Aspen Times Weekly: Greetings from the Retro Grand Reverse |

Aspen Times Weekly: Greetings from the Retro Grand Reverse

Paul Andersen
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Design by Afton Groepper

ASPEN – Skiing over Pearl Pass at 12,705 feet was a feat of daring the first time I did it 35 years ago on wooden Bonna 2400s with cable bindings, leather boots, bamboo poles and woolen pants. I was young then and impetuous.

I’m not young anymore, but I’m still impetuous, so my friend, Graeme, and I dusted off our old hickory planks, torched in the pine tar, corked on layers of kicker wax, shook the mouse turds out of cracked leather boots, dug the wool knickers out of cobwebbed closets and set off to scale the heights of the Elk Range in full retro regalia.

We chose the weekend of the “Grand Traverse” – the famed 40-mile ski race between Crested Butte and Aspen – so we could take advantage of a shuttle back to Aspen for one of the racers. That’s all it took for a couple of guys in their 60s to launch a 20-mile trek over the spine of the Elk Range on antique gear.

Nostalgia is a potent emotion because it conjures ideals. Our memories of Pearl on wood, wool and leather from decades past were so steeped in our own mythology that we forgot about the downhill limitations of aged equipment. We brushed that aside, however, as the ensuing eight hours of skiing took us through some of the most stunning mountain scenery in the world.

Looking at our photos of the tour, most of them show the ascent. That’s because the downhill, when taken on stiff, straight, narrow woodies, lacked photogenic grace. Our turns looked like the jagged lines on a heart rate monitor, but we made it without breaking a tip. We are already planning a second annual Retro Grand Reverse for any skiers whose equipment is older than their kids.

The one disappointment was our attempt to rely on the fine art of waxing to get us up and over the big hill. Multiple layers and gradients were carefully applied to assure that our skis would grip like studded tires and glide like ice skates.

However, warm weather and an overnight freeze turned the track into crusty corrugations of ice that scraped off most of the wax in the first few miles. We were forced to stretch on skins – something we never used in the old days – and plod up to the Tagert Hut where a sunny bench made for blissful repose beneath the rocky ramparts of Pearl Basin.

Graeme broke out his whiskey flask for a morning snort, and we sighed contentedly as the smoky single malt warmed our innards as the sun warmed our outards. The peaty taste infused our senses as we strapped on skis and set course toward the high pass where the sun was breaking through billowing clouds, illuminating a striking contrast of snow and rock.

Uphill conditions could not have been better. We had a solid, consistent base, a creamy top layer of snow from the night before, and mild, if occasionally blustery air currents swirling the clouds among the ragged ridges. The pass stood out before us, marked by a kick-turn traverse cut by skiers the day before who had left symmetrical turns etched artistically along the skyline.

We climbed the pass one-at-a-time, gulping the thin air, eager for the top, beyond which the Gunnison Country stood, ridge upon ridge, all the way to the southern horizon and the distant San Juans. We kept on our climbing skins for a conservative traverse of Star Basin, arriving half an hour later at the Friends’ Hut.

Here we encountered a buzz of activity as support staff for the Grand Traverse was busy setting up checkpoints along the high ridge toward Star Pass or digging pit stops for ski racers who would come through in the wee small hours the next morning.

Graeme, always the architect, critically surveyed the hut he had designed almost 30 years before as a memorial to plane crash victims from Aspen and Crested Butte – the friends for whom the hut is named. We enjoyed a leisurely lunch with a ski patroller from the Butte and his boisterous avalanche dog, talking snowpack, race times, and the latest scandals in CB.

By the time we pushed off from the hut the hot sun had softened the snowpack into the world’s largest slushy. We thrashed through thick timber and slogged through sunny meadows down the Brush Creek valley where the long, slow shuffle to the trailhead on collapsing crust tested our humor.

Our faithful wood skis held up well, despite their many decades of life, and the remnant wax gave us the right purchase on the granular snow. The leather boots proved sufficient (just one, small blister) and our woolen knickers gave off that aromatic, wet-wool stench that brought back rich memories of ski tours past and the even richer promise of retro ski tours to come.

