It has been a long, long time since I swung an ice axe in earnest. My old group of Stupid Brute mountaineers and rock climbers have lately drifted on to other, less vertical pursuits like trail running, road cycling, and fatherhood. Thus it was especially nice when things came synchronistically together again for some mountainy fun in the old style.
Five of us gathered at the head of navigation on the Fourmile Creek Road as the sun first lit the surrounding Mosquito Range peaks. The plan was to ascend Horseshoe Mountain (13,898’) via the Bouldoir Couloir. For James, Brian, and Fabio, it would be just a regular, mellow snow climb. As snow climbs go, this one really is pretty mellow: the steepest it gets is less than 40 degrees and it’s never terribly narrow. However, Scott and I planned to add the extra excitement of skiing down, not to mention the extra effort of lugging ski gear all the way up the peak.
We got a little side-tracked on the approach due to the plethora of old mining roads in the area. After 300 extra feet of climbing up steep scree, we finally emerged into the correct basin and traversed across hard-packed snow to the base of the couloir. Conditions were fantastic: bluebird skies, great, solid spring snow (despite the signs of recent wet slides), and only 8 in the morning. We pointed up and started the climb.
In addition to the weight of skis A-framed on my pack, I was climbing in my plastic telemark boots. I’d managed to adapt an ancient pair of rigid, strap-on crampons to mesh with the boots and I was surprised at how solid they felt. The climb went smoothly despite the extra weight and the fact that we were perspiring like porcines; summer sun in a reflective bowl of bright snow means temperatures were awfully high. Or maybe it was the exertion. Either way, it was wonderful when we reached the upper reaches of the broad couloir and felt the first hints of the western breeze swirling around.
The Mosquito Range is not known for soaring, photogenic summits and Horseshoe Mountain is typical of the range being topped by a rather uninteresting ridge of yellow-orange scree. At the top of the couloir, we found an old mining cabin in surprisingly good shape. Skis and gear were dropped here and we sauntered a quarter mile along the ridge to what looked like the highest point. Handshakes all around and a quick bite to eat while admiring the stunning view of the entire Sawatch Range to the west. Then time for the descent and the test of my testicular fortitude.
Fabio and Brian wanted to see new terrain and hiked down the north ridge rather than glissade the couloir. Scott was set to ski and James was coming along to take pictures of the direct route. I am not a terribly accomplished backcountry skier and most of my efforts involve long tours in the mountains with occasional modest-angle descents. This would definitely be something new and I was more than a little nervous about it. Still, I was here to push my comfort zone a bit. Scott lead the way off the cornice and was soon out of sight down the couloir.
Trepidatiously, I pointed the skis downhill over the blunted edge of the cornice noting that the slope was at least 20 degrees steeper now than it had been moments ago on the ascent. Two turns and one fall later, I was rethinking my bravado. To skier’s right was a broad snowfield which I had seen reached all the way down into the cirque as well. James thought the southern slope looked like a more mellow line and I’d seen from the approach that it stretched all the way down into the valley. Good enough! I traversed quickly to the south onto the broad, steep snowfield rather than the narrow, steep couloir and hoped I’d make it back to base in one piece.
It was sublime! Acres of untracked snow at probably a 30 degree angle shining in the mid-morning sun invited both yodeling as well as big, broad S-turns on the spring corn snow. There were no other humans in sight, but I made it look half-way decent anyway. The bottom few hundred feet were the steepest and I ran out a long traverse to the south before getting in some fairly brazen, devil-may-care turns on the final slope.
Three hours up, six minutes down, totally worth it!
Fortunately, my skis work reasonably well in flat, cross-country mode, and I made my way easily across the cirque headed north to meet up with James and Scott. Earlier in the season, I would have tried hard to ski all the way back to the car. However there were plenty of tundra and talus fields no longer holding snow, so I switched over to hiking mode (boots and skis back on the A-frame making me about 9’ tall) and trudged across the tundra. The final half mile was back to continuous snow. I considered switching back to ski mode and probably should have, but the time involved to switch gear again was just too much of a hassle.
Back at the cars, we basked in the late morning light before splitting up again and heading off to other pursuits. What a great day in the mountains with old friends and old hobbies neither of which I’ve seen in several years. The skiing aspect was just the right level of challenging and exhilarating and I look forward to more (reasonably) mellow ski descents like this in coming seasons… or maybe in the near future?