IPFS Frosty Wooldridge


More About: Environment

Hut to Hut: Adventure at 13,000 feet in the Rockies: "Jeremiah Johnson"

Ever strap on a 45 pound pack, step into skinny skis and trudge off into the wilderness like Jeremiah Johnson?  Have you ever made a winter ascent of a 13,208 foot peak on skis with screaming winds and frigid temperatures tearing at your body? No?  Don’t feel like the lone ranger!  You’d have to be nuts to go on a ‘hut to hut’ mountaineering ski trip in the middle of February!

Enter wing nuts named Greg, Nick and Frosty!  Intrepid travelers?  Or crazy guys that don’t have the common sense that God gave a goose?   Maybe they saw one too many Clint Eastwood movies like, “Where Eagles Dare!” or perhaps “The Iceman Cometh” with Lloyd Bridges, or, maybe they thought reenacting Ernest Shackleton’s “Endurance” saga in Antarctica by trying a similar stunt in Colorado might bring a similar sense of adventure.  Who knows what kind of glue those Colorado boys sniffed before they drove happily into the mountains for a most amazing adventure?

After drilling through the Eisenhower Tunnel, Greg drove into a snow-white world on the western side of Loveland Pass.  Below, we met Nick at a restaurant for a ‘last breakfast’ before departing into another world where life and death don’t mean much to Mother Nature.

“Good morning,” Nick said to Greg and me.

“Hey dude,” we said. “Let’s eat!”

Later, we drove over Battle Mountain Summit Pass, continued on through 10th Mountain Division Camp Hale in a wide valley before pushing over Tennessee Pass.  Just over the other side, we stopped at a parking lot on an old country road.  Greg made first tracks in five inches of snow.

Around us, startling blue sky, deep green pines and majestic aspirin-white peaks pushed their jagged rocks into the heavens.  A few gray jays perched in the trees while some crows flapped overhead.

We pulled our gear out of the cars, stacked the skis & poles, and ‘rugged up’ with Goretex, vests and gloves.  In a few minutes, we slung the packs onto our shoulders and walked up the road with skis and poles ready for the long five mile trek into the wilderness.  We expected to ski from 9,000 feet to our destination at 11,300 feet near the tree line.  From there, we would establish base camp for our summit attempt of Homestead Peak at 13,208 feet.

After a quarter mile, we reached the trailhead for the 10th Mountain Hut.  The hut organization found its name after the brave soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division in WWII.  They trained in Colorado and fought in the Italian Alps.  Many still live and ski today, but their numbers dwindle as the years take their toll as most exceed 80 years of age.

Around us, 10 foot deep snow banks gave an idea of how much snow fell in that area.  A local said, “We usually get 30 feet of snow by this time every year, but only 20 this year so far.”

Fortunately, as we slipped into our skis, another group of skiers had cut the trail before us.  That made it easier to follow those tracks instead of breaking trail which takes more energy.  While we made our way, we snapped several pictures of our 45 pound packs, cold weather gear and skis.  With our red jackets, we made colorful contrasts in a world of white garnished with green and topped off with a cobalt sky.

Nick said, “I feel like I just pulled on a 50 pound sack of cement.”

Indeed, much like the mountain men and the movie Jeremiah Johnson from the 1850s, a mountaineering skier must be prepared for basic survival living.  Men and women have died from trips exactly like the one we attempted. We could get caught in a blizzard. Someone might break a leg or arm in a crash.  We could suffer an avalanche. 

As we moved along the narrow trail, I said, “Could you carry my pack Greg?”

Nick said, “Hey, I’ll carry your pack if you carry mine!”

Since his pack looked 10 pounds heavier than mine, I stopped whining and settled into the trail.

Soon, three heavily loaded mountaineering skiers slogged through a mountain meadow.  While the summers featured blooming wildflowers in a riot of colors, the winter offered white snows sparkling like millions of diamonds lit by sunshine. 

The trail led into ever-steepening rock mountain terrain. Nude aspen stood quietly while lodge pole pines shot straight into the azure sky.  We marveled at the pristine beauty all around us.

Yes, trail chatter proceeded with three of us sharing adventures from past times.  Amazing how each of us enjoyed a totally different story with unique circumstances. We talked about travel to foreign lands, about our jobs and the latest news reports.

The trail climbed into thicker woods and steepening inclines.  Looking skyward brought astounding beauty with fresh snow falling from branches that mingled with crystallized air.   We breathed deeply and exhaled vapor clouds.

We crested a ridge. The trail shot quickly down through the trees—but wait! I looked like Icabod Crane on the trail behind Greg.  He nearly crashed taking a hairpin turn so I veered off into the trees for a safer ride. Wrong! I caught the crust of the snow for a major, nasty, out of control—face plant!  Snow penetrated my glasses, eyes, ears, nostrils and mouth. 

