Posts Tagged ‘backcountry’

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!

Trip Report: Splitboarding Torrey’s Peak ‘Tuning Fork’

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

Torrey’s Peak (14,267′)
“Tuning Fork” Couloir

‘Tuning Fork’ is a front-range classic. While it is not overtly steep and doesn’t have scary ‘no-fall’ cliffs to navigate, what makes this climb so challenging is its intense size. With a total elevation gain of almost to 3000′, this couloir provides one of the longest snowboard descents in Colorado. However, only those with the highest levels of endurance can reap the rewards of the descent.

I have snowboarded this line before. I remember a long, sustained slope. So long, in fact, that we encountered just about every different kind of snow condition: powder, crust, corn, and hard-pack. However, I’ve never climbed up this route (instead, we had skinned up the standard hiker’s route to the summit and dropped into ‘Tuning Fork’), so I had no idea if I had the endurance to make the entire climb.

My partner and I pulled off of I-70 at the Bakeville exit around 8:00. Fortunately, the road up to Grizzly Gulch was packed down by vehicles and snowmobiles, so we were able to drive up to the trailhead and save ourselves a few miles of skinning.

At the Grizzly Gulch trailhead, we could see the early morning sun start to light up the summit of Torrey’s Peak.

Torrey’s Peak in the morning sun. ‘Emperor’ is the craggy face in the center. ‘Tuning Fork’ is on the right, and flows down the diagonal grade along the western shoulder of the mountain.

Although my partner and I had discussed ‘Tuning Fork’, we hadn’t made the ultimate decision on whether or not to attemp the ‘Emperor’ . As we skinned up the gulch trail for a few miles, we could had an up close view of ‘Emperor’, and it looked very good. However, when we reached the base of it, we decided to continue on to ‘Tuning Fork’. (I look forward to coming back for ‘Emperor’).

While ‘Tuning Fork’ is somewhat hidden by the north ridgeline of the mountain, we didn’t see the magnitude of the line until we arrived at its base. There was a short, steep headwall directly at the start, and then a plateau. Beyond that, looming in the distance, the couloir climbed up towards the sky.

The couloir is named its distinct ‘forked’ shape

A close-up of the couloir

I thought at first we could skin up the moderate part of the mountain. However, the slope was steeper than I remembered, and shortly I traded my splitboard for my crampons and ice axe. I felt much more confident now, although I was worried as to how much the weight on my back would affect my stamina after a few hours.

At the base of the couloir, we were happy to discover that someone else had climbed it recently, and left us with a staircase already punched into the snow. No doubt that this sped up the first part of our climb.

When the couloir ‘forked’, the boot tracks went up into the right line. I chose to take the left variation, because it would come out closer to the summit and had an aesthetic ‘choke’ in the middle of it.

Approaching the ‘fork’

After we made it past the ‘choke’, it looked as though we were on the home stretch. My estimates couldn’t have been more wrong. The couloir steepened, and the remaining 1,000 feet of this climb felt like an eternity. After leading the entire climb up to this point, I moved over an allowed my partner to lead the final pitch.

At this point, I was almost completely gassed. I focused my eyes on the step directly above each foot, and counted off each step at a time, forcing myself not to look back up until I had reached twenty steps, and repeated. Every time I looked up, I felt discouraged. It looked as if the couloir would never end!

The end was in sight, but it never seemed to get any closer

Finally, we reached the end of the snow and I collapsed onto the Talus. Rocks never felt so comfortable! We still had a couple hundred feet to reach the summit, but I was relieved to take the splitboard off my back and scramble up, unburdened.

Although the most direct line to the summit would have been up to the west ridge, and then a short hike from there, I scrambled over to the ‘Kelso Ridge’ on the east side, to scope out the entrances to ‘Emperor’ and ‘Dead Dog’. (which, as I discovered both top out in the same location on each side of ‘Kelso Ridge’) After checking them out, I made the short walk up to the summit and took in the view.

I was all alone on the summit. However, when I hiked back down a few feet to check on my partner, and then returned, I almost fell off the mountain in surprise when four other residents suddenly materialized on the summit!

Four gendarmes guarding the summit

The team achieving the summit

View to the west of the 10-Mile Range and Breckenridge ski area. In the center, far off in the distance, is Pacific Peak

It was nearly 4:00 by the time we left the summit. It had taken us nearly 5 hours just to bootpack the couloir.

