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January 2016

The Waiting Game: East Face of Gothic Mountain

The Waiting Game.

Written by Briant Wiles

The Ease Face of Gothic Mountain The Ease Face of Gothic Mountain

It is inevitable: the scene of craggy mountain peaks reminds me of the bittersweet affliction I have wanting to know every fold of their faces. In some sort of strange unrequited love affair I long for the lines I have yet to feel under my splitboard unsure I ever will. I tell myself that one day the stars will align and I will finally be able to tick off the list a line down the side of a mountain. Well one day came as I stared down the barrel of a gun on Gothic Mountain.

The waiting game consumes an inappropriate amount of my energy studying photos and weather forecasts long into the night or logging hour after hour virtually exploring routes with the help of Google Earth. All this obsessing done with visions of great rewards and everlasting glory in my head. Well I’m not sure about the everlasting glory but I can picture the video game version of myself slaying steep lines on a mythical mountain. It is easy to get caught up in the glitz and glamor of big screen skiing and snowboarding that showcases large cliffs and larger lines. But when you step away from the media hype and it is just you and I standing on top of a line trying to weigh all the consequences of our possible actions it feels a world a part.

I live and breathe the continental climate of Central Colorado. If you have ever had the chance to experience this region on snow then you will know its beauty and notorious snowpack. The words “persistent slab” is plastered on the avalanche bulletins. The season long norm is a “moderate” danger rating or higher. With this typical elevated danger rating and associated avalanche problems my best chances to step out into bigger terrain is relegated to rare “windows of opportunity”. Every once in a while this all comes together to create the moments I live for. It is a satisfying experience to have hard work and patience pay off in a memorable descent.

Briant Wiles beginning the long walk to the top Briant Wiles beginning the long walk to the top

This recipe came together and allowed me to touch a place one can only briefly visit, the East Face of Gothic Mountain. Gothic is a well-known local icon that owns a prominent piece of the Crested Butte skyline. It rises at an un-realistic angle clawing towards the sky bristling with foreboding granite ramparts. It is an impressive mountain to say the least standing geologically apart from the rest of the Elk Mountains but in good company with its large vertical relief. Of all the enticing aspects Gothic offers the East Face holds my attention like no other. It drops from a thin ridge overhung by massive cornices more than 3,000 feet to valley bellow. The upper reaches drain a broad bowl with several defined ribs that narrow into a tortured chute that chokes down not once but twice. The face sustains a steep pitch for thousands of vertical before finally spilling onto a lower angled apron. I have witnessed the ominous sight and sounds of snow slides thundering over the cliffs several hundreds of feet high that flank the central escape rout. This is complex terrain with unavoidable and obvious consequences.

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For years I have stared at the East Face of Gothic. Usually lines of this magnitude are relegated to spring corn cycles. Days are picked with devoted observance of nightly low temperatures. This allows one to reduce the level of risk to manageable levels and enjoy good corn skiing. But no matter how much fun the corn is it is not powder.

The video game version in my head always pictures riding steep faces in great conditions. So I wait. I waited for a chance when my level of risk tolerance matched that of the conditions of the East Face. Finally one morning I found myself climbing through a snowstorm in the pre-dawn light on my way to slaying the dragon that beats deep in my heart. It was a spring storm after several weeks of freeze thaw that set the underlying snowpack in graveyard like stillness. Climbing with me was a partner, veteran of several missions into the near beyond and I trusted him with my life. We climbed past more reasonable and standard south and west facing shots with heads down and our minds fixated on a single goal.

This is how dying in the backcountry makes sense to the second hand couch surfer speculating as to how we may meet our ends. They are right in the respect that a single-minded approach is counter to good backcountry etiquette but are unable to tell half the story as those living it. With a knowing smile we knew that this was our chance to lay tracks on this face, our chance to touch the other side.

Briant ready to drop in Briant ready to drop in

With any late spring storm the chance to ride dry powder conditions is early in the morning necessitating dark approaches. So we found our selves climbing up into a downfall of snow and wind lite by headlamp. We worried about how much snow had accumulated on the face and if we would even get a window to see what we were trying to do. We knew that the spring storm would be short lived and would be clearing out that day. We were more worried about getting to the top before the sun came out and began to melt the snow creating a heavy wet mess. We did have an exit plan in place in case conditions were unfavorable so that we could back down from the ultimate goal and save a little face. But once daylight started to soften the dead of night causing us to switch off our headlamps I knew that we were going to get a chance to test the face.

