Sunday, January 26, 2014

January Denver Ride Tour: Lookout, Deer Creek, Downtown

60 degrees in January.  It's not necessarily novel for Colorado, but it feels like it's been awhile.  
I started going for a jog on Friday, and then did some mental math: Mt. Taylor Quadrathlon, which had always been coming up in a "month or two," was now only 3 weeks away.  And I hadn't really been riding the bike much at all, other than a few short errands.  Riding the bike is what I used to do instead of running, so I became accustomed to always having some sort of bike fitness.  Yet I was a bit worried.
The trails were still a bit muddy anyway.  I turned around and hopped on the bike for a quick spin.

Rolling around, I felt a bit out of sorts, but I rekindled some of that old interest.  I could see that the roads were dry enough, even in shady areas, and extrapolated that it would be even better the next day.
Having already saturated most of the interesting runs that leave from my doorstep, hopping in the bike brought up the old fun of figuring out how far away I can get away under my own power.

I figured hitting a century would be a nice way to kick off the new year, as I could work on a modest goal of a self-powered century at least once a month.  (In running terms, it's not that hard, probably equivalent to 25-30M depending on terrain).  In Fort Collins, I had hit all of the classic 100-mile radius several years ago, so it was exciting to pore over maps and find new routes.

Always overthinking on these things, I went with a route that put the climbs in the beginning, with the busier roads in the earlier afternoon (so as to get more melting as well as visibility), and then ending with a bit more mindless bike paths and bike routes as the sun got lower.

So I started with the classic climb up Lookout Mountain in Golden under perfect blue skies:

The summit (well, Buffalo Bill's gravesite) is 11 miles from my apartment, and it's above 7300': about a 1600' climb, or almost double what I used to get riding to Horsetooth Mountain Park.  It's a steady, rideable grade with great views, with good bike traffic on a nice Saturday and relatively light but aware car traffic.

Continuing westward, the road rolls and climbs a bit more.  I didn't make the exquisite, pine-tree climb up Colorow Road this time, but instead continued on Lookout until hitting Mt. Vernon Country Club, which is a minor thoroughfare into a quiet community.  I enjoyed pastoral views and empty roads (albeit with liberal use of sand/gravel, so caveat biker), although hadn't really prepared for several hundred more feet of climbing.

I finally made my way back down, with a slow average speed/time due to all the climbing.  Now I reached my next goal for the day: riding on I-70 for a bit.

2 miles, to be precise.  Cycling enthusiasts, especially cross-country riders, know this well, but the legalities of riding on freeway shoulders are a patchwork of interstate and intrastate laws.  Some states allow it everywhere, some allow it nowhere, but in Colorado, it's allowed in certain sections where there are no easy and sensible nearby alternatives.  I've previously ridden part of I-5 in San Diego (through Camp Pendleton, and the short Torrey Pines/La Jolla deathtrap!) and I-80 in Wyoming, but this would be my first time on I-70.

It was nice to make quick progress on a generous shoulder, and to advertise the lifestyle to tourists and native-stickered skiers alike.  Just as soon, I was off, where navigating Evergreen Pkwy/74 was trickier than the interstate itself.

I made a few wrong turns, but righted myself back onto a short jaunt on 74 before peeling off into Kerr Gulch.  
Finally, some descent, with a bit of technicality (for road biking) on tight, 15mph turns, in a quiet, narrow and shaded canyon.  No real ice or snow to deal with, though.  A final descent leading to Bear Creek had about a mile or so of degraded road conditions, so was on the brakes a bit more than if it had been smooth.  And again cutting in to rapid forward progress!

Soon enough, Myers Gulch to Parmalee Gulch didn't disappoint, with rolling uphills followed by speedy downhills.  Great visibility makes up for lack of shoulder.

