By Peter Kelley
From just about anywhere in the Roaring Fork and Crystal River Valleys, near Aspen and Carbondale, Colorado, you get a HOLY SMOKES, CHECK IT OUT! view of Mt. Sopris. Since the first day I set foot in this part of Colorado, more than 25 years ago, I have been attracted to this peak. As a ski mountaineer, Sopris has dominated my consciousness. No one can drive from the lower valley toward Aspen without seeing the most tantalizing, 40degree, 3,500foot ski descent imaginable; Crystal Chute.
With my first look up the gut of that fearsome adrenaline factory, I knew I had to ski that steep stab of white snow. The next question to arise was surely, Can I do it?. I played the mental game for years. When I thought I was finally ready to go, my heart would stick in my throat.
My first trip to the summit of West Sopris was a 1977, winter ski ascent of the peak. As I approached the top of the Crystal Chute on that cold, gray, January day, I had a queasy feeling of excitement, mixed with fear and anticipation.
I could not see much of the chute, because of the steep roll over, a couple hundred feet down from where I stood. As it turned out, we didnt ski the Crystal that day. There was some excuse about weather, snow cover, or timing. Unfortunately, for me, it was more about allowing fear to have its way.
However, there was to be a sequel to this 1977 adventure. When fanatic commitment and intense desire dance with an alluring endeavor, the probability of return is high. I had dreams and spent sleepless hours tossing and turning, speculating on climbing this monster and skiing the Crystal. I went ski mountaineering on this mountain many times in the years after that initial experience, but still had not made the descent which I had chosen to make my personal challenge.
My soul burned to ski this seductive line, but a part of my mind reeled in fear of falling and sliding down the snowy flanks of the mountain, only to be bruised and broken upon the rocks at the bottom of the slope. Worse yet, being caught in an avalanche on this steep terrain could easily cause injury or death.
In the years that followed, I was to learn some of the dangers could at least be mitigated by increasing my skills as a climber, skier, and avalanche forecaster. I concentrated on becoming a more competent mountaineer.
Meanwhile, my group of friends grew as we became more proficient at our craft. I continued to ski peaks, and develop the mental attitude necessary to make these type of descents. By the late 1980s I was ready.
As the calendar rolled into the 1990s my forty yearold knees retired me from ski patrolling and mountain rescue work. I opened my own real estate office in Carbondale, 35 miles from Aspen, and you guessed it; at the very base of Mt. Sopris.
It was then that I hit the free weights for a few hurried sets each week, and rode my bike for aerobics, during which time I would also scope out the mountain from the highway below. A little ski mountaineering created a mix of cross training. Despite this, most of my physical activity centered on forearm fork curls and pushing myself away from the desk at my brokerage.
It is a total of about 6,500 vertical feet from the top of West Sopris Peak down to the Crystal River Valley. That means in order to avoid a lot of hoofing it with skis on pack, bush whacking, and general slogging, one has to catch this ski descent when there is enough snow to enable skiing to as low an elevation as possible. There is a tremendous climate change from the top of a 13,000foot mountain, to a valley 6,500 feet below. The snowpack and snow surface must also be right, from top to bottom, to allow safe passage.
Mt. Sopris is at the western end of Colorados Elk Mountains, and catches the brunt of the prevailing westerly winds. Hence, I have rarely skied perfect powder anywhere on this peak. While this wind can trash powder skiing, it also scours snowloaded avalanche slopes that present deadly hazards to ski mountaineers, leaving very skiable, hard, windpacked snow.
Late winter of 1990, gave me poor snow conditions for this descent. 199091 offered the usual high winds, and an average snow fall. Only the mainline and the skiers left, or northfacing flank of the chute had been covered with white most of the season. This was the scenario, until the polar jet stream screamed into Colorado and dumped nearly 70 inches of snow in the mountains around Aspen, during the first 10 days of March 1991.
During the spring at these elevations, the sun shines brightly and generates a lot of heat. After a few weeks of freezing and thawing, most of the snow had again melted off the west facing, skiers right flank of the slope. This left a safe side, to which we could retreat, while only one skier at a time was exposed to the dangers of the Crystal Chute. We could take advantage of the opportunity the somewhat marginal conditions offered us.
I called my longtime friend Lou Dawson, on April Fools Day, to tell him I had made my decision, weather permitting, to ski the Crystal Chute on Saturday, April 6th. Would he lay aside his Colorado fourteener ski project for a day, to make a tantalizing ski descent on the flagship mountain of the West Elks? Of course he would!
At that time, Dawson was only one peak away from being the first human being on earth to ski all fiftyfour (plus a few nondesignated) fourteen thousand foot peaks in Colorado. Even though Mt. Sopris is not a fourteener, a day of mountaineering spent on pristine slopes we could both see from the front windows of our homes, was just about perfect. (On May 8, 1991, Dawson completed his quest, with a ski descent of his last fourteener, Kit Carson Peak in Colorados Sangre de Cristo range.)
Early morning April 6, 1991
We quickly accomplished the slick, muddy, fourwheel odyssey up Prince Creek Road to snowline. Five more miles, via snowmobile ride/ski tow, brought our forty yearold-plus, multiple surgery knees to the wilderness boundary where we parked the machine. It was just before 6 a.m. and we set out freeheeling, with skins.
