The dark tooth of El Diente looms from dawn’s Mordor black like a distant ancient castle. At any moment I expect a dragon to rend the air with fire, swoop down, and carry us off for dinner.
Our trek began a few hours ago, at 2:00 in what some would name the morning. A rain squall had just soaked our tent, then Sean Crossen and Chris Webster pulled in, the rumbling engine of Webster’s truck firing me out of my sleeping bag like a dart from a crossbow. Along with my partner Carl Pelletier, we’d climbed in the dark, navigating by Braille to Rock of Ages Saddle, where we got our first view of the dark, rough looking peak. Yeah, I’ll admit, it creeped me out.
Sean and I had met briefly, and been in touch by email and phone. I’d been tracking his journey to ski all Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks. As I’m the first to have skied them all, Crossen’s “Quest” had special meaning to me. After all, if I’d done something perhaps notable, and no one bothers to repeat it, what’s that say about it? More importantly, I’d had an amazing and life changing experience skiing all 54 peaks, and was eager to hear of someone taking a few servings of the same stuff. (Update: Chris Davenport skied all the fourteeners in 2006/2007, while Sean chose to not complete his mission to ski them all.)
Sean’s project had gotten off to a rough start (his first season coincided with a record drought), but he’s well on his way to skiing all 54 fourteeners, and is doing his project in a speedy style that involves lots of winter ascents, retries, and massive road time. While his approach is somewhat different than mine, I respect what he’s doing and have looked forward to hooking up for an adventure. Not only that, but I’ve come to know that Sean is simply I really nice guy and an excellent mountaineering partner, so all the more reason to join forces!
So here we are, 13,020 feet, at the saddle. Usually, thirteen-thou’ is a nexus for me. When I break 13,000 my lungs almost always feel good, like they’ve finally adjusted to the altitude, or something like that. Today I don’t feel anything quite so enlightened. We’ve already been pelted by snow, bashed our shins in post holes, wondered if we needed our beacons switched on (don’t ask), and covered everything from personal history to child bearing in our uphill panting conversations. That’s what happens when everyone in your party is fit. You talk like a bunch of chattering nabobs in a barber shop until your vocal cords fry, then the pace really picks up. Fit or not, once we were talked out the damp air and inky clouds took away any altitude induced samadhi.
Fitness is always an issue on these trips. You do brutalize your body. Big vertical, heavy pack, skis dragging on your feet; you might be out 15 hours, getting worked like a mule. Carl and I were coming off a good winter, had not come down with SARS yet, and we really felt good on the charge up to Rock of Ages. The week before I’d been wondering if we could keep up with Sean, what with his incredible string of adventures no doubt working his body into condition — but living the Aspen ski mountaineer lifestyle hasn’t done us any harm, and we move well. (It didn’t hurt that we’d gotten a few hours of sleep, while Sean and Chris only had a cat nap at the trailhead before the push began.)
We get a good laugh at Rock Of Ages Saddle. It’s still dark as a coal mine. We clank over the crest, jabbering like street punks, wondering out loud what’s going on with the weather. Suddenly a voice pierces the night air, “hey, you guys skiing?” It sounds like the saddle’s namesake is speaking out of thin air, but turns out there is a bivvy tent set up just below us, and the tent’s denizen couldn’t help but join our conversation. (Never did find out who he was, but if you’re reading this please let me say ‘I apologize for the disturbance.’)
It is cold, damp, and windy. We strip skins, drop off the saddle, and make for a pile of rocks where we sit and shiver for thirty minutes, waiting for the sky to brighten so we can see if Diente’s north face is skiable. I’d recently been skiing in the Elk Mountains. Everything up there is sun cupped and avalanched, so my mind starts playing tricks. I see (mostly imaginary) avalanche debris everywhere I look in the dim pre-dawn light. The face doesn’t look good, but years of habit kick in, and I have no problem when we decide to “keep going, climb, and see what it’s really like.”
We drop through Navajo Basin to about 12,300 feet at the base of the face, making a few turns and traverses on crusty snow. I’ve been here before, so we don’t need any map reading or route debate.
Incredible. The snow is smooth, unfrozen but dense enough for boot crampons. For the first time I’m sure we just might do this thing.
I kick steps for a while, then Carl takes over. Strong from a winter of hard telemarking, he punches most of the way to the top of the couloir, with Sean and I taking a few short stints to relieve him. Thanks Carl!
We hit the ridge at about 14,000 feet, just below and a few hundred feet east of the summit. Nothing skiable above here. During my previous descent I skied from slightly higher, earlier in the season with better snow cover. This is one of the few fourteeners that don’t often have a descent you can get from the exact summit during average snow years, so according to my standards it can be legitimately skied via “the best descent on an average snow year, so long as you start from near the summit and match what’s been done by other skiers in the past.” Sean and I talk, and I mention that yes, I think skiing from the ridge will allow him to claim a descent. His personal rules aren’t as strict as mine, but I appreciate that he’s paying attention to mountaineering ethics.
