Lead Mountain North Ridge: Crux of the Never Summers (Class 4)

TLDR: This is a fantastic and remote adventure in RMNP that utilizes some of the best rock in the Never Summer Range. You approach from wild and remote Skeleton Gulch, hit the main Never Summer Crest between Tepee Mt. and Lead Mt., turn south and begin scrambling. The crux of the whole range is the North Ridge of Lead Mt. (Class 4). You can stay on the ridge for aaaalmost the whole way, and it makes for a great challenge. There do appear to be workarounds near the toughest sections, but they also feature Class 4 scrambling. Once above this, you ridge stroll on looser but generally OK rock to the actual summit of Lead (2+). Then, for the most expedient way down, take the East Ridge (Class 3+/4). You can descend via Hitchens Gulch, the Ditch Road, and Red Mountain Trail back to the Colorado River Trailhead, OR you can retrace through Skeleton Gulch, descend to the river trail via the lower part of Thunder Pass Trail and head south to the trailhead from there. For mountain masochists, you could try the entire Never Summer Traverse or take Thunder Pass to Static Peaks East ridge (solid rock and Class 3), climb that, tag Richthofen, head south to Tepee, tag Lead, and then pop off the crest via Lead’s East ridge. ~16-17 miles roundtrip. ~3500 ft. gain/loss.

Here’s a video of the whole North Ridge scramble up to the summit.

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First light on the Never Summer Range from lower Skeleton Gulch. Tepee Mt. is the shape point right of the center.

Preface/Rating System

Quick disclaimer: I like to highlight and mark-up 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 that 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.

Quick Stats: ~16-17 miles roundtrip. ~3500 ft. gain/loss.

Half pano of the area. “Never Summer Peak” is on the left, Lead Mt. is actually the next summit to the right, and the dominating North Ridge is the central high point. The range drops precipitously to the west.

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Introduction

The Never Summer Range is a fantastic, albeit lesser-known range of Rocky Mountain National Park. Part of its lesser-known status is due to a western location that’s harder to get to from the Front Range. During the winter Trail Ridge closes, giving the range another level of isolation. Another aspect is the lower elevation of the range. None of the peaks make it to the 13,000 ft. Access is also a bit helter-skelter. The eastern side you can get to from Trail Ridge. The northern side is best visited from Colorado 14 west of Cameron Pass. The western side you can get to from a few trailheads on long dirt roads, but it’s pretty scattershot.

The most popular area of the Never Summers is most likely the northern endcap, located in Colorado State Forest State Park (fees apply). From just west of Cameron Pass, you get a great look at it, and it’s jaw-dropping if you haven’t seen the Nokhu Crags before. Between the Crags, Richthofen (the highest in the range), Lake Agnes, and the American Lakes, this area pulls visitors. It’s also a popular backcountry skiing area in the winter. However, this area and the Rocky Mountain National Park area don’t connect unless you car position. So, they really operate separately.

Area overview map.

Overall, the range does not have great rock. Many of the summits require scrambling on loose and uncomfortable slopes. That pattern breaks in three notable areas: the east ridge of Static Peak, the North Ridge of Lead Mountain, and the East Ridge of Lead Mt. After two adventures to the range, I had done Static peaks East ridge (Class 3) and Lead Mountains East Ridge (Class 3+/4). The only thing left was the crux of the range, a sizable Class 4 ridge scramble up the North side of Lead Mountain, then a downclimb of the Class 3+/4 East Ridge to get off the mountain. Kind of like my ascent of North Arapaho from Wheeler Basin and descent of the Arapaho Traverse, you get two scrambles for the price of one.

Lead Mts. East Ridge (3+/4). This is your quickest descent route and makes for a fine scrambling adventure on its own.

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The Approach

Lead Mountain is an oddly shaped peak on the Continental Divide between the bulk of Richthofen to the north (and the almost invisible from the ridgeline Tepee Mt. in front of it) and Cirrus to the south. It’s not the tallest peak in the range and is, in fact, hard to see from many areas of Trail Ridge that otherwise support fantastic views of Cumulus, Nimbus, Howard, and Richthofen. For elevation-oriented hikers and peak baggers, there isn’t much to love here, but for the discerning scrambler and explorer, Lead Mountain is a winner.

