On the hill: Needles on a haystack
OLD SNOWMASS – I went on a superb ski tour Saturday with a group I’ll call the Fantastic Four.
My travel mates were two father-son sets. The dads are both in their 60s and fit as fiddles. I can only hope to be in as good of shape as them when I’m in my 50s, let alone my 60s.
The sons are both 18-year-old seniors at local high schools. They are their fathers’ sons, extremely fit and eager for a day of hard work on an isolated mountain, away from crowds, terrain parks and hoopla. They relished the beauty of popping out of the dark timber into snow-covered meadows and shuffling over rolling hills loaded with virgin powder. Realizing how these guys have their priorities straight at such a young age made me regret my own misspent youth (sort of).
We started our journey at 8 a.m. and spent the next 4 1/2 hours shuffling up the varying pitches of Haystack Mountain, whose summit is a long ridge in the shadow of Mount Daly. The starting elevation was at about 8,000 feet, and for the first 45 minutes we skinned up a steady but easy pitch along a route packed by snowmobiles.
The fun really began as we peeled off the packed route, crossed a creek and took turns breaking trail. Each step by the leader tamped down 6 or so inches of light powder to the snowpack’s base. The surface of hoar frost shattered like glass crystals as each of us took turns plowing ahead in the untracked snow.
The hard work quickly offset the cold temperatures, and the day become downright balmy when the sun poked over an eastern ridge. Up we climbed through aspen groves so thick it required a zig here and a zag there. One of the 18-year-olds led us up the first steep pitch that separates the aspen forest from the higher, dense stands of spruce and lodgepole pine. We’d fight our way up a steep stretch, breeze through relative flat clearings, then repeat time and again until the final brutal pitch.
The rocky top of the upper ridge required us to shed our skis. Southern exposure and wind scour made it easier to hike the last 15 minutes or so. We stopped for a snack and to soak up the scenery near the namesake haystack mound on the sprawling mountain. We had climbed more than 4,000 feet to top out at 12,214. We looked in awe at the in-your-face views of Mount Daly and Capitol Peak, decapitated by clouds. We watched as rolling clouds engulfed the top of Mount Sopris.
Then we sailed back to civilization, better men for the trip.
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