Table of Contents
(Adventure date: May 31, 2020)
It’s cold in winter, it’s hot in the summer. In most places around the globe, this distinction holds true. Colorado, however, likes to push the limits of what these seasons mean. While ski resorts in the state are usually open from Thanksgiving to mid-April, it can snow any month of the year. In fact, as I sit here typing up this report in July, two inches are forecast to fall above 13,500 feet in some parts of the state tomorrow night. Nice.
So, if May rolls around, and you’ve done all the resort skiing you want, what do you do while the snow at the higher elevations slowly melts out? You could wait for most of the snow to disappear, but depending on the ferocity of the previous winter, that waiting could push you into mid-July. If that’s the case, you only have two months before the first snows roll back in. Summer is short in the big mountains. Alternatively, you could strap on some crampons and go forth to bag some peaks, or you could go backcountry skiing. From April-June, there are ample opportunities to go out and earn your turns, while advancing into places that would normally be inaccessible until months later. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been dabbling in some backcountry skiing while I wait for the high country to open up.
Logistics and Risks
Like most mountain activities, backcountry skiing is inherently dangerous. You need to be able to ski or ride at an expert level and understand how changing snow conditions affect your body position. Additionally, you must understand avalanches, what causes them, what features to avoid, and what the avalanche forecast calls for. To this end, a visit to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center is MANDATORY before any backcountry run in Colorado. In addition, the following bullet points are HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, if not also mandatory. Remember, Colorado is the embarkation point for a lot of people visiting the Rocky Mountains, do not end up on the local news because you died trying to do something you had no business doing.
Before you Go Checklist:
- Can you ski at an expert level?
- Have you checked the weather? Tip: If theres snow on the ground and its sunny, apply sunscreen liberally and wear thick sunglasses or ski goggles. The snow reflects sunlight right into your face and eyes.
- Was it cold enough to freeze last night? If not, you will encounter very slushy and slidey conditions, plan accordingly.
- How’s the wind forecast? I count this separately because wind is such a crucial factor for not only Colorado in general but you’re well being as well. A 25 mph day up high will zap all your energy and can easily lead to frost bite.
- Have you checked the avalanche forecast site? (CAIC )
- Do you have all the proper equipment? Backcountry ski set up? Skins? Beacon? Probe? Radios? HELMET?
- Did you bring a friend?
- Have you researched the route THOROUGHLY before attempting?
- Did you text (at minimum) 2 other people your plan and emergency numbers to call should you not return at the planned time? (numbers to know: local forest service ranger district AND county sheriff office where you are adventuring)
- Do you know the following information for your plan?: trailhead, access point, mountain names, distinct geographic features in your area, ie markers to reference should you need an emergency extraction
The Indian Peaks Wilderness (IPW), is a 73,391-acre swath of protected federal land near Boulder and Denver. The wilderness straddles the continental divide and there are no roads across the divide near it (the closest northern option being Trail Ridge in Rocky Mountain National Park, and the closest southern option being Berthoud Pass). Because of its unique geographic location, the wilderness can be divided into an eastern and western section. The eastern section lies only an hour from Boulder and two from the Denver Metro area. It is VERY popular in the summer months. However, there is a seasonal caveat. Owing in part to the amount of snow received, the road into Brainard Lake Recreation area (one of two hugely popular eastern wilderness access points) does not open up until June. When it is open, the paved road into Brainard requires a 12$ entrance fee (2020) and deposits you close to the mountain majesty. Up until the road opens, if you are willing to park at the gateway trailhead (adding 2.5 miles of road walking each direction), you can get into the wilderness for free and lose the crowds relatively quickly.
Why would anyone want to add an extra five miles to an already taxing outdoor excursion? Well, there are a TON of unique backcountry ski lines that can be accessed from the Brainard area, and they only exist as long as there’s snow. Waiting for the winter gate to open often means missing these lines. Because its so close to Boulder, even in the transition months (March-June), you’ll find hearty Coloradans here, heading out before dawn to shred the gnar. Click here for an older, but nicely laid out front range backcountry ski information page.
My buddy, Harlan, had been wanting to take on a ski descent of the Queensway Couloir on Apache Peak for a while. I had done a solo outing on it the year prior and wanted to revisit, thus the plan was born. We’d meet at Brainard Gateway Trailhead, get to the top of Queensway, ski down as far as possible, and get back to the car. Statistics: ~15 miles (5 miles total of road walk). Elevation gain: 3000 feet. Altogether it is not a monstrous day, that five miles of road walking is a huge hindrance, unless…
Part 1: The Shuffle
Bikes! Yes! A few years back when I first encountered the “road problem”, I noticed that everyone else crazy enough to be at the trailhead at 4:30 AM had bikes. Even with a couple snow berms blocking the road, if the conditions are right (think mid/late May), there are large stretches of road behind the winter gate at Brainard that can be biked. This is the first logistical hurdle of the shuffle, don’t forget to bring a bike, 5 miles of road walking with skis on your back is a chore.
Upon meeting at the trailhead, Harlan and I set up our skis ( I went A-frame, while Harlan opted for a diagonal carry since he had a specific backcountry pack that allowed this very simple set up). Click here for a simple video of some (not all) ski carry variations. The goal of backcountry skiing, aside from having a rad time, is to carry your skis as little as possible. The bikes helped this problem out immensely.
