| Ski Mountaineering Uncompahgre - A trip of firsts
Ski Team: Darrin (kansas) & me
Trailhead: Nellie Creek 2WD
Ascent Route: Standard
Vertical Ski: ~3,800'
Overall Mileage: ~16
Elevation Gain: 5,500'
After a Halloween trip to Brainard Lake and a partial climb up Mt Audubon, where I took my BC cross-country skis, and Darrin was on snowshoes, Darrin decided he wanted to learn how to ski. While I was able to ski down the trail and road with minimal effort, Darrin had to practically run to keep up with me. From that moment on, Darrin saw the value of skiing in mountaineering.
So starting on opening weekend at Breckenridge last November, I started teaching Darrin how to ski, with the goal to get him on an AT setup for some ski-mountaineering come spring. So we got in 6 resort days of skiing so far (3 of those in a row), focusing on survival skiing blue runs and adjusting to variable terrain, as 14er slopes are not groomed!
As for me, I had been BC skiing on my 1-size too big Koflach's with Fritchi bindings on some rather heavy Rossignol Jr racing skis. Basically a non ideal downhill set-up. Good for slogging on mostly flat glaciers. I had to wear 3 pairs of socks, get custom insoles, and shove some extra cardboard under the liners to get the boots to "kinda fit". I started my search for a better AT setup last year. No boot company made my size (5.5W 22 Mondo). I even went to Larry the boot fitter in Boulder (to get the insoles for the Koflach's), and he told me the same. When I asked him what I could do, he replied with: "You will just have a harder time skiing than everyone else". Of course, this didn't stop me from trying. I went to Neptune and REI and tried on all the boots. The boots I wanted, Scarpa Diva's, were still too big. Amazingly the Black Diamond Shiva boots, size 23, fit. My toes actually touched the front of the boot! What a concept! With access to a BD pro-deal, I ordered my boots, got new BD skis, and got Dynafit binding for X-mas (from Darrin). I picked up my new skis on Friday Jan 15, and was ready to hit some slopes!
Why Uncompahgre as a first AT ski for Darrin, and breaking in the new gear for me? After last years failed attempt on Uncompahgre (I had traversed over from Wetterhorn, and an early storm came in – foiling the Wetterhorn-Uncompahgre combo), I knew the lower slopes could be skied by Darrin. They were mainly blue level slopes below the high saddle. That and Mt Antero wasn't appealing, the road was plowed to the 2WD TH and the previous weekend trip beta looked great. I also needed to break in the boots and get used to the new gear before a Jan 25, Avalanche Awareness course that I am taking with my geophysics company. Wanted to work out all the kinks before skiing in front of my boss and co-workers!
So this would be a trip of firsts for Darrin and I. This would be his first overnight, winter, AT skiing 14er trek. For me, it was a return to winter ski mountaineering, but a first successful winter summit on a 14er.
Day 1: Pack in to 4WD TH:
We started off from Boulder at 6am, and arrived at the TH at around noon. Strapped on the skins, put on our packs, and started up the road. Not 5 minutes up the road, and we encountered a nasty nasty ice pond. Wish I had ski crampons for this obstacle.
Starting the skin up the road:
The day was beautiful, sunny and warm. Layers were shed, and soon we were down to our base. The road wasn't completely snow covered. Rocks poked through for much of the lower road before the first stream crossing. Bare patches were encountered with only a thin strip of icy-ness to avoid damaging the brand-new gear. Higher up, the snow does improve and we made decent progress. We took our time, enjoying the views and weather. At a bend in the road where we took a break, we were passed by a group of 3 guys. One on skis pulling a sled of firewood and 2 on snowshoes, making fast progress uphill. They would be the only company for the overnight at the 4WD TH.
Skinning up the road:
We made it to the 4WD TH at sunset. A bit later than desired, as now we had to set up my Trango 2 tent at dusk. Last time I set up this tent, was on the Castner Glacier in the Delta Mountains of Alaska, about 6-7 years ago. So my brain was a little rusty. Thankfully the poles were color coded, and we only ended up with 1 yellow pole I had no idea where it went. It kinda propped open the main vestibule. The sugar snow was terrible for a base, and the ground was frozen. So I improvised and used our ski poles as vestibule stakes, with snow piled on them.
The temperature dropped fast with the dipping sun, so no photos of our camp. Highest priority was getting warm again, so while Darrin got snow melting for hot drinks and food, I set up the camp. With the exertions of the day, we went to bed rather early.
Day 2: Skin up & "Natural Ski Decent":
We had planned on getting up at 5am and skinning at 6. With the cold temps and darkness, it was hard to get the motivation. I had forgotten how much I dislike winter mountaineering… So we got a later start than desired.
How do you get these things on when cold?
The morning wasn't that cold, but keeping my core temperature moderated, wasn't all that easy. It took a while to find a pace where I wouldn't sweat, but would be adequate to make the summit. The day started off cloudy, and soon after starting, we got our first look at the prize ahead.
First view of Uncompahgre:
Once out of the trees the snow became a bit sparse around the rock garden area. Some tricky walking around bare patches and rocks occurred, to save my new skis the bruising.
Some rocks in the way:
Getting up the basin headwall also involved some inventive ski walking, avoiding the very abrasive scoria pebbles lining the slope. Above this headwall, the snow was decent and mostly continuous. Now we just needed to find the most direct and easiest path to skin up.
