Route: Ski descents of Mount Edwards’s North Face, Lost Rat on Grays, and Emperor on Torreys
Numbers: Around 7,000 vert, 12 miles, 12 hours RT
Partner: Brian Miller
With spring winding down and summer on the doorstep, it seems that any time now rock climbing and hiking should start to take priority over skiing. But this season has featured some incredible snow totals and it’s hard to not continue taking advantage of it. Brian expressed interest in hitting something close to Denver with good bang for the buck, so naturally it didn’t take long for the classic snow routes on Grays and Torreys to enter the conversation.
At first we discussed skiing Lost Rat on Grays, then we figured we might as well include a line on Torreys, and then we thought why not go for the trifecta and tack a Centennial 13er on there as well? Of course we knew our goals were steep and probably wouldn’t fully pan out, but hey, there’s nothing wrong with thinking big right?
We pulled into the Grays TH around 7pm on Saturday night and pitched the tent. As has been confirmed, the road is now passable for a 2WD vehicle all the way to the top. After a dollar menu fast food hamburger dinner from a chain establishment which will remain unnamed, we took a short walk up the trail to gather some beta on Edwards’s North Face. It looked good to go; there was a continuous, aesthetic line dropping off the summit down the center of the face. Looks fun!
We walked back down the trail and hit the sack, me in my car, Brian in his tent. I couldn’t help but notice that Brian sleeps with some interesting items these days: an informational book on bear attacks by Steve Herrero, an 11 oz can of Counter Assault Bear Deterrent Spray, and a 4.5 inch Gerber Big Rock Knife, all within arm’s reach. A little paranoid are we, Brian?
We set off from the parking lot at 3am, allotting ourselves plenty of time for the day’s goals. With our brains still half asleep we made the mistake of skinning up the standard trail for a mile or so before realizing we should have headed left from the parking lot. Rather than contouring around the south side of the valley towards Edwards we were instead heading north towards Kelso, so a course adjustment was in order. Problem was there was now a half mile wide willow field between us and the base of Edwards, so we sort of just stood around for awhile trying to figure out what to do.
Enter “The Willow Float”, a rare, yet highly effective technique for negotiating large, obnoxious willow fields on skis. Essentially what you do is stomp on top of the willows in the direction they are naturally leaning, perpendicular to the branches so as to create a platform. With your heels free, and skins applied, a properly placed ski will actually float on top of the willows as opposed to getting bogged down in them. Add some well-timed bursts of forward launching motion to a dose of vertical trampoline action and you can actually bounce across the top of the willow field with relative ease. If you happen to witness a seasoned willow floating veteran perform a well-executed series of bounces from afar, it will appear as though he or she has levitated and is actually floating across the willow field, hence the name “The Willow Float”. Admittedly Brian and I are novices with regards to this advanced technique so we didn’t make great time across the valley. Nevertheless, we eventually emerged from the willow fields and started booting up Edwards unscathed.
On a final note, I tried to find some more info on this highly specialized ski mountaineering technique on WildSnow.com, but there didn’t seem to be any mention of it there. Weird. Here’s Brian attempting The Willow Float…
…but the willows eventually bogged him down. This technique can take a lifetim to master.
Two thousand feet of booting commenced up the North Face. This early in the morning all I could think about was putting one foot in front of the other. We did get some cool views of the moon through intermittent breaks in the cloud cover.
It was absolutely freezing on the summit, very cold for June. In order to avoid freezing our gonads off we tried to limit the length of our stay.
After a few turns down the ridge we arrived at the drop in…
Brian hit it first…
The top few hundred feet were steep and icy, then half way down the face the snow softened and the slope angle mellowed.
We skied down to around 12,300′, took a short water break, slapped the skins back on, and started towards Lost Rat.
We knew Lost Rat would be the most time sensitive route of the day as it faces east, so we tried our best to set a good pace up the chute.
We topped out around 10am, chatted with Elliot from 14ers.com, and then turned around and got ready to ski. We didn’t want to lose too much time as Lost Rat was getting baked.
Rather than taking photos for the descent of Lost Rat I decided to mount up my buddy Brandon’s GoPro and shoot some video. It came out pretty decent if you ask me; not too shaky or washed out, and I was able to export it into HD. Add the theme song from the 1960s Clint Eastwood classic “For a Few Dollars More” by Ennio Morricone and you have one hell of a ski movie:
We skied from Gray’s’ summit down to 12,700′ at the base of Lost Rat, threw the skis on the pack, and began booting up a short couloir towards Grays’s Northeast Face.
Happy to get off east-facing slopes for the day (it was now past 10am), we took a long break in preparation for the ascent of Torreys. Up the standard route we went, along with 74 others. At one point Brian tried to get me to take note of what was happening around us (people glissading head first down Grays sans axe, dogs chasing mountain goats, people camping out on rocks smoking Marlboros, etc.) but I just tried to zone all that out and focus on the task at hand.
Slowly but surely we continued on up, one foot in front of the other, and hit the summit of Torreys at noon. We relaxed for a long time, eating and enjoying a windless summit on a perfect spring day in the Rockies. Brian and I checked out both the Tuning Fork and Emperor, and it was clear that Emperor would be direct off the summit as well as a tad more interesting, so we committed to it.
We had powder turns up top, then lower down it transitioned to corn.
This is a long route, it offers nearly 3,000′ feet of continuous skiing. It is steep up top and then mellows to high thirties, perfect for making large, fun turns. My legs were pretty much toast by the time we hit the creek…
Next, we threw the skis on our backs and started down the road. There were a lot of intermittent snow drifts as well as lots of mud to deal with, this road will not be fully passable by motor vehicle for another few weeks.
We had to cross a few creeks, one of them barefoot…
…after that we joined back up with the Stevens Gulch Road. Here we dropped our gear and threw on trail shoes which we had stashed in the woods the previous evening. Now all we had left to do was walk back up and get the car. I’m sure Brian will include some choice words in the comments section regarding the half-empty, blue Suburban that declined to give us a ride up the road. That said, there was some satisfaction in completeing the day under our own power.
At 3:30pm we capped off the day, packed up camp, and drove back down to retrieve our gear. We then parked the car and enjoyed some Modus Hoperandi with good views of Torreys and Emperor from Grizzly Gulch.
Overall Brian and I both agreed the best line of the day was the North Face of Edwards, though Lost Rat was a lot of fun and Emperor provided some good quantity for June. Overall these routes were all in great shape on the 19th, go get em before they’re out! Thanks for reading, Ben