Paul Andersen: Fair Game
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Nobody goes there, especially in winter. Hardly anybody even knows it’s there. The unnamed peak is in the heart of the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness, where it lords over plunging valleys, dark forests and rocky ridgelines.
We skied to the unnamed peak last Saturday, setting out a little before nine from Lenado. We should have given ourselves an extra hour, but rallying for a crack of dawn ski tour on a weekend is a discipline, and Saturdays ought to be free of discipline.
It was cold when we started up that shaded valley of Woody Creek, so we moved fast to generate heat. The creek was iced over, and it purred in hidden cascades. The only other sound was skis against snow.
We were surprised to find a blessed track, a broken trail. Usually, this is where we flounder through the typically impossible Colorado snowpack. Later, when trail breaking began in earnest, we could only laugh as we slogged through depth hoar and breakable crust.
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We turned north up Spruce Creek, the connecting route between the Margy’s and McNamara huts, and skied up into the spruce and fir where the sun streaked in low. The light took on a rare quality, with a mellow filtering, as it reflected off the big spruce trees festooned with moss.
We were three old guys, all near 60, and my 16-year-old son. Rare is the teenager who decides, without hesitation, against the X Games, preferring to throw in his lot with three old coots looking for a sylvan connection in the winter wilds. I’m largely to blame for that; poor parenting, I guess.
By the time the X Games were revving up, we were deep in the wilderness, threading through thick timber near Sawmill Park. From there we broke trail toward the unnamed peak, dead reckoning through fallen trees and collapsing snow. Breaking trail is a team effort, so we took turns in the front, veering left and right to find a clear way through a forest that rarely knows the sound of human voices.
A tour like this requires patience, endurance and a sense of humor. When you bump a tree with your shoulder and a cascade of snow drops from a high branch onto your head, laughter is the only recourse. Anger has no place in the wilds when you’re there for pleasure. “It’s all good,” goes the overused maxim, which applies perfectly in the wilds.
Soon, the ridge we climbed crossed the tree line, and we were in the open for the first time. Two inches of snow covered a hard-packed base, and we plodded up the final pitch to the rounded summit in bright sun and absolute silence. There was hardly a breath of wind. The views were expansive and powerful.
From the top, we scanned 360 degrees, picking out landmark peaks and ridges, seeing it all in miniature from over 12,000 feet. We noted where glaciers had sculpted the cirques that plunged below corniced cliffs, where the tracks of a lone coyote and the looping, wandering tracks of ptarmigan revealed the only other signs of life; hunter and prey.
We sprawled out in the snow at the top of the world feeling the pleasant elation that comes with physical effort, beautiful surroundings and comradeship. It felt good to be engulfed in wildness, in the deep silence, the sun, the cold, crisp, mountain air.
Our descent began with the euphoria of beautiful turns on low-angle slopes above timberline, with all the peaks around us. It continued with deeper snow down the gladed ridge. Then it all turned rotten, and we endured a desperate thrash through the timber. It was exhausting, challenging work that focused us totally on the moment.
It was late afternoon by the time we reached the valley floor. Rocketing down our icy track along Spruce Creek, we dodged trees and flew over snow bridges, laughing at each other’s pratfalls. We reached the trailhead just before dark from the unnamed peak that had given us a wonderful vantage on the day and a powerful appetite for dinner.
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