North Arapaho Peak – North Ridge (w/ descent of Arapaho Traverse): Class 4+ Scramble

Table of Contents

General overview

Preface/Rating System

Quick disclaimer: I like to highlight and markup some of my pictures for route clarification.

  • Black/white lines= general directions, landmarks and/or Class 1 sections.
  • Blue Lines=Class 2 sections.
  • Red= Class 3 sections.
  • Purple = Class 4 sections.
  • Orange = Class 5.

The class system is based on the YDS rating scale. Please note these colors are different than other sites. If you are unsure of what a color means, I usually leave a quick reminder in the picture caption.

Introduction

This is a spectacular and completely inconvenient route considering that the far more obvious Arapaho Traverse exists so much closer to the 4th of July Trailhead. However, for mountain masochists and people who have ever wondered if there was another legal way to climb North Arapaho, there sure is. Be aware that while some people continue to debate whether or not the crux on the Arapaho Traverse qualifies as Class 4, the North Ridge of North Arapaho absolutely does. You’ll be performing a series of angled Class 4 slab traverses and climbs while your bum hangs out over the infinite. The good news is the holds are bomber and move for move; it’s quite enjoyable. You do, however, stare right at the crux as you’re climbing up to the ridge, which is either exciting or terrifying.

Back to Table of Contents

Approach

The first part of this scramble is easy. From the parking lot, hoof it up the trail to Arapaho Pass. You can knock this whole section out in the dark as long as you have a headlamp. Once you get to the Arapaho Pass Sign, take a right to continue following the Arapaho Pass Trail.

Stay on the Arapaho Pass Trail.

Stay on the well-defined Arapaho Pass Trail as it passes scenic Caribou Lake. The views to the northwest are particularly nice.

Looking at “Hopi” Peak.

Once you get out of that area, the trail drops down through a forested and rocky set of slopes until you creep into Coyote Park, another beautiful subalpine field with great views. When you get down to around 10,300 ft. above sea level, start scanning the terrain to the right, you’re looking for this view.

Here, the hike becomes trailless

Caltopo has this at about 6 miles into your journey (give or take). Anyway, once you see that old avvy chute, break from the trail, cross the creek and begin traversing left (north), trying to maintain your elevation as much as possible.

This is true off-trail navigation. If you go up to much, you’ll either cliff out trying to round N. Arapahos spindly west ridge or have to descend once you get near Wheeler. There are some game trails here that help, but you will have to break from them eventually because animal herd paths don’t usually lead to Class 4 ridges. It’s about a mile of traversing before you get into the mouth of Wheeler Basin. I’ve heard there is an old trail here that makes navigation a bit easier. I never found it because I got too excited and climbed up too high… Ultimately though, even my wonky path made use of game trails to enter Wheeler Basin. I then bushwhacked up the south side.

Gerry Roach describes Wheeler Basin as a fairyland, and he ain’t wrong. There are a series of meadows along the south side and mature trees with minimal undergrowth that made following herd paths easy (at least initially).

Stunning scenery in lower Wheeler Basin.

Eventually, a large avalanche path that looks like it broke from the side of Apache Pk. dumps debris across the basin. I used a system of downed logs to cross the creek to the north side and continued along its banks until treefall, and I swear the longest long grass I’ve ever been in forced me to ascend above the trees. From above the treeline, I just talus hopped around the vegetation difficulties and rounded back to the valley center when it seemed logical. If this seems vague, don’t panic, it’s a basin surrounded by cliffs; follow the direction of the stream until you eventually get to this meadow.

The head of Wheeler Basin, “Deshawa” is the mountain to the left.

Great, let’s orient ourselves.

Blue=Class 2.

Nice, not too bad. There’s a fun boulder field you can play in on the other side of the meadow (bouldering potential?). Get through or around it and climb a steep grassy ridge. On top of this grassy ridge, turn around for killer views of the basin and the gnarly western side of Navajo Peak.

Back to Table of Contents

The Route

From the grassy slope, you transition onto a scree and talus slope to the ridgeline. This part kinda sucks; lots of moving rocks. The best and most stable rock is actually more to the left (north), and you can perform a series of angled traverses that make the most use of the sturdier rock. If you go for more direct, just watch the loose rocks and never ascend right above someone else. It’s here that you get some good and scary looks at the ridge and the crux section.

Fun?

Here’s a marked-up version of what you’ll be expected to do.

The Crux section. Class 3=Red, Class 4=Purple (lighter shade to highlight better against the rock).

The crux section is longer than any Class 4 you’ll encounter on Neva or the Arapaho Traverse. The crux buttress is also tilted, so you get this lovely off-kilter feeling as you’re climbing. I took some GoPro footage of the main parts of the scramble; I’ll toss a link in at the bottom of the description for added visual aids.

From the ridge crest, head south. The ridge narrows at a gap with views down to another little alpine glacier that’s seldom viewed since it’s deep in the off-limits Boulder Watershed. Once you pass this notch, the Crux difficulties begin in earnest.

It’s a wild ride up the Crux.

Because of the seriousness of this kind of climbing, pictures are lacking (look for video link at bottom). The order of operations is to first get up the step below the crux, perform an exposed traverse across a gap and swing to the western side. From the tilted bench you’re now on, find a diagonal-looking route up the buttress, that’s your Class 4. There’s climbing, traversing and some interesting problems to work through. The route is not just straight up. Once you find your way beyond a notch, the scrambling finally drops back to Class 3.

For the next hundred yards or so, stick close to the ridge crest, dodging any difficulties on the east side. You can usually stay pretty true to the crest. There are some surprises, so look for sneaky downclimbs, and secret ledges and keep bailout options in mind before committing to anything.

The serpentine ridge is very beautiful.

Eventually, you get to the low point of the ridge before it starts heading up to North Arapaho. Here, locate a long, green ramp on the east side of a set of crazy-looking cliffs. This ramp will lead you past the cliffs and up to another section of scrambling. This is the first place you gain significant elevation in a minute so expect a slower pace through it.

Red=Class 3

The ramp features some Class 3 sections and looser rock in the middle. You can ratchet the scrambling up to 3+ and 4 but trade the loos rock for sturdy rock and good holds on the ramp’s left side.

On the ramp, looking back at the lower ridge and another alpine glacier tucked into the Boulder Watershed.

At the head of the ramp, you have two options. You can climb up to a notch and through it to the other side (Class 3). On the other side, the rock ends into a big ole sandy chute. If you take the sandy chute up to the right (west) it’ll lead you up to the ridge crest (loose Class 2). Form there, you can veer around a final gathering of scramble rocks and continue up to the summit via loose Class 2 gullies.

Blue=Class 2.

But wait! There’s more scrambling if you want it. Instead of popping over then notch and into the sandy chute, turn right and clamber up the ramps headwall. It goes at a fun and surprising mix of Class 3+ and 4, with, again, bomber holds. From the top of this scramble, head left (south) up along the crest, where all that’s left to decide is whether you want to mess around on some more Class 3 scrambling (left) or take the path of least resistance (Class 2) up to the surprisingly broad and gentle summit plateau. You’ll see the enormous summit cairn and know that you’ve arrived!

The summit cairn.

After the handshakes and champagne, stow the silliness because you still have to do the Arapaho Traverse backwards before you’re out of scrambling danger. Translation: more scrambling, hurray!

The Arapaho Traverse has been well-documented in a few stellar resources, so I won’t go through all the bells and whistles with you but I will do a quick description and link to a bunch of useful resources. Before we get into that, here’s a marked-up picture of the whole North Ridge Route, as seen from the summit of Navajo Peak.

The purple area is the Crux. Red=Class 3. Blue=Class 2.

Back to Table of Contents

Video of North Ridge

As indicated before, here is some footage of the more dramatic parts of the North Ridge, hope it helps!

The Arapaho Traverse and Exit

Essentially, get off the summit plateau by finding a strong use trail that dips down in between two rock outcrops.

The trail as it leaves the summit plateau; easy start.

The hardest moves are downclimbing between the two rock portion(Class 3+).

Downclimbing this features the most serious moves to get off the summit plateau.

Once beyond this, find the first opportunity to juke right and get out of the sandy mess at the bottom of the notch. Use this trajectory to find the trail and hug the western side of the ridge.

Looking back at the notch to get off the summit plateau, a possible alternative to the left?

You can dance along the ridge if you want, but the trail and path of least resistance hugs the western edge until you’ve passed a few obstacles. Eventually, the trail will circle back to the crest. Scramble up the rocks in the pic below.

This reclimb will get you up to the top of the traverse crux. There looked to be cairns marking a very circuitous path down and to the west. I suppose you could follow them and skip this part, although you lose a ton of elevation in the process, and if you’ve just come over the North Ridge, you’ve already dealt with the hardest stuff anyway. The crux is fun.

This is the crux rock from the bottom. Scale is missing, but if you stand on the crack to the right, you can basically reach the top of the rock. At most, this is a 2-3 move Crux, I think still Class 4, but so short you may be wondering if that was actually it.
The whole area. Red=Class 3, Purple=Class 4.

After downclimbing a sneaky step underneath the crux, pick up the social trail and keep on keeping on. After this, the trail winds up a few ridge highpoints. There are ways off of them, but they might not be at the very crest of the ridge, where a few isolated Class 5 moves wait. If you lose the trail, stop, turn around, and hunt for the path, it is there, and it takes you beyond any remaining difficulties with minimal Class 3 thrown in here and there.

Before you know it, you’ll be on South Arapaho Pk! From here, you have some Class 2 to contend with on the way down to the next saddle (stick close to the ridge and avoid descending to the right before the slope allows for decent traversing). A strong official trail meets you at the saddle, from there follow it right and it will intersect with the Arapaho Pass Trail after a significant descent. Turn left, and take the Arapaho Pass Trail back to your car. Done!

Back to Table of Contents

Summary and Additional Resources

While helpful, my Traverse info is just the quick and dirty version, here are some better resources:

I also used a couple sources to help get into Wheeler Basin, keep in mind the Caltopo route on the Arikaree link for getting into the basin was lower than what I ultimately ended up doing.

And once more, here’s a link to my Gopro footage, which covers the most dramatic parts of the North Ridge, including the Crux components!

Back to Table of Contents

Colorado Backcountry Turns All Year: Year 1, Months 10-12 (2021/2022)

Introduction

This is an ongoing series about my ski all-year challenge, which is largely open-ended (though I recently figured it would be cool to get to at least 30 months consecutive) and revolves around a few central points.

  • One ski adventure every month with a minimum of 5 connected turns attained.
  • During snowy months, one location is acceptable for multiple adventures as long as the line skied is different (different, in this case, means on an adjacent mountain face, separate peak, ridgeline, or aspect with logical topographical dividers between “lines.” It does not mean tracks right next to other tracks and calling it different). A topographical divider includes rock ridges, hogbacks, different drainages, etc.
  • Geographical restrictions: the state of Colorado, 1-70 corridor and north. Western limit, the Park/Elkhead Range, and the Gore Range. Eastern limit, front range foothills. Maybe someday the rest of the state, but it’s too big to take out at once.
  • For the summer months, each snowfield or alpine glacier skied cannot be repeated. Safest bets include permanent snowfields on larger mountains and a series of alpine glaciers between. IPW/RMNP (Andrews, Taylor, Sprague, Skyscraper, Navajo Snowfield, Isabelle Glacier, Tyndall, etc.)
  • Avoid high-use areas or hit them during the week.
  • 2 different sidecountry runs allowed per year (located outside of ski resorts but may be accessed from within them).
  • Go for a minimum of 1 year, maximum of?

Months 10-12 represent the fourth article I’ve written about this challenge thus far. For access to previous entries, click the links below:

Table of Contents

Mountain scenery is exceptional if you know where to go.

Backcountry Warnings and Resources

If you’re tip-toeing into backcountry skiing, there are a ton of resources and education that I would consider mandatory before taking it to the hills. I’ve compiled a list below.

  • Avalanche training (look up Avvy 1 certifications near you).
  • Avalanche gear (shovel, probe, beacon, radio).
  • Regular ski gear plus skins, frame/tech bindings.
  • Orienteering skills (download offline maps, have a GPS watch, or bring a physical map and a compass).
  • Scout your line before committing.
  • Ski with partners when able (if not able, compensate by only attempting on the best day conditions wise). This is a touchy point, many refuse to attempt without a partner, and I accept that, but if you have a flexible risk tolerance and can accept more risk in one area (solo journeys), you have to compensate by nailing down all other aspects of the planning process to make the risk defensible.
  • Check the weather up until the moment you leave.
  • Leave your plan with a loved one and have that plan include emergency contact info should you miss a predetermined rendezvous time.
  • Here are some Colorado-focused resources I use: OpensnowFront Range Skimo, Mountain Weather Forecasts (click here), CAIC (they have an Instagram page, and there are other associated avalanche pages to follow as well), NWS.
  • For added info on planning and gear, please visit these two articles I wrote for an outdoor website called SkyblueOverland. The topics covered are crucial for any aspiring backcountry skier/rider. Essential Backcountry Gear and Guide to Planning a Backcountry Adventure.
  • Additionally, I wrote an overview of Colorado Snow, which has a bunch of additional information pertinent to centennial state winters.
  • Table of Contents

Month 10: November 4, 2021 (Saint Vrain South Slopes)

By the time November 2021 rolled around, I was getting excited about accumulating mountain snowfall. My non-meteorological brain told me there were several big waves of snowfall that struck the Colorado high country yearly. The first was usually in the mid-late Autumn, which helps prep the high country for its peak snowfall months of Dec-early March. Unfortunately, Colorado is notoriously fickle in its winter storm delivery; sometimes, you have incredible week-long storm cycles that produce feet upon feet of snow, and other times you get skunked in mid-January. It is what it is; just keep checking that forecast.

While October was, for the most part, thin on snow, a set of storms toward the end of the month guaranteed some moderate turns off of Shrine Pass Road and got me excited about early November. High pressure was supposed to dig in around the middle of the month, so I knew I had to hit something early to take advantage of this first wave of mountain snow. The stars aligned for a trip back to St. Vrain on November 4th.

Mt St. Vrain sits on the border between RMNP and the Indian Peaks Wilderness. While smaller in stature than surrounding peaks, there are a handful of fun routes on the mountain, including a thigh-burning east-ridge-down-rock-creek-road-run that, if timed and skied correctly, will net you 3,000 vertical feet. I’d done Saint Vrain as one of my first backcountry skis in 2018, so I was keen to do some more exploring on the mountain in search of early season turns.

Part of the Rock Creek Road Ascent.

Mt. St. Vrain, while relatively benign in the summer, is kind of a bear when there’s snow. The approach is long (almost five miles for one run, up to 6-7 if combing skiable runs), and the mountain is always windy. Seriously. I have been up there almost 10 times between all four seasons, and I have yet to have a day on the summit block when there wasn’t some form of blistering wind. So, why bother? Well, it’s away from I-70, if you bundle up, you can handle the wind, and any run combination with the descent back to the car will give you at least 3k of vertical skiing. Plus, all of the “established” runs on it (i.e. what books and the internet have found) are between 25-37-ish degrees, so, while avvy danger may be high locally, at least two runs on St. Vrain can be safe low angle bets.

Nicely spaced trees in the upper portion of Rock Creek Drainage.

My goal today was to ascend up Rock Creek, climb above the start to the East Ridge and scout some of the other lines (Southside slopes and north side). Originally, I’d wanted to ski a lower-angle avalanche chute on St. Vrain’s north side, but I didn’t know the area too well, and the wind stripping made all options that way seem sketchy. Instead, I settled on a south slope variation from right below the summit cairn.

My gear on top of St. Vrain w/ Longs Peak towering behind.

There are two possible routes on the south side of St. Vrain, and both are well-documented (powder project, front range skimo, and my own description w/ this article on skyblueoverland). Of the two, the snowfield west of the summit provides the most consistent snow, but after the long approach (not enough snow to slap skins on until nearly a thousand feet above where I parked) and having to carry my skis over the last few hundred feet of rocky, wind stripped terrain, I wanted something to access quickly. The snowfield on the west shoulder looked nice but would’ve required another half-mile of awkward ski carrying over talus terrain.

My tracks on the South slope direct. The southwest snowfield is the gentler ridge in between my tracks and the continental divide on the horizon.

Curious about alternatives, I found a wind drifted line of snow leading on a meandering journey south from the summit. Of all the routes on St. Vrain, this one had the most hazards, however, the mid-November timeframe meant that it was quite literally the only bit of snow I could feasibly ski without butchering myself or my equipment.

The edge of the line I took (leading diagonal right), ~100 feet below and 50-75 yards west of the true summit.

I hung to the western edge of the snow, where a long deposit of wind-drifted power had gathered enough to guarantee turns.

What the rest of the slope looked like after my first 6-7 turns.

Despite the thin conditions and committing approach, I skied the south line well, making a series of happy turns on the way to a roughly 750-foot vertical ski.

Looking up from the bottom, about 65-70% of the run is visible.

In the winter, the run can continue a few hundred feet more to treeline, but I had to work with what nature gave me; When the snow stopped, so did my skiing. I also, despite my best efforts, scraped a couple thinly buried rocks. Nothing was damaged beyond the point of p-tex repair, but it was a timely reminder to heed early season hazards.

Another shot of my tracks on the lower 2/3rds of the run.

Due to the thin snow and many exposed rocks, traversing from the end of my line back to the eastern side of the mountain was an exercise in frustration, but I endured. The saving grace (at least for the initial traverse) was the sublime views.

The upper St. Vrain glaciers area from the summit of St. Vrain (one of the glaciers is in the shadows under the mountain to the left, which is called Ooh la la). Ogallala is in the middle, and the serrated ridge along the right side of the picture leads to Elktooth.
The Coney Lake drainage, with Paiute’s north face dominating the view, and even a bit of Apache Pk. poking out from behind.
Red Deer Mountain, a reclusive Continental Divide peak with loads of skiing potential, is high on the list for a future adventure. When that big face fills in with sticky, spring snow, it’s just begging for big GS turns.

All in all, this felt like the best, most cohesive skiing I’d done since Andrews in late July. There wasn’t a lot of uniform coverage yet but seeing the mountains with a coat of snow again served as a nice appetizer for the upcoming winter.

Back to Table of Contents

Month 11: December 8, 2021 (Vail Pass East-Uneva north-Saddle Run)

  • Additional skis
  • W. Deming-scouting trip (Dec. 19, 2021)

After a dry and warm mid-late November, December started to turn things around. The snowpack was still lagging statewide, but there had been enough high elevation accumulation to help me get my first month of multiple backcountry adventures since the previous April. Along with the challenge, I was hoping for two separate skis in December and at least three for January-April. A lot of that was going to be based around my work ski instructing at Beaver Creek. Like we’d done for the past few years, my wife and I would dutifully drive up for weekends so I could teach and stay with friends and family in the valley when it didn’t make sense to sit in I-70 traffic.

On the approach to my Dec. line, Vail Pass is visible in the background.

Over the years, we’d developed a pretty good routine and came to enjoy our winter nesting grounds in the vail valley. Since storms generally roll into Colorado from west to east, I figured the western slope would get hit harder and earlier than some of my usual RMNP/IPW/Cameron Pass terrain. Even just driving from the Front Range, you get a sense of the snow disparity. It’s usually bone dry from Golden up to Georgetown, then the highway pops up a thousand feet, and you get mountains with snowy, sheltered faces and wind-stripped sides. Once you’re through the tunnel and into summit county, the snow coverage becomes more widespread. In my experience, though, it’s really the stretch between Copper and East Vail (including both sides of vail pass) that gets some of the best early season snow (as evidenced by my Oct. ski on Shrine Pass road).

Storm clouds over Mt. of the Holy Cross

My selection for December was another Vail Pass run. Since my successful outings in the area the previous April, I’d been keen to go back and do some more exploring. My experience on the thin snowpack in November, however, had me looking at sheltered areas that seem to rake in the most snow. The Saddle Run, a northward line from the saddle between Uneva Pk. and Pt. 12,089, provided just that. I’d skinned up part of this run after skiing one of Uneva’s north Couloirs, so I was comfortable with the terrain. This time, however, I planned to ski deeper into the trees to extend the fun.

Down the saddle, and into the trees.

The snow was a bit heavier than usual, but I was grateful to get as much of a ski line as I did. There were a few ski tracks crisscrossing the area after a storm 2-3 days prior, but I went up on a low avalanche weekday and had the mountains to myself.

My only big obstacle was another front moving through in the mid-afternoon. As long as I could ski my first run and climb back into familiar territory before visibility was stolen, I’d be able to ski back to the pass, no problem.

All the way into the trees.

I made it into the wild North-Tenmile basin and enjoyed some surprisingly fresh powder hiding below the pine tree canopies. The line wasn’t all that difficult, ~30-33 degrees, so less steep than November, but the snow quality was a ton better. I enjoyed every second of it.

On the skin track back to the saddle (low point on the horizon)

The skin back to the ridge wasn’t bad, but since I was a little tired, it took longer than anticipated. Luckily, the weather held off until I was out of the drainage and back to an area where I could return to Vail Pass using already well-established tracks.

Another view of the Saddle run area, the couloirs off Uneva are to the left and off-screen, the mountain you can see is Point 12,089.

On the way down, the storm really kicked into gear and had me flying through a nice accumulation. Again, since visibility was low, I relied on my previous experience in the area, maps, and an obvious skin track to glide effortlessly down to Vail Pass and my car.

A little more than a week later, I found myself with another opportunity to get some turns and decided to go explore W. Deming. I had seen it a few times from previous Vail Pass skiing, and its broad southwestern face looked like a perfect combination of snow-covered and low angle. Since this was a scouting trip, I anticipated the usual problems with discovering a new, trailless area and figured the skiing was going to be sub-par.

West Deming, seen from Uneva Peak.

I did have a few navigational snafus but ultimately made it to within a few hundred feet of the summit (basically where ski options stopped).

Heading up.

The first 5-600 feet were sublime alpine skiing in a large bowl with just enough snow to make turns. The surface was crunchy but provided enough support to ski aggressively.

When I reached treeline, however, it all became an unconsolidated heavy powder mess. I also veered off track to avoid a flat area I’d found on the ascent and overshot my end-point by nearly a half-mile. Directionally, I’d tried to find the safest run, but upon analyzing my route and the end result, I knew any subsequent trip would go up an adjacent valley with more of a direct line to the summit. All in all, though, a great trip for beta.

Like the November trip, a lot of what made this particular scouting trip worth it were the views.

Looking back to Uneva Peak and two lines I’d already skied on it. The Big Couloir to the left of where I skied looks like it’d be worth a future visit.
The beautiful Gore Range.
Bald Mountain, a local favorite for Vail/Avon backcountry skiers.

Back to Table of Contents

Month 12: January 12, 2022 (Banana Bowls-RMNP)

  • Additional Skis
  • Hidden Valley-Orgasm Alley (Jan. 18, 2022)
  • Bighorn Glade variation 1 (Jan. 28, 2022)

The back half of December was busy. Between holiday shenanigans, ski instructing, and my family coming to visit, I stuck to resort skiing. For New Year, my wife and I went to a great party in Denver and contracted the Omicron Variant of Covid. That was Covid #2 for us, a lot less severe than the first time but still a distraction and a loss of the muscle power I’d built up from October. The silver lining, if there ever was one, was resting and recuperating while the high country got slammed with what can only be described as epic snowfall. Over an 8-9 day period, favored areas hauled in over six feet of beautiful powder. Even unfavored areas managed to eke out a few feet, and once I felt good enough to ski instruct, I began to plan a new backcountry adventure.

The approximate location of the upper half of Banana Bowls from Bear Lake Road.

The Banana Bowls had always been interesting since Rocky Mountain National Park was close to home, and I’d heard that it could offer stable, fresh powder skiing without a lot of avalanche risk. With the fresh snow load and relentless wind, the high country stayed dangerous, and I thought that, at least with Banana Bowls, I could get some fresh snow skiing without running into anything crazy. Well, I was right and wrong.

Hallett Peak, Tyndal Gorge, and the Dragontail Couloir area from a rare, empty Bear Lake Parking Lot.

I applaud my choice in general; Banana Bowls is a supremely lapable area that would be an absolute blast on a big powder day. Unfortunately, I didn’t check the updated wind reports in the days leading up to my adventure. Don’t worry; I still skied Banana Bowls, but I fought against some of the hardest wind I’d ever encountered. On more than one occasion I was lifted clean into the air by gusts that easily topped 70mph.

Longs Peak looking on as I struggle against the wind.

Interestingly, I can now say that I’ve managed to ski through hurricane-force gusts, but wind zaps your energy so quickly that by the time I hauled my battered body back to the car, I knew I was going to need at least a few days of minimal movement to recover.

Brutally cold and windy, but at least the sun was out.

The approach to Banana Bowls is fairly mundane and, in fact, quite wind-sheltered, so I really had no idea what I was skinning into when I began my journey. The trails in this part of the park are so wide and well used that they might as well be highways. Despite the fresh snow, I had no trouble following a series of snowshoe, ski, and footprints along the access trail to the lower parts of Banana Bowls. It was only when I reached the bottom, where a large break in the trees gave me a view of the area, that I realized just how windy the day was going to be.

Wind stripping is a big deal in the Front Range, but it doesn’t mean the snow disappears; it just gets redeposited in sheltered areas.

Y’all, this was a mentally and physically exhausting ascent. My skins about froze in place on more than one occasion, and the relentless wind and cold temps (hovering in the low teens) built up a ridiculous sheet of ice under my skins. I had to stop and pry the ice off with a boot scraper a few times, or I just wouldn’t’ve been able to reach the top of the line.

Organizing my gear was another practice in risk management as any time spent out of my mittens ran the risk of giving my frostnip. Ultimately, I used my pack cover as a shield, sat facing away from the wind, and hustled through my routine until I could safely ski down.

I didn’t even risk taking a snack break because I was afraid that if I didn’t get moving, I’d give myself a cold or something worse. Once I was clipped into my skis, I immediately started skiing. Luckily, the wind was at my back, so speed was definitely not an issue. I managed to twist and turn my way down the slope in what I felt was record time until I found the edge of the trees and dove behind them, hoping for a wind reprieve.

All things considered, I was happy with how I skied, but it was far from my prettiest outing. Nevertheless, once I started skiing back to the car, the wind died down, and I remembered what it was like to feel my fingers and toes. I also got a Gopro 8 for Christmas and tried to video some of the descent. Whenever I stop being cheap and upgrade WordPress, I can upload it here, but for now, it’s still free to post on Youtube, so here’s the link.

After six days of working and planning, I organized a quick half-day adventure out to Hidden Valley. I’d already skied Hidden Valley the previous spring and enjoyed it. Granted, the area was an old ski resort, so the skin tracks are easy and the descents similar. Hidden Valley has long been billed as a great intro backcountry intro area. However, don’t let that turn you off from the area, it’s perfect for building skills, and its sheltered orientation (below the ridgeline anyway) can offer fun when the rest of the high country is either avalanche or wind riddled.

The top of a ski line called “Orgasm Alley.”

There’s a super simple main run in Hidden Valley that the lion’s share of visitors ski because it’s easy to figure out and generally skis quite well. There are also a ton of variations that get far less attention. A suspicious run called “Orgasm Alley” is one of them. When Hidden Valley still operated as a ski resort, this run was just outside the resort boundaries to the SE of the main run. A large bowl between it and the main area also merits future exploration, but I’d read about this particular alley in a Rocky Mountain National Park ski guidebook and felt like giving it a try.

Unlike the main areas, the approach I took required some extra navigation. Orgasm alley wasn’t particularly difficult to find with a GPS watch, but it certainly wouldn’t be in season until mid-January when enough snow has built up to cover downed trees and rocks. After the enormous dump of snow around Xmas and New Year, I figured it would fill in nicely, and I was right.

Looking to the High Plains from Hidden Valley.

The skiing was great on not-so-great snow, but I managed the terrain well. The wind and deep freezes had turned a lot of the recent powder into an icy sheet, but I’ll take any chance to backcountry ski over sitting at home twiddling thumbs. After the top bowl, I worked my way over to an old cut in the hillside where a chairlift used to be. What’s left is a thin strip of bumpy terrain and a straight shot down to the base. If you ever want a demanding descent where it’s either short turns or running into trees, this is a great choice. I enjoyed the challenge and wouldn’t mind skiing that part again.

Towards the end of the month, ski instructing picked up, and we decided to camp out at my father-in-law’s place in East Vail to ease the commute to Beaver Creek. This position allowed me to start looking at the area near Vail for more backcountry targets on the days I wasn’t teaching. I figured it would be until at least March before I could ski above treeline with minimal avalanche risk, so I settled for finding the best powder on slopes below treeline. This mentality flip allowed me to pursue the best conditions without running afoul of any of the mid-winter backcountry dangers.

On the skin track, East Vail is visible, along with a small part of I-70. The steep slopes to the left and behind East Vail are the notorious East Vail chutes.

There’s a summer bike path from Copper to Vail that follows the general path of the highway. When it’s snowed over, the path makes for a great access route to lines along the valley in the deep forests between East Vail and the top of Vail Pass. After a beautiful and windless forecast, I decided to explore the path and followed various skin tracks up into the hills. Research told me that the area I was touring rarely got over 30 degrees, and when it did, could easily be avoided. I also knew from being in the valley for years that East Vail tended to haul in the best powder, so when a small storm dropped a few fluffy inches, I set about exploring how I could take advantage of it.

The top of my line.

I actually overshot what I was originally planning for, a notable gully visible from the dog park in East Vail, but made it as far as a fluffy meadow around 10,500 feet (from a base of 8,600) and followed a few old splitboard tracks down the smooth and powder-filled slopes. Most of the run was immaculate, but since it was my first time in the area, I made some navigational decisions that increased my return journey time. Those decisions, however, helped round out my knowledge of the area and would help me hone in future skis.

It wasn’t steep skiing, consistently in the 25-30 degree slope range, but oh.my.god, the conditions were damn near perfect. I just floated down the slope, turning when it was convenient and almost straight-lining near the bottom to maintain speed through the powder. When I got back down, I thought it might’ve been the softest skiing I’d ever done, not realizing I would continuously one-up that distinction through February.

Back to Table of Contents

Final Thoughts

At some point during January, I realized, a little belatedly, that I’d skied for 12 consecutive months in the backcountry! I marked the accomplishment by doubling my efforts to find the best powder I could. So, as the deepest part of winter set in, I began hunting for variations of my east vail excursion to maximize the fluffiest, softest part of the season and the skiing was very, very, very good.

I also got a GoPro over the holidays and set about recording my adventures in a more cohesive way. Here’s a link to a Youtube compilation of my January Turns.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the next part of the series!

Back to Table of Contents

Colorado Backcountry Turns All Year: Year 1, Months 7-9 (2021)

I am not the first person to try and ski every month of the year in Colorado. While the overall numbers aren’t many, there are people who have done this thing every month for decades or more. And while the elevation of the Centennial State guarantees turns through mid-July at hundreds of locations, by the time August and September roll around, you’re options become really limited. Additional limiting factors include the rate of recent snowmelt and the previous season’s snowpack. Luckily for me, I decided to ski in a year that only managed an average winter snowpack and experienced a warmer than average June/July…wheee.

Faced with dwindling options, I honed my focus on the areas of Colorado that seem to hold onto snow the most. In the northern Front Range, those areas are high, cold, sun-starved alpine cirques. Some of these feature permanent snowfields, and some feature the occasional glacier. For August and September, those became my focus while I clung to the hope that October might signal the return of accumulating alpine snow.

