A Family Adventure

Tyson, Emilie & Isaac

Skiing St Mary’s Glacier

February 20, 2024
Tyson Sawyer

It took me 3 days to ski St. Mary’s Glacier. I managed to fly out to Colorado ahead of Emilie and Isaac so that I could acclimate to the altitude. I arrived in Colorado on Sunday and drove up to my rented apartment located next to St. Mary’s Glacier at just over 10,000 ft. The two flights of stairs to where I was staying left me breathless. For the first couple of days, the altitude left me knocked flat. The trips down to Idaho Springs at about 7,500 ft for dinner the first night and shopping the second day provided a bit of welcome relief. By the 3rd morning I had managed to sleep better and felt a little energetic.

When I rented the place, it was chosen for being affordably priced, above 7,000 ft and not too far from Denver as I would need to pick up Emilie and Isaac there when they arrived. I didn’t realize until later that I had the good fortune of being located right next to some great backcountry terrain with some low angle options to avoid avalanche hazards.

I selected a trail that was well under half a mile walk from the apartment to where I would depart the plowed roads. Plan A was just see if I could do a mile or so and then turn around. Plan B was to see if I could get up to the tree line before turning back. Plan C was to attempt a full loop of just over 5 miles that returned by skiing down St. Mary’s Glacier.

Once I was going I found that, though I had to aggressively pace myself to keep from getting winded, I was feeling quite good and able to keep going. I made use of my sports watch and monitored how I felt to identify when my blood oxygen level was getting too low and when I had recovered so that I could continue.

The higher I got, the slower my pace, but I was able to keep going and so long as I paced myself, I felt pretty good. The views and pleasure of being high up in snow covered mountains was wonderful.

The snow was a bit of a challenge. Apparently, I was the only one who thought this particular route looked interesting as the trail was not tracked out. In addition to having to break a trail through the snow, the snow was warm, soft and sticky. It was clinging to the climbing skins on my skis causing them to be heavy and drag through the snow instead of glide over it.

The tree line brought a change in temperatures, wind and snow consistency which eliminated the problem of it sticking to the skins. Frequent pauses to take pictures provided good excuses for rests.

As I climbed up onto the high plateau, I found that the wind had transported the snow elsewhere and I had to load my skis onto my pack and continue on bare boots. I also found that my pace had reduced to a crawl. The last half mile to the high point of a little over 11,800 ft took well over half an hour. I had started to worry about how soon the sun might set. A headlamp is useful, but it doesn’t make up for darkness when in unfamiliar mountain terrain.

Once I found some snow and put my skis back on, the pace picked up. Unfortunately, the sunny weather had given way to a bit of a snow storm that created a flat light condition and made it very difficult to see the contours of the snow I was skiing on. I could see my skis, but they appeared to be just floating on white. I couldn’t see the windblown ridges and contour changes in the snow that kept trying to trip me up.

Once I reached the glacier, the falling snow and lighting improved some. I enjoyed the ride down as much as I could given my feeble condition caused by the altitude.

As I approached the bottom of the glacier, I saw that there were a few hikers enjoying the view. They also got to enjoy seeing me fall three times. The lower altitude snow had formed a thin, breakable crust with a Styrofoam consistency. When my skis cut through it, the snow would grab them and either prevent me from turning or straight up flip me. I gave up on the fun for a bit and did a few long traverses with kick turns to finish the glacier decent. I was too exhausted to battle that crust.

Continue reading about the rest of the ski trip in Colorado.

All Photos

GPS Track