Early last week I sent out an email to a friend, Baldwin, to see if he could get out skiing this past weekend and offered to drive to one of his local ranges. Before this trip, he and I had skied a half a dozen times and each day in the backcountry was always perfect. So, after a little discussion, we decided on a canyon to explore, and a time and place to meet; the trip was on!
I drove about eight hours and met him at a truckstop off the interstate. We threw all my gear into his VW bus and took off across the plains toward our destination. After driving as far as his VW would get us, we parked and popped the top, got into our duds, and started skinning into the canyon under a low and thick blanket of snowing clouds. We couldn’t see the 12,000’ peaks that we knew loomed overhead, nor could we see the couloir Baldwin had eyed a year ago which was to be our objective for the day. Nevertheless, we skinned up, up, and up toward the general vicinity and made a go at what we thought was the line. The alluvial fan tightened and we put our skis on our packs and entered a tighter section. We were psyched that a sluff slide had already come down this couloir, theoretically making it a bit safer as 12+ inches had fallen the few days prior to our arrival.
We went through a tight shaft and were forced to traverse under a snow bulge to keep going (which was an exciting move). Once back kicking steps, I encountered a small 10’ ice ramp and ascended it till I could see the next section. As my gaze gleamed over the bulge, it became apparent that we had chosen the wrong line; I was looking up at a headwall a few hundred feet tall and there was only fifty more fee of skiing above us. Baldwin and I then put our skis on, turned them downhill, and enjoyed skiing the line. Back at the bus, we cooked dinner, played some cribbage, and hit the hay in preparation for an early start.
When the alarm buzzed Saturday morning, Balwin’s first words were that he’d seen stars out and we were in for a stunning day. However, as we slid the door open, no stars could be seen. Thankfully, a half hour after we started heading into the canyon, the skies cleared and the stars appeared, big and bright. After skinning past our previous day’s line and at exactly the moment when we needed clear visibility so as to know where the hanging valley that was our bigger objective, a low valley fog rolled in with blinding speed. We were in the same situation as the day before, only worse because this time around there was no ceiling, just a sea of fog.
Stubborn or stupid, we kept skinning up the canyon. As we gained a bit more altitude, we climbed out and above the fog layer, saw our objective, and kept at it. Nearly 4000 vertical feet of breaking through a foot of new snow later, we reached the plateau. We had chosen our aspect wisely, across the valley the southern faces were exploding with rockfall and snow avalanches; each time a slide started, it sounded like a military jet was doing fly-bys.
The whole ascent up was surreal, the fog cleared at the perfect time, the snow was powdery yet perfectly bonded to the 35-40 degree slopes we were ascending, we were in the shade until the top, and the skies were bright blue. Topping out into the sun was fantastic, warm, and we were treated to the humbling knowledge that a big horn sheep had passed by that morning with its tracks disappearing into a cliff band off in the distance.
With our skins off at 10,400’, we stuck close to a ridge in fear of a large wind slab avalanche ripping off in the headwall, but as we made our turns, the same stability we had enjoyed on the ascent just stayed in place. Our descent was perfect, a continuous ride of about 3800 vertical feet at a sustained pitch of 35 degrees or more, the sun was out, it was warm, and to top it off, POWDER!
As we lay in the snow at the bottom of our run, we looked up the canyon and noticed more storm clouds approaching. Within twenty minutes the sun was gone. An hour after our run we were nearing the bus and it was snowing again under the same low hanging cloud cover we’d had upon our arrival.
During storms you’ll sometimes see a parting of the clouds with the sun and the big blue bird sky revealing itself, I call those “sucker holes” because as quickly as they come, they are gone and the storm resumes its assault. This past Saturday, Baldwin and I got really lucky and enjoyed a run during a rare, super long, sucker hole!
Be sure to watch the video Baldwin captured at the bottom of this post.