September 24, 1995
It’s early August. Temperatures on Colorado’s eastern plains are soaring into the upper 90s, but I’m high in the mountains, far above the heat and congestion of the city. Up here the air is crisp and cool and snowfields still cling to the slopes. While many urbanites are preparing for a day at the pool, I’m preparing to ski the snowfield below me. The heavy snows that provided skiers with one of the best ski seasons in memory still linger and for backcountry skiers like myself, the ski season never ended.
I have spent the morning hiking up Torreys Peak, one of Colorado’s 54 14,000-foot mountains. After a satisfying lunch and leisurely nap on the summit, I begin to contemplate my descent. It’s a steep, continuous swath of snow which drops directly down the side of the mountain over 2,000 vertical feet. I step into my binding and kneel down to clip my telemark boot into my ski. Rising to my feet, I can feel the effects of the altitude. A slight dizziness flushes through my head. I take a deep breath and pause for one last look at the magnificent vista of peaks on the horizon before refocusing my attention on the descent route. As I plot my line, I can feel the giddy edge of adrenaline spreading through my upper torso and into my limbs. I’m strong and confident, but the anticipation of that first turn has my body preparing itself for a mishap.
I sideslip a few feet, testing the snow. It’s quite firm and consolidated underneath but has a layer of soft, granular, melting snow on top. This is not at all like the light champagne powder of mid-winter. It’s a mature, packed corn snow which is only found in spring and summer. It’s ideal for executing precise, controlled turns on steep terrain.
Most years, the snowfields have disappeared by late June, but this year was an exception. Continuous storms throughout May left the snowpack 300% above normal in many areas. It didn’t just snow and then blow off the high peaks, either. It blanketed them with several feet of moist spring snow, which consolidated quickly, turning the mountains into a vast playground of slopes, basins and couloirs just waiting to be tested by the brave and adventurous.
I take one last deep breath, then rise up and step straight into the fall line. I pick up speed at a ferocious rate before cranking my right leg around into a telemark turn. My body compresses, then recoils as my forward ski carves deeply into the snow. My momentum carries me out over my ski tips and into the abyss again. I begin to feel the rhythm as I drop into the next turn, this time thrusting my left leg forward. The dance continues, turn after turn. Rise, fall, carve, compress. A graceful ballet unfolds as I wind my way down the slope.
I pause a third of the way down to catch my breath. A narrow section between two rock outcrops is just below me. I decide to proceed with caution and negotiate the narrow section with four quick parallel jump turns. Then it’s back to the graceful flowing motion of the telemark turn that I have come to love so much.
Near the bottom, the melting action of the sun has formed the snow into deep ridges and valleys. These formations, know as sun cups, are more difficult to maneuver through. My legs tire quickly. I slow my pace and pick my way through, one turn at a time.
When I reach the end of the snow, I remove my skis and walk over to a tiny brook that drains through the tundra from an adjacent snowfield. The water is crystal clear and ice cold. The sun beats down on my back and neck as I gulp down the refreshing beverage. Pure water, the best thirst quencher there is.
I look back up at the summit ridge. What a fantastic scene – deep blue sky, a jagged ridgeline and a white ribbon of snow descending from a majestic summit. Two small figures are hiking their way down the rocky talus on the left ridge. It will be another few hours before they make it down to this point. Too bad they didn’t bring their skis.