Driving up the Animas river valley after sunset. The high peaks are enshrouded in clouds, and snow is starting to fall. I make it to Silverton before the passes get snow packed. Tomorrow I'll ski at Silverton Mountain ski 'resort' (if you can call it a resort).
Main street, Silverton - driving to Silverton Mountain.
The parking lot is not crowded. Only about 20 skiers will be on the mountain today. We will ski in groups no larger than eight, and will be accompanied by a lead and tail guide.
The large shuttle bus - for busy days. Today is not busy, so we'll use the short bus.
Like I said, this is not a resort. This is the main tent where you pay, sign the liability waiver, and hang out if you're not skiing.
You can meet lots of interesting folks here. One couple was husband/wife from Switzerland...now living in Boulder, Colorado.
There is only one chair lift that gets you almost 2,000ft above the parking lot. After that you hike to various parts of the mountain.
It was a blizzard, and at the top of the ridge there was no protection from the wind. Sometimes they ran the chair a bit slower because of the wind loads, but they never had to stop operations, which made us happy.
First run of the day - an avalanche slide path! We followed our guide's instructions and skied each pitch one at a time, and stayed within sight of the guide as much as the conditions allowed.
The tail guide was the last one down, ensuring we all traveled and kept together as a group.
This was about the mellowest slope we were on all day.
As we neared the bottom of the first run we saw that we had a short hike out to the shuttle bus pickup point.
At least you stayed warm with sort of skiing.
The storm intensified as the morning progressed.
No-frills shuttle bus. A bench in the back for four, and everyone else stands. No complaints. It got us back to the lift for another lap.
At the top of the lift the guide would tell us where we were going to hike. One good thing about the storm: all our hikes were very short...less than five minutes. The wind and new snow, and only 20 customers...meant that we had fresh tracks on every run without resorting to 30-45 minute hikes. That meant we could ski more runs!
Our guide, Chris (in the red jacket, riding a snowboard) tells us that we're going to ski...
...down yet another avalanche slide path! Woo hoo!
Read and heed. We all had our beacons on, and tested them in transmit and receive modes before starting the day.
At times visibility was near zero. But after a quick lunch break the powder was filling in nicely in yet another avalanche gulley!
The bottom of this run was like a good steeplechase race - a water obstacle! I don't feel particularly nimble in ski boots, but I was able to use my poles to touch the stream bottom and maintain my balance as I carried my skis over my shoulder.
After only four or five runs you get tired. You flop down in the snow while waiting for the shuttle bus. Conversation is absent. You're conserving energy for the next run.
This older gentleman in our group is more tired than he looks. After the first run he tossed his cookies and took a break in the tent....later to rejoin us for the rest of the day.
No whining at Silverton Mountain.
Top of the lift, last run of the day. The storm shows no sign of letting up. Time to ski....another avalanche gulley!
Our guide scopes out the snow pack as he slowly traverses the mouth of the gulley. After he stopped we slowly, one at at time, traversed to join him.
The snow was getting bottomless in spots, and our guide said today provided him the best turns he'd had in about two weeks.
Beer call in the tent.
The wood stove was welcome warmth, but the air was cold enough in the tent so that you saw your breath. It didn't matter because we were very warm from all the skiing.
Dare to deam big
I may have to come back to sample these goods.
Monday morning - still snowing, but the storm is weakening.
Today's lift is mobile - snowcat skiing.
At times the sun broke through the clouds, and it was a welcome sight. Lots of fresh snow, and lots of terrain to ski.
But first, those that didn't have avalanche beacons were outfitted.
Mandatory safety briefing.
(No, the dogs didn't join us. Riding in the box, with little view outside and lots of jostling about...they get motion sickness and ralph on the customers.)
Climb in the box to ride up a mountain.
We had a family of four from Kansas City in our group. Their youngest boy was 11 years old. Lucky kid.
Unloading and distributing gear at the top of the first run.
