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Bentgate Silverton Sickdays 2015

There’s nothing quite like Bentgate’s Silverton Sickdays. Customers, Industry Reps and Bentgate staff head down to Silverton Colorado for a trip packed with fun, including a private ski day on Silverton Mountain with apres ski parties in historic Silverton CO and a chance to ride with pro athletes in the beautiful San Juan Mountains.

SSD3-GregsGroup
On day one the sky was blue and sunny and the guides did an amazing job of finding fresh turns for us even though there wasn’t much new snow. As always, the heli rides were epic, the views incredible and the turns untouched. Read more →

Making the Switch; Duckbill to Duckbutt

For me, the final straw was medical bills. I had told myself “I’ll switch to NTN next season” for about three seasons, but this year I finally made the swap. There are countless reasons to upgrade to NTN but the kicker for me was having a *releasable* binding. In an unusually moment of rationality, it dawned on me that the cost of new boots and bindings would be significantly less than that of potential knee surgeries and physical therapy sessions that could follow a crash while using non-releasable bindings. In a more grave scenario, the difference could be life or death; While it sounds dramatic, releasing from my skis in the case of an avalanche could be the deciding factor in whether I stay afloat or am buried deeply enough that a timely rescue is not likely. Since I don’t plan on crashing hard or getting caught in a slide, it’s a good thing that the NTN system both skis and tours better than any classic 75mm setup I have used.

 

The difference between 75mm and NTN

ntn binding

“New Telemark Norm”

22 designs axl tele binding

“75mm Nordic Norm”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NTN or “new telemark norm” is a total departure from the nordic norm standard that has been in use since about 1927. Instead of using cables, springs, or cartridges to create tension on the heal of a boot, NTN bindings create tension on a “second heel” or duckbutt. This system allows for the use of an NTN specific boot which loses the duckbill and allows for a safety release while also eliminating opportunities for slop and lateral play present in most 75mm binding systems.

 

The benefits of NTN

Currently Rottefella is the only manufacturer in the NTN market, so these benefits will be somewhat specific to the Rottefella Freedom and Freeride models; However, we can expect to see 22 Designs enter the market next year and hopefully more competition to follow. The most universal benefit from the NTN system is the power: Without long cables extending to the very heel of the boot, power can be delivered instantly and without lateral slop. Excepting the Bishop 2.0 telemark binding, Rottefella’s NTN bindings are the most powerful bindings on the market.

As mentioned previously, these bindings release. It’s not a true DIN setting, but the possibility of a release is better than many of the other options available. And unlike some of the releasable bindings of yesteryear, you can just pop your boot back into the binding; no need to go through a  complicated binding reset. If and when you do release from a binding, there are finally brakes to stop the ski; No need to fuss with leashes, no reason to tremble in fear of dropping a ski when clipping in on a slope.

Speaking of clipping in, that’s much easier too. While the NTN system does not yet offer a true step in, it is significantly easier and quicker to get into an NTN binding than any popular 75mm binding: Step your boot into the binding and push down on the toe piece to tension the springs around the “duckbutt.” No need to bend over.

There are several other benefits to the NTN systems, such as boot crampon compatibility and touring feel, but these are some of the most noteworthy improvements.

 

Making the Switch

It may take some people several days to get used to an NTN setup and it may take others just a few runs. An NTN system flexes differently than the standard 75mm system: Power comes from closer to the balls of your feet, and less from the toes; And powerful is a very good word to describe these bindings. I used to ski my hammerhead bindings on the 5th pin setting for a very stiff an active feel, and when I first stepped into my NTN system and flexed the system on the shop floor I was worried about how little stiffness there seemed to be. I felt like I could flex the bellows too easily, so I cranked the springs to the stiffest setting. On the snow, I quickly regretted this decision; While my springs felt soft on the floor, on snow they were much too stiff and I was struggling to keep the tips of my Squad 7s above the snow. As soon as I returned my springs to the recommended stiffness, the bindings felt terrific. It’s a very different feel, but the bindings are shockingly powerful in action. Don’t be discouraged by how soft and different an NTN system may feel on your living room floor, the system is extremely powerful. Like to get low? No worries, Rottefella offers a large range of adjustment on the standard springs, and softer springs for those who like a less active binding.

Now that I have made the switch to NTN, I wonder why I didn’t sooner. It took some time to really get to know the NTN system, but now that I do I’m loving the days on snow even more; Touring feels less like walking on my tippy toes as it did on my 22 Designs Axl bindings, and skiing down feels more precise. While I hope to never test the release of my bindings, knowing it’s there gives me more peace of mind than I would have expected.

