By Dustin Eldridge
The alarm clock rang early that morning. At 4:30 AM I lurched out of bed. Early days are less common in February, but the springlike weather of the past two weeks required springlike rituals. And springlike lines. Our sights were on Mineral Point.
Mineral Point is a prolific peak in the Gunnison Valley. It sits seemingly within reach of the town of Crested Butte atop the Slate River Valley. The summit rises nearly 3,000 feet from Poverty Gulch, a beacon of snow from October to June. Part of Mineral’s appeal is its symmetrical pyramid-like structure; well-defined ridges delineate the broad rocky north, east and south slopes. Our goal was a “town” line, visible from most spots in town, on the south face. A thin sliver of snow parted a large rock band descending fall line from Mineral’s southeast ridge and drew the gaze of one of Crested Butte’s finest splitboarders, Lawson Yow. The line arose at his suggestion, yet I still had dreams of riding the east face on our dawn of departure.
The trailhead was vacant and dark at 6 AM as I pulled up with Lawson close behind. I followed Lawson’s headlights out the Slate Road, my 1989 Polaris Indy’s lights disabled. My visual world began to expand as the pink light of dawn grew. Mineral Point sat in the shadows as we drove just about to its base. We began skinning in the 2 or 3 inches of new, wind-stiffened snow that blanketed the landscape. This sat atop a seemingly impenetrable sun and wind crust.
These factors made for interesting skinning conditions. In some areas, the Styrofoam snow held tight to the slope, supporting our skis. In others, the snow crumbled, falling down slope with our edges skidding behind. Undeterred, our switchbacks became tighter and tighter, following a ribbon of good skinning snow up toward a bench on Cascade Mountain. We soon came upon a more southerly slope, steeper and firmer than those previously encountered. Our splitboards attached to our backpacks, and we kicked toe-nail sized steps into the slope. Soon, we had reached the bench, and some leisurely skinning.
The next 1,000 vertical feet went by quickly. The snow continued to be friendly as we skinned under our objective and wrapped around to the west face. As we crossed a broad ridge, the windward slope turned into a nightmare of sastrugi and wind crust. I donned my crampons, the first time I had worn them since buying them nearly four years prior. I slowly ate away at the final few hundred feet as Lawson fought the slope on his skins and skis. I was impressed with the speed he was able to ascend the steep icy slope, holding his edges firmly to the mountain.
The effect of the strong wind over the past couple weeks was apparent as we neared the summit. The windward side of the ridge was blown clean with amber scree soaking up the February sun. The view on the summit was impressive with vistas of Crested Butte, 14ers and even the La Sal range of Utah, in the distance. Looking down on the east face, the whole rider’s right side had been stripped by the wind. Rocks protruded from the face like fangs; not inspiring for a snowboard descent.
The south face dropped away out of sight over a convexity. These blind rollovers are always a little harrowing, but we had picked some landmarks on the face to help guide us through the maze of rockbands.
We dropped onto the face at 10:45. Lawson led the way down the ridge to our first landmark, a rock bulge that marked the beginning of our fall line descent. We regrouped there, and the line split into a fork. This was our next landmark. We felt comfortable regrouping once again at the high point that marked the fork. We needed to go rider’s left, but the line once again dropped away blind. Confident in our scoping that morning, Lawson turned downhill into the chute. The new snow rolled into balls and slid down behind him while Lawson turned uphill and waited for the sluff to pass by him. He was then out of view, and I waited for his image to reemerge on the slope far below. Soon he was shooting out of the line, and pulled onto a high point to watch my descent.
My first couple turns were hesitant in the narrow chute, unsure of how the snow would ride after Lawson’s tracks dissected it. The crust underneath the new snow was soft also, and made for enjoyable turns. The chute had a double fall line which pushed me down, rider’s left, into the rocks on the margin of the chute.
I took toe-edge turns on the right side, as if milking a spine. I stopped as the chute doglegged slightly left, and watched my sluff run out behind me. The chute became skinnier at this spot, and I made slow turns further into the crux. I held onto my heel edge in one section, letting sluff pass. I was near the bottom and turned downhill. I rocketed out of the chute into the apron, hot pow turns embracing my return from the vertical realm. We hooted and hollered, high-fived, and continued on our slushy descent back to the snowmobiles.
We were grateful that this iconic peak welcomed us onto its slopes that February day. This line is not always in condition to ride, and it provided us with quality turns on an exciting descent. Mineral Point continues standing as a beacon in the valley, maybe now just slightly more familiar. And it still has my attention, with more thin ribbons of snow snaking down rockbands on the south face.