Marolt: Narrowing the Great Divide

Roger Marolt
Cluster Phobic
Roger Marolt

It felt better than I thought it would; skis slung over my shoulder tromping along the Continental Divide on my way to the finest June skiing to be had. It isn’t the usual way for serious backcountry adventure anymore, but it’s the way we did it when I was a kid, and by “we” I pretty much mean my dad, brothers, and a couple of friends. Few others were interested then.

So, it didn’t feel weird to me carrying race skis built for precision and speed — heavy and not efficient for upward travel. And, while not the most comfortable setup, it likewise wasn’t strange to me to be hiking atop the frozen skin of snow in stiff alpine boots with the cuff un-buckled for a little flexibility.

Everyone besides my kids and wife with me were traveling the route on lightweight alpine touring set-ups; dragging the skis uphill with their feet, controlling the backwards slip with climbing skins on the bases of their skis, attached to their toes by bindings that let their heels hinge freely, wearing boots that can be adjusted to the pliability of high-top basketball shoes. We left that modern stuff at home. The old mode was a little harder, but it was a short trip to the best skiing, which would be even greater on thoroughbred alpine gear designed with no compromises in mind.

I hadn’t skied either Mountain Boy or Fourth of July Bowl since my early 20s. For awhile before that we spent almost every available morning in the Junes of my youth playing around Independence Pass on skis before it thawed sometime in July. My father introduced us to the eccentric idea sometime in our teens. His joy of the simple pleasure of the outing was soon no match for our youthfully charged spirit of exploration, so he left us to it by ourselves, proudly and maybe a bit wistfully.

It was the beginning of an exciting aspect of our lives. As we skied The Pass, we scoped the vast range of mountains around us. As the snow grew sun-cups and melted under our edges, we sought the more protected icy couloirs of Castle, Conundrum, and La Plata peaks. We kicked toe-holds with our alpine racing boots and our trapezius muscles hypertrophied, seemingly shouldering the weight of skis more often than not in those summers.

Some said that it led to greater things. Before I finally bailed out of dedicated ski mountaineering, we had skied many grand peaks in the great northwestern contiguous states before moving on to Canada, and Alaska. My brothers are still chasing it, whatever “it” is, in all parts of the world, reaching heights that are the last points of land that are the shores before space’s tides.

It came back as I traced invisible footsteps trampling uphill from the touristy scenic overlook at the high point of the summer drive to Denver that, over the course of dozens of hikes, have worn bare paths in my memory that will never grow over, while the ski tracks left heading down are so varied I can’t recall most of them. There was the unexpected avalanche after the first snow in October that taught us how quickly “possible” can morph into “probable.” There was the foolish leaping off the 30-foot cornice left behind by the record snowfall winter of 1984. And, I’ll never forget taking for granted the pitch of those slopes until we dragged our baseball coach from Florida up there. He lost control and we ended up seriously lucky that the loss was not a lot more than that.

My dad raced all over Europe and in the Olympic Games. Some say fortune allowed him to escape the desperate poverty and limited opportunities available in Aspen during his youth. I’m not so sure. It seems to me that some of the happiest, most satisfying skiing he did was with us on Independence Pass in those long, warm days on the verge of summer. I think if it all led back to that by design, he would have thought the architect a genius who presented him with a great gift by surprise.

And so I hiked to the top of Mountain Boy trailing my kids and wife, breathing hard through a smile and observing their joy through misty eyes. I wouldn’t trade last Saturday morning on The Pass for anything except another just like it, maybe next year. I hope wherever they are 30 Junes hence, they remember that day. I’m encouraged they will. I hope they are right there on the Great Divide when they do.

Roger Marolt knows you can travel a long way, spending a lot of time and money, and not get better spring skiing than you have on Fourth of July Bowl.