Stick to the bearing
The Goodwin/Green Hut sits at 11,680 feet just northeast of Gold Hill at the head of Difficult Creek – though you would be hard pressed to know that. It’s one of the Braun Huts, the hut system south of Aspen. If avalanche conditions are high a recommended route to Goodwin/Green is to take the gondola up Aspen Mountain, then follow Richmond Ridge. It will be a long day with more than 11 miles to the hut and more than 1,000 feet of elevation gain. Another route is up Express Creek and involves crossing large avalanche paths and many small ones that even experienced winter travelers may not recognize. Upon topping out of Express Creek you still have to cross 1.5 miles of treeless terrain. It’s like some crossing you would expect to find in the Arctic. In this area, it’s easy to lose your bearings in whiteout conditions and start having thoughts of family and warmth. This is where Ken Torp and his party got lost in blizzard conditions for several days in 1993. Their story became known as the Miracle in the Mountains, because everyone survived. During one trip with a large group of clients to Goodwin/Green, we stopped over at the Lindley Hut. Richard and I woke up early because of the long day ahead. Our plan was to ski 4 miles down to Ashcroft and then travel up Express Creek to the hut. We would be traveling more than 10 miles and gaining 2,800 vertical feet. It was a slog for sure, especially the last 2 miles when Richard and I would end up carrying our packs plus the packs of tired clients.Richard wanted to take a compass bearing before leaving the Lindley Hut. He was concerned about the last 1.5 miles to the Goodwin/Green Hut. I looked outside at the beautiful morning and said it wasn’t necessary, and besides, we had to get moving for the long day ahead. Fortunately, even though I was the lead guide, Richard chose to ignore my advice and took the compass bearing. I still remember the compass bearing today: 19 degrees.It turned out to be a very long day and when we topped out of Express Creek, the beautiful day had turned into a blizzard. We had our hands full, with tired clients, darkness coming and visibility down to the person in front of you. We also had a gentleman slower than anybody either of us had ever guided. We had been with this fellow for a few days, so we already knew he had two speeds – slow and slower. Now he was digging deep for a third speed, slower still.Richard began suggesting that maybe he should go on to the hut to get water ready for hot drinks. I was the lead guide, and, as always, the lead guide goes down with the ship. I just wanted to make sure Richard was at my side if we were going to make that particular journey. I don’t know how prepared I will be if I ever have to make that last phone call to my wife or girlfriend, like Rob Hall did on Everest.Richard and I set our compasses to the bearing and skied into the whiteout. As long as we moved slowly and could see the next person in line we decided not to rope up.To completely rely on a compass bearing without any visible landmarks takes a lot of trust in your navigational skills. We also had altimeters and knew that we should not drop below 11,800 until we were near the hut.Earlier at the Lindley Hut, Richard had oriented his topographical map by taking into consideration the 12 degree difference between magnetic north and true north, placing his compass on a straight line of the map and then boxing the magnetic north seeking needle by rotating map and compass together. He then laid the compass in a straight line between the top of Express Creek and the Goodwin/Green Hut. Next, he boxed the north seeking magnetic needle by rotating the bezel of the compass, which gave him his bearing – 19 degrees.Just as I was beginning to have doubts about our bearing, the clouds lifted ever so slightly to reveal a very large stick in the snow next to Richard. The bearing was dead on; the stick is one in a series placed in the snow starting just to south side of Gold Hill. We had a short downhill run to the hut.
David Stapleton is the development officer for the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club. A product of the club, AVSC sat down with Stapleton for a Q&A session in this week’s Clubhouse Chronicles.