Saturday, Tim and I were able to get out and climb Snowdon. Although it’s still fall in Durango, it most definitely is winter above 10,000′. I’m pretty sure I can speak for both of us when I say, that we were thankful for every layer we brought.
|Enjoying the crisp morning!|
|Snowdon still a ways off.|
|Last few steps to the top!|
|Heading back down.|
|Finally really starting to warm up.|
|It’s hard to beat a cloudless Colorado day.|
Climbing with Tim is always a blast. He is super positive and always raving about the amazing views. As much as I try not to take the San Juan Mountains for granted, Tim always helps me to appreciate my surroundings.
It was great climbing with you Tim! See you soon.
Essential Equipment for Ski Touring
An often overlooked, but critical piece of backcountry safety equipment, is your repair kit. After blowing up a ski binding, try post-holing chest deep several miles back to your car in the dark and you will know what I mean. The following is a very basic repair kit that you can work off of to tailor to your specific needs.
Top Row – Left to Right:
- Pole splint – essentially two pieces of curved aluminum, you can buy these commercially or make them yourself with a hacksaw and an old section of ski pole. The splint is secured with two hose clamps one above and one below the break. Skiing without a pole usually isn’t life or death but it makes life a lot better – especially if you are skiing difficult terrain/snow with a heavy pack
- Pole basket – self explanatory and same reason as above – make sure the basket actually fits onto the pole you are using
- Skin tip – it is pretty unusual for these to break, but if you have weak glue on your skins, they sometimes which may make them less (or more?) likely to break but harder to repair. It is always possible to repair the skin tip attachment with your ski strap (see below)
- Skin tail attachment – these fall off frequently, I usually carry a couple of these
- Small tool with pliers – most of the time this tool is sufficient for minor repairs – it includes a knife, a file and a small slotted screw driver. The pliers are probably the most important. This tiny tool only weighs an ounce or so
Middle Row – Left to Right
- Zip ties/cable tie – these can be useful for a lot of things including refastening a buckle on a boot, coat or pack. They can be used to re-attach a broken rear skin strap (the rubber ones can break in half). I like the big beefy zip ties (the ones in the picture are kind of wimpy)
- Binding buddy – carry a couple of common heads including Phillips and star drives, of course be sure that you have the driver for your particular binding screws. It is also not a bad idea to have a couple of the exact screws for different parts of your binding along with a little steel wool (not shown), the wool can be stuffed into a stripped screw hole prior to placing a new screw and serve as a temporary means of filling the gap allowing the screw to be tightened in stripped threads.
- Small roll of duck tape – I don’t carry a lot of this because duck tape can’t really fix any serious problems, and secondly it goes bad after a little while. No doubt it can be handy but you need to stay updated on your replacement cycle with it, or it will just be rotten and unusable when you need it most.
- Ski strap – the longer the better. Probably the single most important item in your kit. Consider carrying two. These can be used to do major repairs and lashing boots and binding systems. They are also good temporary fixes to skin glue problems. Don’t be afraid to pull them REALLY tight. If you carry some sort of sled system (for emergency evacuation) it is likely that you will have several ski straps that can be used for both systems – i.e. your evac and your repair kit
- Bailing wire – this along with a ski strap or two can solve almost any binding/boot emergency. Remember, you are not trying to return your ski system to pristine powder skiing condition – you are just trying to make it workable so that you can get out of the backcountry to your car and real repairs
Bottom Row – Left to Right
- Paracord – On longer trips I often carry this to supplement the ski straps and bailing wire and it can be used for the same uses although primarily as backup. If you carry a tarp in your day ski kit, the paracord can serve double duty as rigging wire.
- Large leatherman/pliers tool – sometimes there just is no substitute for size and power, and on longer trips I make sure we have one of these in our groups so some real cranking can be done if needed.
- Small zip pouch – the whole kit fits nicely in this slim pouch and weighs under a pound. There is really no need to carry more than one of these repair kits per group.
Of course if you are going on trips longer than a day you may want to add a couple of items. Perhaps a full front or rear binding piece? Skin glue? Tent and sleeping pad patches? Dynamite? But the truth is, I rarely need to use my repair kit because I am pretty careful about maintaining my equipment pre-trip. It is just so much easier to get your equipment dialed in the comfort of your garage or living room than it is trying to McGyver some half way solution at 12k in a snowstorm. If my gear is worn out or on the edge I replace it – or make a full-bore serious permanent repair. Skiing is a blast, and when it is at its best, gear is the last thing on your mind.
