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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Mining for Snow in the San Juans

By Ann Driggers
Sunday, December 7, 2008

The San Juan mountain range in south west Colorado is steeped in mining history. Roads, relics and structures dot the landscape, evidence of miners searching for gold and silver during the 19th century. Now, in the winter months, the area creates a fantastic backdrop for ski touring. This past weekend Pete Harris and I made a foray into the mountains around Red Mountain Pass, mining for our treasure of choice - snow. Early season backcountry skiing can be fraught with somewhat tricky and dangerous terrain however. Although avalanches are always a consideration, the lack of snow is usually a greater cause for concern. The heavy winter storms have yet to arrive and fill in unexpected obstacles which lurk disguised beneath the surface. This became apparent as we first headed towards a steep treed slope south of the pass at Chattanooga. Reaching the base required negotiating the open waters of a babbling Mill Creek and our first run we cut short, finding the snow pack too shallow for comfort as we bottomed out on rocks and stumps. We decided to retrace our tracks and mine for snow elsewhere. Creek Crossing.jpg We returned to the pass, 800 feet higher, in the hopes the snow cover would be better. At 11,000 feet the official Red Mountain Pass snow stake reported a depth of 18 inches. Not much improvement but we slapped on the skins anyway and headed westward and upward. The sun was shining, the skies were blue and touring for turns is always a worthy endeavor. Bare Bones Basin.jpg Occasionally picking our way through rocks and grass we followed an old mining road, a notorious summer time 4 wheel drive route, which climbs over Black Bear Pass before plunging down to Telluride. With only a thin mantle of snow, the shapes of a bygone age were visible all around. Reaching Mineral Basin at 12,500 feet, we stopped for lunch and ripped off our skins before skiing the basin headwall back towards the highway. Tough Snow.jpg The snow was heavily wind affected, alternating between breakable crust, soft but sculpted recycled powder, and an impenetrable sheet. Ski conditions could only be termed ‘challenging’ as it was difficult to predict what each turn would bring. Jump turns were necessary to launch out of, and land back in, the crud without catching an edge. But it was great fun and a good workout with mountain scenery second to none. San Juan Turns.jpg We modern day snow miners returned to the pass satisfied with our treasure haul and, of course, celebrated the day with a beer or few before heading home. 2 comments

At Last: Powder Turns

By Ann Driggers
Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Outdoor Junkie's first turns of the season.

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The snow has finally begun to fall, without a doubt entirely due to the exceptional celebration conducted in honor of Ullr last weekend. My eyes have been glued to the weather station reports during the recent storm. Up to 22 inches had fallen in the Elks, easily enough snow to warrant an expedition in search of the first turns of the season. Sunday morning I headed up into the mountains and despite the somewhat nasty weather found a few other diehards out there, including my ski partner Craig Burger. After an hour and a half of skinning through sheltered trees, we had a descent of 2,000 feet below us. Although somewhat marginal below 10,000 feet the conditions were a huge improvement over the previous week. On the northerly aspects we found fresh snow, blown in 18 inches deep and enough to satisfy my immediate hunger for powder turns. The full-on winter blizzard conditions added to the excitement of dodging rocks and snow snakes (deadfall) in poor visibility. But it was great to be back on the skis after four months off, and with no injuries and our equipment returned relatively unscathed, the day was deemed a success.

Craig Burger shows how it's done on skinny tele skis.

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Time to Get Serious

By Ann Driggers
Saturday, November 22, 2008

Despite making what I thought was a very valiant and quite public plea to summon snow two weeks ago, absolutely diddly-squat has happened. The Grand Mesa is reporting a not so grand snowpack somewhere between 3 and 4 inches and the webcam at Powderhorn is looking a little brown. Grass skiing anyone? (When running a spell and grammar check ‘grass skiing’ results in ‘verb confusion -consider revising’. I am evidently not the only one who thinks the lack of snow is downright wrong). Before we get too despondent, let’s take ourselves back to last winter. In the end it was one for the record books with unprecedented snowfall. But it was as dry as the Sahara desert until the first week in December when it started dumping and didn’t stop. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the magic white stuff made its appearance the day I headed to the southern hemisphere for six weeks. A possible correlation between these events has me deeply concerned. I have no plans to go anywhere this winter, least of all to the other side of the world. This potentially season wrecking inaction has not escaped the notice of my ‘friends’ who are begging me to leave the country. Don’t get me wrong - I would love to go back to New Zealand but this winter I really want to stay in Colorado and ski. At this juncture, I feel that some serious action is needed. So this past week I have dedicated my life to building a shrine to Ullr, the Nordic God of archery, hunting and skiing, the latter of course being the most important. Even without the plastic boots and fat skis of modern times, Ullr was reportedly an accomplished skier. Like us, he was a lover of fresh deep powder and he spent his days shredding the backcountry. He was the man! This weekend, a pilgrimage to my shrine will take place. Upon reaching the shrine the pilgrims will participate in an event of worship (aka party) in honor of our beloved and highly esteemed Ullr. It is a universal belief that the bigger and better the celebration the greater the resulting snow fall. You can be sure I am going to give it my finest effort. And I am asking you all to do the same. I hereby call upon every man, woman and child to join me in summoning snow and soon we will be basking in the glory of Ullr!

