Last Call for Skiing
Lift, tap, kick. Lift, tap, kick. Every time I made a step, I had to tap my boots together to knock out the fresh snow balling up in my crampons. This wasn’t part of the plan but if I didn’t knock the snow out, the crampons front points would fail to find purchase and I would be sent sliding down the 40 degree slope. The extra tapping was tiring and slowing my progress up the 1,800 foot couloir. And time was of the essence.
An hour and a half earlier at 5 a.m., I had started up the Grays Peak trail. It was barely covered with a skiff of fresh snow. But as the moon set and the sun rose, casting the surrounding mountains with alpenglow, it became apparent the previous night’s heavy thunderstorm had dropped more than a few inches. It may have been mid June but the weather was more like winter. The clouds under lit by the rising sun scudded across the sky and swirled around the high summits. The wind howled down the mountain sides sending vortices of snow spinning across the willow flats and blasting ice particles into my face. Every few minutes I had to stop and brace myself against a particularly strong gust and cover my eyes from the needles of ice.
My goal was to climb and ski an aesthetic line on the east face of Torrey’s Peak called the Dead Dog Couloir. As I hiked closer and the 14,267 foot peak loomed into view, I could see it was plastered with fresh snow. I made the decision to keep moving and assess conditions as I went. If luck was in the cards I would ski the couloir in fresh powder - pretty epic for June. But I needed to be quick. I was racing the sun.
I headed to the base of the Dead Dog, stopping to put on crampons and helmet and swapping out a ski pole for an ice axe. Starting up the apron, the fresh snow was only 6 inches deep but covered the blocky debris of old avalanches. I made good progress at first. But quickly the snow became deeper and started balling up in my crampons. Each step I now tapped one boot against another to remove the snow. Slower, I continued climbing. Lift, tap, kick. Lift, tap, kick.
Settling into a quiet rhythm I ascended the ribbon of snow as it threaded its way up the rocky east face of Torreys Peak. As I climbed I continued to assess the safety of the new snow. It seemed to have bonded well with the snow underneath and there were no signs of dangerous wind slabs. I kept on climbing. Lift, tap, kick. After an hour of increasingly deeper snow, my calves and quads were screaming for relief.
I exited the Dead Dog and walked the final hundred feet to the summit where the wind was biting cold and the snow as hard as rock. It was a little after 8 a.m. But in the sheltered couloir I knew the sun was taking its toll. Just one week from the summer solstice, the June sun would be superheating the snow. The slightest trigger could send it crashing down. I was too late. I no longer felt confident the Dead Dog was safe to ski and decided to take a more mellow route down Torrey’s south ridge. In a whiteout of blowing snow I slowly skied the rocky ridge to the base of Gray’s Peak, Torrey’s neighbor. In the absence of skiing the Dead Dog a second 14er for the day would make a good consolation prize. I put the crampons back on and scooted up the ridge to bag the summit of 14,270 foot Grays Peak. From there its broad north east flank provided creamy dreamy turns for 2,000 feet back to the base of the Dead Dog. Looking up into the couloir I saw a recent sluff covering my uptrack. I had made the right decision and would live to ski another day. In any case June powder is quite special whatever the line. And on that high note I am hanging up my skis for the summer.