This May I approached a friend about skiing down the Dragon’s Tail couloir in Rocky Mountain National Park, a line I had previously descended on foot. After some quick logistical discussions, the plan was set and we headed up Flattop Mountain in mid-May. The day was fantastic, with a beautiful approach, perfect weather, and exciting skiing down pretty decent snow. This was my first foray into spring touring, and I was hooked.
proof I actually did eventually go down the Dragon's Tail with skis on my feet
After getting back to the car, I came to the realization that I had skied every month of the year so far, and that there was still a whole lot of snow on which to slide. That weekend I decided that I would attempt to ski every month of 2016. With this decision came a commitment to miles of hiking with ski gear on my back, hours of driving to remaining snowfields, and plenty of sunburn. I couldn’t have been more stoked.
Having already ticked off the month of May, my attention soon turned to June. From what I could tell from friends and the extensive reach of the internet, June could still hold some decent snow. After an unsuccessful attempt at skiing through one of Independence Pass’s afternoon thunderstorms, I returned to the far reaches of the internet to find the best options for the next weekend. Advice from friends, online and in person, led me to Guanella Pass near Georgetown. With numerous chutes and couloirs and relatively short approaches, the location was set. Naylor Lake Chute would be our primary objective, a 1000ish ft gully that supposedly held snow late and had a mellow enough slope where I figured my terrible skiing technique wouldn’t be too much of an issue.
My partner in suffering for the weekend would by my buddy Matt, who was excited about the trip despite its guarantee of heavily loaded packs and alarm times that started with 4 and ended in AM. We arrived at the trailhead sometime in the afternoon on Friday, after one of the worst Taco Bell experiences to date (to the employees at TBell on Kipling street, I would like to apologize on behalf of the rest of humanity for the people with which you are forced to deal). The next several minutes were spent attempting to lash and sling as much stuff as possible to our already fully loaded backpacks. Luckily for us, the trek that night would be a short hike to treeline in order to make the next morning’s approach more manageable.
We eventually found a suitable spot off the trail to set up camp. Directly above us was a small snowfield, and we soon headed up to check out its condition and test out our setups before tomorrow. A mix of bushwhacking, choss-scrambling, and dirt-climbing brought us to the top, a combination of techniques at which we would become quite adept over the course of the weekend. Clicked into our bindings, we made quick work of the short snowfield, but the turns were fun nonetheless. At the bottom of the field there was an interesting naturally carved quarterpipe, and we spent some time trying to look cool while jumping and sliding on the lip. I did not succeed.
Matt looking cool
Satisfied with our gear and stoked about tomorrow, we soon headed to bed, cognizant of the fact that we would be waking up soon. Per usual, I didn’t sleep very well, and welcomed the noise of our alarm as it meant that I could finally give up on trying to restlessly squeeze in a few more minutes of sleep. After chowing down on instant oatmeal, we made quick work of our camp, and grudgingly shouldered our packs. Our efforts the night before proved useful, and we were at the base of the climb in little time. We stashed the majority of our gear in some of the thick brush lining the trail. As we began our ascent with ski gear in tow, I noticed a large marmot hole a few feet from our gear stash. For the first half of the climb, my thoughts consisted of how happy the marmot will be when he finds my delicious toothpaste and chapstick after chewing through my pack, jacket, and tent fabric.
Catching my breath while heading up the Naylor Lake Chute. Photo: Matt
However, my thoughts soon turned to the objective ahead. Naylor Lake Chute is a broad gully with an average slope around 35 degrees… ish. I didn't bust out a protractor but I knew that it was steep enough to make me regret eating that Taco Bell, but not so steep that I worried about the descent. Hundreds of kick steps later, we reached the broad expanse of Squaretop’s East ridge. We were greeted with fantastic panoramic views of Squaretop’s summit, Mt. Wilcox, and Bierstadt and Evans in the background. We took some time to relax, take in the scenery, and switch over gear for the descent.
Matt coming down the chute
We dropped in shortly, the snow a bit softer than perfect spring corn but not quite slush. We passed another party that was heading up, assuring them that the way down was worth the way up. Matt and I leap frogged our way down the chute, exchanging “Yeehaw”s and “Whoo”’s down the entire run. Despite the summer snow, skiing on new skis and bindings, and my lack of any proper skiing technique, the descent was a blast.
