Love and Packrafts

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The Little Blue Boat on its first river excursion back in 2008. It didn’t end well…a shallow creek bed and deadfall led to a long, swampy walk out. 

My very first foray with the sport of packrafting was back in 2007. Sore-legged and weary after the Soggy Bottom 100 mountain bike race on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, I found myself navigating a rental car through back alley streets of Anchorage on a clear, crisp fall day in search of Alpacka Packraft World Headquarters. I’d first learned about these rafts by reading magazine stories of a mystical, distant group of bike riders in Alaska who would ride along beaches and then paddle from inlet-to-inlet along the Alaskan sound, strapping their bikes to the front of the tiny rubber boats. Even then, the rawness and authenticity of these type adventures appealed to me, because it was like nothing I’d ever seen. They seemed like a warrior clan from another land. I wanted to be like them.

After scouring the internet I found the contact information for Sheri Tingey, the owner of Alpacka Rafts. Legend had it a few years earlier, Sheri built the first packraft because her son Thor needed something the cross the water-clad Alaskan tundra in the summer. Sheri sewed the boat in her garage and Alpacka was born. I traded a few phone calls with Sheri telling her I wanted one of her boats. With a wry chuckle she told me she had a factory second with a cosmetic defect at a discounted price that she could sell me.

Turns out the world headquarters of Alpacka was a cluttered garage in the home of middle-aged yet spry looking Sheri. When I arrived, Sheri was expecting me, and pulled out of a pile in the garage a shiny looking royal-blue rubber raft. She rummaged through another pile and pulled out a perfect fitting spray skirt, and had an old five-piece fiberglass paddle that she sold me for $10. Walking out of the garage with my new boat was exhilarating, a freedom similar to that felt by a child when he or she gets their first bike.

As I boarded the plane in Anchorage heading back home to Colorado, I felt a strong sense that big world of adventure had just opened up.

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The start of the 2007 Soggy Bottom 100 Bike Race and the reason I was in Alaska to pick-up that first packraft. This was simply an amazing 100-miler on the Kenai Peninsula out of the fun and quirky town of Hope, Alaska. I strongly remember the endless singletrack across the tundra and the never ending jingle of bear bells as I pedaled for 12 hours across the wilds of Alaska. Thus far, it’s is the last bike race I’ve done. 

Turns out I didn’t use that first packraft much. Winter hit early that year freezing the waterways and the next few years of my life were filled with enough chaos to make relaxing trips into the mountains to go rafting a rarity. I did do some exploring of high alpine lakes west of home, and enjoyed the novel idea of hiking to a lake and then paddling around it. I wondered if some if these lakes had ever had a boat on them. I even tried to raft a way-too-low creek connecting two alpine lakes and almost lost my neck to an overhanging tree strainer. I loosely formulated a plan to be the first person to packraft every single lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness during the next few years.

Alas, life had other plans. I ended up selling that packraft to a guy in Norway to fund a trip to meet my eventual wife in Ireland. It was a worthwhile sacrifice: we ended up getting engaged after a tipsy night in Gallway and have been life partners ever since. In a  weird way, that Alaskan born packraft made that possible. It was barter to get the girl.

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First paddle in the Blue Boat on Lake Isabelle. 

In the past few years Elaine and I have seen enough Banff Mountain Film Festival-style clips featuring packrafts to instill a serious case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) in us. Our adventures seem puny compared to the unique, irreverent and quirky hike/raft, bike/raft, ski/raft excursions done by Luc Mehl and Roman Dial. These are the people we look up to, the people who make us dream bigger, folks creating adventures that are incredibly unique and authentic.

When Elaine and I came back from Greenland we were flat broke. Fortunately we were able to find jobs immediately upon return at the old gear shop we used to work at, and were able to get ourselves past the Raman noodle stage and into the pasta-and-a-decent-sauce stage fairly quickly. A lot has changed at the shop since we worked there last: the Little Red Lighthouse grew into the Great Grey Bridge. Synchronously, through a major remodel, a mostly new staff and reinventing its image, the store quietly started selling Alpacka Packrafts.

Alpacka had left distant Anchorage years earlier for a more business friendly factory deep in southwestern Colorado. The business simply outgrew Sheri’s garage. Ten years ago, when I mentioned packrafts to people I would get blank stares back. In 2018, almost all outdoor enthusiasts are familiar with packrafts and many people own them. It’s still a relatively small, niche sport, but it’s getting more popular exponentially.

The boats changed too. Instead of an oval they now had some shape that helps them cut through water better. The old packrafts required a substantial pack load on the bow to prevent the front end from jutting out of the water. The new ones are more balanced and handle better. Whereas the old rafts basically did a 45° rotation on every paddle stoke, the new ones track better than expected for a one-person raft with no rudder or keel. Features like cargo fly storage, thigh straps and removable spray decks have turned the early simple models into a game of “Pimp My Packraft.”

On our first day back at the shop we stumbled upon a packraft clinic accompanied by a tempting offer designed to get poor gear shop employees into a boat. It was slightly irresponsible, but we took the plunge and ordered rafts, from none other than Sheri’s son Thor, the recipient of Sheri’s first sewn boat. I ordered the same (but quite different) model as my first boat I picked up at that Anchorage garage: the Yukon Yaak. Besides the fact that it’s the right size for my six-foot tall frame, I like the name…the Yukon and my time there evoke strong memories for me. Elaine, who is 5’6″, ordered the smaller Alpacka model.

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The yellow and red dreamboat pack rafts.  

And then we waited. Six weeks to be exact, while the boats were created per our specs. I ordered mine in a bright yellow color – I figure it will look good on blue and grey glacial rivers with snow capped peaks behind, while Elaine got a shiny bright red boat. Elaine looks good anywhere, but the red boat will certainly compliment her well! We waited and worked and waited. And then finally, we got a notice of “package shipped and delivered.”