This is part of an ongoing series, for parts one and two, click on the links below.

Table of Contents

Backcountry Warning and Resources

If you’re tip-toeing into backcountry skiing, there are a ton of resources and education that I would consider mandatory before taking it to the hills. I’ve compiled a list below.

  • Avalanche training (look up Avvy 1 certifications near you).
  • Avalanche gear (shovel, probe, beacon, radio).
  • Regular ski gear plus skins, frame/tech bindings.
  • Orienteering skills (download offline maps, have a GPS watch, or bring a physical map and a compass).
  • Scout your line before committing.
  • Ski with partners when able (if not able, compensate by only attempting on the best day conditions wise). This is a touchy point, many refuse to attempt without a partner, and I accept that, but if you have a flexible risk tolerance and can accept more risk in one area (solo journeys), you have to compensate by nailing down all other aspects of the planning process to make the risk defensible.
  • Check the weather up until the moment you leave.
  • Leave your plan with a loved one and have that plan include emergency contact info should you miss a predetermined rendezvous time.
  • Here are some Colorado-focused resources I use: OpensnowFront Range Skimo, Mountain Weather Forecasts (click here), CAIC (they have an Instagram page, and there are other associated avalanche pages to follow as well), NWS.
  • For added info on planning and gear, please visit these two articles I wrote for an outdoor website called SkyblueOverland. The topics covered are crucial for any aspiring backcountry skier/rider. Essential Backcountry Gear, and Guide to Planning a Backcountry Adventure.
  • Additionally, I wrote an overview of Colorado Snow, which has a bunch of additional information pertinent to centennial state winters.
  • Jump to Table of Contents

Month 7: August 25, 2021 (Ptarmigan Glacier)

Ptarmigan Glacier, tucked into the Continental Divide between Flattop Mt. (left) and Notchtop (right).

After a successful July ski of Andrews Glacier, I began looking at the rest of Rocky Mountain National Park in search of other permanent pieces of snow. I’d passed by Ptarmigan Glacier (a name that doesn’t usually show up on official maps but has been recorded in many user trip reports and blogs) the year prior when I scrambled up Little Matterhorn. It’s not too terribly far from the Bear Lake Trailhead (roughly similar to Andrews, just the opposite direction), and from what I’d researched, stays snowy all year. Good enough for me

So, one late August day, after delaying what I knew would be a taxing journey with skis on my back, I finally committed.

Views toward Estes Park as the day slowly dawned.

Like Andrews, I used the Bear Lake Trailhead. This time, however, I went north, around the bulk of FLattop Mt. and the Banana Bowls (another lower angle backcountry area in the winter/spring), and continued as if heading towards Odessa Gorge. The whole Odessa area is magnificent, from the lakeshore to the views of Notchtop; it’s all National Park-level beauty.

Notchtop (and Notchtop Spire) from just above the Odessa Lake trail.

The established trail ascends gently to a saddle near Joe Mills Mountain and then drops into the gorge before finding the shores of Odessa Lake. My turnoff into the backcountry was at the saddle, where a noticeable but unsigned path leads south to Lake Helene, a shallow pond that acts as a great marker.

Lake Helene and the not-so-flat sides of Flattop Mt.

I followed the use trail around the right shore of the lake until a series of paths began veering uphill. Using a combination of a few, I found a route that ascends away from the lake and higher into the gorge. This part was a bit frustrating because Krumholtz kept catching my skis, but I soldiered through, following the occasional cairn, until I broke into the alpine.

As you can see in the picture above, stubborn vegetation gives way to two separate snowfields. Up until July, they are more or less connected. The upper field is what’s generally referred to as the glacier, although both fields are large enough to last all year. The navigation was never really hard on this trip, but it was a taxing approach nonetheless. As the terrain changed to talus and scree, my pace slowed to a crawl to make sure I wasn’t misstepping or taking a long rocky ride down a loose slope.

I broke out the crampons and climbed the first snowfield, thankful to be on more of a solid surface. All around the snowfield were large pieces of talus on unstable slopes. The whole area looked like it moved with some regularity, so I was keen to avoid any suspicious-looking areas. Using the crampons to bypass a particularly perilous-looking hogback saved me time and worry.

Looking back at a couple unnamed tarns as I get ready to climb the first snowfield.
Climbing up the first snowfield, notice the layers of windswept dirt on top of the snow. Not only is summer skiing limited to existing snowfields, but in a lot of cases, you have to deal with dirt, exposed rocks, ice, slush, and rockfall. Just because avalanche danger is low to non-existent doesn’t mean there is no danger.

Between the two snowfields, I chose an angling ascent over loose ground until I could traverse over to the second, larger snowfield, aka Ptarmigan Glacier, and put my crampons back on.

Ptarmigan Glacier.

As far as permanent snowfields go, Ptarmigan didn’t look as sad as some of the others I’d seen; the top half looked fairly cohesive and nice, but the bottom half bled into a talus field with plenty of scree poking up out of the snow. The skiing looked like it would be challenging, which felt appropriate since it was late August. I channeled some energy and spike-stepped my way up.

Up we go.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the ideal time to hit these slopes is before the afternoon sun creates slush out of the top layers of snow. This process slows when you have temperatures that dip below freezing the night before. Well, in the middle of summer, that doesn’t happen often, so, even though I made good time getting to the glacier, the climb was slushy and uncomfortable. I had to brace a few times to stop from sliding.

Interesting looking crevasse near the top.

I made it one piece and allowed myself a bit of time to prepare but wanted to turn around and start skiing soon because the slush issue was only going to become more pronounced as the day warmed up.

Top-down view.

To be honest, the skiing was a bit terrifying. I connected ~10 turns, but the top was a mixed bag of hard snow ridges and sun-cupped BS, the middle was slushy, and the bottom was a minefield of fist-size rocks that could really screw up my skis. I threaded together as many safe turns as I could but ultimately had to take my skis off and boot pack down the last hundred feet; there was just too much detritus to avoid.

It was too dangerous of a ski to film with my phone so this is the only “mid-action” photo I have. I think this day convinced me to start looking at Go-Pros, which I would eventually get by the year’s end.

So, yeah, I skied in August on a dwindling glacier in a National Park. It was harrowing, steep (~42-45 degrees at its steepest pitch), and riddled with debris that would’ve destroyed my skis had I not been paying attention. I don’t think It’ll be on the repeat list anytime soon, but it was a good reminder that while dirty snow can be skied, it’s really tricky.

I also finally got a good idea of what a “rock” glacier is, which I thought was pretty cool.

As yearly erosion dumps more rock and debris into valleys and cirques, they end up covering the top of the ice. The ice doesn’t really go anywhere; it just hangs out under accruing layers of rocks and dirt. Practically, this makes the terrain on top of the ice exceptionally loose and subject to sliding; as far as climate change goes, the layers of rocks actually help hide the glacial layers from direct sun exposure. So, even though you may not see a bunch of ice and snow above ground, in some areas, you can bet that the ice still exists; it’s just hiding below the rocks i.e., rock glacier.

What’s interesting about Ptarmigan (Taylor Glacier is also a good example) is that a substantial portion of the ice is still visible, so you get the above surface “glacier,” and you can see the transition zone into the sub-surface “rock glacier.” Cool stuff.

Here’s what you’re looking at. A roughly 20 foot wide, 8-foot tall chunk of ice covered by dirt and scree. In fact, everything in this picture is resting on top of ice. The only reason this piece is exposed is because the summer snowmelt creates a runoff stream from the glacier; as the water moves, it carries debris down the slope, opening up a channel to sun exposure. Between where I took this photo and the ice chunk, is a ravine about 10 feet deep that leads to a running stream on top of more ice layers. There was no way I was walking up to the edge, so this is as close I got.

Rock Glaciers are exceptionally unstable (because it’s all resting on ice) and demand careful footfalls and risk management. Naturally, I traversed it in ski boots.

Another instance of debris on top of visible ice.

The “rock glacier” continued pretty much right up to the lower snowslope. As I carefully made my way to it, I started to tire of the tedious footing and thought it may be worth it to grab a few extra turns on the lower snowfield and drop a couple of hundred feet relatively quickly.

To my surprise, the snow surface was much more agreeable on this field, and I actually made some half-decent turns without feeling like I was two steps away from dying.

Slide the bar to see roughly where I made my turns. You can see where the snow is disturbed from the turns but it’s not immediately obvious.

After managing a handful of extra turns on the lower snowfield, I felt accomplished enough to call the outing a success. I made my way to the tarn at the base of the lower snowfield and collapsed on a nice, sunny rock. Compelled to celebrate in some way, I stripped down to my birthday suit and got into the water.

Hand down one of the top five coldest water experiences of my entire life, and I’ve jumped into the Arctic Ocean before!

The tarn is only exposed enough to get into for maybe two months out of the year, so it’s all frigid snowmelt. Despite the shock, I didn’t freeze to death and let the sun dry me. A few confused and concerned rock climbers descending from Notchtop probably got more of a show from my naked lounging than they would’ve liked, but hey, after hauling my skis all the way up to Ptarmigan and faced with the daunting prospect of hauling them back to the car, I can’t say I was in much of a caring mood.

Cold, cold water.

After my quick water refresh, I summoned as much energy as I could, strapped down all my gear, and dragged myself back to the parking lot. Unlike the hundreds of questions I had to field coming back from Andrews, I only spoke to a handful of people. There were still hordes of visitors near the trailhead, but I think they were too shocked at my appearance to even let some questions out, fine by me, haha. August ski down!

Jump to Table of Contents

Month 8: September 16, 2021 (Knobtop Icefield)

The previous October, I hiked Little Matterhorn, a Class 3 scramble overlooking the Odessa Lake area of Rocky Mountain National Park, and just a stellar adventure all around. While on the ridgeline to the summit, I noticed a large snowfield hiding under the bulk of Knobtop, a relatively ill-defined area with a flat top, gentle western slopes, and a precipitous eastern and northern wall. The snowfield looked large and interesting, so I decided to revisit the area and see if my observation last year held up to skiing scrutiny.

Not bad; decent vertical to boot.

So, a little less than a month after my Ptarmigan Glacier descent, I saddled up for an attempt of the Knobtop Icefield.

I really wanted the snowfield to be exactly the way I’d seen it the year prior, but that turned out to be pretty optimistic on my part.

The approach was fairly benign until I broke from the trail around Lake Helene as I’d done for the previous hike. Instead of heading up into the Ptarmigan Glacier area, I traversed underneath a small headwall and descended below Hope falls. Technically, this is the same gorge that originates near Ptarmigan, but the headwall is a significant enough obstacle to legitimately call them two separate things (Odessa Gorge and Ptarmigan Cirque, for example).

Little Matterhorn and the Gables from near Lake Helene.

After descending below Hope Falls and crossing the stream, I found myself in a familiar talus field and slope (the same approach that I’d used to climb Little Matterhorn the year prior). This part I knew wasn’t terribly long but featured some serious elevation gain that I had to do with skis. It was a long, and grinding ascent, but I stuck to areas that I thought looked the most stable and slowly made my way higher.

Generalized ascent path, turns out, not the easiest way, but certainly the most direct.

My path was…ok, I mean, I arrived where I wanted to, but the loose rocks and steep slope angle made me a bit nervous, and if you’ve ever tried to hike anything with skis on your back, you’ll know how easily you can get off balance. So, I stumbled, cursed, and dragged myself up the rise, hoping to reach what I knew would be a relatively flat talus field leading up to the edge of the icefield.

The first views of the icefield were…not super inspiring.

Oof, dirty and a lot smaller than last year’s observations.

Feeling the looming specter of failure creep in, I resolved to at least scout the whole field from its base to see if there were any places I could rope together a measly five turns. The longest part of the icefield looked initially good but led right to a rockfall chute, and after watching countless fist-sized rocks scream down the icefield and crash into the talus below, I was keen to avoid that part.

I did find one section that looked relatively clean and was tucked up underneath a solid-looking rock wall with nothing overhung above it. To be honest, the whole area was a huge rockfall hazard, but I angled towards an area that looked white (so not a lot of surface debris) and got as close as I could to the start before getting my climbing gear on and preparing for a steep ascent.

Certainly not pretty, but clean enough to ski.

My crampons got their money’s worth as the terrain steepened quickly past 40 degrees. It wasn’t an altogether long ascent, but the sun-cupped surface, steep profile, and constant rockfall danger kept me plenty focused. I angled towards a large bergschrund (specifically, a randkluft in my case) between the top of the icefield and the solid rock walls behind it. In that pocket, I awkwardly got ready.

This is not beginner territory.

Also, in case you are unaware of what a bergschrund or randkluft are, this still shot from a video I took should provide some context. In no way was this a comfortable changeover from crampons to skis.

As the summer sun melts snow slopes, the snow can pull away from the walls behind them, creating a gap or a bergschrund. Technically, since this was the gap between stagnant ice and rocks as opposed to a moving glacier and stagnant ice, the appropriate term is a randkluft, but the key element is the same: a crevasse-like gap between ice and other stuff.
In the randkluft.

After a few trying minutes, I got all my gear ready and awkwardly sidestepped from the lower part of the randkluft up to the crest and gently, nervously, stepped my skis over. I was leaning so much on my inside edges I thought I’d fall right back into the randkluft, but it all held together, and I slid forward to a patch of clean snow.

Yeah, so, perhaps unsurprisingly, this was not a banner skiing day, but in the middle of the summer, beggars can’t be choosers. Would I ever repeat it though? ….Uhm.

I didn’t take any pictures on the way down but did manage to put together a set of turns that actually made me really proud. Despite my wonky start, I settled in quickly and hit the skiable bit with the same confidence I had at Andrews Glacier, which is saying something. I hated the rockfall danger and looming sense of potential catastrophe, but I skied better this day than I did on Ptarmigan in August.

I did get some perspective shots from further back and could trace my lines, which was neat.

Gotta love old iPhone pic quality. Below the red line, I unstrapped and just carefully heel kicked my way down, far too much debris.

Below is a different perspective from farther away. I drew in the lines using a computer mouse, so there may be small differences between representations, but you can clearly see my first few turns in the shade on the undrawn version.


The skiing was strangely better than August, but this was by far the most dangerous ski of the year.

Although I made it down the ski slope just fine, I had another couple of heart-stopping moments when chunks of rocks cascaded down from higher elevations. Hearing a rock pick up speed, hitting what looked like 60-80 mph, and then split into a thousand pieces when it hits a piece of talus bigger than an SUV certainly leaves an impression.

Luckily, I had scouted potential lower-risk escape routes, and because I had already identified the problem spots above me, I knew I wasn’t in immediate danger. With barely any wind that day, the biggest factors were sun-melt on the ice and rockfall from gullies and slots that broke through the walls above me. I could tell where those gullies emptied out because of how the snow looked (darker=more debris covered), and you can see that in the picture below. Purposely picking my line to ski the best conditions, as opposed to the longest vertical, saved my skis from getting too beat up and kept me in one physical piece.

Left pic, no markup. Right pic, Red arrows=most likely rockfall direction based on my observations. Blue=the area where I skied. PLEASE NOTE: all of this was completely dangerous, I just worked with the best option.

Still, having a bunch of rocks break a few dozen meters away from you is not a calming experience. I kept my helmet on for the majority of the return hike to lake Helene and only stowed it when I was safely back on established trails.

The hike back felt somehow more exhausting and challenging than last month’s outing; my ski straps kept loosening, so I had to do a bunch of re-adjusts, and talus hopping with skis on just beats you up. I did make it back successfully, and despite the rapidly forming blisters, felt pretty good about how I’d managed what is definitely one of the craziest backcountry adventures I’ve done.

Quick PSA: This is all completely nuts, and I think that should be noted somewhere in every piece I write about this kinda stuff. I am a competent skier and mountaineer with decades of experience; I’m also a 6-year ski instructor; additionally, I have years of trail-building and months of alpine camping/living under my belt. I make it my business to understand the mountains and the hazards they harbor, and I have turned around on many adventures when the conditions weren’t right.

I really like being alive, but I also intimately understand my personal thresholds because I have that conversation with myself often. Like most aspects of life, thresholds change over time. As silly as it sounds, the best advice when you’re pushing yourself in the outdoors is to get right with yourself, figure out what you can and won’t do, and identify the gray area where you can build skills into. After all the years I’ve spent in the outdoors (along with the hundreds of Colorado mountains I’ve climbed), I felt that I could handle the risks presented to me on this day, but I am always preparing for the day when that’s no longer the case.

Jump to Table of Contents

Month 9: October 28, 2021 (Shrine Pass Meadows)

When we talk about the alpine in Colorado, there’s usually a period of time in the autumn when a series of high elevation storms bring the first snow of the year. Most of this is unskiable from resorts, and there’s a fair amount of melting between storms because the sun angle is still high, but it signals the inevitable arrival of colder weather. Well, this year, that first bout of snow took its sweet time showing up. There were a few anemic spurts in early October, but finally, towards the back half of the month, a stronger storm targeting the western slope dropped up to a foot on the mountains around Vail Pass. My time had arrived.

By this time, I’d also managed to wrestle down the inevitable criteria I would use for the challenge. With an understanding that I’d elected to keep my skiing limited to the I-70 corridor and north, I figured exploring a small section west of Vail Pass would make for a nice excursion. I knew the road to Shrine Pass was skiable, so I planned for that.

The new snow, while copious for October, was also still drivable, so I ended up giving the ole snow tires a workout and chugged up the Shrine Pass Road, looking specifically for low-angle grassy slopes where the chances of skiing rocks was a lot lower.

I had no illusions that this was going to be a short outing. Already limited by early season snowfall, my hope was to just recycle a few slopes until I felt like I’d made my five requisite turns. All in all, I found three separate “runs” and pieced together about 20 turns between them.

Easy and it counts.

There were a few people out skiing the road, but after driving over some bare patches, it looked, to me, like it would still mess up a pair of skis, so I was relatively excited to find soft slopes without surprise gravel under them.

There were a couple of times I broke through the snow, but luckily the surface was soft underneath. If you strain, you can see at least five turns in this photo.

This day wasn’t anything to shout about, but after languishing through the first part of October, wondering if I’d get to ski fresh snow or be forced to have another experience like August and September, I was just happy to be able to ski something soft.

I think from start to finish, I was on my skis for maybe 90 minutes total, and a lot of that was just soaking up being outside.

Yeah, no real issues, just enjoyed some high-altitude October turns under cloudy skies and on top of fresh snow.

Naturally, thoughts turned towards the following month since another storm was set to hit, and I wanted to take advantage but I also took a moment to give myself a high five, month 9 of backcountry turns complete! Only three more before I’d skied a whole year!

Jump to Table of Contents

Colorado Backcountry Turns All Year: Year 1, Months 4-6 (2021)

April 2021 was a breakout backcountry ski month for me. While I only managed three days out in the hills, they were all exceptionally satisfying, and my confidence rose accordingly. As I mentioned in my previous turns all year post, by early May, the idea of doing a full year of backcountry skiing still hadn’t made it to the forefront of my brain. As a kind of interim goal, I’d resolved to keep the skis out of storage until at least June. In fact, I already had an idea of what the ski adventure could look like. As for July and beyond? Hadn’t even considered it yet.

From late April through mid-May, my wife and I had a few trips we needed to take (family visits and a sister’s graduation from college), so backcountry took a backseat. However, as May wound down and I found myself with a solid week and a half weather window, the pressure to go do something epic began to ratchet up in my head. And while the winter of 2020/2021 was average in pretty much every sense of the word, the spring of 2021 was temperate and wet, with a lot of alpine spring snow available for the taking.

Table of Contents

Backcountry Warnings and Resources

If you’re tip-toeing into backcountry skiing, there are a ton of resources and education that I would consider mandatory before taking it to the hills. I’ve compiled a list below.

  • Avalanche training (look up Avvy 1 certifications near you).
  • Avalanche gear (shovel, probe, beacon, radio).
  • Regular ski gear plus skins, frame/tech bindings.
  • Orienteering skills (download offline maps, have a GPS watch, or bring a physical map and a compass).
  • Scout your line before committing.
  • Ski with partners when able (if not able, compensate by only attempting on the best day conditions wise). This is a touchy point, many refuse to attempt without a partner, and I accept that, but if you have a flexible risk tolerance and can accept more risk in one area (solo journeys), you have to compensate by nailing down all other aspects of the planning process to make the risk defensible.
  • Check the weather up until the moment you leave.
  • Leave your plan with a loved one and have that plan include emergency contact info should you miss a predetermined rendezvous time.
  • Here are some Colorado-focused resources I use: Opensnow, Front Range Skimo, Mountain Weather Forecasts (click here), CAIC (they have an Instagram page, and there are other associated avalanche pages to follow as well), NWS.
  • For added info on planning and gear, please visit these two articles I wrote for an outdoor website called SkyblueOverland. The topics covered are crucial for any aspiring backcountry skier/rider. Essential Backcountry Gear, and Guide to Planning a Backcountry Adventure.
  • Additionally, I wrote an overview of Colorado Snow, which has a bunch of additional information pertinent to centennial state winters.
  • Jump to Table of Contents

Month 4: May 22, 2021 (Tyndall Glacier & Gorge)

Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the top 5 most-visited national parks in the country, and for good reason, it’s really pretty and less than two hours from a large metro area. The park is an outdoor mecca, and that means winter recreation as well. The Bear Lake Road corridor is a particular highlight, and any casual outdoor Instagram follower will have seen a ton of #inspiring/#grateful posts featuring a lake, pinnacles to the right, and a tilted blocky looking mountain to the left. The gorge in-between them is Tyndall Gorge, and if you hike up to the headwall, you get Tyndall Glacier. Ever since seeing the view from Dream Lake (picture below), I’d wanted to do a couple of things, ski Tyndall Glacier and climb Chaos Couloir up Hallett Peak. This year I’d do both, but since the snow was starting to melt lower down, skiing became the top priority.

Bam. While you can’t quite see the glacier yet, you get an idea of the gorge run (down the middle), Hallett Peak (left), and the Pinnacles to the right that house two gnarly ski mountaineering routes: Dragontail Couloir and Dead Elk Couloir.

With an elevation above 9k, the top of Bear Lake Road is the perfect place to explore some spring skiing. While there are many ways to access Tyndall Glacier, I wanted to skin up from the bottom because I hadn’t skied in the upper part of the gorge, and I wanted to see it before dropping in. When I arrived at the parking lot, there was enough snow about 1/4 mile from the trailhead to strap skins on, which I gratefully did. Not that carrying skis is overly complicated; they’re just heavy. So, I was keen to take any chance to connect snowfields without the extra weight.

On the way in, you pass three lakes, Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake. Beyond Emerald, the terrain steepens sharply, the crowds fall to the wayside, and you feel as though you’re back in the wild. Starting early enough, I’d already beaten most of the day-trippers, but crowd avoiding is a big part of my outdoor ethos. Not that I mind people beholding magnificent scenery, but for a serious outdoor adventure, you don’t necessarily want a huge audience watching your every move. Unfortunately, my head was so focused on speeding up to the start of the line that I took an ill-advised shortcut across a corner of Nymph Lake. In my defense, the ice was thick when I stepped onto it, but after crossing the lake, I had to get back on dry land, and the edge had a weak ice layer that was rapidly melting. My weight sent my skis through, and before I could curse, both boots were in the drink.

Soaked and a little pissed, I took stock of the damage, dried the boots as best I could, slapped a new pair of socks on, and continued. The weather was supposed to be a warm 50 degrees with ample sunshine (and no humidity because Colorado is high and dry), so I figured I wasn’t going to freeze to death, and the thought of being defeated by four feet of water didn’t leave a particularly great taste in my mouth. So, I soldiered on.

National Park-worthy scenery almost every step of the way.
If you look closely, you can see at least three climbers on the lower/mid portion of Dragontail Couloir.

The two other lakes passed in quick succession, and before I knew it, I was scrambling over some boulders near Emerald Lake, looking to gain elevation for the eventual ascent into the gorge. As predicted, the crowds vanished after Emerald until it was just me and a handful of other backcountry hopefuls, each set on their own objectives.

Dead Elk Couloir (L.), and DragonTail Couloir (R.).

I saw a group peel off to the East Couloir, a 45-degree option that attacked the ridge of Hallett Peak, and another group further ahead, heading for Tyndall Couloir. In the Tyndall area alone, there are at least eight well-established backcountry ski lines, and the variety is pretty spectacular. My goal, Tyndall Glacier, is one of the few alpine glaciers left in Colorado. There are a handful of them on the eastern slope of the northern Front Range, which is peculiar because the eastern side of the Front Range doesn’t get as much snow as the Western Slope. The glacier’s location can be explained by looking at the wind scouring that happens in this part of the state.

Quick weather PSA, for the full scoop, read this piece. Colorado winters are variable; storms roll in (very, very generally) from west to east. So, snow slams into the western slope first. However, the wind really kicks up over the northern Front Range. That wind, ruthless as it is, steals snow from the Western Slope and lobs it over the continental divide until it settles in high, cold, east, and north-facing alpine basins. These areas, consequently, have the most consistent snow. Colorado also isn’t as far north as people think, which means the sun factor is more critical. An eastern and northern aspect helps shield these areas from sun-melt. All of this is, of course, subject to climate change, but for now, these areas of snow and ice are the last vestiges of Colorado’s glacial history. Back during the last mini ice age, glaciers in Northern Colorado were huge and helped shape the gnarled-looking valleys of the Indian Peaks and RMNP. Estes Park and its world-famous rock climbing areas were carved out by advancing and retreating glaciers.

ANYWAY, Tyndall was one of a few left, and I kind of wanted to see them all, which of course led to a follow-up thought, “Hey, I wonder if you can ski any of them.” As evidenced by multiple trip reports, blogs, websites, and guidebooks, the answer to that is absofreakinglutely. Tyndall made sense because it was in the middle of a well-traveled and well-documented area, had a low avalanche rating due to snowpack consolidation and nightly freezes, was supposedly an enjoyable descent, and since I hit it early enough in the year, there was enough snow to take me from the top of the glacier on a more than a mile-long journey to the shores of Emerald Lake. (Quick aside: Tyndall Glacier slides every year, so a scouting trip is HIGHLY recommended before you commit.)

I found it astounding that this run even existed because if you’ve only been as far as Emerald Lake, you’d think the valley simply ended on the other side of the lake. You can’t see over the slope in front of you, so you assume it stops. In reality, there’s at least another mile of terrain between you and what’s left of the glacier.

The upper part of the gorge with a small tarn visible. The glacier is nestled up against the headwall (hard to see when most things are covered in snow).

So after a lot of grunting and sweating, I arrived at the base of the glacier and then faced the daunting task of climbing it. I had followed a set of previous skin tracks that ultimately broke up to Tyndall Couloir, so I approached the glaciers steeper south side (45-50 degrees). Armed with a trusty ice axe, crampons, and general mountain enthusiasm, I resolved to climb the steeper portion of the glacier and ski the mellower part.

Hallett Peak frames the southern side of the gorge rim.

This was a steep climb, made harder by the rising temperature and slushy snow. The biggest concern in spring is the idea of a wet avalanche, where the sun melts the top layers of snow, and they gradually sluff off the slope. Usually, if you have a good freeze overnight (which I did), you can get to the top of your line and ski it before the sun increases the wet slide risk. I made the timing work, but it was a bit later than I would’ve liked, with the slush making upward progress more difficult.

You can see my ascent tracks heading diagonally right to avoid the cornices up top.

By the time I reached the very top, I was down to shorts and a t-shirt. With added effort, I managed to crest the top, avoid the cornices, and take in the beauty of the alpine.

Looking northward around the rim of the gorge—the Mummy Range is in the background.

I took a little time to rest at the top and snap some photos of the surround. After some food, water, and a bit of stretching, I got ready to descend. The first set of turns I made were simple, just along the top of the glacier angling towards the mellower north side. I used those first turns to test my gear and then made necessary adjustments to my bindings before pouring into the gorge.

First few turns from the top of my climb.

Once I felt I had made all necessary adjustments, I swallowed a rapidly expanding bubble of anxiety (pretty common when you think about any crazy outdoor activity you’re about to do) and ripped into my descent. It went perfectly. The turns were soft but not too soft, and the snow held without sending me any wet avalanche signs.

Looking up to my ascent tracks (left) and where I skied down (hard to see my tracks through the darker patches).

Now, Tyndall Glacier descends into a formidable terrain trap. A terrain trap is simply a set of features preventing a continuous ski. In my case, the steeper side of the glacier bled into a large bowl rimmed by talus. If I skied the way gravity wanted me to, I’d end up in it, have to put my skis on my back, and hike out to the nearest continuous snow line. Well, all of that sounded awful, so about 2/3 of the way down, I made an abrupt left-hand turn and aimed for a 10-20 foot wide snow chute that offered the best chance for continuous skiing.

Slide the bar to see my marked-up ascent/descent routes.

Luckily, the little slot I’d chosen held just enough snow for me to ski through some chokepoints and continue unhindered. Turning the glacier into a continuous descent down the gorge was a game-changer and the only times I stopped were to take pictures, say “wow” under my breath, and, occasionally, catch my breath when I needed to.

Slushy turns.

At one point, I had to ski on one ski to fit through a section, and at another, lost all my momentum; but, after some sidestepping and huffing, I was able to keep connecting continuous snow-fields. I think another day or two after I went, and the snowmelt would’ve made that impossible.

The last part of the descent is interesting because you bulldoze into view of everyone down at Emerald Lake. You can’t hear them if you’re skiing and making turns, but boy, can they see you. I managed to make it all the way down to the shore and scooted around it until running into the crowds. I could feel eyes on me but only really began to field questions when I stowed all the gear that could be stowed, got out my hikers/crampons, and fastened my skis to my backpack.

Here’s a generalized drawing of the last part of the run down to Emerald Lake. I traded emails with a girl from Virginia who sent me this picture. It’s hard to see, but the skier in the circle is me.

All told, I skied more than a mile and dropped 2,300 feet over the course of my run, and I could not be happier. While conditions may have been better overall for April, skiing down an alpine cirque glacier in a National Park will always be a top memory for me. What a day, and to think I almost quit when I fell into Nymph Lake! Granted, my pruney and smelly feet had a lot to say about that choice, but I took a week and a half to lick my wounds before attacking my June ski.

From the top of the Glacier, looking down the gorge, Emerald Lake is hidden from view.

Jump to Table of Contents

Month 5: June 2, 2021 (Sundance Mt. North Face)

Longs Peak, seen from near the start of my ski line down Sundance Mountain.

Even though the summer solstice doesn’t occur until the end of June, you could tell that warm weather was on its way. After a wet and cool April-May, the heat was coming. Following an upper elevation snowstorm (11k and above), the weather forecast looked dry and sunny. I wanted to take advantage of a couple of things, ease of access, high altitude, and good weather. I came up with Sundance Mountain.

Trail Ridge Road is the primary road bisecting Rocky Mountain National Park and closes down over the winter. When it opens back up (around Memorial Day, weather permitting), there are still large snowfields left above treeline that the road gets very close to. One of those is Sundance Mountain’s north face. The year prior, I’d taken my parents through the park, and near the highest part of the road is a small trail to the Toll Memorial. It was on this trail that my dad and I noticed some skiers, and ever since, I thought that it would be the perfect early summer Colorado ski candidate. I was right.

Let’s get it.