A rare view of Lead Mt. from the east, taken from near the Mt. Ida trail.

If you’re doing this in a day, I’d say start before dawn. The approach is largely trailed and easy to follow with a headlamp so you can burn some distance. From the Colorado River Trailhead, head north toward Lulu City. Make sure to follow the signs for Thunder Pass. The trail will initially follow the river, pass the Red Mountain Trail, and go up and over some meadows and steeper sections. Eventually, you’ll break left at a large intersection and head to Lulu City (between 3-3.5 miles, the trail signs are a bit off in this area).

At the plaque for Lulu, it seems like the trail splits again (do not take the left variety, it heads to the river and dies on the other side). Stick to the right-hand variation and continue toward a footbridge across the river. Once across, you’ll begin a steady rise to the Ditch Camp area (passing a trail junction with the Little Yellowstone Trail). When the trail dead-ends into what looks like an old logging road, head left and through the Ditch Camp Group sites.

First mention of Skeleton Gulch.

Depending on how dark it is, there could be some momentary confusion here. You need to actually go through the Ditch Camp Group site (a large flat pad for tents should be visible on your right). After you pass the tent pad, look for this sign to continue to Skeleton Gulch.

On the other side, the trail meanders through the woods before connecting with the Grand Ditch. Almost directly across from where you are (slightly to the right), you’ll see a bridge over the ditch into Skeleton Gulch.

Take the trail ~1.2 miles up to the Skeleton Gulch campsite. From here on, you’re off-trail. You can either follow Sawmill Creek on its right (northern side) or go through the Skeleton Gulch campsite and cross the creek below it. In either scenario, you want to follow the stream uphill. The trees will break around the stream, and you’ll want to pick a gully on the northern side to gain some elevation. It’ll look like you’re heading up toward Richthofen, but this method avoids harder climbing.

Beautiful Skeleton Gulch. Lead Mt. is visible above and doesn’t look like much from here. Once you gain some elevation, the perspective shifts pretty quickly.
General route from higher in the gulch. Blue=Class2.

Once on a grassy plateau, sight the low point in the ridge to the left of the sharp Tepee Mt., which you can see from various points leading into Skeleton Gulch. If you choose your route well, you can get to the ridgeline without any Class 3 scrambling. From many points below, the North Ridge doesn’t look like much, but when you get up to the ridge, the seriousness of the route begins to take shape. Once you’re on the ridge, turn south and ascend to a high point (Class 2+). Once you top out on this ridge point, the rest of the route unfolds in front of you, and the scrambling begins.

Don’t worry, it’ll look a lot more intense when you get on the ridge. Purple=Class 4.

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The Route

From where you hit the ridge to the first high point requires a bit of Class 2+ navigating or light Class 3 if you stick to the ridgeline. It’s a nice intro but won’t last long.

Lots going on here, key takeaways: there are at least 3 sections of scrambling, each with Class 4 components (purple arrows). There are 2-3 ways to handle the crux, and the most direct way flirts with lower 5th class (Orange). Above the crux, there are some really great slabby climbing sections.

From the first ridge high point, a.k.a. the start of the scramble, this is what the rest of the ridge looks like.

You’ll start with some solid Class 3 scrambling that maintains elevation. For the most part, the rock is super solid; there were a few errant pieces that moved, so if you’re moving quickly, take a couple of extra seconds to check holds.

Enjoyable Class 3 up some nice slabs.

This part into a wild dip in the ridge where you’ll hit your first Class 4 downclimb and then a quick Class 4 reclimb up the other side.

In the danger zone.

I was both surprised by how long this first section took and how committing it ended up being. There were several sections where exposed climbing into and out of notches slowed me down, but the weather was gorgeous, there was almost zero wind, and the stellar rock helped A TON.

Eventually, you get up to a small knob that isn’t visible when you start but actually has a little prominence on either side. From here, you can stare up at the Crux section and contemplate your fate.

One of the more interesting perspectives of this area is actually from below. As you initially rise up from Skeleton Gulch, you can pick out some of the features I noted in previous pics.

Keep in mind, the ridge side facing us looks easy but a sizable cliff runs just below the picture frame which limits access to that side and you’d still need to scramble Class 4 sections to make it up to the ridgeline before cliffing out. Purple=Class 4, Orange=Class 5.

