Stuck in the Rockies: Extending the season upon Independence Pass

Ted Mahon
Stuck in the Rockies

Spring skiing down a couloir above Independence Lake back in 2016. (Ted Mahon)
Ted Mahon/Courtesy photo

In the late 1800s, prospectors searching for mining fortunes pioneered a route over a high pass from Leadville into the Roaring Fork Valley. They discovered silver on July 4, 1879, and a mining town was born nearly overnight. The miners named the new town and the pass they crossed to reach it in honor of that historic American date: Independence.

One hundred and fifty years later, there’s not much silver coming out of the ground up at Independence ghost town, but there is a wealth of spring skiing that can be reaped by those willing to prospect for snow.

At 12,095 feet, Independence Pass is one of the highest paved crossings of the Continental Divide in the U.S. The lofty elevation results in a healthy accumulation of snow each winter. That translates to great late-season skiing once the road is plowed and opened for the season, typically around Memorial Day Weekend each year.

For backcountry skiers, it’s a date worth marking on the calendar. Elsewhere in the valley this time of year, lower elevation trailheads and a high snow line can require outsized efforts to find any skiing. The opening of Independence Pass provides easy access to multiple high elevation trailheads and ski zones.

The late May date and approaching summer bestows an encore-like status on Independence Pass skiing within the community. It’s the last call, the final chapter. If you were holding onto any hopes you’d do some late spring skiing, this brief window of opportunity is your best, last chance. So make some turns up there, and you can put your gear away for the summer, knowing you took the ski season to the end.

The beauty of skiing the pass is that there’s something for everyone. There are steep couloirs on the Palisades of Independence Mountain or mellow runs on the flanks of the Geissler’s. In addition, ski mountaineers can access a whole slew of high 13ers that are inaccessible during the winter.

Skiing one of the Geissler’s on a powdery morning years ago. (Ted Mahon)

You can embark on a longer route over the top of Twining Peak, 13,671 feet crossing from one side of the Continental Divide to the other. Or you can make a quick dawn patrol mission down Mountain Boy and possibly make it back to town for work by 9 am.

There are tons of possibilities. If you’re motivated enough to arrange a second shuttle car or willing to put out your thumb and hitch a ride, the options increase further. So find a partner, pack the cooler, grab some flip-flops for afterward, and head on up.

There is less snow than usual up there in late spring 2022, due to heat and dust events, so some routes won’t last very long. Here are some thoughts on skiing the pass, arranged by the different trailheads and pullouts along the road:

Lower Lost Man

Descending from Lost Man Pass towards Lost Man Lake in 2011. (Ted Mahon)

Use this low trailhead for out-and-back tours to the various 13,000-foot peaks that make up the Williams Mountains. It also serves as an exit for more extended tours that originate at the Upper Lost Man Trailhead.

Independence Ghost Town

The stretch of Highway 82 in the vicinity of the historic ghost town offers access to ski objectives on the south side of the road. Use the pullouts below the ghost town to reach Green Mountain, Fourth of July Bowl, and various northwest-facing runs off Independence Mountain. Park further up the road for ski objectives around the Palisades and the East Face of Independence Mountain— a personal favorite.

Anda Smalls skis Independence Mountain on a snowy spring day in 2011. (Ted Mahon)

It’s worth noting these routes all involve crossing the Roaring Fork River, both on the way in and out. It’s more of a small creek at this high elevation, but it may be tough to ford during spring runoff without getting your feet wet—plan to scout for a suitable place to get across. Or, if you’re really concerned about wet feet, you can always bring a pair of shoes or crocs and do a footwear change at the bank.

Upper Lost Man

This trailhead is the most popular starting point for skiing on the north side of the pass because they are typically out-and-back routes that don’t require car shuttling.

You can usually find excellent corn snow on the east faces of the Geissler’s or the couloirs above Linkins Lake. You can also do a mellow valley skin— or even nordic crust ski for the skate skiers— up to Independence Lake or Lost Man Pass.

Max Taam approaching Williams Mountain. (Ted Mahon)

For a more extended adventure, you can start at this trailhead and ski over Lost Man Pass to reach the Williams Mountains, or complete the “Lost Man Loop” and finish at the Lower Lost Man Trailhead. It’s also a popular starting point for adventures upon Twining Peak— the tallest mountain in the area, which boasts a fun south-facing ski run that finishes right at the trailhead.

Independence Pass

From the 12,095-foot parking area, head north as an alternate way to reach Twining Peak, and Blarney, a 13er south of Twining. Both summits offer long, east-facing descents down past Blue Lakes and into the North Fork of Lake Creek, finishing at the lowest hairpin on the Twin Lakes side of the pass.

Alternatively, you can head south from the parking area to access Mountain Boy, considered by many to be the true classic ski line of the zone. Ascend the long Mountain Boy ridge and take your pick of east or north-facing runs that lead down to the second hairpin.

If it’s later in the day and the snow is getting too soft on east aspects, or if you haven’t had enough and are looking for a second run, try the Twin Gullies. Ascend a short way up Mountain Boy Ridge and traverse west to these shorter, northwest-facing lines above the Independence townsite. They are in clear view as you head up the pass, so you can scout the coverage on your drive up. Returning to the highway will require you to cross the Roaring Fork River.

Use these notes as a source of ideas to plan a ski day on Independence Pass. However, additional homework is required. Find a map and a partner, locate some trailheads and mountains, consider the options, and make a plan.

There’s no better way to send off the ski season and welcome the arrival of summer than to spend a sunny spring day skiing one final time up on Independence Pass.

Aspen Times Weekly

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