Posts Tagged ‘climbing’

“Live for the Moment”

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

Kendall Mountain, 13,066′
San Juan Mountains, Colorado

The ancient mining town of Silverton lies just about as deep as you can get in the Rockies.  There are only two entrances into town, and both are over treacherous mountain passes.  Many times, one or both of these passes will be closed to traffic, and anyone in town must find something to do.  It is not hard to stay occupied if you are a mountaineer.  The town is surrounded by jagged peaks.  One such peak, Kendall Mountain, rises 4,000 vertical feet from town.  In fact, you can grab a cup of coffee at the Avalanche Cafe and it will still be too hot to drink when you travel the 4 blocks to the trailhead.

Our party consisted of the splitboarders and a skier.  We awoke leisurely in the Triangle Motel Sunday morning, debating what challenge to take on for the day.  We were torn between heading up one of the mountain passes, or go straight up Kendall Mountain and ride the North face.  Conditions were unknown. It had been warm, and spring conditions dominated the day before on Silverton Mountain.  I myself was not ecstatic about a 4,000 vert grovel, but time was wasting and we had to make a decision.

We drove a few blocks south of Main Street and parked in what appeared to be an old train yard.  From there, we donned touring gear and headed straight at the mountain, only to be met with our first obstacle:  a wide flowing river.  Jaime dove in first, and carefully traversed the stream with skis on.  I followed, and tried to stay shallow as best I could.  However, halfway through my foot plunged past the cuff, and I felt the cold water rush down into my boot.  I gave up on trying to tread lightly, and sprinted through the river.  When I got to the other side, my left foot was dry, but my right was wet.  Jaime reported the same conditions.  I worried for a second about continuing up for a long day in possible hypothermic conditions, then shook it off and continued onward.

For the first many, many miles the route followed a 4×4 fire road up around the west flanks of the mountain.  Brian and Mike took off ahead, while I was huffing it in the middle, and Jaime disappeared far behind.  When Jaime caught up with me after a few miles, he was upset and thought that the other two had missed the turn off into the north face.  On cue, an elderly women came running down the trail, directly for us.

“Are we going the right way?” we asked.
“Yes, keep going, just keep going.  You will see an old boxcar, and stay left.  You will see a big gully that snowmobilers take people up to ski.  Its about an hour to the summit.”
“What is that on your hat?” Jaime asked.  Her hat read “Silverton Mountain Club”  (or school, I’m not sure)
“Its a group of people that believe in what you’re doing.”  She responded.
“Does it have to do with Dolores?” the Burly Dude asked.
“Well she was a member.  Have fun!”  she waved goodbye and continued her hustle down the road.

We continued on, and I thought the road was never going to end.  It truly was a grovel.  Finally the road ended and we were faced with a steep treeless slope.

Brian took off ahead and stopped a few hundred feet up the slope, removed his skis, and kicked into the snow.  Mike followed him, while Jaime and I continued on the splitboards for a while.  When it started getting too firm and steep, we finally took off the skis and bootpacked up the slope. 

It was at this point that I realized this mountain was much larger than I had thought.  As I moved up the southwest face of the mountain I could not see up past the snowy ridge ahead. Soon Jaime disappeared, and I could barely make out Mike far off to my right.  I wasn’t sure where Brian and Mike were headed, but I was pretty confident that the summit was up and to the left.  As I climbed, all I could see was the ridgeline, and the horizon beyond.  It did not seem to get any closer as I followed the footsteps in front of me.

Finally, I reached the ridge and was treated with a despairing sight of a massive alpine bowl.  Brian was far out on the right side of the bowl, and Jaime was making his way up the left.  I followed him on skins, slowly up the moderate slope.  I thought I could make out the summit far up and to the left.

I watched Brian reach a saddle at the far East end of the bowl.  My radio crackled to life.

“How you doin, buddy?” he asked
“I’m hurting, bro.”
“Yeah, lets get the group together and we’ll get a plan.  I think we can ski down from my location.”

Skiing down from there sounded like a great idea, but for as much pain as I was in, I felt that I did not travel all these miles for hours on end without a summit push.

When we all met up, Brian and Mike decided to ski down the East bowl, while Jaime and I pushed for the summit.  Suddenly I felt much more alive and rejuvenated.  With the hours of exhausting skinning and climbing, adrenaline pushed be straight up the final 800 feet to the top.

For the first few steps we were able to scramble the ridge, but then we were blocked by another snow gully on the south face.   Jaime started to traverse, as I watched him kick steps with much resistance.