When we got home the first thing we did was rip open the packages to examine our new boats. They looked better than we imagined, and the folks at Alpacka tossed a calendar and some hats into the box for good measure. We didn’t get to bed until 1 am that night – too excited – but when we did the dream of floating down arctic rivers danced in our heads. In a way, packrafts have played a big role in our relationship thus far, and as such I can’t help but think they will play a big role for us as our relationship and adventures continue to progress. It’s time to fulfill that giddy excitement felt walking out of Sheri’s garage more than a decade ago.

But before all that, we need to practice…a lot. As such, to the lakes we go…

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Practice time on Lost Lake, our neighborhood lake. 

The end of summer’s peak, the beginning of autumn’s nudge.

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Moody weather marks the end of summer’s peak at 8,800 feet above sea level.

Something happens this time of year. Perhaps it’s the subtle shift in the sun’s position in the sky, or the occasional morning in the high 40’s and not the low 50’s. Whatever it is, early-August marks the beginning of the change.

In modern western society summer begins June 21 and ends September 21. Around here, those numbers mean little. While June 21 feels like summer in earnest – the endless daylight, everything blooming, the insects and birds in full flight – late September is the heart of autumn here, not the beginning.

In late September the aspen trees are in their full regalia, donning their yellow caps. The mornings are crisp, and with few exceptions the high peaks have had at least one blanket of snow to cover the tundra and talus. Usually that snow melts off before real winter hits a month later, but there is no confusion about what season late September is here. It’s fall, the most beautiful and fleeting season there is.

In pagan societies, early August marks the halfway point between the summer solstice and the fall equinox. The pagans had a name for this time of year – Lughnasadh or Lammas. It marked the beginning of the harvest season, when the wheat and crops were ready to be picked.  Pick now, for the turn towards cold is eminent.

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Dim evening light in the forest makes the river smooth.

In nature, the first evidence of the change can be found by looking toward the ground, at the ferns.  Aspens get all the glory, but the ferns lead the way. When the ferns go, a cold night – and the aspens – are not far behind.

There is a little hike near our home that loops underneath a pine and fir covered mountain. A stream runs thru the valley, and along this trail, where the cooler mountain air descends to the stream, there are perpetual cold spots. In the summer, one is likely to bump into a moose or a rabbit in these places, both seeking refuge from the baking heat of the day.

A few days ago on our walk, we saw our first yellow fern of the year. And then a little further on, in the very coldest spot in the entire valley, another and another.

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The first yellow ferns of the year.

The ferns know. Another autumn has almost arrived. The season to saunter in golden leaves and climb frosty mountain peaks is around the corner.

Energy

energy1Energy.

Without it, there is nothing. With it, anything is possible.

When Elaine and I got back from the land of ice and snow – ironically named Greenland – our energy fuel tank was empty. Two years of living in motion, a never-stopping pace, covering more than 5,000 human powered miles, left us drained and done when the rescue helicopter touched down on a small dirt patch in Tasiilaq, Greenland.

Finding the motivation to do anything since then has been challenging. On our days off from work, we’ve holed up in the cabin, done the necessary workouts to stay in shape, eaten a lot of fruits and vegetables and made the most concerted effort in the 8 years of our marriage to take the foot off the gas.

Like a well that is drained, but then not used for awhile, the energy is filling back up. It was a slow return at first, frustratingly slow, because while patience is a virtue it’s not one of our strengths. And waiting for life to happen isn’t something that comes naturally to us. We don’t really believe in dumb luck and fate, as we have found hard work and vision tends to create better results. Waiting is tough.

The motivation to train and play hard in the mountains is returning, but more importantly, the spark that creates new ideas and dreams has come back. At this point in my life, fitness is a fairly simple, predictable game. Work hard and rest enough to get the desired results. But the dreams and ideas of ways to make a better living, feel fulfilled and adventure further and deeper, those are something new, or at least a continuation of what was born and planned on the trail and across the snow.

There is a realization that what was good enough for us before is not good enough for us now. Quite honestly, we’re worth more than that. There is something about walking 3,000 miles from Mexico to Canada that makes you realize anything is possible, that there is a better world out there and that going back to that “other” world isn’t enough. It’s not living up to potential.

This is all very vague talk – the kind that scares mothers unnecessarily – but it’s intentionally so. With the return of energy comes the return of ideas, and now, with the new realization that anything is possible, the determination to put it into action. But the ideas need more flushing, and then – action.

There was a lot of energy in the mountains today. We decided to go back to a familiar haunt, the trail to the Continental Divide, a geographical vortex of energy. We live close to it, but today we needed to go right to the source. We decided to take the late shift, the sunset view. The early bird gets the worm, but around here everybody is the early bird. At some point, early bird turns into night hawk, and on Colorado trails, things are trending rapidly to the latter. So we decided to gamble and head up as everybody else was heading down. It worked out well.

energy2From the get-go, I could tell today was different from the past two months, or even last week. When we moved in the mountains last week, Elaine did great, but I could tell there was some hesitation in her step. Not today. There was pep, lightness and strength to her movement, ever up rocks and roots into thinner and thinner air. Elaine was born and raised in these mountains, and like the prodigal son in “Legends of the Fall,” she didn’t leave, but instead explored them even deeper. She gets stronger every year, but more than that, watching her I get the sense that she is becoming one with these mountains. She always had a comfort in the mountains, but after the past few years, something is different. She has become a part of the spirit of the wilderness.

