After earning my turns in the backcountry of Southwest Colorado for more than two decades I fell like I have put at least a small dent in the skiable terrain around Silverton. Out of habit, I often find myself returning each year to ski the classic lines like Kendall Mountain, the Gnar Couloir or Lookout Peak. About a year ago a friend of mine, local ski guide Josh Kling, asked if I had ever skied the Turkey Chute. I told Josh that not only had I never skied it, but I had never even heard of it.
Josh mentioned that it was one of his favorites couloirs and relatively unknown given that was tucked away deep in an area known as Arrastra Gulch located a few miles east of Silverton. The couloir isn’t visible from the road and vehicle access into Arrastra is limited so it is protected from spying eyes of backcountry skiers. Josh said it was rumored to be called Turkey Chute given that it is usually in good shape for skiing by Thanksgiving each year. It was early December and while it had been a lean year for snow to date, Josh was confident that it would hold good snow and deliver the goods. With most of the classic San Juan lines still at low-tide I figured it was worth a try. We convinced Grady James to join our crew and our trio made plans for a 6am start the next morning.
As we dropped into Silverton from the top of Molas pass, we watched the temperature gauge in my car plummet from 7 degrees on the pass (10,810 feet) to -27 in Silverton (9,318 feet). We drove down an empty Main street in Silverton and turned onto Highway 110 and drove for a few miles before parking at the entrance to Arrastra Gulch. The spot is easy to find as a historic mining era cable car is strung across the road and up into the basin. The temperature had warmed to -25 and we spent about 15 minutes making idle chit-chat in the car before sucking it up and getting out to put on frozen boots and get the skin underway.
After a short walk down the road we reach a bridge crossing the Animas river still flowing but looking to be only a few more night away from being locked up for a winter’s nap. Conversation was non-existent as we were too cold to speak. After clicking into skis we began to skin the road which soon forked. The main road went directly into the Basin but Josh pointed to the right fork which followed a steep summer road into the old growth forest. Josh said that unlike most couloirs in the San Juans that you climb before skiing, this one wasn’t visible until you were standing on top ready to drop in.
We settled into a steady pace and spent the next hour putting one foot in front of the other and climbing about 1,500 vertical feet. As the road topped out we came to a clearing and could see an old skin track heading south into the basin. We followed the track for 15 minutes until we emerged from the trees and found ourselves at the bottom of an impressive basin flanked with imposing faces of snow and rock.
There was no easy option at this point to exit the lower basin. We had to climb about 500-600 vertical feet across steep terrain with some fairly significant danger looming above. We formulated a plan to move quickly, but also mitigate the danger of having more than one person at a time exposed. I worked as quickly as possible to put a skin track in on a steep wind-packed side hill traverse. Putting in the switchbacks was exhausting as I was exerting a lot of energy really trying to stomp in a solid platform to turn as a slip would have quickly cost me a few hundred vertical feet.
Once I was off the exposed face I waved my pole and Josh followed. Once into the upper basin, called Blair Gulch, the going was much easier as we followed the natural flow of the terrain and made great time. The long ridge of Hazelton Mountain dominated the left side of the basin. The opposing side of the basin was littered with small couloirs and steep lines that would be a worthy of another trip after a few more storm cycles laid down more coverage. Josh pointed to a small saddle on the ridge to our left about 500 feet aboveThe aspect was similar to the windpack I had already skinned so we decided that a bootpack might be more efficient and less stressful than another off camber skin track. The snow was perfect for supporting each step and the vertical peeled away quickly on the final pitch. I hit the saddle first and as I crested the ridge I found myself looking nearly 3,000 vertical feet down into the abyss of Turkey Chute and straight through all the way to the valley floor of Arrastra Gulch.
Josh and Grady pulled up soon after and we all took in the scene together. We all smiled and took a pull of water and fueled up with some food. It didn’t take long for the breeze blowing through the saddle to remind us that it was time to get down to business. The first 25 feet of the couloir was about 40 degrees but quickly steepens to better than 45 degrees just over a convexity in the slope. Josh down climbed to the convexity to dig a pit an analyze the snowpack. Although the winter had been below average to date, Josh found more than 60 inches of solid snowpack in his pit. The Turkey Chute faces northeast so it catches blowing snow from southwest winds and it has almost no daylight early season so it appeared that whatever snow it had collected has stuck around and formed a bomber base with a super chalky smooth surface.
The couloir itself is a bit more than 1,000 vertical feet. With cliff walls of close to 500 feet on both sides it was an impressive sight and one of the longest, most consistent couloirs I had stood atop in my twenty plus year of San Juan backcountry skiing. After a quick scan of the line we determined that the first safe zone to pullout was about 400 vertical feet down the couloir to the skiers right. I was the first to drop and I put a hard ski cut just above the convexity to check stability. The slope felt solid and I gained confidence with each turn. The snow was smooth and grippy and building a rhythm came quickly. It seemed so effortless that I had trouble corralling myself in time to pull into the tiny safe zone. I radioed up to Josh and mentioned that the pull out was probably only big enough for one person as a time. He said he might just ski the whole couloir and pull out skiers left after the chute was finished. After a minute I could hear the echo of turns and soon saw sluff pouring down the line. Josh came into view and arced a couple turn below me and then started to shrink as he made another 50+ turns before pulling out of view to the skiers left. Grady skied the upper section and pulled up just above me and with a tag I was off to ski the next section. We skied to Josh and exchanged tired smiles of satisfaction.
Now we were looking at another 1,500 feet of perfectly pitched apron covered with settled dense powder leading to an icy stream shimmering in the midday sunlight. Legs were tired, but the turns still happened in roughly the area we were trying to make them. As we came to the last 500 vertical feet the snow became pretty sugary, shallower and it quickly became apparent that there were many sharks lurking just below the surface. It was time for survival skiing and self-preservation. We stopped about 100 feet above the creek to look back up at the Turkey Chute and savor the bounty we had just shared.
As we made our way to the creek we found a long section of wind packed snow on the left side of the creek making for a quick egress out of the drainage. I quickly gained confidence and with it some speed. I was thinking to myself that the exit would be much quicker than expected. I was pulling away from Josh and Grady and feeling pretty good about my pole position. As quickly as confidence was gained it was lost courtesy of a large rock lurking a few inches beneath the snowpack. I did a double heel eject followed by a slow speed front headspring (like a handspring but planting only your head instead of your hands). Once I stopped I did the mandatory “Am I hurt” examination and realized that little more than my pride was damaged. I walked back to my skis, admired the matching core shots and clicked back in for a much slower paced ski back out of the canyon. After 10 minutes I hit the road the closed our loop and brought me back to where we started. We retraced our steps back up to the car and pulled a few malt-pops from the snowbank that had been strategically placed when we started our adventure some 4 hours before. As my thirst was being quenched I began to reflect on the day and found myself excited about the prospect of finding even more treasures like this here in the San Juans in the coming years. Hunting for new terrain is always exciting, and finding new nuggets like the Turkey Chute are what the search is all about.