With all the snow this spring has delivered to Colorado it seemed like a good time to talk about summer backcountry lines.
Arapahoe Basin is set to close the weekend of June 14 and may yet push that date out even further; they have been known to stay open till July 4. With more than 100 inches in some locations since mid-April, the snow pack is deep this year and should last till late in the summer.
However, with less than cold temperatures in the evenings, the snow pack at the moment needs some time to stabilize. When planning a day out in the summer remember that a nice freeze the night before is key to avoiding avalanche trouble. Risk can be mitigated by starting early and finishing early. We’re here for corn turns and fun. Wet slides are no fun.
Also, in Colorado a tremendous hazard is lighting. There are many more fatalities from lightning in the summer than there are from avalanches (but slides have killed in every month of the year). And, be sure to watch out for surface rocks, suncups and falling cornices.
The snow in summer isn’t as fun as blower pow but – keeping in mind the above mentioned hazards – you can ski steeper lines safely.
Rocky Mountain National Park is a great place for skiing and access is easy thanks to great infrastructure. There are many options on the remnant glaciers throughout RMNP. In fact the visual drama of the park was created by millennia of glacial erosion.
You will find the highest concentration of glaciers in Colorado here. None are advancing, and most are retreating quickly, but won’t be going anywhere this summer. Crevasses are a negligible issue as there aren’t any icefalls or seracs, but use care later in the season at the glacial snouts.
Tyndall Glacier provides two great options and offers year-round turns. The glacier proper offers the milder alternative with slopes in the mid to low-40 degree range. There are some small crevasses that open at the snout later in the season, but nothing deep enough to fall into.
To the south of the main glacier is the Tyndall Glacier Couloir. This is a steeper option that reaches the low-50 degree range of steepness; though this line melts out from time to time.
Access couldn't be simpler, just start from Bear Lake Trailhead. There are two options to get to the top of the line.
Option one: take the Flattop Mountain Trail and then head south from Flattop's summit to the top of the glacier or the couloir. This is the easier choice as you follow a well-worn trail.
Alternately you could take the trail to Emerald Lake then make your way through talus to the base of the glacier or couloir and ascend what you plan to ski. For the exit follow the drainage down to Emerald Lake to pick up the trail. The line of least resistance follows a path under Hallet Peak's North Face.
Route stats: 5.8 miles and 3200 feet of vertical for 800 feet of steep skiing.
GPS coordinates: 40°18'43.16"N 105°38'45.07"W
Many more options exist in the park. You can find them in the book Backcountry Skiing and Ski Mountaineering in Rocky Mountain National Park by Mark Kelly.
A trip to RMNP wouldn't be complete for many without including time on Longs Peak, the park’s 14er. Lamb’s Slide is on the flanks of the peak and is named after Reverend Elkanah Lamb who made the first ascent of the East Face in 1871. He fell down this line while descending that day, and luckily he survived.
The line is a couloir arm of the Mills Glacier and is about 45 degrees at its steepest point. The views of The Diamond on Longs are dramatic and you'll get about 1200' of vertical for your effort.
Begin at the Longs Peak Trailhead on Route 7 and follow the Longs Peak Trail to the Chasm View Trail. In summer you will skirt Chasm Lake on the north side. Lamb’s Slide is hidden from view but it's there and will be in.
The route cuts a swath across the left base of the East Face. Crampons and ice axe here are advisable. Ascend the line to the top of the snow.
The next gully past the top of Lamb’s Slide is The Flying Dutchman; a rope is needed for the rappel below the entrance to this route (not usually in through the summer).
For the descent follow your ascent.
Route stats: 9 miles roundtrip and 4500 feet of vertical for about 1200 feet of steep vertical.
GPS coordinates: 40°16'19.95"N 105°33'24.56"W
This is an old Front Range standby for summer skiing. The access is great via Corona Pass Road and the top of the line is a short walk along the Continental Divide.
It provides close to 700 feet of vertical for a minimum investment of energy. This line also offers some very steep entrances.
