Mt. Princeton Ski Descent – 2019-04-06

It’s hard to believe, but when I look back I see that I haven’t skied any new 14ers in a while. Harvard was two years ago now, and before that was prior to Denali – a full five years ago. There are a lot of reasons why – time has been tight, along with poor snowpacks and stability, capped off with a lack of motivation to wake up entirely too early to drive and climb all day. This season’s incredible snowpack, combined with an impending deadline that will likely cut off my season mid-May, have me excited to get out again. This was the first weekend that held a pleasant forecast after the snowpack stabilized to my liking, so I had to take advantage of it with a big day out.

Saturday’s outing started like most do – packing up Friday afternoon, setting the alarm for 2am, and going to bed early. Lucky for me, I was wide awake at 1am and didn’t need the alarm. I tried to go back to sleep but gave up about 1:30, got out of bed, and fired up the coffee maker. Several cups later, John arrived and we got on the road.

We pulled up to the lower Princeton trailhead just after 5am and decided to see how the road went. Half a mile in we encountered enough snow to make the road impassable, saving us a mile of walking on a dirt road in ski boots. No complaints here.

We made our way up the road for a while, until we came to a switchback around 10,500′ that butted up against a SE-facing slidepath on Tigger Peak, the 13er you have to traverse to get over to Princeton. It seemed solid and supportive, so we started going straight up.

I made the brilliant decision to leave my ski crampons at home to save some weight, which backfired a few hundred feet up the line. John had no problem with grip at this point, since he was using fairly new, very aggressive skins. I, on the other hand, was equipped with a worn out pair of pure-mohair skins and quickly went from fast-and-efficient to worrying-about-a-slide-for-life. John lent me his ski crampons, which still didn’t help all that much, and before long I just started booting up.

We made fantastic time early in the day, covering nearly 3000′ in two hours.

Hitting 12,000′ at 7:30am was a good feeling and inspired confidence for the day. We took a break to catch our breath, eat, and finalize the plan for the day ahead.

We’d previously talked about the route from this point, deciding that if we weren’t fully confident that the traverse around Tigger would be both fast and safe (it crosses a few well-loaded North-facing paths) we would just go up and over.

It’s easy to waste hours debating over ways to save minutes in a situation like this. We weren’t confident in the traverse, and so up and over it was.

The first portion of boulder-hopping was actually pretty enjoyable. It got tougher in the middle (larger boulder, deeper and less-consolidated snow), and I was completely over it by the final third or so despite conditions easing up again. The end of our traverse brought us a couple hundred feet from the summit of Tigger. I decided to just continue traversing along the ridge while John went for the summit. I quickly regret my decision, as continuing the traverse was more work than a few minutes of booting would have been, and John got a quick fun ridge ski to meet back up with me. Oh well.

The route gets pretty straightforward after hitting the saddle between Tigger and Princeton – just go up another 1,100′. We both felt every bit of the 4,000′ we’d already gained, and did not set any speed records.

Just over five hours after we left the car, we were sitting on the summit.

The climb had been hot with calm winds, while the summit was cold and windy. We didn’t stick around long, opting to take a real break after the ski.

Ski conditions weren’t bad, but they weren’t easy or forgiving either. The main line could use another week or so to corn up properly, this past weekend it was still a bit slabby, though soft.

While I was happy to have my old blown-out TLT6s and superlight skis on the way up, I was really wishing for proper skis and boots on the descent.

It was about here that the full scope of this day really set in. We already had over a vertical mile of elevation gain done plus a tiring ski descent, and had to transition back to boot back up another 500′. We rested for a few minutes, ate and drank most of what we had left, and got to it.

We got back to our ascent route, with a choice to make: ski the ascent route we took from 10,500′ to 12,000′, or take the road down. The road was likely to be in good shape, but was unknown. Our ascent route had the potential to be either a great ski or mashed potatoes. Fortunately we were able to take a couple turns before fully committing, and found great conditions.

The road out was thinly- and narrowly-covered, had a dry south-facing stretch that required us to carry our skis for a few minutes, and was chundered up with footsteps, but really wasn’t that unpleasant and was certainly faster than walking. It got a little patchier as we got lower, but still wasn’t that bad.

With a little creativity we were able to ski all the way to the car, for roundtrip stats of 5,800′ in 9.5 miles, done in just over 8 hours. One of the best parts of spring 14er days like this is getting in to comfortable clothes and shoes at the end of the day, and there was no exception here.

I was quoted on Saturday as having said “Nothing about this climb was easy.” While I usually grumble to myself about something on 14er days – typically starting with the 2am alarm clock, and then the drive, and then usually some part of the climb or ski – there was none of that today. It was a big, challenging day out in our beautiful mountains with a good friend, and every minute of it was great. Days like this are why I keep coming back.

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