Armed with a June plan and still high off my Tyndall Glacier descent, I finally committed to the ski all-year challenge and was eager to try some summer backcountry skiing. I had only skied in June once before, in 2019, the year A-Basin stayed open to July 4th. My friends and I skied on a few inches of fresh powder on June 23rd, which was my current record for latest season ski. While I wouldn’t break that with an early June ski, I was confident I’d find the snow.

June 23, 2019, A-Basin.

So, June 2 rolls around, and I bulldoze up the recently opened Trail Ridge Road to just beyond its highest point. I was the first car in the parking lot, and that’s always strange, especially with an area as popular as Trail Ridge, but I was thankful for the solitude as it allowed me to futz with my gear and take oodles of pictures of mountains.

The Mummy Range from the Toll Memorial Trail.

There are a couple of ways that you can ski Sundance Mountains North Face. The top of the run gives you more than 700 vertical feet of super easy 20-25 degrees slopes. This is where most people ski. When the slope narrows and steepens (to the tune of 45 degrees), most people find a stopping point, slap some skins on, and recycle the upper portion. Well, I’d just skied a glacier; there was no way I was going to let a juicy 45-degree slope go to waste.

So, I skied the upper portion on a cold morning and enjoyed the fresh crunch under my boots while making wide GS turns. As all the other reports I’d seen indicated, it was fairly obvious when the slope angle steepened past the point of many people’s comfort zone. And, while unfortunate to discuss, people have died on the lower portion of this particular run, so you really need to “know thyself” before making critical terrain choices.

The beautiful and effortless upper portion of Sundance.

Having said that, when I finally got a good look at the lower portion, I knew I had to ski it. I had years of experience and had skied similar slopes recently. I knew I could handle the slop angle and the conditions. So, when I passed the logical point of no return, I flashed a smile and began slicing my way down.

The snow didn’t really soften up until the bottom half, so I wouldn’t say it was the best day out for the type of snow surface encountered, but just like Tyndall, I surprised myself with how smooth my turns ended up being. Aside from one break to scout my line through the bottom section, I skied a 2,000-foot slope without stopping.

Yeah, it gets steep. The line ends at the foot of the large meadowy patch of snow at the bottom left.

By the time I reached a logical end-point, I collapsed into the snow and practiced breathing for a while. The run only took about 10-12 minutes, but that is a significant time for continuous skiing. Once I collected myself, I took a shot from the bottom-up.

Runs like Sundance North have obvious benefits. Since Trail Ridge climbs up beyond the start, you can be out of your car and skiing within a few minutes. However, if you want to ski the whole line, and unless you car positioned, you have to reclimb the slope. Needless to say, this bit took a lot longer than the skiing, but the temperature began to moderate, and it was nice to feel my muscles working. About halfway up, I was surprised by the presence of a Coyote. I stopped and watched him stick his nose in a Pika nest, pull one out and devour it. Nature is beautiful, but she can be cruel.

Who wants Pika for breakfast?

Eventually, the coyote noticed me and began to saunter off, but not before I grabbed a few more pictures. Even in a state like Colorado, where wildlife is abundant, it’s always so cool to see big animals roaming around.

Lookin good fella.

Seeing the coyote actually gave me a nice break, which I used to adjust the weight I was carrying and eventually make it back up to the starting point. For the bottom portion, I had to use my crampons and carry my skis, but after the Coyote sighting, the slope angle lessened enough for me to reapply skins. By the time I reached the top, at least a handful of other skiers were out and about enjoying the day. The gawking from the masses on the way back to my car was a bit much, but I shoved some earbuds in, smiled when someone looked at me and kept moving.

Sadly, only a week later, another skier died on the lower portion of Sundance, which by slope degree alone is easily a Black Diamond or Double Black Diamond run at any ski resort. I began wondering if the ease of access and gentle upper portion were fooling people into thinking they could do all of it. Was this slope only being advertised as beginner terrain? And by advertised, I mean by word of mouth, which is really how this stuff spreads.

This is the point of no return, or as close to it as I thought made sense to photograph. Once you pass that rock, you are committing to a steep and dangerous slope.

I don’t know; I guess hearing about another death in a year that had already killed more backcountry enthusiasts than any other in the last 50+ years made me wonder if those risks aren’t being communicated effectively enough. In reality, it’s just the top snowfield that can support those easier turns; once you commit to the bottom, you absolutely need to know what you’re doing. I hope that people are accurately conveying not only the rewards of backcountry but the risks as well; there are a lot of them.

Jump to Table of Contents

Month 6: July 25, 2021 (Andrews Glacier)

Andrews Glacier

After my early June ascent, I turned my attention to other outdoor opportunities.

  • I took on Hallett Peaks Chaos Couloir, a fantastic mixed climb up an iconic peak, on June 8th.
  • I scrambled across the Gorge Lakes Rim, which included Mt. Ida, Chief Cheley, Cracktop, and Mt. Julian on June 14th.
  • I scrambled up a Class 4 route on the Spearhead, one of the more vertigo-inducing summits in RMNP, on June 30.
  • I scrambled a Class 3+/4 route up Lead Mt. in the Never Summers, one of the true hidden-gems of the area and a bear to get to.
  • I also hiked a few area favorites with my wife and had a banner scrambling day on Horsetooth Peak, a little known Boulder County mountain with an outrageous Class 4 option that I thoroughly enjoyed.

I was having so much fun embracing summer that by the time the last week and a half of July rolled around, I realize I hadn’t gotten my July ski in yet! A quick bout of panic turned into an opportunity when I settled on a trip to Andrews Glacier.

Andrews is in Rocky Mountain National Park and a fairly popular place; however, since it’s on the way to Sky Pond (arguably the prettiest lake on the eastern side of the park), it tends to draw far fewer people.

My wife and I hiked in and had most of the trail to ourselves once we took the cutoff away from Sky Pond. I’m glad I had gotten all the hikes in that I did since Sundance, so my body could handle carrying skis for 4+ miles because there was zero snow up until the foot of the glacier.

As far as alpine glaciers are concerned, Andrews still shows signs of movement and is generally considered an active glacier (unlike other nearby pieces of snow like Moomaw Glacier, St. Marys Glacier, and Skyscraper Glacier). Throughout most of the summer, the snow reaches down to a beautiful tarn at its base. By mid-August, the glacier retreats to above the tarn, but when we arrived, there was still a twenty-foot snow connection to the shores of the lake, which made for a much more aesthetically pleasing descent.

Andrews is not a steep glacier and has a maximum pitch of maaaaaybe 33 degrees. Most of the run is in the high 20’s, making it easy to connect soft, satisfying turns all the way down.

The conditions were typical for the summer, with some firm patches on the way up, bowing to warm slush by the time I made it to the top and clipped in. Even still, I had a great time slicing down the slope and made a series of excellent turns. It’s not often you can say that you backcountry skied in Colorado on July 25th!

Perhaps the most unexpected part of the adventure was the sheer number of people who could not believe that I had actually found snow. For many, this was their first time in Rocky Mountain National Park, so they wore clear expressions of deep confusion when they saw a sweaty man with a pair of skis on his back passing them. Everyone was friendly, though, and on a beautiful summer day, it’s not hard to smile and field a couple of questions.

Jump to Table of Contents

Final Thoughts

With Andrews being such an easy ski (and a tough but manageable approach), I began thinking about the next three months, and a bit of worry crept in. I’d always heard that August and September can be the toughest months to ski in Colorado because even after a heavy previous winter, the snow is more or less gone (except for the 100 or so permanent snowfields left in the state), and the conditions on what’s left can be quite dangerous. And while the high peaks can see snowflakes any month of the year, skiable accumulations don’t really occur until mid-late October, which presented a bit of a logistical problem. I had to find two skiable candidates during the two driest months in the state….hurray.

So, despite my elation at making it this far into my challenge, I began to wonder how difficult the next couple of adventures would end up being… One thing was for certain, now that I’d committed, I’d be hunting snow in August, September, and October, no matter how hard it ended up being.

I hope you tune back to read the next part of this ongoing series!

Colorado Backcountry Turns All Year: Year 1, Months 1-3 (2021)

In a lot of ways, it already felt like I’d missed my shot. I got into backcountry skiing during the winter of 18/19, and THAT would’ve been the perfect season to pursue turns all year. The drubbing the mountains received in March (including an upslope storm that dumped over 20 inches of snow on Denver) set the stage for a super productive spring with mountain snow lasting all summer. People were linking dozens of turns on St. Mary’s Glacier through August, which is surprising because it’s not an actual glacier and has melted completely in drier years. Hell, even A-Basin spun a lift on July 4th, the first time they’d been able to do that in years. But, as pretty much anyone with backcountry experience will tell you, start slow, get better over time, and do not take more than the mountains are willing to give. So, I learned slowly.

Brainard Recreation Area, unnamed snow shots south of Brainard Lake.

Table of Contents

All bundled up for those cold March days.

Backcountry Warnings and Resources

If you’re tip-toeing into backcountry skiing, there are a ton of resources and education that I would consider mandatory before taking it to the hills. I’ve compiled a list below.

  • Avalanche training (look up Avvy 1 certifications near you).
  • Avalanche gear (shovel, probe, beacon, radio).
  • Regular ski gear plus skins, frame/tech bindings.
  • Orienteering skills (download offline maps, or have a GPS watch or bring a physcial map and a compass).
  • Scout your line before committing.
  • Ski with patners when able (if not able, compensate by only attempting on the best day conditions wise). This is a touchy point, many refuse to attempt without a partner and I accept that, but if you have a flexible risk tolerance, and can accept more risk in one area (solo journeys) you have to compensate by nailing down all other aspects of the planning process to make the risk defensible.
  • Check weather up until the moment you leave.
  • Leave your plan with a loved one and have that plan include emergency contact info should you miss a predetermined rendezvous time.
  • Here are some Colorado focused resources I use: Opensnow, Front Range Skimo, Mountain Weather Forecasts (click here), CAIC (they have an instagram page and there are other associaed avalanche pages to follow as well), NWS.
  • For added info on planning and gear, please visit these two articles I wrote for an outdoor website called SkyblueOverland. The topics covered are crucial for any aspiring backcountry skier/rider. Essential Backcountry Gear, and Guide to Planning a Backcountry Adventure.
  • Additionally, I just wrote an overview of Colorado Snow, which has a bunch of additional information pertinent to centennial state winters.
  • Jump to Table of Contents
Recent avalanche cracking on Pt. 12,089. Be safe out there!

Transitions and Whatnot

This is the part of the website where I talk about my past; it’s not long, but feel free to skip by clicking here. Maybe I’ll just bullet point the details; that should simplify it:

  • Feb. 2015, accepted job trail building with Southwest Conservation Corp out of Durango, CO.
  • March-end of May: road trip out west from a home base in Georgia.
  • June 1-early Oct: trail work in the San Juans (slopes of El Diente).
  • Started climbing 14,000-foot mountains on my off days.
  • Applied/accepted to teach skiing at Beaver Creek (Nov. 2015-April 2016).
  • Met my future wife, worked two jobs (retail and instructing). Ski instructed for 140ish days, and skied a million vertical feet (ouch).
  • Accepted position with CFI (March 2016) (trail building outfit focused exclusively on the 14ers, worked alongside them on El Diente).
  • Proposed in Vancouver, ~April 17, 2016 (she said yes!).
  • Rebuilt summit trail to Mt. Eolus (reroute through talus field so leveraging ~500-1000 lbs rocks into place to make sustainable staircases through the talus), best job ever, keep climbing 14ers.
  • (2016/2017) 2nd winter at Beaver Creek (another million vertical feet, 125 days teaching, so burnt out afterward, but am now an excellent skier).
  • 3rd summer (2017) rebuilt the summit trail on Mt. Quandary with CFI.
  • First hut trip, ski touring, borrowed a pair of backcountry skis from my friend.
  • Applied and got accepted to a masters program for tourism management in Fort Collins at CSU.
  • Move to FoCo and do the grad school thing (getting closer on the 14ers challenge) 2017-2018 (May).
  • Part-time at Beaver Creek (winter of 17/18) and ski the Minturn Mile for the first time, technically a sidecountry run but started the brain thinking about backcountry skiing.
  • 2018-Alli moves to FoCo, I graduate in May.
  • Move to Boulder, June 2018, get married in Sept.
  • 9/23/18 summited Little Bear, have now climbed all 54 official 14,000-foot mountains in Colorado and a dozen un-official summits for a ~65ish total count.
  • The 14ers got me into scrambling, so I focused hard on epic scrambles, a few of which I’ve written about in this blog. Start developing a scrambling challenge but really just enjoying being outside. Backpacking trips with Alli & friends.
  • 18/19, epic winter, ski instructing part-time, and freeskiing a lot (Minturn mile #2).
  • 1/20/19: small backcountry run off the south side of Loveland Pass (ok, marginal snow and lots of tourists).
  • Get a Rocky Mountain National Park season pass.
  • 4/28/19-backcountry ski East Slope of St. Vrain Mt. for the first time (the “spark”).
  • Scouting mission up Shoshoni Pk, in IPW 6/8, still a TON of snow left on the ground, decide to come back and ski Queensway Couloir, which you can see from Shoshoni’s summit.
  • 6/29/2019-skied Queensway, first big mountain Couloir, ~35-37 degrees, adjusted to snow conditions well.
  • Rest of summer spent scrambling and loving the outdoors; then, of course, COVID comes to crash the party.
  • Winter 19/20 kicks off ok, abbreviated when ski hills close in March, still got a decent amount of resort skiing and teaching in along with a couple of sidecountry forays (Minturn mile #3 and Alta Chutes near Beaver Creek).
  • 5/23/20-ski Vail Pass east, Stump top east, and a side climb of Uneva Pk. (can read about that area here).
  • 5/31/20-Queensway ski #2
  • So at this point, I’ve settled on a handful of spring backcountry runs to bridge the seasons until I can scramble on open rock again; naturally, the hold of backcountry skiing gets stronger over time, aided by the pro-isolation early days of the pandemic.
  • Start conducting research on backcountry routes in the park and in the IPW.
  • Hiked/scrambled all summer in the Front Range with occasional forays to the western slope, but the Cameron Peak Fire and East Troublesome choke out hiking options by mid-September.
  • Winter 20/21, part-time at Beaver Creek again, Minturn Mile #4 (Feb. 26. 2021).
  • Jump to Table of Contents
Gotta love that smooth canvas.

A Challenge of my own making

I think one of the most interesting things about the turns all year challenge for me was that I didn’t even know it was a challenge until May. As evidenced by one of the bullet points above, my forays into the discipline came initially from a “bridge the seasons” mentality. I was tired of waiting for snowdrifts to take until mid-July to melt in some places, and I wanted to get comfortable on snow. Working tirelessly at Beaver Creek (which had one of the most comprehensive and well-rounded instructor programs in the state when I joined) no doubt had an influence on my confidence, but it wasn’t the flick of a switch.

As I’m writing this, I’m in my 6th season at the resort. For the first two years, I taught an ungodly amount, which forced me to understand skiing as not just a snow sport but as a complicated and evolving discipline. When I finally went down to part-time, I used my knowledge to catapult my own abilities and between Year 2 and 3 at the resort saw an enormous leap in not only my ability but my skiing awareness. By the time I tried my first backcountry run (2019), I had skied every run at Beaver Creek and neighboring Vail—had experienced snow in all its myriad conditions, and learned to adjust my body position accordingly. The nail in the coffin was when my buddy gave me his center-mounted Solomon Rockr skis with frame bindings. He was getting more into mountain biking and I did not hesitate to accept them.

The frame bindings were the missing ingredient. There are, of course, much lighter AT bindings out there, but without a binding that allows your heel to rise, you won’t be making it uphill. Combine a heel riser binding and a pair of outdoor skins and all of a sudden, uphill travel is not impossible. A pair of used skins later (the attachment that allows your skis to grip the slope when climbing), I was ready.

Making my way down Queensway Couloir for the second time in 2020.

By the time I finally developed a loose set of criteria around my challenge, the pieces seemed to have fallen into place already.

  • One ski adventure every month with a minimum of 5 connected turns attained.
  • During snowy months, one location is acceptable for multiple adventures as long as the line skied is different (different, in this case, means on an adjacent mountain face, mountain, ridgeline, or aspect with logical topographical dividers between “lines.” It does not mean tracks right next to other tracks and calling it different).
  • Geographical restrictions: the state of Colorado, 1-70 corridor and north. Maybe someday the rest of the state, but it’s too big to take out at once.
  • For the summer months, each snowfield or alpine glacier skied cannot be repeated. Safest bets include permanent snowfields on larger mountains and a series of alpine glaciers between. IPW/RMNP (Andrews, Taylor, Sprague, Skyscraper, Navajo Snowfield, Isabelle Glacier, Tyndall, etc.)
  • Avoid high use areas or hit them during the week.
  • 2 different sidecountry runs allowed per year (located outside of ski resorts but may be accessed from within them).
  • Go for a minimum of 1 year, maximum of?

Yeah, pretty open-ended, just don’t repeat lines, and in the summer, one snowfield/glacier is one line, unless there are extenuating topographical considerations, like the obvious separation in late spring between Tyndall Couloir and Tyndall Glacier (separate lines).

Jump to Table of Contents

The First One: February 26, 2021

The top of the Minturn Mile.

So, although at the time I had no idea how big the challenge would become, on February 26, 2021, I skied the Minturn Mile with my wife for the 4th time. For those unaware, the Mile is actually closer to three miles, exits from the inbounds terrain at Vail, and never gets over a light-mid 30 degrees in slope angle. After a good powder dump and with a ride waiting at the bottom, it is an exceptional way to end a resort day. Conversely, it makes for a longer but gratifying skin up.

All fluff on a powder day in 2020.

Isn’t side-country different than backcountry? Yes and no. Many sidecountry runs are only called sidecountry because they are adjacent to a ski resort, meaning you could ride a lift up and then ski down. However, no one would call a sidecountry run a resort run, so it occupies kind of a weird middle ground. To me, what really matters are the conditions along the line. No ski patrol, no snowcats, no slow zones; yup, that counts. As an additional form of punishment, I hiked with both Alli and my skis to the top of Ricky’s Ridge, the highest possible start of the mile. The hike added 150 vertical feet and 0.3 miles, which, I know, isn’t a lot, but since climate change may rob Colorado of its pristine winters soon anyway, I’m leaving the net as wide as I can. (Max. 2 sidecountry runs allowed per year).

Slide the bar to see where the Mile begins and Vail Resort ends.

Feb. 26, 2021. The winter of 2020/2021 was perfectly mundane, and before I knew it, March was on the doorstep. Skiing had finally gotten good in mid-January, but it seemed that a recent warm spell would melt a lot of the terrain features on the mile I needed to stay covered. Of concern were the beaver ponds, which are much less fun to cross when they’re wet (instead of frozen), and the luge, which has an afternoon sun face that can occasionally melt out LONG before other parts of the route. If you want a long analysis of the mile itself, check out this article I wrote: Minturn Mile.

It was a fun day and a great way to end a ski day at Vail. With decades of skiing between us, Alli and I were seldom chasing vertical feet, and lo and behold—skiing had gotten fun again. We skied maybe four runs at Vail before chasing the mile and it was by far the best run. Choose your own adventures, but try to shelve the weekend warrior mindset when you can, if skiing isn’t fun, then really, what’s the point?

At the bottom of the Minturn Mile.

Jump to Table of Contents

Month 2: March 28, 2021 (Pawnee Pk. SE Slopes)

  • Additional Skis
  • Hidden Valley (March, 9, 2021.)
Sunrise along Brainard Lake Road.

March 2021 started with a dry spell, and ultimately that gave me the idea to try Hidden Valley, which I wrote about here. Lots of good info there. Because of the dry spell and wind-loaded slopes, hazard identification was easy. 2,000 vertical feet later, I was ready to ski down. Hidden Valley is not hidden, and there were others out but only hours after I showed up, which was a timely reminder to abandon the “get there at the ass crack of dawn” approach I’d always taken to big outdoor undertakings. With variable conditions, wind, and sun exposure, I’d forgotten about the dynamic nature of snow. After a pronounced freeze overnight, the snow was very hard-packed and icy. I still had fun but could’ve benefited from a little later of a start time. Ok, noted.

The top of Hidden Valley, with typical Front Range wind stripping occurring on the slope opposite me.

The adventure I ultimately picked for my March entry was a foray into the IPW to ski Pawnee Peak’s SE slopes. On March 28, on a blustery 20-degree day, I parked at the winter gate for Brainard Recreation area and made the 2.5-mile road skin to the beginning of the trail.

Fresh skin tracks between Long Lake and Lake Isabelle.

There were a couple of motivations for getting out in suboptimal conditions. I had a weekday with no one around, I’d already skied Queensway Couloir twice, which shares the approach with Pawnee until Lake Isabelle, and the SE slopes of Pawnee are a relatively modest undertaking surrounded by more dramatic terrain. The avalanche rating from CAIC was yellow (alpine) and green (below treeline), and I wasn’t going to wait for the next storm to dramatically increase that risk. So, off I went.

A 2.5-mile road skin and a 2-mile trail section got me to Lake Isabelle, but not without some doing. The wind was fierce along the road, resulting in massive snowdrifts, the powder was thick and heavy beneath the trees, which ate up visibility, and the weather looked iffy. Still, the scenery was spectacular.

Once I began rising into Pawnee Basin, the views took on a life of their own, and I saw many, many lines for me to ski in the future. Sticking with my original plan, I took the easiest way up and passed by the bottom of the stellar-looking Pawnee Couloir (HIGH on the list for future endeavors).

The wind started really complicating things after I passed above a small, defined couloir and attacked the summit area. The summit of Pawnee (12,943 ft.) is a broad area with no protection from the wind, and after wandering aimlessly around near the top in a cloud, freezing my nuts off, I decided I’d come as close to the top as I would. After a world record changeover, I ripped skins, stowed excess gear, got my game face on, and began to ski.

The top of Pawnee Peak from my ascent route, ten minutes later, it was all cloud-covered.

The top 400 vertical feet or so was wide open and great for large GS turns on harder packed snow and quickly put a smile on my face despite the absolute onslaught of wind. Then, the run spilled left (east) towards the mini couloir I’d sighted and steepened sharply to a slope angle somewhere in the higher 30’s.

At the top of a steeper portion.

The couloir skiing was very short but very fun. From there, it was another slope of wider but still 30+ degrees until a looooooooong runout back to the Isabelle lake trail. Most of this was skiable but in one area, in particular, I lost all momentum and had to awkwardly scoot along, not willing to put skins back on.

Beyond the walking section, the pitch stiffened up again, and I was able to ski down past Lake Isabelle to the flat bit of valley at the head of Long Lake. Finally, the skins came out, and I started huffing my way back.

Looking back at the summit of Pawnee from below, Pawnee Couloir is front and center.

During much of this adventure, I was thinking, “wow, this is a stupid idea,” as 30 mph winds were screaming into my ear, and the true temperature hovered around 18 degrees F. But coming from such a hike/scramble first mindest, I’ve come to appreciate (and prepare for) the complete outdoor package. Not only did I manage to net ~1800-2,000 vertical feet of descent, but I also got to experience the high alpine in the middle of winter conditions, with a dense snow coat due to a recent upslope storm. Between the skiing, the views, and the solitude (zero people sighted until within a few minutes of the winter lot), I could’ve done a lot worse.

Jump to Table of Contents

Month 3: April 26, 2021. Vail Pass East-Uneva North (Couloir 2)

  • Additional Skis
  • April 12, 2021. Cameron Pass (Lake Agnes Bowl and Hot Dog Bowls)
  • April 20, 2021. Vail Pass East-Uneva South Ridge and Stump Glades
Skinning near Vail Pass with the Gore Range in the background.

April and May were my best backcountry skiing months. A lot of things were happening in my personal life (all good things, travel, family, etc.), so I didn’t get out as much as I had wanted, but a combination of even keel temperatures, nice spring moisture, and good coverage led to some of my best skiing lines.

I got out to Cameron Pass first, which you can read about here. This is a special area and a favorite stash for skiers from Fort Collins to Greeley, and I can see why. The pass divides the craggy end of the Never Summer Mountain Range and the Medicine Bow. To the west of these ranges, is a large, high elevation plateau known as North Park. With little topographical interference, if the wind hits these ranges right, they pull MUCH more snow out of passing systems than areas only 5-10 miles to the east. The avalanche danger is also SEVERE, and there are casualties almost every year, so I was keen to wait until a consolidated snowpack in early April to give it all a go.

Looking at the saddle between Mt. Richtofen (left) and Mt. Mahler (right), where my ski line awaits!

I skied two lines; one is the Lake Agnes Bowl, which attacks the saddle to the south of Lake Agnes (possibly the most popular lake in the area). The skiing was firm and fun, though I once again could’ve waited a bit for the surface to soften before scraping down.

About 2/3 of the way up.

Aside from a flat section on Lake Agnes itself and through a field a few hundred feet below, I was able to ski all the way down to the Michigan River before a quick jaunt back up to the winter parking lot. West of Cameron Pass is in Colorado State Forest State Park, which does have a parking fee. East is on public lands, so keep that in mind if heading this way.

I felt rejuvenated putting my ski gear back into the ole Subaru, so I thought, might as well do some more exploring. That exploration led to a skin-up and ski down of the Hot Dog Bowls. Despite the later afternoon descent, the temperatures held, slush was minimal, and the views were, once again, amazing.

Looking north to Cameron Peak, where the largest Colorado Fire in history began, you can see the burn scars (where snow is more visible along the trees below the alpine areas of the peak).

My second and third outings in April all revolved around Vail Pass. It is a pay-to-play area during the middle of the winter, but they waive fees in mid-April when Vail Resort is gearing up to close. Free access and a base elevation over 10k means skiable snow can linger here until June. So, on 4/20, after a storm dropped half a foot, I dragged my butt up to the pass and began skinning east with a mission to crest the first big ridge south of Uneva Peak and see what was on the other side. While the first run ended up being quite short, it was the softest set of turns I’d ever done.

Just, utter bliss.

I ended up with a couple of runs that day, all south of Uneva Peak, and one repeat from a year prior. They were all smooth like butter.

Awesome.

Naturally, I began plotting a return trip the next week to take advantage of some of the many terrain options north of Uneva Pk. On April 26, I returned and skied my steepest line to date.

The reason I chose 4/26 as my entry wasn’t because the conditions were best. They were still good, don’t get me wrong, but nothing could’ve topped the 4/20 trip. I chose 4/26 because it was a beautiful, steep mountain couloir that put me in an untouched alpine basin.

About halfway down Couloir 2.

Not only was the slope angle exciting (42-43 degrees), but I was also skiing at my best. Every turn was patterned, I dealt with a double fall line (when a ridge splits gravity into two directions on one run), typically blustery conditions, and absolutely killed it.

12/19/21: on another backcountry adventure, I managed to get a good perspective shot of the Couloir I skied. It’s Couloir 2 of 4 potential couloirs heading east from the saddle between Uneva and Pt. 12,089. There’s A LOT to explore here.

The skin up to get out the basin wasn’t all that bad either and gave me more stunning scenery to behold. It felt a bit strange that my best skiing of the season was after many resorts had already closed, and I’d personally closed out another year of ski instructing, but the benefits of the seldom utilized alpine spring are numerous.

Endless lines and LOTS of cornice danger, beware!

Does that mean people don’t take advantage of alpine spring skiing? Oh hell no, spring is popping with backcountry skiers because the snowpack has usually stabilized by then, so avalanche risk takes a nosedive. I just resolved to go a little farther and skin a little higher than most to get away from the heavily used areas. Rewards are plentiful for those willing to work a bit.

Jump to Table of Contents

Final Thoughts

Even as I came down from my run on 4/26, the idea of turns all year hadn’t quite sunken in. I’d reached a tentative agreement with myself to continue as long as conditions were good. In my head, that meant maybe late May/early June. Since that was my partial goal, it seemed more attainable than trying to find pieces of snow in August or September. Still, I was riding a high from recent runs, and my form felt great. Once I finally finished up the month of May, the thought of doing this all year really took off. And by then, my ambitions had grown significantly, aided by a set of bankable outdoor skills and a touch of mountain masochism.

Hope you’ll stick around for Part 2 (May-July)!

Up Queensway Couloir.

A quick Note

My writing on this blog has taken a hit recently but not because of anything bad. After some Covid Pandemic soul searching I got into freelance writing and have been writing trail, backcountry and scramble reviews for SkyBlueOverland. Please visit the “related outdoor articles” page where I’ll link the most interesting articles I’ve done. They’re all written by me, just for a different site. Lots of good outdoor info there (and marked up trip reports). I don’t write every single article on the SkyBlueOverland site but have amassed a pretty sizable collection, feel free to read them and dream of the outdoors until I start writing on here again!

Hidden Valley Backcountry Skiing (March 9, 2021)

Intro

Backcountry Skiing comes chock full of benefits and risks, almost in equal measure. It is a discipline that rewards methodical and purposeful learning with a deeper connection to nature. It can also be very dangerous for the uninitiated and seasoned veterans alike; avalanches don’t pick favorites. However, by arming yourself with the right gear and planning knowledge, backcountry skiing can satisfy the outdoor itch for multiple lifetimes.

This article details a few runs at Hidden Valley, an abandoned ski area in Rocky Mountain National Park. Because of its ease of access and well laid out ascent lines, Hidden Valley has become a local favorite for a casual backcountry outing. Adding to its allure is an upper portion above treeline and a slope angle that stays consistently between 25-30 degrees, which means lower avalanche risk than neighboring areas. Hidden Valley is best skied from March-May. Anytime before that increases avalanche risk due to lack of snow consolidation. Once Trail Ridge Road opens, usually around Memorial Day, it bisects the area, essentially cutting your longest runs into two pieces and limiting your fun.

Table of Contents

Backcountry Gear

Before we begin, let’s lay out some quick backcountry gear knowledge (for a more comprehensive guide, check out this article I wrote, Backcountry Gear: Essentials for Human Powered Skiing). The list below is crucial, don’t skimp on gear when avalanches are in play.

  • Skis/Helmet/Gloves
  • Winter Clothing: waterproof shells, thick ski socks, layers, puffy, beanie, hand warmers, etc.
  • Skins
  • AT Bindings (Frame or Tech)
  • Avalanche Mitigation Equipment: Beacon, Shovel, Probe, and Radio
  • Backcountry ski pack
  • Food/Water/First-Aid Kit
  • For multi-day adventures: 4-season tent, winter rated sleeping bag, avalanche airbag, orienteering equipment, batteries/rechargeable batteries 

Remember, it isn’t enough to simply own gear; take the time to figure out how to use it before heading out. Speed is key, especially in a backcountry avalanche rescue. Visit Backcountry Gear: Essential for Human Powered Skiing to get comfortable with the necessary gear and how to use it.

Backcountry Planning

Once you have the gear and know-how to use it, it’s time to start planning. I’ll briefly break down the central components below, but check out the Guide to Planning a Backcountry Ski Adventure for an in-depth analysis of the planning process. A good plan can separate success from disaster. No outdoor activity is worth your life.

