Peak(s):  Quandary Peak  -  14,265 feet
Date Posted:  04/25/2009
Date Climbed:   03/18/2009
Author:  clemsonmtneer
 Wild Day on Quandary   

This trip report is way overdue I know, so I apologize for that. I've had limited access to internet recently, though we're setting up a new connection soon so that should change. Unfortunately, the internet connection at this coffee shop sucks so I was unable to upload full res pics (even though they were all well under 5 mb) which is frustrating, but oh well, maybe I can edit later and make the pictures larger. Anyways, the conditions on Quandary when we hiked this are very different than they are now I'm sure. Sarah (sstratta) and I hiked & skied this the week before all of the big spring storms rolled into Colorado.

We ended up having quite a day though, both good and bad. For a long time, I had my sights set on Quandary Peak as my first fourteener ski descent, figuring it would be a good peak to start on since the hike is straightforward relatively speaking and the avalanche danger is generally low on the East Ridge that most people ski. Due to the recent warm and dry weather that had plagued Colorado (this was March 18, right before the big snows came), I decided to go for it. Being two days before the Spring Solstice, it would technically be my first winter fourteener as well.

I met up with Sarah in Frisco, and we made it to the Monte Cristo Trailhead and began skinning up the trail around 8 am. We hiked along a skate ski trail, thinking it was the winter trail up to Quandary, but eventually realized it wasn't the right way. However, we followed a couple of spur trails and eventually met back up with the main set of tracks through the snow. After a couple of sketchy switchbacks on the frozen snow, we made it up to the ridgeline where the route was obvious the rest of the way. It was very warm outside by March standards, even that early in the morning. The day started off beautiful and sunny, and we hoped the snow would soften up just enough for a good descent, but unfortunately it did cloud over later in the day, leading to some pretty crappy snow conditions. More on that later.


View of Quandary as we approach treeline


Alan (clemsonmtneer) skinning up the trail


Sarah (sstratta) skinning up the ridge


Sarah crossing a bare spot on the ridge


Views to the west of Quandary

As we made our way up the ridge, I looked ahead and saw a shaggy mountain goat in front of us. This was definitely exciting, but then the goat started walking towards us and ended up getting very close, probably within 5 to 10 feet, before we decided to skirt around it. Mountain goats are interesting animals. The ones here aren't very afraid of humans, but they certainly aren't aggressive either. More curious than anything. However, they are wild animals so it's best to give them their space. I'll admit this one made me a little nervous with how close it got. I've heard that goats are attracted to human sweat since they like salt, which is why they approach humans, but I'm not sure to what extent this is accurate. It could just be that Quandary Peak is so popular that they're just used to humans and think we'll feed them.


Mountain goat


Even as the mountain goat got too close for comfort, it was hard to put the camera away

As we kept skinning up the ridge, the mountain goat followed us for a little while. And at one point, I was a little ways ahead of Sarah and the mountain goat actually started walking between us. Eventually, the goat wandered off on his own and stopped following us.


Alan being followed by the killer mountain goat

The ridge flattened out for a little ways, around where we encountered the goat, but then it steepened considerably as it approached the summit. It was a bit of a slow go from here on out, and we probably should have bootpacked this section since I slipped several times on the steep, icy trail, but I was too stubborn to take of the skis at the time. Overall it wasn't too bad, though. We saw three more mountain goats hanging around the trail, but these goats weren't quite as bold as the first one we saw and moved out of the way once we got close. At about 1:30 pm, we reached the summit and both of us took a break before we both began our first fourteener ski descent. Overall, Quandary was Fourteener #11 for me (number 8 since moving to CO last July).

Final push toward the summit


Sarah approaching the summit


Alan approaching the summit

As we ate our lunches on the summit, we looked over and saw a herd of about 10 more mountain goats. It was actually really cool because about 5-6 of the goats were babies, and they were just kind of hanging out. As we ate, every minute or so, one of the goats would wander over to us and check us out, then go back to the herd. Definitely a cool experience sharing the summit with these awesome animals. After about 15 minutes on the summit, with surprisingly balmy temperatures and calm winds, we were ready to ski.


Baby mountain goats on the summit


More mountain goats


Sarah ready to ski


Alan ready to ski

We started out skiing just a little ways down the ridge, and then traversing over to the line we wanted to ski down the East Bowl. Sarah went first, skiing about halfway down the bowl and stopping near a rock outcropping. Then it was my turn. As I skied, the snow was quite variable, and for the most part, crappy. Since it was overcast outside, the snow didn't have a chance to soften, so it was pretty bad. However, once I got into a groove after my first couple of turns, I was having a blast just knowing that I was skiing a fourteener.

But then, the most unthinkable disaster that could have possibly occurred happened. As I got close to the outcropping where Sarah was waiting, I heard a loud popping noise and saw a piece of plastic fly into the air behind me as my ski went sliding below me. My binding had broken. The piece that popped off slid down to where I had fallen and was lying against the slope, so I picked it up and realized that it was my toe piece. Luckily, Sarah had caught my free-flying ski and brought it back up to me. I had most of the toe piece, but the plastic had snapped so part of it was missing. I was able to screw it back into the binding, but about 1/4 of the screw hole was missing, so it wasn't completely secure in there.


