Part 2: Cold Smoke in the Red Zone

The Uncertain Quest for China’s Secret Powder Paradise

By Jaime Van Lanen

In mainstream, very urban, eastern China things are starting to ramp up ski industry development-wise, and of course there are loads Chinese who are snowboarding at the many, East Coast-like, lift-served ski resorts. Moreover, Chinese culture even now has caught wind of the joys of powder snow and the lure of the backcountry. Recently a big corporation in Beijing started up a volcano snowcat skiing operation on the North Korean border in Jilin province called Changbaishan (CBS). When I first heard of CBS I became adamant about going there to ride. Its location is near the Sea of Japan and I figured it would receive maritime snowfall. It looked to have a full suite of powder-filled birch forests reminiscent of Hokkaido on its lower slopes and big open snowfields on its volcanic upper slopes. And the top of the snowcat drop was right on the border of North Korea. So nobody needed to drag me there, I was all-in.

But sometimes the things which seem to be the best ideas end up being the dumbest ones and CBS is one of those. The volcano and its beautiful surroundings were a wonderful backcountry skiing area for sure, but the corporate shmucks who run the place, along with their Orwellian Chinese police state friends who oversee it all, make doing anything autonomously close to backcountry skiing impossible. The only way to get to the base of the mountain is take one of their strictly controlled buses, which requires that you purchase your $90 snowcat pass before even getting on the bus. Another way to get to the good terrain would be to cross-country ski the entire way, but this would be an overnight trip really, being that it’s almost 20 miles from the security gate to the base of the volcano. Then, just like Tibet, the snowcat “guides” monitor your every move and freak out if you venture too far off main pistes. I’m usually a master at ditching these types of people but they’ve really got the place on lock-down. Every time I tried to go exploring the untracked areas I would be followed by one or two of these guides, with their radios reporting all of my movements. Albeit I did score a bunch of great low-angle Manchurian volcano powder, but it was hard to thoroughly enjoy because of those Maoist “ski guides” and that was enough of that. I’ll keep the $90 and try to strategize a new plan.

That night back at the lodge I went for a walk and scoped out the security operation at the main gate where the bus picks people up for the snowcats and decided it would be doable to just mingle in with the morning crowd of Chinese backcountry enthusiasts and poach the bus up to the mountain. The next day was a bit stormy and perfect for my plan to cautiously sneak away from the CBS base area into the forest and go enjoy the day doing split-laps in the stellar, pillow-filled birch forests on the lower mountain.

My bus-poach idea worked fine and once at the base area, where the stupid guides meet you at the bus stop to “guide” you, I took a walk to the outhouses with my splitboard and never came back.

The ski across the flats in the boreal forest was wonderful. I glided gracefully in dry powder toward a nice, 1,000-foot pitch of open birch I had eyed the day before. I was living it — putting in track alone in the mountains of Manchuria just west of the North Korean border, about to slay East Asian birch pillows all-day with no Aussie Geijans in proximity to crush my vibe. Several switchbacks and some good grunting and I was up top where the wind was blowing snow — zero vis. No worries, riding trees today anyways. Lap one, two and three. Just like the movies. Yeah, Asian birch is some of the best stuff possible on a snowboard. I’m sure all the Japan vets would agree. But this is China and I’m on the border of North Korea so there is sort of a Double—0—7 vibe going for me on this split session, making it a bit more exhilarating.

I made it back to the base just in time for the bus with the plan to casually mingle in with the crowd again and hop on indiscreetly. But being the only white dude, with a weird looking snowboard that splits in half and decent sized backpack, does make it difficult to be discreet. Despite some strange looks from the crowd everything went smooth and I was back in my hotel room trying to figure out how to tell the lady at the restaurant I want the fired eggplant with my rice. Then, a knock on the door.

A visit from the police. Supposedly, I owed them $150 for poaching CBS earlier that day, $90 for the snowcat ticket and a $60 fine for trespassing. What a bunch of fascist jokers, eh? The one cop, speaking broken English, seemed a bit sympathetic to my protests that I had no idea it was illegal to “hike” on my own because in the USA we are allowed to freely do this virtually everywhere. He tells me he understands but that, regardless, I must pay. These two robotic, inflexible Maoist-trained policemen got my back against a wall here. Who knows what will happen if I refuse but the situation does not look good. I throw the money in their face and scream some obscenities. I don’t think they had ever witnessed someone resist them as I did, as most Chinese have been thoroughly tamed by communist law and order. Well at least I didn’t take any chances and try to make turns in North Korea (which I have a heard one guy who visited CBS has tried), then I’d probably be fighting for a whole lot more than $150.

