After the stepping up of shelter in place rules and the closure of San Juan county to back country skiers and parking on their side of 550, I scrambled to find a legal area to park and tour. Black Bear pass wouldn’t cut it as it fell in San Juan County. I’m not sure how a county can close federal land, but I digress. An internal question only for introspective answers. I surely didn’t want to be towed by an angry Silverton sheriff or my windows broken out in a fit of Hawaiian style “locals only” rage by some San Juan resident with my Montana plates as a catalyst.
I called the Ouray county sheriff to ask if Ouray county had any rules in place for 550 parking or touring. The answer was no, just no camping. I called the San Juan county sheriff and resisted the urge to press them on the “locals only” decree, instead asked then if they would tow me on the Ouray side of the pass? No again. I called the Montrose Colorado State Patrol base and asked if the CSP would care? Nope.
On Monday, five days after an 40 to 60 cm snow cycle, I drove up to a freshly plowed parking area just below the Red Mountain Lodge sign. One orange tagged beater white Subaru was the lone other vehicle. I put a hastily worded note on my windshield to explain my parking. Really just to make me feel better about leaving my vehicle.
Gearing up, I walked to the East side of the road to the flagged route to the Red Mountain Lodge. A combination of snowmobile and skin tracks lead into the woods below Red Mountain #3, past the cushy A frame Red Mountain Lodge.
Looking back I saw the plow operator working 550 just up the road from my van. I looked hard for a minute and headed back. He stopped his plow as I waved him down.
“Hey, how is it going, can I park there?” Pointing a pole at the black beast.
“Which one are you?”
“Not the white Subaru.”
“Ok. Not a problem, there’s more parking up the road if you want.”
I had asked everyone I possibly could. I was solo touring on a Monday in hundreds of square miles of empty mountains, so social distancing was a foregone conclusion.
My goal was the summit and descent of Red Mountain #3. Lying directly above the lodge. At around 13,000 feet it’s a peak with large skiable West and North faces.
Tracing the skin track past the lodge, a lightly used track wound up the north side of the main avalanche path into scattered pine trees that lined the ridge. A friendly hello from a young lady lodge worker was returned and I was on my way.
The tour was awesome. There were some tightly spaced 5 meter turns midway up the face, but nothing above. I booted from the top of the tree cluster on scree to the summit.
The descent was really good. I started just right of the summit an worked into the run. 20 cms of light density pow were slightly wind drifted on top, but unconsolidated. Big turns tracing the edge of the wind wave were super soft and consistent. My tracks set a small panel off below the wave, a shallow, small new snow slab that did not propagate. I followed my up tracks to back the car, enjoying the awesome conditions.
It was so good I returned Thursday to try it again. What a difference. A wind event on Wednesday completely changed things. Winds were still up from the South/ Southwest, but I was up for it, So I thought.
Made my way to the North ridge by the big rock prow and tried to climb on the ridge. I underestimated the wind speed in the alpine.
I was almost blown off the ridge and had to retreat and contour around the prow. The day was clear and nice, but the alpine winds were around 60 mph from the S/SW and brutal. My least favorite weather to deal, high sustained winds sap energy and make it hard to get in a rhythm hiking. From Mondays beautiful hike to this Himalayan death slog, I was absolutely worked at the top. I skied directly from the summit into the hourglass shot. Skiing was concrete wind board but good smooth skiing on the north facing panels with wind aided face shots. Lower face was a mix of sastrugi and scour. Trundled small scree particles peppering the run and anti-tracks were indicators of just how severe winds were on Wednesday night.
I walked on a deserted 550 back to the car down the middle of the road. Eerie feeling.
Saturday was the trifecta. A small semi reset of 5 cms of light snow and light winds did not ramp the avalanche danger up but provided much needed snow. It was the middle of the three runs in terms of conditions. Not quite enough to fully reset the lower areas, but provided good turns up high. After being humbled by the North ridge, I went back to the South side ridge and descent.