Holding my ski with the broken binding. Despite the smile on my face, I was less than thrilled.

Regardless, I decided I might as well give it a try and continue skiing down the East Bowl to the bottom. I snapped back into the binding and we skied to the bottom of the bowl without further incident, although each turn made me nervous. However, once I popped out of my ski, the toe piece came flying off again, and at this point I realized it would be safest for me to bootpack the rest of the way down instead of skiing on a broken binding.


Getting ready to bootpack the rest of the way back, Quandary's East Ridge in the background. My binding broke just above the rockface that makes a straight line across the middle of the bowl.

Unfortunately, due to the circumstances, we didn't get any pictures of the descent. I know, it's a major bummer to have a summit ski TR with no descent photos, and we had planned on photos for the descent, but with my binding breaking, we had more important things to worry about so it just didn't happen.

Anyways, we bootpacked across a rock field with intermittent snow to reach the ridge that we had skinned up, then we started hiking down. The bootpack was perfectly fine at first, and actually a pleasant walk. We ran into a couple of other skiers and boarders who were turning around early due to less than optimal snow, and Horton the Quandary Dog was hiking with them, so it was cool to see the local hero.

Everything was going well, but then things turned really, really sh*tty. As we approached treeline, due to the warm temperatures, the snow turned to complete crap. I'm talking deep slush and crud that will eat you alive. Every few steps, we would post-hole up to our waists in the snow. Hiking through this stuff was absolutely miserable. I kept considering putting my skis on and risking it once we got to treeline, but I decided it would be too dangerous, compounded by the fact that I didn't have a helmet since mine had broken a couple of weeks earlier (I found out on this trip that once you get used to skiing with a helmet, it's scary as hell to ski without least for me). However, the post-holing kept getting worse and worse, and it was completely draining our energy levels, and I eventually decided enough was enough. I was going to risk skiing on a broken binding and no helmet through tight trees to get out of this nightmare. Otherwise we were never going to make it back since it was already getting late in the afternoon.

We followed the tracks the rest of the way back, with Sarah going first and stopping, and then me following her. When I first started skiing, I hit a flat spot and sunk down to my knees with my skis on. It was completely ridiculous. Eventually I got going, but the skiing was tedious to say the least. Every turn I made through the trees, which was basically a "snow plow" wedge turn, I thought, "Holy sh*t, I'm going to kill myself."

After we made it down a good ways, I came to a stop behind Sarah, and what do ya know, off comes the binding's toe piece. It was the real deal this time, though. The plastic toe piece literally cracked in half and flew off, so I knew it was done. I didn't even bother retrieving it. Normally I would never leave behind trash like that, but I was frustrated and exhausted so I didn't care at this point.

I told Sarah, who had been nice enough to boot-pack earlier when she could have skied, to not put herself through the misery this time and continue skiing ahead. I sloshed through the quicksand-like snow, probably cursing and dropping more F-bombs, when, miraculously, after only a minute or two, I heard Sarah shout that she had reached the packed-down skate-ski track.

"Thank God," I thought. After practically crawling through the snow, I found the skate ski track, and slid both of my skis down the little hill above the track. Then I slid on my ass down the little hill and crawled onto the road. I was so happy I could have kissed the ground. We strapped our skis to our backpacks and hiked the last half-mile or so to the trailhead, which after expending so much energy post-holing, felt practically effortless.

I couldn't help but laugh about the excursion as we made our way back to the car. After all, we had had a good climb and had each skied our first fourteener, and I realized that we had a good story to tell now. And once I was out of my misery, all I could do was laugh because when you spend enough time in the mountains, you're always going to get your ass kicked once in a while so you might as well take it light-heartedly, and learn from your mistakes (even if some things, such as equipment failure, are out of your control).

Despite what happened, I'm ready to start shopping for new AT bindings and look forward to skiing more peaks this spring.

There were basically three things I learned from this trip:

1) Even if they're cheaper, don't buy crappy bindings. For relatively high-risk activities, like spring backcountry skiing, it's important not to have equipment fail on you. If I had been skiing a narrow couloir in a no-fall zone (granted, I'm fairly new to bc skiing...just started last spring, so I still have a ways to go before I get to that level), and my binding had broken, it could have been very, very bad.

2) Quandary Peak might be relatively "tame", but we should have gotten an earlier start, because the slush we had to endure on the way back was miserable. Also, with spring in full force now, an early summit is crucial due to afternoon wet slide danger. From reading Dawson's 14er guide, he gives general turn-around times you should follow depending on your aspect during the spring so you don't run into avalanche danger later in the day.

3) We knew there was a chance that it would turn cloudy, and it did, which ended up affecting the ski descent in a negative way. With the snowpack now in spring-like state, I plan to only ski peaks in clear weather, where I know the snow will soften up enough and that a freeze will have occurred the night before to ensure safe avalanche conditions early on.

This is a long first trip report I know, but I plan to start putting more up.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

i feel your pain
04/26/2009 20:46
going back through the trees after skiing sniktau was an absolute nightmare, glad you made it out ok.

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