On March 23rd, a group of seven of us met up in Ashcroft, CO – the launch point for the Braun Huts system. Late March in Colorado is typically when the higher summits and bigger lines begin to open up. The Elk mountains, like most of Colorado, is continental snowpack prone to persistent weak layers that threaten backcountry skiers most of winter. Springtime typically brings routine freeze and thaw cycles that help consolidate the snowpack, so it’s go time for skiing the lines we oogle over all winter.
The last four years, we have done a trip to the Braun huts to celebrate my birthday at this same time, and we have been lucky with fresh snow and relatively stable conditions. As we skinned into Lindley Hut on Tuesday evening, snow turned from flurries to full on blizzard. I had opted to bring one of Sven’s retro Descente jackets in lieu of a shell, and of course denim to wear at the hut. Our two hour skin to the hut passed quickly, but it was enough time for my technical denim to properly soak through.
Our group all arrived at the hut by 7pm. Two of our friends, Annie and Drew had to skin out early in the morning to return to work, but the other five of us, Oliver, Nick, Fletcher, Jack, and I had plans to ski a line called “Dr. Evil” on Star Peak prior to adventuring over Green Mountain to Markley Hut. We gathered around the table for some shrimp cocktail, charcuterie, and eventually a couple games of Di.
Lots of laughter and the wood stove warmed up the hut. We found ourselves appropriately satiated and giggling only to realize that Oliver had cooked up 100oz of Chuck roast for dinner. — The takeaways, we liked Cowgirl Creamery cheese more than Humboldt Fog, Oliver is really good at Di, and shrimp cocktail is worth it. Probably didn’t need to bring the 100oz of steak.
A reasonable night of sleep and the early departure of our working friends meant we were up and at ’em at a reasonable hour. My only birthday wish was for a breakfast of biscuits and gravy, so if the meat Tuesday night wasn’t enough, we cooked 2lbs of sausage to accompany some nice wood-fired biscuits and gravy. I think I speak for all of us, we ate ourselves into a coma and the prospect of skinning any distance with our ~40lb packs seemed ludicrous. Such is life, and the ways of type two fun.
We ventured up, slow moving at first, until we found a good place to drop our overnight gear and excess food. There was some debate about bringing the bag of wine, but ultimately, it stayed behind. From there, we could see the prominent spire of “Dr. Evil” and the ever-enticing line “Pussy Galore” just a bit looker’s left. We followed fox tracks as we skinned up past a totally frosted Taylor Peak. The sun shone in a way that had many of us skinning silently blissed out and all of us wishing we had applied more sunscreen.
As we side-hilled into the basin below the buttress of Star Peak, we spread out enough to maintain a safe following distance considering the overhead hazard. With no service in the mountains, we were operating on our own conjectures and the information from the avy forecast the previous day (which was low in all elevations). We passed the run-out of “Pussy Galore” and regrouped toward the bottom of “Dr. Evil.” As Oliver approached the other four of us, he asked why we had chosen to sit directly below the line in a potentially dangerous position. The thought hadn’t crossed my mind, I hadn’t seen signs of any red flags, no whumpfing or shooting cracks – just some wind drifts.
We regrouped out of the run-out and discussed our plans and options. In a group, it’s important for everyone to voice their concerns and assessment. I was certainly under the impression that we were a go-ahead for skiing “Dr. Evil,” and anticipated that “Pussy Galore” would be outside the group’s comfort zone. Promptly, Oliver said he wasn’t comfortable going up into the steeper terrain as he had heard whumpfs and seen lots of inconsistency in the snow. The majority of the party agreed. I honestly felt frustrated, as it was a shlep to get out there and I was excited to be up high and ski something. I have skied with Oliver more than any other friend in the backcountry and full trust his judgement and know his level of caution. The same can be said for Jack, Nick, and Fletcher.
I was in no place to make a stink, when the group decides (especially friends who have a similar risk tolerance to me) that it’s not a good idea, that’s the verdict. We ripped skins there and skied some of the most beautiful hippie pow turns we could ask for, in a setting that was awe-inspiring, among best friends. Once I started skiing, I was reminded of how much fun the whole experience can be, even without hitting the objective or getting gnar.
Something in the afternoon sun supplied us with newfound energy and we made our way up and over Green Mountain, passing a drool-worthy line on Taylor, prior to dropping into the Express Creek basin and towards Markley. That ski was athletic to say the least.
Our night at Markley involved some board games, a fascinating book on Gnomes by Will Huygen, some more Di, some vino, and a delicious pasta dinner with Oliver’s tomatoes from his garden in Oregon.
I woke up on the morning of the 25th, 30 years old, with a crick in my neck and a headache from a fitful night of sleep from the wine dizzies. Friends gathered around, making coffee, situated in the perfect little mountain hut, feeling grateful for this life. After skiing out, Jack and I were driving home and we checked the avy forecast for the previous day. Sure enough, it had bumped up to moderate above 11,000ft as the result of significant wind loading. The specifics called out northwestern slopes that are in the shade and listed not only wind and storm slab, but persistent slab as well. Just 40 some-odd miles away in Beaver Creek, on a similar aspect, a man had been caught in a slide and buried due to a persistent slab breaking.
It’s easy to make blanket assumptions regarding freeze and thaw cycles and the big lines in the mountains being green lit for spring missions. In reality, it’s likely that “Dr. Evil” and “Pussy Galore” hadn’t received enough sun to warm up and consolidate, and with that recent wind episode, they could’ve been hazardous. In the moment, I was a little caught up in it, but looking back on a wonderful two nights with friends and time spent in the mountains, I’m really happy with the decision we made, and hopeful that my 30s will bring about more conservative decision making in the backcountry. Easy can still be really fun. And nobody likes the vision of their name written up in a CAIC report or thinking about the other lives impacted by that simple decision.
Thanks Oliver, Nick, Fletcher, and Jack for getting me to 30 years old safely and I look forward to many more mountain missions with you all.