AscentIt’s early May and the rain has been pouring in Denver for several days. Translation… snow in the high country. I brave the zero visibility drive up to the Mt. Massive trail head to pick up Joe from an unsuccessful ski attempt of the same mountain, and we head to Lake City. The plan is to ski up Sunshine Peak, traverse to Redcloud Peak and ski the north east face, and add these two easy 14er summits to our list in the process. We set up camp with the valley all to ourselves and snow beginning to accumulate.
The next morning we wake up in the dark and are on the trail by sunrise. The first mile we shoulder the skis, the second mile we are able to skin, the third mile we repeatedly take the skis on and off again and again and curse all the while. The valley floor is just yards wide and we hug the north side, away from any avalanche paths. Soon we come upon a recent slide and debris field. After a short discussion and we conclude it is probably about 2 days old and looked to have been a wet slab. We ski over deeply piled debris knowing that a wet slab won’t be a concern today since the weather is cold snowy.
After several hours of skiing up in white out conditions we begin to realize that we must have passed the correct drainage and I consult the map and GPS. Indeed this is the case, but this route can be done easily in both directions so we continue on. At 12,000’ we begin the ascent up Redcloud proper, making switchbacks up the flank of the mountain in 2’-3’ of freshly fallen powder over ground. We are cautious, but these conditions are not only rare, but reasonably safe as well. At 13,000’ we near a ridge and the wind increases dramatically. At this point vertigo is becoming a regular problem… there are no trees in site, there is enough snow to blanket all the featureless slopes, and it’s snowing hard. At the same time I notice the density of the snow changing and realize the winds quickly morphing our fresh powder into a denser slab. I can no longer find the ground when I probe with my ski pole, just old snow.
DecisionsI demand a discussion with my partner. The summit appears to be close, only 1000’ higher up a steep slope. We consider hugging the ridge to avoid possible slabs, but we came to ski and descending the same way would be a fine balance; the safety of the ridge vs. the ease of skiing down the open slope. Traversing to Sunshine Peak is an option, but it’s a long traverse and finding the correct exit down could be difficult. Sunshine Peak has some cliffs that may be difficult to see with the visibility so low. I vote to go down. Joe votes to go up. We discuss more and it begins to snow harder. We both have proper avalanche training. I get cold and voice my final decision; I’m going back down, alone if I have to. He is mad but says nothing. I’m glad he decides to join me on the descent anyways.
The descentWe ski a few hundred feet through amazing snow and gentle slopes, and soon arrive at a rollover. Now that we are out of the wind, the conditions are back to premium pow but we ski the slope one at a time just to be safe.
I look back up and realize the snow has stopped and the clouds are clearing. I see our fresh tracks on an otherwise naked slope. We spend the next 2 hours doing laps one at a time on the slope. This is my first ever season skiing, but this is the best conditions I’ve ever experienced. I also realize this is the first time I’ve blatantly skied an avalanche capable slope in the backcountry. With my slope meter I measure it at 39° near the top, primo avalanche territory. I normally wouldn't be in such a spot but the rare conditions made it reasonably safe, as there was no slabs or layers like there was up higher.
Amazingly the skies cleared just long enough for a few laps. I conveniently forgot about the conditions up higher and wondered if we could make another attempt on the summit while the weather was clearing, but the snow soon returned for the rest of the day. The final miles back to the trailhead sucked as usual. We traversed lots of rotten snowfield in an attempt to leave the skis on, but eventually reached the point of hiking down in our boots. Hiking downhill in ski boots is probably the worst torture known to mankind.
Looking back, this trip was a definite success in my book, despite the lack obtaining summits I got some incredible skiing in. Only a month and a half later I returned to traverse these peaks solo. I recognized the areas we skied and realized that I made the right decision. The summit we were eyeing was a false one, the real one being a good chunk higher still.