Peak(s):  Paiute Pk  -  13,088 feet
Date Posted:  04/05/2021
Modified:  05/02/2021
Date Climbed:   04/03/2021
Author:  123tqb
 How to Be a Ski Mountaineer   

How to Be a Ski Mountaineer

  • Date: 03 Apr, 2021
  • Peaks: Paiute Peak
  • Route: South Slopes
  • Mileage: 13mi
  • Vertical: 3000ft
  • Time: 11 hours
  • Partners: Alexis, Whit, Michael

So the spring skiing season officially begins! With the forecast in the 50's even up at 13k, I was very glad to finally be getting summer-like weather. Of course in Colorado this means absolutely nothing for the backcountry ski season. I was much more glad about that! I had come up to the Brainard Lake area the previous week with Grandmaster Hogan of the CU Backcountry Club (see this post), but weather had turned us around. I was dedicated to skiing the line, and so I planned to go up to Paiute Peak again as soon as possible. I gathered the usual suspects all up again (without Hogan, as I'm a dummy and forgot to invite the guy who originally invited me), and we made the plan to ski Curvaceous Couloir on the warmest day since last October. As always, the story begins with an alpine start.

Leaving Boulder at 4:00 always hurts, but I suppose it's good practice for when I'll have to wake up even earlier for summer-season fourteeners. I was smart this time around, and prepared a hearty breakfast of pop tarts and a Nature Valley bar. Thankfully all four of us live right across the street from one another, making our hasty departure quick and painless. We got to the Brainard Gateway Trailhead at 4:45 with plenty of time to suit up and get going on our six mile approach.

Our arrival at the lake was a sight to behold! The sun had just begun to rise, and, unlike my past outing, we were able to see our line from miles away! Michael brought his camera with him, and snagged a few pics before we set off to the summer trailhead. We made good time, arriving at the Mitchell Lake Trail only 1.5hrs after our departure from the car.

Michael after taking photos on the lake (he hasn't finished editing, which I feel).
I told them to line up for a photo. They reluctantly submitted.

We were absolutely crushing the approach by the time we reached Mitchell Lake. I wrote up a pretty detailed plan a few days before, which included what we like to call "time hacks" in the Army. A thing you need to know about the military is that we like to make basic, everyday things sound sophisticated. A time hack is just the time you think you'll get somewhere. I suppose wasting our brain space with acronyms and pointless terms is just how us soldiers get to feel special. Suffice it to say we were ahead of schedule! The views of Audubon were awesome, in the most literal sense possible. I couldn't help but stare at the mountain the whole time it was within sight. The Autobahn Couloirs looked absolutely stunning. The good news is they're totally within my skiing wheelhouse! I doubt I'll have enough time for them this year with all my big plans, but next season I'll know where they are.

Alexis posing in front of Mt. Audubon, but not the cool part for some reason!
Mitchell Lake with some frozen loose-wet avalanche debris behind.

Leaving Mitchell Lake, we could tell that the day was going to be a long one. Michael, on his 120mm-underfoot skis mounted with Shifts, was having a bit of trouble keeping up with the rest of the group, and both he and Alexis were having ski boot issues. Being the indestructible young'uns we were, we pressed on up a gully just to the southwest of the lake that, I had remembered correctly from my last trip, lead up the path of least resistance to treeline. Approaching treeline, the views got more astonishing, and we could see that somebody had already skied the southeast face of Mt. Toll (another bucket list item for me). The weather was still perfect, and although we were tired, we still moved fast for the time being.

This photo doesn't help much, but it's the gully we found on the SW side of the lake.
Above treeline, from left to right: Mt. Toll, Paiute Peak, and the Autobahn Couloirs.

After a half mile of gradually-slowing pace, we reached a point I remembered with much disdain. On my previous outing to this area, this mildly steeper section is where Hogan and I had turned around. We couldn't see our mountain, even being within a mile of it. In our haste, I had dropped my rental ice axe on the descent, and we both had to turn around and skin back up from Mitchell Lake for the second time that day. Arriving at this slope now, the group decided to go up it instead of around the easier way, in order to save some time. (As you'll find out, this was probably not the right move by us). We trudged up the sastrugi-filled slope, making it to the top to see a large, fairly dry section. We now were too committed not to go through it. Looking back at it now, staying low and following the drainage is the way to go.

