Route Finder: It’s all about friends on a January backcountry powder day
Want more from backcountry guru Fritz Sperry? Read on for his thoughts on backcountry trip planning and the goals vs. objectives debate.
Early January. The winter storm and avalanche warnings are in effect for the next couple days. The anticipation is rising — it seems like it has been a long time since we last had fresh powder to play in. Messages have been sent, phone calls have been made, and a plan develops out of the winds that are blowing the snow sideways.
The kit gets packed the night before with water, lunch and snacks, camera, avalanche rescue gear, extra clothes, and gloves. I don’t think I will need the sunscreen, but I might need an extra pair of goggles — such are the ways of storm skiing. Clothes, boots and the rest of the gear are all laid out and ready to go. Like a runner the night before a marathon, I load up on pasta with meat sauce so hopefully I have enough energy to keep the powder train rolling along. The photos on social media from friends in Utah foretell of the storm’s epic potential. Sleep will be hard to come by tonight.
Coffee, bagel, blizzard
The alarm goes off and I stumble out of bed. I gaze at the coffee maker and reach for the start button. I’m glad I know where it is — the lack of sleep makes the morning views hazy. It’s early and the warmth of the coffee soothes as I look out the window at the pink glow cast on the clouds. It’s still overcast, but I can tell the sun is rising. The plows have been busy all night building snowbank walls along the street with each pass of their blade. The wind has died down a bit but still gusts occasionally, creating baby cornices on the summits of the snowbanks.
The crunch of my bagel brings me back to fueling up for what lies ahead. The rest of the coffee goes into the thermos for some warmth on the hill and into the pack it goes. I head out the door and into the brisk cold of the new day — a powder day. As the truck warms up, I run back inside and grab a few beers for the post-ski cheers. I look around to see if there’s anything else I’m forgetting and, satisfied, I return to the cold.
The drive to the trailhead is sketchy. There are cars off the road, abandoned with their hazards still flashing. Traffic is light, as most of the drivers appear to be locals on their way to work. Interstate 70 and Loveland Pass have been closed since last night. A long line of semis is parked at the overlook, their running lights on but their drivers obviously lights out. There is a desolate feel to the highway, like a war is raging and nobody wants to go outside to get caught in the crossfire.
A volley of wind-driven snow rakes the highway and visibility is reduced to the hood of my truck. The storm has returned in earnest, and even though the sun is now up it looks like the darkness of night is returning. This feels strange at 8 a.m.
The objective for the day comes into view as I round the bend and the clouds recede for a moment. The trees look caked in snow, as if this slice of the Colorado Rocky Mountains has been transported to heavier snow zones like Hokkaido or the Pacific Northwest. The avalanche danger has climbed to high, and so it’s time to avoid avy terrain and go ski my favorite tree run.
First at the trailhead
I pulled into the trailhead and the bottom of the truck skimmed the snow of the parking lot, creating a trench behind me. If this was the East Coast I might be high centering, but here, the light, High Rockies powder just blasts into a wake of cold smoke.
I’m the first to arrive and leave the engine running with the radio on. The stoke of the tunes is nice, but it’s the heat that really motivates me. I reach back and grab my ski boots and squirm over the center console to the passenger seat — it’s so much easier to put the boots on without the steering wheel in the way. My partners arrive and seem a little dazed at all the new snow. I feel the same way, like a kid in a candy store who’s on a sugar high. I may not be running around breaking stuff, but my mind is racing just as fast.
Being first is usually best, but being second or third is better when you have to break trail up the mountain. The group takes turns breaking trail so nobody has to do all the work. The leader is the target of many snow bombs coming off the heavily laden trees. We all learn the hard way to wear our hood when we’re on point.
The pace is perfect for the first lap. We chat about the snow and our girlfriends and our jobs and our families that we visited over the holidays. We dig a few hand pits to see what is happening with the snowpack and continue chatting. It has been a while since I’ve seen a few of my partners and it was good to catch up. The friendships born in the backcountry are strong — you can go years without seeing someone and pick up right where you left off.
Getting the goods
Before long we are at the top of the line. We talk about how badly we want to ski it while we rip skins and set up for ski mode.
The mountain delivers the goods. I drop in for my first turn and I’m immediately in the white room. The “ssssskkk” sound of the powder kissing my helmet is drowned out by the whoops of my friends above. It is good that I brought the neck gaiter so I can breathe — choking on face shots is fun every once in a while, but not with every turn.
There is plenty of snow so that nobody has to cross a track. We yo-yo our way down the mountain, whooping with joy and to let our friends know where we are. At the bottom we all convene at the skin track. This zone is brighter than most of the forest, lit by our smiles and laughter. We switch back to touring mode and head back up for more bliss. Skin, ski, repeat, skin, ski, repeat until the legs won’t go any higher.
At the trailhead we crack our beers and change out of our wet everything. We chat about the day and make plans for the next tour. We wrap up the conversations we had started on the skin track and marvel at the day. I look around at my partners in the deep, fresh powder and realize that in the backcountry, it’s all about friends on a powder day.
Fritz Sperry is a skier, author, photographer and artist who has skied extensively in the Colorado backcountry. He’s the author of: “Making turns in the Tenmile-Mosquito Range,” and “Making turns in Colorado’s Front Range, Vol. 1,” both available from his company, Giterdun Publishing.
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