San Juan Weekend – Red Mountain Pass and Fourteener Attempt

Post by blogger | April 23, 2007      

Saturday we drove down to southern Colorado for a try at El Diente Peak, a fourteener near the town of Telluride that’s not particularly tough to ski, but has a lengthy approach with more than its fair share of avalanche danger. We got shut down by an unusually strong storm that hit the El Diente area, but salvaged the trip by packing up camp and hitting Red Mountain Pass, where the storm hadn’t dropped as much snow.

Backcountry skiing at Red Mountain Pass, Colorado
Louie on a peak near Red Mountain Pass, after we realized El Diente simply had too much new snow to be safe.

My son Louie and I joined up with Sean Crossen for the trip. Sean has only a couple of fourteeners to check off his list to complete skiing them all. He’d skied El Diente a few years ago (with myself and a few others), but didn’t climb to the summit so according to common standards of what defines a descent, he’s gotta go back and climb the thing before he skis it. I don’t know what we were thinking that other time, as we should have harassed Sean into scrambling to the summit. Back then Sean used alpine boots without rubber soles, which made rock scampering less than appealing to him so he opted to sit out a short scramble across the summit ridge to the true apex — but at least in our little corner of the ski alpinism universe, if you say you skied a peak you’ve got to first climb it.

I like El Diente. It’s just extreme enough to be a fun crampon climb and exciting descent, but manageable by today’s standards. Thus a perfect place for Louie to learn more about steep terrain, and a place I don’t mind returning to (though the long approach does get old.)

So, we knew a storm would pass through on Saturday. Our hope was it would drop minimal snow, and we’d enjoy a clear day on Sunday with a dusting of new white over a nicely frozen corn crust. Not to be. Some kind of high energy weather cell hit the San Juans in the El Diente area and dropped more than a foot of new in some places, perhaps even two feet up high.

El Diente trailhead for skiing.
We should have adjusted our goals when the truck got stuck in the new snow, as El Diente has a particularly complex approach and climb that takes you under and over dozens of avalanche paths. Of course, once we winched out (thanks CODE4x4)we thought “hey, this isn’t that bad,” and set up camp thinking we’d at least make a recon in the morning and perhaps find there was less new snow up high than we thought.

Trailhead snowcamping for fourteener climbing in Colorado.
We don’t do these spring trips for the joy of expedition snow camping, but you do what you must. The view made up for the conditions. That’s fourteener Wilson Peak on the left, while the snow season approach to El Diente takes the drainage to the right, known as Silver Pick Basin.

At any rate, we got up at 2:00 AM like good little mountain boys, snowmobiled to the summer parking area, then skied up Silver Pick to the first avalanche path. The decision was a no-brainer. While the snow appeared fairly well bonded, there was simply so much of it, and so many variables, we knew pushing the route wasn’t appropriate. If nothing else, we knew that once the snow got cooked by the sun it would be coming down all over the place, including on our planned climbing route (not to mention that trail breaking and post-holing the stuff for 6,000 vertical feet would slow us down so much we’d end up still in the alpine during the most dangerous part of the day). So we skied out, packed up camp, and drove a circle east over to Red Mountain Pass where we figured we’d be out of the heavy snow zone. Sure enough, a thinner coating of new, well bonded snow had graced the peaks over there, and we salvaged the day by climbing and skiing a nice couloir and basin on one of many peaks you can access from the pass.

Backcountry skiing at Red Mountain Pass, Colorado
Sean heads down into Champion Basin from Red Mountain 3, the easily accessed peak we skied near Red Mountain Pass, southwestern Colorado.

Backcountry skiing at Red Mountain Pass, Colorado
Louie and Sean at Red Mountain Pass. This vast area of easily accessed terrain has become a major winter recreation area and is well worth exploring. Seemed like there was more snowmobile traffic on the easterly side where a vast area of mostly un-posted private land connects with BLM land that extends all the way east through Silverton, while the west side was favored by those propelled by their own muscles. I’ve been up here a few times over the years, but I’m re-energized and planning a corn-fest that’ll involve staying in a hotel in the nearby town of Ouray, along with hitting the peaks every morning. Gotta love it.


