Goldilocks Skis Backcountry

A Tale of Two Ski Trips

December 27 & 30, 2009

It was the snowiest of times, it was the coldest of times… oh never mind!

Last season, I caught the backcountry skiing bug and caught it bad. The main revelation was that there is a continuum of skiing technology and technique between XC and resort alpine skiing. This year, the revelation seems to be that there is a lot of parameter space in that continuum.

I picked up a pair of Karhu Kondor skis last spring for a song and have gotten them kitted out for “touring” with three-pin bindings, leather boots, and cables for added stiffness on the downhills, or at least that’s the theory. These skis are relatively light (8 pounds for the pair), quite curvy, and definitely fatter than skinny XC skis. With much anticipation, I watched the first snow fly and, by late December, there was enough coverage in the backcountry to try them out in earnest.

 

Brainard Lake Tour, December 27


At Long Lake in ideal conditions.

First up, a post-Christmas solo tour of the much-talked-about trails around Brainard Lake. I’ve been up to Brainard lots of times, summer and winter, but never been on the ski trails. To my delight, they are stellar! I headed in on the CMC South trail paralleling the road. This trail is largely level, but features plenty of short ups and downs; nothing worth pulling out the skins for. Instead I experimented with grip waxes, reminiscing about my youth while smearing on the Swix Blue Extra. And it worked pretty well! The Kondors were definitely overkill for this and a lot of people sporting much skinnier skis were working a lot less hard than I was.

Still, I made it to the upper end of the trail and headed out to Long Lake on the Niwot Cutoff. Great views, little wind. I was having a blast! Found my way to the Brainard Cabin and reveled in the warm fire and hoards of people.

On the way back, I opted for the Waldrop North trail, also paralleling the road, but on the other side. This was a more serious undertaking than the South trail with several long and very exciting slalloms through the trees and equally long (but less exciting) climbs. “Rolling terrain” I believe is the catchphrase used for this. Here I was thankful for my short, shaped skis as the screaming descents were more exhilarating than terrifying.

Great day! 10 miles of skiing in 4+ hours. Bluebird skies at the start and light snow in the second half.

Second Time at Second Creek, December 30

OK, so maybe the Brainard trip was a little mellow. I was aching to get in some serious alpine exploration and really put these skis through their paces. In our first year in CO, Amy and I got thoroughly spanked by the “mellow backcountry terrain” at Second Creek, just on the other side of Berthoud Pass. I vowed then to come back someday with the proper equipment. I finally had the equipment (right?) so now was the time.

Scott and I, veterans of last season’s ski conquest of James Peak (and other misadventures), teamed up and hit the trail in full backcountry mode. Snow was falling pretty heavily and visibility was poor, but there was loads of snow up there and we followed a nice track up the south side of the creek. On our light tele setups, we quickly passed two much more heavily loaded groups on 8″ wide monster skis, snowshoes, split boards, and in one case, nothing but boots. In fact, it would be fair to say that we completely smoked them and I don’t think it was because of our daunting aerobic fitness or rugged good looks. Our gear weighed half of what their’s did!

The beaten track turned left, so we broke right and wallowed across a meadow and up a final steep climb to the small cabin a mile from the road. “Cabin” is, perhaps, too generous a term for this well-used hovel. (Thankfully, a new, fancy establishment is on the drawing boards.) Not that we weren’t grateful for it’s dry shelter for a quick snack before heading onwards…

The upper valley was a broad, snowy expanse with willows poking through here and there. We picked the most likely line and skinned into the wind aimed for the vaguely and occasionally visible ridge above. My original goal had been to skin up to the ridge and poke around for a while before zipping back to the car (executing beautifully-carved turns the whole way, of course). However, neither visibility nor wind was conducive to spending a whole lot of time up high, so we de-skinned and started the descent.

 


Scott de-skins on the ridgeline. You can see why we didn’t stick around too long.

Scott makes better work of the alpine conditions than I did.

I’d love to say I zipped gracefully through the rapidly alternating deep powder and wind-blasted sastrugi, but that would be a bit of a stretch. Scott may have managed to make it look half-way good, but I fell down. A lot! Things got a little better lower down where I didn’t attempt to turn as much, but I still fell down a lot.

Back below the cabin, we found our way into deep powder and I fell down even more. Scott had the temerity to laugh at my full-on, shoulder-deep-in-the-powder face plant, only to punch a symetrical hole right next to me. The snow was spectacularly deep with more coming down every minute. But floatation is not the strong suit of these skis and I can safely blame many of our falls on but in there various density variations buried in there, up to and including hidden stumps, rocks, and willow traps. Down in the trees, the beaten track provided a little more consistency, but there were still plenty of chances to fall down. Scott abstained this time, but I took every opportunity I could.

Back at the car, we realized we still had time and energy to burn, so we skied up the much more beaten track on the north side of the creek. This was 3-6 feet wide, trampled to a uniform packed-powder by loads of snowshoers and sledders. We made it half a mile in before turning around and flying down. Here, where floatation and density variations weren’t an issue, finally, we made it look passably good.

So what have we learned today?

People talk about having a “quiver of one”, i.e., one pair of do-anything skis. But there is no tool which is a perfect fit for all applications; compromises must be made. Heavy skis and stiff boots power through the variable conditions we encountered in Berthoud Pass. Light skis and soft boots maximize efficiency on the flat touring around Brainard Lake. I’m fairly happy with my current setup–it lets me get up and get down, not always in the best style or speed. Sure, we may have smoked the other skiers on the way up, but I’ll bet they didn’t fall down nearly as much as we did on the way down. Similarly, the skinny-ski XC dudes at Brainard flew past me like I was standing still. This is the price we pay for hybridization and it’s a price I’m happy to pay.

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