Backcountry Recon: Snow Conditions In The Colorado Backcountry

This guest post comes from Josh Whitney, a Boulder, CO-based pro mountain biker, cyclocrosser and lover of all things alpine. He’ll be sending Tahoe Mountain Sports his trip reports, reviews and inspired mountain ramblings from the Rocky Mountain West throughout the winter. His blog at blends bike racing and mountain adventures with musings on his day job in  business, technology and sustainability. 

josh whitney recon

Well, you and I both hoped the next Trip Report from the Rocky Mountain high country would be full of face shots and powder beards, but alas, old man winter continues to remain elusive and sequestered in small nooks and crannies, points North and West of here. It hasn’t been a complete loss, however. In fact, on the holiest of days the lordeth delivered a most-needed sign that our prayers were not in vain. Christmas morning, the entire region awoke to a bounty of snow and for those not obligated by family, religion or tradition to be stuck in their pajama’s rummaging through gifts under a tree, there was a real present outside just waiting to be unwrapped.

But it was nearly gone in a flash. A few lift-accessed runs later,  what was once a blank white canvas cut by a brilliant deep blue sky, had been chewed up and transformed into just another packed powder day. Further and further we’d search for a fresh pocket, a mere turn or too of virgin goodness, that simple joy of floating and freedom. Fortunately the back bowls at Vail offer those in the know respite from the terror that is a chairlift and we found our own slice of heaven for a few consecutive runs. Days like this day are so sweet, so momentary. We stopped before the last run together to just take it all in, get safe, and absorb the intensity of it all. Few things can beat the combination of a bluebird super light powder day and watching the love of your life rip by you pushing glitter into the sky.

backcountry skiing with dogs

In between a day here and a day there, we continue the struggle to accumulate a base that allows for big time exploration and real skiing in the backcountry (unless your in the South San Juans – they always seem to do well).  So with an eye towards later season big lines and in the spirit of just getting out in the alpine, the last two weekends have comprised various homework assignments in our favorite zones, with hopes that our reconnaissance will pay off come spring time.

Berthoud Pass offers up some of the best, biggest and most accessible back, slack or side-whatever you wanna call it-country skiing around and has become one of my favorite places over the years. Following some snow and a super cold front settling in for the week, my good buddy Dane and I left his truck at Current Creek around 8:30 a.m. with temps below zero. With an extensive avalanche through the 90’s a few weeks prior, and plenty of signs of instability around, we opted for some lower angle slopes and figured it a day of exercise and exploration. We reached the saddle between Postage Stamp and the Upper 110’s and gazed North towards the Second Creek drainage, the new Broome Hut and the top of Mary Jane. It was gorgeous, if not a bit thin. The skiing was tremendously variable down to the Peter Rabbit shack so we moved up the valley to survey the XYZ chutes in hopes of getting a few good turns for our efforts.

Above XYZ, from North chutes to Russell through the Cirque it was pretty thin, with lots of exposed wind blown rock or horrendous wind slabs over surface hoar and faceted layers, effectively eliminating many of the usual suspects.  But all the work kept us warm which was a surprise, and so were the conditions at the top of the Z chute, the lowest angle/ lease committing of the three.  Decent turns followed and we considered it a worthy outing. Which was a good thing as a few days later I read that Y chute slid twice in two days – a testament to the importance of good decision making around route selection.

colorado skin track

The next day I traded partners and found myself looking at another aesthetic section of the Divide, though this time with much more effort. From Moffat Tunnel east of Rollinsville, there lay a serious slog to what is potentially some tremendous terrain. After ascending for 2-1/2 hrs, we reached the Arapahoe Lakes drainage, with Radiobeacon Mtn to the North and gazed at a dozen lines within, well shoot, another two hours. With some weather rolling in we decided this spot deserved a return with a more alpine start and potentially even a spring season camp out throwdown. Surprisingly we found better and deeper snow here than the day before, connecting some playful terrain at tree line down through a gully and some perfect trees. The weekend was topped off right with a cold can of Maui Coconut Porter and a smooth traffic free ride down Boulder Canyon.

A week later we made the pilgrimage to RMNP to check out conditions around Bear Lake, with the hope of scouting out new lines around the Terrain Park and a check in on Dragon’s Tail and Dead Elk couloirs. Having skied the Dragon in incredible late spring conditions two years prior, I’d been dreaming of a return.

colorado cold smoke

But this winter has some serious serious work to do before that is going to be possible. Flattop was barren at tree line and above, and both couloirs featured tons of bare spots, exposed 20-30 foot sections and lots of talus at the base of the couloir greeted us as we emerged through the trees above Emerald lake. So we took the long way around to the top of the Dream Chute and enjoyed a few turns down the gully. Lower down, we sat on a bench, took in the views and mapped out what should be the Terrain Park, realizing a few more feet, as in 4-6, are needed to ski that properly. Nonetheless, another day out in the high alpine with good friends, gorgeous views and mountain inspiration make it all worth it.

josh whitney ski

Slowly but surely the foundation is being laid for better and better turns. Two weekends of searching high and low found a few surprises but mostly that winter is taking its sweet time, a mirror image of last year and a reminder that the blessing of Rocky Mountain cold smoke can be cursed by the fact that we’re in what is effectively a high desert environment that’s not getting any help from an increasingly fickle jet stream. Here’s to hoping the old man turns the dial up in February – and in the meantime I’ll be riding my bike.

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