Take in the view above Molas pass before you work up a sweat skiing the trees.
Scattered sun, scattered snow showers.
This terrain was mellower than Silverton Mountain, but there was a a good variety of trees, glades, and bowls...and the occasional rollers and lips were only added spice to the tasty dish.
This gentleman lives in Albuquerque.
Kansas City mom.
11-year old shredder.
What's not to like?
Lunch break at the bottom of a run. This was a real gourmet layout!
The guy in the green jacket recently took a 15-year retirement from the Marines. He was an F-18 pilot.
The snow was picking up again, and in minutes we were all looking like snowmen.
The guides take it in stride.
Less and less sun after lunch.
But we could still see the terrain pretty well.
As a group we were skiing down the hill faster than the snowcat could travel to the pickup point.
By the end of the day visibility was getting bad. Time to ski conservative because you could not really see the terrain in front of you.
One of our guides (blue jacket) gives us instructions for the final run of the day.
Tuesday morning. Blue skies and much colder.
I drove up to Red Mountain pass on my own. Today was solo touring of US Basin and perhaps McMillan Peak. After the last two days of nonstop vertical action I had to repeatedly tell myself that today was to be a relaxed tour in the mountains...not an attempt to rack up record vertical.
When you tour alone you have to be more conservative in what, and how you ski.
The trees were loaded with snow, an encouraging sign.
It was about 8F as I left the trailhead. Sun was abundant above, but I was still in shade down 'low' at about 11,000 feet.
The ridgetops and peaks showed that the wind was blowing up high. But in the trees it was calm.
Still in cold shade, following a mostly-filled-in skin track.
So many views, and no suitable words to describe them.
Looking forward to sunshine around the bend of the trail.
Passed by a younger skier. He was climbing almost twice as fast as I was.
In less than a minute he was out of sight.
St. Paul Lodge - a nice place to stay.
A group of high school students from a private school in Boulder. Not a bad way to spend spring break.
I said hello to their guides and asked if I could tag along behind.
It was a welcome relief to stop breaking trail through the deep snow. My uphill progress was a bit easier and faster.
A couple other skiers - they must have started much earlier than I had...and I was on the trail at 9AM.
Water break for the student group, and an opportunity for the guides to impart some knowledge and avalanche awareness.
We continued to climb...now above timber line.
The first signs that the wind was moving and sculpting the snow above us.
The Mountain Belle Hut!
We keep climbing, and leave the untouched powder in the trees far below.
Another break, and more discussion of travel in avalanche terrain....
...because some people will drop these cornices...and trigger slides.
And if you're stupid, you stand below... on flat terrain, but the avalanche can reach you!
(nobody died, but the entire party was either buried or knocked over by the powder blast.)
No shelter from the wind, but we head south toward a high part of US Basin...hoping that around the corner the wind is gentler and the snow softer.
From here we skied down...one at a time, following the guide's instructions.
Time to rip skins, and for those that use them, assemble split boards.
Skiing the first pitch. The snow was not too wind-scoured.
The second, longer pitch had better snow.
Hours to climb. Seconds to ski.
I parted ways with the high school group and headed down the basin to retrace my steps and continue to McMillan peak. It looked like the wind was calming down.
Along the way I passed a couple back country skiers that were heading to the south side of the basin...where the terrain is steeper.
The signs of high winds were largely absent as I climbed through the trees again.
But diamond dust was making the opposite side of the valley look misty.
A skin track to the sky. The slope was rolling over very slowly so that you could not see the distant terrain.
Those two skiers I passed at lunch time at the bottom of the basin? They went that-a-way.
Above 12,000 the wind had scoured some parts of the slope practically bare.
The peak is Red Mountain Number Three. A descent off the northwest face (not visible here) has tempted me ever since I saw it...but I had another goal today, and I was getting tired.
I could tell that I was climbing slower and slower as the air got thinner.
