There was one other car in the Alpental upper lot when we arrived and the blower was still clearing the lower end of the lot. We parked and geared up as two other cars arrived with skiers. We were trying to stall to let one of the other groups break trail, but we were all too ready to go before they were. So we headed up taking turns breaking trail. The ski area's cat had not yet groomed the road portion, so we were breaking trail from the parking lot. Occasionally we would hear shells from avalanche control above us. The echos they made from across the valley lasted longer and sounded like thunder.
We made good time reaching Source Lake in a little under an hour. We had followed a faint skin track from a previous day. Around this time a group of three caught us and introduced themselves. As it turned out two of the men where avalanche instructors including the locally renowned Gary Brill. They offered to do some of the trail breaking and for us to work as a team of six on the uphill. We agreed. And shortly after crossing under Source Lake and venturing out onto steeper terrain where we were not following a faint skin track, we let them take a turn at the front. It was around this point that instabilities in the snow were being noticed and we took care in the open slope above the lake to reach the next bench.
The course we took on the bench led us a bit too far east and the three of us departed the other group on a more northwestern course to our first run drop in. We snacked and transitioned. Steve took a short run down to check out the line. I then joined him. I felt the steep angle with the trees was a little too tricky for my skill level and traversed skier's left to see if it eased a bit. I passed over a first chute and when coming over the rib to the next a slab cracked above me. I got scared and just kept going to the other side of the chute to safe ground. Steve and I had some discussion and I told him I was going to stay put at least until he or Toph had their run. I was in a position where I could see a portion of their runs, and was safe.
Toph had enough of our talking and came down between us running the first chute and releasing a soft slab with a 8-12" crown. He rode it out to the rib between the chutes and after a pause, he continued down. Once at the lake he advised me to take the next area to my left as it was lower angle. Steve went next and rode the first chute on the clean surface until reaching the debris lower. My run was mellow at the top, but finished in the lower chute with all the debris. The debris skiing wasn't too hard, but transitioning from the packed debris to the deep powder resulted in Steve and I falling.
Now down at the lake we snacked and transitioned again. It was around 11:30am and we had plenty of time for another run. We followed the skin track of the other party up the basin below Avalanche Mountain. We caught them and soon took over duties laying the track. As we went into the trees up to the ridge instabilities in the snow presented themselves. At all the kick turns a slab would crack to a ski length. At one point as I (second to Steve) rounded a turn the cracks propagated multiple ski lengths. We got a running commentary on the conditions from Gary as we stopped frequently to do test blocks. Within 100' of the ridge we stopped as the last turn Steve made calved a block a dozen feet across without sending it anywhere. It was time to turn around.
We transitioned and had a really nice run through the trees back to a tarn where Toph had to post hole to get through rather than split his board. One last steeper section to the next pond and we put the skins back on to ski out the last rolling bits before heading uphill once more.
Soon we caught the other group and we took over trail breaking duties once more. We opted to try and ride out the trees while they continued further west to make runs down to Source Lake in the open. Our last run was tricky. The steep slopes sloughed at every turn. The narrowly spaced trees made turns difficult. We took turns making our way down the slope until we were all in the more mellow open terrain above the lake. Some booting back to the other side of the lake got us back to the "luge run" out. Unfortunately, the luge run was not as fast as I am used to it being and it took a bit of effort to get out due to the slow speeds and rolling terrain.
This was a fun day. Although it was my first experience with an a slab trying to take me down the mountain. It was a scary moment, but I now have a better understanding of the situation. Lucky for me, Toph and Steve are better riders than me and can release slabs and ride them out making conditions for me safer. The second run off Avalanche Mountain was really fun. Steep treed skiing similar to Yodelin. It was also great to have Gary Brill present and constantly discuss the conditions. It was like having a free refresher class in avalanche safety.
My pics are here.