An outdoor writer I respect says we write too much about education, technique and ethics — that we don’t express enough about how fun all this is. Sure, some backcountry ski touring trips are painful treks while others are a mix of hardship and pleasure. The pain serves to define the good ones; the fun ones. And some trips, they peg the perfect zone.
Powder Boy Bob phoned me this past spring, as he usually does, when the corn snows of May are upon us. Amid our usual gushing about the last great unskied lines of Colorado, he proposed a trip to Grizzly Peak. I wasn’t too keen. We’d both skied Grizzly a number of times, the approach was sure to be a dirt slog, and at 13,988 feet, Grizzly doesn’t qualify as a fourteener. (Yes, I’m a snob about those ‘teeners.)
Yet Grizzly is a centennial peak (one of Colorado’s 100 highest), and it’s got The Chute: a glorious couloir that drops from near the summit about a thousand vertical feet to Grizzly Lake, a pristine tarn with the elegance of a French garden pond.
But for the extremist there’s something better than The Chute; to climber’s left another system of couloirs, steeper and less defined, drops to the lake. We’d heard about this line and lusted in our hearts. And Powder Bob had another idea. During one of his many Grizzly trips, he’d spied a small but unforgettable couloir on the other side of the lake. The plan was to do a double — on all new terrain. That was convincing enough for this jaded fanatic.
To make the trip complete, Lisa and I loaded the family into our Honda for a trailhead overnight. The load included our 4-year-old. This was just our second ever family camping trip. After three hours of stuffing our motorized skate-board, and loading the roof rack in style worthy of Grapes of Wrath, we sagged up the highway then bounced the rough road to the campground at Grizzly Reservoir. I had a pretty good headache by then, which the fishing mitigated till our hooks kept coming up dry. My headache got worse when the guys next to us pulled in a harvest that resembled a tuna haul. In pity, or perhaps just so they could keep fishin’, they gave us dinner.
The aroma of sizzling trout wafted over our campsite as the setting sun glinted off the reservoir. Our young squire stalked chipmunks with his toy bow. He’s taking this provider stuff seriously. I told him we had to eat what he killed, and prayed his arrows were dull.
A 4-year-old’s second camping trip is a touchstone experience. The guy wouldn’t stop running, and we finally duct taped him into his sleeping bag to control him. It seemed like a good idea to sleep under the stars – ’till we had to count them. After that we explained God and outer space, and chased away several bears and lions. It’s not exactly bliss, but the contact high you get from the kid is pretty good.
Four hours later my alarm shrilled, and Bob arrived a half hour after that. We headlamped up the trail and climbed to the sun. Lo, Bob’s couloir was where we thought it would be, but it was catching a later sun-hit, so we climbed the Chute up Grizzly.
Snow steps from previous climbers led us like a golden ladder to the summit ridge. We skipped the summit, having been there many times, and clipped our skis atop our intended line to skier’s right of the Chute. The perfect corn snow was ripening in the sun, and a velvet 45 degree pitch dropped below us like a frozen plume of whitewater. While I clicked my shutter Bob fired a series of flawless hop turns, then headed over to the sinuous ridge separating us from The Chute.
Perhaps second to my love of the fine couloir is my lust for skiing perfect ridges that perch you above everything. This was such a line, and I framed Bob as he skied suspended above the planet, making turns like answered prayers, on perfect snow, with perfect skis, on a perfect day.
The lake below us was still iced, but the edges had thawed and refrozen to a deep blue that resonated the alpine sky like the harmonies of a cathedral choir. We scooted around the lake to the base of our second goal, that slot couloir that Bob had spoken so highly of. It was everything he’d hoped for: from the azure ice, a flawless fan of snow led up to a narrow slot harboring a 50 degree bulge, then on to a rocky ridge. We climbed like teen-agers going through flavors at Baskin Robbins — something better was just ahead.
After a quick click-in on a talus launch pad, we smothered the bulge with swishing spindrift. It was that perfect angle that makes skiing like flying. A small hop sends you soaring, but with snow so sheer, skis so fine, and technique so tuned, you always recover ready to float again.
I’d like to say we arrived back at camp to burbling java and bacon fresh from the skillet. But we did not. My wife and son were out exploring around the lake, and to tell you the truth seeing them doing that was better than the best victuals.
Bob mentioned that such a perfect day would cap his season, and he was hanging up his skis. I think I’m following his lead — but ask me this fall. Colorado has plenty of summer skiing, and it wouldn’t take much to roust me. After all, we might have another perfect day. They happen.
(This article was first published in Couloir Magazine 1994.)
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.