As we scrambled down the steep talus to our ski gear, the locals kept on eye on our safety

Looking down at the descent

While we encountered a few clouds during the climb, the weather had held for us all the way to the summit. However, it didn’t appear as though the sun had warmed up the snow surface much, so we were forced to descend on some variable conditions (reminicent of my previous descent on this line).

Like before, the middle section of the couloir held the best snow, and the angle was moderate enough to take a few high speed turns with associated ‘whooping’ along with them.

Making turns down the couloir

Approaching the ‘choke’

The descent was so long, we had to stop to take a few breaks. Finally, we reached the bottom and returned to the snow-covered road. We reached the car roughly 8 hours after we left it in the morning, totally gassed out. ‘Tuning Fork’ is not a climb for the faint of heart or weak of legs. However, the rewards are worth it on one of the most classic descents in Colorado.

Also worth noting was that I had realized early in the morning that we were climbing this route on March 20: the last day of winter. This gave me a strong boost of motivation, to make my first ever ‘winter ascent’ of a 14er.



Backcountry Snowboarding–Red Mountain Pass (near Ouray, CO)

Monday, February 16th, 2009

On our recent Valentine’s weekend getaway to Telluride (fantastic area–ride it if you have the chance!), I made sure to work in a side excursion to Red Mountain pass, above Ouray. Sunday provided some very good conditions for the backcounty. It had been a few days since the last snowfall, and the snowpack seemed relatively stable.

Although I’ve never done any riding off Red Mountain pass, I’ve driven over it on two past trips to Silverton. The stunning scenery of the San Juans along with the seemingly isolation of the area had stuck it in my mind ever since. What is a classic mainstay for locals also makes for a worthwhile road trip for any front-range rider.

Being unfamiliar with the pass, I went straight to the map posted at the parking area. Various areas were outlined: motorized and non-motorized. I have heard of the current struggle between various recreational users on Red Mountain Pass, from various groups such as Backcountry Snowsports Alliance. It looks like the groups made some headway, for I identified an area on the west side of the pass that was designated as ‘non-motorized’.
View up the intended route on the west side of the pass.

We started climbing up a skin-track that was already laid down recently. It looked like it climbed up the fluffy rolling hills directly west of the parking area, so we decided to stick with the track as opposed to trying to find our own way. The snow conditions were variable along the climb. Although the east-facing snow was soft, the skin track bent onto a south aspect that was very icy. (The steep icy face caused me to briefly flashback to my scary experience not too far away on Kendall Mountain last April)

The stunning backdrop of the San Juan mountains!

Along the climb, I was looking back toward the east at the face on the other side of the highway. There were a lot more tracks on that side, and I had wondered if the conditions would be better over there.

Here we are hiking up on the first route. In the background is the cliffs and tracks described in the second route of this TR.

Nevertheless, after climbing about 800 feet, we reached treeline and decided not to go any farther. From there, we mounted our snowboards and made some excellent turns on the nice rolling terrain.

I am looking down my line before dropping in

Miss V. cruising the soft powder

Back at the car, we decided to head up the west side of the road. The face I had admired was a very steep aspect with various cliffs, although I could make out many lines between the cliffs that had obvious ski tracks in them. Once more, this area also had a snow-covered county road that led us on a moderate climb up and around the mountain.

Here we are hiking up the county road on the east side of the pass. The treed glades in the background are the first route of this TR.

We encountered more people on this route. Most of them were skiing or boarding down the road. However, since we saw tracks directly on the west face of the hill, I knew there just had to be a way up to the top. Sure enough, as the road rounded the south side of the hill, a skin track appeared and climbed steeply past the ruins of a few mining cabins and up the backside of the hill.

At the top of the track, we were surprised to see a hut. No doubt, it was part of the San Juan hut system. No one was at home. We snowboarded down past the hut and found some excellent powder lines in the trees. When we approached the cliff band, we followed the tracks out around to the left, and made the final thrilling descent down the steep face–the powder was excellent.

Soft powder in the trees.

Making the final descent.

On a side note, we had a wonderful time in Ouray at the [url]Wiesbaden Motel [/url]. Having just picked it off the website, it turned out to be a great find. The motel features a natural underground vapor cave and hot spring pool, along with quiet and comfortable rooms. It was a very tranquil and relaxing way to end the trip and I recommend staying there if ever in Ouray.

V and I in Ouray
Back down to beautiful Ouray!

HELL (frozen over) — Splitboarding on Vail Pass, Colorado

Friday, January 9th, 2009

I’ve got an unreal story to tell about yesterday’s adventure, but this dude does such a good job of spinning the yarn…

(While reading look for the photo with the dog in it.  Compare the height of the trench to the top of his ears!)

