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.
Storms, avalanches, and graduate school interviews are my excuses for not writing much. Since the new year, we’ve had a prolonged spell of high pressure that reduced avalanche danger to almost nil and threatened to expose grass on south-facing and lower elevation slopes, an historic storm that dropped well north of 100 inches in 10 days and prompted an historic avalanche cycle, and now, some odd mix of both.
Through it all, I’ve skied every day, but with a shifting set of expectations and goals, and with a shifting definition of what skiing — what good skiing — should itself be. Though this trend of thought began when I moved to Oregon and couldn’t afford lift tickets for mediocre resorts, it’s reached what feels like a final destination of sorts this winter, with flotation mandatory for any trip away from my door.
Put simply, skiing has become both more utilitarian and more liberating. I’ve had my share of perfect powder and cranked turns down steep faces this year, but mostly, I’ve skiied to cover ground in the winter woods. To commute, as a substitute for running, as a tool for backpacking, and just to slide through aspen groves in rolling foothills, crossing the tracks of ptarmigans and snowshoe hair and ermine.
It’s a huge spectrum, but dividing the sport into endless subdisciplines doesn’t appeal to me much, however preocupying its techniques and gear can be. As the ski poet puts it: JFS. Just fuckin’ ski.
The steep and cliffy walls of the Copper Creek drainage.
Glades off Red Rock Mountain in its winter coat.
One of those perfect clearings you leave far too soon.
This morning I skiied the ridge to the right, then down the chute off the saddle. Sheltered from the wind, the snow was beautiful and the heterogenous terrain allowed for a conservative but fun line.
Last month, during our long streak of clear skis and stable snow, Kate and I skiied Red Lady (12392′), Crested Butte’s second-most iconic peak, and site of an ongoing debate over a molybdenum mine.
Wind sweeping a sea of peaks in the Elk Range.
The road from my cabin to town at dawn after almost every avalanche path on Snodgrass Mountain shed its load, most running far enough to cover the trail deep with debris and destroy numerous aspen.
Ski safe out there.
Xavier Fane, longtime Crested Butte local, is an impressive photographer and skier. After spending Christmas here in Gothic, he decided to ski all the way home, traversing two ridges and respective valleys before connecting to the nordic trails that would carry him to town. An aesthetic and practical route. He also did it fast, casually covering the 8 miles and 1700′ of climbing in a lean 2:23.
Naturally, I had to ski the route myself. And since I am (just possibly) competitive, his benchmark gave me a goal to chase after. All in all, a nice project to break up the routine nature of my skiing, and inject some of the excitement and satisfaction I get from running back into my life, a good 6 months before dirt will show in this part of the world.
I borrowed 40mm mohair skins for my 10th Mountains, and while they didn’t exactly climb like a champ, they kept sidestepping to a minimum, at least until they failed altogether halfway up the second ridge. No matter. It was a beautiful ski, with short steep climbs yielding to mellow but fast glade skiing on the backside of each ridge. Navigational errors tacked on a mile to my route, and I ended up rolling into town in 2:39. Next time, I guess. The out-and-back is also appealing…
The final leg.
Some sort of ennui had taken hold of me the week prior. I felt the need to shake up my routine. If the isolation was getting to me, better to embrace it and feel its keen serrated edge rather than listlessly accept a permanent state of melancholia. Or something. At any rate, the idea of a night out — of embracing the legendary discomfort of winter backpacking — seemed appealing, or at least a noble-minded fix to my funk.
So I skiied the fiveish miles and 1600′ to Copper Lake, a high basin abutting east Maroon Pass and the most direct line to Aspen. In fall, it had been an enjoyable run, made less so once autumnal snows had rendered the trip an ordeal of post-holing and frigid stream fords. Skiing was easier, if the fords were still dicey and fishscales on my skis not quite sufficient for the steep pitches at the start and end of the route (bring skins). I arrived around 2:15 PM. On the back side of a knoll that broke the prevailing winds (if not entirely eliminating them) I dug a trench, perhaps four foot by ten foot, in which to place and insulate my slight tent.
I cracked a beer, and read in the last of the day’s sunlight. Grits, cheese, and tomatoes for dinner. An early retreat to the comforts of a down bag and the entertainment by the beam of a headlamp.
Later, lying awake under the probing light of a full moon I would listen to the wind rise and fall periodically, a low hum turning into a shriek and the flap of nylon before fading away again. Whence these gusts? I wondered. Was hot air rising from some distant sheltered basin, stirring a small maelstrom among the icy eyries of the Elks? Why at such defined intervals? I slept warmly with a hot water bottle until midnight, then woke frequently, not quite cold enough to do anything about it but not quite comfortable, either.
