Alpine touring, or randonee, is one of the more recent and most cherished additions into my outdoor life. Since I began skiing at the age of three, I have explored resorts throughout the Northeast, Utah, and Colorado. Yet,I have never once carved an edge into snow far removed from any lift line or snowcat. That all changed two years ago when my dad and I threw ourselves blindly into the backpacking, hiking, and skiing package during a seven day, hut-to-hut ski tour known as the Haute Route from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland. Since that trip neither my dad nor I touched another pair of skins or AT skis. That was until my alpine touring this past March in the Green-Wilson and Friends huts in Ashcroft, CO, just outside Aspen. Took our alpine tour with the Aspen Expeditions Guiding Company.
Our first day started at the Ashcroft Trailhead via the Pearl Pass Road with a 6 mile, 1,780-foot elevation skin to the Green-Wilson Hut. Unlocking my lifters for the first time was like detaching a leash from a dog that has not seen his owner for weeks. That energy combined with that of the sun beaming on the 12-14,000 foot peaks on either side of me swept the monotony of a moderate, 5 hour skin off my mind. The road passes beneath various avalanche paths, and at one point after skinning around a bend in the road, we were face-to-face with aspen trees near parallel to the ground. Our guide, Amos Whiting, shook his head in disbelief of what was probably the worst avalanche of the year in that area.
We cut through alleys of conifers that offered brief relief from the unobstructed sun reflecting harshly off the snow. After almost five hours of road-grade steepness, I was oddly thankful for a steep climb for the last 500 feet to the Green-Wilson Hut. My body seemed to be sick of the unchallenging rhythm, and craved some type of risk, even if it were as small as sliding 10 feet down a short slope.
An hour after arriving at the hut, our ski senses were tingling too much to ignore. We skinned for a mile up to 12,160 feet for a run called The Backyard. Any and all winds were absent, which caused a dominating silence to vibrate from the surrounding Mace Peak, Star Peak and Pearl Peak. We had no one who could disturb our first canvas of S turns that we carved into the packed powder and crust layers.
The next day was all about finding the best quality terrain with the least avalanche danger on the ridge surrounding Castle Peak (14,265 feet). All of this was well above treeline. From the hut, we skinned southwest up the major drainage and swung west towards Castle Peak. Amos’ plans A and B brought us about halfway up the northeast face, but were foiled by unstable, avalanche-prone snow and the dreaded womping sounds filling the whole valley. Most would say that we wasted four hours hunting, but how can time ever be wasted on a bluebird day in the backcountry?
Besides, as a result of our aborted treks, I skied my first ever 50-degree slope on a couloir on the southwest side of the ridge at about 13,000 feet. It was one of those runs I look at and immediately give myself a pre-ski pump up talk to ensure I’m not stalemated by either the narrow space in which I am forced turn or the lingering fear of such steepness. “Keep your shoulders facing downhill. Don’t let your backhand drop behind. Link your jump turns. And, please, just make this an epic run after 5 hours of hiking.”
I focused so hard on that last command that the technique flowed from my mind to my body effortlessly. I reached Amos, breathing hard and smiling as intoxicatingly as when I received my acceptance letter from Colorado College. A day like that, and particularly a run like that, were well deserving of Jack Daniels and red wine back at the hut.
The next morning, we retraced our skin track to The Backyard, passed over Mace Saddle and the north side Pearl Pass (12,705), and skied to the edge of treeline where Friends Hut was tucked away in the conifers. In total, the skin was about 4.5 miles, 1,350 feet up and 1,220 feet down. On our way down through packed powder, breakable crust, and wind drifts, we noticed an enormous cornice stretching across the entirety of Carbonite Ridge. To say the least, we wouldn’t be skiing up there.
It again was terrain huntin’ time. Amos and I left my dad at the car stero speaker and 600 degree wood stove equipped hut to skin up to a couloir on the Star Peak ridgeline. It’s funny how many barriers are broken on backcountry trips. Would you ever think a 37-year-old and an 18-year-old could spend a two-hour skin and boot up a 40+ degree slope talking and laughing about shared experiences without even a moment for an extra breath? The lure of the slopes just acted as our imaginary chairlift.
We made it with our skis on our backs and ice axes in hand about 20 feet below the top of the ridgeline, where the faceted snow eliminated any stability in terms of both avalanche danger and booting capability. This would be our summit. I couldn’t complain. It’d be a sin to. Another bluebird day. Another 50 degree slope.
That night, as I wrote in the hut log, I couldn’t ignore the fact that we were leaving, that the nights of our potty humor were almost over, and that I wouldn’t have the slopes within reach. I guess that’s just part of reality. We all wish we could stay in the backcountry forever and live as simply and as genuinely as such an environment encourages. The best we can do, though, is ski that final 50 degree slope with bountiful passion and appreciation, and then of course celebrate the ending of yet another invigorating trip with a round of beers.