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If you live in or have visited the Denver area you have most likely seen the hulking mass of Longs Peak on the western skyline. Its 14,255 foot broad summit and sheer size draw all eyes to it like a majestic magnet. However most people do not notice Mt. Audubon to the south of Long’s as it is not quite as lofty (13,233 feet) but it is equally as massive. Mt. Audubon is located above the rustic town of Ward and is situated in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. It easily distinguished from the other jagged peaks in the wilderness area that dominate the western skyline because of its relatively gentle and rounded eastern slopes.
My family relocated from high mountains of Summit County Colorado down to Superior Colorado on the Front Range last summer. Since then I have been very busy with pursuing an education as a personal trainer, working as an intern at Functional Fitness in Boulder, starting a new company and fulfilling family obligations. Needless to say, this has not left much time to play in the mountains. So it has been hard to look up at the awesome and jagged skyline that the Indian Peaks form every day when I drive on highways 93 or 36. I have been able to ignore the nagging itch to visit these high perches because of my hectic schedule, but lately the desire for some alpine adventure has just been too great for me to ignore. So when the right weather and snow conditions finally came together I called in to my very understanding mentor Sam Ianetta at Functional Fitness for a not so powdery powder day and attempted to climb and ski Mt. Audubon.
The road to Brainard Lake and the trailhead for Mt. Audubon does not usually open until June. This is nice in the fact that there are no crowds at this time of year but it also doubles the distance that has to be covered to climb the peak. Since all of the days travel would be on snow I planned on an early wake up call. Unfortunately my nice warm bed seduced me into another hour of sleep so I got the coffee maker revved up at 5 a.m instead of the planned 4 a.m start. This put me at the trail head at 7 a.m and I headed into a very brisk wind for a not so alpine start at 7:30 a.m. Luckily there had been a solid freeze in the mountains that night so I was able to hike the snow covered Brainard Lake Road to the trailhead for Mitchell Lake and Mt. Audubon in my nice and light tennis shoes. The hike out the road was very peaceful as I did not see a soul which is very rare for this area. As I was moving up and down over the ten foot snow drifts I did get to see a sleek and quite curious mountain weasel scurrying about looking for breakfast. I was also visited by a few hungry western jays at the ever so windy Brainard Lake Recreation Area who were hoping for an unnatural human handout.
I donned my ski boots and hastily attached my climbing skins to my skis at the Mitchell Lake trailhead junction. The wind was really blowing here and it made getting my climbing skins on my skis quite a challenge. I also had to chase down one of my gloves that took off like a kite in a hurricane with a ski boot on one foot and a sock on the other foot. I am sure that the ravens enjoyed the site of me frantically hobbling after my flying glove looking like a drunken peg leg sailor. The skin up past Mitchell Lake and through the open deeply powder snow laden forest was quick, uneventful and absolutely peaceful. All the trees had a fresh coat of powder on them, the sky was colored in a brilliant shade of Colorado blue and I could not help but think about how much fun it was going to be to ski these open trees on the way back down. Little did I know that I would be getting unmercifully tortured on the way down by the deteriorating snow conditions instead of making sweet powder turns!
As I mentioned before, the skin up to the south east shoulder of the mountain was quick and enjoyable. Now the real work was about to begin! The air had really warmed up and the snow was doing the same. I ended up having to traverse back west to a safe vantage point behind a huge fifteen foot high wind roll to scope out a safe line up the steepish south east ridge. From here I had an amazing view of the awe inspiring south east bowl of Audubon which would make for an amazing ski descent under safer conditions. I had to play it safe though as I was by myself and the snow felt a little finicky in my humble opinion. I ended up traversing back east behind the huge wind roll and it’s relative safety to a steep talus slope so I could continue upward to the huge plateau that lead to the final summit pitch. So off came the skis and I climbed the steep and treacherously loose talus slope in my tele boots.
Once I gained the ridge I put my skis back on and traversed back west on rolling and chalky snow wind drifts towards the summit. This shoulder is actually a huge flat wind scoured bench of high alpine tundra. I ended up running out of snow and removing my skis again so I could hike across this immense frozen alpine meadow. The views from here were spectacular. The view to the north west was dominated by Audubon’s immense east face and the view to the south was dominated by jagged snow covered ridge lines for as far as I could see. Unfortunately the wind had really picked up and it was making it hard to walk so I hussled along as quick as I could to the final summit snow field.
Once I was back on the snow I started the long arduous climb up the east face snow field that is so clearly seen from the Front Range. The skin up the snow field went slow and steady even though the wind gusts constantly tried to blow me back down the mountain. I could hear the bigger gusts of wind when they were heading my way like a freight train and I would use some of my Functional Fitness training to stabilize my body so that I would not get blown over. It was now around 10:30 and I was running out of time as I had to be back in Superior to pick up my son from school, which meant that I needed really pick up the pace. So I used some more of my Functional Fitness training and set a smart and achievable goal to reach the top of the north east ridge snow line and forgo the summit in hopes of catching some fresh powder turns down low in the trees. With this revised and functional plan I dug deep and punched it to the end of the snow and the beginning of the summit talus field.
It was now almost 11:00 and I had been on the move for three and a half solid hours. I was a little disappointed that I did not make the summit but I had been sleeping at 5500 feet a few hours previously and I was now getting ready to ski down from about 13000 feet. So I hurriedly slammed an energy shot, drank some much needed water, removed my skins and posed for some Almost Audubon Summit pictures. Later on that evening when I reviewed my pictures I was pleasantly surprised by the new growth that I had acquired on my chin from my lack of a snot rag!!!! Nice… or maybe not!!!! So as I pointed my skis downhill I enjoyed one last laugh with my old and dear friend Aeolus the god of the mountain winds and schussed down the wonderful chalky windblown alpine snow field.
