Rick Warner " solo Sopris sojourner | AspenTimes.com

Rick Warner " solo Sopris sojourner

John Gardner
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
On a solo trip to the west face of the west peak of Mount Sopris last week, Rick Warner took this self-portrait (the camera remote is taped to his right ski pole) of himself skiing down to his high camp (11,800 feet) at sunset. On Day 4, high winds broke a tent pole and forced a retreat. (Courtesy Rick Warner)

CARBONDALE ” Rick Warner figures the west summit of Mount Sopris is only three horizontal miles from his Avalanche Ranch home near Carbondale. But in that relatively short distance, the summit stretches 6,200 vertical feet from the valley floor.

When Warner, 61, feels the need for some alone time, he hikes up to about 1,200 feet below the snow-capped, twin-peaked summit and pitches his tent at high camp.

It’s his idea of heaven.

“It’s my perfect place to go for a vacation,” Warner said just days after he’d returned from his 50th or so multiday trip to the majestic peak ” the mid-Roaring Fork Valley’s most prominent landmark.

Owning his own custom furniture shop, in Silt, provides him the luxury to make these trips.

“I live for this type of skiing,” Warner said. “This is what Lou Dawson would call ‘entry-level extreme.’ But being up there, all alone, and there are no trails, it’s bona fide extreme skiing without the ‘gonna kill you for sure if you mess up’ element.”

Dawson, a longtime friend of Warner’s, is also a Carbondale resident and a pioneering skier of Colorado’s peaks.

Sopris, for Warner, is more than just a place to get in some serious turns, it’s a place that has become his own private resort where he has free reign to ski whatever he pleases.

“It’s kind of rough skiing, but there are a number of really cool routes,” he said. “I’m not the only one to ski there. I’ve never seen anyone else up there, it’s just so inconvenient to get to. Sometime in the past years, I may have skied a first ascent but I’ll never know which one. And it’s not like I need to feel that I’ve done that, it’s just that I’m in an area that doesn’t get a lot of traffic, and I like that.”

The connection between Warner and the mountain developed long ago.

“My relationship with Sopris goes back a long way. I actually went into this same cirque I’m skiing in the picture 42 years ago.”

That trip came after his freshman year in college. Warner traveled to Colorado with a professor who was studying the geology of Mount Sopris and the western Elk Mountain Range. Ironically, they stayed at the same Avalanche Ranch that Warner now calls home, but at the time it was known as Parker’s Swiss Village Resort, Warner said.

“Yeah, it felt like going home,” Warner said, laughing.

That first trip was when his feet first touched the rocky ground of this specific cirque. Visible from Glenwood, it’s the straight line coming down from the western peak directly toward Carbondale. And he’s been making tracks there for all the years in between.

It’s his secret paradise.

“It’s nice and peaceful there,” Warner said. “There’s a dichotomy there because where I camp is a vertical mile above the Crystal River. You can look down on the Crystal and you can see Carbondale and Glenwood in the distance looking one way. Then if I look the other way, I’m in ” and can see nothing but ” wilderness.”

It’s a difficult climb. Warner doesn’t take the usual summit trail that starts on the opposite side of the mountain near Dinkle Lake on the eastern face of Sopris. Instead, he takes an untracked route on the western face.

“I rarely go the standard route,” he said. “But this cirque is hard to get to. I’ve approached it from four or five different ways, and it’s a beater no matter how you approach it.”

That is what he loves about his trips to the tip of Sopris: It’s not just a challenge, it’s an awakening each time he goes.

“Being a soloist is a distinct decision you make, but you have to be the grasshopper and the mountain is the master. You have to listen to the mountain, not to yourself. Not what you think you can put on the mountain. It doesn’t care if you have a good time or a safe time. It doesn’t care if you live or if you die. It’s not malicious, it’s indifferent. But if you tune into it, it can teach you how to either not make the mistake you just did or to plan better for the next trip,” Warner said.

Each trip has given him a better understanding of who he is and what he can accomplish. The relationship has also built a connection to the earth that is unattainable anywhere else but in pure, unadulterated wilderness.

“Why do I do it?” he mused.

“This is when you ask Sir Edmund Hillary why he climbed Everest. Well, I won’t give you any corny answer. I do it to find out who I am and what I can still do. I am not a very religious man, but this is my cathedral. Not that I worship out there, but I am subject to moments of elation when I’m out there, like a sunset, or watching a rainstorm in the distance while I’m baking in the sun. Being closer to the atmosphere, it’s like you can actually see the curvature of the earth from up there.

“That’s why I love living here. One of the reasons I still go up there is to remind me of why I love living here.”