Have you ever looked at strips of snow that run down a mountain in the distance and think, “that would be so sick to ride(!!!)”? But then that thought is followed by: (1) I don’t know how to drop into that line, or if you do know, then (2) I don’t know how to exit it in one piece.
Emerson and I encountered that thought progression a lot. We took our AIARE 1 and started backcountry touring in December 2015. In that time, we’ve consistently gotten out and had some pretty darn cool experiences in some pretty darn awesome terrain. But as we grew more experienced, the limits of our abilities and knowledge also grew more distinct.
We wanted to broaden our terrain options by reducing the unknown with further education. We planned on taking AIARE 2 this year but when we learned in the Boulder Backcountry FB Group (a good resource for local conditions and avalanche discourse) that Colorado Adventure Guides was offering their inaugural Splitboard Mountaineering course, we opted for that instead. We’re still planning on taking AIARE 2 in the next season or two, but this course seemed further outside our comfort zone and addressed one of our most notable weak spots, spring skiing.
During the winter, we are pretty comfortable operating under the assumption that the avy risk is always high and chasing hippy turns exclusively. But spring, with a rapidly changing yet consolidating snowpack mixed with volatile temperature swings, was a whole different beast. So even though we considered ourselves fairly experienced in the backcountry, Em and I didn’t know how to approach expanding our terrain options during springtime.
So how do I feel about big, aesthetic, technical alpine lines in the springtime now that I’ve taken the course? The answer is… way more prepared and pretty darn good! It opened up a whole new world of snowy terrain for me to explore and be awed by.
Long story short, if you’re wanting to level up your skills and knowledge to access and ride steep, alpine terrain, I highly recommend checking out Colorado Adventure Guide’s 3-day Splitboarding/Ski Mountaineering course. You’ll be learning from two of Colorado’s finest splitboard mountaineers, Justin Ibarra and Pat Gephart, who have years of backcountry and mountain travel expertise that they’re excited to share. I can confidently say that I learned as much from them in a weekend as I would have over a couple of seasons of self-directed trial and error.
Here’s a photo recap of our experience!
Day 1: Practicing the Fundamentals
The course kicked off on a Friday morning with a quick indoor overview of the curriculum and impending weather/avalanche forecasts.
Friday – Mostly cloudy, with a high near 17. Wind chill values as low as -13. Blustery, with a west northwest wind 9 to 15 mph, with gusts as high as 22 mph. Chance of precipitation is 60%. New snow accumulation of around an inch possible.
Friday Night – Snow showers. Low around 7. Wind chill values as low as -6. Northwest wind around 8 mph becoming south southeast after midnight. Chance of precipitation is 80%. New snow accumulation of 3 to 5 inches possible.
Saturday- Snow showers likely. Some thunder is also possible. Mostly cloudy, with a high near 19. South southwest wind 8 to 13 mph becoming west-northwest in the afternoon. Winds could gust as high as 17 mph. Chance of precipitation is 70%.
Saturday Night – A 50 percent chance of snow showers before midnight. Partly cloudy, with a low around 11. Breezy.
Sunday – Mostly sunny, with a high near 29. Breezy.
We quickly took to the field where we learned how to travel with an ice axe and crampons. A session on anchor building (specifically snow anchors) and rappelling followed. Even though we had ice and rock climbing experience, we learned lots of invaluable new techniques and info.
Day 2: Taking it to the Field
We met early on Saturday at our designated trailhead ready to go off-the-grid for two days and one night of applying and acquiring more snow travel skills and knowledge.
First objective of the day was to find and set up a winter campsite.
With the camp set up, we left to go scout lines and observe conditions. A little exploration led us to a neat couloir running down one of Colorado’s most popular 14ers. While we bootpacked up it, the weather fluctuated between sunny tank top conditions and blizzards.
With visibility dropping, conditions firming, and the headwall right in front of us, we transitioned and dropped in! Looking back at our line from the bottom, now thin and nestled among major rock features, the sense of reward was immense and beyond what I’ve felt in the past. I became totally hooked on splitboard mountaineering!
It’s important to note that the entire time we were moving, Justin and Pat were happily giving us their observations of the conditions, pointers on more efficient movement, and insight into better risk management. It was obvious they were invested in setting us up for long-term backcountry success.
Day 3: Leveling up!
Building on everything we learned the past two days, we started Sunday with an ascent and descent of a steeper, rockier, more variable couloir.
We then assessed and built our own anchors that we later used to rappel off a notable rock feature. At the bottom, we learned how to give hip belays and when they’re appropriate.
Jam-packed with new skills, knowledge, and terrain choices, the three days of nonstop fun and discovery gave Em and I a whole lot of new excitement to explore, with our splitboards, those spectacular strips of snow that use to baffle us.