My first day skiing Telluride was in March of 2012. While I stood at the top of lift 14 taking in the surrounding beauty and endless terrain I quickly became captivated by the most aesthetic ski line I had gazed upon; The San Joaquin Couloir. Amongst a seemingly endless backdrop of mountains to explore in Bear Creek, the Joaquin seemed to stand alone. It was this initial view and the following days of skiing the resort and backcountry last spring that motivated me to move to this magical place.
When my phone rang Thursday afternoon I was enthused to see “Aaron” pop up, I was in a meeting so I let it go to VM. If Aaron is calling generally it is in regards to a ski. Before the opportunity arose to check the VM a text came thru: “San Joaquin tomorrow…”. As my pulse quickened, my smile grew and my attention span for our meeting dwindled. Ironically we were off topic in our meeting discussing the accident that had taken place earlier that day in the San Joaquin. A local charger had taken a bad fall down most of the couloir and had just been picked up by the life flight helicopter. The timing of the text and our digression into positive thoughts for our fellow skier was somewhat creepy. None the less my excitement for the following days objective remained strong. I had dreamed about skiing this line for almost a year.
Arriving home it was time to crank up the tunes and gather gear. The season long reports were of sub-par conditions in the Joaquin: rotten snow, narrow chokes and rocks littering the couloir. We decided as a group that we would get on the first chair at 9am, leave the boundary of the resort and take a look. You don’t know unless you go. Aaron, Cody, Paul and I met Friday morning and headed for Gold Hill. We would be accessing the backcountry with the aid of chair lifts. With a simple duck of the ropes we were in the untamed backcountry and headed for our objective. The initial ski out of the resort boundary was frozen supportable crust. Thursday had been warm and sunny, perhaps in the 50’s even at 12,000 ft or higher. It had gotten cold over night and the surface resembled frozen solid mashed potatoes.
At the bottom of our initial ski towards Lena basin we donned our climbing skins on our skis and check to ensure that no fillings were lost in our dental work from the jarring conditions. This basin would provide the approach to a ridge that would grant access to the couloir.
The skin was firm in spots, wind blown snow in others and down right punchy breakable layers in other spots. We joked about how variable the skin was and surely how interesting the ski would prove. Several “sucker holes” of sun poked thru the clouds. This provided both drastic changes in temperature from solar gain and also sun burn that became apparent the following day. The tranquility that is provided from the freedom of the hills is something difficult to translate into words. There are no rules, no boundaries, no one looking over your shoulder. It is freedom in the purest way possible. Natural law at it’s finest!After a few short meetings to discuss safety we approached the final ridge that leads to our objective. The weather was rolling in and swiftly. We could see snow engulfing the La Salle mountains in Utah. Dark ominous clouds settling in over the Sneffels range and high winds peppered our faces with graupel. A short few hundred feet of bootpack over frozen snow and rocks lead us to the entrance. We would have to move swiftly if we were to avoid the incoming weather. The snow in the entrance before the couloir was certainly open to accepting the edge of a ski and appeared to have a chalk like consistency as far as the eye could see. One of the interesting things about skiing chutes and couloirs is that most often there is a rollover that blocks your view of what lies below. We could tell the condition of the snow at the entrance, it was however impossible to see what lies below.We clicked into our skis and began the descent into the San Joaquin Couloir at 13,460′ trying to stay one step ahead of the incoming weather front. The first turns proved to be lovely skiing with wind blown snow resting atop firm chalk like wind affected happiness.
Getting into the couloir; anxiety morphs into concentration as I lead the way. The snow remained chaulky fun.The angle increases as the couloir narrows, this is truly where the fun begins and where the entire experience leaves reality behind and becomes surreal. I feel like I am both living each turn and feeling each turn in a deeper spiritual existence. This is why we hike, skin and scramble across rock. There is nothing other than the moment I am living, existing and concentrating on each turn. I get lost in the calculated action of completing turn after turn knowing that falling is not an option. Peaceful bliss, I feel this is where I belong.I pulled into the first “safe zone” and waited for the first of my partners to come down. Paul made effortless turns down to me, I can feel the joy radiate as he gets closer. This was the first descent for Paul as well, the excitement was palpable.I enjoyed watching Paul make turns almost as much as I enjoyed my own turns. Once Paul was in the “safe zone” I began making my way through the choke as Aaron and Cody began their way down. The choke usually has two options, one left of the spot I stood and one right. It is not possible to see this choke from above and one can only speculate from a vantage earlier in the day, one ridge away as to what the conditions of the choke would bring. The option skiers left proved to be a mere 2 to 3 feet wide and impassable for mere mortals. The option right seemed to have more rock than snow however it provided an ample width, at least it was wider than my 185cm skis are long, a good start.This first choke lies approximately 1/3 of the way down the couloir. It was time for me to move as Paul, Aaron and Cody would need to move onto the valued albeit precarious piece of real estate I was perched upon.A quick glance back to the boys who have now moved to where I just was. Glad to be done with that first rocky crux I point the tips down the fall line, looking forward to turns to come.Just below the choke held lovely skiing. Soft, steep snow leading to the next narrows.Working my way thru the second choke. The apron below the couloir is now in sight, The slope becomes slightly more steep as it also becomes more narrow. Total concentration, total bliss.Below the final choke things open up, the angle relaxes and the snow becomes soft and playful. I began to feel the joy of accomplishing a goal building inside. I let out a bellowing laugh and a scream of joy. I let gravity do it’s part and began to build speed, confidence grew as I sped towards the apron.Pulling into the apron my body and mind remained synched. Physical and mental joy were harmonious and my smile uncontrollable. I had skied the line that caught my eye and my heart nearly one year before. It wasn’t that I had done something no one else had done before; many people have skied this, will ski this and likely will have far better conditions that we did; it was that I had completed a goal with friends, safely amidst sub par conditions. With the right approach anything is possible.Looking back up. Paul is a tiny black spec up there. We got some nice turns on the following two chutes back towards the Town of Telluride. Wind had done it’s thing and filled in the lower elevation and lower angle runs below. The final chutes down below the Bear Creek Falls proved interesting as each required a mandatory air onto flat and firm snow. Aaron puts his drink order in over the small air: “margarita rocks salt please”.I second that order and take the last little drop towards our celebratory drinks. Thanks to Cody, Aaron and Paul for a great day. Until next time, may your turns be soft and deep.