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Berthoud Pass (12/7/10)

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On Tuesday, Jon, Sarah, and I met up at Berthoud Pass, where over a foot of fresh powder greeted us.  Jon had already skied a couple of dawn patrol laps at Jones Pass earlier in the morning before Sarah and I arrived at the pass at about 10:45 a.m.  While waiting for Jon to finish his “in-between ski tours” breakfast in Empire, Sarah and I skied a quick lap on the west side of the pass, aka the “gaper run”.  But to be fair, Jon was about 20-30 minutes behind us, and there wasn’t a single track on this run, so I figured we might as well make a quick lap.  It was short, but the turns we made were excellent and provided us with a few face shots.

First tracks on the west side of the pass
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We timed it almost perfectly as Jon arrived at the top of the pass just as we were making our quick run down the west side.  We all piled into my car and headed north of the pass to the Current Creek Trailhead.  From here, we skinned up to the 110’s area and made a couple of laps.  It was a relaxing and mellow day, as we enjoyed the scenery and solitude almost as much as the snow itself.  The skin up was very nice, while the turns on the way down happened to be pretty awesome as well.

On the way up
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Jon making some nice looking powder turns
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Sarah getting in on the action
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Looking back at some of our tracks
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Once we met back up with the skin track, we decided to head back up to the ridgeline for a second lap.  We headed skier’s left, rather than skier’s right, of the skin track on the descent this time and found some more goods.  At one point on the second lap, Jon took a nasty spill after hitting a hidden rock, but fortunately came out unscathed.  Otherwise the descent was great, and even skiing along the skin track back to the parking lot was fast, tight, and fun.  All in all, the snow conditions were fantastic.

At the top of the ridge, ready for round two
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Jon takes off
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The clouds slowly began to lift as the afternoon progressed
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Sarah making some turns
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Jon…
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Sarah…
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Jon…
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Sarah…
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Late afternoon sun on the way out
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While we were already skiing in a pretty safe area, as far as avalanches go, to begin with, we didn’t notice any obvious signs of instabilities in the snowpack.  However, there are dangers lurking out there.  Tragically, a local man lost his life in a hard slab avalanche near Dry Gulch on Sunday.  Also, a skier set off a large slide in the Second Creek area of Berthoud Pass just yesterday, and posted a dramatic video to accompany it.  More on both of these incidents later.  But for now, be careful out there… even if you don’t find any obvious signs of weaknesses in the snowpack, that doesn’t make avy-prone slopes safe to ski, as evidenced by recent hard slabs which, while less frequent, are often deadly.

But avalanche concerns aside, the early season snow conditions continue to be amazing, and another good storm is expected to hit northern Colorado tomorrow night!

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Colorado Snow Conditions Update – Dec 2

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In terms of early season skiing, the month of November was about as good as we could ask for in the Rockies.  Long range predictions had indicated a strong La Nina developing and bringing plenty of snow to Colorado by December, but it seemed to start earlier than predicted, leading to near record November snowfalls for some ski areas.  I had three fantastic backcountry days in November – better, in fact, than any backcountry days I had all of last season in terms of snow quality.  The resorts haven’t been doing too badly either, with many turning in epic opening days thanks to plenty of snow falling in the prior weeks.  I’ve been out nine times so far this year, easily a personal record (before this year, the most I’d ever skied before December was only two times I think).  Here is a little recap of the skiing conditions I have observed over the last couple of weeks, mainly around the Front Range.  Please feel free to send me your own recent observations!

Resort Skiing

Loveland (11/25)

On Thanksgiving morning, my friend Ryan, his girlfriend Brandi, and I skied at Loveland before the holiday festivities began.  It was a cold start to the morning, with a temperature of -2 when we got there around 9:30 (the official low was around -10 I believe).  Skies were completely clear, though, so in spite of the chilly lift rides, it was a beautiful morning.  Temperatures “warmed” into the single digits while we were there.

The amount of terrain open was impressive for so early in the year.  We made our way over to Chair 8, finding variable snow.  Strong winds a day or two before had created some hard wind-packed areas where turning was quite difficult (but still fun once we figured out we were better off straight-shooting these sections).  However, by the time we got to Chair 8, we found nice, soft snow in the trees that was a lot of fun to ski.  All in all, it was a fantastic Thanksgiving morning, with the advantage of burning extra calories to allow for more food consumption later in the day.

