I’m an ocean guy more than a mountains guy, but when my friend Jeff asked me to come on a backcountry adventure to a legendary mountain hut in Colorado, I jumped in. Truth is I’ve been recovering from a knee injury late last summer and was worried about keeping up but with the help of the masterful Dr. Scott Duke, I steadily built strength and conditioning while counting down the days. And I needed it.
Getting to the McNamara hut (one of the 10th Mountain Division huts) required almost 5 miles of climbing on backcountry trails starting a few miles outside of Aspen, CO. Within minutes you have left the world behind, no cell coverage, no roads, no sound but the occasional bird call and your own heart pounding out breaths into the trees.
I also, to the chagrin of my loving wife, acquired a bunch of new gear. Of these, the most valuable turned out to be:
- Patagonia Hi-Loft Down Jacket, which was WARM when I needed it, and packed up tiny when I didn’t. Stopping on the trail I would put it on over everything else (including shell) to keep warm during transitions.
- Outdoor Research Furio Jacket, both water/windproof but breathable (especially because of the full-length side zips from high pits down to the hem). Thanks to my friend John for helping me figure this piece out and get one into my hands in time.
- Platypus insulated hydration pack (2 liters) was fantastic. Thanks to some sage advice from Mike Cherim’s excellent blog, I learned to blow air back into the tube after drinking to keep it from freezing. Chewing on the end a bit would break up any bits of ice forming, and I could consistently drink even with temps below 20F. The Platypus stuff is really well made, and the tube was thick but fit through my Pieps Plecotus pack (found at a great sale price…) that also had an excellent avalanche pouch on the outside for holding shovel and probes.
- Columbia’s Omni-Heat expedition-weight baselayer turned out to be pretty excellent. Warm, breathable. I also had some old Patagonia Capillene lightweights that were good but not as warm when it got cold.
I am not a skiier, so I tried Splitboarding which is a crazy hybrid of alpine touring skis (Randonee) with snowboarding downhill. So you have a board that splits in half lengthwise and turns into skis with movable bindings. Going uphill or on flats you feel like x-c skiis, with snowboard boots in bindings that lift at the heel. You use poles, and there are removable skins on the bottom of the board that have one-way grain (so you don’t slide backwards). The folks on the touring skiis can stop, peel off the skins, lock in their heels, and ski down. Not quite so simple for the nutty boarders, though. It went like this:
- Bend down and release your boot bindings
- Find a place to step that doesn’t plunge your leg into several feet of snow beneath the surface
- Release the bindings (was using Magnetos, smart but still work) and slide them off the board
- Turn the board halves over and peel the skins off, fold and stow them
- Line up the two halves of the board and scrape away any ice that’s formed around the clasps
- Manage to get your increasingly-cold fingers to work the parts together and in tightly
- Attach the bindings to the new board-oriented locations and lock them down
- Stow the poles or carry them
- Get your boots into the bindings and get your pack back on
- Stop breathing so hard, take a few sips of water
So my conclusion is that Splitboarding is better suited to places with fewer transitions. If you’ve got a few hours of climbing and then a long ride down, great. But if there are any flats, you will find yourself wishing for a pair of touring skiis pretty quickly. Or a younger body.
Already I’m forgetting the frustrations and remembering the good parts, though. The brief periods of plowing through powder were pretty exciting, and climbing up to see the top of Bald Knob was heavenly:
And the best part of all is sharing the experience with a group of new and old friends.
Glad to be back in one piece.