AMGA Certified Ski Guide
The Best Recipe for Early Season Ice Conditions
Around the middle of October and as the temperatures in the high country start to drift towards the teen’s at night, we start thinking about how ice conditions are shaping up on all the area’s classic backcountry routes. The foundation for a good early season ice year is typically developed in the months of September and early October. (Picture below taken on 10/20/13)
The best scenario is one in which we receive an ample amount of rain/snow in those two months – enough to keep water flowing in smaller waterfalls, creeks, and drainages so that once the temps drop the opportunity to freeze and lay down successive layers of ice becomes possible. This freeze/thaw cycle early in the season is an important factor in creating climbable conditions by early November.
Luckily for us we have this exact scenario brewing in the San Juan Mountains this season. In September we received an abnormally high amount of rain, followed by another round of storms in early October that dropped approximately 2 feet of snow or more in most mountain areas throughout the San Juans.
The soil saturation from the September storms combined with the snow from the October storms gives the classic climbs of the area an excellent opportunity to receive full advantage of the freeze thaw cycle this time of year, and temperatures have certainly been colder than average to aid in that process. Temperatures in the teens are predicted in the high country by this weekend and into next week. Once the temps drop into that range, ice is quick to form in most areas.
Overall, we have an excellent outlook for our backcountry ice conditions this year and I’d predict that most climbs will start to come into condition much earlier than last year – likely about 2 – 3 weeks from now. Ice climbing in the months of November and December are two of the best months of the season, as the majority of the backcountry routes in the area are less threatened by the avalanche problems that we see later in the season. In addition, climbs like the Direct North Face, Campground Couloirs, and Snowblind in South Mineral Creek are more easily accessible given road conditions and the remote nature of the climbs give them a distinctly alpine feel.
So sharpen up your picks, and pull out the cold weather gear. Ice climbing season is almost here and it’s shaping up to be a great one.
Stay tuned to our Ice Climbing Conditions page throughout the winter of 2013/2014 for regular updates on ice conditions in Ouray, Silverton, and Telluride!
Here are a few pictures of a few local ice climbs so that you can get a sense of where we are with ice conditions. All pictures were on October 19th.
With a couple of big storms in early October we have laid down a nice base for decent early season turns. I don’t feel like it is a a real ski season unless I get started in the early fall. Skiing this time of year can be surprisingly good, but there are a couple of considerations to think about:
Clothing Systems for all Conditions
As always, the gear your choose can make the difference in all the ways you envision as you’re planning your next trip or adventure. Increased efficiency, a lighter pack, maximum versatility and not to be overlooked – impeccable mountain style. Our partners at Outdoor Research offer the best and most well designed technical outerwear for cold weather pursuits, including backcountry skiing and ice climbing.
Here, IFMGA Guide Mark Allen gives an overview of how he tackles the topic of what to take with him on a backcountry ski tour.
Current Snow Levels in the San Juans
A few of us have been out and about in the San Juan Mountains during the last week – including Chicago Basin in the Weminuche Wilderness. Recently the area has experienced a few significant storms that had a decidedly winter component to them. Below average temperatures and above average precipitation has been the general weather pattern for the past few weeks and the mountains are really starting to show it.
Based on the current forecast and amount of snow already on the ground, I would suspect that the majority of the snow of shaded aspects will remain there for the rest of the season – eventually being buried by subsequent snow storms that are sure to effect the area in the month of October. This can be good on a number of levels, including the potential for an excellent early season ice cycle. The ice climbs around Silverton and Ouray above 10,000 feet are dependent on ground water and robust melt/freeze cycles. With all the recent snow above those altitudes it’s setting up to be a banner November/December for early season backcountry ice climbs.
The recent new snow however can become “old snow” – but at this point in the season likely only on aspects and areas where the snow has blown in deep enough to eventually be buried by subsequent storms. This old snow, especially from the first few larger storms in October and November, can become problematic later in the winter as the faceting process starts to take over, helping to hasten the creation of the all-to-familiar depth hoar we commonly see at the base of our snowpack – the cause of many early season avalanche cycles here in the San Juans.
Below are a few photos taken of the Chicago Basin area, Engineer Mountain, and views of the Sneffels Range and Ice Lakes Basin from a distance. All photos were taken between 9/24/13 and 9/27/13. As always, watch the forecast, plan accordingly, and travel safe in the mountains. Late fall/early winter storms are nothing to be trifled with in the San Juan Mountains.