  • 1) Pre-Planning
    • Learn how to Ski at an EXPERT level before heading outside ski resort boundaries. Find a squad. Start backcountry gear research. Hone your craft. Get in shape.
  • 2) Long-Term Planning
    • Geographic reduction: where are you skiing? Start big, get small.
    • Weather and snowpack research.
    • Research ski lines using books, online resources, and forums. Key data:
      • Total distance, total climb, and descent, slope angle
      • Local Emergency contacts
      • Unique factors: trees, cornices, couloirs, avalanche history
      • Get into the maps and apps, know the area like the back of your hand.
  • 3) Short-Term Planning
    • Managing Expectations
      • Constantly check weather updates until the morning you leave.
      • Popularity.
      • Tell people where you’re going and who to call if things go wrong.
      • Have a back-up plan.
      • Who’s got the medical training?
      • Go over the plan in detail with your squad. CHECK FOR UNDERSTANDING.
    • Packing
      • Make sure everything fits, and you can access your avalanche gear quickly. Time is critical in a burial situation.
  • 4) On-site Planning
    • What do you see when you get there?
      • Watch out for tree-wells, wind-loaded slopes, cornices, bergschrunds, and other topographical considerations.
    • Timing and snow surface i.e. environmental factors. Not all snow skis the same.
  • 5) Post-Planning
    • Analyze
      • What worked well? What didn’t?
    • Ease into the harder stuff.

            The steps listed above are only a skeleton outline; see my Guide to Planning a Backcountry Ski Adventure to iron out the critical details. Remember, you can always take an avalanche safety course through AIARE; it can absolutely save lives.

Back to Table of Contents

The Weather

Because Hidden Valley is in a National Park, there are many options for weather forecasting. During the planning phase of any backcountry ski trip, it’s important to check the weather using multiple sources. The forecast for Estes Park is a good starting point. Estes sits right outside the eastern park boundary, only twenty minutes from Hidden Valley. There is also a forecasting station at the Alpine Center off of Trail Ridge. Between the forecasts for Estes and the Alpine center, you can usually lock in a good spectrum of possible weather factors. In addition, the mountain weather forecast for Mt. Chiquita is beneficial. Mt. Chiquita is just north of Hidden Valley, and the mountain forecast is chock full of weather details reported from two different elevation gradients.

Keep in mind there are multiple components to the weather; it’s not just about precipitation. The temperature will dictate what layers to bring, and local weather patterns will help you figure out what’s important. For example, in Rocky Mountain and the larger Front Range in general, make sure to check the wind forecast. The Front Range is notorious for strong, blustery winds, and fighting your way up to a ski line in 50mph gusts is not fun.

There are also Snotel weather station sites scattered throughout the backcountry offering snowpack data. It can be a bit confusing to sort through the site, but here is the interactive map option. Use the menu on the right-hand side to create specific condition queries. The linked map will open with a window to Willow Park, the closest weather station to Hidden Valley. Snowpack data is really important for backcountry skiing; not only will it tell you if there is even enough snow to ski on, but it will also show you whether or not the area is experiencing an average winter. Any significant deviation away from average is noteworthy. Deep winters create more pronounced avalanche conditions, but wimpy winters can as well, especially if a storm overloads weak and unstable snow. Snowpack science should be a critical component of planning.          

As crucial as snowpack data is, the numbers would be incomplete without an avalanche forecast. This forecast is MANDATORY before heading out. In Colorado, we are lucky to have the CAIC (Colorado Avalanche Information Center). The information is easy to read, the maps are color-coded, and a flurry of explanations gives depth to the forecast. More specifically, Rocky Mountain is in the Front Range Zone; make sure you are checking the right area for the most accurate information. Do not go into the Colorado backcountry without checking CAIC.

Back to Table of Contents

Rating System

Below you’ll find route descriptions, maps, and ratings as they pertain to the ski lines covered. I’m utilizing a five-tier rating system illustrated as follows:  

  • Beginner
  • Intermediate
  • Difficult
  • Very Difficult
  • Extreme

Some areas covered only exhibit a few tiers; others exhibit all of them. Regardless, it is important to understand that each rating does not ONLY correspond to the steepest slope angle skied. Some lower-angle Difficult terrain is simply difficult to access and requires an immense amount of effort to attain, hence the harder rating. Take the ratings seriously as the separation between Difficult and Very Difficult often involves many of the hallmarks of true ski mountaineering, ropes, legitimate ice axes, mountaineering crampons, etc. It is incumbent upon each reader to understand their limits. Always start small.

For Hidden Valley, because of the area’s relatively safe nature, all the runs fit into the Intermediate category. I include a map under the Adventure Details section, the different colors on the map are so you can easily identify where the runs are, not how difficult they are. All runs marked on the map are, again, Intermediate.

Back to Table of Contents

Info Dump

While Hidden Valley has quite a few different lines you could ski (full review article here with Skybluoverland), for most, it’s almost mandatory to take the Columbine ascent up to Trail Ridge, cross it and access the Upper Bowls. What this does is allow for a 2,000-foot descent over two miles, combining the best features of the area: open alpine turns with great views, fantastic intermediate below-treeline skiing, and a runout that brings you right down to the parking lot (depending on coverage).

  • Ascent: From the parking area, proceed past the visitors center and head up the main drainage, keeping the tubing area to your left and a steeper treed slope to your right. The route is obvious as a low-grade, swath of treeless terrain that crosses Hidden Valley Creek a couple of times on its mellow ascent to Trail Ridge. It is NOT the steep T-Bar ascent, visible to the left of your route.
    • Stats:
      • To Trail Ridge: 1.1 miles, 1000 foot ascent
      • To top of Upper Main Bowl: 1.6 miles, 2000 foot ascent
  • Descent: There are three large areas to explore once you get above treeline. First is the Upper Main area, which is essentially a continuation of your lower ascent route. A secondary bowl to climbers left is also easily skiable, and the third area is a steeper treed area called the Windows. All are open for exploration.
    • Stats:
      • Upper Main:
        • To Trail Ridge: 0.5 miles, ~1000 vertical feet
        • To the Bottom: 1.6 miles, ~2000 vertical feet
      • Windows:
        • To Trail Ridge: 0.44 miles, ~950 vertical feet
        • To the Bottom: 1.5 miles, ~1950 vertical feet
      • Upper Main 2:
        • To Trail Ridge: 0.6 miles, ~1050 vertical feet
        • To the Bottom: 1.7 miles, ~2,050 vertical feet
  • Slope Angle:
    • Avg. 25 degrees
    • Max: 33-35 degrees in the Windows, but short and avoidable
  • Rating: All variations are Intermediate
    • Reasoning: You have to skin up two miles to make it a satisfyingly long run, and snow conditions will be variable; there are no snowcats in the backcountry. Evaluate terrain carefully.
  • Best Ski Window: March-May.
    • Before March, snowpack consolidation is not guaranteed, and after Trail Ridge opens (usually around Memorial Day), the area is split into two sections, limiting fun.
  • Good for: Quick half day out, or a longer day with multiple laps.
    • When I went, I accessed Main Bowl 2 within two hours of skinning, and it only took 20-25 minutes of skiing to reach the bottom. The Upper Area is also fun to lap if you want some variety between the three main areas.
  • Accessed via: Trail Ridge.
    • Enter Rocky Mountain National Park from the east on US 34 or 36 and proceed west. Winter closures exist above Hidden Valley. Take a right in the middle of a big left-hand curve in the road, signs should be obvious, and take the short access road to the large parking area. Hidden Valley is 7 miles west of the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center on US 36 and 6.7 miles west of the Fall River Visitor Center on US 34.

Back to Table of Contents

Hidden Valley History

Hidden Valley actually has some unique history. It’s long been known as a ski area, even before the first two ropes were set up in the 1940s. By the ’50s and ’60s it had morphed into a small but successful ski hill with a base lodge and cafeteria. The operation continued until the early ’90s. Due to a string of poor winters and competition from bigger resorts, Hidden Valley finally stopped operating.

Despite its closure, the forest service maintained a tubing hill near the bottom, so the area does get fairly crowded on weekends. As you leave the base area, you can clearly see what’s known as the Lower T-Bar ascent, which is a cut through dense woods where the old T-Bar used to be. That ascent route can be used to access a few different runs, mostly below Trail Ridge. The other main ascent route is Columbine (the name of the original ski run), which follows the path of least resistance up to Trail Ridge. Even when the road is open, it’s not uncommon to see snow hounds ripping turns in the alpine bowls for as long as the snow stays. Personally, I like the continuity of connecting the Upper and Lower slopes, it makes for a longer and more satisfying end to the day. If you have the gas, lapping a few different lines in the Upper Bowl beforehand can really give you the Hidden Valley grand tour.

Back to Table of Contents

Adventure Details (w/ maps and pics)

As always, I recommend weekdays over weekends and early over late, especially in a National Park. Be aware: you will have to pay to enter the Park. Check the park website here to figure out what passes and fees are required. Hidden Valley is easily accessible via major roadways, so tickets are relatively common. Make sure you know what the National Park expects out of visitors before showing up.

Below is a picture of what the area looks like from the parking lot.

Assuming there is enough snow nearby, find a place to slap your skins on and start walking around the visitors center, following the creek drainage as it begins a slow ascent.

Slide the marker to the left to see a labeled version of the Upper runs you can see from the parking lot.

Since I had never been out to Hidden Valley before, I arrived early to give myself the best chance of exploring without the crowds (of course, starting on a Tuesday morning in March helped with that too). I was the only one in the parking lot and didn’t see anyone until I had already begun my descent two hours later. Always nice to slide through the wilderness with just you and the trees to keep ya company.

Map of the area with colored lines. Note, the colors do not corroborate with difficulty, consider all variations at least Intermediate with the Windows variation an Intermediate-Difficult due to tree skiing.
My Subaru, the only car in the lot.
Once around the visitor center, stay to the right of the wooden fence and left of the pines. The path is wide and easy to follow.
Love the quiet, brisk mornings.

After a few minutes, you can look left and see the main tubing hill, along with what remains of the old T-Bar route, now used as an alternative ascent route to access a few different area ski lines. Unless you’re in white-out conditions, it’d be hard to miss the T-Bar ascent. It’s nice to have obvious markers any time you’re in a new area.

After passing the T-Bar ascent, the Columbine path becomes more defined, crosses the tiny Hidden Valley Creek, and begins threading its way higher. Roughly 5-10 minutes into the adventure, another former ski run comes in from the left and intersects with your ascent route.

To access the main bowls, keep to the right.

After the junction, the slope angle increases through a series of steps and runs. Some of the areas are open, some are spread through with young tree growth, but it’s all skiable. In fact, when I was there, I saw many varieties of tracks in the snow: regular footprints, snowshoes, microspikes, and skis, a testament to the popularity of the area. Of course, when I say popularity, I mean in relation to the backcountry around Hidden Valley. Compared to any size-able ski hill, there might as well be no one here. But, for those looking to dip toes into backcountry, it’s hard to think of a better place to hone your craft than Hidden Valley.

As the ascent route increased in elevation, I slowed my pace to match. It was still early, I hadn’t seen or heard anyone, and with only two total miles of climbing, I figured I had plenty of time to go at my own pace. For those reasons, even if the snow isn’t in that ideal spot between hard-pack and slush, I’d rather get up early to get some mountain solitude.

Eventually, as you near Trail Ridge, the ascent route skips to the right up a steeper pitch. As I looked to climb the left margin, I noticed a set of tracks leading back to the bottom of the Hidden Valley Creek drainage, which was still covered in feet upon feet of hard snow. Feeling curious, I made the rest of the climb along the drainage bottom, which was really pleasant actually. After a few minutes of casual climbing I was given the view below.

NOTE: If you’re climbing up the drainage bottom, someone built a jump on Trail Ridge (right above the red line in the photo). I didn’t see anyone fly off it, but you wouldn’t want to be below someone who did, and the drainage bottom is the landing zone.

At 8:30 AM, after an hour of climbing, I crossed a completely snowed over Trail Ridge. Even though this was my first backcountry trip this year (if you don’t count sidecountry runs like the Minturn Mile, which you can read about here) and my pace was undoubtedly slow, I almost couldn’t believe how little overall effort it took to reach the halfway mark. It felt like the right effort to payoff ratio, which is such a rare occurrence in the mountains.

The view back down to the parking lot from a snow-covered Trail Ridge.

After a hydration and snack break, I set my sights on the Upper Bowls. To my right some 50 meters, the main part of the Columbine ascent route met the road and continued across, where three large sticks stood, poking above the snow banks. From there, it was just a straight shot up to reach the main bowl. However, since I was already a little further left, I decided to play around a bit and find the longest stretch of snow I could. It had been about a week and a half since the last measurable snowfall in the park, so I knew conditions were stable, but the snow would be sparse in areas where the sun and wind had either melted or punted it further down the slopes.

So, I turned my sights to the left, sighting the large, rounded, and wooded ridge acting as a natural barrier to exploration. All along it, I noticed what appeared to be old trail cuts and funnels that seemed like fun. The ridge-top above, however, had melted out, so the total length of skiable terrain wasn’t what I wanted. I did take a picture and make a mental note to explore those lines after the next big spring storm.

Interesting ridgeline variations to the left of the main ascent area.

Immediately to the right of the wooded ridge in the picture above was a wide-open bowl tangential to the Upper Main area, so, Upper Main 2? I think the whole area has a ton of different names depending on whether or not your research is coming from text, internet, or old ski maps when the place used to be a lift-serviced ski hill with official trail names. The most traveled line was further to the right before the ridge curled around to the Windows area. I liked the open nature of the terrain, noted the exposed rocks, and made an ascending traverse to where I thought the most snow had accumulated, eventually finding myself in a krummholz forest above the bowl.

The Upper Main 2 Bowl.
Krummholz taking over at the upper margin of the bowl.
Looking to my right, I found the Windows. It seemed as though parts of that slope held snow a little better than the main area. The trees also looked well spaced and fun, I’ll have to give that side a try next time.

Between my position and the Windows lay the main ascent/descent route, or Upper Main. While I could see why it’s the most popular (easily the most straightforward ascent and descent), it seemed like the very top melted out quickly, leaving the overall run shorter than what I was aiming for. After a storm, I think you could stretch the Upper Main Bowl to over 2k, but given the conditions I was working with, I felt better settling on my variation.

Upper Main in relation to me.

I finally reached a point I figured was above 2k and set about removing my skins. The wind got pretty fierce above treeline and made the process harder, but it’s the Front Range, just seems like par for the course. I made sure my gear was properly stowed and prepped for the descent. After taking some great perspective shots of the Mummy Range (the dominant range to the north), I drank water and began to ski.

It only took a few minutes to dispense with the Upper portion, but I managed to connect some 15-20 medium sized turns in alpine bliss. There’s nothing quite like skiing down a mountain you climbed up. Even in the conditions I was given (fairly sparse and hardpacked) the pure joy of sliding through the alpine was enough to plaster a smile across my face.

…all smiles

From Trail Ridge down to the bottom took only another 15 minutes, and only because I kept trying to take pictures and videos. Without stopping and charging through turns, you could ski top to bottom inside of 15 minutes, which is great if you only have a morning or afternoon to get out. It’s a great effort to reward ratio for the time-crunched.

Things to keep in mind if skiing Hidden Valley:

  • You can always lap the Upper Bowls if you have time, between the three alpine areas there is plenty to explore.
  • The main ascent route is also the main descent route, watch for people coming up as you’re skiing down!
  • The Front Range has really nasty wind, check wind forecasts BEFORE heading out. Trust me, fighting your way up to a ski line in 50mph gusts super sucks
  • Because of its low slope angle, Hidden Valley is one of the best places to get a lot of natural powder skiing in. That is NOT a guarantee that things won’t slide and you should never go out in terrible conditions, but generally speaking, most areas in Hidden Valley stay pretty stable. Always check CAIC.

Back to Table of Contents

Final Thoughts

For the more apprehensive backcountry skiers out there, or for those looking to see what all the hubbubs about, Hidden Valley should be on your radar. Despite it’s tame profile, the area is a true backcountry experience, you have to go earn those turns. But once you do, and you see the alpine melt away before you as you ride back to your car, it might just end up being the catalyst for more. Warning: backcountry is highly addictive, don’t let success ruin your risk management. There’s always something to learn from every adventure and the more you analyze your adventures, the more success you’ll experience. Respect your ability, respect the mountains and respect the send. See you out there!

Back to Table of Contents

Part 10: Adventure Crescendo

Intro

After my parents left, it was time to load up and head back to El Diente for our last 9-day hitch there. Though we’d really only been on the project for something like two months, we’d experienced a lot of adversity in that time. Two crew members gone, bear and rat attacks, miserable weather, etc. I started to feel a bit sad that we’d be moving on. For me, we really came together as a group during our time on El Diente and the squad we’d re-engineered felt more durable than the first iteration, something I think we were all pretty proud of. Come what may, El Diente pushed us, and we pushed right back. I started figuring that for the off-hitch after our time on El-Diente, I would try to string together an epic series of adventures, a crescendo of the summer season filled with as many adventures as I could stuff into a set of six days. Boy, did I get that right.

Table of Contents

Hitch 6 (back half of August, 2015)

Having already established the new trail, our last hitch was going to be making the old trail disappear. It had never been stabilized and was an erosion trap in all senses of the word. We’d already rerouted the alpine portion and reinforced the lower bits of the main trail. So, with our CFI guys on the saw, we started cross-cutting trees to chop into manageable bits and regrade the old trail’s tread. From there, we’d dig up durable alpine plants (root ball and all) to replant the sections of old trail.

Trail Work Terminology Update (exclusive to this hitch)

  • On the saw: Whoever is operating the Chainsaw, which requires a special permit to do on federal land.
  • Cross-cut: A monster saw without an engine, the baddest regular saw we could carry in with us. Used since forestries ancient days, it’s a two-person push-pull saw that can make quick work of burly trees.
  • Soil compaction: A naturally occurring process on heavily used trails. The more boots there are on a trail, the more compact the soil gets. In order to replant and make old trails disappear, you have to make sure the plant roots can break into the soil and take root. Step one, using Pick Maddock’s and other tools to break up the compacted soil, helping our little plant buddies make their new homes.
  • Checkered Check Step: Like a regular check step but with a checkered and raised pattern on the tread side so people can step on it without sliding off an otherwise slick log.
  • PPE: Personal Protective Equipment like eye protection and helmets, mandatory in many cases and dependent on the organization your working with and what they’re doing.
Gator Gal and I working on a checkered check step, a crosscut is against the tree behind us.
The finished product. While it may seem excessive, logs get real slick if it’s raining so avoiding a nasty sprain while stabilizing tread seems like a win-win.

Between revegetation efforts, crosscutting, and checkering steps, the entire hitch was busy busy busy. We often swapped tasks to try and alleviate the monotony but ended up back at our old stations when we realized we’d all developed borderline OCD about how things should be done. Don’t try and fix what ain’t broken, eh?

SWCC crews are really guns for hire, so even though CFI had bought our services for five hitches, that didn’t necessarily mean we’d have the satisfaction of seeing the job through to completion. We helped as much as we could, kept their project pace on schedule and when it was all said and done, packed up our camp and left. From what they told us, it looked like they’d be working for another month or two, depending on when the first snows came in. Despite the less than satisfying realization we wouldn’t see the final project through, both CFI leaders expressed enormous gratitude for our work efforts and floated potential employment for next summer, which I thought would be a lot of fun. They were competent people and trail-building wizards; if I was to do trail work again, I’d want to work with the best. I told them I’d be interested if an opportunity opened up.

With that, we geared up on our last day, bid adieu to the CFI people, and left El Diente.

Bonus Story: On the way back from the worksite, we decided to stop in Dolores and eat at the local diner, a nice little send-off for our project. After sitting down, I got another reminder of the fact that Western Colorado is decidedly not Denver. A couple of plaid shirt and trousered fellas were discussing (loudly) the state of the new hire they had for their farm. Apparently, he had a man-bun, and this did not sit well with the older gentlemen. Ever the inquisitive soul, I tuned in and heard the following:

“A man bun?”

“Yeah a man bun, I felt bad but he seemed interested in fishin with us so I figured I’d better talk to him.”

“What’d you say?”

“I said boy you better cut that thang off if yew gonna come fishin with me!”

(Many nods of approval and manly grunting).

I honestly hadn’t heard that strong of a twang since leaving Georgia and it amused me to no end. And look, I’m not a huge fan of the man-bun either because I’d never be able to pull it off, but those oldies laid into him like the poor guy had committed a capital offense. Old stereotypes die hard, I guess. Somewhere out near Dolores, the dueling banjos from the movie Deliverance are playing.

Back to Table of Contents

Because I Could:

Over the course of the summer, my backcountry competency had been rising dramatically. A string of adventures where I hadn’t almost died really helped cement that notion. Always on the hunt for the next things to do, after leaving El Diente, the impermanence of the summer finally hit me. Another couple of months later and I’d be out of a job and off the trail, less if the snow decided to come in earlier. I doubled my efforts to apply to ski resorts, though many weren’t opening applications until September, and set about trying to construct the craziest, most demanding off-hitch yet…because the summer was short and because I could.

Not only were my backcountry skills improving, but I was also, almost without a doubt, in the best shape of my life. Not jacked, which is functionally useless in a manual labor position, but cut and capable. I had six days to kill, no obligations, and a pool of hundreds of SWCC members spread across various crews, who were also looking to maximize the time they had left in this magical corner of Colorado.

Those factors led to a great conversation during the previous off-hitch (before my parents showed up) with another SWCC member named Hawk. Now, Hawk is a great rock climber and wanted to dip his toes into some multi-pitches; meanwhile, I wanted to climb into Chicago Basin and lop off the most remote fourteeners in the area. We decided to do both. First: a multi-day odyssey into Chicago Basin, followed by a two-day journey to climb Mt. Vestal. Then, to top it all off, I’d travel to the great Sanddunes National Park, meet Gator Gal, go sandboarding, set up camp for the night, and drive like a madman back to start the next hitch. Needless to say: I was STOKED.

Once our crew supplies were stowed and the hitch officially ended, I rushed through quick goodbyes, told Gator Gal where/when to meet me for the Sanddunes and jetted into town to meet up with Hawk. After a quick prep session where we packed up and got our supplies ready, we turned and burned for the Purgatory Creek Trailhead, hoping to make some serious distance before it got dark. The adventures were about to take off!

Back to Table of Contents

Chicago Basin: Mt. Eolus (standard ascent, Class 3)

The most common way to access the three 14ers in Chicago Basin is to pay to ride the Durango-Silverton Railroad. The train cuts through the Weminuche Wilderness (splitting it between a smaller western portion and the massive rest of it). The train cuts off seven miles and multiple thousands of feet of elevation but also costs around 100$. For a couple of dirtbaggers, this seemed like a steep price, so we decided to just hike in for the whole thing and see what that did to our bodies.

If you don’t take the train, the hike starts near Purgatory Ski Resort, following the creek as it cascades north of US550. The first half of the trail consists of a descent to a series of picturesque flats, followed by another steeper descent to the banks of the Animas River. Unfortunately, the day was a little gray with weather threatening. In an ideal world, we would’ve been able to plan around the weather, but knowing we only had one shot to make it happen forced our hand. We threw our rain gear on, took compass bearings, and forged ahead with maps in tow.

It took a couple of hours, but we made the Animas in good time, crossing the river over a massive footbridge and eventually across the tracks themselves.

Not long after the railroad crossing, we had our first wilderness encounter. It was an adolescent black bear, my first black bear sighting in Colorado, and a cool sign that we were in it now. Weird fact: though I’ve seen more bears in Colorado since that day, I’m fairly sure I’ve seen more between N. Ga and Western NC. Black bears there be plenty.

Our guy was just to the side of the trail, rubbing his back against a tree like a back scratcher. We took some quick cell phone photos and began hollering at it to move. Startled, the bear ran into the woods and cleared our path. Brown bears are the more dominant variety and don’t always move when you scream at them. Luckily, Colorado doesn’t have brown bears, and black bears are far more skittish. If you see one, make yourself big, and make lots of noise, yell, scream or hell, even sing. They’ll give you space.

Hey pal.

After following the Animas River for a while, we reached a junction with the Needle Creek Trail, which provides the most direct access to Chicago Basin. Turning uphill, we continued hiking for as long as the light let us and then set up camp in a small, flat field ~100 yards from the trail. Having slammed close to eight miles in the fog and rain, we had no trouble firing up some quick dinner, stowing our smellies, and collapsing into our tents.

Smellies: Anything you carry with you that emits scent. Bears have a really good sense of smell. When you create a bear hang or use a bear canister, it’s best to put ALL of your smellies together, unless you want a rude awakening or a close encounter.

The next morning we woke up early, collapsed our tents, and hit the trail inside of 45 minutes, determined to get into the basin and set up for our summit escapades. The fog was still clinging stubbornly to the higher ridges, but we managed to make good time and drop our heavy supplies at a new campsite high in the basin.

Getting into the basin.

With our packs much lighter, tents set up, and position secured, we decided to make an attempt up Mt. Eolus. Eolus is the monarch of the west side of the basin and named after the Greek god of wind. It’s also mispronounced A LOT. It is not “YO-lus”, “Ee-lus” or any other version. Ever watch Lord of the Rings? Pay attention to how they say “Eomir’ or “Eowyn”. Phonetically it should sound like this, “Eh-oh-lus”.

Ehohnyawy, the trail up to the twin lakes at the head of the basin was easy to follow, courtesy of CFI, who had spent a previous season buffering it up. After the lakes, we found the obvious climbers trail to the left and up into the arms of Eolus. The fog still hadn’t quite departed, but we had committed to the adventure and took what the day gave us. Upwards and onwards.

Getting higher up the slopes of Eolus.

Once we ascended through a steep and very green basin, we reached the headwall and followed ascending ledges to the right (north) until we lost most of the vegetation and wound up in a high altitude land of rocks and stubborn snowfields, holding on to the memories of past winters.

Looking down at Glacier Point (~13,700 feet) and the high elevation tarn to it’s right.

From the top of the new area we found ourselves in, we finally hit the ridge separating Eolus from North Eolus, an unofficial 14er that doesn’t quite make the prominence rule. We, of course, decided to tag both since we were there (eat your heart out prominence purists), but not before grabbing this incredible view of the king of the winds atop Eolus.

Whoa.

Seeing the bowl of fog tucked into Eolus and outlined by our ascent route across the Catwalk and up the ridge gave me goosebumps. Seriously cool example of the tussle between weather and mountains. Eolus, the god of wind indeed.

Turning around we sighted the Class 2+ route up to the top of North Eolus and made tracks to it.

After the nearly two days of effort it took to get here, it was nice to be able to stand on top of a summit, and the view back to Eolus just got more and more ominous.

Top of North Eolus with Mt. Eolus in the back.

We spent a little time on the summit catching up on water and food. As we rehydrated and reenergized, the weather gave us a couple of foggy windows into the type of terrain we’d stumbled into.

Has a bit of an Italian Alps vibe doesnt it? Looking down into The Ruby Creek Basin with Monitor Peak and Peak Thirteen in the fog.

After a bit of ogling at the wild scenery, we set our sights on the ultimate target of the day.

Now, Gerry Roach, in his seminal 14’ers guide book, has illustrated a route that utilizes the catwalk and then skirts left until climbing ledges up to the top. In the photo below, where the red and blue arrows meet, it’d be the equivalent of taking a jog left into the fog and route finding from there. For multiple reasons, this did not seem like a prudent way to climb Eolus. Instead, we said fuck it and climbed the ridge directly up to the top.

To the left of the bottom-most Red arrow is a Class 5 headwall. You can easily bypass this section on the right (west) side and reattain the ridge.

Now, little did I know at the time that I’d be trail working in Chicago Basin next summer (2016) and would climb Eolus a grand total of six times. All six summits were made via the Ridge Way direct. Y’all, Eolus provides. Every place where it looked like it would cliff out, there was a secret step or support move that avoided the difficulties and keep the climbing at Class 3. If the ridge-line scares you, go the standard route, if a little exposure exhilarates, take the the direct approach. Move for move it’s not harder than the Ledges, just more exposed.

North Eolus poking through the fog from the summit. The rock at the bottom right is the highest summit rock and provides a nice perch.
Patagonia bout to call, demanding me for a male outdoor model. Stay tuned.

The set of North Eolus and Mt. Eolus and the look at either from the other is just a sublime Colorado experience. To date, it is my favorite 14er to climb and provides generally solid rock. As always, double-check holds before setting weight on anything.

On the way back down the ridge, a good sense of the “challenges”.

Naturally, the fog didn’t dissipate until we were waaaaay off the summit but all in all, the climb was fantastic. What a great introduction to the area with some excellent rock scrambling in supremely interesting conditions.

Getting a little lighter as we made our way back to the second camp we set up for this trip.
After descending by Twin Lakes, the fog finally began to lift. Here’s a view looking towards Aztec Mountain (left) and the upper part of Chicago Basin as it spills south.
Our campsite was tucked into the clump of pine trees in the center-right portion of the photo. The western slopes of Eolus (really quite a large mountain) are behind it.
Finally, back at our camp, we settled in and enjoyed relaxing for the rest of the afternoon. This is looking back up into the higher parts of the basin with Pk 18 (Dark fairy castle) left, Windom in the clouds to the right, and Jupiter as the large lump to the right of everything.

Back to Table of Contents

Chicago Basin: Sunlight and Windom (Class 4 and Class 2)

After a relaxing afternoon in camp with the sun warming our cold bodies, we slept like logs. Waking up early to take advantage of the most stable part of the day (afternoon T-storms in the high country are a real safety issue), we stretched, downed some oatmeal, stashed our smellies, packed up, and headed back up to Twin Lakes. This time, instead of peeling left to tag Eolus, we broke right and headed up into a feeder basin between Sunlight and Windom

At this point, I’d read just about every piece of literature about the 14’ers in the basin as I could find. The verdict seemed to be that Eolus was a fun Class 3 scramble, Windom was a 2+ bolder fest, and Sunlight was a sandy, irritating climb with a serious Class 4 final move to the summit (reminiscent of Mt. Wilson). Generally speaking, that was accurate.

Twin Lakes and the Needles.

The upper basin was lovely in the early morning light and we had fun identifying landmarks as we passed them.

Basin left (north). Sunlight Spire is technically over 14,000 feet but requires ropes to ascend.

Our first target would be Sunlight Pk., followed by an excursion over to Windom. Sunlight, while tough, is really a pile of oddly shaped rocks leaning drunkenly against each other. Before you even get there, you have to climb a very sandy and slick slope that reminded me of the bottom part of St. Helens. Two steps forward, one step back territory.

Lumpy Windom.
Twin Thumbs (left), Peak Eleven (center, leaning right).

We proceeded up the slope with careful steps, marveling at the bulk of Eolus and North Eolus behind us, and finally clear from fog.

Higher up in the basin. Both Twin Lakes visible lower and the whole Eolus massif behind it.

After dispensing with the lower slopes, we reached the ridge between Sunlight and Sunlight Spire. Precipitous and beautiful, we were awarded views north into more of the majestic Weminuche. No roads in sight.

A window in the Sunlight summit ridge, looking north to Jagged Mountain, a famous mountaineering destination and the namesake of Jagged Mountain Brewery in Denver.

After a little scrambling around we were also given a peak to our next crazy destination, Vestal Peak in the Grenadier Range. Isolated and sporting quite the vertical relief, Vestal and its left neighbor Arrow looked like serious endeavors. Before I spent too much time thinking about it, I punted my reservations into a corner of my brain called “tomorrow problems” and went back at it like a bad habit.

Arrow Peak (L) and Vestal (Center). Our next area of adventures post Chicago Basin.
Looking across to Windom and Jupiter behind it as we rose up the Sunlight slopes.

