Gothic Mountain east face ski descent
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.