Editors note: The lifts may be closed, but ski season is far from over. Dont believe us? The following articles, originally published in the May 15, 2005 Aspen Times Weekly, recount three recent backcountry tours, where our writers found spring skiing to be as epic as a midwinter powder day.Aspen’s early skiing pioneers first targeted Hayden Peak – and more specifically North Hayden Peak, which they dubbed “Ski Hayden” – as the ideal site in the upper valley to debut a lift. Located about nine miles south of Aspen among the high ramparts of the Castle Creek headwaters, Ski Hayden is the tantalizing 13,316-footer that reveals itself best from the top of Aspen Mountain.
It never happened, of course. The likes of Andre Roch settled on readily accessible Aspen Mountain instead, a chair went in and so it goes.So nowadays, backcountry skiers looking to explore slopes that intrigued Roch (there’s Roch Ridge nearby) and, later, ski-mountaineering legend Fritz Stammberger (à la the Stammberger Face), must first cross Castle Creek the same way Roch and Stammberger did – very carefully.We arrived at the rushing creek on an overcast Saturday in early May minutes after leaving our vehicles in a turnout along Castle Creek Road.”This is the crux,” Dirk, one of five friends along for the trip, said above the din of churning water.
One potential crossing was a large log slicked over with ice and dew. The other, a logjam of a wobblier sort, offered a bed of spiky, snapped-off branches to cushion a fall. Neither looked like a gimme.Slowly, wearing ski boots, we all made it across safely – no splashdowns.”Six-for-six,” Sean, another friend, noted with a smile. “Very unusual. Ted, what are the odds of that?”It was Derby Day, after all.
“Slim,” said Ted. “Usually, somebody gets wet.”It reminded me of a story by Billy Madsen that was recently posted on Lou Dawson’s backcountry skiing weblog, http://www.wildsnow.com. Madsen, an Aspen resident, recounted how late last April he was caught in a large avalanche on Ski Hayden’s Stammberger Face. Madsen had fallen in the creek during the crossing, and he continued on with wet feet. It was an omen, he wrote, he wished he hadn’t ignored.By 8 a.m. we were bushwhacking through spruce and fir on patchy snow and mud. We put on our skis and skins when we hit the snowline, then dropped our heads and began the grunt (about 4,000 vertical feet). The lower part of the route climbs through gullies and tight timber, and across a few avalanche paths (including one that had already slid to bare ground).
But the snow was firm from an overnight freeze, and we made good time. Sean was waiting for the rest of us at what’s known as the Lunch Spot, which is also the portal to the above-treeline section of the tour. It’s also here that the Stammberger Face, rising up some 800 feet at 45 degrees, presents its imposing self.Following Sean and Ted – who had already been up this way earlier in the week – we switchbacked up the so-called Twin Gullies until we reached the bottom ramp of a snowfield that stretches clear to the summit. More switchbacks followed, and more people, too (we encountered a group of four locals out for the same thing).The higher we got, the drier and deeper the powder we had to push through. It seemed like the sun hadn’t been out in a week, and it’d been spitting rain in the valleys and snow on the peaks on and off the whole time.Snow began to fly and the wind picked up as we closed in on the summit. It wasn’t clear whether it was snowing or just blowing. In any case, owing to 30 mph winds at the top, we didn’t stick around long. Five minutes, maybe. It was 11:30 a.m. We stripped off our skins and got ready to ski.
Christy led us off the top and I followed next, floating through 7 or 8 inches of powder on a smooth, sturdy sun crust underneath. Not bad. We stopped at a bench just above our next decision-making point – to ski the Stammberger Face, or to opt out and descend the way we came up? – and watched Dirk, Phillip, Sean and Ted play in the powder above us. Then Dirk, Phillip and Sean cast their vote on route selection by schussing right past us to go have a look at ol’ Stammberger. But Ted stopped, and a brief reassuring chat commenced.In a moment, we were six again at the top of the Stammberger Face. Confident that conditions were safe (here’s hoping anyway, because we already knew they were good), we traversed one by one onto the face. We assembled again next to a lone spruce tree in the safety of a rocky rib on the right side. And then we dropped in, again one at a time, and skied it in single bursts.Like my first encounters with Highland Bowl, I could not appreciate the sheer magnitude of this place, er face, until I skied it. It went on three or four football fields longer than I anticipated as steep rollovers continued to reveal more and more of what was actually below. When I pulled up next to forerunners Sean, Phillip and Christy, way down in the runout, I looked back up and saw two little specks that could barely be discerned from the chocolate-chip-looking rocks and cliffs and that lonely spruce. Sure enough, it was Ted and Dirk.Dirk dropped and last came Ted, casting off a full plumage roostertail at every turn. Adrenaline was running high now, and a few yahoos echoed off the ridges and walls around us.
“That’s an A-plus day for May,” Sean said. “Just sick.”The descent back through the trees was dicey – tight and turny like an alpine slide, and especially dicey as the snow began to soften into mush. We took our first prolonged break of the day once we got out of the wind and had something to eat.Soon, we were back at the creek.
“Who’s it going to be?” Ted wondered aloud. “Who’s getting wet?”Ted also reminded me of an early morning pronouncement I had made. I think I might have said something about walking straight through the creek on the way back.But the creek still looked cold and I backed off of that idea, shrugging. And instead of trying to cross via the spiky logs, which worked for me in the morning, I resolved to try for the big log this time.But Dirk was ahead of me, inching his way across at a snail’s pace. I got anxious and scooted myself out onto the middle of the log with him. When I dipped one of my poles into the creek to touch off the bottom for balance, the pole just disappeared into the depths. I lost my balance and jerked upright to correct it. Whoaa. Facing the prospect of trying to hang on and possibly falling fully into the creek or flailing onto the log, or just jumping in feet first, I jumped.
I was up to my knees in the icy waters and the others hooted with laughter. Ted was already poised with his camera, snapping away and grinning broadly. I burst out laughing too. At 1:30 p.m. I pulled off my water-logged boots on Castle Creek Road.The next morning at about 6 a.m., I talked to Ted again. “How about South Hayden Peak today?” he said. While I’d managed to dry out my boots just fine, I told him I couldn’t make it. So Ted, Sean, Dirk and Christy went anyway and found deeper, if denser, powder. The day after that, Ted and friends headed out again for Greg Mace Peak, also in the upper Castle Creek Valley. “The powder’s gone,” Ted reported when he returned. “We really hit it just right.”For Ted, it marked his seventh ski trip in 10 days (including a couple of fourteeners over in the Sawatch Range). And judging by the current conditions, it’s a pace he’ll probably keep up. And he’s not alone. A quick surf of Dawson’s wildsnow.com confirms that the backcountry is seeing plenty of traffic lately.This spring, for once, it seems, the snow is not going anywhere anytime soon. So the question is, where are you going?Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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