We rose rapidly through the pine forest, hopping across rocks to cross streams, gliding up switchbacks, the heart and legs working hard but comfortably. They know the routine by now, and smile when they get to be part of it.

We rose up a steep bench, the mountains exploding ahead. The setting sun lit our faces, providing warmth and more energy. We crossed onto Alta Flats. Alta means higher, and it’s also Elaine’s middle name. In the darkest time of her life, when she spent all her time inside, fighting the demons, we think her spirit decided to occupy this higher spot surrounded by granite, snow-capped mountains, waiting for her to return. And when her physical self did, that spirit sang.

energy4The few hikers we saw on the lower trail were wrapping up the day. We were alone, exactly how we like it, two hearts in a big, wild place. Past Alta Flats, the trail rises again, the krummolz shrinks and we are at that magical place: timberline.

A friend of mine once told me, “there are no bad days above timberline”. To me, there is no place on earth with more energy and beauty than the land above the forest. The thin air, the angular light, the crisp breeze and the emergence of near vertical mountains around and above brings me more happiness than almost anything.  And when things are impossibly complex, the alpine brings some sense of simplicity and peace.

With that joy created by landscape, we climbed up. The steady rhythm is fueled by that happy energy, like moving from 85 octane gas to 93. Just a little bit better. We conversed with marmots and watched elk gallop in the valley below as a cool wind graced our bodies. And then, with a final few steps, we reached the summit, the Continental Divide. We checked our watches. While we weren’t trying to hit a certain time, there is a satisfaction reading the numbers. Pretty good, and there is a lot of room for improvement. The energy is returning.

energy5Ahead of us, the Pacific. Behind the Atlantic. All around, 12,000 and 13,000 foot peaks rise in every direction. The wind attacks from the north, the direction of legends, and we feel something different. This is no gentle summer wind. It has a slight bite. I have not felt that bite since spring. It is a bite of coming change.

We continue up, to a lake that sits impossibly at the very top of the Divide. We settle next to that lake, looking at remnants of the last ice age, sometimes talking, sometimes quiet, remembering the past, dreaming of the future. Stella used to love this spot, and it brings back memories. But then I remember that she is playing in the high mountains with the spirits of all our loved ones who have gone before. In time, we will join them. But not just yet.

energy3The evening is growing late. On the down, we will be more cautious, as Elaine is still healing from her broken foot. Better to get down five minutes slower intact than aggravate things. The wind picks up even more, and as Elaine walks out onto her cliff and looks over her domain and home of the past 28 years since her birth, the cold wind blasts into us, energizing the land and making us smile. No doubt about it – it is a wind of change, of a returning autumn.

There is nowhere to go but down. On the descent we can’t stop talking about ideas and dreams. We don’t talk much on the uphill – that’s the business end of things. But on the way down – that’s the time to dream. The shadows grow long, evening colder, the sun drops under the western mountain range. We glide through the woods effortlessly and happily, not stopping till we return to our two-decade old pick-up truck just as the first stars shimmer in the Rocky Mountain night sky above.

energy6Finally, energy – the ingredient that fuels anything great – has returned.

Follow Our Ski Across Greenland

Hey friends and family. If you’d like to follow our ski across Greenland, check out this link. We’ll try to update it each day with a brief description of happenings on the ice. And if you want to message us, we’d love it! It’s great to hear from folks and helps us keep spirits high. Heading to Iceland tomorrow, Greenland Tuesday, hope to start the trip on my birthday April 19 if all goes well. Now, time to navigate the logistics of airports, 250 pounds of luggage, two flights and two helicopter rides.

Dan and Elaine’s Ski Across Greenland Map and Progress

CDT Thru-Ski: Skiing the San Juan Mountains on a hike from Mexico to Canada

This post is for hikers and prospective skiers who might be interested in tackling the San Juans or other portions of the Continental Divide Trail on skis. In my opinion, it’s a fantastic way to go. In Europe there are a number of “Haute Routes” or high routes that are very popular ski mountaineering trips. While we stuck primarily to the trail corridor, I do believe it would be possible to create an amazing CDT skiing “Haute Route” through the San Juans. More on that later. IMG_0675As part of our 2017 Continental Divide thru-hike from Mexico to Canada, my wife Snow and I elected to ski a portion of the route from Cumbres Pass on the Colorado/New Mexico border to Highway 114 in Colorado (in the general vicinity of Cochetopa Pass). In reality, the skiing ended just east of San Luis Peak, as the relatively low terrain in the Cochetopa Hills was clear of snow by early June. We skied the entire Continental Divide Trail thru the San Juan Mountains, including the loop that heads west from Wolf Creek Pass, north towards Stony Pass, and then east past Highway 149 and up and over San Luis Peak.

We were not the first people to bring skis into the San Juans as part of a CDT thru-hike. In 2015 She-Ra brought skis on her CDT adventure. I do not know if she brought them on the entire San Juan loop, and in the end it doesn’t matter. Hike your own hike, or in this case ski your own ski! Altogether we skied or carried skis for about 250 miles. Of the 250 miles, I’d estimate we were on the skis 70% of the time. The remainder, we walked, with skis on our back.

The winter of 2016-17 was record breaking snowpack for much of Colorado. Snowpack levels topped out to 120-130% of normal. In contrast, 2017-18 is barely at 60% snowpack. It may not be viable this year unless one plans to cross the San Juans in late-April or early May. IMG_0910A bit about our skiing background for reference when planning your own adventure: Snow and I ski a lot. We spend more than 100 days each winter skiing in the backcountry. We have a alpine ski racing background and compete in nordic ski races in the winter. We’ve had some success in randonee style ski races. We live close to where the CDT passes James Peak in Colorado, so we have good familiarity with the Colorado snowpack.

