Saturday, July 19, 2014

Storms and Summits

Last week, I enjoyed one of the best backpacking trips of my life in the San Juan mountains of southern Colorado. This had been a trip that my friends and I had been planning for a long time. The San Juans contain the largest wilderness area in the state, the Weminuche Wilderness Area, which contains three (or four depending on who you ask) reclusive 14ers that this state is so famous for: Mt. Eolus (14,083 ft.), Windom Peak (14,082 ft.), and Sunlight Peak (14,059 ft.). The peaks make up the head of Chicago Basin, a distant objective from all roads in the area. The easiest way to access the area is by the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The combination of accessing pristine wilderness by train and tackling remote peaks made this trip sound incredible.
Sunset and the remnants of a storm near Durango, CO

With two of my friends, Chris and Tyler, we organized a 5 day itinerary for July, when we hoped most of the winter snowpack would have melted off. So after all the planning, dreaming, and anticipation, the three of us finally found it to be reality on July 8.

7/8/14
Leaving Boulder at eight thirty, we drove all the way down to Durango in high spirits. That evening we slept off of the Old Lime Creek Road, between Durango and Silverton, inside our Toyota Highlander. Needless to say, it was pretty wet outside thanks to a downpour that afternoon. As we soon learned, these storms were frequent and often violent, coming right off the Utah desert and building in intensity once pushed against the rugged San Juans. Our car was quite stuffy and trying to fit 3 people side by side proved to be quite a stretch. The next morning didn't come soon enough as we were all eager to free ourselves from the tight confines of the car.

7/9/14
After a short drive into Silverton, we spent a few hours running around the small town, waiting for when our train was scheduled to depart at two. The train was an ancient steam powered locomotive, catering mostly to tourists these days, but retained its original character with its backpacking passengers.

It should be said that the ride is not cheap by any means. Tickets run at about $71 for a backpacker leaving Silverton (departure from Durango jacks up the price by about $20) and its only an hour ride. Regardless, its an incredible Colorado experience that can't be matched anywhere else.

Down the Animas Canyon
Following the vivid blue and green Animas River down its rugged canyon, the train finally dropped us off at Needleton, a remote wilderness outpost along the Animas River, only accessible by train or foot. It was about four in the afternoon and drizzling. Very uplifting considering we had 5 miles and 4000 vertical feet to climb.

The climb was steep, following Needle Creek which wound its way through dense old growth forest with a number of small waterfalls. Needle Creek is incredibly clear and one of the cleanest bodies of water I've ever seen. To be honest, I thought about just drinking straight from it. A shame that these days we have to use things like water filters in the first place. Alas, I didn't.

As the forest opened up with elevation, we finally set up camp close to dusk. Rugged 13ers surrounded our camp, with fierce looking broken granite cliffs. After a long hike, we wanted nothing more but to break into a package of ritz crackers that we had brought and a hot dinner of mexican style rice and beans. Although it was freeze dried food, everything in the wilderness tastes delicious. After our meal we enjoyed having some extra sleeping room in our tents.

Tyler and Chris checking out one of the many waterfalls
Columbines along the trail
Camp chef Chris with thirteen thousand foot Mt. Kennedy above

7/10/14
The following morning was perfectly clear with cobalt blue skies. And we woke up to this...


We'd heard about the mountain goats but we were definitely not prepared for their thirst of urine. Every time one of us walked off to take care of business, we were accompanied by the entire herd. There were too many moments where I thought a goat was going to go for the source...


After eating breakfast with an audience, we packed up and hiked another two miles up into the basin. We had our first view of the 14ers (below photo) and of course, even more herds of goats. Above, a goat with Mt. Kennedy in the background. The imposing face is split by a deep couloir, one that looks enticing for another trip maybe with skis.

Windom Peak directly above Chris' head with the line of snow underneath
We couldn't decide on a campsite for a while so we looked around. That led to moments like this.


We finally set up down by the creek on a small granite bench. By then, another storm had rolled in and we had to set up a makeshift shelter with a tarp for immediate rain cover. While waiting for the rain to stop, we would often have very animated card games. Kings and Peasants seemed to be our favorite. Eventually the rain died down and we were able to set up our tents and cook. The three of us decided that for the next day, we would attempt Sunlight and Windom Peaks. Since the weather was arriving early in the day, a 4 AM start seemed appropriate.