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14 Responses to “San Juan Weekend – Red Mountain Pass and Fourteener Attempt”

  1. John Humphries April 23rd, 2007 8:48 am

    Wish I could have joined Lou Junior, Sean and you on Saturday in the San Juans. Anytime a group heads this direction I feel the local Telluride skiers need to attempt to represent.
    Andy Ward and I are heading into the San Miguel Peaks on Tuesday afternoon April 24th (after this latest storm ends) for a three night/ three day camping and skiing tour. We hope to ski Gladstone’s north face, the northwest face of Wilson, El Diente, and then Mt. Wilson and the box car couloir on our way back to Lizard Head Pass on Friday.
    If you are heading back in this direction anytime soon to attempt El Diente again, contact me and I’ll do what I can to make it.

    Next time you are on RMP to ski, take a look at the Red Mountain Huts web site. They have two great huts located right in the middle of all the skiing terrain up there. One of them , the Addie S, is located within walking distance of the highway.

    The skiing in the San Juans will be OK up high this spring. There is not much snow below 11,000 feet, but from 11,000 upwards to the 14er’s the snowpack is about 80 to 90% of average.

    All the best,
    John Humphries
    Ophir, Colorado

  2. Carl Pelletier April 23rd, 2007 10:24 am

    The conditions looked great on Red Mountain Pass. Not bad for a “Fall Back” plan. Your trip plans took me back to the great day that we had up on El Diente a few years back. Good Times. I’ve noticed that you and Louie are really getting after it this year. Would you say he’s as passionate about skiing as you? Are you dragging him out, is he dragging you out or is a mutual desire to ski?

    I remember a few years ago he carried around maps of the Aspen skiing mountains and use to check off all of the runs that he skied…it seems like he’s moved on to bigger checklists.

    I think that it’s very cool that you two are able to spend time in the outdoors – skiing. It’s refreshing. This is something that you don’t see too much of these days – if you have not read this it might be a good one to reference: The Last Child in the Woods….dealing with NDD “Nature Deficit Disorder”.

    It’s great to see you teaching Louie about good choice & decision making skills, rather than to have a plan and sticking to it – no matter what….one of the best lessons that he can learn out there.


  3. Lou April 23rd, 2007 9:36 am

    Hi John,

    We’ve considered using those huts, but at an elevation of about 11,000 feet they’re just too high for us since we live at 6,000 and can easily stay in a motel in Ouray, thus avoiding the blahs from sleeping so high. They look excellent and would certainly work well for folks who can deal with the altitude or are staying there enough days to acclimate. They need to pressurize those things (grin).

  4. Terry April 23rd, 2007 10:13 am

    FYI, that’s Champion Basin off off Red Mtn 3 (and our line last weekend 🙂 ).

    While crossing to the summit, we watched a snowmobiler climb straight up the fall line to the peak between RM3 & RM1 from Prospect. It was sad and foreboding to see the silhouette of a guy sitting on a snowmobile on the peak 1/2 mile away with the other peaks beyond. He then went down the flank and then straight down the fall line at better than 60 mph I’ll bet. The tracks on MacMillan were from snowmobilers hauling skiers and boarders. Same for the western flank of RM3. Someone will get nailed in the not so distant future.

    Check out this web site for if you are interested in becoming involved:

  5. Lou April 23rd, 2007 10:28 am


    I’m all about less regulations not more, but when things get crowded I can see the need to split up uses and so forth. I was amazed to see how much terrain the sledders were using on the east side of the pass, and it looked like they were mostly in the private property area. I really don’t mind them all that much, but when it gets that crazy it starts to be weird. And when they become a safety issue it gets personal, as when the guy highmarked up next to us while we were climbing just under a cornice that could have broken due to a slope settlement caused by the added weight of the ‘biler. He could have turned around and outrun it, but us with our skins on would have been sitting ducks. Pretty rude on his part as a fellow recreationist, to say the least.

    So, I guess you locals will have to work to get things sorted out up there. First step is to deal with all that private land, is it not?

  6. Terry April 23rd, 2007 12:01 pm

    You sure can’t regulate lack of mutual consideration or cluelessness.

