The Centennial Skiers
Camp Sites, Summits, Suffering and Sending: Weminuche Wilderness Round 2.
Words by Ian Fohrman
Images by Ian Fohrman and Ted Mahon
This May (2015) Ted Mahon, Christy Mahon, Chris Davenport, and Pete Gaston clawed their way up the steep airy ramps of Jagged Mountain’s summit approach. For Davenport and the Mahons, this represented the culmination of years of hard work: hundreds of hours of planning, skinning, climbing, and traveling, dozens of campsites and early mornings walking with headlamps. This small perch at 13,824’ was a long awaited victory. (Read more here)
Jagged was the most logistically and technically challenging mountain of their objective to be the first people to climb and ski the 100 highest peaks in Colorado (the lowest of which is Dallas Peak at 13,809). It was an ambitious goal that technically started in 2007 when Davenport became the first person to ski all the Colorado 14ers in one season. Ted became the first to accomplish that task in 2008 and Christy became the first woman to do so in 2010.
I first met Ted and Christy on the Ring of Fire Tour, another Davenport-conceived super fun suffer-fest with a goal of climbing and skiing all the 13 iconic stratovolcanoes in the Pacific Northwest in 2 weeks. Ted, Christy and I joined for the last 5 peaks (Hood, Helens, Adams, Rainier, and Baker). During the trip we got to know each other as people and mountain partners and begun planning the next objective. For Ted, Christy, and Dav, who had all completed the 14ers, the Centennial Peaks Project just made sense as a logical next step and I decided I would join for as much as scheduling would allow.
That final day on Jagged Mountain was their 3rd time in the remote Weminuche Wilderness, the biggest wilderness in Colorado accessed only by an old coal powered narrow gauge railroad. The first was an ambitious attempt to ski 5 peaks on 5 day traverse. It proved overly ambitious and, though it was a lifetime experience for all of us, it left Pigeon Peak, Turret Peak, and Jagged still on the list. I have already written a feature about that first trip on the train and wasn’t available to join on Jagged, so I’ll tell the story of my second dramatic trip down those tracks toward Pigeon and Turret.
“You don’t know till you go.”
We twice delayed the journey due to bad weather and when our last small mutual window arrived the forecast looked ominous. However, there comes a time when you need to embrace the truism, “you don’t know till you go,” and just send it. So we went.
We enjoyed warm cozy beds in Durango’s historic Strater Hotel the rainy night before and wondered what was happening in the mountains high above. We envisioned the saddle between the peaks that turned us around a year prior due to howling winds. When we awoke it was grey and drizzling but we were excited to push on and see what our luck would bring us. We loaded our gear into the train at the station and then drove as far as the roads would take us to the last real civilization before entering the wilderness. We waited for the train, making last minute gear decisions and trying not to get our layers wet before the trek began. I lamented wearing my puffy instead of a shell as the drops of water soaked into the fabric.
On the train we chatted cheerfully and went over directions as the train clacked and lurched along. The direction that Ted had found in an old guide book were charmingly colloquial and slightly old fashion-y. They added to the romance of taking a train deep into the mountains to travel a barely worn game trail into the alpine.
The book described a “rough approach using a poor trail, then a steep bushwhack.” And used specific trees and carvings as landmarks.
“Walk around the east end of a large tree that fell into the meadow and across the trail in 2000. Twenty feet north of the fallen tree, look through the trees on the meadow’s east edge and find a strong trail that angles north up the steep slope east of the meadow. Finding this trail is your key to the heights.”
We followed each instruction with the faded print out in our hands, point to point, like hobbits on a quest. Eventually the mud and rocks turned to rotten snow that wouldn’t hold our weight and we transitioned to skins for the last few hundred feet of climbing. The bench below the towering Turret peak sits at the very top of treeline; a scattered handful of saplings and a few hearty stoic holdouts.
When we arrived we immediately commenced the work of setting up camp. We stomped out platforms for the tents, built snow walls, collected water from the nearby stream, gathered firewood with the sven saw. As our camp came together, massive dark clouds coalesced in distance. The ominous masses of moisture moved towards us and engulfed the Twilight Peaks directly across the Animus River valley. With our fire crackling against a large boulder, we stared across the valley, rapt in the drama unfolding. Tendrils of cloud reached into every contour of the peaks across the valley. The arms of vapor swirled and probed the terrain, reached into each couloir and rolled over cols before retreating back into the main mass of cloud. The drama rose as thunder crackled and then boomed from deep in distant darkness and a light snow began to fall from the sky. The dramatic blue and purple hues faded into monochromatic twilight and the snow and wind gained power. We finished our meal in awe of the most powerful show on earth, traded pulls of Bird Dog whiskey, and retreated into our thin walled shelters.
Sleep did not come easy, we had gained 3,000′ vertical feet that day and sat exposed at 12,000′ ft. The wind howled and the tents shook pelted by snow and grapple. The peaks loomed above us and brought the uncertainty and low lying fear that always comes with traveling through big mountains into the unknown.
