A peak experience on Mount Sopris
The digital thermometer in Clark’s SUV read 3 degrees. Inspired by the orchestral drama of the “Alpine Symphony” by Richard Strauss on the CD player, we swallowed our last gulps of coffee and forced ourselves into the early-morning cold. As we snapped into telemark bindings and hefted backpacks, the sun cast its first light and illuminated the peak of Mount Sopris. Winter white and standing 5,000 feet above us, it felt like Annapurna.
Having just read Maurice Herzog’s classic mountaineering tale of frostbite and high altitude, Mount Sopris looked intimidating from the Prince Creek divide. Resolute from the company of my stalwart ski companions, however, I set off up the frozen road on the long winter approach to one of the classic peaks of the Roaring Fork Valley.
Mount Sopris is named for Capt. Richard Sopris, an adventurer who came West after working as a canal contractor, a steamboat captain on the Ohio River and a railroad contractor. Capt. Sopris prospected in Colorado during the gold rush of 1859, and in 1860 he organized an expedition of gold-seekers to explore the Western Slope. They left Denver on a circuitous route to the Roaring Fork Valley and camped at the base of Sopris Peak, which they named for their leader. The Sopris party found no gold here, so they returned to Denver, where Sopris was elected mayor in 1879. He died there in 1893.
Few explorers could wish for a better monument than this lofty landmark to which we made our pilgrimage in the bitter cold of early February. It wasn’t until reaching bright sunshine in the big meadow on the Hay Park trail that feeling returned to my fingers. Basking in the sun’s warmth, the entire western vista was filled with Mount Sopris and its glacially carved basins and high sweeping ridges.
Mount Sopris is a mountaineering magnet. In past years, with laborious trail-breaking, the round trip demanded 10 hours. On this day, with the novelty of a solid snowpack and four strong skiers, the going was easier. We followed a faint track for the first couple of miles, and from there formed a line to break trail. Quietly, we threaded our way through the aspens, whose slanting shadows cast stripes on the undulating snow.
Randy assumed the lead and plodded ahead with his long, familiar stride ” a stride I’ve followed on many winter tours through the Elk Mountains. Randy stepped aside for Clark, who stepped aside for Michael, who stepped aside for me. Just below Thomas Lakes, we detoured from the summer trail and snaked through dark timber. In the shade, the cold returned with a vengeance, reminding us that it was February at 10,000 feet.
We soon cut switchbacks up to the east ridge, topping out in a sunny glade of stunted alpine fir in the krummholz ecosystem. Krummholz is German for “crooked wood,” which accurately describes the wind-beaten trees on the ridge, from where the peak stood out as an enormous massif with vertical walls of rock and snow. Because of the exposure of the ridge, the light powder snow we had been breaking became a hardened wind crust that deflected pole plants with hardly a mark.
Plodding up the rocky ridge, we were surprise that there was still no wind, which is contrary to the nature of this big-shouldered mountain. Sopris seems to attract wind, and its high ridges are regularly scoured down to scree. Several times I have been beaten down from Sopris by roaring winter gales that could carry off a fully loaded backpack.
Just below the false summit, where the air is thin and the snow scarce, we removed our skis and navigated the edge of the ridge on foot. Walking above a sheer face that plunges 500 feet into Buzzard Basin, we gazed across at Capitol Peak and Mount Daly. The Elk Mountain Ridge trended south and the big summits of the Williams Mountains lined up to the east, radiating the winter sun in brilliant white glimmers.
To this point, we had hiked four hours, but any fatigue we felt was thoroughly masked by a growing euphoria for altitude and big vistas, the mountaineer’s high. Traversing behind the false summit, we postholed to our thighs in jagged rocks drifted in with snow. Suddenly a breeze came up and chilled us with 10-degree air. We pushed on to the low saddle where an enormous cornice cantilevered into open space like the prow of a ship. The summit ridge swept up in a symmetrical curve about a quarter-mile to the peak at 12,953 feet.
This final pitch, windswept, cold and high, slowed our steps and worked our lungs. The push was worth it. Finally standing on the summit, overlooking the entire Roaring Fork Valley, we took in the Flattops, the Holy Cross Range, the distant Gore Range and the even more distant San Juans. The valley’s ski areas were displayed like toy models. The world lay at out feet.
The air was frigid, so we wrapped ourselves in jackets and pulled caps over our heads. The sky was so blue that it was nearly black, and there wasn’t even the hint of a cloud. We glanced down into Capitol Creek, where we had skied two weeks before, and felt familiar with a large swath of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. For 20 minutes we feasted our eyes, then, deciding to avoid Herzog’s drama, we headed for warmer climes.
Skiing down the summit ridge with a thousand-foot drop-off to our left brought our ski technique into focus, and telemark turns were linked on a crust that showed hardly a dent from our steel edges. After hiking back around the false summit, we clipped back into our skis and maneuvered the breakable crust to timberline, then floated through creamy powder the rest of the way down.
“Sopris is the perfect ski mountaineering summit,” concluded Randy at the trailhead as we glanced back at the peak, now starkly backlit by the afternoon sun. “No avalanche risk and 5,000 feet of vertical. It’s a big day.”
My family could attest to that. After a hot bath and dinner, my eyelids bore the weight of many footfalls. The tour had taken about eight-and-a-half hours, and I was ready for an equal amount of time in sleep, resting on the laurels of a peak experience.
Paul Andersen is a columnist and contributing editor for The Aspen Times.