Spring Skiing on Independence Pass
Redemption on Grizzly Peak.
The Chute on Grizzly Peak is the most striking ski feature as seen from the top of Independence Pass. The true summit of Grizzly is damn near a Fourteener, coming in at 13,988’ making it the tallest Thirteener in the state of Colorado. Looking south from the top of the pass, Grizzly towers behind Mountain Boy with a beautiful, sizeable north facing chute. From the first time I saw it, I wanted to ski it.
It was only a week or two after first seeing Grizzly that a friend and I tried to ski it, or snowboard it, rather. Our idea was to head out the Mountain Boy Ride, ride/ski down a well protected south facing couloir which would put us into the Grizzly valley a little below Grizzly lake. Being new into backcountry skiing and being a snowboarder I was not at all prepared for the conditions we faced. Once we hit the valley floor, the snow had not had a good freeze and I did not have snowshoes or a splitboard so after and hour of post-holing and making slow progress we decided to bag it. We booted back up the Mountain Boy ridge and skied out to the eastern side of the pass road.
But we were not deterred. We waited until the Lincoln Creek Road opened (usually mid June) and tried again. This time I was prepared. Sort-of. The rest of the group started in tennis shoes until we hit snow at which point they switched to skinning. I had a much heaveir and shittier approach. I hiked in my snowboard boots until we hit snow at which point I put on snowshoes. I kept up relatively well until we got to just below Grizzly lake at which point the boys skinning started to leave me in the dust. I snowshoed about a quarter way up the shoot to a large boulder in the center of the chute. I had carried in a pair of AT boots and crampons, so I switched out of my snowboard boots into the AT boots and threw on my crampons. I left my snowshoes stashed at the boulder and started booting up the chute. At this point most of my team was on or near the summit. A good hour later I topped out and swapped back into my snowboard boots and prepared for the ride back down. We all got to the bottom and the rest of the boys were able to double pole most of the way back to snow line and I got to put my damn snowshoes back on and start hiking again. By the time I got back to the car the beers were gone and everybody was ready to get back to town. It was at this moment I swore off snowboarding forever.
Fast forward nine years and I was ready to take again take on Grizzly. This time I was actually prepared. My two buddies John, Blake and I left my house at Carbondale at 3:30 AM with all our ski gear and bikes on the back of the rig. The Lincoln Creek gate wasn’t supposed to open for another week and a half so we had planned to bike the 6.5 miles from the gate entry to the Grizzly trailhead. Much to our surprise, when we rolled up to the turnoff at about 4:45 the gate was open and we were able to drive straight to the trailhead. You definitely wanna have a car with good clearance on this road. Even with good clearance on my rig travel was still very slow and we probably would’ve been much faster on bikes.
We started hiking around 5:45. The trail was mostly melted out until we made it up into the valley proper. Only about 20-25 minutes of hiking before we were able to switch to skinning. The snow was mostly frozen, but was a bit runneled and suncupped, which made for awkward skinning. Skinning up the valley is mainly flat until just below Grizzly lake. It starts to get steep just below the lake, but is very skinnable and we hit the Lake around 7:30-7:45. There was a bunch of wet-slide debris at the bottom of the chute. It looked pretty fresh and by our best guess it had ripped within the last few days. It had ripped from a rock outcropping about 2/3ds of the way up.
All the snow in the lower portion of the couloir had softened which made it easy to continue skinning and setting kick turns until about halfway up the couloir. Once we hit the halfway point the snow was still in the shade. It was very firm and the pitch had gotten quite steep. We switched to booting with crampons on and all topped out around 9:00. We were about a half-hour behind schedule at this point. We had really wanted to be to the summit by 8:30 at the latest, but the snow up high was still mostly firm so we were not too worried about a wet slide. We snapped our photos, had a bite to eat and started to transition to ski.
The drop-in from the top of the chute is steep. Likely over 45°𝆩. Luckily the snow up top had softened just right and was perfectly edgeable, but not perfect corn. The top ten turns were fantastic until we hit the shaded portion of the slope, which was also about right were the slide path began. It turned to icey turns through a slide path. Significantly less fun. Once we were back into the sun the snow turned soft. Just a little too soft for to be called good corn skiing.
We were a little worried that we would be breaking through the whole way out the valley floor, but luckily the snow remained supportable and we were able to double pole relatively easily back to snowline. Gym shoes back on and back to the car by about 10:45-11. We had cold beers waiting for us and hung in the heat and enjoyed a couple cold ones.
All in all it was a success. We all agreed that if we had it to do over again we would have started a little earlier. Ultimately the conditions were good, but we all would have liked to been on-top a little earlier, because we were right on the cusp of the snowpack being too warm. I think really what we’d like to do is ski it a week or two earlier. The road certainly wouldn’t be open, but the snow would have been in much better shape.
- Randy Young