The summit scramble is tricky. Normally dry summer rock is covered by patches of slick snow, perched over deathfall cliffs. A slip in some places will launch you for a 1,000 foot tumble. Sean is wearing alpine ski boots without rubber soles, so he skips the summit scramble. I don’t feel like I’ve skied a peak unless I’ve touched the summit, so it’s good to join Carl and Chris at the apex for a brief photo session and look-around — even if it is a bit rushed.
It’s a quick scramble down from the summit to my skis. I’m excited and a bit intimidated. As I’d mentioned to Sean, I’m “semi retired” from this sort of thing. But I’ve still got some chops, so I clip in and make a few hop turns down the first patch of snow, scrape over a patch of rocks, and I’m in the thick of things.
I make a couple more turns, then decide to carefully traverse so I can ski above smooth snow instead of dangerous cheese-grater rock outcrops. Doing so is worth it, as I get a nice series of steep turns, knowing that if I fall I’ll just take a big slider that’s probably survivable. Hey, I remember how to do this!
I turn around and watch the others work their way down: Sean carving nice arcs on his fat Atomics; Carl pounding his trademark power teles; Chris solid and controlled on vintage gear that seems to be serving him well (note to self, help Chris dump his Salewa bindings even if I have to give him a pair of Diamirs from my private reserve).
The snow is sloppy, but amazingly solid. Each turn peels off a consistent layer of surface glop, but we never drop through any punk layers. Everyone gains confidence, the arcs get cleaner, and by the time we’re at the bottom we can look back at at an arty tattoo we’d inked on El Diente’s flank.
We’re at the base of the face — but not even close to done. Sure, we’re grinning up at our tracks like a bunch of terrain park gapers, but in the back of our minds a thought lingers: ahead of us lies suffering, as in the scorching leg tweaking climb back to Rock Of Ages Saddle.
Skins on skis, wide brimmed sun hat on the noggin (why are there no photos of that stylish item?), stuff a power bar in the maw and gulp water like a cow — let the slog begin.
It’s really not that bad, or should I speak for myself? Sean is one tough hombre; he’s “touring” with Alpine Trekker adapters and a full-on alpine ski rig. I don’t even want to think about the weight on his legs–I just hope he’s not a candidate for artificial hip joints by the time he’s forty. Actually, aside from weight issues Alpine Trekkers work pretty well, but randonnee gear will get you up and down almost anything in good style, with a major savings in effort on the uphill. So be amazed with Sean’s strength (I was), but consider a rando setup before you try something like this with the kind of weight you’ll haul if you use Trekkers.
Rock Of Ages is a terrific place. Look south and El Diente is in your face, with the classic pyramid of Gladstone to the left. Gaze north and Silver Pick drops like a roller coaster track from your eyeballs. Springtime green lights up the distant horizon in sublime contrast to the snowy world we’re tramping on.
I consider moving into the guys bivvy tent so I can stay, wake up the next morning, and do it again — but the trailhead calls. We’re wondering how good the skiing will be this late in the morning, and how close can we get to the car before performing the dread chore of dirt walking?
Optimism turns to amazement as we make turn after turn on solid summer snow, using small patches and windrows of snow to connect patches connecting five or six headwalls that yield an incredible carve harvest.
Near the end of the skiing, but it kept going farther than we thought it would.
I think to myself, “this has to end soon, it can’t go on!” Sure enough, we ski a tongue of snow that ends in a rock pile. The summer road is to our left. We shoulder our skis and consider the road. Going on faith I stumble down the hill a few yards, where I can peer over an outcrop. Amazing! Another primo pitch of snow leads down to the next level, where we can pick up the road. More turns happen–we’re even able to ski few hundred yards down the road.
But it all has to end. At about 11,300 feet snow gives way to gravel, with about a 20 minute dirt walk to the trailhead. No problem (as several weeks before a dirt walk I’d like to forget had ended up being about 5 miles long).
In all, a perfect day of mountaineering. What with a bit of adversity and uncertainty, but caution combined with perseverance got us up and down an amazing route: about 5,000 vertical feet of skiing, a bit of exciting rock scramble, new friends, and that incredible glow only a day in the mountains can bring.
For Sean and Chris one crux remained: they had driven from Denver the night before, then started the trip without sleep (aside from a trailhead catnap). One couldn’t help but wonder how they’d do on the drive home. I needn’t have worried. They toughed it out, and by Sunday we were chatting on email, exchanging photos and planning more adventures. Good stuff. Thanks Carl, Sean, and Chris!