April 19, 2012
When you ask folks in Colorado about the skiing this season, there is a collective groan of disappointment. The year before, we were spoiled by one of the biggest and best snow years on record and now we are feeling a bit let down. Nonetheless, spring is the time to get out and enjoy ski mountaineering on the higher peaks!
Warm, sunny days followed by cool nights help consolidate the snowpack, making it relatively safe from avalanches. This stability enables backcountry skiers to enjoy the steep bowls and chutes that are too dangerous earlier in the season.
After a few quick calls, I joined up with a few friends for a day of adventure on Jones Pass, near Winter Park, CO. We left early and found ourselves in a deserted parking lot, a rare occurrence at this popular destination. The approach through the trees was an easy hour of skinning but, as soon as we reached treeline, we were blasted by 50 mph gusts that nearly pushed us backwards down the hill.
We donned our shell gear and forged ahead through the valley to the base of our objective, Pettingell Peak, a 13,418-foot point on the Continental Divide. On the approach, my friends eyed a steep snow bowl for our descent that was mostly free of debris and exposed rocks. We continued, up a steep ridge line, pausing as as the gales and small tornados of blowing snow engulfed us momentarily.
For the last 50 meters, we hunkered down and put the skis on our packs and booted up the last steep section to the summit ridge. Though it wasn't terribly cold, I was thankful for my Mountain Hardwear Hooded Nitrous Jacket. This ultralight down jacket is one of my all-time favorite pieces of equipment because it's so versatile and takes up so little space in my pack. The brutal winds, however, tempered our summit celebration so we beat a hasty retreat.
We had hoped that the warm temperatures and sunshine would soften the snow but, alas, not the case. We scraped our way down the upper section and were met with marginally better yet still very firm and unforgiving hard pack for the rest of our 1,000-foot descent. It took us about 5 minutes to ski down what took more than an hour to climb.
Being a blind skier, skiing through the trees on the track out can be the most challenging part of the day. However, my friend Skyler and I developed a new technique where he grabs both of the ends of my poles and I am able to follow right behind in his track while hopefully avoiding the branches and trees as we went sailing by. It proved to be pretty effective--no collisions--and before long we were back at the trailhead.
It certainly wasn't the glorious ski day we had envisioned but it is always great to get out with friends on a sunny day in the backcountry. I'd sure rather battle strong winds and breathe thin air than sit at my desk answering emails and making phone calls!
PS All photos of Erik by Skyler Williams.