Bull Down (part two)

Friday, November 21st, 2008


Like any backcountry woodsman, my first priority was to replenish our water supply and purify it.  Dusk was approaching quickly.  While traveling back to the pond, we moved slowly and stealthily, with guns in hand.  Every now and then my leader would turn around with a finger in front of his mouth.  We’d stand perfectly still and scan for any signs of movement.  “The ghosts of the forest” could have been moving in the dark timber down the slope below us, what our eyes could not see, our ears would have to step up.  However, no sounds of crashing timber or rustling brush were heard below us.

I had noticed when we first past the pond, that it was frozen.  Since I’ve dealt with that before, I just assumed I could punch a hole in the early November ice with a rock.  It proved not to be very easy.  The ice was a few inches thick, frozen completely through from the center of the pond out to the fingers that snaked through the grass and down the hill.  Giving up the rock, I opened up my leatherman pliers and started stabbing frantically at the surface.  I busted more knuckles than ice and all but gave up when my partner innocently asked, “Do you think it will break if I shoot it with my .45?”

“Will it break?!  Shit yeah, shoot that thing!” I jumped up and got out of the way.  Before the trip, I had rejected the idea of carrying a pistol on the hunt.  I viewed it as unneccessary weight, and a less effective form of bear deterrent than mace.  But Army Guy over here just had to relive the glory days with his in a strapped holster.

He aimed and shot down at a high angle to the surface.  BLAM! SPLASH!  The water blasted up like a fountain 10 feet in the air, leaving a hole in the ice.  One shot was enough, and I was just about to take a step forward when he fired another shot, and another, at the ice repeatedly, shooting well over a half dozen shot before holstering the sidearm.  (VIDEO LINK)

“I think that will do it, I said and drew water into water bottles and hydration bladders.  We sat on a log wait for the chemical reaction to work in the water, in the cold, dark silence.

When we got back to camp, I started to get comfortable. Now that it was dark,  It was going to get cold very soon, and stay that way until well after sunrise.  I was grateful to have packed in a foam bedroll.  It was not very heavy and made the entire night much more comfortable.  I had also brought slightly more insulation than necessary, but I knew the next day would be ruined if I didn’t sleep well tonight.  We built a small fire and remembered a lesson that was given to us by J.L. back at Elk Camp the night before….

“Hey laddies,” the original orator started out after a swig from a Budweiser, “do you know the difference between an Indian fire and a white man fire?”

“No”, we all replied.

He changed his tone to mimick a wise old native of the western slope:  “Indian fire very small…sit very close.”  Then he tossed a capful of Coleman fuel on the flame, causing it to flare up to the height of him, illuminating his face in a blaze of red.  “White man fire very big…sit far away!” and folded his arms in front of him.

Deep in the wilderness, when our small Indian fire was built and crackling away, it was time to eat.  We were careful not to overdo the food packing during the trip, but nonetheless we managed to bring the “red neck gourmet”, which included, roasted Spam on a stick and hot cocoa spiked with a flask of Jack Daniels.  After dinner, I tucked into my sleeping bag with all my thermal clothing on, and pulled the hood of my down puffy over my head.  I gazed up at the stars for a bit.  It was a very clear night, and I could not think of any other place more peaceful to be in but in the deep mountain forests of the North American West.  I don’t know how long I watched the sky, but I slept soundly and warm the entire night.  (Utilizing an old method, I had boiled a bottle of water and zipped it up in an insulated sleeve.  I placed it down between my legs, and when I awoke sometime in the middle of the night with a chill, I unzipped the bottle and replenished the warmth in the sleeping bag, and fell back asleep.)  Occasionally through the night, I heard the coyotes howling away.  I hear them everytime I camp out in the woods, but have never had an encounter with one at any time.

I like my spam well done

We woke at nearly 4:00 AM, and it was still dark.  I was already dressed and ready to hunt.  My Jet-boil, already loaded with water from the previous night, was right next to my sleeping bag.  I fired it on and brewed two cups of coffee for us in minutes.  My headlamp, navigation tools, binoculars, and rifle were on the other side of me.  I stepped out of my bag and was ready to go.

We hiked through darkness back down towards an open talus field that we encountered the previous night.  We hid in the dense trees at the base of the field and leaned against a log, each of us viewing in a different direction.  Then we sat in utter silence until sunrise.  We realized then that we had made a slight error: today was the first day of daylight savings time, and the GPS had already recalibrated when we awoke this morning, thinking that sunrise was approaching, when in fact we had added an hour to our wait.

