Thanks to ESA, I discovered two important items in skiing. The first was attributable to my first ESA, where I got to ski with the incredible Ursula Howland. Ursula is an incredible teacher, a very giving person, and a delight to be with. The second was the first ESA I actually finished (having flunked two ESA's at Aspen due to injuries): Big Sky. Now that ESA is defunct (at least for the near term), I had the opportunity to combine both.
My posse included one of my best ski buds, my daughter, and son-in-law. My bud and I arrived Thursday evening, while the kids didn't arrive until mid-day Friday thanks to United Airlines. It's just amazing what happens when you downgrade the aircraft and suddenly have 40 folk with confirmed reservations but no seats!
The kids' loss was our gain. We hit a couple of warm-up runs, then went into ski mode. The first run was a run off of the tram down Liberty Bowl. This year, the snow is a bit lower than the previous year's I skied Big Sky. There were a few rocks here and there, but nothing that wasn't solved by terrain reading. There had been 7 inches of new snow a couple of days before, so the snow was still relatively soft, although the crud would add some ski deflection here and there. This was great to focus on skiing with a more flexible ankle, a deficiency I've found in my skiing this year.
The next run, we headed back up the tram for a lap down the gullies. We skied Gully 1, which is pretty wide. The traverse into the Gullies had a few rocks just around the big turn; good to Ursula in front to keep things under control and avoid being bucked off of the traverse into a nasty life-threatening slide.
The kids joined us in the afternoon, and we skied less intense terrain with a focus on technique. Good stuff.
The next day, my bud unfortunately was out of commission with food poisoning. So my son-in-law and I were in for a treat: skiing the Big Couloir. I took my pack, shovel, probed and transceiver. Ursula had us hit the tram early so we could get her preferred time slot. The weather was incredibly warm (over 50 at the top of Swift Current), so we wanted the 11:45 and 12:30 slots. Only 2 at a time can ski the Big on a 15 minute schedule. After signing up, we skied Marx. It was just softening, steep, and wonderful. As we had a bit more time to kill, we returned up the tram and skied the first gully. The snow was pretty good, especially considering the temperature.
Next, I got the first line down the Big. Ursula led. To get into the Big, you exit the ski area at the top of the tram. You've got to slip slide down about 100 vertical feet on a narrow snow lane that has a few rocks in it. You can take the upper entrance to the Big, but the top is 50+ degrees and there can be some big rocks that put a crimp in your skiing. So, we took the lower entrance just before you enter the North Summit Snowfield. The entrance is a bit intimidating: the slope is about 45 degrees, and it is only about 5 yards wide. Ursula gave me a great tip: first you go down, then turn. The idea is to commit to the fall line. If you are thinking you want to be behind yourself, then you wind up going in the back seat and fighting for the turn. Instead, commit to moving down the hill, then finish the turn. Easier said than done.
The top of the Couloir had a lot of sun on it, and the temperature was quite high. Just above the rock that divides the Couloir, the slope reaches about 52 degrees. The snow was not a pretty thick layer of corn that was sloughing. Because of the slope, it was extremely slick. I wound up being a bit of chicken through this section, and did a fair amount of side slipping. After the rock, I could move right into the shade, where the snow was firmer. I was able to link a few turns, but quite cautiously, as I did not want to take a tumble in a chute with that steepness and vert (along with the rocks on both sides). I waited for Ursula at the dogleg, then followed her to the apron, where we met my son-in-law. Of course, this is where I ate it: skiing what I though was well, I broke through the crust and tripped. Fortunately, while the slope was still relatively steep, I was able to self arrest in a few feet. And no injury other than to my pride.
My son-in-law was next. I rode the tram with them, then skied Gully 1 and waited for them on the apron below the Big. The sun had moved off of the top of the Couloir and the snow set up a bit so that it didn't slough. Even so, I was observing what was going on in the Little Couloir: lots of releases and slides from the warming that was going on. We also saw a slide in the A-Z chutes as we were headed up the triple.
In the afternoon, more technique skiing with my daughter. We also got up on Challenger and skied Moonlight, which had the best snow of the trip.
On Sunday, we were hoping to ski the North Summit Snowfield. However, a bit of high cloud and wind had things closed down on top. The tram, triple, and challenger lifts never opened. So, we spent the morning doing a bit of technique until we headed for Moonlight Basin. My bud, son-in-law, Ursula, and I headed for the Headwaters chair and took the high traverse into Headwaters 3. Lots of rocks at the top. The traverse was thin; not a place for moving quickly but instead moving with caution and consideration. We had to sidestep down 25 vert or so to get over the shark fins and find safe snow to ski. But it was good. The snow was grippy, had a bit of crust to it (don't over pressure), but still somewhat soft. And the chute is in the mid 40 degree range. I was able to link most of my run, although I again skied cautiously. After being innudated with chunks from the skiers behind me, I waited for them to move past me so that I wouldn't have my skis taken out by a large chunk hitting my boot. Not that I'm light enough for that to be a concern, but still it made the run more pleasant.
We skied a bunch of corn snow the rest of the day.
It was a great trip. The snow could've been better, but when you combine Ursula and Big Sky, what's not to like?
No doubt the warm temps have done a lot to the conditions this week, as they have across the west. But unlike Colorado, Big Sky has been getting some fresh each day since we left. I think the skiing will be pretty good there for a while. Get up while you can!