Peak(s):  The Spider - 12,692'
"Pk H"  -  13,100 feet
Date Posted:  05/07/2019
Modified:  05/08/2019
Date Climbed:   05/05/2019
Author:  benlen
Additional Members:   joelmpaula

Skiing The Spider (12,692ft) & Peak H (13,100ft)
(all photos & text by me, unless noted otherwise)


The Spider


Peak H

Forward: Vail, Colorado, 8,022 ft

By any logical person’s standards, my failures in skimo would have me hanging up my skis a long time ago.

Fleeing lighting strikes on a 14K couloir. Clinging to the side of a mountain after setting off a wind slab avalanche.

These were just a few of the dubious highlights of my first two seasons of ski mountaineering in Colorado's Rockies.

On a mid-week retreat at the end of the ski season this year at Vail, I skied with a group of recovering cancer patients who had fought their disease and were just resuming an activity that was integral to their sense of self.

One patient pulled me aside after a swift run down Avanti to Chair 2, and she said in pleasantly French accented English:

“You’re a beautiful skier––treasure it.”

Of course, ski mountaineering is a wholly different beast from making gorgeous inbounds turns. And the consequences of any misstep in the backcountry are great.


Joel Paula (above) skins up East Booth Pass, towards our objectives, in the early hours of May 5th, 2019.

Partners: A Brief History


Joel Paula shredding pillows on Vail Pass during 2019's excellent winter.


I first met Joel Paula through Facebook in 2017, connected by a mutual friend.

"Is this guy legit?" I asked my friend.

"Is this guy actually real?" Joel asked my friend.

We were each skeptical. I questioned Joel's backcountry bona fides, and Joel thought I was just some young powderhound with a penchant for beginning any ski post with an all caps "OH YEAH!" or "BOOM!"

But, after meeting in the 2017 days after Beaver Creek Resort closed, and skinning up for post season powder laps, we became ski mountaineer partners.

Now 36, Joel is his prime, 5'10, blessed with perennial six pack abs, and armed with a surfeit of energy for skimo.

Joel's obsession with skimo extends into his off time. While on a family vacation, Joel monitored the weather forecasts in Colorado's mountain ranges from rollercoasters at Disney World, sending me daily texts, often saying, "Let's move our planned time for skiing X Peak to Y Day. Storm is coming in."

Joel's name and photos have graced many ski trip reports on, and, for a time, his photo of clambering up Mt Moran sans gloves, with skis on his back, was the top Google image search result for that peak.

I've spent many nights around Joel's dinner table in Gypsum, ostensibly for us to discuss ski goals, but more importantly, to become integrated into his family life. And as I've bonded with Joel's wife Kat, and watched Lily, his gifted daughter, grow up, I felt humbled, and honored, to be adopted into the clan.

In 2.5 seasons of skimo together, I have chased Joel places few folks were willing to go, and in return, he has helped mold and mentor an enthused ski mountaineer apprentice, and handled my endless questions about skimo with patience and aplomb.


Jon confidently charging down the Spider's hanging snowfield on May 5th, 2019.


Jon met Joel during the 2018 season, where their first "ski date" together was into the Gore for Peak X. For Jon, it would be a taste of what a ski day with Joel typically entailed: early starts, fast pace, and big ass vertical gain.

38, with a towering frame and gracious smile behind his beard and salt and pepper hair, Jon first connected with me on Emperor Couloir. Later that season, we paved the way up Grizzly Peak A's Grizzly Couloir on Memorial Day weekend.

Then and now, I am impressed that his unassuming personality hides an incredibly strong and powerful ski technique.


At 30, I was, in this group, very much the new hire, the young gun, even if my knees and back didn't quite feel as lubricated as they were in my 20s. I'd finished the 14ers, survived some scrapes I shouldn't, and entering my third decade, was woefully aware of my strengths and weaknesses as both an athlete and a human being.

Some people prefer to compartmentalize their outdoor lives––to wholly separate their ski mountaineer partners from the rest of their day to day routines. They don’t return calls, texts, or hang out on the deck and share a cold beer on a warm Colorado day with their skimo partners. They treat their partners more like tools, and their outings like appointments. The arrangement is more of individuals checking off lists, with partners joining them for mandatory safety purposes, rather than coming together as teams of men and women sharing dreams together.

And that's not me. I believe that our adventures out there together can mold and shape us into those better humans we aspire to be––if we choose to listen. The mountains can teach us a lot––but experiencing the mountains side by side with our compatriots can accelerate that learning even further.

May 5th, 2019:

My iPhone's alarm chimed at 12:45am, and I swiftly rose from bed in my West Vail home to make Jon, who had crashed in the living room, some coffee.

