Monday, March 21, 2011
Quandary Winter Ski
Quandary Peak Hike/Ski Descent (East Ridge/East Face)
6.75 miles (fall line!) RT, 3450' gain
~4 hours RT
Earlier this winter, I had a goal of some summit hikes and/or backcountry skiing some peaks. One mountain I had in mind was Quandary Peak, which is a popular 14er just south of Breckenridge. This is an intermediate ski descent with generally low avalanche conditions in winter and especially spring. It is also such a popular mountain that dozens of people climb it every fair-weather weekend, which means I would have zero interest in climbing it in the summer.
I actually made plans to climb it at about 6am last Saturday, the beginning of my spring break. I was headed West with my skis in the car, and I saw that the wind, weather, and avalanche conditions were finally favorable -- as was the actual conditions when I passed through the Eisenhower tunnel. Since I was solo, I also felt that going on a weekend with some other people on the mountain would help mitigate any risk. But just because I made hasty plans to climb it in the morning doesn't mean I hadn't prepared ahead of time: it was another mountain and popular route which I had read and studied months ahead of time.
I started around 10AM on the forest road just off of Hwy 9, with other cars already lining the road. I had a macho plan to climb up as far as I could with my waxless skis, but soon found that the packed snow was too slippery and steep, so that bootpacking was much easier. I had microspikes in my pack, but they remained there the entire time. I also hadn't really noticed the loops in the bottom of my pack, but it turns out they held my skis nicely. Perfect!
So I spent a couple hours heading up the trail. The packed trail made it mindless and easy through the trees, and the rest of the route was plain and obvious above treeline.
I had some quick conversations on the way up, and passed several groups on the final pitch. I don't mean to disregard any mountain, but this hike was fairly pedestrian. It's very much all relative, as my previous climb up Sherman, also considered an 'easier 14er' was significantly more difficult due to the wind and cold. All I mean to say is, once again, the 'bragging rights' of 'peak-bagging' is very much irrelevant without the context of the specific mountain, route, and conditions. I can see why this route is recommended as a first 14er as a quick bang-for-the-buck, but I would certainly recommend other peaks and routes for a more interesting hike. On a pleasant winter day with almost no wind, though, it was a good balance for a ski attempt, one which I would recommend even to skiers or snowboarders (with sufficient safety knowledge/precautions/conditions) willing to carry their gear.
So in this case, I was more apprehensive about the ski descent, since I'm especially uncoordinated at skiing my too-short, too-narrow, beat-up but lovable backcountry skis. I was unsure if I would stick to the ridge, which has a more conservative angle, or try out the classic East Face. The East Face has a modest slope, and a previous group's compression test was favaroable. And, as I climbed the ridge, though, I gained some new information: the ridge was icier, narrow, and interspersed with rocks; but I watched a previous climber descend the face on what looked like snow that at least had some measure of grip.
But first, the summit, after just over 2 hours, and break. The face looked steeper from above, of course. I would have had no doubts on my alpine skis, but took it very slowly as I cut all the way across the upper part of the mountain, repeatedly zig-zagging across hard, variable snow. This was incredibly inefficient and slower than hiking, but it was better technical practice and helped me gain confidence, as I was able to ski off the summit. I took a break after the top pitch, and then the rest of the section above treeline had much better snow and less rocks, as I was able to make a few turns. I zig-zagged down to treeline and then continued either on the icy trail or across some of the open areas. As the trees became more dense, I appreciated even more how this popular trench of a trail was even more bastardized by trains of snowshoers and hikers making weird, abrupt turns through narrow trees, making skiing nearly impossible, but I slowly slipped and crashed my way through, inefficiently taking nearly as much time to descend as I did to climb.
But, I did it with my skis, and it was more fun!
Fischer Outtabounds Crown)
Alpina 75mm 3-pin boots (soft)
10 essentials (including map, despite obvious route)
Emergency overnight bivvy and extra clothes (not needed)
Ice Ax (not needed)
Microspikes (not needed)
Skins or bootpack necessary, waxless not sufficient for climbing (but I already suspected this)
More of a downhill setup (wider tele skis, plastic boots) recommended for downhill (but I already suspected this): saw 2 tele skis, 1 alpine (not AT), and 1 splitboard
Though I was solo I should have brought beacon and shovel, in case this could have been helpful to anyone else or myself