In the morning I found the idea of bacon in my cabin more appealing than a single bag of artificially flavored instant oatmeal and frozen fingers. I broke camp immediately. Coffee and waffles at G+K’s made it all worth while.
It’s easy for skiers to forget winter is a challenging time. Heat becomes a basic necessity. Seasonal depression sets in. Animals starve to death. It’s a struggle to keep your photographs from being monotonously monochromatic.
And then there are real dangers. Yesterday, winter threw most of these at the Elk Range. First, two feet of heavy snow on a touchy snowpack significantly elevated avalanche risk on all aspects, which was immediately exacerbated by high winds. Then, the temperature dropped to minus 23 F, and didn’t even reach the negative single digits until 10 AM. It was a day to spend holed up with books and TV and too much coffee.
But cabin fever must be fought, and risks can be mitigated. The freedom of the hills was calling (it’s sort of a whistle). I had grand plans for a day-long tour on gentle terrain to an alpine basin I had never managed to visit in warmer weather. Unfortunately, my route-finding was poor, and I ended up climbing both too high and not far enough, becoming mired in deadfall and tight spruces. I abandoned said plans. Which might have objectively been a failure. But as my energy wavered I pushed out into a secluded clearing with a spectacular view of the valley. I stopped to drink hot tea and eat lunch, happy to move through the winter world and explore without an agenda.
Kinesthetically, I am not a picky skier. I enjoy sliding on snow in almost all its forms. The one exception to this may be breaking trail in deep snow for 8 miles, a motion I don’t find intrinsically enjoyable. Even so, today’s pleasures were great.
Writing has great utility in demanding a consistent practice of observation. Lacking this, you don’t have much to say. Recently, with grant proposals and graduate school applications, my heart and eye have been elsewhere, and my world has been a blur of pleasant and satisfying daily rhythms without much to mark either their passing or their significance. Which is inevitable, and often desirable, particularly when you’ve taken a position guaranteed to affect your perception of time and busyness. But too much pleasant blurring of experience verges on complacency, and being lucky enough to spend the winter here makes me want memories with sharp edges and potency.
Weather has a way of ending complacency. On the weekend of the 16th a storm forecasters uniformly lowballed agitated the Gothic valley snow globe. Kate was visiting and in a moment of foresight we parked her car at the trailhead, skiing in and out for tamales and chicken broth. This presence of mind did not, however, extend to the two vehicles parked at Gothic. The storm didn’t stop, and then the county closed the road, and then we were saddled with the quixotic task of driving two passenger cars with low clearance through an ever-deepening snowpack. It continued to snow. The wind piled high and dense drifts under the aspens. On Wednesday, we managed to get the company car out in the morning without undue difficulty. My world-weary Volvo struggled more, taking two hours to push the four miles to asphalt. Chains came loose. Chains broke. But by sunset we could welcome the snow unreservedly.
Kate began her commute back to Denver at 4AM with an hour and a half of skiing from my cabin to her car. It was 5 degrees F, and the nearly full moon made hoarfrost on the willows sparkle amidst errant shooting stars. On my way home from dropping her off, I caught the first band of morning alpenglow on Gothic’s southern face. A memory with crisp resolution. I’m happy winter is here to stay.
Since then, things have been quiet. We are snowbound, likely until June. I’ve skied a lot, and thought about skiing a lot. Elsewhere, I published another piece in the Hypocrite Reader a while back, and Patrick was kind enough to think me worth interviewing. More to come.
Red Rock Mountain is Gothic’s second-most-distinctive sentinel summit. While really the termination of a long tundra-covered ridge (and thus lacking any “official” prominence), its dramatic west face looms over the townsite and captures the last daylight each evening, bathed in eponymous red alpenglow. Getting to the top of Red Rock from the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab involves heading up the Copper Creek trail until you feel like veering left into the gully and crossing the stream, then heading up a progression of tedious talus slopes to the obvious low saddle and taking the ridge to the summit.
Today, in celebration of being done with wood-stacking duties, I jogged / marched / scrambled up the thing. Hit the summit in about 1:25, and wasn’t much faster on the way down.
The day’s objective looms.
Gothic Mountain and the townsite.
A baby cornice on Red Rock’s summit.
Mt. Crested Butte has to be one of the strangest peaks in the Rockies, rising like a shark fin from the center of a high-desert valley.
It’s been warm lately, but last week, the Elk Range wore decidedly different clothes. Not long now.