Post subject: TR: Minnehaha Basin, Silverton, CO 12/02/07
Posted: Wed Dec 05, 2007 6:21 pm
Joined: Tue Feb 20, 2007 10:19 am Posts: 527 Location: Capitol Hill, Denver, Colorado, U.S.A.
Roughly halfway between Denver and Las Vegas, the ancient mining town of Silverton sits in a remote valley between two treacherous mountain passes. A backcountry ski trip here takes much more planning and determination than your regular jaunt in the front range. Early Friday mornign my partner loaded up the truck with everything we might need: winter camping gear, backcountry equipment, frontcountry boards, firewood, food & drinks, extra fuel, shovels, and a 15' x 30' thermal concrete blanket for serious protection from the elements. As we started out from Denver we ran into our first obstacle immediately: dead batteries in the truck. Gratefully, Bob the maintenance man came to the rescue with a jump start, and we set off.
Within the first hours the evidence of the massive storm front was realized. It was snowing at the top of Vail Pass, and pouring rain in Glenwood Springs. To play things safe, we bought brand new batteries, and performed a parking lot install in the rain. By the time we reached Grand Junction, the skies were clear again, and we headed south towards the legendary San Juans.
By the time we reached Ouray the sun had set, the temperature dropped, and the snow was falling. True winter conditions were upon us. Having owned the truck for just about a month, I was anxious to try out the tire chains. Before climbing Red Mountain pass, we chained up the rear tires using a makeshift bungee system. The traction was incredible, but the snow was falling so heavy that I had to drive at 15 mph just to maintain visibility. About halfway up, we passed a loaded semi truck spinning his drive wheels with futility. I felt bad, but there was nothing we could do to help, so we continued on. The descent of the pass was much less treacherous, and the Powerstroke handled with might.
Treacherous pass conditions
My first impression of Silverton, at 10 pm during a snowstorm, was interesting. We drove cautiously down the middle of main street, passing many closed businesses, but a few houses with warm lights coming from within. There was virtually no one on the road. Our plan was to drive directly to the ski area, and camp out the night. However, from town we had to climb a 6 mile hill, which had obviously not seen a plow since the storm started. The next two hours would go down in town history. I dropped the truck to 4H and blasted up the first S turn, and spun out immediatly.
Brian's turn to chain up
"Check the chains" Brian said.
I got out and looked at the driver side tire: the chains were gone! I looked around the vicininty, but they could have been anywhere from here to Ouray. Luckily, I had two more sets so we chained up the missing rear and one of the front tires.
While we were chaining up at the base of the hill, a red Toyota SUV streaked by us, steered by a grinning schralper from New Mexico who introduced himself as Marley. "Once you get past the S-turn, you're in the clear!" he yelled out his window as he rallied his 4x4 up the hill. We watched him make it a few yards past our original tracks, and then turn around and come down. Determined, he climbed up again...and came back down. "I'll get up there eventually!" he yelled, and we were impressed by his determination and he yo-yo'd up and down the hill a half dozen times, making it up a little farther each time. Finally he was past the first half of the S-turn, but appeared to be stuck. With the chains on the truck, we followed in his tracks with ease. Once we passed our new friend, I asked Brian if we should help.
"Hell no, man...just keep this rig moving, he can follow in our tracks." With the window down, I could hear the chains slapping against the wheel wells. 'click...click....click...wooosh!"
"Shit, we just lost the chain!" I got out and found a broken bungee cord and the chain a few yards back. "I guess we gotta chain up again!" I yelled. It took a few minutes to chain up again, and by this time Marley had pulled up behind us. We put together a plan where I would lead the charge, and he would follow and watch for us to throw any more chains.
The snowpack got thicker the farther we drove up the hill. It was nearly 6 inches deep in some areas. Very slowly we made our way up, but kept throwing chains. Brian and I took turns going out into the storm to chain up, getting colder and wetter each time. Strangely, even with the weight of the truck, as soon as we lost a chain we lost total traction in 4 wheel drive. Eventually, while I was chaining up for the fifth time, Brian headed around the front of the truck.
"Hey dumbass...do you know you have manual locking hubs?!" he yelled.
"Oh...I do know," I explained in embarrassment as Brian locked the hubs in.
"Haha...I'm never going to let you live that one down," Marley said.
When we reached the parking lot, we could see the vague outline of the chairlift through the darkness. Brian backed the truck in next to a metal storage container, and we began to set up camp. My camp was easy: fold down the back seat into a bed and lay out my bedding. However, I helped Brian set up his tent underneath the tailgate of the truck. I had borrowed a large thermal blanket from the jobsite (the kind used to keep fresh concrete from freezing), and we stretched it from the tent in the back to the front of the truck. With the blanket over the cab and my two sleeping bags, I was quite warm and comfortable despite the massive storm outside. I finally drifted off to sleep around 2 AM, greatly anticipating the epic ski day in the morning.