We made tracks up the road to the Long Lake trailhead, locked up our bikes, and looked at the conditions before us. Luckily, with thick snow covering the trail, we could set up our skins and clip into AT bindings without having to carry the skis up the trailhead. (Ski Skins definition: Wikipedia)
We skinned awkwardly past Long Lake (on the North, or right side) and up to Lake Isabelle, enjoying brief conversation amongst near-constant huffing and puffing. The trail was snow-covered the whole way, but it hadn’t snowed in a week, so many sets of obvious skin tracks led us up to the lake. If this isn’t the case for you, stay to the right side of Long Lake on the ascent, continue on flat terrain until arriving at a signed trail junction. Head right, as if making for Pawnee Pass (a turn left will just circle Long Lake). Parallel the slope for as long as you can, ultimately banking right up a steeper snow chute BEFORE you get to the waterfall (you’ll be able to see it) that spills down from Lake Isabelle. At the top of this incline, bear left to a slightly higher bench and you’ll reach Lake Isabelle.
Part 2: Enter Alpine
The next logistic challenge was getting around the lake. There is a trail on the right (north) side of the lake but with snow and slick conditions, it’s a pain to traverse. Luckily for us, 75% of the lake was still frozen. After nervously testing the ice and trying to see how thick it was (thankfully quite thick, at least 6 inches) we marched across the lake.
On the far side, we encountered our next large ascent. In ideal conditions, you can ski from the top of Apache Pk all the way down to the shores of Lake Isabelle. We missed the window by a few weeks and found that out upon climbing this incline and seeing an exposed rock garden for about 30 feet. Dutifully, we unclipped, held our skis, and traversed across to the next snowfield before putting them back on. The next section was relatively flat and included a couple of stretches that melt out a little faster than others. This section ended at an unnamed tarn with fantastic views of the upper cirque, ringed by the always intimidating looking Navajo Peak and the broad shoulders of Apache Peak.
The direct ascent route up to the bench that holds Isabelle Glacier and the beginning of Queensway Couloir is steep and unforgiving. Once climbed, there is only a brief respite before you have to ascend the couloir. While probably the fastest route, we were in no rush and decided to cross below the tarn to the north side of the bowl and climb up to the foot of the glacier, roughly mirroring the route of the summer trail. Our reasoning was simple, if we ascended this way, we’d have to carry the skis for a shorter period of time. We could then leisurely skin along the edge of the glacier (which sits on a pleasant bench and doesn’t require any crampon action) with the couloir in full view, until our final climb up it. With the direct ascent route, your skis are on your back from the tarn all the way up to the top of the couloir (or even the summit of Apache if you’re going further).
This plan worked fairly well and before long we were done with our first climb, back into our skis and skinning alongside one of Colorado’s last (and most accessible) glaciers. There were two guys that had passed us near the beginning of the trailhead hours earlier, and from the glacier, we had a great view of their ascent. We were even treated to a show as we watched them descend. The visual of the route really gives you a better idea of what to expect if it’s your first time up there. Pro Tip: if you want to scout the route, climb Shoshoni Pk, the summit has a great view of most of the descent.
After another 30 minutes of skinning, we arrived at the base of the couloir and reattached skis to packs once more. Here, the crampons came out. Microspikes are not a good alternative for this kind of adventure. Although they say they can help on slopes up to 35 degrees, the margin for error is too great —you’re not just carrying a normal pack’s worth of weight. You want big, beefy crampon spikes to carry you and all the gear your hauling up. Don’t skimp on good gear.
This was the most exhausting and most exhilarating part of the ascent. Is it the steepest couloir you can climb in Colorado? No, but its one of the closest places to the front range that makes you feel like you are truly mountaineering. It’s also a GREAT training ground for practicing snow skills and self-arrest techniques as the couloir doesn’t melt out until late August and the glacier sticks around all year.
After getting out of the couloir, we continued up to a smattering of rocks about 300 feet higher. We were doggin’ it at this point and clouds were starting to build to our west. Here, we made one of the most crucial decisions in mountaineering, to continue, or drop-down? The temptation to reach the summit is intoxicating (hence why they call it summit fever), try not to give in to it. Harlan helped me through this decision and proved why it’s so important to have friends with you in the backcountry. The mountain will be there tomorrow, you might not be if you push too hard. So, at ~13,100ft we strapped in and began our descent.
Part 3: The Descent
The skiing was great, but the conditions were challenging. The slushy snow forced us to really sink our body weight back as we made our turns, or risk tomahawking over the front of our skis. Shaking off the initial jitters, we made it back down to the glacial bench and skied down the “direct ascent” route back down to the tarn, marked with a 3 in the picture above.
Skiing the actual couloir does not take long, you can thread through it in maybe 10-15 turns. At its steepest, the slope is roughly 35 degrees. On the descent, skier’s right starts mellow before getting sharply steeper. Skier’s left starts steeply above the couloir entrance (Section 1) and then mellows out towards the bottom. The middle was ok.
From here, we had two brief ski carries across rock gardens before we were able to strap in and ski the last section back down to the shores of Lake Isabelle. While recrossing the ice, we got hailed on, which was unfortunate. However, after we crossed and hunkered down, it only took another fifteen minutes for the storm to swipe passed us. We only heard one thunderclap, which was lucky.
The rest of the skin and hike out was exhausting. As always it seemed longer than on the way up, but we made it back to our bikes in decent time, hopped on, and got back to the trailhead in one piece. The most amusing part of the whole adventure was the looks we received from casual day hikers along the road portion back to our car. Nearly everyone was in disbelief, which went a long way towards making us feel better for all the effort we just put into the adventure.
Well, there you have it, one of the best ski descents near the big metro areas of Colorado and one where you can say, without any reservations, that you earned your turns. Now, with the snow on full meltdown, it’s time to switch to scrambling season!