If you’re going to invest in a new pair of telemark boots, take a long look at the NTN offerings. NTN will continue to grow in popularity and I expect to see the offerings of 75mm gear slowly diminish.

Choosing the Right Climbing Skin

The Best Skin for your Skiing

Whether going out for a multi-day trip or just making some sidecountry laps, you won’t be moving very fast without a good pair of skins. As alpine touring has exploded in popularity, so has the number of options available for skins. Instead of the old standard of picking up skins in a set length and trimming them to fit your setup, ski brands are now offering pre-cut skins; Some brands even offer specific tip and tail clip systems. So how do you choose the right skin for you next setup? Let’s consider some of the differences in skins.

Climbing Skin Material

g3 skins

Nylon: Nylon skins typically offer the most grip and best uphill performance, especially on low moisture snow. Nylon skins are also incredibly durable. The downside to nylon skins is their relative burliness, which makes them less packable than other options.

Mohair: The natural fibers of pure mohair offer superior glide compared to nylon. Mohair skins, however, are more prone to wearing down over many tours, especially when skinning on hard-packed snow and ice.

Mohair Mix: Several brands offer skins that mix theses two materials in various percentages for a combination of benefits.

If you’re mostly going on day-long tours with relatively shallow climbs, mohair is your best bet. More interested in hiking up steeper lines without long approaches? Nylon is for you. If you do a bit of both, a mix might be the right fit.

Climbing Skin Attachments

dynafit skins

A Dynafit tip attachment

Some brands, including K2 and Dynafit, offer climbing skins made specifically for individual ski models. The tip and tail attachments on these skins will typically be the most user-friendly, but if you end up swapping skis later on, you’ll need to swap skins too. G3 and Black Diamond offer skins with universal attachments, which allows for some advantages: If you have skis of similar dimensions, you may be able to use the same pair of skins for multiple skis, and you may be able to keep the same pair of skins through the life of several skis. Some skiers will choose to use a longer skin foregoing a tail attachment to save time in transitions. We can’t recommend this method for anything but racing; if the glue on your skins gets wet and loses stickiness it can be pretty frustrating without a tail-clip to keep the skin in place.

Climbing Skin Width

Regardless of what skin you choose, you’ll want to be sure that the width of the skin matches your touring style. In most cases, edge-to-edge skin coverage will provide the best grip with ample edging. Some skiers, typically racers, will choose a straight skin; This option provides superior glide while sacrificing some uphill grip. If you’re sharing skins between two skis, you can usually get away with a skin that does not provide edge-to-edge coverage, but it can be more prone to slipping, especially on hard snow.

The Bottom Line

Choosing the optimal skin for you will improve your tour, but the most important thing you can do is to keep your skins in good shape. Keep the glue clean, and always let your skins dry before storing them. If you have any other questions, just give Bentgate a call at 303.271.9382.

