Backcountry Skiing in Colorado

Skiing and Hiking in the Colorado Backcountry

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Sayres Benchmark (13,738′)


Chris is but a small dot against the sprawling backdrop that is Sayres Benchmark

I first laid eyes on the aesthetically pleasing north face of Sayres Benchmark when Eric and I skied La Plata back in 2012.  I was awe-struck by all the options and didn’t even know what peak I was seeing at the time.  6 years later, Chris and I were deliberating on a worthy spring descent target and the face of Sayres popped into my mind.  After a little google earth and I figured out what I had been looking at all those years ago –  Sayres Benchmark.

Now, though the name might be a little lame, I assure you this peak is  not.  The ascent route follows La Plata’s main route.  Once you crest the trees, Sayres will be staring you right in the face, and the rest of the route is pretty obvious.


Cresting treeline, Sayres comes into view


Snow Hare

Although the route may be obvious, it’s not easy.  Skinning through the trees presented its own challenges.  Not wanting to get stuck in the willows we had read about, Chris and I gained a lot of elevation, only to have to descend towards the creek after getting pinned on some rocks.  The best bet would have been to simply follow the creek all the way to tree-line, then make a direct approach to the North Face.

Still, we regained some energy after cresting, and we skinned straight towards the apron on Sayres north face.  Being that this was our first true summit of the season, we were a bit unprepared for the sheer length of the ascent.  Our initial target was the X-Rated Couloir that drops dramatically from the summit of Sayres’ North Face.  After transitioning into crampons, we decided to climb the mellower Grand Central Couloir, since we weren’t quite sure what the snow conditions would be like.  Although less steep, this approach was long.  It took us longer to summit than we had anticipated and we were both pretty tired once reaching the top.


Chris makes his way up Grand Central


Chris approaches the summit of Sayres Benchmark

The views and weather on the summit were spectacular but we didn’t spend much time.  After scoping X-Rated, we decided to take our ascent route back  down.  We were fatigued and X-rated was a much more committing line.  The snow on the way up was also extremely variable and we didn’t want to take the risk.  After a few turns into the descent we were grateful we made this decision.  The snow was challenging.  We encountered everything from sheer ice, to breakable crust, to powder, corn, slush and hard pack.  As soon as you’d dig into a powder turn it would turn to ice and you’d wash out.  Or if you thought you’d hit corn, your ski would soon submarine under the breakable crust.   The descent – usually the easy part – took all we had left.  Once down we prepared for the slog out.

We were able to ski quite a ways down, picking our way through the trees along the creek bed.  Eventually we got to the first creek crossing and soon after we lost the trail.  After meandering for a while, up and down Lake Creek we eventually decided to forge the river towards a cabin we saw on the other side.  We figured where there’s a cabin, there’s a driveway, and where there’s a driveway there’s HWY 82.  After s refreshing river crossing, we hit the driveway and not long after we were booting down HWY 82 towards the La Plata trailhead.

Although this trip presented its challenges, looking back it was still a great trip with a very good friend.  And hey, we still got a summit and a ski in.  How bad could that be?

Until next time… keep rippin’!

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Sneffels, Her Final Resting Place


Mt. Sneffels (Photo credit

Some climbs carry more meaning than others.  A while back, a friend of mine asked whether I would do him a favor.  A friend of his had recently passed, and her favorite place was the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  He asked if I would spread her ashes somewhere in the high country and I humbly accepted the request.  Shortly thereafter I tore my ACL and my climbing pursuits were put on hold.  Fast forward 6 months, my recovery was ramping up and my friend reached out and reminded me of his request.  Summer was giving way to Fall and I knew there was a short weather window but I told him I would get it done.  I struggled to think of a good place for someone to spend eternity.  The more I thought about it, the more it made sense that it had to be somewhere in the San Juans.  They are the crown jewel of Colorado’s high peaks.  Then it hit me… Sneffels.  Known as the “Queen of the San Juans”, with sprawling views, there was no better place.

I set out from Denver on a Friday evening and made the long drive to Ouray, CO.  I arrived around 1am and began the drive up the road to Yankee Boy Basin.  I didn’t want to drive too far in the dark, so I was primarily looking for a place to pull over and get some rest before embarking the next morning.  The moon was full that night and its brightness made it hard to sleep.  Morning came quickly and I jumped in the driver seat and continued the drive up to the trailhead.  The roads in the San Juans are no joke, and this one proved more than my Hyundai Santa Fe could handle.  After getting pinned on some rocks I managed to turn the car around, parked, and continued the journey on foot.


