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.

71 Months of Skiing

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Back in October 2010 Elaine and I headed up to Loveland ski resort on Halloween Day. There was a certain excitement as there always is on the first ski day of the season. Truth is, the opening affair always features terrible conditions and soaring excitement. This one was no different. There was a “white strip of death” that offered a typically hazardous opening to the season. And yet being up there at 12,000 feet, feeling the slide of skis on snow, the cold autumn air, and smelling the wood smoke from the top shack on the mountain made up for any lack of pizzaz the skiing offered.

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Thanks to my newly earned job at Neptune Mountaineering, I was privy to a weekday ski pass at Loveland. And while Elaine didn’t work there yet, I was able to convince our bookkeeper Roland to put her on the Neptune list so she could buy a pass dirt cheap. It was a good move, as Loveland and all of Colorado got hammered with snow that winter. I’ve never skied more inbounds powder than I did that season, and memories of gliding silk-like on six inches of powder EVERY SINGLE TIME OUT still linger with me today. That was a great year, and a start to something kind of cool that we’ve been doing ever since.

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That Halloween Day was the first of a skiing streak that has grown impressive in numbers. We’ve skied at least one day on snow for 71 straight months. It’s nothing unusual from November to April. Those six months of the season are the gimmes…as they should be. We live three miles from a ski area, have skinning and backcountry routes out our door, and more nordic trails than most folks this side of Norway. And honestly, unless you want to become an alcoholic, there isn’t much else to do here in the winter. Skiing in the winter is our health and sanity.

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It’s something of a secret, but the best skiing in this neck of the woods – at least in terms of climbing peaks and sliding back down them – is in May, June and early July. The snow consolidates, bringing our normal extreme avalanche danger to safer levels. The Indian Peaks are a great place to go in these months, even better than the rest of the state, a result of our slightly more northern location and distance from snow destroying desert southwest dust. Skiing in May, June and July is something to be relished here, because it’s  a world class experience.

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August and September is when things get interesting. The winter powder is long gone and the corn snow of the spring is a distant memory, having turned to something more resembling ice. That said, we are blessed with many things in this area, and the one in particular that directly impacts the local year-round skier – we have more glaciers in our local mountains than anywhere else in Colorado. These aren’t your Alaska behemoth glaciers. Indeed, most of them no longer count as official glaciers since they don’t really move anymore. They are, for all purposes, permanent snowfields. But they are there and they can be skied year round.

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The skiing is marginal. In the late summer, the corn snow turns to ice which turns to something called “sun cups.” Sun cups are formed by melting pools of water in the snow that create cavities in the surface – basically, thousands and thousands of cups. These cups are not particularly fun to ski. The worst of the sun cups are nearly unskiable, so you pick your way between little paths of relative smoothness. It’s a far cry from powder skiing…it’s almost a Mad Max-style battle type of skiing. But, it’s turns on snow when most folks are sweating on the flats. It’s good and it’s worth it.

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There have been some interesting adventures over the past near six years to take the streak this far. That first summer was easy…it snowed so much. The next year was one of the driest on record. I remember right before our first CT hike skiing a 30-foot-by-30-foot patch up at the local haunt. September was relegated to some horrible turns at Saint Mary’s Glacier. Come to think of it, September often involves horrible turns at Saint Mary’s.

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The cruxiest time of the streak was back in 2014 when I had knee surgery. My surgery was somewhere around May 25. May was in the skiing books – I was making turns the day before surgery despite the impending surgery – but June was no sure thing. It was way, way, way too early to be making turns safely on my expensive new ACL, so while Elaine and her friend Danielle took a couple laps on Sundance Couloir in RMNP, I skinned around the top for two hours. It wasn’t sexy but it counted as a day of skiing on snow in June. That whole summer was a challenge, and I distinctly remember being downright angry and scared with the horrible sun cups on Saint Mary’s in September. I was like…I’m going to end my season on this junk and the year hasn’t even begun!

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Alas, it all worked out. The next real threat was last year right after our Colorado CDT trip. We were simply out of of days and time to hit the glaciers in September, and were busy driving around the state picking up caches. We tossed our skis in the car in hopes of finding something, and we did – a 20×20 foot patch on the top of Cottonwood Pass. We hiked that patch 10 times each and skied back down so many times we actually made ruts in the snow.

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It’s been a good winter and spring and we managed to keep the streak alive, our last ski being fun little couloir on the 4th of July. Since we’re heading to Norway at the end of this month and have to work the days before departure, yesterday was our designated day to ski in August. We decided to head to Isabelle Glacier. Isabelle is a little pocket mountain glacier tucked between Apache and Isabelle Peaks. It’s a gorgeous cirque and the 4-mile hike in takes the visitor past lakes, pine forests, talus, tundra, moraines and right through some amazing peaks. I’ve seen a lot of mountain ranges, but the western part of the Apache cirque is hard to beat.

