A Family Adventure

Tyson, Emilie & Isaac

Four years ago, we attempted a ski vacation to a 10th Mountain Hut high in the Colorado Rockies. That didn’t go as well as we had hoped. Now, a little older and a little wiser, we were back to try another hut 11,300′ high in the Rockies. We booked the Tagert and Friends huts. A single hut would have been better, but no single hut was available for five nights during Isaac’s winter vacation. The cabins fit seven people and we had to book the whole cabin. We invited a few friends from past trips. The final group was the three of us, Emilie’s parents from Virginia, and Benoît from Montreal.

This is the second post of the 2024 Colorado Hut Skiing trip.

Compared to last trip, we were facing a greater altitude challenge. Sunday evening we would stay at Tagert. Then Monday we would ski over Pearl Pass at 12,700’ to reach Friends. This time, we planned ahead for the altitude. John and Trudy arrived a week early in Basalt and to ski other trails on the 10th Mountain map. Tyson stayed closer to Denver. He booked a place at 10,200’ near St Mary’s Glacier. Read his post about skiing the glacier. Benoît met up with friends of friends in Boulder for a half week of skiing and rock climbing at a mile high. Isaac and I were the least prepared. Middle school doesn’t allow for a two week vacation. We arrived in Denver Friday.

This year’s route had an additional danger — avalanches. The 10th Mountain huts are high in the mountains, yet their approach trails stay out of avalanche danger. Tagert and Friends are part of the Braun Hut system. The Braun Huts mission is to enhance public winter access to the dramatic alpine terrain in the Castle Creek Valley and the Elk Mountains. All the huts have significant mountaineering challenges.

Large avalanche path at the stream crossing

The trail up to Tagert is a jeep road from Ashcroft up to the Montezuma mine and Pearl Pass. The road itself is on lower angle terrain following the bottom of Castle Creek valley. However, the valley walls are steep and occasionally avalanche. Tyson and Trudy researched the approach. There seemed to be a few avalanche paths that had killed people before. [1991] [2008 near miss] [2015] It sounded like they only ran during extreme avalanche conditions. We watched the CAIC forecasts all January and February. At the start of January, there was less snow than usual. The thin snow turned into weak facets. It resumed snowing, but then another weak layer developed in February. The whole region stayed touchy, with descriptions like

You can trigger avalanches on many slopes. The most dangerous and largest avalanches will happen on open, wind-drifted slopes that sit directly below ridgetop and face an easterly direction. In sheltered areas, you can trigger avalanches in soft snow that break a couple of feet deep on a weak layer that was buried in early February. We continue to get evidence of these easily triggered slides from areas near Crested Butte and around Aspen. The snowpack is complicated, and the simplest solution is to stick to slopes less than about 30 degrees.

[From the February 22 forecast]

From Tagert hut to Friends hut, we would be above tree line. Tyson studied the official route description, Strava heat map, and Caltopo slope shading. There is a route that carefully follows low angle terrain except for the 100 feet to get over Pearl Pass itself. Maybe Pearl Pass would be windswept and no danger, or maybe we would get there and have to turn around.

Tyson and I have taken a couple avalanche courses, but not nearly enough to assess the avalanche danger on our own. We reached out to our NH AMC ski committee friends for help. C. volunteered to relay daily weather and CAIC avalanche forecasts via our satellite messenger.

It snowed Tuesday and Wednesday raising the avalanche danger. Then, thankfully, a high pressure moved in, and the Rockies were sunny for Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The avalanche danger dropped to moderate. We were good to head up to Tagert from Ashcroft and over to Friends Monday. Getting back might be a problem. Monday evening through Wednesday the next storm system moved in. Long term forecasts predicted anywhere from one foot to four feet of snow with howling winds. The pass should still be skiable with one foot of snow over 48 hours, but four feet?

It is far too easy to feel trapped by schedule, or money already spent. As a backup, we rented the cabins in Basalt for an extra two nights. We all met Saturday evening for a final group discussion, and that was it. We were as ready as we were going to be.

Continued at 2024 Colorado Hut Skiing