Urban First Descent - Skiing the Second Flatiron
Boulder’s Second Flatiron is usually teeming with climbers all year long. But during the snowiest month on record, our intern went and skied it. Sort of.
Sometimes the conversations the night before a ski mission can dictate the outcome of the day. Like when the word shenanigans gets thrown around a lot, or someone suggests something so stupid that the other two start calling him names. Rewind to February 2015, the snowiest month ever on record in Boulder. It snowed for so many days straight that a new hashtag emerged on social media, #skiboulder. The whole city was slowed to a crawl for weeks, so much so that it actually made sense to ski around town.
Local legends were putting up new lines in the hills around town, slaying every urban rail in sight, making turns down Mt. Sanitas, in Boulder Canyon, and even down the First Flatiron. Well, my friend Andrey and I decided why not give it a shot ourselves? The line down the First seemed ridiculous, and besides, it had been skied already and had caused quite the uproar in the community. The Third was off limits due to the seasonal raptor closure, and besides, its line, called 1911 Gully, had been skied a few years prior. What was left? The Second.
The big question remained: Did anyone have any beta on skiing anything up there? Had it ever been done before? Our evening of research turned up no results. I even called Austin Porzak, pioneer of the line down the First, and he admitted that he wanted to ski it and call it first descent himself.
The snow kept falling.
My alarm rang at 5 on the morning of March 5th; Andrey was already waiting outside, presumably not having slept after getting off work at the St. Julien only a few hours before. Game time.
I grabbed my pack that I had hastily stuffed with gear the night before. In it was my harness, helmet, a load of webbing, ice tools, crampons, and some rock gear. We left avvy gear in the car, because we would not have any use for it up there. Full disclosure: We had no idea what to bring, so we brought pretty much everything. Andrey had two 70 meter half ropes, a snow picket, more rock gear, and ascenders. We figured that we would figure out skiing on belay on the fly if we had to.
Getting to the Chautauqua parking lot around 5:30, we were greeted by two other parties gearing up to go skiing. What? Where the hell did they think they were going? One party wanted to say screw the rules and attempt the 1911 gully, the other just wanted to head up Green Mountain.
We set off at a brisk pace, as it was already getting hot even as the sun was just cresting the eastern horizon. Probing around the snow with our poles, we estimated it to be about two feet deep at the base of the Chautauqua meadow. Sweet. If it was that deep up high we might actually have a chance at our line. Wait, did we even have a line? Eh, we were up for an adventure either way.
We skinned to the bottom of the rock face, where one would usually put on climbing shoes, and looked up at a beautiful snow-covered face. It was steep, but we reckoned it would go if we hurried up and just went for it.
After making it up most of the trail on skins, we had to bootpack the top few switchbacks, which was easy work. At this point, the sun was starting to beat down on us. Looking up, there was not a single cloud in the Colorado morning sky. It was beautiful, in a way that carried a hidden warning: Get moving, or else it will all melt away. Skiing off the true summit was impossible, since the upper part of the mountain is actually a separate, detached block. We put on our harnesses and threw a loop of webbing around a tree to rig our first belay. I clicked into my skis, and peered over the edge.
Boom! Steep. Really, really steep. I contemplated making that first turn for what felt like a lifetime. I couldn't do it. This was the kind of terrain where the snow only stuck to the face by sheer willpower. Gravity and friction had nothing to do with it. I couldn’t do it.
I called back up to Andrey, who was sitting 30 feet overhead, and said I had no intention of making any turns because the whole entire face would slide. We switched places, and he came to the same conclusion. Thirty minutes wasted.
Okay, time to rappel into the gully 30 feet below us. We rigged our lines, and rappelled over the edge into the gully that defines the regular climbing route after the famous jump move.
To our utter surprise, the gully contained enough snow to actually ski it. We pulled our ropes and clicked back into our skis. The first three turns were so satisfying, even though they may have been the sloppiest jump turns ever made by a human. This is what Neil Armstrong must have felt like bouncing around on the moon in the ’60s. Andrey followed suit, even managing to link five or six without stopping. The stoke level skyrocketed.
We were still about 300 feet off the ground, with no real idea on how to get down in the rapidly melting snow. Our chances were literally melting away beneath our feet. So to save time, we rigged two more rappels to get through sections whose skiability we doubted, then made some more turns down through the wooded section on the skiers right side of the face. These turns were almost enjoyable again, as the snow was stable and not super sticky like what we had encountered earlier.
One final rappel led us to the exit gully at the bottom of the Flatiron, which contained some fun boulder drops and deep turns. We made it to the bottom of the line at around 10 a.m. Looking back up at the face, we noticed how much snow had already melted off. The once in a blue moon chance to ski something like this had melted away in a matter of hours. Good thing we gave it our best shot.
Ripping turns through the trees back down to the parking lot felt utterly amazing, even with tired legs and brains. Figuring out the logistics of a day like this makes you tired, even when most of it is spent rappelling and not actually skiing.
I would not call it what we did a first descent, merely an attempt at one. That is, if nobody has successfully done it before us anyway.