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Skiing Gothic Mountain

In the heart of the Colorado Rockies looms a mountain called Gothic. Its austere east face catches dawn’s first light and holds a looker’s awe like a medieval cathedral. Eight miles from the ski town of Crested Butte, Gothic stands sentinel to the West Elk Mountains and is also the namesake of a small townsite at its base, where I happen to live. Every day for the past eight months I have stared up at Gothic and wondered what it would be like to climb and make turns down its snowy face.

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Gothic Mountain in February, ft. white-tailed ptarmigan

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Gothic Mountain, May 25th

 

I knew I had to wait until spring in order to avoid the infamous avalanche danger inherent to the Rocky Mountains. April was very snowy (I was skiing boot-top pow April 27th) and conditions never felt safe enough to climb/ski the 3200′, 40-45º degree face. But now it’s almost June and Gothic isn’t so snowy any more. The first three weeks of May I watched the snow in the crux choke of the east face rapidly shrink. Despite numerous opportunities to ski it, intimidation got the best of me. A line always looks steepest when you’re looking straight at it, which is what I’d been doing all winter. Plus, I’d be skiing it solo. Without a partner to commit with and be emboldened by, motivation had to come from a deeper, more unquestionable place. It turns out this place is also home to fear of regret. Ultimately, I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn’t ski Gothic, or if I didn’t at least try. I realized you can think about an objective all you want, but at some point you just have to get up and go.

I hopped on my mountain bike Wednesday morning (May 25) at 7am, skis strapped to The Raven on my back. The sun had hit the top of Gothic at about 6:30. It was a later start than I’d hoped for, but with a solid refreeze overnight I figured I still had a decent safety window as long as I kept moving.

After a half hour or so I was at the crux of the biscuit. The choke was completely melted. Filled in it would’ve been a steep and fun pitch of snow climbing, posing more of a challenge on the way down than on the way up. Instead, I took off my crampons and sheathed my axe for about 50 vertical feet of class 4 scrambling. If I was more of an alpinist I would have dry-tooled the whole thing and saved time by nixing a transition. Overall the climbing was mellow and well within my comfort zone. Still, I had to be careful to avoid stepping on icy spots.

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The choke, bottom right. From there the route climbs the snowfield up and left until reaching the upper bowl. If climbing Gothic at this time of year, beware of a pseudo crevasse/bergschrund below the choke. You can see it in this picture, barely.

 

My crampons, axe, and whippet came back out after the choke. From here it was a long, 45º snow climb to the top save for two very short sections of exposed rock. I had been playing with the idea of skiing the face and simply down climbing the crux choke, but taking skis off for these sections would’ve been a bit of a nightmare as it was steep and exposed.

I topped out 3200′  from the valley floor in just over two hours. The last 200 feet or so to the summit ridge were quite slow and troublesome due to softening snow. I was post-holing to my knees in some places and couldn’t help but imagine triggering a wet slide. All I could do was climb as quickly as possible, which required using my shins more than my feet in order to maximize flotation. I reckon the top would’ve made for great and fast climbing had I started just a half hour earlier. Thankfully I had already made up my mind not the ski the face.

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Looking south from the Summit towards Mt Crested Butte (left) and Whetstone. The town of Crested Butte is below Whetstone.

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Looking east from the summit. The pyramidal mountain in front is Avery Peak, which I skied earlier this spring when it held more snow.

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Looking northwest from the summit. I walked down along this ridge to the sub peak in the center of the frame, from where I began my descent.

 

My plan was to ski down Gothic’s north bowl. The good thing about starting a little late was the north bowl would hopefully not be completely bulletproof. In terms of timing, the safest option probably would be to start climbing the face at 6 or 6:30 (earlier if planning on taking much longer than 2 hours to summit), then wait at the top for 30-60 minutes to let the north bowl soften.

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Gothic’s north bowl, shot from 4 miles up-valley on May 12. I skied from the sub-peak of Gothic on the right. The true summit is in the middle. Mt Crested Butte is in the background on the left.

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Looking down from the top of the north bowl. Maroon Peak is in the distance. At 9:30am the snow was still a little icy. I reckon by 10am it would’ve been perfect corn.

