Kicking Things Off in the Southern Mountains

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Gladstone Peak seen from the Slate Creek Cirque en route to Mt. Wilson’s summit.

Brian, Rick, and I decided to load up the car with gear and drive down to the San Juans this past weekend. We were not entirely sure what we’d find in terms of snow stability and coverage, but we managed to talk ourselves into taking the plunge. Tracking the CAIC reports and weather the week prior to our departure helped somewhat, but it’s nearly impossible to drive 350 miles to go ski steep terrain in March and feel totally confident about your decision. That said, we did have some reliable local beta that seemed to be giving us a green light. Bigger lines in the San Juans had indeed been getting skied around the compass the week prior to our departure, thanks primarily to the heat of the southern sun and a period of relatively settled weather that began in mid-March. We realized that at the end of the day you can only make so many assumptions about conditions from a cubicle in Denver, sometimes you have to just check things out yourself.

We arrived at the Cross Mountain Trailhead at 1:30am and slept in the car for about an hour and a half before dumping all of our gear out onto the dirt to be organized. We strolled over and woke up Elliot and his friend Brian who had driven down earlier to join us. It was great getting out with Elliot again, and we were just meeting his friend Brian for the first time. Both guys are phenomenal skiers and strong hikers, we had our work cut out for us in trying to keep up with them. Our 4:15am start was brutal but well worth it in the end. As soon as we were all skinning underneath the dim light of a full moon the tiredness had all but left us. We worked our way up through the trees, contouring into Slate Creek and arriving at the base of the Wilson Massif just after dawn. With no signs of instability and a rock hard surface to skin on, we headed up into the cirque.

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The sun is getting higher, and so are we.

Eventually the Boxcar made its way into our sights. You can’t see the entire couloir from the bottom but the portion you can see is plain awesome.

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Mouth of the Boxcar and the spectacular terrain to either side.

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Views into the upper-cirque, the summit is around the corner.

The Slate Creek Cirque is very unique from a geological perspective. It is essentially a low-angle curving ramp that turns from the north to the southwest as it gains elevation. The Boxcar, a 1,200 foot chute, drops from the upper-cirque, connecting it to the lower-cirque. The beauty of this from a skier’s perspective is you can skin almost all the way to the base of the summit block and then ski the couloir on descent.

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Upper-Slate Creek Cirque with Wilson’s summit pyramid up ahead.

After a long climb we arrived at the base of the summit block (a small col just south of the true summit). Seeing the summit gully was most definitely out, we elected to drop skis and scramble the final forty feet to the true summit of Wilson. There is a small patch of snow just off the summit that could provide one or two jump turns for the summit descent enthusiast, however we weren’t interested in that stuff on this day. Note: There was a lot of snow in Navajo Basin, my guess is the peaks will hold snow on their standard routes until at least early-June this year.

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El Diente from the summit of Wilson. Photo by Rick.

Back at the col we each saddled up and skied the bowl down to the top of the Boxcar. This portion of the descent held some of the best snow of the day.

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Brian. Photo by Elliot.

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Me. Photo by Elliot.

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Rick.

The Boxcar held excellent spring snow; chalk powder on top of a solid base that transitioned into corn lower down. This is a great ski run. It stays steep for a good while, twists skier’s left, and terminates in a spectacular narrow canyon feature with vertical walls rising on either side.

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Elliot enters the top of the Boxcar. Photo by Brian.

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…and turns the corner lower down. Photo by Brian.

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Elliot’s pal Brian heading for the narrow canyon. Photo by Rick.

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…and Rick finishing it off. Photo by Elliot.

Out the bottom we skied corn down to treeline and then hung a sharp left. Once off the steeper terrain and under the cover of the trees we took a long break, re-skinned, and began climbing. There are essentially two ways (that we know of) to exit Slate Creek. One is to take a gradual climbing contour out of the creek and the other is to head straight up to the Lizard Head Trail and ski out from there. We chose the latter, and found it nice to get the elevation over and done with before skiing two to three miles back down to the car. We arrived just over ten hours after setting out.

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Last shot looking back at Gladstone and Slate Creek.

With objective one under our belts we relocated to a campground on Molas Pass and proceeded to grill and enjoy a few beers before trading it in for the night. The sunset over the Vestal and Ruby Basin groups was spectacular. I’d highly recommend checking out this camping area sometimes if you haven’t already.

