Mount Princeton Backcountry Ski Descent – Colorado Fourteeners

Post by blogger | April 4, 2005      

We’re still enjoying our Spring Break fourteener slog fest and backcountry skiing party.

Backcountry skiing.
Above: Louie Dawson on Mount Princeton Thanks goes to Cloudveil for the excellent softshell jacket, and to Marmot for the ATV pants. Hydration system by Hydrapack bindings by Dynafit, poles by BD, boots by Scarpa, and skis by Garts sale rack.

Becuse the snow on Mount Shavano wasn’t great, we thought about heading home and waiting for more of a corn snow cycle to develop. Yet after looking at the weather, and with encouragement from my wife (yes, I’m blessed), son Louie and I realized we could stay in Buena Vista, Colorado for a rest day, then tackle 14,197′ Mount Princeton (another Sawatch “east side giant”) on April 3. We figured that with another day for the snow to bake, and a slightly shorter approach, Princeton had to be easier than Shavano for backcountry skiing. We were wrong.

An early start helped, but the day got off to an inauspicious debut with tedious on-ski-of-ski foot travel up the dirt road that climbs 1,000 vertical feet from Frontier Ranch to the radio towers on Princeton’s east shoulder. It wouldn’t have been so bad, except for the set of snowmobile tracks that seemed to shout, “why not ride it in 10 minutes?” We suspected they were Sean Crossen’s tracks from a few days before, and wished we’d been there with him for a ride. But then, Sean and Pete Sowar he’d skied the whole peak in a whiteout, so perhaps walking during good weather was a better idea.

We continued up the road past the radio towers, and immediately encountered a typical 14er snow climbing dilemma. Ahead of us, on our best approach line, were a couple of major avalanche paths nicely loaded from recent storms. Even with adult companions I’d have probably not touched these on the way up — with my own son, we’re not even getting close.

Mount Princeton climbing and backcountry skiing.
This endless minefield of boulder and scree almost psyched us out and had us running back to Buena Vista like whipped dogs. Couloir in background is where we skied down, didn’t want to climb up it, not knowing how avalanche safe upper portion was.

So, in fashion typical of climbers, we slog higher rather than loosing altitude, so we can cross above the paths. I know several other avalanche paths higher on the mountain may block our way, but figure they might be cleared by the wind. Wishful thinking.

We intersect the summer trail, and sure enough are confronted by another dangerous wind loaded slide path. Only choice: descend to a lower angled portion of the path and cross. Then on to the next path, and do it again.
By now we’re back in the bottom of the bowl we could have simply taken a dropping traverse to in the first place, only we’ve spent 2 extra hours dinking around.

But we’re in position for the summit — albeit with 3,000 verts still to go, the sun dropping low, no more water, one Snicker bar each, etc.

We look at the clock, decide on a turnaround time (ha), and start skinning the bowl. Soon we’ve got our skis on our packs and we’re stumbling up wind blown scree. Princeton’s east couloir would probably be easier to climb, but I have no idea how stable the snow is. So we go for the pain.

We gain the summit ridge 1/2 hour before turn-around time, and grab the summit with one last gasping push, lurching over rocks every for every last inch.

Backcountry skiing Mount Princeton, Colorado.
Skiing from the summit, getting blasted.

At the summit we’re blasted by stiff wind, exhausted by at least 5,400 vertical feet of stumbling, much in thin air above 12,000 feet. No way we’re fumbling back down the scree, so we head for the huge east face couloir that was so tempting on the way up. We make billy goat turns from the summit, through the ground blizzard, scraping over rocks and sliding on icy windpack. The couloir is stable, wind and sun blasted, but we stick to near the side anyway and ski one-at-a-time, using avalanche safety “best practice.”

We chase the sunset line into the bowl below the couloir, but never catch it. Louie has the top of the road programmed as a waypoint in the GPS, so we check that and start a bushwack traverse to try and beat nightfall.

Near the summit of Mount Princeton, entering the east couloir. Today the dry southern Sawatch fourteeners, tomorrow the base welder.

Then it happens again. We ski up to the edge of another loaded, north facing avalanche slope. We’re exactly at the crown/trigger point of the thing. We try to climb above it, but it’s too rough. So we descend. We cross safely, then encounter another gully, drop again, cross — now it’s getting dark and we’re backcountry skiing in the middle of nowhere, wading through bottomless depth hoar in steep timber on the Princeton’s northeast flanks.

I yell back to Louie to get his skins on again, and while he’s at it, to “get your headlamp out and ready — here we go again!”

Thank God for GPS. It tells us we’re still on track, just keep traversing and climbing and we’ll get there. We do.

Mount Princeton, fourteener trailhead.
At the end of an epic, the trailhead is always a welcome sight — that is, if you can see it.

At the road we strip skins like rando racers, knowing we’ve got about 15 minutes of useable daylight. Then it’s a thigh scorching snowplow down the ice covered road (at least when we’re not walking mud and dirt the whole way). Then, finally, just as my headlamp dies, there is our Cherokee, the rear license plate glinting like a lighthouse beacon.

Twelve hours and about 6,000 vertical, Princeton is behind us — or still with us if you consider the state of our exhausted bodies. Was it worth it? The skiing was crumby, we ran out of water, and the avalanche danger was hard to avoid. But then, the worst day of ski mountaineering is better than the best day at work — or at school, if you’re 15 years old.


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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information & opinion website. Lou's passion for the past 50 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about ski touring 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 ski touring news and information here.

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