East Portal has become my personal winter benchmark as an outdoorsperson. I’ve been here a dozen times, all but once in the winter, and have been profoundly lost, blissfully found, and varying degrees of everything in between. I bought a GPS in part because of a situation in this area. When I graduated from snowshoes to my first set of skinny backcountry skis, I naturally brought them here. Each season I come back on increasingly heavy gear and perform increasingly better.
This time it was my plastic boots and real telemark skis that got the East Portal treatment. Rather than the “usual” tour up to Heart Lake and back along South Boulder Creek, I mixed things up a bit by heading up the Arapaho Creek valley to the Arapaho and Forest Lakes. New territory!
The main trail was well packed as always for the first mile and the snow cover was a little thin in south-facing, sunny spots. The snow of last weekend was melting quickly, but there was still plenty to be had especially for mid-December. I climbed the sloping traverse up to the Arapaho Creek crossing, then along a gentle trail as far as a large clearing (a swamp in the summer) where the outflows from the two pairs of lakes converge. Here I met a pair of women (Veronica and Jodi) who were headed in my direction, so we teamed up for the ascent.
If a summer trail exists to the Arapaho Lakes, there was no sign of it now. Instead, we followed a single set of tracks on an ad hoc route steeply up the north side of the valley with many sudden switchbacks and climbs over downed timber. Since the descent is usually the crux for me, this worried me more than a little. We broke into a cleared ramp leading left along the base of some bluffs and made a more logical course up to the scrubby meadow below the Lake. Here Jodi and Veronica split off to start their descent while I climbed another hundred feet to the lake itself. The lake was nothing exceptional, but it was a real pleasure to lounge at 11,100′ under crystal clear skies with only a breath of wind and not another soul in sight.
Changing to descent mode, I managed to warm up on the variable-condition drifts near the lake before tackling the more serious business of getting down. Left to my own devices, I would probably have descended by the ascent line, since it was a known, though gnarly, quantity. However, my companions of circumstance had laid an authoritative track directly down into the trees. They are clearly far better skiers than I, but steep and deep powder is very forgiving. As improbable as the terrain looked, I followed their track through some spots I would never have dreampt of attempting otherwise, falling frequently but occasionally gliding with a modicum of grace.
Back at the clearing, I enjoyed the low-angle, zero-effort glide until the trail got steeper again, then snowplowed my way down a trail where clearly many people had preceded me. Rocks poked up here and there, but were mostly easy to avoid. The final mile of wide, well-known trail back to the trailhead was a real pleasure.
It was nice to explore yet another section of this multi-branched mountain area. Arapaho Lake was nice enough, but not spectacular; the real winner of the day was the incredible weather. The heavy boots and skis were definitely a little slower on the ascent, but I had far more control on the down-hill sections. Still, some real work on my telemark technique would benefit me immensely. I look forward to more trips like this in 2012.