Based on trail difficulty, I will say a hiker entertaining the thought of skiing the CDT thru the San Juans would want to have a solid base of backcountry skiing in their skill set. It was harder than I thought it would be. There were a number of places where some of the skiing was quite dicey, especially in the section between Cumbres Pass and Wolf Creek. The ability to make quick hop turns and traverse steep hillsides is essential. We considered skiing on this route one large “no fall zone,” and while that is exaggerating the danger, an injury out here really isn’t an option. Best to keep it upright.

A prospective skier also should be aware that they will be managing risky terrain while trying to make big miles. We found this to be the biggest challenge and stressor. When we put our heads down and stopped thinking, we would often get ourselves into dangerous situations. When we focused on terrain management, mileage would suffer. It’s a tricky balance,The main dangers were exposure, fatigue and wet avalanche slides. A prospective skier needs to be able assess those risks and make appropriate decisions. That said, if somebody is a strong skier with good backcountry knowledge, skiing the San Juans is a viable and often joyous option.

For our gear, we went as light as you can go with a fixed heel ski system. We both used Ski Trab World Cup race skis and ATK bindings. The ski weighs about 700 grams, the binding quite a bit less than that. Snow used Scarpa Alien boots and I used Dynafit PDG boots. One MAJOR mistake we made was only bringing one pair of mohair Pomoca race skins. I would recommend future skiers bring AT LEAST two pairs of skins, preferably with a tail hook. We spent a lot of valuable time drying our skins out when the glue failed, as will happen in spring-like conditions. If we’d another pair of skins each, the latter part of the trip would have been much more efficient and enjoyable.

IMG_0635We ended up bringing ski crampons but never used them. We left regular crampons at home. That was a mistake. There were more than a few times when a pair of ultra-light boot crampons would have been nice. We didn’t use the ski crampons once. Next time, I would trade the ski crampons for the real thing.

We brought regular collapsable Black Diamond Ascension ski poles. We considered a BD Whippet, but in the end chose to leave this item at home. We used our Hyperlite Windrider packs, and in a perfect world I would have liked to have had a slightly beefier pack for this part of the trip. Weight will go up, and we were reaching the limit of what the Hyperlites could comfortably carry.

Like thru-hiking, thru-skiing is best when done as light as possible. Powder skis are unnecessary and too heavy. Skinny, light, maneuverable spring skis are best. Go for massive articulation in the boots and very simple bindings with no brakes. Watch pounds and ounces very carefully.

We shipped our gear to ourselves in Chama, and had some friends pick it up for us at Highway 114. Ideally, somebody would pick up skis at the eastern trailhead to San Luis Peak, but this is a very remote area, especially in late-May/early-June. As far as clothing goes, we used our regular hiking gear, with a bit warmer options for the high elevations. We did not use helmets, and this is a risk of course. I can’t recommend this tactic, but it worked for us. We left goggles at home.

There are many advantages to having ski gear. From a pure speed and moving perspective, skiing is faster on most terrain. It’s certainly faster on downhills, slightly faster on flats, and about equal on uphills. Sidehills are safer because one has an edge to dig into the snow. Kicking steps up steep couloirs was essentially like having a stiff toed mountaineering boot, far more secure and safe than a pair of Altras. From a mental standpoint, having the potential to make a sweet ski run in a very difficult section was certainly a nice carrot on the end of a stick.

Be aware though: bushwhacking is undeniably slower. Hopping deadfall with skis hanging off the pack to your knees is kind of like a Chinese torture test. We also lost a lot of time because of our skin situation. We spent hours and hours drying skins and postholing because our skin glue failed and we were forced to walk. Again, bring at least two pairs of skins.

We started our ski on May 26 and technically ended it with a ski off the 14er San Luis Peak on June 9. This was about 10-14 calendar days later than we’d hoped to be there. An emergency at home necessitated we leave the trail in Grants for about 10 days in late-April. Had this not happened, our ski would have almost certainly been earlier, faster, more wintery and less slushy.

We had some amazing moments and some rather hairball days. I’ve decided to include some brief daily excerpts from the ski across the San Juans on the Continental Divide Trail. Photos from the described day follow.

May 26 – Cumbres Pass to a saddle about a mile south of Blue Lake. 24 miles, 6007 feet of climbing, 4482 feet of descending. Switched to skis about a mile into the hike and kept them on the whole time. It is VERY easy to get sucked down the hill by gravity, end up below the trail, and have to hike back up. Day was  sloggy, but there was a sporty 35-40° snow climb and very heinous sidehill traverse into camp through extremely thick woods. Inside right ankle was quite sore by day’s end because of an extensive amount of side hilling.

IMG_0624IMG_0627IMG_0629IMG_0630IMG_0633May 27 – Blue Lake area to a high saddle just east of Summit Peak. 17 miles, 6414 feet of climbing, 5427 feet of descending. One of the more epic days I’ve ever had on skis, or for that matter, any outdoor activity. Started off getting sucked down too far and having to wander around finding Blue Lake (frozen solid, had to break ice to get water). Climbed a ridge, decided to drop down to a valley and ended up skiing down an extremely steep slope, probably 45°, in snow too soft. Too dangerous to repeat again. Had we headed further up the ridge and followed the trail exactly we actually would have found a better slope, albeit after a rather dangerous ridgeline climb (would have LOVED crampons here, frozen solid). A nice switchback ascent to a ridge and back down a beautiful couloir to the headwaters of the North Fork of the Conejos River. Perhaps the best ski of the entire endeavor. Sure beat walking. Then, bushwhacking through woods, to a saddle and then a very dicey sidehill crossing on solid snow above a huge cliff (crampons again please).

