I found some great spring powder skiing on Monday, April 20. Yes, that’s right, 420! I really wanted nothing to do with the pot smoking part, but I was looking to make use of the spring storm.
I had spent 5 days in New Mexico for work, and while I was away, Colorado got thumped with 2 feet of snow—my phone kept blowing up with texts from would-be backcountry partners. I was hoping there would still be some powder scraps left by the time I got back, which turned out to be midnight on Sunday night.
Indeed there was on Monday morning, at one of my go to spots in RMNP. The north aspect was in perfect conditions, though a little high in water content. I did not expect to find that good of powder when it is nearly May.
Let’s consider this post an ode to the recreation division, or props to the every day man who occasionally competes in skimo. I am, of course, referring to ski mountaineering racing, which has become pretty popular in the United States in the past 10 years. This brings up a pressing question as it relates to skimo and spandex: can you have one without the other? For those who are serious and compete in the race division, spandex and skinny skis are pretty much mandatory.
Like a lot of other backcountry skiers who like to tour a fair amount, I have dabbled in skimo racing, though I ski on medium size skis and don’t wear spandex. When I lived in Utah, I competed in the Wasatch Powderkeg a few times and this year I raced once at A-Basin and also at Crested Butte. If I have the choice, I like to compete in the recreational division as it is more laid back and other people are also on reasonably heavy gear.
Now, I love to compete and hope to get a lot more into skimo. But it’s tough to commit and go all in—not just for the time commitment but especially for the price of all of the gear! I already have a few pairs of skis—resort skis, tele skis and free-ride backcountry skis. Can I really justify another?? First world problems.
This year, I raced in the Crested Butte Skimo Nationals in the recreation division—on a freeride Dynafit set up and no spandex (Grand Teton skis, Dynafit TLT 5s from a few years ago and TLT Radical bindings). I was a bit disappointed with the turnout—only 6 other guys in my division. I was also chagrined when a race division guy dropped down to rec division competing on gear a third my weight! He absolutely lit us all up, by a good 20 or 30 minutes (I found out he won a race of 90 people earlier in the year). I ended up getting second place and having a reasonably good time, especially with the exciting finish of skiing down Banana Funnel—2,000 vert of double black diamond skiing. At least for the downhill, skiing on a beefier set up proved an advantage. However, here in lies my point. When I competed in Utah in the rec division, there were at least 30 guys competing and the competition was fierce and fun. There were also great prizes. So why was it so sparse in Colorado?
As I have done some research, there are few races that even feature a rec division in Colorado. When they do have one, the turnout is similar to Crested Butte. Which is a bummer, because I love the vibe of the race in Utah. Now, the issue is that I like to compete yet I don’t want to fully commit to racing. But it’s easy to see where this is heading. With no legit rec division (which means no prizes) I have two options: 1) quit racing 2) move up to the race division and get a lighter set up and train more.
I like skimo a lot so I am considering moving up. But we will see. I would love it if there was a race in Colorado where you could still race casually yet compete against other people who are in the same category with the same weight equipment. Call it an every day man’s ski race where it is actually a fair race. Some day I hope this will happen. And hopefully much, much sooner than the day when I finally break down and buy skinny skis and (eek!) spandex.
I have no intention of hanging up my skis early this year. I have made that mistake before, only to hear of the excellent ski days in April, May and June. Not this year. Since this blog has been in the works for a few months, I wanted to post a few highlights of my year thus far.
Some turns at Berthoud Pass in January.
An ill-fated attempt at Grays and Torreys in February…We made it within 400 feet of the summit, but the winds began gusting to more than 100 mph and we decided to pull the plug and get the heck out of there! It was utter survival of the wind chills—notice my sheik look (in the middle). We were hoping to ski the Dead Dog Couloir if conditions looked good, but we didn’t even get up there to see it.
Some tight tree skiing near Eldora town trailhead in late February produced some of the deepest and best powder of season. Even the gusty winds weren’t an issue that day. The only problem was skiing fast in really, really tight trees! As one commenter on my Facebook post eloquently put it: “ski real good or eat wood.”
Some great turns at Moffet Tunnel area in March.
There were some pretty dismally dry days in RMNP this winter, but things did get better.
