February 27 – March 1, 2012 – Tam McArthur Rim

Standing atop the large bowl directly below the prow, I prepared to drop in for what would be one of my best runs of the 2011-2012 season.  A day earlier, Andrew, Andy, Todd and I met in the Upper Three Creeks Snowpark for our third trip in as many years into the Tam McArthur Rim area of Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness.  This area of the Oregon Cascades has forever commanded my attention for it’s sheer beauty and wildness, and the opportunity to visit it again during the late winter was one I had been looking forward to for almost a year.

The weather was looking favorable, with a foot of fresh snow in the parking lot and more predicted for the next three days.  After a few minutes, Shane and Jonas of Three Sisters Backcountry pulled into the lot, along with some other skiers and riders who would be heading in 6 miles on a snow covered access road via snowmobile to stay in one of two cozy huts operated by Three Sisters Backcountry.  Gear begins to be unloaded from vehicles and piled into the sleds.  Fat skis, splitboards and coolers filled with pre-made dinners and beer fill the lower part of the trailers, while gear bags and other miscellaneous items are lashed on top of everything.  Shane and Jonas operate with precision, obviously having done this numerous times throughout the winter, and within minutes the crew is ready to pull out.

Prepping for the snowmo in

Prepping for the snowmo in

I can’t help but smile as we pull out of the lot because I have a feeling this trip is going to deliver!  Andrew, Todd and I are all on one sled, while Andy is on another.  Of the three sleds, ours is somewhat underpowered for the deep powder conditions.  Shane breaks the trail as the rest of us follow, but occasionally Andrew, Todd and I have to get off and push our sled through a deep spot.  We stop on the trail in plain view of the Rim to discuss the season’s snowpack and current avalanche conditions, and pull up to the  huts within a half hour after leaving the snowpark.  We’ll be staying in the Raven Hut for the next three days, and quickly unload our gear and make ourselves cozy.  Once the sleeping bags are placed on the bunks and the coolers/food situated, our packs are loaded for an afternoon’s worth of riding and skins are fitted to our boards.  It’s around 11:30 when we hit the skin track and our sights are set on the peak directly above the huts and to the east of the Rim.  We know from previous experience these slopes will yield fun stable turns and allow us to safely asses the snowpack for riding the following day.  The feel of my split skis under my feet is relaxing, and I’m stoked to be able to try out my new board, a Jones Hovercraft, in the powder conditions it was made for.  Within an hour, we’re standing on top of our goal.  The turns down are nice, though in a few spots a rain crust exists below the fresh snow, depending on the aspect.  Andrew points out a bent over tree he wants me to ride, so we try it out and it worked for the photo, sort of….

Backcountry jib

Backcountry jib

Conditions appear to be stable as we continue down through the nicely spaced trees and into a smaller steeper bowl.  About halfway back down towards the huts, we head back up for another lap and to check out the bowl to the lookers right of the peak we just made turns on.  The view from the top is beautiful as usual, with the Rim beckoning in the sunshine and Broken Top’s north and east sides glistening in the sun, hopefully able to be explored later in the season.

Looking out across the rim

Looking out across the rim

Todd drops in first, making fluid telemark turns down the pristine slope as the light smoke flies all around him.  Andrew drops next, followed by Andy, while I snap pictures of each of them in succession.  Once they are safely down, I strap into my Karakoram bindings and point the nose of my board downhill.  The turns are smooth and soft, with powder flying in my face on each heelside turn.  At the bottom, we regroup and agree to head out towards the Playground area of the Rim to check out conditions in the larger bowls.  Somehow, Andrew falls off the skin track after slipping on the crust in a wind exposed area and falls into the deep powder and loses his pole.  Todd and Andy continue out, while I help Andrew search.  After 45 minutes of digging, we give up and skin out to the playground, Andrew with one pole.  We regroup with Todd and Andy at the top of the Playground bowl, and watch a few fellow splitters and skiers make turns down the large bowl.  The upper pitch of the slope is near 40 degrees, and Andrew drops  in first, sweeping nice arc turns down to a windlip drop of about 20 feet, which launches him down the slope to a soft landing.  Andy drops next, followed by me.  The steep powder turns are the best of the day, but little did I know conditions would only get better in the days to come.  After Todd drops, we make fun turns back down below the bowl through the trees to the huts.

