Uphills in the valley
February 11, 2004
With so many ski lifts, it’s a wonder anyone wants to defy gravity and snowshoe or skinny up the ski mountains. But uphilling is tremendously popular in Aspen and Snowmass, and not just on the four ski hills.
It’s done in part for the tremendous workout. But it’s also a worthy way to be out-of-doors, enjoying snow in the pine boughs, hearing the quiet of the forest while having plenty of time to think. And an added bonus, on many popular uphill treks, is that you can bring your four-legged friends along.
Only if you’re pretty well-conditioned can you have animated conversations with friends on the way up. Uphilling can be brutal on the untrained lung.
That’s what makes local uphill races such awesome events. Locals line up by the hundreds to race each other up the ski hills in the winter. There’s the Mother of All Ascensions Uphill at Snowmass, the uphill race that’s part of Buttermilk Day at Wintersk-l, and the ever-popular America’s Uphill, a race up Ajax to the summit. People train all winter for these grueling contests.
If you’ve not tried uphilling, a warning about clothes: if may be cold when you start out, but be sure you can strip off layers as you go. You will sweat and get extremely warm, even on cold days. You want to keep those extra layers handy too, because as soon as you stop, your body will cool. A chairlift ride down or skiing down in the wind will make you grateful for the protection. A bottom layer of a special moisture-removing undershirt is recommended, topped by something warm like wool or fleece. A good top layer is a wind- and water-proof shell that breathes. And don’t forget your hat and gloves, water and some snacks. Your body loses as much as two to four quarts of fluid per day when you’re exerting yourself.
For locals, this is probably the most popular uphill workout. It’s a 2,030-vertical-foot climb to the summit and once you get there, you REALLY feel like you climbed a mountain. And you have all day to do it, unlike some of the other mountains where uphillers have to be all the way up before downhill skiers go up in the morning. Buttermilk’s uphill is well marked but remember the main rule: stay right. The route takes you up Government, bears right on Jacob’s Ladder, and then follows the Ridge Trail to the summit. Placards will guide you. Like on the other ski mountains, no dogs are allowed here. The satisfaction of reaching the summit is wonderful, especially because at the top, you can eat or drink anything the Cliffhouse has to offer. Then, if you’re not skiing down, you can get a free ride on the Summit Express quad. If you need them, you can rent snowshoes and poles at Buttermilk Sports at the base.
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On this monstrous set of peaks, the summit isn’t often the objective: the mid-mountain restaurants are. Cafe Suzanne. Gordons High Alpine. The Ullrhof. Sams Knob. To get to Cafe Suzanne, the favored route is Fanny Hill or Assay Hill up Funnel. To get to Gordonis, take Fanny Hill to Green Cabin. Coffee Pot is a shortcut but it’s steeper than if you stay on Green Cabin. (For the Mother of All Ascensions uphill race, the route follows Coffeepot). Bound for the Ullrhof? Then follow Fanny Hill up to Banzai and bear left. To get to Samis Knob, the easiest route is to take Fanny Hill to Dawdler past Burlingame Cabin and then switchback over to Banzai Ridge. It’s an easy side trip to Krablooniks off Dawdler if you’re craving a gourmet lunch. A Snowmass Ski Area trail map is your best bet for uphill routes and snowshoe routes are marked. General rules: stay to the side and beware downhill sliders. You can uphill all day long here. If you’re going after hours, watch for lurking snowcats. You can rent snowshoes at Two Creeks.
You’ve got to be up bright and early if you want to ascend Ajax. You have to make the summit by 9:15 a.m. The most used route o and the route of the grueling America’s Uphill race o is to follow the Little Nell up to Spar Gulch to Deer Park to Silver Dip. Again, stay to the right and avoid blindspots.
Uphillers can climb Highlands all day, as long as they are just going as far as the Merry-Go-Round Restaurant. If you want to ascend to the summit, you need to get past the Merry-Go-Round by 9 a.m. – that means an early start. People follow many different routes up Highlands. Probably the easiest route is to follow Jerome Park to the Park Avenue catwalk to the Nugget and then Riverside Drive. Other folks follow Thunderbowl to Golden Horn to T-Lazy-7 and Prospector. That’s a longer route but usually has less downhill traffic. Let a trail map be your guide and again, watch out for downhill sliders.