This dropped me down to Hwy 285 quicker than I expected, and I had to make a quick choice, looking for Turkey Creek but getting confused on the options.  I made the wrong one, which led me on a long ramp that dropped me onto 285 North.  No problem, except for I needed to make a U-turn on that infamous spot of S-curves (I notice it when driving) with a barrier median.  And the thin shoulder was shaded and icy, so things were a bit nerve-wracking here.

After 3/4 of a mile or so, a break in the median allowed for a left turn, so I waited for a suitable gap among speeders before reversing course.  Much better on the other side, and I was now headed south on Turkey Creek.

I've always been intrigued by the "Tiny Town" sign here...and was glad to finally see it in person!
Definitely need to bring niece Hannah out here when it's open.

Turkey Creek was otherwise a pleasant road, and my last canyon road was soon coming up: Deer Creek Canyon.

I've only been there a few times for mountain biking and running the park, but the road biking is also really popular.  It's also contentious, with some problems between cyclists and drivers during busy summer weekends.  I was curious as to what to expect.

The shoulders are indeed narrow, but I was able to keep a decent speed in the short and rare sections where cars didn't have room to pass; otherwise, they were able to pass with plenty of room.  The slower riding sections actually had a bit of ice and snow in the shade, which was surprising to me because it felt lower than the other areas I had been riding.  But a clear advantage of riding solo is how much easier it is for a car to pass one rider at a time than a group of 3 or 4, let alone a longer peloton.  So I "get" that frustration of drivers, and not only do I make a point to single up on group rides any time a car is approaching, but also keep pack sizes small so car traffic doesn't back up.  Everybody wins.

Although not overwhelming, I saw more riders here, mostly in the other (climbing) direction.  By the end of the canyon, it was starting to feel like summer, and the pink sandstone gave it a desert feel.

At the very bottom, I saw all the cars parked with bikes and bike racks on them.
Mixed feelings here, and mostly a matter of style, mixed with chagrin and liberal parts of my own hypocrisy, but it's interesting to me to think of road bike riding as something that needs driving.  I get that some, or maybe many -- or even all, what do I know -- of the parked cars are from faraway lands checking out this ride or that by driving to this ride this one time.  But I suspect that many "do" road biking by popping the bike onto rack and driving to the Beginning of a Popular Ride, as I've seen the same thing at the bottom of other classic canyon rides.  (Check out St. Vrain and Lefthand to see guys in team kits crushing it, fresh from a 7-mile drive from home.  For example).  My road ride experience started with meeting at my house, or Neil's house, or John's house -- or we met somewhere in the middle.  If we had to ride some crappy and repetitive roads to get to the Good Stuff, so be it.  That's the way it was...and we liked it!
Anyway, there's something to be said for the riding and exploring that comes from not starting where everyone else does.  It's not skiing or snowmobiling: you can do it from your house, I promise!
But I digress.

Now onto the C-470 bike path.  A bit of interesting scenery in Chatfield, and then functional, flat miles.  Easier to be more social here by seeing more riders -- by the way, most riders I encountered were of the friendly nod-type I was used to in Larimer Co. -- but the seemingly flat stretch was slowed down a bit with solid patches of ice on some shaded ramps and curves, as well as short climbs up to major intersections and waiting for stoplights.    

Parker was the southeast quadrant of my ride, so now time to go North.  I went with Jordan Road and was pleased to cruise along with a zippy tailwind, and quickly made it into Cherry Creek State Park.

This was all familiar territory now, so I enjoyed a leisurely cruise on the inner trails and roads.  Fair amount of cycling and walking traffic out.

I didn't really pay attention to the map here as I'd run and biked there to Cherry Creek Trail more than a dozen times when we lived in Aurora, but of course I got a bit turned around/confused looking for the Highline/Cherry Creek junction.  I abandoned that and headed in the generally direction on busier roads, before taking Holly straight up to Cherry Creek.

I always enjoy the urban feel of Cherry Creek, a nice spot in the city that actually feels like a big city.
Quite an interesting juxtaposition with the morning's canyon rides.

The confluence of Cherry Creek and Platte is a natural center of the city...

...a city wrapped up in Bronco-mania.

