But hey – it was still skiing!
I recently skied something called the “4th of July Couloir” because it is normally skiable at least until that date. But the mountains have been warm and dry lately, so I went early, knowing that sooner would be better. Why did I want to ski it so badly? Honestly, I just wanted to do something different and a little silly. I didn’t have any delusions about finding good skiing, and I’m certainly not die-hard enough to search out skiing year-round in the worst places just to be on skis. I just thought that the contrast between dusty summer and steep ski turns would be pretty cool, so why not hike 12 miles to see if it could work?
I used an old pair of Dynafit skis because I knew that conditions would be shit and I didn’t want to ruin my Salomons. They were still very lightweight, and I just put the boots in a pack and the skis on the side and started hiking. I started at Molas Pass and hiked about 6 miles south on rolling terrain just below treeline, which was super nice. Summertime in the high alpine is wonderful, and it was full-on summertime. Everyone I passed asked me incredulously if I would actually be able to ski something. I just smiled and said, “I hope so!”
I got out to Crater Lake – at the base of the peak – in a little less than two hours. I wasn’t running at all, just hiking. My ongoing hamstring problem prevents me from running these days, but I seem to be able to hike without pain, so I’ve been trying to do that a lot. It doesn’t give me quite the same sense of satisfaction as running does, but at the same time it reminds me of the good of just slowing down and accepting the world for what it is, rather than trying to mold it to my own interests all the time. A long day of hiking is a great opportunity to think things over and make some sense of life.
So I wouldn’t have been at all heartbroken to reach the peak and find it unskiable. I was just happy to be able to spend a long day outdoors in a beautiful place. But I was in luck – the couloir was “in”! To make a full circuit, I climbed the northeast ridge of Twilight, which is less a “peak” than a high ridge, and then traversed several hundred meters across the jagged summit to the top of the couloir. And then I sat down and ate a Clif Bar while looking at the view.
When was the last time you sat down to have a snack and enjoy the view while on a run? It had been a while for me. I like that sort of thing.
Soon enough I climbed down into the couloir and then hiked a bit further below the snow than was technically necessary. The top of the pitch was very steep and I’m not a super good skier. Even the place where I began skiing was a bit too steep for my abilities, as you can see in the video (posted below.) But I was fortunately able to stay in control about 80% of the time, which turned out to be just enough to not completely blow and cartwheel 1,000 feet down the mountain. Lucky me.
I made sketchy jump turns and just sort of slid sideways down the top bit of the couloir, but the last third of the descent was on a wide-open field of snow that should have permitted long, soaring turns at high speed. But since the gradient had lessened, the snow had developed some major suncups, which are these odd divots that form in high-altitude snow in summer as a result of uneven surface heating. And my skis were already hard enough to control, but on this surface I found that I was only touching the ground with like 3 square centimeters of ski at any time, and that made me almost more out of control than I had been above. Have I mentioned that I’m not a very good skier?
Anyway, I managed to get to the bottom without suffering any more serious injury than some cold knees and two very cold hands, and it wasn’t hard to decide, when looking back up at the line I had just skied, that one descent would be enough. I had considered maybe making a second trip up the peak, but I figured I was lucky enough to have avoided dying the first time and I didn’t need to take another chance. So, standing in the dust at the edge of the snowfield, I put my shoes back on, restowed my skis and boots, then shouldered my pack and started hiking back out. Six more miles, two more hours of walking in an alpine paradise. Springs of water everywhere, co-opting the trail for their creekbeds; wildflowers blooming; chilly wind contrasting the hot, unfiltered sun. This is the high mountains. This is southern Colorado. This is home.
It’s kind of stupid to ski at the end of June. It’s kind of stupid to hike 5 hours for sketchy snow. It’s kind of stupid to do a lot of the things we do in the mountains. But it made me feel good. These things don’t really need a point. I took a long walk for some crappy ski turns. It was a lot of fun.
It’s good to be home.