An American Airlines jet jockey named Al, a doctor of Chiropractic named Scott and a wordsmith named Frosty met at the Crane parking lot on a sun-drenched Colorado morning a few miles off Tennessee Pass. Six inches of sparkling snow awaited them for their five mile journey into the High Country of the Mt. Holy Cross mountain range.
“Dude!” said Scott. “Looks like great snow! We might be busting trail at higher altitude.”
“You got that right,” Al said. “We could see a lot of deep powder at 11,000 feet.”
“Tick tock, tick tock,” Frosty said. “We’ve got five miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain.”
We skinned up our skis, hoisted the packs and hiked down the road toward the trail head of the “Tenth Mountain Division Hut System.” Within a half mile, we reached the field where our trek began.
“Looks like deep snow,” Scott said.
“I can still see the trail,” Frosty said. “At least we won’t be busting through deep, soft powder all day.”
“Look at that peak in the distance,” Al said. “Is that the one we’re climbing tomorrow?”
“That’s the one,” said Frosty.
We strapped on our skis and made our way through deep pine forest. The trail led through the trees, then, across a flat meadow. Once we navigated the distance, we headed along a ridge with the trail winding like a serpent into the rough terrain. It climbed, dropped and angled us along cliffs and gentle ridges. As we made our way through the trees, a blue diamond marker let us know that we skied the right path toward our destination: 10th Mountain Hut at 11,400 feet.
We began a long, arduous climb that led further into the back country. Above our tunnel of lodge pole pine trees, an azure sky profiled aspirin-white peaks in the distance. The trail wound through the woods. We followed it. Within a mile we crossed the famed “Colorado Trail.” It stretched 540 miles from Durango to Denver. Hundreds of backpackers use it each summer to trek through the High Country. Wildflowers, foxes, deer, elk, sparkling white water streams and sheer wildness greet them on every step of the trail.
John Muir said, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
Can’t argue with our friend John Muir! He traveled many miles over six continents in his time. He backpacked Yosemite and all over Alaska. He created the National Park system.
Our journey kept a constant stress on the uphill climb. Looking at the three of us, you might see the power of the rugby player and coach, Scott, as he powered his skis up the hill. Al, moved with singular purpose. Frosty moved effortlessly through the trees as if life meant him to mingle with the wild things.
As the trio headed upward, gray jays and stellar jays followed. They hoped for a handout from those intrepid travelers. As the morning burned away into the afternoon, a few clouds skidded across the sky. The sun created multiple shadows on the snow. Open areas filled with aspen and willows bushes.
The trail rushed up, dove down and wound through the gathering woods. The men held their packs and determination into the miles before them. Crystal breath exploded from their lungs as they labored up the mountains.
“Let’s stop for a swig of water and apple,” Scott said.
“Got some great oranges,” Al said.
We lowered our packs to the ground. We ate, drank and talked. Scott asked many questions. He found himself on a quest to figure out his next move in life. He attended a program presented by Frosty: “How to live a Life of Adventure: Art of Exploring the World”.
“I’ve got to find out a way to travel the world,” Scott said, “and get paid to do it. I want to coach rugby and find some sponsors. I don’t want to go back to the box of an office.”
Henry David Thoreau said, “We need the tonic of the wildness—to wade sometimes
in the marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming
of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more
solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the
ground. We can never have enough of
“You have the right idea,” Al said. “There’s always someone who wants to travel or play or experience. You just have to tap into those passions with your own.”
“You’re right,” Scott said.
We moved back onto the trail with renewed strength. The eternal snow filled every nook and cranny of the wilderness. It covered the ground. It covered the trees. It fluffed up as our skis broke the freshly fallen 10 inches and then close to 12 inches of fresh powder as we gained altitude.
Later in the day, as the sun sank, the shadows crept across the snows and across the peaks in front of us. We crossed a field of cut-off stumps of trees. Big splotches of snow covered the stumps like white hats. Always ahead, we saw the faint outline of the trail. And, with each passing of distance, we noticed a blue diamond telling us that we headed in the right direction.
“Man!” Al said. “How much further?”
“Another hour,” Frosty said. “We’ll hit the cabin before nightfall. I’ll cook you up a big hot chocolate when we get there!”
“Yippee ki yea!” Al said.
We moved forward with a quickening of the clouds and, soon, snow wafted softly down out of the gray skies. It fell steadily as we powered our skis through the gathering night fall. The sun no longer lit the way. More snow fell.
After a long haul through a deep valley, we crested a ridge. Ahead, a stand of pine trees gave way to a dim light in the distance. Al’s eyes lit up as he said, “The cabin!”
