Saturday we drove down to southern Colorado for a try at El Diente Peak, a fourteener near the town of Telluride that’s not particularly tough to ski, but has a lengthy approach with more than its fair share of avalanche danger. We got shut down by an unusually strong storm that hit the El Diente area, but salvaged the trip by packing up camp and hitting Red Mountain Pass, where the storm hadn’t dropped as much snow.
|Louie on a peak near Red Mountain Pass, after we realized El Diente simply had too much new snow to be safe.
My son Louie and I joined up with Sean Crossen for the trip. Sean has only a couple of fourteeners to check off his list to complete skiing them all. He’d skied El Diente a few years ago (with myself and a few others), but didn’t climb to the summit so according to common standards of what defines a descent, he’s gotta go back and climb the thing before he skis it. I don’t know what we were thinking that other time, as we should have harassed Sean into scrambling to the summit. Back then Sean used alpine boots without rubber soles, which made rock scampering less than appealing to him so he opted to sit out a short scramble across the summit ridge to the true apex — but at least in our little corner of the ski alpinism universe, if you say you skied a peak you’ve got to first climb it.
I like El Diente. It’s just extreme enough to be a fun crampon climb and exciting descent, but manageable by today’s standards. Thus a perfect place for Louie to learn more about steep terrain, and a place I don’t mind returning to (though the long approach does get old.)
So, we knew a storm would pass through on Saturday. Our hope was it would drop minimal snow, and we’d enjoy a clear day on Sunday with a dusting of new white over a nicely frozen corn crust. Not to be. Some kind of high energy weather cell hit the San Juans in the El Diente area and dropped more than a foot of new in some places, perhaps even two feet up high.
|We should have adjusted our goals when the truck got stuck in the new snow, as El Diente has a particularly complex approach and climb that takes you under and over dozens of avalanche paths. Of course, once we winched out (thanks CODE4x4)we thought “hey, this isn’t that bad,” and set up camp thinking we’d at least make a recon in the morning and perhaps find there was less new snow up high than we thought.
|We don’t do these spring trips for the joy of expedition snow camping, but you do what you must. The view made up for the conditions. That’s fourteener Wilson Peak on the left, while the snow season approach to El Diente takes the drainage to the right, known as Silver Pick Basin.
At any rate, we got up at 2:00 AM like good little mountain boys, snowmobiled to the summer parking area, then skied up Silver Pick to the first avalanche path. The decision was a no-brainer. While the snow appeared fairly well bonded, there was simply so much of it, and so many variables, we knew pushing the route wasn’t appropriate. If nothing else, we knew that once the snow got cooked by the sun it would be coming down all over the place, including on our planned climbing route (not to mention that trail breaking and post-holing the stuff for 6,000 vertical feet would slow us down so much we’d end up still in the alpine during the most dangerous part of the day). So we skied out, packed up camp, and drove a circle east over to Red Mountain Pass where we figured we’d be out of the heavy snow zone. Sure enough, a thinner coating of new, well bonded snow had graced the peaks over there, and we salvaged the day by climbing and skiing a nice couloir and basin on one of many peaks you can access from the pass.
|Sean heads down into Champion Basin from Red Mountain 3, the easily accessed peak we skied near Red Mountain Pass, southwestern Colorado.
|Louie and Sean at Red Mountain Pass. This vast area of easily accessed terrain has become a major winter recreation area and is well worth exploring. Seemed like there was more snowmobile traffic on the easterly side where a vast area of mostly un-posted private land connects with BLM land that extends all the way east through Silverton, while the west side was favored by those propelled by their own muscles. I’ve been up here a few times over the years, but I’m re-energized and planning a corn-fest that’ll involve staying in a hotel in the nearby town of Ouray, along with hitting the peaks every morning. Gotta love it.
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.