When the young college man shows up for spring break, the old guy has a tendency to come out of retirement. Into this past weekend it was pretty obvious our central Colorado 14ers were in excellent condition for early (not quite spring) ski descents. Avy danger was in the green zone, coverage was good — only concern being a warming trend. Indeed, knowing Jordan White and companions had recently nailed Mount of the Holy Cross and ever elusive Capitol Peak made me painfully aware our noble alps were caked and ready for the kiss of glisse.
The day began with our 4-stroke sled quietly purring up the Pearl Pass road like the high tech machinery it is supposed to be. We rode double, with my latest suspension mods and bar riser providing a stable platform. Exact parking spot was optional, and dictated by us seeing another party up ahead. Why harsh their groove? So we clicked the key off and began the muscle powered portion of our climb. We caught up with the trio at around timberline in Montezuma Basin.
Turned out we knew the folks. Ellen Hollingshead of Breckenridge, married to infamous humor writer and consummate politician Jeffrey Bergeron; Deb Curtis, well known Aspen ski patroller, and Exum Guide Wes Bunch . I was psyched to see this awesome crew all on Dynafits, with Wes sporting a pair of Goode skis as well (as if he really needs the weight savings). The crew was staying down at the Green/Wilson hut. I asked how much the girls we’re paying Wes, they corrected me and made sure I was aware he was paying them for the privilege of bunking with two ladies!
We all made short work of the ascent, as it’s only a few thousand vertical from hut or sled. My shiny ZZero boots got antiqued by the scree of the upper west ridge, and you had to watch out you didn’t slip on ice patches and get launched over a cliff. At the summit we slipped into our harnesses in case things got funky and we needed an anchor or belay. Doing steep descents in March means you really don’t know what you’ll find. Could be ice. Could be powder. Our you could end up in the middle of a wet sluff avalanche cycle and need to duck under a rock and wait it out ’till the evening freeze. Rope can be handy for any of that.
Last time we were here, I belayed then 14-year-old Louie off the summit and over to the North Couloir for a descent. That was in 2005. Farther back, before children and just after marriage, I’d done the first descent of Castle’s east face in 1990. The route has since become a classic. Not tough by today’s standards, but difficult to find in condition as Colorado east faces tend to get sun damaged and undergo an early morning thaw that makes for a short window of optimal time.
You get this route from the exact summit, with some of the steeper turns actually being on a wind swale just off the top. The summit slopes dump you into the sinuous main couloir, or your can traverse skier’s right and do an Alaskan style face. We chose the couloir, which is where I’d gone that first time — sweet to be here again. One section hourglasses to the point where jump turns are still possible but lateral movement is limited. Other than that, it’s just fun steep turns on terrain that probably averages about 40 degrees.
Judging conditions and start time are difficult calls when spring hits in Colorado. Too early and you may be waiting for an ice glaze to soften. Too late any you get ‘punch through’ snow that’s dangerous to your knees and bones, but can also avalanche. Problem is, you don’t know exactly what times these things occur. You can start super early for insurance, but end up sitting on the summit for hours waiting. We opted for a lazy man’s start and began skiing from the summit at around 11:00 AM, an hour or two past optimum time. It worked out, but by the time the two of us had skied the run was somewhat hacked, so our three friends made a good decision and skipped the glop fest for a descent of the north couloir.
|My favorite shot. In the couloir. Yeah, pretty similar to the photo up above. But that’s what happens when you’ve got a good skier in the lens — they tend to repeat the same moves. Please click image for massive enlargement.|
As I write this, a winter storm blows the last vestiges of spring away from our house and town. Spring will be winter by tomorrow — but what good is a spring break without some powder skiing to top it off?