Where to begin…
It felt like yesterday on the trail, and it feels like an eternity ago now that I am fireside at home. This trip was an alternative to the Alaska trip that for multiple reasons I had to cancel. But that is another story. I was hungry from the start. Hungry for a lot, adventure, the unknown, a challenge, self-realization, suffering and yes even to climb a mountain. The plan as it evolved started with an objective to climb and ski Mt Zirkle and Big Anges. I had several reasons for this one of which was I could find very little info on winter travel in the range. This felt as like an adventure, wild undeniable and inevitable. At first I was afraid to tell my friends and family of my intentions, because on the innermost level of self-honesty; the side that even the best of us rarely reveal to the world, I was unsure of my conviction. I knew this would test my limits, as limited as they are.
This day seems so far away… I remember the drive up being normal, feeling nervous and excited. Twenty minutes before I reached the lot I saw a coyote with a rabbit in its mouth. The cool thing to say here would be that I wonder which animal I was. But that is bullshit if you ask me. The truth was that seeing this animal unafraid made me realize the time had come the time to be in the wild. There was a special anticipation as I neared the parking lot. I always get an anxious feeling when going in to the wild. A man’s true nature and capabilities of spirit and of physique are shown to him. The next shock was when I was getting ready. I was just pulling my pack up for the impossibly soon departure when whoop whoop whoop a helicopter not 5 miles from where I was standing came out of the wind like a rocket. Life support or heli-skiiing? I will not know until I’m am back in civilization, even then perhaps never. A bad omen for someone moving into the same terrain with weather approaching?
On the trail I’m feeling better, pissed that there are sleds passing me. I am glad I have the fortitude to go it on my own thought. Hot sweaty, damn bag is too heavy. Then the trail head sign I have been longing for. Hot damn it’s here already! On to the last lot apprehension again as this is where I leave the trail… a small distance ahead I find a good bivouac site and hold for the night. Start a fire; this is tough on snow as it doesn’t want to stay surface level lol. Dry the boots cook dinner, boil water, and go to bed before sunset.
Its cold why is my bag wet? (Condensation from my breath still getting used to this new bivy. )
Thank god its morning Im freezing. Grab my boots, boots on, grab stove, heat water, and hot tea on. Pack the gear while the perfect timed sun is drying my bag hanging on a line. Thanks be to the sun for this contribution. Just the right time and right place. Take off feeling hesitant it’s snowing again. I find a river that I need to cross and started evaluating snow bridges when boom! an actual bridge. Damn I love the forest service trail crew! great work guy looks and works bomber! Onward, the way gets steeper. Thanks to my recent avalanche class I have google satellite print outs. Micro terrain management I believe is what it’s called. This alleviates a lot of nerves knowing what is above you In the winter. Through that piece into the dark timber left, right, up, down all look the same but Im getting close to the end. A lovely water fall greets me! Up one last tricky bit where I had to back track to a safer slope and im here at the new land mark of Gold Lake seems like as good a place as any to stop for lunch. I pass the lake, follow the basin and out of nowhere bam the upper basin in all her glory. Flattop is a much underrated mountain. This looks like a marvelous ski mountaineering and climbing playground with endless channels and couloirs. I am tired, it is time to find a place to camp before the stop time 4 pm.
Found a spot and started digging myself a home. I loved camping and building and this gave me the best of both worlds! Clean, cook, camp, repack the bag for the next day’s accent on Mt. Zirkle. I have bags under my eyes at this point. Out by 7 pm.
Cold by bearable except my nose, I kept my breath outside the bivy this night. This kept me dry but I think I got mild frostbite on my nose. Not the best solution. These nights can be really long.
I am frozen, wet and frozen. Did I mention frozen? Why did I leave my boots outside? Again I was inches away from turning back; the weather looked awful and I was worried about leaving my survival gear at camp. The first step out from camp felt like steps towards my grave. Rationalizing this action by the logic “I will turn around at the first sign of weather (real bad weather), my water supply drops below ½ litter, or the time is 12;00 pm” I pressed on.
