Trip Report
Snowshoeing the Elk Mtns with Charlie
Wednesday December 20, 2017 8:09am
This is an “origin” story, about my return to climbing following a government-mandated hiatus in my start as a rock climber in high school and my subsequent start as a mountaineer and general ne’er-do-well in the back country in college. Looking back on more than 50 years of climbing I now know the true significance in these types of tales is in the friendships forged and adventures shared rather than in the actual details of the deeds that were done. In this regard I have been over-blessed in the quality of my many adventure partner friendships and in the many wonderful hours we misspent just messing around in the wilderness. Now, on with our tale….

We were all newbies once (or FNGs in the parlance of some). It was early summer in ’71 and I was a freshly minted short-haired civilian just out of the Corps trying to make new friends at the student union. Every time someone walked by wearing mountain boots I’d ask them if they were a climber. During the ‘70’s in Gunnison everyone wore mountain boots so the answer was usually no. The first “yes” I got was from Charlie Pitts, thus starting a life-long friendship based on shared backcountry adventure. You know you have found a true friend when you have spent time digging ticks out of each other’s backside on some belay ledge. That summer and autumn we climbed in Taylor Canyon and scrambled amongst the peaks of the Elk and San Juan Mountains. The following spring the Western State College Mountaineering club decided that they wanted to put members on top of all 54 “fourteeners” in the state on the same weekend. Charlie and I volunteered to do Snowmass Peak and Capitol Peak on the chosen weekend. It was May, there was a ton of snow in the high country, and we had no idea what we were getting into.

A general lack of experience and knowledge at this time in our lives had not really been a handicap in our budding mountaineering careers, since we had been confidently working our way up the learning curve on the local cliffs and peaks in more temperate conditions. Armed with more enthusiasm than sense, we checked out a couple of pairs of snowshoes from the student union, packed our kit, and hitchhiked to the “Butte” to start our adventure. The first inclination that this might not be the typical weekend romp we had grown accustomed to during the previous summer and fall was the incredible amount of avalanche debris we hiked over at Schofield Pass near the start of our adventure.

Looking up the Crystal River Valley towards the Maroon Bells.
Looking up the Crystal River Valley towards the Maroon Bells.
Credit: Nick Danger
Hiking over avalanche debris at Schofield Pass on our first day.
Hiking over avalanche debris at Schofield Pass on our first day.
Credit: Nick Danger

As was typical for this time of year, although in our inexperience we didn’t know this beforehand, the snow was melting out on the sunny side of the lower elevations, hard and crusty higher up on sunny slopes, and a post-holing nightmare on the shady slopes. For those deeper snow conditions the snowshoes were a real blessing, but we determined that they performed poorly as skis while descending long open slopes. This was really our first trip into the high country while it was still mostly entombed in snow, and thus, it afforded us a real education. One of the take home lessons was that we really didn’t like snow shoes. By the end of the trip we were convinced that it was snow shoes that killed off all the dinosaurs – had those “terrible lizards” only had access to good skis they would still be with us today. Later as a geology student I would learn the truth, that bad coffee was really what did the dinosaurs in.

The trails on the sunny side at lower elevations sucked us into a fals...
The trails on the sunny side at lower elevations sucked us into a false confidence that this would all go according to plan.
Credit: Nick Danger
Still convinced that all is going well.
Still convinced that all is going well.
Credit: Nick Danger
Reality is beginning to raise its snow-covered head.
Reality is beginning to raise its snow-covered head.
Credit: Nick Danger
We never did learn how to link turns while descending on snowshoes.
We never did learn how to link turns while descending on snowshoes.
Credit: Nick Danger

By and by, we made our way to Snowmass Lake, the proposed base camp for our assault on Snowmass Peak. USFS signs informed us that camping near the lake was prohibited, but the only patch of ground free of snow where we could pitch our tent was directly beneath the “No Camping” sign. Apparently, camping in no camping spots is the gateway drug to further criminal activity in the backcountry and, thus, my career as a back country n’er-do-well and general rapscallion began. Ultimately it would lead to my being arrested for illegal ice climbing (twice) and serving hard time (24 hrs – thanks for bailing me out, Jimmie) for same. But I digress.

