This post is part of our 2018 Winter Road Trip.
The Vail Pass area, like many backcountry skiing zones in Colorado, is hiding in plain sight. The parking area sits right at the top of I-70; with Dillon, Silverthorne, and Frisco to the east and Vail and the rest of Eagle County to the west. Like Berthoud Pass and Loveland Pass, it’s well-known to backcountry travelers, but resort riders could whizz by for years without so much as stopping to see what all the fuss is about (that was us before this outing!).
However, Vail Pass has a lot to offer a willing backcountry adventurer. Unlike Berthoud and Loveland, it doesn’t hug a highway to allow for car shuttling or hitchhiking-aided laps. Instead, the huge expanse of terrain accessible from the main lot requires a bit more work to explore, so really getting the most from the area might require a snowmobile, an overnight trip to one of the area’s 10th Mountain Division huts, or a longer day excursion.
Given our slow recovery from whatever illness we had picked up on the way back from Taiwan, we decided to inaugurate our North American winter season with a very modest tour: a 2-3 mile loop that would take us along the Shrine Pass Road snowmobile track, up to a ridge facing the highway, down to Black Lake to the east, then back up the frontage road to our car. When we arrived on Thursday, January 4th, we found the parking area mostly empty and the Forest Service booth unattended, with a mix of snowmobilers, snowshoers, and skiers making their way along the trails.
The route was very easy to navigate, plus we got to try out a new tool along the way. Using an iPhone app called Avenza Maps, we were able to import PDF maps of the area from CalTopo (our favorite route planning tool) that included key info we needed – outline of our route, slope angle shading, contour lines, major landmarks, etc. – for use with GPS location, so that we could see our position plotted on the map in real time. The tour was pleasantly unremarkable: mild sunny weather, a few soft turns, bushwhacking on the way out, and some misadventures as we tried to dial in GoPro filming using our self-gifted Christmas present, an image-stabilizing gimbal.
Given the ease of navigation, relatively good snow (there hadn’t been a storm for 10 days at this point, but there was soft stuff around), and short duration/distance, we returned on Saturday, Jan 6, to take our friend Tracy on her maiden splitboard voyage. She is the proud owner of an awesome homemade splitboard, lovingly crafted by her dad this winter from an old Volkswagen(!) promotional snowboard. When we arrived around 9:30 AM, the parking lot was a bit busier and the Forest Service attendants were on hand to collect the $6/person day use fee and distribute these handy maps of the area.
As we started up the trail, Tracy was wowed by the magic of splitboard skins (“How am I not sliding backwards right now!?!”) and practiced some deep lunge technique with Teresa. We crested the ridge a bit farther south, following satellite imagery’s suggestion that we might find trees that were a bit more open top-to-bottom in this sector. The first pitch down from the ridge was a bit steeper and more open than we are accustomed to, but the combination of low avalanche danger in that morning’s CAIC bulletin, relatively moderate slope (28-30 degrees), lack of cohesive slab formation, and absence of consequential terrain traps below led us to give it the green light.
The snow was still good up high, the bushwhacking comical in the middle, and the lower terrain a bit more open and enjoyable as we descended all the way down to the Black Lakes. While some ice fisherman deemed the lake’s ice thickness suitable for their purposes, the unknown made us a bit uneasy, so we threw skins on and skirted the lake back to the road. A short walk up to the car as flakes started to fall and we had successfully completed Tracy’s first splitboard mission!