After gaining consciousness, I said, “Wow!  That tastes like an ice sandwich!”

I surveyed my circumstances. One ski bent under my body. The second one stuck straight up into the sky. My pack fell to my side and my two ski poles crossed under my body.  I could barely move to release my hands from the ski poles.  Next, I unbuckled my pack.  I broke loose from the second pole.  I rolled to my side as I pulled the one ski out of the snow.  With great labor, I pulled my body to my knees and let the pack straps slide off to the side.  I straightened the skis. I raised myself up, pulled up the pack, slung it over my shoulder and hoisted it onto my back. I brushed the snow off my face and glasses. I tried to regain my dignity while I slipped my hands through the straps.

“Gosh, that was more fun than jumping out of my car at 60 miles per hour,” I muttered to myself.

“Are you okay?” Greg yelled from far below.

“Yeah, I just stopped for a Dairy Queen Blizzard on special, “I yelled back.

I skied down very carefully to meet my mates.

“Taking a siesta?” Greg said.

“Yeah,” I said. “I ate a snow bank to cool off from sweating so much!”

We continued through uncommon beauty. Trees befriended us at every turn.  A clear sky blazed across sunlit peaks in all directions. A mantle of trees swept down from distant 13,000 and 14,000 foot peaks at the tree line.

We kept pushing through deep snow with wind blowing the crystals like sand blowing across a desert. The sun neared the horizon as the day fell away. Along the way, we took two rest and food breaks to regain our energy.

As we climbed we felt increasing pressure on our hips from the heavy packs and constant slogging forward into the incline of the mountain sides. 

In the late afternoon, our shadows lengthened to 20 feet from the sun setting in the west. We took several pictures of our elongated bodies.  Also, weary bodies! Slogging through snow, traveling 2,000 feet of vertical climb upward into the rarefied air—steals oxygen from the body.

Around 5:00 p.m., a huge open meadow led toward Homestead Peak in front of us at 13,208 feet. Shadows cast the woods into darkness while snow tornadoes swirled from distant peaks. The wind picked up as it blew hard into our faces.  Sharp crystal snow bullets beat into us as we pushed forward.  We changed gloves to give more warmth.

Around the next corner of trees the stark outline of a cabin emerged from the woods.

“Straight ahead,” I said.

“And hot chocolate,” Nick said.

“Yahoo!” Greg said.

We slogged up the slope with renewed excitement.  As we drew closer, a large cabin, capable of sleeping 20 people soared above the deep snow. Featuring dark brown wood and laced with huge picture windows—it looked like home!  It sank into six feet of snow and snow covered the bottom windows half way up.

On the front deck, we shed our packs and skis. We walked inside to a big kitchen, three picnic dining tables and at the far end of the cabin, a horseshoe shaped wood couch that featured a pot bellied black stove in the middle.  A half dozen ski boots dried around it and ‘skins’ hung from hangers. Mountaineering skiers use skins to create traction for moving uphill. Once on top of a hill, they tear off the skins, pack them and ski down.

Outside in back, an outhouse!

We introduced ourselves to Jen and Josh, and a man named Chris.  Several other skiers prepared to leave. Later, we carried our packs to our bunks on the second floor.

Later, the sun set over Homestead Peak with ‘alpen-glow’ bursting with ‘pink’ against the clouds and on distant peaks.  We stepped outside to take pictures.  Magical and majestic!  Soon, darkness swept across the high country.   Stars appeared one by one, 10 by 10 and then, millions sparkled across the ink-black of space.  Orion appeared, followed by the Big Dipper, Saturn, the North Star, Andromeda, Corona Borealis and galaxies beyond our imagination.

Back in the cabin: first on the menu--hot chocolate!  Umm, good, after freezing our asses off for five hours on the climb up to the cabin! At dinner, we cooked up freeze-dried pasta primavera and raspberry crumble. We chowed down on beef stroganoff and sipped some wine.

“It doesn’t get any better than this,” Greg said.

After sitting around the fire for fine conversation, we decided to make a starlight cruise under the night sky.  Once outside, the frigid air startled us, but undeterred, we strapped on our skis and pushed into the stillness. 

Above, a star-filled sky blanketed us from mountain peaks to mountain peaks. Each constellation proved magical, mysterious and awe-inspiring.  We looked up through the trees.  We slogged through glistening snows.  A deep quiet engulfed us.  Wasn’t much to say since such wonder provoked only reverence.  We cracked first tracks through virgin snow.  It’s like exploring as the first humans through unknown territory. For me, it gave the same sense of adventure as the movie “Jeremiah Johnson.” If you recall, he asked a guy in St. Louis, “Do you know where there are mountain men?”

