Ben White is a New England native who moved to Salt Lake City to attend the University of Utah. He loves skiing in the backcountry, climbing, mountain biking and generally messing about in the mountains.
Playing in the mountains is an incredible thing. Be it skiing, climbing, biking, hiking, paddling or any other fantastic activity, it’s all fun. However, when the trees change color from green to fire or from grey to green, the fun stops, or at the very least, changes. From when I was twelve until about fourteen or fifteen, the loss of snow in the mountains brought about foul moods and boredom. Once I started mountain biking, it was still a bummer to lose ski season, but riding a bike became just so darn fun. With the addition of climbing on the list of fun things to do, there’s a whole new dimension to be added in both the warm and cold seasons. While some people might get jittery at their favorite crag melting out or trails being dry enough to ride, I have always been captivated by the first snow of the year
It’s December now, so there has been snow on the ground and all the resorts are open, and while the feeling of returning to the familiar is slipping away, there is still more to be had. In November, feeling the snap of bindings and hearing the sound of skis sliding on snow went from being pleasurably nostalgic about the last season to the way things should be. Watching the mountains fill in and returning to areas that need more snow is just happening now.
As much fun as Utah is, New Hampshire still feels like home after skiing the 48, and watching Tuckerman Ravine fill in via webcam is almost as fulfilling as watching Snowbird fill in. Checking the snowpack for places like the La Sals, Idaho and the Pacific Northwest by word of mouth and looking at trip reports has me excited for what is to come.
Seeing clean tracks in an area for the first time that season is like a notice saying “hey everybody, it’s good in here again!” It’s like seeing people at a roadside crag or with smiles on their faces and mud on their backs from riding for the first time in the spring.
We all love playing outside, and often times it’s hard to choose a favorite activity. The feeling of the familiar returning after a few months of missing it is something exciting, comforting and all-together pleasurable. For me, the snap of carabiners and the whir of a hub are always enjoyable, but just don’t do it for me the same way that the zip-zop of skins followed by muffled sliding on snow does.
“When people think of Moab, they think of all the red rock, and the rivers, and the canyons and they don’t really think of golden aspens and high alpine peaks — but it’s a big part of what Moab’s all about.”
The Big Mountain Enduro mountain bike race in Moab is all about that, sprinkled with a little bit of competition, by bike. Check it out!
Big congrats to our very own Osprey Athlete Macky Franklin for competing this epic ride.
It was supposed to be an epic tour, but it turned into more of a epic base camp tour, just like the Tour de France that was happening at the same time. Our goal was to ski as many kilometers and climb as many vertical feet as we could in three weeks. The vertical was a little more difficult as our home was around 8,000 feet and the mountains go up to 17,000 in the High Andes, requiring a lot more distance to gain any altitude.
We were given an amazing opportunity to ski in Chile. The original plan was to bus to Argentina, but sometimes is just ain’t meant to be. Our flight was late and we missed our bus-taxi connection. So with little knowledge of the language or currency, we got trapped into taking a taxi to nowhere, and had to return to a hostel in Santiago with nothing gained.
Luckily we had a local contact at Valle Nevado/El Colorado/La Parva and made good use of it, staying in a little snowy undisclosed hideaway for the remainder of our trip. It might have been a rough few weeks for the locals staying at the hut, because touring a minimum of four hours for 20 straight days wasn’t exactly good for foot odor!
Jumping back to the first day on the hill, we scored a classic side country lap of Santa Teresa. It was great to connect with the G3 engineers and be shown some local stashes, namely a 45-minute tour for a 2,000′ run. Then we could hitchhike back for another lap or ski tour back to the hut, over and over. Hitching back up to Valle Nevado was a safe bet, but be warned, you don’t how fast the driver will go! Hold on.
Unlike at the strict resorts in North America, we were pleasantly surprised that we could tour on the rope line up to the tops of the lifts in La Parva, El Colorado and Valle Nevado and not get hassled. Just stay out of the way.
The skiers we met were classic, but dare I forget my favorite tours with the local wild dogs. Pedro followed us up Tres Peuntes and summitted a 12,000′ peak, even breaking trail for us in the new snow. Zudnik toured with us from Valle Nevado to La Parva and scared every single skier along the way.
