Descent Via Flattop

“I couldn’t catch a ball or do any of that stuff. I could do only what required brute stupidity.” — Warren Harding on mountaineering.

Nice view of Longs.

Nice view of Longs.

Back in the day, the Stupid Brutes were pretty active in the ascending of mountains, the scaling of rocks, the talking of smack, and the generation of weird inside jokes. Many an alpine trip was undertaken in good—or at least kindred—company. For a bunch of suburban white guys of we were a colorful and varied bunch from Fabio the gear wizard and sage pundit to Dan(imal) the enthusiastic young rope gun to people like me content to formulate obscure type-II adventures and then tag along as best they could. We had narrow escapes, triumphant victories, and lots of brutal stupidity hauling heavy packs in inclement conditions at ungodly hours of the day and night.

Most frequent for the Brutes were alpine trips in Rocky Mountain National Park since it was the highest concentration of interesting objectives at the closest distance requiring the least alpine of alpine starts. So many memorable trips! We climbed Tyndal Glacier and descended via Flattop Mountain. We climbed Dragonstail with a descent via Flattop. We climbed Taylor Glacier with a descent via Flattop. We climbed James Peak with a… at some point, all descents were de rigueur via Flattop even if we were in a different county altogether.

Over the years, the Brutes have gone dormant as we’ve matured (in some cases), aged (in all cases), and moved on into parenthood, careers, and other pursuits. But the Brutes were only sleeping (albeit pretty soundly). It was time to descend via Flattop again!

Messing with gear is why we all got into this sport, right?

Messing with gear is why we all got into this sport, right?

I managed to rouse two other Brutes—Brian and Scott—for a bit of backcountry skiing. As an eleventh-hour addition, neighbor Tom proved to be more than up for the challenge as well. After such a long absence from the high country, we decided to play it mellow and ski the well-traveled Banana Bowls on the north-east face of Flattop. The weather was good and the parking lot just beginning to fill when we rolled in at the luxuriously non-alpine hour of 8:30. No matter, the weather was good and avalanche danger was rated as low.

After a few minutes remembering which side of the skis went down and which attached to our boots, we started up the well-trammeled trail a mile and a half to the broad meadows at the base of the Bowls. There was no shortage of snow out there, but none of it was at all recent. This became evident as we set a line up the steep bowl and found the surface like concrete! What’s more, the higher we got, the larger the sastrugi became. “Sastrugi” is, I believe, a Russian word meaning “evil sawtooth snow”. In any event, wind tends to carve snow into little dunes shaped like shark scales with the pointed end facing upwind (uphill in this case). Normally sastrugi are small soft pillows which are fun to blast through on skis, but these were rock hard and huge! To make matters more fun, there were occasional gullies and trenches up to a foot deep cutting through the sastrugi the provenance of which I have no idea.

After 1200’ of climbing over the steepest bulge of the slope (probably 30-35 degrees) and onto the lower-angle terrain above. We took a break at 11,700’ to refuel and to psyche ourselves up for what was bound to be a challenging descent. Despite a bit of lounging, the sun refused to soften up the snow, so we bit the bullet and started, ostensibly, the fun part of the trip and the all-important descent via Flattop.

The Ghetto-Whippet (tm) by the same people who brought you the Chicken Screamer and the Snow Bolt.

The Ghetto-Whippet ™ by the same people who brought you the Chicken Screamer and the Snow Bolt.

The conditions on the way up had me nervous. Perhaps flat-out scared would be a better word. I wasn’t worried about avalanches or anything like that, mostly I was worried about falling badly and not being able to stop myself on the hard snow and quickly getting out of control. Fortunately, I’d packed along a light-weight ice axe on a whim and with a little ingenuity and duct tape managed to make myself a “whippet” (self-arrest ski pole) for the descent. It wasn’t fancy or pretty, but seemed serviceable enough.

The ghetto-whippet turned out to be a very good idea! Four turns and two falls into the descent, I nosed into a sastrugi and did a flailing front front somersault on skis. It’s been years since I self-arrested, but at least those reflexes are still sharp! After a couple more less-spectacular falls, I started to get a feel for the snow and managed to get down over the steepest part of part of the slope traversing from one smooth(ish) section to another and stopping frequently. Despite my gear, I never managed any proper tele turns resorting instead to survival skiing all the way. Toward the bottom the angle lessened, the snow softened, the sastrugi shrank and things became a bit more fun. Or maybe I’d finally gotten the hang of skiing this concrete. The last few turns were maybe even fun (though no more stylish than my flailing above).

Scott and Tom managed a much more spirited descent on their fatter AT skis with their fatter set of skills and fatter (or at least more numerous) set of cojones. Brian ditto, except that he was on his splitboard which makes everything look cooler.

Dodging snowshoers on the way down.

Dodging snowshoers on the way down.

We convened at the bottom of the slope, decided against a second lap, and set out speedily down the gradually-sloped, narrow trail toward Bear Lake. What had worried me as an icy bit of trickiness actually had softened up pretty well and was spring conditions which went well enough. Back at the car, we relaxed in the warm sunshine and congratulated ourselves on our stupid brutality and the fact that we were so much more hard-core than all the hoards of snowshoers waiting for parking spots at the trailhead.

Ah, what a good time! My descent of the Banana Bowls was certainly not pretty nor necessarily much fun most of the time, but I’m pretty damned proud of my modest skiing skills and the fact that I made it down alive and didn’t chicken out (as would have been all too easy to do). If this level of snowpack stays for a bit, it will make fantastic spring skiing when it softens into spring corn.

Any time in the mountains is worth it, but heading out with a full posse of like-minded brutes makes it so much better.  Semper Arduo Modo!

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