The North Korean border looms on the ridge in the distance.

So the basic lesson for anyone reading this who has a twitch to snowboard in China? Don’t go to CBS, it ain’t worth it at all — total rip-off. And also watch your back wherever you go in China because they have eyes in the back of their heads (not really but they do have a shit-ton of surveillance cameras everywhere) and of the three different ski areas I did check out, all of them disallow out-of-bounds skiing.

Regardless, my long-practiced sneaky poaching tactics were more successful in the far westerly Xinjian province at the Silk Road Ski Area in the Tian Shan Mountains, where I easily ducked ropes into pretty old-growth pine forests and scored a few nice and brilliant pow lines. The snow in this part of the Tian Shan was shallow, however. The cold, dry range hovers above the sands of the Takla Makan and rises to over 24,000 feet. It really felt like snowboarding in the desert. Down below was the northern route of the ancient Silk Road, where 2,200 years ago globalization got started when people started trading goods across the east-west expanse of Asia and the Indians brought Buddhism to China. Riding down the mountain I viewed a massive expanse of frozen sand dunes. I even saw camels milling around in the snow on the Takla Makan one day. In the distance I could see many big glaciated peaks, including an excellent view of the 17,874-foot Bogda, famous for climbing.

To say traveling in China is difficult if you don’t speak Mandarin is an understatement. I wanted to go deep into the backcountry of the Tian Shan but was barely able to get myself to the ski area. I figured once there I could branch out and get deeper into the mountains. Yet I quickly realized my options were limited, as the bigger stuff was a long ways back. Plus it didn’t look good, everything above treeline looked like either pure ice or super-scoured hardpack. Not interested in a Tibet repeat, I decided to give it one more day at the Silk Road and move on.

The next morning I packed my skins and some extra gear and took off walking from the top chair with my board on my pack along a dry ridge (for you Crested Butte locals, think Gunnison Plateau sagebrush style). The air was good to breathe and the skies were clear. The terrain was intricate. Steep mountains separated by deep rocky canyons, soft snow holding on the north aspects, and not a trace of snow on the south aspects. I had scoped a couple of tight, rocky below-treeline couloirs the day before and I wanted to try and reach them. They exited into a tight-looking gorge but I figured I could follow it out and wrap back around to return to the base of the ski area. After a few hours of scrambling up and down this crazy intricate terrain I finally got a solid view of the couloirs — both blocked by significant sized ice-falls. Oh well, can’t win them all and China is a place where it’s tough to win anything extra-easy when it comes to splitboarding.

I returned a ways back up the ridge, strapped-in, and dropped into another tree chute that I had scoped on the hike in. Exciting powder deep in the gully was had all the way to the valley floor. I chilled in the sun for a while and then started skinning back up toward the ridge, startling some local herders on the way. They looked at me like I was an alien, likely never seeing a skier back there before. But they were happy and so was I. Once up top I made my way back to the ski area boundary and rode the Voodoo down what I must admit was a killer long run on fresh groomed corduroy all the way back down to the desert.

The Tian Shan was decently fun and provided a very interesting exploration. But I’m not done yet. It’s the third largest country in the world and there’s gotta be a real-deal, steep, fat pow zone somewhere in China. Don’t lose faith, yet. Stay with me. The quest for China’s powder paradise will continue in Part 3.

Part 1: Cold Smoke in the Red Zone

Voodoo the first splitboard to kiss the snows of the Tibetan Himalaya?

By Jaime Van Lanen

Aside from Japan, Asia, our earth’s largest continent, has been relatively unexplored by backcountry snowboarders. Some exceptions to this are Gulmarg in India, the Tian Shan in Kyrgyzstan, and Kamchatka in the Russian Far East. But by no means have these places had as much activity from Geijan (the Japanese word for foreigner) shredders as has Japan, and for good reason. The normally cold and dry, heavy coastal snowfall which packs into the beautifully forested mountains of Honshu and Hokkaido each year, combined with its high level of sophisticated ski resort and access development, have put Japan in the top-tier of the adventurous splitboarder’s tick list.

I can speak from experience that somehow finding one’s way to Japan with a splitboard is a well worthwhile endeavor. But I’ve always been the type who seeks out the fringes, the un-tapped zones which few Geijans would ever ponder as plausible spots for epic snow-shredding sessions.