    With all of the all-season interested, economic factors and easy access for both motorized and non-motorized recreationists (…aside from the land issues), I can’t imagine one or the other being eliminated. With more apparent crisscrossing routes and blind spots, the east definitely seems dicier than the west side.

    Just like BC gear and enthusiasts, the snowmobiles are enabling people to go bigger and bigger, easier. What’s the next level….and where? Is a quieter engine on the horizon?

  7. Shane April 23rd, 2007 3:35 pm

    Geeze Lou, you seemed like a responsible parent – but then all these blogs about making Louie a truant… Just kidding of course. Not all of Life’s lessons should be learned in the classroom.

    On the topic of ‘bilers and their lack of ettiquite: this winter myself and a partner were out for a relatively easy tour at a local BC area. After hiking/skinning for about 4 miles to the base of the small bowl we were about to ski/ride, two bilers appeared from the woods on the opposite side of the bowl from us and made a beeline straight for us. They cut two deep trenches traversing the bowl at the middle of its height before turning downhill about 30 feet in front of us where one guy got stuck for about 20 minutes. Then they left.

    There were no safety issues for us, although the bilers cut across part of the bowl that we wouldn’t have skied due to a wind pillow and convex slope. But they had to have known that it would be a drag for us to have to negotiate their tracks (about 2 feet deep) and that they could have kept to one side of the bowl and left the other for us.

    There’s just something different in the mindset of people who’s primary recreation involves motors. Some sort of over-developed sense that they must “conquer” nature and everyone else out there by a show of horse-power and noise.

  8. Lou April 23rd, 2007 3:48 pm

    Shane, it’s easy to think people who do motorized recreation have a mindset that’s somehow “different” in a negative sense, but from experience with a lot of motorheads I don’t believe that’s the case. I think it’s more of a clash of cultures, and many on the snowmobile side simply don’t realize how much their actions affect foot travelers. Also, foot travelers who don’t know their avy stuff tend to stay out of avy terrain, while any snowmobiler with the right engine and driving skills can go highmark avy slopes — and doing so is encouraged in their culture. Thus, sledders doing really risky things are more common and obvious. That said, I’ve seen plenty of backcountry skiers “mark” avy slopes as well — slopes they shouldn’t have been on.

    As I’ve always said, while I think people on the non-motorized side focus too much on dividing up uses, there is certainly a place for segregating uses, usually when things just get too crowded for co-existence. Education is so important as well. That guy who charged up under the cornice near us probably didn’t have a clue what he was doing, other than marking a virgin slope. I have to admit I would have preferred not to have had him do that…

  9. Doug-E-Fresh April 24th, 2007 7:31 am

    Snowmobile use on Red Mountain Pass is getting pretty controversial. We stayed at the Saint Paul Lodge this winter and Chris George, who has run the place for over 30 years now, says he is likely to shut the Lodge down soon because the snowmobile traffic is killing his skier business. The day we were up there all of US Basin had been carved up the day after a good storm, leaving it unskiable (there were other places to ski, but you could tell that a week without snow would leave things pretty scarce). Then a week or so ago in the area around the Mountain Belle there was a reported incident between a guy who was out on skis with his 3 kids and wife and some very agitated snowmobilers who spent 15 minutes screaming at and threatening him and telling him that the snowmobilers did not want skiers up there anymore.

    I hear where you’re coming from Lou, but actions like this aren’t helping the cause of “can’t we all just get along?”

  10. Lou April 24th, 2007 7:49 am

    Yeah, after seeing what was going on up there I wondered if it was worth staying at the Saint Paul, seemed like you’d be in the middle of a snowmobile play area.

    There is certainly a ton of terrain up there so I’ll bet things can get sorted out.

  11. frank April 24th, 2007 3:35 pm

    I guess I just don’t get it. There are many places where one cannot snowmobile- it’s called wilderness. While I don’t enjoy snowmobiling for the sake of snowmobiling, I also can’t stand slogging up a valley for hours when I can get to the same place in an hour on my ‘bile and ski from there. Yes, they’re noisy and they pollute, but 4-strokes will be taking over the market soon. I’m not going to say that there are no conflicts in Crested Butte, but for the most part everyone knows where there are lots of snowmobiles (Kebler pass) and where there are none (Gothic road). As a skier, I can’t personally imagine NOT owning a snowmobile.