And finally back on 20th for a loop around Sloans Lake, and back in time to beat the setting sun.

Create Maps or search from 80 million at MapMyRide

Monday, January 6, 2014

2014 Runs

Updated race plans/thoughts on the right.
It feels self-indulgent to talk about it, esp. as a non top-tier runner, but I appreciate the support and encouragement from others, and enjoy reading others' plans.

The big race is Bighorn, and although it's a "backup" to not getting into Hardrock, it really isn't a backup at all.  I'm calm and patient with getting into Hardrock eventually, and every year that goes by makes me feel stronger and more ready for it, so I'm happy to experience other courses in the meantime.  We drove through the Bighorn Mountains once, in June a dozen years ago, as we were moving from Minnesota to California, when I was excited to get to Yellowstone as quickly as possible.  I had no idea about the Bighorn Mountains, but found the scenery to be a stunning drive; in many ways, more pristine and inspiring than Yellowstone itself.  And I'm positively stoked to participate in a Bighorn race for the first time -- I've never been to any of the races!  It sounds positively beautiful and has the vibe and appreciation for outdoors and the race itself, which began in part as a response to planned development projects.  A fellow runner this past weekend told me the wildflowers were more amazing there than anywhere she had seen (including the Four-Pass loop, San Juans, etc.)
And check out this old NYTimes article:
"And it all ends in a park in downtown Dayton that feels like small-town summer Saturday night distilled to its essence of lawn chairs and barbecue smoke."
Sounds like my kind of race! 

I know several friends planning on running it, so it'll be great to see each other and push each other.  
I'd love to have a pacer or two as well!  I know lots of people have their own races or commitments already.
Similarly for Hardrock: I'd love to pace out there if anyone wants it or knows somebody that does.

Quad Rock is of course always a great time and stellar race: looking forward to seeing everyone up there.  I'm apprehensive about not training on the course anymore, but it'll be a fun reunion.  Hopefully the excitement of being back "home" will make up for the lack of familiarity.  FC folks, can you be kind and pretend I'm still one of you?  That support is immensely helpful!

Most of the same can be said for Salida, although it's still early and kind of a training-race itself.
Along the way, J is doing a couple half marathons on the roads, so I'll be joining her for Platte River in April, and OKC 3 weeks later (marathon for me).  We'll see what happens there, I now have more trails to run on from my front door but less flat roads.

So mostly interested in any/all advice for Bighorn.  I've read a detailed report from a baggy-shortsed Fort Collins runner back in 2009, in which he had a simple plan:
About half way up the climb, I decided to put my pre-race plan to work and eased into the lead, running a little deeper into the climbs than Karl was prepared to. The plan was fairly simple: build an early lead and try to hold it.

Brilliant as that plan was, I'm not qualified to be so ambitious, but the "Rusty Spurs" 24-Hour goal is clearly an aggressive focus for me.  That would require my best 100M trail performance to have a shot at it, which means both a smarter race and training.  There will be a fun bubble of folks right around that goal as long as possible --  a big challenge any year, and we have no idea on course conditions or weather.  So given the course layout, late start time, etc. -- anybody have a good set of splits or other suggestions?

Otherwise, looking for long weekend days in new places on bike and foot (and combinations of both).
Good luck in 2014 and see you out there!

Bryce Canyon: Quiet Ski to Fairyland Point

Fairyland Canyon
~2M ski roundtrip, flat road

On our way back from Kanab, we took a quick drive out to Bryce Canyon NP.  The scenic red rocks were great, and we took some photos by the easily-accessible viewpoints of Sunrise and Sunset Point.  However, those areas were also crowded, with several tourist buses in the parking lot.

The elevation was higher, and I heard about some snow, so I asked a ranger about snow conditions.  We had brought XC skis but hadn't used them on the trip.
"People have been skiing on Fairyland Point Road, they don't plow it in the winter.  I don't know why -- it's a really great viewpoint."