IMG_0637IMG_0640IMG_0645IMG_0646IMG_0703IMG_0706On the ridgeline south of the Adams Fork of the Conejos, things got silly. Instead of being relegated to a long traverse around the edge of the mountain, we elected to climb directly up to the ridge in hopes of continuing on. This proved impossible – Class IV/V climbing along the ridge to the west, plus storms moving in. Did a risky traverse along the north side of the ridge. Evidence of wet slides everywhere off the cliffs above, but what were we to do? If we waited, the slope would have been bullet proof in the morning and likely more dangerous. Slope at top was probably 45° but we were traversing so as long as we had a good edge hold, we were fine. On the flip side, we covered this ground in about 10 minutes…would have been hours of posthole hiking. Heard rumors after that a number of people fell here, some got hurt. So in that regard, skiing was safer. Rest at Adams Fork, then elected to climb straight up a couloir to access the large flattish area north of Adams Fork. While not exactly fast, ski boots made kicking steps in the snow and loose dirt viable. About an hour climb, then a traverse to the ridge below below Summit Peak where we pitched camp. Lightning in the distance, elk on the horizon. Days like this are the ones you remember before your last breath.

IMG_0709IMG_0712IMG_0714IMG_0718IMG_0721IMG_0725May 28 – Summit Peak to top of Alberta Peak at Wolf Creek Ski Area. 18 miles, 4475 feet of climbing, 5400 feet of descending. Lots of high alpine traversing and skiing around a massive bowl. Passed Montezuma Peak, Long Trek Peak before deciding we were a bit bored with the nordic style terrain. Dropped down a north facing bowl/couloir that eventually led to Elwood Creek. This is something about skiing – you will end up choosing straight up-and-down over traverses. You may rack up a lot of vertical as a result. Ended up hiking for most of the rest of the day as terrain was either very wooded, snowless or on a high ridgeline. An exception was a very fun snow climb and descent just north of Bonito Pass. Ended up meeting up with Frank, and hiked a steep ridge with him. While not totally necessary, skis did make the descent off the ridge a bit more fun, and I would argue more safe. Decided to skin to the top of Wolf Creek Ski Resort to end the day in hopes of a fun morning descent down Alberta Peak. Ended up camping on the upper ramp of the Alberta Chair Lift. Great day of skiing the CDT.

IMG_0728IMG_0734IMG_0737IMG_0767IMG_0778IMG_0782IMG_0783IMG_0786IMG_0796May 29 – Alberta Peak to Wolf Creek Pass – 5 miles, 250 feet of climbing, 2,500 feet of descending. Are there better things in life than starting the morning off with a climb to the top of a mountain and a ski back down? I’d argue no. This was the reward for the hardships of the previous three days. Stellar descent back down to Highway 160, felt like mini-supermen and women. Ski the CDT! Spend the next day resting in Pagosa Springs.

IMG_0797IMG_0803IMG_0821IMG_0835IMG_0837May 31 – Wolf Creek Pass to a few miles north (west) of the Creede Cutoff. 14 miles, 5089 feet of climbing, 4190 feet of descending. Tough, tough day. Started off with a very dicey/class 3/4 ridgeline traverse, then some interesting skiing and climbing back up  in the vicinity of Mount Hope. The snow here seems much more rotton, blow-out-your-ACL type skiing. Plus, slush wrecking havoc on skins. Mentally very tough. Weather cloudy, thunderstorms, rain, white-out conditions, wet. An epic 14 miles.

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June 1 – Point North of Creede Cutoff to just before ridgeline that leads to the Knife Edge. 17 miles, 4,000 feet climbing, 4,100 feet descending. Very hard, frustrating, epic day. Body exhausted. Big, steep climb up SE of South River Peak. Pretty much a real, legit snow climb. I don’t know how people can safely do this in Altras. If you fall, you’re fucked. Even with ski boots, it was attention grabbing. Across a few VERY steep sidehills. Frozen. Elected to put on skis. Not much of a problem on skis with sharp edges, again a BIG problem if we were just wearing shoes. So skis were very beneficial and safer here. Total skin failure – wasted an hour drying them. Late in the day, snow absolute shit. Punchy, even on skis. Massive wet slides above us from previous days. Not the safest place to be in the world. We kept moving as briskly as we could. Then, a sidehill climb and back on skis on a burned, wooded ridgeline. Exhausted. Set up wet tent, questioned the reason for taking this route.

IMG_0841IMG_0842IMG_0847IMG_0849IMG_0857IMG_0861IMG_0862June 2 – East of Knife Edge Ridgeline Camp to Elk Meadow near Cimarrona Peak. 20 miles, 3200 feet of climbing, 5500 feet of descending. Easy hiking early on frozen ridgeline, then onto the much hyped Knife Edge. Easy, quick snow climb (although crampons would have been nice), and a set-the-edge, don’t look down traverse. Much, much easier on skis I would imagine. Harder terrain for sure on day two out of Cumbres Pass. Too warm of a day, very dangerous. Snow got rotten again, skins failing, avalanches ripping off rocks above us, so decided to lengthen the route and head south directly off ridgeline to Williams Fork drainage. Skied a bit, hill ended up turning into a cliff, butt-slid down a waterfall, made an extremely sketchy descent to valley floor. Wouldn’t have minded having a 30 meter section of 7 mm rope. Valley floor looked like a cyclone had hit. Terrible deadfall, made worse with skis on the back. So much deadfall. Saw an elk with a broken leg. Tough winter here. Hiked to Palisades Camp, but not before some of the worst deadfall I’ve ever seen in my life! But then, beauty, forests, good to see some vegetation and wildlife. Headed up Weminuche Creek, past Mile Creek, camped in an absolutely beautiful Aspen grove. Why does the CDT not offer this as an alternate? Snow covered early season trail is no match for the spring beauty of the lower Weminuche Wilderness. Elk everywhere. A bit longer than the actual trail, but give people this option instead of the Creede Cutoff which misses the absolute best of Colorado. Glorious evening.

