Partner: Matt Kamper
Route: Ascent of Huron`s north shoulder to summit from 10,800`, ski descent of east face snow couloir to 10,970`.
Numbers: 3,200` climbed, 3,030` skied, 4.5 miles, 5 hours
Almost anyone who`s been going after 14ers on skis for awhile knows through trial and error what a “perfect” day skiing a 14er would look like. We know well what a “perfect” day out would entail because we generally don`t experience perfection, and we know precisely what we would change if we had the ability to “draw it up” ourselves. This is why when a truly perfect day comes along, it really stands out as the rare gift that it is. I`m writing this because yesterday Matt and I had as close to a perfect day as one can reasonably get. I`ll do my best to point out the various elements which made it so.
I met Matt at the Safeway parking lot in Leadville at 3am where we threw the gear into his truck before motoring up to Rockdale. One of the cruxes of skiing the East Face of Huron is the Rockdale creek crossing. It`s a few hundred feet wide and can run fairly heavy in the spring. Most hikers and skiers choose to park at Rockdale this time of year and wade the creek despite the fact that, once beyond the creek, the road is typically passable for an additional 2.5 miles. There is good reason for this, namely that the creek can flow high later in the day as melting picks up, so anyone who crosses at 4am runs the risk of getting stuck on the other side at the end of their day.
When we got to Rockdale Matt and I took a good look at the creek and decided it would be best to err on the side of caution, so wading it was. We waded the first hundred or so feet and found a log bridge spanning the second portion of creek. Once on the other side we looked back and decided it wasn`t that bad, and after a few minutes of discussion Matt was wading back through to get the truck. On this day we decided to accept the risk of a high creek on our return, reasoning that if we could drive far enough, we`d be on our way back through early enough to cross successfully.
With our gear loaded we proceeded to drive within a half mile of Clohesy Lake (at this point the road is passable for a 4WD vehicle to a few hundred feet short of the gate). Sweet! Unexpectedly cutting the day`s mileage in half and shaving off a thousand vert always brightens one`s morning, we just hoped the gamble wouldn`t dampen our afternoon. Okay here we go, Element #1 of the perfect 14er ski day: Being able to use your 4WD to your full advantage. At a quarter to six we started hiking through a patch of trees at 10,800`. Fully supported snow crossings told the story of a great freeze during the night; the low was 23 degrees at 12,000` on Monarch Pass. Within 20 minutes of leaving the truck we were cresting the north end of Clohesy Lake:
After crossing a small creek we walked south on firm tundra for a quarter mile along the lake`s west side. We were aiming for a small gully which grants easy access to the basin below Huron`s East Face. If done correctly, the gully spits you out near Lois Lake around 11,700`. Solidly frozen snow allowed Matt and I to make quick work of this gully, it would have been a nightmare without a good freeze. Element #2: An excellent freeze the night before your trip. We walked around the south side of Lois Lake and ascended a few moraines, this basin is breathtaking this time of year.
The morning was absolutely perfect; warm and sunny, not a breath of wind. Element #3: Perfect weather. We paused to take it all in, and refueled on some fresh baked banana bread courtesy of my wonderful wife. The banana bread was excellent, which brings us to Element #4: Fresh banana bread finding it`s way into your pack. At this point I decided to slap the skins on, Matt was content to continue booting.
To save some time, we elected to boot up a wide couloir to Huron`s North Shoulder around 13,400`. Once atop this couloir we joined with the standard route for the rest of the hike to the summit. At this point the day turned slightly overcast, which was okay with us as we were getting hot. Element #5: Weather that adjusts itself according to your comfort level.
We summited at 8:45am, the summit snow coverage was ample and the ski route looked perfect. A windless summit enticed us to stay awhile and enjoy the views granted by the Central Sawatch. Element #6: The ski route being in from top to bottom.
After a nice stay on the summit, we switched to ski mode and cranked down the Dynafits.
This was the only moment during the day where the mood was slightly tense. The East Face of Huron is a steep, committing ski. Past skiers have measured the top of this route at 50 degrees, the central gully at slightly over 50. Element #7: An aesthetic and challenging ski line. We skied down the ridge a few feet and looked down:
Matt reservedly edged his way out onto the face and made a few turns. The snow at the very top was a little icy, but manageable. A little lower down and we were skiing on a layer of recycled powder which provided a bit more purchase.
Tight, reserved jump turns continued to be the most comfortable method of descent.
We skied through the frozen avy debris and then had a thousand feet of incredible snow to ski out through the basin. These turns were some of the best of the season for me. The lower we skied, the better the corn got. Element #8: A thousand feet of perfectly baked snow on the deproach.
We managed to keep the skis on all the way to Lake Clohesy, where our ski ended. Element #9: Being able to ski to the same elevation as the car in late May. After throwing the skis on our backs, we had a short hike back around the lake to the stream crossing.
We hiked east a quarter mile and hooked back up with the road. Matt was stoked about the amazing view any would be user of this doorless, west-facing outhouse would enjoy.
We arrived back at the car just before 11am and changed into street clothes. Some fun 4-wheeling had us back at the creek for the moment of truth…the creek was no higher than when we crossed it at 4am, our gamble paid off. Back at Rockdale we decided we weren`t ready to head back to civilization, the day was too perfect, so we just lounged at the creek bank for an hour or so and enjoyed the sun on our backs. Cheese and salami was served, as well as an excellent brew from the makers of Guiness:
And last but not least, Element #10: A great brew at the end of the day (or two). So there you have them, the ten essential elements of a perfect 14er ski. Consider yourself lucky if all ten fall into place on the same day, as they did for Matt and I on this day. I have a feeling we`re gonna get rocked though on our next trip, after all, it would only be fair after a day like this. Thanks for reading!