Southback opened last Saturday after having been closed for several days. Three avalanche teams (myself included) headed out there in the morning with the plan to "clean up" after a barrage of heli-blasting. However, as we broke trail up the King (well, truth be told it was Aaron doing most of the trail-breaking that morning for which I was most grateful) we heard on the radio that the helicopter was having mechanical difficulties and we would be doing all the routes by hand. That was fine with us, but it meant that another round of teams would come behind us with some really big charges (25 lb. shots). Chet and Brent carried those big loads up the King and rattled the North side of the King. South finally opened around 2pm, which was much later than we had anticipated.
Fortunately there were no big results. We were worried about the added load (it had snowed 5 feet since it had last been open) on top of that pesky deep slab instability that we were watching. After we opened the gates, I hiked back out there and stood on the King to talk to people and keep an eye on things. I took out my transceiver and checked to see who was beeping. Some were, but most weren’t. I was surprised. The southback gates clearly recommend transceiver and probe as well as the admonition to ski with a partner. There were even a few skiers out there by themselves. Let me ask you, would you go skiing in the backcountry by yourself after the kind of storm cycle we have had?
Standing on top of the King with a great run ahead of you is one of the truly special opportunities at Crystal. I think of it as my "happy place". I even spread the ashes of my avalanche dog, Rocket, up there. But if you come, be prepared. I actually had a few people ask me "where is the easy way down?" What?! "Have you ever been out here before?" I asked. None of them had. I directed them towards the Beach and watched them go. I wondered if for some of them it was their first time skiing powder.
Some of you have asked about the backcountry around Crystal. The southback is not really backcountry. It is more like sidecountry. We mitigate the avalanche hazard with explosives. However it does not get much skier compaction (which is truly the best avalanche control around) and therefore can be more avalanche prone. The boundary between what is controlled and what is not controlled is not clearly marked. It would be easy to ski off into Mt. Rainier National Park and get lost. Hazards are not marked, neither is the way back to the lodge. Therefore, I recommend going with someone who knows the area. There are backcountry maps available in the ski shop. Also a couple of high school kids did their senior project on the southback and wrote a guidebook last year. I haven’t read it yet, but it sounds pretty cool.
As for the real backcountry around Crystal, there is certainly a lot of it. Besides Kemper’s (which is now permanently and seriously closed) the boundary with the Park is open. However, you must hike back out or make it to the closed highway below, which I definitely suggest only for the initiated. The east ridges can make for good skiing and riding. I won’t go into all of it here. However, if you choose to explore the backcountry be sure to check in with the patrol for the latest avalanche hazard information and route suggestions. We also like to hear about the conditions out there.
As I write this, we are getting the obligatory "January thaw" in the mountains. Not to worry. There will be more powder days in our future. In fact, this rain will probably solve the deep slab instability problem we have been so worried about. We are all getting a day off at Crystal today. As for myself, I can say that it is much needed.