I had been aware of this ski descent off of Mount Guyot, the Swan Dive, for some time…but I’d never found out how to get there. So before it got any warmer this spring, I decided to go check it out on May 12, 2022.
Thursday, May 12
I must have driven past this view about a million times, never realizing what I was looking at. But the bold ski line of the Swan Dive, descending from the summit of Mount Guyot, is quite obvious once you look for it, a snaking S-curve to the left (skier’s right), which descends the northeast face. This was my objective; but I could tell, even from here, that the snow was looking thin. Was I already too late? Only an on-the-ground inspection would provide an answer.
Also barely visible here is Mount Guyot’s northwest face, showing itself in profile as a thin line, from upper left to lower right. Though I did not notice it at the time, this was to prove the more significant snowfield in my next day’s exploration.
A closer shot shows this more clearly:
Although the thin looking snow created some doubt about how skiable this would be, I nevertheless forged ahead. For me, my trip was more about the experience and adventure, not whether I summited or not.
Prior to the trip, I had tried to explore as much information as I could about car camping combined with such a trip, though details were scant. I am afraid to say that the state of Colorado, much less the local city and county jurisdictions, pay backcountry skiers very much attention at all; we are very much a fringe activity — though perhaps someday that may change, given the recent explosion interest in sidecounty skiing adjacent to resort areas.
Scouring the internet, my best pieces of information were from this 2015 post, Mt. Guyot Ski: The Swan Dive, and this more recent post: Mount Guyot Ski – Swan Dive (14 June 2019) Both of them advised approaching via the Little French Gulch trail, which is accessed via the French Gulch Road on the eastern edge of Breckenridge.
Also helpful was gaiagps.com, where its topo maps provided some insight into the few roads in the area. However, no information on camping near the trailhead was to be found. So I was on my own to find out what was available only after I arrived. As a fallback, I knew I could always get a hotel room somewhere in Breckenridge; though given it being such a pricey, touristy area, that was not an attractive option. All I could see on Google Maps and Gaia was that the French Gulch Road led out of Breckenridge into a National Forest; but no campgrounds were to be seen. Although you can generally camp anywhere in National Forests, I knew that local rules often restrict what you can do.
So I decided to give myself enough time to arrive early enough to drive back out if I had to. What I soon discovered was that there was a locked gate blocking the French Gulch Road not that far outside of town; as shown here:
The gate had a simple padlock on it, and I noticed several local residents who had a key for it came and went through it while I was there:
The Sally Barber Road is closed to motorized traffic, so it’s popular for non-motorized use, as this trailsign shows:
However, there was a hopeful discovery here as well. At this spot was a small private parking lot up and above the road which was reserved for users of the Sisters Cabin, with big signs that violaters will be towed; no help there! But just beside this was a small flat spot, not cleared but free of big rocks and stumps, which was just big enough for my car. Okay, found a parking spot; what about a campsite for my tent?
Across the road was a clearcut area, where there was old slash debris, and one little spot just level enough for my tent. Eureka! After some slight clearing of rocks and sticks, I plopped down my tent:
Obviously, not the most aesthetic location; and, if you look close, you can even see a trail right behind it; there’s even a decorated Christmas tree! There are two trailheads here, both named for historic mines in the area, as well as 4WD roads that lead off into a veritable maze of connecting roads; in other words, a trail runners’ paradise! I saw a few runners pass by my camp, who all just waved, and did not look despairingly at my campsite. My car was parked just across from my tent, which shows the private parking lot behind it:
With time to spare, and needing some exercise, I wanted to explore my approach route, always a good idea to do beforehand when you can. So I walked up County Road 520 to see what I could see….
The first thing I noticed were the huge piles of rocks filling the ravine beside the road. This was certainly from previous mining activity back in the later 1800’s, after the Civil War ended. The technique was especially destructive, as it basically dug up entire streambeds and their banks, to ensure all possible gold deposits were captured. Special machinery was invented to accomplish the Herculean task. I’ve seen similar rock tailings around Fairplay. I doubt any recovery efforts will ever be made to reclaim the land, as the work is simply too overwhelming to contemplate.
