It’s easy for skiers to forget winter is a challenging time. Heat becomes a basic necessity. Seasonal depression sets in. Animals starve to death. It’s a struggle to keep your photographs from being monotonously monochromatic.
And then there are real dangers. Yesterday, winter threw most of these at the Elk Range. First, two feet of heavy snow on a touchy snowpack significantly elevated avalanche risk on all aspects, which was immediately exacerbated by high winds. Then, the temperature dropped to minus 23 F, and didn’t even reach the negative single digits until 10 AM. It was a day to spend holed up with books and TV and too much coffee.
But cabin fever must be fought, and risks can be mitigated. The freedom of the hills was calling (it’s sort of a whistle). I had grand plans for a day-long tour on gentle terrain to an alpine basin I had never managed to visit in warmer weather. Unfortunately, my route-finding was poor, and I ended up climbing both too high and not far enough, becoming mired in deadfall and tight spruces. I abandoned said plans. Which might have objectively been a failure. But as my energy wavered I pushed out into a secluded clearing with a spectacular view of the valley. I stopped to drink hot tea and eat lunch, happy to move through the winter world and explore without an agenda.
Kinesthetically, I am not a picky skier. I enjoy sliding on snow in almost all its forms. The one exception to this may be breaking trail in deep snow for 8 miles, a motion I don’t find intrinsically enjoyable. Even so, today’s pleasures were great.
Writing has great utility in demanding a consistent practice of observation. Lacking this, you don’t have much to say. Recently, with grant proposals and graduate school applications, my heart and eye have been elsewhere, and my world has been a blur of pleasant and satisfying daily rhythms without much to mark either their passing or their significance. Which is inevitable, and often desirable, particularly when you’ve taken a position guaranteed to affect your perception of time and busyness. But too much pleasant blurring of experience verges on complacency, and being lucky enough to spend the winter here makes me want memories with sharp edges and potency.
Weather has a way of ending complacency. On the weekend of the 16th a storm forecasters uniformly lowballed agitated the Gothic valley snow globe. Kate was visiting and in a moment of foresight we parked her car at the trailhead, skiing in and out for tamales and chicken broth. This presence of mind did not, however, extend to the two vehicles parked at Gothic. The storm didn’t stop, and then the county closed the road, and then we were saddled with the quixotic task of driving two passenger cars with low clearance through an ever-deepening snowpack. It continued to snow. The wind piled high and dense drifts under the aspens. On Wednesday, we managed to get the company car out in the morning without undue difficulty. My world-weary Volvo struggled more, taking two hours to push the four miles to asphalt. Chains came loose. Chains broke. But by sunset we could welcome the snow unreservedly.
Kate began her commute back to Denver at 4AM with an hour and a half of skiing from my cabin to her car. It was 5 degrees F, and the nearly full moon made hoarfrost on the willows sparkle amidst errant shooting stars. On my way home from dropping her off, I caught the first band of morning alpenglow on Gothic’s southern face. A memory with crisp resolution. I’m happy winter is here to stay.
Since then, things have been quiet. We are snowbound, likely until June. I’ve skied a lot, and thought about skiing a lot. Elsewhere, I published another piece in the Hypocrite Reader a while back, and Patrick was kind enough to think me worth interviewing. More to come.
Red Rock Mountain is Gothic’s second-most-distinctive sentinel summit. While really the termination of a long tundra-covered ridge (and thus lacking any “official” prominence), its dramatic west face looms over the townsite and captures the last daylight each evening, bathed in eponymous red alpenglow. Getting to the top of Red Rock from the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab involves heading up the Copper Creek trail until you feel like veering left into the gully and crossing the stream, then heading up a progression of tedious talus slopes to the obvious low saddle and taking the ridge to the summit.
Today, in celebration of being done with wood-stacking duties, I jogged / marched / scrambled up the thing. Hit the summit in about 1:25, and wasn’t much faster on the way down.
The day’s objective looms.
