Paul Andersen: Fair Game |

Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

Randy posts his trail assessment like this: “Steve Child reports that a cougar killed a bull elk somewhere along the trail, so watch your back track!” Funny way to announce a ski tour, but it works for me and my son, Tait.

Our informal ski tours usually begin with an e-mail intended to draw in as many trailbreakers as we can find. Randy usually sets the tone with an advertising pitch that’s hard to resist. Here’s his missive for Haystack Mountain on New Year’s Day.

“… you ski about 2 gentle miles on a snowmobile track alongside a creek … the trail climbs steadily to Hunter Pass through low-angle aspen groves … follows a gentle ridge to treeline with nice old growth … after the last steep it’s about a mile and 300 vertical to the ‘summit’… nice lichen and a great view of Mount Daly … nice skiing on the way down … nothing steeper than 20 degrees … views are great all along …”

It’s New Year’s, so regrets come trickling in. Families are visiting. People are busy. On the appointed morning it’s just Randy, me and Tait. Getting a 15-year-old out of bed by 7 is no easy feat on a day off from school, but the promise of a ski tour is strong incentive. Tait rallies, and we’re out the door by 7:30.

Randy said he would go early to start breaking trail and sure enough his car is at the trailhead. Our skis are waxed, our packs are ready, our sights are set on the top. When I ask Tait if he has his climbing skins, he hangs his head and utters a curse. We drive back to Basalt, retrieve the skins, and finally set off more than an hour behind Randy.

We encounter the dead bull elk in less than a mile. It’s flat on its back, hind legs splayed out, ribcage exposed. The forelegs are missing, blood is on the pelt, snow has been pushed over the carcass. The bull is huge. Several prongs of its antlers are broken off. Evidence of a thrashing battle are seen in the snapped-off brush above the road. Fresh mountain lion tracks are everywhere. We move on warily.

Randy’s trail is the only one going up Haystack. We’re some of the few who ski this mountain, which was once coveted by the Aspen Skiing Co. for resort development in the ’60s. Haystack became a pitched conservation battle when Bob Child fought it all the way to Washington. The Skico decided to develop Snowmass instead.

The way up to Hunter Pass takes us through groves of enormous aspens, some showing bear-claw marks. On the ridge we enter spruce and fir, their trunks pockmarked with beetle bores. The 5-mile, 3,500-vertical-foot climb is long, so we pace ourselves.

The last steep takes us to timberline on a wind-scoured ridge. On the distant summit Randy is a speck. He is on his way down, so we wait as the wind howls and dark clouds slide by. Nearby peaks ” Daly, Capitol, Garrett ” reveal their gray, granite, wind-scoured escarpments.

The ski descent is a delight. The track is fast, and the powder is light. Our telemark turns make tight squiggles through narrow corridors among the conifers. The sun breaks through and glistens on the snow. It’s just the three of us in all of this raw, wild nature, a great place to bring in the New Year.

From Hunter Pass, we arc turns through gentle glades. Tait figure-eights my tracks, and I reciprocate. We stop, our legs burning, looking up at our graffiti signatures in the snow. “Dad, my turns are so much better than yours,” chides Tait. “Your turns suck,” I reply. “Oh, yeah?” challenges Tait. “Then figure-eight these,” and he takes off on a fresh line.

If there is perfection in physical form, it is making turns on a creamy layer of consistent powder with bodies tuned to balance and rhythm. We have earned these turns, the curving, carving dance of body and soul.

Downward we float through the aspens, over the drifted creeks, through thickets of willows and serviceberries, past snow-covered alders, down to the creek and along the road. We slow down to approach the elk and notice fresh lion tracks over our ski tracks from just six hours before. We listen and look, pay homage to the big cat, then ski on to day’s end, the first of 2009.

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