Skiing a 13er in January?

Posted on January 16, 2012

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The idea of skiing a 13,000 foot peak in the Colorado San Juans in early January makes me cringe just thinking about it. Snow above treeline in Colorado in early January might be the most unstable thing I can think of, and the fact that we tried to climb and ski one is a sign of just how scary-low the snowpack is this year.

How cool is Silverton? Put your boots on at the hotel, and start hiking from there.

After the first day of ice climbing, Trine, Maggi and I spent a day expediting the “getting to know each other” process at Silverton Mountain. Conditions were not worth spending another $50 on, so we decided to give Kendall Mountain a shot. Not the little ski hill known as Kendall Mountain, but the actual Mountain, which rises abruptly from the southern edge of the town of Silverton.

Enjoying the sun on the southern side of the mountain

After some deliberating, my original plan of touring straight up the gut of the north side was ixnayed by the girls, and we decided to tour up the groomed road that wraps around the mountain to the south facing side. The views of the Chicago Basin and Engineer Mountain made this decision all the better.

Looking towards the Chicago Basin

The part that made this route tough, however, was that the road circumvented the entire mountain, and took us very far east of the peak once we were on the south side. The grade of the road was too mellow, and we got a little antsy to start climbing.

Anxious to start gaining elevation, we departed the road here.

This ended up being a poor route choice, and we ascended to the ridgeline far too quickly, still very far east of the summit. We ate lunch, decided to give up on the summit attempt, and traversed the ridgeline to its low point, where the 4×4 road tops out.

Trine smiling with our descent route below

Maggi is a snow science major at Montana State, was was understandably nervous about dropping in above treeline on a north-facing slope surrounded by terrain traps (the San Juan Standard, I believe). We discussed and evaluated our options, and my guinea pig turns off the top demostrated not only that the snowpack was stable, but also that the smooth snow was very difficult to ski. The girls opted for textured snow, and got some nice turns on some soft snow.

Trine discovering soft snow

Maggi following

From here, we stuck to mellow slopes, carefully going one-at-a time. The snow was certainly variable, but these two incredibly good skiers made it look good.

Maggi coming down with a nice background

The only sign of instability occurred when Maggi took a tumble and I skied up to check on her when we were just entering treeline. She was OK, and when she made about 3 turns away from me, the slope I was standing on made an ominous “whoompf” as the snow settled. Maggi called back to tell me she just saw it crack, but I was already straight-lining to safer terrain. The slope did not slide, but instead just gave us a verbal reminder that it was January 2nd in the San Juans.

We found a snowmobile road below treeline, and decided to take it rather than pick our way through shallow snow in the trees. At the very bottom we found an old mining building, which provided for some nice photography before we skied back to town, packed up, and drove over the pass back to Ouray for more ice climbing.

Mill at the base of Kendall Peak

I still find it unbelievable we attempted such a peak during this time of year. Even though we weren’t close to earning the summit, I will say it was a great day outside with some great friends.

Two awesome girls.

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