Double Dose of Sneffels
and Potosi Peak in between
w/ Adam Moszynski, Jon Jay and Bill Porreca
To say I’ve had a string of luck in Yankee Boy Basin this month would be an understatement. Three successful missions to the area in two and a half weeks and I’m thinking a fourth is in order. But maybe once they open the road, because despite how amazing the skiing is here, 3 1/2 miles on a road, in sneakers, per each up into the basin is well, long. What’s so intriguing about this area of the San Juan Mountains is the sheer volume of incredibly aesthetic descents, coupled with thrilling climbs and relative isolation for the location being considered popular for spring travelers. Yankee Boy Basin should be high, very high, on any ski mountaineers destination list.
Where Yankee Boy Basin stands out from other places in Colorado isn’t just in the variety of ski options, but the geology of its landscape. The rock formations and the peaks are just, well, different in the San Juans. More rugged, more dramatic, and they help to encapsulate the aesthetic variety in the climbs and descents. The Sneffels Range within Yankee Boy Basin is no exception, and perhaps even personifies the greatness of this region and the skiing here.
What follows is a series of photographs and a few words highlighting three very different trips to the basin this April.
1. The first, an ascent and descent of Mount Sneffels (14,157ft) via the Birthday Chutes with Adam Moszynski. My first trip to ski in the basin, and also my first official 14er ski of the season.
2. The second, a rare ascent and descent of the elusive North Couloir on Potosi Peak (13,786ft) with Jon Jay. An inspirational day steep skiing amongst some of the most aesthetic rock in the San Juans. Are we the last skiers of Potosi?
3. The third, a return to Mount Sneffels for a descent of the iconic Snake Couloir with Bill Porreca. A day I won’t soon forget, not for the incredible snow conditions, but the mental challenge it presented.
My first trip to the basin was on April 4th. Adam Moszynski and I were up early and on the Camp Bird Road by no later than 4:30AM, ready for the 3 1/2 mile and roughly 1,700 vertical jaunt up the road to the Yankee Boy / Governor Basin trail junction. Our goal for the day, the South Face of Mount Sneffels, also known as the Birthday Chutes. The Birthday Chutes are one of the classic skis of Colorado, with a steep south face descent from the summit, rolling into a no fall zone above large hanging cliffs. The descent culminates in a selection of several steep couloirs back into the basin below. These chutes aren’t skied as much because many ski mountaineers tend to overlook them, deciding to rap into the iconic snake couloir instead.
Adam and I enjoyed a spectacular day on Sneffels. The Birthday Chutes, which are usually overlooked by the iconic Snake Couloir, offered steep and very committed turns. Even more impressive was the unbelievable setting, the face being backdropped with the ruggedness of the San Juans. We both enjoyed the variety in skiing something that most people look past, however I knew I’d be back for the Snake at a later date.
POV from the day
My next mission to Yankee Boy Basin was to Potosi Peak (13,786ft) as seen above on the right. The summit plateau is absolutely spectacular, its summit seems more fit for a day of mixed climbing than skiing, and its elusive North Couloir remains hidden from all but a few select vantage points in the basin.
Jon Jay highlighted or trip well in this article on Elevation Outdoors The Last Skiers of Potosi?
POV from the day:
Another huge day in Yankee Boy Basin culminated in one of the best descents I’ve ever had in Colorado. There’s nothing like a successful mission to a rarely skied peak, and those are hard to come by in Colorado. We’re both looking forward to our next ski, Teakettle. But until then, it was one more visit to Mount Sneffels for the super classic San Juan line, The Snake Couloir.
The iconic Snake Couloir, a fitting objective for your friends first 14er ski right? Absolutely.
We started our day at the same time we started all our others, about 4:30 am at the may 1 gate closure. The only difference was with about 5-6 inches of new snow on the road and we took on the 3 1/2 miles and 1700 vertical to the trailhead skinning. The iced up road, coupled with the new snow helped things go smoothly and we got off to an excellent start.
Despite a lot of new snow from several recent spring storms, and a fresh 4 inches of blower from the night before, Bill and I traded off breaking trail and were up and into the Lavender Col within 3 or so hours of leaving the car. We were moving fast in the beautiful morning light.
