The acid hadn’t quite kicked in yet, but I could definitely feel the moorings holding my mind to this reality loosening. It wasn’t planned that I found myself on top of a big-ass line in the San Juan mountains tripping, but I came into this trip telling myself to have no expectations and to just roll with it. Didn’t quite plan on this.
The rest of the crew was already back at the sleds on the other side of the magical wilderness boundary where the machines, beer and about a pound of Durban Poison waited. We had skied two big runs already, the first a huge, classic San Juan death funnel, choking out down low and spitting out onto an apron. The second was a surreal run, skiing steep fingers through red red rock towers deep in the range. Its not often you can put a group of eight through these types of runs here, but the snow pack was green light after a couple weeks of clear warm weather with a solitary storm dropping about a foot on top of a rapidly consolidating early spring snow pack. The elevation was above 12000 for the cabin and terrain, which left the north, west, and even east aspects up high with a creamy smooth pow layer. The snow reminded me of AK orange peel texture snow in the spring, and skied and held as good as you can hope for a continental snowpack. The weather was perfect as well, bluebird and light winds. Green means go.
Our crew was a pack of 9 senders, all capable skiers and riders, with a pack of high-end sleds at our disposal in a vast wilderness with no one else for miles. We were all here to ski, ride and party, taking a needed break from the Vail valley ski season, deep in our respective jobs serving those that come here to catch a glimpse of the life that we live. Usually a group this large is a pain to organize, but everyone was ready to get after it and capable. Patrollers, photographers, ski bums, the love for skiing was well represented.
Hunter S. Thompson would’ve been proud is all I can say. Epic night sled missions punctuated days of sled accessed touring, climbing and sending. Sleds allowed us to bring anything we needed to this amazing cabin. Drinking, guns, sleds, skiing pow, food, party favors. Pretty much all time.
Our group had spaced a large portion of the meat products and cheese at the hotel in South Fork, but that was the only snafu of the entire trip. Too much Durban too early in the morning had contributed to the meats being left in the mini-fridge at the Allington Inn in South Fork.
I had spotted the line instantly when we got to the cabin. It was by far the most esthetic line in the immediate terrain. A winding steep entrance onto a huge steep face and into the basin. The far right line in a half dome face littered with old avi crowns and mando entrance lines with no way out, it was the only skiable line on the face and it was a gem. I mentioned it a couple times, but no one seemed to hear. So I waited.
Our two runs required us to skin out right under this face, so I had time to study it and look. The snow, weather, group dynamics, snow pack were all pointing to a go. All I needed was the opportunity. I wasn’t going to rely on anyone to make this happen.
The x factor was on a skin change over on our way out of our two runs. Quiet, reserved, baller skier, J Tsunami produced a “20 minute J” and ten strip of L. We were a group of four of the nine putting our skins on and shooting the shit, reviewing the runs at a cluster of stunted avi hammered pine trees.
“Hey, I have a 10 strip of acid.”
Everyone looked at him, at each other, and burst out laughing. The line of the trip by far, now and forever.
Now my big party days are long behind me, but at that moment I couldn’t think of a reason to say no. Here, deep in the San Juans, there was plenty of room for one’s mind to roam free and soar. What the hell…
It’s been a long time since I twisted myself is such a way. The skin continued on, through the basin, up and out. Things started getting weird around the time I crested the ridge, and assessed the situation. Everything was getting brighter and louder and starting to shimmer. The crew had headed left back to the sleds, across the ridge. I looked left, then I looked right. Over to the right, the line of the trip waited. Suddenly, I wasn’t tired. I was elevated. I was waiting for my spirit animal to appear. What I got were two ravens flying low in looping circles up the skin track. Good enough. I turned right and headed up the skin track to the low ridge cutover to the top of the half dome.
I remember being on top of the line, looking down the concave 55 degree entrance chute rippling like a white water bed. I didn’t have much time before things got seriously unhinged. Check the snow and go time. The first three turns in the chute was blower and deep, then gravity took hold and onto the apron. Shit flew by warp speed. I had time to make one sweeping turn to avoid the exposed moraine below the run. I wanted to gap it, but realized that I was going way too fast to do that. Around, down and hauling ass to the skin track laughing like a loon. It was over.
