The Waiting Game.
Written by Briant Wiles
It is inevitable: the scene of craggy mountain peaks reminds me of the bittersweet affliction I have wanting to know every fold of their faces. In some sort of strange unrequited love affair I long for the lines I have yet to feel under my splitboard unsure I ever will. I tell myself that one day the stars will align and I will finally be able to tick off the list a line down the side of a mountain. Well one day came as I stared down the barrel of a gun on Gothic Mountain.
The waiting game consumes an inappropriate amount of my energy studying photos and weather forecasts long into the night or logging hour after hour virtually exploring routes with the help of Google Earth. All this obsessing done with visions of great rewards and everlasting glory in my head. Well I’m not sure about the everlasting glory but I can picture the video game version of myself slaying steep lines on a mythical mountain. It is easy to get caught up in the glitz and glamor of big screen skiing and snowboarding that showcases large cliffs and larger lines. But when you step away from the media hype and it is just you and I standing on top of a line trying to weigh all the consequences of our possible actions it feels a world a part.
I live and breathe the continental climate of Central Colorado. If you have ever had the chance to experience this region on snow then you will know its beauty and notorious snowpack. The words “persistent slab” is plastered on the avalanche bulletins. The season long norm is a “moderate” danger rating or higher. With this typical elevated danger rating and associated avalanche problems my best chances to step out into bigger terrain is relegated to rare “windows of opportunity”. Every once in a while this all comes together to create the moments I live for. It is a satisfying experience to have hard work and patience pay off in a memorable descent.
This recipe came together and allowed me to touch a place one can only briefly visit, the East Face of Gothic Mountain. Gothic is a well-known local icon that owns a prominent piece of the Crested Butte skyline. It rises at an un-realistic angle clawing towards the sky bristling with foreboding granite ramparts. It is an impressive mountain to say the least standing geologically apart from the rest of the Elk Mountains but in good company with its large vertical relief. Of all the enticing aspects Gothic offers the East Face holds my attention like no other. It drops from a thin ridge overhung by massive cornices more than 3,000 feet to valley bellow. The upper reaches drain a broad bowl with several defined ribs that narrow into a tortured chute that chokes down not once but twice. The face sustains a steep pitch for thousands of vertical before finally spilling onto a lower angled apron. I have witnessed the ominous sight and sounds of snow slides thundering over the cliffs several hundreds of feet high that flank the central escape rout. This is complex terrain with unavoidable and obvious consequences.
For years I have stared at the East Face of Gothic. Usually lines of this magnitude are relegated to spring corn cycles. Days are picked with devoted observance of nightly low temperatures. This allows one to reduce the level of risk to manageable levels and enjoy good corn skiing. But no matter how much fun the corn is it is not powder.
The video game version in my head always pictures riding steep faces in great conditions. So I wait. I waited for a chance when my level of risk tolerance matched that of the conditions of the East Face. Finally one morning I found myself climbing through a snowstorm in the pre-dawn light on my way to slaying the dragon that beats deep in my heart. It was a spring storm after several weeks of freeze thaw that set the underlying snowpack in graveyard like stillness. Climbing with me was a partner, veteran of several missions into the near beyond and I trusted him with my life. We climbed past more reasonable and standard south and west facing shots with heads down and our minds fixated on a single goal.
This is how dying in the backcountry makes sense to the second hand couch surfer speculating as to how we may meet our ends. They are right in the respect that a single-minded approach is counter to good backcountry etiquette but are unable to tell half the story as those living it. With a knowing smile we knew that this was our chance to lay tracks on this face, our chance to touch the other side.
With any late spring storm the chance to ride dry powder conditions is early in the morning necessitating dark approaches. So we found our selves climbing up into a downfall of snow and wind lite by headlamp. We worried about how much snow had accumulated on the face and if we would even get a window to see what we were trying to do. We knew that the spring storm would be short lived and would be clearing out that day. We were more worried about getting to the top before the sun came out and began to melt the snow creating a heavy wet mess. We did have an exit plan in place in case conditions were unfavorable so that we could back down from the ultimate goal and save a little face. But once daylight started to soften the dead of night causing us to switch off our headlamps I knew that we were going to get a chance to test the face.
Six to eight inches of new snow covered the bowl tenuously attached to a melt-freeze crust. The clouds had parted serendipitously as we strode the last few steps to the summit giving a clear view of the valley far below. We dropped in with little fan fare and I made a downward cut across a gully to test the snow. The new spring snow was heavier than I was hoping for but would still make for a memorable run. The initial cut went well and snow fell harmlessly downslope with no propagation. I found myself sitting sentinel on the apex of a rib below a gigantic house sized cornice exposed on the immense face watching my partner ride the bowl into the chock. From my vantage point I watched as he arced graceful turns down into the bowels of a true monster. The snow looked good with his signature carved on the face. Moments after he disappeared from sight a voice crackled over the radio indicating he had found a safe position wedged somewhere in the twists of the narrowed chute below. I trusted that he was indeed in a good enough spot that I need not worry sending something down on top of him, and then I dropped in. I made the first six turns covering more than a thousand feet like it was on an Alaskan mountain — the snow, slightly heavier than true winter powder, flying from the edges of my board. The feeling of floating or levitating didn’t come close to the experience of pointing my board down that face.
As I neared the first choke a customary look back showed more than the expected amount of snow was moving behind me. The heavy spring snow pulled by gravity was slow at first but now had gathered mass and momentum. I pulled off to the rock wall of the chute and grasped a secure ledge and watched a nightmare unfold. The snow I set in motion gathered intensity until a river came roaring down past me. It was just the new storm snow but it quickly gained momentum and now swept by me in an angry flood. I shouted over the radio for my partner to hang on saying “here it comes”. The violent tide swept down the narrow chute jumping off walls and finally fanning out to a stop several thousand feet below. My friend and I were ok. We had held our positions and now all that was left was to try and negotiate the gouged out path left in the slide’s wake.
We continued our descent with a warm glow of pride from the face above and relished in occupying a space that man can only visit. This glow stayed with us as we slapped skins on and made the long slog out of the valley back to the one where we had started. It was a long day and I rested happily that night. I could check the East Face of Gothic off the list and was satisfied to do so but that immense face has haunted my thoughts. We had put ourselves out there and had taken on more risk than I would like to admit. But is that not the meaning of the lines that we all have on our “list”. They represent a challenge defined by risk. By waiting, sometimes years, for occasions when the risk is acceptable before willingly putting ourselves in places that few dare to tread we can know a deeper sense of satisfaction. The East Face of Gothic is a place we can only visit and I hope one day to again go there. In hindsight my days of tempting a complex line like this in powder conditions may be behind me but I will continue to wait and watch for windows of opportunities. My “list” is still growing faster than I can keep up with but the reward of the waiting for the right conditions to jump into some strange couloir or consequential face is worth it.