The morning of June 12th, Kilo and I hooked up at our usual spot, the Stegosaurus Lot, one of the quieter Park-n-Ride areas, located off the I-70 Morrison exit. It was 6AM and I was in desperate need of coffee, but a quick hike through the new spring grass to watch the sunrise over the hogbacks and meditate on the psychedelic swells of Red Rocks, soon made me forget how damned nice my bed had been. Well almost… Kilo pulled up in his battle-tested Explorer a few minutes later, and when that happens, adventure is soon to follow.
Our plan was to hit the Northeast Ridge of Mt. Evans, the same route Chris Davenport had taken from the summit during his 14ers project. The North Face looked steep and exciting, but there was no direct line from the top, so we planned to maybe look into that after skiing the peak. It has been an unusually wet and cool June this year in Colorado, with a fresh shot of the white stuff visible from my back yard nearly every morning on the high peaks, so my hopes were high for better coverage than the photos I had seen of Davenport’s descent: small patches of snow linked together between numerous rocks. He also described having to cross a few sections of grass. Nice.
The drive to Idaho Springs went by fast, as we spoke of the jacked up state of the economy, etc… and then the subject that always brings a smile: skiing and just having fun period. Before long, we made the turn onto 103 and continued up the windy, two-lane road toward 5, the Mt. Evans Scenic Byway. At the entrance station, we paid our $10 “amenities fee” to The Man, then were informed that the road leading to the summit was being plowed, so we could only drive as far as Summit Lake. I was pleased for two reasons: a) fresh snow b) we wouldn’t be tempted to treat this like the highest road shot in North America, and simply drive to the top, we would have to earn our turns.
The conditions at Summit Lake turned out to be closer to Wintertime than Summer. We were greeted by a blast of icy air as we opened the car doors, and as we followed steps in the new snow toward the restroom, the hard wind driving ice pellets along the frozen ground, hands shoved deep in my pockets, I could feel its sharpness on my neck and ankles, and couldn’t help but laugh to myself. A-Basin ski area, the last resort open in the state, had closed on June 7th, and here we were freezing our asses off. I love Colorado.
We got our gear together and chatted with a couple of guys who said they were prospectors who had pulled up next to us. They were taking a hike around the frozen lake, and seemed impressed with us strapping skis to our packs. They suggested taking a puff on the summit, and the idea sounded solid, but I was dry. I would’ve asked for a care package, but hadn’t brought so much as a lighter. Next time around maybe.
We scouted our line for a few minutes before heading up. I was wanting to hike the descent route. The snow was firm, with most of the pow having blown off overnight, so it looked mellow and we would probably make excellent time. Kilo, however, was pushing for something “more interesting”. I was reluctant at first, but went along with the urge to do shit up right. Why not? There was a line of small snowfields up the face below the ridge, so we decided to connect them, and see what happened…
The first few hundred feet went well, with sections of hard snow, and some minor ice. We were able to kick decent steps, though, and climb the rocks in between, so the going was pretty good. We traversed a few times, finding the best means of ascent, attempting to stick with as much snow as possible. I really wanted some boots with sticky rubber, like Kilo’s, but apart from one area, with a few ice drips and a slick runout onto rocks, the climb was mainly Class 2, so Kilo was fine and I just had to be more selective with my foot placements sometimes. Not too bad, but still enough exposure to make the heart beat faster sometimes, the smiles widen, and we were able to leave our axes on our packs and just go with ski poles.
At around 13,700 feet, we made our way up a large snow field, which led to a small notch between some small boulders on the ridge. We chose to head for that, as the snow ran out, with only talus remaining above. The view was improving with each step, and around the corner, the summit ridge and Crest House came into full view, and as often happens in the mountains, what we thought was the summit instead turned out to be a false one. I find you should always save a little extra in case that happens, because running up what you thought was the final pitch can sometimes leave you sucking fumes when you see the next one suddenly appear from “on top”.
