Peak: North Star Mountain (13,614′)
Route: Southeast Shoulder Climb & Ski
Distance: 8 Miles
Climbers: Zambo, jblyth, Rainier_Wolfcastle, kushrocks, Brett & Luke
It is getting to be that time of year in Colorado when all four seasons can be in play in a single day. I guess in some ways it’s like that almost all the time around here, but that seemed to be in full display this past Saturday. As spring quickly approaches, 80+ degree temperatures and blazing sunshine in Denver clash quite markedly with wintry winds and frozen cornices in the high country. Couple that with an above average snowpack that is about as waterlogged as can be after a wet May blizzard, and you have the makings of a classic spring outing (aka: winter, spring and summer conditions) in the Rockies.
With his bride away for a few days, Jason was eager to play the bachelor this weekend and piece together a boys trip to find some elevation. He was nice enough to invite me (and a few other buddies) to tag along with his usual crew. I am glad he did as it was great to get out and meet these guys. Given the variable snow conditions of the past week, we all felt that it would be wise to find something a bit more conservative for this trip. Couple that with a need to be back in Denver early and the fact that we had a mix or skiers and snowshoers in our crew, and something relatively straightforward in the Ten Mile Range seemed to fit the bill perfectly. In the end, North Star Mountain seemed to be the best choice to fulfill all our needs. The southeast shoulder is about as straightforward and safe as you could want for the snowshoers, and there are plenty of ski descent options for those on the sticks.
In fact, all of the ski options were one of the reasons North Star was so appealing to me. Surrounded by many far more popular skiable peaks, this one is full of interesting lines. The simplest (and safest) option is to just head straight back down the ridge, which is about as easy as any ski descent anywhere, bar none. Off the south face, the Butterknife Couloir goes at roughly 35 degrees on an open slope, which seemed like a great mellow option. But the Butterknife is really just one of dozens of potential lines off the south face which, at the moment, is so filled in you could have dropped in virtually anywhere along the mile long summit ridge for an interesting and fun descent. The north face is not much different as numerous lines go much steeper on this side, with the crowning jewel being the North Coulior direct off of the summit. And finally, further east off of the ridge lies the Tractor Bowl, which looks to be as fun as advertised.
Yes, the choices were bountiful and we kicked around all the ski options during the rainy morning drive up to Summit County. The only real concern at this point was what sort of conditions we would find and what the snow would let us do. We were the only cars at the Hoosier Pass lot as we geared up and started skinning right at 7:00.
The ascent up North Star’s broad east shoulder is as simple as you could hope for. Minus one suspect slope right at tree line, the angle is gentle as it follows the 4wd road all the way up to 12,200′. The firm snow and low angle meant that those on skis had our fun really making those in the clown shoes work for it (not to worry – they would get back at us later). The gentle, yet resolute glide of skins on a firm overnight surface is a beautiful feeling. As we cruised up the old miner’s track, my thoughts wandered to the other seasons: in the summer this would be a fun and easy 4wd road with access to some spectacular spots. In winter, I could see this being a very appealing and safe day trip.
From the road junction, the next step is to gain the roughly 1,000 feet up the shoulder to meet the mile-long ridge. As the winds picked up and the clouds danced above us, periodically blocking out the sun, the day was starting to feel more like something out of February or March instead of mid-May.
The true summit of North Star Mountain lies a good distance away from the non-descript knob at 13,200′. More interested in the skiing than the summit, at this point Brett and Luke decided to strap in and get some good turns on the way out rather than slog it out along the ridge. Tractor Bowl looked far too wind-loaded and suspect to really go for anything, and no one was really looking to push the envelope that way today anyhow. They opted to ski back down the ridge and hit some of the east lines we had skinned underneath on the way up. Seeing their tracks later in the day, it looked like the found a great line. It was great to meet and chat with these guys a bit on the way up, and hopefully they enjoyed their time on the way out. Hope it was fun for you fellas!
As for the rest of us, this was a last good spot to stash some gear, get some chow, and prepare for the ridge. It was also decision time for Jason and I. With a great view of the south face from this aspect, as well as the Butterknife, we weren’t overly thrilled with what we saw. The evidence of recent wind-loading and wet slabs was apparent throughout the valley cirque. Couple that with a very small (but still noticeable) wind slab that we release earlier in the morning (not to mention the rapidly warming temps) and we really didn’t feel all that great about dropping in. Truth be told, it probably would have been fine, but we didn’t really see the need to take the risk. We were more about the climb and the camaraderie on this day anyhow and didn’t quite feel the need to roll the dice on variable conditions on a relatively non-descript peak in the Ten Mile Range. In the end, I think we both felt great about the decision.
Stashing the skis in preparation for the ridge, we were not quite prepared for what lay ahead anyway. I think we all falsely assumed that the jaunt over to the summit would be pretty low key (or maybe it was just me). In reality, the copious amount of snow this season is making for some unique challenges. While there are certainly spicier ridges all over the state, I feel confident in saying that North Star’s is just challenging enough to make it a fun outing and a worthy goal. All of the new snow had covered the rocks for most of the length of it, and plenty of cornices and a few small knife edges were enough to keep us on our toes. I think we were all pleasantly surprised at the fun and enjoyed that it was just a bit more involved than we were expecting.
All told, it took well over an hour to cover the mile. The narrow terrain required careful steps and smart route choices. Thankfully, it was not all that difficult as usually there weren’t many options on the surprisingly narrow route. As I mentioned earlier, this is where the snowshoers really got their revenge as well. All of the new and wind blasted snow made for a soft powder layer 1-2 feet deep for the length of the route. Easy strides in the snowshoes became an exhausting plunge-stepping chore for Jason and I. Those guys are also in great shape, so they cruised the length of this thing leaving Jason and I huffing and puffing behind.
But complaining aside, the position was pretty spectacular. The views were certainly fantastic with 14ers to the direct north and south and the Clinton-Traver group looking beautiful with its fresh coat of snow to the west. As the wind howled and the scale of the snow-capped peaks enveloped us, I couldn’t help but marvel at just how beautiful our Rockies truly are. No matter how many times I have been up high, or how unattractive these particular grundle slopes may be in the summer time, on this day, they were as beautiful as mountains come.
Thankfully, the effort of slogging out along the ridge made coming back considerably easier. But of course, as is usually the case, there are always an extra two or three false summits you didn’t remember on the way back.
Nonetheless, we made it to the skis much quicker this go around; just in time to see Kush & Shawn descending far below on the shoulder. With all the more interesting ski options now out of the picture, we were just happy to finally be able to strap in and quickly descend the mellow slopes to the car. Famous last words….
I’ll spare myself (but mostly Jason) the horrendous memories of the slog out. Suffice it to say, spring had officially hit the Ten Mile by noon when we were descending. The concrete-esqe mix of slush and snow made me forget just about everything I ever learned about skiing. I’m not sure I even needed to turn once the whole way down. Days like this remind you of just how much gravity can be your friend; by the time we passed 12,200′, we were begging for more of it.
As is usually the case, back at the car all memories of discomfort quickly faded. We had experienced all seasons on North Star this day: windy winter conditions blasting us along the ridge, spring slush at lower elevations, and a nice summer sunburn as we relaxed back at Hoosier Pass. All in all, a fantastic little peak that was full of cool surprises.
As is also usually the case, the partners can make the day. For me, it was great to get out with these guys and meet some solid new people. Thanks a ton for the invite Jason, and to the all the other guys for letting me tag along and jaunt up this peak together. I really enjoyed all the conversation and time on the hills, and I hope we get to do it again soon.