Route Finder: Failure, close call and success skiing James Peak West Face in Colorado
June 9, 2016
Yesterday, I got what I earned.
It was a hard-fought battle: Over the course of two weeks, I tallied nearly 36 miles of skinning and climbing for close to 10,000 feet of vertical, all for a line that is only good for skiing every 10 to 20 years. And, with the weather we've been having most of spring, this was finally the year. It became a project in the truest sense.
When I research routes for my guidebooks, the "Makingturns" series, I try to focus on cool lines and spend a lot of time looking at topo maps, scanning Google Earth for potential routes.
The west face of James Peak inspired me. It's a 13,330-foot peak between Winter Park and Idaho Springs on the Continental Divide in Arapahoe National Forest, where snow tends to stick around early into the summer. But, would it be enough this close to press time?
James Peak, 1st try
Life sometimes gets in the way of success. We can't always schedule our free time around the weather, so we have to just show up and give it a go.
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My first attempt of James Peak in late May got snowed out — we barely even got a view of our intended line. The weather came in, and the snow was stacking up at a rate of three inches per hour. We had a small window of visibility that showed the lower cliff section of our intended objective, but we couldn't see the whole thing. With no chance of getting it done, we went higher to milk a few unexpected powder turns out of our effort. Why not get in some extra vertical and enjoy the day and focus on the real goal — having fun?
James Peak, 2nd try
The second attempt was more successful, but it still ended without getting the line done.
We finally had a good view of our objective when the weather cleared and climbed the face. It's a clean line on a face that rarely has coverage, like the West Face of Mount Sherman into Iowa Gulch, found outside of Leadville, or the West Face of Fletcher Mountain at Mayflower Gulch.
Why did the faces fill out? It's all about wind: This season's upslope storms brought a cyclonic effect, with winds from the east that loaded westerly faces.
Weather is always a factor, even in May. The Continental Divide sometimes creates a lenticular cloud that blocks the sun, and the day of our second attempt was one of those days. The snow on the line never warmed up.
Instead, we ended up skiing the South Ridge to the couloir between Bancroft and James, taking the easy way down. When avalanche debris doesn't warm up, it can grab your tips and wrench you around while skiing. I know a few people who have broken bones skiing these frozen "chickenheads" in the snow.
On the way up the col, I exclaimed, in no uncertain terms, "Wow, the skiing is gonna suck if we don't get some warm-up!"
Scott, my partner for the day and the James West Face project, replied, "Agreed!"
Even though we didn't make our original line, I got back to the truck and quietly said to myself, "That was awesome." I can't remember the last time I got shut down on a line but was still so stoked on the day.
James Peak, 3rd try
When it comes to backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering, I feel you put in the effort for the ski. I really don't like to get lines done in marginal conditions — it's just not safe, and it's really not all that fun, either. Going back again and again to get it right is worth the effort, especially for rarities and classic lines like the West Face.
Timing for aspect and thaw is important for success: You may want to ascend an east-facing line in near darkness, or, instead, sleep in to time the sun-hit on a west-facing route.
Sometimes, luck with the weather is also needed. Big lines above tree line are typically done in the spring once melting and freezing cycles stabilize our ever-present winter avalanches. If the clouds get dark — and they usually do in the spring — it's time to head for lower elevations and the safety of your vehicle. Lightning is rarely out of the question.
After a decent freeze, we woke at our now-familiar campsite and geared up for the approach. It was our third try, and we made great time now that we knew the way. The snow was already starting to soften on the ascent, but there was plenty of time left with the low angle of the sun on our face.
We followed our boot pack from the week before, crested the divide and then headed for the summit. With the ideal temps we transitioned in silence, the anticipation stifling conversation. The snow off the summit was great, and we made our way back to the couloir proper. When corn is perfect, it can rival powder in it's smooth creaminess, and this corn was perfect, at least for the bulk of the descent. (The choke lower down got a little punchy.)
It was so worth the effort to ski the west face in good conditions. We could have forced it on the second attempt, but, then again, we wouldn't have gotten some of the best turns of the spring.
Before heading out, I recommend setting some goals for yourself and just giving it a go. Lots of lines require substantial effort to finish in good conditions. Learning the nuances of a line in the face of failure teaches great lessons, and, when you finally get it done, that feeling of satisfaction is worth the journey.
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