What winter reveals: Locals took to Basalt Mountain to find new look in fresh snow
As the wildfire raced up to the summit of Basalt Mountain in the first weeks of the Lake Christine Fire, it was fueled by decades of dead timber and heavy underbrush.
The months-long burn revealed something new as people started returning to the back roads and trails on the mountain. What some found this winter was skiing and snowboarding unlike anything they had ever seen near the 10,866-foot summit.
Basalt Mountain has a network of trails accessible to the hardy almost year-round. This past winter, Roaring Fork Valley locals who have enjoyed the mountain for years before the fire went exploring and found new adventures in surreal surroundings.
“The white snow (and) black trees made it like a black-and-white photo,” said Ann Driggers, who lives in Missouri Heights and skied Basalt Mountain nearly a half-dozen times this past winter. “I think one of the things that really struck me was the way the forest really opened up. It was always quite dark in there, quite jungle-like, and it is very open now.”
Driggers looks at the Basalt Mountain out of her kitchen window and was one of the first people to mountain bike some of the trails where the fire went through as it burned 12,589 acres.
The fire was declared completely contained in early October, and she rode the trails one time before the early-season snow started to come in and make the trails unusable by bike. Then Driggers broke out her skis.
She has skied the mountain many times in the past, but this winter there were plenty of discoveries. Driggers went up the closed winter road and pushed “way back in there” to get to parts of the burn area.
“It was pretty exciting because I’ve often thought Basalt Mountain had the right aspect, and the proximity to my house to make it my go-to exercise place,” said Driggers, who works in the Piktin County finance office. “But it was always so overgrown and so much undergrowth.”
Doran Laybourn was raised in Basalt and knows most of the mountain’s nooks and crannies. His family lives in Missouri Heights and were on alert during the wildfire.
The snowboarding pro has a variety of local backcountry spots around the valley he hits for his near-daily social media videos, and earlier this year he got a fresh look at his beloved Basalt Mountain.
Laybourn, along with his father and brother, spent an early-March day snowboarding their home hill in an entirely different setting.
He too said getting to the goods took a bit of work, but it was a rewarding family trip when they went on the north-facing side that points to Red Table.
“There’s just cliff bands and pillow fields that just keep going back the ridge of Basalt Mountain forever,” he said. “Depending on how hard you work for them or what you want to do, right from that ridge on the north side, there is tons of freestyle terrain. We had a blast.
“I had never ridden that stuff before and I knew it existed, but to get to the edge of that stuff it was so tough because of how thick it was. Now, you can pretty much snowmobile or skin right along the edge and really look down into it.”
He and Driggers said a positive they see is that the fire created a new venue for tree skiing, which should get better as the burnt tree stumps break down, and the forest floor gets more settled.
They warn that it is dangerous in the scar, and unseen hazards exist.
On one of her adventures, Driggers caught an edge of her ski on a small snag barely hidden beneath the snow, and she narrowly missed getting impaled by another stump.
“There were a lot of downed trees and it was actually difficult to ski in there before. In that regard, the fire has made it more of a viable place to actually ski,” Driggers said. “It’s still quite dangerous and something I found early on was a lot of snags that hide beneath the snow.”
Driggers also saw nearly a dozen avalanche slides on one trip. It’s not a place she would recommend people just go and crosscountry ski.
As the years go by, the snags will break down and the mountain will become more viable and have better tree skiing each season. Laybourn said after years of being discouraged by heavy growth, “now it’s burnt poles that in a lot of places are perfectly spaced and the pitch is pretty mellow.”
“It’s better for snowboarding now,” he said. “Mother Nature did her thing and made it better, and it’s still kind of weird and it smells. It’s kind of weird to snowboard with the smell of wildfire.”
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Kevin Warner started his career with the U.S. Forest Service as a wilderness ranger in 2001. Now he’s taking over the key position as Aspen-Sopris District Ranger.