Sometimes the danger is part of the allure.
High in the San Juans, the steep white gash of the Mongoose opens at the top of the north face of 12,800-foot Reconnoiter Peak. The line spirals down a 1,000-foot couloir, pinches into a 45-degree slot—the likely trigger zone should the slope unleash—and then spills out into a broad avalanche cone that collects snow blown off the top of the peak, piling up some of the deepest, freshest, lightest powder this side of paradise.
I had been staring at the Mongoose for several days, wanting and not wanting to do it, arguing with myself over whether it was safe or unsafe, sane or insane. And now, true to form, I’m standing at the top, peering down into it, trying to get a read on it, psyching myself up for it.
“I’m going down first,” says Joe Ryan, owner of the San Juan Hut system. A lean, leathery ex-guide in his late 50s, Joe has notched first descents throughout the range and across North America.
I nod and fit my boots into my tele bindings, careful not to let the skis slip. I had removed the runaway straps on Joe’s recommendation—the skis could pull me into a slide. I test the snow with my poles, breathe deep and pray to Our Lady of the Perpetually Stable Snowpack.
Is this a great idea or really, really stupid?
The San Juans have some of lightest, driest snow in Colorado—and some of the least stable. Having skied the range for 25 years, Joe’s survived his share of avalanches. He’s cool and calculating in evaluating the snowpack, scoffing at the conventional approach of digging pits in favor of “feeling the slope,” skiing up to it, poking it with a pole, muttering about it and to it. He’s a snow whisperer.
“White marble,” he says, indicating the snow at the top of the Mongoose. Unconsolidated spindrift has blown off the ridge and landed on top of the hard wind slab, making for good turns, but a spooky base. He pokes through the slab with his pole.
“Sounds drummy.” The hollow layer could collapse. “Wait until I get down there.”
Joe makes quick, effective, hopping parallel turns, working back and forth like a windshield wiper—controlled, rhythmic, methodical. He stops at a side gulley.
“Take a few turns,” he shouts. “Then stop, look, listen.”
“Will do,” I say. “Here I go!”
When I had booked this four-day trip at the San Juan Hut system several months earlier, I had no intention of descending the Mongoose. The plan was to ski as much powder as possible. Once I made the reservation, I assembled a team of ski buddies—Mike, Tom, Mark and Jon. Most of us are in our 40s now, with wives and families. We relish getting out into the woods to blow off steam and wear ourselves out without pushing the limits too far. I’ve ratcheted back my appetite for risk as I spend more time managing my kids’ science fair projects and less time in the backcountry. But even the best of intentions can crumble when I spot a really magnificent line.
We started out by skinning to the Ridgway Hut. One of five huts in the San Juan Huts system, it provides access to the most varied and advanced ski terrain. The next day, we toured to the Cobra, a 40-degree chute stuffed with powder, but Joe warned us off it. Instead, he skirted to the left, descended 100 yards, found a spot behind a grove of alpine firs and assessed the snowpack.
The powder was 12 inches deep, with a hollow slab underneath. Joe poked through the slab with his pole, exposing unconsolidated snow beneath.
“Try to ski it gently!” he shouted up to Mark.
Mark cranked a few tight turns, then caught a tip and took a header. The slope didn’t crack, shudder or release. He got up, dusted himself off, and continued.
“We tested that slope,” Joe said, grinning. “No need to dig a pit. Just send the telemarker down!”
We continued down the side of the chute. Joe went first, checking things out. I was impressed with Joe’s care in reading the snow. He seemed to know what he was doing.
That night we cooked a big pasta dinner, talked about the day’s skiing and caught up about wives, ex-wives, families and kids. We regaled each other with stories from previous trips and strategized about trips to come. Then Joe started talking up the Mongoose. “It’s a stimulating climb and approach,” he said. “The views are spectacular. I’m not a used car salesman, but it’s an amazing ski.”
He knew exactly what buttons to push.
The next day, we headed up toward the Mongoose. At the ridge leading up Reconnoiter Peak, we scoped out the approach. The wind picked up, blowing ice and snow across the face. I was breathing hard from the altitude and didn’t like the look of the weather. I decided to forgo the Mongoose and ski the trees with Mark and Jon.
“I’ll check it out for you,” Joe said.
Later that evening, when he arrived back at the cabin, his cheeks were flush, his blue eyes bright with excitement. “I thought of my daughter and a few women … and then dropped in,” he said. “It was the goods.”
The sun was dazzling as we skinned up toward the ridge the next morning. After three days at altitude, my body was starting to acclimatize. I felt fresh, energetic, primed to push higher.
