Alpinism Found, Part Two

Night warps by at the Blue Lakes hut. Photo: Chris Wellhausen

Night warps by at the Blue Lakes hut. Photo: Chris Wellhausen

Alpinism Found, Part Two
Splitting First Tracks In The Southwestern Unknown

(Read part one here)

The Spark
As we skin out of the North Pole hut, we pass the deer carcass that lined the trail on the way in. But it’s moved, parts are missing and then Joe spits, “Those are cat tracks right there.” Joe was right, that’s why his three dogs Colo, Rowdy, and Tippy trail us–they’re keen, hardy, mountain animals. We push on through and trek the day away toward the Blue Lakes hut in warm weather and mellow terrain.

Upon arrival we find two large bottles of Joe’s favorite tequila-a rarity and surprise dropped off by “Planet” Janet who also graciously lugged a few food caches for us days prior. The reason, though, it was Joe’s 59th birthday and we needed to celebrate on his turf in his style.

Part madman, part savior, and all mountain man, Joe Ryan showed us the way. Photo: Chris Wellhausen

Part madman, part savior, and all mountain man, Joe Ryan showed us the way. Photo: Chris Wellhausen

If ever there were a quintessential mountain cowboy, Joe Ryan is it. The tequila helps reveal this as more stories spilled from him to back it. By now we knew roughly this: He’s spent the last 30 so years of his life scouring every nook and cranny in the breadth of the San Juan mountain range in Southwestern Colorado. Interlaced are his scuffles in Kazakhstan, Kyrgistan, The Andes and a technique for burrowing through and above avalanches he deems “steamroll swimming.” (This of course came with terrifying tales of Joe’s avalanche encounters where he explained how you could swim and roll and squirm your way to the top of the debris by following the rolling, wave-like motion of avalanches.)

Hell, we find the guy’s been training military special ops out here for the last handful of years, just pushing them to the physical edge. While some tales about life and death in the mountains reassure and motivate us, others spur fear. But as we huddle in the silent night, one thing keeps drawing my attention, a word he’s uttered a few times since we left–alpinism.

Meltdown On Mood Ridge
The tasks of chopping wood and filling pans with snow for water have become daily rituals now. All our water comes from the snow and our heat arrives after we’ve hacked up the log piles and tossed them in the wood stove. It’s begun to build a sense of solidarity in the simple backwoods life we’re living.

Enduring treks to the vast terrain above have become equally as common, too, and we’re on another mellow 3,000-foot ascent the next morning. This time to an area high in the Sneffels that Joe hasn’t seen in twelve years and is positive no one has ever been to. In fact, most of the terrain around us sits unnamed and definitely unridden.

On the way up, Blair and Zach spy some pillows to double, and so we set up to hit a few features. The zone is fun, but it’s warm and too slow to make it worthwhile. Now an hour behind, we try to hurry up to Chris, Forrest, and Joe. Getting to the peak requires another tedious climb, but we make it and are again perched on a ridge basking in the sun, taking in rare mountain views.

It’s warm and light is fading fast, which also means that avy conditions are ready to skyrocket with these heavy, wet layers on top. We continue to wait for the group to gather.

Alas, Wellhausen reaches the knoll and we immediately usher him to the zones we picked to shoot. Everyone lines up for their run, waiting above their choice entrance to the distant valley. From here we all peer down faces that run 1,500 feet straight to the bottom. Blair is first to drop and begins lacing a run so clean you would have thought he was a regular visitor. He dips in and out of sight along the wind-lipped ridge, carving his signature and punctuating it with a method before hauling ass straight out into the basin.

Blair’s run, the fading light, and rising avy conditions make everyone anxious. I have to drop, it is calling. So I sneak out left, away from the crew, and let ‘er rip. Just buttering turns the whole way down the soft face. It is the best run of the trip. Blair, Joe, and I gather at the bottom, but the others are still spread far apart on the hill and with limited communication. Plus, the sun is quickly sinking over the ridge. Picking their way down in a scattered pack, they abandon all photo hopes, but feel better when Joe remarks, “It’s better we got down off of there, even with this snow, you can never overly trust these hills.”

It’s a somber afternoon as we crawl back to Ridegway hut, we’d hoped to get more riding in. But there’s immense joy, too. We were the first snowboarders to ever ride this area, so that in itself was all the accomplishment we needed.

Weathered Like The Wind
We spent last couple days at the Ridgeway hut, the “gem” as Joe refers to it. The original, built in 1987, it accesses loads of terrain–Joe’s favorite terrain. And even though it was newly fitted with solar lighting, the aged-wood interior maintained its rustic roots. It had a quick…well, not that quick, skin trail up into the terrain and it was easy to navigate. Quick for us now meant hours and thousands of feet of climbing for one run. Which was fine, by now we were used to it.

From here we found the Cobra and Mongoose chutes–thousand foot long coulies. Coulter and Siebert launched cliffs. Yet again we were stuck in harrowing climbing situations, as hair-raising as the first. But our confidence and finger grip had strengthened. It was crucial this time because we encountered a new beast, the wind. We had a violent battle with it on day seven. It nearly peeled us off the ridge so Joe taught us a precautionary crab-like position for those rogue gusts. Once, in the inlet of the Mongoose couloir, golf ball-sized rocks were being lifted and tossed down into the run with us.

There was a lifetime of riding tucked away here. We gazed and dreamt, endlessly. But we only had two days, so we got what we could. We spent the last day avoiding wind and getting laps in the trees close to the hut. Quick skins up, then laps down the gully-popping off little wind pockets and jibbing trees. With no storms on the horizon of the eighth day, we decided that afternoon to push out.

We made it in by nightlight, and found ourselves rolling back out in dusk and dark once again. Inching for miles back out to civilization. Watching the sun recede that day we humbly made our way toward Ridgeway–having meandered some 70 plus miles, ascended nearly 16,000 feet and descended roughly the same.

Letting the days rerun and images swipe through our mind was all that we held now. We thought back to Joe’s stories, the passion of excursion, living free in the outside, invigorated by one’s immediate surroundings and obscured of the rest. And it shines in a tattered sleeve, a weathered face, maybe a hike, a lap with friends, or even a first descent-that desire of what is truly, alpinism found.

Follow Our Tracks
Flying into Durango or Montrose are your best bets, but the Denver and SLC airports are roughly seven hours away and pretty mellow drives too. Albuquerque is also a choice option and only five hours away. Hit up Silverton, Telluride, or Wolf Creek to get a taste of the local resorts and come prepared for backcountry. San Juan Huts runs a system of five winter huts you can utilize to access terrain and for more info check out:

San Juan Huts
(970) 626-3033

Ouray Hot Springs

The Adobe Inn
251 Liddell Drive
Ridgway, Colorado
(970) 626-5939

Resorts In The Vicinity

Silverton Mountain

Telluride Resort

Wolf Creek

Durango Mountain Resort