Andersen: Treacherous, demanding and beautiful
What sounds like a femme fatale is actually a mountain. It is close to home, but few people know it. This remote ridgeline culminates in a lofty pimple where my friends and I ski tour at least once a year.
This mountain is treacherous; for breakable crust, for narrow-wooded runs on a timbered ridge, for a thick and brushy obstacle course that reaches out thorny tentacles to snare our tender ACLs.
This mountain is demanding; for 4,000 vertical feet of climbing to the summit, for trail-breaking through fresh snow, for thin air over 12,000 feet and for an early-morning start when the thermometer reads below zero and your fingers are numb before you sling on your pack.
This mountain is beautiful for the unsurpassed views of the Elk Range and the austere and looming faces of Mt. Daly and Capital Peak. It is especially beautiful because there is no avalanche risk, a huge plus in our choice of where to tour.
We might bring a shovel when we ski this mountain, but no beacons or probe poles. Our much mourned ski buddy Randy Udall sneered at beacons, claiming that good route-finding is the best avalanche protection of all. “I’d sooner wear a bear claw,” he once quipped, so one year we gave him a bear claw necklace as a talisman.
Last week we stood atop this rounded, nondescript summit that Randy loved. It was spread over by a thin skiff of hoar frost crystals across the frosted-tundra grasses where countless facets glinted in the sun.
We celebrated our ascent with cheers, plus some good-natured chiding. In our aging group there are enough self-deprecatory remarks about geriatric ills to place the majority of us on the AARP membership list.
Our tour began in a cold overcast beneath dark, murky clouds that blanketed the valleys. The trailhead is in the oak brush, where several years ago we came upon the aftermath of a mountain-lion kill. A young bull elk lay on its back, eviscerated after what appeared to have been quite a struggle.
The oak brush was broken and trampled, and several of the bull’s antler prongs had been snapped clean off. We all gained new respect for the big cats after skiing across snow marked with bloody paw prints. And when we saw those bloody prints five hours later, padded across our earlier ski tracks, the hair stood up on our necks.
There were no signs of lions last week as we climbed above the oaks into briars and brambles, then into the aspens. As the sun crested the ridge rays of brilliant golden light glinted through the tall, straight aspen trunks, marking the snow with shadow and light.
Gradually we slogged into brilliant sunshine and deep blue skies. All around us was the whitest sea of peaks you can imagine. They seemed to float above the roiling clouds.
It’s obvious why this mountain once was coveted as a lift-served ski area. The long, gentle ridge gives access to sweeping glades and powder bowls.
That was in the early ’60s when a local ranch owner, Bob Child, led the fight against Aspen Skiing Co. and won. Instead, Skico developed Snowmass and this mountain was added to the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area.
Wilderness designation is the reason we are able to have this wilderness setting mostly to ourselves — no lifts, no motors, no lodges, no warming houses. Thanks to the battle put forth by a staunch ranch owner, we have enduring wilderness.
Even in this backcountry haven it’s impossible to escape the constant thunder of Aspen jet traffic, but this mountain remains, as it has for centuries, a wild and pristine place to go for perspective, challenge and camaraderie. This mountain will extend a welcome for as long as one is able to climb it.
Wilderness conservation seems most valuable in hindsight, long after the hard legislative work is done. Getting away from machines can be a challenge today, but when you cross that wilderness boundary the trail leads upward to a peak experience.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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