I’ve never truly experienced a dawn awakening in the mountains before.  At any time I was up before dawn for a mountaineering ascent, I was moving and staying warm.  I never realized how truly cold it gets just before dawn until sitting motionless that morning.

I first felt the shiver in my toes, and then spread to my legs.  I started wiggling them slightly, careful not to move.  “C’mon, dude,” I told myself, “just ride it out like a wave, and then it will get warm again.”  It was a strange experience, because although the horizon started to glow with a slight dim of sunlight, the temperature was getting colder with each second.

I heard my partner snoring on the other side of the log.  Damning him, I had a smoke to relax, and rode out the cold snap.

Listening to the forest wake up was another new experience.  There was total silence for a long time, and then I distinctively remember hearing the first bird chirp of the morning.  The first official awake animal of the day.  Then another, and another, and soon birds were flying from tree to tree, overhead.  Then the small mammals, squirrels, pika could be heard talking to each other and scurrying around the grass.

Dawn in Sherwood forest

My partner was awake and heard the low rumbling sound from far down the valley below.  “I hear a generator,” Construction Guy said. “Someone is running a gas generator.”

“No…listen.  Those are the frogs, down in the swamp at the base of the mountain,” I explained.  True, the massive rumbling sounded very much like a generator, but I knew we were miles away from the nearest Homo Sapien.

Unfortunately, we did not sign a single Wapiti.  Discouraged, we decided to head back to camp and strip some layers, now that the sun was up.

We had crossed this boulder field in the middle of the night.  This was the first time we saw how large it was.

Afterwords, we headed out east from camp.  “Let’s split up,”  Scott said, “do you want to go to the right or to the left?”

“I’ll go this way,” I said and pointed off to the left, down the northeast slope of the mountain.  This was the first time we had split up.  Although I had expected it, I was flush with a sudden apprehension.  “So what’s the protocol?”  I asked.  “If I see it, shoot it?”

“If you see it, shoot it.”

Because the statistical facts of Elk hunting in Colorado state that all hunters start out with a 20% rate of success the minute they buy their tag.  From that point on, we had done everything to increase our chances: hiking in far away from human pressure, tracking through the steep, dark, north-facing timber, and now splitting up to improve the odds once more.  The rest of the odds were controlled by pure luck.

I scrambled down the slope, careful not to lose too much elevation, and sat on a large rock where I had a wide view of the mountainside below me.  I then sat and watched.

I had not sat there ten minutes, when I heard the shot–BANG!

I was startled, then my mind started to race.  We had heard a few shots during the first day of hiking, from many hunters miles away in the valley.  But this one was LOUD.  I knew there was only one other person out here.  Excited, I started running aimlessly in the direction of the shot.  I did not hear a second shot, which was a good sign.

However, there was a second shot quite a while after the first.  I was confused, but headed for it, climbing higher and higher to the south, and finally over the spiny ridge that separated the faces.

“Adam!”  my partner yelled.  I looked down through a grassy clearing, but did not see anyone.

“Yo!  How are you?!”  I asked.

“Bull down, baby!  BULL DOWN!”

I grinned from ear to ear after hearing the news.  If I had any traces of jealousy for my partners success at that moment, they died almost instantly.  I was so happy–SUCCESS.

“Let’s hike up and get all our gear.  We’ve got a lot of work to do!”  He wasn’t kidding.  Now it was for real, and stopped being just another hike in the woods.  I was ready for anything.

We met back at camp and he was fired up, telling his story.   “I was hiking down that field when I saw movement to the side, and I was surprised by a cow.  She was locked on to me and I was on to her.  It was a staredown.  Another cow came behind her, and before I could draw my gun, they bolted.  Then another cow appeared, followed by the bull.  He stopped to look for the disappearing cows, and allowed me a split second shot.  BANG!  Did I hit him?  I tried to reload and the gun jammed!  Fuck!  While messing with the action, I watched him take a few steps, then drop to the ground.  Dead.”

“Wow.  Good job, man.”

We scrambled back down and I had my first look at the game.  It was a middle-aged mature bull, with a wide, sweeping 5×5 rack.

Bull Down!

“Wow…that thing is huge!”  I uttered in amazement.

“Yeah, I’ll give you half the meat if you help me pack it out of here,”  he offered.

Of course I had no choice.  We were looking at at least 200 pounds of raw meat, 6 miles back in the middle of the mountains, and the storm clouds were moving in.  Every working effort put forth by the both of us for the rest of the trip was spent on bringing this meat to the dinner table…