Mount Sopris: The valley’s big mountain
“You sure you want to do this?”
We had spent almost four hours skinning up to the east ridge of Mount Sopris. My friend posed this question amid a wild expanse of alpine majesty. Vast, glacially carved cirques revealed rock, snow and ice. The twin summits loomed another thousand feet above at almost 13,000 feet.
Mount Sopris looks from afar like a gentle, gray, camel-shaped mound without dramatic features. Look again, because Mount Sopris is huge, a truly magnificent massif created by a magma uplift called a pluton. Its granite escarpments soar into the thin air and etch the skyline from the lower valley in Glenwood Springs to the highest peaks of the Elk Range.
My buddy posed his question as a plea for our group to reconsider summiting the peak. We were gathered where the krummholz trees fade at timberline, where the snow becomes rock-hard and glazed by wind and sun, where the long ridges dwarf a skier into microcosmic flea size.
To summit meant another hourlong trudge up where dark clouds were gathering, so the question came as a relief, especially given the breakable crust we had just tracked through. It also was a humble acknowledgment to an enormous mountain that is foreboding and forbidding.
My friends and I usually ski Mount Sopris once a year — to the summit — as a tradition. Late spring is the best time, on corn snow that invites skinning straight up the main bowl beneath the enormity of peaks where cantilevered cornices lean overhead with impressive exposure.
A few weeks ago when we made our most recent attempt, winter was still in season. The turn-back plea was uttered at around 12,000 feet where panoramic views sweep north across the Flattops, the Gore Range, the Williams Mountains and a swath of the highest of the Elks to the south.
We resolved to march another 15 minutes to where the ridge narrows into a wind-scoured cornice, dropping off precipitously on both sides. Here the snow was so polished it was difficult to score it with the sharpened steel edge of a ski.
Just above us was the false summit, which usually requires a boot hike through boulders where hazards include post-holing through deep gaps between the rocks. We opted instead for a high-altitude lunch and then retreat, an idea that was sweetened with an invitation for cold beers on the sunny deck at one of our party’s home in Emma.
Nobody argued about the decision, though I was left with a longing to reach the peak, especially given mild weather and nary a breath of wind. I could say that I was nobly sacrificing my summit quest to group cohesion, but the sordid truth is that I’m easily compromised by the allure of a cold beer.
“This is the biggest little mountain I’ve ever been on,” one member of our group said on his first foray onto Mount Sopris. He’s right. In past years I have pegged a January trail-breaking summit tour as a nine- or 10-hour day, dawn till dusk.
Though Sopris is not the tallest in the Elks, it can feel like Everest with its severe weather and the long winter approach. The vertical relief of Mount Sopris is perhaps the biggest rise of any peak in the region. From Penny Hot Springs in the Crystal River Valley to the summit, the western flank climbs precipitously for at least 6,000 feet.
Mount Sopris is named for Capt. Richard Sopris, the first recorded explorer to see this peak. He came to Colorado’s Front Range from the eastern U.S. during the gold rush of 1859. A year later, Sopris organized an expedition of gold-seekers to explore farther west into the mountains.
His party camped at the base of the impressive peak they named for their leader. The Sopris party then followed a circuitous route back to Denver to complete a three-month exploration, with no gold discovered. Sopris was elected mayor of Denver in 1879, where he died in 1893.
Though there have been efforts to change the name to honor the Utes, the mountain that Sopris left behind still bears his name.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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