Switchover

The first few times I went touring on a splitboard I found the task of switching from tour to downhill mode a bit overwhelming. Take the skis off, remove the skins, fold them up and store them, remove the bindings, put the board together, put the bindings back on, collapse and store the poles, strap the board on…. and now I’m getting cold so put my shell on, put the sunglasses away, put the helmet and goggles on, change gloves…. Like many aspects of backcountry skiing, practice is required to achieve a good level of comfort.
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I frequently go touring with skiers, perhaps more often than with other splitboarders. So in addition to fumbling with equipment, I would have to endure a ribbing from impatient group members. It’s funny how these “outdoorsy” skiers suddenly forget how to stand at the top of a hill and bask in the glory of the Rocky Mountains for an extra 3 minutes when they have a splitboarder in the group. But to their defense, no one wants to stand at the top of a great run and wait to go for it.
If there’s a downside to splitboarding it is the switchover between touring and riding. Here are a few things you might consider in order to make your transition as smooth as possible:
  • First of all, practice, practice, practice. Don’t wait until you’re in the backcountry to figure out your gear. Spend some time practicing your transition at home. If muscle memory takes over during your switchover you should be able to carry on a conversation with your partners while doing what needs to be done.
  • Splitboard bindings have come a long way. The traditional pin system works just fine, but it’s a little slower compared to some of the newer technologies. Spark R&D’s Tesla system has eliminated the pin while Karakoram has eliminated the need to even remove the binding from one’s foot. Updates like these are shaving time off of mountaintop transitions.
  • While putting your board together, it is good practice to place your bindings in the snow upside-down. This keeps snow from getting stuck in the tracks in the bottom of the binding, which could cause you to struggle when trying to lock the bindings in place.
  • Skin savers aren’t saving you time. Using them makes it a little easier to rip your skins apart when going into tour mode, but putting them on your skins before storing them in your pack at the top of the hill costs extra time. Ultimately, they are just one more thing to fidget with and there is no time savings in using them.
  • Pick the right shell and avoid changing clothes while transitioning. A good breathable softshell will allow you to dump extra heat and sweat on the way uphill, but will also keep you dry and warm enough on the way downhill. Or if it’s really snowing you may need to go with GoreTex Pro which works well through intense cycles of work and rest while in snowy conditions. Your bulky resort coat probably isn’t going to cut it in the backcountry.
  • Find a good touring glove. In order to avoid changing gloves along the way you need a glove that a) is breathable enough to be comfortable while skinning, b) does not inhibit dexterity so you can wear them with ski poles and while transitioning, and c) is warm and water resistant enough to drag through the snow.
  • If you wear a helmet, consider one with good venting. Helmets can get hot so I tend to carry mine on my pack for a long tour into an area, but once it’s on my head I prefer not to keep taking it off and on again while making laps. Some helmets like the Smith Vantage have vents that can be opened and closed with the flip of a switch according to how much airflow you need.
  • Have a quiver of snappy comebacks. If you’re out with skiers they will inevitably take the low road and make cliched remarks about waiting on splitboarders. Be prepared for this and take the opportunity to remind them how much more fun you have during your descent.
Overall, it is important to remember why we go into the backcountry in the first place; because we enjoy being outdoors and skiing without crowds. Don’t lose track of this because you are too focused on rushing through your transition.
If you’re interested in more tips and discussion on splitboarding, Bent Gate is hosting a Splitboarding 101 session at the shop on December 30 from 6-8pm. All abilities are welcome whether you’re a seasoned backcountry veteran or you’re considering buying your first board and you want to figure out if splitboarding is for you. Hope to see you there!

One of Bentgate’s own – Mark Morris – talented ski tech and big mountain athlete for Icelantic

MarkMorris

A few years back, Bentgate hired a local musician and skier named Mark Morris.  Since our initial meeting, we have grown to be quite fond of this guy.  Whether he’s doing impressions of other employees, showing off his wrestling moves, mounting a binding or hucking a cliff, Mark Morris is legit.  We asked Mark Morris to write a couple paragraphs about growing up skiing in Colorado and how he ended up collaborating with another local Colorado crew, the folks at Icelantic.  Here is what Mark had to say:

My name is Mark Morris and without skiing my life would be dull. My parents grew up skiing in Climax Colorado in the 1950’s, before the big resorts like Vail and Keystone were established.  Skiing was and still is a big part of their lives, so its no coincidence my earliest life memory is skiing at the age of 2. Skiing is something my family has always done and I don’t remember ‘learning’ how to ski, I could always just do it.  The sport of skiing has been a heavy influence in my life because I grew up on the I-70 corridor in Idaho Springs Colorado, a town that gains most of its revenue from travelers on their way to the resorts. I never set out to have this sport be such an influence in my life but looking back it has been, and in a big way.  My first job was cleaning boots at a local ski shop, the college I attended happened to be 15 minutes away from Crested Butte Colorado, and my closest friends are either industry professionals, professional skiers, or business owners in the industry.

During middle school I was on the school ski team with Icelantic Founder – Ben Anderson, Icelantic CEO – Annelise Loevlie, and Icelantic Art Director – Travis Parr.  Their lives are also heavily influenced by skiing and when the company was still young I jumped on board as a ‘big mountain’ athlete.  The motivation of being part of a company like Icelantic has brought my skiing to a level I never thought possible.  Since joining team Icelantic as a ‘core’ athlete, I have traveled all over the world to resorts and to back-county areas in Russia, France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Canada, and Alaska, as well as all over the United States.  I have been featured with the company through many marketing platforms including full-page adds in Backcounty Magazine, Skiing Magazine, Powder Magazine, web-blogs, social media, and annual catalogs.  I was also lucky enough to help in the design of arguably the best ‘straight-lining’ ski ever made, the Seeker.  Being part of a company like Icelantic and working at a cool ski shop like Bentgate offers more than just the skiing however.  The friendships I’ve gained, the surrounding community, and industry connections are priceless.  

Thanks for your history Mark – as a local Colorado company, we are energized by great friends like you.