“This snow is firm!”  he yelled.
“I think I’m going to try to go up this ridge,” I said as I took off up the rocky right side of the couloir.  We separated for a few minutes, and I reached the top, to another saddle.  In front of me was a rounded slope of snow, and beyond it I knew was the summit. 
“Stairway to Heaven, dude!” I confidently yelled at Jaime, who was done traversing the couloir and making his was up the right side.

I made it a few feet up the south face with ease, but then things started getting bad.  Each step I took was harder to kick, and the slope got steeper.  The sun had baked the south face all day, and now in the afternoon, it was a sheet of solid, bulletproof ice.  (For whatever dumb reason, I didn’t have my ice axe or crampons.)  I looked up:  I was less than ten feet from Jaime, who was already on top of the knob.  If I could only make that ten feet, I thought.  I took another step, and kicked as hard as I could at the ice.  Nothing.  I started sketching out.  I looked down the 50 degree slope below me and felt vertigo.  If I fell and slid right, I’d probably fall over the cornice into the East Bowl that our partners had skiied.  If I fell and slid left, I would slide about 800 feet down the gully and to the bottom of the West Bowl that we climbed.   Neither was a very comforting option.

“What’s going on?!”  Jaime asked from above.
“Its solid ice!  I’m getting sketched.”  I said.
“Don’t do this to me, man!  If you fall, I have to come down and get you!  Climb down and traverse over to my track!”
Once again, the Burly Dude had the right idea.  I slowly downclimbed by placing each foot carefully in the steps that I had kicked earlier.  It was a sickening feeling having to bend my head down and look at my feet without getting scared of the 800 foot drop below. 

Finally, I reached the rocky saddle that I was laughing at on the way up.  I hugged the rocks and tried to calm my nerves.  I wouldn’t feel totally safe without my snowboard on my feet, so I switched over and strapped in.  Staying on my toeside, I traversed directly across the couloir (about 20 yards) to Jaime’s tracks.  From there I was able to climb easily, although the steepness still freaked me out.  Only when the slope subsided did I regain my composure. 

At the top of the knob, my partner was already gone, I followed his steps up the small ridge for another 50 yards, and finally found him on the summit.

“Thanks for helping me, again.” I said
“I told you not to go that way,  ‘Stairway to Heaven’ you said” he mocked me.  “You have to watch out for those melted out rocks on a south face…they mean ICE!”
Lesson learned, and I was already in picture taking mode on the summit.
“Put the camera away!  Live for the moment!”  The Burly Dude preached.

I followed him over to the entrance to the massive cut couloir on the North Face of the mountain.  We both got stoked immediately.  We were looking at a continuous line of untracked snow for almost a mile long. 

“I’ll make a few turns and then stop at those rocks and then you follow” Jaime said.  He took off with a yell and carved into the powder snow.  I followed and felt as light as a feather on the blower powder, contrary to the weight I felt during the past 5 hours of climbing.

From the first safety zone, we didn’t stop.  The line was much to incredible.  While the open face ended and the terrain narrowed down to a gully, we continued surfing the massive line.  In an almost ideal way, the conditions went from fluffy powder to spring corn, without a single icy or windblown patch in the whole line. 

I think I finally got the idea of “living for the moment.”  After the physical exhaustion and mental challenges that I had to overcome during the climb, I was now savoring every turn on the snowboard, during a 4,000 foot “AK-style” line directly down to town.

We could have rode forever, but our trip was cut by the same river that we encountered in the morning.  I was no longer worried about getting wet.  I was still high from the ride, that I ran right across the water, soaking my feet completely in the flowing stream.  I met my partner on the other side and gave him a high five. 

I turned and looked up at the gully as the truck approached with our compadres.  They had driven to the other side of town, and watched us decend down the entire face.

“How was it?”  Mike asked.
“Epic,” I replied.
“The Gnar,” according to the Burly Dude.

Dragon’s Tail Couloir

Saturday, February 16th, 2008

February 16, 2008 

Thousands of people from all over the world come to visit Rocky Mountain National Park each year. Ninety-nine percent of those people have no idea the quantity, quality, and caliber of extreme skiing & snowboarding that God has given us there. It is not just my favorite place to ski and climb, but also just to hike and enjoy the scenery. The thing that sets this backcountry destination apart from the millions of acres of national forest and wilderness areas is that every one of those visiting tourists pays a fee that goes into a system of improvements that creates some of the most easily accessible snowriding lines in the state.  Since we live 150 miles apart during the week, my girlfriend and I wanted to get away somewhere special for the weekend after Valentine’s Day. I quickly thought of the Park, since I hadn’t been there in almost a year, and I’ve never been there in mid-winter.