7/11/14
We awoke to a partly cloudy morning, with some of the stars visible. We trudged up the trail to the Twin Lakes with our headlamps. Since we were all a little groggy and it was pitch black, we had little recollection of what the trail was like (On the way down however, we were startled by the number of switchbacks and strewn rocks). We ran into a few other climbers at the Twin Lakes. The Twin Lakes have to be some of the highest alpine lakes I've ever been to. Chris' GPS unit read the elevation at around 12,000 ft. We filled water at the lakes and continued on towards Windom Peak along the climber's trail which weaved through patches of snow. The sun slowly started to creep up, and we were met with breathtaking alpenglow on Mt. Eolus,

Alpenglow on the Eolus massif: Mt Eolus at left and North Eolus at right (both above 14,000 ft.)
Dawn's first rays on an unnamed needle that forms Sunlight's west ridge
At this point the climber's trail split, the left fork heading towards Sunlight and the right fork towards Windom. The route up Windom appeared much more straight forward and we decided it would also provide a better view of Sunlight's south slopes where its standard route is. We met another climber named Skyler, a junior at NAU in Flagstaff, AZ. We shared beta and I received some helpful information on college. Being a rising senior in high school, I can't avoid the college discussion no matter where I go.

We climbed up the saddle between Windom and Peak 18 and continued along Windom's west ridge which climbed steeply upwards. The route wasn't difficult and Gerry Roach's class 2+ rating in his guide book seems to nail it. Not quite class 3 but not really a 2 either. There were moments where we did climb with our hands, but I'm sure there a easier routes where that isn't necessary. At about 7 AM we reached the summit. It was a mostly cloudy gray sky, but the views were still spectacular. In every direction, there were mountains as far as the eye could see. Not a single trace of civilization. Distant sunshine illuminated Shiprock in New Mexico. The San Juans, being 4000 square miles in size, make for a very different experience than peaks in the Front Range near Boulder. Needless to say, we felt elated. This was likely the most beautiful vista any of us had ever seen, and the air the cleanest we've ever breathed. It really was a true wilderness experience.

The summit of Windom Peak. Right behind the boulder at left is the Sunlight Spire, now the lowest 14er and most difficult (5.10 rating). Directly behind it are peaks of the Grenadier Range, Arrow and Vestal. Beyond that, more and more mountains including all of the San Juan 14ers. 

A panorama from the summit











We celebrated briefly and headed down. The clouds seemed to build and we were uneasy about attempting Sunlight. We saw few people on the descent. For most of the morning we had been following a group up Sunlight and watched their progress. This gave us a good idea of the route beyond a vague description. Back down in the bowl between the peaks, we decided that an attempt on Sunlight was necessary, since we had come this far.

Sunlight and the Spire from Windom. Our route up Sunlight was the bright red scree slope on the left.
The Spire and Windom Peak from the ledges on Sunlight.  

The climb started out very steeply. We crossed a small snowfield and then switchbacked across a prominent chute marked by its bright red rock. Once at the top of the chute, we traversed across some rocky 3rd class ledges (right). The route became slightly more confusing at this point and the exposure increased a little. After about a half hour of traversing and route finding, we came across the first chimney, a difficult upper 3rd class scramble which was shortly followed by the famous chimney right below the summit block. Tyler elected to stop at this point, content that he was above 14,000 ft. Chris and I completed the exposed scramble to the summit.

We reached the marker and gazed at the imposing summit block. This pile of broken granite, if in my front yard, would be like a nice playset. Fun to scramble up and down without a second thought. However, it was really precariously perched on top of a precipitous drop that fell some 500 ft. into another basin. After some consideration, I decided it was worth a shot. I scrambled around the first two boulders and crawled on top of it. Here came the first big move. There was a five foot gap that dropped some forty feet into a crack. I paused here for a good ten minutes. Another group had arrived on the summit, and one of their party had scrambled up next to me. He paused as well and after a brief discussion decided to go for it. I cringed as he jumped over. He stuck it. Then he dog legged to reach the summit. Finally I summed up the courage, and joined him on the summit. It was airy to say the least. Nothing but emptiness for thousands of feet. I probably stayed up there for 30 seconds. As beautiful as it was, it felt as though man was tempted to be here under his own discretion, and any poor judgement would result in the ultimate penalty. Unfortunately between Chris and I, the only camera that we had with us was in my pocket and I was far too gripped to pull it out. So I'll have to settle for a shot of the summit marker.


