Best of 2016: May skinning and skiing on Quandary Peak, Breck’s 14er
Quandary’s other lines
Quandary Peak is home to four well-established ski routes: the East Bowl, Cristo Couloir, the North Gullies and the North Couloir. Backcountry guru Fritz Sperry covers each route in depth with his 2012 guidebook, “Making Turns in the Tenmile-Mosquito Range,” but not all are created equal. Before attempting Breck’s hometown 14er, get educated on what to know and where to go from the summit.
This route, found on Quandary’s easterly aspect, is the go-to bowl for first timers. You can easily scout lines and conditions on the ascent, and chances are you’ll even watch a few skiers descending en route to the summit.
But don’t let that fool you: It’s still backcountry skiing at its finest, with wide-open turns through a bowl similar to Whale’s Tail at Breck. Avalanche danger is minimal but still exists on the sections steeper than 25 degrees (there are several near the entrance), and wandering too far north on the skier’s left leads to cliffs, drops and other death traps, what Sperry can only describe as “Gnarnia.” Do not end up there.
From just below the summit ridge to the east, pick a line with a clear view of the East Ridge — the same one you traveled on for the ascent — and end at the meadow just below the first shelf of the ridge. From here, it’s a short skin back up to the trail for a descent through gladed pines to the trailhead.
Season: Winter and spring, sunrise start
Vertical: 3,400 feet
The North Gullies are not for the faint of heart, or newbies, or anyone else who’s never before tempted a steep, narrow chute with few escape options and a 1,700-foot no-fall zone.
Found just below the summit, the North Gullies are intimidating, aggressive and insanely fun for expert skiers. Most Quandary skiers rarely touch them — Cristo Couloir is much more popular — and so coverage in the two main gullies is usually consistent enough to cover the majority of shark-toothed rocks. That said, the first 200-300 feet can be wind-scoured, exposing rocks beneath, and with wind events a cornice hanging over the entrance can threaten the line. Good consolidation is a must for the Gullies.
From the summit, hike down the west ridge to an entry point and clip in. Enjoy steep turns of about 40 degrees for 1,700 vertical feet through the upper no-fall zone. This ends at a line of jagged rocks. Stay to skier’s left to skirt the hazard, and then take a straightforward line from there to the bottom. The hike out follows McCullough Gulch Road (a dirt road seen from the summit in the northern valley) back to the trailhead. Later in the spring you can park at the end of McCoullough Gulch Road and ascend the North Gullies and North Couloir from there.
Season: Spring, sunrise start
Vertical: 3,150 feet
Like the North Gullies, the North Couloir (aka Quandary Couloir) is an expert-only line made for skiers with a thirst for rocks and steeps and chutes. The avalanche and cornice danger here is considerable, just like its neighbors. The line ranges from 40-50 degrees and takes skiers about 1,500 vertical feet through a tight upper section before widening out in the final 1,700 vertical feet.
Also like the Gullies, the North Couloir ends at McCullough Gulch Road and usually requires a bootpack hike late in the season.
Season: Spring, sunrise start
Vertical: 3,100 feet
Tips from Teague
After our trip, Teague Holmes emailed me a brief list of essential for anyone heading into the backcountry. He also suggested two resources for self-education: courses with Ben Pritchett, a Crested Butte-area guide, and a cutting-edge resource from Powder Magazine he says is “probably the best online avalanche education tool I know of.”
1. Take an Avalanche Level 1 course.
2. Read the local avalanche forecast every day.
3. Learn what terrain can avalanche, what cannot and why.
4. Be honest with yourself about anything you don’t know for certain.
5. Always speak up, no matter who you are with, and bail if your gut speaks.
Editor’s note: In Colorado, 14ers (aka peaks higher than 14,000 feet) are a rite of passage. Bagging one of the state’s 54 such peaks (or 56, depending on who you ask) is on just about every visitors bucket list. The two backcountry gurus I met for this article, Fritz Sperry and Teague Holmes, prefer the hard way up and fun way down as soon as conditions allow in early summer. They let me tag along, and I now have a newfound respect for Breck’s “easy” hometown 14er.
