By Ann Driggers
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Without fail, every one of the many times I have driven I70 over Vail Pass, as I round the corner past Copper ski area, my eyes lock onto the Sky Chutes. An improbable feat of nature, the three couloirs etch the word SKY onto the west side of the Ten Mile Range. Reportedly these chutes are classic ski lines and in my driving daydreams I have skied them many times. But never for real. Until this weekend. My husband, Chad and I were staying with friends in Breckenridge and I quickly found an excuse to forgo the $92 ice skating ticket. Save money and go ski the sky? It was a no-brainer for me, though I was unable to persuade anyone else to join me. No matter… The weather was forecast to be very warm and sunny, so I was eager to be up and out early on, and now I could make my own schedule. Despite the chutes westerly aspect and the snowpack being relatively consolidated, the previous day’s avalanche report of wet slides in the area had me a tad worried. As the sun rose, I crossed the Tenmile Creek and climbed directly into the base of the S chute. For the most part it was broad and flat, and about 50 feet wide as it snaked its way upwards through dark lodge pole forest. The slope angle was a mild 30 degrees, allowing me to skin all the way, though I was definitely loving my secret weapon, ski crampons.
I took my time, climbing slowly and steadily at a pace befitting of someone who was playing air hockey interspersed with tequila shots just eight hours earlier. I stopped frequently and watched the sun’s rays slowly creep down the side of Copper Mountain. After climbing 2,500 feet I ran out of snow and reached the windblown and grassy ridge. Despite my rather laxidasical pace the sun had yet to penetrate the inner shadows of the S chute and the snow was icy. I was way ahead of the schedule for corn skiing. Time was needed for the chute to transform into the buttery snow I had dreamed of. I decided to wait. I found a comfy snow seat sheltered by a stunted tree and had a snack. I looked at the incredible views south over Tennessee Pass. I called my mum in England to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day (not the same Sunday as in the US). Luckily she didn’t answer the phone. She may have said “You are where?!” and “I’d rather hear about your adventures AFTER them and not during!” I waited some more. I called Chad. They were cooking bacon and eggs. That sounded rather good. My resolve to stay put began to crumble. My breakfast-less stomach started to grumble.
I clicked into my skis and headed down, skiing the south facing side of the chute where the sun had lightly softened the snow. In just a matter of minutes I was back at the creek. I briefly entertained the idea of climbing up the adjacent K chute, but decided to leave it for another day. After all I need something else to dream about next time I drive over Vail Pass.
By Ann Driggers
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
The sun is shining and the temps are climbing. Spring has almost sprung in the Grand Valley. Now there is plenty of daylight after work I figured it was time to break out the mountain bike for the first ride of the year. As I packed up my gear early this morning, I made double sure I had everything. Bike, check, shoes, check, helmet, yes, camelback, yup. Good to go. And then I looked at my bike shorts. Eeeek! I was struck with a terrifying thought. My blinding pasty white legs, hidden in ski pants all winter long, would surely burn the corneas of any poor soul who agreed to ride with me. Right there and then, I made the decision to ride alone. I also reasoned that I needed to take my time to get back into the groove having been off the bike for six months. No partner would thank me for standing around waiting while being subject to involuntary lasik eye surgery. So toute seule, I headed out to Kokopelli's trailhead for my 2009 season opener.
Looping through sage brush and pinyon, the trails roll over red rock benches above the Colorado River. The fast, ripping desert single track has a few mild technical sections thrown in which yanked my eyes from the scenery once in a while. The trails were in great shape for early season riding. There were few signs that the desert is waking up to spring yet, but 70 degrees sure makes it feel like it. About the only indicator I could see was the number of others out there with pale glowing limbs, also dusting off the cobwebs and stretching the riding legs. I guess I wasn't alone after all.
By Ann Driggers
Monday, March 9, 2009
- Was it hard to roll out of bed this morning or what? Sometimes I plan my transition to daylight savings time, gradually moving my alarm up a little earlier each day. By the end of a week of progressively earlier wake up calls, I am ready to spring forward and out of bed. Not this time. I decided to go cold turkey and set my alarm for the usual 4:45 a.m., which would be 3:45 a.m. on last week’s time. Painful! My morning run was slow and sleepy. Hopefully it wont be so tough tomorrow and I will rally for the big trail run at dark thirty. (Edit at 7:15 a.m. failed miserably. Rain and wind lashing against the window all night caused me to text running partner and cry off.) On the plus side, I can consider the early rise, good training for those alpine starts needed during the spring skiing season. But the biggest benefit can be realized right now - finally there is enough daylight to recreate after work in the evenings. I am considering busting out the mountain bike and joining the throngs of knobby tire enthusiasts who, pent up after a long dark winter, are hitting the trails in a big way. Yesterday I took advantage of the extended evening hours for a wander in the desert. As it was a short hike, my old trail partner pulled himself out of bed and joined me to catch the sunset. Beetle, now into his 7th decade (in dog years), has many miles under his paws. He was happy to be outdoors and pose as a nearly full moon rose above the Grand Mesa.