And a selfie below the summit block:



The down climb was much quicker and we took a slightly more direct route towards the lakes. The scree was exhausting and each of our minds went into a strange zone, focusing only on reaching the lakes since we were close to downing what we had left. Little was exchanged between us during this time. Near the lakes, the clouds began to look more ominous and it was now clear a storm was brewing. We quickly filled up and bolted for the safety of lower elevations. After incredibly steep switch backs along the trail into the basin (that none of us remembered) we reached our campsite. We were ravished to say the least. Instant oatmeal was prepared and a few more games of Kings and Peasants were played. Strange to think it was only about 1 PM. It felt like 5 to us. We each relaxed and enjoyed our own silent reflection. Tyler lost his spoon while cleaning his bowl by the creek and used the afternoon to whittle a nice new spoon. Eventually the storm came and drenched us with a deluge. The storms seem to come much earlier in southern Colorado and linger for longer. The storm stayed with us until dark. As we began to fall asleep, loud thunder jolted us awake and lightning illuminated an otherwise dark landscape. It was one of the most frightening storms I've experienced. Fatigue eventually won out over fear and I slept through the rest of it.

7/12/14
The storm that rolled in and soaked us
The storm had left much of the ground still thoroughly soaked the next morning. Water had seeped through the tarp and the bottom of Tyler's and my tent, soaking our sleeping pads. With only partly cloudy skies we dried our gear as best as we could. After an exhausting day at 14,000 ft the prior day, we decided to leave Eolus for another trip. We weren't too disappointed. We felt pretty accomplished already and now we had an excuse to come back. Our train out was the following day at 11 AM so we decided it would be easier to complete the 6 mile descent that afternoon. This proved to be a good decision. Not long after we began our trek out of the basin, another storm cell swept through and drowned our already damp gear in rain. Tyler and Chris thought the rain would quickly pass, so they elected to keep moving instead of pulling out the ponchos. Unfortunately, the rain didn't let up until about 4 hours later. We arrived at the Needleton stop at 3 PM very wet and cold. Across the tracks there was an old abandoned shack possibly from the mining days. We posted up inside and built a small fire at one of the entrances to dry our clothes. Eventually the sun returned and we were able to find a beautiful campsite overlooking the railroad and the Animas. We cast some flies in the river without success, but the it was an otherwise pleasant evening. We built a roaring campfire and played cards deep into the night.

7/13/14
It was finally time for us to come out of the wilderness. The trip had been an incredible and exhausting experience, each of us craving some real food and the opportunity to watch World Cup Final. The train came promptly at 11, and we did our best to mask our odor around the hordes of tourists wielding cameras and snapping away at everything.
The ride out

Backpacking in the San Juans has to be one of the best outdoor opportunities in Colorado. The mountains are steeper and more rugged than anywhere else in the Rocky Mountain region, and aren't penetrated by the larger crowds that are found in other areas. Without a doubt, I plan on returning for more and hopefully with a pair of skis. The wealth of lines to be found could entertain a skier for their entire lives. I'd highly recommend going down there as long as you are prepared for the elements.



Tuesday, July 15, 2014

2014

Well, I've taken quite the hiatus from this blog. Not that life hasn't been interesting or anything, but my time and interests have taken me elsewhere. I've got plenty of stories to tell so I think returning to this blog is only proper. Anyways it was a plentiful winter this past year with Colorado having an 120% of average snowpack. So to start it off, a little footage from myself at Winter Park...


