After the first large storm of the season fell overnight, Boulder was caked with enough snow that college classes had to be cancelled. While the snow was just letting up in the early morning, we were already cautiously weaving our way toward the Bear Lake Trailhead in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). Usually packed to capacity, the parking at the trailhead was bare, with the exception of one massive snow plow from the 70’s.
The skin up to the summit of Flattop was, for the most part, uneventful. The snow was satisfyingly deep and fluffy, which fueled our stoke. There was a rhythm to our momentum, and a greater understanding of what we were about to encounter settled over the group.
RMNP is often plagued by high winds that lift and deposit snow with haphazard inconsistency. The snowpack is much less predictable than what is found in most popular backcountry zones, so we were all pleasantly surprised when we emerged onto the Continental Divide with our skis and skins still on. Had it been another day in typical conditions, we likely would have had to bootpack most of the hike. The wind was beginning to escalate and the temperatures were dropping sharply, but the snow held defiant to the nooks between the rocks.
By the time we reached the summit of Hallett, my fingers were frozen. I didn’t have the willpower to take off my gloves and inspect what I assumed would have been pearly white finger tips. I shook my hands and arms with unyielding vigor in an attempt to push blood back to my extremities. We had to keep moving.
We locked into our bindings and traversed down a safe ridge just above the point of no return. The wind had picked up and the day was now beginning its gradual decline into dusk. We watched the snow blow down into the valley, right up to the edge of what seemed like infinity. A vague, grey wash peppered with the light, rocky texture of Otis Peak appeared in the distance. Austin made the call to go for it, and we watched him make an initial ski cut. He ducked from outcrop to outcrop, testing the snow along the way. Nothing moved. The snow hardly sloughed. Taking turns, we followed until we were able to make tracks into the massive bowl that graces the south face of Hallett.
With shouts of joy and cheers from the rest of the crew, we dropped into the powder field. The fact that these conditions were rare is an understatement. The snow was waist deep in spots, and the entirety of the line went in a few satisfying segments. From the time we took the first turns, we knew we were in something epic.
At the end of each pitch, we would all gather together, high five and celebrate the fact that we were on the tail end of a storm, safely skiing a line that typically doesn’t come in until the beginning of spring.
After skiing the line, we still had an unreasonable exit down Chaos Canyon. Massive boulders sank into the snow and shredded the bases of our skis. Apparently the deep early season snow had yet to descend on to the Canyon and our skis resonated with unsettling frequencies as they scraped against nearly bare rock at short intervals.
It’s hard to explain the emotions I feel in these situations. The joy I experience when my fingers start burning, and the feeling slowly overrides the numbness of cold. The camaraderie these experiences foster and the inevitable retelling of the day a thousand times over to anyone who will listen. The slog back to the car filled with the same kind of stoke that got me out there in the first place, this time with burning legs, and my personal favorite, returning to an empty parking lot that held nothing but our cars and the snow plow that had been there earlier that day.