Snowboarding America’s Mountain
If you’ve ever lived near a mountain, then you understand how you can form a bond with the peak, like a silent friendship. It’s often an observational relationship, in which you study its face, emotions, and moods. These features are mostly determined by the seasons and the weather, but also by details that are revealed to you over time — lighting on a slope, or how the snow always collects on a lone ridge. At a certain point, you feel a connection, even closeness, to it. The mountain becomes a marker for your life, a bearing, a welcoming sight when returning from a trip. Merely being in its presence provides you with a source of comfort. But nothing simultaneously enriches and challenges the relationship like actually stepping foot on the mountain. In fact, one sole encounter can forever change your perception.
One mountain in particular, Pikes Peak, has been grabbing attention since the first non-native people passed through its region. The state’s second-largest city, Colorado Springs, is located off its eastern flank, as if to pay homage to the only 14er directly on the Front Range. Open to passenger vehicles, it is one of the most visited mountains in Colorado, cresting the half-a-million people mark in 2018.
Growing up in the mountains of Colorado, my memory of Pikes Peak is like a chapter book of different experiences — like riding up the Cog Railway with my grade school class, and my grandmother buying me ice cream at the summit gift shop. But when curiosity drew me across the parking lot toward the north face, Grandma apprehensively collected me from the edge, knowing very well that only a narrow patch of dirt separated the civility of the pavement from the full severity of the steep and rocky face.
Many years later, my best friend opened a new chapter for me when he invited me to snowboard down that same face with him. Colin Murphy and I had been riding expert terrain together for decades, climbing and snowboarding down several of the state’s harder 14ers. On each of these adventures, we would seek out difficult and committing descents to fulfill our thrill-seeking urge. Despite our combined experience, descending Pikes Peak with this ethos is considered far beyond what is safe, or even sane, by most skiers and snowboarders.
At the north end of the Pikes Peak summit parking lot, the Y-Couloir offers a 2,200 vertical-foot elevator-shaft decent down its rocky face. It’s a cliff zone that offers a few narrow and barely continuous runnels of snow that eventually spill out gently to a small serene meltwater lake in the open depression below, known as The Bottomless Pit. To tip the nose of your board off the top of something that steep takes wisdom, experience, skill, and balls of steel.
Pikes Peak also offers slightly less extreme skiing and snowboarding options. Down the highway from the summit, at approximately 12,500 feet, the North Side Couloirs is a popular area in the spring, usually after the closure of resorts. Experienced skiers and boarders gather there to test their metal in steep and rocky chutes such as Little Italy, The Chimney, and The Bowl, often hitchhiking back to the top drop-off point.
The day that Colin and I had planned to board the Y-Couloir from the summit, we decided to start with some warm-up laps in the lower zone. Between The Bowl and The Chimney is a series of three very narrow and steep chutes called the Flying W, named after a local Colorado Springs landmark ranch. Here, there is barely enough width between the rock walls to make turns at all, on a streak of snow that gets increasingly steeper toward the bottom until you are forced to take a 15-foot drop off a small cliff at the exit of the chute. The reward is an apron of snow that opens up to the flat area down by the road. A fall in those chutes would most likely result in your body ping-ponging down the remainder of it. It’s nothing less than serious, as people have died in the area from such falls.
After a few fun runs through the W’s, we drove the remainder of the gravel road to the summit. Immediately after we geared up and dropped in the Y-Couloir, the casual busyness of the summit was gone; it was just the two of us and the perfect spring snow sluffing away under our boards. The turns in our sheer no-fall-zone chute came quick and easy, and the route was direct. The soft, bright snow contrasted with the steep, dark rock walls of the couloir, while a gorgeous Front Range landscape fell away in a vertical panorama, thousands of feet below. Our rich experience in high alpine backcountry had taught us to periodically rendezvous at safety points to verify navigation and conditions. The riding was incredible, and we enjoyed each controlled-fall turn on the 45-degree slope, the buttery snow giving way to the power of our boards.
Y-Couloir is named as such because two upper chutes merge into a single passage that leads to the bottom. Having elected to descend the skier’s right-hand side of the Y, we were faced with a rocky drop-off, just before it connected to the bottom channel. We knew this meant executing a 20-foot mandatory jump at the chokepoint, and it was actually the reason we chose that side of the Y, fueling our desire for adventure and adrenaline. Fortunately, we both landed our airs and made sweet turns down the fun run out to the bottom.
