A Backcountry Classic with Chocolate Topping
From the viewpoint on Highlands Peak at Aspen Highlands ski area, North Hayden Peak stands out big time. Though several miles away, a skiers eye is drawn to the broad north face, as were ski area developers in the 1930’s. Luckily, plans for ‘Ski Hayden’ fell through, leaving this beautiful ski descent to those who prefer to earn their turns and enjoy the solitude of the backcountry. I recently had the opportunity to make my first pilgrimage to this Elk Range classic with ski partner Scott McCurdy. We left the trailhead early in the morning as the day was forecast to be warm and snow conditions to become less stable later in the day. After crossing Castle Creek by shimmying across a fallen tree, we passed through a meadow and began the long climb (4,316 feet to be precise) up a steep sided drainage through dense forest. The terrain was a little tricky to navigate and we skinned a fine line between being cliffed out while steep sidehilling on the one side and bushwhacking in the bottom of drainage on the other. As Scott had been there before we managed to follow the correct route and not get into too much trouble. After the first 2,300 feet of climbing the dark forest finally spat us out at the base of the Stammberger face, named after the famous extreme ski pioneer Fritz Stammberger, who was the first to ski the steep 45 degree slope.
Another two hours of laboring and we reached the summit of North Hayden Peak at 13,316 feet. Taking in the views of the surrounding Elk Mountains, we were disappointed to see the usually snowy summits streaked reddish brown. It was sad to see even the highest and most majestic peaks, such as Maroon, Capitol and Pyramid, had not escaped the thick layers of dust from recent wind storms.
Scott launches from the summit. The dust layer is quite apparent on the highlands ridge behind.
Fortunately the dust was covered by 6 inches of snow for our descent and we made hero turns in windbuffed powder on the upper face. Lower down we threaded our way through the gullies at the side of the Stammberger, which we decided to avoid due to the funky looking snow. We confirmed Ski Hayden is worthy of its reputation as a Colorado classic backcountry ski.
Skiing the upper face of Hayden.
The signatures of a backcountry skier - skin track and turns
In contrast to the easy skiing above, varied and challenging snow conditions dictated survival skiing in the thick forest on the lower slopes. Northerly shaded aspects were cold wintery powder, westerly and southerly aspects sun crusted and east facing slopes were almost corn snow, but not quite. Feeling quite the snow experts at this point, we creatively named it 'hominy' snow. The snowpack is still in its transition phase from winter to spring. The full impact of the recently added dust layers remains to be seen but does not bode well for the spring ski season. When we returned to the meadow we had crossed just five hours earlier, it had changed from a vanilla latte to dark chocolate milk, and the snowpack had visibly shrunk.
Is this really snow?
It seems our snow is going a lot quicker this year than usual. But I hope not, as I have a lot more backcountry classics, such as Ski Hayden, on the list, and the spring ski season has barely begun.
Ski Hayden from the trailhead. Our ski tracks are visible if you have either really good eyes or computer screen.