AMGA Certified Rock & Alpine Guide
100% Success on the Kautz Glacier
Earlier this summer, July 28 – August 1 to be exact, myself (Nate Disser) and Dave Ahrens successfully led 4 climbers to the summit of Mt. Rainier via the Kautz Glacier Route. Things started off for our team in Ashford, WA, the best place to meet for groups climbing either the standard Disappointment Cleaver Route or the Kautz Glacier Route. An afternoon gear check left us hungry for a pre-trip meal and we decided on the Copper Creek restaurant – a very worthy place to get a great meal before the climb.
The Climb Begins
The following morning we all headed up to Paradise and after registering at the Ranger Station we were off on the trail towards our first camp for the evening. Starting off from Paradise is always a bit of a circus, as countless other day hikers and climbers adorn the trails heading out from Paradise. Most folks are headed up towards Panoraman Point, or perhaps even Camp Muir, but our destination was Glacier Vista where we would drop down onto the edge of the Nisqually Glacier. The lower Nisqually Glacier must be crossed in order to reach the Kautz Glacier, and after cramponing up and roping together for the glacier crossing we were making quick work of the day. Crossing the Nisqually is relatively straightforward, save for a few end runs around large crevasses and is much easier with good visibility. Having crossed the Nisqually many times previously in white out conditions, I was enjoying the fine weather and classic Northwest July high pressure system that typified our trip.
Skills & Forward Progress
We settled on a camp for the evening at about 7800′ and enjoyed fantastic views and a beautiful sunset to the south. The following morning we awoke somewhat lazily as our goal for the day was only to travel to a popular camp known as The Castle at about 9600′ and only 1800′ above us. After some snow and glacier travel skill practice in the morning, we headed up to The Castle, gaining the Wilson Glacier in the process. The next day we rose to more fine weather and barely a breath of wind. After more skill practice – this time on crevasse rescue protocols, hauling systems, etc. we packed up and headed onwards to high camp at about 10,800′. High camp on the Kautz Glacier Route is accessed via the Turtle Snowfield at the top of which there are a collection of campsites scattered amongst the rocks. Making this high camp puts you in excellent position for the summit bid the following night/morning.
The Summit Climb
After a lazy afternoon, everyone turned in early in anticipation of waking early that night/morning for the summit bid. Our team decided to leave camp around 1:30 am, planning on a 6.5 hour one way trip to the summit. A slight change in the weather gave some cause for a heightened sense of awareness for the summit climb. However, upon leaving camp precisely at 1:30 the stars were visible and very little wind could be felt. After about 20 minutes of walking, we reached one of the technical challenges of the day, the rock step which requires a lower/rappel to access the Kautz Glacier proper and subsequently the often intimidating Kautz Ice Chute.
Our team made quick work of the transition and we were all very soon making our way up the steeper ice sections of the ice chute. A combination of short pitches and short roping led us to the top of the ice chute in about an hour. Climbers had the opportunity to swing two tools on the climb this year, as the route offered more and steeper ice than other times I had done the route. Overall, the Kautz Ice Chute is a very fun, engaging, and unique aspect to the Kautz Route.
Above the ice chute, we transitioned back into glacer travel mode and made our way to the Wapowety Cleaver which separates the Kautz Glacier from the upper Nisqually Glacier. At about 13,000′ our team took a nice long – yet predictably cold – rest break prior to setting off on the last stretch across the upper Nisqually to the crater rim of Mt. Rainier. At this point, we started to experience a more dramatic shift in the weather with higher upper level winds helping to form a “cap” or lenticular cloud over the summit of Mt. Rainier. A lenticular cap in such instances is quite typically the harbinger of an approaching storm. However, our team pushed on towards the summit, navigating increasing winds and decreasing visibility as we climbed. Adequate safety margins were maintained throughout the ascent though and all of our team members felt strong as we neared the summit. Finally, after a long (1.5 hour) stretch from our last break we reached the summit of Mt. Rainier. Once inside the crater, the winds abated considerably and we enjoyed a nice long break with plenty of food and water prior to the descent back down to high camp. A few team members who had not previously summited Mt. Rainier before this trip decided to make the extra effort and climb to the Columbia Crest - literally the highest point on the crater rim of Mt. Rainier.
An Efficient Descent
As we descended, the weather began to improve slightly and we were able to make it back down to our camp with relative ease and minimal hassle. After a 2 hour nap, our team decided to make the effort to move camp further down the mountain in anticipation of leaving early the following morning and reaching Paradise in the early afternoon. It’s tough to resist the temptation of a hearty meal after such effort on the peak, and visions of cheeseburgers certainly provided additional motivation to maintain our focus and efficient style all the way back to the parking lot – the true summit of any mountain climb.