Robert Service said, “The wanderlust has got me, by the belly aching fire, by the fever and the freezing and the pain; by the darkness that just drowns you, by the wail of home desire, I’ve tried to break the spell of it--in vain. Life might have been a feast for me, now there are only crumbs; in rags and tatters, beggar-wise I sit; yet there’s no rest or peace for me, imperious it drums, the wanderlust, and I must follow it. Highway, By-way, many a mile I’ve done; rare way, fair way, many a height I’ve won; it’s the wanderlust I’ve done.”
“Is this cool?” Al said. “Snow falling, night coming and we’re out here in the middle of nowhere…and now, those lights mean a warm fire and hot soup!”
“And hot chocolate,” Frosty said.
“Let’s git ‘er done,” Scott said as he pushed off onto the trail.
We reached the cabin to find eight women and two dudes!
“Welcome!” they chorused as we trudged through the door.
Just in time for dinner, the group greeted the trio. Most of the women hailed from Aspen, Colorado.
We found our beds upstairs and pulled out our bedrolls. It had taken us 5.5 hours to make the five mile distance to the cabin. We felt home at 11,400 feet.
Hot chocolate made for a warm and welcome reward. At dinner, lots of banter and fellowship.
That night we slept by the windows at the top floor. We watched the full moon rise over the mountain peaks. It glistened with a thousand diamonds on the snow below. Pine trees cut their profiles across the eternal snows of the High Country. Sleep came easy.
SUMMIT ASCENT OF A 13,000 FOOT PEAK IN WINTER
Next morning, we ate breakfast before heading out to make an attempt at Homestead Peak some 13,208 feet into the sky. We laced up the skis, packs and gear for a ski trek around the ridge to the summit of the peak.
As we made our way northward, we broke through 12 inches of fresh powder. We busted trail by taking turns on a non-existent trail. Around us, the sun felt like the freshest light upon the new fallen snow. Rabbit tracks and mice left their trails in the fresh snow. A zillion sparkling diamonds rushed up to greet our eyes. Around the ridge we carved new tracks in the trackless wasteland.
An hour later, we reached a crest near the base of the beast.
Not having enough time and needing to return to a prior engagement, Scott hot-skied back down to the cabin, grabbed his gear, and headed back to his car.
“Take care and safe journey Scott,” Al said.
“Nice to have you on the adventure Scott,” Frosty said.
“Would you hold here for me to make the summit?” Frosty asked Al.
“Sure man,” Al said. “I’d like to climb with you, but these boots aren’t feeling too good.”
“Thanks man,” Frosty said.
Frosty slipped down into the trees through deep powder and onto a cirque that led up to the ridge on the south side of the Homestead Peak. His story follows:
I cut south through some deep powder, maneuvered through a rock field before beginning to climb the southerly ridge toward the summit. A bright blue sky, shinning sun and moderate weather allowed me to make good time. I poled hard to keep my place with each slide forward. As I climbed higher, the windswept ridge felt like skiing on glass. I tossed my heavy pack a third of the way up to lighten my load, but kept my Gore-Tex jacket.
The more altitude I gained, the less oxygen, so I skied forward for 30 meters, stopped, rested, and then, picked it back up. As I climbed, I saw Al below and eventually, I saw Scott skiing toward the cabin through the deep woods. Around me, pristine mountain peaks rose toward the brilliantly blue sky. I reached a rock field and picked my way through it.
The peak looked so high and SO far away. Yet, I gritted my teeth, jammed the poles into the snow and pushed toward it. It’s a wild feeling pushing toward a 13,000 foot summit in the dead of January. The cold works its way into a man’s bones. The wind bites the face. The steep climb causes a loss of breath. I grabbed big gulps of air! Nonetheless, I felt a sense of purpose to make that peak, to conquer it, to make it mine not only with my physical being, but my mental and spiritual being.
Thirty minutes passed, then 45, then, an hour. I kept a steady pace of cranking forward for 30 to 40 meters, and then, rest, then pushing forward. As the sun hit the mid day sky, I reached the rocky portion of the summit. I pulled my skis and stabbed them into the soft snow near the rocks. I used my poles to walk the last 100 meters of icy slope. I danced from rock to rock, then, rock to snow, and then, near the top, I crawled over the lip of ice to stand up on the peak.
“You’re at the top,” I muttered to myself. “My God what a view!”
