I had been keeping an eye on the weather in Colorado for over a month and seeing storm after storm roll into the Rockies. On Friday afternoon I decided I couldn't hold off the urge to get some more turns in any longer and booked a redeye to Denver for Friday night. I touched down at Denver International a little after 2:00 am Saturday morning and heading to Nic's to get some shuteye.
Being as Nic only has weekends off we weren't going to let Saturday go to waste. We loaded up the Jeep and headed up to Berthoud Pass for a light day in the backcountry. Our objective for the day was to get me as acclimatized as possible before attempting a 14er on Sunday. We skinned up the west side of pass and ducked behind some trees to get cover from the wind as we changed over from skin mode. We ended up digging some seats out of the snow and relaxing up there for about an hour before we said we would drop and head home to rest up for the next day. We got to the bottom, only to decide the turns were too much fun to not get one more run in.
Two runs under our belt we headed back to Denver. We hadn't decided which 14er we would go for but the one deciding factor was the distance from Denver. We narrowed it down to Mt. Evans, Mt. Bierstadt, Torreys Peak and Grays Peak. The access road to Mt. Evans/Mt. Bierstadt wasn't scheduled to open until late May. We couldn't find any info on whether the access roads to Torreys and Grays were open but we figured that was more promising than definitely being closed. After some quick research we came across a descent known as Tuning Fork which, with conditions permitting, allows you to ride down from the summit and potentially all the way down to the entrance of the access road meaning a potential descent of nearly 4,500 vertical feet. This one was a no brainer.
We hit the road at 6:00 am hoping that the road was open at least partially and we didn't have to start skinning at I-70. Best case scenario we would be able take the Jeep all way to the base of Tuning Fork(denoted by the red jeep at the base of the red dashed line). A couple of pit stops for breakfast and snacks later we got to the entrance of the access road. About 200 ft up the road the snow started and we realized we weren't making it any further, even in the Jeep. So we parked(denoted by the red jeep near I-70) and started gearing up.
We started skinning at 8:00 am. By 8:40 we had reached the split for the trail leading to Gray's Peak(denoted by the black dot). At 10:30 we came to a nice opening from an avalanche run out giving us a good view of the mountain and our objective. We decided to take a quick break to sit down and have a snack. As we devoured a couple of Clif Bars we assessed our plan and decided to change our approach a bit. Rather than skinning another half mile to the base of Tuning Fork before starting our ascent(planned ascent/descent is denoted by the red dashed line), we would start our ascent here(denoted by orange dashed line) and make our way over to Tuning Fork from the summit.
The first few hundred feet were fairly mellow but we were already starting to feel the elevation at 11,000 ft. Then the pitch started to pick up but we were determined to stay in skin mode for as long as possible. The snow conditions seemed to vary every 50 ft. At times we were able to dig in nicely and get good footing but that kept switching off with the snow hardening up and us wishing we had crampons. At one point I got myself into a very precarious position and had to have Nic coach me through a step-over turn. A little later Nic fell and slid a good 60 ft before being able to grab onto a tree branch sticking out of the snow to stop himself. Then I did the same but instead used my elbow to dig into the snow and slow myself down.
At this point we realized we weren't gong to be able to skin up much further without splitboard/ski crampons. We followed one last section of soft grip-able snow and switched to bootpacking at 12:20 around 12,000 ft(denoted by the red hiker). We did our best to follow someone else's old skin track but every few steps our foot would sink 2 ft into the snow. We even tried going up the snow filled scree field but ran into the same problem. At this point we were really feeling the elevation. At first I was catching my breath every 50 ft but that eventually changed to every 20 ft.
At around 3:00 pm we were exhausted and still well short of the summit. So at 13,000 ft we decided to admit defeat. Being as tired as we were at that point, it would have been very easy to make a mistake. We were still about 1,274 feet short of the summit which meant that we had at least 1,274 chances to have a misstep and potentially plummet through a few hundred feet of rocks, trees and cliffs.
We switched out of skin mode and made our descent. The snow was in pretty good shape and we got some super fun turns in on the way down to the main skin track. From there I switch to tele-splitboard mode aka detached heal and no skins. I stayed that way for most of the way back as some sections were pretty flat and slightly uphill until the last three quarters of a mile where I was able to snowboard again. We got to the car at 4:20 absolutely exhausted only to find a Ford F-150 4x4 stuck in the snow. We helped dig them out and then gave em a push before officially calling it a day.
Although we fell short of our goal I still consider it to have been a success. For one, we had tackled roughly a 3,200 ft elevation gain over an 8 mile round trip in one day. Secondly, we can learn from our mistakes so that next time we have the right gear and and a better approach. But most importantly, we had a fun day in the backcountry everyone make it home in one piece!