Winter Park (12/2)

This morning, I went up to Winter Park for a few hours and skied Mary Jane until my legs were about to fall off (which only took about 3 hours… hey come on, it’s early season, my skiing legs aren’t in that good of shape yet!).  The Jane was fantastic, though.  I was actually quite surprised.  There were very few people on the mountain today, while plenty of leftover untracked powder stashes could be found in the trees.  The weather was nice, and actually quite warm, but the snow still remained fresh when I took off around 1 p.m.  I had forgotten how much fun Mary Jane is to ski when the snow is good.  Right now, I’d say about 75% of the terrain on Mary Jane is open right now, which is quite impressive for this early in the year.  I scraped a few times on the bump runs far skiers right of the Challenger lift, but in the trees I was skiing, I don’t think I scraped at all as the coverage was quite good.

Backcountry Skiing

Berthoud Pass (11/17)

It’s been a couple of weeks since I have skied Berthoud Pass, so this report will be somewhat outdated, but should still give a good idea of how strong the early season coverage is (which of course means, it should be even better by now).  My friends Nick, Jamie and I headed up to Berthoud in the morning for three laps before heading back to Denver in time for work, school, etc.  We made a lap off of West Russell and skied a gully near the 90’s, before jumping across the road and skiing two laps in the Floral Park area, the second of which was amazing.  There were some wind-loaded areas up on the pass, the result of a strong storm from the day before, but we avoided these areas and found stable snow on our lines, mostly below treeline.

It was a true pass-skiing type of morning… skinning up above the pass, skiing down to the road below the pass, and hitchhiking back to the top of the pass.

The skin up the west side of the pass

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James enjoys some powder

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Fun little gully we skied

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The smile on Nick’s face says it all

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The “ski lifts” at Berthoud Pass = riding in the back of pickup trucks to the top of the pass

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It was very pristine at Floral Park on this morning… and the skiing was pretty good too

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Rogers Pass/Indian Peaks Wilderness (11/22)

About a week and a half ago, my friend Michael, an old friend of mine from Jackson Hole, spent a couple of days in Denver while on his way to Oklahoma for Thanksgiving.  We were able to get out for a nice ski tour in the Indian Peaks while he was here.  We ran out of daylight and didn’t quite make it to any true downhill skiing areas, but we did have a great afternoon with about two and a half hours of good exercising skinning a few miles into the Indian Peaks Wilderness.

We started at the Moffat Tunnel and skinned the Heart Lake Trail, finding a pretty good snowpack.  Being the eastern side of the Front Range, variable snow is obviously going to exist with the windy conditions that area receives, but the snowpack is pretty deep as you get closer to the divide.  I suspect good turns can be found on north-facing (and perhaps east-facing) slopes right now, if you don’t mind a longer approach.  The ski back down our skin track was fast and, at times, pretty tight, but all in all it was an excellent tour in a beautiful area.  We had cold and windy conditions for most of the tour, but the snow that had been falling was pretty much winding down by the time we got there.

Avy beacon check

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Bridge crossing

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Creek crossings on skis are always exciting

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Caught a pretty cool sunset on the way back

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Current Conditions

As I took Highway 40 to Winter Park this morning, I couldn’t help but wish I had taken a backcountry set-up with me to ski a run at Berthoud Pass, because it was looking very good.  The 110’s area had a couple of good looking tracks in it, and coverage appeared to be better than the last time I was up there.

Avalanche conditions have been reasonably stable lately, at least by Colorado standards.  Many steeper slopes have been relatively safe the last couple of weeks, when evaluated properly.  Pockets of wind slabs are forming, though, and weak layers are continuing to form, so definitely keep your guard up, especially as more snow starts to fall.  In fact, the CAIC has already indicated pockets of “Considerable” danger above treeline in the Front Range zones, indicating wind slabs.  If you’re a backcountry skier, make sure you follow the CAIC’s excellent website religiously and don’t get a false sense of security just because there hasn’t been much avalanche activity recently.

More snow is headed for Colorado this weekend and early next week, but there is still a bit of uncertainty regarding how much snow will fall.  Still, the weather pattern continues to look pretty favorable for us overall.  For more weather information, check out Colorado Powder Forecast.

Early Season Skiing 2010/2011

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Jones Pass

 

It’s been in an unbelievable start to the ski season in northern Colorado this year.  After a couple of months of very dry weather, winter came in with a bang in late October, starting out with a few back-to-back moderate snowfalls for the mountains and ending with a huge storm dropping a few feet of snow.  After a little break, the snow train has picked back up, with consistent snow having fallen pretty much every day for the past week in the northern mountains.  It’s a classic La Nina set-up which has been dropping moderate amounts of snowfall every day on a consistent basis, and I would love to see this pattern continue through the winter (07-08 anyone??).