 

Bentgate Visits Icelantic

Icelantic and the Never Summer Factory

At Bentgate we’re proud to be from Colorado and we do our best to support locally made products.   Buying local reduces environmental impact, puts money back into the Colorado economy, and creates more Colorado jobs.  Another perk of buying local is the relationships we establish with our vendors.  This often translates into getting an early peak at cool, new products.   Since Icelantic skis are made just down the road, we took advantage of our proximity to check out their latest offerings and see how their bomber skis are made.

Battery 621Battery 621 and a pug

The Icelantic offices are exactly what you would expect from a company that designs unique and sustainable products. There’s Travis Parr art hanging on nearly every wall, craft beers in the fridge, and plenty of dogs to scratch. Keep an eye on Battery 621, as the businesses that share this progressive space are all about building community through participation in events such as the First Friday parties that go down every month.

The Never Summer Factory

The vast majority of US ski companies farm out manufacturing overseas. Prototypes can take weeks to arrive, communication is often difficult, and quality can be challenging to monitor.   Not so at Icelantic.  When the crew at Icelantic wants to use custom graphics for a particular ski or board, they simply drive 10 miles down the road to the Never Summer factory where ALL Icelantic skis are made.    It’s cool to note that Never Summer Industries produces boards for several additional well regarded ski and board companies including High Society, Fat-ypus, and Rocky Mountain Underground.

Starting From a Block of Wood

The Never Summer factory is a sight to see when the crew swings into production mode, with nearly 50 people touching every ski.

Every ski starts off as a core.  The core comes into being when several types of wood are pressed together to create the exact dynamics for each particular ski.

Icelantic wood core

 

The cores are then cut to the appropriate sidecut dimensions and P-tex sidewalls are attached. Icelantic next adds a layer of rubber between the core and the P-tex sidewall for additional dampening.  Our photo shows a Never Summer snowboard being built, but the process is the same for Icelantic skis.

adding p-tex edges

Once the P-tex and rubber are firmly attached to the core, the combination can be cut to the correct thickness for each individual ski. These individual ski cores are next tapered at the tip and tail to create the perfect flex pattern.

Cutting ski cores

P-tex tip and tail forms are then added.  And don’t search for conveyor belts or robots at the Never Summer factory, as all products are made by hand.

Icelantic Ski Core Tips

Once the core is dialed, focus shifts to the base.  Each letter is stamped from a P-tex sheet and hand placed into the base. The edges are then custom fit and glued to the base.

Icelantic bases

Meanwhile, in a room nearby,  printers are pumping out graphics for every Icelantic ski.  Prints are made on clay based paper so that ink can be transferred directly to the topsheets. This creates a super burly topsheet that will continue to look great after many seasons on the snow.

Now that all the components are ready to go, the ski will be put together.  Bases are placed in a mold.   Layers of fiberglass, rubber, the core, and the topsheets are then added to the bases and each layer is saturated with a special glue that holds it all together.

Icelantic skis coming together  Once the layers are assembled, the ski is ready to be pressed. An airbag creates huge amounts of force to firmly attach every layer and give the ski its perfect shape.

Our tour guide claims that Icelantic has never had to warranty a ski for a blown edge . . . not many ski companies can make this claim.

Icelantic ski core

When the skis come off the press, the excess glue and material is cut from the skis.  Once cut and tuned, the skis are ready to be wrapped in plastic and sent to stores . . . where they will then make their way to their forever homes.

Icelantic skis stuck together out of the press

Why Buy Icelantic?

Our photos show the major steps in manufacturing Icelantic skis.  What they do not show, however, is the hand-crafted love that goes into the creation of each pair.  Every pair of Icelantic skis that hits our shelves is a work of art, as well as a durable piece of gear that will have you smiling all the way down (and up) the hill. We’re proud to partner with Icelantic and to stock Icelantic skis.   If you decide to take a pair home, we have no doubt that you will be stoked to add them to your quiver.

Tele Skier Rescued by a Splitboarder

DPS Ski growing on tree

DPS Skis grow on trees

With the snow starting to fall, I was reminded of a funny tale, told by Matty B –  a splitboarder and member of A-Basin’s infamous ski patrol:

Alex was distraught when he arrived at the shop on a Thursday afternoon in February with a single DPS Wailer 99. He had been at Arapahoe Basin taking laps on Pallavicini with a friend all morning. As the day wore on and his legs wore down he had an incident near the bottom of the Pali bumps; he somehow ejected from one of his skis, which continued down the hill, crossed the boundary rope, and launched like a missile into the thicket of small pines below Pali called the Christmas Trees. They searched the brush for a half-hour but came up empty handed, and Alex had to tele off the hill on a single ski.