Dinner for night one consists of barbequed chicken breasts and tots, followed by beers and whiskey.  After dinner, I headed out to Three Creeks Lake to take a few shots of the Rim illuminated by the night sky.  It was super cold, at least by northwest standards, at about 5 degrees.  With my camera mounted to a tripod and a shutter speed of about 5-6 seconds, I was able to capture the below image of the Rim with the moon, Jupiter and Venus all in alignment…

The Rim from Three Creeks Lake at night

The Rim from Three Creeks Lake at night

After the cold walk back to the huts, I made the mistake of bringing my camera inside for a look at my pictures, which caused the inner lens to fog up.  I wanted to take some pictures of the huts, but would have to wait an hour or so for my lens to defog.  After taking care of a few chores, tending to the fire, and babying my lens, it cleared up and I was able to snap a few more night shots, including several of the huts.  The shot below shows both the huts as well as a moonburst, and would mark the last time we would see the moon for the remainder of the trip.

Three Creeks Huts – February 27, 2012

After the photo shoot, I found myself sipping my favorite backcountry drink – a mixture of whiskey, pink lemonade Crystal Light, and fresh powder.  Like the year before, the remainder of the evening was spent in the cozy confines of my bunk with my headlamp, reading Bugle Magazine by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.  Before long, we all slipped off to sleep, not quite sure what tomorrow would bring, though the forecast called for snow.  Sleep came easy, only to be interrupted by the need to stoke the fire with additional wood a few times due to the chilling temperatures.  Wednesday morning dawned clear, and after a breakfast of egg muffins, we hit the skin track and headed west to sample some of the larger bowls the Rim has to offer.  It had been two years since conditions were stable enough to make turns in the bigger bowls, and we were hoping for conditions similar to those we encountered in 2010.  Before long, we found ourselves climbing a steep ridge below the prow, and things were looking stable.  Switching from skinning to booting was required about halfway up the slope as conditions steepened.  Looking back to the north, the views were excellent, with North Sister, Mt Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mt Jefferson and Mt Hood all visible.  The final pitch up to the prow was skinnable, and I snapped this photo of Todd just below our drop in point.

Todd surveying the terrain below the Prow

Todd surveying the terrain below the Prow

The wind was whipping across the ridge, depositing even more powder on the slope we were about to descend.  After sawing a cornice onto the slope and getting nothing to slide, Andrew dropped in, making a few nice pow slashes down to a safe spot.  I dropped next, followed by Andy and then Todd.  Andy and Todd made turns all the way to the bottom while I snapped a few pictures.  The smooth run in the big bowl provided dozens of nice turns all the way down, and ranks up there with one of the best backcountry powder runs I’ve had in my life.  Here’s a shot of Andrew coming down with our turns in the background…

Andrew making turns below the Prow

Andrew making turns below the Prow

At the bottom, skins are re-attached to the skis and Andrew heads back to the huts while Andy, Todd and I skin back up the left hand side of the bowl to make a few more runs.  Following a similar route from two years ago, the skinning seemed easier this time around, probably because we had a better feel for the bowl and how navigate to the top.  Standing at our highpoint, we gazed up at the menacing cornices protecting the top of the bowl while the spindrift from the wind blew off the top.  Our second run was just a good as the first, and I shot video of Todd while Andy snapped a few photos of me getting face shots.

Enjoying premium powder

Enjoying premium powder

At the bottom, we donned skins again near the remnants of some large avalanche debris from the previous week’s rain cycle and skinned east to rejoin our existing skin track, which was already partially filled in from the wind.  The sky began to darken, and a few flurries were falling when we reached the top.  Little did we know this would be the beginning of one of the biggest snow storms any of us had ever had the pleasure to be a part of.  On this run, I traversed further to riders right to a little steeper part of the bowl and found quality snow for the descent.

Getting the goods

Getting the goods

At the bottom of the bowl, we traversed east and enjoyed a nice tree run back to the huts where we found Andrew waiting with a stoked fire.  Lunch was a welcome break after a morning of hard climbing.  After a tasty turkey sandwich, we elected to head back out for a few glade runs above the huts.  A local splitboarder named Rob came in for the afternoon and tagged along with us for a couple of runs.  It was snowing hard when we hit the skin track, and there was probably 5 inches of fresh snow by the time we left the huts.  Rob broke trail, which was a welcome treat for us, having used a bit of energy from the morning’s outing.  Over the course of the next two tree runs, the conditions got better and better.  On the second run, Rob and I skinned around the top of a protected cliff area and found a nice slot to drop into an untracked meadow.  Getting in required edging down a hundred feet of steep crust, but once in, the turns were sublime and face shots the rule all the way back to the huts.

