The most difficult aspect of an alpine start is not the early wake up, but rather forcing yourself to go to sleep. With the same anxious thoughts as a 10 year old on Christmas Eve, sleep comes as easily as catsup from a glass jar. Sleep seems to take forever at first, then before you know it you are already hitting the alarm for your one of two allotted snoozes. Yet, soon enough you are already up making a “breakfast” burrito, laughing that one can even call anything breakfast at 2 in the morning. In fact, someone else down the street is probably making the exact same burrito except they still haven’t even gone to sleep yet.
One upside to driving so early is the distinct lack of cars on the road as you drive to the trailhead. This day started with just one set of headlights coming towards our loaded down Subaru hauling a 159 track Ski Doo that practically loomed over the Outback. Oddly enough, those headlights turned out to be a wonderful state trooper, who immediately did a nice U turn and pulled me over. While angrily eating my burrito, I listened to the cop claim my trailer lights were out even though I had recently installed a whole new lighting kit just weeks before. Clearly hoping for a different kind of 2am driver, as in the kind that can’t walk a straight line, I was let off with a warning. The funny thing about so many official warnings, is that it seems you were never really doing anything wrong to begin with. Almost like the times your parents so badly wanted to be mad at you for some random reason, but they just couldn’t find any justifiable cause.
Aside from dropping my burrito onto my seat, the rest of the drive went fairly smooth. That is to say, the roads were empty and I was starting to wake up. The real fun, however, began when I pulled up to the gate at Tigiwon road that blocks offseason traffic once the snowmobile operation is done for the winter. There is a small 2 foot wide gap between the gate and a large boulder that spring time travelers use to get snowmobiles through. Yet today, at 230 in the morning, there was a random hobo sleeping smack dab in the middle of that opening. When I pulled up to the gate, he shot up in his camo sleeping bag as if he had been awake the whole time. While sitting up, he let out a yell that I still cannot understand whether it was excitement to see me or if he was mad that we woke him up. Either way, once I turned my car off and started gearing up he simply laid back down
Minutes later the sled was warming up, my boots were laced and boards were strapped down. Yet I had a couple of set backs. My partners had not arrived yet, which I wasn’t all that worried about. They would show up soon enough. The bigger problem, was that the aforementioned hobo was still sleeping in my cut through. As I walked over to wake up my new friend one more time, he shot up almost as quickly as he did the first time, once again saying something I wish I could interpret. I helped him move his ratty commuter bike off to the side, and he proceeded to scoot himself off to the side the same way I would imagine a caterpillar lethargically getting off a sidewalk. Either way, I finally could get my sled to the snow.
Anyone who rides snowmobiles often knows how tiring it can be, especially when riding tandem. Especially when riding tandem and towing another. Especially for the person being towed. The 7 mile ride took the better part of an hour after negotiating dry spots and accommodating for the much needed rests here and there. Finally at the true trailhead, it was a relief to trade 2 stroke noise for the silent skin track at 3am. Night time skins can be mesmerizing, allowing the hours and the miles to fly by. I remember random meadows where we looked for eyes in the darkness, usually seeing nothing, sometimes thinking we heard everything. Before we knew it, we were already over Halfmoon Pass, and in the Cross Creek drainage preparing for the final skin up Holy Cross.
By the time we made the North Ridge, the sun had risen and brought the temperature along with it. For us, this was the crux of the whole day. The warm and sunny days of the previous week had created a boiler plate snow surface that was difficult to keep traction on. And since the angle was too steep to skin straight up, we were forced to do an endless sidehill that seemed more tiring than efficient. Frustrated, I finally just took my skis off and shouldered them up to the saddle below the summit boulder field. While I waited for my fellow sloggers, I couldn’t help but start to contemplate why we do these crazy things. Yet just as I felt I was Confucious coming up with the meaning of life, I fell asleep with Clif goo hanging out of my mouth. Apparently this was a funny sight to see for my fellow climbers, who needed a good laugh after that stretch of snow.
The final 700 feet of the day was just a simple boulder field. Nothing hard or spectacular, just always interesting with ice patches and snowboard boots. We reached the summit of Holy Cross around 1030 in the morning, a bit later than planned. Once again, I fell asleep in the scree house that someone had made to protect themselves from wind (how long do they plan on spending up there?). So once again, my partners found me passed out face down into my pack…I must be an opportunist. We weren’t sure if we were going to be a little late for corn snow, but there was a steady wind and it was actually colder up high than planned. Taking our first peak down into the Cross Couloir, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we found 2 feet of fresh snow blanketing the entire pitch.
There was a sizable cornice on the rider’s right of the starting zone, which we decided would be a great test for all of the newly loaded snow. Weston and I jumped several times on the initial roll just to see if we could get anything moving before I ski cut the slope leading to the cornice. On a side note, I wish we had a different term to use for ski cutting as snowboarders, but that is a different topic. Nothing moved as I arrived at the cornice, and I actually had to get my ice ax out to climb up to the top of it as it was larger than it looked. Once on top, I managed to pry out a mini-fridge sized chunk of the cornice with the nose of my board. It actually popped with so much energy that I almost when diving into the chute headfirst with it, but managed to catch my balance at the last minute. Watching the block tumble down the col, the snow remained in tact, and looked damn well soft. It was game on. I was given the honors of dropping first for doing the work, and it was all heaven from there.
Holy Cross is such a classic line, that just standing on top of it in winter conditions gives you a pretty big smile. Ride the thing in two feet of April pow, and every time you look back at that feature from Vail or BC, you get nostalgic. And unlike the descents that usually go down in May or June, our April timing allowed us to ride the apron and drainage all the way back to where we could meet back up with the trail to go back over Half Moon Pass. Our day ended up taking us almost 16 or so hours round trip, which didn’t exactly set any speed records. But if you have read anything else from me, you would know that rushing my way through the mountains is not something I believe in. Sponsored athletes may need records, speeds and first ascent claims to stay in the limelight. But for someone who simply pursues these descents for pure joy, why push through the experience as if you were missing an appointment. A day in the mountains is something to be cherished and taken in with all of your senses. And even if you need to take a nap or two in order to keep on charging, I will take a 16 hour day of slogging over a morning in traffic any day of the week.