There were more cars than I had seen all week combined. I steered clear of the couple other groups I saw, and parked as far as I could away from everyone. Toured around in the lower woods until dusk to stay away from all weekend warriors.
Time to give Red #3 a rest and try something new Won’t be skiing anymore Saturdays.
Disclaimer: I’m recreating in the county I live in. Not expecting S and R to come get me and will not call them.
When the National Guard showed up at the Mountain Lodge hotel where I work as the last guests were streaming out in a semi-panic, I knew that it was over. My boss was just waiting for word from the GM to send us all home. Those that lived outside San Miguel county were not going to be allowed back. Nintey percent of the work force lives outside the county as it’s almost impossible to afford to live in the Telluride area, so there was no staff available anyway to stay open.
I was done anyway. My laughably small hourly wage coupled with an hour commute each way was barely keeping the lights on. I did it to ski Telluride and Bear Creek. That was over. Fuck it.
Our GM gave us four days paid and informed us that it was mandatory to use out our PTO and we’ll talk to you in two weeks. Mighty white of him and his overpaid executive staff. I won’t be back.
I’ve been chasing the sun around Red Mountain Pass on my days off during our abbreviated ski season. After January, the snowfall here had tapered off to light dumps and mostly warmer and calm weather. The snowpack on the north/northeast and west aspects had remained fairly deep and strong, allowing for mainly low to moderate avi danger for the last couple months at all elevations. Not good for the drought and deep pow skiing. It made for prime conditions to explore into the high realms of Black Bear pass and surrounding zones at Red Mountain Pass.
It’s an amazing place, huge and empty. Silent and beautiful, I’m apt to ski across animal tracks rather than other ski ones. The east side of 550 at the pass is dominated by the cushy RMP lodge and the schvedel tracks of the guided high dollar low angle tourers with some tracks pushing into the higher areas. The west side is lawless and open to whatever you have the energy imagination and guts to try.
It’s a simple ski life. Make good decisions, read the terrain and snow pack correctly and you will thrive. Make the wrong decision on the wrong day on the wrong aspect and you are going to get aced out by the huge terrain and massive amounts of moving snow in it.
With Covid-19 shutting down all mechanized skiing and group human contact, my focus shifts back to RMP. I’m laid off, can’t travel anywhere, so time to tour and file for unemployment.
A spring storm has just moved through so I’m writing this in Ridgway waiting for the avalanche danger to decrease to get back at it. I won’t tempt it in considerable danger. Moderate allows for cautious poking around. Low allows for green light high touring.
The simplicity of touring is accentuated during the times of complex human caused problems. No crowds, no moguls, no heli drama or money based goods getting. A couple pieces of gear and sweat equity and you are limitless in what you can accomplish. It really is as pure as skiing can get and the best example of social distance. Who decided skiing was to be a real estate based greed fest anyway?
I will shelter in place at RMP. Anyone interested it touring can hit me up at email@example.com.
At 6:30 p.m, Saturday March 14 our hotel here in Mountain Village received an email from Telski, the Telluride resort company saying that our season ends now. Beyond that an internal memo from the company reports that Gov. Polis has ended the season, at least for a period of time, for all ski areas in Colorado. This isn’t a sick joke but something that has actually just happened two hours ago. Realistically, it will end the season for at least some resorts.
It’s not on the internet, but it will be and will affect the lives of countless ski area workers here and around the state depending on the next six weeks to make money to live into the off-season.
It didn’t hit home till now that Covid-19 is for reals as we had been buffered a bit down here. Now it’s on. Wash your hands, grab the skins and the touring set-up and earn em’ because that’s the new reality in 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.
Just wanted to give condolences to the family of Bindu and his friends in the East Vail Tribe. A phone call that was pretty hard to fathom in a Home Depot a world away. A deep snow accident in Abrahams is all I know. I was stoked to hear Colorado was getting pounded, and thought the phone call was a buddy calling to rub it in. I was not expecting the tragic news.