Early Morning Sun in Yankee Boy Basin

As I began the slog up the road I could see snow on the high peaks.  I was hoping the trail would be clear and it wouldn’t be too much of a problem.  After about an hour I was nearing the trailhead and I caught a ride with a local couple for the last mile or so.  I thanked them and began the actual climb from the upper trailhead.  From here the route was straight forward.  I would follow the trail to the base of a couloir, then basically climb straight up until reaching a saddle.  From the saddle I would cut left and climb straight up another couloir until reaching a crux before the summit.


Looking back down the route from the top of the couloir

I didn’t get any photos heading up as I was too focused on not slipping and taking a 1000ft slide down the mountain.  Suffice to say, the climb up the couloir(s) was loose and rocky and certainly tested my healing knee.

Before long I was at the summit, where I found a group  with a radio and some beer.  They were clearly enjoying their morning.  I quickly set to work fulfilling my friend’s request and managed to get the ashes in place.

I took a video for my friend, snapped some summit photos and began the journey back down the mountain.


View Looking back towards Yankee Boy Basin


View of Dallas Peak

The climb down was quick and uneventful.  The weather was fantastic and I snapped some photos of the Basin now that the sun had started shining.


Gilpin Peak


View down Yankee Boy Basin from the upper trailhead


This climb carried with it a sense of accomplishment more than simply summiting a peak.  I hope my friend’s friend finds peace on top of Sneffels.  I can’t think of a more beautiful place with a more beautiful view for someone who loves the mountains.  Mt. Sneffels, her final resting place.  RIP.


Uncompahgre – Back in the Saddle


Your Author and Dillon Sarnelli on the Summit of Uncompahgre (14,309′)

Sometimes life throws you a curveball.  It’s been about 2 years since my last post, and not coincidentally, a lot has happened in that 2 year span.  First, my wife and I were blessed with the birth of our daughter in August of 2015.  This definitely put the brakes on my 14ering and backcountry skiing, especially since most of the 14ers I have left are over 3 hours from my home.  Then, in February 2016 on our annual ski trip, I blew out my knee on the first day of the trip.  My ski season, and most of the summer 14er season, were essentially over.

Fast forward to September, my rehab has been going great and the weather looked good.  I called up my friend Dillon to see if he’d be open for a last-minute trip to Lake City.  My plan was to head down Sunday night before Labor Day, camp at the lower trailhead and get up Monday for an early summit bid.  I had no idea how my knee would hold up, or if I would even summit.  All I knew was I wanted to give the knee a test drive to see how it would respond.

Dillon and I hit the road from Denver around 7pm Sunday night and got to the lower trailhead around 11:30pm.  Our plan was to sleep in the car, get up early and hitch a ride to the upper trailhead.  The 4WD road to the upper trailhead was a bit too burly for my vehicle so we were hoping we could find a fellow climber willing to give us a lift.  We overslept past our 5am wakeup, but it ended up working out great. The guy in the car next to us was leaving at 7am with his friends, and they just so happened to have room for us. Thanks Chuck, Kurt and gang!

Once to the upper trailhead, Dillon and I said good-bye to our new friends while they prepped and we began the ascent around 8:15am.  The weather was perfect, not a cloud in the sky as we wound through the trees of the lower trail.  It was only about 10 minutes before we broke tree line and were treated to a nice view of our objective.


Uncompahgre comes into view

From here the trail is pretty straight forward.  It winds to the climber’s left (south) of the peak and once atop the ridge, turns east up the shoulder.

At first I was a little timid with my knee, not wanting to push it too hard.  But it seemed like the higher we climbed, the stronger it got.


Dillon with the morning sun and blue hued mountains in the backdrop

We made our way up the ridge and as we crested, we were treated to some awesome views of the surrounding San Juans, and some brisk wind.  The wind would come and go as we climbed the ridge, depending on whether we were on the windward or leeward side.  When it was blowing though, it cooled us down considerably.  Eventually we made a few switchbacks and came to the scramble and crux of the route: A short scramble through a gully up some looser rock.


Looking back on the route as it follows the ridge line. (Photo Courtesy of Dillon Sarnelli)


Crux of the route. A short climb then a scramble up the gully right of the chimney (or phallus) looking rock right of center.

My knee felt a little uneasy on the scramble, only because I knew if I slipped, my left leg wouldn’t be able to catch my fall.  So I just took it slow and carefully made my way up through the narrow channel.

Once through the scramble the trail mellowed out and it was a gentle climb to the top.  We were surprised it only took us about 1:45 to summit.  As it turned out my bad knee had held up just fine!