The skin out was a face-melter. By the time I crested the ridge again a permagrin was plastered on my face. D had mercifully jetted over on the sled, into the wilderness terrain, to save me a slog out. I had hoped that he had gotten the shot from across the ridge, but he wasn’t expecting the warp speed velocity of the run and missed it. The free ride out was much appreciated, and he was instantly forgiven. I had gotten to ski it and that was enough.
Back on the ridge was a party going on. I had wondered if the group was pissed for holding them up, but they were psyched, hanging out drinking beer and watching the show unfold. Hi fives and a beer…A moment of pure ski bliss.
We headed back to the cabin for a night of debauchery. Those of us on the paper watched the others lap the log rail and ski the pow shots near the cabin. I was seriously torqued and headed upstairs to hide from the sun for a while. It was an overwhelming urge after being stuck in a white salad bowl for hours.
A tripping vampire, I emerged downstairs after the sun went down, after a few tacos and several beers. Switching to tequila for the leveler, the night unfolded and the slednecks took the opportunity to rip it in the huge lower pow meadows for hours. I laid on the couch, became part of the couch and chilled. J Tsunami guarded the fire with his white shades on. We held down base camp as the others brapped around till the late hours.
Not often a trip comes together so well with so many green lights. This one did. It will live in infamy for many reasons. For me it was an opportunity to ski something amazing and get ready for Alaska. The three day hangover was worth it.
I love saying the word couloir, because the only correct and reasonable way to say it is with an over the top French accent. This makes me happy. In addition to saying the word couloir, I have found that I enjoy skiing them. It’s weird, but I just do. Here’s a little story about a couloir at the top of the world that turns dreams into realities.
Ross and I had been talking about skiing Mt. of the Holy Cross all winter. It is the easily most iconic line visible from Vail, where the both of us grew up skiing. The couloir is a giant cross of snow etched across a massive rock wall. We had already done a few big missions this season and our confidence and enthusiasm were high. It was early April; spring was approaching and the marginal amount of snow was melting. We knew we had to do it very soon or have to spend another year wishing we had. The problem was that we didn’t have snowmobiles, because we suck. The Cross is deep in the wilderness and the approach without sleds would add a day to the trip. So I thought of another plan. I had been ski touring off the back of Beaver Creek a bit and had been eyeing up the access to Holy Cross. I google earthed a route from the top of the Beav back along a ridge to Mt. Jackson. From Jackson, it’s a ski down to the valley and then skin up to the bottom of Holy Cross, spend the night around the Bowl of Tears and ski the Cross the next day…..easy.
I got Ross stoked on the idea and the weather looked great for a couple days. Time to go! We organized our food and camping gear together to spend one night out. We split the four season tent, food and Ross carried the Jetboil. Add in some mountaineering equipment and toilet paper and we were outfitted to slay the dragon.
We met up the next gloriously blue and calm morning. I left my car Subrina at the bottom of Tigwon road and we took Ross’s Jetta (Dick Magnet) over to B.C. You feel like a true boss strolling through ritzy Beaver Creek village with mountaineering packs and ice axes. After saying hola and bon voyage to the homies at Surefoot we got on the chairlift and began the journey to Mordor. We started skinning off the top of the Cinch lift. The skin to the top of BC (the Bald Spot) is a lovely mellow pitch at about 1.25 miles. It took us about 45 minutes. From there we were able to see our entire objective.
“What’s that?” asked Ross.
“Holy Cross” I said.
“Sweet, its right there!”
“Yep, I’m a genius”
What did appear farther away was Mt Jackson, which Ross observed and noted. I agreed but we decided to head towards it and see how it went. We skied down the back of Beav and skinned across Grouse Mountain. The weather was holding strong and blue but the wind picked up reminding us that we were outside in the high alpine. From the other side of Grouse we determined that Jackson was still pretty far away. We decided it was a better idea to bypass skiing Jackson and take a more direct route towards Holy Cross since that was our main objective.
It was a leisurely ski down Grouse through open, rolling trees for the first half. Then we got in to the trees and the snow became a little sparse, then we got to the dirt. The last 1,000 feet down to the valley was entirely melted. We put our skis on our packs and down hiked through the woods, cursing occasionally. This was turning into the adventure I expected. We finally made it to the river valley below, which was snow covered. We looked back up at Jackson. The exposure of the bottom was a bit better so if we had skied it, we could have skied almost the entire way to the valley floor. It would have been more skinning but we could have avoided that whole walk through the woods. We were still making decent time though.
