BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!…
5am, and my alarm clock is screaming at me. That obnoxious, welching noise that has an awesome way of subconsciously making you think “No..not yet…” Yet…today, I don’t mind at all. I’m not heading to work today. No, I have no chores that I’m taking care of…no responsiblity of any kind on my mind today. The only thing that can get me out of bed at 5am…the only thing that can get me out of bed on the first try, has got to be skiing. Today’s the day that I’m skiing Quandary Peak, one of Colorado’s 54 mountains that stand over 14,000′ tall.
The day started off at a slow pace. Although excited…come on now, its still 5am. However repetition makes perfect and this isn’t my first rodeo waking up for a day of skiing. Within a few minutes my bag is packed, skis are tied on, teeth brushed and we’re out the door.
There’s nothing that makes you feel like you’re going on an expedition more than waking up before the sun comes up to begin your adventure. Everybody is still asleep. The moon is still shining. And anybody but a few has called you crazy for the last week for even thinking of opening eye before the sun hits the horizon on a day that the bossman isn’t breathing down your back. Yet, here you are driving down the highway sipping your coffee and munching on a donut that you bought a couple miles back at the gas station. Happy as could be. Excited.
Well, that early morning departure does a great job at giving you a false sense of security every time, and after a bathroom stop here, a McDonald’s stop there, and a couple times pulling off the side of the road for a picture or two, your 7am arrival at the trailhead has now become 8. But who cares. Like we said, we’re not trying to feel responsible today.
By 8:30 we’ve got everything secured where we want it. The skis and ski boots, and any other accessories I’ve decided to bring have been checked and strapped to my pack, and its time to start the almost 4 mile trek up the mountain to the summit. The plan is to hike the east ridge trail, which starts off a few hundred feet below treeline, and works its way up the mountain. It seems like the least exhausting route with all this weight on my back, plus, it should give me a good view of some of the more northern facing bowls which I hope to still be holding some snow, being hidden a small bit by the direct sunlight.
By the time we get 45 minutes to an hour into our climb we’re sitting down to grab a drink and rethink the clothing situation. By this point we were above (and I say “we”, meaning the dog and I) treeline and the wind was picking up. Up to this point a simple pair of pants and sunglasses would have been enough but we took advantage of using a few last trees for cover and tossed on the snowpants and winter hat and up we went.
About another 30 minutes up the trail you start to come to the base of the false peak (which, did in fact fool me). I can’t tell you the thoughts going through my head about how in shape I must be… “I can’t believe how fast I had just climbed this!” (A quick look at a map could have also told me) I was thinking that I’ve climbed this mountain so quickly that I’m gonna get to ski 3 more mountains on the ride home! But, if it seems too good to be true it usually is too good to be true and as I climbed I quickly started finding out that there was much, much more to this mountain.
As the trip up the mountain went on the nice soft alpine grasses slowly begin to thin out and work their way into the loose gravel and scree beds covering the top of the mountain. …a trail mix stop here, a picture break there, and plenty of catch-my-breath breaks shoved somewhere in between there are a pretty accurate way to sum up the remainder of the accent from here. The last hour of the trip is completely above any tree or vegetation levels, which makes it really uncomfortable and difficult to climb. This day had it’s fair share of gusts at certain points of the mountain and it takes a lot out of you trying to balance your body up these rocks while your skis try and sail you back south to the bottom. As you can see in the picture above, we weren’t the only ones peak bagging this morning and for a solid 10 minutes we were visited side by side with Mr. Billygoat up there.
But sure enough, 3.5 hours later you realize why you’ve put yourself through the exhaustion and discomfort for the last 4 miles. The views on top are amazing. You’re the tallest mountain around. You can see Pike’s Peak from here…the Mosquito Range, Holy Cross…and if you squint you can even see the semi-snow-covered trails on the south sides of A-Basin and Keystone.
You feel your moment of pride, snap some pictures, sit down, and before you know if you’ve been sitting down for 30 minutes on a rock, are half full of dried bananas and cashews, and your fingers are going numb. This is usually the point where I decide its a good idea to get moving, and switch over to my ski boots before I become a permanent part of the mountain.
After a few minutes of switching over footwear and breathing on my fingers to defrost them, it’s finally time to pick up my poles and work my way to the edge. This time of year is tricky to pick your lines. You’re not worrying about avalanches and cliffs so much, as you are simply running out of snow! You can be skiing a great line and all of a sudden 20 feet ahead of you you’re on the rocks. So, I reach back in my memory of what the mountain looked like when I was climbing up, and decide from there. Skier’s left seemed like the way to go this time, and off we went!!
The snow on top was hard and crusty. I’d try and stop and all I would get was the chitter chatter of my skis slapping on the uneven ice below me. I worked my way through the first 100 or 200 feet of elevation, in and out of rock fields, and then, it was like the seas had parted and we were off! Nice, soft, loose snow that had been baking in the sun all morning. The winds and shade hadn’t affected this section and it was like a video game. Twisting and turning around the obstacles, hearing the wind blow through your ears as I gained speed down the mountain…and, of course…the barking of a 2 year old yellow lab chasing me down the mountain, letting me know not to forget him behind me.
Looking up at our first snowfield you can see where we started at skier’s left and worked our way side to side before spilling out in an open bowl.
Section by section, we took our time enjoying the scenery and skiing to the next stop point. A second lunch, some pats on the head for Ranger, and almost too soon the climb that we had spent all morning doing was coming to an end.
We made our way down to the bottom of the last bowl just as the evening storm was blowing in. And just like that, our time skiing on Quandary Peak was a memory. I skipped myself across a couple grass fields towards the bottom, hopping from snow pile to snow pile to try and lessen my walk back through treeline as much as I could, until eventually all that lie between me, the dog, and the car was a beaten dirt path through the woods.
Its at this point that you feel fully satisfied about your decision to ski. You no longer think about the tiring and exhausting hike to the summit. You’re not worrying about the two hour drive back home, or that you took this morning. You want a beer and a pizza, and that sounds delicious. You’re proud that you’ve accomplished something that most people only think about doing, or that others think you’re crazy for doing. With my hiking boots back on, and my skis strapped once again to my pack, I throw a stick down the trail and follow the yellow lab through the woods and back to the car. One more 14er down, many more to go.