Spring continues in fits and starts. Early last week, with restless legs and a vague plan in mind, I set out on a tour to investigate Mounts Baldy and Bellview for a possible link-up. Both peaks dominate the East River valley past Gothic, and seemed like nice things to ski.
After heading several miles upvalley, I climbed up the timbered saddle between Gothic and Baldy and emerged onto a long alpine ridge, granting me a view of Baldy’s upper reaches. Huge cornices loomed like misaligned molars above face I had hoped to ski, extending the entire length of the summit ridge.
Leaving the bowl I re-entered the forest through scattered stands of the most impressively large trees I can remember seeing Colorado. I followed a drainage from a neighboring slope, trying to dance from patch to patch of hard snow in a sea of treacherous breakable crust. The trees tightened, and it was a decidedly schwacky descent until I burst out into brilliant sunlight in the valley below.
From there, I traversed up the shoulder of Bellview (now adjacent to me across the river). About 1500 feet below the summit, with the sun rapidly warming its south-facing slopes, I decided it was time to turn back and limit my exposure to wet slides. By this point, sun-exposed aspects had transitioned to corn, and the descent was fun and fast. Perhaps even better, the valley floor was still frozen, and I was able to quickly skate on crust the several miles home.
A few days later, I headed out the door with the goal of climbing Mt. Bellview in earnest. The dust layer was again exposed after 40 hours of sun, giving the snow the texture of sandpaper and precluding much in the way of glide. The sky too was less than ideal, threatening rain, but I’ve learned to be more afraid of the days that scare you into staying in the cabin with weather that then fails to materialize, so I went anyway.
Reaching the base of the mountain after a 45 minute approach, I climbed the ridge I had explored the previous day, and then set across the bowl to the base of the most direct line from the summit. There, I shouldered my skis and booted up what could very loosely be described as a chute between a handful of rocky fins to gain the ridge. Climbing was slow, on bulletproof snow, and I found myself wishing for crampons as the pitch grew steeper. But after 1000 or so feet I crested over to a view of the Maroon Bells and the vast basin beyond, and walked up the final pitch to the summit.
The sky had grown dark during the climb, and clouds were rolling in and out above 12,000 feet, spitting snow and limiting visibility. Still unsure of what the day’s weather had in store, I decided not to linger, dropping in to a second broad “chute” directly below the summit.
The skiing was poor, as the snow had failed to soften, and so I made steep, cautious, and chattery turns back down to the floor of the bowl. From there, better conditions prevailed, and I cruised down to the valley. At this lower elevation, things had grown sloppy in my absence, and the trip back to the cabin grew ever slower.
As a final treat, a very bold fox and I shared the road for a few moments, obliging me with a quick photo before trotting on to do whatever foxes do.
He was halfway between winter and summer coats.
The photograph above depicts the last known Mexican Grizzly (a now-extinct subspecies of brown bear endemic to northern Mexico and the American southwest; Ursus arctos nelsoni), shot in 1957 and paraded through the streets of Ciudad Chihuahua.
Both the photograph and the bear’s extinction have always struck me as unspeakably sad, which is why I’ve long wanted to write on the topic. Now, I’ve had the chance: This month’s issue of the Hypocrite Reader (an online magazine where I’ve contributed previously) includes an essay of mine about its loss, animals in the imagination, and the singularity of landscapes, among other things. I hope you enjoy it.
The east face of Gothic Mountain, sentinel of the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab and the iconic view I drink my coffee to every morning, has a ski line that has been haunting my dreams since I moved here in September. The line is 3200 vertical feet, snaking through the striking laccolithic crenelations that give the mountain its name, and averages close to 40 degrees for most of its length, with a narrow choke in the 45 degree range. For most of the winter, avalanche danger has made it an obvious impossibility, other than a few periods of high pressure that saw a handful of parties ski it. But with the stabilizing snowpack of spring, and an imminent end to my tenure at the townsite, I started to realize both that a) I really, really wanted to ski it before I left and b) there might not be much time left to make it happen.
My concerns were exacerbated on March 30th, when a dust storm from the red desert of the Colorado Plateau coated the Elks with a good chunk of Moab. This is a regular event, though increasingly triggered by agricultural disturbance. Beyond making snow unpredictably grabby and gross looking, it vastly accelerates melting by changing the snow’s albedo, or reflection coefficient, allowing it to absorb more heat. With 70+ inches remaining out my door, there’s still plenty of coverage, but given the line’s slope, aspect, and tendency to be scoured by avalanches, I was concerned the window was rapidly closing. A feeling of urgency began to grip me.
When I am contemplating attempting something considerably outside my comfort zone I fall into particular patterns of thought and behavior. For several weeks I obsessed over the mountain whenever my commute left me staring at it, scoping out possible ascents and descents, as well as pouring over maps and estimating slope angle with online topos. I visualized myself on the summit, peering down at the abyss.