Jon and I met Joel at the Booth Falls trailhead, with the ominous "3 hour parking limit" signs, at 2:20am, and were off into a seemingly cloudless but also paradoxically starless dark night at 2:35am sharp on a mostly dry trail.

Walking in ski boots didn't bother me much, with my only discomfort a mild stinging in my lower back due to the weight of my daypack.

"Damn old age," I thought, fondly recalling my early 20s, where I could eat with abandon and never spend a second stretching after a workout.

Within a mile, we were walking in the frozen footfalls of East Vail residents, and once we'd reached Booth Falls, I was grateful to remove the skis from my back and begin to skin. Now we would cover some ground, set into a groove, and really enjoy this night in the wilderness.


Looking back at my town from near the top of East Booth Pass. The forecast called for a high in the 60s in town and abundant sunshine, but in the early morning, it seemed like perhaps the weathermen would be wrong again. The spring of 2019 has been difficult to predict with any accuracy.




The Climb:


Joel Paula boots up the hanging snowfield on The Spider.

When Joel shared photos of her, my first reaction was a prolonged, “Damn.”

In each season of skimo, I’ve always had a mountain I wanted to ski above all else.

And this year, it was The Spider, with a dizzying vertical drop to a remote valley, an eerily looming cornice, and a hanging snowfield from a ski mountaineer’s dream.

From that moment months ago, to marching through the wilderness with two best friends, I wondered, “Can I climb and ski this?”

Joel tops out on the Spider, just before 8:45am, May 5th, 2019.

Jon takes in the stunningly remote view from the summit ridge of the Spider.

I recalled the scene in “Meru,” where Conrad Anker declares, “Jimmy, this is your lead.”

And Jimmy took it to the top of the Shark’s FIn.

The Spider was my Meru.

And as Joel and Jon offered to relieve me of boot pack duties on the hanging snowfield, I thought, “I got this.”

I had never felt so good on a boot pack. No right knee pain. My heart wasn’t redlining. My ax and crampons dug reassuringly into the slope.

And with a triumphant roar, I stretched my arms around the cornice, and pulled myself to the top.

The Ski:

A short, GoPro Hero 7 POV of our ski descent of the Spider.


Jay Vestich shows there's no excuse for not skiing well. Here, he's angulating nicely, even with Dynafit Ultralite 2.0s.

On the summit, Joel, Jon, and I met up with fellow Vail local shredders Jay Vestich and Wayne Bolte. The two men had clambered up the opposite side of the Spider, and summited just minutes earlier.

The night before, they had snowmobiled to the wilderness line near Piney Lake, then established a base camp so they could spend several days in the Gore, exploring new lines.

On a whim, Wayne texted Joel, and Joel had suggested they first ski the Spider with us before their original objective (Peak P.) Jay and Wayne agreed, made breakfast in the shadow of the rugged Gore Range, then began the journey to the top.

I knew Jay from when he was a roommate to an ex-girlfriend of mine in Minturn, but hadn't run into him for a few years. It was wonderful to reunite on such a stupendous morning, and exciting to know that Jay and Wayne were capable shredders––they would make great models for showing off to the camera just how cool a ski descent the Spider was.


Jay shreds the hanging snowfield.


Not to be undone, Wayne barrels down the hanging snowfield at Mach 5. Shortly after this photo, Wayne took a scary tomahawk over some hidden rocks. Luckily, he recovered, but his GoPro, which was mounted to his helmet, was lost.

Joel is serious about testing gear. This was his first day in his new Alien RS boots!


Each day, we battle with our own mortality.

Sometimes, it’s a terrifying disease, like cancer. And the patients I have the privilege to work with up here remind me to treasure the days I have, getting to live in the most famous ski town in the Rockies.

But other battles are those we choose to fight, like marching through the night to ski a dream peak. And those battles, dancing along the razor’s edge in the Rocky Mountains, make us feel more alive.

With ample daylight remaining, and the weather continuing to appear favorable, Joel, Jon, and I split from Jay and Wayne at the base of the Spider. Jay and Wayne headed for Peak P, while we went to ski Straight Arrow on Peak H.

And while this line was not as spectacular as the Spider, it offered an excellent corn harvest before we trekked back over Booth Pass, and made our way home:

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

 Comments or Questions

05/08/2019 07:55
Nice action shots. Photo 10 would make a good blow up.


Just you wait ...
05/09/2019 16:09
30 is far from old. The real aches and pains will come soon enough.

Congrats on the descents and thanks for sharing.


Very nice!
05/09/2019 20:42
Enjoyed the write up, very entertaining. Nice job capturing the sense of camaraderie. I live in Eagle and like to get into these same zones if you ever need an extra pair of legs to break trail.

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