San Juans – 3/28-4/7

I’ve fallen far too far behind on adventure write ups so going to keep this one quick.

After coming back from Canada Garrett, Taryn and I were supposed to head to Alaska for some spring skiing but we bailed due to weather (probably a mistake based on this report). Instead we decided to head to the San Juans where the weather looked better.

Before heading out Taryn and I spent a week “finishing” the van build. We had to leave a few things unfinished, but it sure felt good cozy to take it on its maiden voyage.

We chose to base ourselves out of Ouray to be close to Red Mountain Pass. We arrived in Ouray late in the evening and awoke to snowy conditions the next morning.

We drove up to Red Mountain Pass and skied off the east side.

It was extremely stormy up high so we bailed back down. The skiing was variable but there was some good turns in the more sheltered trees.

Back at the road we tried to hitch-hike back to our cars at the pass. Lots of big trucks with room in their beds drove by but no one stopped.

Finally after maybe 30 minutes a car stopped and Garrett hopped in to go grab his car. We decided to cook some lunch on the hood of his car (which would become a theme of the trip) before heading back up the pass.

In the afternoon we headed into the terrain to the west of the pass but found more stormy weather and low visibility so kept it mellow.

The next day the weather was looking great so we decided to venture up into Yankee Boy Basin.

We found the road in an awkward in-between state, melted-out, but still closed low down. This necessitated some pavement walking but soon enough we were onto snow and into the high-country.

Some truly massive avalanche crowns and fresh debris piles were a good reminder that the snowpack was still unstable.

We headed up an appealing looking south-facing slope near the top of the basin. The sun was ridiculously hot skinning up the face and we were all feeling the altitude (just over 13k) as we reached the ridge, but some delicious hot-pow made the effort worth it.

Wanting more we decided to continue up to the top of the basin to check out Mt Sneffels, a near-by 14,000 footer. We arrived at what we thought was Lavender Couloir (turns out we were a couloir or two too early) but a combination of fatigue and wind-loading caused us to turn around after ascending only a couple hundred feet.

We put on some reggae and enjoyed a snack and the views for a bit before starting the long, mellow ski out.

Arriving back at our cars we drove into town with the idea of rinsing off in the Ouray hot springs. We decided the entry-fee was too expensive so we cooked dinner (on the hood of Garrett’s car) in their parking lot instead. That’ll show them!

Consistent with the wintry spring, it had snowed 6-12 inches overnight. The next day we decided to go check out the skiing around Ophir, a very cool historic town nestled at the end of a large valley. My van did not make it up the road to the town so we all piled into Garrett’s car.

We parked just outside of town at the end of the road and headed up the massive valley.

Wary of the increasingly sunny weather we decided to start on the north side of the valley, eying a very large and very attractive south face. We began to work our way upwards, taking turn breaking trail.

It soon became apparent that the face was much taller than it looked, and we continued to slog upwards through the warming snow. Clouds came and went, but as the morning grew later we knew any extended sun would ruin the descent so we moved as quickly as possible.

Some exposed rock bands near the top of the slope forced us to switch to booting, a slow and tedious endeavor.

By the time we reached the top of the rock band the temps were growing quite warm. Garrett decided to drop from there in order to prioritize snow quality. Taryn and I, always more goal oriented, decided to push on to the summit.

We watched Garrett descend as we raced up the remainder of the face. By the time we reached the summit the snow was getting damp. We hurriedly transitioned and started the descent. We scraped our way down the upper, rock lined entrance, setting off several small wet-slides. As the face opened up we found better snow and enjoyed some wonderful (if not a bit heavy) powder turns.

Rejoining Garret we all skied together down to the valley, marveling at both the length of the run and the unexpected April powder.

Not quite satisfied with our day we decided to head up the south side of the valley.

The day was very warm at this point and the snow was turning to mush.

My skins were especially gloppy, and I grew uncharacteristically grumpy trying to keep up with Garrett and Taryn on my snow-stilts. They patiently cajoled me upwards as I continually stopped to try to scrape half-frozen snow from the bottom of my skis.

Luckily their positivity won and we eventually popped out of the trees and onto a beautiful ridge with 360 degree views of the amazing mountains. I was psyched.

We also got an excellent view of the morning’s terrain, giving us our first real perspective on the long run.

I wish I could say the quality of the skiing down matched the views but that would be a lie. We found a couple excellent drier pockets, but it was mostly survival skiing through unsupported slush. Very cool terrain though! Back at the car we soaked up the perfect weather and drank salsa out of the jar (we had polished off all the chips).

From Ophir we decided to head to Telluride. Garrett had a friend Jax, who lived there and we figured we might be able to crash for the night and explore some more terrain on the west side the following day.

It was closing weekend at Telluride so we arrived to a town-wide party, quite the change from our quiet existence car camping outside of Ouray. We met up with Jax and her husband Basit at a very busy slope-side bar. We started drinking to catch up and then the night got weird.

Without going into too many details, a chance encounter with a wealthy investor led to the Taryn, Garrett and I getting looped into eating at a fancy steakhouse with Jax, Basit and the investor. The waitress was definitely thrilled when three dirtbags who hadn’t showered in days came in and asked what was the cheapest item on the menu. The three of us were equally thrilled when the investor turned out to be a sexist asshole. We picked at our side-salads while we watched him order dish after dish, barely touching it before ordering the next. We picked at his leftovers when he got up to use the bathroom.

