Monday, May 12, 2014

12 hrs down, only 5 to go!
While the ski season has been winding down my "life" has been winding up. I feel like Ive got a few things on my mind but no time to blog about them to like the 3 of you out there who have ever read this thing! Oh well. Im hoping I'll get in the last few blogs before packing up for the summer.

The end of the race season for me was the US Nationals at Crested Butte. What a great course! Looking at that thing when I first tried skimo 2 years ago totally sold me on skimo. My tele gear was on eBay soon thereafter.

Getting to climb the guides ridge was super cool. If the vimeo video in that link doesn't make you want to do it Im not sure what is wrong with you! Check out photos on Kevin Krill's site too. I definitely finished with a time I felt happy with after my season's training. Not world class but a lot better than what last year would have looked like. The ridge part was very fun for a climber and I passed more people there than any other section of the course. I still came in way towards the end of the pack. I guess very few of the other mere mortals bothered showing up. Weird. It is an amazing race and I wish I had a good explanation for why others apparently dont think so.

Anyway, I learned a few things I wanted to hit real quick. First, there were these horribly icy never ending switchbacks going up the Peel. My 59mm skins were just not up to the task. There were also some straight uphill sections that I kept slipping on. After talking to some folks, Im definitely thinking wider skins and possibly longer than I currently run are in order. Maybe cut 8 from my tails instead of 12". Second, I ran into Jari Kirkland, yet ANOTHER super nice and amazingly fit racer who was happy to share her thoughts on training. Once again, sprints and fast training was emphasized. OK, I get it, I promise to do more!

Switching gears...

So the season was over and I was ready to reward myself. Last year I tried an ambitious (for me that is...) tour from Wolf Creek Pass traveling South along the Continental Divide Trail for something along the lines of 45 miles to the Forest Service winter road closure up the road from my house. I had hiked this stretch in a day and thought it would make a fun tour. I tried it last year but my buddy who is a tough guy but not a skimo guy just didnt have the right gear or training under his belt and after a few hours, his blisters and pace forced us to bail.
Here is my buddy, Marty, on attempt #1
 It was a good lesson I should not have needed to learn. When you do something like this, you really have to do it with someone who has similar gear and training.

If at first you don't succeed...

So, I learned my lesson the hard way as usual and tried again. This time, since there are almost no folks who do much of this stuff in the area, I asked Scott Simmons from Durango if he knew of anyone over there who might be interested. His response was something like, "When do we get started?" I was kind of taken aback because 1. He had no clue who was nor vice versa other than meeting at a few races and 2. He is a badass racer and Im slower than most folks on the course! I threw that out there and he didnt seem that phased by it and since I wanted a partner I was cool with it.

On a side note, Im usually the one with the hairbrained idea and have the skills to be at least an equal contributing member of any endeavor I get into. Being the weaker member of a team is rare and while Im cool with it and even welcome that change of paradigm it is weird getting used to at times. When the stronger member is waaaay fitter than you and you don't know them it is even weirder.

Anyway, I did a recon of the beginning of the route, TOTALLY got my distance estimates out of whack and was ready!

Scott ready to go!
Me too!
The route is really 4 parts, there is the first 1/2 of the trip which follows the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) from Wolf Creek (ski area parking lot descending to Alberta Lift then up to the CDT) to Ellwood Pass and which took us about 7 hours. The second section is the CDT from Ellwood to just South of Summit Pea and the intersection with the cutoff trail that takes a ridge West to the Rito Blanco Trail aka Quartz Lake Trail. This took us about 5 hours. The next section goes from Summit to the Rito Blanco Trail, linking up with it long enough to get to Quartz Ridge and then ascending the East side of the ridge angling South towards Nipple Mtn which provides better snow than trying to follow the trail. This section finishes with a descent to the Nipple Mtn road (aka Mill Creek Rd) and took us about 2 hours. The final section is the road out to the winter gate which took about 3 hours. Total time was about17.5 hours but that is based on my pace, NOT the pace Scott would have set if he was doing it with someone of equal ability or if he had left me to be eaten by grizzly's or some such!

Anyway, this is a cool trip because there are real navigation challenges as the CDT is not the optimal line of travel in most places if you could even find it. Starting out at 4 am makes it even trickier. Map, compass and altimeter were all required. Of course, later in the day there was avy risk to mitigate through route finding. Spring snow is always tricky especially when skiing in the afternoon. Then there is the whole food & gear question.

I had hiked the route twice and skied part of it twice so was the navigator. The first section is below tree line and it's tricky to stay on the ridge especially before the sun comes up. I had skied it a week or so earlier out for a few hours but we got a late season dump and my skin track was gone. Oh well. We never really got too misoriented, just a few inevitable, "Something doesnt feel right" moments that were quickly set right without much lost time.

Typical terrain on the first section.
Pow in April. Pleasant!

This sking had PUDs (pointless ups and downs) that were all too small to bother ripping skins. Some of it was a little exciting but none too crazy. Ridge sking in trees.

I should mention, we both just took race packs with extra food and water/Tailwind. That was about it other than skimo race stuff including 2 pairs of skins of course! The two other minor extras were sunscreen (I forgot mine in the car but thankfully Scott had extra) and skin wax for when it got warm. We also packed running shoes for the end.

As the sun came up we had one fun ski descent. The next would be a long time coming.

