Descent Route: South Face B-day Chutes
March 5, 2006
I made my first turns on spring corn snow today in the San Juan mountains of southwest Colorado. During the last 10 days or so we have been experiencing a kind of late winter melt down here, and with temperatures in the 40's in the mountains and 50's and even 60's in the valleys, the snow is beginning to transform. Bad news for my project in general, but good timing today to try the challenging south face of Mt. Sneffels, also know as the Birthday Chutes.
The triangle of mountains that is encompassed by Telluride, Ouray, and Silverton is one of my favorite spots in Colorado, and today we drove right into the heart of it, up the Camp Bird Mine road from Ouray, and into Yankee Boy Basin. I was joined today by Ben Galland and Mike Cuseo from Snowmass, and we left Ouray at 6:30 a.m. and parked at the avalanche gate. We unloaded the snowmobile and drove another 3 or 4 miles up the road to the Yankee Boy trailhead. Snowmobiling on this road was scary because there are several sheer cliff faces that the road traverses, and many of the frozen waterfalls that line the road had collapsed onto it, making the approach on the sled challenging. Instead of driving off the road into a tree well, you'd be driving off a 100 foot cliff into a river gorge! By the time we started skinnning the sun was on the peaks and the air had that warm smell of Spring in it. We quickly ascended above treeline and found ourselves high in a wild alpine basin. The South Face of Sneffels rears up 1800 ft. above the basin, and we spent some time checking out the route and making a plan. Sean Crossen and Pete Sowar from Crested Butte had skied the face two weeks ago, and we could still make out there tracks in the chutes. Because this aspect of this face is directly south, the snow had been hammered by the sun and wind over the last week, leaving a frozen corn surface that we hoped would soften up as the day went on. Ben stayed in the valley to film the climb and ski descent. Mike and I began the climb on solid frozen corn. Mike is a cinematographer as well as a ripping tele skier, and he filmed the climb and ski descent on slope with me. It was great to have a new ski partner along, ad I'm sure Mike will be joining me more this spring.
We topped out at noon after a steep, fun cimb. The snow was still a bit firm for smooth skiing, so we spent over an hour shooting video of all the surrounding 14ers, as well as the La Sal mountains outside Moab, Silverton Mountain, and Telluride Resort. I think at this point Ben was asleep in a meadow at the base of the face. My wife Jesse has been making me amazing lunches to take on all the peaks, and her gourmet tuna salad sandwich was probably the best food I've ever eaten on a summit in my life... so thanks Jess! We also enjoyed the company of a half dozen ravens, or "Choucas" a they are called in the French Alps. I think they smelled the sandwich.
By 1:30 the snow was was just about perfect and we got ready to drop in. As you can see from some of the photos, this face is serious, and in adverse conditions a bad fall would be your last one. Because of the thin snowpack, there were two cruxes that involved a side-step or two thorough narrow rocks, and at a steepness of 50 degrees at the top of the run, that definitely gets your heart pounding. The lower we got on the face the better the turns were, and I skied the entire lower half fast and smooth. From a filming persepctive, today was really productive for our documentary. From a scouting perspective, today reaffirmed the fact that the snow is thin to non-existent on most of the southern 14ers in the state. I'm frustrated because I'm fit and fired up to be skiing cool lines on the 14ers every day, and can't do it because of lack of snow. But at the same time I'm optimistic that the snow faucet will be turned on again by Mother Nature in late March and April.
EDIT: Today, Monday March 6th, we tried to ski Mt. Wilson (14,246), Wilson Peak (14,017), or El Diente Peak (14,159)near Telluride. We skinned up to the "Rock of Ages" saddle at 13,000 feet and had a good look at the faces from this angle, but none had any snow near the summits. Since my goal is to ski every peak from the exact summit, We chose to ski out and call it a day. I have never seen such little snow for late winter on these peaks. Check out the Wilson Peak page for some shots from today.
Thanks for checking in. I'm off to Switzerland for a week tomorrow. Colorado is looking at five days or more of bad weather right now, so it should be good timing. Reset the mountains with a fresh blanket of snow so that when I get back its game on!
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