Overall, the trip went off without a hitch – the perfect combination of good planning, great weather, and an efficient, motivated climbing team. When it all comes together like that, it just doesn’t get much better. I can’t say enough what a pleasure it was to climb with Rhon, Kevin, Brant, and Brian and spend 5 days in the mountains sharing life stories and the requisite compliment of tasteful jokes as well. Both Dave and I look forward to climbing with them in the future – most likely in Ouray this winter!
Stay tuned for our Mt. Rainier dates for 2014!!
AMGA Certified Rock & Alpine Guide
Recently a few of us headed out into the Weminuche Wilderness for a climb of the inspiring Wham Ridge on Vestal Peak. Vestal Peak is one of our most popular offerings in the San Juan Mountains during the summer in part because it qualifies as one of the most difficult of Colorado’s Centennial Peaks (the highest 100 peaks in Colorado). Beyond that it is truly one of the best climbs in the entire mountain west and offers solid alpine rock in an incredible wilderness setting.
But don’t take my word for it – see for yourself in the video teaser below! The full video episode will be out in about a week!!
SJMG Guide Interview
Dan Zokaites – AMGA Rock Guide
The Featured Guide section is a new element of our newsletter and SJMG Blog intended to provide you with an in-depth look at some of our world-class guides. This issue’s Featured Guide is Dan Zokaites - an AMGA Certified Rock Guide and SJMG Guide since 2012.
Dan is a relatively new guide with SJMG, but he brings with him a wealth of experience as both a guide and a former ski patroller at Telluride Ski Resort. A recent comment about Dan from a client on one of our trips sums up the quality that Dan brings to SJMG – “Dan’s phone call the night before we were to meet was really appreciated. He made sure we were prepared and had the necessary equipment. He also answered several questions that made us at ease from the start. Such a GREAT guide from start to finish. He paid attention to every detail!!!”. Read more about Dan below!
1. Where did you grow up?
2. What is your rock climbing experience?
I have spent the last 10 years pursuing a year round life in the mountains. This has taken me from climbing in South America and Indonesia to skiing in Alaska and making my permanent home in the San Juans.
3. What is your training background?
I have a background in Engineering and so I love the technical aspects of guiding. I am a certified Rock Guide with the American Mountain Guides Association and am in the process of pursuing my IFMGA (Certified Rock, Alpine, & Ski Guide) certification.
4. What are your favorite places to guide?
The Black Canyon because it provides sustained quality rock climbing in a truly unique environment. Another favorite spot is the is climbing in Ouray because it has everything from top roping in the ice park to multi-pitch classics.
5. What is your favorite part about this job?
My favorite part of working with San Juan Mountain Guides is helping others learn the nuances of climbing and skiing and watching them expand their boundaries.
6. What makes you a good guide?
I would say that my genuine focus on helping people to learn new skills and then apply those skills to different terrain types is what makes me a good guide. I like reaching the summit of peaks too, don’t get me wrong, but there is nothing more rewarding than teaching.
7. What is your most memorable guiding experience?
Recently this year I got the opportunity to guide a 10 day alpine peaks traverse in the Weminuche Wilderness. The opportunity to spend that amount of time in an area I had previously not guided much, and being so near to my home yet one of the coolest mountain ranges I have ever been too really struck me. I can’t wait to head back into the Weminuche again!
8. Best/coolest climb you have ever done? Anywhere.
The coolest climb I have done has to be climbing Mount Huntington in Denali National Park.
9. What’s on your iPod right now?
I don’t own an iPod
10. 3 most Crucial Elements of a guide-client relationship?
Respect, trust, and humor.
The Weminuche Ski Traverse
Andrew Klotz - AMGA Certified Ski Guide
On April 23rd of 2013 I set out with three friends to do a trip that we had all thought about for a long time – a ski traverse through the heart of the Weminuche Wilderness in the San Juan Mountains. In previous years we completed a number of other traverses in outlying parts of the San Juans – but this was the year to go for the big Kahoony.
Early debates about whether to basecamp and climb (and thus schlep extra mountaineering gear) quickly gave way to a plan to just move through the most spectacular part of the wilderness and get in as many great descents as possible on the way.
Stage 1. Lift off. Lemon Reservoir to Sheridan Mountain
Entering the wilderness without a multi-mile long slog along a forest service road was where our friend Dave played a key role. A well seasoned sledneck, Dave was able to bring along and rig up his machine to tow three skiers. If you never have “skied” behind a snowmachine you are missing out on an important category of the sport.
Dodging rocks and racing uphill at 30 miles an hour is not to be missed. We knocked out the nearly 10 miles of road in less than an hour with some hilarious falls and no (serious) injuries. We thought it best to stick with the nature of gas burning fun and celebrate our entry at the Wilderness boundary with a round of cold ones.
