Happy Birthday to Me
Happy Birthday To Me
In early February of 2016 I went to Silverton, CO for two days of Snowcat and one day of helicopter skiing.
My cousin Lou and I left from his house in WheatRidge, CO for the 6 or so hour drive to Silverton. Silverton had approximately 110” of base at the time, and we left about half way into a multi day snow storm.
It would be my birthday a couple days after the trip was over. My 50th birthday. I had been skiing every year since I was 5. Every year regardless of what injury I was recovering from at the time, even if it meant skiing one time that year just to make sure the streak stayed in tact. This was my birthday present to me. I had the pleasure of sharing it with Lou and five good friends from the mountain bike industry…an industry I’ve had the pleasure to be associated with since 1991.
Through Monarch Pass
Back to the trip. Lou and I left in his Chevy Expedition. When the speedometer stopped working, the mileage was 250,000, so neither of us is sure what the mileage was when we started the trip. It was a comfortable and capable workhorse for the next few days. We were just ahead of the peak of the storm, making it over Monarch Pass just before it closed. Visibility was limited. Road conditions were precarious. Just the way we liked it. The going was slow, but at least we were going.
8 hours into our 6 hour drive, we rolled through Ouray, CO with only Red Mountain pass and about 20 miles left to get to Silverton. The pass was on the other side of Ouray where we had our biggest luck of the trip…only we didn’t know it quite then. All we saw in the moment was the avalanche gate closed, and the need to back track. A quick summary of the situation led us to modify the plan and head to Telluride. There were no closed passes on the way to Telluride, so at least we would keep moving.
With the storm still raging and some locals advice to head to the upper mountain village, we landed at The Mountain Lodge in Telluride. We were wound up from the drive in, so we walked around the upper village, and found a lively pub to get something to eat. After staying a bit too late, a story for another time, we got to sleep with the snow still coming down as hard as it had at any point in the trip.
Welcome to Telluride
Telluride was an unexpected, and welcome addition to the skiing days of the trip. This day was going to be an acclimation day, or for those in the group who wanted to get some turns in, a quick day trip to Durango from Silverton. 18” fell from the time the lifts closed the day before, to first chair on this morning. On an epic powder day like this one, the locals know exactly how to harvest the mountain, chair by chair, run by run, to get fresh tracks all morning. We were not on that program. We got some great fresh turns for the first couple runs. No complaints, since we planned on leaving just after lunch to finish the drive to Silverton.
After lunch we were back in the car. It was partly sunny and the snow had stopped. It was Monday of this trip. We were enjoying reliving the unplanned ski morning at Telluride and looking forward to the beautiful drive to Silverton. Down through Dolores, over to Durango, and up to Silverton we went. The huge snowblower snow removal trucks were hard at work on Route 550 to Silverton. The snow walls left behind we were well over the roof of Lou’s Suburban. Snow covered switch backs up, and snow covered switch backs down made it slow going, eventually getting to Silverton well after dark Monday night. Finally.
A “Slight” Detour
The storm that Lou and I worked our way through caused delays and plan changes for the rest of the group as well. Some of them spent the entire time traveling. Others rerouted to Crested Butte for a ski day on Monday as Lou and I did with Telluride. Either way, we were all finally to the house we rented in Silverton by 2AM Tuesday morning, looking forward to an early launch for a day of snowcat skiing with Silverton Powder Cats.
Believing the snow was going to be deep, I bought a pair of DPS skis (Yes, the brand is called Deep Powder Skis) to give me all the help I could get from technology. I also bought a pair of Full Tilt boots for their comfort, light weight, and adjustability. Knowing we would be putting in long days at altitude, I trained harder than normal for the few months leading into the trip. I also did a bunch of reading on snow conditions, avalanche triggers and mountain rescue. All out activities were going to be guided by professionals. I wanted to have some knowledge of my own just in case.
The Powder Cats
Sign in, orientation, meeting other guests, and onto the snowcats. Powder Cats had a warming hut, and fantastic dog ambassador to help make gearing up a warm and welcoming process. The snow cats themselves had cabins built on to the back of them with seating for approximately 12. The guides were friendly and knowledgeable. Every run was fresh powder. Lunch was provided out on the mountain. The runs were challenging. The snow was deep. Powder Cats delivered!