Finally, we reached the summit plateau, which for many is the top. Technically, this isn’t correct because a crooked 30-foot rock with a sizable overhang is the true highpoint. That’s the Class 4 portion; up to that point, we’d dabbled with some 3+ moves, but the summit rock is really what puts it out there. Smoothed out of substantial holds, the summit rock is not easy. You climb up a parallel rock, flop onto the summit rock, and then kind of beached whale yourself up to the top. Maybe there’s a more graceful way to do it, but that’s how I climbed the thing lol.

Looking north again with Jagged Mountain and the pristine Sunlight Lake Basin below (the lake pictured is unnamed, Sunlight lake is below the flat rocky section to the left of the unnamed lake). The rock at the bottom left of the picture is the summit boulder, a 30 foot, overhung rock supported precariously by other rocks, hope you brought your courage!

We spent a half-hour gawking at the incredible views. The Weminuche is by far the largest and (in my opinion) the most interesting wilderness in Colorado. There are no roads; no mechanical noises save the occasional jet overhead: it’s pretty dang wild. Chicago Basin is fairly popular as far as that goes, but a lot of the areas we were staring into hadn’t seen human traffic in years.

After a quick refuel, we geared back up, descended into the upper basin, and began scrambling up the side of Windom. What started as a strong second wind quickly whittled down to huffing and puffing. Windom isn’t difficult in a technical sense, but it’s still a big lump of earth, and despite our enthusiasm, we could not just run up it.

Climbing Windom with Eolus behind.
Sunlight (left) and Sunlight Spire (right). Arrow and Vestal (behind) with the Trinities to the right of them.
Unnamed lake in the vicinity of Sunlight Lake. The pointy peak in the background is Rio Grande Pyramid. The Rio Grande River (the one between Tx and Mexico) starts behind and to the left of it.
More unnamed lakes to the east with Greylock mountain and the daunting-looking ridge to Thunder on the right. Mount Oso is the highest peak in the grouping behind Greylock (no trails exist near Oso, it’s all deep wilderness).

After lounging around on the summit and enjoying the sunny day, we turned around and descended quickly back to our camp. The reach goal was to make it back to our car (~15 miles away) by the evening, rush to Molas Pass, fall asleep at the new trailhead, then start out for Vestal the next morning. Could I do that now? No, but again, best shape of my life, anything was possible.

After packing up camp, ready to head back down.

Ultimately we did make it back to the cars after a long, long hike back. Despite our waning energy, we’d stashed some energy drinks at the Purgatory Creek Trailhead and inhaled them before heading north to the Molas Pass area. There was no way I was going to set up camp that evening after two summit tags and a ~15-mile exit hike, so I just conked out in the Subaru. Since I’d done it before, it wasn’t even that uncomfortable. Next stop, Vestal Peak.

Back to Table of Contents

Vestal Peak

Hawks pose says it all, boy were we feeling our bodies this morning.

After a groggy rise and some choice words the following morning, we set about securing our essentials for another jaunt deep into the Weminuche. Luckily the sun decided to stick around, so we weren’t fighting rain anymore. Of course, the added light and warmth meant sunscreen and a lot more hydration. Trade-offs. Possibly the most painful sensation of a multi-day trip is setting a heavy pack on your hips. Our shoulders were strong from trail work but bruised hip bones just plain hurt, and a 30-40 pound pack really hammered that point home. Once we’d cursed ourselves appropriately for being so ambitious, it was time to get moving.

Looking down into the Animas River valley with the spires of the Needle Mountains standing watch above.

The first part of the trail was a long descent down to the river, followed by a long ascent back up to a bench, where we would then break trail and bushwhack our way up to the basin below Vestal and Arrow Peaks. The trailed portion was on a part of the Colorado Trail, a 485-mile trail from Denver to Durango, which overlaps with a large part of the Continental Divide Trail as well. One of the more famous/infamous sections of the trail in this part of Colorado is the descent from Molas down to the Animas River, consisting of something silly like 30+ switchbacks, dropping you over 1700 feet down to the river. Not so bad on the way down, but realizing we had to climb back up the switchbacks on our way out kept the optimism in check.

Hawk along the railroad, same one we’d crossed to get into Chicago Basin, just a couple dozen miles further up.

From the river, we had to follow the rail tracks for a bit until breaking left (east) and heading up the Elk Creek Drainage. The trail was easy to follow and enjoyable for the most part; I mean, up is up, and with a big pack on after three days of hiking already, it’s all just part of the grind. We got our first look at Vestal from near our cutoff, around a set of beaver ponds. Looking south at the imposing form of Arrow and Vestal was enough to boost my heart up into my throat.

The intimidating first look at Vestal (left) and Arrow (right). The ridge we would climb was called Wham Ridge, and it was in full sight.
Better view of the beaver ponds area, focused more on Arrow though the top of Vestal is still visible.

We took a break at the trail junction and forged ahead. Now, even though it is trail-less, in Colorado, especially sub-alpine and alpine areas, the bushwhacking is not reminiscent of any of the hellscapes out east. Usually, there is some semblance of tread to follow (especially if it’s a big mountaineering goal like Vestal) or relatively easy navigation on a day when you can sight landmarks. We found the climber trail up to the Vestal Basin to be fairly easy to locate. However, there were absolutely no switchbacks to speak of, so you were, at times, climbing straight up very steep slopes and desperately holding on to exposed roots.

After a lot of grumbling, grunting, and sweating, we broke out of treeline and began hunting for a campsite: while the imposing form of Vestal stood watch.

Evil looking.

…the problem with being excited is that you tend to do things without thinking about it.

After quickly setting up camp, we looked at each other and immediately reached the same conclusion. Instead of waiting around camp staring up at Vestal, we could just climb it right away. Hawk, who had brought the rock climbing gear, was immediately on board. So, despite conventional wisdom telling me to pump the breaks until tomorrow, we set out to climb Vestal at around 3 pm.

The approach from our camp wasn’t bad but we had to scale a low ridge and a marshy area before getting to the lower ramparts of Wham Ridge. Of all the routes in Colorado I’ve climbed, I still think Wham Ridge is one of the most appropriately named. I mean, wham, there it is, a ramp straight up to the stratosphere.

Wham. We rock hopped across the talus, took an ascending travers left onto the ramp and began scouting a way up.
Taken from right before we hit the main ramp. Ascent route is diagonal left until we were on it.

We successfully navigated to the main portion of the ridge and assessed what lay in front of us. Wham indeed. Hawk figured the first half or so we could scramble between the ramp and some horizontal vegetation benches without too much trouble. Since we’d brought the gear, we were actively looking for harder faces to climb; I do think there is a way to climb it as a Class 4 without ropes. Warmed by the alpine fire and the afternoon sun on our backs, we began heading skyward.

Looking back to the lower valley where the Colorado Trail deposited us.
This is a shot east, towards one of the Trinity Peaks. I found it striking that even though there are only a handful of peaks within the Grenadier Range, they’re all kind of on their own: not connected by high ridges, which is so common in other parts of the state. It really gave the whole range a regal, imposing quality.

After the grass benches lessened, we geared up and began scouting routes. The San Juans, in general, have lousy rock quality, but the Grenadiers and the Needle Range (Chicago Basin inclusive) have generally great rock, which absolutely helps the enjoyment along. In my opinion, the worst combination is a dicey scramble on loose, dangerous rock (i.e., Pyramid Peak in the Elk Range). With solid and stable rock underfoot, I knew I’d be able to trust my arm and finger strength to get me through any challenges that lay ahead.

Hawk, kitted up and scouting.
Looking back down to the valley floor where our camp was (somewhere in the pines). The lake to the right is also a good place to set up camp for a Vestal summit bid, FYI.

When the ropes finally came out, things started to get serious. From my previous experience rock climbing with Hawk and a couple of buddies from SWCC, I had a good idea of what was expected from me. I knew how to be on belay and pick up equipment once Hawk had set up the end of the pitch. Roger, copy, affirmative, and away we went.

One of the tougher pitches.

In total, I think we managed five pitches, with the third and fourth pitches being the toughest. The rock was solid but sloped against us, so purchases were a little harder to come by. If I had to guess, I’d say the hardest parts were in the 5.6-5.8 range and generally only a few moves long.

Pretty fly for a…Timo

Despite us zooming through the pitches, it took a while for Hawk to set them up and for me to pry loose some abandoned gear. By the time we finished our fourth of five pitches, the sun was noticeably lower in the sky. Instead of panicking, we doubled our efforts while enjoying this beautiful time of day. To be honest, I think the hour or so leading up to sunset is the most beautiful time of day in the mountains. The area is quieter, day-trippers have gone home, campers are setting up, and the mountains feel freer. It comes with plenty of risks, like dealing with darkness, but for those couple hours, it just feels like the world is taking a deep breath with you. Connected: is the word I would use to describe the feeling. You just feel like a part of the world around you.

Catching the sunset.

We finished the roped portion just before sunset. Hawk had wanted to do another pitch, but with sunlight waning, we thought it best to free climb the rest. After testing our scrambling skills in Chicago Basin, we knew we could find a way to get up the last bit. The top of Wham Ridge is pretty much vertical, but the rock is blockier and had excellent holds compared to the smoother ramp below. I found the change of free climbing enjoyable and sped up to the top of what I thought was the end of the climb. Wrong! The top of Wham Ridge ends at a subpeak (hard to tell from below). From there, a little more scrambling is necessary to attain the true summit, which is depicted below.

Just past the sub-summit and on to the main peak.
Finally on top! What a view. Left to Right (Windom, Sunlight (then a lower part of ridge) back up to Eolus & N. Eolus, back down and the last shapely peak on the right side is Pigeon).

As I’ve said in previous blog posts, the climb is only half the battle, so despite the IMMENSE satisfaction of topping out on this absolute unit of a mountain, we knew we still had a lot of work to do….in the dark.

The descent begins.

For various reasons, I did not take a lot of pics on the way down, but it was intense. Armed with headlamps, we made our way down, but Vestal is steep, no matter what side your climbing. The back of it, where we descended, is also much less stable than the front. We kicked some rocks down and had to slow the pace a lot to make sure this wasn’t the last mountain we’d ever climb. The brittle nature of the rock on the side we descended was interesting for another reason. Every time we’d kick loose a rock, it would fall and smack into the slope with a vibrant spark like I imagine flint would if starting a fire. Watching a rock fall down thousands of feet, sparking as it slams repetitively into the side of the mountain was kind of a cool phenomenon. It also reminded us of what would happen should we take a tumble, so keeping that in mind, we proceeded as cautiously as we could. It was a long and tedious descent.

Finally making it down to the rubble field around the base of Vestal, we still needed to traverse out of it. If you’ve ever been in a giant talus field you know it can be fun to rock hop, but if you misstep, you twist an ankle, or worse, get into a 127 hours situation. With it being almost completely dark, that might’ve been the most frustrating and time-consuming part of the whole climb. It really helped having Hawk there to bounce route ideas off of. If we had been making it up as we went, we could’ve easily walked off a cliff or fallen in-between large talus boulders. By the time we finally made it back to camp, we didn’t even make dinner, just passed right out.

Glorious peak.

Morning brought a period of reflection, made easier by our front row seats to Vestal’s blocky profile. What a beast. I think we must’ve sat in silence and stared at it for over an hour before finally willing ourselves to pack up and head out.

Look, I’m not a huge rock climber, I’ll never lead, and I’d only go with someone I trust. Vestal is not the hardest wall out there, but it demands physical sacrifice to get to it, let alone climb the thing. It was also a wonderful opportunity to push my comfort zone and try something new. I had a blast. Mad respect to everyone who gets out of the gym and climbs in the great outdoors; it ain’t easy.

Realistically though, It just isn’t my jam. I’ll probably never be a competent rock-climber; outdoor gear is expensive enough as it is, and I just can’t be bothered. I grew up hiking, backpacking, summiting mountains, and scrambling. That isn’t to say there aren’t some incredibly impressive people out there who climb, and again, mad respect, but eventually, you need to settle into the things you’re good at. I’m thrilled I was able to land a multi-pitch in a wilderness setting, but unless the factors all line up again, I’ll probably stick with hiking and scrambling.

If you want to check out an inspiring, cerebral climbing blog, head over to Olympus Mountaineering. You can tell these lads love what they do, and there’s no finer thing than seeing someone excel at the thing they love. The effort they put into their routes is the difference between a discipline and a passion.

After our quiet reflection in Vestal’s shadow, we packed up and headed back down to the Animas.

As predicted, the climb back up to Molas was a pain in the arse, but we did it. With a handshake and words of affirmation, Hawk and I parted ways. I drove back to Durango, grabbed a shower at the rec center and some internet at Durango Joes to plan the next stage of my off-hitch bonanza.

Back to Table of Contents

San Luis Peak

While not as isolated distance-wise as the Chicago Basin trio, San Luis Peak is not close to anything. The only way to hit it is if you hike the Colorado Trail or drive waaaaay around to a place called Creede and take some old dirt roads up into a holler. Conveniently, it’s kind of on the way to the Sanddunes, or close enough to it that I could justify lopping it off the 14ers list. After doing some quick research in Durango, I saddled up, did some shopping, and drove around to Creede.

Creede is a small town that is so off the beaten path you’d be forgiven for thinking it didn’t exist. Wilderness around here is plentiful, but I got the feeling the locals weren’t too sweet on visitors, so I passed through town quickly, found my dirt road, and slept in the car.

Amazing the difference a day can make. Woke up early expecting sunshine, got clouds and fog again. Oh well, off I went.

The profile of the mountains here wasn’t as dramatic as the bulk of the San Juans, but the weather gave it an otherworldly look.
Catching the sunrise on my way up San Luis Peak.
Looking at the lumpy summit, just a Class 1 walk to the top.

Even though the weather wasn’t great, the popularity of the Colorado Trail meant I still ran into a handful of people through-hiking. We traded a couple of stories and set off on our respective missions. If you end up running into some through-hikers near any long-distance trail, give them a shout-out or conversation. Long, lonely days on the trail can drive people a little batty. I always found it helps to engage when the moment is there and give them some human contact.

Desolate looking.

Above is the best look I had at the mountain. It’s…a mountain. I don’t think I’d ever hike it again, but it was nice to check boxes and walk along another part of Colorado. I always enjoy filling in my mental picture of a state, and San Luis Peak was in an area I hadn’t ever been to; for that, I salute it.

Back to Table of Contents

The Great Sand Dunes

After tagging San Luis, I drove down to the Sand Dunes, making such good time, I beat Gator Gal by multiple hours. Fueled by my easy summit, I decided to go adventure around while I waited for company. The Dunes are an amazing National Park and well worth the visit. The area had received an unusual amount of rain, so the whole area was really quite green, adding a lovely contrast to the dunes themselves.

The dunes from near the campground.

The campsites were almost luxurious compared to sleeping in the Subaru, firepit, smoothed area for tents, table, grate, and a big ole bear box. High livin, I tell yah! I set up my stuff, grabbed my day pack, and walked for the dunes. Along the way, I ran into my campsite neighbor and struck up a conversation with her. We combined forces and set out for a dune stroll while hoping to catch a sunset.

Mount Medano standing watch over the Dunes.
Medano Creek is a seasonal outflow from the Sangre de Cristo Range and provides a beautiful contrast through July. Later in the summer, the creek dries out.
The Dunes themselves were easier to walk on because they’d been soaked, leading to a tougher outer crust.
We walked up to the highest dune and looked westward to the setting sun. Amazing how quickly the temperature dropped when the day began to transition to night.
Cold and beautiful.

After viewing the sunset, we headed back to the campground as Gator Gal pulled up. In true outdoor fashion, we broke out the drinks, toasted to life, and traded outdoor stories until sleep called us home.

The following morning, Gator Gal and I headed to the little store just outside the National Park boundaries that sold sand boards. Why not, right? We got a little crash course in what we needed to do (basically wax the entire board so it slides) and then set off to find a dune to conquer.

The clouds made for fantastic photo ops.
Gator Gal shredding hard.

Once we fell a couple of times, we managed to secure our balance and had a fantastic time speeding down the tallest dunes in North America. 10/10 would repeat.

It’s hard to put into pictures how immense the dunes are.

Once we exhausted the duney possibilities, we broke camp, packed up, and headed out. Another hitch was around the corner, and truth be told, I was a little adventured out. Focusing on some trail building would be a nice change.

On the way out, I drove around to the Blanca Massif, a super obvious set of enormous peaks, visible from just about every angle of the San Luis Valley near it. Blanca is the third tallest mountain in the state, and the area houses two additional 14’ers. Naturally, I had to grab a shot of it, including a good perspective on Little Bear, one of the more dangerous 14’ers out there. Someday soon I would be standing on top of it!

After that, I made the long, lonely drive back to Durango, thinking of my accomplishments during what was rapidly becoming the most adventure-laden summer of my young life.

Final Thoughts

One of my favorite expressions is “get amongst it.” I first heard it when I was studying abroad in New Zealand and it just instantly made sense. Don’t be above, below, or to the side of it, get amongst it. Surrounded by achievements and salivating at the possibility of future adventures, I knew I was amongst it. Connected.

Back to Table of Contents

Part 9: Highlight and Lowlights

After what seemed destined to become a summer of increasingly escalating situations, my trail crew and I finally developed a routine. That isn’t to say things didn’t happen (and oh boy, did they), but we kind of just grew accustomed to the seemingly random nature of our situation. Adapt or die, I guess. Time seemed to pick up in the bigger sense, we still worked hard, and days certainly didn’t seem to pass any faster in the moment, but in hindsight, things just started to run together.

Table of Contents

Hitch #3

Hitch 3 was a rainy one. We were still down one member after picking up a replacement for Dusty. Her codename was String Chef, and she was from Crested Butte (or Crusty Butt as she called it). String Chef had a passion for cooking, and for going to String Cheese Incident shows (a jam band variety group), the codename felt appropriate. The hunt for the other replacement member was ongoing, so we relied on poor comedic timing, laughs, dogged work, and companionship to bulldoze ahead. Not a bad strategy altogether and our constantly improving work quality was a testament to that. There were two big developments during that third hitch: the hungry hungry bear, and Rico.

Despite our electric fence, during one of the first evenings of the hitch, a wind storm blew through and tossed some debris onto the wires, grounding them out. A medium-sized black bear took full advantage and left some messy paw-prints on our wall tent. Luckily, we’d roped and rocked down our food supplies but having the prints smeared on the tent we used every day sent a sharp reminder that this here be bear country. Beware the bear.

We set about improving the electric fence system and installed some old cans and metal drums around the supplies to help warn us if he ever came back. While nothing was taken, the bear did come back almost every night, prompting one of our crew leaders (Pennsylvania) to spend a night in the wall tent waiting for him. Apparently, the confrontation was quick and terrifying for both parties involved but allowed us a necessary reprieve from the bear. In the end, the black bear decided the effort wasn’t worth it and lumbered off to do bear things.

After the hitch, our group leaders realized we might need a pick me up; more than a week of rain every afternoon was taking a mental toll. So, before we headed back to off-load our gear, they took us to Rico. Now, Rico is a very small, very forgettable town with a local hot spring. My information is coming from 2015; lord knows what’s happened to it now, but at the time, there were two concrete baths created to hold the spring water, and it was free to the public. It became a kind of staple for us: complete a successful hitch, go hang out at Rico for a couple of hours. I think it was a great move on the part of our squad, realizing we needed a rallying point to keep morale up. Rico ended up being one of our most consistent highlights.

Back to Table of Contents

Rico Hot Springs

Off-Hitch

After our work hitches, I went ahead and kept climbing things. With six days off, I decided to explore the area around Durango a little more, tackle some 14ers, and get into some beery shenanigans with the SWCC group at large, including my first and so far only successful dumpster dive adventure behind a bakery. Could not believe all the delicious bread they threw out lol.

Looking down to Durango and the Animas River.

The above photo peers down to Durango from a mesa edge trail near Fort-Lewis College. Fort-Lewis, aka Fort Fun, is, for the most part, a sleepy college in Southwest Colorado. It is also known as a stoner-friendly area and gave birth to this fantastic video of students very clearly hot-boxing a parachute and then scattering when the cops show up. Click here to watch. Wonderful.

The next day I clambered into my trusty Subaru and drove over Cinnamon Pass, venturing past the Handies Peak Trailhead and down to the trailhead for Redcloud and Sunshine. I got my butt up at 4 am, made a quick breakfast with my portable stove, and hit the ground walking. Not even remotely crowded compared to the Front Range, Redcloud and Sunshine do see their fair share of summer hikers because they really aren’t that hard to climb. The toughest part is probably just getting to the trailhead. Either way, I wasn’t super interested in waiting behind a string of hikers, so I committed to the alpine start. Between hiking and getting up early for work hitches, my body clock was beginning to naturally readjust anyway.

Climbing up the flank of Redcloud as the sun rises. The 14er Wetterhorn is clearly visible as the triangular peak on the right. The first couple hours of the hike were in the dark.
Redcloud and Sunshine are usually climbed together and are not difficult. It’s essentially a long walk uphill at elevation. Above is the final stretch up to Redcloud.
The rock on the summit and its coloration, which I’m assuming led to the name. The second high-point along the ridge is Sunshine, with an unnamed nubbin in-between.
The view from Redcloud summit with Wetterhorn (left) and Uncompahgre (right). Uncompahgre is the tallest mountain in the San Juans and 4th tallest in the state.

Back to Table of Contents

That Time I Went Rafting

I can’t quite remember if it was during this off-hitch or not, but during one of them, I was invited to go rafting with our National Park friends from Mesa Verde. One of them had a boat, so why not, right? Well, turns out there were plenty of reasons why not. Being early June, and with a winter snowpack that put the whole region around 120% of average, the snowmelt had turned normally tame rivers into ragers, including the Animas, which flows through Durango. The first part of the adventure was very chill; we chatted, drank a couple of beers, and enjoyed the warm day. The finish was through a series of rapids known as Smelter. I started regretting my decision to raft when I began to hear the roar of the rapids. In my defense, not even commercial guides were running the river at the time because of the intense flow (measured in CFS or cubic feet per second), but there I was, in a situation I couldn’t really tap out of.

We made it over the first series of rapids ok, but after a sharp bump (I’m guessing a boulder in the river) my foot was wrenched out of its hold. Usually, you have your feet shoved underneath a part of the raft lining to better brace yourself, which had worked fine up until that point. But with my foot temporarily out of its hold, I became a projectile. Within two seconds, I was lifted off my seat and thrown forward across the raft, crashing into a couple of people along the way. The next thing I knew, I was way, way underwater.

Luckily, no one got hurt, and everyone managed to swim to shore. But there’s no two ways about it; that incident was pretty much entirely my fault. I did not hang out with the National Park boys after that haha, probably because they stopped talking to me. Sorry guys, don’t mind me, just over here burnin bridges.

Back to Table of Contents

Hitch #4

Our fourth hitch started off good for about as long as it took us to hike back into our base camp, so roughly 2 hours.


In our absence, the bear came back, this time ripping a hole in the wall tent. While he didn’t manage to get into all the food, he knocked the tarp and some rocks off our supplies. From there, the damn rats got into the food. Found no less than four rat corpses in our cliff bar stash. After spending a few hours of day one organizing what could be salvaged, we kind of settled into an “oh, that’s how this hitch is going to go” mindset. Rolling with the punches.

The rain seemed to taper off this hitch, though each morning still had that damp, sick feeling to it. Plus, it got cold; waking up to the 30s in July just seems wrong. However, we were given some absolutely stunning mornings like the one below. Fantastic nature at its fantastic finest.

Towards the end of our hitch, our CFI partners left early to address some issues back at their headquarters. We absolutely crushed the worklist they left for us and decided to take off early as well. We made our way down to Rico, soaked in the springs, and set up a small roadside camp before driving back to Durango the following morning. Ended up finding a nifty contraption that I’m assuming was used to carry supplies across the river we were camping alongside. Naturally, we played on it.

Back to Table of Contents

Off-Hitch and Diente-Wilson Traverse

After my usual off-hitch routine of working out and showering at the rec center, I began planning some more adventures. Chief among them? Climbing El Diente. Working for nine days at a time in its shadow had really worked up my appetite. It felt a bit strange, driving right back to our usual work trailhead and hiking in for fun, but having traveled the trail multiple times now, I knew I could crush the distance in no time. The sun didn’t poke its head above the horizon until I was well past our worksite and up above the spot where Indiana had his second altitude/asthma/seizure attack.

El Diente in the early morning sun.

The basin above our worksite, Kilpacker, was enormous. Our job was to secure the trail up to a certain point, but everything above that point was subject to seasonal changes, rockslides, and generally unpredictable alpine behavior, so it didn’t make sense to continue higher. I followed a smattering of Cairns into the basin, making sure to keep my eyes and ears open. For all their beauty, the rock quality in a large part of the San Juans is utter garbage. It’s mostly loose and oddly shaped, so it demanded a lot of my attention. I certainly didn’t want to twist anything out here. Eventually, the climbers trail began scaling up the slopes to the left.

Looking back down the way I came in.
I like the photo above because it really gives you a good sense of not only the steepness but the rock quality. Imagine an unstable Jenga tower of rocks between pebble and sedan-sized. The organ pipe-looking towers above it were interesting though.
After finally making it up to the ridge, I encountered my first solid rock of the day, hurray! I doubled back to the West, climbing a couple of hundred feet up until I touched the top of the farthest western 14er in the state!
This is the view westward. The clump of mountains across the valley consisted of two thirteeners and a twelver (Dolores, Middle, and Dunn). Beyond that was Lone Cone, all on its lonesome. The set of mountains to the right and farther back still are the La Sals (I think), a compact range in Eastern Utah.
After lounging around on the summit, I started looking at the traverse between El-Diente and Wilson. I waffled on traversing it until I saw a fellow climber scrambling up to the summit from that direction. Sensing an opportunity for a first-hand account, I asked him how the traverse was, and he proceeded to tell me. It sounded doable, so we combined forces and headed back over to Wilson.
The traverse is considered one of four classic 14er traverses. It was awesome. The guy I ended up following had come in from the Telluride side. He was an odd duck. He had a giant bandage wrapped around his head, which he told me he got from a fight at a String Cheese Incident show where someone accused him of stealing cigarettes. Then, after blacking out, he bandaged himself up, got into his car, and drove six hours down to the trailhead so he could climb the San Miguels. Right on my weird dude, right on.
Looking at one of the best profiles of Mt. Wilsons summit. The traverse to it from El Diente is majority Class 3 with one section of brief Class 4 and then the Class 4 block climb up to Wilson’s summit. We were trucking, and it took us a little more than an hour to cover the distance.
Looking back at El Diente and upper Kilpacker Basin (to the left) from the summit of Mt. Wilson.
Great view east with Gladstone (closest peak), Wilson Peak (off-center left, connected to Gladstone via a long ridge), and even Mt. Sneffels (the tallest lum in the back line of mountains, above Gladstone) visible. The town of Telluride is tucked into the mountains in front of the Sneffels area. Boom, just like that, I’d climbed El Diente and topped out on Mt. Wilson a second time. We parted ways East of Navajo Lake, and I made the longer journey back to the car. I didn’t really mind the extra distance; it had been an epic day already, and wandering around on new trails was a peaceful endeavor.
The other big thing I did was make my down to Telluride with a friend to watch a jazz fest. It was a fun time, but the weather turned on us, so we had to call the adventure short.

Back to Table of Contents

Visiting Parents

Hitch 5 (our fourth on El-Diente) proceeded well. I kept a journal and an active picture log of most of my adventures and when I looked up the pics from this hitch I found none. Either my camera died or there wasn’t much to report. We came, we saw, we worked. The following off-hitch offered some fun memories though because my parents came out to visit!

Since this was their first time in the area, we had to grab a ride on the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway. If you’ve been on it, you know what it’s like; if you haven’t, it’s worth an adventure. The train goes up to Silverton in the morning, lets you stroll around the old mining town for a few hours, and then takes you back. The scenery alone is worth the ride. The train is also used by various backpackers because it provides access to really remote areas of the Weminuche Wilderness.
Some of the cliff faces and gorges the train passed by were both beautiful and scary. Watching everyone else try to shove iPhones and iPads out windows to get the best picture was less memorable but fairly inevitable.
After spending an evening in Durango, we drove (parents in a rental, me in the Subaru) eastward, towards Pagosa Springs to spend a day soaking in the hot springs, which was fantastic. Even though they came to visit me, my parents also wanted to explore the state. My dad was particularly interested in hiking Elbert (the tallest peak in the state), and my mom wanted to stay in one of the mountain resort towns. After weeks of dirty trail work, all of it sounded good to me.
We stopped by one of our friend’s properties in the San Luis Valley, where I tried my hardest to be a cowboy: much to the amusement of my mom. Fun fact, I still have that cowboy hat, and it is entirely too small for my head.
On our way north towards the Elbert area, we passed through the mining town of Leadville. Leadville is the highest elevation incorporated town in the US (incorporated meaning it has a post office) at around 10,200 feet. The highest unincorporated town in the US is Alma (~10,500 feet), just south of Breckenridge. While that town doesn’t have a post office, it certainly has a pot shop, so you could get real high while being real high

Normally the Leadville area is pretty low-key, so we were surprised at the number of people we encountered. The town was popping! Of course, we realized quickly that it was because of the Leadville 100. Generally speaking, the higher you go, the harder it is to breathe. Colorado has long been used as a training area for athletes to increase their oxygen intake. So, there are people who come to places like Leadville to train for bike races, marathons, hikes, and what have you. Then, there are the real crazy ones, who somehow decided they wanted to bike or run 100 miles WITH A LOW-POINT ELEVATION OF 10,200 feet. These people are not normal and would probably delight in that description. Anyway, being curious tourists, we hung around and watched some of the bicyclists roll through the finish line of the highest bike race in the states.

Our destination for the evening was a little lower and a little fancier than ye olde Leadville. Leadville, while a cool place to visit, is also home to some hardcore Colorado mining history and a healthy amount of meth. My mom decided we would stay in Beaver Creek instead, which is much less meth-y.

In fact, after visiting the resort, I started thinking about trying to work there as a ski instructor for a few reasons. A) I needed to be employed after the trail season if I wanted to stay in Colorado. B) I wanted to stay in Colorado. C) I knew how to ski. D) Beaver Creek is a fancy resort, on the level with Vail and often less crowded, creating a sort of exclusive club feeling. After walking around the resort (even though it was off-season) and having a lovely dinner at the Met, I started thinking I could do really well there.

Beaver Creek, where the fur coats meet the slopes…when there are…slopes.

Beaver Creek ended up being a perfect place to stay because the following morning, my dad and I headed out to climb Elbert while my mom hung around the resort. Win/win. It was a bit of a drive to get back to the trailhead, but we started hiking at around seven am and made our way up the tallest pile-o-rocks in Colorado.


Look, I love mountains, they’re great. Some mountains are dramatic: some are not. Elbert is not. Yes, it’s the tallest, yes it’s a state highpoint, but it also starts from a high elevation plateau and isn’t scrambly or technical in any way. It is uber-popular because it’s a state highpoint, and because of its relatively gentle profile. We made little work of the climb. Having acclimated all summer and spending the last few days getting my parents acclimated, we tore up the trail and arrived on the windy summit before 11 am. Just like that, I was standing on top of Colorado.

My dad looking for the tallest rock on a mountain full of rocks. Looking Northeast.

Elbert has two summits. South Elbert does not have enough prominence to be considered a separate mountain, but since we were there and feeling good, we decided to include it anyway and made our hike a loop.

Me on a subsummit of South Elbert, Twin lakes in the background. Pikes Peak is the lump just above my head and waaaay in the back.

