When a winter drought strikes California for the third straight year with the intensity of record-breaking low precipitation totals, even getting creative in the hills can’t fully assuage the need for good, quality turns on Mother Nature’s white blanket. With reports from the continental regions including phrases like ‘banner year,’ and with a friend returning from elk range saying “I’ve never seen that much snow there,” it wasn’t difficult to load up the turbo with everything I’d need for fun and flee the setting sun – I headed east, without a definitive schedule, nor a fully conceived itinerary. I wanted frosty mountains, long days in the hills in search of new areas, great, voluminous snow and big descents.
Nathan and I left the 2013 spring skiing season with a longer list of new objectives than completed, so with 2014 snow totals high, it was time to get back to work: We would start our travels in Summit County, then follow the snow gods to find the best snow worth skiing. Everything was in line…until the spring crud made an appearance taking down half our two-person snow posse. After a successful summit of Red Mountain, Nathan was down for the count, and the projection of the trip shifted. It was great to get out and explore the different locales of Colorado both solo and with new backcountry partners – seeing new places can be inspiring and humbling, especially when doing it without a local who knows the places by heart – and everyone has experienced a plot twist when your partner in crime is out – It’s healthy to find the plan b.
Snow and winter continued to hit Summit County, and when starting our attempt of Lincoln Peak with the thermometer below zero, March was out like a lion, followed by an April arrival that was equally big-cat-like. I’ll spare the beleaguered reader the details of the attempts, planning, reversals-of-fortune and failed retreats in favor of a couple of themes and observations. One theme was snow: lots of it. Not quite Mt. Baker quantities, but for central Colorado, a good year. That also means instability…I like to give the continental snow pack the reverence it deserves, what with the sierra giving the backcountry skier conspicuously stable conditions consistently throughout the year, I find that instability is about as common in Colorado ski towns as dudes with beards and microbreweries.
Infrastructure was another theme: I’m always reminded on trips to the Centennial State of how it’s always been a place for ambitious builders – starting with the prospectors who built the roads to peaks exceeding 14k feet in their quest for cheddar. Over passes and rivers - through canyons and ravines, entrepreneurs then used the roads to build towns and industry in the most improbable and seemingly inhospitable locations. Driving to the various trailheads during my stay was never a chore - even with some accumulation gathering - and it seems even the most mundane of drives through Summit County affords a view of something worth pulling over to take out the big glass.
After two weeks of probing around CO’s central regions, it was time for a pilgrimage to Crested Butte. It had been almost four years since my last visit – all the more surprising given how well the place struck me on the first go-around. Warm hospitality and stunning backdrops to the old mining town were reminders of the first trip, but this time everything had a white cover – lots of white…everywhere…until the ‘snirt’ hit. I must have glossed over some important details in the weather report before arrival, as the first two days on the ground, it snowed, but with a red, dirty hue. When the snow stopped and the sun emerged, everything had a coat of red on it after the snow melted away, and though it may seem like a novelty to temporary visitors to experience such an environmental phenomena first-hand, it’s an unwelcome addition to an already ornery snowpack.
No matter…after a couple of busy work days capped by skinning on the wonderful ski hill that helps make the town famous, the weather window arrived and I was afforded a rare perfect condition descent of Gothic’s south spoon. Perhaps most surprising was the temperature – I skinned in a puffy for almost an hour without so much a trickle of sweat, but when any aspect not directly north got a taste of the powerful April sunshine, air temps were helpless – I had to ensure the ascent when quickly and efficiently to avoid wet slides. Sure enough, it went quickly, leaving me some buffer on top. Anyone who’s stood on a peak in the Rockies’ Elk Sub-Range can sympathize with my delayed departure from the summit. There are mountains in all directions, and to see them in mid-winter, snow-covered was a first, and an unforgettable vista. So much more to ski and explore…
As charming as Crested Butte was [even the local bro-brah at the bar touting un-solicited his uncanny ability to hook up with disproportionally attractive females and his memorable excursion with a ‘mountain of coke’], my stay there had run its course. Good thing Nate was back in the game and headed to Silverton with G-Love for a taste of what the San Juans had to offer. G-Love was to participate in clinics with female crushers while I stole her Beau for laps in the side- and backcountry surrounding the charming mining town.
