Archive for the ‘Hiking and Backpacking’ Category

Splitboarding from Ashcroft to Friends Hut via Pearl Pass

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

This past weekend was my second annual spring hut trip. Last year, we had a fun group of couples for three nights in the Green-Wilson Hut, in which I was able to tag a line up and down the Conundrum Couloir as well as an unnamed couloir on the east face of Castle Peak. This year, instead of a couples trip, I recruited a solid group of three other splitboarders for a backcountry ‘bro-fest’.

We camped out in the parking lot of the Ashcroft Ghost Town on Thursday night, just as the town’s inhabitants had over 100 years ago, gaping in awe of the same enormous mountains surrounding us.

The view from Ashcroft

We awoke at dawn on Friday, still missing one splitboarder. Nevertheless, we left a note and started out on our way. One skier was with us as well, but he would not last through the days journey. We skinned up the entire route on Castle Creek Road, and later Pearl Pass Road. It is because of these ancient mining and transportation routes that makes this area so popular and advantageous for backcountry skiing and snowboarding. The first portion of the trip was a very moderate 3 miles, which gave us plenty of time to gape out at the huge avalanche paths that we crossed along the way. While we were safe from those slides since we had a stable spring snowpack, we couldn’t possibly imagine the fear of crossing these things in the dead of winter!

Starting up the road, crossing the avy chutes on Greg Mace Peak on the left.

After a few hours, we arrived at the popular Tagert and Green Wilson Huts. Although this wasn’t our destination (as nice as it would have been), we stopped out on the porch for a break. Not ten minutes after we stopped did another splitboarder approach us. It turned out to be our missing teammate, Ross. Happy that the group was united, we pressed onward above treeline for the much more difficult portion of the trip.

The soldiers march on above tree-line
The east face of Castle Peak, looking like bad conditions.

Unfortunately, the skier in our group just couldn’t cut the mustard. As much as we tried to convince him that it would be worth the trip to the hut, he eventually decided to ski down. I took a few action shots before continuing on up.


Making our way across ‘Mace Saddle’

From here, routefinding was very important. We did not want to accidentally descend into Cooper Creek (only to end up back at Ashcoft after a nasty bushwack), and we didn’t want to cross over the Elk Range at a location other than Pearl Pass, which could have deadly consequences. Finally, after rounding the southest buttress of Pearl Mountain, we could see a sign far off on the ridge, which looked like a person standing on top of Pearl Pass.

Pearl Pass sighted, but it still looks so far away!

Getting closer…

The final pitch was the steepest of all. With the low avalanche danger, we stuck to the road and skirted around the headwall.

Mike nearing the top of the pass, while I scoped out some cool rock crags. I wonder if anyone climbs them in the summer?

I was the first one to reach the top of the pass, and let out the loudest yell my tired lungs could muster. After eight hours of travel, we finally reached the height of our climb, at 12,705 feet! The sign said we were 18 miles from Aspen and 19 miles from Crested Butte. The four of us took in the fresh air and solitude of being so far away from civilization.

Pearl Pass conquered by splitboarders!

By now, it was nearing five o’clock, and we still had to find the hut. Thankfully, Lou Dawson was nice enough to supply the GPS coordinates in his guidebook, which I had already pre-programmed into my Garmin. From the top of the pass, we would have to take a leftward trend into the bowl, and the hut should be right at tree line. I watched my three teammates descend into the bowl before I brought up the rear.

Talking over the descent. After eight hours of climbing, we were finally able to snowboard!

Mike dropped in first…



Ross ollies the drop



Followed by Ed


Finally, I spotted the hut, right where it was supposed to be!

We made a few more turns before taking the boards off for good.



Up next: The June Couloir of Star Peak in a blizzard!

Book Review: “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen E. Ambrose

Monday, December 29th, 2008

The following is a review I wrote on about the book, “Undaunted Courage”, by Stephen E. Ambrose.

While the main purpose of this book is a biography of Meriwether Lewis, the author includes all of the influential characters, events, and setting of the early 19th century United States, starting with the third President, Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson’s vision of America is a country stretching from sea-to-sea.  It is as if Jefferson had an almost divine image of America.  This is a special land, entirely different from the Old World in Europe, which is precisely why it was so important for the United States to lay claim to the continent, and effectively remove the presence of British, French, or Spanish military forces.

