I am not the first person to try and ski every month of the year in Colorado. While the overall numbers aren’t many, there are people who have done this thing every month for decades or more. And while the elevation of the Centennial State guarantees turns through mid-July at hundreds of locations, by the time August and September roll around, you’re options become really limited. Additional limiting factors include the rate of recent snowmelt and the previous season’s snowpack. Luckily for me, I decided to ski in a year that only managed an average winter snowpack and experienced a warmer than average June/July…wheee.
Faced with dwindling options, I honed my focus on the areas of Colorado that seem to hold onto snow the most. In the northern Front Range, those areas are high, cold, sun-starved alpine cirques. Some of these feature permanent snowfields, and some feature the occasional glacier. For August and September, those became my focus while I clung to the hope that October might signal the return of accumulating alpine snow.
This is part of an ongoing series, for parts one and two, click on the links below.
Table of Contents
- Backcountry Warning and Resources
- Month 7: August 25, 2021 (Ptarmigan Glacier)
- Month 8: September 16, 2021 (Knobtop Icefield)
- Month 9: October 28, 2021 (Shrine Pass Meadows)
Backcountry Warning and Resources
If you’re tip-toeing into backcountry skiing, there are a ton of resources and education that I would consider mandatory before taking it to the hills. I’ve compiled a list below.
- Avalanche training (look up Avvy 1 certifications near you).
- Avalanche gear (shovel, probe, beacon, radio).
- Regular ski gear plus skins, frame/tech bindings.
- Orienteering skills (download offline maps, have a GPS watch, or bring a physical map and a compass).
- Scout your line before committing.
- Ski with partners when able (if not able, compensate by only attempting on the best day conditions wise). This is a touchy point, many refuse to attempt without a partner, and I accept that, but if you have a flexible risk tolerance and can accept more risk in one area (solo journeys), you have to compensate by nailing down all other aspects of the planning process to make the risk defensible.
- Check the weather up until the moment you leave.
- Leave your plan with a loved one and have that plan include emergency contact info should you miss a predetermined rendezvous time.
- Here are some Colorado-focused resources I use: Opensnow, Front Range Skimo, Mountain Weather Forecasts (click here), CAIC (they have an Instagram page, and there are other associated avalanche pages to follow as well), NWS.
- For added info on planning and gear, please visit these two articles I wrote for an outdoor website called SkyblueOverland. The topics covered are crucial for any aspiring backcountry skier/rider. Essential Backcountry Gear, and Guide to Planning a Backcountry Adventure.
- Additionally, I wrote an overview of Colorado Snow, which has a bunch of additional information pertinent to centennial state winters.
- Jump to Table of Contents
Month 7: August 25, 2021 (Ptarmigan Glacier)
After a successful July ski of Andrews Glacier, I began looking at the rest of Rocky Mountain National Park in search of other permanent pieces of snow. I’d passed by Ptarmigan Glacier (a name that doesn’t usually show up on official maps but has been recorded in many user trip reports and blogs) the year prior when I scrambled up Little Matterhorn. It’s not too terribly far from the Bear Lake Trailhead (roughly similar to Andrews, just the opposite direction), and from what I’d researched, stays snowy all year. Good enough for me
So, one late August day, after delaying what I knew would be a taxing journey with skis on my back, I finally committed.
Like Andrews, I used the Bear Lake Trailhead. This time, however, I went north, around the bulk of FLattop Mt. and the Banana Bowls (another lower angle backcountry area in the winter/spring), and continued as if heading towards Odessa Gorge. The whole Odessa area is magnificent, from the lakeshore to the views of Notchtop; it’s all National Park-level beauty.
The established trail ascends gently to a saddle near Joe Mills Mountain and then drops into the gorge before finding the shores of Odessa Lake. My turnoff into the backcountry was at the saddle, where a noticeable but unsigned path leads south to Lake Helene, a shallow pond that acts as a great marker.
I followed the use trail around the right shore of the lake until a series of paths began veering uphill. Using a combination of a few, I found a route that ascends away from the lake and higher into the gorge. This part was a bit frustrating because Krumholtz kept catching my skis, but I soldiered through, following the occasional cairn, until I broke into the alpine.