True to my intuition about mining activity, after a few more minutes hike up the road, I came upon an historic plaque about the Wire Patch Mine:
As the plaque explains, the Wire Patch Mine was most productive from 1875 to 1908; but it hung on, changing hands, until the 1980s. In the end, the land owners sold it to Breckenridge and Summit County Open Space for $9.2 million in 2005…but without doing any reclamation work on the tailings piles, obviously. This legacy of mining is, to my mind, quit offensive: a permanent scar upon the land, which shows the total disregard the original miners had for the environment; as well as the lack of caring that the community had for sanctioning the miners to force them to reclaim the land, and restore it to the local ecosystem. In the past, I used to accept these kinds of degradations as the inevitable order of things; no longer! I now believe that I should speak out, loudly and longly, where I can, when I can…so should you!
A little further down the road, after rounding a bend, the northwest face of Mount Guyot came into view:
So now I knew what this aspect looked like; but how to get there? I had a GaiaGPS track that crossed this road, and went up through the woods, but I needed to find it. I kept walking…
There were a few big homes along the road; like this opulent place:
The County Road 520 kept going on and on, according to my topo, but I’d walked beyond where my GPS track crossed the road, without my seeing a trail. So I turned around and headed back, scanning the tangled undergrowth for any trail that I might be able to use tomorrow.
I kept referring to the GaiaGPS app, anticipating where its track crossed this road. On the Gaia website, the person who created it referred to it as a great ski, and looked like they had started at the beginning of the Sallie Barber road, and followed the track of the French Gulch creek, when there was snow to travel on.
Then, finally, I spotted this trail marker on the north side of the road:
I had totally missed this walking up the road before, but was now much relieved to see it. This meant there was an established trail through the forest, at least up to treeline. Hooray! I walked back to my camp much relieved. Part of the way the French Gulch Creek followed along the road some distance below:
Back in camp, I busied myself with preparing an evening meal out of the back of my vehicle:
While enjoying my dinner alone, I had a little guest show up:
This little guy was surprisingly tame, and would approach me as if I were going to feed him from my own hand! Of course, I knew that was a bad idea, and would try to shoo him away; but this proved difficult, as he kept circling around, and coming back from a different direction. I eventually gave up trying to scare him off, and retreated to my tent as dusk fell. Fortunately, he did not try to enter my tent!
I spent a fitful night, unprepared for the cold. The temperature got down into the mid-20’s, and my bag was rated for freezing. Plus, the sloping ground meant I eventually rolled during sleep toward the lower side of the tent. In a zippered sleeping bag, when you wake up on the lower side of your tent, it feels like you rolled down a hill in a straight-jacket! Not an enjoyable position from which to extricate yourself….
Friday, May 13
In spring skiing, the rule that governs the time of descent is the window during which the corn snow is best; and that is roughly from 11am to 1pm, depending on the solar aspect of the slope, and other conditions. And normally that means getting an alpine start well before dawn.
But this was not a normal trip; I was on my own, and not in any great physical condition, so I was mostly up here to explore the approach, and get some exercise. Though I awoke at 5:30am and got going, it was slow going for me. The cold temperature — about 28F when I woke up — and lack of peer pressure to motivate me, meant I was on my own to strike camp and get going…which meant about an 8:30am departure. I saw an early runner dash by my camp — in shorts, just long sleeve shirt, so water, no extra gear — which made me feel even more guilty. Oh well, I’m on vacation, I told myself…
So it was that I found myself starting up the French Gulch Trailhead about 9am, after trudging up the road in my ski boots, carrying my skis on my pack:
Fortunately, it looked like adequate snow to skin up on — though how long it would continue I was just going to have to go and find out.
One of the truisms of adventures is to expect the unexpected, and go with the flow; so when this guy showed up:
…I just had to accept this guy as fate! I tried to persuade him to go home, but he (and it was a he) was bound and determined to keep following me; or rather, running ahead of me up the ski trail. He seemed totally accustomed to traveling along with cross-country skiers, so I just had to roll with it.