We had lunch in the valley and started skinning up the Holy Cross side. It was steep zig zagging through woods. We eyed up pillow lines that might be worth a 6 mile skin. The snow was sticky and started to glop up on my 10 year old untreated skins. Nobody brought glop stopper. This when the going got a little tougher. I found the best way to knock the snow off was by whacking my skis with my rental poles. This worked great until I snapped my pole in half sending one end boomeranging away. I recovered the half of my pole and continued on with one and half. Learning experiences! Thankfully the snow had gotten less sticky at the higher elevations.
It was late afternoon now and Ross and I hadn’t talked in two hours. We made it to the ridge of Holy Cross past where the hiking trail goes up, and looked down at a nice place to camp. We skied about 800 feet down an icy chute to a perfect camp spot. It was flat, it had a cave, and there were trees nearby so we could gather pine bows to put under our tent. Camping in the belly of the beast is not something I will soon forget. I also repaired my broken pole with two sticks and duck tape.
We awoke at dawn and had coffee and oatmeal in the tent. We gathered only the necessary gear together and started skinning up to the bottom of the Cross Couloir. It felt great not to have a heavy pack. The sky was blue and the wind was calm. We skinned around to the north east side of the peak and started zig zagging up to entrance to the couloir. It was firm but we knew it would be corn by the time we came down it. We made it to the entrance of the couloir and got our first really good look at it. She was beautiful. Tall and thin with subtle sexy curves. Consistently steep up to blind rollover entrance and flanked by two rock walls. One other surprising feature was the single track down it! Some solo shredder apparently got it the day before. Touché. We switched over to crampons and ice axe to start boot packing up.
The snow was ideal for boot packing. Kind of like a cream cheese corn mixture with blower in there too. The boot pack was the most fun part of the trip so far. We felt confident in the snow pack, the weather was great, and I was hiking up the freaking Cross Couloir with my buddy. The top of the couloir is the steepest part. It was exciting hiking but not gripping, just extremely fun. We made it to the summit which was a bit windy. The view from the top of Holy Cross is one of the best in Colorado. 360 degrees of snow capped rockies from Denver past Aspen. We soaked it in for a bit and had some tea and crumpets.
So without further adieu we skied her. I let Ross take the honors. The top few turns were firm and I skied slow and cautiously. After a few turns the snow softened. The sunny side of the couloir was corn and the shaded side powder. I gained some confidence and started lacing some smooth turns exploring the different aspects of the couloir. I stopped halfway down to let my slough go and give the legs a break. Then I charged it down staying closer to the wall and the snow was powder almost the entire way. I had a couple face shots and some of the best turns of the season, in definitely the sickest place I’ve been all season. I exited on the right before the couloir closes out to a mandatory rappel and met up with Ross. Even though we had hiked up it we were still shocked at how good the snow was. Also my stick repaired pole held up perfectly. It doesn’t get any better than this. Now we had another thousand feet of corn down to the Bowl of Tears.
We made it back to camp and packed up our stuff and headed out. We ended up following the ski track of the solo person who skied it the day before. It lead us to the way out perfectly like a guiding forest angel. We were completely spent by the time we made it to Subrina and so happy about the whole adventure. We didn’t ski Jackson, but we got the Cross in epic conditions and we did it without sleds. Nature taught me a few lessons and I gained deeper appreciation for the mountains near my home. The next day I went to Alpine Quest and bought glop stopper.
This is a guest blog by EVI friend Big J from a Hut Trip to Ken’s Cabin…
It started early that Monday April morning as we prepared to leave the island and drive over Vail Pass in aim for Breckenridge and the Boreas Pass area. I had purchased all the food, alcohol, and everything the day or two before and had it all split up and packed away in my 2 backpacks for the journey. I picked up my friend Arty for his first hut trip and he quickly threw his skis in the truck and put his avy gear and personal supplies in the big pack that I loaned him. It was already packed with survival staples such as sleeping bag, clean pillow case, beers, bacon, hand sanitizer, peanut butter M&M’s, mole skin, extra headphones, and a deck of uno cards. He was cherry popping excited as he fondled through all the supplies and goodies, not yet fully grasping the thought of hauling all this nearly 7 miles up up a long slog of a mountain road to the Continental Divide.