Last time I saw him he bought me a shot of whiskey at the Fort Seward Lodge in Haines. He had just arrived with his buddy and were in town to fly. I saw the trip report and the pic on the AH website of the day, Bindu shredding down a couli. Bindu, as I remember, was always sending. I could always count on an East Vail bus ride story of Bindu’s latest exploits. He had the love.
It’s an atypical and unique world when the snow rises above the waist in the back country, with its’ own hazards and rules. Special and dangerous. It’s the conditions that make EV come alive into it’s full potential. Deep, unconsolidated early season snow can act a lot like quicksand in terrain traps, tree wells and landings.
Please everyone be careful and mindful of each other. A long deep EV season is a marathon that requires vigilance.
Every run every sent during the season, every line chosen(and a part of every paycheck during the year) is part of the yearly pilgrimage north just get a chance to sample AK terrain and snow. It’ll test you mentally with weather, group logistics and fear. Physically with the length of runs and spring snow conditions and objective hazards. Bring your a-game and be prepared to ride the wire no matter what the trip brings. A shitload of disposable income helps. Glenn Plake once said that thousand dollar heliski days weren’t the soul of skiing. No, maybe not, but they sure are fun.
L-Dog and I chose SEABA and not being trusties, we had to split our time and blue collar budget between tour camp and a day or so of heli opulence.
Ben, fellow Big Sky resident/GMOwner/guide/new dad went out of his way to accommodate us and our late season cherry picking. There had been, in true Haines style, a ton of weather and some avalanche concerns before we arrived. We managed to skizzle in after the fact and get a window after the last significant storm of the Haines heli season.
The new touring option from SEABA bases out of a weather port 3000 feet above the Lynn Canal. It sticks you above the below treeline gnar that makes the Haines lowers impenetrable. A new option offered by them this season, we were eager guinea pigs.
After three weathered out attempts at getting the goods in Haines spanning 12 years, the weather and snow lined up getting a foot of fresh before clearing out the day of our arrival.
The first tour out of camp day two, three out of the four of my Salomon Guardians rails shit the bed. AK curveball? Check. Now the trip can begin for reals.
What do you do? Call for heli support? Hell. No. Not calling in help unless both legs are broken. As a former boss told me once, if you’re going to be dumb, you better be tough. I had a moment for sure, let out a stream of profanities into the heavens. After determining the downhill option worked I shut up and booted the next five days with a smile. I love my Bodacious like a far kid loves cake and I wasn’t going to to have some Atomics with rental bindings thrown out of a heli for me. That’s cheating.
L-Dog crafted me bush snowshoes out of pine boughs, pallet wood and P-cord. They didn’t last long, 300 vert but more importantly symbolized friendship and our solidarity and raised my spirits. A stellar ski partner because if you just let L-Dog do, he’ll have camp set up organized, food going and gear fixed all in about twelve minutes and not say a word. Those bush snowshoes now hang proudly at the FT. Seward lodge.
Daily flights over our area confirmed we were one, still alive and two, managing our own shit. From planning preparing our food to mitigating avalanche terrain and glacier hazards on our own, our goal was not bother the operation or guides while they were dealing with a full house of scheduled heli clients that were paying the bills.
I had to leave forty-five minutes early every day to match L-Dogs pace on his appropriately chosen big mountain touring gear, but we got to where we wanted to go and had an amazing experience. The views were insane and even the milked out day was special knowing all helis were down and we were the only humans in that section of the Chilkats. Beyond cool.
The weather port, dubbed the casino, (with the door closed it always seemed to be eleven p.m. inside) was warm and comfortable, propane stove kicking. The routine of ski sleep and eat as much as humanly possible became our existence. After a couple days of sussing out routes and ski terrain we were locked in. We were choosing moderate plus terrain for safety reasons and respect for our surroundings. Snow was pow settling to orange peel pow pow on north through west aspects.
