Dead Dog Couloir #005
When you’re on a summit, countless contemplations pass through your mind. You know that the moments spent at the top are ephemeral, the mountain just doesn’t allow much time. You gain a new perspective because you can see for several miles in all directions. Backcountry ski-mountaineers need to orient themselves when they are at the summit. They use discernible peaks or neighboring ski resorts to create a frame of reference. Geolocating your self is an instinct. Being up there, finding the new lines, setting a mental pin, researching, then venturing to the summit and ultimately skiing down the line, is the journey. The unknown motivates you. It takes a very balanced life to have these goals fulfilled . If you don’t follow your dreams then life remains unbalanced. If there is something out there in this world that tugs deep down in your soul to do, then make a plan, and do it. Find the balance. * - (Star Wars reference)
When I drive through Georgetown, CO I always look up and to the left when I pass Stevens Gulch Road. Through the valley I see Grey Peak sitting there in the distance. In 2019 I made the plan to ski it.
We arrive at the I-70 service road at Stevens Gulch at 7:00am, my partner Niko packs into my truck and we head up the forrest road as far as possible. We only make it one mile or so before the snow makes it too difficult to drive through which means another couple of miles is added to the approach. We skin on the road for 3 miles and see old mining cabins and avalanche debris reminding us of frontier life and of the destructiveness an avalanche may posses. We finally reach the legitimate trail head. We continue on the summer trail over a hill and see our objective in the distance. Our plan was to boot-pack up the Dead Dog couloir then boot-back up the couloir again and ski the Emperor couloir all the way back to the car. We get to the point at which the summer road goes up to the saddle between Greys and Torreys and see another group of people taking a break. They tell us that there are two more guys boot-packing right now… “sweet! now we don’t have to put in the booter” says Niko. It’s time to make a decision. The sun was beating down on the snow and the Dead Dog is east facing. Concerned with wet slab avalanches and the amount of time it will take us to boot up, we decide to take the summer trail up to the summit of Torreys.
We leave the other group and begin to head up. The skin track is wind affected and skiing is very difficult. We got beat down with the fact that skinning was extremely hard so we dropped our bags, threw on our crampons and booted up to the saddle. This added another 20 -30 min to our original plan. The longer we take, the wetter the snow becomes, and as time passes we slowly begin to miss our opportunity to ski quality snow. We take a short break at the saddle and battle the strong winds.
We put our skins back on and continue our trek up the last vertical 800 ft. I can finally see the summit. As we move upward the route becomes more wind protected and our spirits are reinvigorated. We summit at 11 am only to be greeted by the two men that were boot-packing earlier up the couloir.
We stand on the summit and look out into the vista. Breckenridge ski resort sits in the center of the ten-mile and is an impactful reminder that we are not that far removed, even though we are at 14000ft and 6 miles from the nearest road. The mountains are covered in snow and we can see all of the peaks both east and west as we sit near the continental divide on one of the highest points in North America.
We only sit at the peak for a moment, as the winds begin to pick up and the amount of time left in the day to ski good snow is quickly disappearing. We decide to ski the Dead Dog couloir off the east face of Torreys Peak. It’s a steep exposed approach to the entrance of the couloir. Our tired legs need to start working and our energy needs to inspire us to ski well. It’s not panic in this moment, it’s fear. Fear is good for us, fear creates awareness and allows you to be present in the moment. We make a couple of turns through rocks and tight gaps and make it down to the entrance. At the entrance you can see Greys in the distance, the approach we took, and an untracked side of the couloir. We missed the first tracks by just an hour. Surprisingly, having someone already ski the line can be a good thing. They are essentially ski cutting the line and you can see if there is any instability in the snow pack. It’s a catch-22 because safety is of paramount concern, however, first tracks down a 1800ft couloir are the best.
We ski the right side of the couloir. In the upper section the snow is slightly wind affected but it skis well. The elevation and cold winds have kept the snow quality high. I wait at the top of the line and let Niko ski to the choke. He skis it slowly and gets a feel for the line. Once I hear him holler up to me that it’s good to go and he gets to a safe zone, I start a little further to the right and make a big turn. With good speed I continue down the line digging my edges into the softer snow below the wind -crust layer.
The middle section of the couloir is fantastic skiing, the rocks give the zone a little more protection from the wind. Niko goes ahead and shows me where the good snow is. I rip down the last section and get a couple of nice big semi-deep turns. I’m stoked and remember why we do this. The final section is where we feel the effects of the sun. It’s full-on corn skiing. We take huge fast turns to get back to the trail head. We make it to the bottom with full on stoke and sweat. The line from the trail head is visually stunning. I am in awe of our turns as we look back up at the couloir and I notice that at the bottom we set off a wet slide. It was un-preventable and was a result of all our sluff from the upper section of the line, adding to the weight of the lower section. In combination with us skiing and the amount of snow pushed down the slope, and the warm temps. The result was a slide.
We begin our long spring corn ski journey back to the cars. Great day skiing the Dead Dog couloir.