Once we got in the groove and acclimatized, we were able to step up and ski some of the higher peaks, Cerro Parva and Pintor. They yielded endless ski lines on all aspects, including some mandatory ice sheet ski lines for good measure. That, and with the low snow levels and spring like weather, rock sharks were lurking all over the place, and they bite. Helmets highly recommended.
The highlight of the trip was a much-needed dump of light, dry snow that we milked for five days with bluebird sunny skies.
250 km of ski travel
55,000 feet ascended on skis
80,000 feet descended on skis
I would like to thank some sponsors and people who made the trip possible: G3 Genune Guide Gear, Eddie Bauer/First Ascent, Osprey Packs, Ryder’s Eyewear, Intuition liners, Innate bottles, Suunto watches and Dissent Lab compression socks. Another big thanks to the G3 crew, Ben Dill, Martine, and the drivers in Chile for the rides up to Valle Nevado.
Story by Andy Traslin
Wind. Without it we wouldn’t have storms and without storms we wouldn’t have snow. I get it, but in recent years the wind has brought little to the San Juan Mountains each spring but dust. I’m not talking about a few rogue particulates that have blown in from the desert. I’m talking about dust storms that make me think Apocalypse.
I’ve been skiing in the San Juan’s for the better part of two decades, but the dust storm phenomenon has only been plaguing our spring snowpack for the last five years. Local backcountry skiers now know the dust is coming each spring, it is just a matter of when it will come. To add insult to injury, the dust storms of the last two springs have coated an extremely thin snowpack. Scientist are saying that the dust is contributing to about 45 fewer days of snow cover in the San Juan’s each season than a decade ago. The dust storms flare up when we get a stiff and steady wind from the southern side of the compass. This year the first major event hit April 7th the following week. By late April the snowpack looked to be a color best described as somewhere between an off-brown and adobe. Regardless of where the dust comes from, it’s here, so I can either hang up the skis or suck it up and get out while there is still snow to ski.
In late April we get a minor reprieve with half a foot of snow. The dust lurks beneath the surface but for a day I have a small window to get some turns in snow that is relatively free of visible dirt. The objective is a tight couloir off the eastern side of South Lookout Peak near Ophir Pass in southwest Colorado. I have been looking at this line for more than a decade, trying to find a time when coverage is sufficient and the couloir and run out are free of debris. From highway 550 I look at the line through my binoculars and it looks good to go. I drive a few miles up the Ophir Pass road find a small pull-out and put things in motion.
South Lookout Peak (El. 13,370) and the couloir from Ophir Pass Road.
The last storm cleared out less than 24 hours earlier, but as I start to skin, I notice shades of brown starting to poke through the brighter snow. As I gain elevation, the depth of the new snow increases and the visible dust dissipates. I traverse a large alpine basin and climb until the pitch exceeds the grip of my skins. I toss the skis on my pack, latch on the crampons and continue to head higher. The couloir narrows and the pitch steepens. I glance down at my bootpack and notice two distinct dust layers within the cross section of snow exposed with each footprint. The dust layers are separated from each other by an inch of snow and from the top by less than three inches. With today’s brilliant blue sky, I know that by tomorrow this white snow I climb will look like a chute of soot.
The pitch intensifies and gets my attention. It is steep enough now that my helmet grazes the surface with each step. This is the only time I ever feel truly exposed when skiing dicey terrain. The fear of sliding backwards, chest down, on a cliff-lined 45-degree pitch keeps me focused, which is probably good given the consequences of a fall.
After the crux, the climb mellows to a more comfortable 45 degrees.
After a period of sphincter-tightening steps, the couloir widens and mellows enough to allow me to take more relaxed steps to the top. The top of the couloir is a narrow notch in the rocks that provides exceptional views of the Wilson range to the west. From my perch I can see that the Wilsons took the brunt of the last dust storm. Being the first major mountains east of the desert has made the Wilsons a geological catcher’s mitt for massive amounts of dust. In terms of coverage, the snowpack looks like it should in early June, but the tone of the surface is sickening.
Lunch is consumed, gear is stowed and it is time to drop in. Skiing couloirs is a methodical but detailed process where each turn needs to be executed with precision to avoid putting a disastrous chain of events in motion. I get my game face on and feel the pull of gravity as I aim downward. The goal to skiing couloirs efficiently is to work with gravity, not fight it.