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IMG_0656IMG_0864IMG_0875June 3- Elk Meadow to headwaters of Rock Creek – 22 miles, 4,344 feet of climbing, 2667 feet of descending. Nice morning walk, but the crossing of the slow moving Pinos River was very deep (chest deep, murky so can’t see the bottom), and some of the crossing streams coming from mountains due west were very swift and sketchy. Long, long, long climb to eventual headwaters of Flint Creek. Fairly smooth going at first, bushwhack hell with postholing galore after. Lots of elk. Post holed right to the top of the pass, probably would have been better off skiing but too lazy to take skis off the back. Then, a major mistake. Put on skis, enjoying blissful descent down Rock Creek, decided to traverse to south side of river where snow line went further. Snow starting rotting out and eventually ended. Turns out, we skied a mile past where the trail easily crossing the creek. Light failing, incredibly fast moving stream, deep, very dangerous. Made up mind to do tandem crossing, pulled off pants (it was cold and late) and first step almost was the end of us. Aborted mission, went back on shore, had a emotional screaming session that we didn’t die. Set up a shitty, adrenaline filled camp, broke a stake, made pact not to keep pushing these limits each and every day. The daily adrenaline and danger is simply too much to maintain. Trying to do risk management of dangerous, snow covered, icy mountain terrain on skis and clock big miles do not go hand-in-hand. We will get hurt if we keep this up.

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June 4 – Headwaters of Rock Creek to lake just north of Stony Pass. 20 miles, 5,177 feet of climbing, 3,691 feet of descending. River was still raging in the morning, so we headed back up the valley and crossed about a half-mile up from our camp on a still frozen but very thin snow bridge. Mama moose and her days old calf were our only company. Gave them very wide berth. Nobody comes to this valley. Wild as heck.  Rejoined the CDT, climbed to a big saddle, more elk. Lunch on Hunchback Pass, then skied down to Kite Lake (nice slushy turns) and then skied entire way up bowl that eventually led to spot where Colorado Trail and CDT join. Then, a real highlight. Flat high plateau, all the way to Stony Pass. Walking would have been PURE HELL this late in the day, sinking to thighs on every step. On skis, despite having to dry skins for 15 minutes, we traversed over it quickly. Crossed Stony Pass, skinned up bowl that constitutes the headwaters of the mighty Rio Grande, camped by a frozen lake way above Silverton. 14er Handies Peak in clear view. A stunning end to the day. Skis redeemed themselves in a big way.

IMG_0883IMG_0887IMG_0894IMG_0896IMG_0897IMG_0898IMG_0900IMG_0907IMG_0913IMG_0918IMG_0920IMG_0923IMG_0925IMG_0930June 5 – Just north of Stony Pass to Colorado Trail Yurt – 24 miles, 4,731 feet of climbing, 5,725 feet of down. Another tough day. Snow is failing, so after about an hour of efficient travel things just got too slushy. Ended up doing endless postholing, skins failing in minutes. Slow going. Past Cataract Lake, postholing everywhere, exhausted, when we got smart and put skis back on. Up over pass, awesome descent quite a ways down Lost Trail Creek. Then, a long hike back up to the trail and eventually up to a very cold, blustery and stormy Carson Peak and the high point of the Colorado Trail. Proceeded to have some very tough slush skinning/postholing and descents down ridgeline with eventual goal of yurt. Concerned that snow to the east and Snow Mesa doesn’t look all that snowy. Nice ski line down to the yurt, making turns over posthole marks. Work our way into the yurt, meet two other hikers. First humans we’ve seen since Wolf Creek Pass, only the third since Cumbres Pass. Feels like we’ve been in the wilderness on an intense, intense experience.

IMG_0937IMG_0944IMG_0946IMG_0948IMG_0951IMG_0953IMG_0961June 6,7 – Easy walk to Spring Creek Pass, rest days. The only thing of note here is that Lucky at the Raven’s Roost is an awesome human being, and we were very, very tired. Lake City is a gem of a trail town. Don’t miss it.

June 8 – Spring Creek Pass to massive cirque just west of San Luis Peak. 19 miles, 5,400 feet of climbing, 3990 feet of descending.  No snow on Snow Mesa, then finally put on skis 10 miles into the day for a slushy descent. So wooded it made little sense to ski, so we posthole instead. We’re about two weeks too late. Windy camp born from exhaustion on the side of the mountain. Lots of carrying the skis on the back today.

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June 9 – San Luis Peak to Cochetopa Hills. 24 miles, 3,200 feet of climbing, 5,000 feet of down. We are dead tired, but we’ve got to ski San Luis Peak, one of Colorado’s highest mountains and put a little exclamation point on this journey. Nice descent down the east side to Cochetopa Creek, but snow soon turned rotton, we had to scramble out, and thus ended the ski. All walking from here to Canada!

IMG_0974IMG_0975IMG_0979IMG_0984IMG_0986IMG_0995We carried our ski gear out another day and a half to Cochetopa Pass where our friends fed us and allowed us to convert to normal, lightweight, thru-hiking gear. We walked the remainder of the trail to Canada, but we did have some tiny “Ski Bums” skis sent to us in Pinedale, Wyoming and East Glacier, Montana to keep our streak of 86 straight months with at least one day of skiing alive. We ended up making some horrible turns in massive sun cups on the west side of Knapsak Col in the Wind River Range in August and did some cross-country skiing around the Amtrak station in East Glacier when the first snow of autumn arrived in mid-September. We made some turns in July at our home in Colorado. The steak lives on!