Gothic Mountain and the townsite.
A baby cornice on Red Rock’s summit.
Mt. Crested Butte has to be one of the strangest peaks in the Rockies, rising like a shark fin from the center of a high-desert valley.
It’s been warm lately, but last week, the Elk Range wore decidedly different clothes. Not long now.
The snow is coming frequently enough that it no longer melts away completely before the next storm rolls through. It’s getting quieter, and colder, not necessarily in lows but in the absence of highs, the persistence of the night’s chill. My neighbor the fox prances outside my window in a full and lustrous coat.
I can understand his glee. I like running in fresh snow more than any other weather. Stillness, muffled steps, your sense of urgency slipping away in tandem with the meandering paths of heavy flakes floating groundward. It’s been a good week for it.
Last Sunday’s Blue Sky Trail Marathon wasn’t like that at all, though it was beautiful, the course winding up the northernmost foothills of the Front Range and then down into a valley where the great plains had rolled up over a ridge and across to the base of those rocky upthrusts. From this sheltered position the arid and prickly prairie had managed to retain some of its former majesty. I suffered thoroughly for 7th in 3:40, happy with my restraint if not my fitness.
“I’m not a cowboy, but I play one at RMBL,” Dave said, and that was sort of the theme for the week, as a not-insignificant amount of time was spent chasing cattle from the mostly-ungrazed meadows and research plots of Gothic, lest 40-years of escaping the cowbombing most of the valley has endured disappear overnight. It became a recurring joke: we’d retire to our cabins, and just as we were beginning to relax there would be a loud mooing somewhere close enough that it had to be coming from inside a fence and our hearts would sink and we’d wait about five minutes and head back outside, usually at the same time.
The herd would be in the meadows by the townsite, or worse, encroaching on someone’s long-term field experiment, and we’d sneak up the perimeter of the field along the aspens and try and flank them, streaking down the hill with its frosted tussocks and uneven footing, hollering at full volume, driving them towards the gate or gates we had opened so they ran in terror out to the road and away from the station. (I suppose we were playing border collie more than cowboy.) It was somewhat exhilarating to have such massive animals fleeing from us en masse, I must admit, even if it soon became tedious in repetition.
Of course, a few would always get confused and run in the opposite direction and would require another 30 minutes to extricate from some tangled aspen grove. They are profoundly dumb animals, cows. Except when it came to figuring out how to get in to those tasty native-plan rich meadows — then, they would summon surprising collective intelligence and lean as a group against our meagre wooden fencing until it buckled and let them in.
Ranching on public lands evoked mixed opinions. I emphatically begrudge no one their livelihood, but think the debate is worth being aware of. On the one hand, a good portion of ranched lands across the west are missing their historical assemblage of ungulates, and having exotic ones fills that vacant niche, at least in the abstract. There are certainly examples of foreward-thinking ranchers rotating livestock (cattle, bison, or otherwise) across properties in a way that approximates natural grazing patterns. There’s a cultural argument to be made as well, and even if “ranches or condos!” is a false dichotomy (see the link below), it’s certainly a part of the heritage of the American west.
On the other hand, the fuckers can really destroy native vegetation, drive erosion, introduce native species, and motivate people to shoot wolves. Here’s a polemic, unhelpful, and probably mostly correct reading of their downsides. I’ll go far enough to say that except where it was a necessary compromise to earn the status, cattle in designated wilderness areas sort of defeats the purpose of the thing.
Beyond the cows, more stacking wood and stars and sunsets. For now, I’m taking a brief break in Denver, as the third major storm of the fall hits the high country (it even spat snow in the city for a bit). I’ve chickened out on my plan to grow hairy and bearded and crazy in the eyes and went to a barber shop, but I suppose there’s still time. And I’ll be racing at the Blue Sky Trail Marathon in Fort Collins on Sunday, to close out the season.
The snow unfurls in dancing figures.
A silver gull slips down from the west.
Sometimes a sail. High, high stars.
