Ever since hiking my first fourteener (14000 foot mountain) I have always wanted to ski one. Steep colliers, looming cliffs and opens snowy bowls are not only scenic to look at, but also full of awesome, very skiable terrain. This spring, the avalanche rating was low enough for me to actually ski one.
At 4 o’clock in the morning, I rolled out of bed just enough to reach my phone and make the beeping stop, and then rolled happily back under the warmth of my comforter to fall back asleep. A few seconds later my second alarm started going off, and I reached around the edge of my bed blindly trying to silence it, only to find that it was just slightly out of reach. Silently damning myself for knowing the best plan to wake myself up at four in the morning, I rolled out of bed to silence my alarm and get ready.
Standing in the elevator, I groggily tried to make sure that I had everything. My ski boots were slung over my shoulder, skis and poles in my right hand, medium sized backpack on my back with skiing skins (used to walk up the mountain with skis on), a shovel, avalanche beacon, and a pair of crampons that would clang against my ice ax; but most importantly, I had my morning coffee in my left hand. I walked out of the elevator to meet my friend Jake by his Chevy Avalanche pickup truck. “Are you ready” he asked me. Through a pair of bleary eyes I told him, “No, but lets go anyways.”
Jake is an ex ski racer, and experienced backcountry skier. He’s typically the guy you see at a ski resort going off a huge cliff, or the guy you get a glimpse of weaving quickly through the trees on a gladded run. He is also an ex photo journalist, now turned full time student. He’s a good skier, and a good guy. Jake also has a cop radar, so we made good time driving, stopping only once for some bagels and chocolate milk.
Parking at the base of the mountain was surprisingly crowded for a backcountry day. There were 15 cars park in the lot, as opposed to 2 (seeing another person in the backcountry is generally considered to be a crowded day). Warm days, and low avalanche danger typically bring the reluctant rose backcountry skiers away from the chair lifts to earn their turns (myself being one of them).
As if climbing a 14er and skiing down the other side wasn’t enough, I found out that Jake had broken his foot earlier that season, while we were putting our ski boots on. The only thing he had to say about it was, “Its fine as long as I can get my foot into the ski boot.” It was at that moment that I decided he was a lunatic, but decided to follow him up the mountain anyways. He then made a face and pushed his broken foot painfully into the stiff racing ski boots he used in the backcountry. With Jake’s broken foot now comfortably in his boot, we tested out avalanche beacons, put skins on our skis, and began our ascent of Mt. Quandry, which loomed auspiciously overhead.
The morning was already warm, as the sun slowly started shining intensely on the base of our climb. In a matter of minutes I had stripped my coat off and was stepping over tree roots in a t-shirt and sunglasses. The snow was firm under our skis. Each step we made sounded like a laser gun shot from Star Wars, as our skis slid up the hill, and then went silent as the skins caught the ski under foot for us to continue walking up the hill. It as almost easier than hiking up the hill in the summer, as we made our way through slowly thinning forest, and cleared the tree line.
The world was open to us as we cleared the tree line. As far as the eye could see, the Rocky Mountains were covered in snow, and shining brightly under a perfectly clear morning sun. Below us, small birds chirped in the evergreen trees, happy that summer was finally on its way. I would have smiled if I wasn’t breathing so hard.
Air is something that I wish was available in a drink at high altitude. Difficult hiking combined with the thin air of high altitude combines to make breathing surprisingly difficult. I felt my body slowly degenerating into crazy amounts of fatigue, and my easy going pace slowly devolved into tiny labored steps. Eventually though, we made it to the top.
Below us were a variety of massive cliffs, gnarly couloirs and chutes leading to an ice covered lake on the left side of our perch. An afternoon snowstorm was approaching in the distance, whiting out the mountains to the east of us. We did not want to get caught in this storm, so rather than drinking a beer at the top, we began our descent.
The skiing began at an angle above 45 degrees. As I slid down the slope after Jake, I realized that the snow had a thin layer of icy crust above the softer snow underneath. Jump turning on a 45 degree plus angle slope covered in crusty snow gets the adrenaline pumping. We had chosen to descend a couloir, and our trail was bordered with rock gardens. I followed Jake to the rolling ridge just below the top of our mountain’s summit, and saw the slope laid out before us.
A massive blanket of crusty white snow was laid perfectly from the top of the run, to the bottom. In between were small cliffs, rocky islands, and hills that rose like the humps of a camels back.
As Jake and I took turns leading the descent, we kicked off small piles of sluff that followed our descent like sea foam from a wave. Sluff is caused by the spray of snow skiers and snowboarders kick off in each of their turns, and can get grow into small avalanche like waves. We weaved in and our of our sluff piles until we reached the bottom of the 14er.
Finally at the bottom, we stood at the base of an ice-covered lake, and at the edge of a forest. In front of us was a service road that led back to the car, warmth, and some delicious BBQ in Idaho Springs. It was kind of hard to believe that we had just climbed and descended one of the largest mountains in the United States, but we had. And even though we didn’t get to drink a beer at the top, we did get to slide down on a pair of skis, rather than walk the entire distance.