As you work way slowly up to the crux, the terrain hits high Class 4 pretty quickly and may sport a move or two at low 5. It’s certainly there if you want to stick true to the ridge. There are two “problems” you need to contend with if you employ a ridge-direct strategy: 1) there’s plant life growing in a seam you need to use to get up to the crux moves, and the alpine grasses in it are not great for foot traction. 2) An overhung lip limits your options to an exposed move to the ridge’s east side or squeezing into a pocket between two rocks and then figuring out how to scramble out of it.

Red=Class 3 approach to Class 4 alt. route. Orange=Class 5.

Although it’s still certifiably Class 4, there is a workaround to the right that breaks from the ridgeline briefly, attacks it at a relative weakness (light Class 4), and then turns left up this Crux Ridge (Class 4) until it reconnects with the main ridgeline above the Crux.

Work around. Once you get onto the Crux Ridge, there are a few surprisingly exposed Class 4 moves before you rejoin the main N-S Ridge Crest. Red=Class 3, Purple=Class 4, Orange=Class 5.

The workaround isn’t long and still gives you plenty to scramble over before you rejoin the ridge. You’re not saving a ton, but there are much better holds on the alternative route, and that can be a really nice confidence booster. If the ridge direct is calling, go for it, just know that it is harder.

Despite the difficulties near the ridgeline, the rock more than makes up for it all.

So, after the crux, you’re on to section three of the scramble. The difficulties are NOT over. However, the scrambling takes on more of a vertical profile. Up until the crux, you’ve gained maybe 150 ft. (net). The last section will pull you up another 250 ft. in short order. Thankfully, the rock remains wonderful, and you can stay true to the crest pretty much the entire way up.

You can pretty easily bail right and keep it at Class 3ish, but eventually you need to either go back to the ridge or climb up to the top of the rise, which could push you back into Class 3+/4. At this point, since the Crux is over, just stick to the ridge.

After some stout elevation gain, you’ll pop up to the top of the ridge, and the scrambling mellows back down into Class 2 terrain for a while. Congrats! Don’t take your foot off the pedal, though; you still need to go a quarter mile to tag Lead and then descend the East Ridge. Alternatively, you could go all the way to the saddle above Lake of the Clouds, but that requires additional miles, a 2+ traverse of all of Hart Ridge, and going up and over Cirrus.

Looking back after about 2/3rd of the way up the last section.

Here’s a link to Gopro Footage of the North Ridge scramble.

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Notes on the North Ridge

There isn’t much information out there on the North Ridge scramble; both Lisa Foster and Gerry Roach recommend staying west of the ridgeline for the majority of the scramble. The thing is they only have like a 3-4 sentence description of the whole route, which isn’t all that helpful aside from the generalized “stay west” advice.

I don’t know, partly because I love ridgelines and partly to prove that I could, staying on or within a few feet of the ridge crest was my goal, and it was exhilarating. This is a high-caliber Class 4 scramble. In the interest of transparency, I think you could possibly construct a bypass further west around more of the Crux ridge (like Foster and Roach suggest), but then you have to reclimb to the ridge; it’ll likely involve Class 4 sections anyway. The closest report I found that gives a bit more detail on a possible western workaround is here.

Sorry about the crap quality, taken on an old phone, but this is looking up at the Crux section.

Obviously, it’s a choose your own adventure type deal but let’s be real, if you’re out here trying to scramble this random ridge in a remote corner of Rocky Mountain National Park, you’re here because you enjoy scrambling on good rock in a pristine setting. If that’s the case, stay close to the ridge and enjoy the experience more.

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To the summit!

From the top of section three, you still have a quarter mile to go, but it’s easier. Note that the rock quality gets a little worse, still not bad, but off the crest, and even sometimes on the crest, stuff starts moving a bit. Watch for small rocks and if a rock looks loose, give it a tap with your hand or foot before putting weight on it.

What remains.

If you stay close to the ridge, you can flirt with some exciting exposure back to Skeleton Gulch. There’s also a small section of optional Class 3 as you draw near the summit but you can just as easily skip it.

Getting closer! Red=Class 3, Blue=Class 2

After a steeper Class 2 pitch, you get up to the summit.

