Sunday, March 22, 2015

Boot Camp: A Month of Skiing and Ice Climbing in the San Juans

 Over the past month, I have had the opportunity to get to know a new and unique mountain range, the Northern San Juans in Southwestern Colorado.  The ice climbing mecca of Ouray, and the well known ski destinations of Telluride and Red Mountain Pass are here, and they are what we came to experience.

Ian Havlick, having fun on the IIC.

The main objective of the trip was continuing education, and further steps towards AMGA certification in the Alpine and Ski disciplines.  So during this month, I scheduled an AIARE Level 2 Avalanche course, the AMGA Ice Instructor Course, as well as the AMGA Ski Guide Course, meaning a total of 21 days of field-based guide training.  

 The San Juans are known for their volatile and dynamic snowpack, and so provided an active classroom during the AIARE course.  During the week following the course, the snowpack in the San Juans was roughly doubled, providing conditions for an impressive natural avalanche cycle.

The real deal.  Half mile crown on Red Mt. 2.

The Stairway

Unfortunately, this high avalanche danger coincided with the beginning of the AMGA Ice program, meaning that a lot of beautiful long backcountry ice routes (which I was lucky enough to sample some of before the course) would be off-limits.  We were able to use local venues to complete the course, however, and at least made for short commutes in the mornings.

The one and only Whorehouse Hoses, Eureka CO

Somewhere along the Stairway to Heaven, Eureka CO

Mid pitch on the Whorehouse
With the Ice Instructor Course complete, I had 8 days with which to hang out, relax, go to the desert and get out of mountain boots for a bit.  That all changed with another big storm surge right after the course, and forced Jen and I to stay in Ouray and keep climbing ice, the only activity besides hot springs which was not affected by the snow.

Booting on Bald Mt.

Before too long though, it was time to begin the AMGA Ski Guide Course, which had a mechanized component in Telluride, and the longer backcountry touring based section held on Red Mountain Pass. Luckily I could stay based in Ouray, and make short commutes to the BC access points easily.

One of many peaks climbed and skied.

Over the course we received lots of valuable instruction and mentorship in the discipline of guided backcountry ski mountaineering.  With the persistent instabilities caused by the recent storms we were forced to make conservative route and terrain choices, but these complexities also forced thoughtful decision making and made for a good learning environment.

Our groups found lots of good snow, and some amazing snow, and coming from a drought season in California, I easily made the best turns of the season during the course.

Mineral Basin

We concluded the program with a hut based component, held on the other side of the Pass, which gave us access to some incredible terrain above treelike with lots of options for good, steep skiing.

Now, with the month of heavy duty continuing ed over, back in the Eastern Sierra, winter seems like it is over.  It is very springlike here, with the snow line rising and the temps warming, it will be alpine climbing in the High Sierra before too long.  Hope to see you out there!

A big thanks is due to Mammut, who though their continued support of the AMGA and guiding education, provided me with a full-tuition scholarship to attend the Ski Guide Course.  Look out for a video documenting the course soon.

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