The Outdoor Junkie
The Outdoor Junkie is a blog by Ann Driggers, a backcountry bon vivant who lives to hike, run, ride, ski and climb in the great outdoors, and is most often found roaming through the red-rock canyons and mountains of Western Colorado.
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By Ann Driggers
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Bumping along a rarely used dirt road in the desert of the Dolores Valley, I cranked my head upwards and peered through the small window of the Jeep. A towering wall of desert sandstone loomed 2,000 feet above. Perhaps it was my restricted view that made the fortress of rock look impenetrable? Yet, a few minutes later and disgorged from the vehicle, the route up the Palisade seemed no clearer. The Palisade is a narrow fin of sandstone, an iconic formation which stands guard above the hamlet of Gateway. From every angle its appearance is imposing, but it can be climbed, so I was told.
Luke Reece of Gateway Canyons Adventure Center generously offered to show Chad and I the route, an old uranium miners trail which provides the only access to the summit. With Gateway guide Nick Kroger leading the way, the four of us set out across the desert, a mile from the base of the wall.
Crossing several arroyos we headed for a rib of steep and loose talus which connected the valley floor to the base of the cliffs. We scrambled up the spine and after an hour and 1,000 feet of gain reached the wall, a more solid surface, albeit close to vertical. Despite our now intimate position, the way up was no more obvious. “If you can’t go there, it’s not the route” was Luke and Nick’s simple response to our questioning. In reality the route unfurled before us and our path through the labyrinth became clear as we went. No doubt because we followed Nick who traced the bold footsteps of the old miners up the rock face. Although more than half a century has passed since the original trailblazers forged their way upwards in search of riches, evidence of the intrepid miners abound. When the rock failed to give a solid foothold, they chiseled their own or hammered a piton into the soft rock. The route consisted of a series of ledges which we climbed and traversed. Though not technically difficult the climbing was exposed so we roped up occasionally. With the security of the rope, climbing was fun. We pushed our hands into cracks between slabs or smeared our boots onto the sticky slickrock, gradually making our way higher.
With no protection and the penalty for failure quite high, traversing the wall was a more nail-biting experience. As I tentatively inched my way across the smooth sandstone ledge, I forced the precipitous drop to the periphery of my vision and focused only on the placement of my feet.
Adding to the pressure, the longest traverse was interrupted by the debris of a recent rockslide. The smell of sap from the broken limbs of pinions, still clinging to their improbable foundation, hung in the air. Fresh rocks and dirt were covered with a layer of green pine needles. With danger from above as well as below, we hurried through this section, and took the extra precaution of going one at a time, in case of another ‘incident’.
Two hours later we made the final climb of a bulbous rock face and popped out onto the top of the fin.
Expecting the crest to be flat and barren, I was surprised to find a desert garden in the sky, a combination of slickrock domes and crytobiotic soil scattered with pinions. Treading carefully we made our way towards the ‘point’, the summit of the Palisade as seen from Gateway. Here the fin narrows to about 30 feet wide.
The exposed point generated wind gusts of 30 mph, enough to guarantee a tummy wriggle along the ground in order to peer over the edge.
The views were ample reward for our several hours of effort. Gateway was a long 2,000 feet drop below. The Dolores River glistened as it wound its way along the valley floor and sliced through the canyon walls towards Utah. Far in the distance the snowy peaks of the La Sal Mountains rose above the desert landscape. Clouds were building and a storm forecast to move in, so we quickly retraced our route. Traversing wet slickrock was not high on my list of preferred activities. Luckily the weather held off and the descent was as much fun as the climb. Arriving back at the Jeep seven hours after we left it, I stopped and turned to look back at the seemingly impenetrable fortress. Although I could now see where we had been, I marveled at the improbability of our route and at the fortitude of the miners who had pioneered it. It had been an outstanding day and one of the the most interesting desert adventures I have had in a long time.
By Ann Driggers
Thursday, April 9, 2009
From the viewpoint on Highlands Peak at Aspen Highlands ski area, North Hayden Peak stands out big time. Though several miles away, a skiers eye is drawn to the broad north face, as were ski area developers in the 1930’s. Luckily, plans for ‘Ski Hayden’ fell through, leaving this beautiful ski descent to those who prefer to earn their turns and enjoy the solitude of the backcountry. I recently had the opportunity to make my first pilgrimage to this Elk Range classic with ski partner Scott McCurdy. We left the trailhead early in the morning as the day was forecast to be warm and snow conditions to become less stable later in the day. After crossing Castle Creek by shimmying across a fallen tree, we passed through a meadow and began the long climb (4,316 feet to be precise) up a steep sided drainage through dense forest. The terrain was a little tricky to navigate and we skinned a fine line between being cliffed out while steep sidehilling on the one side and bushwhacking in the bottom of drainage on the other. As Scott had been there before we managed to follow the correct route and not get into too much trouble. After the first 2,300 feet of climbing the dark forest finally spat us out at the base of the Stammberger face, named after the famous extreme ski pioneer Fritz Stammberger, who was the first to ski the steep 45 degree slope.
Another two hours of laboring and we reached the summit of North Hayden Peak at 13,316 feet. Taking in the views of the surrounding Elk Mountains, we were disappointed to see the usually snowy summits streaked reddish brown. It was sad to see even the highest and most majestic peaks, such as Maroon, Capitol and Pyramid, had not escaped the thick layers of dust from recent wind storms.