Several years ago, when I was working as a backcountry guide in the Japanese Alps I would often set my gaze far to the west, skinning on a ridge looking out at the Sea of Japan, wondering what type of mountains and snow existed in our world’s most populous and third-largest country: China. I knew that there were a massive amount of mountains in China — the eastern portions of the Karakorum, the Kunlun Shan, the Tian Shan, and the entire north slope of the Himalayas, extending south and east from Xinjian province through Tibet (where Everest’s north slope lands on Chinese soil) and into the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan. But that does not even cover it. There’s a lot more. In fact, once one starts researching the mountain ranges and the potential for splitboarding locations in China they will easily find themselves overwhelmed.  Particularly confusing is trying to figure out what areas might hold good snow. Generally, anyone who has climbed or skied in China would tell you that the snowpack is marginal, that it’s often shallow, winded, entirely faceted, or, in many areas non-existent, even in the dead of winter.

Last February, when I made a go at figuring this all out for myself, it took me just three days poking around in the Chinese Himalaya to verify that, yes, while there is certainly snow, the chances of it being soft and stable are very low. In fact, I already had strong hunches this would be the case, and when it came to China I had originally set my sites on some of the smaller, less elevated, and more obscure ranges. Nonetheless, in my quest to figure out China I came across another western backcountry enthusiast who had discovered some photos of big Alaskan-looking spines in the Eastern Himalaya, in Tibet of all places, and who had a keen urge to go see if something was possible. So without any premeditation I found myself recruited to make Tibet my first splitboarding stopover in China.

The long-story-short version is that Tibet, her culture and her mountains, are exceptionally beautiful — a full package of social-ecology unique and critical as a component of our world — but that a rider would be hard-pressed to discover pleasant snow in her embrace. I’m not saying it isn’t possible. With the waters of the South China Sea not too distant, “China’s Gulmarg” (as we termed what we were questing for) might be hiding somewhere deep in the veiled confines of the Eastern Himalaya. But to make an accurate determination one would need to either be willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money or become a rebel-fugitive in the eyes of the Chinese Red Army.

To enter Tibet at all, all non-Chinese must obtain a permit and hire a guide. Let’s just be honest and call out most “guides” for what they are — leashes, especially “tourist” guides who know nothing about skiing. Prior to commitment I was told that our goal to make some turns in Tibet was understood and prearranged. But once on the ground the situation became complicated and we had to pull off some heavy-handed manipulations of the whole regulatory/guide system just to get ourselves putting skis on our feet in the mountains. With persistence and determination we made it happen nonetheless and I was informed by our Tibetan guides that I likely became the first person to snowboard in Tibet, and certainly the first person to splitboard in Tibet. (If that’s true, it means that the Cold Smoke Voodoo is officially the first splitboard to kiss the legendary, albeit icy and hardpacked, mountains of Tibet).

So, the first guy to snowboard in Tibet, but by no means gloriously. Trying to convince guides who have no idea what is possible to unleash you from their restraints is the first challenge. The second challenge is attempting to safely descend the world’s most horrible and edge-catching breakable crust at 17,760 feet. For an example of the general conditions in the high Himalaya one could also reference Jeremy Jones’ descent of steep, high-elevation, nearly-solid-ice Nepalese spines in the film “Higher.” It’s a scene so burly that the legendary high-angle technician Luca Pandolfi decided to bail on the line and wait in camp. I’m with Luca on that move. And the zone we got into in Tibet was not even close to as committing as the Nepalese zone Jones and Luca were exploring. But the snow was far worse for us in Tibet. Despite all this, I am damn happy that I was able to make turns in the Tibetan Himalaya on my Cold Smoke Voodoo splitboard, in the shadow of 25,531-foot Namcha Barwa, the 28th highest peak in the world.

Story told, I was glad to move on from Tibet and continue searching for Chinese powder in other ranges.

(Stay tuned for “Part 2: The Uncertain Quest for China’s Secret Powder Paradise.”)

Deconstructing the ‘Dynasplit’

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By Will Shoemaker

For skiers, the Dynafit binding has been a game changer in every sense of the term. Tech bindings shave significant weight — a pretty big deal in the backcountry — without, for the most part, sacrificing performance.

So why can’t splitboarders benefit from this technology as well? They can. The question is: Should they?