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It was a good ski and a great hike. The turns were surprisingly high quality and the snow was actually kind of smooth in places. For August it was a ten! Perhaps the coolest thing about the ski was the large gaggle of crows just hanging out on the glacier. When they crowed, it echoed off the mountain walls with an eerie reverberation.

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On the hike out we were greeted with rain, hail and sleet that was predicted to turn into snow by night’s end. Fall is coming rapidly and I haven’t felt it more all year than I did yesterday afternoon. We hiked just slightly faster than the storm, and when we stopped near the trailhead to relax by a stream and watch a family of ducks feed, it caught up to us.

We got loaded back into the car just before the deluge began. Evening plans included a quick shower at home and then dinner with our good friends Erica and Bob at Crosscut. Stomach full and soul alive, we noticed through the heavy cold rain that the bank thermometer read 39°. While the satisfaction of skiing 71 straight months was significant, it was overwhelmed by the excitement of the snow-filled, skiing months to come!

Past accomplishments, medals and long streaks have their place, but they can’t compare with the giddy anticipation of future adventures. The past has been great, but the future excites me much, much more.

Roll , roll, roller skiing into fitness


One commitment I made this spring was to spend more time roller skiing. Last year we only went a paltry 15 days or so, and that’s a bit of a wasted opportunity since it’s actually easier to improve technique and fitness in the summer than in the winter. I’m not going to get much sympathy on this one, but our access to groomed nordic skiing in the winter is a ten minute drive, whereas roller skiing we can actually walk out our door and have a nice 10 kilometer route without having to drive a minute. Roads are consistent and it’s easy to work on stuff. Want a flat road to work on v2? No problem. A long climb to build your threshold fitness? We’ve got plenty on those. The only thing we don’t have out our door is rolling terrain, but alas our workplace is located in the roller skiing hotbed (I use this term very lightly) of Boulder and it’s all rolling. In addition to great terrain, there is little pressure in the summer and one can just progress at a natural pace. There are no races to break up training, few shitty weather days and less illness to contend with. It’s a great time to become a better skier.

Probably the biggest issue with roller skiing is it’s dorky as heck and there are a lot of other things you can do in the summer. You have to put ego aside a little bit and just enjoy being dorky. It’s actually a lot of fun and there is no better way to build ski specific fitness. We’ve gotten out 31 days so far this summer and the peak season is yet to come. There are few things I like better than roller skiing up Vail Pass or Mount Evans as the leaves are changing. It’s a highlight of the annual preparation ritual.


Elaine and I signed up for a ten-week Tuesday night summer roller ski training group that ended just this week. Our coach was Adam St. Pierre, a honch Boulder area Nordic racer, ex-collegiate racer, coach of the Boulder Junior Nordic Team and all around awesome dude. Elaine and I both improved a lot, which is what it’s all about. I remember back in week one how every divot and bump in the road scared the heck out of me. Ten weeks later, the hills seem a lot less steep and the confidence is way higher. On our last session I decided to do a little one ski pirouette down a fast hill, and while I didn’t crash Adam did give me a “be careful show-off!” Good advice, as I’m at that place where confidence and skill and miles don’t quite match! Fitness has come a long way too, from that first interval way back in June. There is some hop in the stride now and it feels good.

During the class I got to enjoy the simple pleasure of roller skiing in the rain, the brutality of skiing on 110 degree tarmac and everything in between. We skied up and down hills with medicine balls, we skied while towing people behind us, we skied with no poles while bouncing basketballs in front of us, we tackled scary descents and went faster on them than we’ve ever gone before.  The class took us out of our comfort zone, and that’s when you improve the most. 


We’ve found a lot of great routes around our work place, with interval options ranging from one minute sprints to ten minute consistent efforts. That’ll be nice a lunch break as we move into clinic season and morning workout opportunities shrink. We also picked up some classic roller skis which are great for our high elevation climbs near home. I’m quite surprised more AT skiers don’t classic roller ski as it’s a very similar motion to skinning uphill fast. I could certainly see it increasing in popularity as uphill travel gains even more traction. 

It’s been good, and I’m thrilled to have made solid strides during a time of year when I normally wouldn’t think of skiing. Elaine is crushing strong this year, so we’re on track for a good year. Now it’s time to have a strong autumn season and then just basically stay healthy for the entire winter. A cold front just moved in and they are predicting snow above 10,000 feet Friday night. One of my favorite seasons of the year, autumn, is just about here!