I was excited to get the hell out of dodge for a couple days and put the March madness of big crowds and big attitudes behind me in my rear view mirror. As I smiled in the rising sun of excitement, I could see out of the corner of my eye as Arty looked up and back towards East Vail and the chutes like a sad dog that left his best bone buried in the back corner of the yard, which was also covered with a fresh 9 inch report. I assured him no fear with the reggae satellite channel, The Joint, blaring no worry as I told him how we were going into the wide open for self propelled, self sufficient, self indulgent moments of joytime kicks and aesthetic grandeur. He rolled his eyes still wondering if we should of tried to sneak in a powder lap then hit the road.
It was a great start up the trail under big sunshine, skinning through fresh sparkle filled crystal covered tracks and rich blue skies. We saw a couple people snowshoeing and one guy cross country skiing during the first couple miles. They all seem to be carrying big smiles and big ladles so they could scoop out and drink up all that clear Colorado spring beauty after such a long heavy winter. The views were awe-inspiring as we shifted from dramatic overlooks of Breck like they were shooting the commercials to the forward focus of the towering peaks ahead. With that and all the good beats coming from the headphones it was easy at first to forget about the 35lb midget on your back. That was until the sticky icky started to invade my climbing skins. I hadn’t got the fresh coat of the purple spring glob stopper wax on yet, like I had planned. I searched through my repair kit and the rest of my pack to no avail and was left to pay some sort of karmic toll tax the last 3 miles of the trek. Drying em out a bit and scraping em clean with a credit card would offer a few moments of slowed and hushed profanity. Otherwise I had to grin and bear it with no glide and a huge ball and chain penalty. Arty seemed to fare a bit better with the glop karma so he paraded ahead a bit. After the four hour haul the road turned to reveal our homey cabin at the top of the pass. It sat next to an old house, the Section House, that was used to house the railroad workers back in the day. The snow covered the cabin’s outdoor walls and windows up to the metal roof and made us feel as if we were climbing down into a dark cave as we entered out of the blinding intense sunlight.
After a bag of cashews and jerky and a couple pitchers of grape gatorade we were shaking off sore shoulders and dismissing the poor application of sunscreen. We began to unpack and sort out some of the goods trying to keep the meals portioned and organized and chilled. We got the wood bins filled, the fire started and stoked, and more snow to melt for water. The art of hut tripping is found in the balances. The balance of chores and kicking back, the balance of carrying it all and consuming it all, the balance of rationing and gluttony, the balance of the big things and the little things, the balance of the up and the down. By this time we were as rested as we were gonna get, so we headed up for an early evening skin before happy hour.
I had found my glob stopper in the first place I had checked for it, so my skins were like new and improved as they cut through the late day spring whip cream with no drag or penalty. We climbed an hour or so kind of north and west above the cabin, where we spotted some areas across the pass to shoot for the next day. Hung out on the rocks a bit working on the goggle tan and finishing that great grape snow melt gatorade. We skied down making lovely poetic haiku turns in the warm creamy snow smiling through sun hats and shades like a monk with his robe wide open in his perfected zen garden.
At the road we pushed back up another 10 minutes back to the cabin. We cracked the first beers in celebration of a great day in a great place. That beer tastes so good on a high mountain pass with a feathery breeze as you watch the sun begin to paint the increasing clouds as it drops to the west. Just the mini speaker spouting some Neil Young through the cabin door, we set in the section of dry grass and all feels right with the world as the sun sets and the purples and pinks smear the sky with the colors of warm goodness. Arty puffs on a nice Black n Mild cigar as I run in to mix a drink. (one can’t afford to carry just all heavy beer – but it is essential to start every evening with a couple on the continental divide’s stone beer garden patio of wonder.) I come running back out to catch the sky’s finale with cigar in mouth and two fresh vodka lemonades in coffee cups with roof ice and real wedges of lemon and lime. Arty laughs in a loud cheer and delight in approval of the drinks, cabin life, and the simple pleasures. Happy hour stretches and blurs into dinner time as I prepare my hut staple value meal plan #1 of pulled pork bbq sandwiches on bagel thins with bag o caesar salad and full size snickers bars. We escape the fiery wood stove wrath by stepping out for a final smoke and nightcap of crown royal shots under the stars.
