The Outdoor Junkie
The Outdoor Junkie is a blog by Ann Driggers, a backcountry bon vivant who lives to hike, run, ride, ski and climb in the great outdoors, and is most often found roaming through the red-rock canyons and mountains of Western Colorado.
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By Ann Driggers
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Ski. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. We just returned from a fantastic three days at the Fowler-Hilliard hut, located above Camp Hale. Owned and operated by the 10th Mountain Division, it is a cozy but spacious hut, and beautifully situated at 11,500 feet where excellent skiing and touring opportunities abound. Nothing beats a good hut trip for an extended dose of the high mountain experience while staying in relative comfort. Normally I would load myself up with a heavy pack and ski the 5 miles and 2,500 feet climb into the hut. With the Vail Pass Recreation Area close by and numerous motorized trails we chose to access the hut via snowmobile over the summit of Ptarmigan Hill. Arriving at the hut we snagged the private bedroom, ate lunch and headed out to get some turns in, all before our hut mates showed up. The sun was shining and for the first time in several weeks the weather was warm - hand warmers and frost nipped feet became a (not so distant) memory. We made a run from the hut on south and east facing slopes where the snow was getting baked by the sun, knowing that the crust would eliminate these aspects from the search for quality skiing the next day.
Back at the hut we found the rest of our party installed and we spent the evening feasting on copious quantities of pasta, melting snow for water and playing hut Scrabble. Hut Scrabble is significantly more challenging than regular Scrabble since critical board letters and important pages of the dictionary are invariably missing. Although intensely frustrating it is an integral part of the hut experience.
The following morning the sun rose in a cloudless sky and we set out for a long and fun day on skis. The snow was deep and light on the shaded northerly aspects. Powder turns were accompanied by a tinkling sound as we sliced through the big hoar frost flakes on the surface. To call it good would be a ridiculous understatement.
We carved our signatures into the bowl behind the hut many times before stopping to refuel. Basking on a sunny ridge we snacked on cheese and crackers with a stellar view of the Mount of the Holy Cross off to our west. Next we took a longer run into McAllister Gulch, an area with tight trees but plenty of good snow. My new GPS rescued us from the deep, dark woods and had us skinning back up for yet another run before heading to the top of 12,000 feet high Resolution Mountain for a pre-arranged rendez-vous with the rest of our group.
On the summit we watched the sunset over the Sawatch and Gore Ranges before skiing back down to the hut at dusk. With almost 4,000 feet of vertical under our skins for the day, we were whipped.
Another fun evening was had, involving delicious food and great conversation around the fire, including a debate on the merits of either a slipper crampon or skins, designed to prevent skidding and falling on the icy path to the outhouse. The final day dawned, again sunny, warm and reminiscent of spring. Tired from the previous days exploits we took just a couple of short runs before retiring to the deck for sunbathing. In the afternoon we regretfully packed up our gear, cleaned the hut and headed back to civilization.
By Ann Driggers
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Throughout the year I try to get out for a good run at least twice a week before work. That means an 'alpine' start of 5:30 a.m. During the summer, early morning is the time to beat the heat and a pleasant time of day to run. In the winter it’s a different matter. Especially right now when the temperature inversion plaguing the Grand Valley has plunged it into the deep freeze. With temps in the single digits, 'cool' running is an understatement. Frigid would be a more accurate description.
But running in the dark on a snow packed trail is actually pretty cool and I’m not just talking about the temperature. For starters packed snow is a great surface to run on as it makes for relatively fast travel and the trail is easily and well lit by headlamp. And at times when there is a full moon, it’s almost bright enough to run without. The views are great too. The city lights twinkle down below as we run along the ridge from Widow Maker to Lemon Squeezer and on towards Kurt's Lane. Later in the winter we will be rewarded with running towards the sun as it rises over the Grand Mesa.
Cool runners work their way up the hill towards Widow Maker.
I admit there are times when I wonder how cool this cool running really is. Like after a fresh snowfall, when finding the trail is hit and miss, and it's a tough workout akin to running in sand. (If you ever see bizarre tracks in the snow seemingly wandering aimlessly in the Lunch Loop area, you know who it is.) Or an icy and treacherous trail results in a rolled ankle. Or when it takes the majority of the day to warm your frozen body, despite wearing ski gloves, several pairs of socks, numerous layers of clothes and a balaclava. But overall the pros outweigh the cons. Getting outside, whatever the weather, there is never a day when I regret a cool run.
An icy Lemon Squeezer results in a fall, as shown by the abnormal headlamp trail.
By Ann Driggers
Thursday, January 1, 2009
One of the best locations for skiing steep terrain in bounds with good snow, and the bonus of a high mountain experience, is Highlands Bowl at the Aspen Highlands ski area. Known simply as the ‘Bowl’, it’s also a good workout. A mandatory 750 foot hike up the ridge to the summit of 12,381 foot Highland Peak is required to reach the top of the Bowl. The first day after yet another (yeah go Ullr!) big storm cleared out of the Colorado mountains, Chad and I headed up to Highlands for fun skiing and to work off some of the holiday excess.