If Jefferson were alive today, I think he would not be pleased with the United States’ military presence in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.  Jefferson’s Republicans would likely have held an isolationist view of our sovereign nation even up to today.  Americans do not belong in the Middle East today any more than British and French forces belonged in North America in 1903.

I was surprised to learn that Jefferson had originally thought that American Indians could be “civilized”, and become active citizens of the United States, whereas African Americans could never fully “assimilate” in Jefferson’s views.  Throughout the journeys of the Corps of Discovery, Lewis and Clark presented each tribe with a special speech, to inform them that they “have a new father”, and invited their chiefs to visit Washington and meet Jefferson.

This story predates the Trail of Tears and other stories of American genocide against Indians.  However, one quote from the book puts an interesting perspective on the attitude of Americans’: “How can an Indian tribe lay claim to thousands of acres of land that they ride across twice per year?”  Although Jefferson intended confine American settlers to the land east of the Mississippi, and allow the Indians to keep all land west of it, history has shown that no executive power was able to stop the progress of American Pioneers.

The stories of Lewis’s activities had a familiar feeling to me.  For example, while preparing for the expedition, Lewis contracted a boat builder to construct a large “keelboat” to travel up the Missouri river.  The contractor was very slow, constantly drunk, and failed to show up many mornings.  It reminded me of contractors that I’ve dealt with in my business, who have no sense of the urgency required by the customer.

As an outdoorsman, I was captivated by the adventures encounted by the party in the wilderness, all documented with great detail and passion by the author.  I have traveled through the rugged rocky mountains, armed with the most sophisticated technology of the 21st century.  Even now, it is no easy endeavor.  However, this party of soldiers made their way up the rockies, navigating by compass and sextant, hunting with muzzleloader, camping without shelter, and sewing clothing from buffalo hides.  Lewis was in his late 20′s, the same age as I am now, and he was co-captain to a group of 30 or so army privates, and navigator in a wilderness that no white man had ever been in before.  These feats alone are truly amazing!

In addition, the author makes sure to mention the importance of Sacajawea during the trip.  The majority of the party was made up of young adult men: American soldiers trained in hunting and survival.  However, in the group was this teenage Indian girl, who spoke no English whatsoever, and had her baby with her the entire journey!  How did she feel to have traveled for two years with this expedition?

I strongly recommend this book to readers who have a thirst for history of early United States, and also for those who have a keen interest in wilderness exploration and survival.  Many of the hunting and survival skills practiced by Lewis’s hired hunter, George Drouillard, can still be applied by today’s big game hunter and survivalist.

This amazing book has turned me onto further reading about the politics of Jefferson and James Madison, and how the “original Republican party” was meant to shape this country’s future.  I look forward to learning more.

Undaunted Courage (cover)

“Bull Down” — Area 54 Elk Hunt, Gunnison National Forest (part one)

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008


For the many weeks that led up to Elk Camp, our plans got more and more complex.  After researching countless previous testimonials, reading page after page of ungulate ecology, and studying topo maps of various detail, we finally had a plan.

1.  To hike in as far and as high in the mountains as possible.
2.  To get off the beaten path and explore the deepest and darkest woods man has ever seen.
3.  To stay there as long as necessary to hunt and harvest an abundance of meat.

Many skeptics on the jobsite doubted our integrity.

“You’ll never make it!” they said.

While still others encouraged us, “Go get after it!”

On the Friday before the opening of Third Season, my hunting partner and I had left Carbondale and headed toward the Gunnison Valley, over Kebler Pass.  When we arrived in Crested Butte, we found our two Irish Boys waiting for us at the bar, fresh from Chicago.

When we told them our plan, JL took a long, slow swig of ale, as if digesting the seemily outrageous scheme we had just presented to him “You’re going to do what?!  You’ll die, dudes!”

“Nah,” Scott reassurred him.  “We’ve got it all figured out.”