Setting up a late camp
At 6 AM I was awoken by voices outside in the darkness. "Who's over there?" one said, "Wake them up, tell them they have to move their car."
I looked out the window and saw that Marley, parked directly in front of me, was already outside and talking to the ski patrol. In the distance, a very large road scraper with a plow attachment was furiously plowing away. He came so close to the back of the truck that I thought he might rip Brian in half! I jumped out to warn him about the tent in the back.
"Hey dude, do I need to move my truck?!" I asked a ski patroller in red.
"We'll pull you out with the plow," he responded.
"But, we have a tent back here!"
"What?" he asked me, then looked in the back and turned to yell to another guy "Hey! These guys have a tent set up!"
"Tell them to pack it up!!"
Freezing cold and dreary-eyed, I put on my wet ski clothes and Brian and I frantically broke down his camp.
"Hurry it up...this plow is a county guy, he's pretty pissed" the ski patroller told me. They sure are cordial up here, aren't they?
Before I could even warm up the glow plugs, they had hooked up chains to my bumper and yanked me out of the snow. I drove around to the side of the road near Marley and some other guy who was pulled out, and got out to get the beta on the situation.
Marley introduced me to Aaron, the owner of Silverton Mountain. "Our power is down, we're not opening today," he told us. "Go back down to town and make alternative plans."
"Well, I brought my skins," I said.
"Me too," Marley said, and asked Aaron, "How are the conditions for touring?"
"I would advise against it, there is serious wind loading going on up there, we may not even be able to do any avy control today."
Disappointed, we eventually drove back down the freshly plowed road that we fought against the night before, and settled in at the Avalanche Coffee house. They had just opened for business, and for the next 4 hours made it our headquarters for operations. They had started a warm fire, and the fresh coffee was the most soothing thing I had experienced in the last 12 hours. Slowly, more and more skiers and boarders filed into the coffee shop. Everyone was dealing with the same situation: what the hell to do in Silverton during a snowstorm?
The storm-slammed village
We met a cast of characters here. There was J.B., a tall storm-chaser from Denver who drove all the way down for his first turns of the season. We also met Bobby, a dreadlocked college student from Leadville, and his buddies, who had their laptop set up and investigating various weather and avy sites. As the cafe filled up, I made my way through the crowd, discussing conditions, expectations, and plans with many people who had traveled from Albequerque, Denver, and Wyoming, just for the opening of Silverton Mountain. After a few hours, with Brian cussing up a storm, and myself sprawled out on the couch with my blanket and slipper, the staff had informed us that we were wearing out our welcome (they just love us city f olk out here!) J.B. invited us back to his room at the Triangle Motel, where he said he had an extra bed and a TV with plenty of college football to watch. Together, Brian, Marley, and I ventured back to J.B.'s room and I was finally able to get some much needed rest after the rude awakening we had encountered hours earlier. Brian had gone to investigate the town, shoveling snow with the locals, and hiking up to the "big Jesus statue". Bobby and his buddies did a small tour up the still-closed Kendall Mountain ski area. Mile-a-Minute Marley was constantly in and out of the room, expecting his friends to show up any minute, although they still had to battle with the mountain pass on the trip from Durango.
I've heard He came here to perform a miracle: creating gnar-nar terrain!
Touring the town
After a refreshing shower, I headed down to meet the crazed New Mexican at the Silverton Brewery. I walked down the middle of mainstreet, past dozens of closed up businesses. I began to realize that Silverton prospers as a summer tourist destination, but in the winter time most of the businesses are closed except for coffee houses and bars, the two most patroned establishements by extreme skiers. The Brewery was a warm, welcoming place. Marley greeted me at the door and welcomed me to his home turf. About a dozen patrons were here, all strangers with one thing in common: trapped in Silverton. I traveled to the end of the bar and ordered a domestic Stout and some mozzarella sticks. Next to me was a tall rugged dude in a carhart and cowboy hat, chewing on some Copenhagen and conversing with the staff. As I got to know him, he claimed to be from northern Arizona, and came to Silveton because he "got pissed off one day" and headed towards the mountains. Now he makes a decent living operating construction equipment. When work was slow, he just hung out at the bar. I started to envy this simple mountain life.
The only people having fun during the storm
I also met a Serbian fellow in knee high rain boots. He was a contractor from Philadelphia, who had come down here to buy some equipment, but couldn't haul it out of town due to the storm. Not a local, or a skier, he was truly more "trapped" than anyone else. However, his outlook was bright, and he enjoyed the company of the bar, buying rounds for us adventure athletes and asking many questions about our sport.
Between Marley and I was a snowboarder from Denver, who had his laptop set up on the bar. "Do you splitboard?" I asked my one-plank brethren.
"No, but I want to buy one," he replied.
"Dude...check out SPLITBOARD.COM!" I told him as he punched it into his computer and set up a bookmark. The dude was really interested in the website, as I helped him navigate through the forums and informed him about the second hand splitboard sales that he could find.