In the morning we loaded up and drove down the road to the access point for Grand Turk. Following a well-defined skin track through the woods, we made good time and chewed up most of the elevation to treeline in less than an hour. Above the trees we got an excellent view of Turk’s south side as well as a fun looking gully we elected to climb.

Grand Turk’s South Face seen from just above treeline.

With a hard freeze over night we were forced to don crampons as skins and boots just weren’t cutting it. The supportable surface held for our entire ascent. The higher and higher we climbed the better the views south into the Grenadiers became. Brian couldn’t stop salivating over Twilight Peak and its north couloir. Definitely one to return for.

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Elliot climbing with Twilight in back.

The Grenadiers – Vestal, Arrow, and the Trinities.

Sultan’s broad South Face seen from Grand Turk’s summit.

From the summit of Turk we traversed over to its prominent north couloir and descnended down to 12,100 feet in Deadwood Gulch.

Brian making turns down the wide chute that drops off the west end of the summit ridge.

Across the valley from the low point of our ski we started booting up the southeast ridge of Sultan, following the booter set an hour earlier by a familiar face.

Looking back at the line we skied off of Grand Turk.

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The guys heading up the ridge.

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Views down into town.

We topped out on Sultan and enjoyed 360 degree views of the Vermillion Group, the Dallas divide, and Silverton far below. After chugging some fluids we were ready to drop in on the northeast face.

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Brian drops off the summit cornice into early-spring pow.

Elliot skiing good snow on Sultan’s Northeast Face against a classic San Juan backdrop.

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We found a fun chute to ski lower down.

We skied all the way down to the first switchback on 550, where our ski ended. I don’t want to give away too much about this tour as the locals might hunt me down and castrate me, but suffice it to say we had a blast checking out this classic up and over.

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A beer back in town at the Avalance. The Sultan IPA seemed fitting.

We said our goodbyes to the Silverton area and motored on over to the Monarch Mountain Lodge just outside of Salida. The plan was to have a go at Aetna’s Grand Couloir the following morning, if weather and conditions would allow.

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On our way over Monarch Pass we stopped and snapped this shot of the Grand Couloir. Photo by Brian.

This unique and rustic lodge right off the road is a perfect place to stay the night for those looking to ski the Grand. The parking lot is directly across the street from the trailhead, so you can literally put your boots on in your hotel room, walk out the front door, and start skinning. We hit the sack early as I think we were all pretty beat at this point.

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The poster on the wall in our room, hey that’s Aetna at the top! Photo by Brian.

We were on the trail by 6am, skinning the few miles west up the road to the base of the couloir. This route really can’t be more straightforward. Just skin until you see a massive gully off to your right, then hang a right and keep skinning until your legs can’t handle it anymore, then keep skinning. We chose to hop out on the ridge line early but you would be able to skin to about 13,600 feet in the couloir if you really wanted to. After a five hour ascent, we topped out on Aetna.

This is a really cool summit that grants excellent views of the northern-Sangres and northern-San Juans to the east and west. On a clear day you’d be able to see far north into the Sawatch as well, but we had weather rolling towards us so we elected for a quick turnaround. Right off the top we skied a few hundred feet down the ridge line, avoiding the steepest terrain on the route as the snow was noticeably hollow above 13,500 feet. Once the terrain mellowed a tad we dropped skier’s left into the chute proper. The ensuing 2,200 feet of turns were some of the best of my life. The sun came out at just the right time and baked the surface into superb corn for us. Sometimes these little gifts from Mother Nature can make your day.

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A cool shot Rick took of me skiing off the top.

Brian in the heart of the line.

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…and Rick enjoying the corn harvest below treeline. Photo by Brian.

From the bottom of the couloir we hit the road and skied all the way out to the lodge in less than ten minutes, marking our third summit to car descent of the weekend.

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Before we skied out I took this shot of the entire line from the bottom. This is a classic Sawatch line; low to moderately angled and just a ton of vert.

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We capped off the weekend by walking into the lodge and taking a much needed shower. Photo by Brian.

Overall, I’d say spring is well on its way. The San Juans are skiing great and the southern-Sawatch (and I’m guessing the Sangres) are settling fast. Hopefully we get some more snow soon!

Thanks for reading!