Do what you have to do in a low snow year
Stats: ~6 mile roundtrip, 2,700 elevation gain, max. speed: 22 mph
With the good weather forecast such as temps in mid-50ties, mostly sunny skies and 20% chance of snow expected after noon, I felt pretty good about the long drive from Denver to the Grizzly Gulch TH near Lake City. The Cinnamon pass had opened just 48 hours before and Handies always seem to hold snow well into June which should guarantee a great ski descent. Well, the weather decided to through a curve ball at us here.
In the morning it became abundantly clear that 20% chance of snow meant more like 100% chance of light snow before noon. It was snowing, but visibility was still pretty good. We started from the American Basin TH just before 8am, hoping that the weather will improve as the day goes on.
We were excited to see some ski tracks in the basin, they looked like just a couple of days old.
Soon it was time to decide on the ascent route. We seemed to identify the "snow route" described by Bill, only it looked way more rocky and thin than anticipated. So we continued on the standard summer route from the American basin.
There was good snow coverage in the basin. We could easily identify the old crusty layer with maybe 6 inches of fresh snow on top of it. Ski crampons were helpful in a couple of steeper sections, although we could have probably avoided it with better route finding. We took out time traversing through the basin, hoping for the weather to pass through. For the last 1K feet, the skis went on the pack, although I could (and should) have skinned most of the way up - it would just mean taking skis on and off the pack, which I was not willing to deal with. Well, I definitely felt the weight closer to the summit.
Snow(?) route looked pretty thin
Surveying the route ahead
Getting higher in the basin
The summit ridge looked, again, surprisingly dry, with only a rather narrow ribbon of cornice remaining. The peek into the Grizzly Gulch from the summit ridge revealed relatively little snow and the melted out route from Whitecross mountain. I could have walked the perfectly dry summer trail, but I stuck closer to the cornice, stubbornly testing it with hopes that it would soften up for the descent. Alas.
The summit ridge
Whitecross Mtn & Grizzly Gulch
We did not linger long on the summit as it was cold & windy. Our hopes that the sun would come out and warm up the snow did not materialize. All I had was the hard and crusty ribbon of cornice to descent (Brett wisely left his board above the continuous snow field, couple of hundred feet below the summit).
Wetterhorn & Uncompahgre from the summit
This is me trying to navigate the cornice. Laughable.
Below the summit ridge, conditions somewhat improved - with less wind, snow became slightly softer so we could at least make a few turns. The lower we descended, the better conditions became, but turns were never steep. It took us just about an hour to ski back to the car from the summit.
Brett is navigating variable snow conditions
Skiing out of the basin
All in all, gorgeous area, worth exploring in a good snow year. Thinking I'll postpone further ski attempts in San Juans until next year.
Brett's report can be found here: