Friday, January 3, 2014

Aspen Four-Mountain Skin

Aspen Four-Mountain Skin: Uphill/Downhill Ski
Ajax (Aspen) Mountain
Aspen Highlands


With a conference in the Snowmass/Aspen area, and decent snow and weather, I was anxious to get in my first downhill skiing of the season.  But with the high-cost of lift tickets, and a short but pleasant window of opportunity to get outside each day, it made much more sense to hike up each day.

Since many ski areas (especially in Colorado), operate on public National Forest land, general public use is granted when it can safely coincide with downhill skiing.  The fee paid for downhill skiing at resorts, in fact, is actually a fee paid for an uphill lift ticket...mostly.  Clearly, the benefits of grooming, avalanche control, and the implicit safety of buildings and nearby patrol (even if not used) are also benefits for the uphill user.  At the same time, it would be unusual and unfair to block completely access of our public lands for nearly half the year.  So uphill skiing and hiking is becoming more popular, but it's a tenuous balance of use that is constantly being re-evaluated. 

Fortunately, Aspen has generally liberal and open uphill skiing rules.  And, it has four mountains! The rules vary per mountain, with Snowmass being the most generous (pretty much any trail, all day) to Ajax and Highlands restricting uphill use to non-lift hours.  With some planning, I could skin and ski each of the four mountains that circumscribed the area.

First up was Ajax, which permits uphill access only before the lifts run.  This would be a good morning run before my afternoon meetings.  This was also the coldest morning, and one in which I "camped" in my Subaru the night before (after taking a short night XC tour at the Aspen golf course).  My wife's 0-degree bag was warm enough, but it was a stiff and cramped awakening to get up and put ski gear on.  Without overnight parking in Aspen, I caught one of the earliest buses back into town, walked over to the ski area, ready to head up at around 6:20AM.  I didn't really have an idea of pace except remembering taking less than 2 hours at a moderate pace on Snowmass previously, but wanted to be conservative so as not to have to turn around close to the top.

I made my way up slowly but steadily by headlamp, with the clear view of stars giving way to a brightening sky and finally some welcomed sunshine.  I still kept my headlamp on (and a blinky rear reflector) for visibility of any patrol/resort workers, and the ones that went by generally nodded and waved.
"America's Uphill" course was supposed to be marked, but I didn't see such markings.  Still, I stopped a few times for map-checks and followed the listed directions, which are the most sensible and logical uphill runs based on terrain and visibility anyway.

I made my way to the Sundeck at 11,212', with plenty of time to spare, taking something like 1:40-1:45 in a walking/hiking shuffle.  I was pleased to see that it was open, so I warmed up a bit as I switched into dry clothes.

2 other uphillers took brief turns by the fire.  Otherwise, the Sundeck was filled with staff getting ready for the day, turning on the radio and sharing some laughs.  I never know what to expect from staff when you're on the mountain "for free" so I try to lay low, but to a person, they were all friendly, with some asking how the ski was.   Ironically (or idealistically), I think we share a bit more when I'm grateful to sit by the fire but don't really "expect" anything; that is, I'm not going to have an ego about status and I'm clearly happy to be there sharing the mountains that we all love.  This was the first into several glimpses of Aspen where my former views softened in appreciation of some of the people in the area that still do salvage a bit of its soul.

I had plenty of time to warm up and eat a few snacks, so now it was time for the downhill.  For better skiers than myself, and true backcountry, the uphill effort pays off on fresh powder tracks.  For me, still practicing telemark technique and shaking off summer rust, and with no fresh powder to be found anyway, I stuck pretty much to the same blue groomers I skied up, more of a denouement after the more adventurous and committing uphill task.   But, the ability to ski down a quiet, empty slope is worth much more than the price of admission.

With frozen toes, I was thinking about how I was only an hour or so away from a hot shower and coffee, but was pleasantly surprised when free coffee was handed out at the bottom.

With a break during the next afternoon, it was time to head up Snowmass, which allows all-day uphilling.  This was much more pleasant in the full afternoon sun, where short-sleeves were comfortable.

Sticking to the far shoulder, it takes a bit more attention to watch for downhill users, mostly snowboarders that want to hit tiny jumps on the edge, or new skiers that look at you and inevitably head for the direction of their gaze, but it was another pleasant, slow-but-steady hike.  I never really shuffle-jog like racers do, and probably carry too much weight in my pack, and it took about the same time (~1:45) as Ajax the previous day.  So, the rough rule of thumb of 2k-feet/hour was becoming my shuffling benchmark.

There's no "required" route, but I've been up Snowmass several times now, and I always go Village Express->Lunchline->Max Park->Sneaky's, which was a route suggested to me before and plays out well, as the upper blue runs get steeper whereas cutting across on the greens is more steady and gets a bit more afternoon sun as well.

This puts me at the top of Big Burn at 11,835'.  This is the top of the front side of the mountain.  There is more terrain in the Cirque above which was just starting to open.  I hiked up a bit through the backcountry gate for some great views, although the wind had scoured it a bit up there.

Again, I had a pleasant cruise down, this time leading directly to the hotel, leaving plenty of time to get changed and ready for my upcoming presentation, with which I was pleased.

Snowmass-Aspen Owl Creek XC

The next afternoon, Friday, left me with another window of ski-pportunity.  However, the other 2 Aspen resorts weren't opening until the next day.  As planned, I took my skinnier skis instead from Snowmass-Aspen, which was another exploratory tour I had been looking forward to, at somewhere around 9-10 miles one-way, with my goal being leaving directly from the hotel in Snowmass and ending in downtown Aspen, with the ability to take the free shuttle bus back.
This brought back pleasant memories of mountain biking the Government Trail between the towns several years ago with Caleb -- the whole area is beautiful and it's a classic mt. biking trail, so it would be rewarding to traverse some of the same terrain (albeit lower on the hill) on skis.