“Keep heading west until you meet the Rocky Mountains,” he said.

If you’ve ever seen the movie, mountaineering skiing proves a suitable rendition of what it’s like where we stood that night.

Under that magical canopy we saw the universe twinkle. Planets moved, stars radiated and the gloaming of the universe raced outward to forever.

“Look!” said Nick. “A shooting star!”

Sure enough, a white hot trail blazed across the darkness, making a distinctive exclamation point to punctuate the day.

After 30 minutes, we skied full circle and moved back toward the cabin.  Once inside, another hot chocolate!

“Thanks for a day well lived,” I toasted my friends.

“It doesn’t get any better than this,” Greg said.

We climbed the stairs to the second floor of the bunk house.  We rested our heads back upon pillows while looking out the windows to stars twinkling in the night sky. In moments, our eyes closed and we faded into the bosom of Nature’s peace.

Robert Service said, “The summer no sweeter than ever;

                                   The sunshiny woods all athrill;

                                    The grayling aleap in the river,

                                     The bighorn asleep on the hill.

                                      The strong life that never knows harness;

                                       The wilds where the caribou call;

                                        The freshness, the freedom, the farness---

                                         O God, how I’m stuck on it all.”

Next day, we woke up to a fantastically sunny day!  Looking out the giant bay windows offered white shark teeth mountains biting at a marvelously blue sky.

Our cabin featured two sinks, two gas stoves, various silverware, pots, pans and paper towels. The unfinished wood gave the interior of the cabin a rustic look. The walls featured 10th Mountain Division plagues of soldiers that served.  A small library offered books.

A trip to the outhouse offered a new sensation!  Sitting down on an oval icicle creates a most exciting experience to going to the bathroom. When finished, you jump up for joy!

After a sumptuous breakfast, we ‘rugged up’ for our attempt to summit that distant peak. Far away, at 13,208 feet on the southern skyline we gazed at Homestead Peak.  A long 1.2 mile ride cut like a knife across the sky.

“Let’s go,” Greg said.

“I’m with you,” I said.

A brisk, freezing breeze met us when we stepped outside the cabin.  We decided to ski along a ridge through the trees that would carry us toward the base of the peak.  Couldn’t be more than 1.5 miles!  Soon, we plowed through deep snow, each of us taking our turn breaking tracks. 

We swept out of the tree line into a mountain meadow.  White, white, white everywhere! 

“The winter! The brightness that blinds you,

The white land locked tight as a drum,

The cold fear that follows and finds you,

The silence that bludgeons you dumb.

The snows that are older than history,

The woods where the weird shadows slant;

The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,

I’ve bade ‘em good-bye---but I can’t.

There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,

And the rivers all run God knows where;

There are lives that are erring and aimless,

And deaths that just hang by a hair;

There are hardships that nobody reckons;

There are valleys unpeopled and still;

There’s a land—oh, it beckons and beckons,

And I want to go back—and I will.”   Robert Sevice

Soon, we climbed toward the ridge.  Nick powered up the mountain while we followed in his ski tracks. After an hour, we reached the start of the climb that would carry us from 11,300 feet to 13,208 feet—a vertical rise of 2,000 feet.

Tough! You bet! As beautiful as our surroundings, we faced a bloody beast of a climb with wicked winds racing over the crest of the ridge we followed.  Thankfully, Greg and Nick volunteered to carry me up the mountain in a hammock strapped between them.  At intervals, they promised to heat up some hot chocolate so I wouldn’t feel the chill. You know, when the going gets tough, you can depend on your mates to help you through the tough times.

We slogged upwards into 40 mile per hour winds.  Swirling snow-devils caught our attention in the steep canyons sweeping down on both sides of the ridge we followed.  The higher we slogged, the more astounding the blue sky blazed overheard.  Distant peaks chewed into the sky like sharks in a feeding frenzy.

In front of us, a white ridge featuring a raging wind pressed to blow us off the mountain.  Off to our right, gapping snow fields swept downward a thousand feet.  In front, a seemingly far away summit brushed the sky with powerful grace.

We skied past two rock fields breaking out of the snow drifts. Below, green pines splattered in interesting patterns on a white world.  Above an elegant sky domed ever pure and pristine.  We knew what Jeremiah Johnson felt.  We lived on the raw, rugged, riveting edge of life.

After breaking for a rest, we dug in our poles, braced against our skis and held ourselves against a violent wind.  Again, we move forward. We gained altitude which meant less oxygen. That exhausted us so we stopped to catch our breaths.  After recovering, we pressed onward.  Increment by increment, we pushed toward the summit.  The higher we pushed, the harder the surface—almost ice-like—I slipped and crashed.