We couldn’t have paid for a better day at 14,265 feet.
It’s a crisp, clear, stunning spring morning in the first week of May when our group of three backcountry skiers reaches the East Ridge en route to Quandary Peak: one of three Summit County 14ers and the only one that’s easily accessible from Breckenridge, found just 6 miles away. This is the resort’s hometown 14er, a snow-scoured sentinel that looms high and majestic and intimidating over the upper Blue River to the east, Hoosier Pass to the south and Breck’s own Peak 10 to the north. It’s also the highest point in the craggy Tenmile Range, and, for decades, it’s been a backcountry badge of honor.
About 300 feet ahead of me, resting on their poles while discussing dozens of lines on all sides of the ridge, are 45-year-old Fritz Sperry and 39-year-old Teague Holmes, two backcountry gurus with decades of combined experience touring the Tenmile Range. I slowly skin up to the duo in time for Holmes — a multi-sport endurance athlete who can see his home in Blue River from the East Ridge shelf — to nod at me once and point his skis back uphill.
“We ready to keep moving? At this rate we’ll summit around,” he pauses to look at his watch, “11 a.m. That’s an hour later than we wanted.”
True. We left the east Quandary Peak trailhead around 7:30 a.m., about 30 minutes late, and when we reached the halfway point on the ridge it was already 9 a.m. Despite 10 inches of fresh snow just a week before, the first wooded mile was filled with rocky, patchy snow over tight switchbacks. It was unexpected and hardly easy on splitboard skis, leading to gear mishaps that slowed us down.
Or, to be more accurate, they slowed me down. Lesson one of the backcountry is humility and I quickly learned it with my partners. Holmes and Sperry are no strangers to this kind of rugged travel: New York native Holmes finishes with pro skimo racing in February and spends most of April, May and early June touring the routes in his backyard, while Bronx-born Sperry wrote the book on Tenmile touring. Literally: His 2012 guidebook, “Making Turns in the Tenmile-Mosquito Range,” is the only comprehensive print guide to 42 peaks and nearly 60 ski routes between Frisco’s Mount Royal and Buena Vista’s West Buffalo Peak, including six 14ers, from Quandary and Sherman to the foursome of Mounts Democrat, Lincoln, Cameron and Bross.
“The best mentality is to have humility: humility with the people you join and humility for the mountain,” Holmes says after checking his watch once more. “I like to go into it with justified confidence. You always know there will be risk, but if you’ve evaluated everything that can go wrong and shown the mountain humility, you can be safe.”
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Humility on the East Ridge
My partners knew the area, knew the route and knew what to expect from start to finish on Quandary — the best kind of high-alpine touring partners. I was the newcomer, the first timer, an expert resort rider with a measly 10 days per season in popular local areas like Bald Mountain and East Vail. It was my first spring Quandary excursion, and so I wasn’t sure what to expect from the terrain once I set splitboard to snow for the 2.6-mile skin to the top. I felt clunky and off-balance in that early stretch.
Next lesson: Double and triple-check your gear before leaving the car. When finally I figured out my new skins, the going got easier and I found a comfortable pace. Never mind that my pace was slower than Holmes and Sperry — the two were always in sight and stopped every half-mile or so to regroup. We constantly reassessed conditions and decided it was safe to push for our original line option: the North Gullies, two routes of 40 degrees that descend 3,150 feet through jagged chutes from the summit to McCullough Gulch Road.
“If you don’t listen to the mountain — if you don’t have humility like Teague is saying — you can die,” Sperry says while we rest. “That’s when you f*** up and it’s the end of it. This is a chess game, a real-life chess game.”
Group consensus or no, it didn’t change the fact that we were running behind and slowly wasting the best conditions of the day. Spring snow is always tricky to predict, the two remind me on the ridge, and, when combined with constant sun from three warm, cloudless days, they expected 10 a.m. to be prime time for a relatively safe descent on just-right snow: not to icy, not too corny. The longer we waited, the worse conditions became in the north-facing Gullies.