Summary: The ski of the San Juans is something we’re proud of. It was very hard and it felt good to persevere and prove that it was possible. There were a number of critics and naysayers beforehand, and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t fuel us a little bit.

I believe skiing is a legitimate form of transportation on the CDT. In the race to the South Pole, they skied. Snowy places are made for skis, and the San Juans in May are snowy. Skis are allowed in Wilderness – there are no restrictions and they are seen as appropriate in Wilderness areas.

Contrary to what one fellow-thru hiking critic (from the skiing mecca of Indiana) told us, skiing the San Juans is NOT “akin to getting in a car and driving to Canada.” The energy required to do the sheer vertical of heading up couloirs and back down was easily the hardest part of the trail for us. The San Juan ski took a toll. We were never as spry for the rest of the hike as we were after the San Juans. It was ten of the very hardest days of the trail piled on top of each other, and it left us exhausted for the rest of the hike. We finished, but it was not easy.

IMG_3509At times, the skiing was fantastic. There were lines that were dramatic and downright fun, and so remote that it would be unrealistic to just ski them on a weekend backcountry trip. The area south of Wolf Creek Pass offers terrific, essentially empty skiing. The area north of Wolf Creek was more traverse-like in nature, but we also really felt the effects of being too late in the season. I would say around Memorial Day would be a perfect time to be finishing up at San Luis Peak

IMG_0915Being up in the San Juans in May is harder physically than taking a lower route. It seems many hikers skip this part, and this isn’t necessarily a bad idea. It’s tough being up so high. It’s colder, it snows, it’s late spring in the high, high Rockies. Living at 12,000 feet is harder, you eat more, you sleep less, you burn more calories. The appropriate gear probably needs to be more robust and warmer.

IMG_0932If prepared, it is a wildly enriching experience to ski the San Juans, indeed one of the finest ski experiences I’ve ever had. The mountains observed, the descents enjoyed, the couloirs climbed…it’s unforgettable. It is the wildest part of the trail. The animals are just emerging, the tourists have not arrived, there will be few other people. We saw injured elk from winter, baby calves left on the tundra, and massive elk herds, skinny and surviving. We saw newborn moose calves, went to sleep each night to the sound of coyotes howling, saw black bears and enjoyed the awakening spring in the high Rocky Mountains.

In future years Snow and I hope to return to the San Juans and chart and map out a true “CDT Skier’s Haute Route Alternate,” that takes advantage of the awesome terrain by maximizing aesthetic and amazing couloir descents and snow climbs back up. Or if somebody would like that chart this out first, we will be your biggest supporters.

We encourage anybody with the know-how and desire to ski the San Juan part of the CDT. It will take toll on your body, but it does not need to be a sacrifice for finishing the CDT. In retrospect, it was probably the best part of the entire hike.

Greenland Pre-Trip Checklist

  1. Review baggage requirements with airlines.
  2. Print Permit – 2 copies
  3. Secure return date from Kangerlussuaq to Copenhagen & Copenhagen to Denver.
  4. Footbed refurbish.
  5. Warm socks.
  6. Purchase bear bangers for Polar Bears. Must do in Tassilaq.
  7. Focus on detailed dietary plan for expedition.
  8. Download music.
  9. Lodging in Tassilaq, Reykjavik
  10. Wind vane poles
  11. Tape poles, practice with sled bag.
  12. Purchase food
  13. Download music
  14. Download podcasts.
  15. Thank you cards to supporters and sponsors.
  16. Blog posts.
  17. Two paperback books for storm days in tents.
  18. weather4expeditions
  19. Elastic for harnesses
  20. Six mm rope
  21. Fuel Canisters.
  22. Big stuff sacks
  23. Wax/skins
  24. Print Maps
  25. Melanzana Fleece Pants
  26. Put together repair kit
  27. Put together first aid kit
  28. AT&T International Plan
  29. Waypoint route across icecap and load into GPS system. (4/9)
  30. Order two stoves. Primus Ominifuel or MSR XKG leading candidates. (3/27)
  31. Rent satellite phone. (4/2)
  32. Order mitts. Call Steger in Ely as well as Baffin crew. (4/2)
  33. Mold boots. (3/25)
  34. Install bindings on Åsnes Nansens and Åsnes Ceciles, as well as on spare pare of Åsnes Nansens in case of equiptment failure. (3/26)
  35. Replace runners on sleds. (4/5)
  36. Cold Avenger Face Masks. (3/28)
  37. Dermatone. (4/4)
  38. Purchase necessary crevasse rescue gear + fixed rope. (4/2)
  39. Crampons order. (3/28)
  40. Determine memory card necessities. (4/8)
  41. Determine power plans. (3/28)
  42. Switch to Expedition Plan for Delorme. (4/4)
  43. Determine plan to get from Kulusuk to Sissimiut to Isortoq. (3/27)
  44. Danish cash. (4/3)
  45. Get candles. (4/4)
  46. Double poles for Hilleberg. (3/27)
  47. Plastic bags for feet. (4/8)
  48. Order hand brush for frost. (4/3)
  49. Purchase cooking box. (4/3)
  50. Pickup pots we ordered from REI for melting snow. (3/25)
  51. Bothy Bag. (3/28)
  52. How to get to Denver? (4/8)
  53. Little dude plan. (4/8)
  54. Send receipt to Scholarship fund. (4/6)
  55. Payment for sled bags and arctic bedding (3/27)
  56. Anemometer (3/28)
  57. barometer (3/28)
  58. Write in the Rain journals (4/4)

Add as necessary. Date when completed. – DV

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A solid three days of training. While we’d love to get sled pulls in, I’ve been training with pack weight, which in many ways mimics workload on legs. Three straight endurance days, skinning right out the door to the ridgeline above Corona, mixed weather. Now rest, some morning nordic skis for sanity, knock off a chore a day while working, more when off.

