Paul Andersen: Dazzled by a spring ski on Mount Sopris
The pitch dark of 4 a.m. is brightened by an excitement that cuts through all grogginess. A mug of inky espresso kickstarts the morning.
While stowing pack, skis and poles, a glance skyward shows the Big Dipper pouring out the Milky Way across the universe. The air holds a hint of ice and snow. There is no wind and only the faint murmur of the Fryingpan River in the valley below.
We gather at the Emma Schoolhouse at first light. My son, Tait, and I note an uptick in traffic on Highway 82. Humanity is coming back. Workers are beginning to break out of quarantine with an upvalley pulse.
In two cars, our small party snakes up East Sopris Creek Road past hay fields where bands of glistening crystals mark the spray of overnight sprinklers. Ice clings to the grasses, and we know the snowpack will be firm.
We brake for a herd of 30 elk lingering in regal nonchalance along the road. Their deep brown coats contrast with buff-colored rumps as they gaze at us with casual disinterest. One steps easily over a barbed wire fence as the herd spreads to graze on lush spring verdure.
The summit of Sopris catches the first direct rays of sun with a pale orange glow. Stars have disappeared as the sun crests the long and ragged eastern horizon with low-streaming rays. Morning in the mountains revs our collective stoke as the trailhead nears.
I snag Graeme’s pack from the car and feel the weight. What have you got in here, a cooler of beer? Graeme grunts as he slings the bulk onto his back, his skis jutting skyward, and sets off up the trail at a fast clip. Graeme is still a brute at 73.
We’re not alone at the parking lot. Trailheads have become quarantine camps, and a dozen vehicles show that other skiers have been waiting for a cold night to set up the snow in the high cirque.
First comes the long slog to Thomas Lakes, the weight of our ski gear bending our backs. I strip off layers in the warming sun and let the others push ahead, happy to walk quietly while listening to bird song and sniffing the cool, crisp air. The earth is green with biodiversity that’s budding everywhere.
At the top of the first big meadow we are greeted by Pasqueflowers, also called Windflower, Easter Flower, and Wild Crocus. This low-lying, exotic bloom follows the line of melting snow and is one of the first wildflowers of spring in a niche dictated by altitude, aspect and soil content.
At the lakes, the trail is blocked by deep snowbanks hardened to ice and easy to walk over. A scattering of hike skiers are ant-like specks on the snowfields reaching toward the summit ridge at almost 13,000 feet.
Skinning up the steep, softening snowpack with precarious kick turns makes for an intense hour before cresting a notch in the cornice. At the ridge we scan a vast mountain vista from the Flattops to the Gore, Sawatch, Collegiate and Elk ranges. The sun is still low and an icy breeze chills.
There is brilliant clarity to the atmosphere in the purified air of the pandemic lockdown. Distant ridges of white-capped spines and craggy spires feel near. Below, the spreading forests are bright with lime-green aspens. An updraft wafts the fragrance of life from the verdant valley floor. Oh, to be alive amid the scope and scale of an astounding panorama, gained with legs, hearts and lungs!
The sun has softened an inch of granular corn snow, so our turns are creamy smooth, tight on the steeps and sweeping arcs on lower angles. In the cirque, our human scale is dwarfed by the immensity of sheer rock walls and brow-like cornices crenellating the ridgelines.
Down at the lakes, we change back into hiking gear with satisfied smiles all around. Our bodies are tired. Our spirits soar. Our minds are playful with laughter.
Mount Sopris is framed in deep blue punctuated by white powder puff clouds and an aura of tranquility. We look up in awe and gratitude.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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