Fortunately for us, JL had found an excellent location for Elk Camp.  Up near Ohio Pass, a side road flattens out in the middle of the aspen forests.  In fact, they were the tallest aspen trees I’ve ever seen, and they went on for miles in every direction.  It felt like a spiritual place.

After we set up camp, Scott brought out the Mojo Stick, which he tied to a tree to watch over our camp, and bring us all good harvest in the days to come.  A blessing was then done by our resident Chaplain and concluded with a toast of Wild Turkey bourbon.

While relegating around the campfire, we started to put together our packs for the morning expedition.  The only rule I set was to be completely prepared to spend at least three nights out in the wilderness.  I had brought my 65 Liter backpack, the largest I own, into which I stuffed the warmest technical clothing and sleeping bag needed for a frigid night above 10,000 feet in November.  Much water was not necessary, for I knew that we would never be far from water when high in the rockies.  The most valuable item in the pack, however, were vials of Aquamira purification, to make any of the mountain stream and river water drinkable.  We had a variety of basic dried food, and I brought along the Jet Boil for optimal boiling of water for all backcountry cooking.  I added a first aid kid, three forms of fire starting, maps, compass, gps, two way radios, camera, knives, tools, game bags, rope and other miscellaneous items and I was all set.  Lastly, my hand-me-down .30-06 rifle was strapped to the outside of the pack.


I couldn’t sleep much at all that night.  I thought it was very similiar to the anticipation I’ve felt before an early spring mountaineering attempt.  Like those cold mornings, we woke before dawn.  Because the pack was all set, I put on all my clothes and wandered into Jack and JL’s tent for some fresh coffee.  Like good backcountry travellers, we then informed our friends of our plan.  We had decided to start off at the Swampy Pass trailhead and pack in along the trail thru the border into the West Elk Wilderness.  Upon reaching swampy pass, we would explore the basin south of the Anthracite Range.  We did not plan to return the first night.  We told our friends that if we missed the second night, do not worry, but after the third night, things may not be going well.

We said our goodbyes for our friends as they sped of on their new 4-wheeler.  Throughout the rest of the trip, I found myself constantly thinking for their safety, and wondering how their hunt was going, while on our own.

At the start of the hike, we were overtaken by a pair of Oklahoma boys on horseback.  We exchanged plans, and they said “we’re on radio channel 2, holler if you need help”.  I appreciated the comradarie and let their horses pass.

Starting up the trail at dawns first light.The sun had started to rise quickly.  Out to the southwest, the dominate rock formation known as “The Castles” came into view.  For the entire hunt, this amazing formation formed the backdrop of our trip, always in sight and an excellent navigation tool.

From the start of the hike, the chances were slim that we would see any A close up of the awesome formation, \wildlife.  It was unseasonably warm at low elevation.  Since we didn’t plan on shooting anything that morning anyways, we moved quickly along the hiker’s trail, stopping many times to adjust our backpacks or have a snack and safety meeting. The weight in my pack was not nearly as much as the recod 60 lbs I carried into Rocky Mountain National park to climb the Spearhead a few years ago, but it was still a lot to carry for the ten miles we had done by the end of the day.

At mile marker four, we reached the boundary of the West Elk Wilderness.  Other than the two Okies we encountered at the trailhead, we would not see another human being for the entire time in the wilderness.  I was happy for this feeling of independence, which mean we were left to survive with everything we had and everything God has given us in our surroundings.

Reaching the wilderness boundary

This is what the 4+ miles of trail looked like.

By mile six, we had reached Swampy Pass, marked by a wooden sign.  This moment in time marked the end of our planned route.  Now we had some decisions to make.  Instinct would tell us to look for a steep, shady slope with heavy evergreen growth.  We started to follow a game trail up a hill north of Swampy Pass, heading toward the Anthracite Range, but then stopped.

“It is too sunny here!”  I shouted, “all this vegetation is burnt”.  We were on an open slope with short shrubs.

“We need a north-facing slope,” Scott suggested.  He was referring to one facet of information that is shared by both snowsliders and hunters: that the north face is the coldest and darkest, creating an ideal climate for both light fluffy powder in winter and old bull elk the rest of the time.

