Other than not being able to walk today, I’m feeling pretty good. Got out on the road this past Friday. Drove to Telluride first and met up with Jason Troth for an attempt on El Diente (look for TR about that in a few days), then chased down Chris Davenport and his team with the intent of simply hanging out with them and covering their style and vibe, or better, tackling a fourteener.
I’ll admit the idea of actually skiing something with Dav was intimidating. I’m past my prime as an athlete, and while I maintain a reasonable cardio base, I’m not feeling as strong as normal this spring (long story, details unnecessary). Thus, over the two days I spent exchanging cell phone messages with Chris, I was secretly hoping that when I finally caught up with Team Davenport they’d be poised for something easy, like Mount Bierstadt, preferably covered with perfect corn so I’d look like a good skier in the inevitable digital imagery.
Surprise. The skiing we ended up doing was incredibly tough and scrappy (though not particularly steep or scary) — and the hiking was worse (which is why I’m not really walking today, just sort of wobbling along). But on the emotional and mountain culture side, the trip was beautiful.
Great Sand Dunes National Park is an astonishing place. The dunes look like the unclothed flesh of the earth, while the majestic mountain backdrop makes your jaw drop in awe.
I’ve been excited about Davenport’s fourteener project from the start, and it’s only gotten better. Here is one of the best known and most skilled extreme skiers in the world, honoring our Colorado peaks with a career defining project that’s only half over but already produced several important first and second descents. More, Chris is working with a positive and open attitude that’s resulted in a stunning website as well as his sharing descents with a rich variety of partners — a group I can now say I’m honored to be included in.
Davenport’s cell phone message on Friday (the day Jason and I attempted El Diente) said he and his crew were heading for San Luis Peak on Saturday, then driving down to Great Sand Dunes National Park and hitting the Sierra Madre group of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. After a good nights sleep I knocked off the drive to the Park and met the team at the campground. Roster: John Hagman, Ben Galland (project film director), Nick De Vore, Will Cardamone, Danny Brown. Strength and confidence radiates off these guys like heat from a wildfire — with Dav at the helm keeping it focused (and perhaps reaching for a fire extinguisher now and then)
The plan was to backpack in up the Como Lake road and camp at Como Lake. I despise walking on jeep trails — especially vertical boulder piles such as Como (where was Rumble Bee when needed?), but I’m a sucker for suffering so I was in. Never mind the fact that I was in decent shape for skiing, but hadn’t hiked more than a few hundred yards (on foot) since last fall.
Davenport’s leadership style is subtle but powerful. He’ll make the sandwiches, do the dishes, then climb and ski like the wind.
That’s me on the right with my improvised overnight pack (a BCA Alp 40 with a duffel bag lashed on the back. Pure misery. I felt better once I knew that Ben’s pack (left photo) weighed about 90 lbs because of his film gear. Amazing what the human body is capable of (at least in Ben’s case). Oh sweet irony, here I am the gear review guy with more packs at home than I know what to do with, and I end up without the correct backpack! Let’s just say that the Granite Gear pack would have been perfect.
Our reward for camping at Como Lake. Sunset ignites Little Bear Peak’s north face.
Morning approach. Southern Sangres really don’t have a snowpack this year, just thin patches and lightly filled couloirs. We doubted we get anything from the summit, but kept climbing.
Surprisingly, once in the upper basin we could see a continuous line of snow up Ellingwood Peak. While the snow was awful and would be truly tough to ski (where was that corn snow so I could look good?), we figured out a way to ski from the exact summit by picking our way though a snowy scree field below the summit and entering a filled couloir about 100 vertical down from the start. Arrows point to lower part of our ski route, upper is hidden to looker’s right. Everyone had a tough time with the snow, which was some kind of odd breakable crust on top of punk. I was able to make a few hop turns in the upper section, then my legs gave out and my "hops" became something more like "slops." Oh well, so much for my one chance at ski film footie. Luckily Dav and his crew filled in the blanks. Even on difficult snow they were aggressive and stylish.
Myself and Davenport on the summit of Ellingwood Peak.
Dav leads the way off the top, touching the tails of his skis to the summit register as he pushes off. A few hop turns here, then a billy goat down through some scree for about 100 vertical feet to the couloir. On skis the whole way, but not exactly the best ski descent you can think of — at least not physically — but emotionally it was a fine day with strong summit joy and lots of smiles.
This was the insulting part. After all the camaraderie and joy in finding a successful route in the midst of a drought, we now get to march down about 2,500 vertical feet of steep scree-covered jeep trail. Nick took some of my weight so I wouldn’t wreck my bum knee, but it was still dicey for me. Quite a bit different from back in 1990, when I’d solo climbed and skied both Blanca and Ellingwood in one epic push from parking.
After the slog. From left: Danny Brown, Will Cardamone, myself, Nick De Vore, John Hagman, Chris Davenport.
This was a truly special trip for me. Finally getting together with Davenport was amazing, but seeing the up-and-coming young guys doing so well got me pretty emotional. While camped at Como film maker Ben and I were looking at the boys messing around and he said something like "look what you started." I immediately thought, yeah, me and a bunch of other folks. But then I realized that yes, I’d worked darned hard at skiing all the peaks and getting my guidebooks out there, and indeed have a part in this goings on, but only a part. When it comes to Colorado ski mountaineering I’m part of something much larger than myself, or any for that matter larger than any other individual. That something is our vast and enriching mountain culture that’s created by everyone who enjoys the challenges of the mountains, then shares. That’s always been my goal, and is exactly what Davenport is doing as well.
During the first evening I spent with these guys, I toasted their project and achievements thus far, but more, it was a toast to their willingness to be part of the community — to do good work in the mountains and share about it through images, writing and willingness to seek out new partners. I’d like to second that toast here on my blog.
(Note: Considering the drought stricken Sangres, many of you are wondering what’s going on with Davenport’s stated goal of skiing all the fourteeners in one snow season. Indeed, while May could bring snow to the now unskiable dry peaks such as Little Bear, that outcome is iffy. But perhaps Davenport’s original goal is not that important. Instead, it’s becoming obvious this project has other components that easily overshadow the "one season" effort. Most importantly, Davenport and his creative team are planning a stunning movie and book that present the astonishing playground that Colorado’s peaks provide for ski mountaineers. Along with that, Davenport has thrust himself into a leadership role when it comes to skiing fourteeners. He’s added new routes and broken psychological barriers, thus giving Colorado ski mountaineering a shot of adrenaline like never before.)
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.