For those who haven’t been to Silverton, CO before, put it on your short list. It is a small, well-preserved old mining town sitting on a flat grid and is - on all sides - surrounded by over 4k vertical of “I want that one” ski lines. There are gorgeous backcountry chutes dropping you a mere 200m from main street, and with such a precipitous, ubiquitous and large fence protecting the town from outsiders, together with a sizable trek from any metropolitan area, it doesn’t see a lot of visitors, especially in winter.
For a lot of notable mountain ranges in the US, there is usually at least one angle from the summit where there are no mountains – a weakness in the surrounding terrain. The Sierra has its Owens and Central Valleys, the Tetons have valleys on both east and west sides, and the volcanos of the PNW stand alone. Silverton sits in the middle of an ocean of mountains, with saliva-inducing terrain in every direction: Time to poke around…but first…
…Now, I’ve spent enough time in ski towns to know the quantity of y-chromosomes in such areas borders on ‘endangered species’ scales. So when I met Nate and his lovely at the local distillery, only to walk through the door to see a bar full of ladies, I thought I was delirious. Turns out the same clinic G was attending was stacked with female-only rosters at least 10 deep, and there was a second group as well. Win-win, as far as I’m concerned – what a pleasant surprise to see the demographic do a 180, and to see so many enthusiastic entries into the sport.
Nate and I would take one day experiencing the un-guided anomaly of Silverton Mountain to assess the San Juan snow situation and take Sunday to go bigger in the surrounding hills. The weekend included some of the best turns of the season. Silverton Mountain is quirky and cowboy – when un-guided, it’s basically one big side-country resort where you take a ride on its only chair lift, then hike to your route of choice. Since Nate and I were up on the hill early, we were nearly participants in throwing the avy bombs as ski patrol were still making it safe for the hoi polloi. To get back to the chair, you board either a former correctional facility bus, or a converted milk truck. It’s a rustic window to the life of skiing before Vail Resorts and Intrawest made the sport what it is today. Emphasis is on quality over quantity – a back-to-basics focus on quality runs on great terrain, all in a stunning locale with the only development in sight being the dead-end road to the resort and its slow double chair [ironically enough, the former chair 9 from Mammoth Mountain in California’s Sierra].
Sunday we aimed for the line everyone sees as they drive into town – Idaho Slide is a spooky avalanche path leading from Kendall Mountain’s sub peak directly to flowing waters of the Animas River on the edge of town. By the time Nate and I were finished carving heroic powder and corn for over 4k vert, we were steps away from the distillery, cold pints and warm elk empanadas. Stomachs full and taste buds sated, it was time to part ways – I was headed north while Nathan and his lady shot east…I thought I was bound for Wyoming, before I detoured a bit.
Getting home from Patagonia earlier this year had me on a JFK-LAX direct flight, which coincidentally gave uninhibited views of Colorado and its big snow year helping to fuel the fire to ski some of the state’s best lines. From the cozy cabin at 38k feet, I could still pick out Mt. Sneffels with ease, and Nate and I had a shared lust for the summit and at least one of its north chutes. Before I could leave the San Juans this year I had to at least look at Sneffels’ couloir, if nothing else then to just whet the appetite for next year. The inevitable happened – a “quick look” turned into a longing gaze, and I shifted schedules around to make a summit possible. Weather coincided, and I had a one-day window to get on another 14er. Having stared at the mountain itself and a topo map, I didn’t see a reason to do any more research – just drive as high as I could get, sleep for a couple hours and fire.
