I’ve spent the greater part of my life attached to some kind of plank on my feet. Powder, rocks, steeps, traverse…the almighty slackcountry…I’ve ski’d a lot, but I’ve yet to ski a 14er. …Until this past Friday.
A month ago we set the date, over a drunken conversation leaning halfway over a Golden, Colorado bar. Underprepared for this trip, we wouldn’t be bringing any fancy crampons with us. No climbing axes. No real plans at all….infact, the plan was to BE as uncomfortable as possible! Start this thing off the hard way and we’ll start making each trip easier on ourselves from there on after.
So, as we promised that night at the bar, we held true to our words and met a few weeks later at 6am ready for whatever the day would throw at us. Mt Evans, was the plan. 14,264 feet above sea level, and a 45 minute drive from our hometown of Golden. I’d searched the routes and how to get to the required trailhead. Kept up on the avalanche reports, watched the weather. Estimated travel time once on the mountain, and what conditions we could be expecting once we dropped pole on the snow… Little did we realize we wouldn’t be skiing Evans.
Incase anybody else gets the idea during the winter to use the Summit Lake Trailhead. Guess what. NOT HAPPENIN! Its closed. Yup. A whole month’s worth of excitement and anxiousness brought to halt with a huge metal gate crossing the road. Now, you’re probably thinking “duh”. I guess, and I suppose you’re right. But, this is Colorado! I fully expected a “Pass At Your Own Risk” sign in it’s place.
Believe it or not, we still tried. If you can picture two dummies running around outside in the cold and the wind, trying to determine a 4 wheeling path AROUND the gate, that was us. And as much as it reminded me of my teenage years, I couldn’t help but keep thinking of the trouble we COULD get in if anybody had seen us off roading around the gate just so we could continue our journey. Eventually, unlike the teenage years, the common sense portion of my brain won the battle, and we decided that it wasn’t going to be for us today.
However not far away from us was another hike I’d been reading about. Gray’s and Torrey’s Peaks. Both 14ers, and connected by a single saddle. Lets do it! 2 peaks, one trip, and I KNOW we can access them this time of year. So we turned the truck around and had at it.
Turned out the old truck didn’t do too bad! Within minutes of starting our hike we were at the obvious trailhead and starting our way to the mountain.
The hike ended up being brutal. I’ve had my fair share of poor weather both on the slopes, and in the backcountry, and this by far was a lift-closing type of day. The weather channel was reporting gusts of over 80 mph! The pictures may look calm and peaceful. But I can assure you that if I could attach a soundtrack to this it would be loaded with howling winds and 2 screaming backcountry folk trying to hear one another speak.
The hike to the top of the bowl we were looking for took us 6 hours. We were cold, and exhausted, and halfway defeated. The original idea was to climb Gray’s, then Torrey’s, and ski down Torrey’s. We never even made the summit of Grays. Two different times the wind was so strong and abrupt that I had gotten knocked clean off my feet. 6 hours of walking forward 10 feet, being blown back 2, and holding a head-down, aggressive stance for another 15 seconds as the wind tries it’s hardest to blow us off the mountain. Let the gust die down, and repeat again. I had brought plenty of food for the day, and I was still exhausted and weak. At the rate we were going, with maybe 600 feet of vertical left to the summit, we finally had to make the decision to turn around. It was 3:00 by now. With the rate we were able to climb, we were still another hour away from the summit. And, with the way the climb up was, if we have to hike a fair distance back to the truck, this is starting to look like an all nighter.
A couple hundred feet below us we had left our skis. There was no skiing to be done where we were headed if we summited, seeing how it was all blown off, so we left the weight behind. We made it back to our skis, crossed our final rock patch, and started to strap in.
The biggest fear I always have when backcountry skiing is watching my ski go plummeting to the bottom of the mountain…WITHOUT me attached to it. When we finally started strapping in this was all I could picture. My fingers are frozen, and I’m going to drop this ski. The wind was howling and every move I made was slippery and uncoordinated. Yet, finally, one after the other, I was able to make my little ski shelf, strap a boot into it’s binding, and the best feeling of it all….clip that leash onto my boot.
The moment we had both waited for came at us just like that. My partner took a look over at me and let me know, “I’m nervous”…haha. I made sure to laugh back reassuringly and let him know, “I’m excited…” And just like that we were gone! Parker first, me second. There’s a whole new ballgame that you’re a part of when you’re backcountry skiing. Nobody designed this terrain. No machine came over last night and made it nice and smooth for you. There’s no even base to assure you make steady, even turns. If there IS powder, there’s no telling what could be hiding underneath it. Everything is natural. The way it’s been for thousands of years.
The first couple turns were shaky, feeling out the snowpack under my feet. But by turn 3 that was it. I had it. The flow of the mountain, the weightlessness…leaning into every turn and feeling the whip of your skis as you change your footing underneath you. This is why we do it. This is the only thing that can get me 6 hours away from my car in the miserable weather below a 14,000 foot peak. The rush of cruising down a mountain and hearing the snow cut to the sides as you slice through it. The wind blowing past your ears as you pick up your speed. Huge rock walls all around you and open high country meadows 3,000 feet blow you…We were backcountry skiing.
One by one we took our turns down the mountain. Stopping in safety spots as the other passed and waiting for our turns to tear up the ground he just got to devirginize. Its funny how you can tell yourself to go home for half a day, yet after 5 minutes of an experience like this, you can forget about ALL of that, and your day just became worth it.
With the wind behind us and fresh tracks left behind, it seemed as if the whole day had changed. No longer did we feel the wind blowing around us. I didn’t hear any howling gusts, and my body seemed to warm back up to where it was when I rolled out of bed that morning. The clouds all seemed to part and the only thing that you could feel anymore was accomplishment and peacefulness. We took the frozen drainage back to the truck. A half hour of smooth sailing, slowly feeling the snow loosen to that spring corn texture as we continued to drop in elevation. A couple times I hit the shallow spots in the snow over the stream and poked through, looking down at the water running around my now semi-submerged ski boot…but at this point it only added to the fun of the day.