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
- Month 4: May 22, 2021 (Tyndall Glacier & Gorge)
- Month 5: June 2, 2021 (Sundance Mt. North Face)
- Month 6: July 25, 2021 (Andrews Glacier)
- Final Thoughts
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Month 5: June 2, 2021 (Sundance Mt. North Face)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Month 6: July 25, 2021 (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.
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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!