Alex is a fairly aggressive tele skier so he really liked the Wailer 99s Hybrid on a tele set-up. The skis have a fairly stiff tail with minimal rocker which works well for him. He was crushed to come home sans one ski. When he got back to the shop he offered a substantial reward for anyone that could find his lost ski.

Challenge accepted, Alex.

It snowed 8″ on Friday. I was pretty sure this ski was lost forever but I was going to try anyway. The snow was still good on Saturday so I spent a full day at A Basin. My legs were pretty spent by 4pm, but as the lifts stopped turning I switched over to my Jones Solution 158  splitboard and headed towards the bottom of the Pali run. It isn’t the normal route one would skin up A Basin so I drew plenty of odd looks and comments from the beach revelers as I passed.

Upon arrival I spent a moment examining the fall line, trying to guess the trajectory of an unrestrained ski. Then I ducked under the rope and started stomping around in the brush and probing around at the base of trees. I could see why Alex had to give up; the snow would have been waist deep for someone who wasn’t on skis. After 10 minutes I was pretty sure this ski had submarined into the snow half way down the hill and would not be seen again until early summer. But then I reminded myself, “don’t forget to look up.” I did…and then I laughed out loud…

I snapped a photo and sent it to Alex.  Then I strapped the ski to my pack and took a victory lap to the bottom of A Basin. I wasn’t sure if Alex would come through with that reward but I bought a round of drinks for my friends at the 6th Alley anyway.  To his credit, Alex arrived for work on Monday with a smile on his face and a $100 bill in his hand.

Since then Alex hasn’t given me much grief for being a splitboarder.

Air Bag Systems – Which One’s For You?

Choosing The Right Airbag System:

K2 Backside Float 30

When you first start thinking about adding an air bag system to your backcountry ski or board set up, there are several factors that we recommend you consider.

Taking a little time up front to figure out which features are most important to you will help to make sure that you’re happy with your investment down the road.

Some of the most important questions to ask are:

  • Do you want a system that allows you to practice easily?
  • Do you prefer a mechanical system or are you OK with batteries and electronics?
  • Is a second airbag (for redundancy) important?
  • Does the shape of the expanding compartment airbag have any effect on the type of activity you do – i.e. does it block peripheral vision?
  • How important are interchangeable pack options?
  • Are you going to be traveling on airplanes in the US with your system?
  • Do you have time to send your cartridge to Canada for refills?
  • How much does the system weigh?
  • What type of consumables does the system use and how do you get replacements?

Taking the time to answer these questions will help to make sure that you choose the system that will work best for your particular type of backcountry riding.   At Bentgate, we carry six (6) different types of air bag systems and many more variations of packs that work with each system.  Once you choose the appropriate system, it becomes fairly easy to choose a pack option to go with it.

Although airbags will increase your chance of surviving an avalanche, remember that an airbag is just one more tool to have in your quiver and that you still need to bring your other avy gear – probe, shovel, beacon and good snow sense.  Backcountry riding can be dangerous and good decision making is always critical, no matter what safety gear you are using.  Be safe out there!

 

 

 

Comparing the G3 ION and Dynafit TLT Radical FT

If you’re after a new tech binding this season that tours effortlessly and still crushes on the downhill you’ve probably stumbled over the G3 ION and Dynafit TLT Radical FT 12. On paper these bindings seem pretty similar; so it’s no surprise that a lot of skiers are wondering which binding to ski this season. You can’t go wrong with either binding, but there are some differences that make choosing a little easier. Let’s start with the classic.

Dynafit TLT Radical FT

dynafit tlt radical ft At first glance the Radical FT looks just like its little brother, the trusty Radical ST, except for the bling bling carbon plate. This isn’t too far from the truth. The Radical FT shares its heel piece and much of the toe piece with the Radical ST. Just like the Radical ST, there are three easy-to-set heel riser settings and “Side Towers” on the toe piece for easier entry and maximum power transfer. Dynafit’s addition of stiffer springs in the toe and a carbon binding plate bumps the maximum release rating up from 10 on the Radical ST to 12; same as the ION.

Dynafit claims that the switch-locking carbon plate creates additional torsional rigidity for the best power transfer from boot to ski. In its locked position, the carbon plate  also provides additional dampening. We like the idea but the verdict is still out on this feature. Some skiers struggle to notice if the plate is in the locked position or not. We wouldn’t recommend it, but for those counting grams; the Radical FT can be mounted sans carbon plate.