Two hours later, slowly, painstakingly, determined, we reached 150 meters before the summit. The wind howled.  Ice pack separated us from the top.  We shed our skis.

With our poles, we stomped our way to the summit. The wind tore at our faces and clothing.  In the face of blistering cold and violent winds, our resolve drove us forward to our destiny to stand on the peak.  Without hesitation, we plodded the final steps.

“Yahoo!” Nick said upon reaching to top.

“Yippee ki yea!” I yelled with arms outstretched.

Greg arrived to take pictures while we marveled at our stunning 360 degree view of the world. To us, it felt like standing on top of Mount Everest!  To make a winter ascent felt deeply fulfilling.  “We’re on top of the world,” Nick yelled as the winds howled around us.

“Couldn’t agree more,” Greg said.

We looked over the ledge to cliffs and cornices filled with snow.  We talked about skiing down the faces, but that would cause probable death.  Twenty minutes later, we grabbed our poles to make our way down to the skis.  From there, we walked a half mile until we reached a major snow field.  Greg and Nick strapped on their skis. They shot down into a glorious bowl, untracked, untouched and flawless.

I felt safer to drop down into a lesser bowl. Once there I strapped on my skis. Unfortunately, the windblown hard pack failed to respond to my skis.  I couldn’t bite into the snow enough to turn. As my speed increased, I tried to slow, but couldn’t get enough ‘bite’ from the edges. I tumbled, looking once again like Icabod Crane out of control.  I smashed into the snow in a jumbled heap.

“Dang” I yelled, along with a few other choice words. (Father Mahoney, please forgive me!)

Below, Greg and Nick skied across the bottom of my run. I wished I was with them.  I cut across the snow, but crashed again.  Got up!  Crossed a steep grade, crashed again! Picked myself up!  I felt like a mountain goat on a vertical cliff.  One wrong crash and I could tumble down the mountain like a runaway snowball. After six crashes, I made my way down to my mates for a lunch break.   I didn’t have to eat!  I ate enough snow to fill me up!

We talked about our successful winter ascent and our good fortune with the fine weather.  We skied back to the lodge but along the way, Greg crashed into a Hoare hole when he skied out of control between two pine trees. We looked back to see one ski and the lower branches of a pine tree wagging back and forth.  We skied back to help him.  We saw a man three feet down, wedged against the tree trunk with pine needles over his eyebrows and in his mustache.  He looked like Grocho Marx’s brother—but smiling!

He pulled off his skis and poles—finally extricating himself from the hole.  We laughed as we skied back to the cabin.

Several at the hut watched us descend the peak. They noted their laughter at my many crashes.

“Oh the cruelty of humor at another’s pain,” I said.

That night, we cooked delicious dinners, drank hot chocolate laced with Dr. Magillicutty’s healing medicine and told stories to a group of folks from Minnesota.  Good friends, good times, good fun, good life!

In the morning, we awoke to heavy snows falling outside the windows.  Six inches had fallen in the night with more coming down.  We savored hot oatmeal breakfasts with more steaming chocolate drinks. After packing our gear, washing our dishes and saying good-bye—we stepped out into heavy snowfall. 

The ski tracks leading to the cabin vanished.  We must slog through virgin snows with our lifeline the blue diamonds nailed to trees that would guide us out of the Rocky Mountains.

“Gentlemen,” I said. “This is a most excellent adventure.”

We pushed through the snows, three men, laden with memories.  We looked back one more time at the cabin covered in fresh snow.  We saw the folks inside looking back at us. They waved.  We turned to the task at hand.  The eternal snows fell upon us with a softness of spirit that lifted us into their glorious care. We made Jeremiah Johnson proud!

“Have you known the Great White Silence, not a snow-gemmed twig aquiver?

Have you broken trail on snowshoes? Mushed your huskies up the river?

Dared the unknown, led the way, and clutched the prize?

Have you marked the map’s void spaces?

Mingled with the mongrel races,

Felt the savage strength of brute in every thew?

And though grim as hell the worst is, can you round it off with curses?

Then hearken to the Wild—it’s calling you.

Lets us probe the silent places, let us seek what luck betide us;

Let us journey to a lonely land I know.

There’s a whisper on the night-wind, there’s a star agleam to guide us,

And the Wild is calling, calling…let us go.”  Robert Sevice

Frosty Wooldridge has bicycled across six continents – from the Arctic to the South Pole – as well as six times across the USA, coast to coast and border to border.  In 2005, he bicycled from the Arctic Circle, Norway to Athens, Greece.  He presents “The Coming Population Crisis in America: and what you can do about it” to civic clubs, church groups, high schools and colleges.  He works to bring about sensible world population balance at www.frostywooldridge.com