Oh the black cross of a ship.
– Pablo Neruda
The first real snow of the season (down to the townsite at 9400’; a few days prior elevations above 12k had been dusted in an afternoon thunderstorm) fell on September 23rd, one week after arriving, a Sunday. It was 5AM and I was walking Kate out to her car to see her off to Denver, where she was due for work later that morning, and I crunched something on the deck and laughed, because I had predicted it but without much conviction. After she left I stayed awake and read and then at first light tromped through the meadow, heavy and wet, to grab some photos of the valley newly writ white. The snow flew until around 8, when the sky cleared and I went for a run, fighting downed willows up to Copper Lake back into the clouds. A week in, when I run, my legs are still heavy with altitude, but I can control my breathing again and it is a joy.
As with the altitude I am undergoing a predictable period of adjustment to solitude, not in any true sense (there are still plenty of people tooling about the station and for the moment I can head to town whenever I like), but a solitude in spirit, where most of my day I am alone with my thoughts and whatever schedule I manage to impose on myself and I cannot fall into the flow of other people’s moods or routines. Kate is in Denver. Even the modest bustle of Crested Butte is 9 miles away. “Fuck writing,” Justin said, “I like stacking wood.” I like writing, but I see what he means, sometimes. Stacking wood is a guaranteed accomplishment, filling hours in that flighty schedule. Writing is not.
But there is wifi: all the hermitages of the 21st century have it, I am told, or at least when I skype with my monastic friend from his Thai seclusion that is the impression I get. The internet seems more finite from up here, however, and so I have been building back up my attention span to tackle books (please send me more). In the evenings I have been starting small fires when it rains, mostly for cheer, and reading The Eternal Frontier, Tim Flannery’s sweeping history of North America as an entity. The Rockies are geological latecomers, it turns out, at least compared to their wingmen, the Appalachians and the Sierra Nevada, born from the closure and uplift of an unprecedented marine fissure between the east and west coasts, the poetically-named (thank Canada) Bearpaw Sea. Which may explain why every restaurant in Crested Butte sells fish tacos.
Often, I just stand outside and look around. “The Valley,” as they call it (meaning Gunnison to Crested Butte, or I suppose Gothic) is broad and its slopes tapered, understating the prominence of the twelve- and thirteen-thousand foot peaks that crest it. There is a lushness here that locates the Elks in Colorado’s vague southwestern bioclimatic province: think the verdure of the San Juans, as opposed to Leadville, or the high Front Range. But it also straddles an ecotone, the sage of Gunnison melding with bands of aspen, pure clonal stands that are green and now yellow and soon brown against white, and then meadows of Englemann Spruce, the sage occasionally resurfacing higher than you’d expect. In the high tundra, and where rockslide and avalanche have left their mark, the earth is red against the green of forbes and grass cushion plants.
My neighbors: besides the maintenance staff and seasonally tardy researchers, twice in the evening I have seen a fox streak across the road, his red coat pixelated to my eyes in the poor evening light. He is getting bolder, they tell me, now that most have gone home.
Though outside of the Northwest they seem to lack cachet (I posit horrible weather and few trails), I would probably get in a bar fight with someone to defend the North Cascades as the grandest mountainscape in the conterminous US. Their relief and verdure and the sheer spectacle of crumbling glacial ice to electric blue rivers streaked with blood red salmonids. Their great area. The stunning uniqueness of volcanic cones and igneous intrusions piled upon each other in a geology that produces the steepest USGS quad in the country. But also the palpable electricity of knowing somewhere amidst this mountain fastness there is the complete apex predatory complement, grizzlies and wolves clinging on at the edge of population viability but undeniably there.
Last week, in a rare confluence of all members of my immediate family, and on the verge of my brother’s departure to college, we took seven days to savor a classic west-side circuit in Glacier Peak Wilderness, replete with multiple side trips. My fourth trip to the range, and the first familial backpacking trip since I was in high school. May there be many more of both.