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Lead Mt’s. East Ridge

This is the fastest way down. I’d scrambled up this route before and combined it with Hart Ridge. The rock is solid, and it’s a pretty enjoyable route on its own. Here’s a description I wrote on it for the website SkyBlueOverland where I’m a frequent contributor. You can also check out this summitpost page as well, which I used to prep for the route.

Here’s the abridged version; start descending down the east ridge with substantial exposure to the north. The rock quality is excellent, but you’ll still have to perform a few awkward moves.

Pretty soon, you’ll top a small subpeak, and then the route drops quickly away, leading to the crux and a pseudo-knife edge.

Crux moves. Purple=Classs 4, Red=Class 3

After the crux, you’ll have to downclimb the knife edge. Move for move, it’s not bad; just don’t let your eyes drift too far downhill.

After the knife edge, the exposure drops a bit, but you still have a series of small points to get over before the scrambling relents. Depending on your mood, at this point, it can be nice to keep scrambling or annoying that you’re not done yet. Stay alert until you’re safely on the saddle between Lead Mt. and “Never Summer.”

Lead Mountain and the East Ridge from inside Skeleton Gulch.

Right, well, you can either drop into Hitchens Gulch (right) or circle back to Skeleton Gulch (left). Snow does linger in both gulches well into the summer, so make wide moves around any snowy surfaces unless you have spikes. You’re still 7ish miles from anything, so stay focused on the return journey to your car. Take your time descending into whichever gulch you choose. Once you’re back on established trails, you can start hauling.

Video of North Ridge Scramble

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Cooper Peak: South Buttress (Class 4) & North Couloir

TLDR: Incredibly fun Class 4 route on grippy rock. Over in 45 minutes if you’re moving slowly, and you avoid downclimbing any Class 3 or 4 sections by looping around via the Cooper Peak-Marten peak saddle. VERY long single day or great activity while camping at Gourd Lake. Bonus route (North Couloir) below. GoPro Footage of both routes below each trail description and again in the summary. Indian Peaks Wilderness-Northern Colorado (western side of the wilderness).

Table of Contents

Preface/Rating System

Quick disclaimer: I like to highlight and mark-up 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.

CalTopo of the region and the various route up/down Cooper.

Introduction

Cooper Peak is a fairly unsightly lump in the western IPW. From most angles, it isn’t much to look at and gets lost beneath the size and height of its eastern neighbors, namely Ogallala and “Ooh-la-la.” Even the local peak that it’s taller than, Marten Peak, is more eye-catching and features some interesting routes of its own.

Cooper Peak from near the top of Buchanan Pass. I believe Hiamovi Mountain is back and to the left.

Yet, Cooper Peak is one of the more magical peaks in the IPW due to at least three interesting routes on it. In his IPW book. Gerry Roach describes Cooper Peak as epitomizing the joys of the lesser summits. After climbing up Cooper via each of its interesting routes, I gotta say I agree. The South Buttress is a particularly fun and exciting route.

If you camp at Gourd lake, you can stare right up at it from your tent and contemplate potential route strategies. A good zoom also helps capture some of the more interesting parts of the scramble.

Purple=Class 4, Red=Class 3

The Approach

The approach to this area is pretty straightforward. Park at the Monarch Lake Trailhead in Grand County and hike to Gourd Lake (~8.3 miles one way). If you’ve never been over Buchanan Pass or you feel like punishing yourself, you can also get to Gourd Lake from either Camp Dick or Beaver Reservoir on the eastern side of the divide.

The South Buttress is visible from Gourd Lake.

Once you’re at Gourd Lake, your first objective is to get out of the lakes drainage. Head north. You can ascend a number of ways. Since I camped by the lake, I circled the lake on its eastern side and just followed the stream that emptied into Gourd Lake uphill. It’ll take you up to a small unnamed lake. At this new lake, I hopped across the stream and headed for a notch to the left of some cliffs.

At the crest of this rise were two additional ponds with the towering South Buttress behind them. The challenge from here is getting onto the route.

You need to descend to the next stream, which is coming out of Island Lake to the northeast. There is a mini canyon that the stream goes through before entering the basin to the west between Marten Peak and Cooper. It’s best to cross either above or below the mini-canyon.

If you cross above the mini-canyon, orientation is fairly easy, but you will be bashing through some krummholz before the route begins. If you cross below the mini-canyon and then work your way up the ridge to the right (east), you should be able to find some gullies that lead up to the ridge line and the start of the scramble.