The slope where I had lost my ice axe. To viewer's right is a cool corniced bowl.
Sastrugi-filled, I tell you!
Skiing on rocks and grass is not the optimal scenario for keeping clean bases.

Now the hurt was on. Whit and I led the way, and looking at the time, Whit brought up the idea that we might miss our safety window, in terms of wet-snow avalanches. (I'd just like to note, this is what you need in a ski partner. I'm very confident and difficult to turn around, which is something I am working on, but Whit helps me think cautiously. Appreciate you, Whit!). As we made our way to Blue Lake and further, doing snowpack evaluations on representative slopes and checking the snow hardness, it started to become clear that it was unlikely we'd make Curvaceous Couloir. When we made it to Little Blue Lake and had to switch from skinning to booting, we had to make our final decision. We had said we had until 9:45 to get to the base of the climb, and there was no way we were making that time now. Our pace had slowed considerably, and we all needed a break. Whit helped convince me and the others to call off Curvaceous, and our plan shifted to skiing the South Slopes, our original ascent line. As we transitioned, we made it very clear that if we noticed the snow getting too soft, we'd turn around and ski down immediately.

If I were any good at photo editing or photo taking, this would look sick.
Alexis signalling the next person to cross under Crooked Couloir's runout zone.
While the crew crossed the runout, I did a quick pit (unfinished in this picture).
We got a flyover right after we made it across the runout!
Whit and Alexis put on crampons, while Michael eats and I pester them all.

We started booting in perfect conditions. The snow was firm enough to be supportive, but soft enough that Michael and I had easy steps without spikes on our feet. I plan on getting crampons as soon as I have the money for it, but it's good to know that lower-angle objectives such as this are doable without them. As soon as we took of our skis and got some sugar in our bodies it was like getting that 1-UP in Super Mario: all of the sudden we were moving fast. Just like how we had started that day. Calories work wonders, folks. It was good to be using different muscles, and the stunning beauty of the basin I'm sure distracted us from any pain we developed. We topped out the ridge about a half hour after transitioning, right as the snow became nice and soft.

The boot begins!
I take to the back, to make sure Michael gets enough Jolly Ranchers.
Whit more accurately demonstrates the angle, but it's still steeper than it looks!
Alexis step-kicking her way up the slope.
Whit's happy to finally make it to the top! Mt. Toll's North Ridge is looking sexy...

So what happens when the snow becomes perfectly ripe? Well, we're supposed to ski. Me being me, I decide that it sounds like a wonderful idea to run to the summit for a real quick selfie, making everyone else wait for my sorry ass to slip-and-slide all the way back to the packs and skis. I'm really making myself out to be a great climbing partner, aren't I? Despite my selfishness, we manage to ski the line with very good corn, although probably a few minutes late. I had met a lovely pair of snowshoers on the summit and had a good, albeit short, conversation with them. They mentioned glissading down in our tracks after us, but I had never thought that meant they would be coming down right under us as we skied! Talking to supranihilest now I realize there was some miscommunication on top of the ridge, and Whit descended not knowing he would be right on top of them. They say everyone makes mistakes, but we do especially often it seems.

I've said it before, but summit selfie is always a go.
Not only did I waste time, I didn't get action shots on the descent. Here's the climb.

By now we were all feeling pretty damn tired, and rightfully so. We unfortunately had a six-mile flatland-ski/downhill-skin out, which meant that the day was only about 2/3 of the way done. Due to fatigue mostly, I didn't get to take many more pictures on the way out. We picked our way down to Mitchell Lake, where we ate lunch before transitioning. We went as fast as possible, so that I could catch the bus home, Alexis could get to a friend's parents' house, Whit could get his parents from the airport, and Michael could get his much-deserved McDonald's. It was the day before Easter, after all. We passed the usual hundreds of snowshoers on the way down from Brainard Lake, and all-in-all had a wonderful Type II day. Couldn't have asked for better. Well, except maybe not the excruciating sunburnt face!

Dining hall sandwiches never tasted so good.
The gang all lined up. If the picture looks good, you weren't trying hard enough.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions

04/07/2021 10:46
I was one of the snowshoers you met on the summit of Paiute, along with Heather. Glad you guys had a good time up there, we did as well. For early spring it doesn't get much better than that! Apologies as well for the miscommunication atop the ridge, we'll be better about both communicating our own intent and making sure that everyone is clear of everyone else's. Enjoy the spring skiing!

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