Fortunately none of these happened right away. There was a point where I could not feel my toes for 20 mins or so. Damn I need to keep my feet warm! After a lot of movement and a very brief period of half sun I could feel my feet again. Damn it Joe keep your feet warm, no peak is worth your toes. Onward and forward up the pass required a bit of ski carrying and huffing and puffing. On top of Red Dirt pass it’s windy. Hook a left and keep going I haven’t met the criteria for turning back yet. Halfway up I put on skis and tried to skin. Three steps up and I slid halfway back down. The surface was super hard pack at 35+ degrees. There’s no way I’m skinning. Carry the skis and find a route around the hard pack. Near the sub-summit it’s now only 20 feet more but its icy hard pack. Test test and test again, ok its good. I boot it up to the sub summit and collapse wind is howling, and the clouds are lingering, it is 12 pm. Shit ok turnaround time, I have meet the criteria. The summit is so near but… it’s not worth it.
The way down was divine! Amazing the ground you cover on a snowboard. I got back to camp within the hour. Pretty cool to ski back to camp! Sent an update to the family, and got a note snowfall expected tonight thought Tuesday. Damn once again bad weather or bad for me weather. Weather itself not being the principal reason for my less than perfect planning. I had underestimated the amount of fuel I would need to melt snow. I was running low already. This, plus raw cold feet sent me packing early.
I made it back to just above the waterfalls by 3 set up camp and got ready for the hard decision to cut the trip short. This decision was soon reaffirmed as it started snowing and didn’t stop until 3 inches had fallen in 2 hours. This much snow I better get out before I had to start the Alaska style night shoveling of the camp site. With little fuel, wet boots and only a bivy I was not ready for this.
I used the majority of my little fuel cooking my boots. Best decision I have ever made!!!!
This was actually an ok sleep but I believe it was due to exhaustion. Everything got wet. I couldn’t keep dry. Bivys don’t work well when I’m breathing in them need to figure out why.
Light!!! Ok and I’m up and I have shit to do. Where are those cold ass boots, hurry, hurry, hurry, boots on, outside. It is still snowing. I won’t make another night with the amount of gear that’s soaked. No time for breakfast heat some tea, drink and pack the bag. Ok now only the longest day yet. Fun! 1,2,1,2,1,2 on and on I go the snow seems ridiculously sticky and although I’m am going downhill I find it hard to ski due to snow sticking to the bottom of my skins and the 40 lbs. bag on my back. Many hilarious falls, just don’t hurt yourself, go slow be safe don’t hurt yourself. Ok back at the road thank the lord. Eat an energy gel and some food, only 6 more miles. The next 6 miles are a boring blur of road skinning, except for a pleasant stop by the north fork of the elk river bridge.
Is old red going to be there? Is old red there? Yes god damn I love you girl!!! I take the last step of the week, put my raw feet into slippers and blast the heat. Oh glorious heat! And there you have it one of the hardest things I’ve ever done! 30 plus miles in 4 days with a 50lbs bag Solo in the winter. Don’t ever let anyone tell you it’s impossible. You are the only one that truly knows if it is possible, and then only after you have attempted it. Take what you will from this story, but I call it progress and I call it success.
Also before I forget, I would like to send out some sincere thanks to the many teachers I have had the pleasure to learn from over the years. First and foremost I would like to thank the editor and owner of the online page Earn Your Turns, out of Trukee California, for the advice about leggings under your socks. Without this I would never have made it past day one. Next I would like to thank Pete Lardy who guides for pikes peak alpine school and I believe has his own guiding company as well, for the reverse kick turn idea on the downhill splitboard movement. This very well could have saved me from injury in that shitty sticky snow. I used it more times than I can count. Finally but defiantly not of least importance I would like to thank Scott owner and head guide of Apex Mountain School for the demonstration of google map images for micro terrain management. This was super helpful!
Additionally I would like to thank all of the friends and family who have helped me through the process of believing I could do something like this. Thanks Ma and Pa! Also thanks Vinny, (unity) the advice about just being Joe may have been the best advice I have ever gotten! I love you all!