May 29th: Ascent of Sunshine`s Northwest Face, ski descent of Northeast Face to 13,000`, ascent to Redcloud`s summit, ski descent of summit ridge to Northeast Face down to 12,200`.
May 30th: Ascent of Handies’ West Slopes, ski descent of North Face to 11,900`.
We wanted to ski these peaks over Memorial Day Weekend last year but thanks to the nasty dust storms the San Juans received, we decided to hold off a year in hopes of better snow conditions. Well this year rolled around and guess what? More dust. Instead of pushing the trip back again we decided to just say, “screw it, let`s head down and see how things look”. Turns out we were able to get all three peaks from the top, though the quality of the actual skiing varied quite a bit throughout the trip.
We set off from the Silver Creek TH at 4am on the 29th, the goal for day one being to ski Sunshine and Redcloud. Trail shoes went on at the TH and stayed on until the summit. A mile in, we crossed Silver Creek and began the ascent up the southward drainage that connects with Sunshine`s NW Face. Though the west side looked depressingly bare, we knew if the ski descent was in it would go down the east side of the peak, so a little faith was required on this one.
One unavoidable truth of this ski mountaineering stuff is that it`s super tough on your gear. Somehow on the way up Sunshine I managed to snap the heel retention strap on my left boot clean off. This is the most important strap on the boot, so we spent ten minutes or so on the summit trying to come up with a solution. Fortunately Marc had a spare strap that we were able to crank down over the boot, it ended up providing just enough support that my skiing wasn`t affected too much.
Eventually we saddled up and skied some rock hard snow off the top, and some of us continued to ski below the saddle in an attempt to squeeze a little more vert out of the ski descent.
We summited Redcloud and began looking for ski options off the summit. Heading back down the ridge to the south was out, as was heading directly west off the summit. East didn`t look great either, then we looked off the north side and spotted the only viable summit descent route. There looked to be a lot of snow and some fun turns, the problem was the continuous snow began ten feet below the summit. Well we knew what should be done in situations like this, so the shovels came out and construction was underway.
After refueling on some grub and chuckling a little bit about the extent to which we`re willing to go to get a summit ski descent, we geared up and pushed off the top.
We skied down the ridge, playing around on the cornice and finding some nice dirt turns on the face below it. At the end of the ridge we found snow connecting over to the north side, followed by thin snow down the face. Surprisingly we were able to keep the skis on until 12,200`, where we ran out of continuous snow in the basin and decided to throw the trail shoes back on.
The hike out went quickly, once back at the cars we drove up the road and snagged a camp site which featured a bit more solitude than the trailhead had to offer. For the next several hours we lounged in a meadow and read magazines, grilled brats, and drank beer.
The overnight temperatures plunged below freezing; the gauge on Carl`s truck measured 21 degrees when we woke up at 5am the next morning. A good freeze had our spirits high for what would undoubtedly be the best skiing of the trip. We drove up to 11,200` in American Basin before being stopped by a monster creek crossing. Our route of choice was a steep snow gully which starts at 11,400` and tops out on Handies’s summit ridge.
A 9:30am summit had us gearing up quickly for the ski descent. Looking down off the Northeast side of the peak had us excited for what looked like a thrilling ski. We ended up skiing down the ridge a ways, dropping in on an east-facing line for several steep turns, then traversing to the north and dropping into an aesthetic couloir which ran 1,000` to the basin below. After a bit of research, I learned this was the same way Dav and his crew skied Handies back in 06`. Some ski shots:
Around a corner and we were off the face and into the couloir.
The hike out wasn`t bad, it took less than an hour to get back to Silver Creek TH.
All in all 2 great days in the San Juans. Carl is just 2 summits shy of completing the 14ers on foot, and Marc was happy to get out and continue to represent on the snowboard. Great trip fellas! And thank you for reading…