After hearing about huge snowfalls in the San Juan Mountains of south central Colorado, I’ve been eager to head down there and see if we could get an unusual early season peak descent. So we drove south on Friday with a full load of car camping gear and our ski packs at the ready. Yesterday (Saturday), Sean Crossen, Pete Sowar, John Humphries, myself and son Louie did a nice descent on the North Face of El Diente. We climbed to a point a about 500 vertical feet below the summit, and turned around because we were running out of daylight, as plans to possibly finish the tour at night under full moon looked iffy because of the clouds. Good decision, as we got to the trucks at dark (and cloudy).
|Pete Sowar backcountry skiing the North Face of El Diente Peak during a rare break in the weather that day (otherwise known as a sucker hole). San Juan Mountains, Colorado
The day was blustery. It was a bit intimidating to be up there in winter storm conditions, far from civilization — but getting out on the edge is liberating and I can’t think of better companions to enjoy an adventure with. Over about 10 hours we did about 6,000 vertical feet of skiing — most of the turnable variety. Snow surface varied from white ice to breakable to powder.
|We camped at snowline the night before our trip, built a fire, and had fun listening to coyotes and reading various versions of Powder Magazine. That’s Powder Girl on the ground — it got bumped in favor of Powder Guy.
|Late morning during the “approach,” which is actually a significant climb and ski in of itself. The weather really was less than ideal — character building. Snowpack looks like late January.
|Sean Crossen skiing on El Diente Peak, he’s just a couple of peaks away from skiing all 54 Colorado fourteeners. Sean would have liked to get El Diente this time, but we didn’t have big plans for that as we were simply seeing what could be done early season. As they say, today was “all good” and we had terrific time getting to know each other and working to complete a big day. Diente is a challenging peak that’s none too easy to get in good condition for skiing, and a huge climb no matter which route you take.
|Louie and I are tired of Cliff bars so we picked up some deli fried chicken for trail food. John Humphries pulls out his lunch and sure enough, he’s got pollo too! Great minds think alike. That’s John on the right, he’s Program Director at Telluride Helitrax heli skiing. You’d think such a dream job would make a person lazy — instead John is a climbing animal who drilled post holes like a fence installer when the rest of us started to drag on the steeps. Sean knows John from their days junior ski racing in Pennsylvania.
Snowpack report: Humphries dug a pit at about 12,500 feet elevation, northerly aspect, found a welded pack that according to him is like “nothing I’ve ever seen in Colorado.” I took a look at the pit and snow from the ground up about two feet was like something out of the Pacific Northwest, only frozen solid. This bodes well for a great winter, but we of course need a few more storms to seal the deal. After all, this is Colorado, least we forget. Surface in some areas is developing interesting layers that will surely lead to avalanches given any significant new snow. A bit of wind slab avalanche danger exists as well, but is probably rare.
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.