Up and down with the sun, time melted away. Our last day, we sat chilling in the sun and drinking the daily reward Raniers. The cell phone rang. It’s Ben asking if the we wanted to heli the next day. Of course we did. Our budget was allowing for a day or two of opulence. With the weather still uncannily blue and windless, it was a no brainer. You get the call, you go.
We woke up to the sounds of the approaching A-star. The pilot, waited for us smoking a Swisher Sweet, leaning against his steed. Loaded gear, off to the airport and shuttled back to Ft Seward lodge. Time for a shower, a breakfast sandwich and back in the van to the airport, we waited to see what our day would bring. We were a group of two so anything was possible. We were riding the wave and waiting to see how this one would break.
When Tom Wayes introduced himself, I knew we were going to get it. Lead guide for 20 in AK years, cool as shit and a total beast. I remember a 10 year old photo in Powder mag of him sidehilling on impossibly steep spines, guiding and scoping.
We had Paul, cheery four-star comp skier from Europe and Robert his snowboard equivalent, L-Dog and myself. No warm up. The first four runs in the Trinity peaks area. East, Middle , Middle West and West, all toe ins. Baller. Haines steep.
Didn’t say much during the day, just observed. Listened. Always a cool thing to watch someone do something well. More like a clinic with great skiing as Tom described what he was seeing and doing. He was managing not only our group, but the all people and guides in the field. Shit that would cripple most with fear was his job description on a daily basis. The Dutch boys had traveled a long way, worked their way through sub guides and had teed up name brand Haines runs all week. Bellringer. Sanitarium. Tomahawk. We had been thrown in.
We skied to the waiting heli in golden light after the last run. Our day finished with the pilot showing his chops on the way out. Headed back to base and sat on the deck with the Dutch boys and Tom. Talked with Tom a bit, listened to a strange diatribe from Chad from Pocatello on the mechanics of a volleyball jump vs. basketball jump. With no break from the week booting, then an epic heli day, and finally a surprise shot of whiskey from Bindu at the Ft Seward lodge bar, I hit the wall. I started to lean over at the picnic table and had to excuse myself for a nap.
That evening was a blur of food and booze. I staggered from the P-bar late that night singing some skiing version of Sister Nancy’s reggae tune Blam Blam at the top of my lungs. My walk back to the lodge took me in front of the Haines police station. Here comes a Haines Burroughs cop car rolling up. Shit. Damn brown brown….
He first thanked me for not driving. He took my ID and after finding no warrants, expressed clearly that he was glad I had a good day but if I didn’t shut the hell up the last run of the day was going to be called Drunk and Disorderly. I took the hint, apologized profusely, shut my flan hole and staggered to bed.
Wanted to chase the dragon the next day but financial reality set in. We had a cool ass week and would be back. Plus got no takers for my kidney on Craigslist, so our time was done. I’m excited to return next year to redo the mix of touring and heli. Gonna throw in a drop by Drake air into Glacier Bay for the trifecta.
No posts for a while cause I moved. Again. Now its just become a yearly spring migration.
I foresaw my demise at the end of a Valley shovel. Stroke or heart attack, dealer’s choice. Sunset riders lets you choose…
35 units. 1000 feet of walkway. 109 steps. One man one shovel. No snow blower. 9 feet in January. Fuck this. Big Sky sounds delightful.
In the Astro, I sojourned north Feb 4th. Weather looked good. Until I hit Jackson. Then snowpocalyps enveloped my modern-day stagecoach. Made it up Teton pass barely, one drive wheel spinning, small powder avalanches ghosting the front of the Astro. I think some bro pros actually jumped the damn thing while trying to descend. White knuckle an understatement into Idaho and through the storm. Why not stop? This wasn’t a vacation. I was headed to work and ski, and immediately begin a new life. Big Sky bitches.
Sounded too good to be true. A house with a yard. Dog. Garage. Space. Opportunity in a rising place. Vail was the spinning wheel with East Vail in the center as the draw.