Perfect.  The gate and lack of plowing is a winter blessing for quick solitude.  As it turned out, even though the snow wasn't fresh, it was nicely packed and slippery for a quick tour.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Zion National Park: Observation Point Hike in Winter

Zion NP Hike: Observation Point
8M RT, 4.5 hours

After the previous day's longer hike, we decided on a nice half-day hike.  J and I had never been to Zion NP, so we were eager to check it out.  Yeah, when it comes to solitude and most of my exploration, I'm drawn toward Wilderness Areas, and I've been disappointed at times when development and crowds frustrate the natural beauty of National Parks; at the same time, not only do they generally have absolutely sublime terrain, but I also ironically enjoy the connectedness of sharing a common experience and place.  And, even the kitsch of the Visitor's Center -- if we could make it before the 5pm closing.

Moments after entering the park, and shelling out for a new annual pass, the splendor of Zion was apparent.

In the summer, we'd have to take buses, which attempts to alleviate the traffic congestion in the Virgin River Valley.  (If only Yosemite would do the same!)  Being the off-season, however, we had the advantage of being able to drive on park roads.  Hopefully this would mean less crowded hiking as well.

One of the more popular hikes is Angel's Landing, which provides a spectacular vertical gain and views, with some exposed scrambling at the top.  This was closed earlier in the week due to snow and ice, and it was ambiguous if it was "open" again, but would have been dicey even so.

We opted for the mellower, yet higher hike to Observation Point, which leads to a mesa viewpoint high above the park and Angel's Landing itself.  Much of the trail was carved by CCC workers right off the side of the sheer walls.  Still, when we asked about Observation Point, the Entrance Station ranger warned us about ice and falls, and "didn't want to read about us later."

This trail was to have mild exposure, but was at least as wide as a sidewalk.
But, an icy sidewalk.

Because of the shaded aspects and foot traffic, much of the trail was bulletproof ice.  This isn't what I intended as leisurely hike.  In fact, I had 3 pairs of traction devices (Microspikes and Yaktrax)...back at the cabin, precisely because I knew we weren't looking for a hike where they were "necessary."  (In hindsight, this was dumb, still, because I had plenty of room in my pack and wasn't in a hurry, and at least one pair could always be useful in some sort of unplanned emergency situation).  Everyone else had at least one hiking pole, which was helpful for them.  I felt solid in running shoes, but a few steps here and there required attention (I had no desire for actually running the worst spots).

So it began as a luge run with careful steps.  With each switchback, we hoped it would get more clear, but mostly it didn't.  This was more obvious when viewed, later, from above:

Still, people were game to keep going up a bit to see if it would clear up.  The iciest patches were flat, fortunately, and the steepest pitches seemingly had patches of rock or soft snow.

Finally, after the first couple miles, the trail got flatter, drier, warmer, and slottier.

Then, things opened up more as the sun crested the surrounding walls.

A bit of stress at the beginning was now well-worth it, and things just kept getting better as we enjoyed another sunny day.

We saw several other parties on the trail, but only a handful, including a few that came back down from the top.  Certainly much less crowded than it would have been in other months.  After another set of switchbacks, now mostly dry, we enjoyed a final flat traverse to Observation Point.

With a half-hour lunch break in the sun, we had the area to ourselves.

And then, back down, where the first half went quickly and we hoped the ice softened up a bit.
It didn't, much.
Two Canadian ladies breezed past us, one with an ultramarathon (Frosty Mountain?) shirt on.  I chatted with them a bit as we approached the snowier sections, where they smartly put on their Microspikes and took off with ease.

But with careful steps, and perhaps a bit of whiskey, we were able to remain upright, until a final few intentional butt-glissades near the bottom.  (Other visitors and kids had been playing/sliding on this section for days, making it a solid sheet of ice).

We most certainly hope to be back at another time of year for classic hikes like the Narrows and Angel's Landing.   But as it turns out, this was a great hike at a great time of year.

