Powder Skiing In MAY!

Monday, May 02, 2011

Normally when May 1st rolls around, we’re deep into mud season and ready for flowers to start blooming. Not this year! Mt. Werner still looks as pristine and ski-able as it did in February, and pictures of our beloved Buddy Werner statue at the very top of Storm Peak Express are surfacing with Buddy’s head beneath the snow and a snorkel assisting him to ‘breathe’.

It turns out that in the Zirkels, which are the mountains North-West of Steamboat past Clark, the snow pack is still a good 8 feet or higher. This weekend, I went out with 4 friends to do some winter camping, skiing, and Search and Rescue practice.

Unfortunately, our trip started out not very well planned on Friday night after a hectic day of gathering gear. We were bogged down with 70 lb packs each, filled with an assortment of survival gear (tent, sleeping bag, fire-starting, warm clothes) and rescue gear (ropes, ice axes, crampons, pulley systems, etc), and getting a late start to our 13 mile destination with a start at 4pm. Between the 4 of us, we had one snowmobile. Our plan was to shuttle everyone in the 10 miles to the Slavonia Trail Head, and then hike an additional 3 miles in with our gear to reach some spectacular skiing and some steeper terrain to practice rescues.

Long story short, the snowmobile broke down, and I was left 10 miles in while the driver was about 6 miles in with his sled and the remaining two friends were still back at the parking lot. Thanks to the spirit of 4 locals who were out on a hut trip, my group was reunited and even invited to join them in their hut that night. True Steamboat locals are a rare breed and the best breed; they not only offered us their floor space so we didn’t have to camp that night, but they also fed us a delicious dinner and a hearty breakfast to keep us moving the next day. Even better, they towed our broken sled back to the parking lot for us, which we retrieved after we hiked out.

Saturday we decided to dedicate to rescue training to become better and more proficient in the mountains. Our main focus was in setting up anchor and haul systems using the snow to haul injured people back up over ledges and cornices. I ended up being the guinea pig “injured person” in this practice, so with all four of us roped up and carrying ice axes (which you would use in hiking up steep couloirs for a ski descent), my ski partners closed their eyes so they wouldn’t know when it was happening, and I jumped off of a 15+ foot cornice. The drill reminded me of the trust falls they have your practice in group dynamics, but larger scale. My three partners self arrested (falling to the ground on top of their ice axes and digging their crampons into the snow) to stop my descent. I hung for about 15 minutes while they erected snow anchors and transferred my body weight from themselves to the pulley system. It was a successful day for certain, but not nearly as fun as Sunday!

 Sunday, we decided to ski Hahn’s Peak. This is a quick and easy hike; the drive from Steamboat, hike in, and ski out took us only half the day. The unique part of this story is that Hahn’s Peak is so filled with snow that we were able to ski the South-East face in soft, wonderful powder. Normally, all winter long, this face remains rocky and exposed because of the warm southern sun constantly melting its slopes, and is typically in heavy avalanche phases when snow does accumulate. Not on Sunday! We were absolutely jubilant in our find and enjoyed the 1200 ft of vertical we were blessed to be skiing.

Everyone may be on Spring Break enjoying the warmer weather, but the cold weather is still in prime condition in the Mountains, and if you know how to get to it, it is truly amazing! Even in Steamboat I’ve never enjoyed such a winter as this. My first ski day was on October 28th this year, and to have Powder on May 1st, well that is just a miracle.

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