I pulled in to big sky town. 6 miles from the resort. Rainbow Trout Run. Rockwellian.
The place is so frikin quiet. Every morning required, the avi bombs go off 6 miles away, dropped on either on Lone Peak or Headwaters. The noise travels from Big Sky, into my room, my subconscious and jolts me awake.
Then I saw the terrain. Good lord and baby Jesus. You dont get the consistent deep pow of EV here. It snows uphill here alot. The wind sculpts it and smooth and soft it a pretty good day. When you add the terrain, however its a hell of a mix.
This is the focus of tram life, Not spending any time in places with such things, the tram line and physical bucket itself are at the center of the Big Sky dirtbag culture. Tram life encompasses both a social and skiing purpose. One, to get you to the top of Lone Peak. Gets you to the Big couli and other access. Two, its a social place where the locals greet each other and size up others. However, this is fashion gnar. Headwaters is the real deal…
This in bounds hike to terrain is like nothing else. These ribbions trace through massive terrain. Three of these runs have mandatory exits. These are open controlled and named. 5 th class run is about 60 to 80 right now. Tee it up and enjoy. Plenty of patrollers waiting to pick up the pieces.
This shit haunts my dreams. I’ve skied some of it. Found myself on top of parts of it. Its my EV substitute yet totally different. It makes you think and has made me a better skier. Hang on to your potatoes. Watch out for Grizzly bears.
This place completes my journey to the ends of the road once again.
There’s a Jeremy Jones line about a Jackson cycle that went “from blower to choker” in one of his film imterviews.
I think that sums it up in EV. The last two days were deepest of the season.
Yesterday’s goose feathers (best quality snow of the year) was topped with today’s heavier more wind affected layer. Which makes the cake the wrong side up.
The double blocephius rated snow from yesterday (the highest quality rating possible on the EVI-Munchousen snow quality scale) didn’t hold well on steep pitches (35+ degrees) Sluff city, some fairly large in areas you’d expect.
The mids, like pockets below benchie and ridge trees, areas that didn’t sluff were by far the deepest of the year. It surprised the shit out of me and it took a second to get the breathing timing going. Unreal.
Today the snow changed. The fast sluffing from yesterday was replaced with a stiff overlay up on the cornices and new snow starting to cover debris piles. New snow was awesome off the ridges, but light years from yesterday’s double b.
I stuck to areas I knew had sluffed out for the uppers from yesterday and then went mining in the mids again. Motorboating.
Concerns are about just getting buried in all the snow. Doesn’t have to be a rowdy event. Just one that buries your head. A slight miscalculation on a solo mission and you can be entombed.
I was looking for reactivity of the old/new snow interface. A lot of cornice kicking produced little in terms of runs even over areas unskied yesterday. What does it mean? No clue. That’s what I saw. Still very wary of the cake…be safe bring a snorkel.
Wicked weather and avalanche danger. It’s always awesome when the Nature takes back EV, it’s rightfully hers. In my mind, it deserves respect time and some distance.
Years ago but just a blink in EV time, it ripped from Joint Point through Old Man’s and buried I-70 15 feet deep.
Are we there yet? Not sure. But the size and scope of the danger now expands beyond most skiers immediate terrain awareness. Sympathetic slides from a distance above or away. Deep slab instabilities deep in the snow pack far beyond a skiers ability to “feel” the layer that are at tipping points all seem possible.
Can it be done safely? Im sure but watching Tweeners rip to trees in the first half of the first day of this huge cycle does not instill confidence…
I’m interested in the natural activity and hope to safely get a look at some point.
Upper ridges today are nuclear. Tweeners ripped again 2x in 2 days. Today’s crown was bigger and the debris ran to the small trees. Assuming skier triggered. Debris pile warranted a hasty search.
Thank baby Jesus no signal. Radical temperature and snow load changes are happening. Black flag is raised for California’s storm of the decade moving through EV today tonight and the week.