Below, the world looked grand with clouds hanging in the valley below. Trees grew a silent dark green for as far as I could see. I spun 360 degrees for a winter-scape of jagged, white shark’s teeth biting upward to the sky. Blue sky profiled those rugged and majestic peaks. Most of the 14ers I had climbed over the past 35 years in the summers. I waved down at Al, but couldn’t make out much other than his yellow jacket. I saw the cabin and they could see me I later learned. From that high place in the world, I stood alone with my thoughts. I said a little prayer for my friends and for world peace. I stood there thankful for good health enough to make such a climb in winter time. Not wanting to leave, I walked back from the edge and fell back into a soft powder snow bank. I looked up at the blue sky. What an amazing life we live!
As I rested, I thought about staying longer, but realized that with all adventure, no matter how incredible or fascinating, I couldn’t stay for long. I could relish the moment, but I must leave that moment to move toward another moment in my life. For me, I thought about the simple taste of a cup of hot chocolate and friends back at the cabin around the fire. For a few minutes more, I savored the climb, the effort, the view and the profound beauty around me on that winter’s day.
Robert Service said what I felt with his Call of the Wild, “Have you known the great white silence, not a snow-gemmed twig aquiver? Have you broken trails 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 harken to the Wild—it’s calling you.”
It’s been that way all my life. As I rested in that frozen place, I thanked my mom and dad for the courage and tenacity to stand on tall peaks, dive under great oceans and to mark the road with my sweat and toil. It’s been a hell of a journey.
“Better get movin’” I said to myself.
I took six pictures with my camera for 360 degrees and one of my face and the back drop. I climbed down the steep, icy slope with great caution. One mistake and no one would rescue me. At that place, it’s pure Darwin. You live and you die at your own hand.
I scrambled to the skis. I hoisted them onto my shoulders and walked downward. The snow remained SO hard; it felt like walking on ice. No way for me to slip into the skis for a ski down. In the past, I had tried it and crashed many times. Too much abuse of my body! Wisdom told me to walk it down. I answered wisdom’s call!
A slight wind picked up as I made it half way down, and then, the soft snow fluffed up in places until it gathered in a couloir. I locked into the skis and tele-skied down to my pack. I pulled it onto my back and began some switchbacks down the back slope to keep my speed in check. I rounded the bottom, pulled back to my old tracks and before long, I yelled out to Al, “Yippee ki yo ki yea!”
I skied up the ridge and met him at the place where I had left 2.5 hours before.
“Good job dude,” Al said. “The gang visited and watched you reach the summit.”
“Thanks for waiting,” I said. “Cool that they came out to ski and watch the climb!”
Al and Frosty ate an orange, talked some stuff and headed back to the cabin. Around them an all white world dominated with touches of trees. Al took many pictures. They skied back to the cabin within an hour. Lunch never tasted so good!
Hot chocolate and blue berry pancakes awaited the duo from the peak. Jeremiah Johnson never had it so good! In their own ways, all those people in the cabin loved the wild that expressed through them. Something about the ‘pull’ of that savage wintery world. Clean, brisk, calm, peaceful and full of magic!
That night, the team invited Frosty and Al to dinner with a warm round of wine, tea, hot chocolate, salad, rice and beans, and to top it all, tapioca pudding!
“It doesn’t git any better than this,” Al said.
After dinner, the women decided to take a night ski under a full moon. Everyone pulled on their skis, minor’s lamps and safety gear.
“You guys goin’ with us?” they asked.
“Count us in,” cried Al.
We headed out on the trail with a mist covering the full moon. Soon, it broke and the moonbeams shone across the night sky and lit up the snow like a gazillion diamond sparkles. The savage, silent mountains around them shone in the moonlight. Everything whispered quiet, peaceful, hushed, gentle and so spiritually magnetic!
Back into the cabin, everyone talked about their experiences. The fire blazed and hot chocolate ruled! Later, the ladies made some ice cream with blue berries! First class!
Next morning, Al and Frosty ate breakfast while talking about all sorts of things and current events. They stuffed their backpacks. They slipped into their boots. They headed out the door. They stepped into their skis. Then, they hoisted the packs. Ahead of them, a great white blanket of snow invited them on a five mile down hill adventure.
“You ready dude?” Al said.
“I’m with you mate,” Frosty said.
The two men looked around their private paradise. Quickly, Al spurred his skis into action and glided down the slope. Frosty followed. They skied trackless powder, through wild woods and into the wilderness beyond!
“The lonely sunsets flare forlorn, down valleys deadly desolate; The lordly mountains soar in scorn, as still as death, as stern as fate. The lonely sunsets flame and die; the giant valleys gulp the night; the monster mountains scrape the sky, where eager stars are diamond-bright. So gaunt against the gibbous moon, piercing the silent velvet-piled, a lone wolf howls his ancient rune—the fell arch-spirit of the Wild!” Robert Service 1906 Spell of the Yukon.