We planned on having a rest day between the snow cat day on Tuesday and helicopter day on Thursday. We were all feeling good. Powder Cats had openings for Wednesday. We jumped at the chance to rinse and repeat Tuesday. We would rest Friday on the way home.
Silverton Day – Helicopter Skiing
Thursday. Silverton day. We were welcomed with clear skies and 25 degrees below zero!!! Silverton ski area is only open on select days. Almost all days require guided access to the terrain. Typically 1 guide to 4 guests. Tickets are limited to a certain number of guests each day so they can be managed properly for a safe day on the challenging terrain. Access to the terrain is via one double chair. The chair accesses some great terrain in and of itself. The rest is accessed by hiking from the top of the chair, or walking over to the heli staging area, and really getting after it. Added bonus for us, Silverton opened for the week on Thursday morning. Our morning. Meaning none of what we were about to ski had had anyone on it for almost one week. Almost four feet of fresh snow awaited.
Silverton‘s focus is skiing, and doing it safely. Amenities are a required, but bare necessity at Silverton. The ‘lodge” is a semi permanent tent. The rental shop is a permanently placed school bus. Avalanche equipment is required and available at the rental bus. Shovel, probe, transceiver, and back pack to carry it all. Check.
Safety is paramount at Silverton. The guides go out at daybreak hiking and by helicopter setting off charges to induce slides, and to mark the various terrain deemed safe under the conditions to be skied that day. A long training session on protocol, equipment usage, helicopter loading and unloading are gone over before heading to the lift. Josh was our guide. Josh is a story in and of itself. Thanks for a great day Josh. He quickly learned the capabilities for our group of four.
We made 6 epic runs that day. All fresh tracks and very deep snow. The runs ranged from open bowls, to tree skiing, to chutes. The snowcat terrain connected up steep pitches with mellow traverses in between them. The runs at Silverton were long, with nothing mellow in between them other than a helicopter ride. One skier at a time. The next skier did not go until the skier ahead was done and at the meeting location. When waiting above to go, the skiers below looked like dots. This was big terrain.
Because the steep pitches on snowcat day were not overly long, a false sense of avalanche security was developed. Surely, we thought, if a pitch slid while on it, we could point downhill and outrun the slide to one of the mellow traverse sections. Right? One of our helicopter runs exited in a valley. As we got closer to the end of the run the snow consistency began to change, ultimately ending up like the consistency of bumpy concrete. Josh pointed out this was avalanche debris, and pointed to the opposite side of the valley.
This particular avalanche, intentionally triggered earlier that morning by the guides, started high up on the opposite side of the valley, slid across the valley floor, and climbed partway up our side of the valley. Any sense of security was quickly erased. This was our second run. It was sobering. Josh did this to keep us focused on safety.
Our last run of the day was the steepest and most challenging. It was a chute. To get into it required a technical turn or two, or a modest jump down into it. Midway down was an avalanche charge blast hole. To be avoided. The chute wasn’t much wider than the diameter of the hole. The chute was about 150 yards long. Josh instructed us to head left at the bottom and get behind a rock outcropping there. I didn’t want to wait on top and look at the chute any longer than I had too. I went first. It was amazing. While in it I stayed focused. Falling would not end this day well.
When safely down and behind the rock outcropping, I took a moment to look up. This view was even more harrowing than the view from above. Dropping in to that last chute was definitely my defining Live Real Life moment of the trip, and one that will stick with me for as long as my memory holds out. The chute was only part of the last run. The legs were now tired. The altitude finally taking its toll. A cat track run down to an old school bus and back to the “lodge” for some locally brewed beer was the perfect ending to a perfect day. Thanks Josh!!
The Road Back Home
Red Mountain Pass was open for the trip back. Wow. This is the part about getting lucky. Red Mountain pass is one of the most dangerous roads in the country. Few guard rails. Big drops. Plow trucks use a GPS trace to stay on the road in bad conditions. It was a beautiful blue sky day on the drive out. I’m glad we got turned around several nights before. Lesson learned…trust the avi control gates!!!
We now got to see Ouray under better conditions. It is a very cool town. As it turns out it is an Ice climbing Mecca. Complete with ice making equipment and somewhat structured routes along a gorge that runs through town.
Thanks to the guys who shared this experience with me. Thanks to Lou and The Adventurous Concierge for putting the trip together, and thanks to Powder Cats and Silverton for helping us all have a safe, challenging, and unforgettable experience in the deep snow of the San Juan mountains.