Hardboots on snowboards are nothing new, and it’s no surprise that over the last few years a couple splitboard setups have emerged that borrow from the Dynafit phenomenon. Like in the ski world, Dynafit toe pieces have revolutionized what’s possible in the backcountry — offering a relatively sturdy toe attachment at a fraction of the weight of splitboard-specific bindings.

So I set out to see what this system was all about. Mainly, the question I hoped to answer was: Is the “Dynasplit” — Dynafit toe pieces for the climb and a plate binding system for ride mode — getting less credit than it deserves?

Like anything in the wide world of gear, there are always tradeoffs. When it comes down to it, there are just three characteristics that define recreational equipment: inexpensive, strong and lightweight. Choose two.

Phantom Splitboard Bindings are the creme de la creme, and for a pretty penny take the Dynasplit setup to the lightweight extreme. I opted to try out the heavier, though less expensive, Spark R&D Dyno DH system.

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The upsides

Without a doubt, the biggest benefit of the Dynasplit system is its weight — or lack thereof. It’s pounds lighter than my Spark Afterburners. On longer tours, this makes a huge difference. I feel like I can tour for days on the Dynasplit.

I’ve also found it to be much more efficient on the climb than the alternative. Here too, this setup shines; I didn’t realize previously just how much movement there is in a softboot splitboard binding system, but the Dynasplit saves a noticeable amount of energy through the course of a climb. That’s energy that comes in handy late in the day or on a long tour.

Also, you may as well call it  Dyna-“slick” — the step-in toe piece for climb mode and a single toe latch movement to lock the boots in ride mode take minutes off of transitions. My wife happens to be a skier, which has made my transitions fast even with a typical softboot splitboard setup. Dynasplit transitions are faster yet.

And then there’s the fact that a single pair of boots are compatible with multiple skis/snowboards. I bought a pair of Dynafit TLT6 boots to ski the 40-mile Grand Traverse with my wife this year. During the race, I plan to use those boots with a pair of lightweight rando skis, but it’s nice that the same boots also are the perfect fit for the Dynasplit. In effect, the only question for a given day in the backcountry is snowboard or rando skis? The boots remain the same.

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The downsides

Where I ski, a snowmobile is an extremely useful tool for gaining access to the biggest lines. And softboots are great for riding a snowmobile — offering ample flex for quick movements and lots of rubber to grip the machine. The same can’t exactly be said for a hardboot. They’re not terrible, but hard plastic does slide easily — perhaps too easily — on a snowmobile’s aluminum tunnel and tread.

Also, there are definitely some sacrifices to the Dynasplit in ride mode. From what I’ve found, the TLT6s can not be comfortably or effectively ridden downhill with both top and bottom buckles fastened. To get a downhill ride even close to that of a moderately stiff softboot, I only fasten the boot’s bottom buckle, leaving the top buckle loose under the cuff of my pant leg. Not ideal — and certainly something I would want to change if I used the Dynasplit setup more frequently — but it seems to work.

I’ve also had a really strange experience getting used to the torsional stiffness of the boots: softboots flex easily in a line parallel to the edges of the snowboard. Hardboots do not — creating odd stiffness that further “loads” the tail of the deck when initiating a turn. The first few times this happened, the boots’ lack of flex sent me rocketing forward coming out of a turn.

I’ve also found that canted pucks are pretty crucial to using the Dynasplit system — saving significant strain on the knees.

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The take-home

It’s been a little more than a month since I started riding the Dynasplit, and today was the best day yet for me on the setup. Turns are finally coming easy, and the added stiffness of hardboots is much more manageable — even beneficial when carving turns — than a few weeks ago.

To summarize, the Dynasplit definitely has its place in today’s world of rapidly advancing ski/snowboard technology. Super-long approaches? Willing to sacrifice a little downhill performance for gains on the up? Looking to gain a little time during transitions? The Dynasplit may be your answer.

That said, the setup isn’t cheap. While the Spark Dyno system I tested all together (plate bindings, toe pieces and adapters) retails for about $500 (canted pucks, heel risers, boots and board excluded), Phantom sells its complete system for $850.

So, to ride a Dynasplit, you’d better either be deep-pocketed if you’d like to own multiple setups, or be fully committed to the concept — including taking the financial plunge.