What happened next were some of the best turns of the year. I broke knee-deep trail for four hours, only to find a narrow, ice-and-sugar choked gully to the summit. I was above 14k, but with unseasonably warm temps, my clock was ticking…I passed on topping out based on safety – time and slide risk. No matter, the turns through knee-deep, stable, San Juan powder were what dreams are made of. As it turns out, I skied a different couloir than originally intended, but with snow that good, it didn’t matter. Face shots off a 14er in April…I’ll take it. I learned first hand Sneffels’ trifecta – there are three couloirs off it’s north flanks. I got one, I know now the other three, and I can’t wait to go back and get them all.
Finally northbound…but wait…when you get an invite from a Black Canyon of the Gunnison climbing ranger, you better have a good reason if you say no. As I poured through schedules and weather reports, there wasn’t a good reason to rush to the Tetons, so I jumped at putting my hands on granite for the first time in months. When I think about how I introduce myself to climbing season year-over-year, I can’t help but laugh – Sure we did some rock climbing in Patagonia this January – a five pitch climb on the walls surrounding town, but the rest of the trip had our hands in gloves more time than not, and getting back to the US meant more ice and snow. Turns out making the first climb a 9-pitch classic in the Black is a good way to get things started. I can’t thank Vic and the crew enough.
A spring skiing road trip wouldn’t be complete without a pilgrimage to Jackson, and I’m lucky enough to have great people to visit up there as well as great mountains to ski and climb. I arrived just in time for birthday reverie and some questionable snow conditions. As it turns out, I would only take two ski days – one off Teton pass, and an attempt on the Grand. Most memorable besides dinner and conversations with cronies was the time on the Grand, and a repeat of the Steinbeck-esque sense that my journey was over. My personal definition of ski mountaineering is that it requires your wearing a harness, and due to its more technical nature requiring a rap on nearly every skiable aspect, skiing the Grand should be on every ski mountaineer’s list.
After years of reading about colleagues having wonderful days on one of America’s most iconic peaks, things were coming together for a solid attempt. A couple of dark hours into our approach, Steinbeck was creeping in: I wanted to notch this classic descent, but after getting back to the truck, I knew it was time to head SW. We pressed on and made good progress…until we didn’t anymore. Skiing partner was hit with fatigue, the sun was getting high, temperatures warm, and the snow unstable. We made it to the base of the Stettner, and I wanted to press on, but it was not in the cards: This was not a solo mission, so we made quick time on the descent, and heard similar stories of the at least 11 failed attempts on Teewinot’s East Face. I can’t wait to get back up there to tick off a couple of objectives that are reaching Moby Dick proportion: The Grand and the Skillet Glacier on Moran. Next year…
I bid adieu to my most gracious hosts and was on the road once more: bound for the true spring [borderline summer] season gracing the Eastern Sierra. One weekend enjoying the sailing conditions off the Southern California coast, then back on the skis again: Reuniting with great friends for volcanic corn on Shasta’s Wintun glacier: considered by some as “the best spring skiing run in North America.” That’s a bold statement, but we found the turns were so good on the lower flanks, we went back for seconds…and thirds before devouring our Mexican feast in town.
As I recount these experiences of my calendar spring road trip, the company stands out. Perhaps it’s my age, but the activity is becoming less and less important compared to the people who are at the other end of the rope, sharing the skin track or within shouting distance to share the exuberance. I went from ski boots to free climbing shoes, back to ski boots, to catamaran trapeze back to boots in a matter of weeks – but it didn’t really matter when I got to enjoy all the activities with great people. I’ve never considered myself a disciplined athlete, and this people presence could be a big part of it: When diversity of exertion accompanies wonderful people, I rarely hesitate to get with friends on a different objective.
The people planning is playing out with the summer plans, and I hope the spring gave you all similar entertainment with those who you hold dear, and you have wonderful things to keep you occupied in the summer months…I know I do…