It looks like the rest of the week will be dry and sunny, but I plan to make a few bluebird powder laps up on Berthoud Pass tomorrow morning.  Easily the best website for weather and ski conditions in Colorado is Joel Gratz’s site, Colorado Powder Forecast.  A local meteorologist out of Boulder, Joel forecasts specifically for outdoor related activities (mainly skiing) in Colorado, and does a much better job forecasting the many micro climates in our mountains than weather.com or other automated sites do.  We Colorado skiers are indeed lucky to have such a reliable site to help us find the freshies.

I’ve been out five days so far this season, easily the most I’ve ever had for so early in the year.  Granted I didn’t really start getting into the backcountry a lot until late last season, but still, it speaks to how good the conditions have been so far.  Also, the earliest powder day I had ever had prior to this season (keep in mind, this is just my fourth winter living out west) was on December 3 at Loveland two seasons ago.  As of November 11 of this year, I have already skied on three powder days.  Yes, this is shaping up to be an amazing start to the season, and the start of calendar winter is still over a month away!  Lets just hope the snow keeps on falling.

My first day out was on October 26 at Butler Gulch with my friend Angela, right after the huge early season snowstorm I spoke of earlier.  The snow was insanely deep for October, which was great, except the only available ski set-up I had for that day was my spring mountaineering setup – Black Diamond Havocs with Fritschi Freeride Bindings and alpine boots.  Not exactly the best for higher-than-waist-deep snow (not even joking) that was a bit on the heavy side by Colorado standards.  Angela also had a skinnier set of skis, so we both were getting stuck in the fairly low angle terrain a lot.  Regardless it was a fun day and I was able to get a few good shots on the initial steeper section.

 

Ready for the season’s first turns

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Angela making some powder turns

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Day number two was about a week later, and with proper gear was a much better day.  Three of my co-workers, Jon, Nick, and Rico, and I went on a dawn patrol before work at Jones Pass.  We hit some north-facing soft-snow and had some awesome turns.  Much better than day #1 as it turned out.  I took out a pair of 184 cm Movement Sluffs with Marker Baron Bindings and Black Diamond Factor boots.

I really enjoyed the Sluffs.  Even though they’re a little longer and stiffer than what I’m used to, I didn’t even notice the difference.  I found the Sluffs to be very responsive, when I needed to whip some quick turns through tight spaces I could easily, but they also floated through the powder very well, even though they aren’t true powder skis (99 mm waist) by today’s standards.

Being in the market for a set of AT boots after touring all last season (including a few 14ers) on alpine boots, I was very pleased with the way the Factors performed.  The flex on the walk mode was nice and comfortable and made skinning much less painful than in stiff alpine boots.  They also skied very well on the downhill.  Overall I felt like it was a very good balance of tourability and downhill performance.  However, they aren’t too good to be true and their downside will probably cause me not to get these boots.  Unfortunately, BD boots sometimes tend to break, and I found this to be true when I tried on a defective pair just prior to this trip.  The flip switch from ski to walk mode did not work, and apparently this has been a quite common problem with BD boots.  The last thing I want is to be in the backcountry and have one of my boots not switch into ski mode when I’m ready for the descent.

I didn’t get any action shots on this dawn patrol, but I did take a picture of the Continental Divide just after sunrise.

Jones Pass scenery

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Last Thursday, Greg Floyd, Sean Mattingly, and I headed back to Jones Pass after some fresh snowfall, and had what is seriously one of the best days I’ve ever experienced skiing the backcountry.  It was a day that I will not soon forget, with wonderful early season conditions and a great group of guys to ski with.  I took out the Movement Sluffs again, but this time with Dynafit Titan boots.  The Titans were solid as expected, but to nitpick I found them to be a little too stiff (never thought I would say that to be honest).  I also didn’t think they toured as well as the BD Factors, and they didn’t keep my feet warm at all (as evidenced by the purple toes I had when we got back to the car on a day that wasn’t that cold).  Then again, that could have been more the result of not having an exact fit with the demo boots and not having a custom liner.

Regardless, we had an amazing day.  It was a long tour, with some tough uphill stretches, but we skied three laps and every single turn was phenomenal, especially for November standards.  As it turns out, Greg, who is one of the owners of Bent Gate Mountaineering, is also an incredible photographer.  Here are some of our shots from this beautiful day.