The absurd night climaxed when the bill came and the investor looked expectantly at all of us. We didn’t move. The wonderful thing about being unemployed is your willingness to throw money at a situation to avoid awkwardness goes to zero. Luckily Basit was a gentleman and after a second volunteered to grab the check. We left for Jax and Basit’s place, relieved the night was over and excited to get back to the simplicity of skiing.

The next morning we decided to head up towards Chicago Peak to try to ski Lightning Bolt Couloir.

The approach followed a very cool mining road up along a steep hillside.

Luckily the snow quickly became consistent to leave our skis on and we made good time getting into the alpine. The Lightning Bolt Couloir is visible in the distance in the picture below.

We arrived at the base of the couloir and started up. As we reached the top of the apron and started up the couloir proper Garrett started to have a bad gut feeling. We dug a pit and didn’t see anything overly alarming but it was clear the snowpack was complex. Garrett decided to trust his instincts and ski back to the base of the couloir to wait for us. Taryn and I, eager to actually ski a full line and not seeing any bright red flags, opted to continue up. We made it a few switchbacks higher before the snow became more wind affected. We dug another pit and again found complex snow, this time with more pronounced wind loading. Worried about even sketchier conditions higher in the couloir and mindful of Garrett’s amazing mountain intuition we decided to bail as well.

The three of us regrouped and decided what to do next. Garrett and I decided to head up to Imogene Pass, a nice walk that would avoid any real avy hazard. Taryn, feeling discouraged from multiple days of getting shutdown on objectives, decided she needed some solo time and headed back down to the trailhead.

The walk up to Imogene Pass mellow until the final wind-scoured slope.

The views from the pass were truly spectacular as we could see down towards Yankee Boy Basin, Red Mountain Pass, and Telluride depending on which way we looked.

The snow conditions on the way down were extremely variable, a mix of wind crust, sun crust, and rare patches of powder. But the majestic backdrops more than made up for it.

We stopped on the way out to admire some old mines.

And a truly massive avalanche path off Ingram Peak that had spilled down over Ingram Falls.

The old mining road made for a fun out-track and soon enough we were back in town and met up with Taryn.

The weather the next few days was looking stormy so we discussed options. North, west, and east face aspects had all proved to be potentially sketchy. South facing aspects were safe but now had a thick sun crust. Realizing good skiing was going to be hard to come by we decided to audible to Indian Creek. We threw said our goodbyes to Telluride, threw our stuff in the cars, and headed to the desert.

A few hours later we found ourselves in a totally different landscape. We made a late lunch on the hood of Garrett’s car to celebrate.

After a few cold nights parked in muddy pull-offs it felt bougie to parked on dry desert sand.

We savored the wonderful peace and freedom of the desert and Garrett took cool pictures of us climbing.

After a few days of blissful Creek days Garrett had to head back to Salt Lake. Taryn had to be back at Red Mountain Pass in a couple days for an avy II course so we checked back in on the San Juan weather. The unsettled weather had blown through and the forecasts the next few days were looking good. With no zen-master Garrett to remind us to prioritize snow quality Taryn and I immediately began scheming objectives.

We ended up settling on Mt. Sneffels because we were familiar with the approach and suspected the south facing Lavender Couloir would be safe.

The road had melted out considerably since our previous journey up into Yankee Boy Basin. Luckily the dry pavement made for quick travel up and soon we were back up in the alpine.

We made sure to head all the way to the back of the basin this time before trying to locate Lavender Couloir. We were pleased to see that it wasn’t overly steep or intimidating. The snow also seemed stable so we started up it.

The initial climb up to the saddle went quickly. Reaching the saddle we were hit by stronger winds. The climb up the east facing began to feel more adventurous as the snow blew around us and the terrain grew steeper.

Despite the blustery conditions we made it to the col below the summit without encountering any instability. The climb out of the col and onto the summit ridge was as non-trivial and Taryn decided not to risk it and waited behind. I left my skis with her and scrambled up the short step to the final ridgeline.

I reached the summit after a minute or two of careful scrambling along the ridge. The views in all directions were stunning and really showed off the expansiveness of the San Juans.

I didn’t hang long at the summit because I didn’t want to worry Taryn. A bit of slightly spicy down-climbing later I joined her back at the col. It was time to ski our first 14er!

The wind hammered snow in the upper couloir made for some interesting skiing but we found a couple good turns in the mix.

The lower portion of the couloir, being south facing, consisted almost entirely of terrible sun crust and we picked our way down slowly, trying not to lose a ski deep in the backcountry.

Down and out of the couloir all we had was long slushy traverse back to the car. The weather was perfect and we were elated to have finally checked off an objective in the San Juans.

We got back to the car, took a few moments to savor the post-spring-ski bliss, and then it was time to drop Taryn off at her avy program.

Looking back, my first trip to the San Juans was an amazing adventure. The fickle conditions definitely tested my patience as someone primarily motivated by objectives when spring skiing. But they also offered a great lesson on just skiing for the sake of skiing. We were able to live like ski-bums, enjoying complete freedom to explore some absolutely stunning corners of the range. And for that I feel very very lucky.





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