I was not, however, very chatty about any of it. Though I initially assumed I’d be finding a partner, I gradually started to think I would be more comfortable doing it alone. By necessity, most of the 130 days I’ve skied this season have been solo. It’s generally not recommended. But I’ve become accustomed to skiing with extreme conservatism and trusting my decisions, sans the complicating factors of group dynamics. With the predictability of avalanche danger in spring snowpack — one of the major reasons it’s always better to ski with a friend — the major hazard of the route, with its exposure and cliff bands, was a fall. In anticipation of skiing something bigger than I ever had before, I wanted the only voice in whether to commit or not to be the one in my head, making a judgement about both the conditions and my mental readiness. Soloing, then, was a conscious decision.
And Tuesday was the day to do it. Last weekend saw a brief return to winter conditions preceeding a predicted day of high temperature and sun on April 8th. I found myself resorting to rituals to build confidence. I laid out my gear in my bedroom in a pleasing way. I cut up a Neptune Mountaineering sticker (“Skiing: it rips the screams right out of your throat”) and affixed it to my helmet. I had green tea instead of beer, and bacon parmesean pasta.
I left the cabin around 0730, kicking along on legs sore from my recent reintroduction to running in the drier parts of the valley. The first part of the climb, up the avalanche chute we caretakers call “Dr. Weiner”, was straightforward, gaining 2000-odd feet with innumerable kick turns on dust on edgeable crust turning gloppier, as the sun rose ever higher in the eastern sky. At the base of the south-facing couloir I’ve heard called the “Knife” (the usual ascent/descent route from Crested Butte is via a line known as the “Spoon”) I shouldered my skis and began booting. For about 20 vertical feet I was trenching in unconsolidated snow under a thin crust, and began to get worried, but soon things firmed up and the rest of the climb to the chute’s terminus went easily. Getting out, however, proved to be the most gripping maneuver of the day, trying to scramble over loose snow and looser rock with 3000 feet of exposure suddenly glaringly obvious below me. My nervous system provided a shot of adrenaline that kept me on edge for the rest of the morning — I am not a particularly talented or natural climber, and whenever I feel as though I have become better, more comfortable on steep and exposed terrain, something reminds me just how far I have to go.
Once past this crux of sorts, it was a mellow bootpack / skin along the ridge, avoiding the massive cornice to the left by piloting from island to island of wind-scoured rock. Views stretched from the San Juans to the Colorado Plateau, Grand Mesa, the Maroon Bells, and the Sawatch Range. And very far below, the town of Gothic. I arrived at the summit, marked by a small cairn and two posts. I considered the task ahead, or rather, below. Though I was still tense from the climb, something inside me eased as I approached the slope. The upper bowl of the face is about 38 degrees, which is not too daunting a pitch, despite the intimidation factor of the slope disappearing out of vision and into oblivion around a fin of snow and over a roll. There was nothing left to do but ski. And skiing, I thought, I can do.
I radioed to fellow caretaker Gary, who locked me in the binoculars from his cabin, and dropped in. All was good: the snow was soft, in the weird zone between powder and corn, though somewhat tacky and sluffing. From there on it was just careful turn after careful turn, for 30 some minutes, dropping by grace of gravity with as much elegance as I could muster towards home and hearth. My legs never really stopped being a little jittery, but I was happy to be calm enough to enjoy the skiing and my airy vantage point.
By the time the pitch grew steeper and more scoured, approaching the choke, I was confident enough from the upper third of the mountain not to let the technicality of the next several hundred feet get to me. And then, maybe even too quickly, the slope spread out and mellowed and I shot across the meadow to the river and the road.
All of which is a lot of text for a relatively small act. But for me, the descent was a satisfying culmination of what certainly was the most ski days I’ll ever fit into a winter again: tangible proof that yes, all that time on the snow has made a difference in my abilities and confidence in the silly, beautiful game of glisse alpinism.
I think I’m ready for summer now.
Gear notes: Trab duo sint Aero skis, mounted with La Sportiva RT bindings and Scarpa F1 race boots, a single whippet, mohair skins, a helmet, and a CAMP race pack. Little skis do cool things.
Photo (c) Kevin Krill
There comes a point, when you’ve been skiing for 13 hours above 9000′, through a long cold sleepless night and then under a baking spring sun, when your boots are biting your ankles and the integrity of your toenails is a dubious proposition at best, when you’ve had enough combinations of glucose and salt and chemical flavor that the thought of eating makes you wretch a little and you wonder how on earth you made it two-plus decades eating every single day, a point when all you want to do is stop. A point when the point of what you’re doing disappears, and it seems like the only purpose to the whole wretched thing in the first place was to suffer. At this point, you think about dropping.
