This season has been riddled with missteps, unmet expectations, even self-doubt. Needless to say, it has been a bit rocky (yes, there’s a pun in there) going for a while. I hate to distill such an important part of my life down to some simple statistics, but in an effort to paint a larger picture, I am going to anyways.
Since moving to Colorado I’ve made it up to the resorts a whopping 7 days. Even more disheartening, in an area so bountiful with easy access backcountry, I’ve only made it out touring 4 days. Four! That’s it! In contrast, on my adventurous move out here I managed to spend 2 days at resorts and another 4 touring. And that was in a 10-day window, where I also managed to rack up a healthy number of miles on my car.
As an even bigger contrast, let’s look at last year…I broke my back in December and still managed to throw together a full season, with a couple of notable days including the black hole couloir, riding St Helens with my dad, and attempting to summit Mt Rainier
. I don’t actually have numbers for last year because I wasn’t keeping track, but I can guarantee you there were a lot more days both at the resort and in the backcountry than I’ve managed this year.
It’s easy to blame a lot of different factors…I moved to a new city; I don’t have a steady income; I don’t have a pass anywhere. Excuses, all of them, just empty excuses that, if I am honest with myself, hold no merit.
So what happened?
Earlier this season I wrote my always up-to-date guide for finding good snow in the mountains. It was easy to write back in December after a spell of dry weather and conditions that could still be considered “early season”. It was a damn good idea and it is a guide that I encourage everyone to try to follow.
I wrote it, then promptly forget everything that it was about. Which is impressive because it is only a 1-step guide.
In case you are too lazy to click the link, I’ll give you a synopsis here: shift your expectations away from the snow entirely. Chasing snow is a lot harder than finding people you enjoy riding with and there is something to be said for simply enjoying the mountains, whatever the conditions.
I was recently reminded of this on a trip to Berthoud Pass. In the days leading up, the temperatures barely dropped below freezing. In the morning, looking at weather overnight and the day’s forecast, we’d had a mild freeze overnight and the forecast called for clouds all day. It was enough to make me think long and hard about whether or not I actually wanted to get out of bed.
Pro Tip: don’t look at the forecast until you are already out of bed, removing the temptation to bail.
The less than ideal forecast was resounded in my head when I pulled into the parking lot at the top of the pass. There was only one other car there, on a Saturday morning. To put it in perspective, the previous Wednesday the parking lot was practically full by 9 am.
Needless to say, Derek and I took our times getting ready and eventually set off for No Name Peak. Something that I still haven’t gotten used to in Colorado are the barren approaches. We spend as much time scrambling over rock as we did skinning on snow.
There were a couple of old tracks on No Name, but for the most part there was still plenty of smooth spring corn ready for riding. Derek and I scoped out our lines, opting to drop in just below the normal entrance right off of the summit, avoiding the obvious tracks.
Having set out expectations low, we were both pleasantly surprised with how well the snow was riding. So much so, we opted for a quick skin back up the ridge for another lap. It was just as much fun as the first.
I really need to spend some more time looking at a map and learning the different zones at Berthoud. I can point to exactly where we were on a map, I just couldn’t tell you the name of it. Anyways, we hiked up out of the basin off of No Name, gaining the ridge that we’d approached it from, and dropped down a chute that ran out, what I believe is the Current Creek drainage.
We were back to the car before 2 pm, catching a ride up to the pass from some new friends, who’d also decided to take a lap on No Name.
All in all, it was a fantastic day. To think I almost bailed because of a forecast is silly.
So, this is my reminder to myself – follow your own guide and enjoy the mountains for more than just the snow. It’s always a good time and that should always be enough motivation to make the effort to get out the door!
For a trip that was planned in the comment section on a photo, you would think we’d take a few pictures. Bad light, no room in the pack, laziness (yes, it is still possible to be lazy while touring in the mountains), whatever the reason, some days taking pictures is the last thing on your mind and it is a refreshing change of pace.
While at Berthoud Pass, the sun was out and I was stopping every five minutes with my camera, trying to find interesting shots. The day was incredible; blue skies and fresh snow, but the trip felt more like a photo shoot and less like a day of riding, which just seems a little backwards.
We did not have blue skies yesterday. In fact, we bailed on our original plan of exploring Porcupine Gulch in favor of a more familiar area, Butler Gulch, that we knew we could still navigate with poor light. So, the camera stayed in the car and it snowed on us all day. What started off as light flurries, turned into a respectable snowfall throughout the day.
The snow was decent in the morning. A little bit of wind transport meant there were plenty of stashes of good snow to be found. Butler Gulch was a new zone to me; mostly mellow rolling terrain that just barely pokes up above treeline. It’s an area that you can feel comfortable when the conditions aren’t great, enjoy romping around in the mountains, and make a few turns along the way.
In my typical eager and blindly ambitious form, I spotted a knoll with a good approach and a steep, open landing that was just begging for me to jump off of it. I figured I could stomp out a little kicker in a few minutes and have some fun. As if hiking for turns wasn’t enough effort already, stomping out a makeshift kicker will definitely get the heart rate up. Well, it turns out I suck at building jumps (at least when I do it on a whim) and we all had a good laugh at the build up for what was ultimately a complete failure.
That’s just the vibe that I get from Butler. It’s a playground where you want to have fun and try silly things.
Right as we were transitioning for our second lap, the storm picked up and the snow really began to accumulate. The day was just getting better. We decided to take a break after our second lap and eat some lunch in the woods while the snow fell. Normally breaks aren’t very noteworthy, just a regular part of the day where you sit down and enjoy your $2 Safeway sandwich or cliff bar, at least that’s how my breaks usually go. But yesterday was different. Between the four of us we’d brought, leftover pizza, a fancy sandwich (aka not pb&j or safeway), some homemade jerky, venison I think, a few bite-sized Snickers, a cliff bar, and most notably, a Mountain House Beef Stroganoff meal.