View of \'the knoll\' from Swampy PassTogether, we identified a large rolling knoll not too far across the valley to the south.  It looked only a few miles away, but we would be heading directly through a dense evergreen forest through the bottom of the valley.  Our goal was to be on top of it by sunset.

Once we got off the trail and into the timber, signs of wildlife sprouted up Bushwacking through the dense foresteverywhere.  Near a stream, we saw dozens of hoof prints on the muddy banks, as if a stampede had come crashing through here days ago.  However, the mud was frozen solid as we climbed up the mountain.  We also hiked through some bedding areas, where the old rotten timber of downed trees had nearly disentragrated into soft beds of sawdust.  As we climbed higher and higher (the GPS read 10,800 at the top), so did the frequency and amount of droppings in the grass.

An elk wallow and tracks

Scott speared a fist size pile with his hiking pole.  “That’s a bull.  And he’s not far,”  the master hunter before me said.  This is when I started to get the feeling of anxiety that would control my mind for the next 15 hours.  At any given moment, it was possible for us to come upon an unsuspecting Wapiti, where the element of surprise between two vastly different mammals would become crucial.  I did not know if I was quite ready for it.

(I have seen elk up close only once before, in a hot summer at Rocky Mountain National Park.  We had been hiking down from a climb on Lumpy Ridge, when my friend ahead of me stopped in his tracks.  Two big bulls were standing ten yards from us, gnawing voraciously at lush greeen leaves.  They all but ignored us then, but when I took one step too close, one left the food and swept his large antlers around and stared me down, before turning away and crashing through the woods at high speed.)

When Scott and I reached a small alpine pond near sunset, I knew we should set up camp near the water supply before it got too dark.  We scrambled across the slope to find a small flat ledge of grass, surrounded by a few downed trees that would provide back support and firewood.  Finally, after 12 hours of hiking, the heavy backpacks dropped to the ground.

“I don’t want to wear that thing again for at least a day,” I said.  We both knew that the hunt was going to take place right here on the mountain side, within a few miles from camp.   After establishing the bivouc, we had about 1/2 hour to go before dusk.   I planned to return to the pond we saw earlier, to replenish water, and we used the opportunity to hunt with rifles in hand until the sun went down…


Equipment Trial Run

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

As I have told many, I have not just been spending the low-key fall months in Colorado by watching football and waxing my snowboards.  Instead have been been preparing for a week long primal hunt in the mountains, known to many as “Elk Camp”.  I’ve spent hours reading as much information as I can about the ecology of the Wapiti, and twice as much about the topography of the West Elk Mountains, near Gunnison, CO.

In addition to the literary education, I’ve also been working on the “hunting master checklist” as produced by our venerable party leader.  I’ve gathered up most of my equipment from my other gear ensembles:  camping and backpacking, climbing, snowboarding, and mountaineering.  Last Saturday, I felt ready for a “trial run”, and accompanied my friend Scott on a morning hunt for a doe in the steep terrain up Avalanche Creek, south of Carbondale.

We had planned to get out as early as possible and climb to a vantage point to set up and glass before dawn.  I spent the previous night packing, and tried to turn in early. Much like the restless nights before many spring mountaineering missions I’ve done, I was too anxious to get much sleep.  I awoke at 3:30 AM and shortly after, Scott had arrived and we were on the road.

It was the middle of the night, but the full moon lit up the entire sky.   We did not drive far, for the convienence of living in Carbondale is that you are less than 20 minutes away from a dirt road and trail head in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.  We parked the truck at a quarter to five and got the packs ready.

“Check your GPS,” Scott said, “What time is sunrise?”

I turned on my new Garmin E-Trex and laughed.  “7:20″.  We had at least two hours to hike about a quarter mile to the first vantage point.  We started up the dirt road, but did not follow it far, before turning left, into the scrub oak and sage brush, and bushwacking straight up the south flank of Mt. Sopris.