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Six to eight inches of new snow covered the bowl tenuously attached to a melt-freeze crust. The clouds had parted serendipitously as we strode the last few steps to the summit giving a clear view of the valley far below. We dropped in with little fan fare and I made a downward cut across a gully to test the snow. The new spring snow was heavier than I was hoping for but would still make for a memorable run. The initial cut went well and snow fell harmlessly downslope with no propagation. I found myself sitting sentinel on the apex of a rib below a gigantic house sized cornice exposed on the immense face watching my partner ride the bowl into the chock. From my vantage point I watched as he arced graceful turns down into the bowels of a true monster. The snow looked good with his signature carved on the face. Moments after he disappeared from sight a voice crackled over the radio indicating he had found a safe position wedged somewhere in the twists of the narrowed chute below. I trusted that he was indeed in a good enough spot that I need not worry sending something down on top of him, and then I dropped in. I made the first six turns covering more than a thousand feet like it was on an Alaskan mountain — the snow, slightly heavier than true winter powder, flying from the edges of my board. The feeling of floating or levitating didn’t come close to the experience of pointing my board down that face.  

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As I neared the first choke a customary look back showed more than the expected amount of snow was moving behind me. The heavy spring snow pulled by gravity was slow at first but now had gathered mass and momentum. I pulled off to the rock wall of the chute and grasped a secure ledge and watched a nightmare unfold. The snow I set in motion gathered intensity until a river came roaring down past me. It was just the new storm snow but it quickly gained momentum and now swept by me in an angry flood. I shouted over the radio for my partner to hang on saying “here it comes”. The violent tide swept down the narrow chute jumping off walls and finally fanning out to a stop several thousand feet below. My friend and I were ok. We had held our positions and now all that was left was to try and negotiate the gouged out path left in the slide’s wake.

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We continued our descent with a warm glow of pride from the face above and relished in occupying a space that man can only visit. This glow stayed with us as we slapped skins on and made the long slog out of the valley back to the one where we had started. It was a long day and I rested happily that night. I could check the East Face of Gothic off the list and was satisfied to do so but that immense face has haunted my thoughts. We had put ourselves out there and had taken on more risk than I would like to admit. But is that not the meaning of the lines that we all have on our “list”. They represent a challenge defined by risk. By waiting, sometimes years, for occasions when the risk is acceptable before willingly putting ourselves in places that few dare to tread we can know a deeper sense of satisfaction. The East Face of Gothic is a place we can only visit and I hope one day to again go there. In hindsight my days of tempting a complex line like this in powder conditions may be behind me but I will continue to wait and watch for windows of opportunities. My “list” is still growing faster than I can keep up with but the reward of the waiting for the right conditions to jump into some strange couloir or consequential face is worth it.

A cabin in the woods

Cold Smoke crew ventures deep into the San Juans

By Will Shoemaker

There is something deeply gratifying about discovering a new zone and pilfering its possibilities. Often, it takes work, vision and multiple attempts.

Like playing Jenga drunk. Or hooking up with the captain of the cheerleading squad.

But when the Cold Smoke crew crested a certain north-south ridge in a zone we’d been eyeing, literally, for years, all of the work had paid off. Before us lay an untouched face brimming with possibility. And nobody was skiing it. Untracked, virgin lines spread across our field of vision like a Picasso.

You could almost hear harp music in the background and a chorus of “AAAAAAAAHHHHHHS.” We’d struck gold deep in the throes of a historic mining district, and the pick-swinging was about to commence.

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Flashback to 2012. On a cold January weekend, Cold Smoke owner Kyle Jones and close friend Lucas Martinez shuttled to a little-known hideout in the San Juan Mountains near the site of a mining catastrophe called Summitville. However, hopes of pillow lines and pow turns were snuffed out by a wallop of a winter storm. The group remained hunkered down through the weekend and into the next week, drinking and eating until both sustenance and beverage ran dry, and Jones decided to make a run for antifreeze to feed one of the crew’s two working snowmobiles.

Unfortunately, Jones’ sled found a creek on the way out. Lucky to be alive, Jones limped the three miles back to warmth of the woodstove — on foot, sans skis, in the midst of the storm. As an unfortunate result of the weather, he and his compadres weren’t able to find out much on that trip about the riding potential that surrounded the cabin.

ed_IMG_7821 copy “Little Wasatch”

In the years since, small talk often turned to the Forest Service cabin at the proverbial end of the road. The time had to be right, the crew up to the task, T’s crossed and I’s dotted. And, more than anything, weather conducive.

These factors all came together in early 2016 for a tight-knit posse comprised of Briant Wiles, Josh McEwen, Geoff Heller, Leora Wallace, Jones and me.

The Cold Smoke crew convened on a chilly winter evening at Gunnison’s High Alpine Brewery to hash out logistics — namely, the type and quantity of alcohol that would be needed to fuel three days of shenanigans in the middle of nowhere.

