Bear Creek 2020
After three seasons in Montana, I traveled back into the state of Colorado. I couldn’t see being on the I-70 corridor anymore. I found a small cabin between Ridgway and Ouray deep in the San Juan mountains. A treacherous and beautiful commute to Mountain Village for work as a way to ski Telluride. My home was equidistant to Red Mountain Pass to tour on days off.
Notorious for a sketchy snow pack, the huge terrain of the North San Juans are the land of sleeping avalanche dragons. Bear Creek off the back of Telluride harbors famous lines like Heaven’s Eleven and the San Joaqin couloir. It’s infamous for its massive avalanche runs that have claimed lives in the past. Filled with huge terrain funneling into massive terrain traps, entering it is all about timing. And not dying.
Typically harboring a “super-continental” snow pack, it’s not often that mid-winter in these parts comes with a stable snow pack and low avalanche danger at all elevations. Yet mid-February is here and right now is a time of a snow pack that has adjusted to its current load and absent of persistent and deep slab problems that typically plague the North San Juan mountains snow.
I watched as a week of calm cold weather passed with slight temperature increases every day. This came after a moderate six inch snowfall of light density snow last week that had fallen on firm consolidated base. This had led to a current moderate trending to low avalanche danger rating. The lack of high winds aloft has spared the shallow layer from wind slab formation. The time was right to finally get into Bear Creek. I had waited all season for conditions to line up for a mission.
After skiing off the back of Gold Hill chutes to the dividing drainage, I set an up track toward the prominent face seen across from Revelation Bowl. Touring in the upper terrain in Bear Creek feels like a different planet. Feeling really small and and happy to be away from the weekend crowds and moguls of Telluride, I traced my way around spectacular terrain features to get to the concave face under the main peak.
Hasty pits on the West aspects of the tour revealed a slightly wind textured layer of 4 to 6 inches of pow on an very firm layer. Orange peel pow on a settled base. No naturals in the range provided evidence the interface between the new snow and old base was a cohesive one. Green light to keep pushing upwards. Around huge boulders, under couloirs and massive rock walls, I’ve never toured anywhere like it. Blue ice glowed in the frozen creeks. A lone kite skier was struggling with the lack of a breeze. I waved and continued on.
I was able to enter between the rock band, right of the couloir mid-face and enter through a slot in the reef, lookers right, by the small tooth of rock. Super consistent orange peel pow lead to terminal velocity somewhere around half way down. Getting in, on and and off the face a quickly as possible seemed logical and was instinctual. It was probably one of the best big mountain skiing experiences I’ve had.
The exit out of Bear Creek is a sobering reminder of how small and vulnerable you are to the dangers above. Twenty minutes is spent traveling deep in the Bear Creek drainage with no recourse, picking your way through frozen waterfalls and willows, The terrain above looms. The lower area of the trail borders areas with mature trees snapped twenty feet up from last years’ avalanche cycles that rendered this area unskiable for most of the year.
I passed uphill hikers and their dogs coming from town, oblivious to the massive hazard above them. The dragons were sleeping and passage was granted to all.
The low danger trends green for the near future, with more clear weather, moderate temps, light winds and low to moderate snowfall to come. I hope to continue to explore Bear Creek and Red Mountain Pass into the next week. The window is open.