An ideal ski tour is when one skis a long distance in a remote area and is able to stay high the entire way. This criteria has been used by George Lowe and myself for many years in planning our ski trips. The San Juan Mountains in Southern Colorado had an additional attraction; the route we picked followed the Continental Divide. Our trip started near Silverton at an elevation of 10,000 feet and followed the Divide in a general Southeast direction for 75 miles until it reached a highway at Wolf Creek Pass. No roads came close to our route. We didn't expect to see anyone during the tour and we weren't disappointed.
Greg Jordan and I flew to Denver on 4 April 1991, met George, and drove from Denver to near Silverton that evening, arriving very late. The next morning we met George Kenney, a local resident who had agreed to shuttle our car to the Wolf Creek Pass ski area.
The drive from Ridgeway to Silverton is one of the most beautiful in Colorado. The snow capped peaks here are sharp and precipitous. We passed through Ouray, a picturesque town perched against a mountainside. After crossing Red Mountain pass, we drove through Silverton, headed East, and stopped at the Stony Pass Trail head. We were underway about 9:30am. Our packs averaged about 42 pounds including food for 7 days.
We carried shovels and transceivers since the San Juan Mountains are known for lots of avalanche activity. We were able to avoid potential problems fairly easily during the trip but we saw much prior avalanche activity. Of most concern were pockets of temperature gradient snow at the base of the winter snow cover on steep North facing slopes, but we saw wet snow South facing slides as well. About midway in the trip, we saw the remnants of a slide with a fracture line 4 feet deep which extended at least 1/2 mile. Forget your shovels if you are around when one this size lets loose!
For the first two days of the tour the weather was clear and warm, the skiing was pleasant and we had good downhill runs. Morning skiing was on hard crusty snow which was ideal for parallel turns. As the snow softened in the sun, telemark turns worked well. Later in the day, skis would begin to break through on some turns and the skiing became much more challenging. Early starts are mandatory if one expects to ski long distances in the high mountains in the spring. Only in this way can one get maximum benefit from the hard icy snow that is easy and fast.
We used our hanging stove system in a vented tent which allowed us to melt snow and eat breakfast while we were still warm in our sleeping bags. Usually, the sun hit our tent before we emerged, although we were packed and skiing before 7:00am.
On day 3, we had cloud cover and were concerned about the weather. However, the weather remained stable and the overcast sky had the advantage of keeping the snow from turning slushy in the afternoon which increased our skiing enjoyment.
Route finding was not difficult. We were able to stay on the divide nearly all the time. This tour did stay high! Our maximum elevation was 12,800 feet and our lowest campsite was at 11,840 feet. The others were allover 12,000 feet. We dropped to 10,600 feet briefly on two occasions but stayed over 12,000 feet for most of the trip.
On several occasions during the trip, we were able to ski along a high ridge for several miles, with steep drop offs on both sides. I enjoyed this area the most; this is what it should be like when skiing the Continental Divide.
I planned this to be a six day trip. However, our 5th camp was still 18 miles from the finish and that evening we debated whether we should relax and take a 7th day. However, that night, strong winds started blowing from the South and it seemed as if a storm might be coming in. Our altimeter indicated the pressure was dropping also. The following morning, we got our earliest start (6:15am) and decided to try to get out before the storm hit. From what we had seen of avalanche activity in this area, a heavy snowstorm could cause us to sit tight for several days while we waited for it to become safe enough to travel.
Our 6th day was marked by the first technical areas in the trip (we had to kick steps down some snowfields) and also by extremely high winds. While traveling East along a beautiful high ridge, we estimated that winds from the South were hitting us at a speed of 45-55 mph. We had to plant our left pole carefully before lifting our right ski to avoid being blown over! We were glad we weren't having to ski directly into the wind. By mid afternoon, we were on the East side of the divide and sheltered somewhat from the wind. At 6:00pm, we saw the road leading to Wolf Creek Pass and opted to ski down a gully directly to the road rather than continuing to the pass.
We had good skiing for 1000 feet and we proceeded on foot down the gully. We had to kick steps in steep snow to bypass a waterfall after which the angle of the gully lessened. We had on headlamps now and anticipated reaching the road in minutes. Then we reached a cliff and could only see darkness below. It took us an hour before we finally found a way down this last 300 foot cliff. We finally reached the road at 9:00pm. By 2:30am we were back in Denver, driving through some snow showers on the way. We got out just in time.
Back in Denver, the storm continued on and off for several days. Our tour could have been considerably less enjoyable had we started a few days later. The total length of the trip was 75 miles including about 17,500 vertical feet of elevation gain. As we traced our actual route on maps on George's dining room table, we estimated that we had actually skied down about 8,300 feet (Skiing was defined as attempting to turn, not necessarily succeeding).
The tour probably had the highest average elevation of any trip I have done. Although the mountains were not as spectacular as the Wind Rivers or the Tetons, skiing for miles along ridges above 12,000 feet was an exciting and wonderful experience.
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