"Keep Moving" The thought came into my head, it was the only thing I could hear besides the howling 60 mile per hour winds that were threatening to peel me right off the face of this mountain. I obeyed. I kicked my right boot in, weighted it, kicked my left boot in.
We were traversing across the face of the Ophir side of K12, a Colorado 13er, and the wind had come up suddenly. I had met Scotty Kennett earlier in the season here in Telluride, and had been waiting for months for a chance to come back and ski with him again.
A veteran of WESC (The World Extreme Ski Championship held in Valdez, Alaska for years), 7 time Warren Miller Athlete and a current nominee to be inducted into the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, I like to ski with him because he tells good stories, finds fun lines, laughs a lot, and I always learn a little more than I bargained for when I'm on his tail.
Today proved to be no different. We got up early and parked a car at the end of the Bear Creek trail head in Telluride, and then took Scotty's car over to the tiny town of Ophir. (Possibly the coolest town I've ever seen ever ever.)
Ophir is a tiny place with about 50 homes all built just out of the slidepaths of the enormous mountains that surround it. There are no services there, no little store, just a couple of rows of houses with bikes and kayaks and skins drying in the sun, all this stuff hanging off all these well built, well maintained, modest little houses. With spectacular rock climbing on one end of the short valley, and a Cirque of 13,000 ft peaks (and a few 14ers) surrounding it, its a little bit like a mountain girls paradise.
All you'd need is a couple of kids and a boy who plays guitar and can keep up on his skis to make it complete.
Kate and Scott on the ridge right near the summit of K12: 13,612 ft.
We parked Scotty's van at the base of the drainage for K12, (Should I mention that I didn't realize it was a 13,612 ft mountain? This is one of the things I love about Scott. Its just today's ski. It doesn't really matter how big it is.) and shouldered our packs, hiking boots on our feet. (Okay, tennis shoes. My hiking shoes bit the dust. I'm still milking mileage out of a pair of $30 Adidas that I bought at Costco three years ago.)
We head up through the Aspen trees, and out onto the grass, its steep already, but a fairly accessible peak. Scott has told me that it will probably be about a three hour climb. I am surprised at how good I feel, I had a hard time falling asleep last night, as usual before a big ski, so I only got about 6 hours and I'm running on no coffee, and no Red Bull. (HEY, I'm on a budget!)
We are yaking away while we are climbing, moving, thankfully, at a pace that is comfortable to me, I don't feel like I'm slowing Scotty down too much (although I'm sure he's pacing himself nicely for me). We head up into the snow and eventually put on our skis and skins, and spend an hour zigzagging up this very steep drainage. I can see the summit the whole time, which is pretty uncommon, and its nice to have a gauge of how far we have to go.
For the first time, I feel like I am beginning to read the terrain well. This is a fairly direct ascent, but I can tell how many traverses we are going to take on our skis, and where the easier line up this increasingly steep bowl will be. We decide to head up below a rockband and then boot straight up over the cornice and onto the Telluride face of K12.
I have a couple of epiphanous thoughts about slack-linging as it relates to getting air off a kicker or a cornice, which I'm eager to write about, and keep plodding away.
Mt. Snuffles in the distance, which will be my first 14.000 ft mountain, if weather co-operates in the next few days.
As we enter the top 1/3 of the climb, the wind begins to pick up. Its noisy, and I'm afraid I'm going to loose my hat, but its not unbearable. There isn't any windburn, I've felt worse on the Bridger Ridge, and we keep stepping along.
I'm surprised and happy at myself, I feel just fine. Fit, actually. My legs aren't tired, my lungs aren't burning, my heart doesn't hurt, and I'm not wondering, as I often am when I enter the top 1/3 of a climb, "What the heck was I thinking? Why am I doing this again? Can we just ski down from here? Do we really have to go to the top?"
I'm looking forward to seeing the other side, I'm looking forward to getting out of the wind, and I'm looking forward to the hummus, avocado and sprout sandwich (but no Red Bull) that's in my backpack.
We make a final kick turn and head across the high snowfield under the place where we intend to mount the cornice. The wind is howling. At this point, there is no option other than to summit and get off that way, there is absolutely no safe way that we could stop here and put on skis. At some point, about 100 feet below us, we became committed.
Knowing that, I let go of wondering if this is safe, or okay, and I smile to myself thinking that Scotty and I had just had a very interesting conversation about fear on the bottom of this route. I say out loud, "This is scary." No one hears me, the wind takes it off my lips.
