By Maren Horjus
In exactly two seconds,I’ll know if I won. My skis hang over the edge of a short cliff band in the central Tyndall Gorge of Rocky Mountain National Park. In front of me, a couloir unfurls through a corridor of stark granite walls like a white carpet, leading to frozen Emerald Lake more than a thousand feet below.
It’s early for couloir skiing, but the unseasonably high November snowpack ignited the stoke. So, rather than crushing icy groomers and bump runs in the resort, my ski crew opted for a three-mile skin gaining about 3,000 feet to Dead Elk, a classic, southeastern-facing couloir off Colorado’s 12,324-foot Flattop Mountain. By midwinter, it can hold 20 feet of snow, and come springtime it will be the objective of many corn missions. Today, however, jagged boulders peek out of the snow like schrapnel waiting to rip into virgin skis. Wind plumes curling off of Flattop have my heart racing, though. It could be soft. These could be the first powder turns of the season.
It’s a gamble. In essence, I’m betting that an arduous, two-hour climb will be worth this single run—and that this single run will be better than whatever I could be skiing at the local hill. In the backcountry, there isn’t a stick that measures new snow. There isn’t a grooming outpost that delivers a report of what’s skiing well and what’s not. The only way to know is to use what little information you have—the preceding week’s weather, the forecast for a spot two miles away and 2,000 feet lower, your own experiences—and drop in. The previous week, I attempted Dragon’s Trail, Dead Elk’s more dramatic neighbor, and came away with only 400 feet of icy vertical and a core shot.
Today, however, I’m giddy with anticipation—how quickly the heart forgets how demoralizing it is to spend a day climbing to the top of a rock garden, only to link together a few tight kick turns to get back down. I push off the granite and land lightly into my first turn a few feet below, and my brain quickly registers what my legs already feel. A wind buff—a glorious, deep wind buff. Glittery spindrift clouds my periphery as I fly through the knee-deep soft patch. Muscle memory kicks in, and I remember the feeling of surfing through powder. With newfound confidence, I arc huge turns off the wind lip, manufacturing my own face shots.
When I cruise to a stop at the bottom of the apron, I click out of my skis and lash them to my pack to reset the bootpack. Today there is no question that we will go again. Sweet, sweet victory.
Maren Horjus (and her heeler Raider, as in the Oakland Raiders; don’t judge) can often be found digging her 2WD Tacoma out of Colorado’s trailhead parking lots.