Sixty months of turns

I was skiing on a glacier in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park several years ago when Darren mentioned he knew a friend who had skied every month of the year for ten years straight.  I was intrigued.  Colorado’s high elevation mountains (637 ranked peaks over 13,000 feet) offer up enough backcountry snow to ski October through June.  Skiing year round just meant I had to hike to accessible snow in July, August and September.

The September ski is typically the hardest.  On a good year we get an early season storm to drop 6 inches of snow which presents an opportunity to ski a grassy tundra slope if you can get to the snow before it melts.  In other years I typically hike to one of my favorite late season snow fields on the east flanks of the Continental Divide.  Helmets are a must as rocks are a big danger — both in the snow and at the exit of the snow field.  Crampons come in handy if you chose an early morning climb up a north-facing couloir.

So there I was getting up at 4 am this past September to meet my buddy Bill to begin our search for the elusive September ski. This year was very special as we had many options to choose from due to Colorado’s near record snowpack. We eyed a nearly continuous snow field above a cornice clinging to the northeast ridge of a peak just off the Continental Divide.  This was great news; not only would we ski but we would also climb a peak that neither of us had climbed.  With our skis strapped to our backpacks we began our hike down to an alpine lake before beginning our climb up the peak.

A cloudless fall night had lowered temperature well below freezing and a thin layer of ice covered the small stream exiting the lake. The muted fall colors of the tundra were in full display and the morning sun was warming the snow above us.  Life was good; life was fully wild.

While there was a skiff of fresh snow, the snowpack was hard and footholds were challenging.  We chose to skirt to the side and climb the boulder field and tundra paralleling the snowfield. On the way up we passed a ptarmigan with its feathers just starting to turn white for the winter. We heard the chirping of the pica and saw its silhouette perched on a rock, ready to duck underneath when we approached.

We dropped our skis at the top of the snowfield and headed toward the summit.  It was truly a spectacular fall ski day; sunny blue sky with no clouds or crowds around. We were in no hurry so we enjoyed the views of the high peaks in the adjacent wilderness areas. It was a reminder to me that you don’t have to set foot in a wilderness area to enjoy the scenic, aesthetic and health benefits wild areas provide humans.

After 30 minutes on the summit we headed down to our skis. The sun had warmed the snow; let the fun begin. With alpine lakes, fall colors and high peaks as background, we joyfully carved our turns down the surprisingly good snow.  We skied the fall line down towards the cornice, coming as close as to the edge as was comfortable before cutting across and up the slope to line up a new set of turns. We enjoyed some of the best corn snow I have ever skied in September. Our last turns safely landed us just above the boulders at the bottom. We hiked back to the car and celebrated another great day in the mountains of Colorado.

Bill now has 12 straight months of skiing under his belt and I reached 60 consecutive months of turns. Now there are only 60 more months to go before I reach my first decade of skiing year round.