Oakes Gulf & Monroe Brook – 3/17/2017

On St. Patricks Day, Friday, March 17, my lips were blue, but my jacket & pants were green! Overnight, the skies had cleared and West winds had visibly scoured the Westside. All that snow from Tuesday’s Nor’Easter, that had blanketed Ammonoosuc Ravine and Burt Ravine, was gone – blown over into the Great Gulf, Huntington, Tucks, Gulf of Slides, and – we hoped – Oakes Gulf.

Frostbite danger and high winds above treeline, in spite of partly to mostly sunny skies, and the desire to ski avalanche terrain, led to the decision that travel as a group of four would be safer than solo, or just one partner. I had great company: Gary “Way2Ski”, Andy “JAS71”, and “Logger” Ben.

Every one was equipped with beacon-shovel-probe-helmet, 12-point boot crampons, and a couple brought ice axes – our choice of terrain required carrying this equipment. Andy led a group beacon check at the ART trailhead kiosk, as we headed up to Lakes of the Clouds.

By Saturday afternoon, I predict the 1.5 miles of the ART from trailhead to the Gem Pool will be badly postholed by hikers. Last week’s icy minefield of frozen craters is covered by 18″ of soft snow. Walking in the ski tracks will not support anyone’s weight, without snowshoes. It may become challenging to ski out, but at least it’s covered with snow, which is more than I could say last week. Friday, it was still fun to ski up or down. Even the two splitboarders we met from East Burke, Ben F & friend, postholed on the way out, where they had to take one boot out of their bindings to skate along the flats and short uphills.

The deep new snow on the ART above Gem Pool facilitated skinning the entire distance Lakes hut. The final approach to the hut was scoured to a very icy surface. It was challenging for those without ski crampons. Hikers will need microspikes or 12-points above treeline, since it is all mixed rock and ice. Face masks, googles, and hand-warmers were indispensable above treeline, due to frostbite danger. Single digit temperatures and high winds above treeline made it hard to focus on photography.

Oakes Gulf near Lakes, including the East slope of Monroe and Double Barrel, was mostly scoured to old icy bed surfaces. New sastrugi and hard wind slabs in the lee of some features were hard to make a dent in. The photo below shows the bluff where Double Barrel starts, on the left; and the East slope of Mount Monroe, in upper right.

The Dry River Trail gully was an exception. It had scoured at the very top, but below that, a very large and deep hard slab had formed. Under the surface was a very dense, very thick steel slab. However, the top 1″-3″ surface was shearing off in some places as we skied down, and even showed red-flag shooting cracks, as we skinned back up it. Skinning back up it was not without difficulty, but a brief attempt to bootpack resulted in too much penetration. It was a low-to moderate risk ski route – but I can’t say no risk.

Gary skinning up the hard, dense slab in Oakes Gulf; everything above him and to the right was scoured down icy old surfaces, even in that krumholtz. Above him and to the right is the runout below Double Barrel.

After Way2Ski and I made one short run, then I dug a pit in the snow at the top of Oakes – not to check stability of the steel slab – just to stay a few degrees warmer, while JAS71 and Logger Ben checked-out below-treeline snow conditions in Oakes. That proved to be where the West winds had deposited all the missing above-treeline snow. We waited almost an hour, before we had to ditch our 2 partners in Oakes, and get below treeline before frostbite or hypothermia set in. Exiting Oakes and crossing the col towards lakes of the Clouds, we had to hike into the 45 MPH West wind, which made it difficult to stay upright on the mixed rocks & ice, and the sub-zero windchill frost-nipped my nose through my facemask. In the lee of the Lake hut, we briefly felt warmer,out of the direct wind, but in single digit temperatures, we could not wait more than a few minutes.

As a former rescue volunteer, I felt very guilty about splitting up the group, and then leaving our two partners, but we had to get below treeline. I have VHF walkie-talkies in the car, meant for just such an occasion; had we brought them, Andy & Ben would have been able to communicate with us, but we were out of cell-phone range. Later, below treeline, gary and I received several text messages that Ben & Andy had sent an hour earlier. Low in Oakes Gulf, they had a signal from tower to the South, maybe the tower at Attitash, which we had direct line-of-sight to. Cell towers use a vertical mask to reject signals that are too high above – like an airplane – or too far below. Have you ever dropped a call while driving right under a tower? I have. You may have 4 or 5 bars, and not be able to get a call to go through, if above their vertical range. Anyway, while we were freezing our butts off waiting in a snow shelter at the top of Oakes, they had messaged “Don’t wait, we found some great snow, doing another lap”, “Are you still waiting? We are thinking of doing another run, epic pow here.”

The connection from Lakes, across the Westside of Mount Monroe, to Monroe Brook, lost a lot of snow during the extended thaw. It is scoured to that old, icy surface, and the remaining “snowfields” are not well connected. It is a difficult traverse, route-finding is complicated by more exposed rock and krumholtz than most skiers & riders are probably accustomed to. There were some thin patches of new snow clinging to the krumholtz that provided limited relief from the torture of skis chattering across rough icy surfaces. It is not “girlfriend-proof” (or “boy-friend” proof, if you “ski like a girl”, and you’re like some of the women backcountry skiers I know). Your significant-other may not speak to you for awhile after this entree from Lakes, even if Monroe Brook holds good snow for dessert.

Yesterday’s avalanche concerns in upper Monroe Brook blew away overnight on westerly winds, but the winds didn’t completely scour it to old surface. This made the upper start zones not only safe, but fun to ski; and the lower two-thirds were still 12″-24″ of the same loose, dry snow that we found Thursday. It skied great Friday, top to bottom. Where we had tracked it up Thursday was still untouched by wind. It’s ready, and safe, for the weekenders, barring unforeseen changes overnight.

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