Ski Mountaineering

Galena Chute
March 2010

Alvin Walter

Living near the ocean at a latitude of about 33 degrees North that represents San Diego in Southern California, it is very hard for most people to imagine epic, long, steep, snow-filled couloirs just a little over a hundred miles away. However, in an El Nino year, when the snow pack reaches record levels and the temperature remains cool, it is time to explore those chutes that have been on the radar waiting for just the right time. Galena was one of many that deserved to be checked out and I am one who is more than happy to be the first.

The approach is via a gently sloped, mogully, snow filled creek that starts right from the end of the road. After approximately three miles of skiing up this valley past a Sierra-quality forest of mature cedar, pine and fir trees that are naturally spaced for excellent tree skiing, the goal destination continues off to the south where the route conspicuously heads up. Switchbacks and raised heel-lifters were quickly the way to continue ascending once the slope got over 30 degrees. Snow conditions were superb with about 6 inches of new, untouched powder on a reasonably solid base with only small amounts of avalanche debris from some of the steep connecting branch chutes. On this particular explore, I found several branches that headed higher and warranted further exploring when more time would permit seeking the ridges and peaks.

In the meantime, I was standing high on a steep powder chute and was looking forward to some fun. There were various ridges in the middle and sides of my new couloir that collected deeper pockets of powder that I floated, blasted and flew through for a very exhilarating non-stop powder run while attempting to film with a helmet-mounted video camera. At the bottom, I paused to look up and admire what I came down and where I was standing and just feel a special kind of joy that only places and times like these can produce.

I had a glorious, mogully three mile run back to my car while I contemplated the next explore up Galena Chute to the ridges and ultimately the top, which partially came to be two weeks later. Cory and Luis joined me to give it a go and the chute was different this time.

When we came up the gentle creek, we found a huge change in the terrain at the base of the chute. We climbed up about 30 feet to the top of this new 'formation' to see that the lower end of the chute looked like a snowboarder's freshly carved half-pipe with walls about 10 feet tall. What happened is that the snow I skied on two weeks before had spontaneously released from further up during warm, mid-week weather and carved this deep half-pipe leaving a large new glacier-looking bench that we were now standing on. It was a very impressive change.

The advantage to the new situation was that we felt the snow had now stabilized itself even with the foot of new powder and we proceeded above and beyond my last high point on a much steeper slope to a bump on a north-south ridge where we stopped to admire the view and take a break. It was a breathtaking spot that looked straight down a couple thousand feet to the gentle creek and also looked up to another chute that likely would continue to the high, east-west ridge and the peak. We were there for only minutes when the clouds came in and obstructed our view, then totally engulfed us in a virtual white-out that made us decide to head lower rather than continue to the top as planned.

The snow conditions were very good with new powder reasonably well bonded to the steep, icy layer underneath. We took turns making turns so that only one skier was in an exposed position at any one time. The very poor, whited-out visibility that eliminated contrast made for some challenging skiing simply because we couldn't see. There were points further down where we each bounced off the half-pipe walls we couldn't see and one point where I dropped off at least a 3 foot plus fracture crown from the previous release.

All in all, we did have fun in the steeps and visibility did clear up by the time we got down to the gentle creek where we had a blast skiing those moguls back to the trailhead were we all had contagious smiles from another day well-lived in the mountains.

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