After reaching the top of the Lavender Col and having only the couloir and a brief ridge walk to go to the summit, things looked good. However, a spring storm was brewing, and it wouldn’t be long before we were both engulfed in a whiteout.
After a bit of an adventure dealing with a lot of ice on the airy traverse out onto the summit ridge, in a whiteout, Bill and I summited after just 6 hours. The deep snow and bad visible in latter part of our climb up the couloir certainly presented some challenges. Things were about to take a turn.
The energy of the day moved from excitement to something much different as we transitioned for the rappel. What looked like a break in the weather turned out to be a tease, and we headed into the void, confident in our abilities and with the snow.
As we entered the void, the rolling terrain combined with 2-3 feet of new snow presented a challenge greater than I had expected. Without great visibility, the sheer exposure in the terrain of the snaking couloir created one of the bigger battles I’ve had with my inner most consciousness. The descent became more of a drill in terrain and snow management than a great iconic ski descent, and the enjoyment of the new snow in a beautiful setting was all but lost to my fears of uncertainties lurking beyond my ability to judge and anticipate the terrain in the bad visibility.
Ski cuts became the name of the game as I took the lead, making a series of slough cutting ski cuts that were followed by two or three turns into a safe zone. Each cut projected a nervous anxiety. There was nothing to do but focus on each movement. The proceeding turns were not as enjoyable, the day becoming more of an adventurous challenge to my mental fortitude with each turn down the steep tube.
A series of ski cuts above the major crux in the line revealed a dangerous wind slab breaking 4-6 inches deep. After three successful ski cuts, I moved into the crux of the line, a less than ski width, icy and narrow tube, inset amongst amazing rock walls. On any other day, I would have basked in the incredible setting. Today, it was all focus. I descended carefully, accurately amongst San Juan’s finest rock and waited for Bill to reach me.
Following the crux, and a few more ski cuts to test stability for lingering wind slabs, we dropped into our best turns of the day. Choking faceshots through the wide open couloir and down into the apron below. I was certainly relieved to be out of the worst of the terrain, but still too high from the intensity of the skiing above to fully enjoy what was to come.
POV from the ascent/descent —
After descending the apron, it was 1,800 vertical feet of climbing through the clouds back to the top of the Lavender Col before we could descend again into Yankee Boy Basin. With 2 feet of snow to be broken through and a lot of vertical to climb, we loaded up on food, put our heads down and navigated the avalanche terrain back to the top of the col as best we could. The vertical seemed to melt away as a big team effort breaking trail allowed us to arrive back at the Lavender Col with little to no complaining. The major effort for the day was done, and it was skis on all the way back to the truck and a little bonus shuttle down to the May 1 gate from a cool miner.
The third descent in Yankee Boy Basin left a lasting impression on me. Not for the epicness that is the Snake Couloir. Not for the stoke for skiing such an iconic line, or the beauty and gratitude for another successful day in the mountains. Not for the 7000 feet of climbing or 13 hours spent on the mountain, but for the emptiness that it left inside me.
Skiing is inherently dangerous. Climbing and skiing even more so. Add in a few other variables like the weather and snow conditions and things can stack up against you. The simple fact is it wouldn’t feel the way it feels, it wouldn’t mean what it means if it were perfectly safe. If every outcome from every day in the mountains was a guaranteed success, skiing these mountains wouldn’t be what it is. There is a bit of a leap of faith stepping into these situations. The faith that your skills are what you believe them to be, that the snow is as stable as you analyzed, that the terrain and the mountain will allow you safe passage. Nothing is guaranteed, ever, and the rewards of a beautiful day can’t exist without the risk. The two work in tandem through a very delicate symmetry. This life is about finding the balance between the two. There is certainly nothing more alarming than finishing a day like this one with an empty feeling where some kind of joy filled stoke should sit ready to fuel the next mission. Being afraid, scared for hours, turn after turn, isn’t what skiing is about. It’s nice to be able to overcome it, to come out ahead but that’s not why I ski. More so than the hours it will take me to recover from the abuse being in the mountains for 13 hours takes on my body, it will take me many more days in the mountains making better decisions, learning from a scary experience to overcome the mental shock this day put on my system.