Who brings a hot meal splitboarding? That means not just the meal, but the stove/pot to cook it in! For a day trip, the idea of hauling all this gear and taking the time to prepare it just sort of blew my mind. I will say, those few hot bites did taste pretty good. It was a little bit of a luxury for what is normally a not very exciting part of the day.
The long meal break served another purpose. While we hung out in the shelter of the trees, the snow was falling hard. In fact, we timed our break pretty well because just as we started moving again, the snow began to let up. By the time we got to our intended zone, the weather was back to more or less a flurry and a few inches had accumulated. We rode the shoulder of a ridge, eventually dropping into drainage, making for some low angle surfy powder turns, the best of the day.
All told, it was a great day to be outside and we all had a fun time. Butler’s an area that I’m sure I’ll be back to, I’ll probably replace the camera with a few beers, attempt to make another kicker (and likely fail), and who knows, maybe even pack in a hot meal.
Last week I made it up to Berthoud Pass for the first time. I’d hear this area as one of the mecca’s for backcountry skiing in the front range. Not necessarily the best, or the steepest. But a sort of fun playground with some safe mellow tours that makes for a popular destination for a quick lap or two.
I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, and most pictures I’ve seen from the area are your usual skier pow shot, or some other tight framed shot that, while it looks nice, doesn’t give much perspective to the area as a whole. In fact, something a lot like this.
So, I was a little surprised when I got out to Berthoud Pass at just how large the area was, and how diverse the accessible terrain was. While we stuck to some mellow lines for the day, the sun was out and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Mixed with the 4 or so inches of fresh snow, it was what I would consider a perfect day to be out in the mountains.
And we weren’t the only ones out there. It was a Wednesday, and by the time we made it back to the parking lot, the lot was full and cars were driving around trying to find a spot where they might be able to squeeze in if they got creative. There were a few other groups of people headed to the same zone as us (it’s name escapes me at the moment), but there was enough terrain that we were all able to find out own lines, and I was able to get a few good shots of some of the other skiers. Thanks anonymous tele skier! I don’t know who you are, but you made some nice turns down this chute!
It had been a few weeks since I’d taken the split out and it was starting to show. After two short laps I was completely worked. It was kind of pathetic, but it was about all I had in me. Thankfully one of the other guys had to get back early for a work, so I didn’t have to make any excuses.
In all, it was an incredible day and felt amazing just to be outside. If anything it reaffirmed my love of the mountains and reminded me that I need to get out there more often.
For a while there it seemed like the season never ended. Then I disappeared to California and last year’s below-average snowpack (and a generally different climate than the PNW) made summer touring basically impossible. I picked up a mountain bike and started climbing more frequently. Between the two, I didn’t seem to mind the lack of snowboarding. In fact, while the snow has been falling since the beginning of October, just this last weekend did I finally manage to get out.
The first day out, you are going to be a little rusty. Whereas last year I could pack in my sleep, I found myself scouring my closet for gear, laying it all out all over the place. Packing, then repacking, then repacking again. How did I used to pack this thing? Skins, right! The process went on for longer than it should. But eventually I had everything and was ready to go.
I forgot how to layer. Sorry, I didn’t forget how to layer, but I was rusty at paying attention to when to wear what. I started off with my heavy jacket on, regretting the decision immediately, but too stubborn to stop and take it off. Eventually I did, but being able to predict what to wear while hiking is just one more thing that I seemed to have forgotten.
But I wasn’t the only one that was rusty. We all were. The rust shows itself in different places for everyone, but the one that stood out was communication.
We headed up to Heliotrope Ridge, along with what seemed like the entire backcountry ski community. Seriously, it was a zoo out there. Not to be deterred by the crowds or the flat light, we managed to find our own stashes of fresh snow. Not to mention, the whole experience was a whole heck of a lot better to the crazy wind gusts we found last year, preventing us from ever reaching the ridge. The marginal snow on the hike in was a little disconcerting. Once we got above treeline, the snow got immensely better. By the time we were nearing the ridge, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the snow we were finding. It was deeper and lighter than I was expecting.
I’ll admit, the snow was starting to get a little sun and wind affected. It was still awesome to ride, but there was definitely a crust starting to form. As this next weather system moves in, I’m a little concerned that we are going to bury a weak layer pretty deep in the snowpack. Hopefully it consolidates well, but it’ll definitely be something to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.
So, after kicking off the season with some sweet pow turns on the upper ridge, we made a decision to continue down the fall line instead of hooking right, following the general route that we’d skinned up. The lure of more fresh tracks and fewer crowds was appealing. Totally worth it. We found easily another 1500′ of fresh snow and we were the only ones out there. Soon, we kind of understood why. We hit the treeline and realized we were about three gullies away from the trail we wanted to get to. We had two options, stay low and cut through the trees and through at least one exposed stream crossing, with potential for more. Or, we could hike up around the cliff band we were now sitting under and pick our way back to the trail from above the cliffs.
Our group was split on what to do and we weren’t communicating our rationales for either option well. In a tense moment, we ended up splitting up. Ultimately both routes probably would have been fine. We weren’t in any immediate danger, but splitting up was the wrong thing to do. Eventually, we reconvened and all committed to going up over the cliff band together. Sure, it was a bit more hiking than we’d anticipated, but we did it together. The upshot, we managed to squeeze out a few more quality turns.
Making decisions is a big part of traveling in the backcountry. That’s part of the fun of it. You have options and freedom to choose where you want to go. We were a little rusty, but we all came back, reminded of the importance that good communication can have.
Hopefully this weekend it wont take me three tries to get my pack loaded the way I like it.