Last month I was out at dinner with some friends when my friend Roch started talking about his hope to one day ski the length of the John Muir Trail. The JMT—the classic 200+ mile route through the High Sierra from Mt Whitney to Yosemite Valley—is an extremely popular summer hike, but Roch figured it had only been skied a couple of times. This conversation was quite inspirational for me—Roch is an undeniably compelling and confidence-inducing orator— and I started thinking about the kinds of things I could reasonably do on skis.
I doubt I’ll ever have the skills or confidence to be scratching and jump-turning my way down the really steep stuff in the mountains, but the thought of covering a lot of miles over the mountains on more mellow terrain holds a distinct appeal. More “ski touring” I suppose, than “ski mountaineering”. This appeal is facilitated in no small part by the fact that such activity relies on a physical capacity—all day endurance—that I’ve been honing my entire life, as opposed to the more skilled and technical requirements of steeper descents. Skills I certainly don’t currently possess. Maybe I’ll get there one day.
So when some friends completed the big huck to Winter Park and back—a classic double-crossing of the Continental Divide—last weekend, and then a perfect window of stable weather was forecasted for this past week, I knew I had to give it a shot, never mind the fact that I’d only been exercising for two weeks after two full months completely off. I mentioned it offhand to my buddy Joe that I was interested in going for it this week and he was immediately on-board.
In classic style, I further set myself up for discomfort by not resting at all in the days leading up to our out-and-back venture. In the six days beforehand I racked up 40,000’ of vertical gain, including an 8500’ ski session the day before and a 100mi bike ride a couple days before that. You gotta maximize good weather in January!
Joe and I got a comfortable 7:30am start from the East Portal of the Moffat Tunnel trailhead, but carried headlamps, not knowing just how long this thing might take us. The first couple of miles we skinned up the well-packed Rogers Pass Trail with vigor and overflowing enthusiasm for the adventure before us. It was pretty warm, especially considering the early hour and the cold sink of the creek drainage, and we were soon sweating through our base layers.
Eventually, the nicely-packed route ended, however, and we were breaking trail through untrammeled powder in our skinny randonee gear. Joe’s and my skis were 164cm and 160cm, respectively, with spindly 65mm waists. Exceedingly light for sure, but not the best for tromping through powder. Luckily, we weren’t sinking too badly even as we lost any semblance of a previous skin track, and soon we were emerging from the trees, donning wind shells, and expressing extreme exuberance at the morning magnificence of our alpine surroundings.
From the shore of the beautifully frozen Heart Lake, we considered our options for crossing the Divide. The Rogers Pass Trail switchbacked steeply up a grassy headwall straight ahead, but this slope would’ve required crossing a snowfield that—not having brought any metal traction of any kind (axes, crampons)— we weren’t willing to chance. Instead, to the north, on the other side of a lake, was a talus slope and minimal snow that allowed access to a windblown and largely snow-free ridge that would take us up to the Divide. Looks good.
The 12,100’ Divide itself was about as pleasant as could be in January—enough wind to make us hurry, but not so strong as to blow us off our feet, which is more typically the case—and for the first couple hundred feet of descent we kept our skis on our backs and ran down the windblown slope in our ski boots. Which is not nearly as bad as it sounds due to the light weight and outstanding ankle articulation of modern skimo footwear.
Once off the Divide we continued to traverse in a northward direction, angling more or less towards the Riflesight Notch on Rollins Pass Rd at 11,100’ or so. The footing on this traverse was mostly hard-packed and scant snow, so we kept the skins on to facilitate our contouring line. Eventually, we reached plentiful soft snow in a broad, low-angle meadow where we were psyched to finally rip our skins and enjoy a pillowy descent down through the trees into the South Fork of Ranch Creek drainage.
For about 10 minutes, this was the one instance of the entire 8hr outing where our lightweight, skinny equipment wasn’t perfectly ideal. The powder in the trees was soft and deep and even with a steep-ish angle, we wallowed a bit. Not long, however, as we soon linked into an old snow machine track that dumped us out onto Rollins Pass Rd, having successfully cut off a giant oxbow in the process.
And this is where my education in very low-angle, groomed ski travel began. We were faced with 5mi of perfectly-groomed road that was just barely downhill, i.e. perfect terrain for skate skiing with a quickness. With his on-point technique, Joe could’ve made efficient, effortless work of this, probably easily getting down it at 10-15mph.
Instead, he was saddled by my bumbling gumbiness. I’d alternate between awkwardly skating and exhaustingly double-poling, always lagging behind. Occasionally, I’d experience an oh-so-fleeting moment of grace where I would accidentally coordinate my limbs, planks, and poles in the appropriate fashion and briefly get a tantalizing taste of the efficiency and speed that this mode of travel can offer. And then it’d be right back to the spastic flailing, where it seemed I was more working against myself than in any organized effort towards forward progress.
Joe attempted to offer a few helpful tips, but it’s simply going to take a lot more practice on my part. After what felt like an eternity, we reached the outskirts of Winter Park and shouldered our skis for the final few blocks of gravel and pavement leading to the base of the resort itself. It had taken us three and a half hours from when we left our car at the East Portal.
My flailings in the past 45min had left me pretty exhausted, so the respite of espresso and a man-sized whack of bread pudding from the village cafe were sorely needed, and I countenanced the return trip back over the Divide with at least a little bit of dread. After hitting the restrooms and refiling our water bottles, we were back on the trail 38min after reaching town.
At least on the trip back the continuous slightly uphill grade made skins the logical choice—I can actually perform the kick-glide technique of skinning on a groomed surface with acceptable competency—but now we were toiling under the unseasonably warm mid-day sun, drenched in sweat. Traveling through the wintery woods, under our own power, headed back up to the alpine—it was glorious.
So as to avoid any pow-wallowing, we hooked into a perfectly direct and steep climb up a groomed snow machine trail to Riflesight Notch and from there linked into yet another just-in-the-right-spot snow machine track that took us above treeline and back to the talus and tundra of the Divide itself. Back up there, of course, the steady breeze carried a lot more bite, but it didn’t take long for us to scurry into the lee side and back down to Heart Lake.
By this point I was certainly starting to feel the accumulating effects of the day’s efforts, so I was really looking forward to removing our skins and enjoying an expeditious descent through the powder and back to our car, beers, a hamburger. Alas, this was not to be. The deep, untracked snow and the exceedingly low-angle terrain conspired to make the final few miles of our journey much more frustrating than I’d imagined. Just a few more degrees of slope would’ve been greatly appreciated.
Thankfully, though, as in all big endurance endeavors, the end eventually comes, and, 8hrs after we’d departed, we were particularly pleased to have made it back with zero mishaps and plenty of daylight. A day well spent.