Having the week off work, my ski partner Nick and I decided it would be worthwhile to go ski in the Elks for the first time. The days prior we skied Hayden Peak, Castle Peak and did a nice 16 mile run to warm-up our legs. Freezing levels were very high, but we were hoping luck and a nice radiative freeze would be on our side for Snowmass Mountain. The major lines in the Elks seem to face east, due to crazy prevailing westerly winds... This is cause for alot of pain and early starts, but makes for some nice corn. We knew Snowmass Mountain would be a tough one, considering it's huge open east face and long approach (11 miles one way). Being the skimo weenies we are, there was no question that we would be attempting this in a single day.
The night before we battled back and forth about what our start times should be. Nick is an optimist by +1 hour, usually and I am a pessimist by -30 minutes, always fearful of how these things sometimes go. We agreed on a start time of 4:00AM would suffice, although we knew this is late considering the brutal approach. Our bodies were tired and we wanted sleep, damnit! Our plan was to be skiing on the summit between 9:00-9:30. With 11 miles and 5800' of vert, this was not going to be a 'chill' backcountry pace! We packed our bags accordingly (STUPID LIGHT!).
True start being 4:15, we gunned it from the trailhead. Our pace was a mix of fast walking & jogging skis on our back. Luckily, our optimism held and there was some type of 'deep freeze', which allowed us to keep trail runners on and stay on top of the snow. I was hoping for a 3.5 mile/hour pace until we got to the lake, which I assumed we would slow considerably from there. Our pace was on track, and even closer to 4 miles/hour in some spots. Not much time to soak in the views, but the sunrise was spectacular!
We passed the log jam and were within 2 miles of the lake, where the real vert starts, then our luck turned for the worst. Trees are horrible for freezes, as the trees block radiative cooling from the snowpack. This was keeping things warm and mushy.... Not the best situation in trail runners & short-shorts. We got a bit off trail and were now post holing, knee deep in shin-bleed crust. Yay! Thinking this was going to end our mission, my swearing and screaming at the snow did not help us stay on top either, weird, it usually does. Eventually we pushed through the hateful crust and found solid ground again at the start of the lake. Now we were back to a full sprint, with our whippets in hand in case we were to slip on the icy traverse around the lake. We got to the transition spot at 7:30AM and the stress levels were high!
Thinking it would take us about 1.5-2 hours to reach the summit (if we were quick), my anxiety level was through the roof. It would have been very dissappointing to miss the summit due to our laziness of wanting more sleep. Once I got crampons on, it was game-on again. Again, a mixture of fast booting with bursts of jogging. Nick was going at a reasonable pace, yet I would still give him a stare of impatience and death if he stopped for a picture or a quick breather at the high altitude (sorry buddy!). The steep sections on the eastern slopes were getting soft, which was concerning, however, the flatter sections were still frozen solid! Ahhh, I relaxed (a little). We could also see the line off the true summit was NE facing, so we knew it would not be wet by the time we got to the top. The only concern we had was the cornices and hang-fire from the ridgeline of Snowmass... We just needed to reach the notch and we would be safe, happy and stress free.
Finally gaining the notch and onto the west slopes at the perfect timing of 9:00, I waited for Nick for an ENTIRE 5 minutes. I estimated I waited for 15 minutes, but it appears there is an 'anxiety' factor there.
Climbing up the west side of Snowmass was incredible. It was steep snow (45-50DEG) with a mixture of 3rd class scrambling high above the Elks, with views of Maroon, Capitol and other spectacular mountains of the Elk Range.
Finally on the summit at our cut-off time of 9:30, it was time to descend and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Finding a line down off the summit was a little tricky. Cornices blocked access to reasonable lines, so we had to pick a steep 50+degree chute off the summit. Apparently the high NE faces didn't get the memo that spring has arrived, so we sadly opted to downclimb off the summit for about 200'. A bit dissappointing, but there was no way either of us were going to ski a 50+deg line littered with rocks and strange snow, it was slightly above our risk tolerance.
The angle finally eased up and we could feel the beautiful soft corn under our boots. A quick transition and the skis were on: we proceeded to ski 3000' of incredible corn all the way back to the lake. Conditions and views made the quick haul worth the pain. Success!
Back at the lake, we had a long hike out and were hoping to be able to ski a portion of it. The snow hadn't transformed from corn to mashed potatoes yet, we were still having fun!
After a mile or so past the log jam, the snow thinned out and we were back in trail runners. After a short uneventful slog, we were back to the trailhead and stoked on our accomplishment of summiting Snowmass Mountain with skis as a 'skimo nerd day push'. Worth it? Maybe not, if looking to maximize skiing... As a challenge - we were very happy with how the day turned out.