It's been a rough winter so far. 218" of snowfall at the Arizona Snowbowl. 104" of settled snow at 10,800', 67" at 9,500'. In spite of this, I have yet to ski the Snowbowl.

Okay, I have ridden the lift. Once.  That was two weeks ago, when the ski patrol decided they needed snowpit data from the out-of-bounds basin on the the other side of the ridge from the ski area.

Why ski at a ski area crowded with people who probably ski even worse than Texans? Why spend heures in line for one lift that slowly carries you to the top of trails skied off and bemogulled?

Moving from Tucson to Phoenix has had at least one benefit. It brought me within a two-hour drive of a super-concentrated dollop of superb backcountry terrain. Avalanche chutes, above-treeline bowls and couloirs, glades, and meadows, you name it.

The storm leading into the weekend brought 2 more feet. As I packed and loaded up the car Friday after work, I knew it was still snowing up on the plateau above Sedona. Which, I guess, is the edge of the Colorado Plateau. I knew the summer tread on my tires would serve me just fine, but one always has to wonder about the other drivers, the Phoenicians. As it turned out, drivers on I-17 had the good sense to slow down in the snow. Once on the plateau and in the snow, (the light) traffic slowed to 30-40 mph. A couple fish-tailing rear-wheel drive trucks, and maybe one or two vehicles off the road, but the drive was pretty easy.

Given the heavy snowfall, our leader, Troy, had formulated a plan for an excursion that would permit us to assess some south-facing slide paths, but feature great skiing even if we had to pass  on them because of avy conditions.

Eight of us met up at the base of the road up to the Snowbowl. We piled into two cars and one gear truck and headed up to the Friedlein Prairie trailhead. But the lot was full. And not one of the vehicles had the required backcountry permit on the dashboard. No worries, we parked at the Veit (should be pronounced "fight," but the Flagstaffers say "vee-it.") Spring trailhead a mile or so up the road. As everybody pulled their gear from the truck and readied for the day, we had the pleasure of watching Phoenicians "drive" up the snowy road. Low-rider trucks and 2-wheel drive "SUVs" fish-tailing. Monte Carlos creeping along with wheels spinning at F1-level engine rpms. Best of all, too-loose chains slapping wheel wells.

Someone headed up the trail. A few more of us followed. Troy caught up and pointed out that we needed to change direction in order to apprehend our planned route. So we turned into the woods, headed east. "No risers" was the order. But even traversing cliffed us out. So we descended and wrapped around the base of the cliffs. Eventually we came to Friedlein Prairie, but we had already squandered a fair bit of time. Well, not really squandered, since meandering through beautiful woods blanketed with fresh snow can hardly be judged a waste of time. But it did mean that we would not have enough time to reach the slide paths at the upper elevations.

As we passed through Friedlein Prairie, dozens of skiers came out the the trees, having descended from lift-accessed  avalanche terrain. Most of them lacked backpacks, no shovel was evident, and I rather doubt that any of them had a beacon. Likely among them were those whose cars filled the Friedlein lot.

But we headed past them, past the Monte Vista chute (Site of the one avy fatility in the San Francisco Peaks, an unprepared sidecountry snowboarder like the ones we saw descending through the prairie. If you've been to Flagstaff, Monte Vista is the easily visible dog-legged slide path descending from the tallest peak visible from town.), and up Bristlecone Meadow. The meadow was a low angle (low- to mid-20s) slope spotted with pines and scattered stands of aspen. At the top of the meadow (about 1000 vertical), half of the group stopped. Four of us continued up another 700'-800' through steeper, very open, undulating pine glades.

The snow was heavy, having warmed up in the day's sun, but with the reasonable pitch and wide, wide open spaces between the clusters of trees, and phats, it was a blast. Flying down the fall line, over rolls--so much terrain, so much snow, so untracked.

A couple ridges over, the masses were standing in line to ski limited, long-since skied-up trails and dodging their fellow cattle. We had a mountainside to ourselves. Our whoops, hoots, and hollers were heard only by trees; the sounds died out in the vast, empty fields of snow.







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