G3 ION

G3 IONJust like the Radical FT, the G3 ION offers free pivot touring, low weight, and a release rating from 5-12. It’s when you start looking at the details, though, that the ION starts to really make sense. One of our favorite details is the snow clearing channel that allows users to clear ice from under the toe piece with a ski pole. Once any ice buildup is out of the way, two plastic prongs help guide your boot into the toe piece. It is important to note, however, that because of the snow clearing channel the ION rides slightly higher than the Dynafit. It’s no deal breaker, but the ride height could bother some skiers.

The small details continue to impress on the heel piece as well. The Bi-direction heel offers three super-easy to use climbing heights. Our only complaint is how easy it is to pinch your fingers when rotating the heel if you aren’t careful. When you do rotate the heel into tour mode, you’ll notice that the brakes do not automatically stow. This means that you can put your bindings in tour mode without worrying about them running away. As soon as you step on the brakes in tour mode, they stow away with a satisfying click. Another bonus is that you only need a posi-drive to fiddle with the ION, so there’s no need to expand your backcountry tool kit.

Comparing the Binding Specs

 

Dynafit TLT Radical FT G3 ION
Release Rating 5-12 5-12
Claimed Weight 2lb 10oz 2lb 9.2oz
Brake Options 110mm, 130mm 85mm, 95mm, 115mm, 130mm
Boot Length Adjustment 25mm 22mm
Crampon Options 80mm, 90mm, 100mm, 110mm, 120mm, 130mm 85mm, 130mm
MSRP $599.95 $499.95

The Right Binding for You

If life was simple, one binding would be truly better than the other; that’s not the case. The Dynafit is a tried and true winner. Afraid of new products? We don’t blame you. Pick up the Radical FT and give the G3 ION a second look in a few years when other skiers have proven it to be reliable. If you’re buying a tech binding for the first time, the prongs that help guide a boot into the G3 ION make the ION a smart choice. Or, if you’re an experienced skier looking for something with more user-enhanced features, the G3 ION is well worth picking up.

The Pawnee-Buchanan Pass Loop

When it comes to great trail loops, almost everyone has heard about 4 Pass Loop –  an iconic 26 mile loop that circumnavigates the Maroon Bells and goes over 4 alpine passes. It’s a beautiful loop and a fantastic run, but there are a few draw backs. The drive from Denver takes about 4 hours and the hoards of tourists will take away from the solitude of the wilderness. Fortunately for us front-rangers, there is a closer, less popular loop that gives 4 Pass a run for it’s money.

photo (5)

Lone Eagle and the Crater Lake basin

This alternative loop goes by several names including the Indian Peaks Marathon, Pawnee-Buchanan Loop, or the Indian Peaks loop. As you probably guessed, it’s in the Indian Peaks. On clear days, the rugged skyline of the wilderness can be seen from Denver nestled straight west of Boulder. Given the proximity to Denver, the area sees more traffic than any other wilderness area in the state. Luckily, the ruggedness of the region means that plenty of solitude can still be found.

 

I’ve run the loop 4 times in the past year and each time I leave planning my next attempt. When I first got wind of this 27 mile alpine loop, I spent a few hours online reading the blog posts of other runners and trying to piece together a rough idea of exactly what I was signing up for. To save you a little bit of leg work, I’ve included a quick-guide at the end of this report.

Sunrise driving to the Indian Peaks

Sunrise driving to the Indian Peaks

About a month ago, the snow had finally melted out enough to give the loop a go. This year I haven’t been running as much and didn’t feel as strong, so I went into this run with the goal of just stretching the legs out a bit and spending some time in my favorite spot. That night, I packed my Nathan Vapor vest with a few gels, some water, and a light shell before setting my alarm for 4am. The alarm came and went, and by the time I turned the headlights on in my car, it was after 5am. I wasn’t worried, the weather was supposed to be good and I was familiar with the course.

 

An hour and half later, I reached Brainard Lake and drove up to the Mitchel Lake TH, which services Mt Audubon, Mitchel Lake and Coney Flats. While most people like to run the loop counter clockwise, I’m a firm believer in going clockwise for several reasons. First, you get Pawnee Pass (the high point on the run) out of the way early. Second, the front side of Pawnee Pass is the most popular area in the wilderness, so by doing it first you avoid the crowds hiking up the basin. Lastly, clockwise maximizes the descents and condenses the climbs.