Pearl Pass is one of six passes that cross the Elk Range between Aspen and Crested Butte; the others are Taylor, Coffeepot, Triangle, East Maroon and West Maroon. Pearl stands out as the highest at 12,705 feet and, with the exception of East Maroon, is the most direct route between the towns.

Long before there was a road, prospectors came over the range by foot from Crested Butte in 1879 and found gold above Ashcroft. Pearl Pass is named for the Pearl Mine, one of the early silver mines of the late 1800s in Pearl Basin at the headwaters of Castle Creek.

In 1881, the tent city of Aspen wanted telegraph communications with the outside world. Crested Butte was the closest, most direct link to an existing telegraph system, so Western Union made a bid to string the lines. However, the $3,800 estimate was considered outrageous, so citizen volunteers labored to get the line over Pearl, ushering in what The Aspen Times called the “electric spark connecting us with the busy multitude across the range.”

Because of a dispute with the telegraph company, the line was never electrified and never used. The telegraph company claimed $175 was due for erecting poles, but the fee was never paid and the poles were eventually beaten down by severe weather. Today only an occasional metal brace may be found along the Pearl Pass Road.

In 1882, a so-called “road” was fashioned over Pearl Pass through vast boulder fields. While sure-footed burros made the earliest crossings, the first train of wagons reportedly negotiated Pearl on Sept. 7, 1882, carrying a shipment of silver ore to Crested Butte from the Tam O’Shanter and Montezuma Mines. This was five years before a railroad would reach Aspen, so the ore was delivered to the Rio Grande railroad depot in Crested Butte and shipped to smelters in eastern Colorado.

That same year, Aspen entrepreneur Jerome B. Wheeler contracted for regular shipments of coke from coal-rich Crested Butte over Pearl Pass until Wheeler’s own coke ovens began producing near Carbondale. When the railroads reached Aspen in 1887-88, the high wagon passes fell into disuse and Pearl was pretty much abandoned.

Starting in the 1950s, recreational skiers crossed Pearl Pass via the Tagert and Green-Wilson ski huts. With the construction the Friends’ Hut in 1985, Pearl Pass became an established ski route listed by the Tenth Mountain Hut system. In the summers, adventuresome four-wheelers crossed Pearl in a display of automotive bravado.

During the late 1970s and early ’80s, Pearl Pass gained political significance as Crested Butte citizens staged ski tours over the pass to protest a threat by mining giant AMAX, which had planned the industrial rape of Crested Butte. “Save the Lady” ski tours were launched to seek solidarity with Aspen and raise public awareness of molybdenum mining.

On one tour, more than 35 skiers trekked to Aspen over Pearl, camped in snow caves along the way, and marched in ski boots up and down the Hyman Avenue Mall carrying anti-mine banners. AMAX pulled out of Crested Butte in 1983 and, while this ended the protest ski tours, the mining claims on Mount Emmons remain a reminder that industrial mining remains a threat.

Another popular crossing of Pearl Pass became an annual event in 1976 when the first annual Pearl Pass Bicycle Tour left Crested Butte with 15 rugged riders who pedaled, pushed and carried the earliest prototype mountain bikes over Pearl Pass.

These one-speed bikes with coaster brakes, fondly known as “klunkers,” were soon outmoded in the late ’70s/early ’80s as bicycle frame builders and designers from California made pilgrimages to Pearl Pass to test and display new mountain bike technology during a critical growth phase of the sport.

The peak of the Pearl Pass Mountain Bike Tour, and perhaps the largest number of people ever to cross Pearl Pass under human power, occurred in 1981, when more than 200 mountain bikers rode the rugged pass to Aspen. A camp-out in Cumberland Basin became a kegger that alerted organizers that the tour had grown beyond the comfort level for backcountry etiquette.

Subsequent tours were reduced in size until they reached a manageable number for a one-day crossing and celebratory toast at the Hotel Jerome. Tours now average about 20 riders who cross the pass in mid-September.