As you can see in the picture above, stubborn vegetation gives way to two separate snowfields. Up until July, they are more or less connected. The upper field is what’s generally referred to as the glacier, although both fields are large enough to last all year. The navigation was never really hard on this trip, but it was a taxing approach nonetheless. As the terrain changed to talus and scree, my pace slowed to a crawl to make sure I wasn’t misstepping or taking a long rocky ride down a loose slope.
I broke out the crampons and climbed the first snowfield, thankful to be on more of a solid surface. All around the snowfield were large pieces of talus on unstable slopes. The whole area looked like it moved with some regularity, so I was keen to avoid any suspicious-looking areas. Using the crampons to bypass a particularly perilous-looking hogback saved me time and worry.
Between the two snowfields, I chose an angling ascent over loose ground until I could traverse over to the second, larger snowfield, aka Ptarmigan Glacier, and put my crampons back on.
As far as permanent snowfields go, Ptarmigan didn’t look as sad as some of the others I’d seen; the top half looked fairly cohesive and nice, but the bottom half bled into a talus field with plenty of scree poking up out of the snow. The skiing looked like it would be challenging, which felt appropriate since it was late August. I channeled some energy and spike-stepped my way up.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the ideal time to hit these slopes is before the afternoon sun creates slush out of the top layers of snow. This process slows when you have temperatures that dip below freezing the night before. Well, in the middle of summer, that doesn’t happen often, so, even though I made good time getting to the glacier, the climb was slushy and uncomfortable. I had to brace a few times to stop from sliding.
I made it one piece and allowed myself a bit of time to prepare but wanted to turn around and start skiing soon because the slush issue was only going to become more pronounced as the day warmed up.
To be honest, the skiing was a bit terrifying. I connected ~10 turns, but the top was a mixed bag of hard snow ridges and sun-cupped BS, the middle was slushy, and the bottom was a minefield of fist-size rocks that could really screw up my skis. I threaded together as many safe turns as I could but ultimately had to take my skis off and boot pack down the last hundred feet; there was just too much detritus to avoid.
So, yeah, I skied in August on a dwindling glacier in a National Park. It was harrowing, steep (~42-45 degrees at its steepest pitch), and riddled with debris that would’ve destroyed my skis had I not been paying attention. I don’t think It’ll be on the repeat list anytime soon, but it was a good reminder that while dirty snow can be skied, it’s really tricky.
I also finally got a good idea of what a “rock” glacier is, which I thought was pretty cool.
As yearly erosion dumps more rock and debris into valleys and cirques, they end up covering the top of the ice. The ice doesn’t really go anywhere; it just hangs out under accruing layers of rocks and dirt. Practically, this makes the terrain on top of the ice exceptionally loose and subject to sliding; as far as climate change goes, the layers of rocks actually help hide the glacial layers from direct sun exposure. So, even though you may not see a bunch of ice and snow above ground, in some areas, you can bet that the ice still exists; it’s just hiding below the rocks i.e., rock glacier.
What’s interesting about Ptarmigan (Taylor Glacier is also a good example) is that a substantial portion of the ice is still visible, so you get the above surface “glacier,” and you can see the transition zone into the sub-surface “rock glacier.” Cool stuff.
Rock Glaciers are exceptionally unstable (because it’s all resting on ice) and demand careful footfalls and risk management. Naturally, I traversed it in ski boots.
The “rock glacier” continued pretty much right up to the lower snowslope. As I carefully made my way to it, I started to tire of the tedious footing and thought it may be worth it to grab a few extra turns on the lower snowfield and drop a couple of hundred feet relatively quickly.
To my surprise, the snow surface was much more agreeable on this field, and I actually made some half-decent turns without feeling like I was two steps away from dying.
After managing a handful of extra turns on the lower snowfield, I felt accomplished enough to call the outing a success. I made my way to the tarn at the base of the lower snowfield and collapsed on a nice, sunny rock. Compelled to celebrate in some way, I stripped down to my birthday suit and got into the water.
Hand down one of the top five coldest water experiences of my entire life, and I’ve jumped into the Arctic Ocean before!
The tarn is only exposed enough to get into for maybe two months out of the year, so it’s all frigid snowmelt. Despite the shock, I didn’t freeze to death and let the sun dry me. A few confused and concerned rock climbers descending from Notchtop probably got more of a show from my naked lounging than they would’ve liked, but hey, after hauling my skis all the way up to Ptarmigan and faced with the daunting prospect of hauling them back to the car, I can’t say I was in much of a caring mood.
