November 11, 2016
By Dan Scannura, @dscannuraphoto
As someone relatively new to the backcountry scene, my opportunities for decision-making have been few and far between. After countless hours of avy training, watching videos, and dreaming, it was finally my turn to strive for epic adventures.
On April 22, 2016, I would reach a turning point on my first hut trip.
Our group of four — three split boarders and one skier, made our way up to Francie’s Cabin just south of Breckenridge on Thursday April 21st. The past week had brought decent snow followed by a very warm and dry cycle. Another warm, dry cycle was on tap for that weekend.
We arrived during sunset and scoped out potential lines for the next day. We decided on a mellower south-facing line just north of the cabin for early morning, and then if we had time we would try to make our way up the basin to Crystal Peak.
Friday April 22nd started off early, but not too early, around 7AM if I remember. Since we had done the 1-2-mile skin up to the cabin the night before, we took our time, made a good breakfast, and went through all of our safety checklists at the cabin. We started on the ascent just Northwest of the cabin. With daytime temperatures predicted to hit the upper 50s by noon, we knew timing was everything.
We started on the south facing slope and were greeted by pure sheets of glistening snow / ice crust. It looked beautiful but felt awful under your skins. After about an hour of climbing, we made it to the top of the ridge, looked North towards beautiful vistas of Breckenridge and Peak 10, and made the transition to downhill. Everything was on schedule, except the softening of the snow. It was still bulletproof around 10AM. While eating a snack on the ridgeline, we had a group discussion and decided to wait for it to warm a little. We were confident in our abilities to ride the line, but would feel a little better knowing we could get an edge down.
We let another half-hour or so pass and could feel the top couple inches starting to soften up. With our sights still set on higher goals for that morning, the group decided to split into pairs of two. One pair, myself and Ben, would ski down towards the middle of the valley and start the ascent up towards Crystal Peak. The other pair, Tony and Rodney, would ride the South Face down and scurry back to the cabin to attend to… “natures call” (not kidding).
Ben and I reached our next checkpoint, the low point of the valley, and already could tell it was warming up fast. After just 10 minutes of skinning we were sweating profusely and noticing 3-4 inches of soft snow at lower elevation now. We decided to push onward, skinning up mostly mellow terrain with a few steeper pitches mixed in before the final steep climb to the summit. By this point, another hour had passed and it was very hot.
We started seeing pinwheels and rollers from the top layers of snow on the steeper pitches – a telltale sign that loose, wet avalanche danger was present. We reached the final checkpoint before a decision would have to be made to continue towards the summit. This would require boot packing up a very steep pitch for at least 45 minutes. There was a separate group well ahead of us, just minutes away from summiting. It was right there we made our decision.
With all signs pointing towards an unsafe journey ahead, and being two relatively new AIARE Level 1 enthusiasts, we called off the rest of the journey and decided to just ski the mellow terrain back to the cabin. We watched the other group summit, transition, and bag a gnarly line all while we were transitioning to downhill. As much as I wanted to continue, I knew it was not the safest option, although there was no “ah-ha” moment like narrowly missing a cornice collapse or just avoiding an avalanche. This one was just a gut feeling.
While it would be hard to say that we had #unepicadventures that day, we had safe adventures that the group agreed on. Although we couldn’t shred our ideal line, the hut whiskey waiting for us was still able to warm our hearts in the end! Until next year, Crystal Peak.