We drove back to Beaver Creek and settled in for a quiet evening. The following morning, my parent continued the drive to DIA and their flight home, while I drove the sixish hours back down to Durango to prep for another nine days of trail working action.

Back to Table of Contents

Ups and Downs

Having my parents there was both amazing and bitter-sweet. I loved that they got to see where I was working, and squeezing in another hike is always a plus, but seeing them reminded me of how far I’d decided to go to chase my outdoor dreams. I was sadder to see them go than I realized but felt strangely at ease with my future because they’d seen my world and had a great time. I think that’s so crucial: having friends or family give you that nod of approval. It doesn’t have to be showy or dramatic, but having that acceptance can be the difference between rising to the top or spiraling to the bottom. Despite the uncertainty (and honestly, that stuff never goes away), I felt good because I was having a blast getting to know the wilds of my new personal frontier. My parents saw that and gave me two enthusiast thumbs up. After a year of putzing around after college, I’d managed to carve something out of adulthood for myself, and it filled me with something like purpose. I was proud to show it off.

Highlights, lowlights, regrets and successes, they’re all a part of who we are. When we’re young, we tend to want to hide the parts of us that we don’t like (especially in High School and College where impressions mean a lot) but spreading your wings and getting right with yourself helps you realize that ascribing to norms is EXHAUSTING. Embrace the strange, go hike that mountain, go read that book, play that sport, travel to that place, whatever, different strokes for different folks. Do your thing, stoke your internal fire, and try to surround yourself with people that get that. Not everyone needs to understand the 40000 reasons why you love something; all they need to know is that you do. If their reaction is positive, keep em; if they don’t understand or worse, refuse to understand that you may love something they don’t, cut em out. Life is hard enough as it is; the worst thing you can do is make it harder for someone else. I know my mom and dad didn’t understand exactly why I was doing what I was doing, but they saw I was happy doing it, and that was more than enough.

Back to Table of Contents

Part 8: Tragedy and Recovery

Table of Contents:

Intro

By the time my second hitch began with SWCC (Southwest Conservation Corp), I was ready to crush some trail work. Our destination this time would be the slopes of El Diente in the Kilpacker basin. El Diente is the farthest west 14er in Colorado, and the area around it is very wild. There was an old trail through Kilpacker Basin that suffered from erosion and human pollution, so our job was to close up the old trail and finish building a new one above it. For this project, which would take the next five hitches, we were going to partner with Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. Like SWCC, the Fourteeners Initiative built trail. Unlike SWCC, they did it exclusively on the state’s highest peaks, often involving complex rock projects in the alpine. They were a professional trail crew, as opposed to our Americorp distinction, which fell under service learning. In laymen’s terms: when it came to alpine construction, they were varsity, and we were JV. That isn’t to say SWCC was unprofessional, but we were essentially manual labor for hire. Other companies could rent our services if they needed help, meaning we were often used to complete projects already underway instead of creating and completing our own projects.

The Group:

Codenames: Indiana, Dusty, Gator Gal, Bull, Wisco, Poetry, and Pennsylvania. Why codenames? Because codenames rock, and to protect the identity of my crewmates.

Tragedy 1:

They always say tragedy strikes in threes, unfortunately for us, that wisdom held. Our first tragedy occurred during our off hitch, and I didn’t even know about it until an hour before we left for our new project. As we gathered in the morning to load up the van and the trailer, I noticed Dusty wasn’t around. I soon found out he wouldn’t be joining us anymore.

As it turned out, Dusty had some personal issues that weren’t apparent during our first hitch. He was a kind and considerate person, but a lot was going on behind the scenes that none of us knew about. Long in a short, he ended up flipping his car while driving down a long dirt road to some campsites he had been staying at. Between the fractures, breaks, and murky circumstances surrounding his state of mind during the incident, he and SWCC leadership came to an agreement to part ways. While I’m happy to say he recovered fully, we still felt the loss. Before we’d even begun our big project for the summer, we’d already lost a team member. So, despite my best efforts, a cloud of uncertainty hung over our heads as we loaded up the van and headed out.

Once we finally got to the trailhead, we’d done a little group management and felt better about salvaging the day. Despite the loss of Dusty, we knew SWCC would be sending us a new member at some point. We just had to rely on each other in the meantime. Okie Dokie.

The CFI leaders had already set up their camp a few miles into the Lizard Head Wilderness, so we grabbed our gear and tore after them. We hoped to set up the remainder of our camp, stow our personal stuff, and get some work in before nightfall. Back to Table of Contents.

Tragedy 2

Roughly halfway into our hike, we encountered another scary situation. Throughout the first part of the hike, I’d been keeping an eye on my friend Indiana. He had packed an extremely full backpack and appeared to be getting winded far faster than any other member of the group. We slowed down the pace to compensate, but it didn’t seem to be correcting the problem. Finally, after some discussion, we took a break to assess what was wrong.

Not more than fifteen seconds after we stopped hiking, Indiana collapsed. His breath was barely coming in, and we could hear gurgling in the back of his throat. Within a minute, his eyes rolled up and he’d lost consciousness. Gator gal and I jumped into action immediately, remembering our WFR training.

Hearing the liquid in the back of his throat, I rotated him from belly up to his right side. Then, I bent his left leg as a kind of kickstand and used his left elbow the same way. Once they were in place, I continued rotating him from 90 degrees to roughly 135, angled down, until yellow liquid dribbled out of his mouth. With his leg and elbow bent and acting like braces, I was able to turn him over until gravity could assist with liquid removal. Being unconscious, there was a very real chance he could’ve choked on his own fluids had he remained belly up. You can’t breathe if your airway is blocked.

With that crisis averted, Gator gal scrambled towards his pack, remembering that Indiana had an asthma inhaler. While she looked, I made sure all the liquid that needed to get out, got out, and then slowly rolled Indiana back into as comfortable a position as I could because he had begun seizing.

…I think one of the worst things to experience is watching someone else have a seizure, especially if you’ve never seen one before. There isn’t a whole lot you can do. You create a contained space where the thrashing has less of a chance of hurting them…and wait.

Even though I remembered the WFR training, it went against every emotional impulse I had. I wanted to be helpful, I wanted to fix the problem, I wanted to do MORE…but had to settle for loosely cradling Indianas head so he didn’t hurt himself. In hindsight, I helped prevent further injury, but in the moment, all I could think about was that I wasn’t doing enough. It’s a terrible feeling, out in the wilderness and out of control…but it’s not like you can talk someone out of having a seizure: when it happens, it happens.

The best thing to do when someone is having a seizure is to make them as comfortable as possible and make sure their head, neck, and spine are protected. Without muscle control, the movements in a seizure are incredibly strong and erratic; people can do real damage to themselves. Had we been in cell reception, calling 911 would’ve been a priority, but in the woods, we had to make do. In any situation, DO NOT stick something in their mouth. This was common knowledge a few decades ago, the thought being it would help victims avoid snapping their own jaw or biting their tongues off, but the risk for choking is too great. Protect the head, neck, spine, and the individual’s integrity. When a victim experiences a seizure they are unconscious, so it’s not some muscle control that’s lost, its ALL muscle control, including, on occasion, bladder control. If you hear any gurgling or anything that sounds like liquid in the throat, make sure to turn the body over so gravity can help drain fluids from them; airways have to stay open, they cannot do this for themselves.

It took a few, exceedingly long minutes, but eventually, the worst of the seizure seemed to pass. Gator gal returned with the asthma inhaler, and we swapped positions. Wisco moved in to cradle Indianas head while Gator gal tried timing the inhaler squeeze with the few short breaths Indiana was still taking. It took a couple of tries, but she managed to synch two breaths with two inhaler puffs, and Indiana’s heart rate started slowing. It took another excruciatingly long minute for him to regain consciousness, but he did.

The next moments were very quiet, and very awkward.

During the tumult, I didn’t notice that one of our crew leaders had sprinted ahead to get help from the two CFI workers. They arrived within half an hour and continued assessing Indiana while the rest of our team tried collecting what remained of our sanity. Once they cleared Indiana to keep going, we all took turns moving weight from his pack to ours and completed the rest of the hike up to the base camp.

CFI allowed us to use the wall tent they had already set up and asked us to install an electric fence around it. Turns out there was an active bear in the area looking for human food. We spent the next hour installing the fence, setting up our tents, and rearming with our tools for an afternoon of scheduled work. Indiana remained in his tent to try and let his body adjust to the altitude.

Outside the grove of trees where our camp was, there were excellent views up to El Diente, and we enjoyed cutting tread underneath the shadow of the monstrous peak.

El Diente, “The tooth”

Back to Table of Contents

Basic Trail-work Terminology

As the blog continues, I’ll be using a lot of terminologies to describe what trail-workers do. Not all projects require the same skillsets. There are many rock work terms that differ from what we did on El Diente; they will be discussed in future blog posts when applicable to the project parameters. Contrary to popular belief, trail work is not PRIMARILY for ease of travel, although that is an ancillary effect. The biggest threat to trails over time is actually erosion, created from rain, wind, and humans. Many of the structures we built were used to mitigate those effects. Erosion is especially pronounced at higher elevations. Did you know it takes 50 years to create one inch of topsoil in the alpine? That recovery rate is far too slow to handle the constant pressures of wind, water and humans, which is where we come in.

  • Bench Cut: The main cut in a new trail. This cut creates tread and does so in an agreeable angle to an otherwise steeper slope, hence “bench”.
  • Tread: Tread is the walking portion of a trail.
  • Backslope: Obvious when a trail cuts across a slope. The backslope is an angled cut above the tread, used to set the slope back from the trail, thereby preventing the bank from collapsing onto the tread over time.
  • Hinge: The point at which the backslope and tread meet. Synonymous to a hinge between a door and its frame.
  • Pick Mattock: This essential tool is similar to what the ye-olde prospectors used but is not the same tool. One side of the Pick Mattock is tapered to a point (the pick), which allows the user to break up compacted soil easily. The other end of the Mattock is a bit wider (Mattock, or adze end) and can be used to break up larger chunks of soil or to scrape uneven tread down to a better angle. The wider end is also great for smoothing out backslope.
  • Dirtbags: A large, sturdy, canvas bag that is used to haul dirt to a section of eroded trail in need of regrading.
  • Rake: Not the flimsy yard work kind; this bad boy is all metal. Trail building rakes are extremely useful for revegetation efforts and for pulling scree away from trails.
  • Drainage Sheet: The tread, while at less of an angle than existing slopes, is not entirely flat. From the hinge, a good bench cut will angle the tread roughly 5 degrees outward. This is to allow rainwater a chance to drain off the tread in sheets instead of channels, leading into the next point…
  • Inslope/Outslope: The outslope refers to the 5 degree angle on the tread, not enough to twist ankles or feel uncomfortable, but enough to wash the rain off the trail. An Inslope is the opposite, where the edge of the trail is higher than the hinge. In this unfortunate scenario, over time, water pools along the tread, creating channels of erosion that affect the long term usability of the trail.
  • Fall Line: The direction of least gravitational resistance ie. if you dropped a ball on a slope, where would it roll? Determining the fall line is very useful when figuring out how to orient trails. Going directly up the fall line is inviting massive erosion over time as it would be the easiest way for material to move downhill. Sustainable tread almost never goes up or down the fall line if it can be helped.
  • Cross slope: This refers to the existing slope before we planted a trail on it. It’s important to understand the effects of cross slopes on erosion when constructing trail or the quality of the trail will degrade over time.
In the above photo, from left to right you have backslope, hinge and tread. Also visible are Pick Mattocks (yellow handle), Steel Rake (wooden handle), and Dirtbags. Even though Gator Gal is standing on the tread, you can tell it has a slight out-slope to allow water runoff (Drainage sheet). The fall line would run diagonal upper right to lower left ie the path that water would flow during a downpour. Because we’re cutting tread across the slope, the “cross slope” is the angle of the existing slope, which is, again, upper left to lower right. A lot going on isn’t there?
  • Check-step (or Check Dam): When a trail attacks a slope at an unfavorable angle, rain can deposit soil all along its expanse, washing away tread and accelerating erosion. A check-step is a thick section of log, or, in some cases rock, set into the slope, perpendicular to the trail, that breaks up the slope rise. This creates a stair-like design, where the tread between check steps isn’t angled enough to accelerate existing erosion.
An example of check steps, and the “stair-like” design.
  • Reveg: Short for revegetation. In many cases, in order to build sustainable trail, old unsustainable trails need to be closed. Revegetation is the process by which we move existing vegetation (roots and all) into the old trail and set them in ways to promote further growth. With a successful reveg, old trails disappear within a few years.
  • Borrow Pit: A pit dug way off-trail, where soil is taken to regrade existing trail. The borrow pit is dug in an area that does not suffer from excessive erosion, is far from traveled areas, and is always filled in with rocks, sticks, and other natural items to mitigate any animals falling into it.
  • Spade: A shovel with a spade shape, great for starting borrow pits as the slightly tapered end allows for easier ground penetration.
  • Rockbar: An 18 pound rock stick, used primarily in scree and talus for leverage when moving rocks that are hundreds of pounds.
  • Drain: An extra water mitigation feature where a side of the trail in even terrain is blown out and angled down to allow for water to evacuate the tread. Not very useful in steep cross slopes or in rock-fields.
  • Waterbar: Usually positioned below a drain, the water bar is an elevated bump (usually a log larger than the average check step), set at an angle, which forces existing water on the tread to follow the drain off the trail.
  • Apron: The shape of the drain is important. It starts narrow and balloons out into an apron shape to help sheet the water. Without an apron, concentrated water flow will create channels that increase erosion.
  • Braid: This occurs when a massive amount of people hike on a given trail. A braid is a thread of compacted soil, not tied to the original trail, but exists because hikers pass around other hikers or prefer to walk on grass instead of dirt. The problem with braids is that they ruin a wilderness quality and increase erosion. Erosion from trail braiding is much more severe in the alpine as the ecosystem isn’t built to handle large amounts of people. Shutting down braids is a popular trail building task.
  • Turnpike: Sometimes trails travel through flat, wet areas where water has trouble leaving. In this case, building a turnpike may be appropriate. A turnpike is outlined by two long wooden runners, set into the slope with wooden wedges and rebar. Between the logs, various sizes of rocks are set from larger to smaller. The top of the turnpike is filled in with soil. You’ve now created an elevated section of trail, where water can drain through the soil and rocks beneath to keep the tread above dry.
  • Flagging: Usually done by the trail designer or project leads, flagging is literally planting small flags along the eventual trail route. They can be moved as the situation on the ground changes but are there to outline where the trail needs to be and where it will ultimately go.

There are many additional terms but that should getcha brain cookin. I’ll revisit specific concepts in future posts as trail issues arise.

We worked for the rest of the afternoon under the shadow of El Diente, while Indiana recovered in his tent. Still unsure of precisely what caused his medical moment, we were in no rush to put him to work. However, when we returned to the camp to set up for dinner, we were all pleasantly surprised to see him back to his normals self, cracking jokes and sporting a devious grin. His attitude flip did a lot to quell some of our nerves; I mean, one day into our most consequential work project, and we’d already lost one member and nearly another. The sighs of relief were audible.

Back to Table of Contents

Tragedy 3

The next day we woke early, stumbled to the wall tent, did our morning routine (including some group team-building exercises), and tried to get ready for the day. With mountain weather as variable as it was, and the threat of afternoon storms always looming, we woke early to take advantage of the most settled part of the day. It involved resetting our body clocks, but after a few days of adjusting, I found that waking up before the sun rose and falling asleep as it set was a nice routine.

Since SWCC was an introduction to the outdoors for a lot of people, the organization had mule packed in a lot of our supplies, including group food stores like an unholy amount of cliff bars, breakfast foods, powdered milk, coffee, and a host of other items. The dinner meals, lunches, and personal snacks we all had to haul in. Carrying less weight was nice, but the bland oatmeal and weak coffee could’ve been better. I think our CFI coworkers saw my expression and knew immediately what I was thinking. As we all tried to will ourselves awake, I chatted with them briefly.

Red-tail was an outdoorsy girl from the start. Originally from Vermont, she had spent some time living in Thailand. Phish was, unsurprisingly, a Phish fan and went to the multi-day show in Colorado every year. They were trail wizards and had been building for a variety of years. The knowledge they dropped was consequential in cementing my desire to live this kind of life for more than just one summer. More immediately, I got the sense that as project leaders, they knew what needed to be done and could give us all some solid direction: which, in light of our recent challenges, seemed like a really good idea.

Once we were loaded up and ready, we journeyed up beyond tree-line to a section of trail they had started building the year prior. While most of our work would consist of closing down an old trail down lower, it was a nice change to be able to journey above the trees. We worked diligently to clear a path through loose scree, using metal rakes and various tools as best we could.

The section of trail we would work on, in the picture above, marked by orange flagging.

I found myself much more energetic than the previous day. How could anyone not be excited about the alpine? Ridiculous. Anyway, then everything went to hell.

We’d set up along different parts of the slope when the cry came, “Indiana’s down!” I turned back down the trail to see our teammate in the same position he was in yesterday, gasping for breath as his eyes rolled back into his head. Cursing, I scrambled down the slope towards him and did as I did the previous day, putting him in as comfortable a position as possible and making sure to tip him over to dump yellow bile like fluid out of his threat. Gator gal jumped towards Indiana’s pack and freed the inhaler again. This time it took a lot longer to control the seizing. I set a jacket over his midsection while the rest of the squad took turns stabilizing his neck, head, and spine. This episode lasted longer and was scarier than the first one because we were farther from help and Indiana kept making harrowing whimpering noises, even though we couldn’t get him to consciously acknowledge us. We were forced to wait out the worst of the seizing before Gator gal could time some inhaler blasts. Eventually, his eyes rolled back to open, and consciousness returned.

I collapsed back against the slope and looked despondently towards Gator Gal, the rest of my squad, and our CFI mates. Everyone’s faces spoke volumes during those silent moments, and we knew that the situation was now untenable. We had to get Indiana out of here. Pennsylvania and Harvard walked Indiana back down to camp and stayed with him as we tried to salvage the day’s project.

To be honest, even though we did the work, it was hard to stay in the moment because all of my thoughts were bent towards Indiana. Conversations were few and far between until it was time to tool up and call it a day.

Looking back up at the area we were working when Indiana had a second attack.

The following morning, a plan was hatched, and our CFI buds, Red-tail and Phish, walked Indiana back to the trailhead with Harvard. Armed with satellite phones, an SWCC leader would be waiting at the trailhead to take Indiana back to Durango, where they’d run some tests in a local doctor’s office to assess the situation. Boom, another member lost.

While we worked the following seven days as we were supposed to, it was hard to remember much from that hitch, aside from a pervasive somber attitude. The work continued, but we were hamstrung, two members gone within a few days. I felt like one of the rats caught in our sump (a pit we dug, where we dumped excess cooking liquids, soap, and toothpaste). By digging the sump down deep enough, we guaranteed the liquids would be reabsorbed into the soil instead of running down into potential water sources. But it wasn’t fancy, just a sometimes liquid-filled hole. Because of the variety of liquids in the sump, it had a…scent, I guess, not enough for us to smell, but the rats sure did.

Towards the end of our hitch, I remember standing near the sump, brushing my teeth in sheets of rain after another day of work and looking down into the sump, seeing not one but three rat bodies, just…floating there. I think over the course of our five hitches on El Diente the sump murdered dozens of them. A weird reality for a weird set of days. After Indiana’s departure, our SWCC leads (Harvard and Pennsylvania) talked to each of us individually, daily, to ask how we were holding up. I didn’t lie, but I wasn’t happy. I just felt useless, floating belly up in the wilderness like a rat in a sump.

By the time the hitch ended, we’d accomplished good work, but morale had taken a serious hit. I resolved to spend the off hitch forcing myself into a better attitude. We all had to step up, and after going through an abbreviated form of the grieving process, I figured it would do more lasting damage to sink. Naturally, my plan involved getting amongst it.

Back to Table of Contents

Ultimate, Rock Climbing, and Mountaineering

The first thing I did after our hitch ended was head straight for the rec center in Durango to push weights. I’m not a body-builder but the repetitive motions, and the resistance encountered, helped me expel some of my bad attitude. The shower afterward washed all of the remaining crap away, and I left feeling 1000% better. I later found out each member of our squad was doing something similar; whether it was calling family, heading to the bar, or trolling around Durango, we all kind of needed a reset. Mental health, you know?

I met up with the rest of the squad (minus Harvard and Pennsylvania) at Durango Brewing (RIP), and we resolved to tackle each new challenge together. Strength through tragedy. We’d been tested, and the ones remaining would finish the damn season together. It was a good moment, punctuated by mediocre beer and rolled cigarettes, but a turning point for our little group. We handled two medical emergencies and had to say goodbye to two members. What was left was a no BS squad of dirtbags, ready to take it to the mountain.

We all met up with some of the Park Rangers we’d worked with the previous hitch in Mesa Verde the following day and ended up playing ultimate frisbee with them. I’m not usually a huge frisbee fan but being a part of something was enough to distract us from the crappy hitch we’d just had. I even cemented some hiking plans with one of the rangers. After seeing El Diente and the peaks around it, I was very interested in climbing it. With another 4.5 days of break before the next hitch, there was plenty of time to get a good trip in.

The last item on my checklist before embarking on another mountain-escapade was to see Indiana. He had spent the rest of our hitch loafing around Durango and had agreed to go rock climbing with Hawk (from a different SWCC crew) and a few others near the town. I figured it would be nice to see him, get his story and ask the inevitable question of “whatcha gonna do now?”

Me, in the circle.

After climbing a few routes, I got the full story. Indiana had a heart condition where one of his valves didn’t close all the way. He had also never been at elevations as high as we were operating before. Indiana is, as a state, quite low, and he hadn’t spent much time outside it. Compounding those two factors was persistent asthma. When combined, they produced the seizing and loss of consciousness we’d seen. There was no way to check for that in the backcountry, and he was honestly surprised no previous doctor had told him about it. He had made the tough choice to call it quits. There was simply no way to tell if he would ever acclimatize and the risk for another attack was far too great. We chatted and reminisced about the good times over the past three weeks, but the following day, I was off to climb some 14ers, and Indiana was on his way home.

The San Miguels

El Diente, Mt. Wilson, and Wilson Peak are part of a subrange of mountains known as the San Miguels. They are part of the larger San Juan Range but disconnected from them by the area around Telluride. Wilson Peak is especially prominent from the town and is the summit that appears on Coors beer cans. During the middle and end of the previous hitch, in order to fend off boredom and the somberness of our reduced team, I asked if our CFI mates had any books with them. Turns out, they’d brought a small library, knowing they’d be fixing El Diente all summer long. One of the books was a copy of Colorado’s 14ers: From Hikes to Climbs, by Gerry Roach. It had long been the de-facto resource for climbing all the peaks over 14,000 feet in the state. Eventually, his books would have to compete with excellent route sites like 14ers.com, but out in the wild, internet was suspiciously lacking, so the book was what I had to entertain myself with. Naturally, this led to a slow epiphany. I’d already done two 14ers, might as well do all of them in the San Juans. The epiphany hadn’t quite made it to, “might as well do all of them in the state”, but the wheels were turning inevitably in that direction.

I settled on the trio near our worksite because, after nine days of staring up at El Diente, and knowing there were two other mountains behind it, I was properly motivated. I met my National Park ranger friend, let’s call him Big Bend (he was straight outta west TX), at the trailhead for our hike. I figured the best way to attack the San Miguels from the south was via a campsite at Navajo Lake, situated in a high cirque between the three. So that’s what we did.

The Forest Service often has cooperative grazing contracts with local farmers and apparently Sheepherders.
Found these guys mean mugging us on the way to Navajo Lake.
Navajo Lake and Gladstone Peak behind.

We set up camp in between brief rainstorms and settled in. Do I find it strange that Mount Wilson and Wilson Peak are two separate mountains with similar names that are very close to one another? Yes. But that wasn’t enough of a concern to stop me from scrambling up them. We drifted off into restful sleep and woke up at the butt-crack of dawn to tackle our first target. Wilson Peak is a solid Class 3 scramble over loose rocks. It is a fun and challenging scramble, briefly becoming the toughest 14er I’d climbed yet. That title would fall to Mount Wilson the following day, as it would become my first Class 4 mountain climb.

Climbing up to Rock of Ages Saddle. Gladstone Peak center left, the massive Mt. Wilson to the right.
Looking east to the namesake of the wilderness areas, The Lizard Head (ridge right).
Let it be known that June 2015 was an especially rainy month for the San Juan high country. Had to pause numerous times during our ascent to let the weather clear.
Looking back to Mt. Wilson (left) and El Diente (right). Prominence purists would say El Diente is not an official 14er but, it’s .75 miles from Wilson via a gnarly Class 4 traverse, so it certainly counts for me.
Getting to the top of Wilson Pk. is no joke
Nice view of one of the final pushes to the summit ridge. The rock was wet and loose.
The summit of Wilson Peak!
Making our way back to Rock of Ages Saddle
Heading back to Navajo Lake.
Camp!

The next day we had high hopes of tagging Mt. Wilson and completing the Wilson-Diente traverse, one of 4 “Classic” 14er traverses as Gerry Roach put it. The weather conspired against us in the end, but we did manage to summit Mt. Wilson, and I would come back to hit the traverse twice during the following weeks.

Starts off fairly straightforward…
then, it quickly steepens as you perform an ascending traverse over multiple gullies.
Looking east toward the distinctive summit of Gladstone.
Strange cloud fingers over Wilson Pk. where we stood the day before.
The summit of Mt. Wilson after a series of exposed Class 4 moves to get onto the summit block. Looking towards El Diente and the traverse between them.

Once we got back down to camp, we packed up and moseyed back to the car. The whole Lizard Head Wilderness is wonderful and wild, especially on it’s less traveled western side. Repeat visits were already in the works before I’d even left the trailhead.

Looking back to El Diente as we descend to the car. I would obviously be coming back to summit it soon!

Back to Table of Contents

Final Thoughts

Before saddling up for our next hitch, I found a quiet spot at Durango Joe’s coffee and thought about all the things that had happened since leaving home. Despite the world’s best efforts to knock me down, I kept getting back up again. Standing despondently in the rain, looking at a couple bloated rat corpses was the closest I got to questioning whether or not that was a sane thing to do, but objectively, it was. Sometimes, life just sucks, but it doesn’t mean you should stop trying.

Since leaving the East Coast, I’d burned through a wad of cash on a road trip to “find myself,” taken a job I barely understood, fallen off of multiple mountains, experienced two medical crises, and watched two team members disappear from the ranks. Somewhere along that timeline, I hardened up, not like I really had a choice.

A true test of character is how we understand and respond to adverse situations in our lives. Do we project, throwing blame in every direction, hoping one will stick? Or do we do everything in our power to push ourselves forward, knowing we’ve only got one life to live, and, well dammit, it should be for living? Failure and tragedy make us stronger, but only if we learn from those situations. That doesn’t mean you can’t fail forward. Hell, I think up until this point all I’d been doing was failing forward, but in those moments of profound uncertainty, there is also a strange beauty. Tested, and tested, and tested, yet, still standing. Did I think more tests were coming my way? Yup. Was I ready for them? Nope. Was I going to keep trying? Until I had nothing left. For someone like me, whose biggest fear is shutting myself off from the world and letting apathy poke holes in my brain, even failure meant I had done something worth trying.

I keep thinking of a phrase that feels applicable to the rollercoaster of life:

This too shall pass.

The good times are good because they won’t last forever, so enjoy them while you can, but the bad times don’t go on for an eternity either. If it’s bad now, it won’t be forever. Keep your chin up; nothing really stays the same.

The great human experiment would be awfully boring if none of us did anything. So, onward!

Part 7: Mesa Verde

After my close-call on Engineer Mt., I was ready to bury myself in Conservation work. Our crew’s first nine-day hitch was going to be in Mesa Verde National Park. Taking a break from the snowy winter-land still stubbornly holding on to the high country, we headed west from Durango to warmer climes.

Table of Contents

Intro: History and Legacy

Mesa Verde National Park is another often overlooked treasure of the park’s system (eat your heart out, Yosemite). The park came into existence in 1906 and protects some of the best examples of indigenous Pueblo architecture and culture. Native American culture is still widely felt across the four corners region because of a combination of Native American ancestral lands and the proliferation of reservations. Reservations were set up by the U.S. government because President Andrew Jackson was a piece of shit who didn’t view Native Americans as worthy examples of people. The ramifications of our damming policies against Native Americans, including the Indian removal act (aka Trail of Tears), continued use of derogatory team names and phrases (though some of that is changing), and cultural appropriation of Native Americans, illustrates how little modern American society views the original settlers of our continent. As of my writing this, president Joe Biden has nominated Rep. Deb Haaland to lead the Department of the Interior, the first native American to be nominated for the position. Check this article out for how impactful that nomination is to many Native Americans.

The point is, during the colonial drive to conquer North America, Native Americans and nature were often and widely abused. A truly damaging legacy for a young country made more tragic because of Native American’s deep love and care for the land we were actively destroying. There really is no dollar value that can ever compensate for the genocidal restructuring of entire Native American tribes. The best hope now is to be inclusive instead of exclusive. We’ve got a long way to go.

One way us regular shmoes can educate ourselves is to visit some of these historic places and glimpse the fabric of this great nation: before the French, English, Dutch and Spanish explorers came over. Mesa Verde checks a lot of boxes. It has stunning protected land, tons of Native American heritage, massive cliff dwellings, and easily accessible material to round out our understanding of not only history but the cultural ramifications of what we did in the 1800s.

Redirecting my rant to the who/what/when: Mesa Verde was the home of the Ancestral Puebloans. They lived in the present-day states of southern Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and southern Utah. Archaeologists generally break down the Pueblo era into three distinct phases, marked by changes in household dynamics, food storage, and settlement construction. These eras lasted from approximately 750-1300. Post-1300, many settled areas in Mesa Verde were abandoned, possibly due to complications resulting from weather changes and overpopulation, stressing what the natural environment could provide. An architectural hallmark of the Ancient Puebloans is the cliff dwelling, where towns and settlements were built within overhung cliffs, as shown below. 

Our job during the nine-day hitch was to assist the national park rangers with a variety of projects. These included repairing fences, cutting new trail, and invasive species removal (non-native thistle). While the history of the Ancient Puebloans is fascinating: during our hitch, we also found out about unique contemporary issues that impacted our understanding of property rights, eminent domain, and heritage.

Back to Table of Contents

Our Job

We were given a campground site just inside the park, which sits atop a southward sloping mesa. The northern front of the park is the most dramatic and highest in elevation, but the canyons on the south side contained most of the Cliff Dwellings. The first day was all about establishing routines and getting comfortable with each other’s work ethic. The trailer was loaded with trail building tools, but our first task only required canvas bags and thick gloves: invasive removal.

Thistle is a naturally occurring plant in the US, but variants have come over from other parts of the world and are threaten the environment because they grow in profusion. Our job was to get rid of a ton of the invasive thistle. It was repetitive and tiring work, all alongside the main park thoroughfare, which probably made us look like a chain gang without the chains. Regardless, I found myself immersed in the simple task at hand, mind unencumbered by the myriad factors around the task. Would I want to do that every day? Absolutely not, but we covered a large amount of area for half a day of work, and that was satisfying.

