Page 61 - JanFeb2014

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61

Ski Way Past The Sign

By Mark A. Rudis

I ski-hiked to the sign, then too far. The out-of-bounds slopes seen from the Panoramic chairlift for years drew my vision and aspiration into a very steep, untracked cirque formed as an arc, almost a semi-circle, of cornices that grew, captured much of the blowing snow from the prevailing northwesterly winds. The northwesterly, larger, more susceptible-to-break-ing-off cornices were jeopardy, avalanche terrain, certain snow slide territory. The smaller, more stable cornice tapering to a terminus at the southwest part of the arc was the goal.

There are no official rules for skiing out of bounds other than it is out of bounds and no one from the ski area’s ski patrol is ever going to risk his or her job by going where you and they are not supposed to go. Your risk. Period. Colorado law makes it clear that enjoying its wilderness means you are on your own. You make your own rules regarding weather, equipment, survival strategy, and you alone own your conse-quences. It’s best to know the lay of the land. Mountain navi-gation lends itself to a contour system, not a grid system; thus, the hiker/skier/trekker more easily orients on drainages from the peaks and ridges, observes the way water, if present, would drain down a slope. Following a drainage down to a known river or valley floor or up to a known peak is a reliable method of routing. Confidence in the mountains comes not only from topography maps, but from doing the treks, getting lost, and finding the way again by observa-tional skills. Zero Creek, First Creek, Second Creek and so forth are the numbered drainages extending up from the lowest tributaries of the Fraser River to the top of Berthoud Pass. The Fraser River collects the water from these arithmetical creeks, and then flows into the Colorado River.

Today was the day. I asked Rupert to partner with me because ordinary survival protocol says don’t go skiing and ski-hiking alone in the backcountry. He declined, and I, being intimate with the solitude and challenge nature can provide, went by myself.

Some days are better suited to alpine skiing using the type of ski to which most people are accustomed, viz., a step-in bind-ing and contoured profile for cruising on intermediate slopes or zippering bumps, and other days are better suited to tele-mark skiing using a ski with bindings that permit the skier to lift the heel while performing a “genuflect” gesture to control turning. Telemark skis, like cross-country skis which permit heel lifting, permit more comfortable and consistent walking movements when hiking over snow for longer dis-tances. The telemark (“telie”) technique is old, predating the stem technique that predominates today’s skiing. Telie skiing is fun, a different kind of athleticism. Today is for telies.

The gate into Vasquez Cirque (neighbor to the unnamed cirque above Zero and First Creeks) leads to a hike of twenty-five minutes plus to get to the premier slopes within Vasquez Cirque that are maintained and patrolled by ski patrol. Every thirty yards or so small signs with the universal slashed circle remind hikers that the region to either side of the trail is closed. A little less than half way on the trail, on the left side, is a small unnoticeable sign slightly different than the stan-dard slashed circle announcing usual warnings of backcoun-try dangers; this is the marker permitting exit from the ski

area into the Vasquez Peak Wilderness, the boundary where both natural law and state law say you are on your own. In the southerly distance is another small sign, a landmark it later turns out, well into the out-of-bounds and, upon leaving the Vasquez Cirque trail, I make it my next stop.

The sign’s letters were carved to read Vasquez Peak Wilder-ness, but it is now so weather beaten and wind worn that the relief on the old board is barely definable. I take a picture of the sign, look around, see tracks from a skier no older than a day that look like they are going in the right direction, and, being unfamiliar with the way to get to the Zero Creek drop-in (the made up name of the prominent feature visible in the distance from the ski area), I figure, great, unexpected help.

The lay of the land was different than those perspectives observed from the chair lift or from the gate or from standing in-bounds and looking out, but still familiar. This subtle clue of how to navigate mountains was key, but I, having spent decades hiking in the mountains, thought pleasantly but not analytically of terra nova, and merely enjoyed the mind trick of new perspectives on a view of slopes and contours seen a thousand times before. I hiked in a circumnavigation of a shallow summit. The slope of the trail, and now absence of trail, had been such that hiking was required in the shuffle step associated with telemark skis. Now the ground slightly descended so I could start to glide and I viewed somewhat steeper terrain ahead and thought hiking was done, skiing was here. Having circumnavigated about ninety degrees of arc around the shallow summit, I thought I must be getting close. The beauty of my surroundings and the mild but embraced fear of going into terra incognita energized me and in a way anesthetized my mind so even though I actually had hiked/glided a mile or more, the feeling was that I had only gone several hundred yards. It was looking great! A couple of low-rider turns on the telies, then a stop to make reconnais-sance. Nowhere close to Zero Creek drainage or even First Creek drainage - this looked more like Second Creek or even Third Creek. Returning to Zero Creek, if possible at all, would require a tight, high traverse back to the north.

The slow slog back began and the possibility of regaining enough elevation to make the drop-in at Zero Creek appeared less and less likely. Arriving closer, looking up, dismayed at missing the goal, I estimated I stood more than one hundred feet below the Zero Creek drop-in, on a ridgeback that extended down parallel to the drainage.

The snow, a concoction of crushed ice/snow cone textures that had become hard and massive, looked terribly loose an prone to sliding. I measured the possibility of dropping into Zero Creek drainage from this lower outpost on the ridgeback, but thought it would be safer to have dropped in where planned because there were two sets of tracks there from the previous day that, in a way, certified the snow was stable. The area surrounding the tracks showed no evidence of

Page 61 - JanFeb2014

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