Date Skied: 5/15/20
Elevation: 13,078 ft
Murphy’s Law: everything that can go wrong will go wrong. A late start, caused by a bottomed out truck, a very rough road, forgetting my climbing skins at the truck, and a half melted-out trail. It seemed like everything had conspired against me to make sure I would not be on the summit in time for a safe descent of the locally known “Whale’s Tail.”
The day was warm, but the cloud cover kept things just on the right side of freezing for the snow to stay supportable. The uphill was a slog, switching in and out of skis to walk across dry ground.
As I reached treeline, the namesake shape of the couloir came into view. It appeared as though there was a hiker in the area, but I did not see anyone in the basin ahead. I had hoped to find someone else along the way so as to have a partner for the decent in case of an avalanche, although I was willing to take the chance of going alone as I felt like the snow was fairly safe. I took a quick break here to put on sunscreen and get some calories down. The day was gorgeous; barely a breath of wind could be felt. The snow seemed to be coping well with the sun’s heat thanks to the cloud cover, although a break in the clouds would quickly change this.
Onward and upward I went, enjoying the beauty of creation and basking in the solitude. I eventually came to a decision point and was presented with three options: I could boot up the Whale’s tail, saving me some mileage and getting a preview of the snow conditions, or I could switchback up the basin directly below Whale Peak which would save a little bit of mileage as well, or I could skin up the ridge to Bulion and cross over to Whale Peak which would add mileage. The first two options would be great if I had a partner to bail me out in case of a cornice fall or avalanche. Being alone, however, I had to take the most conservative option, and skinned the steep ridge to the top of Bulion, adding mileage but avoiding an avalanche slope and cornice. Once on the ridge proper, I could see a team of skiers slowly making their way up the bowl directly below Whale Peak. Their going was slow and it was obvious they were having some second thoughts as the terrain was steep and exposed to a cornice.
Although they were closer to the summit mileage-wise, I was much higher on the ridge and would be able to move much more quickly. We ended up meeting each other just a couple hundred feet below the summit, but we were happy to have joined up. They were a couple also from the Denver area. After a short hike to the summit, we made preparations for the ski back down. I offered to go first since I only had a beacon, but no shovel or probe (just dead weight since I had planned to be alone), therefore if something did happen they could find me and dig me out while also mitigating the risk to themselves.
I started with a quick ski cut to test the slope’s stability and get a feeling for the snow’s conditions. It was perfect! Despite the setbacks earlier in the day, the timing had been perfect, and the “corn” snow was ripe for the harvest! We exchanged plans in case of an emergency and I proceeded down the slope, skiing a little more conservatively as I was the first one down and did not know if the snow was corn or variable yet.
After exiting the bottom of the relatively short couloir, I skied to the left and turned around to spot the second skier down. He dropped in and made slow, but nearly perfect turns through my tracks, joining me at the bottom. Finally, the last skier came down, and she too skied fairly conservatively. He then told me they were both splitboarders, but had recently switched to skiing, which explained their conservative style. It may be a little slow, but if you’re having fun and you’re safe, who cares! She finally met us at the bottom and we discussed the way out; stay high and go left. I took off, making no turns so as to get just enough speed to get over the last hill between us and the trail back down. After I was across the basin, the other two followed. After exchanging thanks for teaming up, I went off ahead as I believed the trees would take them a bit of time to get through since they were still fairly new to skiing.
I raced back down the valley, hoping to beat the slowly rotting snow before it became too rotten so ski on top of. Thankfully, the day had stayed relatively cool, and the snow was supportable the whole way down. The only frustration came at the last quarter-mile where the snow was not continuous enough to justify skiing. A few minutes of post holing later, I was back at the trailhead. The adventure was not over, however! I still had to get my truck out of its predicament without bottoming out further. After arriving back at the truck and changing into more comfortable clothes, I switched my truck into “granny gear” and just managed to maneuver it out of it’s hole without damaging it any further. The day was done. Tomorrow would bring another ski adventure, this time on Horseshoe Mountain. But until then, I needed food and lots of water!