| Who Needs Chairlifts?
Peak: Mount Crested Butte (12,162 feet)
Ascent Route: Lower Twister, Upper Park, Upper Keystone, North Star, South Ridge to Summit
Ski Route: Peak (East Face), Peel, Banana Exit, Buckley
Gain/Drop: ~2,800 feet
The dashed line is my ascent route, and the solid line is my ski route. Note that the lines high on the peak should probably be around the left side and out of view
The ski season at Crested Butte Mountain Resort officially over, I have finally found myself with some free days to go have fun again. No more working every weekend, Tuesday and Thursday for this instructor! At least for a while. The thing is, I wasn't ready to be done skiing, and the mountain still has plenty of snow. Plus there's this whole ski-mountaineering thing I have to try. I decided to skin up and ski down the mountain on Thursday the 16th of April.
Getting the appropriate equipment wasn't easy. I wear a men's size 14 shoe, so I was only able to find a single pair of rental alpine touring skis in the entire Gunnison Valley that would work with me. These were a pair of G3's rented by The Alpineer in Crested Butte. For future reference I would not recommend these, but I'll get to the "why not" later in this report.
The only real deterring factor for the day would be weather and a potential avalanche risk. All week, NOAA had been predicting snow but so far we had not seen any. The same prediction came up for Thursday, with a 90% chance of 3-7 inches of snow. The Colorado Avalanche Center had raised the danger level to moderate on all aspects and elevations due to the potential new snowfall, wind drifting, and a lack of observations. I set a contingency plan in case I didn't like the weather or the snowpack to include avalanche safe travel, but still hoped for continuing luck. I set my alarm for 5:00 AM.
At last, I arrived at the lower parking lot of the mountain at around 6:15 AM and was ready to go by 6:30; my first real trip into the mountains since November. The summit was in a low cloud and the general weather outlook already looked a little iffy with lots of gray in the sky. I crossed my fingers and started skinning up.
Looking up at the beginning of the ascent. Peak is in the clouds
The resort felt like a ghost town as I left it behind. No lifts running. No ropes up. No people anywhere. As an instructor I'm not used to this, and I had an eerie feeling as I skinned alone on terrain which is supposed to be crowded with beginners. It didn't help that it was now lightly but steadily snowing.
Traveling up Lower Twister
Further up Lower Twister, crossing under Red Lady Express Lift
It took me about an hour to reach the Ice Bar. The intensity of the snowstorm had gone up and down, and a small amount of accumulation was becoming noticeable. I continued on, trying not to take breaks longer than a few seconds to drink out of my camelback. I made my way to Upper Park, and now on blue terrain my rental skins' ability was being tested. They performed rather well and brought me to the bottom of Upper Keystone without mishap. From here though, I was on terrain which should probably be a black. My skis would periodically slip backwards and I found myself putting a lot of my weight on my ski poles.
Near the Ice Bar, finally able to see my goal
Looking down Upper Park
By the time I reached the top of an area called Triangle (right above the start of the run Monument) I had been going for two hours and there was maybe an inch of fresh snow on the ground. The clouds had been moving in and out, the snow going off and on, but I could at least see the peak most of the time so things were looking up. I took my first real break to pop out of my skis and look around, since this is one of the more scenic places on the mountain besides the summit.
The Peak from my break spot
Looking down towards the town of Mt. Crested Butte
Popping my skis and pack back on, I kept skinning up past the top of Silver Queen, the highest chairlift on the mountain. Soon I was at the mid-way station of the High Lift, which is the high T-Bar which people use to access the Peak during the season. At this point I left the groomed terrain by turning right into the trees and coming out in a snowy boulderfield under the Peak. I turned left again and started traversing underneath the Peak, now carefully evaluating the snow. Pole plants were showing a few inches of powder on top of a consolidated crust. The snowfall was lightening up and I was starting to see blue sky, so at that point I decided that unless I saw something which changed my mind, I would be safe enough as long as I stayed off wind-loaded aspects. The danger had just been low until the forecaster saw snow coming in, after all.
The top of Silver Queen Express Lift. Note that the lift ride to here is maybe 10 minutes, but it took over two hours to skin to this point.
Looking at the Peak from where I left the trees
Closer to the Peak. From here I went around to the left to ascend the ridge. My ski descent may have been on the left profile of the peak in this photo.
Finally I arrived at the ridge which everyone hikes during the season to get to the top. At this point I decided to strap the skis to the pack and boot it the rest of the way which was probably a good decision. It took me about 20 minutes from there to reach the summit at 10 AM. I dropped my pack and looked around. I was alone in the clouds. The east side of the mountain looked like it was getting snow, but the west side was not, including my planned descent route. I spent about ten minutes on top taking pictures and getting ready for the descent. The sooner I got down, the better.
The summit ridge
Self mug-shot (gotta love timers)
The ridge I came up. Drop-in point is about halfway along what you can see here, and down to the left
Looking North during a break in the clouds
Standing on the ten by ten space on the summit – helmet, goggles, and skis on – was a heart-pounding experience. I had skied this line before but today was different; there is no ski patrol to help out if I get hurt. I had to wait for a cloud to clear off so that my visibility would be good enough. Finally it did and there was no hesitation. I slipped back down the ridge a little ways to avoid a cornice, then dropped in onto the face. I could feel my legs already burning from the ascent, and this seemed like the hardest run I had ever skied. I made decently shaped turns down the face, stopped for pictures, and then traversed towards Peel. The upper part of Peel usually is a maze of boulders but this time there was enough snow to pick my way through and get onto the snowfield without raking across rocks. Now the snow turned into a wonderful powder on top of hardpack. My turns were smooth and buttery until I got into a tight area where I had to sideslip a little before getting into the chute at the end of Peel. I cruised on down, exiting the chute into a wide area called Hockey Rink, made some beautifully consistent turns, and then rocketed through Banana Exit out to the main part of the resort again.
My tracks in Upper Peel
Looking down Peel
It was on CB's race course, Buckley, when things went wrong. This terrain is usually groomed but on that day it was choppy ice under a thin layer of powder. I decided to really open it up and fly on down to my car like I used to during the season. I made a couple turns when I started to notice that I was losing my edge control. These skis apparently are terrible on ice. Fearing that I would spin out, I decided to just straightline it to the bottom where I could make a gradual uphill turn to stop myself. Well, whilst straightlining, my right ski caught an edge and released. I hit the ground chest and face first before I even knew what was happening and skidded about 30 feet to a stop. It was one of those falls where I didn't want to get up right away. My breathing was labored. I checked myself over to find a sore chest and bleeding lips, but nothing major. I slowly stood up, popped my other ski off, and looked up at my tracks. Then I started laughing. I hiked up to my other ski, brought it down with the rest of my stuff, and walked the last 100 yards to the stairs and down to my car.
Taken from the road out. If you look carefully you can see my tracks. In this shot you can see from Upper Peel down to the top of Banana Exit (hidden in the trees)
Despite the last minute wipe out, it was still a great day. I made it back to Gunnison in time to meet my friends for lunch.
To see more pictures from this trip, please visit my online photo album at http://picasaweb.google.com/coloradoclimberguy/
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):