Skinning up a powder filled ravine:
The high meadows:
At about 12.5K I started to hit the energy wall. Quite unfortunate, as we should have traversed around to the right of a protruding ridge rather than to the left of it like we did. I was too tired to argue with Darrin. He was tired of skinning up steep slopes. Since this was his first time, he was having some trouble on the side-hill traversing that we were doing. The snow that started falling was also a bit demoralizing. Sun always seems to make the pace quicker, and the trek more enjoyable.
So we went up the ridge and dropped our skis at around 13.2K. I had really really wanted to get my first "ski descent" of a 14er. I have one on a 12er (Mt Toll), but I wanted a bigger prize. But as we went up the valley, I looked at the higher parts of the mountain, and they looked rather bare. The high ridge was snow drifts over the switchbacks with rocks showing through. I didn't want to destroy my new skis on the first outing, so I sacrificed the "official" ski descent for making the summit, and went with what I call a natural ski decent. This is where the snow is mostly continuous from the highest point on the ascent route.
Approaching the switchbacks
As we made our way up the switchback slope, the snow looked as bad as it did from below. I could see the marks of previous skiers, side slipping the slope. Not exactly fun skiing in my book, just survival skiing. Making our way around to the gully, we find it free from snow, but still difficult to climb in AT boots. This was the worst part of the climb for me. I almost wish I had packed light trail runners for this section. Heck, my down booties would have been easier to climb in than my very stiff AT boots.
Above the gully, the snow was not continuous, and I started to feel ok about not dragging my skis up. On the summit proper there was a very small ribbon of snow for a true "Dawson approved" ski descent. Darn it! But as it would have taken a lot longer to make the summit with the skis (and it probably would have called the attempt), it was only a bitter-sweet disappointment.
A little snow approaching the summit:
We relaxed on the summit, enjoying the sun, which had only just recently come out. The lighting of the surrounding peaks was amazing, and as time went on, the sky got clearer, the wispy clouds lifting, unveiling the peaks around us.
Photo Credit: killingcokes
I started wondering when the guy I saw skinning up the valley that I had wanted to go up, would arrive. Soon enough killingcokes arrives on the summit and gives us a tutorial of how to ski from the summit. (See his TR for photos) Skiing down the trail was eye opening. Maybe I'll do the same, when my skis are older, and not so new looking. Yeah, maybe….
Some rock skiing lessons:
Going down the gully:
As we descended the ridge to where our skis were, I watched as killingcokes made his way down the tangle of rocks to where the snow filled basin dropped below. The rock jumping looked painful. Only when he reached the continuous snow, did the skiing become more than tortuous jump turns and side scraping. Then the skiing was graceful and smooth as he descended down and out of sight.
On the high saddle, the views were breathtaking of Wetterhorn and the distant Mt Sneffels. The sun streaks gave the view an almost surreal appearance.
Some lovely 13ers
Wetterhorn and Matterhorn:
We got back to our skis and geared up for the descent. My disappointment at not skinning up the other basin went away, as soon as I saw the possibility for some amazing photos. The lighting of the peaks in the background allowed for some interesting shots of Darrin. Too bad some are a little tilted, as I was skiing at the time of taking the shots. Yes, the new AT ski set up works that awesome, that I can ski and shoot photos as the same time. Yes!!!!
For the first time ever, I am waiting on Darrin down the slope. Finally I am faster! Of course I have ~30 years of skiing experience to fall back on. But all the resort training has truly paid off. Darrin does an amazing job of skiing down the mountain. I go ahead to scout out the way ahead, trying to steer him towards the easiest slopes and best snow.
My first turns:
A few times, the route ahead is less than ideal, and the survival ski training comes into play. Skiing down a few very steep slopes with boulders as obstacles, wind scoured holes around boulders and deep powder valleys are all circumvented without incident. The stream valley we descended into (following killingcokes tracks – and those of the previous days skiers), was amazingly fun and exciting at times.
The stream valley:
When we hit treeline, the sun was fading into dusk, and made the skiing more challenging, as headlamps produced little if any illumination of the trail and trees ahead. Back at camp, we decided that instead of rushing to pack up and get down the trail, we should eat a ramen dinner and drink some hot drinks in the tent. A little respite before the skin down the road.
So after warming up a bit and refueling, we pack up and put our skins back on to go down the road. We chose skins because of the periodic uphills we would encounter, as well as for safety. In the dark, skiing with a heavy pack is less than ideal.
At the start it was hard to keep from running into Darrin (he had the brighter headlamp). Too much cross-country kicks in my repertoire kept me sliding farther on the downhill. But after a few miles, the wear and tear on my body started to creep up on me. The pack was Darrin's and didn't fit well. My big pack didn't have a ski carry system, so I had to compromise. My back was killing me, and I had to take periodic breaks. Half-way down, a minor injury on the climb up (a small hyper-extension of my left knee) started to rear it's ugly side. With time, my pace slowed. No more extra kick to my slow slide down the road. With less than a mile left, my knee had it. It could go no further in the ski position. I had to remove the skis and stiff leg it down the rest of the way. Darrin generously sacrificed himself and took my skis onto his pack. But as it was the only way we would get down the mountain in one piece, it had to be done.
After that, all we thought about was that nasty patch of ice from the very beginning of the trek. That would signify the end of this "epic". Every time we saw a turn to the left with a rocky cliff, we would get excited, but then get disappointed when it wasn't icy. Eventually there it was, the end was just around the corner now. That is, the end of the skiing, we still had a 5hr drive home, starting at 12:30am! In Lake City we were grateful for the 24hr gas station, as it was a long way to Gunnison on a quarter tank of gas, even with good mpg. We refueled our bodies at the only place open in Gunnison, Love's convenience store. We drove into the sunrise, making it home to Boulder as some were just making it to work for the day.
The complete photo album:
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):