Flying on the bird man’s mountain

Note: The camera was out of service for today's ski. All is good, it's drying out nicely and works fine, but I'm going to have to use words to describe today's adventure.

Mount Audubon is a statuesque, rounded peak in the Indian Peaks Wilderness that, unlike its neighbor peaks, is not named after a Native American tribe. It is named after John James Audubon who in the 1800s was America's premier bird artist. He helped categorize and paint 435 species of birds, including 25 that had never been discovered before. The Audubon Society is named after him, as is the 13,233 foot peak Elaine and I climbed and skied today.


John James Audubon

There is a route on this mountain that is one of my favorite skis to do anywhere. It's called Crooked Couloir. It drops off a ridge-line west of the Audubon summit straight down to Blue Lake in the Mount Toll and Paiute Peak basin. It's as if somebody took a grey canvas and, with a light brush, swiped a strip of white connecting the ridge line and the lake. It's called Crooked Couloir because of its shape. It starts off wide and not too steep – maybe 35° in angle – and then tracks subtly to the right before steepening to around 45° and narrowing and then veering off to the left. It's a subtle bend, like a arc of a large circle, but enough to deserve this name. Crooked Couloir is a much less popular choice for skiers heading into the Toll basin, probably for the simple reason that it looks pretty darned intimidating. From Blue Lake, it appears steeper than it is and impossibly narrow. In truth, it's neither ridiculously steep or that narrow, but I certainly don't mind the relative solitude of this route versus the mecca known as Toll.

It's been a long spring and Elaine and I wanted a respite from the heavy packs, so we decided to take the more straight forward route up the Mount Audubon Trail and then down the couloir. This breaks the rule of "climb what you ski," but as we had gotten a good look at it just a few days earlier, and it looked safe and appetizing, we decided to climb it via the alternate route. Another factor behind our decision is that the Blue Lake Trail is very snowy right from the get go, whereas the Audubon Trail, while higher, actually has less snow because it is very wind swept.

Mornings in the high mountains are a special time and this one was no different. We did, however, encounter, a group of 15 people or so right off the bat, students taking an ecology class through the University of Colorado. No worries – they were the most polite CU students I've ever met and we were soon past them and on our way. As is the case when the snow is deep, we were not really following a trail, but more a series of foot-steps from our predecessors. This can be risky, as who knows if these people knew where the heck they were going, but the general direction was right. The snow was firm though, and the route steep, which required some sketchy kick steps in running shoes and belays where we'd grab a handful of pine branch and pull our way up. All in a day's work in the mountains.

We soon emerged above the snow and entered a land of gnarled trees. These can also encumber travel, as they are often so thick that one must bushwhack through. There is one outdoor skill I'm quite proud of and has served me well in the mountains and woods: the ability to navigate terrain where there are no trails. A lot of it is from spending time in the hills, and perhaps some is intuitive, but I was stoked that we picked our way through the pine groves with zero bushwhacking – we found the smoothest route of travel by reading the land. The flowers in this section were stunning – the alpine tundra wildflowers have indeed begun to burst – and I was very happy to see my absolute favorite flower, the alpine Forget-Me-Not, thriving in numerous clumps. This flower is a minuscule – maybe 2 mm wide – blue plant that at high elevations grows very low to the ground. It's subtle and I think it represents the harsh beauty of the tundra perfectly.

We emerged out of the relative bliss of the pine boughs into an inferno of wind. Not gusts mind you, but a steady, knock you on your back incessant pound. We had our skis on our backs, and they acted like kites. Sideways travel was nearly impossible, and while going into the wind head first felt like a crossing of the Drake Passage in a rowboat, it was doable, assuming you engaged in a slight lean forward pose. Winds of this speed can literally take your breath away, and it was battering both of us. On this windswept mountain, there was no respite or shelter. It wasn't so much a physical problem as a mental one. It required a very zen-like calm in the mind to avoid a complete mental freak-out. We struggled through the wind for an hour or so. There was little flower observing and very few words exchanged (you couldn't hear anything). Just, one step in front of the other, plodding along, into the gale force.

We continued up and noticed a solitary figure with two dogs heading down. As we passed I commented to hime in a wry sort of way, "a bit breezy." He did not smile or laugh. He told us that the wind on the ridge was twice as strong as it was at this location we were at, which was alarming because we could barely stand up where we were and the top was all precarious loose rocks known as talus. He looked shelled, and Elaine and I had a serious conversation with each other about potentially turning back. Somehow I had missed something with the guy, but Elaine caught it. He was bloodied all over his legs. I assume the wind blew him down onto the sharp talus. The thing was, if we turned around here, we'd have the wind pushing us down the mountain for another hour, whereas in theory the top was only thirty minutes away and then, after the descent, we'd be in a much lower and more sheltered valley. We agreed to keep going but to be careful.

We picked our way up ribbons of snow and as we did so, I noticed the wind starting to let up slightly. I didn't want to say anything, as I didn't want to jinx it, but by the time we got near the top there was no question – the wind was letting up. It was still stout, but it didn't require high-wire style balance to stay on one's feet anymore. I told Elaine, "either this is a fluke or you and I truly live a charmed life." To the north, clouds whipped over the peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park, engulfing them in white and then setting them free, allowing their grey forms to stand.

A quick rest and it was onto the summit push. Elaine led the way. It was a drive-by summit, as the hour was growing a bit late and we wanted to make sure the snow quality in Crooked Couloir was good. The couloir itself requires a slight down climb from the Audubon summit, along a few little bumps on a ridge line until you reach the upper edge of this skiers-delight ribbon of snow. My first few steps onto the snow were alarming – I sunk to my hips – but a little further in, away from the rocks, things were solid, if not a bit soft. I was confident it was good to go. We transitioned from hiking shoes to ski boots, took a few swigs of water, ate a few snacks, and clicked in.

We skied the couloir one at a time, overlapping each other. It's a 1,600 vertical foot shot from the top to Blue Lake. The skiing was exceptional. Soft snow yet firm enough to move swiftly on, easy to edge and smooth. There is something about this run that is pure ecstasy, and I can think of few better skiing experiences than linking turns down this ever-steepening couloir, skiing it well through the choke, and then opening it up with some fast, wide turns to the edge of Blue Lake. Elaine skied the run well and had a massive grin on her face the entire time. I felt kind of lousy skiing, but I guess feeling and reality don't always match, because Elaine said it was the best I've skied all year. Crooked is one of those runs that makes you want to ski it well for two reasons – one, for survival, and two, because it is so beautiful, and such an awe inspiring place, that you don't want to desecrate it by skiing sloppy.

The high from skiing this run, the swelling of pride and joy you feel after negotiating it transcends normal happiness, and as I have said in previous writings, is as close to flight as humans can come without officially leaving the ground. Indeed, it seemed appropriate that, as we were skiing the run-out to the lake off a mountain named after America's greatest bird ecologist, a raven flew with us above, in a fashion that almost said, "hmpff…not bad. I approve." We'll never match the raven, but for a brief moment I felt close.

We picked our way through the forest and enjoyed the pungent odor of pine everywhere, the flow of water constant, the blueness of Mitchell Lake, while constantly gazing backwards at the strip of white tucked into the side of Mount Audubon. Skiing these things – it makes you feel good about life. It's addicting. Indeed, upon coming home Elaine pulled out Chris Davenport's book, "Ski the 14ers," dreaming and planning the next – and beyond – outing into the big mountains.


John James Audubon drawing of a raven.

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