I’ve had my eyes on The Pencil for two winters now, and today I finally got to experience it. Ever since I first eyed the couloir that runs down the gut of Axtel Mountain I have had butterflies for it. Those butterflies lasted until about 11:45 this morning when I dropped in. 95% of my instincts assured me I would be fine. The other 5% worried about snow sliding during the approach. But with conditions being as “safe” as they have been lately, since May came two months early this year, I felt comfortable in the apron, or the funnel, or whatever you may call it. The couloir is a gnarly terrain-trap, and a potential slide would send you over 1,000′ straight down the gut of the beast. However today the snow was soft (spring corn) and stable! and I really got to enjoy some good, steep turns…until, and after, the choke.
At the most narrow point of the couloir the snow was firm – ice, really. For what felt like at least 100′ the choke is only about 6 feet wide. If we were on powder this could have been an exhilarating, mach-speed, straight-line to the bottom. But pointing it straight and lettin’ loose was not an option. What remained of the month-old avalanche debris that dominated the middle of the slot canyon was all chunk n’ crust, and at high speeds I would certainly loose control (possibly colliding with rock face), so I stuck with the trusty ol’ heel-slip. My edges held true and the chute was manageable…until I started to feel like a sourpuss for so quickly assimilating to heel-side comfort.
Once the ice/wind slab reduced and the snow softened I finally got off my heel edge, and was able to enjoy more sweet turns. It felt great to let loose and parallel that cliffband on a turbo boost. The snow was best along the walls (out of the slide path), so the routine went like this: Make a handful of sick turns, then jump/avoid avalanche debris, then make more sick turns…all at high speeds. It was awesome! When I finally reached the bottom I threw my arms toward the sky in triumph. It felt so good to finally have that line in the bag. The team rendezvous’d at a safe zone and celebrated our safe descent with high-fives, then began the sun-baked traverse toward the trailhead.
—All of this was done in a slightly loopy state. Matt’s birthday was the day prior to the ski, so we climbed the mountain during sunset and partied all night at the summit. About a half-hour was spent lying on our backs at the peak, taking in the 360-panorama and luminous, star-filled skies; Jupiter, Venus and Mars were all clearly visible. The remainder of the evening (and early morning) we hung around the fire…and on the porch…sharing opinions (and libations) about the next day’s adventure. Would it be safe? Would they be all jump-turns? Should we just ski Second Bowl instead? It was indeed safe. The “sluff” that did move wasn’t even a deterrent to shredding. Small chunks of snow and ice bounced down the mountain, replicating more of a snowball fight than an avalanche scare. If anything, it added gnar-points to the whole experience. As an added bonus the snow was relatively soft, and far surpassed my expectations; I anticipated frozen bumps for the entirety of the pitch. And I am so glad we stuck with our original plan and didn’t fall back to Second Bowl because of insecurities.
I’ve felt great all day long – from nervously brushing my teeth atop a diminishing funnel during this morning’s perambulation, to the thirty seconds prior to drop-time when nerves really pick up. Then again while hauling-ass through the softer sections of the couloir and feeling like a champ for finally accomplishing another goal. And still, at this moment, when I click ‘post’ – this entire day I’ve been STOKED.
I wish I could have taken more photos of someone actually “in” the couloir, but it is unsafe to stop in a terrain-trap that extreme. Now that I know the line, I hope to get back soon and capture the moment more artistically. I picture myself looking down from above with the wide-angle lens!