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)
Ski poles
10 essentials (including map, despite obvious route)
Emergency overnight bivvy and extra clothes (not needed)
Ice Ax (not needed)
Microspikes (not needed)

Gear Thoughts
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


  1. I too have often thought of a peak like Quandary as something a bit too pedestrian to be of interest (which is why I like the West Ridge - no lack of excitement there - you should try it if you haven't).

    But then I took some friends up the regular route for their first 14er, and to see their reaction, really brought me back to a place of thorough enjoyment regardless of the crowds.


  2. Forgot to ask - what kind of gear did you use? You only mentioned 'backcountry...".

  3. Good call: I added some gear thoughts above. Waxless BC skis are better suited for rolling terrain and hut trips, but it's what I have. Eventually I'd like to get wider skis and plastic boots and use it for stuff like this and resort skiing.

    The West Ridge definitely looks like a fun challenge, which is why I was careful to say how much it all depends on the route. Too many people seem to be in a race to do the standard route on every 14er, whereas there are beautiful routes on the same mountain, if not nearby mountains of other height. For example, I think Square Top is an awesome alternative to Bierstadt: you go by several lakes and get a better view to the West, and it's right across the street! But I'm pretty
    cranky about crowds in general! =)

    But overall I think it's probably a good mountain to try something outside of your comfort zone: first time at that elevation, if you haven't been; first ski/board descent; self-arrest practice; moonlight/night hike, etc.

  4. Way to go, skiing a 14er! The snow always seems so sketchy up high, I'm impressed any time someone skis that without injury.

    I'll put Square Top on the to-do list.

    I agree re the crowds. But at the same time I appreciate seeing someone every once in a while on remote trails. Usually those who are really out there are in a good mood, too :)

  5. Thanks for the update. I have been fooling around with some different BC gear set-ups on the cheap, but not much experience with any of them yet. Too busy doing other things.

    jc (aka Alpine on 14ers)