A few beers followed by a glass of Maker's Mark, and I was beginning to feel very at home in the bar. The only female patron next to me was a strange one, shouting randomly at everyone and offering gummy worms out of a small plastic container. Upon further inspection, I noticed large green and red nuggets mixed in with the worms. "What do you have there?" I asked.
"Nothing," she replied and slid out the door into the alley. When she returned, she was about 10 times more loud and more obnoxious, and the green buds were noticeable missing from the container.
Want some magic worms?
Having my fill of whiskey, I drifted off to sleep near the end of the Missouri-Oklahoma game (roughly 7 PM) and didn't wake until J.B.'s alarm went off at 7 AM. I heard him dial his phone, then silence for a few minutes. Finally, I asked "What's the word, dude?"
"They're not opening" he replied sadly.
"Well...lets get hiking!"
Outside the hotel, we hooked up with Bobby's crew, and made a plan to attack the Minnehaha basin, just up the road past the mountain. During the drive up, I finally had a clear sight of the surroundin peaks, and I was blown away. The sheer dramatic rise of the San Juan mountains is like nothing up north. Peak after peak extended for miles, all covered with bright white snow. We were the first group to the trailhead. Brian, Bobby, and I set off on skins, and J.B. and Bobby's boys bootpacked behind us. Naturally, I was the only splitboarder in the group!
Hitting the skin track
J.B. ducking a log with skis on his back. On the second time around we discovered that the slednecks had brought their chainsaw.
We headed up the County Road 53. There was a noticeable skin track underneath the fresh snow. The skinners traveled with ease, but the booters were having a hell of a time, postholing through two feet of fresh snow. Periodically we would stop to look down the adjacent slope, drooling over the potential lines to be had. As tempting as it was to drop in from the road, we decided to head towards tree-line for our first descent. Soon we lost the booters, and continued up to find a magnificent hut at the top of the hill!
A backcountry paradise
I bet I could throw a trey off the roof
The panorama view of Silverton Ski area and Storm Peak was incredible, and the hut proved a suitable lunch spot as we sat for over an hour basking in the midmorning sun. We encountered a few tele skiers who had been up the day before, and while we were waiting for the rest of the group, they took advantage of the situation and grabbed the first lines of the morning. Finally, with no sign of J.B. or the others, we strapped in and hit the vertical.
Bobby dropping in
Brian schralping it
The end result was possible the best lines I've ever surfed in my life. The terrain was incredibly steep, and with three feet of fresh powder, provided plenty of face shots. Although the hike up took some endurance, making snowboard turns in powder worked my body and lungs ten times as much! I had to stop about every 400 feet just to catch my breath, and naturally got stuck in the snow. With so much snow on the board, it was impossible to get started without digging out the nose of the board. I was drenched with sweat and soaking wet with snow, but I didn't care! We took turns snapping various pictures. At one point, Bobby had the camera on the road at the first switchback, and I bombed an open line through the trees. When I saw the flat road, I freaked out and threw on the brakes, throwing a white blast in the faces of everyone around!
Time to show the two-plankers how its done
Your trusted narrator
I'm in there somewhere, I swear!
The face shot was so strong that it took a few seconds before I could see clearly. "Oh shit! I hope I don't hit a tree!" I thought. I hit the road and threw on the brakes, hearing laughter from my comrades at the sight of me covered in snow.
A face full of snow: priceless
During the descent, we noticed many slednecks taking over the trail. When I got sight of the trailhead, I found a virtual tailgating party, and when I stopped at my truck, who was there to greet me with a high five than the dude Marley himself.
"How was it?" he asked with a grin.
"Sick, dude!" I was at a loss for words.
It was only about 1:00 in the afternoon, so we took 15 minutes to dry out the skins, cook some soup, and head back up the skin track again. The second run was just as good as the first, but with less stopping and camerawork, I was able to send 1000 feet of vertical in minutes.
With the sun on its way down, we said goodbye to our new friends and hauled off to Denver. Although we never really got to ride Silverton's chairlift, we got the full effect of how extreme the mountain really is. The plan is to head back down in the beginning of January, so I'll be having plenty of powder dreams during the next month!
The legendary San Juans can only be experienced firsthand. I shall return!
_________________ Riding a '06 Voile Split Decision Freeride 173, '07 Salomon Malamutes, Spark Ignition I bindings.
Joined: Tue Feb 20, 2007 10:19 am Posts: 527 Location: Capitol Hill, Denver, Colorado, U.S.A.
Thanks for the props. Tex, to answer your question: there are many times that i find myself sitting idle on a construction job, supervising (babysitting) a couple of.small trades. Normally I don't get such luxury, but i take advantage of it when i can.
I've always been a writer since I was young, inspired by sci-fi and marvel comics. Then in college I discovered Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (RIP), and after reading many of his works I've been able to adopt a more free-flowing style, where anything that comes into my head ends up in the story. I blog on myspace but I hope to carve out my own slice of the www pretty soon.