For this trial run, I had my 65 liter backpacker’s pack from REI.  I had used it many times before to pack trad climbing nuts and cams, and rope, as well as full camp gear into Rocky Mountain National Park to attempt the big alpine climbs like the Petit Grepon and the Sharkstooth.  I had weighed that pack to almost 70 lbs. on one of those past trips.  On today’s adventure, I guessed that same packed weighed no more than 20 lbs.  However, the purpose of such a large pack when Elk hunting is the intent that you will be packing out much, much heavier than you packed in. (try at least 100 lbs. heavier)

Inside my pack (or person), I had survival essentials:  three forms of flame (matches, butane lighter, flint & steel), 100 ft. of cord, two emergency blankets, first aid kit, map, compass, head lamp, GPS, extra batteries, multi-tool, folding knife.  I also had toilet paper and cat-hole shovel (which came in handy very early in the morning!).  In addition to my basic clothing, I was wearing insulated coveralls, and insulated carhart vest, a fleece “blaze” orange vest, Mountain Hardware softshell, hat and gloves.  Lastly was a large buck knife exclusively reserved for skinning a deer (should my partner have been so lucky to shoot one).  I also had a blatter of water, and my camera and binoculars easily accessible while wearing the pack.  For sustenance, I had some trail mix, two Clif bars, and a few packets of green tea, along with my Jet Boil.  (I did not carry my rifle, for I did not have a hunting tag for this season and didn’t want to have to do any explaining should we run into a kindly DOW Officer)

Within 1/2 hour, we had climbed up about 800 vertical feet to a very large “bench” on the slope.  This was to be our first glassing (or spotting) area.    Scott set up the tripod and affixed his new spotting scope, while i took out the binoculars.  I checked the time.  We still hade over an hour before sunrise, but i took a peek through the binoculars anyways.  The moon cast little shadow, and after a few seconds of scanning, realized the attempt was futile, so I took a seat in the cold darkness and waited.

6:51 AM, waiting in the cold blackness.

In Colorado, it is coldest just before dawn.  While we had both worked up our body heat while making the strenuous hike in multiple layers, sitting still for more than ten minutes had made me feel colder than ever.   This is when the Jet Boil proved to be worth the extra weight in the pack.  I fired it up, and within a few minutes, I was sipping hot tea, feeling much more comfortable and warm, as we sat in silence, scanning for any movement.  (although we were not totally bored, as we pointed the spotting scope to the full moon and each took a turn checking out the topography of the celestial body, only to be partially blinded for a few moments after.

It was a strange silence, other than the rushingwater of the creek, far below.  However, just before dawn, the birds started to wake up.  One by one, they would announce their presence, chirping and cawing, as if to call the sun up.

When light finally started to creep in, I was getting anxious to see a deer, or any large wildlife.

“They should have been moving around for food much earlier than this,”  Scott said, sounding discouraged.

We did not see any deer that morning, but it was not long before we saw other humans.

Actually, in the early morning light, you can pick out “blaze orange” without even looking for it.  However, by the time these guys rolled up in their trucks, we were high above them, perched and ready for the hunters to pressure the deer up the hill, and right for us.

The first guy parked his truck and walked back down the road a bit (away from us).  Then he crossed the small Bulldog Creek and sat down under a large evergreen tree next to the water.  He was less than 50 yards from his truck.

“What’s this guy doing?”  Scott laughed.  I had no idea.  Did he know something we did not know?  Was a whole train of mule deer about to cross the road right in front of him, allowing him to pick off an easy kill and be home in time for Church?

Not long after, the hunter’s “secret spot” was spoiled by a white half ton pickup truck lumbering its way up the road.  I had to laugh!  Another hunter popped out and started stalking the tall sage brush near the road.  Neither person made an attempt to climb the steep hill that we had climbed earlier.

After glassing for a while in light, we saw no signs of deer.  So we packed up and headed farther up hill, tracking as we went along.  The most obvious sign to look for is feces.  Although we found a few traces, nothing appeared to be very fresh.  Shockingly, we encountered a few very large piles of dung, which could only be attributed to a local black bear.  “This is definitely his territory,”  Scott said.

From our second vantage point, we took the optics out again.  This time, I could look far to the southeast and see the snowcapped mountains of the 13ers and 14ers in the core of the Elk Range.  Down below, the two hunters were now standing in the middle of the road and talking to each other!  I did not want to be so preoccupied with the comedy scene to miss any movement in the brush, so I strained my eyes through binoculars for any sign of a deer.