After stopping above The Bottomless Pit and exchanging high fives, we strapped our boards to our backpacks for the return ascent. With roughly 2,200 vertical feet between us and the truck, we set out on our climb up the steep alpine chute. Despite the benefits of sun, music, and friendship, the grueling workout still required us to manage pace, heart rate, breathing, and balance.
Colin, being the fit mountain-monkey that he was, had a hundred-yard lead on me after the first 1,000 vertical feet of the climb. He took his usual “French rest” style break (where he packs up and resumes progress the second I make it to the rest point), justifying himself by pointing at the clouds in the distance. Spring in the Rockies can bring a wide range of conditions, even in a matter of a few hours. The gathering clouds, though dark, were still far north of us, somewhere near Denver, but the average pace of progress climbing up such a slope is typically about 1,000 vertical feet per hour. Colin knew this, and having previously had close encounters with lightning, wanted to go faster.
I, on the other hand, was maxing out and couldn’t push my pace much more. Not one to leave a friend, this frustrated him. Normally, when we climb and ride 14ers, if the conditions should deteriorate, we would simply make the call, strap on our boards, and ride down to a safe elevation to try again another day. But in the inverted case of drivable Pikes Peak, our vehicle awaited us at the top rather than the bottom, and so we continued our hard-charge upwards.
Before too long, I could hear the thunder over the music of my earbuds. Sure enough, the clouds were forming into a thunderhead and were headed our direction. Gritting my teeth, and ignoring the fire in my legs, I pushed harder. Not long after, I could hear Colin yelling at me to put my rear in gear. Twenty minutes of me gasping the response “NO!” to his now obnoxious request of carrying my board for me had our friendship-tension at its max. My ego couldn’t stomach him carrying my board, though my lungs argued otherwise. Knowing I would never hear the end of it, but also hearing the thunder, I finally relinquished my board to him, mostly just to get a break from his annoying demands. He strapped it on his pack next to his own and took off in a sprint.
Five minutes later, I looked up to see Colin standing at the top, peering down with a camera. “Smile,” he laughed. I had been tricked! While the storm was still at a relatively safe distance, the top had been right there. He took immense pleasure in immortalizing my momentary capitulation in photographs. The nerve! Seconds later, we were laughing and hugging in the parking lot, with me swearing how it was the last time I would ever give him my board.
A few years later, driving south from Denver on a fine spring day, I pointed to the north face of Pikes Peak rising up in the center of the windshield and told my kids the story. In Colorado, it’s often our mountain experiences with friends that give them their true appeal. Before my snowboarding adventure with Colin, it had always just been a dramatically picturesque vertical rock-and-snow face. Since then, however, I had developed another intimate connection with the mountain, and a favorite memory to bring it to life.
Words and Photos by Zach Reynolds
Snowboarding wasn’t invented here, but Colorado has a deep connection with the sport. The first official snowboard competition was held in April 1981 at Ski Cooper, near Leadville. Jake Burton (founder of Burton Snowboards) and Tom Sims (founder of Sims Snowboards) were both competitors in this contest.
Other highlights of Colorado’s snowboarding history:
- In 1985, Breckenridge Ski Resort was the first in Colorado to welcome snowboarding on its slopes. Aspen Mountain was last, finally allowing it in April 2001.
- Crested Butte Mountain Resort has been home to the U.S. Extreme Snowboarding Championships since its inaugural competition in 1992.
- More than three-quarters of the Winter X Games have been held in Colorado. Since the inaugural 1997 Games in Big Bear Lake, California, Crested Butte has hosted the event twice (1998 and 1999) and Aspen has hosted it for 18 consecutive years (2002 to 2019).
- In 2013, after being held on the East Coast for 30 years, the Burton U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships moved to Vail Ski Resort where the event has since remained.
- Colorado is also home to many of the sport’s top athletes, including 2018 Olympic men’s slopestyle gold medalist, Red Gerard, who lives in Silverthorne.
For more information, visit the Colorado Snowsports Museum (snowsportsmuseum.org) in Vail.