After five of the best runs of the year, it was time for dinner that would rival our turns.  I cooked up some excellent fisherman’s stew, which Andrew and I had bought previously from the Fisherman’s Market in Eugene and frozen just for this trip.  The stew, coupled with Alsea River salmon caught earlier in the fall, which I cooked in tin foil, butter and lemon juice over the wood stove, made for a gourmet meal.  After dinner, it was time for a few drinks and the sauna to ease tired muscles, share stories, and plan future trips.  Drinks and the sauna is a recipe for sleep, and it wasn’t long until the lantern was turned off and we hit the bunks while it continued to puke outside.  The next morning we awoke to about 18 inches of fresh snow with a temperature of 14 degrees, and it was still snowing hard.  Morning chores included stoking the fire, shoveling the walkways outside the huts and to the john, and brewing the morning coffee.  Breaking trail up the hill through the trees was a bit of a chore, though Todd did most of the work on run number one.  The turns down were sublime, with about three feet of fresh snow, two of which had fallen overnight and through the morning.  Andy was digging his first backcountry outing outside a closed ski area…

Andy enjoying the deep pow

Andy enjoying the deep pow

The remainder of the day was spent lapping the trees behind the huts, and we worked our way from right to left on successive runs.  It continued to snow all day long, piling up the inches by the afternoon.  I was thoroughly enjoying choking on faceshots all day long, and the snow was so light that half the time I couldn’t see where it was I was going.  There was so much snow I was even getting faceshots while straight lining…

Choking on the fresh snow

Choking on the fresh snow

Day three could pretty much be summed up as epic.  An excellent dinner of red beans and rice, courtesy of a gracious coworker, replenished spent calories burned from skinning through waist deep snow all day long.  During the evening, I brought out my camera and tripod and snapped a few photos of the interior of the huts, while Andrew and Andy did some reading.  A shot of the hut reflecting in my goggles proved to be my favorite image of the evening…

Evening reflections in the Raven hut

Evening reflections in the Raven hut

After the photo session, I did a bit of reading and we all drifted off to sleep aided by the warmth of the cozy fire in the stove.  When I got up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and stoke the fire, I couldn’t believe how much it had already snowed – at least a foot and a half since we went to bed.  Morning dawned around 6:30, and after stoking the fire, none of us could believe how much snow had fallen when we opened the hut door.  It looked like at least an additional two feet or better of light dry powder had fallen overnight, and it was still snowing.  Shoveling out was quite a chore, and my best guess was total snowfall in the last 48 hours exceeded 50 inches.  In fact, the other hut, which was vacant the night before, was completely buried…

Huts buried!

Huts buried!

The path to the john was almost completely filled in, and it took about an hour just to shovel our way out.  Our ski’s, which were mostly exposed the night before, were only visible at the tips.  After a hasty breakfast, I headed out for a solo tree run, while everyone else stayed behind being mostly drained from the deep powder riding the days before.  Breaking trail was hideous, by far the deepest snow I’ve ever skinned in my life.  After about an hour, I had made it to a point about 6oo vertical feet above the huts and didn’t have the energy to go further.  Riding down was a chore, and the turns were few in number as the snow was so deep it was all I could do to just straight line it.  By the time I arrived back at the huts, the sun had come out and it appeared the storm cycle was over.  Andy and I hiked out to the lake to take a few photos and make a phone call, and the snow was over waist deep while just standing.

Tam Rim on departure day

Tam Rim on departure day

We starting having doubts at to whether or not Shane would be able to make it in to pick us up given all the snow, but soon heard the hum of a distant snowmobile.  When Shane arrived, he confirmed the snow was about as deep as anything he’d ever snowmo’d through before, and that he’d had a few doubts about whether he’d be able to get in.  Soon after, another group of skiers and riders arrived with another sled, and we transferred our gear out of the huts and onto the sleds.  The sled ride out passed quickly, and the snow was super deep and fast.  Getting face shots on a sled is something I’m not used to, but it sure beat skinning 6 flat miles through 60 inches of new snow.  Todd shot some video footage of the ride out, while Andrew and I enjoyed the views of the North Sister’s east side, which rivals the beauty of any cascade volcano in mid-winter.  Back at the snowpark, we were able to find our cars, buried under about three feet of snow.  Gear was pulled out of the sleds and strewn onto the ground by the vehicles, and I ended up having to jump my car due to a dead battery resulting from an interior light that had been left on for three days.  We bid farewell to Shane, loaded our gear and headed into Sisters for a quick lunch.  I bought a 22 ounce Five Pines Porter from the store, brewed by Three Creeks Brewing Co., to take home and enjoy.  Plans are already in the works for a return trip next year, but I’m not sure if we’ll ever find conditions again that will rival those found this year.  It just doesn’t get any better!

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