San Juan Recon – Backcountry Skiing on El Diente Peak

Post by blogger | November 5, 2006      

After hearing about huge snowfalls in the San Juan Mountains of south central Colorado, I’ve been eager to head down there and see if we could get an unusual early season peak descent. So we drove south on Friday with a full load of car camping gear and our ski packs at the ready. Yesterday (Saturday), Sean Crossen, Pete Sowar, John Humphries, myself and son Louie did a nice descent on the North Face of El Diente. We climbed to a point a about 500 vertical feet below the summit, and turned around because we were running out of daylight, as plans to possibly finish the tour at night under full moon looked iffy because of the clouds. Good decision, as we got to the trucks at dark (and cloudy).

Colorado backcountry skiing on El Diente peak
Pete Sowar backcountry skiing the North Face of El Diente Peak during a rare break in the weather that day (otherwise known as a sucker hole). San Juan Mountains, Colorado

The day was blustery. It was a bit intimidating to be up there in winter storm conditions, far from civilization — but getting out on the edge is liberating and I can’t think of better companions to enjoy an adventure with. Over about 10 hours we did about 6,000 vertical feet of skiing — most of the turnable variety. Snow surface varied from white ice to breakable to powder.

Trailhead camping
We camped at snowline the night before our trip, built a fire, and had fun listening to coyotes and reading various versions of Powder Magazine. That’s Powder Girl on the ground — it got bumped in favor of Powder Guy.

El Diente approach./></td>
<td class=Late morning during the “approach,” which is actually a significant climb and ski in of itself. The weather really was less than ideal — character building. Snowpack looks like late January.

Sean Crossen skiing on El Diente Peak./></td>
<td class=Sean Crossen skiing on El Diente Peak, he’s just a couple of peaks away from skiing all 54 Colorado fourteeners. Sean would have liked to get El Diente this time, but we didn’t have big plans for that as we were simply seeing what could be done early season. As they say, today was “all good” and we had terrific time getting to know each other and working to complete a big day. Diente is a challenging peak that’s none too easy to get in good condition for skiing, and a huge climb no matter which route you take.

Backcountry skiing snacks.
Louie and I are tired of Cliff bars so we picked up some deli fried chicken for trail food. John Humphries pulls out his lunch and sure enough, he’s got pollo too! Great minds think alike. That’s John on the right, he’s Program Director at Telluride Helitrax heli skiing. You’d think such a dream job would make a person lazy — instead John is a climbing animal who drilled post holes like a fence installer when the rest of us started to drag on the steeps. Sean knows John from their days junior ski racing in Pennsylvania.

Snowpack report: Humphries dug a pit at about 12,500 feet elevation, northerly aspect, found a welded pack that according to him is like “nothing I’ve ever seen in Colorado.” I took a look at the pit and snow from the ground up about two feet was like something out of the Pacific Northwest, only frozen solid. This bodes well for a great winter, but we of course need a few more storms to seal the deal. After all, this is Colorado, least we forget. Surface in some areas is developing interesting layers that will surely lead to avalanches given any significant new snow. A bit of wind slab avalanche danger exists as well, but is probably rare.


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7 Responses to “San Juan Recon – Backcountry Skiing on El Diente Peak”

  1. Brittany November 5th, 2006 4:29 pm

    Most excellent to see! Was there snow at the summit?

  2. Lou November 5th, 2006 4:52 pm

    Hi Brittany,
    We could have done the “average year” style summit descent that’s my personal standard for skiing fourteeners, in this case meaning going from the rocky ridge near the summit as Sean and I have both done (myself twice). It didn’t look like the exact summit route used by Davenport and crew last spring was in (for anything other than billy goating partially on rock), but I didn’t expect that to be there, as during some years it’s never in. On the whole, just interesting to see such skiable terrain the first days of November. I’ve seen as much snow on other years, but not dense enough to ski, just light powder covering up rocks. This snow is a full-on skiable snowpack.

  3. Mark Worley November 5th, 2006 5:06 pm

    That’s good stuff, and inspiring for those of who await the white. Congratulations on a great trip.

  4. Nick November 6th, 2006 9:53 am

    Wow! Was wondering whose skin track we were following… We went up on Sunday, but having started late, topped out on Rock of Ages saddle. Some tricky snow, but great to be back there when it feels like winter! Was El Diente more powdery? Some surface hoar and huge graupel might make it interesting if it snows soon…

  5. Lou November 6th, 2006 1:51 pm

    Hi Nick, cool someone else was headed up there! I’d like to do a winter ascent of Diente, is that what you were trying?

    As for conditions, North Face of Diente had some good steep pow, some cardboard, and some breakable.

  6. cjw November 9th, 2006 1:28 pm

    Sounds like you went in a day early, the full moon mountain biking at the Bookcliffs Monday between 1am and 4am was excellent.

    I guess it’s getting to be time to dig out the ski gear.


  7. Lou November 9th, 2006 8:50 pm

    Yeah, we thought that storm would clear out by midday but no, it must have hung in there…

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