10.11.14 Mt. Parnassus

It's imposing north face is hard to ignore if you're a skier. It's visible from one spot along the road to Jones and Butler. The 13,600' peak's scoured summit is flanked by a series of gullies and couloirs. Prevailing west and northwest winds load these gullies with thick wind-packed snow. The last time I skied this face was in May of 1012. That season we experienced one of the worst winters in 20 years.

These north facing gullies held just enough snow.

These north facing gullies held just enough snow.

In the week leading up to the 11th the area had received an inch of liquid precipitation and the woods were unusually wet and lush. Once I was above treeline, the moisture took on a more frozen form. A quick climb up the tundra and I was at the top of the ridge. After making a few turns in a smaller gully to the west to get a feel for the snow, I descended the larger line closer to the summit. I was able to make careful, continuous turns for about 700 feet. The snow varied from creamy windpack to breakable crust ending in a narrow rocky drift of slushy corn snow.

Nice snow at 13000'

Nice snow at 13000'

There's something calming about skiing this time of year. The weather is rather benign, and predictable, absent from lightning laden thunderstorms that seem to appear from nowhere. As for the snow, it is made up of one or two, again, predictable layers. You know where the rocks are. They're everywhere, and one should ski as if you will hit one on every turn. It's usually warm enough to wear a t-shirt on the way up and not too hot to wear your jacket on the way down.

My first run of the day.

My first run of the day.

The Buildup

It's been 4 to 5 weeks since we started seeing the first signs of the impending winter at higher elevations, mere dustings of sleet and snow left behind by passing afternoon thunderstorms. The "monsoon" winds of late August and September bring moisture originating in the Sea of Cortez to the northwest over the desert and into the higher terrain of Colorado. The atmosphere cools as the length of solar daytime heating diminishes toward the solstice, and the snow level begins to drop.

The first accumulating snows are typically not the right type of snow to make early-season turns on. These first events tend to be unaccompanied by any wind. These storms blanket the mountains in a beautiful layer of white that gives skiers a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, but doesn't offer much support support to a pair of skis. As September rolls on, the polar jet stream begins to push small bits of energy southward along the Rockies. Just a few inches with some moderate winds can drift this snow into piles that line the ridges and fill the gullies.

My first day of the 2014/15 season and my 157th month in a row on September 30th

My first day of the 2014/15 season and my 157th month in a row on September 30th

The utmost care must be taken when skiing this time of year. The snow is incredibly thin and the surface is usually crusty, thick, and grabby. It's skiing nonetheless. These early days build character, and if you respect the gravity of the consequences surrounding you, and ski accordingly,  they can be overwhelmingly fun. The feeling you get clicking into your skis and sliding down a cold drift of snow after a long summer of sweaty, dirty work is nearly unmatched.

The ridgeline between Fletcher and Clinton Peaks outside Leadville during my evening commute from work.

The ridgeline between Fletcher and Clinton Peaks outside Leadville during my evening commute from work.

The storms that come in October tend to be colder. The sun-baked snow surface freezes solid and fluffy snow drifts on top of it. This crusty layer can offer support and protection from the sharp rocks below. The first faceshots of the season are produced by a quick slash of the skis. The first taste of winter has been savored.


October 12, 2014: Cold dry powder in October is not unusual at 13000'

October 12, 2014: Cold dry powder in October is not unusual at 13000'

Late-September snows blanket Silverthorne Mountain under the harvest moon.

Late-September snows blanket Silverthorne Mountain under the harvest moon.

Eventually, the snow stops falling and the dry October days and cold, crisp nights take over and promise to turn this first coating of snow to an unsupportive base layer that will inevitably come back to haunt us. All we can do now is enjoy the anticipation of what's to come and hope for the best.