A saddle just north of McMillan Peak. The peak was wind scoured, and I could get a decent view from the saddle...so I dialed back my goal a bit.
High powered snowmobiles had left many tracks from earlier in the morning.
Upon reaching the saddle I had a new vista!
But this was somewhat familiar....
...there was the chair lift from Silverton Mountain. Too bad we had zero visibility two days ago.
It was almost 3PM. No more climbing today. Time for a snack and taking in the view. Then prepare for descent.
Coming down from the saddle I found some soft snow that the wind didn't take away.
For an older guy, this is the beauty of fat skis. The slope can be only fifteen degrees and you can still have fun turning in powder.
I stopped briefly by the Mountain Belle Hut and noticed a pink flamingo on the deck.
Highway 550, the Million Dollar Highway, came back into view as the slope pitched over.
Time for a brief ski through the still soft and dry powder in the trees.
It took twenty minutes to ski to the bottom. It would have taken less time if I had not stopped for these photos.
Driving back to Silverton I spied tracks coming down from above the timber line on Bear Mountain.
One of these days, when I get more experience in this area, I may ski this line.
Back in Silverton the biggest action was the furious melting under the spring solstice sun. This place is at 9,300 feet, but the sun had pushed the temperature over the melting point.
This house, like many others in this mountain mining town, goes unoccupied in the winter months.
In the middle of the week, with summer far off, there are only a few places to grab a meal and a beer.
Sunset over the San Juan's was beautiful.
Wednesday morning, and the wind had returned. The temperature was also a bit warmer. I headed back to Red Mountain Pass to tour the other side of the valley.
Even though I was here earlier than yesterday, this side of the valley catches the sun sooner. This is good for hiking, but the strong sun had affected the powder...which I would discover on the ski down.
Another day, but the same strong winds aloft.
Now I can see the northwest face of Red Mountain Number Three (in shadow). Snow cover looks really sketchy and thin, and no signs of anyone that had climbed and skied it.
This was a dead giveaway of the strong melt-freeze cycle from yesterday. And as I climbed higher my skis kept on crunching through a layer of sun crust.
At the top of the timber line I found myself facing steeper bowls. I decided to traverse them. The wind had removed much of the new snow up here, and last week had been very warm. This was not a guarantee, but it was an indication that the *overall* avalanche risk was low...but small areas of wind slab could still slide if I was careless and crossed over them.
The wind was still moving snow.
After crossing the bowls I reviewed the terrain above me. It did not beckon me strongly, and this was my fourth day on skis. I was tired. I was only at 11,600 feet. I took some big gulps of water, ripped skins and locked my heels down.
Across the valley I could see where I had toured yesterday.
This spine of San Juan's runs north toward Ouray, the "Switzerland of Amerca."
Dropping back into the trees, I was hoping for some sweet powder turns.
Denied! The sun crust from yesterday was everywhere. That's a lesson learned for me. This late in the season, after a day of sun...look for north facing slopes and ski in the shade.
This is the same run on Bear Mountain that caught my eye from yesterday. Where are the tracks? Up high they are completely hidden by the wind's action moving snow about.
Passing Molas pass I notice a sign - a hut I've never heard of before.
Here was why I stopped on Molas pass - to gather some photo reconnaissance of Grand Turk. The southern face can be attacked as a snow climb...giving you access to a high bowl, another climb, and then about 4,000 feet of descent from Sultan Mountain.
The green line shows an approximate route up the eastern leg of the Wishbone Couloir.
I need to develop some skills with crampons and ice axe...and probably hire a local guide, such as
Driving home, south of Durango, Colorado. It's hard to say good bye to the San Juan's.
...south of Bloomfield, New Mexico.
Now the malpais and colored cliffs of northwest New Mexico are the dominant view, and dropping over the hill...the San Juan's are gone.
I will not do too much more resort skiing in the future. There is too much back country I want to see, even if it takes lots of leg power to access it.