Silver Pick Basin

March 12, 2003

Dave Svilar, Jared Vilhauer

 

"The Wilson's" - Mt. Wilson, El Diente, and Wilson Peak - all Colorado 14er's as seen from the Telluride ski area.  You can see why we were so keen to climb Wilson Peak - it's pyramidal shape reminds me of the North Cascade's Forbidden Peak. (Will McElwain)

The plan was to climb Wilson Peak.  Due to the notoriously poor San Juan snowpack those who we told of our plan weren't pleased.  Elizabeth, my boss and no stranger to the backcountry gave this heartening response, "stupid, stupid, stupid."  Jared's girlfriend Kelly, "Don't go Jared. Please don't go."  While packing the night before a fellow lift operator Will came to my room and informed me that an avalanche was a certainty and my death a probability.  Thinking this was the last time he'd see me, Will scoped my room looking for free stuff if I were to perish.  I promised Will he could have my Pearl Jam cd's, thanked him for his encouragement and sent him on his way.  Little did these people realize there was no need for concern: Jared is a cool, sensible decision maker, and I'm a chicken.

Jared and I left Big Billie's (low income housing unit) at 5 a.m. in his Blazer that was already running on fumes.  For some reason Jared thought we could get gas in Telluride at this un-godly hour.  Nothing in Telluride opens until 10 a.m., so we crossed our fingers and hoped that the Blazer would get us to the trailhead opting to worry about the potential of running out of gas until after the climb.  Back in January I had tried to do the same climb alone, but never even got started because I couldn't find the trailhead.  After three frustrating hours of ending up at Billy Bob's ranch instead of the trailhead I had finally located the correct spot only after it had turned light.  This time we drove straight to the correct road (road covered with snow a few miles from the summer trailhead).

It was just light enough that we didn't need headlamps as we headed off down the road in the cool morning air.  Looking back our climb was doomed from the minute I stepped out of the Blazer.  Jared glided along on top of the deep unconsolidated snow on top of his split snowboard equipped with skins.  I thought I was pretty clever to have only spent $35 on my snowshoe set-up, until I clomped along post-holing up to my knees in some spots.  Jared traveled at least five times as fast as me on his split board, which made me want to scream.  I knew it wouldn't do any good to get angry, so I just tried to enjoy the fresh air and forest of naked aspen trees that surrounded me.  Jared waited for me periodically to make sure I hadn't given up.

Post-holing up to my knees on the approach road.

After a couple hours of agonizing post-holing we broke out of the trees and into the open expanse of the Silver Pick Basin which would lead us to our intended climb.  Jared tied his board to his pack and I ditched my snowshoes as we crossed a moderately steep scree-covered slope.  I usually hate scree, but in this case it beat post-holing and avalanche danger.

Jared looks up into the basin as we take a break from the scree.

The basin rounded a corner and from here it would be snow the rest of the way.  The angles of the slopes were fairly moderate, but we still chose our route carefully trying to avoid steep, wide-open slopes that would be hazardous should they slide.  Jared cruised on his skins while I was back to post-holing.  At one point Jared rounded a corner and I trudged across a short, but steeper slope that was being baked by the sun.  Suddenly, I heard the signature "whoomf" sound of snow settling under my feet.  This gave me the creeps, so I yelled at Jared to come back and watch me cross the slope (we wore transceivers).  I didn't hear the dreaded sound again, and we finally arrived a lone exposed patch of rocks at the head of the basin underneath the Rock of Ages Saddle.  The snow slopes leading toward the peak in every direction weren't steep by climbing standards, but were the perfect angle for avalanches.  The idea of having to come back down these slopes late in the day didn't appeal to either one of us - plus we were already looking forward to the ride back down the basin.

Dave in the basin approaching Wilson Peak which appears in the upper left.

 

Jared takes a break at the head of the basin.

 

Jared was infatuated with this peak because it reminded him of Alaska.  The Rock of Ages Saddle is on the left.