During the 2014 edition of the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse, (sorry, “Gore-Tex” Grand Traverse, as the wheels of capitalism must spin, even in Muir’s church) this point came for Kate and I just before 1PM. The Grand Traverse is a classic 40-mile backcountry ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen, and had been the focus of both our winters since registering in December. Unfortunately, due to considerable avalanche danger above treeline, it was a “Grand Reverse” year, a course starting and ending in Crested Butte. The news, delivered after lunch the day of the race, was pretty crushing to the assembled racers: the goal of Aspen, the romance and aesthetic of the route, had disappeared, leaving in its stead a night of slogging that would drop us right back where we started. Because of this, 1PM had brought us back within sight of Mount Crested Butte.
For Kate, 1PM was an unfathomable low, as she had been skiing on blown-out knees for hours and every turn or sidehill stride made her wince and grind her teeth and drew involuntary tears. We were 32 miles and 7500′ from the start, with 8 miles and perhaps 1000′ left to travel. But those 8 miles would be bloody indeed. We stopped, talked, flirted with despair and the eventualities in front of us. Up the hill, Ambush Ranch and a final checkpoint loomed. We had sugar, skied. Cresting the hill at 1:03, we had no idea whether we’d be leaving to fight for a finish or give up our bibs and give Kate’s ruined knees and feet a way out.
As it turned out, we had no choice. Due to the unforseen difficulty of the course (it ended up being both longer and having more climbing than the actual route to Aspen) a last-minute cut-off had been imposed, and we were directed to ski out 2 or 3 miles to the Brush Creek trailhead, where a shuttle would return us to the start. For a moment, it seemed like a relief. A decision avoided. We started moving, Kate in excruciating pain. We didn’t talk about much but getting out, but we were both quietly reflecting on skin track behind us.
Some things went well: The first three-odd hours passed in a focused and satisfying blur. We paced ourselves smartly, pushing up through the pack from close to last to the top half or so nearly until the Friend’s Hut. I’ve now spent enough time up all night moving through the woods that I never got particularly sleepy. Our packs were fairly light and small, and mine never bothered me. We never had any problem with skins, or frozen water, both notorious race-enders in previous years. Dawn and morning alpenglow in the basin above Friend’s Hut was exquisite.
Other things didn’t. We didn’t push Kate’s skis or boots much past 20 miles in training, about the point they started to cause problems for her during the race, with lateral slop in three-pin bindings and soft plastic cuffs failing to provide her necessary support for the long haul. There could have been more eating during the second-half of the night: numerous bonks contributed to a slowed pace and morale drop right before dawn, during the final slog up to the Friend’s Hut. I didn’t dress warmly enough for our time in the alpine, and was a worse partner for it. And then, of course, we got pinched for time.
The past week has been somewhat emotional, as the disappointment manifest itself. We poured a lot of ourselves — and more relevantly, our limited time together — into preparing for this race, and to not cross the finish line, even if it wasn’t the finish line we were counting on, has been a blow. But I am still immensely proud of Kate, who hasn’t so much as raced a 5K since high school, for taking on the challenge and getting so very close. It’s a gear and strategy intensive route, with a level of remoteness rare to most endurance events in the lower 48. The midnight start means you begin tired and only get worse as time goes on. Getting enough to eat over 8-16 hours is serious business. Acute focus and optimism is far more important than fitness.
I like to think we could have gotten to Aspen, with an easier, known course, and a real goal to fight for. But such speculation is fruitless, and the only way to know for sure is to come back next year. We’ll be there.
My brother Garrett, of Portland, Ore, flew out during his spring break to spend a week in the cabin. A strong MRG-bred skier, the trip was his first real exposure to the myriad skills and nuances required of backcountry skiing, and my first experience attempting to introduce a new skier to the off-piste universe in a responsible and moderately articulate way. It was rewarding to see his progress over the week with things as varied as avalanche risk assessment, kick-turns, holding an edge on icy traverses while skinning, and skiing fluidly after 2000′ of a leg-burning climb.
Today was his final day in Colorado, and we were treated to some of the best turns I’ve had all season on perfect corn snow. A week before the long dark walk to Aspen, it was nice to know that Ullr cares.
Of all my quasi-competitive pursuits, skimo racing has the most puzzle pieces to assemble. Three events into my nascent “career,” I still have a heck of a lot to figure out. The 2014 Wasatch Powderkeg got underway Friday afternoon at Brighton Ski Area in the Wasatch Range outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. I hooked up with speedy Jon Brown of Team Crested Butte for the long drive from Colorado and rolled in with enough time for him to compete in the brutally anaerobic 3-minute sprint time trial. Patrick, whose urging was impetus for my attendance at the race, also lined up, and threw down an impressive performance for his first-ever attempt at the event.
