Eye Candy in the San Juans
Highway 550 cuts a gash through the rugged San Juan Mountains between Durango and Silverton, Colorado. Drivers are treated to many visual gems, but serious backcountry enthusiasts are drawn to eye-candy in the form of vertical slivers of snow cascading from Snowden Peak and the Grand Turk. The Naked Lady couloir on Snowden peak and the Zipper couloir on Grand Turk, are so close to the road it feels like you can reach out and touch them.
Highway 550 is not only high, topping out at 10,810ft on Molas Pass but provides access to and endless bounty of backcountry options. While there are hundreds of backcountry options along the road, the Naked Lady and Zipper couloirs are gems and aesthetic lines calling to skiers like sirens in the open sea.
Both couloirs can be skied in a long day or over a couple days with an overnight stay in Silverton, located 10 minutes north of the pass. Living in Durango, I have been fortunate enough to ski these lines a dozen times each, but instead of being bucket list items, these are on my short list of go-to lines.
The approach to the Naked Lady couloir begins from a well-plowed parking area just north of the summer road for Andrews Lake. From the road, the Naked Lady couloir and Snowden Peak (13,077ft), appear to be just over a couple rollers. About thirty minutes into the skin, one of the rookies comments that the approach is a bit longer than he was expecting as the peak seemed to be so close. The day’s hike started under a thin veil of clouds and partial sunshine, but the sky is thickening and becoming gray bird. After an hour, we climb above treeline and gain the long apron leading to the base of the couloir. Once at the base of the couloir I dig a snow pit and evaluate the stability. My heart sinks as I find a stiff wind slab nearly a foot thick, resting on low-density snow.
As the others join me, I tell them we are turning back. We ski out the apron and reapply skins to attack the rollers in reverse. The main drawback to the San Juan Mountains is the fickle snowpack thought by many experts to be some of the most unstable and avalanche prone in the world. Long time residents in SW Colorado know that you survive the winter to reap the harvest in the spring when the snowpack stabilizes and provides some of the finest corn skiing in America.
Weeks pass, storms come and go and we gear back up for another attempt at the Naked Lady. This time the snow pit reveals a much more cohesive snowpack. Skis are stowed on packs and the high alpine stair master session begins. As we leave the apron behind the pitch steepens and the walls narrow to a consistent width of 40 feet. I take a long pull at the front and then step aside and fall into the much less taxing position as a follower. For the next 30 minutes, we climb upward gaining a foot of vertical with each kicked step. Two-thirds of the way up, a cliff crosses the width of the couloir. Most of the rock shelf is buried, but the crux move is making sure I gain purchase atop the ledge before stepping forward. In low-tide years, this might be as far as one can go, but today I scale the obstacle and continue on toward the heavens.
The final sections pitches upward to steeper than 50 degrees and snow becomes firm. My ice ax and crampons provide reassurance, and I make the final push. The top of the line serpentines around some rocks and the consequences of a fall are highly magnified. The group becomes noticeably gripped and becomes silent during the final 50 vertical feet. The top of the line is not user-friendly as a three foot wide cornice hangs precariously above a two thousand foot express route to the Animas River below. From our precarious perch, we down climb a few feet, and I use my ax to carve out a ramp for the group to gear up. Once our gear is on, everyone exhales and the pucker factor is reduced a bit.
The first few turns are very calculated as the couloir is 8 feet wide, 50 degrees in pitch, firm and slightly off camber. We regroup in a safe spot above the ledge that presented us with the crux of the climb. From this vantage point, we have almost a thousand vertical feet of playground below our tips. After a few steep turns, the pitch mellows to 40 degrees and the width of the couloir feels massive after the drainpipe we skied at the top. The high consequence skiing is over, and I relax and let my skis run, making wall-to-wall GS turns. The snow isn’t epic, but it’s soft and I find an enjoyable rhythm that allows me to ski the gut unbroken. I pull into a safe spot below the last wall and watch Grady enjoy the fruits of his labor. He rips big turns coating the walls of the couloir with each carve. The ski out the apron is great, and we carry as much speed as possible across the flats to save some skinning. We reapply skins, nod to each other and smile.