Scott has stopped and is taking his skis off carefully, the pitch we are standing on is probably 45 degrees, and very slick from the wind. He kicks his feet in and reorients to begin booting up to the cornice. I stop and take my skis off as he moves upward, and put them on my pack. I will need both hands, all my balance, and all my concentration here.
My hat, under my hood, is in danger of blowing away again, and I think, whatever, if it goes, it goes, I'm not letting go to try and stop it or fix it.
Had it not been so windy, the exposure would have been thrilling and fun, and we probably would have been in a bigger hurry to beat the sun affecting the snow. As it was, we were moving at a methodical and careful pace.
Scotty booting it straight up the nearly vertical wall to mount the cornice above and get out of the howling wind.
My skis were on my back and I moved into Scott's bootprints, beginning a traverse that would take me under the cornice on a nearly vertical wall for about 30 feet, and then another 30 feet up to the top. Twice, I had to lay down on the wall and stem a foot out so that I could push back against the wind, I felt like I was going to be peeled right off the face and tossed into the wind like a leaf or a feather.
"Keep Moving" the wind had died and I wasn't moving. I kicked my feet in and began again, glad to feel strong and secure in this place, careful to test each placement, surprised to find myself here. It felt very quiet in my head, there wasn't room for the fear that I knew was sitting right next to me, waiting patiently to be heard. I was focused on punching my hands into the snow above me and beginning to climb the steepest snow I've ever climbed.
Scott's able frame above me, he reached the cornice and looked over his shoulder. Once he was over, he would disappear from me and I would be alone. I nodded at him, and he mantled up and over. For a moment, I felt a thrill of fear, and then, "Keep moving" I began to kick my way up the wall. Once, my left foot found rotten snow, and broke through, but because I had both my hands and my other foot screwed into the snow, It was fine, I replaced it, just like when your foot slips in a crack when you are rock climbing, and came up.
I could see Scott standing there grinning. He was saying something, but the massive gusts of wind (which I found out when we got home were probably gusting at 60-70 mph) made the words fly away. I needed to focus, anyway, it was nice to see him, but I still needed to mantle over this cornice and drag my adrenaline filled body to safety.
I rolled onto the ridge and was suddenly out of the wind. "Now that's a picture, Kate!" he said. You could have lit a match it was so still up there, and I was laying sprawled on the ground like a sailor who hasn't seen land in a decade.
I smiled back at Scott and got to my feet. I hadn't been tired at all the whole hike up. The last sixty feet had been so intense that my entire body was suddenly weak. We moved our stuff over to the rocks and sat down, surrounded on all sides by peaks, and ate lunch.
Our tracks down the Telluride face of K12
"That's Snuffles over there, Kate." He pointed out the peak we are going to climb tomorrow. "Its a 14er." WHAT? Really? My first 14er. I had no idea. But we still had this one to finish. We wrapped up and got our skis on, and made blissful turns down the boilerplate that was the very steep face of K12, into the drainage for some challenging turns in breakable crust, over the hump and off to the Wedding Chutes, where we skied some excellent creamed corn in very steep little lines.
This was definitely the best I've ever felt on my skis in the back country, usually there is some hiccup between walking and skiing, and we went through just about every snow condition there is except powder on the way down. But I just felt happy, centered, and excited.
Bear Creek, home at last. We still had quite a bit of adventure skiing to go, through the increasingly manky snow down the waterfall chutes, (Where we found Scotty's poles that he had lost one deep powder day during the season.) and over to the Monkey Bar, where Scott informed me that we had a "short roped down-climb" by which he meant, Rappel about 30 feet down a wet vertical rock wall without a harness. Okay, the wet rocks was only 10 feet of the very steep down-climb, and I wrapped the fixed line around my gloves and down we went.
More fun turns were to be had in the snirt and pine branches left over from recent avalanches, a river crossing and then about an hour and a half tromping out on dirt in our tennies. We sat on a rock before our hike out and looked at the incredible falls coming down bear creek and soaked in the sun on our bare feet, putting salty pretzels in our mouths and feeling happy about all the good play.
It had been one for the books for me. Steep, direct, on both sides, the climbing and the skiing, and for the first time, I felt like I had pushed myself, but was absolutely within my capabilities. I sat there thinking about what I'd just done, how today would have felt like an impossibility just four years ago, and now, it was our Saturday morning ski.
This is a video shot by Mountain Hardware Expeditions for Plum TV. It gives a great view of what we just did, we climbed the same peak and skied the same lines!