When the Krummholz ends, the scrambling begins.

The Route (Cooper Peak, South Buttress)

Beyond the krummholz, you have this rock step that you need to deal with. The scrambling starts there, and if you’re careful, you can pick a path through this rock step that doesn’t exceed Class 3.

For the next few parts, you’re right on the nose of the ridge. There are a few rocky steps like the first one, interspersed with grassy saddles.

One of your first looks toward the crux area as you begin scrambling.

This pattern continues for a minute until you get to the view below; then, you have an option.

You can stick to the ridge by heading initially right and then doubling back to get onto the crest. This appeared to be the sunnier and easier way (at least in the morning). If you want a quick Class 4 challenge on good rock, head to the left and follow an angling ramp to the side of a nice slab.

Get onto the slab and climb back to the ridgeline.

Between the top of the slab and the ridgeline is a little window that you need to climb through. The moves here are Class 4 but short.

Once you’re back on the ridgeline, scramble through a couple brief Class 3 sections before gettin up to the crux area, which looks like this from below.

Scary view but there is a way up.

After you’ve digested the view, walk up to the Class 4 slab and climb up it on its left (western) side.

Once you’re on top of this first slab, there’s a brief section right on the nose of the ridge with substantial exposure. The holds are good through this stretch, though.

After the brief part on the nose of the ridge, your path gets blocked by an overhung rock. You could climb it, but the overhung first few feet looked difficult. I found a Class 4 way by traversing to the right underneath the rock on a grippy slab and then climbing up and around the right side of the rock. This is likely the most exposed set of moves on the route.

Once you get through this part, the crux difficulties relent briefly.

The route isn’t over though and there are some more Class 3 sections and a surprising wall that you have to take care of to get to the top of the buttress.

Some of the moves on this wall felt very Class 3+/4

After you get above the last scrambling surprise, the terrain starts to mellow out pretty quickly.

One last look back before the ridge moderates. Gourd Lake is visible below.

Before a minute has passed, you’ll be standing on a wide-open arm of Cooper Peak with no signs of the ridge you just climbed.

The top of the South Buttress with Cooper Peaks summit nearby. “Ooh La La” is in the background, with part of Ogallala visible between Cooper and “Ooh La La.”

The flat finish can seem like a bit of a letdown, but the scrambling is awesome, and I’m sure there are more variations you can play around with on that route.

From here, head up to touch Cooper’s summit, or if you don’t care, head west and downhill to the saddle between you and Marten peak.

At the saddle, which you can get to with some loose Class 2+ terrain or sturdier Class 3 near the ridgeline, drop left (south) into the basin. Cross the basin, sneaking glances back at your ridge, which once again starts to look intimidating.

You can see the optional Class 4 slab from this perspective, the rest of the route is hidden.

Recross the stream, climb up to the top of the low ridge on the other side and pop down the other side to get back to Gourd lake.

Here are some reminders of what you just scrambled up.

Purple=Class 4, Red=Class 3

Here’s also a link to some GoPro Footage of the scramble. There is no audio, the only thing your missing is the blustery wind and me wheezing. If you expand the video caption it breaks down where I am on the ridge, which should correspond with the marked-up pics in this post.

Bonus: The North Couloir

In 2020 I climbed the North Ridge of Cooper and Marten Peak and wrote a trip report on it. Remembering how fun and surprising that route was, I committed to coming back and snow climbing the deeply inset North Couloir when it was filled. I climbed this route on July 18, 2022.

The North Couloir in Septemeber. An early July attempt worked well with the couloir filled in.

The North Couloir is ~55 degrees and is a fairly standard snow climb. You can mess around with the finish to create a nice mixed climb.

This weird side of Cooper is fairly rugged.

Here’s a video of how all of that looked.

Summary and Acknowledgements

Between Gerry Roach’s very brief description of the route in his book “Colorado’s Indian Peaks: Classic Hikes and Climbs,” the zoomed-in view of the route from Gourd Lake and a report by Lordhelmut on 14ers.com with a fantastic shot of the crux area, I felt good enough to give it a go. It was a very satisfying scramble. If I’m ever back in the area, I’d do it again. Super fun.

Here, again are the video links:

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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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.

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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.
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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!