Distance: 12 miles (winter closure – Brainard Lake)
Vertical: 3500 feet
I’ve been meaning to ski Mount Toll’s classic South Face for years now. Toll can be easily previewed from a number of vantage points around Boulder and the Front Range, as well as its neighbors, which saves the aspiring skier a lot of gas money on wasted reconnaissance. Ron Haddad’s “Front Range Descents” includes a number of routes from the Mitchel/Blue Lakes region and Toll seems to get the most raving reviews. When you get up there, it certainly steals the show. Before the toll road opens to the summer trailheads, its a bit of a trek to get back in there, but can be worth your while, depending on your tolerance threshold for longer(ish) approaches. There are couloirs galore on all aspects of the basin, with numerous lines stemming off the Pawnee Traverse on your left, a couple wide couloirs off the South Face of Audubon, the most popular and prominent being the Crooked Couloir and finally the Curvaceous Couloir winding off the southeast face of Paiute. Around the bend in the Lake Isabelle region are a series of SW facing couloirs off Shoshoni (arguably one of the finest summits in the IPW), Apache Couloir and Queens Way off Apache and then the steep snowfield of Navajo Peak. Needless to say, there is a lot of potential in this area that is relatively close to home.
The winter closure adds around 3 miles each way on the approach, so we met a tad earlier than usual, since a storm was moving in later in the afternoon. The group today was Rick, Marc, Hugh, Jason, Becky and Taj the retriever. We made quick work of the currently snow covered road and reached Mitchel Lake TH within a hour and 15 minutes.
There is a well used skin/shoe track most of the way through this basin, as its a moderately popular area for touring. Mitchel Lake is around 1 mile from the summer trailhead, Blue Lakes 3. Just before we reached Blue Lake, Hugh’s binding snapped in the toe and he was rendered immobile soon after. Becky had some nasty blisters with her new Asolo’s, so she, Jason and Taj turned around the same time as well. This was unfortunate, but gear issues can be frustrating and demoralizing.
Rick, Marc and I rested on a rock outcropping near the SE end of Blue Lake, woofing down some food and marveling at Toll’s rocky East Face. It’s amazing to think that year in, year out, no matter how low the snow year, the SE Face serves as a catchers mitt for snow, snatching up enough to provide an 1800 foot descent for the touring enthusiasts. This year is no different – its completely caked.
We skinned across the well frozen Blue Lake and made way for a series of benches beneath Toll’s SE Face. It was around this time the glob monsters came out of their caves and added pound after pound of undesired weight. I hate to make excuses, but I had been trying to kick a nasty, borderline-bronchitis cough that had pinned me down for the week prior. This was starting to give me pretty serious setbacks on the final 1500 feet ascent. Stubborn resilience and seemingly good snow quality had me forcing one foot in front of the other with methodical breaths. We reached the summit around 2pm and slugged as much water as humanly possible (Marc packed 6 Nalgenes for Denali training weight).
We all just skied it top to bottom, great snow conditions throughout and a perfect, continuous pitch. Here is a short vid of Rick heading down:
The out was a little trying on the emotional psyche, as we couldn’t find consistent downhill momentum to the Mitchel Lakes TH. I’ve seen much worse deproaches, but it certainly didn’t help that we knew the section from Brainard Lake back to the car would be completely flat. Rick and I lost Marc early on in the woods and decided to rest at Brainard to wait for him. Silly splitboarders…
The road out actually wasn’t that bad. We didn’t even put our skins back on and were able to carry more momentum than we thought. It was arguably the least brain damaging part of the day, dare I say! We got back to the car with Hugh patiently waiting, making for a little under a 8.5 hour day. I got home, ate a full pizza and konked out. Great day in the Indian Peaks!