Rhythm is the key, and within a couple of turns, I have found mine. I stay focused a couple turns ahead and try to keep my speed up fast enough to not let my sluff catch me. I approach the narrow section and swivel a couple turns to dump speed as the slot is too narrow to allow my skis to turn perpendicular to the slope. After I pass the choke I cut right, make a wide turn, and let the sluff pass on my left side. The crux is over and now this is simple high-angle fun. The couloir widens and I gain speed quickly. The last of the cliff walls disappear and I find myself on huge well-sloped apron, where I dump a hundred vertical feet with each arcing turn. The entire run has taken a couple minutes but is well worth the multi-hour effort.
I soak up the San Juan sunshine while waiting for the rest of the crew to join me in the basin. Once we are all back together we start laying out a plan for our next ascent and select some possible lines. The north-facing slope above us still looks to hold some powder from the last storm. The last few turns we made have left white marks on the brown snow.
While it looks interesting, it is another sign that our spring snowpack will likely be gone earlier than ever. Not knowing how much longer our San Juan snowpack will last this spring, we decide that there is no better time than the present to get after it. Skins come out, water goes down and more sunscreen goes on. This is the cycle of my life, and life is good.
I attempted this line a couple of weeks ago from the snowmobile-accessible side of the peak with my friend Naomi. Unfortunately, new snow and warming temps aren’t a great mix, so our day was doomed from the get-go. Heavy snow was sticking to our skins like you wouldn’t believe. Wax didn’t help, and after dragging those leg weights through avi debris, high winds and fading light, I was forced to pull the plug and try again another day.
The next time we approached from the Blackwater Creek road for a more direct line, with a fast and fit team that was on the same page. Liam and Adrian were as keen as I was to ski this line. With good weather and stability lined up, we just needed an alpine start to seal the deal so we camped at the road and woke up plenty early. Bringing the true style and ethics of ski mountaineering — climbing right from ground zero — we were ready to climb what we wanted to ski.
The pace was fast right from the get go, and I settled into a rythm I knew I could hold all day.
There was one more crux that involved climbing through the cornice with an extra axe for four points of weight-bearing contact. With one last step we had a warm welcome into the sun and were ready to ski.
We excavated the cornice to fit skis. Liam dropped in first, or rather ‘aired in’, as falls were not an option. Adrian was next, then I carved the lip of the cornice a little more for my entrance. I shuffled down, controlling my fear into the no fall zone, and once in the zone it was all good… we were through the first crux and into a classic steep coastal couloir.
Definitely a top ten ski line!
Photos: Andy Traslin, Adrian Armstrong
Story: Andy Traslin
“I still remeber the simple pleasure of riding my bike to little league baseball in my uniform.” Andy Traslin graduated to carrying his skis.
Osprey Athletes the Traslin Brothers (Mike & Andy) have been skiing their entire lives. Growing up in the mountains, their snow endeavors were only natural. As such, this photo by Mike Traslin of Andy riding with skis on his back is exemplary of their lives. We hope it inspires you to get out and go!
Thanks to Mike Traslin for sharing this shot with us on Facebook!
Looking for great views and an aesthetic ski tour? Then Heartstrings is for you.
Like most skiers and climbers, I had skied various routes on Mt. Joffre, Matier, Slalok. I had heard of the Heartstrings in many conversations over the years… but only in regards to exiting the bigger objectives.
I had personally always just skied by the Heartstrings, for one reason or another. It always just seemed like…. “Oh look, there’s Heartstrings.” After years of passing by, the big rockwalls lured me in and I finally skied it. The snow was variable, but the views were perfect. Fun Ski! It would be great to hit that zone in powder. Next time.
For more information on the area, pick up “Exploring the Coast Mountains on Skis” by John Baldwin and head to page 125. Good luck.
Words: Mike Traslin
The annual Winter Wildlands Alliance Backcountry Film Festival is an outright celebration of human-powered winter adventure. What’s more, it honors environmental preservation while working to showcase the pure beauty of non-motorized recreation. And to put the cherry on top, the Backcountry Film Festival expressly promotes the work of grassroots filmmakers who tell these inherently awe-inspiring stories.
If you spent the winter months playing in the snow, now’s the time to submit your footage of it because the 9th annual Backcountry Film Festival is now seeking entries! Here’s are the requirements for — as well as process of — submitting your quality footage: