SKI FAQ 1.16-PACIFIC PEAK
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the spring touring season, allow me to break it down for you. When the spring temperatures hit optimal levels, freezing at night, and melting at day, the solidified snow pack conforms into one massive layer. This is a good thing. It allows my buddy Mike and myself to humbly ski miles into mountain cathedrals with the sun beaming down our backs before we attempt to make our ascent/decent on large mountain lines. The larger mountains receive a tremendous amount of variable weather in winter creating an unstable snowpack, which results in unfavorable skiing conditions and awakens the sleeping beast of the mountains: avalanches.
On May 11th 2015 the Tenmile Range of central Colorado, located southwest of Breckenridge in the Arapaho National Forest, was blanketed with a few inches of fresh snow accompanied by crisp air, blue skies, and no wind. We met at the Spruce Creek Trailhead lot in the AM, geared up, and headed into the forest ahead in solitude. We skinned below tree line for an hour or two before breaching and gaining views of the upper valley. This point is exactly when things become more interesting and entrancing. Walking around the trees is fun but I begin to enter my flow-state once the view of the vast alpine landscape is achieved. The flow-state is a state of mind that allows me to grasp a level of focus enabling unique performance abilities. Gaining this vantage point set our mission into perspective. Not only did we have miles to go up the valley and a few thousand feet of vertical elevation to climb, we could not even see our objective yet. However, the mystery of the mountains adds to the gratifying satisfaction of completing a long grinding day. In spite of the beating sun, I choose not to wear sunnies and ended up earning the ‘wet sponge’ goggle award. After another hour or so the geography of the valley began to narrow and conform to a pinnacle. There was a long frozen-over lake ahead of us and once we reached the other side, it was decision time.
The first section was boot packing up a bench style ridge in order to gain the main ridge to the summit of Pacific Peak. From this point on, things became very meticulous, touchy, puckering, and rewarding. But this first section was nothing but fun.
In a way, it was like a maze, zigzagging us through snow, ice and rock to the top. Finding rock holds, punching fists into the snow, or using poles while our feet found themselves perpetually searching for stable ground, we gained elevation as we approached the main ridge.
Once on the main ridge, we were on the final stretch, to the summit that is…
Never forget the summit is only half the mission. Getting you and your team down safely is where 40% of accidents occur and 50% of them are caused by slipping on snow, rock, or ice, according to Mountaineering Accident Statistics. Life seems to be all about this dance we play with the elements, finding the golden mean, the yin and the yang. Balancing your transitory awareness with your baseline awareness is another vital aspect of making the right decision in the backcountry.
We were blessed with breath-taking views to the south, the Decalibron peaks, Copper to the west, to the north, the Ten Mile Range, and to the east of where our mission began.
From our decision point earlier on, we hadn’t the slightest clue what to expect. With our gear on and skis and poles on our backs, we had to find a way into the small notch that would serve as our drop-in point. The photo of Mike making his way towards the summit makes it look easy, right? It appears to be this way because that’s the southeastern aspect of the mountain. The majority of storms come in hard from the west. When powerful storms hit the western aspects they intensify and rip towards the top, launching large mounts of snow off into the air, floating down to opposing sides of the mountain.
Mike led the way, attempting to find a way into the notch. Denied by an attempt on a low route, we found another route a bit above. This section was great, nothing more than class three climbing for a few hundred feet on relatively stable granite rock and snow. The only thing was, we were in a complete no fall zone.
This situation may not have looked all that difficult on paper. The reality was that we could not let our guard down for a second. If we would have fallen and survived the trauma, we would still be on the wrong side of a big mountain in the wilderness. A mountaineer has to make the choice of traveling fast and light or heavy and secure. Both options have their place, but we subscribed to the former. The successful route entailed “billy –goating” fun with my tail fully puckered on a few moves. I always find this element in mountaineering to be exceptionally fun and find myself outside my comfort zone.
Once we crossed the “billy-goating” section we gained our first view of the line…
Making the granite, high fives and summit mints were had. Then, we geared up and went in…
Things continued to get more interesting when the unknown presented itself. It was apparent that we could not ski into the line from the top. There was one option which had potential but concealed many hidden “shark teeth” blanketed by a few inches of fresh snow at the top of a 55 degree plus line with a crux fifty feet down. As Mike was filming from the top, it was my turn to lead a few sections. My right hand holding an ice axe and my left holding a two-foot sling wrapped around a rock anchor, it was balls-over-hammy time! With the adrenaline kicking in, I sunk my axe, tightened the rope, and swung my leg over the vertical edge into the depths below. The snow felt exceptionally stable, forming a foothold and deep enough to get a decent grip with my axe, setting my mind at ease for a few more steps. Then came the end of the sling, forcing me to focus on feel. Occasionally I would sink my axe and hear the ting of a rock. My right hand sunk the axe, my left hand punched into snow, my right foot dropped down and I kicked a few times to form another hold, and finally my left foot follows.
This was relatively the pattern for about fifty feet or so until I exited the crux. From here, Mike was on his way down and I was shuffling over to a safe zone and transitioning into ski mode. For me, this tour contained many firsts. I was testing out new Nordica NRG 107’s with razor sharp edges (Note- being a ski bum, I rarely have the luxury of a ski with any edge…) To spice the moment further, I had never put on skis while sustaining a 55-degree slope. This was going to be one for the books. So, I began to dig out a shelf wide enough to lay a ski down flat without losing it down the mountain. From here I was locked in and ready to go down the three pitches to accomplish our goal. The first was a steep funnel about a hundred and fifty feet down composed of pole planting jump turns that would make Scot Schmidt jealous in decent chalky snow that led to a tight choke, which then opened up.
I skied the first pitch, got to my safe zone, and then watched Mike follow a similar style as he skied down.
The next pitch was about another hundred and fifty feet but offered six inches of soft snow at a mellower angle. We had our safe zone lined up and Mike took the lead. I watched as he combined skiing with sussing out the snowpack as he descended. About a hundred feet down, the slope we were on intersected into another slope at a forty-five degree angle creating the “dogleg” mentioned earlier. At this point Mike had made maybe ten long ski-cut style jump turns and was slowly approaching a rock outcrop where he was going to make another ski-cut, then cut back and ski to the safe zone. Luckily Mike was leading this one. He slowly approached the rock outcrop with a ski-cut, felt the snow, made a jump turn and awoke the sleeping beast of Pacific Peak. I believe he was somewhat excepting this to happen because it broke right below his feet and I watched the layer slip away down the mountain until it was out of view. With a wave signaling “all clear”, we were ready to take on the apron.
It would have been fast, fun glory powder turns all the way down but now we were dealing with the icy layer. I have never been so thankful for a good edge. The steep slope on my standard gear would have likely seen me slipping to the bottom in a scary rush.
The fact that things were now moving left us ready to get outta Dodge. We cautiously descended the firm slope to the lower apron where we skied into the flat basin and admired Pacific Peak.
And so the double-edged sword showed its serrated side. We experienced the glory and exhilaration of riding the razor sharp Pacific peak, but felt we would need to return, having come so close to epic turns. Did I mention how fun the process was?