Some Aspen mountaineers are enjoying a genuine Rocky Mountain high this winter.
Ted and Christy Mahon ascended and then skied down an unnamed, 13,811-foot peak outside Lake City the weekend of Jan. 17. It marked the start of the 2014 season of their Centennial Skiers project — a quest they are undertaking with Aspenite Chris Davenport to ski the 100 highest peaks in Colorado. The Mahons were able to take advantage of a window of perfect weather. They will now wait until the snowpack settles down after prolific storms.
All three of the talented skiers and incredibly fit mountaineers already have climbed and skied the 53 peaks in the state over 14,000 feet. Davenport completed all the fourteeners in the winter of 2007. Ted completed them the following winter and Christy in 2010. They had no intention of turning the tour of the big peaks into anything grander.
“It was too big to think about it,” Ted said.
But while skiing together on another adventure organized by Davenport a couple of years ago, they started ruminating on Colorado’s nickname as the Centennial State and the popular pastime of some mountaineers to climb the 100 highest peaks in its majestic mountains. They decided to take the enjoyment of the big peaks a step further and make wintertime ascents and downhill skis.
Davenport is a professional big-mountain skier and climbing guide. Ted Mahon is a ski instructor on Aspen Mountain and a waiter. Christy Mahon is director of development at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies.
All three mountaineers have lengthy lists of backcountry accomplishments and credentials.
Christy said the trio is undertaking the Centennial Skiers endeavor simply for the fun of it.
“We’re going all out to see what we can see,” she said.
The Mahons’ schedule allowed them to get out of Aspen during the bluebird period the Colorado mountains experienced in mid-January. Davenport had commitments and couldn’t make the trip.
It is always important “to get the cobwebs out” — to refresh memories on how equipment is operated and sharpen the skills needed to undertake the isolated trips, Ted said.
For all the attention the biggest peaks gets, the equally majestic thirteeners are comparatively ignored. In his blog at www.centennialskiers.com, Ted wrote about UN13,811 (which stands for an unnamed peak at 13,811 in elevation) as an “unnamed and unloved peak.”
While the thirteeners may be unloved by the masses, the Mahons and Davenport know better.
“They’re absolutely overlooked,” Ted said. They are “slightly smaller siblings” of the fourteeners, he added. “They’re often a neighbor down the ridge.”
The tallest of the thirteeners is Grizzly Peak, in Aspen’s backyard in the Lincoln Creek drainage. It is just 12 feet shy of fourteener status and is coveted among expert spring skiers for its ski lines.
The high thirteeners probably are overlooked, Ted said, because of American’s fixation with numbers and measurements. Thus, the fourteeners get special attention while many of the 637 peaks in Colorado above 13,000 feet are relatively obscure and many of them unnamed. Elsewhere in the world, all the big peaks might get near-equal billing.
“To a European, they might say they’re 4,000-meter peaks,” Ted said.
Christy said the thirteeners share many characteristics with the fourteeners they surround. The high thirteeners in the Sawatch Range, for example, tend to be mellow, while those in the San Juan Mountains tend to present more of a challenge.
They tend to be clumped in the same general vicinities as the fourteeners. Only one thirteener is located north of Interstate 70.
The great escape
The Mahons had enjoyed the solitude of the thirteeners during summertime hikes, but that was nothing compared with the isolation they find during winter and spring skiing.
“It’s an incredible escape from day-to-day life,” Christy said.
The trip up UN13,811 — the second-shortest peak in the Centennial lineup — was unusual for the timing. January usually doesn’t provide the greatest skiing on the high peaks. West sides tend to be scoured of snow. East sides are loaded. That aids ascents but sometimes makes it tough to piece together skiing from the summits.
The best skiing is in the spring, when snow generally “plasters” the big peaks, Ted said. Last spring was ideal. The snow gods opened the nozzle in March after a sparse winter. The group enjoyed great skiing into June.
“We had a really good run in May,” Ted said.
Despite bagging the unnamed peak in January, the group will likely have to wait for a considerable time until an ample snowpack accumulates and stabilizes throughout the mountains.
Davenport skied 29 of the 47 peaks above 13,000 feet on the Centennial list last spring. The Mahons skied 19 peaks last spring but already had climbed and skied another 12, so all three adventurers are roughly two-thirds of the way through the list.
More often than not, the thirteeners don’t have a trail the skiers can follow, Christy said. They do their homework in advance using topographic maps and guide books as well as their experiences hiking the peaks during summers or chats with local mountaineers. In some cases, they are able start the ascent next to a popular trailhead to a fourteener. Other times, the start is from an obscure backcountry location.
“Route finding can be difficult,” Christy said.
There are downed timber and features not always obvious on a map. The three put climbing skins on their skis when possible. When the terrain gets really steep, they strap their skis to their packs, put crampons on their ski boots and sometimes employ ice axes for the climb.
They always have to be aware of avalanche conditions.
“You have to be worried about the snow softening,” Christy said. “You have to be at the top at 7 or 8 in the morning.”
That typically requires climbing for four or more hours.
A little bit of heaven
While the demands are great, the awards are nearly beyond belief. They see Colorado at its most raw and most beautiful — without another soul around. Ted said it’s a treat to soak in the view from slightly lower vantage points “surrounded by a sea of big peaks.”
The trip down is the payoff for the effort required to make it up the peaks. Ted’s blog explains how they don’t pick the most unimaginative route off the ridge to ski down. The expert skiers seek challenges and thrills — the Refrigerator Couloir on Ice Mountain has been one of their favorite lines so far. Ice Mountain is one of the higher peaks at 13,951.
“Sometimes you can ski all the way from the top to the car. That’s like heaven,” Christy said.
She relishes the peaks that present a challenge on both the ascent and the skiing. One of her favorite peaks so far was Teakettle Mountain, 45th on the list of the 47th highest thirteeners at 13,819. Rock climbing was required to reach the summit, which was no bigger than a twin mattress, she said. And the mountain actually looked like a teakettle, complete with a hollowed-out handle.
CentennialSkiers.com has great maps of the thirteeners that provide details on the routes the skier selected. The big peaks are listed and placed in perspective in Colorado. Ted’s blogs with pictures offer insights into the mountaineers’ efforts and the mountains they love.
The three aren’t guaranteeing they will complete their quest this year. That depends on factors such as snowfall, spring conditions and their schedules.
“We’re trying to do as many as we can together, and we’ll definitely finish together,” Christy said.
When they do, it could mark the first time anyone has skied all the Centennial peaks.
“So far, we haven’t learned of anybody doing it,” Ted said.
“It’s an incredible escape from day-to-day life.”
Christy Mahon, mountaineer