Solo Mission — The Alpine Music of Pearl Mountain

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Pearl basin backcountry skiing.
Boot climbing up Pearl Mountain this morning.

I leave the house at 3:45 AM. The highway drive goes fast, up the Roaring Fork Valley here in central Colorado. No traffic this early, and flashing yellow stoplights you can rip through like they’re not even there. It’s still dark when I drop into 4-low for the bumpy ride up the Pearl Pass road to snow line. Everything is organized in the truck, skins on skis, backpack with minimal supplies for a quick morning jaunt. Transition from driving to walking takes mere minutes.

A crisp clear sky tells me the snow surface got a good freeze. Icy rivulets on the road also show it’s a good morning for spring backcountry skiing. I’ll be safe from avalanches, and the climbing will be easy on firm nieve.

My legs feel heavy after a week of desk work and fighting a cold, but my lungs and heart are strong from a big winter of climbing. So I breath deep and fill my chest with sweet alpine air. I don’t know how far I’ll go this morning, but I’ve always been a mountaineer so a peak is my goal. West Pearl seems like a good one today; easy; lower angled so a good corn surface can develop without being ruined by wet avalanches and snow rollers.

Black Diamond Verdict backcountry ski
West Pearl Mountain, Elk Mountains, Colorado. Ski route marked, my climbing route took steeper terrain to right in photo.

Going alone heightens my senses. The valley is an audio feast this morning. A deep base thrumming echoes up from a small river gorge to my right. Layered over that is an upper midtone of rushing water, with bird calls providing an almost rhythmic counterpoint from the forest around me. The sounds are richer than any concert I’ve ever attended. I think, this must be the origin of music.

Pearl Basin, Candle Peak.
Candle Peak getting first light.

The eastern sky glows behind me. Up ahead is Candle Peak, which true to its name ignites at first light, showing me another sunrise is neigh.

Climbing and skiing in Colorado.
One of God’s instruments — everything sounded in-tune this morning.

I’m in my skis now, still on the jeep trail as it enters the alpine. Tagert Hut appears on my left, its gingerbread fascia boards call me like an old friend. I could stop and make myself some tea, but Pearl Peak is looking better.

Someone is staying at the Goodwin Greene hut next to the Tagert. I see smoke coming out of the stovepipe and skis propped outside. They’re sleeping in, I think, probably feels pretty good. Perhaps they’ll be making pancakes soon or ripping open a package of bacon — and planning on some sun bathing. Sounds nice! Perhaps I should get Louie and Lisa and come up here for a few days away from phones and email. For now I get a few hours of such bliss, and I’ll take what I’m given.

Above the huts I ski into the sun. No wind, so I relax with my friendly water bottle. Ptarmigan are calling. Back on my skis, I pass a white ptarmigan feather lying ever so elegantly on the snow surface. The quill is like a greeting: Welcome to the alpine sir, enjoying yourself yet?

I’m feeling stronger. Up ahead I can see a ptarmigan perched on a pointed rock, a glowing ball of feathered white against a dark background, like a light bulb. I wonder how close Mr. ptarmigan will allow me to approach. Not close this time, I’m a hundred feet away when the bird screeches then flutters away in that klutzy style of “flying” that ptarmigan are known for.

A small headwall on Pearl is an obvious boot climb up frozen snow, so I remove my skis and go to climbing mode. The summit comes fast. Standing at the apex I can see Crested Butte ski area to the southwest. The highest peaks of the Elk Mountains rise to the north, Castle Peak showing its east face ski line and Cathedral Peak showing its best side as well.

Skiing Pearl Mountain, Colorado
At the summit in the heart of the Elk Mountains. That’s Castle Peak to the left and Cathedral to the right.

The summit is windy, so I walk down a few feet to a protected spot and sit in the sun for a moment’s contemplation. After a prayer of thanks, I click in and make easy turns down into Pearl Basin. As expected, the snow surface is nearly perfect. A bit hard still, but I’d rather ski that than make trenches in dangerous muck. My freshly tuned skis are hooking during turns, so I grab a chunk of maroon sandstone and de-tune my tips and tails. Much smoother now. Rather than taking the road back down to the huts, I glide over to a route known as the Backyard that gets me another good pitch of skiing.

Climbing and skiing in Colorado.
Obligatory pointer shot, the descent is beautiful. That’s Mace Peak to the right, pointer indicates entrance to Backyard portion of descent.

Frozen boot-tracked snow on the road is uncomfortable for gliding, but it goes fast. I’m glad I’m not walking. Back at the truck a breeze has muffled the alpine symphony, so I stick a Led Zep CD in the slot, and drive. Back at my desk around 9:30, I can close my eyes and conjure up the sound of that ptarmigan call. Till next time.

Comments

13 Responses to “Solo Mission — The Alpine Music of Pearl Mountain”

  1. BJ Sbarra May 15th, 2007 1:29 pm

    Very cool Lou, well done.

  2. Rahul Dave May 15th, 2007 2:04 pm

    Thanks for sharing. Your prose reminded me of reading Jack Turners Teewinot, in how it communicates sounds and feelings..What a day!

  3. Oliver May 15th, 2007 2:30 pm

    Nice morning workout.

  4. Derek May 15th, 2007 9:37 pm

    Best WildSnow post ever.
    Thanks Lou.

  5. Handtruck May 15th, 2007 9:49 pm

    Wow…

    I think I have to go skiing tomorrow.

    Thank you.

  6. Geof May 15th, 2007 11:02 pm

    Lou,

    What do you tapped to your whippet? Great report!!

  7. Geof May 15th, 2007 11:02 pm

    Opps… TAPED!!!

  8. Michael Kennedy May 16th, 2007 4:37 am

    Great post, Lou. Those solo missions are just so much fun and help one get centered, de-stressed, and generally psyched to take on the day-to-day. Thanks for sharing, your words are a real inspiration.

  9. Mark Worley May 16th, 2007 5:03 am

    Friggin incredible.

  10. Lou May 16th, 2007 6:09 am

    Thanks guys, fun to speed write and see what comes out. You never know… there was even more to the aural feast, coyotes howling, stuff like that.

    Geof, I have my Whippets permanently bolted into my poles, so when the terrain is moderate I stick some duct tape on the picks to they won’t damage my clothing, etc. During the climb there was one steep section of hard snow with fall potential so I was glad I had them, but most of the terrain I was on is moderate, by intent. At this point in life I have no desire to solo anything extreme.

  11. Clark Cretti May 16th, 2007 3:14 pm

    Ahhh, what an evocative story. Loved it!

  12. Pierce May 16th, 2007 4:06 pm

    Lou, where is snowline these days on Pearl Pass road? Great post and cool pix!

  13. Lou May 16th, 2007 4:27 pm

    Snowline at foot bridge.

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information opinion website and e magazine. Lou's passion for the past 45 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about backcountry skiing and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free back country news and information here, and tons of Randonnee rando telemark info.

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