Day 2 was a little more interesting. Apparently, some horse whisperer (who donated a lot to the park) wanted to take some of her clients on a trail ride through the more isolated parts of the Mesa Verde. We were called in to help uncover an older network of trails that had fallen into disrepair, which meant hiking deep into some of the park’s canyons. Adventure time!

We entered from the top, so the heads of the canyon weren’t initially impressive, just long gashes into an otherwise uniform mesa. However, as we descended, the hike became trickier.

We had chosen the most expedient way down into the canyons; the horse riders would approach from a much more agreeable angle. Though, our route had the sensation of stumbling into a lost world. Following our park ranger friend, we felt as if we were stepping back in time the further into the canyons we proceeded.

After taking a water break: our ranger pointed out a Cliff Dwelling high above us in the canyon walls. Unlike the larger ones, where tours are offered to visitors, this one had only been visited by skilled archaeologists and park rangers, giving it an authentic and imposing quality.

A regular and close up shot of the Cliff Dwelling, how did they even get in there?!?!

Collectively we spent two or three days working to clear trail at the bottom of our canyon. As a group, it was our first test of the skills we’d learned in training, and although we didn’t build as much as we thought, the progress was encouraging, and our ranger seemed happy with what we managed to clear for them.

Aside from trail work and exotic invasive removal, the rest of our hitch in Mesa focused on fence-lines. The current boundaries of Mesa Verde border the Ute Mountain Reservation. After the Ancient Puebloans abandoned their cliff dwellings, the major tribe left in the four corners region was the Utes (Fun fact: Utah is named after them). In a reluctant move to preserve their sacred Sleeping Ute Mountain, the tribes traded lands with the Federal Government that ended up becoming part of Mesa Verde. Like most land swaps with the federal government, the Utes were not given a fair trade. Issues with property rights occasionally flare-up between the reservation and the park. One of the bigger ones is the encroachment of wild horses onto park lands. These wild horses may have originated after breaking corrals and escaping Ute control, though that assessment is disputed. In either case, wary of ecological damage, Mesa maintains a long fence-line along its border with Ute territory, and we helped fix fence lines and close wire gaps big enough for animals to slip through.

Limited by the amount of gear we could carry into the backcountry, we used whatever we could find to decrease fence gaps, including sticks and bones.

Despite the beautiful and arid climate around our worksite, the appearance of the fence: so out of place and stark, made me sad.

Divisions.

One of the unexpected highlights, however, was a bonafide wild horse sighting. Despite the Ranger grumbling about how they were altering the ecological balance in the park, it was hard not to be encapsulated.

Majestic eh?

After seven days of hard work, from sunup to sundown, our ranger friend got us on a tour of the largest Cliff Dwelling in the park, aptly titled Cliff Palace. The dwelling was only reachable by a series of ladders bolted to cement blocks and scaling near-vertical cliff bands, making for quite the immersive experience.

Before we headed out, our crew climbed a bluff near our campsite to get a high elevation perspective of the area.

S-simba?

During the tour of Cliff Palace it felt strange to be around so many well dressed tourists, while we stank of a weeks worth of outdoor work. Luckily, no one took it upon themselves to smell us too closely, and the tour ended up being a great cap to a tough hitch.

After we finished the tour, we embraced our inner tourist and took the van to the highest point in the park. From it, you could really see the precipitous edge of the Mesa Verde….mesa and gaze eastwards towards the ramparts of the La Plata Range, a subset of the San Juans.

Even though we spent 9ninedays in the park, it wasn’t nearly enough time to fully understand the ecology, Ancient Puebloan history, and modern property struggles between the Feds and the Ute Mountain Tribe. Mesa Verde has a lot going for it as a national park, while also offering an interesting examination into the uneven history of the American West.

Our time in Mesa Verde taught us a lot about the work required and our own group dynamics. A lot of it was tough. Anytime you get 8 adults together trying to accomplish a project, you’re bound to run into some interdisciplinary issues, but after days of ironing out the kinks, we felt better about the rest of the season, and what we could accomplish as a group. I headed into the off hitch feeling good and amped about the adventures I’d be able to get under my belt before our next nine days of work.

Back to Table of Contents

Off-Hitch

The initial bit of training for SWCC had taken place on a horse ranch. The owner had promised free rides to anyone who wanted them. Seizing the opportunity, Indiana and I made our way to the ranch to claim our reward. While the ranch had offered rides to everyone from SWCC, we were apparently the first in years to take them up on it, which we found surprising, I mean, who doesn’t want to ride horses on a big ranch in the Southern Rockies? Madness I tell yah.

Owing to the ranch’s location, I was allowed an uninterrupted look up to Engineer Mountain, where I had almost died. Amazing what the difference a couple of weeks of warm temperatures can make. The snowy-slopes responsible for my slide were almost entirely melted out, and the mountain seemed so much more pedestrian than what I’d experienced.

Engineer Mountain with MUCH LESS snow than when I climbed it.

After shaking my head and mumbling under my breath for a few minutes, I managed to refocus on the task at hand and spent the next two hours walking, trotting, and even galloping along the mountain trails around the ranch. Before this adventure, it had been years since I’d ridden. It only took two minutes for me to remember why I loved it. Horses are great.

Ready to ride.

The following day, Indiana and I combined forces with some other SWCC members to rock-climb some crags near Durango. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but one of our coworkers, Hawk, had extensive gear and experience. I surprised myself by how well I did, of course, forgetting to take any pictures along the journey. After a down day: spent in my favorite coffee shop in town (Durango Joes on College Drive) researching possible mountains to climb, I settled on Handies Peak. It would be my second 14er and leagues easier than Engineer or Sneffels.

I still managed to find impressively large snowfields on the mountain and watched a cornice break off near me, leading to a small avalanche. But, I felt much more capable in my assessment of the environmental factors. The ascent wasn’t particularly memorable, but the views on top were.

The impressive Weminuche wilderness.
The monarch of the San Juans: Uncompahgre Peak, 6th highest in Colorado (14,308 ft.). Fun fact, Uncompahgre was named after another Native American tribe that called the region home.
The pointy one is Wetterhorn Peak, named for the more famous peak in the Swiss Alps, though this one is actually taller. (14,021 ft.) The other prominent peaks, (L.) are Coxcomb and Redcliff.
Perhaps the most iconic view from Handies. Do you see any roads? No, because that’s all wilderness baby. Looking towards the high peaks of the Weminuche. Wild Colorado and its finest. The two geometric looking peaks off center-right are Vestal and Arrow. Also visible are Pigeon Peak (far right), Sunlight and Windom (center back), and the wild Osso group to the left.
Me!
I drove over Cinnamon Pass to get to Handies from Silverton, a significant achievement for my trusty Subaru. Lots of 4 wheelers and truck drivers were giving me the stink eye like I wasn’t supposed to be up there in a stock Outback. Lol, sorry guys. Over the next few years, my 2011 Outback would attack and dispense with roads it was definitely not built for, but damn did it feel good to conquer them. Subarus are built to last, my friends.

Back to Table of Contents

Happy with my off hitch shenanigans, I spent the rest of my time off hanging around Durango and getting to know my crew-mates a little better. Anticipation was building between us because our next five hitches were going to be on the slopes of El Diente, the most western 14er in the state. High elevation work was coming for our crew, and after another successful summit, I felt ready for just about anything.

Silly Timo…

Part 6: Intro to SWCC and The Subtle Art of Falling Down A Mountain

This post is divided between an explanation/introduction to Conservation Corps and my close call on Engineer Mt. If you just want the mountain story, skip to the section header that reads Engineer Mt. If you’re curious about what kind of a job I’d signed on to for my 2015 Colorado summer, proceed below.

Southwest Conservation Corps is a branch of Americorps and tangential to Peace Corps. While Peace Corps. goes abroad, Americorp stays domestic. If you’ve never heard of Americorps, you can check out more information on their website and watch a very hokey video about it here. For a more succinct definition, we turn to Wikipedia, where it states: “Americorps is a voluntary civil society program supported by the U.S. Federal Government, foundations, corporations, and other donors that engage adults in public service work with a goal of helping others and meeting critical needs in the community.” In the southwestern corner of Colorado, a lot of that community service comes in the form of various conservation initiatives, the largest contingent being trails, hence the local Americorps chapter: Southwest Conservation Corps. In many cases, trails are the only way to access truly fantastic areas of natural heritage and beauty, especially in the remote areas of the West, where towns are few and far between. Our job was to help keep that network open.

Table of Contents

A Brief History of Conservation Corps and the Importance of NAAAAAATUUUUURE

The current iteration of Americorps was founded by Bill Clinton in 1993, but he is not the father of conservation. Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot usually come up high in the US conservation history ranking, but Aldo Leopold and John Muir are essential contributors as well. Point being, the idea of conservation arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900’s when we were busy clear-cutting our way westward and displacing thousands of Native Americans. Many early explorers uncovered areas of obscene natural beauty, such as Yosemite Valley, and started thinking, “well, gee whiz, we should probably protect this or whatever” (not an actual quote). While the conservation movement was relatively low key initially, it really came into focus during the Great Depression. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) enacted a wide range of policies aimed to help ease the burden of the unemployed called the New Deal. A large component of the New Deal was the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Like Americorps and later iterations, the goal was to put people to work and create a societal conscience regarding nature conservation. Once WWII ramped up, the national focus shifted to the army, and the program was closed by Congress. 

Naysayers would probably say the Corps didn’t add much to the fabric of America, but that is entirely untrue. In fact, just by focusing on conservation, the program helped shape our opinions about the natural world. As many know, the National Parks have long been declared America’s greatest idea, but it was not always so. To defend a parcel of land simply for the enjoyment of the masses was not a very intuitive idea back in the day. As indicated by recent record admittance, people love the Parks, and for good reason. If you’ve ever been to a National Park, or a wilderness area, then you know why. The Parks are a beautiful part of American legacy. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) helped increase public access to parks and helped build some of the most popular features in a lot of the parks. Perhaps you’ve already been in a part of the country that benefited from the CCC and didn’t even know it. Here is an incomplete list of some of their notable accomplishments:

  • Helped build and improve the Blue Ridge Parkway
  • Opened up access to Zion National Park, which was very remote and seldom utilized beforehand.
  • Ever seen the Shining? Or been up to Mt. Hood? Timberline Lodge was built by the CCC.
  • Rebuilt the stairways up the East face of Half Dome in Yosemite, including replacing existing cables.
  • Planted 3.5 billion trees to counter western clear-cutting
  • Created over 700 state parks
  • Built 3,000 fire-towers
  • Helped launch the American downhill ski industry. Don’t believe me? Check this article out. Here’s another one if you’re still unconvinced. Of course, Western Skiing developed in different stages, and this isn’t to take away from the legacy of the 10th Mountain Division or anything, but the original American skiers were in New England before the 10th Mt. and the CCC helped get the industry going for the benefit of the whole country. Talk about a lasting legacy!

Sources: History Channel Article, New Deal Projects

Great, so they did some stuff way back when, you say, why is it important now? Excellent question my inquisitive friend! Well, because conditions change. As time churns on, erosion beats up on the outdoors, and things need a fixin’. Plus, when the population of people exploring the outdoors increases, repairs and improvements to access become necessary. On top of that, as more areas open up for nature lovers and use increases in popular ones, new challenges emerge. Take the alpine, for instance. It covers less than 1% of the world and is a harsh and unforgiving environment for humans. Naturally, humans approached the alpine as a challenge to be conquered, and now hundreds of thousands throw themselves to the elements to touch a highpoint (myself included). With increased visitation comes increased problems. Imagine being a plant that has spent thousands of years adapting to a harsh environment only to die because some yahoo stepped on you. Trail improvements are necessary so we don’t screw up fragile ecosystems. Conservation requires us to work in tandem with nature so we can all enjoy what it has to offer. The early American mindset of “CONQUER AND KILL EVERYTHING” pitted man against nature. Not surprisingly, that was a terrible idea. Between clear-cutting (which leads to devastating mudslides) and soil abuse (which contributed to the dustbowl), you kind of start to realize that if we disregard nature, we’ll all suffer because of it.

You could be forgiven for not realizing how much effort goes into trail building, but trails don’t just appear out of nowhere. Every time you take a nature walk or hike a mountain, chances are, for at least some of the adventure, you’ll be on a trail. Trail work is not meant to conquer nature or make mountain climbing easier. It’s designed to, above all else, conserve the unique environments we have on Earth while simultaneously encouraging people to see and understand the natural world they exist alongside. Cool, everyone a tree hugger now? Great, moving on.

Back to Table of Contents

My Intro to SWCC

Southwest Conservation Corps (SWCC) trail crews operated out of a property west-southwest of Durango, near a place called Hesperus. It consisted of a couple of farm buildings and a dirt parking lot where rabbits routinely climbed under your truck hood and chewed on your car wires. It’s unassuming presentation felt appropriate as the goal of the Corps was never to showboat, but to get things done. From this property, we would load up, restock and debrief after our hitches. We didn’t train there, however.

The actual training occurred near Haveland Lake, north of Durango. For five days, hundreds of crew-members were given presentations and taken on practice construction projects throughout the Rapp Corral property, a horse ranch nearby. We set up with our respective teams for the week and attempted to get to know each other. Here’s my goofy ass building a drainage runoff.

Added style points for the World War One era helmet design.

Brief Side-note: I met a lot of people through Conservation Corps, some will be featured heavily in future blogs, and others I’ll only mention in passing. This isn’t to slight anyone, but I’m trying to unload a lot of information concisely, so some things are bound to get cut. I’ve also decided to give everyone codenames because codenames rock.

Our team consisted of two leaders: Poetry and Pennsylvania; and six crew members, Gatorgal, Dusty, Bull, Wisco, Indiana, and myself. It was a pretty even split, four guys, four gals. Like any forced introduction, there wasn’t a whole lot we learned about each other that first week, but everyone seemed pleasant enough, and our general excitement at being in such an outdoor focused area squashed any reservations we may have had.

The general gist was that our crew would go out for nine days on a project secured ahead of time by our corporate office. We’d pack the van and the trailer full of our personal items, tools, tarps, and general food supplies, haul out of the area and post up wherever they wanted us. We’d come back and have five days off before being summoned back for another round. There were some options for reduced rent and a suggestion of places to stay during our off-time, but after doing the quick math, I realized it was much cheaper to stay at different campgrounds and use my off-time to go hike. Thus, my full transformation to dirt-bag life commenced.

Quick aside: There are A TON of definitions of dirtbag out there, most of which I found online, but it mostly revolves around a transient, outdoor-focused lifestyle. Some of the definitions are decidedly NOT flattering. In my little world, the title was embraced by trail builders because, well, we played around in the dirt a lot in order to build….uh, you know…trails. When you’re cutting into the ground to create tread, you dig up excess dirt, and then quite literally put it in a dirtbag to haul off for other areas of the project or release the dirt back into the wild. As far as all the subsets of dirtbags are concerned, I’m fairly certain only trail builders can legitimately make the claim that they consistently use a bag…filled with dirt.

The Van and the trailer.

I quickly developed a routine during my off-hitch time. I’d shower at the local Rec-Center (7$ for a day pass in 2015), do laundry at the ‘mat on the north side of town, hop across the street for a cheap beer at Durango Brewing (which has since closed), and then fart around until the call of the wild pushed me towards summiting mountains once more. It took me a little bit to nail the routine down, but after the training, I was still feeling that Road-trip restlessness, so I went searching for mountain challenges. After training, we were given a shorter break, maybe 3 or 4 days, before our first real project would begin. Taking the opportunity, I headed into Durango and bought some maps.

Stocked on local suggestions, I locked in a target: Engineer Mountain. I’d seen it on my drive over from Mt. Sneffels and immediately wanted to scale it. It’s a high 12,000 footer and a bit offset from the other major peaks in the area, giving it an open and regal feel. At this point in my Colorado adventures, even though I’d hit one 14er, the thought of doing all of them was still far from my mind; I just wanted to hike pretty things.

Back to Table of Contents

Engineer Mountain

So, as the title of the blog post suggests, there was some drama involved with this climb, and I feel it necessary to kind of break down what happened. It’s important, especially in the age of Instagram bragging, to detail when things don’t go according to plan because usually, there are some stellar lessons involved with failure. However, ignoring these kinds of lessons all but guarantees you’ll repeat them.

June 6th, 2015: the snowdrifts were already a problem less than fifteen feet from the parking lot. Luckily US 550, the main road through the San Juans, is plowed during the winter, so access wasn’t too complicated. However, with a trailhead at more than 10,000 feet, I should’ve anticipated the amount of snow I’d need to deal with. Instead, I was lulled into complacency after my previous summit of Mt. Sneffels because in the week since the climb, there’d been nothing but blue skies and warm temps. So, of course, my naive ass thought, “Ah, sun melt snow, good good, no snow, no problem”. Mistake #1.

The other problem that occurs with drifting snow is that one side of the hill may be covered, but once you walk to the other, it may be bare. This poses a bit of a logistical nightmare, especially if you’re trying to find a trail you’ve never hiked on before. With no scouting hike under my belt, I was flying blind. Mistake #2.

Gorgeous colors though.

Nevertheless, I strapped on my snow-shoes, clipped my mountaineering axe and crampons to my pack, and set off…without telling anyone where I was going. Mistake #3.

harry potter idiot GIF
Drifts and banks of snow complicating my attempts to follow the trail.

After the first three mistakes, I actually settled into a routine and made it up to tree-line following some snowshoe tracks. Then, after finally sighting my target, I began regretting everything.

Intimdating, eh?

At this point, I did actually feel a part inside me saying, “Hey pal, maybe pack it in.” But then, of course, ego came roaring back. I politely reminded myself of previously successful climbs up St. Helens, Wheeler, and Sneffels and thought, to hell with turning around; I can do it. Mistake #4.

Forging ahead, excitement took hold, and I didn’t bother looking at the map because, duh, I could see the thing in front of me. Had I bothered to look, I may have found the easy way to attack the ridge. Instead, I opted to climb an area that had already melted out. This led to my first exposure with the loose volcanic crud emblematic of the San Juans. The added effort needed to get to the ridge-line left me tired and out of breath, contributing to questionable decisions later. Mistake #5.

After a fifteen-minute break where I just practiced breathing, the climbing resumed. Now properly on the nose of the ridge, I figured I’d scamper up to the top in no time. The weather, unfortunately, had other plans and I ascended straight into a cloud. Not wanting to walk straight off a cliff in the low visibility, I stop to let the cloud pass, wasting valuable time, which again, would come back to bite me later. Mistake #6, not checking the weather.

Dark and dreary. Just above the hardest technical part. To the left is a thousand foot drop.

Once I passed what I’d read was the toughest part of the climb, a short Class 3 scramble, I felt better…mentally. But if you’ve ever been in situations of intense concentration, the toll on your body only becomes apparent once the adrenaline fades. I didn’t feel gassed immediately, and the sun coming back out helped me along, but by the time I got to the higher part of the ridge, I was totally sucking wind. Mistake #7, not listening to my body.

With the Class 3 section behind me, I thought the rest would be smooth sailing, which ended up becoming Mistake #8: only preparing for the most difficult section of the hike instead of the entire hike.

Above the scrambling section, the snow became an ever-present factor and I had to cross three large, sloping snowfields. The crampons came out, and I stepped, toes first, into each hold and worked my way along the ridgeline until I’d crossed. Breaking fresh trail through the snow is extremely exhausting, which added considerably to my overall fatigue. However, after moving through the last section, I was within spitting distance of the top, so all other considerations and concerns just sort of vanished.

Looking down the spine of the ridge. You can see my tracks just to the right of the ridge line.

Le top.

Fun fact, this is one of the only pictures of my Axe with a lanyard. Keep reading and you’ll find out why I don’t use them anymore.

I waited on the summit for a few minutes and the clouds finally parted. The sun came back and I flopped down to accept its warmth for wayyyyyyy longer than I should’ve. Little did I realize, the sun was also beating down on the snow I had climbed earlier, melting the top layer and rendering all future steps slushy, which had a big role in contributing to my accident. Mistake #9, waiting too long at the top. Mistake #10 underestimating the power of the sun.

After my summit sojourn, I finally turned to go back down. Immediately, I could feel the snow surface change underneath my crampons. My brain said, “pay attention,” my body said, “no, you already did that, just get off the mountain.” At that moment, my body hurt more than my brain, so I heeded the physical desire to get off the peak. Mistake #11, not treating the descent as seriously as the ascent. The top is really only halfway.

I crossed the first snowfield no problem and made it about halfway across the second one until stopping to take the picture below.

Only a few steps from danger.

At this point, I’d been doing it right, toe-in, slow steps, facing the ridge-line. Then, I had this brilliant idea to….not do that? To this day, I’m still struggling to figure out what caused me to abruptly change strategies, but I did and decided to face away from the ridge. Now, instead of having the ridge-line to lean against, I was parallel to it. This unfortunate position forced me to take sideways steps along the top of a 35-degree snow slope. It’d be the dry land equivalent of rolling your ankle after every single step you take. Mistake #12, letting mental fatigue alter a strategy that was working.

Back to Table of Contents

The Accident

I slipped out of my crampon after, at best, two steps. It happened cartoonishly fast.

With nothing to catch my fall, my upper body crashed downhill over my legs, and I landed on my back, head down. For a split second, right as I landed, I felt my body stop moving as if cradled by the snow. Then, the cradle broke, all my organs seized up, and I started sliding backward down the side of this mountain, picking up a crazy amount of speed. The time between slip, fall, and slide, was less than a couple of seconds.

Faced with a full spectrum of possibilities, ranging from no injury to death, my mind automatically locked in on what I needed to do to survive. Grip the slope. Ok, how? First step, spin my body so my head was above my feet. Second step, flip onto my stomach instead of flailing like a turtle, shell-down. Third step, plunge my mountaineering axe into the slope.

In theory, this should’ve stopped me, but there is a fundamental misunderstanding about the usability of axes in mountaineering, compounded by Hollywood. In all those dramatic movie moments, the climber slams their axe into the slope, and whatever crisis they’re in is instantly averted, Badda-bing Badda-boom, right? Hell, no.

The second I put even just a bit of the pick end into the snow, the force of my slide ripped the whole thing out of my hand. The lanyard, attached to the axe shaft and my arm, ripped my damn glove off and cut my wrist, but stayed attached to me. So now, I had a mountaineering axe projectile chasing my body down the slope, because the stupid lanyard was still stuck to my wrist. Fearing the axe would take an unfortunate bounce and stab me in the face the second I slowed down, I slipped my arm out of the loop and watched the axe fade from view while I continued accelerating.

Looking below me, I saw my future. If I couldn’t slow down, I’d barrel past the snow chute into an exposed talus field and then tumble right off a cliff. F*%k!

…You know all those motivational speakers? The ones that are always up on stage screaming, NeVEr GiVe uP! YoU CAn dO IT! That crap didn’t really click in for me until Engineer Mountain.

Right after I ripped the axe lanyard from my hand, panic had its best chance to step in and end me. There I was, sliding down the side of a 12,968-foot chunk of Earth. If I panicked and gave up, it would’ve cost me my life. The realization was so crisp and terrifying, my brain immediately interpreted it as truth. My entire life, whittled down to one simple question: fight or die? So, I fought back.

Suddenly, an overwhelming feeling erupted from inside and with it, an INTENSE desire for life. I don’t know how else to describe it, but it completely replaced the panic and hopelessness. 4th Quarter comeback drive. With four available appendages, I snapped into survival mode and did EVERYTHING I could to slow down.

Already belly down, I began kicking my feet into the slope as often as possible, just clubbing them into the snow. I lost one of my crampons in the process but the repeated motion started to have an effect. At the same time, I balled up my exposed hands and forced them into the snow above me like a backward wedge. Snow piled into the pocket created between my arms and my face, adding the final bit of resistance needed to begin slowing down…

I didn’t stop right away but I could feel the danger lessening as I gained more control. When I finally did come to a stop, I just sat there, unable to truly comprehend the danger I had put myself in. My mind was blank, my body numb, and my heart was racing so fast I thought it was going to beat through my ribcage. The first thought that managed to weasel into my brain seemed appropriate: “Holy shit, that was close.” I spent many subsequent minutes yelling obscenities at the clouds. It sort of helped.

Was it a textbook self-arrest? God no. But I used my body weight, booted feet, and blistered hands to maximum effect, and most importantly, I never gave up. Not that I felt overly proud, mind you. Was I thankful that I didn’t cascade over a set of cliffs? Yes, but I could’ve easily avoided the entire situation. I knew I messed up and couldn’t help but feel profoundly ashamed. I went out alone, there was literally no one else for me to blame.

After stuffing my frozen hands under my armpits to get the feeling back, I began the arduous task of collecting all of my stranded gear, now hundreds of feet above me. Surprisingly, the straps of one of my crampons stayed on my foot. Resetting the spikes, I used that little bit of traction to begin gear hunting. In the end, I collected every piece of equipment I’d dropped and made it back to my original line of descent.

The axe was the last thing I collected. As I angrily picked it up, I wanted nothing more than to believe it was all the axe’s fault. Understandable, I couldn’t blame anyone else but I could absolutely blame the gear…right? Tempting, though deep down I knew it was my fault for not using the axe appropriately. Mistake #13.

All you aspiring mountaineers out there, pay attention. A lot of people know this, a lot of people don’t, but an ice climbing axe is not a mountaineering axe. In ice climbing, the user needs two sharp axes to grip the ice. The two axes become your 3rd and 4th points of contact because human hands are rubbish at gripping ice. The shaft of an ice axe is curved, and the handle is rubbled to create grip. These bad boys are excellent on ice, but less ideal for standard mountaineering because they are often too short to use effectively as support.

In standard mountaineering (no ice climbing pitches and slope angles up to 45ish degrees), you don’t need the curved body, and you hardly ever use the pick portion by itself. Check this video out for proper mountaineering axe techniques. With the mountaineering axe, you tend to grip the head of the axe around the shaft, pick, and adze ends, in order to help guarantee the whole apparatus does not slip from your hand. You also use two hands to offset the pressure on one. During the accident, I did none of those things.

Feeling bad for spreading the blame, I apologized to the axe, untied the lanyard, and strapped the tool back to my pack. Before continuing my descent, I took a couple pictures showing the approximate line and duration of my slide.

Not great. The whole situation instantly seared itself into my memory. Even now, I can recall exactly what happened as it happened and the emotional whirlwind that came with it.

Finally fully aware of the dangerous position I’d put myself in, I took my sweet time getting back to level ground. The clouds began building, and a lot of the descent was again, mired in low visibility, which only slowed my progress further. Finally, after dropping off the main mountain block, I captured the following shot of the cliffs I had been sliding towards, from below them.

I stumbled to treeline and cast a few looks back at what I’d fallen down, all the while cursing myself for being so boneheaded. The next photo gives the best estimate of my slide and really hammers home how dangerous it could’ve been. Only a few more yards and I would’ve been bouncing through talus on my way to a cliff. An impressively bad situation all around.

Use the slide bar to see where I fell (red X) and where the normal descent route goes (gray arrows). Once you have a visual, slide to the unmarked photo to see if you can spot my tracks, almost all of the slide is visible.

Engineer Mt. is an easy Class 3 summit in the summer, and a worthy winter destination, but not even close to the hardest mountain in the state. What this story hopefully proves, is that ANY mountain can shake your constitution if you don’t give it the respect it deserves. I was exceptionally lucky to be able to slow my rate of descent before careening into the talus below the snowfield. Many outdoor folks aren’t so lucky.

Completely humbled, I limped back towards Durango and hung out with some crew-members who had set up shop in a campground north of town. Trading stories and laughs helped settle my mood, but I was thinking about the experience long afterward, eventually getting a tattoo to remember it. Every time I see the tattoo I’m reminded of how close I came to ending my whole journey. Think what you will about body ink, but with the memory preserved on my right shoulder, I know I won’t ever forget the colossal set of mistakes that led to that slide.

Back to Table of Contents

Final Thoughts

Engineer Mt. absolutely reshaped my approach to hiking and scrambling. Because of my numerous missteps, I developed a checklist of factors that help me determine whether a hike is worth it. I’m over 500 summits into my mountain career and still kickin because of that list.

Mistakes and failures should NEVER be ignored. There’s a lesson in every single one of them. Sometimes it doesn’t reveal itself right away but over time, it will. Although we tend to shove mistakes and failures under the rug for the sake of self-preservation, they often offer the best chances for personal growth. I firmly believe that. It’s ok to fail, everyone fails; it’s what you do with failure that sets you apart from others.

Back to Table of Contents

Part 5: From SF to Durango (May 15-June 1, 2015)

Table of Contents

  • San Francisco by the Bay
  • Tahoe

San Francisco by the Bay

Ah, San Francisco, the iconic and prohibitively expensive city by the bay. As someone who has only visited, the common gripes of the locals haven’t really affected me. However, that isn’t to say there aren’t any, in fact, SF is often the poster child when it comes to modern urban problems.

Despite the fame brought to the city by its seismic history, Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz prison, cable cars, and famously liberal mindset, San Francisco has developed some big issues as well. Some of the more notable ones include the almost unanimous notion that the tech industry has ruined SF, a rampant homeless population that has occasionally taken to defecating on streets, and the aforementioned prohibitively expensive real estate/rental market. These problems are not necessarily restricted to San Francisco, many large urban areas are dealing with similar situations, but because San Francisco is so synonymous with West Coast America, all of the city’s problems are put under a microscope. Whether or not that’s fair remains up to debate and I personally found the city to exude the same allure I imagined it would after watching George of the Jungle, Full House, Mrs. Doubtfire, and of course, the always charming, The Rock, as a kid.

In The Rock (1996), Nicholas Cage's character Dr. Stanley Goodspeed, says  "Vaporized. Blown out to sea." in regards to Sean Connery's character. This  is technically an incorrect statement as its physically impossible
Sean Connery in ‘The Rock’
Ahh, expensive.

It was strange being in such a densely populated area after framing a lot of my road trip around national parks, mountains, and sparsely populated coastlines. I knew I didn’t want to stay long, but there were a few people I wanted to see, namely my aunt, who I spent a few days with, in Noe Valley, and my brother’s friend Clint, who was working near the downtown core. I think I ended up blocking off four days to stay in the city and just so happened to be there during the famous Bay to Breakers race. Hm, how to describe it…uhm, a giant party masquerading as a running race? After finding out about it, I knew I had to get in on the festivities.

Many people do actually try to run the whole thing, but a whole lot more come to get weird alongside it. The city puts out yearly estimates on participation, and the last estimate put the numbers at 50,000 racers and 100,000 spectators. A lot of participants and spectators dress up in various costumes, with many also pre-gaming heavily for the event. Clint had Harold and Lloyd costumes from the 1994 Dumb and Dumber movie, so we basically looked like this for the whole thing. 

Relive "Dumb and Dumber" IRL with this insane, $10,000 Colorado hotel and  ski package — The Know

We didn’t register to run but partied alongside the event and walked a couple of miles of the course, traveling from house party to house party. Unfortunately, I didn’t take many pictures, and towards the end of it, was probably incapable of actually taking a photo at all.

Hold My Beer | Know Your Meme

The event was a fun experience but completely draining. After a few days decompressing and enjoying the company of my aunt, I felt the call of the road once more and drove East to Lake Tahoe in the Sierra.

Tahoe

As I mentioned in a previous post, the West Coast has a ton of mountain ranges, of which two reign supreme: the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada. The Sierra Nevada is almost entirely in California (a small part spills into Nevada) and contains the highest mountain in the lower 48 states, Mt. Whitney. It is also home to many excellent ski resorts and the massive Lake Tahoe. A buddy of mine had settled out near Tahoe, so I gave her a call and asked if I could stay for a couple of days. I ended up staying for nearly a week.