After a fitful night, we awoke to blue skies. Again, we began chores without much ceremony. We jammed our feet into frozen boots, collected water, packed for the day, and began our short approach. Turret was the first objective; further away and easier. We crossed under Pigeon’s main chute and over the saddle that had turned us away the year prior. We passed the point of so much prior disappointment without event and continued toward our destination. The first few hours of work were relatively easy, some skinning and some boot packing. On the summit of Turret we found ourselves staring across one of the most scenic and impressive views in the lower 48. The black toothy ridges and peaks of the Weminuche stretched as far as we could see in any direction. New snow from the night before added contrast and texture and Pigeon towered proud and strong in the foreground. It was mind bending knowing that in a few hours we would be standing atop that massive wall of stone preparing to slide down its western face. It was an empowering feeling of freedom and strength paired with an equal dose of shaky nerves and a looming feeling of responsibility to travel safely.
We picked through a bony descent from the summit and then milked soft fun turns back to the infamous saddle. The easy, smooth, fast motion always feels joyful, especially when directly juxtaposed with sweaty labor. We wrapped around the base of Pigeon and began our direct ascent; crampons on and whippets ready. The pitch grew steeper with every step and soon after we found ourselves tunneling up a steep waist deep face. We took turns wallowing and struggling to move upward. The snow felt stable but there was a layer of new snow from the night’s storm that had me gripped and cautious. I waited under a massive boulder for the group to clear a short particularly steep section and watched, mesmerized as a steady flow of tiny crystals cascaded over the stone glinting and shimmering in the light. The hypnotizing motion gave me a much needed momentary distraction from the danger.
We continued to rotate in the lead and we toiled and tunneled our way to the final summit scramble. The view was equally as stunning as from Turret a few hours earlier but the mood was much different. Our perch was smaller and we had a serious descent below us. We snapped some photos and briefly celebrated the summit before mentally shifting to the descent. We clicked in and began the technical billy goat line from the summit. Once we reached the main face we proceeded cautiously, one at a time, knowing the possibility of snow moving and keenly aware of the exposure we stood above. Even a small slough could turn life threatening if it was to pull you off balance. Davenport went first confidently making measured turns down the first section of a small spine. As expected the top layer of snow pulled away beneath him and sent a cloud into the huge main shoot hundreds of feet below. We each followed, stopping in a group in a relatively safe place while Davenport continued ahead, ski cutting the main snow field. He was calm and composed but time slowed for me as he cut across the top of the slope above deadly exposure and bounced. One, two, three bounces… and on the fourth the snow field cut out and rolled off the cliffs. Again, a plume pushed through the main chute, this time much bigger. It was exactly what we hoping for so we could safely descend the top section on the stable bed surface. We kick turned, slid, and jump turned through some extremely steep and exposed sections before finding the comfort of the main chute where we were able to open it up. We made fun mellow turns back to camp feeling safe and satisfied. The goal was accomplished but we knew we still had a big day ahead of us to get home.
We broke camp and headed down the steep bushwack. Eventually we found the faint trail and with muddy pants, sore knees, and bushes stuck in our hats. Back at the meadow with the fallen tree, we starfished ourselves on the grassy field and basked in the light misting rain and non-movement. Dinner tasted like victory and we slept hard after the physically and mentally draining day.
When we awoke and crossed the Animus River to the Needleton train pick up. Our first warning sign was the massive pile of raft guide gear sitting by the tracks. Garbage in non-bear-proof containers, overnight gear, haphazardly packed and sitting as if someone expected a quick return. The Durango to Silverton train is typically impeccably punctual so as the pickup time came and went, we assumed the worst. We started with the most obvious assumption that the zombie apocalypse had started and began crafting plans for our new civilization. We had a rafter camp and a few abandoned buildings across a raging river on one side an hundreds of miles of barely crossable mountains on the other, one could hardly ask for a more tactical location. We had a female, and plenty of point mountain climbing objects for protection. After 2 hours it was obvious the train was not coming, either because the tracks had washed out, mechanical issues, or the end of the world. We considered our options. We were a 10 mile walk from Silverton where we would have to hitchhike back toward Durango where our vehicles were, 14 miles to our vehicles the other way, or we wait and plan to camp at least another night. After more talk about what our post apocalyptic tasks/roles would be, we decided to start walking South toward our cars.
Just as we organized our gear and found the motivation and resolve to start walking, we saw something approaching on the tracks. As it approached it was a tractor fitted for railroad tracks. A man in his early 40’s with coal stained sleeves of his denim button up and a hard hat told us what was going on.
“Tracks are washed out about 3 miles up. We need to grab a load of ties and we’ll pick you up on the way back.” He shouted over the running tractor.
We started walking. An exhausted dirty group of travelers meandering down the tracks under heavy packs. It might have well been a post apocalyptic scene. Behind us, impossibly far away, were “the heights”. We had found the keys and returned safely.