As a bonus, we made it to the Visitor Center before closing, where we were able to browse Chinese consumer goods, and I added unnecessarily to my coffee mug collection.

Escalante Hike: Lick Wash, No Mans Mesa, Park Wash

Lick Wash to No Mans Mesa,
Park Wash Return
~11 miles, 6.5 hours


Tom led us on a great hiking loop in Escalante National Monument, which would take us through slot canyons of Lick Wash up to the base of a flat plateau known as No Mans Mesa, with a possible return hike down Park Wash to make a satisfying loop, albeit including some unknown bushwhacking.
With many stunning hiking options in the area, this one would put us into lesser-visited terrain.  I love alternative/less-popular hikes with a bit of exploration and less crowds, and knowing Tom, I think he's even more averse to popular hikes than I am.  As it was, we didn't see a single other person all day.

First things first, though...the scenery of Lick Wash came quickly.

We also realized that snow would be present at the depths of these heights, below the shaded canyon walls.  Many sections would have made decent XC skiing, but many more wouldn't, so hiking boots (or running shoes with holes in them, in my case) were practical options.

I slowed us down a bit more for pictures, none of which can do the canyon justice.

By afternoon, the terrain and sunshine opened up, for a very pleasant day.  We were plenty warm except for slightly wet feet.

We found a mud cave on the side of one of the canyon walls, and decided to explore.

It actually opened up as a straight climb up a hole 10 feet above, onto a higher shelf.  Much better to discover this from below than by accident from above!  We were careful on nearby terrain to avoid unsupported soil.

At the widening confluence with Park Wash, we took a lunch break below a towering sandstone wall. Soft, beachy sand makes this a great place to rest (and, in another trip report, to make camp).

Or build a cabin.  Shortly thereafter, we explored this abandoned cabin.  The cabin itself is a geocache, and I suppose would come in handy if bad weather/flash floods moved in.

We gazed up toward No Mans Mesa, where a supposed goat trail led to the top, 1200' above us.  The trail was supposedly roughly defined and sketchy, as the only break in the cliffs.  In fact, the inaccessibility means that the top has a variety of native grasses and other plants that have been largely undisturbed from grazing or human influence.

But any potential access was still covered in snow, so we pressed on with remaining daylight, on nearly the shortest day of the year, to complete the loop.

We proceeded north below white cliffs, and as sunset approached, pink cliffs glowed above us.

We skirted a marsh, and then hoped for a passage to the west that would lead us back to the road.  Fortunately, past the marsh and the termination of another canyon to the west, we followed an old road (not shown on our map) as it climbed up to the ridge.  The terrain to the southwest/west seemed manageable, through trees with little downfall and occasional but obvious gullies, so we were able to dead-reckon for about half an hour with a satisfying bushwhack back to the road, where cold feet finally warmed up while walking on solid ground for the first sustained amount of time all day.

We got back to the car right at dusk, perfect timing for the road to be just hard enough (it likely would have been muddier earlier in the day) to make the drive back out.  This was a great loop hike with quite a variety of terrain.

Kanab, Utah

J and I had a great, quick trip to Kanab, Utah, right before Christmas. 
We visited and stayed with my friend Tom, whom I worked with in San Diego, and who has a great working knowledge of the area, having visited numerous times to volunteer and adopt dogs from the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.

After we arrived, we took a shorter hike on the Squaw Trail, giving great views of the surrounding area.
This was also our first time meeting Tom's partner Vicki, who's warmth and friendliness was immediately apparent.  Later, her strong hiking skills and excellent cooking would also become apparent.

Coming up on the weekend, we only had two full days out there, but packed them with some great hikes, followed by great dinners and sharing of Western beer and wine.  Tom had brought his collection of electric Lego trains, and already had a nice setup of 2 trains going.  Later, we expanded that to a record of 3 trains, with some hills and banked corners.

Tom and Vicki were fantastic hosts and great company.  I took a few shakeout jogs on the roads around Kanab, but otherwise we had two days of solid hiking.

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!