The Bowl can be a popular destination with a long line of hikers strung out along the ridge racing to get the goods. A single-track boot pack provides few opportunities to pass making the hike slow going. This day it was relatively quiet and I took the opportunity to take it slow myself. Sparkling ice particles floated in the air and the fresh snow squeaked and creaked under foot as we marched upwards under bluebird skies. Between the huffing and puffing, and with a quick look around, one could observe the significant avalanche activity following the recent storms. Highlands Bowl itself is major avalanche terrain and the ski patrol works hard to ensure its safety for skiers. At times we walked over snow blackened with the residue of explosives from their control work. After about 40 minutes we arrived at the summit, prayer flags fluttering in the cold wind. The 360 degree views north to the Flattops, east to the Sawatch and south, close and deep into the Elks, were stupendous. Highland Peak provides a direct view up Maroon Creek to the deadly Bells and Pyramid Peak anchored at the end of the valley.
After taking in the scenery, we launched into the east side of the bowl and skied chopped, fresh powder through the glades of the North Woods. The 3,000 feet descent brought us to the base of the Deep Temerity lift and we signed on for another lap. Second time around we rode the snow cat a short ways up. Although it doesn’t save much time on the hike the line was non existent and therefore hard to pass up given our leisurely pace of the day.
The ridge was deserted on our final climb. The sun hung low in the sky casting the bowl into shadow for the descent. This time I skied the center of the Bowl and tried to stop as little as possible. Quads screaming for relief coincided with the closure of the lifts, giving us good reason to retire to the bar. While hiking Highlands goes some way in working off the excess of Christmas, maintenance of stamina for the New Year celebrations was deemed necessary.
By Ann Driggers
Sunday, December 21, 2008
During the last 10 days a significant amount of snow has fallen in the high country, adding a heavy load to and burying an old and rotten layer at the bottom of the snowpack. This has created a precarious and hazardous situation in the backcountry. The avalanche danger is rated high by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center meaning both natural and human triggered avalanches are likely. Indeed, two people have died in avalanches during the last week in the Elk Mountains. Now is not the time to push the envelope. The Grand Mesa, while not immune from avalanches, has plenty of low angle terrain to satisfy powder hounds who seek to avoid exposure to the current high danger. It’s also a quick and easy drive from Grand Junction. Today the clouds finally broke after almost two weeks of snow. It was an ideal day to hit up one of my favorite areas for backcountry skiing, the Big Top. Here, my fellow members of the circus and I, found enough powder to keep us clowning around all day long.
Krissy and Mike Steele skin towards a run down Dumbo.
Twyla Gingrich plays in powder on low angle terrain.
As today was the winter solstice, these north facing slopes were long in shadow and short of sun. After four laps of the skin track, the sun dipped below the horizon. An early end to a perfect day of playing it safe.
By Ann Driggers
Sunday, December 7, 2008
The San Juan mountain range in south west Colorado is steeped in mining history. Roads, relics and structures dot the landscape, evidence of miners searching for gold and silver during the 19th century. Now, in the winter months, the area creates a fantastic backdrop for ski touring. This past weekend Pete Harris and I made a foray into the mountains around Red Mountain Pass, mining for our treasure of choice - snow.
Early season backcountry skiing can be fraught with somewhat tricky and dangerous terrain however. Although avalanches are always a consideration, the lack of snow is usually a greater cause for concern. The heavy winter storms have yet to arrive and fill in unexpected obstacles which lurk disguised beneath the surface. This became apparent as we first headed towards a steep treed slope south of the pass at Chattanooga. Reaching the base required negotiating the open waters of a babbling Mill Creek and our first run we cut short, finding the snow pack too shallow for comfort as we bottomed out on rocks and stumps. We decided to retrace our tracks and mine for snow elsewhere.
We returned to the pass, 800 feet higher, in the hopes the snow cover would be better. At 11,000 feet the official Red Mountain Pass snow stake reported a depth of 18 inches. Not much improvement but we slapped on the skins anyway and headed westward and upward. The sun was shining, the skies were blue and touring for turns is always a worthy endeavor.
Occasionally picking our way through rocks and grass we followed an old mining road, a notorious summer time 4 wheel drive route, which climbs over Black Bear Pass before plunging down to Telluride. With only a thin mantle of snow, the shapes of a bygone age were visible all around. Reaching Mineral Basin at 12,500 feet, we stopped for lunch and ripped off our skins before skiing the basin headwall back towards the highway.
The snow was heavily wind affected, alternating between breakable crust, soft but sculpted recycled powder, and an impenetrable sheet. Ski conditions could only be termed ‘challenging’ as it was difficult to predict what each turn would bring. Jump turns were necessary to launch out of, and land back in, the crud without catching an edge. But it was great fun and a good workout with mountain scenery second to none.
We modern day snow miners returned to the pass satisfied with our treasure haul and, of course, celebrated the day with a beer or few before heading home.