Powder(ish) skiing in September

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Alex, Danielle and yours truly (R to L) with Andrews Glacier in the background. A fine ski for September 25th! Looking up we basically hugged the right side up top and then crossed over and skied the left side on the bottom. Pretty much fresh turns the whole way!

We’ve learned many things on this six-year spree to ski at least one day every month. One thing that is a near guarantee is that the skiing in August and September is marginal at best, horrible at worst. And yet, two nights before our chosen date this year, the wind howled, our little cabin shook and it snowed on the divide. Would the streak of angry sun cups, dirty snow and bullet proof ice patches end with this wintery development?

The day started with a groggy meeting at 8 am at the Rocky Mountain National Park visitors center, which required a 6:45 am departure from home. A salmon colored sunrise shimmered through the golden leaves and left a glow on the white capped mountains. Winter may not be here yet, but it’s coming…you can see it in the sky. It’s a different shade of blue and grey from summer – flatter, shallower, more menacing and much more expansive.

Elaine and I broke our isolationist pattern and skied with another couple who have been customers at Neptune Mountaineering for a couple of years. They are also serious skiers, hailing from Lake Tahoe and Jackson Hole. We’ve been trying to carve out space to ski with them for some time, and today it finally happened. Alex and Danielle were the perfect partners – fit, sensible, calm and funny. I was immediately impressed with Danielle’s ability to handle stressful situations, as the Bear Lake parking lot was full. Rather than lose her shit as I might be prone to do when situations of too much crowding prevail, she kept her cool, kept smiling, and lo and behold found a spot within minutes. Clearly surviving the weekend rush requires a patience with crowds that Elaine and I do not have. It’s good thing we work 95% of all weekends!

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Up the Flattop Mountain Trail. Hallett Peak and low clouds loom in the distance.

Our destination for the day was Andrews Glacier, and we decided to take the longer but more satisfying circle approach from Flattop Mountain. Flattop is a popular 3,000 foot climb from Bear Lake. It was the first mountain I climbed in the park way back in the early-90’s…I scaled it in stiff soled SPD mountain biking shoes and then ran back down. I still have a damaged big toe nail on my left foot from that act of brilliance!

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Up the right side, south on the divide, down the glacier and the long walk back. It’s a lot of walking for just a little bit of skiing!

We climbed smooth and steady, chatting and enjoying an ever increasing amount of snow on the trail. While at the bottom it was just a dusting, by the top it was at least three inches deep, drifted to quite a bit more in certain spots. We got a lot of obligatory, “are you really skiing” comments, to which we gave the affirmative.

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Nearing the summit of Flattop Mountain. The snow was a respectable depth up here of at least a few inches.

We turned left, departed from the trail and headed south on the Continental Divide into a real winter wonderland. The snow was deepish and the ptarmigan were out in force, turning white just in time for winter. The divide was an absolute treat with zero wind and improving views of Longs Peak and the Indian Peaks to the south. Past Hallets Peak and Chaos Canyon, across some talus, up a rise and we were at the top of Andrews Glacier. We feasted on cookies and cocoa while changing into ski boots. I did a little scouting and noticed that the left side over the knoll had fresh snow on it and nary a suncup in sight.

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Conditions were quite ideal on the Continental Divide – barely any wind and gorgeous. The iconic 14er Longs Peak is the tall mountain on the left.

The first turns of the month are always a little dicey, and this was no exception as the fresh snow was grabby and a little punchy. We tentatively found our balance and then made our way over the knoll, hop turning for safety sake before letting the skis run out a bit. These were real turns, not the contrived death snow we normally encounter in September. We milked the left side as much as we could and then headed onto the face, hopping a few small crevasses along the way. And then the culmination, 30-plus turns right down to Andrews Tarn in snow that would be worthy of January billing.

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Fresh snow in September is a rare treat. Elaine and Danielle enjoy it!

For Alex and Danielle this was their 34th straight month of turns, and for Elaine and I our 72nd straight month. Six years ain’t bad! The numbers matter little however…it’s the adventure along the way and the things you see while seeking out those silly little turns. And today, it was just about hanging out with good people who have similar goals and priorities.

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Did it! The streak lives on!

Stoke was high as we put our shoes back on, slapped our skis onto our packs and made our way down the talus moraine to the lakes below. Danielle, who works in the hydrology field, showed us nitrogen study areas along a perfect stream. We proceed on, enjoying the leaves, the trout swimming in the lakes and the endless questions from tourists about whether or not we were really skiing or just completely insane. Perhaps a little of both?

After six hours in the backcountry we finally made our way back to Bear Lake, lounging in the comfort of the car, savoring the snow, wind and sun and enjoying the afterglow of a great autumn hike in the mountains and probably the best September turns any of us have experienced. It was a very good day, and a great start to the season.

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Elaine enjoys a few inches of new September snow on top of a glacier dating back from the last Ice Age.

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