Aspen’s backcountry beckons | AspenTimes.com

Aspen’s backcountry beckons

Charles Agar
Aspen, CO Colorado

The backcountry surrounding Aspen offers plenty of opportunity to seek out untrammeled powder. But, avalanche danger makes skills in route finding and snowpack assessment mandatory. (Tim Kurnos/The Aspen Times)

ASPEN ” Regardless if you’re a novice or expert, the Aspen area has unparalleled backcountry skiing and riding.

You’ve probably seen them at the end of the day ” the grinning locals, snow slowly melting from their beanies, sitting at the bar and talking about epic powder runs and hidden stashes. They look tired and happy, and the big grins on their faces hint at something a bit better than the hard-pack groomers and icy bumps that you’ve been subjecting your weary knees to. Powder? Where the heck were they skiing powder?

Well, if you have to ask, it was in the backcountry, far away from the lifts, the noise and those icy moguls.

The Roaring Fork Valley features easy access to some of the best backcountry skiing and snowboarding in the state. The mountains surrounding Aspen are justly famous for their untrammeled slopes, spectacular vistas and secret lines. Best of all, they offer something for everyone ” from the most rank novice to the hardened expert ” all in an unforgettable natural environment that has few equals. Here’s how to experience it yourself:

If you’ve never been in the backcountry before, the first place to start is with one of Aspen’s guide services. These services offer a variety of trips ” from snowcat skiing on the backside of Aspen Mountain to multi-day backcountry hut tours.

For those who just want a taste of the backcountry without the effort, Aspen Mountain Powder Tours (970-925-1220) offers snowcat skiing on more than 1,000 acres off the backside of Aspen Mountain. Reservations are required and you can expect to log approximately 10,000 vertical feet of skiing during your day. The terrain is perfect for strong intermediates.

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Complementing the snowcat skiing are the backcountry access gates that allow skiers to use chairlifts to quickly and easily gain vertical within Aspen’s ski areas before exiting and traveling into the backcountry. Both Aspen Alpine Guides (970-925-6618, or aspenalpine.com) and Aspen Expeditions (970-925-7625, or aspenexpeditions.com) offer guides that can safely take you through the gates to explore the wilderness beyond.

Both companies also offer a variety of other tours, which range from simple day trips into the Elk Mountains to multi-day excursions, some of which utilize the Alfred A. Braun Hut and the 10th Mountain Hut systems. The huts range from rustic to plush, with some having wood-fueled saunas. Reservations are required. Call 970-925-5775 for more information.

Because of Colorado’s plentiful snow, the potential for avalanches is REAL. The state often logs more avalanche deaths annually than any other in the country. Statewide avalanche forecasts are available at http://avalanche.state.co.us/ but they can only be used as a guide. On the ground, consider the potential for human-triggered slides ever-present. If you don’t know what you’re doing back there, don’t go ” or go with someone who does.

Proper gear for any backcountry adventure includes avalanche transceivers, shovels and avalanche probes. This gear is useless, however, if you don’t know how to use it; novices are recommended to take advantage of a guide service to safely travel into Aspen’s backcountry during the winter.

Other gear includes telemark skis, or alpine skis equipped with touring bindings. Snowboarders can take advantage of snowshoes or ” better yet ” a splitboard.

Regardless of what method of transportation you use, climbing skins, a good backpack, extra clothing, a compass, map and plenty of water and sunscreen are essential items. Aspen’s Ute Mountaineer (970-925-2849) is a great shop to stock up on essentials, rent the gear and get questions answered. And don’t forget your camera.

Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley are surrounded by hundreds of miles of Colorado’s best wilderness. There’s so much here that you will be spoiled on choices.

Some of the more easily accessible backcountry includes the Capitol and Snowmass Creek drainages, to the northwest of Aspen and southwest of Basalt. Other popular winter recreation spots include attractions such as Conundrum Creek, the town of Ashcroft, Montezuma Basin, Taylor Pass and Express Creek.

Aspen is surrounded by wilderness, including the Collegiate Peaks, the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness and the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

Encompassing more than 150,000 acres, the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness is located east of Aspen and includes the Hunter Creek Valley. The pristine acreage of the Collegiate Peaks is complemented by the 80,000 acres of the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness. Nearly 200,000 acres of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness comprises 180,962 acres of the Elk Mountains in central Colorado. All of these areas offer those with a sense of adventure the chance to travel deep into non-motorized backcountry and have some of the best backcountry skiing and snowboarding in the state.

Our favorite is the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. Surrounding the signature Maroon Bells peaks, it’s easy to find winter solitude and beauty here.

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