This was where I realized my gross underestimation of the time it would take us. We are not yet to Ellwood and the entire ridge beyond us will take us to just shy of Summit Peak aka the end of section 2.
 So, after the sun came up, we crested one rise and realized that my time estimates from my recon trip were totally wrong. A ridge had hidden much of the terrain between my recon turn around point and Ellwood Pass, making it seem like I was much closer than I was. When we realized this, Scott was gracious enough not to tell me I was a dumbass. We took a moment to reconsider if we were going to do this thing and I think in the back of Scott's mind must have been the question of whether I was up to this thing. I had no doubt I was but worried Scott would get frustrated with my pace now that the terrain was opening up and my navigation "skills" were no longer needed as much. He could really move and I knew Id be maintaining my current pace. I hoped that would be OK with him. Since we really didnt know each other I was worried things could get frustrating for us but so far so good and we agreed to continue.
Skiing the divide

I love the beauty of untracked mountains in the winter
Closing in on Ellwood Pass
 Scott decided we would drop off the CDT and cruize towards Ellwood on its East side trying to cover as much terrain as possible via a descending traverse and then skinning back up to the pass. It was a great call and even with some tricky terrain and snow it worked out well.

Finally approaching Ellwood Pass!
Around Ellwood the terrain completely changes to what you think of as CDT terrain in Colorado. Above timberline, beautiful vistas, all that good stuff. The snow began getting really warm and if we hadn't had skin wax we would have been screwed.

Somewhere in there, Scott ran out of water and started stuffing bottles with snow and putting them in his suit to melt. I followed suit a good bit later. That technique on a warm day worked quite well but Im guessing we were both a little less than optimally hydrated.

Scott still going strong.
One of Scott's waits while I caught up.
Once up in the high country, Scott tagged a few of the peaks as a way to pass the time while I chugged along. It's not like I didnt already have immense respect for high end athletes prior to this but seeing the difference up close and personal, both the tempo his legs went at all the time and how strong he was on the downs was just really impressive compared to my own efforts. Im not saying Im some pathetic wimp or anything and I was actually pretty psyched with my effort. I think the training I had done really paid off big time. I just want to make sure there is no way anyone can think Im BSing them into saying Im as bad as a guy like Scott. No posing allowed!

Montezuma Peak (13,150ft), the second tallest in the county- go Scott!

An unnamed 12,000ft peak Scott hit.
Summit Peak, at last! What a beauty.
Below Summit.
We neared the end of section 2 a little after noon or so and swung West on to the connecting ridge between the Divide and Quartz Ridge. It was interesting, the snow was much deeper here. We made good time, adjusting course to take into account terrain and wet snow slide potential.

Rounding Summit Peak

On the connecting ridge. Above Scott's shoulder is the back of Nipple Mtn, a small rock pinnacle easily visible from much of Pagosa Springs when looking to the East. It is on Quartz Ridge and marks the beginning of the final descent.

Looking to the East. Behind me is the general area in which Colin Sutton, a Ski Patroller at Wolf Creek Pass, died in an avalanche just over a month prior to this trip. I never knew him but have always been impressed with the ski patrol staff at Wolf Creek and had heard many very good things about Colin. I definitely took a few moments to pay tribute to him as best a I could.

Unusual snow features.

Arriving at Quartz Ridge, shadows growing longer!
We got to Quartz ridge and had to work out a way to ascend the ridge South of the unnamed peak that guards the South flank of the pass the trail crosses. Continuing on the trail would have left us high and dry on a South facing ridge that we would have had to hike down. Ugh. Instead, we worked over to the South shoulder of the unnamed peak and after gaining it, took the gully presented to us. We had no idea if it was a good idea or not but nothing else looked better. It was like rocky couloir skiing through pinwheels and the occasional fallen chunk of rock. Entertaining but, as Scott said, not the kind of snow that makes you want to take up sking as a hobby!  Luckily, while VERY slushy, it went and we got down to the Forest Service road where we were able to fill bottle in a stream!

About to drop into the gully from Quartz Ridge. You can make out Nipple Mtn on the sun/shadow line behind Scott's pole baskets.
The road out was another gross underestimation of distance. I had never really measured that part, after all, its the road, I mean we were home free! 13 or so miles later Scott was totally not convinced when I told him the truck was "just around the corner!" But it was. There was some fun fast road skiing, some skating, slogging and finally walking. we were too tired for the beers I had stashed in the truck but we devoured the Fritos- SALT!!!!!!!!! FAT!!!!!!!!!!! CARBS!!!!!!!!!


Overall, a cool way to end the season. Here are a few lessons learned though. We went North to South as that let us loose more elevation than we gained. Definitely a good idea from an energy efficiency standpoint. However, most of our ski descents were on the warm slope and not as much fun as North facing descents in the spring.

Since the trip was so long, we planned it time-wise so we would exit on a West facing slope to avoid dealing with crusty snow while tired. That worked out pretty well. The East facing stuff was crusty and terrifying towards the end!

Tailwind in water is still just awesome but for me, didnt provide enough calories without making the water too rich or carrying too much water. I supplemented it with Honey Stinger waffles every so often and some ham, cheese and nuts every few hours. That combo worked out great.

Our light weight packing plan was more than adequate. We wore race suits with wind shell tops and bottoms prior to sunrise and then just the suits. I had a puffy but never needed it. In fact, the sun was so warm, the suits got a tad warm. Scott showed me a great technique of sitting in the snow to cool down every once in a while. He got to do it a lot more than me as I was huffing and puffing along, trying to keep him from waiting any more than he did.

The route was beautiful and personally very cool as I have a connection with that terrain and look at it almost every day. However, it was more gently rolling than I think would be ideal for a really "ideal" skimo tour. I think fewer ups and downs of much more significant vert would present the best terrain. Just my thoughts and something I hope to validate in the future on other excursions!

That being said, if anyone is interested in repeating this trip, Im happy to provide any route info.

Finally, as always, having a gracious and mellow partner makes all the difference. Anything we do is better when done in the company of good people with positive attitudes!


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