My name is Justin and I am an addict. It's August and I have 2 days off from work. What should I do? Well that's a stupid question, ski of course. Where do I find snow in August? The Gore! I talked to Frank who did some scrambling in the area not too long ago and got some beta on a line he scoped. Having a 2 day window I wanted to do an overnighter but after asking all my ski buddies I wasn't able to find a partner and make it happen. Well, if I can't go for the route as an overnighter then I may as well try and find somebody to do it in a single push for a big day. Mark Koob was available and being a stong partner fit the bill. Due to the monsoon and thunderstorm season we opted to start stupid early to try and mitigate our risk of getting caught in one. And so we met in Frisco at 2am and headed west in route to Piney Ranch.
So the original plan was to ski both Mount Powell and Eagles Nest. The main objective was a couloir on the East face of Eagles Nest while as a bonus to the approach of this we would be able to ski about 800ft vert off the North face of Powell dropping into Black Creek. So the route was to hike over kneeknocker pass and up Mount Powell where we would then drop the north face of Powell into Black Creek. From there we would then hike a little ways towards Cliff Lake and to the base of our couloir. Boot and ski the couloir and then climb up and over the saddle between Powell and Eagles Nest into Cataract Creek. Then over Game Pass and back down Piney Creek. Total distance of about 13 miles and 8000ft vert.
The forecast called for 60% chance of thunderstorms after noon. As we drove into Vail light rain started to fall and we could see a few bouts of lightning in the distance. We both agreed to at least still try for the mission in hopes that the early sun would burn off the clouds. We then donned our headlamps and were on the trail at about 3:15. A quick hour and some later we were at our trail junction where we headed up towards the Powell-Peak C basin. Our headlamps went off just as we approached the meadow below kneeknocker and we hiked our way up to the saddle as low lying clouds wrapped the peaks around us.
From here we headed up to the Southeast slopes of Powell while enjoying breathtaking views of the Gore.
Once we reached the top the clouds and mist kept on rolling in and out. We could still get a pretty good look at Eagles Nest and our couloir and so we hiked down a little ways where we found our snow descent into Black Creek.
We rode all the way to the scree and from there had to assess our situation. The time at that point was about 9 o'clock. We had told ourselves that we needed to be in the Cataract Creek drainage not long past noon as so we wouldn't get caught in the thunderstorm. It had been a funky weather day with clouds and rain in and out but it seemed as the clouds were building and getting a bit darker. We figured that from where we were it would take at least another 4 hours to ski the line off Eagles Nest and safely get back down in elevation in time. Considering the thunderstorm that passed by the day prior, it wasn't a hard decision to bail on Eagles Nest. And so we then decided from there to have a little lunch and find a backup plan. From our little rock seat where we ate we looked around for any potential when BAM, right in front of our eyes sat a beautiful inset couloir. It took about one sentence before we decided that it seemed to fit the bill for a quicker ski option.
We decided that instead of booting the couloir we would set a booter up the snowfield to the climbers left. This was the line that we had originally skied down and so then we would already have a bootpack set on our exit back up and over Powell. From there we could also assess the clouds and weather before we dropped into the couloir. And so up we went..
We reached the top and got a look over the ridge. It still looked like we had time and so down the couloir we went... not knowing what conditions lie below us.
The first few sets of turns above the rollover were great. Then things got a bit spicier really fast. It turns out that below our little rollover lied a slope of 50+ degree runnels and ice. This funneling into shear ice and rock. I reached the choke, rode through, lost my edge and bounced down a few feet before sinking my axe in behind me and my heel edge into the rocks to my left and hard snow to my right. I look in between my legs and notice shear ice. Well alright, now I was in a bit of a predicament. I wanted to just ride off to the right on my heel edge but the conditions being what they were and the angle funneling back into the rock/ice I kept telling myself not too. What to do now. As my heel edge slips out a bit I sink and plunge my axe in as far as I can. I regain my position again and finally have Mark carefully ride his toe edge and downclimb to the side of me where he gave me his whippet. I then plunged in the whippet and used both it and the axe to hold onto while I spun my board around and onto my toe edge. I wipe the sweat off my brow. Now at least I was in a position to use my axe efficiently. I was also then able to spin my pack around and pull out my whippet. From here we both decided to carefully climb our way off of the snow/ice to skiers right where there was a good 4ft deep by 3 foot wide gap caused by melt from the cliff wall. From there we downclimbed about 50 ft or so to where we found a spot that we "thought" was in better conditions. We fandangled on our snowboards as Mark dropped first and neared another little rollover. I then here "Shit!" as I see snow pillow up and hear the sound of Mark and his board sliding down and smacking into the left wall. "Fuck! Dude, are you ok?!?" A couple seconds go by. "Yea, i'm good. I think." Mark ended up finding some more ice and was able to luckily eventually self arrest himself. From there I stayed on my toe edge and hand-over-hand "downclimbed" the couloir by continuously plunging my axe picks in over and over until I was eventually able to link a few turns out of the apron. I will have to admit that this was definitely one of my sketchiest moments of the season!
With a few sighs of relief and still with smiles on our faces, it was time to head home. And so we headed back up the bootback and up and over Powell as it seemed the clouds were starting to burst all around us. Luckily, somehow the weather decided to cooperate with us today and we ended up barely getting rained on and believe it or not found sun back in Piney River.