We sat for a few minutes on the rock island enjoying the warmth of the winter sunshine and staring at the peaks scouting lines that we could ride if the snowpack wasn't so sketchy.  One of the nearby peaks (maybe it was a hill) particularly caught Jared's attention as it reminded him of peaks in Alaska.  He spends his springs and summers guiding on Denali for the Alaska Mountaineering School.  Slides and pictures he brings back from the Great North make me drool.

Jared's a ticket checker and I'm a lift operator, making both of us bottom feeders on the ski area food chain.  In addition to being mountain low-life's we share another common burden - attractive sisters.  Years of having your friends attempting to date your sister is enough to drive any man to the mountains.  Both of us will take a day in the mountains versus a day in the climbing gym, the crags, or the ice park.  After Jared returns from Alaska he'll be back in Fort Collins for the fall, which is exactly where I'll be going to school.  Plans for fall climbs in Rocky Mountain National Park are already in the oven.

Jared quickly re-connected his board and we began the highlight of the day - the descent.  We chose our route carefully, and even though we stayed on moderate slopes we rode one at a time and waited for the other in pockets of safety (from avalanches).  The riding wouldn't be considered epic or extreme by anyone's standards, but just the fact we were in an unknown and beautiful place in which we had hiked to "earn our turns" made it seem epic.  The trailhead register hadn't been signed since October and the only tracks in the area were ours, which only added to our feeling of solitude. 

The snow varied from heavy, shallow powder to rock-hard, wind-scoured crust.  As we neared the bottom of the basin navigation became critical as we avoided boulders and a gully with an ice flow.  My eyes widened as I came over a rise and into a gully - powder!  I quickly realized my mistake as what I perceived to be powder turned out to be rock hard crust.  Catching an edge I cart-wheeled down the slope bouncing twice on my head.  Shortly thereafter, Jared came over the rise and smirked at me laying in the snow as he passed by.  The smirk was quickly erased as he too took a digger in the tricky snow.  We finished our ride watching the snow more carefully until we arrived back at the flats.

Jared sets off on his snowboard down the basin.

 

I'm faintly visible to the right of Jared's tracks.

 

Dave ripping tracks through the beautifully textured snow.

 

Jared emerges from his own rooster tail as we near the end of our descent.

We took another long break on the flats enjoying the sunshine, solitude, and the fact that we were out of avalanche danger.  Besides a poor choice in snowshoe selection I hadn't done anything blatantly stupid on the trip, so I took the opportunity to show my true colors to my new climbing buddy.  Relaxed that we were back on the flats I casually took off my snowboard.  It wasn't exactly flat, and the next thing I knew my board started rocketing down the hill.  Jared predicted it would stop when it hit a pile of rocks - instead it accelerated upon hitting the rocks and then disappeared over a cliff into a small gorge.  I was mortified.  I had spent all winter saving up for a new board (takes longer than you think on $8/hour wages).  Luckily I had a one year warranty on the board, but as I hustled down to peer over the edge of the drop to see what had become of my board, I tried to think of how I could explain to the manufacturers that I had managed to break their board into four pieces after one week of riding.  I looked over the edge and saw the most beautiful site of the day.  My board rested a mere thirty feet below nestled in a soft pillow of snow completely unharmed.

Resting on the flats, Jared looks back up at our tracks (visible above and left of Jared's head) that snake through the rocks and avoid the ice flow.

Thinking the Blazer would run out of gas and that we'd have to hitchhike back to Telluride we reluctantly made the traverse back to the snow-covered access road.  We strapped back onto our boards and rode back down the road that had given me so much trouble a few hours before.  It was a relief to be floating above the snow instead of post-holing, but nothing ever seems to go perfectly easy for me.  Midway down I ran into a road sign and fell into the unconsolidated snow.  I squirmed and kicked in the awful snow wearing myself out just trying to get back on my board.  I finally got going again and made it all the way to the Blazer without incident.  Luckily for us, the Blazer defied Jared's expectations and made it back to Telluride without incident as well.

The next day at the morning "liftie" gathering my boss Elizabeth applauded my decision to turn around, while fellow "liftie" Will looked surprised then disappointed to see me realizing he wouldn't get my Pearl Jam cd's.

-written March 2003

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