Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
“Think about it,” he said, after issuing the invitation and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since. Skiing Sopris is an undertaking that doesn’t get done every day, and it’s an unforgettable experience.
I’ve been knocking around the mountains in this area since I was a little boy, spending many days and nights in them. In high school, we used to drive up Independence Pass in the spring and fall to get in some additional skiing before or after the regular season on Aspen Mountain.
I’ve skied the area around Larkspur Mountain, which, in several areas, has some of the steepest terrain around. I’ve worked with Mountain Rescue, hauling injured and expired adventurers off of mountainsides on my horses, many times in the dark, staying on the trail often by instinct alone. I’ve jumped out of helicopters in the Canadian Rockies, looking for just one more great powder run, and have called Aspen Mountain home for over 60 winters.
Mount Sopris is different, mainly because it’s almost impossible to turn around anywhere in the valley without getting a glimpse of it, but also because it takes so much footwork to get it done. The skiing is over in mere minutes, the hiking literally eats up hours and hours.
Ed Pfab and I last skied Sopris three or four years ago, on what turned out to be the windiest day of the year. That’s what advance planning will do for you. A couple of soccer games were called because the goals were being blown around.
Not being a practiced climber, I felt a little out of my environment as we scaled the Thomas Lakes Bowl on snowshoes, taking a shortcut straight up the mountain, but once I clicked into my skis, just below the West Summit, I felt strong and light again. Making a couple of quick turns on my way to the top of the Crystal Couloir, I felt the friendliness of the snow under me, and was suddenly ready to attack the steep fall line down the face of the mountain.
Ed and I hunkered near the edge, keeping a low profile against the wind and picking out a line. The wind howled at our backs as we waited side by side for it to die down for a moment, and then at a unique instant we both intuitively knew, we dropped into the 45-degree chute for the ride of a lifetime.
Being able to look down most of the 3,500-foot vertical descent of the couloir was quite fascinating. There wasn’t as much snow as we’d anticipated, and we had to pick our way through some nasty terrain in the beginning, doing some tight jump turns. The sun hadn’t yet hit the chute, and the snow conditions were just about perfect for the time of year, which was to say that it was marginally corn, windblown, frozen hardpack, with an inch or so of blown soft snow on top.
We held our speed down, wary of rotten snow and because we had to stop occasionally to keep from being blown off the mountain. That kept the skiing from being all that it could have been, but the realization that it was the culmination of a years-old dream, made it all fantastic.
Although not a fourteener, it can be a lethal mountain nonetheless, most recently with the death of Lathrop Strang, but there have been others. Just before we dove into the couloir, Ed, who had previously skied Sopris several times, hollered, “Keep your head in it ’cause you really don’t want to fall.”
Every morning I am fortunate enough to look out my bedroom window and catch a glimpse of Sopris, and each time Ed’s philosophy echoes in my mind: “Once you ski Sopris, you will have a different vision of the mountain.”
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