 

 

Pawnee Pass

Once parked, I put on my Scarpa Tru’s, threw on my pack, and started my watch. A quick mile on the road, and I was at the Long Lake TH and the single track began. The first few miles went by easily, and my body stabilized to the thinner air. Two turns later the real climbing began and I buckled down for the next 2500 feet of vert on absolutely perfect single track. The trail winds up onto a large plateau, and after one last pitch I reached the top of Pawnee Pass. I glanced at my watch and was surprised to see that I was 15 minutes ahead of my previous fastest time. Suddenly my priorities changed as the possibility of a new PR itched at my brain. After a few seconds of debating, I opted to enjoy the day and keep the easy pace.

 

The start of the descent over Pawnee Pass

The start of the descent over Pawnee Pass

The next 10 miles are my absolute favorite in the state. The trail drops almost 4,000 feet over 10 miles of technical trail…starting with a 1500′ descent in half a mile. It’s stunning, and the absolute ruggedness of the basin is breathtaking. This morning, basin is dark and as I turn the first switchback, I’m submerged into an entirely different world. Gone are the alpine meadows and wildflowers, replaced by walls of black stone and a biting wind. It’s electrifying.

 

 

 

Upper cascade canyon

Upper cascade canyon immediately after descending the back side of Pawnee Pass

Everything slows down for a few seconds and my breath seems held. Then the floodgates open and the calm is swept away in a cascade of flying feet and rushing air. The initial descent is over too quickly and the rush starts to fade as the trail moderates and drops from the upper basin into the Lone Eagle cirque. The cirque’s namesake provides a panoramic backdrop as I continue the descent towards the lower junction. Before I know it, I’m at the junction making the hard right turn towards Fox Park.

 

Water is everywhere, and the streams are flowing strong.  For the next 4-5 miles the trail ascends slowly and the miles click by. The trail gradually loops around Thunderbolt Peak before it angles left up a steep slope for about 1000 feet and enters the most beautiful meadow I’ve ever seen – Fox Park. It’s green and covered in wild flowers, and is criss-crossed by multiple small streams.   I often stop here and take a nap and soak up the beauty. I stop and fill up my pack with water and snap a few photos. A quick glance at my watch and I’m running through the valley towards Buchanan Pass. I start the climb strong, but once I hit the treeline, I resort to hiking the remaining 1000 feet. A panoramic view of Longs Peak, Denver, and the entire Indian Peaks wilderness greets me at the top. I glance at my watch and I’m now 30 minutes ahead. Running the loop sub-6 hours is suddenly a possibility, but I’m going to have to work for it.

 

The views around Thunderbolt Peak

The views around Thunderbolt Peak

Fox Park Meadows

Fox Park Meadows

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking back on top of Buchanan Pass

Looking back on top of Buchanan Pass

I give up on my easy comfortable run, and decide to shoot for sub-6. I re-lace my Tru’s before starting the descent down into Coney Flats. The descent is steady and fast, and I’m moving well. The sun is now in full effect and it’s hot. As I enter the trees the heat gets stifling, but it’s always this way and I push through it. I reach the Flats and run quickly across the little ponds as I’m breaking down the splits in my head. It’s going to be close and I’m going to have to really work the last climb. I hit the first hill determined and begin the final climb.

 

Final time

Final time

The trail ascends gradually but insistently and I feel myself starting to falter. My quads are burning and my side is starting to lock up. I begin to look at my Suunto every few minutes as my pace gets slower and slower. It’s not long before I realize that sub-6 is gone. A little longer and I reach the top and begin the seemingly endless descent back to the car. This is my least favorite part. The trail is dirty, busy, and hot. Fifteen minutes later I trot down the last few steps into the parking lot. My time was still faster than before, but not by much. Still, I feel elated. I lay down and let my heart rate lower before making a simple dinner on my camp stove. Other runners trickle into the parking lot, each with their own mini-adventure to take home. As I begin my drive back to Golden, I’m already thinking about when I will be back.


 

TRAIL GUIDE:

TH: Brainard Lake or you can park at one of the upper trail heads: Long Lake or Mitchel Lake. There is a $10 fee to park at any of these trail heads

Distance: ~27 miles

Vertical Gain: ~6500 feet

When to run: July-September

Key Points: 

  • Brainard Lake: 10,350′
  • Long Lake TH: 10,500′
  • Mitchel Lake TH: 10,480′
  • Pawnee Pass: 12,550′
  • Monarch Lake Junction: ~8880′
  • Buchanan Pass: 11,840′
  • Mt Audubon shoulder: 11,400′