Saturday was the main attraction, the individual race. For the elite division (in which I was entered by virtue of gear weight, not talent), the course covered 10 miles and 6200’ of climbing, including two boot packs. At the gun, close to a hundred races jogged off the line, at a pace more manageable than I feared. I gracefully spent about two minutes poling with one hand as I tried to get Strava to activate, before focusing on less important matters, like the race at hand. The first climb filled me with optimism, as I steadily passed racers on both groomers and more-technical stretches of skintrack. Delusions of a solid mid-pack finish filled my head, and my smugness increased as I eased past a skier I knew was on Canada’s national team, using my acclimation to the race’s high altitude (8800’ – 10600’) to my advantage. I kept Patrick in my crosshairs and worked to close the gap, arriving at the first bootpack shortly after him.
Alas, ski mountaineering is a discipline that relies on far more than fitness, and rewards such preparation as knowing how to use the ski carry system on your backpack. Struggling for several minutes to find the shoulder loop on my pack, I watched maybe ~10 racers slip by me before I managed to effectively affix my affects. From there, some of my competitive fire slipped away, but I trotted up the boot pack as quickly as the queue would allow, and then jogged down the ridge (exhilarating, if you were wondering) to the first transition zone. In what was to be a theme for the weekend, I botched my switch into ski mode and lost another few places before tackling the steep chute that began the first descent. I was a bit overzealous, and before long my quads were burning as I struggled to stay in control, but by treating it as if I were skiing the old Chute-to-Liftline linkup at Mad River Glen I think I managed to get down with a modicum of grace. So it went for four more climbs, descents, and a second bootpack. I traded positions with the same few racers all day, but was pleased to move up a handful of spots on the final climb, crossing the line in 2:53:51 for a humbling 51st place.
On Sunday, feeling somewhat less fresh, Patrick and I joined forces for the technical teams race, a brutal 15 miles with over 8600’ of climbing and a Euro-style via ferrata section of fixed ropes up the steep face of Mt. Millicent. “Slow is fast, don’t be last” was our mantra, and we tried to treat the day as simply an ambitious tour. The first ascent was icy and unnecessarily steep, but we climbed well and I felt our pace was strong yet relaxed. A quick, competent descent, and we skinned up to the base of the via ferrata section, where our heart rates promptly plummeted as we waited for racer after racer to inch up the bootpack, ascender in hand. But it was sunny, and no one much minded. Topping out, I struggled to descend the ridge quickly in loose sugar snow, but caught up with Patrick and down we went. And up. And down. Ad nauseum. I had a bit of a low patch coming up from the back side of the resort on an endless stretch of steep kick turns in what had turned into a hot day, but mostly we just put one ski in front of the other and I continued to fumble at transitions.
During the penultimate climb morale was again low, but Patrick’s comical dialogue imagining us as a pair of delusional Austrian skiers (“More quickly Hans, or ve vill not Podium!”) kept things light, though laughter induced hypoxia. The real fun of the day came on the final climb, when Patrick decided to drop the hammer on a coed team we’d been trading places with for hours. We passed them, and I finally managed a smooth transition before tearing down the last descent. Patrick lead, and I followed, skiing fast enough that they couldn’t quite catch me on the final skate sprint to the finish. We may have been one of the last teams out there (22nd place in 5:10:11), but it sure felt like racing.
Beer, a burger with ample mayonnaise, and the trek to home to the Gunnison valley followed.
As almost everyone who tries it says, it’s an addicting sport. More importantly, the Wasatch are predictably beautiful, and a fantastic place to ski. I hope to be back next year with more time to explore, and my racing skill set a bit more dialed.
Just as birdwatching or botanizing becomes “science” once a deliberate experimental design is introduced, the act of skiing or running becomes “training” once there is some sort of deliberate temporal structuring of effort. Which usually means intervals. I’m okay at fitting in the odd hard workout year round, but today marked the reintroduction of weekly bouts of high intensity work. Or thus do I publicly and dully announce.
The motivation: Last week I hopped into my first ski mountaineering race, and was thoroughly humbled. Not since my brief and ill-fated high school nordic career have I been forced to race for an hour-plus entirely at my aerobic threshold. Finding it somewhat lacking, I’ve resolved to move to address the sport’s particular demands, though too late for any real benefit this season, which will wrap up by the end of the month.
Since I prefer to learn things by getting completely in over my head very quickly, I’m entered in both individual and technical teams races at next weekend’s Wasatch Powderkeg, granddaddy of North American skimo events. About 24 miles and 15k’ of racing over two days, including a stretch of fixed ropes requiring via ferrata equipment. Stay posted for updates on team Fink/Linck.
In other news, it’s March, meaning summer has begun its inexorable draw towards a more organized life. There’s still plenty of winter left, but with a month of racing and visitors, life-altering decisions to make, the arrival of scientists in April, and then the final slushy weeks of my tenure here at Gothic I expect to be a bit busier than of late.
All things must end, including idylls of inactivity. I will try my hardest to savor it.