After my quick water refresh, I summoned as much energy as I could, strapped down all my gear, and dragged myself back to the parking lot. Unlike the hundreds of questions I had to field coming back from Andrews, I only spoke to a handful of people. There were still hordes of visitors near the trailhead, but I think they were too shocked at my appearance to even let some questions out, fine by me, haha. August ski down!
Month 8: September 16, 2021 (Knobtop Icefield)
The previous October, I hiked Little Matterhorn, a Class 3 scramble overlooking the Odessa Lake area of Rocky Mountain National Park, and just a stellar adventure all around. While on the ridgeline to the summit, I noticed a large snowfield hiding under the bulk of Knobtop, a relatively ill-defined area with a flat top, gentle western slopes, and a precipitous eastern and northern wall. The snowfield looked large and interesting, so I decided to revisit the area and see if my observation last year held up to skiing scrutiny.
So, a little less than a month after my Ptarmigan Glacier descent, I saddled up for an attempt of the Knobtop Icefield.
I really wanted the snowfield to be exactly the way I’d seen it the year prior, but that turned out to be pretty optimistic on my part.
The approach was fairly benign until I broke from the trail around Lake Helene as I’d done for the previous hike. Instead of heading up into the Ptarmigan Glacier area, I traversed underneath a small headwall and descended below Hope falls. Technically, this is the same gorge that originates near Ptarmigan, but the headwall is a significant enough obstacle to legitimately call them two separate things (Odessa Gorge and Ptarmigan Cirque, for example).
After descending below Hope Falls and crossing the stream, I found myself in a familiar talus field and slope (the same approach that I’d used to climb Little Matterhorn the year prior). This part I knew wasn’t terribly long but featured some serious elevation gain that I had to do with skis. It was a long, and grinding ascent, but I stuck to areas that I thought looked the most stable and slowly made my way higher.
My path was…ok, I mean, I arrived where I wanted to, but the loose rocks and steep slope angle made me a bit nervous, and if you’ve ever tried to hike anything with skis on your back, you’ll know how easily you can get off balance. So, I stumbled, cursed, and dragged myself up the rise, hoping to reach what I knew would be a relatively flat talus field leading up to the edge of the icefield.
The first views of the icefield were…not super inspiring.
Feeling the looming specter of failure creep in, I resolved to at least scout the whole field from its base to see if there were any places I could rope together a measly five turns. The longest part of the icefield looked initially good but led right to a rockfall chute, and after watching countless fist-sized rocks scream down the icefield and crash into the talus below, I was keen to avoid that part.
I did find one section that looked relatively clean and was tucked up underneath a solid-looking rock wall with nothing overhung above it. To be honest, the whole area was a huge rockfall hazard, but I angled towards an area that looked white (so not a lot of surface debris) and got as close as I could to the start before getting my climbing gear on and preparing for a steep ascent.
My crampons got their money’s worth as the terrain steepened quickly past 40 degrees. It wasn’t an altogether long ascent, but the sun-cupped surface, steep profile, and constant rockfall danger kept me plenty focused. I angled towards a large bergschrund (specifically, a randkluft in my case) between the top of the icefield and the solid rock walls behind it. In that pocket, I awkwardly got ready.
Also, in case you are unaware of what a bergschrund or randkluft are, this still shot from a video I took should provide some context. In no way was this a comfortable changeover from crampons to skis.
After a few trying minutes, I got all my gear ready and awkwardly sidestepped from the lower part of the randkluft up to the crest and gently, nervously, stepped my skis over. I was leaning so much on my inside edges I thought I’d fall right back into the randkluft, but it all held together, and I slid forward to a patch of clean snow.
Yeah, so, perhaps unsurprisingly, this was not a banner skiing day, but in the middle of the summer, beggars can’t be choosers. Would I ever repeat it though? ….Uhm.
I didn’t take any pictures on the way down but did manage to put together a set of turns that actually made me really proud. Despite my wonky start, I settled in quickly and hit the skiable bit with the same confidence I had at Andrews Glacier, which is saying something. I hated the rockfall danger and looming sense of potential catastrophe, but I skied better this day than I did on Ptarmigan in August.
I did get some perspective shots from further back and could trace my lines, which was neat.
Below is a different perspective from farther away. I drew in the lines using a computer mouse, so there may be small differences between representations, but you can clearly see my first few turns in the shade on the undrawn version.