Illegal camping, the “gateway drug”.
Illegal camping, the “gateway drug”.
Credit: Nick Danger

Turns out that Snowmass Lake and the peak that is its namesake are just buried in snow in any given May. Although we didn’t know much, we DID know we didn’t want to perish in an avalanche. Since the big bowl of snow that gives Snowmass Peak its name was striped by wet snow avalanches all around its interior, we decided that failure in our summit attempt was not only an option, but the only option that made any sense. Upon further reflection, we concluded that should we actually survive such an attempt on Snowmass Peak, we would probably be old enough to collect social security by the time we slogged our way over to Capitol Peak to give it a go as well.

Yer loyal scribe at Snowmass Lake, cutting a dashing figure in his rep...
Yer loyal scribe at Snowmass Lake, cutting a dashing figure in his repurposed utilities.
Credit: Nick Danger
Charlie at Snowmass Lake, with the prominent east face of Hagerman Pea...
Charlie at Snowmass Lake, with the prominent east face of Hagerman Peak in the background.
Credit: Nick Danger

We were especially impressed with the east face of Hagerman Peak and vowed to come back and give it a go one day. Both Hagerman Peak and Snowmass Peak would, in the fullness of time, serve up their own adventures – some in the tradition of grand alpinism and some in the “bullet narrowly dodged” format. However, acknowledging that common sense had triumphed on this particular day, we descended the Snowmass trail down towards Aspen and marveled as the world changed from proto-winter into glorious spring with each footstep. In one of those little ironies that can convince a guy that God has a particularly puckish sense of humor, we met my former boss, Robert McNamara on the trail. He was backpacking with his wife Margy, who did all of the talking. Given that my utility blouse was still emblazoned with the “buzzard, ball, and fishhook” on the front pocket, I intuited that Robert was reluctant to stand around and chew the fat about the good old days of the recent past. That was cool because I wasn’t really keen on indulging him on that one either.

Charlie, slipping ever faster into backcountry criminality.  Mothers, ...
Charlie, slipping ever faster into backcountry criminality. Mothers, don’t let your babies grow up to camp illegally.
Credit: Nick Danger

While it is true that this trip was not marked by feats of derring-do crowned by alpine glory, it did set Charlie and me upon a course of back-country adventures that enriches our lives still, and gave us skills that would be well and truly tested in the fullness of time.

  Trip Report Views: 1,052
Nick Danger
About the Author
Nick Danger is a ice climber from Arvada, CO.

Comments
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snakefoot

climber
Nor Cal
  Dec 21, 2017 - 04:40pm PT
bump for adventure, thanks for sharing your stories and pics on this site.
Tarbuster

climber
right here, right now
  Dec 22, 2017 - 07:03am PT
Good stuff: always nice to survive the learning curve where snowpack is concerned.
Especially the deadly, Colorado/Intermountain region.

1971 was 3 years before my time as an aspiring gearhead, but I'm thinking even then those snowshoes were relics.
Trapper Nelson (like the wooden frame pack) or something like that? Strung with God knows what, cat gut?

When Sherpa came out with aluminum frames strung with neoprene, that was a big upgrade, but who had the money for that kind of sh#t?

The basic Kelty pack frame and bag with metal zippers didn't change for about 15 or 20 years, except for the addition of the padded waist belt at some point, but they were holdouts even on that.

Ice ax predating the style with a carabiner hole in the drop forged head, check!

Heck, the weed might even predate Colombian or Oaxacan.
Was sold by the ounce as a "lid" and damn well needed to be filling up the bag to the "four finger" level, unless it was a "jip". Chock full of seeds, for sure.

That's about all I know.

