Alpinism Found (Part One of Two)
Splitting First Tracks In The Southwestern Unknown
“I almost walked right into a bear on a night like this-used to carry my Glock too-until ‘they’ took it away,” Joe warmly chuckles. “But it’s the mountain lions you really have to look out for-they’ll follow you.” Our headlamps slowly bumble faint beams ahead, our vision enshrouded in dark delirium. Stars pierce the black molasses sky and the moon’s fuzzy luster trickles into the gladed woods as we trek in the cradle below the Sneffels Mountain Range. It’s silent, crunchy, and now that we’ve stopped to rest, the cyclical zipping sound of skins sliding across snow and the hypnosis it creates recedes. Chris Coulter, our guide Joe Ryan, and I sit in the dark radiance utterly beat and melting into the snowbank with every defeated breath. It’s been five hours since the sun sank, another five since we embarked, and fatigue has taken root within us now-eyes glazed, minds diminished, and stomachs yearning. Our muscles are stretched like taffy and feet fully pickled. But this exhaustion generates brief warmth and the stinging in our necks reminds us.
“We’re a half mile … as the crow flies,” Joe says. The long exhaustion and initial awkwardness of our splitboard journey has now been subdued by visions of the hut that lay ahead. The group gathers, and we continue through the rolling hills with Joe sniffing out the trail by instinct. Then, just past the thickets of a frozen marsh it looms, the roof softly glowing from the moonlight-our hut.
Cold and wet with sweat, we stumble in with vacant stares that all seemed to say, “What the hell did we get ourselves into?” With the last spurts of energy we get a fire going in the stove and scrape snow into metal basins to melt into drinking water. It’s odd to be parched when you’re engulfed by so much frozen water.
Then, gorging on freeze-dried meals, we quietly, slowly, sink into lethargy and nestle into our vinyl-padded bunks in soggy underlayers and sleeping bags. The dizzying trek uncoils in our minds. Finally warm and relieved and stripped of vigor, we congeal into sleep like curing concrete.
To The North Pole
Alpine touring is not new-people have been doing it to explore and travel mountain ranges for years-but splitboard travel is a relatively new method of seeking snowboard solitude. And the idea of traveling from point A, shredding everything in our path and ending up at point B eight days later sparked our experimental snowboard trip. Riders Chris Coulter, Blair Habenicht, Forrest Shearer, Zach Siebert, our guide Joe Ryan, as well as TransWorld photographer Chris Wellhausen and I, gathered in Ridgeway, Colorado, armed with splitboards. With camping gear dangling off us like pack-mules, we set out in search of a remote hut system and miles of untracked, unknown, and unexplored terrain.
The season’s early snowpack had receded upon our departure, leaving miles of muddy road between snow and us. We could have driven closer, but large snowy slab blcked the first hundred yard of the access road. With no other option, we started out trudging through slushy, pudding-like mud on a country road-for miles. With our boots completely caked in mud we finally reached snow just outside a giant spread of land we were told was owned by Ralph Lauren. Thanks for preserving the views, Ralph. We halved our boards and began skinning up towards the Sneffels from here. It was the first time ever trekking on a snowboard in the split position for Blair Habenicht and I, so things started off slowly, but we soon found split travel to be relatively easy, and our pace improved quickly-but we had eleven miles to cover and no idea what lay ahead. After some of the most physical exertion any of us had experienced on snow, we reached our first hut, North Pole, late that night.
We awake stiffened to the bed, peeling out like old gelatin in a mold. From our bunks we could see the graybird haze outside, and inside-faces are as weathered and hazy as the day. Motivation is low and even simple movement is strained from last night’s trek. We’re all dehydrated.
As our bodies recover with the help of warm liquids, Joe raps out tales while the gritty, caramel-colored coffee is passed around. “That was a rough one! I haven’t had a trek like that since I chased a hut around Donner Pass at two in the morning,” he cackles “…with my daughter in my backpack.” We quickly learn adventure is in his veins. He’s been on snow exploring for some 40 years-and only two of those days were at an actual resort. Everyone in our crew stands to learn a lot from him.
By one o’clock we’re a bit stir-crazy and want to recoup all the time spent splitting with some snowboarding. Forrest fires everyone up and we decided on a little scouting mission. We start weaving up through the woods south of the cabin. Our shoulders are tender and our bodies rigid, but they loosen with the pace. We creep up through the treeline sneaking glimpses of couloirs and rocky snow-filled veins.
Once out of the trees, we lay on a shelved ridge and immediately struck with cirques, chutes, and even larger peaks rising above. “Like mini AK lines,” Forrest says. Hayden and North Pole peaks tower above us, they’re tempting, but it’s getting late and the wind is picking up, so instead, we assail the gladed trees below and head back to the hut. By the time we reach bottom, a blueberry glow is settling above and night comes creeping in. We crack open the door of the hut, this time feeling whole, satisfied, and with that balmy, searing feeling in our stomachs-the simple pursuit of snowboarding had soothed us.
