Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

We arrived at the American Lake trailhead as morning sun streaked through the aspens. The sun was warm, but the air frigid, so I snugged on a warm hat and pulled on my “oven mitts,” the bulky gauntlets that come almost to my elbows.

There was an old ski track on the summer trail, but since it crosses steep slopes in potential slide zones, we avoided it. Instead, we chose a route up a timbered ridge to the south, preferring the struggle of trail-breaking to the dread of avi exposure.

The snowpack was rotten to the ground, causing us to wallow knee-deep through the aspens. Each step was a struggle as our ski tips submarined beneath a weak sun crust. I had never skied to American Lake, but had hiked it in the summer when the parking lot is jammed with cars. Now there was just Randy, me, and my 17-year-old son, Tait.

Driving from home that morning along the steaming Frying Pan River, Tait had remarked, “I’ll bet I’m the only kid at Basalt High who would do this.” My reply was touched with gratitude. “You’re the only kid in the entire valley who would do this.”

After 10 minutes breaking trail in the sun, Randy stripped down to a T-shirt. Frustrated by the slow, plodding pace, he tossed his pack aside so he could break faster. Tait slung Randy’s pack on one shoulder and we plodded slowly behind him. When Randy stepped to the side, perspiration glistening on his face, Tait handed off his pack and took the lead, trenching a deep track.

The safest route took us around to the north side and into the dark spruce/fir forest where the temperature plummeted. The snow was bitter cold against my boots, quickly numbing my toes as I waited my turn to break. Randy shivered in his T-shirt. Tait poled his way with bare hands, warming them occasionally beneath his turtleneck.

The pitch finally mellowed and we contoured south into the welcome sun. We sat on a jutting log in the aspens, snowy peaks all around, and had some food. I pulled off my boots, stripped off socks, and warmed my cold toes with my hands to get the feeling back.

“What are we going to do next year when Tait’s at college?” asked Randy. “Who else are we gonna get to break trail for us?” Turning on me, “You might actually have to do some work for a change, Andersen,” he chided.

Tait grew up hearing stories about our ski tours up snow-filled valleys to high passes and windswept peaks. He was strong enough to join us at 14. At 15, he was almost our equal. Last year, he pushed us. This year, there’s no keeping up with him. He has become a loyal comrade, and I’ll miss more than his trail-breaking when he’s away.

We slung on our packs, tracked across a sunny glade, and joined the summer trail where big aspen trees are tagged with the graffiti of idlers with pocketknives. The trail soon crossed another steep, so we dropped into the drainage of Devaney Creek and threaded through dark timber.

Finally, we crested a knoll and looked down on American Lake (11,365 feet). The ridge of Electric Pass, far above tree-line, was plumed with blowing snow. The clear sky revealed the depths of outer space with a blue/black depth.

The snow-covered lake was calm and sunny, so Tait and I settled into snow benches along the shore while Randy headed higher into the basin. An occasional raven cackled overhead. The distant rush of wind raging at the ridges came to us in a faint roar. Tait and I talked like old chums, the way we always have.

An hour later, when Randy skied back across the lake, he gestured at the high country with a wave of his ski pole. “I had forgotten how vast all this is, how wild it is up here.” He reported seeing a ptarmigan. Later, we noticed a lone coyote track wobbling down from a high ridge. Prey and predator in a magnificent stadium.

Turning for home, we thrashed our way down through thick timber and a tight weave of branches, sinking to our hips in the bottomless snow. It was a strange and unforgiving slalom. At one point, Tait exulted that he had linked four whole turns!

The final pitch of aspens held the last rays of afternoon sun. We traversed through the shadows feeling better for seeing the car … and for knowing American Lake on a beautiful winter day.