Passing 14k, we were able to peek over the edge of the rocky cirque. The area is well know for it’s technical climbs, and the rock looked bomber, so with no cornice at the lip, you could find some awesome spots to experience the head rush that is staring down a 700′ wall, or the charge of kicking steps within inches of oblivion. Kilo said I was nuts, donned his crampons, and hung a few feet back. The wind was running away from the edge, but since it can sometimes shift in a moment up in the mountains, probably a sound decision all in all.
Upon reaching “the summit”, we had that fun experience mentioned earlier of seeing a smaller peak a few hundred feet away, and as also happens all the time it seems on peaks, not being able to figure out which was higher. That can be a fun game, especially once the burning fuzz of oxygen deprivation sets in, or a storm is coming. I figured I could just ask someone, as the road had just opened at this point, a long line of cars snaking their way up the switchbacks. Just before the first arrived, there was a lone jogger who completed his trek and, barely pausing, took one pull from his water bottle, stared off toward the hazy horizon, then started plodding back down. Soon a car had pulled up and a few people began walking the few steps toward where I stood. Very weird thing, having hiked 1400 feet, only to be greeted by Escalades and kids in shorts. The first person who dared the terrifying 30 second hike said where I had been was the top, but as I was about to turn and head back up, someone else said, no, the other was actually the deal. Fuck this, I thought, better go do it just in case, which is what normally happens anyway. We grabbed my skis, hiked, and found the summit marker. The release and satisfaction of getting “there” flooded my mind, despite the circus like atmosphere of Mt. Evans, and I was in good spirits as I posed on the edge nothingness, dreaming of owning a squirrel suit, then clipped in while leaning on the summit boulder, and skied the trail back to where I had been. We had done our thing in decent style.
We pulled our lightened packs on, clipped in, and began our descent on the Northeast Ridge, linking turns between small rock outcroppings. The coverage was better than the images I had seen, with perfect corn and no grass in sight. We had to weave a bit to find the best line, but the fields blanketed everything, so once you picked a line between small rocks jutting from the snow, there were plenty of wide open stretches, where you could get some speed. On a small wind lip near the bottom, Kilo got a couple of nice airs, then hit the runout with some extra juice, while I stuck to the main face and made some wider turns down the soft bank of white, pulling up just shy of the newly plowed road. We cruised back to where the snow ended, next to a portable road sign, near Summit Lake. The sun shining – it was good to be there.
We chilled for awhile, then thought what the hell, stuck out our thumbs, and ended up getting a ride in a pick up. On the way, we saw a cool face just below the observatory that an earlier party had laid some nice tracks on. There were two perfect lines left for the taking, so after chatting for a few with the nice couple visiting from the plains who had given us a lift, we hiked over the rise behind the Crest House, where Steve, the driver, took some shots as we clipped in and made our way toward the face. The mountain goats weren’t out, so I guess we were the tourist attraction on this day.
There was decent coverage for the lead in, which went on for awhile. We had to work right to avoid the Northeast route next to the ridge we had skied earlier, then the run appeared. At this point the snow was buttery corn to about boot depth, and still not very catchy, so the turns were unreal. I picked a line to the left and Kilo to the right, linking arcs to a patch of rocks about 500′ down. The pitch was so good, I took one look at Kilo, and said I had to do that again. So nice you have to do it twice! There was a bootpack from the party that we had seen hiking up the road that morning, so the going was quick back to the top. The second lap was well worth it. I let out a holler or two, as my perma grin deepened…
We made our way back to the pick up. Destroyed, we contemplated a second 14K roadshot, and just when all hope was lost, a decked out subaru, carrying a Russian emigre and his mom, stopped. We had to stick the skis carefully out the window to have enough room, and then held on as he went balls out up the mountain, his mother chuckling softly the whole way. Clouds were rolling in and the snow was hardening. As we lapped the same face, Kilo stuck to right and found the goods, ending the day on a high note.
We slid back into Summit Lake, as the skies opened up with “hershey kiss” graupel, and drove back to town. As Kilo always says, success or no, ‘we just went skiing, so it was the best day ever!’ And so it was…