With our objective for the day completed, we headed back to our gear, praying that the marmot wasn’t too hungry. We found our stash untouched, and yet again strapped our skis to our packs, switched out of our ski boots, and shouldered the hefty load. After a few miles of hiking at a pace a snail would’ve scoffed at, we finally crested the last hill and were greeted with a view of the trail’s namesake attraction, Silver Dollar Lake. Half covered in ice, the lake sat in the basin formed by Mt. Wilcox and Squaretop Mountain. It would be a scenic place to spend the night, to say the least.
Our temporary home, with our playground in the background
One of the aspects of summer skiing that throws me off is the timing. Due to snow conditions being at their prime just after sunrise, very early starts are a necessity. The result of this if often being done very early in the day. We set up our second camp around 10 am, 6 hours after waking, but with 11 more hours of daylight. I soon set off to see if the lake held any trout, while Matt relaxed in the blistering sun, something that would not leave us until sundown.
I eventually found a corner of the lake where a school of wild cutthroat trout had holed up, and went to work with my fly rod. My last minute searches about alpine lake fly hatches proved wise, and I was able to land 4 of my first cutthroats, which also happened to be 4 of the biggest trout I’ve ever caught on the fly. I could see the entirety of their well fought battle through the crystal clear water, each one a beautiful and impressive fish. I was distraught when I realized I had left my phone back at the tent, and would have no proof of my success. Although I would have liked for everyone to see the handsome trout I had tricked into eating my fly, it was nice to just be able to enjoy the fishing experience without worrying about documentation. Or I could just be a lying, self-righteous guy who sucks at fishing, you can decide.
I mercifully gave the fish a break after releasing the fourth, and headed triumphantly back to camp. This move totally had nothing at all to do with the already noticeable painful sunburn on my calves, and was made solely out of compassion for the fish. I found Matt catching up on sleep as I eagerly foraged for water and the highest SPF sunscreen we had brought. We spent the rest of the day building a little kicker on the nearby slopes. My touring gear wasn’t exactly perfect for this activity, but being in the snow was a welcome escape from the scorching heat. After embarrassing myself enough on the jump, I headed back to the fish in an attempt to prove my success on camera. Unfortunately for me, the fish seemed to change their minds about how appetizing my flies looked, and I failed to reel in another.
Casting at Silver Dollar Lake. Photo: Matt
The rest of the day consisted of lounging, more sunscreen applications, and one very short dip in the absolutely frigid lake water. We filled up on Finding Dory-shaped mac n cheese, and headed to bed just after sunset, extremely thankful for finally being sheltered from the sun. The next morning started like the previous one, with an early alarm and an amazing sunrise. We would be checking out a gully on Mt. Wilcox that had caught our eye the day before. The approach was short but not without a whole lot of heavy breathing. By 6:30 we stood at the top of a wonderful line for the second day in a row, and again hooted and hollered our way through fantastic turns to the bottom.
Cruising down the chute on Mt. Wilcox. Photo: Matt
Matt making a nice turn in front of Silver Dollar Lake
Despite the run being short, we were satisfied, and headed back to our now-dreaded backpacks. I spent time better distributing the weight this time around, but it was still painfully heavy. We kept our ski boots on, remembering a large nearby snowfield from the hike in. Skiing down with our unwieldy backpacks was likely very amusing to watch, with me in a constant state of imbalance. At the bottom we swapped ski boots for hikers, and trudged our way back to the car, scraping nearly every rock and branch we passed with our skis and 2 piece fly rod.
My ultralight setup for the weekend ft. 2 piece fly rod and 2 backpacks. Photo: Matt
The weekend had plenty of literal bushwhacking. Photo: Matt
Heading back with Naylor Lake below. Photo: Matt
Matt’s CRV was a welcome sight, and we shrugged off our bags immediately. Exhausted, burnt, and extremely hungry, I was not in a state I would normally welcome. However, with all of the great times we had just experienced on my mind, the discomfort soon faded, and I was already thinking about the next place we could hike up to get a few slushy turns in July.