it have been skiing all their lives and have strong alpine backgrounds. But as long as I can get ‘em around and get down with some kind of style, I figure I have a method that works.

Remember also that I tend to ski in the woods, at lesser angles and lower speeds than someone jumping couloirs up in one of the ravines or some photogenic place out west. I neither seek nor avoid such places. There are just a lot of other places to explore.

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