On the way up


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This was easily the best “skiing photo shoot” I have ever been a part of.  Greg’s shots are amazing, and I wish the ones I took of him were as good as the ones he took of Sean and I.  Nevertheless we had a blast the entire time.  What a day!

Skier: Greg Floyd  (Photos: Alan Smith)

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Skier: Sean Mattingly  (Photos: Greg Floyd)

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Skier: Alan Smith  (Photos: Greg Floyd)

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Some of our tracks

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And it was all powder smiles…

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On Sunday, I made a trip up to the Indian Peaks Wilderness with Emily and Lida for some snowshoeing and exploring.  And yes, there was plenty of snow on this day too!  It was snowing steadily, the temps were cold, and the wind was howling, but we had a great time.  We followed a “trail” towards Woodland Lake from the Hessie Trailhead right outside of Eldora, but much of the hike involved a lot of trail-breaking through deep snow, as well as lots of snow plunging and snow diving (sometimes intentional… other times not so much).  Emily tried to take me out at one point even though I was trying to pull her out of a deep pit in the snow, but fortunately my cat-like reflexes allowed me to escape her wrath.

Pictures from the Indian Peaks Wilderness
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Written by Alan

November 17, 2010 at 12:05 am

Garnet Canyon (WY) Skiing – June 2008

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Back in the spring of 2008, I was living in Jackson Hole and still reliving in my head the record winter that saw 600 inches of snow fall in the Tetons before the lifts closed on April 6.  After spending a few weeks back in South Carolina, I returned to Jackson later that spring and, admittedly, still wanted to ski.  Although I had never skied the backcountry before, I took the first important step and purchased an avalanche beacon and shovel.

Then, Michael Adams, a good friend of mine who was also my manager at the time, and has served as a mountaineering and backcountry mentor, suggested we attempt a ski descent of the Middle Teton, which at 12,804 feet, is the fourth highest summit in the Teton Range.  This would be a huge undertaking, but of course I couldn’t turn down this offer.  Fortunately, Michael had an older set of Blizzard skis, 186 cm in length, with a set of Fritschi Diamir Freeride bindings for me to borrow.

Day One (June 6, 2008)

We left Jackson in the predawn hours of June 6 to make our attempt, hoping to summit before a strong spring storm moved in.  This was the first backcountry skiing experience I would ever take part in, and with several miles of dry-ground hiking before reaching the snow, the weight of both skis and boots on my back was quite a shock!

Lupine Meadows Trailhead with a heavy-ass backpack
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Michael ready to roll
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As we made our way up the steep Garnet Canyon Trail, it appeared that clouds preceding the incoming storm had already moved in, but nevertheless, first light over the Jackson Hole valley floor was still a beautiful sight.

Jackson Hole and the Gros Ventre Range to the east
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After about four miles of steep hiking, we started to get some of our first views of the high Teton peaks.

Nez Perce Peak
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As we began to ascend into the canyon, we started to hit intermittent snowfields.  Soon thereafter, we were finally able to throw our skins on, just as the daunting face of the Middle Teton came into view.

Michael carefully making his way across a snowfield
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The Middle Teton greets us as we throw our skins on
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“So this is how backcountry skiing works” (I was still fairly new to the whole concept back in 2008)photo courtesy of Michael
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As we began skinning up the canyon towards our goal, weather quickly began to move in.  Snow, wind, and low visibility made for some nasty conditions as we gained elevation, but at the same time it was pretty awesome just to be up there.  There were several other skiers in front of us, so we were able to follow their tracks, helping us deal with the lower visibility at least.

Another group of skiers making their way to the Middle-South Teton saddle in worsening conditions
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Alan skinning up toward the saddle (photos courtesy of Michael)
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Once we made it to the 11,450 foot saddle we had a decision to make.  I wanted the summit so bad (i.e. summit fever was occurring, which showed my relative inexperience at the time), but the weather was downright nasty and would only get worse the higher up we went on that exposed peak, so luckily Michael was smart and experienced enough to make what should have been a no-brainer decision to turn around.  I was bummed at first, but after a few minutes admitted that he was right.  The route from the saddle to the summit would be steeper and more exposed, and ascending in near-whiteout conditions would have been dangerous.

So therefore, it was time to make some turns.  We still had a good 2,000 feet of vertical to ski after all!

Michael chillin’ at our turn-around spot just below the saddle
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Ready to ski down Garnet Canyon
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For the first few turns, my new and unfamiliar ski setup took some getting used to, since the skis were 10 cm longer than what I’m used to, and the conditions at the start were rather icy.  After a few turns, I got into a groove, though, and we had a fun descent as the visibility improved a little bit.  It was nothing like I had ever experienced before, as skiing variable spring conditions in the Teton backcountry was nothing like skiing powder in Casper Bowl.  Still, it was an awesome descent, and we did hit some powder thanks to the fresh snow that was falling.