Clockwise directions: Park at Mitchel Lake TH. Run back towards Long Lake. Follow the signs toward Pawnee Pass. You should turn right twice (both signed) before reaching the top. If you pass Victoria Lake you’ve missed the second turn. At the top, descend towards Monarch Lake. A few miles into the descent, you’ll pass a left turning junction for Crater Lake. Go straight unless you want an extra 5-6 miles of extra credit. You’ll cross two really large bridges. Shortly after the second one you’ll reach a junction. It’s at around 8800′ and there is a medium sized boulder next to the trail. Turn right, going towards Buchanan Pass. You will pass 1 trail junction for Gourd Lake (don’t turn) and you may loose the trail as it crosses some tributaries. Take your time and make sure you aren’t on a stock trail. Immediately before Fox Park, there is a large avalanche debris field. Pick your way through it, staying towards the left (upper side) before reconnecting with the trail on the other side. Follow the good trail up to Buchanan Pass and descend into Coney Flats. Angle right, crossing several small foot bridges. Look for signs marking Beaver Creek (trail #911) on the right. Take this trail up to the junction with the Mt Audubon trail and stay left to descend back into Mitchel Lake.

Counter-Clockwise Directions: Park at Long Lake TH and run towards Mitchel Lake. Take the trail towards Mt Audubon (the second trail on the left, don’t go towards Mitchel Lake proper). Climb trail staying right at the intersection for Mt Audubon. Descend into Coney Flats and turn left at the dirt road and cross the small foot bridges heading up and left. Follow road for 300 yards before it turns to a wide trail. Climb to Buchanan Pass and descend. Just below Fox Park you’ll reach a large avalanche debris field. Stay right (upper side) and pick your way through. At the junction for Gourd Lake go straight towards Monarch Lake. At the intersection near a medium boulder, turn left and begin the climb towards Pawnee Pass. You should pass a large bridge shortly after making this turn. If you go below 8500′ you’ve missed the turn. Continue climbing until you reach a junction for Crater Lake. Go up and left passing the junction into the upper basin. Climb above the treeline and Pawnee Pass is up and left. You won’t be able to see the trail from the bottom, but just keep moving and you’ll never loose it. Go over the pass and descend towards Victoria lake. You’ll reach two junctions, turn left (downhill direction) for both before reaching the parking lot for Long Lake.

Detailed Map of the Pawnee Buchanan Pass Lop

Detailed Map of the Pawnee Buchanan Pass Lop. Red lines indicate junctions and the incorrect direction

 

Recommended Gear:

  • Running Vest or Pack
  • Water Purification tabs
  • Food
  • Gloves and Hat
  • Headlamp
  • Shell and mid layer
  • Ibuprofen and small first aid kit
  • Map

My personal gear for early season:

  • Handheld bottle
  • Marmot Super Mica jacket (optional)
  • MSR water purification tabs
  • Gu or Hammer gels
  • 4 ibuprofen pills

My personal gear for late season

  • Nathan Vapor vest
  • Marmot Super Mica jacket
  • MSR water purification tabs
  • Real food (check out Skratch Lab’s cookbook)
  • Hat

 

Notes:

I personally prefer to go fast and light, so early season you don’t need a bladder for water. There are streams every few miles, but be sure to use a filter or tabs to purify. I try to start no earlier than 30 minutes before sunrise to avoid needing a headlamp. On average, if you start by sunrise you have almost 12 hours of usable daylight, so unless you expect to be moving at less than 3 miles/hour you probably won’t need a headlamp.

Watch the weather, at the end of the run you will be above treeline so don’t get caught out while exposed. I’ve seen storms come in around 2:00pm and last for several hours of HEAVY rain.

I’ve run the course solo 3 times, and once with a group. While running with friends is always safer, it will be slower. Keep this in mind if you go as a group. Discuss places to regroup if you are doing a “no-drop run” or have cut offs for new SAR needs to be called for help.

There is no cell reception at all once leaving the Peak-to-Peak highway, so don’t count on your phone for anything more than photos.

If there is no parking at either Mitchel Lake or Long Lake TH’s, park at the Brainard Lake parking lots. It only adds 0.3 miles extra.

This loop is technical and challenging, so be prepared. Once you descend over a pass, you’re pretty much committed. BE SMART and make solid choices. I’ve gotten bloodied and battered on this loop, so always plan on being self sufficient. A rescue would be difficult and expensive.

bloodied and battered after running the Pawnee Buchanan Pass Loop

 

Enjoy!

Caleb E

 

Caleb is an avid runner and can be found anywhere there is alpine singletrack or cold beer…preferably both.