Descent Route: East Face
March 2, 2006
What I imagined as a straight forward day on a 14er turned into a much longer venture into the mountains, and for one reason only, the snow. What had started out as a great season here in Colorado has quickly turned into a below average winter, with the only ranges that have decent snow being the Elks near Aspen and the northern mountains near Steamboat (no 14ers there) December and Janaury were fantastic, but February brought lots of wind, hardly any snow, and many days of warm (and very cold) temperatures. All of this weather has conspired to ruin the snowpack in the Sawatch Range, where lies Huron Peak.
So we began our day with the typical pre-dawn departure from Old Snowmass, and arrived at the trailhead around 8:30. I was joined by Frank Shine and Ben Galland, who is shooting and directing our documentary film. Huron Peak is located on the western edge of the Sawatch Range, not far from Taylor Park Resevoir. We drove up Clear Creek road, which isn't maintained in the winter, but is clear of snow right now. We parked the truck at mile 9, at the ghost town of Rockdale, and unloaded the snowmobiles for what I hoped would be an easy drive up the jeep road to Cloyses Lake. But it turns out no one had been on the Cloyses road all winter, and it was buried in four feet of totally unconsolidated sugar snow, the worst snow for snowmobiling possible. It took the good part of an hour to break trail, dig out stuck sleds, and get all the gear up the road. We finally gave up, sweaty and frustrated, in a meadow about a mile before the trailhead. The sleds had saved us some time, but cost us valuable energy.
Once we put the skins on our skis and hit the trail, we realized that the skinning was no better than the snowmobiling. With every step, the poor soul who was breaking trail would sink up to his knees or worse. A snowpack that can't support a person on skis is about as bad as it gets, and for the next three hours we cursed the snow, taking one step at a time. The snow did improve as we reached treeline, at 11,800 ft. It's still winter up here, thankfully, and the snow was powder on top of a nice, supportive mid-pack. Frank and
Ben rolled some film as we skinned up the gorgeous high valley on the approach to Huron. The appraoch is lined with towering cliffs, steep couloirs, and many great looking ski lines. At 12,600 ft. Ben took a right and set up his Arriflex camera on a high plateau, looking directly at the steep East Face of Huron. Frank and I continued skinning up a wide gully towards 13,000 ft. and above, finally putting the skis on our backs for the final 900 feet of ridge climbing to the summit.
The summit of Huron is fantastic. It's narrow and isolated up there, and has commanding views of no less than 15 14ers. The weather was beautiful as well, with warm temps and very light winds. We shot some interviews for the film, and called Ben on the radio when it was timne to drop in down the East Face. The line we had chosen was the southern most of two big couloirs that split the face, both of them steep and requiring care so as not to fall or create an avalanche. The snow on this face, like many east aspects on the 14ers this year, has been blown in and is quite deep. We had a great layer of powder on the surface. I dropped in first and banged out ten sweet turns in steep pow along a spine that allowed me to put weight on the top of the couloir without exposing myself to a slide if it decided to rip. I felt good about the snow at this point, and Frank descended to me. Frank ski cut the next section and set up for a film shot 1/3 of the way down the couloir. I then got to ski it top to bottom, 1300 feet of perfect powder, steep and stable. This was the best run I've had yet on a 14er, and a stark contrast to the horrible snow that lies below 11,000 ft. Frank and I both skied out to Ben, who was beaming after getting great shots of a classic steep descent.
At this point the sun was getting low in the sky, and it was time to ski out through the crappy sugar. Descending through the forest was more like walking diagonally with your skis on, as the snow would not support you. We were constantly stuffing our tips into the ground, breaking through tree wells, and falling into holes. Skiing out was almost as hard as skinning up had been. At dusk we found the snowmobiles, and thanks to their headlights were able to follow our tracks out to the truck.
After a 9 1/2 hour day, we were psyched but tired. Ben and I headed to Buena Vista to try another 14er, while Frank headed back to Aspen.
EDIT: Today is the 3rd of March and we scoped out Mt. Princeton from Buena Vista this morning, but it has no snow on it at all. Neither do any of the southern Sawatch peaks. Then we drove to La Plata peak to try the North Face, but there is no snow on the summit, so a ski descent from the summit is impossible. Right now I'm sitting on my deck in Snowmass in shorts and no shirt and its almost 60 degrees out. Winter better return or this project will be limited to the 20 or 30 mountains that DO have snow on them. If you can all pray for snow that might help!
Coming up, Snowmass, Sneffels, or the Wilsons.
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