For several years I’ve desired to ski Handies Peak, one of the five Fourteeners (peaks over 14,000ft) that are in the area around Lake City. Each year it seemed was very difficult to find time to actually do it. Until today. Usually the snow on Handies’ west face in American Basin is only good into the first couple weeks of May, and Hinsdale County’s road crew works hard to get the road open early, but many years it isn’t open until later. So there is a narrow window to ski Handies on that side. Of course I could have skied the East side, but that also involves a much longer approach through dense timber which can be very difficult.
This year we had a pretty average winter until late March, when it started snowing every week until the end of May. What is usually a melt-off period became a build-up period. So up high in our area, the melt-off has just begun. Knowing this, I decided that it would be good to get up there and have a good look at Handies’ west face, even though it is now 3 or more weeks later than it is normally ski-able.
Of course I needed a partner, so yesterday afternoon I was talking with our staff and asking them what their plans were for the weekend. A plan for some sport climbing and mountain biking near Gunnison was in the formative stages, but when I asked Fritz if he wanted to ski Handies and explained that the time window for doing such was probably pretty narrow, he decided that the sport climbing could wait. Fritz has been skiing short powder runs with me all winter, but was certainly ready to go big on something. So the plan was formed…working backwards from our time to be off the summit we decided to meet at 5:00am.
We reached the trailhead at about 6:0oam, but still had to get organized, so it was about 6:55am before we crossed the river on a good snow bridge and began skinning up. The snow was very hard, even low down in the basin, and our skis barely left any marks in the snow. We roughly followed the normal hiking route to about 12,400 ft in American Basin, but near the point where the trail turns toward Sloan Lake we turned and started up directly toward the south ridge of Handies. There was about a 40 degree slope that looked like it would go all the way to the ridge, so we strapped the skis to our packs, pulled out our mountaineering axes, and started climbing up that slope. Partway up the angle of the slope eased and we were able to reach the ridge quickly. The sun was starting to hit these slopes and the hard snow was starting to soften.
We reached the summit at about 10:15am and decided to stay there for about an hour to allow the snow to soften a bit more. It was a beautiful day with only one tiny cloud in the sky, although it was fairly hazy because of a distant fire that is burning. There were occasional strong gusts of wind, but it was mostly calm. After taking the obligatory summit shots, updating my Facebook status with my new SPOT Connect, and snacking on Schrafen Berger dark chocolate, we decided it was time to head down. The top 200 feet right below the summit only had a narrow strip of snow that was deeply sun-cupped, so we figured it would be best to hike down to the bigger snowfield that was lower. So once we peeled skins, tightened boots, and cinched down our packs we started down.
The top few hundred feet of the descent were deeply sun-cupped and very difficult to ski, but as we continued it smoothed out quite a bit. As it turns out we timed out descent perfectly, the snow was just soft enough to make turning easy and fun, but not so much it was getting slushy. The 40 degree slope we were barely able to kick steps into was now like butter and very fun. There was a natural half-pipe down further that was also a lot of fun. Once we started getting to the lower angle terrain low in American Basin it was starting to get a bit sticky, but still supportive, so we were able to ski 2500 vertical feet without taking the skis off. That’s pretty good for June!
Overall it was an excellent day and I would do it again anytime. It may have to become an annual tradition!