Stuck in the Rockies: A sunny Sunday ski date |

Stuck in the Rockies: A sunny Sunday ski date

Taking advantage of beautiful weather to go out on a long ski tour

Ted Mahon
Stuck in the Rockies
Pearl Pass, 12,705 ft., the first for three passes we crossed on our loop. (Ted Mahon)

Our work schedules had been pretty full, so we decided we needed a day out in the mountains together. My wife Christy and I set up a ski date of sorts— a big backcountry ski tour over several passes and through the mountains of Ashcroft.

We figured we could finish the day on the deck of the Pine Creek Cookhouse, celebrating the effort with drinks and a few bites to eat as the sun set behind the ridge.

At least that was the plan.

We’ve been adventuring together for 22 years. We believe you can learn a lot about yourself through challenging physical efforts and that It’s OK to get out of your comfort zone periodically, with goals that might border on being out of reach. So long as everyone stays safe, we believe, the hard-earned efforts and type II fun create lasting memories.

With those ideas in mind, we made plans for a big outing, one that would have us on our skis all day. We weren’t looking for thrilling skiing; we just wanted to take advantage of the beautiful weather and go out on a long tour (And, in the casual spirit of the ski date, maybe stop for a few little alpine snacks along the way).

The goal was to ski from Ashcroft to the Friends Hut and back via a loop that circumnavigated Star Peak. A big day, yes, and one we’ve done before. But not during the short days in January. And with the limited amount of training and miles we currently had under our belts, we knew it would be hard, but that was the appeal.

The alarm clock went off early. When we pulled into Ashcroft, the outside temperature was 5 degrees. We put on our packs and started skinning up the road as the morning sun was hitting the surrounding peaks. And just like that, we were off on our ski date.

Despite having our puffy layers on, we were still really cold— not surprising for January. After about an hour, we finally skinned into the path of the rising sun. Our morale boosted as our hands and feet warmed up.

We continued up the valley, past the huts, breaking trail towards Pearl Pass. At this point, we were feeling good. We had the whole day ahead of us. The scenery was beautiful, and we were finally warm.

Shortly after that, we crested Pearl Pass— the first of the three passes our route would cross. It was around noon, and fatigue from the trail-breaking effort started to creep in.

We hoped to have a snack on the pass and enjoy the views. But it was too windy, a common condition in this zone, so that would have to wait. At the time, it was no big deal. We kept our focus on the smoked trout and beer that hopefully awaited us at the finish.

We pulled off our skins and descended towards the Friends Hut and into an entirely different county. We were halfway through the day, but we were still skiing away from home. We briefly discussed our timing and pace and agreed to stick to the plan.

The snow was pretty lousy due to the recent windy and suny weather. As a result, it felt more like survival skiing than fun. As we got further into the afternoon, it felt like the temperature was going down, so we were back to wearing all of the warm layers we had brought with us.

We found a sheltered spot near some trees to eat before starting up to Star Pass. As we huddled out of the wind, we joked that we could have opted to simply ski over at Highlands all day, with a sunny après-ski session at the Alehouse afterward. That sounded pretty nice, especially considering our location and distance from home.

We started up towards Star Pass. Unfortunately, the warmth from the uphill effort wasn’t enough to counter the cold and wind, so we remained all bundled up. The wind increased as we reached the pass, so in place of any picnicking, I just gnawed on a piece of elk jerky. Christy fought to get a sip of water out of her Camelback, which was partially frozen by now.

We skied off the pass in the long shadows of the January afternoon. We were still in Gunnison County, but at least we were heading towards home.

The route to the third pass was somewhat convoluted, an unnamed col between Star and Taylor peaks. We questioned if it would be faster to switch to our Plan B. We could avoid the semi-steep pass and follow an alternate route through the valley to Taylor Pass and Express Creek Road several miles away.

The sun was getting low. Jokingly, I asked Christy if she had a headlamp. She said yes, and asked if I knew the combination to the lock at the Opa’s Hut, which was nearby. That wouldn’t be needed, but sometimes it’s just good to know all of your options.

We stuck with our plan and set a skin track up to the third pass. By now, we were in the late afternoon shade. We were as bundled up as when we started at the trailhead eight hours earlier. The wind howled through the col. Once again, the picnic would have to wait until later.

We could see the Castle Creek Valley out in the distance. But we still had about six miles to go. The mileage, vertical, and trail breaking had us feeling dehydrated at this point. And despite it being cold, we could feel the effects of being in the sun all day. I couldn’t remember when I last put on sunblock. Was it back at the car?

It took us a while to descend. By the time we reached the Cookhouse, the sunny deck scene had long since ended. It would be dark soon, and the restaurant was on to dinner service. We said no words, only looked at each other and smiled. We agreed— we just needed to get to the car.

After 18 miles, 5,000 vertical feet, three passes, some chapped lips, and a slight headache, we were back at the trailhead, ten hours after we started.

As we neared town and got back into cell service, we called in a takeout order as neither of us had the motivation to prepare dinner. The fantasy of drinks and apps on the deck of the Pine Creek Cookhouse was swapped for takeout and pajamas on the couch.

The ski date was a success. While we were unpacking and before we had even really had time to process the day, we asked, as we always do,”What’s next weekend’s adventure?”

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“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.

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