Now it was time to work. Putting on our skins, we moved up hard snow and the above timberline ridge of Endlich mesa making our way to Sheridan Peak for a ski descent down its long northwest facing couloir to land us at our campsite near City reservoir.
Although the coulior itself presents a really nice line, the snow condition were less than optimal. And with fully loaded five day packs we did the best we could skiing the 45 degree rollovers on the variable very hard and crusty snow.
We set up a nice camp with great views of our route the next day.
Day 2: City Reservoir to Chicago Basin
Today it was our business to get up on and traverse the high alpine of Silver Mesa on our way to Chicago Basin. The skies were grey, trending toward, but never getting to, whiteout conditions, and the miles rolled by. We kept it going in hopes of a great ski descent from Aztec Mountain down into Chicago Basin.
Eventually we got to our col and were not disappointed. Although the snow in this zone had a slight dust layer, a mile and half long and 2000 foot descent fired us up.
The bowl funneled into a neat gully feature that we managed to hack our way down.
We searched for dry ground in the basin and eventually found some slabs to cook and hang out on. Then it started snowing….. So far, a great 2 days, but the best was yet to come.
Day 3: Chicago Basin to Noname Basin
Today we had two plans, both leading to the same place. Our original idea was to cross over into Upper Noname Basin via the Sunlight Col – and it did indeed look excellent both on the map and from a ski mountaineering standpoint. But a somewhat late start and boiling sunshine led us to expedite our climb on these south facing slopes to the much closer, Twin Thumbs col.
In the end, this was probably the better ski descent and the 2200 feet of turns, first powdery, and then corn snow, sealed any questions as to whether we had taken the best route.
After a lot of incredible skiing we made it to treeline in Noname, rested and prepared to head up again to get into position for another big day.
After a few hours of climbing we hit a perfect campsite at a small lake just below Jagged Col.
The evening ended with a funny disagreement about what time to leave in the next morning, given our somewhat late start the day before. The first big warm up of the season was underway and we had to traverse a lot of complex terrain the following day.
In the end all was fine, but not without a blood spurting knife wound (the outcome of a ski boot “whitteling” project undertaken in the dark) and a load of amusing discussion about which guy was the best map reader.
Day 4: Jagged Col to Elk Creek
This was a big day with some questions. Two things we knew for sure; we didn’t want to be on any steep sunny slopes in the afternoon and that we had 6 passes to get over so the plan was to get up super early and make haste just in case.
From the top of Jagged Pass we scooted directly north to the pass just west of Leviathan peak.
After a short but very cool ski descent into an amazing deep basin with huge walls all around we shot up another short pass and around to the east ridge of Peak 7 and then north again to a pass near Peak 8 and around again to a pass dropping us into Lake Silex. Five of the six passes were down and we had passed through some incredible terrain with good skiing.
After making our final, mildly hairy, descent into the upper reaches of stormy gulch we laid down on some dry ground for a long nap under the impressive north face of Storm King Peak.
After a few hours we rousted ourselves into a lazy conversation about where to go from here. Quality plans were laid out to ski off the summit of peak 2 or peak 1 the following day. But as the afternoon wore on and the sun got lower in the sky we all settled on the more appealing option of just skiing to the Peak 2 and Peak 1 pass and drop the big and long descent right down into the upper elk creek drainage.
When we finally pulled the skins at the pass we were welcomed by a really nice mellow descent through more incredible terrain and a sweet dry campspot.
Day 5: Silverton
The only day we didn’t get a ski descent in, but satisfying nonetheless. Our dry camp in an upper Elk Creek Meadow was warmly welcomed with a nice fire, much eating, and polishing off the rest of our small (strictly survival) supply of booze and tobacco. We woke up late, started another fire, and ski booted all the way down to the train tracks in Elk Park.
From here, the prospects of hiking up the 5 miles and 2000 vertical up to Molas pass seemed like an unfitting end to our journey. It was early season, the train wasn’t running, so we opted to hike out the tracks into Silverton. About 2.5 hours later we were walking up and down the empty streets of Silverton with skis strapped to our packs looking for an open restaurant. Finding none, we hit the liquor store, bought some Coors and couple bags of Funyuns and sat out front on the small grass patch to relax and await our ride.
Shortly thereafter a Sherriff deputy pulled up and we thought we were busted for having open beers in public! But no, he just wanted to know about what we had just done! This is the Southwest Colorado I love, when mountain folks young and old are interested in hearing about adventures. He was a nice guy and seemed genuinely excited for us and our trip. Cool.