My greatest anxiety about following this unknown trail uphill was whether it would start switch-backing up densely forested terrain. Fortunately, none of my fears materialized; in fact, the trail was mostly open, like this:
However, at times the skiability of the trail diminished considerably:
Thin conditions on the French Gulch
There were about 3 or 4 places where the snow melted out completely, and I had to either remove my skis/skins, or step gingerly across. Without more snow, I think I might have been here on one of the last days when the trail was still skiable.
At long last, I approached treeline, and started to enter the basin below the northwest face:
Since it was now about 11:30am, I knew I had no chance of making the summit, either to ski down the Swan Dive, on the northeast face, or the northwest face that was facing me. And I knew I needed to turn around soon to ski back down to the trailhead, before what snow there was turned into ‘mashed potatoes’ and became much more difficult to ski. But here I was, considering my alternatives:
Therefore, I proceeded up a little further, enough to get a good view of the entire basin. Here’s a screenshot from my GPS:
The elevation says 5,122 ft because that’s what it was where I took the screenshot. Also, the green line is the GPS track from someone who posted it at gaiagps.com, which helped guide me. It looks like they skied down the ridge line, not the face. I could see old ski and snowmobile tracks up on the sparsely treed slope to the right, in the photo below.
Here’s what the view looked like:
The ascent route to the summit is nearly out of sight, since the view is from the side. The summit is the obvious high point; and obviously has mostly melted out. It might have been possible to ski the Swan Dive down the northeast face, just out of sight on the left ridge; but it was not for me today. What was reassuring was the non-intimidating slope angle of the northwest face; I knew I could ski that. So, someday I will have to come back!
Now it was time to head back. The snow was soft and quite skiable, not yet “mashed pototoes”, thankfully. My one concern though was this creek that I had crossed on the way up, which was partially open, and had just a thin snow bridge over it. It was somewhat dicey to ski over; and I could see where some previous hikers had punched a hole through it with one of their boots!
Those are my ski tracks sidestepping down, then up the other side. I was glad to get over that! Continuing on down about another 10 minutes of steady downhill, I needed to stop at the first melted out section, and shed a layer as I was getting overheated. That’s when I discovered I no longer had my stuff sack with my bandana and gloves; oh no! Where could it be? Did I leave it where I took my lunch break, which I left 15 minutes ago back up the trail? That was the only explanation, so I had no choice but the head back up. Forty-five minutes later, I had skinned all the way back up to my break spot, and, sure enough, there was my stuff sack, sitting in plain sight on the ground.
Amazingly, the mystery dog devotedly followed me all the way back up there, though I could tell he was getting tired. As I skied down though, I wondered what to do if he followed me all the way back to my car. But, as it turned out, that did not happen: about halfway back to the trailhead, I saw a woman hiking up on snowshoes, who called out as we approached each other. The mystery dog immediately recognized her voice, and went trotting towards her, as it was indeed his owner. She asked me where I’d encountered him, which I told her, but then did not have the presence of mind to ask her his name. So, the mystery dog remained a mystery; but at least he was now back with his owners.
After negotiating a few more melted out sections, I was down; yay! I retrieved my shoes that I’d cached in a tree, and got out of the heavy ski boots:
Always a nice way to end a spring ski: bare feet! I was glad I’d thought to bring my street shoes up with me to wear back on the last mile of hiking along the road; but how to to carry my ski boots? Of course! I’d seen this done before: just attach them to your skis:
And so, about 50 minutes later, I was back to my car, which was untouched. I soon was unpacked, transitioned to driving mode, and headed back into Breckenridge. I’d heard that the Broken Compass was a recommended brewpub there, and decided to stop briefly before the long drive home. Here’s the poster showing where their name comes from:
While not the classiest atmosphere, they did make a good IPA; just be prepared for loud rock music, and a noisy place if you stop by.
And with that, I headed back home…but someday I do need to return and ski the Swan Dive!