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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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