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Now a footnote and point of clarification, for those who don’t participate in snow dependent activities. The fact that you don’t like snow should not preclude you for partaking in any Ullr worship. We are praying for snow in the mountains, not the valley. I am quite happy for you all to have the local trails nice and dry for your mountain biking, as long as it dumps up high and you pray along with me. Thank you.

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Rope Work in the Monument

By Ann Driggers
Saturday, November 15, 2008

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The rope, more than any other piece of equipment, has played an integral role in my formative years as I developed into a fully fledged outdoor junkie. I first used a rope and learned how to climb at the Westway climbing wall in London, almost 20 years ago. With the A40, one of the largest motorways into London, as its roof, it was a far cry from the majesty of the mountains I was seeking. Desperate as I was to escape the rat race in London, I realized this was only opportunity I had to learn the art of rope work. And so I did. At the first opportunity, I moved to the mountains, to Zermatt in Switzerland where I spent one long and incredible summer attached to a rope, mountaineering on alpine greats such as the Matterhorn and Monte Rosa and sport climbing on local crags. Later the rope even led me to meet my husband when I was hitch hiking to a climbing gym in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. And when we ended up in Arizona, many weekends were spent rock climbing in the deserts of the southwest at places such as Joshua Tree and the Cochise Stronghold. Since moving to the Grand Valley eight years ago, there have been so many other fun things to do, climbing has not been on my agenda and I count myself as one of those who has lost the art of rope work. This winter I plan on more technical mountaineering activities. So refreshing my memory on the fundamentals sounded like a fine way to spend a sunny afternoon. My friend and ski partner Pete Harris and I headed out into the Colorado National Monument, having identified an easy 5.7 climb which we could top rope. Over several hours we set an anchor, practiced the munter hitch, double fisherman’s, autoblocks, figure of eights, and other knots, and finally rappelled 30 meters down a slab into Monument Canyon.

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Although the sunny warm rock was a good place to brush out the cobwebs, we will need to head up into the mountains soon to practice under full on winter conditions. Now, if only the snow gods would get their act together…..it’s been a slow start to winter in Colorado. That's the Mesa in the background and it's not the right color.

3 comments

Gearing Up For Winter

By Ann Driggers
Monday, November 3, 2008

As the days grow shorter and the temperatures drop, late fall is a quiet time for outdoor pursuits. Inside is a different matter. With winter on its way, excitement is building, and the mind and home of a backcountry skier is a hive of activity. There is much to do in preparation as the first flakes fall and the mountains take on their mantle of snow. Building the log pile. Cutting, hauling and stacking wood for the stove is the major outdoor activity for this time of year. And it’s hard work. After two days I am tired and sore. No need to hit the gym this week!

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Preparing the quiver. Skis, boots and bindings for every possible scenario need to be selected and prepared. The workhorses of my quiver are a pair of mid-fat skis for deep mid-winter powder days and a slimmer but stiffer pair for spring ski mountaineering activities. Both will be equipped with AT bindings. Other equipment includes selection of appropriate packs, small for day tours, larger for hut trips, etc. All need to be filled with emergency and other supplies. Everything must be ready to go at a moment’s notice in case of (fingers crossed) an early season snowfall. Stoking the flame within. This happens naturally and requires no effort. As ski magazines arrive in the mail, ski movies show on the big screen, and ski swap banners hang across Main Street, anticipation of the season to come rises to a feverish pitch. Discussions with friends are dominated by reminiscence of last winter’s epic days and plans for the upcoming season. Brushing up on avalanche skills. Dusty books are pulled from the shelf and stacked on the coffee table for re-reading. Refreshing the memory on backcountry travel techniques and avalanche assessment is especially important.

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Predicting and affecting the weather. This is by far the most important activity of the late fall. Long range forecasts from the Weather Service to Farmers Almanac are assessed. Significant internet discussion occurs on signs that could indicate a big winter. La Nina or El Nino? Extra woolly caterpillars or a proliferation of spiders in the home? (Yes. I have seen that!). Good signs are celebrated; bad signs are dismissed and ignored. And to ensure that nothing is left to chance almost every skier will undertake some activity to encourage Ullr, the Norse God of Snow, to perform to the best of his ability. Burning skis, throwing parties and any manner of activities take place that affect the depth of the winter snowpack. Now is the time to pray for snow.

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