Colbert: Trying, and failing, to snowboard on Independence Pass

Aspen Times copy editor Ben Welch surveys Independence Pass on Friday, May 25, 2018.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

I would like to say that, after three winters in the Rockies, I’m up to speed on being a mountain man. In reality, I still feel like a clueless moron in many instances, like a few weeks ago when I attempted to go snowboarding on Independence Pass.

After getting a concussion in December — doing, of all things, snowboarding — and effectively sitting out most of the winter season, I was itching to get on the snow when the pass opened for the summer May 24.

It’s a popular pilgrimage for locals to take the short drive up Highway 82 toward Lake County, park at the top of the pass, which tops out at over 12,000 feet, skin or hike up your favorite hill and ride back down to your car. You have to get up to those elevations to find snow that late in the season, and it’s usually a short window to make the most of it.

So, despite hearsay that conditions were less than ideal this year, the day after the pass opened I drove up it with Aspen Times production manager Ben Welch to see for ourselves. It had probably been a few months since I strapped into my snowboard, predating the closing day revelries that don’t require knowing anything about toe-side turns.

No, there are no chairlifts at the top of Independence Pass, much to our horror. And without a splitboard or any way to skin up the small hill we chose, we had no choice but to bootpack our way to the top. About 10 feet off the side of the highway, my boot sunk nearly waist deep into what I thought was only a few inches of snow. This was life for the next hour, me sinking up to my hip joint with every third step.

Long, exhausting story short, I didn’t make it to the top. While my seemingly light-footed comrade had a knack for staying on top of the snow, my repeated plunges into what was virtually quicksand soon emptied my gas tank. I made it nearly three-quarters to the top before I decided to strap in and see if I still remembered how to snowboard.

I didn’t.

I managed a few turns before the ungroomed chaos that was the Independence Pass snowpack brought me to my knees, literally. Honestly, I made it back to the bottom mostly by riding my snowboard like an uncontrollable sled, too tired to care if my crash was worthy of SportsCenter’s Not Top 10.

Upon getting back to my car, I told myself my need to snowboard had been quenched until November, when I’ll again have a chairlift at my disposal.

What did I learn from my trip up the pass? One, I need a splitboard. Two, there is a reason people go early in the morning. Waiting until noon when the snow is nothing but slush is probably why I had to swim my way to the top.

Do I regret going? Not for a second. However, I can’t speak for Ben.