As is usual with backcountry skiing the trip down was way too short. I managed about 50 absolutely pleasurable tight turns on some wonderful wind buff to the bottom of the east face before it was time to take my boards off and walk back across the frozen wind scoured plateau. As I meandered across the shoulder my eyes were pulled towards the many dreamy ski lines that abounded on all the surrounding peaks. But time was ticking away and my ski dreams would have to wait to become reality on another day.
When I got back to the top of the shoulder I once again had to find a safe path but this time it was down instead of up. I knew that I could ski down some amazing steep terrain to get back to timberline but the snow conditions were getting dodgy real quick. I stopped at the top of the steep talus slope that I had climbed up and contemplated climbing back down but I figured that I could find a safe low angle ski decent further down the ridge, Bad decision number one!!! I ended up ski traversing across the shoulder another couple of hundred yards but the angle stayed steep and the snow had become very wet and pin wheels were releasing from my ski tracks. I ended up having to take my skis back off at one point to avoid a steep and scary slope and reluctantly climb back up to safer low angle terrain. I then put my skis back on and had to ski cut another steep slope to get to some lower angled and treed terrain. This traverse proved to be the scariest part of the day as the snow was sticking to the bottom of my skis which made my forward progress very slow and quite treacherous. Once on the other side of the steep slope I was able to make the last decent ski turns of the day downhill a couple of hundred feet. These turns were very exhilarating as the slope angle was quite steep but my adrenals were in hyper drive because I knew that the snow conditions were far from optimal. I then had to remove my skis again and down climb a short talus slope to the base of the shoulder and the relative safety of the not close enough tree line.
At this point I was kind of scared because I knew that the possibility of triggering a wet snow avalanche on the steep slopes above me was high so I headed down into the trees as quickly as possible to hopefully get into relatively safer terrain. My plan was to go down then traverse back west to find my skin track back to Mitchell Lake and Brainard Road. Unfortunately I had forgotten my ski wax, mistake number two, and my skis might as well have been magnets and the snow, ball bearings. The going was painfully slow and my poor climber tooth pick legs were getting torched from the cinder blocks attached to my ski boots. I traversed west for what seemed like an eternity but I never found my skin track. So I then decided to ski downhill, as I just knew that I had to be right above Mitchell Lake. Mistake number three. Ssstrike three… I was out!!!!!
No matter how hard I tried I could not make ski turns even though I was heading down hill because the snow was balling up so badly on the bottoms of my fat skis. My dream of glory powder turns in open trees was crushed and my will power was fading fast too. In desperation I ended up taking my skis off again and tried to hike in hopes of making quicker progress to the lake that I knew that I would arrive at in any second. This plan worked fine for about ten steps until I sank into the snow up to my waist. So I thrashed and wallowed back up onto the top of the snow like a spastic walrus and put my cinder blocks back onto my boots. So it went step, step, cuss, cuss and kick, kick to remove the snow from my skis. All the while I was beginning think about which level of hell I was in and passages from “Dante’s Inferno” were filling my brain.
Needless to say I was worked. My legs felt like two over cooked pieces of rice noodles and hallucinations of Boulder chips and big beers were floating over the warmer and warmer cement snow I was trudging across. Luckily I kind of like suffering and I was not really worried about getting lost as I knew that I would eventually get to the Peak to Peak Highway if I headed due east. So I just kept on descending into deeper levels of haites and dreaming of bacon flavored kettle chips and cold hefeweizens when all of a sudden I stumbled onto a set of cross country ski tracks. Glory be... I was saved!!! I smiled at the gate keeper to the devil himself and said I am out of here. Sadly the misery was not over yet but there was light at the end of the cross country ski trail tunnel. So I continued slogging on the skinny ski tracks with my big fat downhill boards. Thankfully they began to glide on the icy day old tracks and I was able to make up for some lost time. I eventually made it back the trail junction with the Brainard Lake snow shoe trail and I removed my ski equipment and donned my feather light tennis shoes for the last mile and a half back to the car. This last section of trail went smoothly but my pack really took my shoulders to new levels torturous pain that I had not visited in quite a while. Not even my favorite miracle worker masseuses at Functional Fitness would be able coax the growing fascial lesions from hell out of my sizzling shoulders and neck. Well, actually they could but it would not be a pleasant experience.
When I finally made it back to the road I was pretty much done. Capoot. Sizzle,Sizzle. Burn,Burn! My body was on auto pilot and all I could think about were the three b’s. Bacon, beer and bed rest!!! As I staggered back to the trail head and the chicken and cheese bagel that was waiting there my emotions really swelled up from deep inside me. After nearly six hours of continuous and very strenuous effort and some character building mental dialogue I knew that the past years sacrifices were worth it. I had made some big changes in my life and sacrificed my very cherished and sacred time in the mountains to obtain my new goals. And even though this day on Audubon was less than perfect I still knew that the mountains would always bring me the sense of purpose and the adventure that I need and thrive on. And even though my quest for excellence in my new endeavors is far from over and the sacrifices of my mountain time will continue. I know that our precious wild places and humbling high perches will always be there waiting for us to test ourselves and fill the primal urge we, as humans, need.
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