When it did improve, I enjoyed some great turns on Dragon’s Tail Couloir and also Dream Chutes.
Last but not least was one of my favorite go-to ski spot only 40 minutes from my house.
A few weekends ago, I was looking forward to heading south to do some rock climbing and mountain biking in Utah. Call it a case of spring fever, that time in about early March when you realize that it won’t always be so cold forever—that the earth will soon be coming alive, buzzing with insects and dry climbing routes and single-track possibilities.
And yet, I always feel torn. Because once it spring arrives, then skiing begins to fade. Soon the season dwindles to a precious few turns that eek into a void of 90-degree days and ice cream cones.
But all I wanted was a weekend of warmth, or so I reasoned. Then a text from one of my favorite backcountry ski partners from Utah. “Want to go ski the Grand Teton?” The seven-worded text was a weighty one. Skiing the Grand had been on my to-do list for awhile, but my mind was still in Moab, not the Moraines of the Tetons.
But I wanted this spring break to be epic, so I soon responded in the affirmative. I let the 7.5 hour drive from Longmont to Jackson give me the time I needed to wrap my mind around my now snowy and cold plight.
I knew it would be one long, hard slog. I had climbed the Grand via the lower and upper Exum route a few summers ago. It took my buddy and I 15 hours car to car—and that was hiking and rock climbing. That didn’t include lugging skis, boots, crampons and ice axes.
I had little idea on how to gauge how long it would take Kelly and I to get to the top, but we knew that skiing the right conditions would be absolutely essential. Wet avalanches would be a concern a few hours after the sun came up.
We started at midnight on Sunday morning. The night before the wind had been howling with gusts in the 50s, but by the time we left it was still.
I felt like a Quickie Mart employee working a graveyard, my body felt numb and jet lagged; it never feels natural coaxing your body to perform in the middle of the night.
We started skinning up the Moraine. The next 6 hours were a blur of Powergels and the love-hate relationship of ski crampons—I love how they keep me from slipping but hate how they won’t let you glide! We finally reached a wide-open snowfield filled with frozen roller balls. Those suck to skin up. Another 1,500 hundred vertical and we rounded the corner to where we entered the Stetner Couloir.
At this point, I was feeling rough. We were about halfway into 7,700-foot climb. Caffeine laden gels and granola bars couldn’t convince my body that it wasn’t 5 a.m. And some days I just don’t feel as strong. A few weekends before, I did a skimo race raced in the Crested Butte and did well. But today (or tonight) felt like a vastly different day.
“I can’t find my second gear,” I told Kelly.
We kept pressing on, soon taking out the crampons and ice axes. We were making good progress and roped up in one small technical section that approached WI3 in difficulty. I roped up for this part. From there, I took the lead breaking trail for the first time of the day. I started to finally find my second gear and kept in the lead, booting up the couloir for another 1,000 feet.
Finally, we could see what looked like the final ridge to the summit. I asked Kelly if he wanted to take the lead, but he was starting to feel spent. So I kept at, though I quickly lost steam. Two guys had been intermittently nipping at our heels all night (and day), profiting from our trail breaking. One of them volunteered to break trail for the final section to the summit, which was generous.
After an hour of knee-deep booting, we progressed our way to the top. At times I felt like I was nearing the final ridge on a 20,000 foot peak rather than a 13er. Such is ascending the Grand in winter!
We stood on the summit at about 12:30 p.m. Hardly any wind. Amazingly, the weather window held beautifully. The sky had grown cloudy not longer after the sun came up, which kept the snow from heating up excessively.
This was my second time on top of the Tetons, and wow what an epic view.
The misnomer from here is that descent would be fun skiing. Most of it was a mix of breakable crust, death cookies and no-fall zone skiing. We even threw in a few rappels.
But in the end, the skiing definitely beat walking. And we were rewarded with some near perfect corn skiing for a 2,000-foot section.
We made it back to the car about 6:30 p.m. roughly 16.5 hours after we first started. The last few miles drug very slowly, especially the flat skin on the lake.
Yet, the day was amazing. Skiing the Teton was a vastly different than climbing splitters in Indian Creek, but this was worth the trip. Skiing it was an accomplishment I will remember for a long time.