AS SEEN IN THE 2012 FREESKIER BACKCOUNTRY EDITION—WRITTEN AND SKIED BY CHRIS BENCHETLER, PHOTOGRAPHED BY NATE ABBOTT_ NIMBUS.
STANDING AT THE BASE OF AN OLD MINING ROAD covered in 24 inches of snow and surrounded by 13,000-foot peaks, 100-foot cliffs and hanging snowfields, I felt vulnerable. Especially knowing our high-country hut was six miles away, three of those miles being a traverse through one of the area’s most notorious avalanche zones.
In early January 2011, Eric Pollard, Ike Smith, Nate Abbott and I headed to the Treasure Mountain Hut, a cabin perched at 12,000 feet in the San Juan mountains of southwest Colorado.
“The Gauntlet” is an old mining road loaded with slide paths—about 50 of them, actually. Large bowls and snow-fields line both sides of the approach, loaded by every possible weather pattern. Many of the paths are ice falls or steep rock faces that don’t hold snow, and of course they all funnel into a river drainage about 150 feet below the road. About the worst kind of terrain trap you could imagine.
The new snow meant the zone was primed for disaster.
Guide Skyler Holgate split boarded ahead, shoveling through more than 30 avalanche paths that had naturally released to allow for “easy” access via snowmobile. We were dragging all of our gear, booze and food for the trip on sketchy tow-behind sleds that pulled us toward disaster each time we hit an obstacle.
Once at the cabin, we weren’t roughing it. It was, however, the first time most of us had slept at elevation. Pollard even managed to get altitude sickness (once, I saw him puke before dropping in).
Gale force winds on our arrival day scoured every aspect up high, limiting our skiing to treeline but allowing us to ski directly from the cabin’s front door to fun pillows, appealing wind lips and old mine shafts.
My previous experience skiing Colorado has been a mixed bag of bulletproof ice and freezing temps. Fortunately, this adventure completely restored my respect for the Rocky Mountains. It’s safe to say I’ll be going back hungry for more.