“Let’s go,” Holmes says and starts moving uphill with strong, effortless strokes. Sperry follows on his right, and the two continue their conversation about surrounding lines and constantly changing spring conditions.
I take a sip of water, lather my face in sunscreen and open the vents on my snow pants. Next lesson: Head down, knees up, keep moving.
And then I see the summit.
Habits and heuristics
From winter to summer, Quandary is considered one of Colorado’s easiest 14ers. The trek from trailhead to summit is about 5.2 miles round-trip, climbing a manageable 3,415 vertical feet from the parking lot at 10,850 feet to the apex at 14,265 feet. The pitches in between are mellow, even for splitboard gear, and the route gets even more enticing: with pristine conditions, the summit is a visible landmark from the first shelf on the East Ridge. In other words, it’s a straight shot, like the interstate highway of high-alpine trekking,
Head down, knees up, keep moving.
But labeling anything “easy” in the backcountry is a dangerous habit. When Mother Nature combines steep slopes with humans, snow and wildly variable spring conditions, the ski routes on Quandary are no different than their supposedly harder neighboring routes: Tractor Bowl and Polaris Couloir at Northstar Mountain (13,614 feet), the East Chute on Clinton Peak (13,875 feet), the Northeast Couloirs at Fletcher Mountain (13,958 feet). All of this means that planning, research and constant reassessment are vital for any trip to the summit.
“If you make a decision in the backcountry, it needs to have a reason behind it, it needs to be evidence-based,” Sperry told me about a week before the trip. Together with Holmes, we spent nearly two weeks planning the trip, starting first with weather forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and avalanche forecasts from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
“I look at the weather every single day during the year,” Holmes says, explaining the first and most important habit for alpine touring. “As backcountry skiers, we aren’t just looking at a forecast. I want to know what the wind did on Hoosier Pass last night, I want to know what everything looks like in that area, and that’s the scientific data you need.”
Next lesson: build smart backcountry habits. Based on background research — the habit of checking and rechecking reliable data — we tentatively planned for a midweek ascent. The weather looked nearly perfect, and thanks to a few days of temperatures in the 50s, Sperry expected all summit routes to show the springlike conditions he loves.
“My season is when the snow is in a spring state, which means it has melted, re-frozen and gets into that cycle, where you judge it for stability,” Sperry said before the trip, explaining how every season in the backcountry is different, even if you’ve traveled the same route countless times. “That has just happened in May this year, when last year it happened earlier, so (now) you have an entire month to hit it. You really never know when you’re going to get it.”
On the stretch from the East Ridge shelf to the summit, both Holmes and Sperry started talking about heuristic traps: the poor (and dangerous) decisions newbies and even experts make if they mistake past experience for current data.
“When you’ve been doing this for a while you start to differentiate between being nervous because you’re nervous and being nervous because something feels wrong,” Holmes said. “That’s what Fritz was talking about: you make decisions based on an assessment… Always speak up, no matter who you are with, and bail if your gut speaks.”
Consensus at the couloir
Around 11 a.m. — about 3.5 hours from the bottom and an hour later than planned — our group paused a final time before making the push to the summit. I pulled ahead for photos while Holmes and Sperry waited a few thousand feet below. Behind us were three small dots: hikers on snowshoes with no skis ascending the East Ridge in our tracks.
“I think he just wants to summit first,” Sperry yelled from below. Holmes laughed as I huffed to the false summit. Head down, knees up, keep moving.
Next lesson: embrace the unknown. While I scouted for shots, the first small dot met with Holmes and Sperry below. Call it luck, call it serendipity, or simply call it a midweek encounter on the mountains he knows so well, but Sperry recognizes the man as longtime Alma local Piers Peterson.
“This is just too crazy,” Sperry said. “It’s just…”
…Serendipity, he was able to finish later. Piers’ brother, Jesse Peterson, died at Willow Lake in 2012. Jesse and Sperry regularly skied together, and just three days before his death the two completed a route for a “Making Turns” entry: the East Couloirs of Atlantic Peak, a previously unnamed ascent of 13,841 feet not far from Quandary.
