By Greg Mears
Every backcountry skier remembers the day they discover a new area to ski— copious amounts of mental energy and calories have been expended in the pursuit of that next “secret stash.” Some will spend hours poring over topo maps or digital equivalents. Some will be on the constant lookout for potential new slopes, evidenced by considerable head twisting and pointing while driving through the mountains. For those with skiing permanently on the brain, the twisting and pointing extends into the temperate months, their imagination focused on how the terrain will hold powder. Picking the right day and partners to explore for a promising new spot can also take some time. Many of my touring partners and I won’t risk wasting a perfect ski day by exploring a new area, especially if it means breaking trail in deep snow.
Perfect days are made for favorite spots, where we can predictably log powder turn after powder turn. We wait for days with poor skiing conditions to test our route-finding abilities— and scout for new terrain. Preferably, this is done during a long, dry spell when the avalanche conditions are low and visibility is good. Then, there are the accidents.
Ski touring can mimic life’s lessons in many ways: no pain, no gain; quality is better than quantity; strength in numbers, to list a few. Life also teaches us that sometimes what we’ve been searching for has been in front of our eyes all along. Such was the case when, several winters ago while on a tour to one of my favorite areas, I made a beloved discovery.
The day began like many before, with skiing friends Mark, Steve, and me pondering our options for good turns. Like many backcountry skiers, we keep an inventory of areas in our mental databases, categorized by terrain, aspect, steepness, and wind exposure, among other things. We apply what we know about past and current weather and avalanche conditions to select an area that should have the best snow conditions each day.
When sunny and windy weather creates crusty surface conditions, we choose areas with sheltered powder, usually on shady north-facing slopes. Likewise, by knowing what the prevailing wind direction has been, we can choose to ski lee slopes holding deeper wind-deposited snow. There is plenty of meteorological pondering in finding good powder. Then there are the areas filed under “ski under specific and rarely-encountered conditions.”
Today was one of those singular days. We knew that a long period of warm weather had created a melt and freeze cycle on exposed west- and south-facing slopes. Overnight, a storm moved through that froze the snow surface before depositing 8 to 12 inches of new snow. Churning through valuable mental energy with a scientific analysis that Mr. Wizard would be proud of, our goal crystallized: ski a southwest face at Vail Pass that would otherwise be avoided (due to wind and sun crust) but today would have a supportable crust with powder on top. Simple.
Breaking trail in the cold morning silence, we worked as a team to put in an uptrack that would involve minimum effort and the least exposure to avalanche terrain. The three of us each have our own style of touring.
Steve is good at taking the line of least resistance. His measure of success is an uptrack that doesn’t require anyone in the group to deploy their climbing heels. He knows that the fastest course is not always the shortest distance between two points.
Mark has an uncanny nose for navigating tricky terrain while still keeping the group on course. He’s adept at reading the slightest terrain changes even in dense trees so we arrive at exactly the right spot. We don’t always share the same opinion on how to get where we’re going, but we trust each other and follow the leader.
Now, at the top of our climb, Steve and I were preparing to descend. Mark had another idea and suggested we continue climbing to the top of the ridge. As an avid mountaineer with a self-admitted fever for peak bagging, this came as no surprise to Steve or me. Even with tight trees and snow drifts blocking the way, we agreed to follow him the final 100 feet to the ridgeline. Joining Mark on the ridge, we saw that his curiosity still had not been quenched. Following his gaze, our eyes were drawn to a gently sloping fall line off to our east. Skiing down the rolling ridge we traversed onto the slope for a better look.
There it was. Draped beneath us was a 400-foot untracked bowl, sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds, loaded with light, undisturbed powder. Could it be ours?
Testing the Waters
Yes, we had found some powder. But was it really a secret stash? Was it safe to ski? The bowl’s slope was moderate; there were no signs of avalanche hazard. Still, we approached that first run cautiously. Steve volunteered to go first. He skied along the upper, convex arc of the slope, testing the snow pack’s strength, then descended close to the relative safety of the trees. Mark and I followed one at a time down the middle of the bowl.
Bliss. The descent was only about 40 turns long, but as with most backcountry skiing, the quality of the thighdeep, untracked snow made up for the relatively short vertical. We caught our breaths long enough to let out a holler before eagerly reattaching our skins.
Back on top after a 20-minute climb, we saw that Mark had already slithered down the slope beside our previous course, stacking his tracks right next to our previous turns. Not only was he conserving the untracked powder, but he also gave us a reference point for starting our next run.
Our ability to match each others turns is another reason we are compatible ski partners. We’ve each practiced the art of stacking tracks while on hut trips in British Columbia, where it’s a common ski style used by large groups. Not only is it used as a survival tactic to safely ski between crevasses, but it’s seen as a method for preserving, or farming, untracked powder so it lasts throughout a week of skiing. Not to mention the fact that it looks very elegant and aesthetic when done correctly, leaving not a single track crossed by another.
After three bottomless runs we returned to make an anticlimactic descent of the west side, as its conditions paled in comparison. Back at the car we reveled in our unexpected discovery and named it “East Bowl,” a name deemed fittingly vague and unpretentious for our little hidden bowl. Since that day, I’ve returned to East Bowl at least once a season, yet still haven’t seen another skier, or even signs of previous tracks. It’s the only area I frequent that I can say that about.
East Bowl represents what makes Colorado’s mountains so unique for backcountry skiing. While the state may not lay claim to having the steepest or longest ski descents in the West, it makes up for it with the variety of terrain. Few states have the number of mountain ranges and ease of access that we do in Colorado. As a result, unlike in some other states, it’s rare to experience crowds or trackedout slopes in our backcountry. If and when we do, Colorado’s endless backcountry terrain makes it possible for anyone to find their own little hidden bowl, whether by mental energy or accident. As in life, sometimes the accidental discoveries are best of all.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2010 Issue (1005) of Trail & Timberline.