Mining for Snow in the San Juans
By Ann Driggers
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.