In the Backcountry: Skiing a thin line |

In the Backcountry: Skiing a thin line

A razor-thin line separates utter misery and the highest elation, I learned last weekend.

We were climbing 13,316-foot Hayden Peak. It was a grueling, five-hour slog up ” we reached the snowline quickly enough for me to switch to skis and skins, but the frozen, uneven snow patches provided little surface area for the skins to grip, so I spent much of the below-timberline part of the ascent sliding a little backward for every two glides forward.

We reached timberline and studied the Stammberger Face while eating lunch, both in anticipation of the ski down and steeling ourselves for the climb up. We discussed the incident two years ago when a local skier was buried and injured in a slide there, ironically, after digging a snow pit. It’s an imposing, mostly north-facing piste that rarely slides ” one reason Ski Hayden is such a popular spring ski. We were confident that conditions were stable ” the snow layers were well-compacted and bonded together, and the weather had been really consistent ” but when something like that happens to your friends, you pay attention, no matter what.

It would take another three hours for me to reach the North Hayden summit. Several times I thought of quitting ” my skins were just not gripping on the steeper sections, and when they did, they clumped up with so much snow I felt like I was walking in 5-inch heels. I was worried that my dog would tear her pads on the way down, and I was just butt tired and whiny.

But Slinky (the dog) just kept on going, summiting twice before I made it up with her on her third time. Another group of three summited about the same time, and the six of us spent some time just reveling in the pure pleasure of being there. The views in every direction were spectacular, the sun warmed us as it intermittently peeked out from behind passing clouds, and we snapped multiple snapshots.

Skiing down, Slinky close at my heels, I almost burst out giggling. The snow on top was creamy and smooth, making for big, wide hero turns. All our faces sported wide grins when we regrouped. Determining the Stammberger face was safe, we skied that next, one at a time ” sprays of winter snow following us down the 45-degree slope.

Gathering at the bottom, we unanimously determined the day a success. Only a half-hour before, I had been miserable ” now I was one of the happiest people in Aspen. Funny how a great ski changes everything.

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