Tom, Mark and Mike peeled off to ski the lower end of Mongoose. Joe, Jon and I headed up to the ridge, planning to drop into the top of the couloir. We retraced our skin tracks, gaining the ridge quickly. At the top, we headed up to the shoulder of Reconnoiter Peak. We lashed our skis to our packs. Steep snow gave way to a rock ledge plastered with ice. Joe used the rock above for handholds and worked his way toward the shoulder. I followed. Jon came next, moving warily.
“I’m going to bail,” Jon said finally.
Joe kept going, following a steep line to the left of a rock band. The snow was as unconsolidated as granulated sugar, the rock broken and shattered. It didn’t look appealing, especially in tele boots, but I kept going, wanting a shot at the Mongoose.
Below the ridge top, we came to a short steep step of snow and rock. Balancing on ski poles, I tip-toed up the ramp, fitting the tips of the boots into the toeholds. After 30 feet, I reached a rock ledge, grabbed a handhold, and then shoved my ski poles up ahead of me. I climbed the rock and moved the poles higher. I tried not to think too hard about what I was doing or why. Finally, I mantled over the last ledge and breathing hard, hauled my ass over the top.
Joe followed, barely seeming to exert himself.
Then we ascended a short, steep step to gain the broad back of Reconnoiter Peak. After riveting my attention on the rock and snow in front of me, it was a relief to see the horizon open out in all directions. The Sneffels Range rose to our right, a ripsaw ridge of peaks and steep couloirs just waiting to be climbed and skied. As we kept going, the views broadened to the La Sal Mountains and Grand Mesa to the north. The high, blue, windless skies seemed to go on forever.
When we arrived at the top of the Mongoose it was hard to see how steep it was. I’d just have to take Joe’s word for it. My heart was pumping as we worked our way down the loose scree at the top of the couloir. The slot was cold, silent, a vertical meat-locker. I was in the Mongoose.
Joe calls for me to come down. I stem-christie the first turn, bringing my left leg out and around, un-weighting my right, trying to skim over the surface powder without gouging into the slab. I repeat the sequence with my right leg, plowing through the six inches of snow on top.
I stop, look, listen. No cracks. No fissures. No whumps. Nothing but the sound of my breathing, unnaturally loud in the stillness. Joe claimed the couloir did not have “a high pucker factor.” I beg to differ. I keep going, making tight, careful, fear-jagged turns. The couloir widens to 50 feet, but I hug the right side, not wanting to disturb the slope any more than necessary.
“Wait there,” Joe calls up to me. “When I tell you, move down to where I am now.”
He descends further, then stops above the crux, a 60-degree slope, where the couloir narrows to 25 feet and bulges out in a convex arc, the most likely trigger point for a slide.
Joe had explained the physics of it on the way up. The continental snowpack is especially treacherous in the San Juan Mountains. It snows in September, and then the snow lies on the ground and rots out. The crystals lose their cohesion and become like sugar snow or ball bearings. Then it snows again over this weak layer, which makes a defined bed surface which can trigger an avalanche.
Working deliberately, Joe side-slips down it. I wait above, wondering what I’ll do if does slide.
“Yo!” he yells a minute later.
It’s my turn. I make short, ugly parallel turns, skimming through the powder and feeling the slab below, tight as a drumhead. At the trigger zone, I side-slip, not wanting to risk a fall. Exiting, I heave a big sigh of relief. Our Lady of the Perpetually Stable Snowpack was listening.
“Let’s ski down to the end of that low ridge,” Joe says. “Careful, there’s hardpack under the powder.” He takes off, cutting tight curlicues in the light snow. The couloir widens out to a huge avalanche fan. The thrill and intensity of the chute ease, but this terrain is also slide-prone.
Joe stops and calls for me to come down. Picking up speed, I work back and forth, inscribing wide arcs in the soft snow, my thighs straining, my lungs heaving, the skis chattering and whispering beneath me.
When I reach Joe, I stop and look back up at the Mongoose. It glows like an apparition in the late afternoon light.
“That was amazing!” I say.
“The danger is part of the allure,” he says, beaming. “You see what you can get away with. We didn’t get caught.”
The danger indeed—the fierce, heart-pumping intensity of the couloir and the cool head Joe had displayed in skiing it.
We hit the textured, wind-rippled powder next, the small wavelets looking like the side of a mackerel. Joe turns on the windshield wipers. I follow, opening up my stance, matching my turns to the terrain, moving left, moving right, whacking one fir tree, glancing off another. The powder billows around me like a halo.
I keep going, faster and faster and faster, the trees blurring by me, grinning as if I’ve gotten away with something, channeling the fierceness of the Mongoose and trying to bring it all back into the world below. •
Nick O’Connell contributes to Outside, National Geographic Adventure and Newsweek, and teaches for The Writer’s Workshop (thewritersworkshop.net).
To set up a trip, contact the San Juan Hut System at 970-626-3033, firstname.lastname@example.org, sanjuanhuts.com