Skiing Glacier Gorge

There's no wrong way to photograph Glacier Gorge

There’s no wrong way to photograph Glacier Gorge

I had a much-needed ski up Glacier Gorge yesterday. I’ve been up there many times, but never on skis. The cutoff was well-trodden and even the trail up to Mills had seen quite a lot of traffic. Despite the banner of clouds whipping off the Divide and playing about the summit of Longs, there wasn’t much wind at the lake; just clear skies, bright sun, and ribbon of snow bisecting the ice of the lake.

Things became less distinct past Mills Lake and I followed faint tracks from days past up the drainage toward Black Lake. There was quite a bit of snow, but there were still man-height divots in the streambed, some of which had running water at the bottom. Note to self: avoid these on the descent. On the final steep climb up to Black Lake, I passed a pair of heavily-packed ice climbers coming down. They’d been up there trying for Big Mac couloir for three days, but had been stymied by the wind. I could see that the West Gully was in very fat shape and suggested it as a consolation prize. “Nah, we’re too bummed” they said and moved on.

longs_rime

The west face of Longs Peak, painted shockingly white with rime ice.

The wind was fierce at Black Lake and the sastrugi at the lake outflow were something else. I pushed into the trees on the east side, deployed my televators for the climb up the exit ramp, discovered that skiing with elevated heels on flat ground is a lot like running in high-heeled shoes, and slogged up. Clearing the top of the ramp, I gradually got a better and better view of the west face of Longs Peak. Due to some meteorological mystery, the rock was covered in brilliant white rime ice. Gorgeous! I paused every few minutes to take more photos since it kept getting better and better.

Backlit and up close, the Spearhead looks even more malevolent than usual. I skinned up the steep, rocky slope on the right, then failed to ski back down.

Backlit and up close, the Spearhead looks even more malevolent than usual. I skinned up the steep, rocky slope on the right, then failed to ski back down.

I had upper Glacier Gorge entirely to myself. It was mostly scattered rocks with a maze of snow routes between them. I set out with no particular destination in mind and ended up climbing a steep ridge north of the Spearhead and descending slightly to the very aptly named Frozen Lake. Here it was windy. The idea of spending three days bivied up here, not climbing, seemed absolutely brutal, and not the kind I’m interested in. 1:30 pm. Time to turn around.

I chickened out on the idea of skiing the steep, rock-hard, rock-strewn slopes north of the Spearhead, and plunge-stepped down to more moderate terrain. Then I de-skinned and set out across the windswept, sastrugi’d terrain, discovering in the process that my skis got very little purchase for level or uphill travel. (Of course, I’d left my wax kit in the car figuring I wouldn’t need it.) Things improved once I reached the ramp down to Black Lake. The sastrugi gave way to hard-pack with a thin layer of loose powder on top. Despite the leather boots and cable bindings on light-weight tele skis, I made it look… if not good, then at least servicable with some actual turns all the way down to the lake.

frozenlake

The aptly-named Frozen Lake

It was the same story (with occasional gluteal craters which mysteriously appeared in the snow) down the drops past Ribbon Falls and so forth. Back in the stream bed, I managed to not fall into any of the water holes (which is not to say I didn’t fall elsewhere) and sweated through the level terrain back to the Lakes. Crossing ice on skins was one thing. Doing it on bare skis was entirely other and very hard. Past Mills Lake, I entered the trees again on the well-packed trail. I again chickened out on the steep, narrow, outward-banked curve down to the junction with the Loch trail. I’ve been nervous about skiing the Winter Cutoff ever since I began thinking about it. Reasonably steep, narrow, trees, tourists… but it wasn’t bad. I’d had enough warm-up on the gnar that it wasn’t bad (despite a few falls) and emerged back at the trailhead in fantastic spirits.

It was a great trip and I was surprised at how skiable everything was. Next time, I’m bringing my wax kit to make the rolling terrain a bit more doable.

 

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