Up In The Thunderdome
The soft clamoring of the metal basins, dried coffee’s scent, and the slow crackling of a small fire become the morning rituals with Coulter usually at the helm. After we crack out of our rigid, morning state, we set our eyes towards the saddle adjacent to Hayden peak, just shy of thirteen-thousand feet. Wellhausen lost his pole the day before and quickly finds that one-poled splitboarding is not easy, so he grabs a wooden staff and makes do.
The trail is slick, fast, frozen from last night, and soon we’re at the midway shelf staging for the second part of the hike. With boards tethered, we start scaling a snowless, sketchy rock scree field. It gets looser and steeper with tiny patches of snow barely holding it together. Rocks crumble downward. We hunker down like spiders and balance our packs and weight against the mountain, trying not to scrape our boards on the rocks. Soon we’re just shy of the rocky ridgetop. All we can see below is a steep spread of scree leading into a shelf of cliffs, then a distant snowy valley that runs into a pile of pines thousands of feet below. We pass a couple hairy sections and I stop to lie against some craggy rock. “How gripped are you on a scale of one to ten?” I ask Zach. “At least a seven,” he replies. We’re thankful there’s no wind today … and later find out why.
After enjoying lunch atop the windswept ridge, we follow its spine to a shelf directly below the peak that separates North Pole basin and Hayden Peak. It’s one person at a time to the top from here. We pause and nervously stare up at the last hundred feet. Mumbles of ice axes, crampons, and rope are uttered. But we’re here now, with Joe, and once he begins tacking his toes up the face there’s no turning back. Him first, then Coulter and Forrest and the rest of us. The hardened snow allows us to kick our boots only a few inches in and they barely cling on as we continue crawling in single file up the steep, icy face.
Now it’s my turn. I begin cautiously stepping up the face. My blood is running hot in the winter cold. Step by step I remain calm, just working my way up. Then, midway up, an icy, thousand-foot couloir flashes into sight only inches to my right.
Holy s-t! Please no wind, please no wind.
My heart instantly plummets and my body boils as I freeze. I try hugging the mountain harder. That was unexpected. I crank my eyes forward, and focus on the thirty fateful steps that lay ahead. At this moment all thoughts shut down, save for the primordial motion and thought of foot in front of foot and hand ahead of hand.
This tense shadow immediately disintegrates as I pull myself up over the last step. Here, in this instant, the floodgates release. My body-the kettle-is taken off the stove. That scalding feeling of vulnerability flees my body. Its rush tapers off and my sweat turns cold.
Minutes later we are all atop the peak, throwing high fives and exhaling with relief. We gaze at our expansive setting and let our eyes simmer in the views. To our west, we can see all the way to the La Sal mountain range in Utah; eastward lies the prickly, fourteen-thousand-foot Mount Sneffels and a massive cirque with five-hundred-foot-tall burnt orange spires guarding its eastern edge. It makes a sports stadium look like a dog bowl. But the white basin is calling below with its vibrant white light, slowly receding.
So, like lemmings we begin to drop off the crusty cornice of ice and rock toward a slim pocket of decent snow and our entrance into the cirque. Chris sets up with the camera gear, and we figure a quick plan while resting above the entry chutes. Coulter then rallies the sun-baked wall of a chute, spraying slush sky high before disappearing.
Now it’s on.
A few seconds go by, then a few more-still waiting-then we finally see him exit into the middle of the basin, just a minuscule speck in the bottom. We continue to drop, each carving our own piece of the virgin face.
“We really shouldn’t be here this time in February-not on a normal snow year,” Joe says as he and I rest at the bottom of the enormous basin. See, we are in a conundrum of snow sorts. The San Juan snowpack and terrain is traditionally some of the most avalanche prone in the Lower 48, but the snow levels are shallow and slightly corned up at this time of year, so we’ve been able to tread deep into the steep couloirs, bowls and chutes that are normally death traps. This makes the rock-flanked, gargantuan basin’s visual value rise with every blink. I burn this view into my brain, feeling fortunate for every glance upward into this rare cradle.
The gaze is interrupted as Forrest rockets out of a couloir coming straight toward us with his jacket machine-gun flapping in the wind. “Hoooty-hooo!” erupts from the posse. Then we slowly fade down the cathedral basin with the light, slashing here and snapping ollies there. By the time we reach treeline, we’re lucky enough find a nice powdery sliver in the trees. The party wave ensues and by afternoon we’re at the frozen marsh next to our cabin. At the bottom we retrace our steps, admiring the adventure up, over and back down thousands of feet later. We are the first snowboard crew to tackle this area and six more days of touring lay ahead…
Stay tuned for part two.