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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Fire and Ice: Mountaineering in the La Sals

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'

Hard snow.jpg

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

Pre Laurel Weather Station.jpg

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.

Laurel Mellanthin Ridge.jpg

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.

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Kite Training

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.

Kite Training1.jpg

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.

Kite Training3.jpg

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

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San Juan Redux

By Ann Driggers
Saturday, February 14, 2009

Winter is back! And so were the San Juan mountain’s, as the destination when I played hooky from work last Thursday. The previous time I went to the San Juan’s it was early season and conditions were marginal. But since then the snow has been falling and my ski buddy Jack Brauer has been taunting me by posting photos on his blog of some incredible conditions and lines down in his neck of the woods. Having decided we could take it no more, Pete Harris and I drove south and Jack kindly obliged in showing us the goods. In advance of the coming storm the winds were kicking up high, so we headed for some sheltered tree runs called the Destroyer Chutes. After a steep 1,800 feet climb up the skin track we dropped in. The snow was deep, untouched and oh so much fun. We managed a couple of laps before we had to head back to GJ, and me to work.

Pete Harris slaying the Destroyer Chutes.

Destroyer Chutes 008.JPG 

Jack is a (real) photographer and is usually the one snapping the pics. Although no substitute for his talented photography I was nevertheless pleased that I got some half decent shots of him riding.

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It’s Official - Mud Season Is Here

By Ann Driggers
Sunday, February 8, 2009

Now brace yourselves. This is going to be a bit of a shocker. I actually spent one day of my weekend not skiing. Yep that’s right, NOT skiing! Instead I went trail running. Or rather trail slopping, slipping and sliding. The warm temperatures that have trashed the snowpack and turned me away from the mountains until the next storm, have also created a muddy, icy, snowy mess of our beautiful high desert trails. However, I was oblivious until Tikka and I set off to do one of our favorite runs on Saturday morning.

Devils Canyon trail in the McInnis Canyons NCA

devils feb 100.JPG 

McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area has many great trails including mine and Tikka’s favorite, the Devils Canyon loop. At about 7 miles with 800 feet of climbing over rolling terrain it’s a great little run. Plus it follows the stream for at least a mile so there’s plenty of water for dogs. And the scenery is outstanding. After the first short stretch of graveled and dry trail we dipped into the canyon narrows. The floor of the canyon was either rock or ice, not a bad running surface, though Tikka was a little disappointed at finding her wallowing holes frozen over. But as soon as we climbed out of the canyon floor, up into P & J (pinyon and juniper) country, the trail became a slick and gloppy mess.

Tikka doesn't care about the mud.

devils feb 090.JPG 

Alternating between ice, snow, mud, and occasionally, but not enough, dry single track, I tentatively skidded my way around the loop. Tikka, of course, couldn't have cared less. Although I didn’t get my usual work out, the slow going was a great excuse to stop often, cast my eyes up the towering red rock canyon walls and poke around the old sheep herders cabin at the trails turning point.

Old sheep herders cabin towards the head of the canyon.

devils feb 096.JPG

It seems mud season has officially begun. So if you go out, be prepared. Have the garden hose at the ready for your return. It will likely take as long to clean up as it does to run the trail. As for me, this 'not skiing' malarky doesn't sit well in winter. Hurry up storm, we need more powder.

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Recipe for Perfect Backcountry Ski Day

By Ann Driggers
Monday, February 2, 2009

Being a weekend warrior, it is a rarity that all the key ingredients come together to make the perfect backcountry ski outing. This past weekend I was lucky enough that the recipe could be followed to a T. Ingredients Avalanche danger rating of moderate on most aspects Unlimited amounts of powder Bluebird skies and warm sunshine Five skiers well matched in terms of speed, ability and interest Method Place key ingredients in classic backcountry ski terrain of the Raggeds Wilderness. Set skiers to slowly rise on skin track for 2,300 feet.

Skiers Rising.jpg

When fully risen at summit, prepare skiing utensils.

Preparing to Drop.jpg

One at a time drop skiers into large bowl allowing each to carve turns in deep and steep powder.

Photo: Pete Harris

Mud Line.jpg

At sounds of hooting and hollering, drop another skier into bowl. Repeat with remaining skiers, beating snow well with each addition.

In the Mixing Bowl.jpg

Once all five have settled at base of bowl, sprinkle with PB&J and water. Leave to rise again. Repeat above process as many times as desired. If snow becomes chopped due to excessive beating or whipping, place skiers into fresh bowl.

Looking at the Goods.jpg

When fully cooked or darkness falls, whichever comes first, remove skiers from bowl and decorate with sunburned noses and goofy grins. Serve with chilled beer from snow bank. Makes five tired but extremely contented skiers. Memories can be kept for weeks in airtight container.

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