We awake late after a hard 10 hour hibernation the next morning. With door open we notice the local neighbor couple from Breck in the section house that arrived after dark were already heading out. I hadn’t even did any light reading in the outhouse or cleared the pile of lemon and lime wedges from my coffee cup yet. The day got going slowly with lots of coffee, a whole package of peppered bacon, and some bagels and cream cheese. After breakfast dishes and some re-supply of wood and snow melt we headed out for the day. I broke trail first and then Arty led the boot hike up from there. It felt kind of good to hike since it had been a while since I had scrambled any real distance in a while (Although I am a much bigger fan of skinning than boot packing).
We got to the first peak and it helped put our lofty goals in more perspective as the direction we planned on going was null of snow and hidden from yesterday’s view. Instead of down climbing we chose to re-route and ski some lightly defrosted corn under the mostly cloudy skies. We skied down to the last saddle and traversed around the skirts of the peak we just hiked up. Here we found more wind affected colder snow and a couple cross loaded traverse sections we tried to stay high to avoid a little sketchiness. After the traverse we transitioned over for a few minutes of skinning up to reach the upper bench in order be able to drop over into the next cirque to the southwest. That snow was more sheltered in the big trees and was more soft but thick, resulting in a few good wavy slash turns through the woods and out into the open. By this time we could see our new re-established goal after a couple hours of route finding and rearranging. We skinned another 45 minutes up a long ridge to a big corniced area. Only person we saw was a solo snowmobiler getting after it a bowl over to our left. It felt great and satisfying to be up top on a face we looked at from way afar yesterday with more of a wish than anything.
The face was kind of gnarly with a couple obvious avalanche paths spread between three separate semi consolidated ribbons of trees that seem to provide some islands of safety. We kicked at the cornice and Arty sawed a good chunk off and dropped it on the skier’s right section. Nothing moved or showed any energy at the top but we still had a lot of concern about the convex roll 50 yards down that was puffed up and cross loaded. Neither of us felt good about it so we moved over the ridge a bit and avoided that section and skirted the cornice drop. Arty’s first turns showed me the hardness and crustiness that awaited me on that initial steepness. After Arty reached a safe spot in the ribbon of trees, I dropped into that funky monkey surface party and laid down a couple ugly and sluggish survival turns past his safe spot. We leapfrogged each other in the few trees that were around and generally chest bumped the man crust as strong as we could blowing out on to the gentler machine gun apron and down to the soft serve gully. Not the best blower quality turns but what a rush and kick in the pants.
After a nice long power break of dried fruit and slim jims we donned the headphones, drank the last of the water, and headed up a couple mile skin back up to Boreas Pass Road and then another 40 minutes back up to the deserted cabin and section house. It had been an almost 7 hour day of gettin after it on all kinds of conditions. The full circle route of sort was so rewarding as we stood around the cabin during apres with victory cigars and cold drinks. Seeing where we went towards making it happen and keeping it real with nothing but ashes and tracks. You could see it in Arty’s sun burnt face, that he had seen the light of a good hut trip and was going to come back a new kind of mountain man. We refueled that night on the b team dinner of chicken noodle soup with saltines, mashed potatoes with cheese and bacon crumbles, and summer sausage sandwiches with mayo. (Remember it all shines in the fine details of quality extras and condiments.) We recycled the last of the beer cans and the plastic vodka bottle after the dishes were done. The night was waved in by some steezy John Scofield jazz and a hearty desert of chocolate, crown royal, and the sleeping pill of one’s choice.
The next day was greeted by another amazing sleep in. Don’t doubt the power comfort of a good buzz and Ken’s Cabin when the snow covers the windows. We hustled through the morning shuffle of bacon, bagels, and coffee in order to get the cabin swept out, restocked and wiped clean before exit. However, before pushing off that 6 2/3 mile downhill we had to go up for one more. You gotta get up to get down. We skinned and boot packed almost an hour directly above the cabin for one more shot at a nice thick snow ribbon off the wind charred divide. We rested for a short bit looking out above the cabin and all of Breckenridge. What a great couple days to leave the rat race all behind for simple pleasures, good travels, and great views. It was a nice shot for some soul skiing that was firm at top and softer and chewy at the bottom. With a quick power break to re-load our stuff we stashed in the wood shed, we were off under a darkening cloudy sky that was calling us back west. The road turned to a nice crusty snow cone that enabled us to cruise out at a good glide where you can push you’re extended poles along and just let your mind wander, and sit back and enjoy the ride.
Cheers and hope everyone has gotten a few chances to lean back enjoy the ride this year.