BRECKENRIDGE — Teague Holmes estimates it was six years ago when he first spotted a particular 1,500-foot ski line in the shape of a skinny “S” on one of the most impressive peaks in the untamed Gore Range here in Summit County.
“But it seemed like a remote dream — just nuts,” Holmes said. “Like we would never have the snow to ski it, was my initial thought.”
About 100 to 150 feet below the 13,333-foot summit of East Thorn resides a line dubbed Epine D’argent, French for “silver spine.”
Holmes spotted the line, like he does so many others, by “staying curious.” Living in the mountains around Summit County — sometimes running them, sometimes skiing them and sometimes paragliding them — Holmes looks at skiing in the Rockies as an almost never-ending story. On days when he goes out to ski with buds like Chris Baldwin and Jason Kilgore, Holmes and company always keep an eye out for the latest changes on familiar skiing terrain, always examining the next potential adventure.
“It’s this constant cycle,” he said. “So when it’s time to ski, starting to see the conditions change, you have these ideas and list, you have these things you want to ski, and you’re always skiing, moving through the mountains with your eyes wide open, asking everyone what they see.”
Epiphany at elevation
Earlier this spring, Holmes, Baldwin and Kilgore were out for a day tour in the Gore Range, familiar territory for the trio. Holmes said the crew dubbed that adventure the Precipitation Traverse, as they hit several mountains named after precipitation, such as the 13,130-foot Rain Peak, a neighbor of East Thorn.
While out on the traverse, Holmes had an epiphany at elevation.
“We were gaining Rain (Peak) early in the morning,” Holmes said. “I looked over and was like, ‘No way!’ I hadn’t thought of that line on East Thorn in years. There are all of these lines all over the region here — and country and state and world — that I’ve looked at. Some you have noted and others you forget until you see them again. And I saw it, and I was like, ‘Jason, I think we can ski that. Jason and Chris, come look at this.’”
Video courtesy Teague Holmes
This ski season, avid backcountry skiers like Holmes conducted daily research and information gathering, gauging a persistent weak snowpack into March.
Then came March’s historic avalanche cycle, which delayed what Holmes describes as the true beginning of ski season for avid backcountry skiers like him. But once the snow from March’s big storms settled, Holmes and friends like Kilgore and Baldwin continued to stay curious about when they could ski certain high-Alpine spots, namely the Gore.
After he and Baldwin skied East Thorn in early April, the ski season evolved into May’s lower-than-usual temperatures and consistent cloud cover, which kept the high-Alpine skiing prime into late June, with Holmes and friends riding powder on Grizzly Peak between Loveland Pass and Torreys Peak.
But it was the Epine D’argent line in early April that Holmes will remember as the climax of this season.
Accessing the line and continuing through it took some serious winter mountaineering, Holmes said. At times, he and Baldwin even had to “dry ski.”
“Basically, you get to a spot that doesn’t have enough snow to turn or fit through or ski,” Holmes said, “so now you are down climbing, just like you down climb with your hands and feet when you are rock climbing, but you are doing that with skis on. And so there are kind of even different techniques — you put your back against the wall, tips up, tails are down, now you can fit through with some chimney moves.”
Ice ax and crampons in tow, Holmes and Baldwin gained on the knife’s edge ridge to the top of East Thorn, a spot no one had quite skied the same way before, to Holmes’ knowledge. Holmes said avid Gore Range skier David Delamora skied this same Epine D’argent line many years ago, though not from the same exposed location on the summit ridge.
Scrambling at times on Class III and Class IV terrain, Holmes and Baldwin soon saw the early April snow on East Thorn was still really good, stable powder.
After down climbing 100 to 150 feet from the summit, Baldwin took an exposed entry from high on the ridge while Holmes skied a different entry along the ridge. After a dry ski to get off the ridge, staying on the established face, Holmes rejoined Baldwin at the same spot where Delamora skied the Epine D’argent all those years ago.
“It was mostly really technical,” Holmes said about the line. “There was one mid-section where I could open it up and stay ahead of my sluff. The sluff is racing down behind you, and if it tags you and takes you out, the terrain you’d get dragged through, there is no self-arresting with all of these rock chokes and a huge cliff. So it was fun to be confident in the snow conditions, be confident in the skiability and charge down that one section and totally free ride and stay ahead of the sluff.”
The technicality of portions of the Epine D’argent line reminded the globe-trotting Holmes of some of the most memorable lines he’s ever skied
“There’s some sections of that line,” Holmes said, “especially the entry. I felt it was steep — steeper than anything I’ve skied in Summit County by a long shot — more exposed. That line had me on point more than any line I’ve ever skied in Summit County. The only thing I’ve ever skied that made me feel like that is in the Tetons or in the Alps.”
Did Holmes have any fear dropping in?
“Oh, sure,” he said. “But you know how fear is. Some people might say, ‘It’s not fear; it’s awareness,’ and it causes you to be focused or safe or whatever. I think there’s lots of different ways to think about it, but we are in positions that are startling sometimes, and you are familiar with, but they are very real. So call it fear, call it focus, whatever you want to call it, paying attention. I felt like I was pretty dialed in.”
He was also pretty curious.