“Ski season ain’t over until we say it’s over!”That’s what Paul declared when we pulled in to the Williams Lake trailhead parking lot. His point was directed at the Taos Ski Valley Resort, which was closed for the season even though there was still snow on the ground. We were not really interested in the ski area though; our target was Lake Fork Peak (12,881ft), a neighboring mountain that watches over Taos from the South. The snow had in fact been scarce for the past month, but there was still enough in the back country for us. So, with exceptional exuberance for three guys our age, we suited up and skied off toward the lake.
Three miles later we found a perfect camping spot just on the edge of the trees and behind a large boulder. Good protection from the wind, but with a great view of our peak. We dug out a platform for the tent, built up some snow walls and moved in. With plenty of daylight left, we did some avalanche rescue practice by hiding a beacon and timing each others search and recovery. Everything worked out and we all gained a bit more confidence in the team.
The next morning, Paul was up at 0500 making tea from his sleeping bag. What he lacks in consideration for others sleep habits, he more than makes up for in initiative and positive energy. Dan and I happily accepted the hot tea from our Sherpa and the day begun.
We skied across the hard snow for about an hour until the angle of the slope got too steep. That was at the foot of a 45º, 700ft couloir, or “cooler” as Paul calls them. There, we strapped our skis on our packs and started kick-stepping up. Paul and Dan had not done a real “snow climb” before, but were versed well enough with self arrest technique to charge up with confidence. And hour later we reached the summit ridge and stashed most of our gear. The summit was only 10 minutes up the ridge and the wind was howling, so we opted for a speedy assault.
The proud, corniced summit was perfect. Great views all around, a sporting wind, and three friends congratulating each other successful climb. For me, climbing itself is the draw, but a proper summit makes the experience all the more satisfying. To further signify our delight with ourselves, we opened a box of “Chopper” cigars that one of Paul’s co-workers gave him. I guess the co-worker gets a vicarious thrill from Paul’s weekend adventures - so we took some video of us with the stogies in our mouths. Of course it was impossible to light them, but it was the thought that counted.
Going DownBack on the ridge, we strapped on our planks and sized up the descent. Ski mountaineering is a funny thing; you hump up the mountain, tag the summit, then attempt to ski a double diamond with your first turn counting as the warm up… That’s what the little voices in our heads were mumbling at that moment. That and, “this is a really narrow cooler…” To make things even more interesting, the cloudy and cold day that had given us super low avalanche conditions, also gave us super hard snow. The three of us, all being smarter than brave, made the sensible decision and ski-skidded down the first 50 feet until things opened up. From there it was the ton of fun we’d been expecting. We zipped down, down and down, out of the cooler, through the trees, over the lower slopes and back to camp. It was 1130.
Killing TimeBack at camp, we ate lunch and melted water. A minor emergency came up when we ran out of fuel; but after much debate we decided that Paul wanted to camp there that night so much that he would perform all of the water melting and boiling duties on an open fire, with our one MSR pot. The more I think about it, the more I realize that Paul may be the perfect climbing partner.
With that decided, Paul went off for another ski while Dan and I crawled into the tent for some rest. Dan rested for an hour or two, and I for 18 hours. Yes – I set a personal record for most time spent in my sleeping bag. I was bushed. Of course I had a few logistical issues to work out, not the least of which was peeing without a bottle or leaving the tent. But where there’s a will there’s a way and I found it quite easy to kneel at the large, unzipped tent window and expel into the absorbing snow. Paul and Dan were duly impressed and used the technique later that night.
After returning from his afternoon ski, Paul lived up to his promise and got to the water. An hour later he handed me my mountain meal, full of steaming water, inside the tent. Just call me Sahib I guess.
It started to snow that evening and by morning, there was 6 inches on the ground. Dan and I were grateful that Paul convinced us to stay that last night. We had no breakfast or hot tea, but none of us were hungry – we were just jazzed to ski the fresh POW back to the car. That we did – like 12 year old boys with brand new bikes, we laughed and showed off for each other as we cruised the easy slopes down through the trees. At 0830, we were at the Taos Diner, toasting (with real toast) another fine weekend in New Mexico.