Although I made it down the ski slope just fine, I had another couple of heart-stopping moments when chunks of rocks cascaded down from higher elevations. Hearing a rock pick up speed, hitting what looked like 60-80 mph, and then split into a thousand pieces when it hits a piece of talus bigger than an SUV certainly leaves an impression.
Luckily, I had scouted potential lower-risk escape routes, and because I had already identified the problem spots above me, I knew I wasn’t in immediate danger. With barely any wind that day, the biggest factors were sun-melt on the ice and rockfall from gullies and slots that broke through the walls above me. I could tell where those gullies emptied out because of how the snow looked (darker=more debris covered), and you can see that in the picture below. Purposely picking my line to ski the best conditions, as opposed to the longest vertical, saved my skis from getting too beat up and kept me in one physical piece.
Still, having a bunch of rocks break a few dozen meters away from you is not a calming experience. I kept my helmet on for the majority of the return hike to lake Helene and only stowed it when I was safely back on established trails.
The hike back felt somehow more exhausting and challenging than last month’s outing; my ski straps kept loosening, so I had to do a bunch of re-adjusts, and talus hopping with skis on just beats you up. I did make it back successfully, and despite the rapidly forming blisters, felt pretty good about how I’d managed what is definitely one of the craziest backcountry adventures I’ve done.
Quick PSA: This is all completely nuts, and I think that should be noted somewhere in every piece I write about this kinda stuff. I am a competent skier and mountaineer with decades of experience; I’m also a 6-year ski instructor; additionally, I have years of trail-building and months of alpine camping/living under my belt. I make it my business to understand the mountains and the hazards they harbor, and I have turned around on many adventures when the conditions weren’t right.
I really like being alive, but I also intimately understand my personal thresholds because I have that conversation with myself often. Like most aspects of life, thresholds change over time. As silly as it sounds, the best advice when you’re pushing yourself in the outdoors is to get right with yourself, figure out what you can and won’t do, and identify the gray area where you can build skills into. After all the years I’ve spent in the outdoors (along with the hundreds of Colorado mountains I’ve climbed), I felt that I could handle the risks presented to me on this day, but I am always preparing for the day when that’s no longer the case.
Month 9: October 28, 2021 (Shrine Pass Meadows)
When we talk about the alpine in Colorado, there’s usually a period of time in the autumn when a series of high elevation storms bring the first snow of the year. Most of this is unskiable from resorts, and there’s a fair amount of melting between storms because the sun angle is still high, but it signals the inevitable arrival of colder weather. Well, this year, that first bout of snow took its sweet time showing up. There were a few anemic spurts in early October, but finally, towards the back half of the month, a stronger storm targeting the western slope dropped up to a foot on the mountains around Vail Pass. My time had arrived.
By this time, I’d also managed to wrestle down the inevitable criteria I would use for the challenge. With an understanding that I’d elected to keep my skiing limited to the I-70 corridor and north, I figured exploring a small section west of Vail Pass would make for a nice excursion. I knew the road to Shrine Pass was skiable, so I planned for that.
The new snow, while copious for October, was also still drivable, so I ended up giving the ole snow tires a workout and chugged up the Shrine Pass Road, looking specifically for low-angle grassy slopes where the chances of skiing rocks was a lot lower.
I had no illusions that this was going to be a short outing. Already limited by early season snowfall, my hope was to just recycle a few slopes until I felt like I’d made my five requisite turns. All in all, I found three separate “runs” and pieced together about 20 turns between them.
There were a few people out skiing the road, but after driving over some bare patches, it looked, to me, like it would still mess up a pair of skis, so I was relatively excited to find soft slopes without surprise gravel under them.
This day wasn’t anything to shout about, but after languishing through the first part of October, wondering if I’d get to ski fresh snow or be forced to have another experience like August and September, I was just happy to be able to ski something soft.
I think from start to finish, I was on my skis for maybe 90 minutes total, and a lot of that was just soaking up being outside.
Yeah, no real issues, just enjoyed some high-altitude October turns under cloudy skies and on top of fresh snow.
Naturally, thoughts turned towards the following month since another storm was set to hit, and I wanted to take advantage but I also took a moment to give myself a high five, month 9 of backcountry turns complete! Only three more before I’d skied a whole year!