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.
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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).
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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

One thought on “Colorado Backcountry Turns All Year: Year 1, Months 1-3 (2021)

  1. Karsten Holmquist January 19, 2022 / 2:38 pm

    What a badass

    Liked by 1 person

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