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Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

The water trench is 20 paces from the deck of the McNamara Hut. A shovel stands beside it, and circular indentations show where the stainless-steel water buckets were set.

Shoveling water is a common hut chore because the only water source at most huts is melted snow. Shoveling snow is instructive in learning how much snow it takes to make a gallon of drinking water.

At first, there seems to be an endless quantity of water in the mountains, but after watching bucket after bucket go into the big water caldron on the wood-burning stove, it becomes apparent that melting snow doesn’t make much water at all.

On a six-day hut trip last week, it became shockingly apparent that this year’s snowpack is scant. Most of the west- and south-facing ridges have been wind-scoured to rock and tundra. And if you live downvalley, like I do, you know there is no snowpack at all at the mid-elevations.

The western U.S. is entirely dependent on mountain snowpack, and with only so much snow on the ground by mid-March, it seems that lawns in Phoenix might turn brown before July and that the fountains of Las Vegas will spout as a splashy irony to overdrawn water resources.

Such were my ruminations while ski touring, a reflective meditation given ample time to let thoughts flow and congeal. On the long slog between McNamara and Margy’s, my mind replayed the bobcat encounter coming down from Lenado while driving shuttle vehicles to Aspen.

The cat sauntered along the road, and we thought it was a coyote until we got closer and it casually crossed right in front of us and climbed the bank just 20 feet from the car. All eyes were locked on that bobcat, and we grew as excited as children at the sight.

Later that afternoon, after skinning up to McNamara Hut, I skied across Bald Knob, where I discovered several pits dug into the snow from which coyotes had excavated buried elk carcasses. One pit contained the stub of a gnawed leg; another housed an entire rib cage that formed the core of a coyote snow cave.

That evening from the hut windows we watched a red fox cavort on the crusted snow right off the hut deck. It bounded across the snow, playing like a puppy, looking for handouts. By dark it had vanished, disappointed by our lack of sharing.

The traverse to Margy’s the next day wore us out, but our layover day necessitated a tour to the top of Mount Yeckel, where a 360-degree view reveals half a dozen mountain ranges. My 19-year-old son, Tait, just home for spring break from college, skied up and met us. Our father-son reunion added to this peak experience on a bright, blue, sunny spring day.

With the last of our leg strength, we skied a couple of runs off the back of Yeckel, making sweeping telemark turns on low-angle slopes through spruce and fir glades. There are few more graceful and aesthetic physical expressions than sweet turns on open powder slopes under a surreal blue sky.

An icy run the next morning down Johnson Creek had us in Lenado before noon. Two hours later, Tait and I were skiing off the Sundeck seven miles to the Barnard Hut. We had said goodbye to one group and were attaching to another, with whom we skied the following morning to the Goodwin-Greene Hut.

That morning at Barnard, two skiers in training for the Grand Traverse barged into the hut as if it were a public warming house. This commercialized race has unfortunately become a monthlong entitlement to huts other people pay for, and it’s a little hard not to feel some resentment when someone busts in on your breakfast without even knocking.

Day-trippers don’t frequent the Goodwin-Greene, so we had a quiet afternoon touring, sipping tea and reading. Like most hut trippers, we discussed avalanche risks. My son put it succinctly when he reflected that humility in the mountains marks the only true avalanche expert.

We shoveled more water at Goodwin-Greene, filling bucket after bucket and pouring snowmelt into our bottles. That water tasted good under a blazing sun as we performed the death-grip snowplow down Express Creek on a shrinking snowpack that is the lifeblood of our rivers.


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