Magazine article Geographical

High Challenge Geographical's Guide to Skiing

Magazine article Geographical

High Challenge Geographical's Guide to Skiing

Article excerpt

Free the heel, free the spirit

Fancy a real adventure? Then head west says Judy Armstrong

I turned my back to the blizzard and began to dig. Somewhere below my feet was a black plastic bag, crammed with food for a wilderness journey. The snow pelted my face; I wiped my eyes and continued to search. Without the food this ski expedition was over.

Success at last. We hauled the bag to the surface and checked the contents: porridge, pancake mix, cheese, chocolate. With cold fingers, we fumbled it into our packs, shrugged into the weight and skied on into the storm.

Four of us -- Gerard and Eleanor Unthank from Carlisle, me and my husband Duncan -- were on day five of an extreme challenge to ski Colorado's continental divide, crossing the point at which the continent's drainage is divided (westwards towards the Pacific and eastwards towards the Atlantic), at the 3,635 metre-high Hagerman Pass.

Our ski route ran southwest for 200 kilometers, linking the resort of Vail, Aspen and Crested Butte, and climbed 6,553 metres. It took in trails in the 10th Mountain Division Hut System and the Alfred Braun Memorial Hut System. We were in for three weeks of sleeping in these mountain huts, relying on compass, altimeter and maps for navigation, and carrying our food and survival equipment on our backs.

After a year of planning we set out, under a vivid blue sky, for the golden-log Fowler Hilliard cabin on Resolution Mountain, near Vail. Several Americans were already in residence. We told them of our plan -- moving on every day, pushing forward, skiing the divide.

"Hey, that's one aggressive schedule," said Steve, a ski-patroller from Copper Mountain resort. "Most folks choose one hut, stay a few days and ski on out." It seemed, that night, that there was a good reason for this: a stormed developed, and by morning it was so fierce we could barely open the door. After a fruitless hour of forcing our way through waist-deep snow, we gave up and returned to the hut.

"You're back!", hollered John, from Denver. "They say this about Colorado: if you don't like the weather, just wait a minute." Stay, he urged, "ski the powder and move on tomorrow. This is the best snow you'll ever see".

So we stayed for a while and enjoyed Colorado's "Champagne powder". The storm gave in quietly and the next day we packed our rucksacks and skied into a still, blue morning.

"You guys wanna watch out," Steve warned. "There are funky layers in that there snowpack." John joined us for the morning, keen to keep us out of the "funky" (potentially unstable sector). As he skied, he told us about aspen trees -- the white powder on the bark can be used as sunscreen; native Americans use the layer beneath the bark as a pain killer.

We left John at Pando Trailhead and skied further across the Divide, ticking off huts, peaks and passes. At Tenth Mountain Hut in the Holy Cross Wilderness, we met Randy and Chance from New York. They showed us how to make ice cream by mixing handfuls of snow with sliced strawberries and sweetened condensed milk. We met Ramone, a celebrated trumpet player with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, who turned out to be a demon on skis; his antidote to city life is solitary ski weekends in mountain huts.

Outside a cabin near Galena Mountain I nearly froze to death, standing on glass-crunchy snow to watch stars glitter in a black sky above impossibly white mountains. Galena Mountain is in the Holy Cross Wilderness, northwest of the former mining town of Leadville.

As the days raced by, this trip became less about skiing and more about adventure. Certainly, the skiing was magical -- powder bashing down hidden valleys in the Snowmass Wilderness, carving slow "s-es" off McArthur Mountain, and blasting down a gully in the Elk Mountains -- but we also had to navigate in a white-out over the notorious Pearl Pass, ski over fresh bear tracks and fine-comb Express Creek forest to locate our tiny green A-frame hut. …

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