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San Juan Sweet Corn (Ophir -Telluride, 5/13/06)

post #1 of 3
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It was a very slim snow year in the San Juans and the spring has been warm and dry, so the only good skiing left is up very high. I enjoyed some righteous corn when I skied at Silverton Mt. on their last day of their season 2 weeks ago, so I decided that it would be worth climbing for one more spring trip. I called a few of the usual suspects and set up what we hoped would be another corn day on a shot that we had skied together a couple of years ago. It starts in Ophir with a 3,300 ft. climb and then a 4,550 ft. drop down Bear Creek into Telluride. (Not to be confused with Black Bear Pass that comes into Telluride at the end of the valley from the top of Red Mt Pass, and which is also skiable.)

The Dr. and I drove to Telluride Friday evening and stayed with our buddy the Bureaucrat. We considered it a good omen when we saw the full moon rise in a clear sky signaling that the night would get as cold as possible. It is that slow time after the ski season and before the summer festival season, so Telluride was about as mellow as it ever gets. The town and the gondola had been shut down for about 5 weeks and over half the businesses were closed. It reminded me of the slow old days before the curse of beauty damned the town to getting pimped into the painted whore that it now becomes for most of the year.

We got up at 5:00 am and after stumbling through breakfast and loading the truck we drove the 10 miles to Ophir and about a mile past town up the 4 wheel drive Ophir Pass road. We started hiking at 9,900 ft. up a large chute that opens into a south facing bowl at around 12,000 ft. In the past we’ve had snow down to the road this time of year but on Saturday we had to climb about 1,000 ft. on dirt before we got to gullies still holding the frozen white stuff.

The bowl had experienced a massive avalanche near the end of the season. We hiked bye piles of uprooted aspens up to a foot thick and one grove the size of a football field that had been laid flat. Another reminder why it isn’t a good idea to ski this area in the winter unless you go with a local who knows the snowpack. Despite the warm weather it had frozen overnight and the climb was relatively easy. Two of us in AT boots and one in tele boots kicking steps an inch deep in the hard snow. The slope starts at 30 degrees, ramps up to 40 about half way up, and then 50 the last hundred vert, but we didn’t need ice axes or crampons. If you fell you could probably slide a quarter mile if you did not self-arrest, but there is absolutely nothing to hit since the valley is almost completely devoid of rock outcroppings.

This was the first time I made this climb when I didn’t have to posthole at some point. One ugly trip we started breaking through half way up resulting in the climb taking over 5 hours, but this time I rolled over the cornice on my stomach in exactly 2 ½ hours, a ½ hr. behind the Dr. who is somewhat of a climbing machine. After hitting the ridge we climbed a few more vert towards the San Joaquin crest on a sunny ridge that was just starting to soften up. Our timing was good and we figured that 20 minutes later we would have been punching through up to our knees in the same spot. We were standing on a ridge that runs for about a mile at over 13,000 ft. and is skiable from almost any point on either side. Spectacular views of Lizard Head, the 14,000 ft. Wilsons, the Sneffels Range, and ski tracks above Ophir Pass. It was only 9:30 but warm enough that I never had to put on my jacket.

We chose the first pitch (about 30 degrees) because it directly faces the sun and was the first to warm up. Still a littler crinkly but plenty soft enough to throw some big smooth turns. Since a few clouds or degrees drop in temperature can turn heaven to hell this time of year our expectations of finding really good conditions on this trip were low, so we were jacked that the first turns were already sweet. As we approached a small cliff band the Dr. swung around it into the shade and the sound revealed that it was still way too hard to enjoy, so the Bureaucrat and I searched until we each found small sunny and skiable chutes through the rock and were rewarded for our efforts with some soft wind blown powder in the shade below. After making some GS turns across the wide toasted flat and traversing around the San Joaquin Ridge to some more sun cooked corn we hit the second steep pitch. It’s a 40 degree hanging face with a cliff wall on the left and a cliff drop on the right that curves in below the ski line. I am not sure if it was the refrozen snow that had fallen earlier in the week or just the right combination of warm conditions, but it was absolutely perfectly smooth and corned up on the top 2 inches. By the bottom we were all giggling and agreed that the face was undoubtedly the best and smoothest corn any of us had ever skied. After we stopped congratulating ourselves on our perfect timing we christened it “the Baby Face” for its silky complexion. Then we cut over and hit the lower portion of the famous Wedding Chutes, which are right next to the Death Chute where about 10 years ago 5 people touring up the valley were killed by an avalanche coming off the backside of the Telluride ski area. Another reminder why we usually only venture into this valley in the spring after the snow has gone isothermal, although you can access it most of the winter by climbing to a gate above the top of the Gold Hill lift.

As we continued to descend the 2,000 ft walls narrowed down to a choice of two chutes. One leads to a partially frozen waterfall and the other to a 20 ft. wide ramp of dirty debris that has fallen off the sun warmed cliffs. The ramp is the only skiable choice and for the first time in 10 years I had to take my skis off and walk across the dirt to get to it because the snow had completely melted off the open flat. The narrowing canyon eventually forced us to the shady side where the snow was frozen sun-cupped cellulite. The skiing looked extremely ugly so we traversed in hopes of finding something that was a little less likely to rattle our fillings loose. As we crested a small ridge we realized that luck had not completely deserted us. The massive vertical wall right behind us was crested by twin spires between which a lone ray of sunlight blazed a 30 ft. wide strip down to the bottom of the slope. We hopped in and rode the sunbeams down to the end of our skiing at the creek just below the half frozen Bear Creek Falls emerging from the other chute. With more snow you can ski right to town, but for us it was a 2 mile walk down a dirt road the last 500 vertical where we started to encounter locals and tourists in t-shirts and shorts hiking up to the Falls. We knew we were getting close to Telluride when we ran into a couple (he, older with a facelift/ her, younger with obvious breast implants) who were amazed that we had skis and wanted to take our picture. We declined and kept walking focusing on the cold beer in the fridge back at the Bureaucrat’s house. The road hits pavement 3 blocks from where we started that morning. In the winter you can ski traverse right back to the Oak Street Lift or the gondola.

We were taking our boots off back at the house in Telluride by noon. When we stopped to pick up the shuttle truck on the way home 3 Ophirites came walking down the Pass road with skis on their packs. They had climbed the opposite side of the valley up Waterfall Canyon that morning, and after looking at their smiles we didn’t have to ask them how the skiing was for them. It was obvious they had also been feasting on San Juan sweet corn.
post #2 of 3
Great sounding trip mudfoot. Early start and a fine San Juan sweet corn havest in the backcountry. Your description is "almost" as good as a picture. Very nice report.
post #3 of 3
Great tr; wish I was living back in the San Juan's. Never have bc'd there, but have driven the road from the Red Mountain pass direction. Incredible countryside!
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