By Ann Driggers
Thursday, February 26, 2009
There is always something slightly surreal about starting the day surrounded by red rock canyons, and then recreating in nearby snowy mountains for the remainder. But that is part of the reason why I feel so fortunate to live in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau. Nowhere is the juxtaposition of rock and ice more apparent, than when driving through Moab en route to the La Sal Mountains for a winter adventure. The massive white peaks are etched against a bluebird sky, seemingly a mirage shimmering through the desert heat waves, above the rust colored earth from which they emerge. On a recent warm and sunny day, when most people were dusting off their mountain bikes, my ski buddy Pete Harris and I unearthed our winter mountaineering gear, and drove the steep and winding La Sal Loop Road from Moab, to the highest winter trailhead in Utah. Our plan - a loop traverse linking two 12,000 foot peaks of the central La Sal range. Leaving the Geyser Pass Road trailhead, we skinned our way through pine and aspen forest and across meadows. Occasionally catching glimpses of the high peaks above and the slickrock below, it felt as though we were suspended between two worlds. 2,000 feet higher, the Pre-Laurel weather station, perched upon a ridge at tree line, marked the transition to the true alpine and therefore the commencement of our mountaineering adventure.
Crampons were needed for climbing the wind hammered 'snow'
The copious desert winds, that carve the rock formations in the canyons below, also erode the snow from the exposed peaks. The snow was icy and hard and afforded no purchase for either skins or boots. The crampons came out and stayed on for the remainder of the day’s climbing.
From the weather station the traverse between Laurel Mountain on the right and Mount Mellanthin on the left can be seen. Photo: Pete Harris
We climbed first to the summit of the wind scoured rocky west face of Laurel Mountain. A summer trail provided the best surface for our crampon points as six inches of snow had blown in and collected in the slight depression through the talus. The weather was warm and the sun intense, until reaching the final ridge when the slight breeze reminded me it was still winter. At the summit, we made a quick switcheroo back to skis, so that we could officially declare that we had skied Laurel Mountain. We made survival turns for a few hundred feet, down the ridge of wind hammered snow towards the base of Mount Mellanthin. Unlike the views, the skiing was distinctly unspectacular.
With crampons back on, and skis mounted on packs, we looked for a route up our final climb of the day. The snow on the south ridge of Mount Mellanthin was softening in the sun and looked unsupportable, so again we took a summer trail veering across the west face, a ribbon of white through the mass of loose rock.
At 12,645 feet high and the second highest peak of the range, Mellanthin’s awe inspiring summit views are truly a window to the world. More than a vertical mile beneath, red rock ripples across the earth’s surface, sculpted by nature’s chisels of wind and water. Towering formations are visible to the eye, deep in the canyons and valleys below. Naturally, from this heavenly point on, the only way was down. After soaking in the views and having a bite to eat, we launched into the vast bowl of the north face. Our skis chattered and bones rattled over the sastrugi - snow sculpted into ridges and waves by the wind. The 1,200 foot descent to the rocky moraines at the base was challenging though as always, fun.
Below tree line snow conditions improved, giving us a few hero turns, but for the most part the egress was a rolling snowmobile packed road. With a few little hills thrown in, requiring skate skiing, and after a hefty seven hour day, my legs were happy to return to the trailhead. As we drove back across the high desert into Colorado, the sun set in the west. The iridescent snowy peaks cast the canyons deep into purple shadow. It was hard to believe that just a few hours before we were on top of the island in the sky.
By Ann Driggers
Saturday, February 21, 2009
I have inadvertently stumbled into a new (to me) mode of winter transportation. Over the past couple of months, in unexpected backcountry locations, I have met skiers who harness the power of the wind to travel across snow. By combining skis or a board with a kite, snowkiters as they are known, scoot across frozen lakes, up mountainsides and hop over obstacles. At the cutting edge of the sport, long distances are covered to cross continents or reach distant mountain summits, and at the extreme fringe, snowkiters catch big air off cliffs. My brief observations have evolved quickly into a keen interest in the sport. Inseparable as I am from my skis, learning to harness the wind as a compliment to my favorite outdoor activity will expand the horizons of my outdoor world. And I want in. So when local snow kiting expert, Dave Grossman, offered to show me the ropes, or lines in this case, and teach me the basics of kiting, I jumped at the chance.
First stop, the wide open spaces of Canyon View Park on a gloriously sunny and barely breezy afternoon. As we unpacked the kite I had visions of being drug onto and tangled up on I70. Dave quelled my fears and reassured me the kite was but a small three meter trainer and I would soon have everything under control. He was right. With a big grin plastered across my face and after an hour of his tutelage I had learned in a fashion how to launch, fly and crash the kite.
Despite its small span, it was amazing how much power was under the canopy when the wind picked up. Even with a light breeze I found myself lifted off the ground and towed pretty hard. Fortunately the kite had a brake and could be stopped quickly before I rocketed into the fence at the east end of the park.
Looking beyond my kite, the snow covered Grand Mesa beckoned, a perfect location for snow kiting. With a little more practice I soon hope to be up there combining my skis with the wind to launch me into a whole new world. All photos: Dave Grossman