Scott launches from the summit. The dust layer is quite apparent on the highlands ridge behind.
Fortunately the dust was covered by 6 inches of snow for our descent and we made hero turns in windbuffed powder on the upper face. Lower down we threaded our way through the gullies at the side of the Stammberger, which we decided to avoid due to the funky looking snow. We confirmed Ski Hayden is worthy of its reputation as a Colorado classic backcountry ski.
Skiing the upper face of Hayden.
The signatures of a backcountry skier - skin track and turns
In contrast to the easy skiing above, varied and challenging snow conditions dictated survival skiing in the thick forest on the lower slopes. Northerly shaded aspects were cold wintery powder, westerly and southerly aspects sun crusted and east facing slopes were almost corn snow, but not quite. Feeling quite the snow experts at this point, we creatively named it 'hominy' snow. The snowpack is still in its transition phase from winter to spring. The full impact of the recently added dust layers remains to be seen but does not bode well for the spring ski season. When we returned to the meadow we had crossed just five hours earlier, it had changed from a vanilla latte to dark chocolate milk, and the snowpack had visibly shrunk.
Is this really snow?
It seems our snow is going a lot quicker this year than usual. But I hope not, as I have a lot more backcountry classics, such as Ski Hayden, on the list, and the spring ski season has barely begun.
Ski Hayden from the trailhead. Our ski tracks are visible if you have either really good eyes or computer screen.
By Ann Driggers
Thursday, April 2, 2009
It’s been a wee while since I wrote my first and only post about kiting. Kiting silence on the blog does not reflect reality. I have been able to get out and practice a fair few times both in the park and on the snow. However the conditions haven’t always been too favorable with winds either dead calm or close to hurricane force. Of course I have had plenty of fun trying, whether snoozing in the grass at Canyon View waiting for the wind to pick up, shooting across a snowy meadow whilst being lashed by willows, or scattering geese on the thawing ice of Lake Dillon. Indeed entertainment has not been in short supply, but progress has.
Kiting at Canyon View or Waiting for the Wind.
However, an opportunity to proceed beyond the comedy show recently beckoned. I was invited to receive a lesson from the best snowkiting instructors in the country, who happened to stop by the Mesa one afternoon this week. Furthermore conditions promised to be good with a forecast for 10 to 15 mph winds and a recent dump of fresh powder providing a soft landing for the inevitable wipeouts. With great anticipation I drove up the Mesa. But upon arriving at the Lands End Road the weather forecast looked kind of wrong. Actually it was very wrong. A quick check of the anemometer revealed sustained winds in the low 20’s with gusts of 30 mph. The temps were in the single digits, wind chills were well below zero and it was snowing about an inch per hour. Uggh!
Still, all the students were very enthusiastic, as were the instructors, so we headed out into the meadow to begin our lessons.
Enthusiasm withstands the nasty weather.
We were barely 30 minutes into the proceedings before I had a white patch growing on my cheek - the first signs of frost nip. I had to return to the warmth of the truck to take care of it. After that I had a very hard time getting warm again and the weather continued to be pretty nasty, so my afternoon was spent hunkered down inside.
My view for the majority of the afternoon. Yes, that does say 9 F at 3:08 p.m. Lovely springtime weather!
So unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make much in the way of progress but I did manage to snap some photos of the pros ripping across the snow. Hopefully I will luck out soon and the right weather conditions will coincide with my kiting attempts. I swear it wont be long before I too am jetting through the powder behind a kite. The pros show us how its done:
They have some fine tricks too...
And some goofy ones....
By Ann Driggers
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Saturday April 11th brings the 4th Annual Manufacturers of Outdoor Gear (MOG) and Outdoor Festival to downtown Grand Junction. If you are interested in screaming deals on outdoor gear and clothing (who isn't?), or catching the Telluride Mountain Film Festival or hanging with fellow outdoor folks at the LOKI party, this is the event of the year. See you there!
By Ann Driggers
Sunday, March 29, 2009
- big adjective big-ger, big-gest, 1. large, as in size, height, width or amount, 2. of major concern, gravity, importance or the like, 3. outstanding for a specified quality. Yesterday was a big day in the San Juan's. My ski buddy Jack Brauer, along with friends Parker and Aimee, skied two big lines which added up to around 5,000 feet of vertical. The recent storm refreshed the relatively consolidated snowpack with a foot of powder, allowing us to center punch north faces in fantastic conditions. Here's how the day went down: Jack and Parker skin up on their splitboards through light wind buffed powder. The San Juan mountains above Red Mountain Pass provide the back drop.
After two hours of climbing we receive our reward, the first descent of the day. Parker rides between the rails - mine and Aimee's ski tracks.
The bottom of the face converges into a large gully, all of it serious avalanche terrain. Jack enters the half pipe. Our run ends at the road far beneath us.
Our second ascent of the day starts with a little creek jumping which was accomplished without mishap. Jack makes the leap:
Above tree line our goal comes into view. This massive face is almost 2,000 feet long.
For more photos from this trip and others check out Jack Brauer's website.
Jack continues the shredding.
And keeps on going.
Upon reaching the base of the face the valley curves around for even more descending and it was a couple of miles before we hit the road. After almost 8 hours and with barely a break, we reach the car exhausted but exhilarated, a combination which is achieved after a big day.