Sometimes the waiting can be the hardest part. But in ski mountaineering, it’s only half the battle.
On April 26, a group of five of us, accompanied by four very excited canines: set out to ski Mount Hayden: a 13,000-plus-foot peak tucked in the Castle Creek Valley behind Aspen. I have wanted to ski this peak since moving back to the valley two years ago but have had no luck.
I had heard that the route-finding through the trees could be a nightmare, and it was a major deterrent. With the lack of snow the past two years and a deep persistent weak layer this season, it was beginning to look like another year might go by without getting to ski this behemoth peak. But this season, my girlfriend’s father and a few of his friends agreed that they would take on another annual ski-descent challenge on Hayden, and this spring we were invited to tag along.
We originally had planned on attempting Mount Sopris outside Carbondale, but after monitoring the changing temperatures and the spring freeze cycles, we decided Mount Hayden was our peak. That was three weeks ago. We continued to watch the weather and were forced to unavoidably continue to push the trip back due to unstable weather conditions. It became increasingly frustrating week after week, and our window to ski Hayden was closing. This past weekend, we decided that Saturday morning looked promising and we would attempt to go as far we could.
The morning started very early — as they always do — and we met the crew eight miles up Castle Creek at 5 a.m. After gathering all mountaineers and equipment, we had five people and four dogs. Our first obstacle was a challenging early-morning river crossing. The large logs that used to bridge the river had washed away, and we collectively engineered a small makeshift bridge. It was sketchy, to say the least. The water was fast and cold, and crossing with ski boots, packs, dogs and equipment was nerve-racking. This was a “no-fall zone.” Any misstep or unexpected fall would end the trip before we even started.
We forged four dogs and our gear across the river successfully, after some delay, and as the sun broke above the horizon, we immediately clipped into our skis and started our skin. The route-finding was very difficult through the first few thousand feet of ascent, as we were advised, but fortunately our experienced group of guides led us with little problem. I am convinced that if we had attempted the climb without these experienced climbers, we would not have found the way.
Shortly after 8 a.m., in the midst of tree-navigating, we ran into two other friends who were also making the trek up, and they joined us for the remainder of the hike. We reached the base of the Stammberger Face around 9:30 a.m. and stopped for a quick bite, some water and a regroup while taking in the views and admiring the mighty face of Mount Hayden before us. These sunscreen-applying, blister-checking, food-snacking stops are an important part of keeping morale, as all mountaineers know.
After patching blisters and snapping a few pics, we set out for the summit. Weather was holding, dogs were psyched, and it was looking promising. We pushed upward at a slow but steady pace until reaching the upper bowl section near the top of the Stammberger face. The snow was glimmering as the sunlight poked in and out of the ominous cloud cover above, and our pace started to slow. The snow was becoming more and more bulletproof with every step, and our skins were losing grip on the steep, icy ascent. After several frustrating falls and backward slides, we decided that it was time to strap our skis on our packs and boot up the remaining 2,500 feet to the summit. The pace continued to be steadily slow, and the face of Hayden continued to endlessly stretch into the sky in quite a demoralizing fashion. Six hours after starting our journey, we reached the summit. The weather was holding, but winds were picking up, and the impending storm was moving quickly up the canyon toward us.
We enjoyed our summit for a short time and took some photos for posterity. Strapping on the skis after making such an accomplishment is always gratifying, and we enjoyed the descent that I had waited so long to achieve. The ice-skiing was more like skiing Mount Washington on the East Coast than a peak in the Rockies, but beggars can’t be choosy, and we enjoyed the nearly 4,500-foot ski descent back to the river. This time the river crossing was a no-brainer, and most of us, including the dogs, forged the freezing-cold river without bothering with the makeshift log bridge. We stumbled back to our cars, exhausted but content, and made immediate plans for much-deserved burgers and beers.
In the end, it was a day we will not forget anytime soon, and we hope to make it an annual trip, just like those who showed us the way. Like most things in life, the temporary suffering we endured was well worth the effort, and from now on when we look across from the top of Ajax, we can gently smile with the memories we have. It was worth the wait.