Mineral Point Mission

By Dustin Eldridge

The alarm clock rang early that morning. At 4:30 AM I lurched out of bed. Early days are less common in February, but the springlike weather of the past two weeks required springlike rituals. And springlike lines. Our sights were on Mineral Point.
Mineral Point is a prolific peak in the Gunnison Valley. It sits seemingly within reach of the town of Crested Butte atop the Slate River Valley. The summit rises nearly 3,000 feet from Poverty Gulch, a beacon of snow from October to June. Part of Mineral’s appeal is its symmetrical pyramid-like structure; well-defined ridges delineate the broad rocky north, east and south slopes. Our goal was a “town” line, visible from most spots in town, on the south face. A thin sliver of snow parted a large rock band descending fall line from Mineral’s southeast ridge and drew the gaze of one of Crested Butte’s finest splitboarders, Lawson Yow. The line arose at his suggestion, yet I still had dreams of riding the east face on our dawn of departure.

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The trailhead was vacant and dark at 6 AM as I pulled up with Lawson close behind. I followed Lawson’s headlights out the Slate Road, my 1989 Polaris Indy’s lights disabled. My visual world began to expand as the pink light of dawn grew. Mineral Point sat in the shadows as we drove just about to its base. We began skinning in the 2 or 3 inches of new, wind-stiffened snow that blanketed the landscape. This sat atop a seemingly impenetrable sun and wind crust.
These factors made for interesting skinning conditions. In some areas, the Styrofoam snow held tight to the slope, supporting our skis. In others, the snow crumbled, falling down slope with our edges skidding behind. Undeterred, our switchbacks became tighter and tighter, following a ribbon of good skinning snow up toward a bench on Cascade Mountain. We soon came upon a more southerly slope, steeper and firmer than those previously encountered. Our splitboards attached to our backpacks, and we kicked toe-nail sized steps into the slope. Soon, we had reached the bench, and some leisurely skinning.

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The next 1,000 vertical feet went by quickly. The snow continued to be friendly as we skinned under our objective and wrapped around to the west face. As we crossed a broad ridge, the windward slope turned into a nightmare of sastrugi and wind crust. I donned my crampons, the first time I had worn them since buying them nearly four years prior. I slowly ate away at the final few hundred feet as Lawson fought the slope on his skins and skis. I was impressed with the speed he was able to ascend the steep icy slope, holding his edges firmly to the mountain.
The effect of the strong wind over the past couple weeks was apparent as we neared the summit. The windward side of the ridge was blown clean with amber scree soaking up the February sun. The view on the summit was impressive with vistas of Crested Butte, 14ers and even the La Sal range of Utah, in the distance.  Looking down on the east face, the whole rider’s right side had been stripped by the wind. Rocks protruded from the face like fangs; not inspiring for a snowboard descent.

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The south face dropped away out of sight over a convexity. These blind rollovers are always a little harrowing, but we had picked some landmarks on the face to help guide us through the maze of rockbands.
We dropped onto the face at 10:45. Lawson led the way down the ridge to our first landmark, a rock bulge that marked the beginning of our fall line descent. We regrouped there, and the line split into a fork. This was our next landmark. We felt comfortable regrouping once again at the high point that marked the fork. We needed to go rider’s left, but the line once again dropped away blind. Confident in our scoping that morning, Lawson turned downhill into the chute. The new snow rolled into balls and slid down behind him while Lawson turned uphill and waited for the sluff to pass by him. He was then out of view, and I waited for his image to reemerge on the slope far below. Soon he was shooting out of the line, and pulled onto a high point to watch my descent.
My first couple turns were hesitant in the narrow chute, unsure of how the snow would ride after Lawson’s tracks dissected it. The crust underneath the new snow was soft also, and made for enjoyable turns. The chute had a double fall line which pushed me down, rider’s left, into the rocks on the margin of the chute.

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I took toe-edge turns on the right side, as if milking a spine. I stopped as the chute doglegged slightly left, and watched my sluff run out behind me. The chute became skinnier at this spot, and I made slow turns further into the crux. I held onto my heel edge in one section, letting sluff pass. I was near the bottom and turned downhill. I rocketed out of the chute into the apron, hot pow turns embracing my return from the vertical realm. We hooted and hollered, high-fived, and continued on our slushy descent back to the snowmobiles.
We were grateful that this iconic peak welcomed us onto its slopes that February day. This line is not always in condition to ride, and it provided us with quality turns on an exciting descent. Mineral Point continues standing as a beacon in the valley, maybe now just slightly more familiar. And it still has my attention, with more thin ribbons of snow snaking down rockbands on the south face.

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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.

 

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