Time to find some snow. Looking for good snow is a lot like looking for good waves. Conditions and temperatures are crucial in finding quality powder. Just like tides, wind and interval are essential in finding great waves. It looked like the whole west coast was finally getting its share, but temperatures in the Sierras were a little warm, meaning rain down low and sort of a heavy wet snow in the mountains. The Rockies tend to get drier snow because they are a bit higher and further from the coast. Colorado’s forecast looked epic. Temps, snowfall, etc. I got a buddy that lives in Crested Butte and after a phone call and a quick chat, it was on.
I’m new to the mountains and its dangers but I see a lot of parallels between the two sports. Especially the big wave thing. Getting caught by massive swells or going over the falls at Mavericks on a 20ft wave has similar dangers to being caught by an avalanche. They both can kill you. There are dangers you have to acknowledge and prepare for in both sports. I took an Avalanche course in Jackson Hole and I learned to recognize dangers that I had no idea existed. Just like a beginning surfer may not recognize the different current patterns that could either be your best friend or your worst enemy.
After a super sketchy landing in a whiteout snowstorm I was greeted by my friend Brandon in Gunnison. “We are forcasted to get 7ft of snow on Crested Butte Mountain and 10ft in the backcountry,” he says as we pull up to the coffee shop in town for something to eat. “The avi danger is considerable in the backcountry so we are gonna hit the resort and let it settle” Fine with me, I have no desire to go hunting for avalanches. We wind our way up into the mountains above Gunnison, into the valley were Crested Butte Town is nestled. I can feel the altitude. I see herds of black cows huddled together, standing motionless in deep snow. It’s white as far as I can see. “There is a fish hatchery on the river and there are usually Bald Eagles hanging around” Brandon points down to the left of the road to the East River. I didn’t see any Eagles. Too much snow coming down.
The resort is steep, so steep it boasts the steepest run in North America called “Rambo”. We tear up the mountain for the first few days. Hunting powder stashes, trying to be the first here and the first there as the ski patrollers drop ropes. Brandon knows the mountain inside out and all I have to do is follow him to get the goods. While riding the lifts back up, he points out different lines that he and his buddies ride. Steep, rocky cliff faces. Not for me.
We got a call from Alex “Get your sled and meet me up at Irwin.” Irwin is a cat skiing operation up past town. We take Brandon’s sled (snow mobile) and fly up the valley past the frozen, snow covered Irwin Lake. On the way we pass a spot where the day before a man on a snowmobile got buried in an avalanche and died. When I see the hole they had dug to pull him out I cringed, feeling the reality of it. We keep going. All we see is snow, trees and high mountain walls as we zoom to the back of the valley. My fingers get numb and start to hurt. There is a small, cozy log cabin with a lady happily cooking lunch for the skiers that had come up for the day. That’s where we parked our sled.
Our cat holds about ten people. Alex greets us with a big smile and we jump in. There is a group of four Swedes we call the “Swedish Flight Team”. Fresh tracks and the snow is deep. Our guides are stoked, the level of the group is advanced. We do lap after lap and blast Swedish nightclub music on the rides back up. Hot lunch in the cozy cabin and up for more. My legs start to get soar, I avoid the jumps. Thousands of vertical feet and a hundred turns later we say goodbye and jump back on the sled and race out of the valley smiling. Après at the Montoya for some of their homemade rum and pork tostadas. It’s still snowing. Alex shows us some pictures from the day and we have another Rum drink.
The next day temperatures rise and the snow stability gets worse. It basically just blew out. The equivalent of onshore winds with a nice swell running. Again I’m reminded how fickle conditions can be in the mountains and the ocean. Time to head home, the rain has stopped and a clean swell is on its way.