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.

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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Cold Smoke Voodoo: the 1st Splitboard to kiss the slopes of ‘The World’s Highest Mountain’ – Mauna Kea

Evolving Perspectives on Snowshredding: Coldsmoke Voodoo the 1st Splitboard to kiss the slopes of ‘The World’s Highest Mountain’ – Mauna Kea

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Words & Photography by Jamie VanLanen

For over a decade my snowboarding was geared towards picking off the biggest, steepest, most technical routes; lines with consequences that were certainly personally rewarding, but also associated with ego and prestige related rewards.

A few years ago a conscious shift occurred within me. Intuitively I no longer prioritized high consequence snowboarding and instead began to really enjoy flowy, mellower riding that did not require me to think too much, stress, or be scared. Call it what you will; age, seeing too many bad things go down, or just going soft. It might be some of that but I see it more as finding immense pleasure in snowboarding just for the sake of floating across the planet, surfing the earth and a great desire for connecting with the deep roots of our sport.

I started identifying with old school skiers who I used to make fun of, calling them “meadow skippers”, and I started visualizing and identifying the biggest, longest, most-flowy and cruiser mid-angle and low-angle lines. I also developed an interest in making turns on the most iconic mountains, even if they were just a few turns and not the burliest lines and not from the precise summit.

Living in Alaska early winter can be a drag sometimes, cold temps and low light. The easiest way to get out of Alaska for some rejuvenation is to jump on one of the daily direct flights from Anchorage to the Hawaiian Islands. I’ve developed a ritual of doing this over the last several years; cruising around the islands, camping, trail running, swimming, and trying to teach myself how to surf.

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I have long been interested in the deep history of skiing, which stems back to at least 14,000 years ago in the Altai region of Siberia where ancient hunters used handmade skis with elk leg skins for hunting big game. I wondered if any of these ancient people ever tried to slide sideways on one split of wood rather than two? Some of the old hunting skis from Siberia and Scandinavia are wider than today’s fat skis, and shorter too, sort of the like a splitboard. I suspect this was for better maneuverability and floatation in the boreal forest. Who knows though if anyone ever “snowboarded” before the late twentieth century? Regardless, these old hunters represent one of the ancient roots of our sport.

Another ancient, and extremely important, root of snowboarding occurred when perhaps a thousand years ago Native Hawaiians began to stand up on the wooden boards they developed for fishing and ride the waves back to shore. From here paddling-out was no longer just fishing, it was riding, dropping in, carving toe-side and heel-side, barreling, and stacking and getting pounded by waves. This was probably a spiritual and physical revolution of sorts for the Hawaiians. Culturally, great surfers also received lots of status and prestige, just as our greatest boardsport athletes do today.

These are some of things I think about these days while skinning up switchbacks in Alaska and trail running or beaching it on the islands.

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I was blown away the first time saw the 13,796 ft. top of the island of Hawaii covered in snow; Mauna Kea, a volcano that, when measured from its base on the ocean floor, is actually the tallest mountain in the world. I had heard about people skiing up there but never realized how substantial Mauna Kea is as a mountain and how much actual snow covered terrain she holds during the winter. With this realization I immediately had a new snowboarding goal – to ride Mauna Kea. But to make this happen all the cards would need to align. There would need to be good snow cover, the weather and winds would need to be calm, and the road up the mountain would need to be open – all during my pre-booked one week vacation to the big island.

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The strategy is pretty simple however. Either way you are going to Hawaii for a week. You can watch the weather forecast and the webcam before you go and decide if you should bring your snow gear or not. Alaska residents get two 50lb bags for free on Alaska Airlines, so as long as we don’t mind hauling our gear along we really don’t have much to lose. If the window opens – it’s on, and I am snow surfing Hawaii. If the window does not open I am surfing waves in Hawaii.

Last winter it all came together for me. The webcam was showing ample snow on the mountain and the forecast was for clear, calm skies. After one day of waiting for a bit of rain to pass through we were on the 15 mile access road heading for the summit, traveling from sea level to almost 14,000 ft. in a matter of a few hours. I have snowboarded 26 Colorado and 5 California fourteeners and hiked several more and usually feel pretty comfortable at that elevation but the instant altitude change on Mauna Kea definitely had me a little woozy on the short hike to the summit.

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The line I had scoped out the day before from the north shore, directly off the summit, was holding perfect corn on a clean ramp with a consistent 38ish degree pitch descending about 1,500ft off the northeast face. The views out to the ocean and onto the massive volcanic, cratered landscape were surreal. In the distance to the west we could see the 10,023 ft. summit of Haleakala on Maui and to the south, also snowcapped, the 13,678 ft. summit of Mauna Loa. Standing on a massive 13,796 ft. summit in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, at one of the most isolated places on the planet, getting ready to drop in; it is moments like this is that snowboarding has become all about for me.

 

The turns on my Coldsmoke Voodoo splitboard were stellar. I was somewhat reminded of a past yearly ritual of mine, climbing and ripping spring corn on the Mt. Lassen volcano in the Cascades. Yet, compared to Mt. Lassen, Mauna Kea was like snowboarding on Mars. Beautiful red volcanic rock covers everything around me not covered by snow. When I reached the end of the snow line I was a couple miles from the road in a massive lava field surrounded by huge orange colored cinder cones and craters. Mauna Kea resembles the surface of Mars so much that it has been used by NASA as testing grounds for Mars rover expeditions. On the hike back to the road I imagined that I was walking on Mars, except that the Hawaiian volcano desert heat kicked in, as did the reality of being on an island in the middle of the south pacific ocean.

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I got to the road and got picked up by my generous shuttle driver friend and sweet-talked her into shuttling me for another lap on a different line I had scoped out. Another beautiful hike and epic Hawaiian corn run deposited me in some snowy flats and required some uphill climbing to get back to the road. I chose this route on purpose because I wanted to actually splitboard in Hawaii. I dismounted, pulled the bindings, split the Voodoo, slapped on skins, grabbed my poles and skied across the volcanic flats to a low angle snow gully and began the half hour skin uphill back to the road. It was brilliant, even though I huffed and puffed a bit from the elevation. At the top I jumped in the car and rallied down to ocean for an evening swim. I wanted to surf and snowboard in the same day but it was too late. Nonetheless, I snowboarded and swam in a tropical ocean all within the course of a few hours. Even better, the Coldsmoke Voodoo became the first splitboard to kiss the snows on Mauna Kea. Aloha.

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