Dillon on the final push to the summit

Once we reached the summit, we were shocked to find the wind was non-existent at the top.  All we had to do was take in the views and re-fuel.  The summit of Uncompahgre is dramatic.  Not only does it tower above the rest of the beautiful San Juan range, but the east and north face of the peak drop off in a huge cliff.  The views and drop are incredible.


View from the summit looking North. The Grand Mesa is visible in the distance.

Processed with Snapseed.

Dillon looking east over the edge, that’s a LONG way down to the valley below.


Wetterhorn Peak (14,015′) to the southwest (right center), looks tiny compared to Uncompahgre

After a quick snack we set off down the mountain.  I took it slow to avoid putting undo stress on the knee, but we actually made pretty good time on the return trip as well.  We made it back to the trailhead just as a guy and his son were heading back down the road.  Score!  “Can we hop in?” I asked.  “Sure” replied Rob, “We had planned on bringing someone down anyway!”  After a good conversation and a fun ride down a rough road, we were back at the lower trailhead.  We enjoyed a beer and the sun before making the trip back to Denver.  All in all, it was a great climb.  It felt great to be back outside and in these amazing mountains.  Special thanks to Dillon for joining me and making it such a great trip.  Until next time!



Cross Couloir, Mt. Of the Holy Cross (14,005′)


Mt. of the Holy Cross smiles, as if to say "you're welcome."

Mt. of the Holy Cross smiles, as if to say “you’re welcome.”

We all have those goals in life that just seem like they’re never going to materialize.  We try and try, yet something always finds a way to thwart our best laid plans.  Then, one day, the clouds part and you see your goal in front of you in all its glory.  For the first time it appears totally attainable and that attainment unfolds almost effortlessly.  For me, this scenario describes my relationship with Mt. of the Holy Cross to a T.

For 5 years I’ve wanted to ski this mountain but it never quite worked out.  No partner…road closed…bad snow year…. and then last year I finally made it to the base of the elusive couloir… only to be shut down in the worst way.

But this year would be different, very different.

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Red Peak – What Big Eyes You Have Couloir

As April came and went without getting a tour in, I was itching to get into the mountains and ski something big.  I reached out to Eric to see if he’d be down.  At first he told me he was busy on Sunday, then I sent him this picture:

What Big Eyes You Have Couloir.  Photo courtesy of Stan Wagon,

What Big Eyes You Have Couloir. Photo courtesy of Stan Wagon,

Needless to say, Eric was in.

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Portillo, Incredible Portillo


Pretty much every skier in North America knows that when the snow melts, and summer arrives it’s time to shift gears.  The mountain bikes come out, the trail running shoes go on and we go about our summer.  Yet, in the back of our minds we all know that somewhere down south… way down south, it’s winter, and winter means skiing.  Some of us have a harder time than others shifting gears.  Before last summer I had skied 32 months straight, until the Colorado drought put a stop to that.  This summer I knew I would need something more than skiing dirty snow on St. Mary’s glacier.  So a year ago, I booked a trip to Portillo, Chile, with my friend Marcus.  What followed was an incredible, life-changing experience which I will never forget. Continue reading


Resurrected in “The Blood of Christ” Mountains

Early morning mist over Kit Carson and Crestone Peak

Early morning mist over Kit Carson and Crestone Peak

They’re called the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, or Sangres by us Coloradoans.  The name is dramatic, (it means “Blood of Christ” Mountains) but so are these peaks.  The Sangres impressively jut 8000 ft from the San Luis valley below, many of them rising to over 14,000 ft in elevation. I’ve flown over them many times on trips to Albuquerque from Denver.  I’ve driven by them many times on my way to Pagosa Springs and Durango.  Still, I’ve never had the chance to move through them, until now. Continue reading


Notch Top At Last

On June 2nd Eric and I set out from Denver at 1:30am. We met up in Boulder at 2am to transfer gear and make the drive to the Bear Lake Trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park. The drive was a familiar one, since this would be the 3rd time in over a year that we had attempted this line. Our hopes were high that this would be our day.

Ptarmigan Cirque from Lake Helene.  Notch Top Mountain is on the right.

Ptarmigan Cirque from Lake Helene. Notch Top Mountain is on the right.

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Harvard-Columbia Traverse

After an unsuccessful bid on Capitol Peak I’ve been chomping at the bit to get back into the high country and take down some mountains. I called my trusty partner David Gardner and he was up for an attempt on the long Harvard-Columbia Traverse.

Dave treks in the shadows as the sun overtakes Mt. Harvard (14,420′)

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