Below me, Sperry was telling Holmes about the tribute line that he and Piers skied the morning of Jesse’s wake — a route down Mount Democrat (14,154 feet) outside of Alma — when Piers happened to snowshoe past. He was driving back to Alma from nursing school in Denver, and, like most mountain locals, couldn’t pass up a stunning day in his backyard. He flipped a U-turn at Hoosier Pass and started an impromptu solo ascent just after we left.
“I was doing construction until Jesse died and now I’m trying to do something a little more meaningful,” Peterson tells me. “It’s just too crazy that we ran into each other.”
Sperry turns uncharacteristically silent as I snap photos for our first money shot, the summit. His mind might have been elsewhere — on Atlantic Peak, at Willow Lake, maybe another remote line he and Jesse conquered. The Tenmile-Mosquito guidebook begins with a dedication: “Jesse Peterson, 1984-2012, you left us far too soon. Hopefully, brother, wherever you are, there is endless powder and blue bird skies, limitless vertical and soft landings. You are missed, my friend.”
We continue to the summit as a foursome: Holmes and Sperry in front, me in the middle, Piers Peterson in the rear. Once there, Sperry and Petersom survey the North Gullies as Holmes checks the southern face and I snap photos. The expert-only Gullies line looks “bony,” Sperry says, with patches of exposed rock. It’s still doable, but is that enough to give our group the OK?
“I’ve never skied with you before and I’ve never skied with this group, so I don’t think we should do the Gullies,” Sperry says to me. Holmes nods his head and I agree — there will be no steep, Powder Magazine-style lines today. And that’s just fine.
Instead, we agree on the Cristo Couloir, a popular, south-facing line with pitches between 25 and 40 degrees — the sweet spot for avalanche conditions — that ends at a dammed tarn. Again, based on current data and visual assessments from my partners, we decided it was the safer and smarter choice.
By 11:45 a.m. we were ready to drop the line. Piers Peterson and Sperry said goodbye and we gained another group member, 69-year-old Larry Hall of Grand Junction. He’d been on Quandary several times in the past, but this would be his first descent on the couloir.
“It’s too cool to be up there and great luck to run into guys who know what they’re doing,” Hall says just before we drop while Sperry scouts the terrain. “I just didn’t want to drop that line the first time by myself.”
To the tarn
After 3.5 hours of skinning, the descent is a blink-and-miss-it 15 to 20 minutes of leapfrog skiing: one member descends to a safe area, hollers back uphill, and then the next member descends, always watching for safe escapes and stable slopes.
“When attempting steeper spring lines that may slide, it’s very important to make sure there was an adequate freeze the night before,” Sperry said later. “Early starts are the key to success and a safe outcome. Clear skies enable the frozen snow to melt and make those frozen slopes enjoyable corn snow.”
But, we were pushing the noon cutoff, and in the upper half of the descent Sperry triggers a small wet slide. He calmly eyes an escape to skier’s left, surfing at a 45-degree angle across the slope and away from the slide. The snow comes to a halt and Sperry continues on a safe line away from the couloir gut.
Final lesson: trust your ability.
“When you leave the confines of man, you’re entering an environment that’s trying to kill you,” Sperry said later. “Be on guard from beginning to end. Have a plan while descending and utilize the nuances of aspect to minimize wet slide risk.”
And, maybe, that’s the point of backcountry skiing: It’s an experience you can’t pay for, total immersion, an exhilarating and potentially deadly brush with Mother Nature at her wildest and most rewarding.
“I think that the society we live in works against people who are trying to be safe,” Holmes said later, echoing one of Sperry’s key philosophies: the goal is always to get home. “Everything is at your fingertips and disposable: the instant gratification, and we’re surrounded by that society… The thing you have to understand is that it takes time and patience to get there.”
When we reach our goal — the tarn and safety — it’s still a 1.5-mile bootpack to the trailhead and 15-minute drive to burgers on Main Street. Heads up, knees high, keep smiling.
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