Sadly, we returned to the vehicle not having seen any deer.  It was an incredibly frustrating experience.  I did leave the day feeling very confident in my equipment setup.  Unlike the casual day hunt for deer, an elk hunt has been told to be a truly epic experience, and a much more committing adventure.  I figure we will be hiking at least 5 miles and 3,000 vertical feet a day, to look for elk in the deepest woods and the highest peaks.    Returning to camp empty handed one night just means we’ll be hiking a little bit farther and higher the next morning.

(for more about big game hunting, I recommend Jay Houston’s website, “Elk Camp“)

Because of the low morning light, I don’t have many photos.  However, quickly after the morning adventure, I drove down to Denver.   Here are a few photos of the drive.

The scene while travelling eastbound when exiting Glenwood Canyon.  The mountains in the distance comprise the northern tip of the Sawatch Range, and the Holy Cross Wilderness

Flat Top Mountain, Rocky Mountain National Park

Wednesday, August 1st, 2007

<SPAN class=postbody><FONT size=2>I’ve been going through a little TR withdrawal lately so this what I like to call a “Beta TR”. No splitting, but ALWAYS on the lookout for sick lines. My friend Liz came to visit from out of town, so I proposed a casual hike up Flattop Mountain in The Park. <BR><BR>As Spring turns to Summer, The Park becomes more and more crowded with tourists from all over the world. Up until now I’ve always been able to find a parking spot at Glacier Gorge TH. However, at 10 AM on a hot Saturday in July, we were forced to take the park &amp; ride in to Bear Lake. <BR><BR>The majority of my past excursions in this area have been to Sky Pond or Glacier Gorge. I’ve never been up any of the trails from Bear Lake. However, I’ve heard about great ski lines on Tyndall Glacier and inside Ptarmigan Point Cirque. <BR><BR>Flattop Mountain Trail is unique among the trails in The Park because it is one of the only marked trails that leads all the way to the top of the Continental Divide (most other trails lead to various lakes in the cirques below the Divide). I soon began to call it the Gaper Trail, because above tree line it was marked with dozens of huge cairns 10 yards apart, as if the beaten dirt path all the way up was not obvious enough! <IMG alt=Cool src=”” border=0> While it was by far the easiest way I’ve personally ever ascended, there were some steep switchbacks that left me a little out of breath. <BR><BR>The clouds were sitting low in the valley all morning. As we climbed, a soft drizzle came down on us, but luckily we had rain jackets unlike a few unfortunate tourists who came down in wet cotton sweatshirts. <BR><BR><IMG src=”” border=0> <BR><SPAN style=”FONT-STYLE: italic”>Hallet Peak hidden in the eerie mist</SPAN> <BR><BR>Above treeline, the endless grassy fields extended out for what seemed like miles. It was a long trek to the top of the mountain, but well worth the scenery. I came around the bend to Tyndall Glacier and my jaw dropped. <BR><BR><IMG src=”” border=0> <BR><SPAN style=”FONT-STYLE: italic”>Tyndall</SPAN> <BR><BR>”Siiiiiick….” I gasped in a high-pitched expression of stoke for snow. <BR>”You’d ski that?” my friend asked. <BR>”Hell yeah!” <BR>”You’re crazy,” she shook her head. <BR><BR>Truth is, it was probably a little too hairy to ski now, but I could picture the line going next season, and I obviously added it to the list. <BR><BR>Next in line was the Ptarmigan Point cirque on the north side of Flattop. There were a bunch more lines to be scouted, and I put my camera to work. I’ll definitely be heading back here next season! <BR><BR><IMG src=”” border=0> <BR><SPAN style=”FONT-STYLE: italic”>Ptarmigan Point rises on the right of these lines</SPAN> <BR><BR><IMG src=”” border=0> <BR><SPAN style=”FONT-STYLE: italic”>Notchtop Couloir</SPAN> <BR><BR>The sun came in and out during our climb down, but we managed to avoid rain the whole time. <BR><BR><IMG src=”” border=0>&nbsp;</FONT><BR></SPAN>