RAW Edit Winter Park from Tai Koester on Vimeo.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ski Trip to Taos, NM

After weeks of very little snowfall here in Colorado, we decided to head down south where powerful storms rolling in from the South Pacific were pounding the mountains by Taos. Taos Ski Valley, locally known as TSV, boasted a 50 inch base and more than of 150 inches of snowfall that had fallen so far  this season. We made the 6 hour trip down and enjoyed delicious New Mexican cuisine at Orlando's, one of our favorite eateries in Taos. The next day I went skiing at TSV. The skiing at TSV was great with good coverage and some soft snow to be found up along the ridges that border the resort,  Highline Ridge and West Basin Ridge. These ridges, along with the crown jewel of TSV, Kachina Peak, host the annual Taos Extremes, a qualifier event for the Freeride World Tour. After only the first day, I already had decided that TSV was one of my favorite ski areas. The second day I met up with Brett, an Albuquerque local who often comes up to TSV. He showed me around his home mountain and we did some filming with our GoPros (I'm saving the footage for later!). After skiing, we stopped by Taos Mountain Outfitters and the Good Sole, 2 stores owned by my second cousin Sean and his business partner Kara. The showed us their stores and took us to a ceremony put on by the Taos Pueblo for Christmas (sorry no photos were allowed). The Pueblo had constructed massive piles of logs that were burnt in the largest bonfires I have ever seen. The experience was pretty awesome. Unfortunately we eventually had to go back to Boulder but I hope we can make this Taos trip a tradition every winter.

Wheeler Peak (the highest point in New Mexico) and lift 7A

Comforting sign at the TSV base


Lift 1 and Al's Run from the parking lot

Highline Ridge

The Taos downtown

The drive down to Taos with Blanca Peak along NM Highway 552 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

San Francisco

We visited the city of San Francisco for the the first time in about 11 years. The weather in SF can be quite nasty but it was quite beautiful for our whole trip and the temperature hovered around 60 degrees. We visited my uncle Thomas who has lived in SF for as long as I can remember. I was amazed with how steep the hills actually were in SF. The rattle of cables pulling the cable cars up the street echoes throughout the city and the spirit of the city seems to come from them. The food in San Francisco was delicious, from fresh seafood at the Tadich Grill to spicy Thai dishes cooked up by chefs in the Tenderloin District. The city doesn't sleep at night with wonderful performances such as the Broadway Musical "Fela!"This was my first Broadway Musical and I was blown away with the passion that these actors have for their roles. I am not surprised that this musical won the Tony Award for its singing and dancing. I also got to see the famous Haight Ashbury District which was the epicenter for the 60's counterculture movement. We also took side trips to Santa Cruz and Berkeley. Santa Cruz has a small town feel and the University of Santa Cruz has one of the most beautiful college campuses I have ever seen. The campus is in a redwood forest divided by steep ravines which make the university feel as if it is perched 100 feet off the ground. Berkeley and Stanford's campuses were not too shabby either. I love the city and it was great to see my uncle who looks great and is wonderful person to talk to. I enjoyed having great conversations with him in the California Academy of Science and him giving us a tour of his city. I hope it doesn't take another 11 years to get back.




Some of the interesting murals found in the city. 

Fisherman's Wharf

The McHenry Library hidden by the redwoods at UC Santa Cruz.

Stanford's beautiful chapel.

Parking restrictions

Occupy Berkeleys signs.


 Occupy San Francisco


Monday, November 28, 2011

Thanksgiving Break and PNW Goods

I just came back from a wonderful break in San Francisco visiting my uncle. I have yet to import my photos from the trip so stay tuned. The weather in California was awesome. About 60 degrees every day with a light drizzle on Thanksgiving Day in the morning. I got to stop by Santa Cruz and Palo Alto (Stanford) as well. I have yet to ski this year but I plan to do so next weekend. The forecast for snow is rather sparse for Colorado, however our friends in the Pacific Northwest have received quite a bit. This teaser by Dubsatch Collective at Mt. Baker, WA should give you an idea how great it is up there.


Baker Tease from Dubsatch Collective on Vimeo.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Stept Productions and Powder TV Episode 1

Powder TV's first episode for 2011 is right here at home in Boulder, CO. We got some heavy snowfall in late October and these guys capitalized on it. A lot of this episode is filmed on the University of Colorado campus.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Tanner Rainville | CO October Pow Turns

Check out this short edit by the guys at Klint. It has some nice big mountain skiing and a little bit of October pow all wrapped up with some tunes by Gregory Isaacs.



Tanner Rainville October 2011 from Klint Snow on Vimeo.