Berg heil!
Jay S

Mountain climber
Silver Gate, Mt
  Dec 21, 2017 - 09:13pm PT
I hate snowshoes too. Especially those old wooden ones.

Jays
Tarbuster

climber
right here, right now
  Dec 21, 2017 - 09:25pm PT
Friends don't let friends snowshoe.
Skis, baby. Even if you can't turn 'em, you can still make time ingress/egress.

It's the only way to glide!

http://www.supertopo.com/climbers-forum/1033965/The-Definitive-Indian-Peaks-Flyweight-Ski-Touring-Expos
Mungeclimber

Trad climber
Nothing creative to say
  Dec 21, 2017 - 11:42pm PT
Good god man! Snowshoes! FORSOOTH!

lol, grand fun!
Ezra Ellis

Trad climber
North wet, and Da souf
  Dec 22, 2017 - 03:48am PT
Thanks for a great TR, Nick,
You have a gift for writing!
Cheers 👊
Nick Danger

Ice climber
Arvada, CO
Author's Reply  Dec 22, 2017 - 07:32am PT
Thank you all, for the positive comments. At one time in my college career I lived in the La Veta Hotel (Pres Grant actually DID sleep there) that was owned by this old guy, Johnny, who was in his 70's. He told us of a ski trip he did as a school teacher back in the 1930's when they closed public schools due to an influenza outbreak. He and his best friend skied over Grand Mesa from south to north on those long, 8 ft skis they had back then. He used one long staff instead of ski poles (which hadn't been invented yet), a leather pack strapped to a backboard. He said the trip took them a couple of weeks to complete. The dude was hard core! I am always in awe of what our foremothers and forefathers did back in their heyday.
Respect!
nah000

climber
now/here
  Dec 23, 2017 - 01:27am PT
sweet epoch capturing pics...

as always, for your tr contributions around here: thanks.
Bald Eagle

Trad climber
  Dec 23, 2017 - 01:57am PT
Hi Nick
A very nice trip report and quite an adventure!
Merry Xmas and good health for a rocking 2018!
Cheers
Dave
Reilly

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
  Dec 23, 2017 - 09:07am PT
An adventure is an adventure, and that was a nice one well told. Being a denizen of the Pacific NW I don’t turn up my nose at snowshoes. Skis are often not an option there. Like yer gonna climb a technical route on a big mountain carrying skis to descend the far side?
Tarbuster

climber
right here, right now
  Dec 23, 2017 - 10:45am PT
Exactly. Every tool has its place!
There are situations and conditions in which skis are just a hassle.



http://www.supertopo.com/climbers-forum/1547939/Static-Peak-July-1-Springtime-tries-for-the-Never-Summers

 The "friends don't let friends snowshoe" maxim is just one of those throwaway statements which may or may not apply!
Nick Danger

Ice climber
Arvada, CO
Author's Reply  Dec 23, 2017 - 04:38pm PT
I recall some winter back country travels where the terrain was absolutely more favorable to snow shows, but we persevered with our skis nonetheless and ended up climbing through downed trees and very low class four rock scrambling with those ridiculous sticks on my feet.

Never claimed to be smart, although an argument for relentlessly stubborn could plausibly be made.
cheers, and thanks for the remarks.
Reilly

Mountain climber
The Other Monrovia- CA
  Dec 23, 2017 - 04:44pm PT
My old homie in Alaska has a great story about climbing a tree wearing
skis to escape a really pissed off mama moose. Skis are very versatile,
but just not very good all the time.
seano

Mountain climber
none
  Dec 23, 2017 - 05:10pm PT
Awesome adventure! Whatever their faults, those old-school beaver-tail snowshoes had far more surface area than modern ones. This is the first time I've heard of someone being sent to the pokey for "illegal ice climbing," so I'm looking forward to those stories. Climb on!
Steve Johnson

Trad climber
Telluride, Colorado
  Jan 9, 2018 - 11:05pm PT
Snowshoes were useful in approach to E. Face Notchtop RMP early November many years ago.
But I still hate them.
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