Six weeks later the San Juans are suffering through a prolonged dry spell. After a near-record start to the winter, the faucets have run dry, and the range has been under a stingy ridge of high pressure. The downside to this weather pattern is that the snow surface is crap even on the highest north-facing slopes. The upside is that stability is pretty good, at least by San Juan standards.
The Zipper couloir faces due east and gets intense morning sun. Unlike the Naked Lady Couloir, the Turk sees many hours a day of direct sunshine. Finding a window to ski the Turk in optimal conditions is tough. I have done it a dozen times, and I found it only once in prime form. Due to the aspect and the solar intensity rock fall in the couloir is common, often creating deep runnels in the line making it unskiable some years.
We pull off the highway and have a good look up at Grand Turk (13,180’) and the imposing Zipper Couloir hanging nearly 3,000 feet above the road. We spy the line through binoculars, but the flat light makes it impossible for us to evaluate the condition of the couloir. After nearly a month straight of sunshine, we hear Murphy laugh as we start skinning beneath building clouds. The approach wastes no time in elevating my heart rate. The clouds have prevented the snow from softening, and we are fighting gravity as we skin across very firm side hill topography. The wind picks up and graupel stings my face as I continue upward.
After 1,000 feet of survival skinning, and multiple moonwalks I achieve the large basin that leads to the Zipper. The graupel turns to fat, feathery snowflakes and the sky begins to puke in earnest. In the time, it takes to skin across the basin the snow has started to accumulate. The three of us gather in the mouth of the couloir and dig a pit. The weeks of high pressure have created a cohesive and firm base. The wind howls as we huddle together to shield ourselves from the pounding snow. We glance up the Zipper and notice that the snow is cascading off the cliff walls and funneling into the couloir at a furious clip.
Once in the couloir, the massive walls provide a sanctuary from the raging squall. The steep pitch is ideal for climbing, and the falling temperature is the perfect contrast to my offset my heat building in my core. The blossoming excitement is nearly palpable and helps mask the fatigue in my legs.
About three-quarters of the way up the Zipper, the already narrow chute jogs a bit to the climbers left and constricts to a width that will demand that we are on our A-game during the descent. Pilot error here would create a human pinball that would require the ante of significantly more than a quarter.
Unlike the top of the Naked Lady couloir, the Zipper has ample real estate, and we take a few minutes to refuel and put on dry gloves. In the saddle, the wind blows hard as we make final adjustments from climbing mode to ski mode. As a reward for putting in more than his fair share of kick steps, Dylan gets to ski first. He drops in and puts a hard ski cut on the convex portion of the slope. A few inches of storm snow cascades down the couloir as Dylan pulls into a safe spot and flashes us a double thumbs-up. Although the microburst has only dropped an inch or two of snow, the topography of the couloir and the wind direction have filled in the line nicely.
The crux of the descent is the section where the couloir compresses and snakes skiers left. Usually, Dylan prefers figure 11’s to turning, but the shape and pitch of the Zipper demand very calculated turns with no margin for error. Dylan links a handful tight jump turns through a section no wider than 6 feet not seeming to be affected by visible lack of buffer between his tip, tails and the rock.
The snow continues to fall, but I can hear Grady and Dylan’s muted screams of satisfaction as they take turns skiing the final third of the couloir. As they disappear down the apron, I take a few extra minutes to reflect on the day and our unexpected treat. I know from this point I have almost 2,000 vertical feet left of skiing that will deliver me directly to my car door.
As we pull off our wet boots, we gaze back up toward the Zipper. The snow squall stops and within 5 minutes the clouds break up revealing occasional patches of brilliant blue sky. Each time I look at either Dylan or Grady I catch them craning their necks, looking up to admire the work done to the canvas stretched beneath the Grand Turk.
While the Naked Lady and Zipper couloirs will continue to be eye-candy for all those that travel the Million Dollar Highway, few will ever expend the effort needed to savor their sweetness.