Heading Towards Spring on Crystal

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Heading for Crystal Peak’s summit.

Partners: Brian Miller, Bill Middlebrook
Route: Ascent of Crystal from the east via Crystal Creek, ski descent of ascent route
Stats: 9.5 miles, 3,500′ climbed and skied

The thought of skiing a high peak has been nothing more than a distant memory to me for the past few months as our snowpack has gone from being nonexistent in November/December to thin and unstable in January/February. With late winter bringing a decent dose of snow and some warm temps to go with it, Brian and I finally decided to come out of our shells and give an east facing, low-angle line a crack. We knew Crystal Peak might be a good place to look, and upon soliciting Bill for his opinion, we learned the face was in and possibly even good.

Brian and I motored to Breckenridge and met Bill, Rick, and Mike at the Spruce Creek TH. Rick and Mike intended to join us for the approach and then head off to ski Peak 10. A near bluebird day was in the works as we skinned from the parking lot up a hard packed sled track towards Crystal Creek. I can only guess about the rest of the guys but finally hiking into the high alpine with skis on my feet was a breath of fresh air to me. The first peak ski of the season is always a special one.

Within an hour and a half Crystal came into view at the head of the valley.

As Bill had hinted at, the face looked to be in excellent condition. Helen not so much; continuous snow ends about halfway up the East Face. It was clear the landscape had seen lots of wind in the previous week, the CAIC’s report of drifts and bare patches was spot on. Nevertheless we were able to find a continuous snow route through the mouth of the basin.

Bill and I pulled up to the rest of the group atop a knoll overlooking a well frozen Lower Crystal Lake. From here we had good views of the remaining routes on Crystal and Peak 10. Mike and Rick broke off and began their ascent of Peak 10’s South Face. Bill, Brian, and I elected to head northwest up the base of Peak 10 and traverse across a talus slope to gain the large headwall that separates the lower and upper lakes. This traverse crossed several south facing snow ribbons, but we noticed no signs of instability.

Eventually we hit the standard route and worked our way towards Crystal’s Northeast Ridge. In many places the snow surface was rock hard (too hard to kick a boot through), near the edges of rock outcroppings and bare patches however we found nothing but rotten sugar.

A good photo of the ski line, the East Face upper right to the exit chute lower left. Photo by Bill.

We hit the Crystal/Peak 10 saddle and enjoyed great views of Copper Mountain and the Gores. We were blessed on this day to have the entire peak to ourselves, certainly a different scene compared to spring break at Breck, Keystone, and Copper. From the saddle we began the final ascent of the peak proper. The Northeast Ridge route provides a nice, mellow ridge climb all the way to the summit and is a treat this time of year.

Brian and I nearing the summit. Photo by Bill.

When we were about 200′ from the summit, Rick and Mike skied off the top of Peak 10. I managed to get a decent zoom shot of one of them (not sure which) with Grays and Torreys providing a fine backdrop…

Their line looked good up top but the snow petered out about halfway down the face. They were still able to make it go continuously though, in case anyone’s interested in a ski of Peak 10 in the near future. One final grunt on behalf of our group and we topped out on Crystal.

Crystal summit, 11am. Photo by Brian.

A nice shot of Pacific’s North Couloir, Elbert and La Plata are also visible. Photo by Bill.

The weather on the summit was pleasant so we hung around for awhile. We had absolutely no concerns about the snow warming as, despite the warm temps, it was clear the snow was very well frozen. Looking west towards the Sawatch and the Elks gave me some hope that our spring season may be salvaged; out west there seemed to be a better snow base than we found in the Tenmile.

Around noon we clicked in and skied off the top. Boilerplate turns quickly transitioned to softer snow; a few inches of wind loaded powder on top of a solid base. The skiing was still fun regardless of the conditions. Again, I was just happy to be out there. Ski shots – Brian, myself, then Bill.

Photo by Bill.

Photo by Brian.

Brian finds some chalk. Photo by Bill.

At the bottom of the East Face we skied past the lake and down to the top of the chute we made note of earlier. This chute splits the headwall that separates the upper and lower lakes. It provided us with the highest quality, steepest skiing of the day.

We then had a few hundred more feet of good skiing down the chute.  Ski shots – Bill, myself, and Brian.

Photo by Brian.

Photo by Bill.

From the base of the chute we were able to ski all the way back to the car using a different trail than the one we came in on. This trail heads south under the base of Helen and curves back to Spruce Creek, providing a lower-angle, less trafficked route to the parking lot. I’m sure Bill can provide some more info on this if anyone is interested.

A last shot of Bill and Crystal.

At this point in time Crystal will provide a great introductory ski outing, a summit to car descent, and a safe way to get some vert and turns for those who are looking for them. Have fun and be safe out there!

Thanks for reading…