Cold Smoke crew ventures deep into the San Juans
By Will Shoemaker
There is something deeply gratifying about discovering a new zone and pilfering its possibilities. Often, it takes work, vision and multiple attempts.
Like playing Jenga drunk. Or hooking up with the captain of the cheerleading squad.
But when the Cold Smoke crew crested a certain north-south ridge in a zone we’d been eyeing, literally, for years, all of the work had paid off. Before us lay an untouched face brimming with possibility. And nobody was skiing it. Untracked, virgin lines spread across our field of vision like a Picasso.
You could almost hear harp music in the background and a chorus of “AAAAAAAAHHHHHHS.” We’d struck gold deep in the throes of a historic mining district, and the pick-swinging was about to commence.
Flashback to 2012. On a cold January weekend, Cold Smoke owner Kyle Jones and close friend Lucas Martinez shuttled to a little-known hideout in the San Juan Mountains near the site of a mining catastrophe called Summitville. However, hopes of pillow lines and pow turns were snuffed out by a wallop of a winter storm. The group remained hunkered down through the weekend and into the next week, drinking and eating until both sustenance and beverage ran dry, and Jones decided to make a run for antifreeze to feed one of the crew’s two working snowmobiles.
Unfortunately, Jones’ sled found a creek on the way out. Lucky to be alive, Jones limped the three miles back to warmth of the woodstove — on foot, sans skis, in the midst of the storm. As an unfortunate result of the weather, he and his compadres weren’t able to find out much on that trip about the riding potential that surrounded the cabin.
In the years since, small talk often turned to the Forest Service cabin at the proverbial end of the road. The time had to be right, the crew up to the task, T’s crossed and I’s dotted. And, more than anything, weather conducive.
These factors all came together in early 2016 for a tight-knit posse comprised of Briant Wiles, Josh McEwen, Geoff Heller, Leora Wallace, Jones and me.
The Cold Smoke crew convened on a chilly winter evening at Gunnison’s High Alpine Brewery to hash out logistics — namely, the type and quantity of alcohol that would be needed to fuel three days of shenanigans in the middle of nowhere.
The sled ride in would be long, but pretty straightforward — relatively flat road through foothills that climb toward bigger peaks. But exploration — and sled laps — once on location would mean the requisite five gallons per person of extra petrol. Throw on top of it food, clothing, sleeping bags and booze for six people and you’ve got a convoy of catastrophe ready to be unrolled.
Leora and I pulled out of Gunnison heading east at 6 a.m., weighed down with two sleds, skis, board, gear, plenty of whiskey (Leora, my wife, is a booze rep) and a boat-load of ambition. A rising sun backlit the mountains named for Christ’s blood as we drove south across the cold, barren alfalfa and potato fields of the San Luis Valley. We regrouped at a step back in time called Rainbow Grocery in South Fork before the final push up the pass.
From the trailhead, it’s a one-way, 20-mile snowmobile ride to the cabin. Moderately technical riding in the surrounding area once you get there makes this an affirmative “sled-ski” zone.
The 15-foot by 15-foot cabin was erected in 1911 by Mountain States Telephone Company as a “line shack” to support crews maintaining the transcontinental telephone line. Remnants of the old line are still found along the creek to the southeast. Later, the cabin was used as a living quarters for Forest Service employees who worked on numbers projects in the area.
Today, it can be rented nightly for little more than the cost of a couple cases of beer. Don’t be fooled. Amenities are minimal, but the necessities are in place — making for cheap livin’ for as many homies as can be crammed inside the cabin’s confines.
We arrived at the place with plenty of time for afternoon exploration — and sled laps off a treed rise to the southeast of the cabin. The area sees a fair amount of snowmobile traffic, and while a storm had dumped a healthy dose of snow the week prior, the area west of the cabin held few tracks. This would be the focus of attention the following day — after a huge meal, beer, whiskey and knock-down, drag-out game of Cribbage. This place was starting to feel like we could stay awhile.
Dawn broke to the sun-soaked glow of an alpine sunrise. After a breakfast that put Bob Evans to shame, the posse saddled up and rode west, climbing to a ridge — the ridge — that unveiled the white wall. At the northwest end of the ridge lay an area that one prominent ski mountaineer has called “Little Wasatch.” To the southeast the ridge offered up one summit after another, interspersed with hair-raising couloirs.
To the north, most of the crew spent the day schralping sled lap after sled lap, while Leora and I toured into the drainage to the west to get a closer look at the goods. The west-facing slope we skied that afternoon gave us a perfect view of a shot Briant Wiles had dubbed the “Sickle Couloir.” Colorado’s continental snowpack is often unforgiving, but for this particular trip we had lucked out. A week’s worth of high pressure after big storms through late fall and into December left a deep snowpack that showed no signs of instability.
Josh McEwen had to head back to civilization early the next day, but the rest of us had our sights sets on not leaving until the Sickle had swung. The climb proved easier than expected, and by noon we stood on top of the route’s definitive entrance that swept left into a dog leg and spit wide into a creamy apron. One by one, we licked the edge of the blade, carving the couli in conditions more reminiscent of spring than the first week of the year.
At the end of the run, aspirations were still as high as the summits above, but the real world called us back. The 20-mile snowmobile ride out still loomed. We’d only touched the surface, leaving in us all a deep-seated desire to one day return to the vast wall of white deep in the San Juans.