So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

I like to think I have some level of skill for timing conditions well in my home ranges. Failing that, I also like to think I’m pretty good at making the best of bad conditions. This makes it all the more hilarious when I blow it completely and end up scraping, scratching and groveling my way down something I was looking forward to skiing properly. With that in mind, here’s a very belated story about Taylor and I scraping, scratching, and most definitely groveling our way down the Dolphin on the legendary north face of Mt. Temple. Y’all asked for it.

We’d been talking about going skiing for a while but hadn’t managed to make our schedules line up. That was mainly my fault, as Taylor had the whole winter off work to ski, which made me endlessly jealous. Since we’d been talking so much and skiing so little, our ambitions had gone unchecked; becoming perilously grand. Eventually we did find a day in early May that worked, forcing us to convert talk into action. So we flipped through our newly minted list of bad ideas, searching for one that fit the current conditions. Next thing we knew, we were up much too early, it was dark and we were skinning along the Lake Annette trail towards a couloir linkup we had in mind.

At least we had some company. Chris and Becca were headed towards the north face as well, so we walked through the trees together for a while. For those who haven’t experienced it, the Lake Annette approach is painfully long and flat, even for the Rockies. This was an unintentional theme of my spring for some reason, so the distraction was quite welcome. Even more welcome was the sight of the lake, as well as the bulk of Temple’s north face. Scene of so many epic tales, lived by some of the strongest alpinists of their day, the face was about to witness something altogether less inspiring.

But we didn’t know that yet.

The others headed off towards another part of the face while Taylor led the way over wind blasted moraines below the Dolphin. Slippery skinning made the extent of the recent warm storm’s effect on the snowpack very apparent. The big question for the day had been how high it had rained, and we were starting to suspect that we weren’t going to like the answer. At least we weren’t concerned about stability as we donned crampons and started to move into the approach couloir (Detailed here by king of Mt. Temple: Rauri MacFarlane).

I could tell you that the snow seemed to be improving, and I’d be lying to you the same way that Taylor and I were lying to ourselves. But hell, we were already above the hardest skiing on the route so why turn around now? The linkup we had planned was certainly in jeopardy, but we could at least ski one line before we reassessed, right?

Once we got into the body of the Dolphin, the snow actually did start to get better. First a little, then a lot. By the time we got into sight of the head, we were wading through full on, knee deep powder. If only that freezing level had been just a little bit lower. All appeared quiet on the face above, so we moved out through the head, past the eye and to the base of the nose, where things get a little extra exposed. Variable windslabs overlying facets and thin spots gave us pause there, and we decided that we didn’t need to be the ball perched on the tip of this thing’s snout.

As a ski experience, the upper quarter or so of the line is basically exposure, stacked on more exposure, underneath seracs. The position is, of course, spectacular but unless you’re an alpine climber, you probably don’t want to hang around in there. We sure didn’t.

After a few turns, it all started feeling better. The exposure was still there, but ski quality was good and stability felt confidence inspiring. That continued right through the body, even past the top of the access couloir, and beyond the point where we’d been sure the skiing was going to be heinous. Things were looking up.

In the span of about two turns the snow went from “still pretty good” to “nearly unskiable”. Now, “nearly” is not the same as “completely”, so we pulled out our axes and made about five more turns, plus some side slipping before we decided to give it up.

A giant runnel spanned almost the entire width of the couloir. Snow that wasn’t runneled was dotted with icy, semi-attached debris chunks that sheared off under the weight of any skier foolish enough to turn or even side slip on them. The whole thing was covered in a thin veneer of fresh snow, poorly bonded. Grim stuff. Down below, Chris and Becca stared up at us, wincing at the scraping sounds we were making. Or so I imagined.

We cackled to ourselves as we transitioned back to crampons and began to pick our way down some pretty serious snice grooves and bulges. Imagine a big linkup in these conditions? Hilarious. We had definitely botched the timing, but we were having a nice time anyway. The one thing that was bothering us was that serac somewhere above our heads, so we did hurry the downclimb a little more than we otherwise might have. Inside the Dolphin it’s hard to know exactly when you’re in the firing line, so it’s safest just to assume you always are.

Once we finished whatever it was were doing and descended the crusty, totally frozen moraines we got to enjoy the one advantage of such an early end to the day. That was the fact that the valley and road were only just starting to soften and could be skated; making the trip back perfectly pleasant.

Back at the parking lot, the others confirmed that they had indeed been wincing at the the sounds our edges were making up there. They’d had a much better time on the Sphinx. Taylor and I almost regretted not continuing to ski. But we’d been so slow in the Dolphin that we’d have certainly run out of daylight – plus, groveling is a lot of work.

The last question, which we left unanswered was did we ski the Dolphin? Does it count if you downclimb part of a line that is, under other circumstances, skiable? If it doesn’t, what happens if someone descends a line that traditionally requires a downclimb or rappel? Are previous descents negated? We discussed this for a while on the way back to town before deciding that we didn’t really care. What is certain is that we’ll have to go back and ski the line in better conditions sometime soon.

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