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The sled ride in would be long, but pretty straightforward — relatively flat road through foothills that climb toward bigger peaks. But exploration — and sled laps — once on location would mean the requisite five gallons per person of extra petrol. Throw on top of it food, clothing, sleeping bags and booze for six people and you’ve got a convoy of catastrophe ready to be unrolled.

Leora and I pulled out of Gunnison heading east at 6 a.m., weighed down with two sleds, skis, board, gear, plenty of whiskey (Leora, my wife, is a booze rep) and a boat-load of ambition. A rising sun backlit the mountains named for Christ’s blood as we drove south across the cold, barren alfalfa and potato fields of the San Luis Valley. We regrouped at a step back in time called Rainbow Grocery in South Fork before the final push up the pass.

ed_IMG_7680 copy Kyle Jones and Geoff Heller

From the trailhead, it’s a one-way, 20-mile snowmobile ride to the cabin. Moderately technical riding in the surrounding area once you get there makes this an affirmative “sled-ski” zone.

The 15-foot by 15-foot cabin was erected in 1911 by Mountain States Telephone Company as a “line shack” to support crews maintaining the transcontinental telephone line. Remnants of the old line are still found along the creek to the southeast. Later, the cabin was used as a living quarters for Forest Service employees who worked on numbers projects in the area.

Today, it can be rented nightly for little more than the cost of a couple cases of beer. Don’t be fooled. Amenities are minimal, but the necessities are in place — making for cheap livin’ for as many homies as can be crammed inside the cabin’s confines.

ed_IMG_7844 copy Alpenglow aprés ski.

We arrived at the place with plenty of time for afternoon exploration — and sled laps off a treed rise to the southeast of the cabin. The area sees a fair amount of snowmobile traffic, and while a storm had dumped a healthy dose of snow the week prior, the area west of the cabin held few tracks. This would be the focus of attention the following day — after a huge meal, beer, whiskey and knock-down, drag-out game of Cribbage. This place was starting to feel like we could stay awhile.

Dawn broke to the sun-soaked glow of an alpine sunrise. After a breakfast that put Bob Evans to shame, the posse saddled up and rode west, climbing to a ridge — the ridge — that unveiled the white wall. At the northwest end of the ridge lay an area that one prominent ski mountaineer has called “Little Wasatch.” To the southeast the ridge offered up one summit after another, interspersed with hair-raising couloirs.

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To the north, most of the crew spent the day schralping sled lap after sled lap, while Leora and I toured into the drainage to the west to get a closer look at the goods. The west-facing slope we skied that afternoon gave us a perfect view of a shot Briant Wiles had dubbed the “Sickle Couloir.” Colorado’s continental snowpack is often unforgiving, but for this particular trip we had lucked out. A week’s worth of high pressure after big storms through late fall and into December left a deep snowpack that showed no signs of instability.

Josh McEwen had to head back to civilization early the next day, but the rest of us had our sights sets on not leaving until the Sickle had swung. The climb proved easier than expected, and by noon we stood on top of the route’s definitive entrance that swept left into a dog leg and spit wide into a creamy apron. One by one, we licked the edge of the blade, carving the couli in conditions more reminiscent of spring than the first week of the year.

ed_IMG_7705 copy The Sickle Couloir.

IMG_2598 Geoff Heller sending the Sickle.

At the end of the run, aspirations were still as high as the summits above, but the real world called us back. The 20-mile snowmobile ride out still loomed. We’d only touched the surface, leaving in us all a deep-seated desire to one day return to the vast wall of white deep in the San Juans.

 

Emerald Isle: An Eastern Arctic Snowsurfing Saga

Emerald Isle: An Eastern Arctic Snowsurfing Saga

By: Jaime Van Lanen

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Iceland may seem a distant land—but when you factor in one’s ability to travel across the Arctic Circle, it becomes much closer. With an invite from Icelandic splitboard legend Magnus Smarason to join a sea-accessed backcountry snowboarding expedition to a remote fjord, alongside a newly organized direct flight on Iceland Air from Anchorage, AK to Reykjavik, Iceland, it was doable.

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Six hours on a plane and five hours by car to Akureyri, then a two hour boat ride—a tiresome all nighter—was rewarded upon arrival to Eyjafjordur, a majestic blue fjord surrounded on all sides by snow covered mountains holding sustained pitches dropping straight to the sea shore below. Fourteen hours after departing from Alaska I had set up my tent on a grassy knoll just above the shore of the Arctic Ocean and was already climbing a peak for some turns under the midnight sun. As the sky glowed orange we opened it up on perfect corn snow leading all the way to the precipice of a sixty meter waterfall draining directly into the sea below. A short hike back to camp and I was out cold.

