Matt from the Office Tackles Caribou Backcountry in Colorado

Our planned descent

Fresh off of our level 1 AIARE course the weekend before, Nic and I were eager to put our new skills to use. As we were trying to decide on a location, Nic had mentioned of a backcountry area called Caribou that he had only been to once before and I had never been so we figure it was the perfect spot for a Saturday adventure. It was also very fitting that it didn't require getting on I-70 to get there from Denver as we got a bit of a late start due to some ill advised Long Island iced teas the night before. Definitely dodged a bullet there!

It had been a while since Nic had been to Caribou but he remembered that the terrain was pretty mellow which gave us a large margin of error. This was key. The avalanche forecast for the Front Range that day called for considerable danger above treeline and moderate at and below treeline. The problems for the day were wind slabs on northeast to southeast aspects above treeline as will as persistent slabs on all aspects on all elevations. With more wind in the forecast for the afternoon it was enough to keep us on our toes throughout the day.

Old mining equipment in Nederland

I should have learned on our trip to Austria in 2011 that I should never leave Nic to prepping maps and planning our route but I gave him the benefit of the doubt. With a CalTopo map with a road overlay printed and in hand we loaded up the Jeep and headed out. We drove to Nederland, at the roundabout took highway 72 north and then made the left onto Caribou Road where the only radio station we picked up only played bluegrass. The plan was to follow this dirt road all the way to either 128J or 129J where we would park(denoted by the red flags on the map below).

Since there was little to no cell service out there we tried to keep track of where we were on the map Nic had printed. With no real landmarks to keep track of our location, we came upon a large pile of snow blocking the road where they apparently had stopped plowing. This was as far as we were getting in the Jeep. At this dead end there were a few parked cars, some dilapidated remnants of buildings and some people gearing up for backcountry skiing.

Matt in the Caribou "Ghost Town"

We sat there for a bit trying to figure out if we had reached our destination or if we were even close. As we sat there, we could definitely feel the wind they had mentioned in the forecast and the truck swayed back and forth with every gust. Eventually we got out and asked two lovely ladies about to head out on a trail if they could tell us where we had ended up. They pointed to a spot on the map and said that they weren't sure but they think that's where their GPS pin said we were. We then asked a guy from a larger group that looked like they really knew what they were doing and he said he also didn't know but pointed closer to the intersection with 129J.

Flabbergasted, we jumped back into the truck to get out of the wind and gear up ourselves. We would head up the snow pile at the end of the road and see if there were any markings that would let us know where we were for sure. We got up there and bingo! There were gates and a sign for Forest Service Road 505. This meant that we were far short of our planned parking spot and the girls were right. On the map our parking spot is denoted by a red car and the red X was where the road ended. We found out later that we had actually parked next to the Caribou "Ghost Town" which is where the road is supposed to close for the winter months. The rest of them are 4WD dirt roads only open in spring and summer.

Our plan for the day

A little disappointed that we couldn't drive as far up as we had planned, we decided to try to reach our goal anyway and started up the skin track. It was a nice mellow ascent between trees that provided plenty of shelter from the wind. We hit the intersection of 129J and realized that if we headed up that way we would have to dip down into a valley and back up to reach our destination. Not a problem for skinning up but a big problem if we missed the skin track on the descent. It was a deal breaker as it would have meant breaking trail on fresh snow with tired legs. We decided to keep moving along to check out 128J.

After about 45 minutes of what I would actually consider pleasant skinning, we came out of the trees to a fairly flat and exposed section of trail. With no trees to shield us from the wind we started getting beat up and it felt like our faces were getting sand blasted with little ice pellets. We continued like this for about another 20 minutes or so before stopping to reevaluate our plan.

Not realizing we had actually passed the turn for 128J on our right we decided to continue a bit further until we found a good spot to start ascending. Everything to our right looked like it dipped into valley we didn't want to have to climb out of later and we just wanted to get out of the wind. The face to our left looked pretty fun and not steep enough to pose much avalanche danger. I hate to admit that we did not have a compass so we had no clue but it was also a westerly face which meant that it had a lower potential to slide that day as well.

Tracks from breaking our own trail

We found an opening and took turns breaking our own trail up the face. To our delight the snow was nice and powdery since it was mostly shielded from the wind by trees and hadn't gotten wind blown. After about 45 minutes of switchbacks, with dumb luck we stumbled upon an awesome cliff drop out of some trees into an opening. We wanted to reach the summit but figured this was as good a spot as any to drop in. We patted down the takeoff and Nic gave it a go. He stomped it!

I was up next. Seeing Nic drop it, I got amped up. As I grabbed my gear and hiked up a little further I wasn't sure if I wanted to tweak out a grab, spin or maybe even go for a flip. While I was trying to figure out what method I would use to ultimately result in me tomahawking I should have really put more thought into not messing up the run in on my hike up to strap in. As a result I ended up getting just enough speed to get over the cliff. Not quite the awesome footage I was hoping for but super fun nonetheless.

Nic scouting or drop

Unfortunately I didn't realize that I had filmed about 30 minutes of the front windshield while the car was parked so the GoPro actually didn't film any of our descent. You don't miss out on much though. In an attempt to cut out some of the skin track we stayed hard rider's right. This took us through some flatter and tighter trees which makes for super boring footage and not so fun snowboarding. Two thirds of the way down I actually switched back to split mode but kept the skins off and tele-splitboarded about a mile and a half back towards the parking lot.

By the time we got back to the lot the wind had really picked up and we struggled to get our gear back on the Thule rack without it sailing away. It wasn't quite the day we had hoped for but it was a fun adventure that let us work on our decision making, route planning, and terrain selection. Also, the same radio station now exclusively played reggae so we had that going for us on the way out!


March 31, 2016 by Mateusz Patrosz
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