The ski climb up the east ridge went quickly, and soon turned to kicking steps. Skis on our packs, we stepped upwards on compliant, perfectly consolidated snow. Sunrise came, and we moved up the steeper sections of the route. Gaining the lower, east summit of Mt. Sopris, a traverse on the back side of the main summit kept us en route to the west peak.
Our views to the south and east encompassed the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness Area. My memory played many tapes of trips we had done in these mountains over the past 15 years. I concentrated on my breathing and kept putting one foot in front of the other. To the northeast, dropped the bent elbow or Macaroni Chute, most visible from the town of Basalt, and the highway to Aspen.
Today, we would not be turned back by insufficient snow. We had scouted this adventure well before setting out. After reaching the west summit, we quickly down climbed a steep snowfield above the top of the Macaroni Chute. Lous familiarity with the alpine environment showed, in his usual quickness, as a result of the fourteener project. Like years past, he lead the way up and down the steep pitches. I was only steps behind. The wind had been blowing in strong gusts, as it will sometimes on clear days at this altitude. Now, it began to blow at 25 to 30 mph. The only piece of gear Id mistakenly left out for this trip, was a pair of goggles. Since I had sun glasses, I figured Id be OK. This theory was less than well designed.
Arriving at the top of the prized Crystal Chute, we stripped our skins, clicked into alpine touring bindings, shouldered our packs, and slid toward the top of the slope. We skied toward the steep convexity, and committed ourselves to the 3,500foot chute.
Tips of rocks were sticking up intermittently in the wind hardened snowpack, for the first few hundred feet of the central gully. That was OK with me. Known snow depth. Wind Hammered. Better stability.
Steady winds now buffeted us. The weather conditions and terrain features that caused this area to be scoured and then windpacked, were at work today. Prevailing winds took snow from the adjacent west face to our left, upwind of the cornice above us. The wind then dropped its load on the slope we were skiing.
Our edges slid across the firm windpack. Lou skied ahead and nearly out of sight in the blowing snow. I inched along, hoping the wind would abate long enough to see the slope, crank out a few turns or at least execute a long controlled side slip, so I could LOSE SOME ALTITUDE. No such luck.
The now sustained 25 to 30 mph winds not only made seeing where I was going difficult, they threatened to throw me off balance, as I skied across the top of the 45degree slope that was our entrance to the chute. The sphincter factor was raging today, under the clear blue, Colorado sky.
By this time, those pretty snow crystals had thoroughly coated the inside of my sunglass lenses. I nervously yelled, and laughed out loud into the howling wind, I knew Id be scared starting this ski descent, but at least I thought Id be able to see what I was scared of!
I made sure I skied right down the middle of this bloody chute, after studying it for so many years. We lost a little more elevation. Soon the blinding snow was no longer a problem. In fact, I took off my icedup glasses, which revealed the wonderfully windblown, talcum powder run we were about to have.
We began to descend, making turn after turn. For those of you who are into numbers, what were talking about here is the entire vertical of Aspen Mountain ski area tipped up at about 40 degrees. The sheer size of this flank of Mt. Sopris, and our insignificance in relationship to it, is humbling, and very exhilarating.
We havent seen or heard another human being since we began our ascent early this morning, and wont, until we stand on the banks of the Crystal River, below. The only tracks weve seen today, besides our own, have been from the mountain goats and coyotes walking the ridge tops.
Whats important now? Focus. Be alive in this moment. Make more turns. Worn out knees exclaim, Get on with this delightful dalliance of steel and fiberglass carving frozen, wind deposited water crystals.`
After the first 2,000 vertical feet of windpacked powder, we ski through of one of the major climate transitions. Below this elevation, the snow, which melted in the heat of the prior afternoons sun, is now frozen, and feels firm to the edges of our skis. The top 3 inches of snow slid out in a wet sluff yesterday. The exposed surface remains as polished snow and ice.
This makes for great skiing, all the way down to the bottom of the chute, where the wet snow that sluffed yesterday, has constructed an igloo village of ice mounds. On the moraine, we stop and look back up at West Sopris Peak, 3,500 feet above us. I feel the joy of safely accomplishing my long time goal with my partner and friend.
We have another 2,500 vertical feet to the river. Im already wearing my lightest, white layer, to reflect the intense April sun, which has just now peaked over the west summit. Its shining down directly on us, and the snow in the lower portion of the chute. Its getting hotter. I pause to think about the suns effect on the snowpack above us. Then theres the unconsolidated deep slush, below this elevation, that didnt get much of a freeze last night. Another quick look uphill. Time to go. My heart is full. Mind, body, and spirit, affirm the reasons I live in Colorado, near the north face of this mountainside slab of granite and snow. I am so blissed out from our vertical feeding frenzy, I barely feel tired! Hot tub, hot grub, and a nap this afternoon.
If you can dream it, you just may be able to do it. It took quite a while to create the reality I enjoyed on this adrenaline packed spring day. Trips like this make another week, a month, and then a year at work, possible. What peaks and frozen white lines do you lust for? Make plans with trusted friends and start climbing. Quick, before the phone rings, or your knees get any older!
Peter Kelley has lived in Aspen and the Rocky Mountains since 1975. He ski patrolled at both Aspen Highlands and Snowbird, Utah. He is now a desk jockey who sometimes rises above the tyranny of the appointment book to earn his turns on mountain peaks.