Excited about ripping some new terrain, I started researching some mellow lines off of Flat Top Mountain. However, past TR’s about the Dragon’s Tail Couloir caught my attention. As I did more and more research, I discovered that while the Couloir was mostly traveled in the spring snowpack, it WAS possible to ski the line in Winter, under the right conditions. A quick call to the Burly Dude confirmed my suspicions. Apprehensive about the current snowpack, my mind was made up when I was directed toward Eli Helmuth’s website,, an EXCELLENT resource for up to date information about the Park. 

Off to a late start, we arrived at the Bear Lake parking lot around 11 AM. However, the skies were clear and I knew we had a short approach, so I was not worried.  Bear Lake sits at an elevation of 9475 feet and is the final stop on the Beaar Lake Road, which makes it one of the most heavily visited areas in the Park. It was no suprise to me that we saw dozens of people of all types unloading snowshoes out of their minivans and SUVs. All eyes were on us as we pulled up in the Subaru and started unloading snowboards, ice axes, and a climbing rope. “Only in the Park”, was an expression I frequently told my partner.

Gearing up in the crowded parking lot.
From the trailhead, there is a well marked trail that heads from Bear Lake to Dream Lake, and then finally Emerald Lake. In the winter this snowshoe trail has many offshoots that people have taken to other places, but with a little navigation we were able to make it to Emerald Lake by 1:30. The view of the upper cirque from the lake was incredible. Far up the valley we could see Hallet Peak (a classic trad climbing destination) and Tydall Glacier (a classic spring ski).

Snowshoeing towards Emerald Lake. Hallet Peak rises on the left; Tyndall Glacier farther up left-center. The Dragon’s Tail is the middle of the three jagged spires in the center, with the obvious couloir up the right side.

From Emerald Lake, we branched off North of the main valley and set forth up the apron towards the Couloir. On the way, I talked to some skiers that had come down the upper gorge, and learned that the snowpack was bomber, although the ski conditions were variable. No one had ventured up the Dragon’s Tail today.
Looking at the couloir from Emerald Lake
We made it up the steep apron on snowshoes and stopped under a large boulder. I decided to rope up for a variety of reasons, and we entered the couloir at 2:00. I had mandated a 4:00 turnaround time, so ensure that we would be back to the car by sunset, and I had good plans to top out by that time.
Beginning the steep section

The Dragon’s Tail was much steeper than I had originally thought. I knew that it had been warm the day before, and wasn’t surprised to find a thin “melt-freeze” layer on top of the snow. This made for excellent climbing, but I was less enthusiastic about the snowboarding conditions. No worries, it would still be we worth the effort to ride the classic line. As my partner and I switched leads all the way up, I marveled at the majestic scenery around us. I kept my eye on the top of the couloir: the blue skies had started to haze over with clouds.

Inside the couloir, looking up at the clouds moving in.

By 4:00 we had just made it to the part of the couloir that splits into two opposing diagonal lines. We were completely exhausted (I had really underestimated this thing!) The sun was gone and it was snowing, so we made an easy decision to ride down from that point. The descent was steep and fun! While there were crusty spots, I was excited to find patches of powder dispersed throughout the couloir.

V, starting her descent

We rode down a good 1000 vertical without incident, and then made the flat trek across the frozen lake as the snow fell harder and harder. Not wanted to get lost in a whiteout, I hastened up the pace, only to slip on the ice (should have bought those Malamutes!) and land directly on my left shoulder. Crying out in surprise, I was lucky not to have broken anything, and I slowly crawled back up to the laughter of my partner.

The author

It was almost 5:00 by the time we headed out, which was good because the previously crowded snowshoe trail was now empty. Once more, a nice fresh layer of snow had fallen on it, which made it an excellent little luge ride on the snowboards and back to Bear Lake. From the car, I looked up towards the Dragon’s Tail and could barely make it out in the storm high up above tree line.

“Damn,” I said, “I sure am glad we’re not still up there!”


On Sunday, we took a much less burly hike up Flat Top Mountain Trail and rode some incredible terrain right in front of Bear Lake. The powder here was excellent, and the cliff-hucking opportunities were endless.

The “Terrain Park” in front of Bear Lake, and the Dragon’s Tail rising far out above.