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Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

The thermometer on Glenn’s car reads 8 degrees. We step out into the early-morning shade and feel the burn as an icy breeze bears down Nicholson Creek. Few words are spoken as we buckle boots, secure bindings, cinch on packs and push gloves through pole straps.

Clark skis off first, holding both poles in his left hand while he windmills his right arm in fast circles to push the blood into his numb fingers. I hurry off behind him, poling with one hand as I pull in the chilled fingers of the other hand to make a fist inside my glove. There is a mile or so of skiing before we greet the sun, so the extremities suffer.

The road is littered with coyote scat, stringy with fur. This is where, a few years ago, we passed the carcass of a bull elk that had been eviscerated by a mountain lion, whose bloody tracks marked the snow. Nicholson Creek is a wild place, and it feels particularly wild on this still, cold morning.

The climb becomes too steep for wax, so I stop to put on skins. M.T. passes me with a smile, his collar white with frost. The sun is just ahead, hitting the tops of aspens. Twice we cross the creek on icy rocks before emerging into a direct ray of pure solar energy at the foot of the first meadow.

An old track from 10 days before – judging by past storms – snakes up through the aspen groves. We fall into a line and take turns breaking trail toward the ridge at Hunter Pass. Our pace turns slow and easy on this long, consistent climb of more than 4,000 vertical feet in about six miles. Haystack is a day.

Zigzagging up open, north-facing meadows, it’s easy to see why Haystack was identified as one of the best potential ski areas in Colorado by the Forest Service in the early ’60s. It would have become what Snowmass is today if not for the efforts of Bob Child.

Child, whose ranch is at the base of the mountain, fought the development and eventually got the area designated as wilderness. Picturing condos, subdivisions, restaurants and chairlifts spread across this rural setting today is apocalyptic, and we thank Bob Child in memoriam.

It takes us a little more than an hour to ascend the ridge at Hunter Pass, where we stop to eat and drink. The air is still bitter cold, so Doug pushes off to keep warm. The rest of us follow in his track. When he steps aside, the line progresses, each of us taking a pull at the front, our skis slipping silently through a few inches of light fluff.

The old track ends halfway up the ridge, so we break a fresh trail through glades of spruce and fir. Talk is short as our legs work against gravity, our hearts pump our own rhythms, our lungs gulp thin air, our thoughts focus on route-finding and reaching the top.

When we break through the last band of trees into an open glade, before us with startling enormity stands the snow-covered face of Mount Daly. We’ve entered a higher world of rock and ice, and I feel my energy pick up with the excitement of it. We cut switchbacks up a sloped meadow, navigate around wind-formed snow dunes, and top out at tree line looking across a long, narrow ridge connecting to the summit.

We reach the rounded top of Haystack oxygen-starved but with ear-to-ear grins. Mount Daly is overwhelmed now by the jutting wedge of Capitol Peak, its vertical north face looming ominously. The Elk Mountain Ridge extends in snow-clad summits north to broad-shouldered Mount Sopris cloaked in white. A sweeping gaze reveals Sunlight, the Flat Tops, Basalt Mountain, the Holy Cross Range, the Williams Mountains and the rest of the Elks, all arched over by a dome of radiant blue. It’s impossibly, magnificently beautiful.

Our long ski down is a hoot as we race along the track, dipping into soft powder, noodling through the aspens. But it’s the lofty escarpment that holds me. A photo emailed later shows us as mere specks on this Haystack of a mountain, tiny dots of humanity humbled by the enormity of mountains and sky.


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