Backcountry Skiing Is Not Everything

Looking back on the 2019-20 backcountry ski season.

Normally the backcountry ski season would just be getting good with warm temperatures, plenty of spring snow, and plenty of sunshine.  This year, the virus has us all locked down.  I mean, technically, I could get out there and ski by myself or socially isolated from my pals, but all things considered, this is a good time to stay close to home.  This is a good time to not need a mountain rescue, even more than usual.

Still, I managed a bunch of backcountry ski trips this season and they were a highlight worth celebrating in this truncated season.

Tooling around on the XCs at Shrine Pass while the Scouts wallow.

Shrine Pass (November 10-11): Early November is super-early for any sort of backcountry.  Still, I lugged my long-skinnies in on a Boy Scout hut trip and spent several hours gleefully tearing around Shrine Pass.  There was about two feet of snow up at 11,000′ and a few inches of powder that arrived overnight.  It was pure bliss.

Ghost Powder: Rock Creek #1 (December 21): I’ve been to Meadow Mountain and the big, powder-filled bowls below it many times, but never skied up the other branch of the road to Rock Creek outside Allenspark.  Brian and I hooked up for a weekday skin up three miles of road.  Back in the 1950s, there was a ski area in here, but there is certainly no sign of it now.  We skinned up to about 11,200′ on a broad, sun-baked slope above tree line before carving our way down through glorious meadows and rather dense trees.  For my first time doing any serious skiing this season, it was a bit of an eye-opener and I fell a lot.  A second lap from not quite as high up managed to avoid the tightest of the trees.

Skin in the Game: Butler Gulch (January 20): I needed a little mountain time, so Eric and I took advantage of the Monday I-70 lack-of-traffic to hit Butler Gulch.  I haven’t been to Butler in a while, but it’s always a good time.  Despite being a while since the last snowstorms, we found some really spectacular powder on two runs.  The second, in particular, took us on a long ascent far to the right to huge meadows of untracked powder followed by some steep-and-deep in the trees.  I’m really glad I’ve been doing so much tree skiing at the resorts this year because it makes this sort of thing fun not terrifying (mostly).

Second Verse, Same as the First: Rock Creek #2 (February 15): Peter organized a backcountry trip and that’s how we ended up back at Rock Creek (he’d never been there).  It was sunny, but the wind was howling.  Conditions this time around were some really spooky wind slab above treeline but heavenly powder down in the trees.  We explored two lines significantly different than I’d done last time and the ski out was on better snow.  For our second lap, we stayed far to skier’s right and found some really great powder in the trees.

Wake up call: Arapaho Lakes (March 21st): And then came March of 2020, a month at least 900 days long which will live in infamy forever.  Coronavirus looms on the horizon, schools are closed, work is now from home, toilet paper is hoarded, Spring Break plans are canceled, and Social Distancing is the hot new trend.

Watching the impending quarantine affect the outdoors community in Colorado was fascinating in a train-wreck way.  First, all the ski areas shut down for the season early.  Then everyone decides they can go camping in Utah instead and Utah shuts down.  Those of us with backcountry ski gear decide to go out and grab some turns while we still can. We talked about it and decided we would chance a socially distant bit of backcountry time.  In principle, this was all good: Matt, Peter, Ben, and I all drove up to East Portal separately.  We were still local (within our home county or pretty close to it) and skis on skin tracks are a good way to keep at least 2 meters apart.  Fresh air, sunshine, and some good spring snow would be just what we needed to stay mentally healthy while not risking our physical health either.

When we got to the trailhead at 8am, it was already full of cars, but there were only a few other actual people in the trailhead (no carpooling means the parking fills fast).  The skin up was pretty mellow and we all politely pulled over to the side when passing other skiers.  The mood was jovial and comradely, but with a distinct looming undercurrent.  And the skiing was pretty fantastic!  Fresh snow on the trees made the ascents glorious and the descents deep on the first run.  Feeling good, we skinned a different route on lap two all the way up to Arapaho Lake.  There were people around, but we were all nicely separated from each other and feeling pretty good that maybe we could salvage something of the 2020 ski season after all.  Another descent, this time in heavy powder which was, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, actually too deep to be fun.

Social Distancing. We let these two other guys break trail for a while.

Then came the wake-up call.  Our logic about social distancing and safety in the backcountry had been sound enough, but it turns out that everyone else had come up with the same idea.  With the ski areas closed, everyone was now skiing (or trying to ski) in the backcountry.  In the final mile back to the trailhead, we must have passed a hundred people including a large set of park rat snowboarders who’d lugged in all the usual resort tailgating gear (recreational chemicals and all) and were building an impromptu terrain park.  We got back to the trailhead as quickly and isolatedly as possible, shared around an apres six pack from a good distance and then hightailed it out of the growing social scene.

Metaphor time.

While the backcountry would be a fine place to self-isolate, it doesn’t work if everyone is there.  Indeed, a week or two after our visit, Gilpin County (where East Portal lies just south of my home Boulder County) closed its major trailheads to non-county residents.  Regardless, unless I can find something a great deal more obscure, my backcountry skiing season is over.   I know about some “secret stashes”, but I’ll bet that at least a thousand other people do too, or will soon.

So the time is well past to follow the spirit as well as the letter of the various sheltering in place rules.  Not going outside for some exercise and vitamin D is not an option, even with the threat of a new contagion.  But I will do it now from my front door and in my local neighborhood.  Or I’ll choose really obscure spots (oooh, project!) and unusual times of day.

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