What better uphill trail than a road that goes uphill but is closed for the winter? It’s wide; it’s got mile markers so you know how far you’ve gone; it’s hard to get lost; and it’s handily packed down by snowmobilers who’ve got the same idea as you. Plus, the grades aren’t going to be anything as steep as the ski mountains and you can bring your dog. (Most other trails around Aspen and Snowmass don’t allow the tail-waggers.) Independence Pass is Highway 82 and closes for the season about five miles uphill from Aspen (at 8,800 feet and mile marker 57); there’s plenty of parking near the gate. A breathtaking drive in the summer months, uphilling on this road really allows you to see your alpine surroundings, which can be so fleeting in a car. The gentle, winding road is generally well packed to the ghost town of Independence (mile 57). Don’t venture much past that: there’s avalanche danger. It’s about 16 kilometers if you go to Lincoln Creek Road and back. It’s not recommended for skate skiers given the uneven “grooming” by snowmobilers.
Another winter road closure and another dog-friendly route, this pathway to the Maroon Bells is a temptation for skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers. In the winter, cars can go only as far as T Lazy 7 Ranch. After that, the road is closed and covered in well-packed snow o perfect conditions for skate skiers. It’s about 10 kilometers to the lake through the narrow valley. If the avalanche danger is high, the road is closed to recreationists. Signs of former avalanches are everywhere: flattened trees and wide paths or “chutes” down the mountainsides. Once at the lake, you’re rewarded with visual splendor: the Maroon Bells, the most photographed mountains in the world. Another bonus: there’s a restroom up there and sometimes hot cider. Afterward, you face your downhill, which is gradual and easy. Dress appropriately for this all-day adventure.
Some Aspen visitors won’t leave town before they do a snowshoe or cross-country ski trek into the Hunter Valley. They go for the beauty, the serenity and to feel a world away from anywhere. It’s not entirely accurate to characterize this as an “uphill” but the first part of the trail o a wide path/road o is a little steep, and there is a 700 foot elevation gain if you go all the way to Van Horn Park. The rest of it can be rated “beginner.” To get there from town, drive north on Mill Street, bear left onto Red Mountain Road after crossing the bridge, then take the next right. The PitCo public trail begins behind the Hunter Creek condos. The trail goes down steps to a walkway that follows Hunter Creek, gradually climbing to the Benedict Bridge, which crosses Hunter Creek. It’s then a steep uphill until you reach the forest service boundary and Hunter Valley meadows, which stretch out around you. From here, you can see a side trail going down on the left to the 10th Mountain Bridge across Hunter Creek. This is the route to some of the 10th Mountain huts. If you’re inclined, take the side trail uphill for about 3 kilometers to Van Horn Park, where there’s good open telemark skiing. If you stay on the main trail, signage should guide you. There’s much to see and explore.
Smuggler is probably the benchmark ascent for Aspen athletes from the casual to the near elite because it is accessible and useable year-round. The vertical climb is about 800 feet, and getting up it in 20 minutes or less is considered good time on foot or mountain bike (the really fast bikes can do it under 12 minutes and certain urban myths have some runners doing it in under 12 minutes too). Obviously, it’s slower going in the winter depending on snowpack. It’s not recommended as a snowshoe trail since the surface gets pretty firm with all the hikers (as many as 100 an hour at peak time on a good day – say 5 p.m. in the spring), plus the snowmobilers and cross-country skiers. Still, it’s a good access to the Hunter Creek backcountry, where the snow is deep and the path is much less traveled. A note: if you run up without snowshoes, you will get wet feet.
Another characteristic of the road: it’s sunny. That sun exposure means that even in January, you can strip down to a T-shirt for most of the run up and still sweat. The best time for this run in the winter is high noon. You can really get quite toasty. Snowpack usually lasts until April 1 and is gone for good around May 1. The steepest part of the trail is at the bottom during the first quarter and then in the last quarter it is almost as steep. Total distance is about 1.8 miles. When you pass the copper-top house, you are about a quarter way up. When you start the long straight away after a 90-degree steep turn, you are half way. At the platform, the view of Mt. Sopris is excellent. You can run another five minutes to get to the upper meadow but after that it’s too steep for most people. A note to men: if you want company, more women than men seem to use the trail right after work but then most everybody is on that trail that time of day.