Spring came early here in Colorado this year, and we aren't complaining. Don't get me wrong, we love getting pitted in 18:1 Colorado blower here at Cripple Creek Backcountry, but the bigger missions are constantly on the mind. The spigot turned off in mid February this year and the temps cranked up leading to late spring like stability with February like coverage- que up the topo maps!
If you open up one of our shop iPads these days you are just as likely to find caltopo.com zoomed in on a steep nook of the Rocky mountains as you are our point of sale app. My tasks as assigned by shop owner Doug on a recent Wednesday in late March were to wrap up the inventory check we had been working on and to find something big and steep to ski the next day. A dusting the night before made me hesitant to ski the sunny aspects as they could have been a little gluey, so the hunt was on for something north facing, steep, and reasonably nearby the Vail shop. After a bit of map browsing, I decided that we should go have a look at the Quandary couloir.
Mount Quandary (14,265 ft) is just a short drive south of Breckenridge on Hoosier pass and is one of the more frequently visited of Colorado's 14,000 ft peaks, particularly during the winter. The high elevation trailhead (10,850 ft) and straightforward approach make for a quick hitter. The east ridge is a great entry level 14er ski, and the Cristo couloir can be a killer 2,000' corn ski. However, the "couloir" tag on the Cristo is a bit generous, given that it is more of a gully that holds snow better than the rest of Quandary's southern wall. The Quandary couloir dropping North-Northeast from Quandary's summit is the real gem on this well traveled mountain. Problem is that coverage and stability don't often link up enough to ski the 2,000+ ft shot down into McCullough gulch. On this late March day the stability was there, the question remained, does it go?
Doug, Hugh and I left the comfy confines of the Cripple Creek sprinter van and hit the trail at about 6:30. A quick pace up to tree line helped us warm up and catch a surreal, seemingly never ending sunrise laced with purples and oranges. We pushed up the east ridge in to the upper bowl at about the time the sun finally broke over the clouds. After a quick break in the sun, we crossed the upper bowl to begin inspecting the entries to the northerly shots. Our first stop was an absolute dream line that unfortunately appears that it may in fact never go. A ten foot wide chute trapped between 200' cliffs would require a 100' down climb over very large and very loose scree and boulders. Pipe dreams shelved, for now, we continued up the ride to find the entry in to the Quandary.
If the stars (snows) aligned. Potential entry hidden from view below Hugh (red)
Another 500 feet or so of vert gained gave us a glimpse into the middle of the line. I abused my skins and punched across the scoured roll above the shot to get a look at the entry. The limitations of the line are generally the entry and the exit, as the meat of it is fairly well protected between it's walls. There were two rather spicy entries. Furthest north was all snow, albeit a large cornice above a huge convex wind pillow and was out of the question. The second would require a traversing side slip over loose talus on to a tight 45+ degree pitch of sastrugi between two larger rock formations. Perfect! We continued the 200' or so vert up the ridge to grab the summit, transitioned, and headed back down to the mostly blown out entry.
Hugh rips skins on the summit
The sporty technical entry gave way to a perfect wide and wandering tube. We were treated to a buffet of conditions for the ski including windboard, heavy powder, powder powder, trap door powder, slick bed surface, and suncrust. The couloir offered many safe zones on the skiers right allowing us to leap frog down to the last dog leg. The couloir both tightened and rolled just below us and that roll would reveal the answer to the question that had only been half answered at the entry. Does it go? Maps and photos via the interwebs gave us solace that worst case would be an annoying down climb over scree rather than a game changing cliff and deflating booter back up the line. Doug skied towards the choke, and right after disappearing over the roll yelled a reassuring, "It goes!" We skied out the choke and apron at a more confident speed in some of the better snow of the ski. The Quandary is a great and less traveled shot on a busy mountain but is only one of several amazing looking skis on the very impressive north and northeast facing wall of Quandary.
What it's all about- Doug in the gut
Are you and intermediate skier looking to ski your first 14er? Go for it! Keep up with CAIC daily, find a solid partner, and head up and backdown the east ridge of Quandary on a sunny spring morning after several days of sun for some great corn skiing. Strong experienced backcountry skier looking for more of a challenge? Peek into the Quandary couloir and see if it goes.
For more info on gear we recommend for 14er missions, give us a call at either shop. On this day we were in Scarpa F1 boots, Kastle TX 98 and DPS Tour1 Wailer 106 skis, Dynafit bindings, and Pomoca Pro Glide S skins. Happy mud season!
Cripple Creek Vail shop tech and pusher of team ski missions