Like my SF days, the focus on taking pictures took a back seat to good company. The town I stayed in, South Lake Tahoe, had a lot of snowbums and outdoor jocks who were always ready to celebrate. We went hard, and after five days of nonstop partying, I was ready to accept sobriety as my lord and savior. The answer to the question, what happens when you get 8 young adults in the same house together for an extended period of time is…too much.

Terribly Hungover Animals

I did manage to grab the few pictures below, which do an ok job of showing the area.

Rainbows over Lake Tahoe.
Tahoe was a beautiful area and I hope one day to explore it more completely.

After another round of goodbyes, I was off. Driving East into Nevada, I realized I hadn’t done anything outdoorsy in the past week and a half. Thoroughly disappointed in myself, I made it a goal to seek out some more mountain solitude before finishing my trip. The first objective, after a long lonesome drive on Highway 50, was Great Basin National Park.

Oh, what’s that? You didn’t know there’s a national park named Great Basin in Nevada? Before my road trip, neither did I. The Park covers the spine of the Snake Range in a geologically significant region known as the Great Basin. Why a Great Basin? Because the rivers and streams originating in the linear ranges of the region don’t have an outflow. To the East, the Colorado River takes its time churning towards the Gulf of California, and to the west, everything flows into the Pacific. In the Great Basin, the few areas of water flow towards the lower points of the basin and then dry up or spill into lakes with nowhere to go. It’s essentially an enormous bathroom sink with no drain, pot-marked by thin mountains. Some of these ranges are far enough from the rain shadow cast by the Sierra that they support more of a mountain ecology, the Snake Range is one of them. 

The highest peak in the range, and in the national park, is called Wheeler Peak (same name as the state highpoint in New Mexico). It is one of only two peaks to break 13,000 feet in Nevada. In fact, the highest point in Nevada (Boundary Peak) is not actually a peak in the traditional sense, it’s a highpoint on a ridge that continues into California and eventually caps at a higher peak. Therefore, Wheeler Peak is the tallest mountain in Nevada that is entirely within the state…so there…fun fact for yah, tell everyone you know.

Anyway, I wanted to climb it.

Saw that coming - Tony Stark Eye Roll | Make a Meme

Now, usually, there’s a road up a lot of the mountain, which significantly cuts down the effort. However, since the high country was still snowy, the road was closed, and my hike ended up becoming more of a committed adventure. As was the case with St. Helens, I did some research beforehand and booked a campsite at Baker Creek Campground inside the park for two nights.

What struck me most about the hike up Wheeler was the contrast between the snowy upper slopes and the desert basins around the range. As I said, Nevada has a bunch of long, thin mountain ranges separated by desert floor. When I finally got to the top of Wheeler, it was in the low 20’s Fahrenheit, and I was looking down on a valley floor nearly 6,000 feet below me in the mid 70’s. Unreal.

The pic above is what the typical terrain at the foot of these ranges looks like, flat and dry.

Can you believe this is also Nevada? Just a few thousand feet higher. Wheeler is the summit in the cloud.

While the cirque framing Wheeler is beyond intimidating, the summit route takes a sleepy ridge to the west, keeping the trail itself at a Class 1 in the summer months and maybe a Class 2 when there’s snow. As the blog moves forward, I’ll get more into the Class rating system, but here is a hyperlink you can use to look at the criteria for the Yosemite Decimal System

In the above photo, you really get a sense of how prominent the peaks are when compared to the basin below. It’s quite the contrast.

Up the spine I go.

Well, I made it, and although the technical difficulties of the peak were nonexistent, the length of the climb and ultimate elevation (over 13,000 feet) had me feeling nauseous and short of breath, which meant I had a very mild form of altitude sickness. It is generally accepted that the likelihood of developing altitude sickness greatly increases above 8,000 feet in elevation. While this can manifest differently in people, for those without pre-existing conditions, altitude sickness usually involves shortness of breath, lack of hunger and thirst, nausea, and splitting headaches. If you’re curious about the mechanics of high altitude breathing, altitude sickness, and prevention, click on this link to get to a really nice report from APEX, which lays out exactly what happens to your body at high elevation. See? Learning is fun!

Learning Memes

To put it bluntly, tall mountains exist in a part of the world where humans were not meant to thrive. Every aspiring mountaineer needs to understand this and plan accordingly.

Ways to mitigate the effects of altitude sickness include slowing down your rate of ascent, drinking a TON of water, and taking NSAIDs (if you don’t react poorly to them) to reduce swelling and inflammation. However, if symptoms don’t go away, the best thing to do is descend. Many experienced mountaineers get in trouble when they think they can push through signs of trouble. This mental roadblock to descending can lead to rapidly deteriorating physical conditions and is often referred to as summit fever. Simply put, summit fever refers to a state of mind where a mountaineer will attempt a summit at any cost, even if that cost is injury or death. Listen to your body! Yeah, it’s disappointing if you can’t top out on a summit, but the mountain will be there tomorrow, make sure you are too! You can’t brag about your beautiful summit photos if you’re dead.

While nothing tragic happened to me on Wheeler Peak, I recognized the signs of altitude sickness when they began to affect me and only spent a few minutes on the summit before descending. Mountain climbing is already inherently dangerous, there’s really no need to add questionable oxygen-deprived decisions to that mix.

Beauteous! Looking south from the summit of Wheeler Pk.

All seriousness aside, I was very impressed by the mountain and the vistas from the top. Happy with my slice of the Great Basin, I retreated to camp, settled in for the evening, and enjoyed a well-deserved sleep under a blanket of stars, revealed once the clouds broke. Even if you don’t care for mountain climbing, Great Basin National Park has incredible stargazing, which is worth a trip all on its own.

The following morning, I saddled up my stuff and drove through the middle of Utah, stopping in Salt Lake to spend the night at a friend’s before continuing into western Colorado.

Western Colorado is very different from the Front Range and Eastern Colorado. Like parts of Nevada, Western Colorado is a system of basins and valleys buffered by broad swaths of uplifted earth, forming the core of the Southern Rocky Mountains. Parts of it are dry and desolate, and parts of it contain some of the most beautiful examples of mountain terrain I’ve ever seen.

Dry near Grant Junction. You can tell it rained recently because the usually yellow vegetation is actually green.

Broadly speaking, the Rockies are divided into three sections, Northern (Canada), Central (Montana, Idaho, and most of Wyoming), and Southern (Colorado, a small slice of southern Wyoming and the northern part of New Mexico). The broad overview of Colorado is that it’s the roof of the lower 48. While California has Mt. Whitney, which is higher than any peak in Colorado, Colorado has 53 official peaks over 14,000 feet to Californias 12. Only four states have mountains over 14,000 feet, Colorado (53), Alaska (29), California (12), and Washington (1). While the ranges of Colorado are numerous, and I’ll get into them as I keep writing, for 2015, I was focused on the largest range in the state, The San Juans.

The San Juans are not only the largest but arguably the wildest range in Colorado, with 13 14’ers, three national forests, and five wilderness areas, the largest of which (Weminuche) covers half a million acres of unspoiled land. Long in a short, it’s Colorado’s most extensive and beautiful range.

My new job as a trail crew member for Southwest Conservation Corp would have me operating from just outside of Durango, the largest town in the region. Durango sits to the south of the San Juans, and from the dingy hostel where I stayed in Grand Junction, I’d have to cross the majority of it to get into town. This presented another unique opportunity for me to get some mountain climbing in. What better way to kick off my new career than to climb my first 14er? As geographic happenstance would have it, Mt. Sneffels was right in my path. Coincidence? …No

Right, so from Junction, I headed south, marveling at the sights along the way and getting excited as the northern ramparts of the San Juans began to poke their heads above the hills.

Mt. Sneffels (center left, tallest peak visible) and the Dallas Divide (mountain wall going to the right) from near Ridgeway.

I secured a spot at the Ouray KOA (pronounced Yur-ray, not Ooooo-ray), scouted out the road to the trailhead for Mt. Sneffels, and got to bed early.

Anticipating the same level of snow I’d seen in Nevada, I immediately had to restructure my expectations when I began hiking. For the first mile, I was following a dirt road with the occasional snowdrift overtop that had blocked further driving. Once I finally got past the official trail sign and above the tree-line, it felt like I’d suddenly stepped onto a glacier in Greenland. It was May 30th, and EVERYTHING was blanketed by deep snow. I geared up with some snowshoes and climbed through a spring winter wonderland. The upper part of Yankee Boy Basin (which I can’t help but say in redneck twang) appeared stuck in the last ice age and offered me some stunning first impressions of the San Juan Mountains.

Arctic vibes.

The views only increased as I began to climb a wide couloir up the shoulder of Sneffels. Out came the crampons to better grip the slope.

Looking across the very top of Yankee Boy Basin to Gilpin Mountain. The cluster of peaks further back and to the right contains three fourteeners.
The tippy top. After two couloirs and a snowy kick step section to the summit, I finally summited my first fourteener. Shown looking North, the San Juans abruptly end.
Turning around and looking South, nothing but endless mountains! You can even see a part of the Telluride ski resort.
It’s hard to put into words how massive the San Juans are as a range. From this vantage point it truly did feel endless.

I was feeling good, had the summit all to myself, and spent a good 45 minutes trying to identify as many of the snow-covered peaks as I could. After all, this would become my backyard for the summer, and I was itching to get acquainted with it.

Unlike Wheeler and St. Helens, where I had cloudy skies on top, it was all sun on Sneffels. After lathering sunscreen on for the fourth time, I began to realize how easily you could get snow blindness in this type of environment. Snow reflects light, usually right into your face, and in the alpine, there’s less atmosphere to block UV light, so your skin can burn really quickly, and in some extreme cases, you may temporarily lose the ability to see. 

spongebob: Spongebob My Eyes Gif
Have no fear, the effects of snow blindness are usually temporary.

Pro-tip in sunny and snowy conditions: Lather on sunscreen at regular intervals and wear thick sunglasses with beefy handles to help shield from snow glare. Your eyes will thank you.

Cirque Mountain (left) and Teakettle

Descending took a little longer than expected because the sun was starting to melt the hard-packed snow from the morning. The lower I got, the more I began to sink through, despite having my snowshoes back on. It was a frustrating final hour but at least I wasn’t the guy at the trailhead, who had somehow convinced his girlfriend it’d be fun to go play in eight-foot snowbanks with no gear. She had fallen into a pile of snow up to her waist and was hysterically screaming, “I LOST MY SANDAAAAL!” while he shouted from the parking lot, “JUST MOVE!” to which she would respond “ITS COOOOLD!” and then the whole conversation would loop on itself. A+ communication skills, from context alone I’d learned that snow was cold, shocker, she’d worn sandals, not so swift, and her boyfriend was doing everything in his power to avoid actually helping her, opting for vague directives shouted from the safety net around his truck. It took everything in my power not to make this face as I passed by them.

Yikes GIFs | Tenor

The Sneffels area is usually a mecca for hikers, but because of a series of late-season snowstorms, I’d had the majority of the hike to myself, only passing two other summiters who were on their 20somethingth 14er. It was hard not to feel accomplished as I unloaded all my dirty and snowy gear into the trunk of the Subaru and drank a victory beer I’d picked up in town. With only an hour and a half drive left before I reached my destination and a lot of day left to kill, I took my time and breathed in the mountain air, envisioning all the wonderful adventures this summer was going to bring me.

The drive from Ouray to Durango is one of the more scenic drives in the whole state and takes you over three alpine passes (Red Mountain, Molas, and Coalbank), past numerous historical structures from Colorado’s mining days, and runs you by the ski and tourist town of Silverton. It was a beautiful and fitting way to end my road-trip, and I was caught between feeling sad about its end and excited about the future.

View from Molas Pass

June 1st would be my first day of training. I still had little to no idea what I was getting into, they didn’t exactly cover trail-building in my college humanities courses, but after the highs and lows of two solo months on the road, I was confident I could handle anything Southwest Conservation Corps (SWCC) threw at me. I spent the night of the 30th and 31st at a campground north of Durango, one suggested for corps members, and I even met a few of them. May 31st was fairly pedestrian, I went into town, gassed up, did my laundry, and counted the hours until my new job took off. Was I aware that I was about to embark on the most important multi-year odyssey of my young life? No, but I knew I was in the middle of an ambitious adventure summer, and after my post-college rut, that was more than enough for me.

Source: Google maps

Part 4: The Great West Coast (May 3-May 15, 2015)

I looked back at my friend and frowned, suddenly very aware of what I had been asking. Jumping into the frigid North Pacific SEEMED like a good idea when I’d first proposed it, but now, on a rock fifteen feet above the deep, I was encountering some internal resistance. What would motivate such a heinous assault on common sense, you may ask? Why the uncommon nature of the situation, of course! Where I was standing, in Smuggler Cove Marine Provincial Park on the Gold Coast of remote British Columbia, was the northernmost part of my entire road trip! Such a geographic achievement had to be celebrated, and what better way than to hurl myself into the ocean?

Looking at the maps below, you can see how far I’d gone, a sizable achievement on its own. Every subsequent destination on my trip after Smuggler Cove would be to the south and, eventually, back east to Colorado. There was still a lot of road left to drive, but I was feeling high on myself for getting this far and wanted to be dramatic about it.

Big overview.
Zoomed in. Way out there, eh?

Ok, Timo, you can do this, I tried telling myselfYou can’t let your fans down. And when I say “fans,” I mean my one bored friend and a few lumpy starfish ie. the adoring masses.

Janice, Harold and Lawrence, friends for life.

Finally, after some extensive confidence building, I managed to jump into the water, remembering to tuck my feet in, which seemed super important at the time.

Look at that form! IMMACULATE

The water was absolutely FREEZING, but I was glad I did something to mark the occasion, and after drying off, my friend and I headed back to her home. I had known she’d moved to this remote slice of Canada years before and had been interested in visiting, but living between Georgia and North Carolina never really gave me the excuse to go this far northwest. Once I began constructing my elaborate road trip, I knew I wanted the Gold Coast to be a part of it.

The Gold Coast is a gem of an area, secluded and wild. In true Canadian fashion, while I didn’t meet too many of the locals, the ones I did were overwhelmingly friendly. There was no polarizing political banter and no generational dumping, only a mild curiosity stemming mostly from sighting a Subaru with Georgia license plates, casually driving through remote Canada.

Typical scene in Smuggler Cove

I spent the evening after my ocean plunge at a party hosted by my friend at her house/hippy commune. The collection of people I met there was amazing. There were wailing, dreaded, half-naked people on the roof, while a butch squad sat by the fire, telling stories of their lumberjack lives. In the driveway were truck-people with decadent beards, standing next to their rigs all night with such discipline you’d think they were guarding the Pope himself. And back in the house, preppy, popped-collar university students were inhaling beer as if their existence depended on it. Thoroughly amused and intrigued by the spectacle of it all, I spent the better part of the evening engaged in colorful conversations and casually avoiding repeated calls for “free love.” It was like my own little Canadian Woodstock and obviously not representative of all the folks on the Gold Coast, just what I happened to observe. Not wanting to overstay my welcome, I grabbed lunch with the main group the following day, said my goodbyes, and pointed the Subaru south.

Western British Columbia, if you’re unaware, is like North American Norway. Once you travel north from Vancouver, the Coast Range comes down to the kiss the shoreline and splits into hundreds of fjords. Many secluded sections of land, hemmed in by steep, glaciated mountains on one side and the deep Pacific Ocean on the other, only have access to civilization via ferries. In order to get to/from the Gold Coast, you need to take one and not just any ferry, but one of the behemoths pictured below.

Standing on the top deck of the ferry as it took me across Howe Sound, it felt more like Scandinavia than Canada.

Coast Range
Looking northwest towards Squamish and eventually, Whistler

By midday, I was back off the ferry and driving towards Vancouver, stopping briefly by Cypress ski resort to grab some views of Western Canada’s largest city.

Looking south

I was a bit sad that I couldn’t spend more time in Vancouver, but I had an agenda and a budget to stick to, so I bid adieu to B.C. and reentered the States. As luck or fate would have it, over the next three years, I would end up spending more than three months in Vancouver and its surrounding environs. Many Canadian adventures were still to be had, I just didn’t know it at the time.

Impressed by my little slice of British Columbia, I began my southern drive down the West Coast, looking for exciting things to do and places to see along the way.

As you’ve hopefully picked up through my various blog posts, I LOVE hiking, so, naturally, my first goal was to get some hiking in. Knowing I was going to be climbing and trail building throughout the Colorado Rockies starting in June, I figured I should get a taste of one of the big West Coast ranges beforehand. While there are actually quite a few ranges and subranges between Washington, Oregon, and California (Trinity Alps, Wallowas, Olympic Mts. etc.), the two monster ones are the Cascades and the Sierra, both impressive and wildly different.

The Sierra is a young range with giant slabs of inspiring granite and rock-faces that defy gravity, such as El Cap or Half-dome in Yellowstone National Park. The Cascades, by contrast, consist of a series of lower parallel ridges augmented by a set of monstrous Volcanos, perhaps the most famous one being Mt. St. Helens, which blew its top in a widely analyzed eruption in 1980 (click here for a quick video on it). Perhaps predictably, St. Helens was the one I ended up climbing. Now, it wasn’t because I had a date with death, but St. Helens is quite close to the I-5 highway corridor I was blasting down, very visible from the Portland suburbs, and doesn’t require advanced mountaineering gear to climb. Okie Dokie then. The one requirement, however, was to obtain a permit ahead of time, which I had done during my initial road trip planning phase.

Before I climbed, I figured I would need to get some better gear, so I stopped in Portland at an outdoor gear shop, asked for the cheapest, crappiest pair of crampons, and 50$ later, walked away with an old pair of Stubai’s the shop wasn’t initially aware they even had in stock. 

These old clunkers are not at all like the ones gear shops usually push on potential clients, but I must’ve smelled like cheap college kid because the guy in the shop took one look at me and figured I couldn’t possibly afford anything nicer. I mean…he wasn’t wrong, but I sure got my money’s worth because as I’m typing this years later, I still have and still use the same pair of crampons. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Thanks for coming to my TED talk, follow me for more financial advice.

Think About It Reaction GIF by Identity

Armed with a vague knowledge of what to do and an eagerness to prove myself, I armored up and headed for the trailhead. My first impression of St. Helens was that it looked like a cute frosted covered gumdrop.

Aw

My second impression when I left the trailhead and began climbing was a wee bit different. St. Helens and the Cascade volcanos are BIG!

Mhm, big.

And while the climb was really quite tame compared to future endeavors, it demanded my full attention and respect throughout.

During the climb, I discovered a few things.

1) I was very out of shape

Noob.

2) Cascade Volcanos are not just tall, but very girthy as well.

Looking towards Mt. Adams.

3) A more accurate measure of effort is not total elevation, but prominence, as in, how high is the thing from its base as opposed to sea level. St. Helens is over 8000 feet tall from sea level, but you climb 4500 feet of it, which is substantial as far as single day efforts go.

Getting up to the rim.

4) I could very clearly see evidence of where Lahars ran down the slope due to the 1980 eruption, which was quite cool.

Just imagine water and mud absolutely sprinting down the side of this thing!

5) The mountain caldera is still smoking and gave me the distinct impression of being “alive.”

The “not cloud” is, in fact, smoke. So…there’s that.
Expert Artist Rendition of where the full Caldera rim used to be. As you can see, a TON of mountain was destroyed in the blast, the entire north side is gone.

6) NEVER step to the edge of a Cornice, many people die every year from doing that. A cornice is an overhung piece of snow that forms during winter. In the spring, the warming temperature destabilizes the Cornice. Any excess pressure on the top and the whole thing breaks off, taking everything down with it. Big no no.

The top of the Volcano rim with a dangerous Cornice.
Me and my Stubais, a safe 10 feet from the edge because death was not on my agenda for the day.

Thoroughly licked by the effort, I limped back down to safety, catching glimpses of a crazy mountain dude who damn near ran up the whole thing with a pair of skis on his back and skied down ahead of me. At the time, I chuckled to myself, thinking he was out of his mind. Little did I know that only two years later, I’d be doing the same thing down some mountains in Colorado.

…Hindsight is very strange. In my opinion, the more of declarative statements you make (I will NEVER, or I will ALWAY etc.) the harder circumstance seems to laugh at you in the end. Don’t tempt the gods with a good time, they are always down for a laugh.

While not even close to the top of the Cascade range, St. Helens was a great test piece and gave me the confidence to try other mountains that I may have otherwise been unwilling to try. Box checked, stoke level high.

YES Hockey GIF - YES Hockey Baby GIFs

That evening, I stopped back in Portland to stay at my dad’s best friend’s house.

Portland, Oregon…has a reputation. Not all of the city embraces the reputation, just like not ALL of the people at the hippy commune on the Gold Coast were eating drugs off of a plate a la carte, but many were, and in Portland, many embrace the reputation. A substantial part of the Portland appeal is counterculture. Another northwest city, Seattle, was the center of counterculture in the early ’90s with the Grunge movement, so it isn’t like counterculture is a one-off idea for the region. However, to compare Seattle to Portland would be a serious, serious mistake. To illustrate the Portland stereotype, please watch the following video (click here).

Again, this is NOT a universal truth, but hilarious and applicable in a lot of ways. That stereotype was evident on my wanderings through the city. However, the family I stayed with had been in Portland for decades, predating the current hipster craze, so I didn’t really catch the vibe until the day after I arrived. 

Something else I noticed about Portland was that the homeless population is substantial, and a lot of them are MEAN. I gave a homeless guy 5$, and he looked at me angrily and yelled, “THAT IT?!” I was…surprised, and also out of pocket change, so I told him I didn’t have anymore and…well, he didn’t like that and started coming at me. Luckily, as soon as he stood up, he tripped over an untied shoelace, allowing me to fade behind a large group of people, but I was very unprepared for that kind of encounter. Now, don’t read too much into it, I always give when I am able and have a lot of qualms with how capitalism treats the downtrodden, but I guess I just wasn’t expecting to be the target of ire AFTER I’d given what I had, just a weird situation all around.

Despite the hipsters and angry homeless guys, I had a blast in Portland and was hosted by wonderful people, so all in all, I still say the city came out on top in the impression category (I particularly enjoyed Deschutes Brewery and Mt. Tabor Park). I’ve been back a few times, and it is entirely charming in its own way, just do a little research before you show up and figure out which areas you need to avoid.

During one of my days in Portland, I took a quick detour to the Columbia River Gorge, another impressive geographic area. The Columbia River originates in Canada, runs through the state of Washington, and eventually forms the border between Washington and Oregon on its way to the Pacific. What’s fascinating about it is that the river runs right through the formidable Cascades, creating miles upon miles of outdoor beauty. I ended up climbing Beacon Rock, a pinnacle on the edge of the river with a path built into the side of it. The whole gorge area is quite pretty and worth multiple exploration days.

Excellent day, excellent views.

I stayed in Portland one more night before packing it in and heading out to the famed Oregon Coast. I had previously driven along the Southern California coastline with my family a few years prior, but Oregon’s shoreline remained a mystery, so off I went.

Along the way to Cannon Beach, the closest stretch of sand to Portland, I hiked up Saddle Mountain in the fog and rain. While I wasn’t afforded many views once I hiked into the cloud, it still offered a glimpse into the type of ecosystem common along the northwestern part of the US, between the Cascades and the coast.

After finally attaining the coast, I decided to once again wander into the water. It was just as cold as it felt in Canada. I…I don’t know what I was expecting.

From Cannon Beach, I once again turned the Subaru south and drove a long, uninterrupted stretch of the dramatic Oregon Coast Highway. Like the Gold Coast, many of the coastal areas here felt as if they existed entirely in their own world. While Oregon isn’t necessarily known as a populous state, even the relatively bustling cities of Portland, Salem, and Eugene felt as far away as the dark side of the moon. One of the highlights was taking a stroll through Oswald State Park, where a series of showy bluffs rose dramatically from the reaches of the Pacific, offering fantastic views.

Gorgeous!
Magnificent

It was hard not to fall in love with the coast. It felt unrestrained and ancient, with people still living in harmony with the land. While a lot of the American West still abides by that rule, it is steadily disappearing as cities increase in size and once untouched slices of paradise become the next “must-own” destination.

After driving along as much coast as I could handle, I reluctantly headed back east to Eugene to stay in a cheap hostel. The rain returned with a vengeance, but the hostel was warm, friendly, and close to a few breweries. Craving a beer after the visual overload of the coast, I slogged through the rain and into an empty Ninkasi Brewing, had an hour-long chat with one of the head brewers, and left with free beer and an arm full of merchandise. It was the second time this trip a brewery had taken it upon themselves to reach out to me, which I thought was very cool. Ninkasi and Lagunitas, good places, good people; check them out!

Instead of heading back to the coast right away, I decided to go check out Crater Lake National Park. Continuing the Cascade Volcano theme, the centerpiece of the park is a picturesque high-elevation lake formed by the collapse of an old volcano. What remains is a beautiful and pristine sub-alpine environment. Crater Lake is also disturbingly deep, “cascading” down to a depth of 1949 feet, making it the deepest lake in the US. 

The rain that had started on my drive from Eugene, quickly turned to snow when I reached the edge of the lake. Although I managed to hike around for a few hours, the iconic views were mostly hidden by a thick wall of clouds. I did manage to snag a few shots, and despite the clouds, could see the shape of the lake. While it wasn’t the best day to be out, any chance to experience iconic locations is a chance worth taking. Sometimes, you just have to work with what the weather gives you.

Crater Lake and it’s mesmerizing blue water.

After Crater Lake, I floored it south into California, having booked a tent site from a camper-van-living-couple near the second tallest Cascade Volcano (behind Ranier) Mt. Shasta. The environment became steadily drier as I drove to within sight of the volcano and set up shop.

Shasta, and a much drier climate than Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

As eager as ever to keep climbing, I gave Lassen Pk. a go (the southernmost Cascade Volcano) but had to turn around as the entrance to the area was closed due to avalanche danger. Resolving to return to the coast, I made my way to the Northern California shore while listening to the always excellent podcast Hardcore History by Dan Carlin

Like the Oregon Coast, the Northern California Coast (as in between Oregon and SF) has a lost world type feeling, cemented by crisp natural beauty and sleepy seaside towns like Arcata, where I spent an evening. I was also reintroduced to the Marine Layer, a drunken piece of fog that stumbles into the California shoreline almost every morning to say howdy doody before retreating back to its oceanic staging area.

Go home Marine Layer

Oh, here’s a bird.

The further south I drove, the less the Marine Layer seemed to be impacting the land until I finally burst out of the fog in Sonoma County and enjoyed the last bit of the windy road before settling into my campsite at Wrights Beach Campground. The last leg of the drive was wonderful, the temperature soared back up into the 70’s, the smell of salty seawater wafted through the Subaru, the sun was out, and I drove at my own pace, free of traffic and inclement weather. Utter bliss.

Of all the airbnb’s, campsites, and friends I stayed with, that evening on the sand in Sonoma County was the only beachside overnight I’d managed to snag, and it was a special one. Once my tent was set up, I walked all of twenty feet to the start of the beach and claimed a spot for myself, watching the surf smash against the sand and the sun dip towards the horizon. Having already jumped into the ocean in Canada and Oregon, I knew I’d have to wade in here as well. As they say, third times the charm, right? Nope, not even close; it was still freezing. However, unlike the previous two jumps, I had a warm evening, a six-pack of beer, and time to relax.

Ah, the ocean.

I spent the sunset hours staring over the ocean’s expanse and thinking back on the past two weeks of my trip. From Canada down to my campsite (and with all my mountain side-trips counted) I’d logged another 1880 miles. To date, my total distance driven for the trip was just shy of 6,000 miles. That is a ton of driving! Feeling quite accomplished, I lay against some driftwood and watched the sun go down while sipping my beer. With three Pacific coast plunges under my belt, I felt like I’d given this section of the trip some poetic continuity. Next up was a stay in San Francisco with my aunt, a swing by Lake Tahoe, a lonesome drive through Nevada to Great Basin National Park, a dry haul through Utah, and eventually a hike up my first 14,000 foot mountain outside of Ouray, Colorado. But at the moment, all I could do was stare at the ocean, and let the sound of the waves clear the remaining cobwebs from my brain.

Since the start of the road trip, despite all of the wonderful things I’d seen and done, a nagging voice in my head kept questioning whether or not this was a good idea. I had completely abandoned my former life in order to go on a two month road trip to “find myself” and pursue a career in trail building. Saying it out loud didn’t really help, what if I had made a mistake? What if I couldn’t sustain a new career in Colorado? While these had always been risks, every day I spent driving closer to my ultimate destination brought those risks more into focus. Would I finally be able to make something out of myself at the end of the trip? What I really needed was a moment of clarity. A moment where the angel on my shoulder finally took down the devil on the other one, and I could fully embrace the situation I’d put myself in. On the beach in Sonoma, sipping my Lagunitas, I finally got it.

It isn’t like the movies. Clarity isn’t Clark Kent walking into a phone booth and emerging as Superman, knowing without a doubt who he is and what he needs to do. For me, it was subtle. There was a comfortable fuzzy feeling in my stomach, a happy bubbling, which may have been the beer or the sun warming my body; the difference was, I stopped analyzing it. I felt good and sitting there watching the waves, I kind of forgot to question it. I just knew that of all the places in the world I could’ve been, this one was pretty nice and I was lucky to be there. To be calm inside your own skin is rare, especially for those of us riddled with anxiety, which is probably why I remember that evening so well. I was calm. When this trip finished, I would be starting a brand new life, and it was finally starting to feel like a really good decision. Inhale possibility, exhale anxiety. Cheers.

Part 3: Welcome to the West 4/20-5/2 2015

“So, let me see if I understand this,” the barkeep said, eyeballing me skeptically. “You’re 24 years old, you ain’t married and you ain’t just got outta jail, and you’re just…driving ’round the country?”

            I’d been in Omaha less than an hour and I already felt like a pariah.

           I tried to calmly explain my tentative plans about the future and how I was making an effort to stop in places I traveled through to add to the experience of my road trip. The reaction from the bartender was mixed at best.

           “Yeah, but why are you here? Nobody comes to Omaha that ain’t born here or stuck here,” she said as she tried to pour me another beer. But like the first attempt, this one was a total disaster from start to finish, and I was handed a glass of about 85% foam. The frustration must’ve been evident on my face because, at long last, she relinquished her line of CIA-style questioning and accepted the fact that I was probably just a weirdo.

Rock Bottom, Omaha’s self deprecating brewery (yes, I realize it is a chain)

           I guess I really hadn’t anticipated what other people might think of my modern manifest destiny. My friends and family had been supportive of the idea, but in Nebraska, I might as well have been speaking Yiddish. Wasting gas on a thinly veiled mission to “find myself,” was not finding much of an audience here, so I drank the 15% of my glass that had beer in it and got back on the highway. What a strange place.

           Since leaving Chicago, I had rolled across the Mississippi River, stopped briefly in Des Moines, and continued churning across the low plains until my awkward encounter in Omaha. For the most part, the Great Plains had, not surprisingly, been rather plain, though I did think Des Moines was quite pretty. Geographically, the occasional fold of land or river was as exciting as the region could muster, so it did feel good, five hours after Omaha, to finally cross into the centennial state.

Nebraskan road side wisdom

           It wasn’t really the state crossing or the mileage markers that convin