I’ve had a lot of fantastic ski trips over the last couple years… I guess it was only a matter of time before my luck ran out.
I knew I was going out this weekend. That had been settled a long time ago. The only questions were, when, where, how, and with whom. I’ll spare you the gorey details, but it ended up being Michele and I saddling up early on Sunday morning to beat the ski traffic west on I-70. The target of the day was the southern Gore Range. Most people haven’t heard of the Gore Range. There are no 14ers in the Gores, but it is proximate to interstate highways and can be seen prominently to the north and west of the Silverthorn/Dillon/Frisco area. That big, skull-shaped mountain with the huge avalanche scars you see in front of you when you first emerge from the Eisenhower Tunnel? That’s Buffalo Mountain and was today’s ostensible target.
According to the map, there was a nice trail loop around Buffalo Mountain accessible from various points to the east. Michele and I choose the Buffalo Cabin TH at 9800′ with plans to drop into the valley to the north, and then climb west up the South Willow Creek drainage to a spectacular-looking bowl with Buffalo Mountain to the south and Red Peak to the north. Things started out well enough. The day was gorgeous and warm, though very windy up high and we quickly gave up thoughts of trying for one peak or another along a ridge line.
To make a long story short, things quickly got annoying. The trail rapidly deteriorated to a random collection of ski and snowshoe tracks that dead-ended a lot. We thrashed our way down through deep, steep, dense forest to the valley below where another trail supposedly headed up Spruce Creek. Once down there, we followed another set of ski tracks up-slope crossing a couple of dramatic avalanche run-outs… until the tracks gave out again and we had to break more trail up through steep forest, across gullies, and finally into the upper part of the South Willow Creek valley. Above us, we watched one brave (foolhearty?) pair of skiers climbing the Silver Couloir into the steep terrain (avy danger=considerable) and 60+ mph gusts.
The upper meadows were a nice respite from the earlier labors. Gently-rising meadows and open forest with occasional bands of forest and sharply-delineated zones of very short trees (avalanche path!). Wind-sculpted features over the meandering creek. Sun, breeze, and good scenery. Clearly we weren’t going to make it above tree-line today, so we ate a leisurely lunch amongst heavily-laden trees, then turned for the trip out.
Back at the top of the headwall we’d spent so much effort climbing, we considered our options. The map showed that the trail stuck to the northern side of the valley, so we opted to try the more open forest on that side rather than retrace our path across the couloirs we’d taken up. Things started out well enough. I’d given up all pretense of being able to ski this route, and put my skins back on for some downhill friction. We quickly found ourselves in a set of parallel gullies running not quite in the direction we were trying to go. Cliffs appeared across our path and we had fought our way through one stream gully after another. Short drops we just scrambled down, taller ones we circumvented. It went from enjoyable suffering to suffering to no fun at all.
After a great deal of pain and anguish, we made it back to our ascent track. There had been a nice ski track we’d teed into after the initial bushwhacking and we’d resolved to follow it out to a different trailhead rather than thrash through the woods again as we’d done in the morning. Fifty feet from where we’d joined the track, it ended abruptly. Seriously! What the hell?! We reluctantly retraced our tracks back up the eastern shoulder of Buffalo Mountain, found a more likely looking trail, lost that trail, and ended up on something just as steep as we’d come down. I was beyond caring anymore.
After seven hours and seven miles, we finally made it back to the car. The day was still beautiful, but somehow it was a lot less enjoyable than I’d hoped. Much as I hate snowshoes, skis were really the wrong mode of transportation today. The three hours spent in stop-and-go ski traffic on the way out was a completely consistent finish to a frustrating day.
Of course, no day in the mountains is wasted. Despite the hardship and frustration, we got to explore a beautiful new area in good company. I look forward to coming back to the Gore Range, though perhaps to a different trail with a better-programmed GPS.