 

Jump turns soon gave way to mellow and blissful corn, then to avalanche chunder, and I touched down on the valley floor at 10am with feelings of elation and content.

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Route finding on the way down was easy. After exiting the bowl, curve around to the right and then straight-line it down this field of avalanche debris for maximum yard sale potential.

 

The past three weeks had been a constant inner struggle with doubt and fear in regards to skiing Gothic, which made my success all the sweeter. Although I was a bummed I wasn’t able to ski the east face, climbing it was perhaps equally rewarding. Kicking steps up the bosom of Gothic connected me to a part of my home that previously had been shrouded in wonder. There are many other lines in the valley I still long to ski. For now, though, I can sip my coffee and look up at Gothic with pride and knowing.

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My home beneath Gothic Mt, May 10th.

 

Caltopo map of my route here

More beta on skiing the east face here

Gear notes: Dynafit Cho-Oyu skis w/ Superlite 2.0 bindings, Scarpa Alien boots, Petzl Sum-Tec 52cm axe, Whippet ski pole, CAMP aluminum crampons, Free Range Raven pack, CAMP Speed helmet, CAMP wind mitten gloves, NW Alpine softshell pants, Patagonia sun shirt, Arcteryx wind shirt.

November in Gothic

On the second to last day of October I came across a set of bear tracks. My friend Richard and I had set out from Gothic on bikes and were six miles up valley when the snow became too deep to ride. The tracks appeared in the snow, large and clawed. Unmistakable. We followed them for over half a mile up the road until they meandered up the hillside. Strange, I thought, that the bear should be wandering up in elevation, into deepening snow. Surely it was focused foremost on food, in the midst of building the last of its fat layer before hibernating. What it hoped to find in the snow I know not.

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Bear tracks are good reminder that there are animals out there that can kill you. Photo by Richard.

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October in Gothic

Aspen trees show their bones beneath the austere buttresses of Gothic Mountain, and elk wander among green spruce and grey willow. Light and warmth fade from day as the season slowly arcs along its eternal circle. All things tire and bend towards death. Winter approaches.

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Living, Working, and Running at 9,500′

I’ve been spending the summer living and working at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL, pronounced “rumble”) in Gothic, CO. Life is good. First of all, I get to pursue my love for ecology while being immersed in an inspiring community of scientists and students. Also, I get to run in the mountains every day. Read on →

GoreTex Grand Traverse: Q&A with Team Crested Butte’s Jon Brown

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The GoreTex Grand Traverse (formerly the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse) is the grand-daddy of North American ski traverses.  Departing Crested Butte at midnight, the unsupported course climbs roughly 40 miles past two checkpoints before finishing down Aspen Mountain into the town of Aspen. Because the race takes place on an unmarked and largely unsupported course through the Colorado backcountry, the race is completed as a team of two, and racers are required to carry the equipment necessary to make an emergency 24 hour bivouac.


The night start, huge mileage, variable terrain, and historically varied weather make this a race to be reckoned with. Racers need to keep themselves warm, hydrated, fueled and, well, racing for 8-14 hours. Compared to the Wasatch Powderkeg or other North American SkiMo races, it is logistically complex.

This year will be my first in the race and I, like many first time racers, had a lot of questions. Jon Brown, from Team Crested Butte, was gracious enough to talk training, gear, and strategy with me.

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Old school Team Crested Butte at Grandvalira. LtoR: Jon Brown, Jari Kirkland, Brian Wickenhauser & Eric Sullivan

Jon Brown is a member of Team Crested Butte, and he has raced the Grand Traverse 10 out of the last 12 years. He and his partner Brian Smith won the 2006 traverse by a hair, sneaking across the finish line between another pair of racers.

He started nordic skiing in highschool but since discovering SkiMo skis, his nordic kit has been collecting dust in his garage. Jon began his race career as a mountain bike racer after graduating from Western State Colorado University, paying the bills by working as a raft guide, barista, and snowmobile guide. In his 30s he moved to Gunnison where he started a small publishing company and started adventure racing with Team Crested Butte.

TCB has since evolved from an adventure racing team into one of the strongest SkiMo teams in North America. Read on →