  12. Debbie Wheeler May 29th, 2007 9:01 pm

    Lou: I am the chairman of the Red Mountain Pass Chapter of Backcountry Snowsports Alliance. We are working dillagently on this land use issue, trying to promote Red Mountain Pass as a “historic ski area”. As you are aware, this spectacular, easily accessed area is one of the premier backcountry ski areas in the state. We are promoting equitable, safe and enforcable use. In our area, there are vast tracts accesable for machine use, but limited day use skiable terrain due to lengthy access. We are asking the land managers for 35 sq. miles of non-motorized use, compared to over 2000 sq. miles available to motorized users in the same area. We encourage all interested backcountry users to contact us at either or We need to speak out now.

  13. Corey March 10th, 2012 12:33 am

    I sit with a foot in both camps.

    I backcountry ski often, use snowmobiles to access ski terrain, and also love to go out snowmobiling without skiing.

    Banning either use, or enacting strict segregation doesn’t serve either group well. It’s ultimately self-defeating. Look at Vail Pass – all the signs, ropes, police, day-passes, parking rules, etc.. it’s just not fun anymore, regardless of what mode you’re in.

    Another avenue is expanding the “pie”. Opening up access to, and educating people about to to MORE terrain. This decreases density, and puts less pressure on all users. There are lots of regions, trailheads, etc.. that users just don’t know about or use much. The gravitate to the well know areas.

    Someone hit on a good point – it comes down to respect. And, I’ll add tolerance to that. If the various groups actually seek to get along and find common ground – coexistence can be accomplished. If any one of the groups decides to become territorial, and above the other – prepare for war. Let’s be clear: Nobody wins in a war. It just makes enjoying our backcountry (in whatever form you fancy) less fun.

    In, and around Crested Butte, we’ve seen both skiers and snowmobilers pull off some pretty stupid stunts. Neither constituency is immune to having a few bad apples, but for the most part you’ll find thoughtful people.

    The key is setting the expectation that both groups have a valid right to enjoy the area responsibly, and respectfully – TOGETHER.

    Not easy, it takes effort, communication, tollerance and a desire to work together – but anything less is WAR. (yuck!)

    Have fun out there & be safe!!


  14. Rob Mullins March 10th, 2012 1:19 pm

    Very few argue with snowmobile riding and access to the Forest. However, any reasonable person with backcountry experience realizes that for experiential and safety reasons snowmobile riding and skiing, snowshoeing, winter camping are not compatible on the same terrain, or in the same area.

    On avalanche terrain terrain and in general snowmobiles are a physical threat to pedestrians, the same as a Jeep or motorcycle traveling similarly at speed near hikers would constitute unacceptable hazard. Being polite or considerate has nothing to do with the situation, although civility is most important.

    On every forum are snowmobile advocates insetring themselves, often pretending to be muscle-powered recreationists, who have the similar line. That is, be polite to each other, while snowmobiles overrun the Forest, eliminate pristine terrain and the quiet experience, and leave a deeply rutted and compacted snowpack. This is what is offered up in their words to ‘share.’

    What is needed is the management of the winter Forest. Our Fprest and others have no rules scarcely any terrain off-limits to snowmobiles. On our Forest and perhaps in general, proper process done for virtually everything such as NEPA process has not been done for offroad snowmobile riding. therefore, the impacts to nature and to other users have never been studied or defined, unconsidered.Since the law has not been followed on the Forest, the current unmanaged offroad snwomobile free-for-all is an unlawful situation that USFS refuses to reasonably managed- partly because of aggro snowmobile advocates and snomo industry $$ and lobby.

    The point is that the Forest is for all of our use, not to be dominated by the minority use by snowmobile riding that takes the Forest from others with unconsidered physical impacts and gallons of fuel per day per two-stroke machine exhausted.

    A well-managed Forest would have quality on and off-road snowmobile recreation properly designated, as well much of the Forest, per the intended and PRECEDENT, would be for muscle-powered use.

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