A good long approach.
The beauty of being in relatively good shape is that if want to ski something that is exceptionally far away and you don’t own a snowmobile, or really ever plan on owning one, you can still give it a go. The biggest obstacle can easily be your own self. The reality is that a long day in the mountains is more so about mental endurance than it is about physical endurance or strength. The biggest challenge being your own doubt and self-confidence. Of course, a strong baseline fitness is paramount, but there is something said for a strong baseline for your mental fitness too. This time of year the thought of sleeping one or two hours and waking up just after midnight to start your climb in the darkness can all but deter even the most eager from the brilliance of the entire transcendent experience. Fortunately, sometimes all it takes is a good friend to get you going. On this particular day, faced with a near 9 mile approach and 5K + climbing, that is exactly what I needed.
Starting a little late because of the confusion of date-light-savings time, we left the Ashcroft parking lot around 4:45am. The long and mentally arduous skate through Ashcroft, out into the darkness and up toward Montezuma Basin was made a little more manageable through the usual conversation, “what did you do this week?” and “what the hell are we doing out here at this hour?”
As our tempo’s evened out and our sleepy minds came in tune with our bodies, the miles began melting away. Thoughts of how far we’d have to go slipped into the backs of our mind’s and all doubts were temporarily replaced with the euphoric images of the rising sun and the beautiful solidarity of being alone in the mountains.
Our early morning approach was highlighted by the vivid colors of a dark and mysterious sunrise that reflected the deep uncertainties of our own mentalities that morning. Could we do this?
As the sun hit, we were both awoken to the thoughts that we’d suppressed the last few hours on the skin track. Would we be able to make it all the way out to the Montezuma Basin before things heated up and got dangerous? The distant peaks lit up by the beautiful oranges and pinks of the morning sunrise, contrasted back the dark foreground only seemed to make our goal appear farther away, more surreal, un-probable. As the self-doubt began to creep back in and the internalizing questions about whether we’d be able to achieve our goal emerged we were both balanced enough to push are thoughts aside, put our heads down and continue forward. After all, we were already here, so we might as well press forward and continue to evaluate as we went.
After what seemed like hours we finally had our eyes on Montezuma Basin, the final leg of our skin. The air was still cold, and despite the sun, I threw on a down while we took water and prepared to give the next portion of our climb a go. For both of us, this was our first time up into the basin during winter and we were both reminded of the size and scope of the terrain, excited to forge ahead but tentative about the snow conditions.
With the north face of Castle unskiable due to high winds stripping the snow away and depositing in else where, and the classic Conundrum Couloir looking filled in and in good shape, we began kicking steps. We were a little unsure of the snow, as the surface reflected a soft wetness from the early morning sun. However, at closer inspection, this warming seemed to only be at the very surface. So we opted to continue up the east facing couloir.
After more than 8 miles and 4,000 + vert on our legs, the firm snow conditions in the couloir were a welcomed surprise as the surface of the snow began progressively hard as we climbed. The 700 or so vertical to the top went with straight forward ease. Each step forward brought us closer to a cool objective, our first 14er of the season.
There is always a feeling of relief once you’ve gained a summit and finally put your skis on. All those hours on the track and up the boot pack coming to their anticipated fruition. The first “14er” of the year, all-be-it and unofficial 14er. But we were only half way there, and still needed to complete our ski.
The steep ski in this classic couloir shouldn’t be down played. It’s not the longest couloir in the Elks, but under the right conditions, firm conditions, icy conditions, it certainly feels steeper than it is. We enjoyed the sporty ski, practicing our best technique as we descended one turn at a time down the line.
Days like these test us in ways we couldn’t imagine. Today wasn’t a test of our skiing abilities as much as our minds, and our resilience to negative trains of thought that only limit us to achieve what is possible. With only 7 1/2 hours round trip, things went faster and smoother than we could have have realized. Fortunately, we didn’t let out doubts turn us away before we even got started. And today we understood its better to try and not succeed than to not try at all.