A born-and-raised Nederland local bikes to ski a peak as a way to bond with a friend, asses his own tendency to overdo it, and celebrate the pure joy of the place he calls home.
I’m shivering as I stare down into Starlight, a couloir gouged in the massive cliff face of 13,301-foot James Peak. I’m warm enough; a slight wind blows from the north and adds a little chill to the air, but the day is sunny. It’s my legs that shake as I take in the features of this steep alpine line— the cornice built up above the couloir, the mandatory downclimb to enter the route—and above it all, the clouds, dark and swollen with rain, that are forming rapidly over the Indian Peaks.
Shit, I think, I’m in over my head.
I’m on a multi-day, bike-to-ski-mountaineering trip in Colorado’s Front Range with Kale Lantz, a friend I’ve known since we were children. Both Kale, 18, and I, 20, were lucky to have grown up in Nederland, Colorado, a few miles west of Boulder, ski racing and mountain biking. Throughout our childhood, both sets of our parents instilled in us a love of mountain sports and the great outdoors. Now, as we start our own journeys into different mountains, in search of bigger lines and deeper snow, we want to explore the range we grew up in. Hence my idea to go on this trip. We hope to combine biking and ski touring to embrace our home mountains before we move on to the next chapters in our lives.
On a sunny spring morning last May, Kale and I loaded our bikes with our skis and camping gear, and set off south toward St. Mary’s Glacier.
Now, two days into the trip, as I stand on the hulking shoulder of James Peak, I can’t help but feel out of my depth. After making sure no one is ascending the couloir below me, I throw a couple stones into the chute.
They land in powdery, wind-deposited snow, as high clouds prevented the surface snow from freezing overnight. I begin to feel uneasy—I haven’t gotten much sleep and my legs are sore from the 50 miles we’ve pedaled (and pushed) our beastly rigs. Now that the couloir seems unsafe to ski, I’m uncertain of how to proceed. We can’t just drop in, since a small cornice has built up above it. The only way in would be to strap our skis to our packs and down-climb into the couloir. The mountain seems hunched over, glaring.
I look behind me and see that Kale has made it to the saddle where I parked my skis. He clicks out of his bindings and walks over, and I tell him what I’m thinking. He nods as he gazes down into our objective. He suggests that we might try another couloir on James, but soon enough, we decide to ski off the summit.
I have always had a knack for being overly ambitious on trips like these—just ask my adventure buddies. They’ll tell you about the time we ran out of water deep in Canyonlands, in the middle of June, and had to bail out on day two of our planned four-day trip. Or the time we went bikepacking in the San Juans thinking we’d spend the night in a hut, only to find that the hut we were looking for (that I had recommended) had been removed almost a decade earlier, forcing us to spend a frigid night under the stars. Or the time my mom and I shivered through the night in Death Valley in December, after I suggested we bring only our summer-weight bags (since, you know…it’s Death Valley…one of the hottest places on Earth).
Now I can add this trip to my list of misadventures. I’ve started to notice a pattern: I think of a cool idea, obsessively plan it out, leave out one (or several) crucial steps, and get myself into tight spots. Even if the factors are largely out of my control, like the weather creating scary snow conditions, reality often likes to smack me across my happy-go-lucky face.
I think it’s important to tell stories of defeat and failure. We live in a culture that almost fetishizes success—and yes, it may sound like I’m defending my occasional poor decision-making and ill-preparedness. But I’ve learned from these adventures. The most important lessons? Cut your losses, make decisions that will bring you home safe, and appreciate the journey, setbacks and all. Kale and I could have dropped into that couloir, and it may have been incredible skiing, but I feel more fulfilled having called it and skiing a safer line.
I thought about this as we ripped off our skins on James’s summit. From there, you can look to the north, south, and west, and see snow-capped mountains extending out of sight in one direction and the Great Plains fading into obscurity in another. Kale and I grinned as we pointed our skis downhill and dropped in, making huge arcing turns down the open face. I felt good, and I forgot the fatigue and fear I felt as I looked into the couloir. We skied to the open field that lies between the peak and St Mary’s Glacier, near where we’d made our camp. We carried our speed, flying through the openness we’d trudged through only a few hours earlier. The clouds that I’d seen forming to the north had made their way to us, and as we passed underneath them, we’re unexpectedly met with light snow. The moment was surreal and beautiful, and I felt lucky to be in it.
Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia and one of my biggest role models, said in the film 180 Degrees South that “the word adventure has gotten overused… for me, when everything goes wrong, that’s when the adventure starts.” I can relate to that quote. In an era where Instagram has become the way most people see the outdoors, I have noticed that the concept of “adventures” has shifted from a journey of self discovery and pushing limits to glorifying being super rad and conquering whatever objectives a person has.
I fell into this mentality as I planned for my big adventure. “Oh yeah,” I told myself, “it’s gonna be totally dope to ride our bikes to sick lines, and everything is going to be perfect.” Yet when it came down to it, with the unstable weather, the chafe from my bike shorts chamois, and my sleeping pad that didn’t quite stay inflated, I realized I wasn’t having as much fun as I thought I would—and that bothered me. But as the trip wore on and I took more time to reflect on my feelings, I realized that not every journey is meant to pan out the way you want it to. Chouinard is right, the word adventure is overused. Perhaps its true meaning has been lost amongst the social media posts and REI ads that saturate the outdoor industry.
When Kale and I make it back to our camp, we are tired but happy. We spend the rest of the day napping, playing cards, and telling stories. When dusk begins to settle into the forest around us, we walk from our tents to St, Mary’s Lake, still mostly frozen over, to filter water and watch the sunset. The stooping bristlecone pines on the lake’s shore seem to contemplate our insignificant conversation. A lone bird sings in the darkening forest, calling an end to the day as Kale and I shuffle back down to the tents.
I slide into my sleeping bag, thinking of tomorrow, when we’ll load our bikes with our gear and ride north to Nederland, and from there to Brainard Lake. No, I think to myself, we didn’t ski the most rowdy line today. And yes, we are now planning on skiing Mt. Toll, a more mellow objective to compensate for the scary snowpack. But this has been a true adventure; one with physical discomfort, disappointment, and personal growth. I now feel that I have a deeper respect and appreciation of the mountains I was so lucky to grow up in. I also have a rekindled inspiration to keep chasing adventures, to keep learning from my mistakes, to draw on each lesson, and to see what frontiers I can reach. And what can possibly be lost when you spend time in the woods with a lifelong friend, using bikes to access skiing?
Not one thing, I think. A soft wind ruffling through the trees sends me to sleep.