Alan on the descent (photo credit: Michael)
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Looking back up at our tracks
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Heavy snow shower on the hike down
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The hike out was brutal, since we had to walk four miles down the steep slope with all of our heavy gear on our backs.  Thoroughly exhausted, we hit up one of my favorite spots, the Snake River Brewery, after we got back and vowed to make a second attempt at the Middle Teton the following weekend.

Day 2 (June 13, 2010)

On the afternoon of June 12, heavy, wet snow fell in the town of Jackson while at work.  It had been a long spring of nasty, wet and cold weather, and I was getting sick of it to be perfectly honest.  The good news was that this would be the last day of lousy weather before large-scale high pressure would move in and pretty much mark the beginning of summer weather in Jackson Hole.  The other bit of good news was that Michael and I would be making a second attempt to ski the Middle Teton the following day, and the weather was looking much nicer with sunny conditions and a couple of feet of fresh snow higher up!

We started the familiar routine of waking up predawn and heading to the Lupine Meadows Trailhead to begin hiking in the dark with heavy backpacks full of backcountry skiing gear.  However, as we made our way up the trail, we encountered significant fresh snowfall as low as 8,000 feet (in areas that were dry a week before), and our first views of the high peaks were stunning with blue skies and fresh snowfall.

Nez Perce Peak
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The Middle Teton
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We were able to throw our skins on earlier in the day thanks to the new snow.  We had nice and sunny weather on the way up, but the winds became fierce the higher up we went.

Michael enjoying the sunny weather
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Skinning up Garnet Canyon in a couple of feet of June pow
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Michael
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The wind continued to pick up as we gained elevation, letting us know that the incoming high pressure was still fighting to push the latest big storm system out of the area.  Even so, the scenery was still incredible and the fresh snow inviting.

Spindrift
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Looking back down the valley
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Looking at the South Teton near the saddle
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Closer look at the South Teton
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When we reached the Middle-South Teton saddle, we decided to turn around again.  The new snow was starting to become noticeably wind-loaded, and avalanches were starting to become a concern, and would definitely pose a danger on the steeper slopes above the saddle.  We huddled down against the high winds and took a break for a while, then began our descent with some awesome June powder awaiting us.

Hunkering down behind a boulder to shelter ourselves from the high winds at the saddle
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Michael ready to make some turns
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Alan ready to make some turns (photo credit Michael)
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The descent can only be described as awesome!  A little wind scoured near the saddle, but pretty soon we were making sweet powder turns on what ended up being an impressive amount of vertical for mid June.  Not surprisingly, the snow became heavy farther down as the new snow had begun to heat up, but we were able to make it much farther down than the week before.  We met up with an Exum Mountain Guides group farther down, which consisted of a bunch of teenagers on a multi-day backcountry skiing trip, so we were all passing each other back and forth.

Farther down, we were skiing through slush, mud, and rocks, pretty much as far as we could reasonably descend.  At first, I was concerned about damaging the bases of our skis, especially since I was on Michael’s skis, but he was more concerned about skiing as far down as possible, and one of the Exum guides even said, “core shots are a part of ski mountaineering… nothing a little P-tex can’t fix”, so I was like, “ok, sounds good to me” and kept skiing through the slushy, muddy mess.  It was an experience for sure.

Looking back at our tracks
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Skiing through slush and mud (I know you’re jealous of the sweet ski bib I used to wear back in the day!) – photo credit Michael
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The hike out with all of our heavy gear on our back sucked, as to be expected, but at least we didn’t have to hike quite as far down this time thanks to the new snow.  Afterwards, we stopped at Dornans (one of the best views you could possibly get from a restaurant and bar) for an epic meal of beer and pesto pasta to cap off a memorable day in the mountains.  Some day, Michael and I will return and ski from the summit of the Middle Teton, but a powder day in the Tetons in mid June was certainly good enough for the time being.

The next day, Michael and I took his raft out and brought a six pack of beer to float a section of the Snake River and enjoy the nice weather.  I didn’t want to end this trip report without throwing on a picture of the bald eagle we saw on the river.

Bald eagle
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As I have been getting into backcountry skiing more, I will always look back on these two days as the trips that began it all.  I also hope to return to the Tetons in the coming years for more ski descents.

Written by Alan

August 5, 2010 at 3:59 pm