An adventure: Virginia Basin to Copper Creek
Adventure is a wonderful concept and an overused, abused word. I’ve been lucky enough to spend the winter in a beautiful, fairly remote, place, but infrequently have I had real adventures. Adventure mandates discomfort, the unexpected, perhaps even being scared. Most of the time, as I’ve explored this valley, its veins, and its attendant peaks, things have gone my way. Which I am grateful for: luck and conservative decisions have kept me safe on hundreds of solo outings in an inherently risky pastime.
This morning, however, things were different. I had a (small) adventure.
The idea was to link up Virginia Basin to the Copper Creek drainage by way of a pass that drops into a small basin below two locally prominent peaks known as the Camel’s Humps. Two days prior I had skied from their flanks, garnering a view of the descent from the ridge dividing the two basins. It seemed doable, if steep and cliffy, and my interest was piqued in the possibility of the loop. With a seasonally-unwelcome but conditions-refreshing storm arriving on my return from New Mexico, skiing has again been the order of the day, and I’ve spent the week enjoying the higher reaches of this corner of the Elk Range.
After negotiating larges patches of dirt on the initial climb to the basin, I skinned absentmindedly up to treeline. Yesterday, with my attention turning towards training and the coming summer of mountain running, I did a time-trial ascent of Red Lady, and so this morning’s effort was kept relatively low by intent. The Virginia Basin has been one of my favorite Gothic-area spots since first visiting it with Kate in December, but I’ve not returned nearly as often as it deserves. With balmy 20-some degree temperatures, even in the shade, it was easy to catch myself pausing (resting) to take it all in.
I topped out after a 3000′ climb in about 1:30, and spent a while exploring the ridge and enjoying the views as I scoped out my descent. I first headed west, before turning back at the prospect of punchy snow and a large cornice. Returning to exposed scree, I tagged the summit post and decided to ski from the low point of the saddle, where there was no cornice to manage.
I dropped in and cautiously approached the rollover. The snow was good, boosting my confidence, but as I lost elevation a clear way down failed to materialize. I turned first left, and then right, each possible line seeming to terminate in a cliff band. Pausing for a moment, I though about booting back up, but below me was a thin ridge of stunted firs, and I figured they might offer an exit. Plus, booting is hard.
But no exit came. It was more apparent with each steep turn that I was in a no-fall zone, and I had to work to stay focused and keep the exposure from getting to me. Another avenue closed itself, and I found myself perched above those stunted firs, contemplating my options, and kicking myself for making the wrong choice, for not better preparing for a serious descent. Nervously edging to the right, I finally saw my only option.
There was a way through: steep and narrow and with poor coverage, but a line traceable on snow alone nonetheless. I took it, sideslipping to its entrance. Two more turns triggered waves of sluff, and I stopped. The descent, a maze of cliff bands whose breaks were misaligned and demanded sketchy traversing, was beginning to look improbable, particularly in its choke, whose width appeared not to exceed the length of my ski. Should a tip catch an edge of rock, I would be launched down over the subsequent band of cliffs, which was an undesirable outcome. I hemmed and hawed, before deciding the safest option was to downclimb. Anchoring myself to the 50+ degree slope, I shouldered my skis and begin kicking steps backwards.
I am becoming more comfortable with exposure, and with climbing steep snow, and am proud I was able to stay focused and keep a mostly cool head. But, as ever, situations like this force unwelcome thoughts into your head. You wish for a second whippet (it would be useful, certainly). You wish you had studied photos of the the slope and known where descend (you should have). You regret not telling someone where you were headed (a mistake). You think about falling (even though you probably won’t).
The crux came as the snow grew more shallow and I struggled to seat each foot against some sort of heinous tallus substrate. Nevertheless, I stuck to the wall and inched downward, and a short eternity later, I was safe. I reaffixed my skis, and made a hop turn around a patch of krumholtz to gain access to the slope’s runout. It was covered in avalanche debris and choppy, but I didn’t care. I only felt relief.
Within minutes, the ordeal had already diminished in my mind, and I was congratulating myself for overcoming an unexpected obstacle — for surviving the adventure unscathed. But then, charging down to the creek in a gully of perfect corn, an omen appeared. A coyote, shaggy and wild, was tugging at the carcass of a mountain goat. There but for the grace of god, as they say.
I skated the remaining miles back to the cabin, relishing in that particular joy that its rhythmic, gliding grace offers. Some days, nordic skiing skiing seems like all the thrill I need.