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Turning Around the Winter of Discontent

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In February the roads finally got snowy enough to pull pulks. 

It’s been a strange winter in Eldora, Colorado. It’s probably the closest I’ve ever felt to the “winter of discontent.” That’s certainly being a little bit dramatic, but there has been a lack of flow that has been disconcerting.

As fantastic as our Continental Divide Trail thru-hike was – and I would never trade it out – it did break up our traditional “rituals” for getting ready for ski season. Personally, late summer and autumn has been prep-for-ski-season time since I was 15 or 16 years old. The norms during these months are lots of roller skiing, running intervals in the mountains, biking up steep trails, lunges and the like. This year, we just walked. And while our fitness was fine the lack of going through the processes started things off weird and effected our mental readiness.  It’s kind of like showing up to work or class late…things are all out of whack.

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Back on the CDT for a Valentines Day ski at Tennessee Pass before dinner at the cookhouse. 

And then, winter just took a long, long time to come. We had some flirty snows in October and November, but then the faucet turned off. December was the warmest and driest twelfth month I’ve even seen here. The nordic center had their latest opening ever by nearly three weeks, and the two ski shops we work in, Larry’s Bootfitting and Boulder Nordic Sport, had customer flow more reminiscent of March than the supposed busiest time of the year.

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This was the first year we ever shoveled in a skin track to keep skiing. Lots of downhill skinning this early season.

We did our best to get out on snow, but it required different thinking and adaptability. Early season was a lot of uphill skinning and then skinning back DOWN on 2-3 inches of snow. The resort opened, so we spent more time than normal honing resort turns, gazing out at the brown hills as we made our way down the man-made strips of white. We bought uphill passes because the backcountry was non-existent. Around Christmas the nordic center finally opened, but it was just a fraction of its normal self in terms of available kilometers.

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More resort days than normal as a result of the low snow. 

Slowly but steadily, snow came. We have yet to have a big storm, but there have been a fair amount of 2-3 inch offerings. Mid-February was actually good. We could finally ski right out the door, usually a norm for most of the winter, but then a warm spell hit and basically set us back another two weeks. 48 hours ago it was 77° F in Boulder, but a cold front hit, and right now it’s 9° F.

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Sled pull up to 4OJ. That’s either a fox track or Gary Neptune’s work on the left there. 

The snow graphs say we are at 90 percent of normal snow pack, but I’m skeptical of this. It seems much less. Down south in the San Juans, they are fairing much worse, and even with some recent winter blasts are sitting around 50 percent of normal. Meanwhile, the east has had polar vortexes and bomb cyclones, Europe has had their best winter in a decade and even South Korea looked enviably cold during the Olympics. Most years you win, some years you lose. And it’s not over yet, but things will start getting warmer now here on the 40th parallel, where the March sun burns long and high.

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Classic powder days have been few and far between, but there have been a few. Let’s hope spring brings more. 

On top of the odd weather, my wife Elaine has had a bit of a rough go. The Continental Divide Trail left her dead tired and really what can only be described as over-trained. Six months of twelve hour days can do that. Most hikers take an entire winter off. We had planned to dive right back into training, but that proved unrealistic. She has battled fatigue and a fair bit of sickness. So while we have skied a lot, until very recently it has not been with the normal aplomb. There have been no nordic races, no intervals, just lots of days exploring the woods and waiting for the body to recover. We were actually a bit concerned about our health, so we got physicals recently, and it turns out we’re in perfect health, albeit overtrained. The only way to get out of that hole is to wait it out.

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Finally, real winter came in February, where we could ski out the door and take runs behind the house. 

Eventually, recovery came. Something clicked two to three weeks ago, the snap returned, and with it a deep endurance born from the long walk along the spine of the nation. She’s been crushing again, we’ve had some strong sled pulls and systems are go for the Greenland trip. That said, we’re taking a year off nordic racing just to let the body build properly without unnecessary stresses. Greenland will require long, plodding strength and mental toughness. The gain versus potential risk of diving into a late season racing program simply is not worth it, We’ll fry that cat in 2018-19.

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After a few months of extreme fatigue and sickness, Elaine has found her mojo again. It’s been fun to watch. 

A highlight of the winter has been the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Korea. Olympic years are always fun and I find myself feeling more motivated after watching the best athletes in the world at the top of their game. Of course, the shining moment as a nordic skier in the United States was Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall winning the team sprint race. While it has been dubbed as something of an upset, the truth is they were primed for this race. Diggins is 3rd overall in the World Cup and Randall is a multiple World Cup sprint champion. It would have been a disappointment if they had not finished in the top three, and once it comes down to the last few hundred meters, and the skis are fast, it’s open season.

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Cold nordic ski days have been rare, but we’ve had a few.

I’m hopeful this will provide a needed boost to nordic skiing in this country, because I really do think it’s the best sport around. Racing is just a small part of that. To me, buying a nordic pass is like buying health insurance – it’s really, really good for the body. The question now is how do we take that momentum and really make the sport grow in the United States? I have some ideas based on personal experience that I will write about in the next few days.

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Nordic skiing makes this girl happy. 

For now, it’s time to ski. Tomorrow is supposed to be in the single digits, so it’s time to take advantage and enjoy what will possible be the last Green wax ski of the winter. It will be our 90th day on skis of the winter, not bad considering it’s been anything but smooth. But in skiing, as in life, adaptability, creativity and persistence are essential.

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Green wax day tomorrow.