The Owl Creek Trail also goes between the two towns, with the Owl Creek Chase being an annual race on the groomed trail.  To get to the Owl Creek Trail while avoiding roads, I needed to find some other connection.  I chose to use the Tom Blake trail, by uphill skiing from the Elk Camp area before cutting across on Vista and then Tom Blake.  Tom Blake is normally a summer trail, so having a summer trail map was moderately helpful.  Still, I had some trouble and wasted some time finding it, breaking trail and bushwhacking a bit, noticing later that the summer trail signs near the ski area are removed/turned around to prevent confusion.
Eventually I ended up on a pleasant, rolling backcountry trail, which goes between hillside houses, before making it over to the Two Creeks area.  I took some groomed, empty downhill runs (I'm not even sure where or what they were on the map), which then intersected clearly with the signed Owl Creek Trail.

I was worried that Owl Creek would be too close to the road to be enjoyable, but it was mostly out of sight and noise anyway, so it was a pleasant jaunt amongst hillside meadows.  Then I reached the Buttermilk Ski area, which was gearing up for the opening.  I made my way across and down to the Tie Hack area and unmistakable bridge, on some of the same trails near the rec center (with free wi-fi) and golf course that I had night-skied a few nights earlier.

It would have been sufficient to go to one of the bus stops here, but I made my way further on some of the bike path trails and another lovely bridge, past the mining museum and some stone cottages, before skidding on icy sidewalks and then finally walking to a bus stop.

Saturday afternoon brought me my first chance to ski Buttermilk, on opening day no less.  Having already explored the Tie Hack area, I started from the main and lowest lift area, following the clearly-marked uphill route.  With right around 2k gain, this took me around an hour -- Buttermilk has the easiest, most gentle terrain in Aspen...but just might have the best views on top.  Definitely a pleasant area (even on opening day!) that I'd recommend for beginners and families.

I met another couple on top who had skinned from West Buttermilk, a higher  (but-further-from-the-road) base area and were planning on laps.  With plenty of time, I skied down this area and made a few laps as well.  This was a quicker uphill-to-downhill payoff, and now meant I had checked out all 3 sides of the mountain.  After a few laps here, I headed back down to the base, enjoying sunset views and open, solo skiing.

Approaching sunset, I made the drive out past Carbondale to Penny Hot Springs, for a free, natural soak under the stars.  No pictures to do it justice, although the waxing moon illuminated the rock formations above, and there was just enough water to lie back and watch the stars above.

Aspen Highlands
The final morning left me with the biggest vertical challenge of Highlands.  This was an additional challenge because of sleeping in the car and catching an early bus again, but also the necessity to be up the mountain before the lifts run.  I've skied down Highlands before and know that it gets steep and narrow in places, so I wanted to make sure I had enough time.

As the sun rose, lighting up puffy cotton candy clouds above me, I had an incredible sight and experience.  The camera certainly could not catch this, but I could see the faint pink and blue hue reflected on the snow below.  It was very faint, but distinct.  As the clouds moved and the sun rose, the colours danced on the snow.  Amazing.

The uphill rules state that uphillers must be beyond the Merry-Go-Round restaurant by 9am.  I had made this benchmark, but the signs actually say something like "No Uphill Traffic past 9am", making it ambiguous as to whether I would have to turn around right at 9am before the summit.  I should have enough time (and did) but didn't want to risk it.  At 8:30, the lifts were whirring and I saw people on them, but this was patrol and staff.   I made it to the top 10 minutes later...greeted by happy and playful avalanche dog, who was quite pleased to fetch his tennis ball that was solidly encased in frozen slobber.

I stayed out of the way of the patrollers and changed quickly in the public bathroom in the patrol hut, and then got ready for the descent before the crowds came.
Having gotten up early, I would have been in prime position to hike to the top of Highlands Bowl.  The main problem with this is that I am not good enough to ski that terrain.  Perhaps I should spend more time downhilling.

Aspen Four-Mountain Skin
So a purist might hike to Highlands Bowl and The Cirque at Snowmass for the ultimate vertical.  I am content with hiking to the lift-served, frontside-top of each of these mountains, with an extra few laps at Buttermilk to give a more satisfying gain.

It was nice to have a window of opportunity to do all four of these mountains.  I am sure that people living in the area do this more frequently and quickly.  In fact, the Aspen Power-of-Four ski mountaineering race goes up all four the same day.  And traverses between them for more than a marathon-distance of skiing.  Incredibly, the winners can finish around 5 hours...which is less than the aggregate time I took to get up all 4 mountains, on separate days.  This makes their effort even more tangible, where I can better appreciate their incredible skill and training (most of the contribution) and gear (also helps).  At my level, a couple hours of inefficient but steady uphill is a good workout.

About the only shared realization is just how satisfying it is to ski up and down the mountains under one's own power.  That is a beautiful challenge in itself, which is highly recommended!


  1. Excellent! I plan to skin up Ski Cooper one of these days... Maybe combined with a trip to the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse.

  2. Right on, Andrew -- that'd be a beautiful combo! Let us know how it goes and get some pics, or I'll look you up next time I'm in Leadville. Cooper would be fun because the 10th Mtn. Division history is really cool. Looks like we'll have some shared races this year, so happy training and see you out there!