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The following morning Smarason tapped on my tent to let me know he was gonna start skinning within the hour. Jet lagged, but fully aware that the day would be stellar, I scrambled to gulp down some coffee and ready my pack. Soon I was following Smarason towards the largest peak in the vicinity of our camp. Each step further up the face of this high Icelandic peak brought me higher above the beautiful blue colored Arctic Ocean. Somewhere out there, several hundred miles to my left, was Greenland. To my right lay the vast desert-like volcanic expanse of interior Iceland, and beyond that, mainland Europe. With bluebird skies above, the pitch of snow below us beckoned for a ride. Standing on the summit strapping in there was full awareness that this would be a snowboard run of dreams. Soul surfing high above the waters of the Arctic Ocean, linking huge arching turns on velvety corn with the sea sparkling in the sun far below.

1477789_10152035689654344_976116975_n Jaime Van Lanen dropping in

Smarason nailed a steep, exposed line on a hanging snowfield with a tight couloir exit, making it clear that Icelanders know how to handle themselves in the mountains. The turns would eventually end at our basecamp on the beach, where we would stay for the next four nights. Icelandic leg of lamb was cooked over a fire and savored by all. As we ate traditional local food and the Icelanders swilled down the local Viking Ale™ we shared stories about snowboarding and living in the north, making comparisons and contrasts between Iceland and my home, Alaska. As the waves crashed, seals, whales and thousands of different ducks and geese passed by our camp. In my tent I fell asleep reading Icelandic sagas describing the colonization of Iceland by Vikings some 1,000 years ago.

Icelandic splitboard legend Magnus Smarason Icelandic splitboard legend Magnus Smarason

The boat camping trip proved to be an epic session, but my Icelandic splitboard saga did not end with our return to the road system. Through my exploration of Iceland’s mountains, I quickly came to realize that the fjords and valleys of Iceland are a splitboard adventurer’s heaven. Not only were the riding opportunities infinite, on most days, after riding, there was a geothermal hot pool for healing and a patch of green grass for a camp.

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Smarason told me about a place where “the local people swim”, a hot pool inside of a cave. He told me it would be very hard for me to find, maybe impossible. The location was accessed through a small hole in the earth way off in the middle of a massive lava field and required a sketchy class 5 down-climb. On a storm day I went on a mission to find the secret cave. With diligence I found the steaming hole in the earth and as the wind blew the rain sideways out in the open above I swam in a crystal blue pool of steaming water five meters deep in an underground lava tube.

Jaime enjoying the "secret pool" Jaime enjoying the “secret pool”

The next morning I awoke to a fresh blanket of spring snow and soloed my way towards the top of a steep powder filled couloir. The entrance was steep and tight, yet after negotiating my way through it I scored face shots flanked by gorgeous walls of green and black colored volcanic rock. Later, with a plan to climb and ride one of Iceland’s many volcanos I was forced to retreat because of high winds only to discover a geothermal fed hot river tumbling down the volcano’s thawing slopes. I of course salvaged the day by lying around in the water, surrounded by bellowing steam vents, soaking in the view of mountains, waterfalls, and green valleys around me. Finally the weather cleared and I headed to the East Fjords, where I climbed a beautiful peak 1,000 meters above Seydisfjordur and made another brilliant descent to the shore of a waterfall laden fjord, this time on the Norwegian Sea.

Jaime ready to drop Jaime ready to drop

Every moment in Iceland I was blown away by the beauty of its landscape, its history, its mountains, its lakes, rivers, waterfalls, beaches, hot springs, volcanoes, and fjords. Moreover, Icelandic riders and Icelandic terrain are rightfully on the map in the world of snowboarding. Magnus and the Akureyri crew are madmen of pure Viking blood. They climb mountains as if they were taking a stroll down a city street, swim in the Arctic Ocean as if they live in the tropics, and rip big freeride lines and park laps with equal talent. Their ancestors colonized this land 1,000 years ago in order to escape tyrannical Scandinavian kings. They survived on fish, birds, seals, whales, and sheep, and lived in sod houses, which they often heated with dung. Their ancestors were also the first Europeans to arrive in North America, where they could not break down the Native American resistance to colonization and were thus forced to return to Iceland. In retrospect, they did not miss out on much because, in more ways than one, Iceland is a slice of paradise, especially if you want to live a relaxing, pressure-free life in the mountains as a snowboarder.

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The future Icelandic Snowboarding Saga is now being written. If you’ve got some extra time one of these upcoming seasons, I highly recommend you take your Cold Smoke Voodoo splitboard over to the Emerald Isle for a tour.

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