You can easily get in multiple laps and the steeper Challenger Glacier is nearby, dropping in to the drainage just to the north of Skyscraper Glacier.
Access is easier from the west via the start of Corona Pass Road at the Winter Park turn on US40. The tunnel to Corona Pass on the east side of the Divide collapsed, so it’s a bit of a haul from the Rollinsville access.
From the top of the pass hike roughly 1.8 miles; the trail doesn’t follow the ridgeline proper so knowing how far you’ve gone is important. Head east off trail to access the goods.
The entrance at skier’s right is the steepest. To skier’s left you will find a mellower start but there is sometimes a cornice here. Ski it down to Bob Lake and repeat. If you want steeper, you can head up the trail to the 2 mile mark and head east to the Challenger Glacier.
The exit involves some cross country travel. Head south of Bob Lake toward King Lake. Catch the trail on the east side of King Lake to head back up to Corona Pass.
Route stats: roundtrip is 3.8 miles and 1400 feet for a one lap circuit.
GPS coordinates: 39°56'4.76"N 105°40'57.78"W
Mount Democrat North Face 14148’
It just wouldn’t be Colorado without the 14ers. Mount Democrat was my first 14er ski, and that was in late August on this line.
Access is a little far without a capable four wheel drive but the valley is beautiful and you will have time to contemplate your line on the way in. This is a less populated approach to a very busy peak.
From the Montgomery Reservoir Trailhead hike or drive up Wheeler Lake Road. This is a tough 4x4 road and should only be attempted by solid vehicles and drivers. I’ve seen Jeeps upside down on this road.
Hike or drive 2.6 miles to a junction. Park here if you drove and take a left and head south off the road that heads southwest. Aim for the North Face and ascend the line of your choosing. Climb what you ski. Be sure to wear a helmet for the ascent as the tourists coming up from Kite Lake may be tossing rocks down on you.
This face’s position just to the leeward side of the ridge and its close proximity to the Continental Divide ensure great coverage and its high altitude and northerly aspect keeps the coverage late into the summer.
Route stats: 9.1 miles roundtrip, 3200 feet of vertical for a face with 1900 feet of potential skiing.
GPS coordinates: 39°21'26.06"N 106° 4'56.68"W
The Tenmile Mosquito Range offers plenty of summer skiing action and is featured in my 1st guidebook Makingturns in the Tenmile/Mosquito Range.
Grizzly Peak North Couloir 13988’
With six 13ers named Grizzly in Colorado, one would think there are grizzly bears here – too bad they are all gone.
This Grizzly is the highest 13er and it’s amazing to me how much less traffic it sees than the nearby 14ers due to a couple of numbers on a map. You need to wait until Lincoln Creek Road opens, and then you can score the 55th highest peak in Colorado.
The trailhead is at the southeast end of Grizzly Reservoir. Hike southeast, up the well maintained trail through the woods. Follow the trail up valley as it curves to the south. The couloir empties into Grizzly Lake on the bench to right, at the head of the valley.
Aim for the bench and climb to the base of the couloir. Be sure to have a helmet for this line. During one of my visits I had mountain goats raining rocks down on me and had to make a hasty evasion of rockfall. At the top you will need to make for the ridge if you want to summit. Then return to the top of the couloir for your descent.
The couloir offers about 1300’ of vertical. Steepness is around 40 degrees average and the steepest point is about 48 degrees. It’s pretty wide as couloirs go. Timing is everything in these north facing lines as you want to ski them in corn but you also want to be out of there before the lightning starts.
Route stats: 7.8 miles roundtrip, 3600 feet of vertical for a 1300 feet descent.
GPS coordinates: 39° 4'36.52"N 106°36'42.40"W
Parting Word on Summer Skiing in Colorado
There are summer skiing options all over the West. Mount Shasta and Rainier come to mind as great options. With all the snow, however, I think Colorado will have the best coverage this summer. Enjoy turns all year and keep those muscles happy for when the new snow starts in the fall.