Elaine’s take on Buffalo Peak/Independence Pass

Buffalo Peak

Date Climbed: June 6th, 2011

Time to Summit: Two hours, thirty minutes

Elevation Gained: 3,200’

Elevation at Summit: 12,777’

Geissler Peak #3

Date Climbed: Just 7th, 2011

Time to Summit:1 hour, thirty minutes

Elevation Gained: 2,050’

Elevation at summit: 13,280'

5:00 AM. Some weird, almost Asian boinking music blares through the morning silence. I sit up, mumbling something highly intelligent in morning babble, and turn off the damn blaring phone alarm. My husband (brave man that he is) is already up, frying bacon. If I was getting up for any other reason that to climb and then ski down a peak, I would have rolled over and gone back to sleep. As it was, there was no way I was going to miss this chance. Today, the challenge was the Silver Couloir of Buffalo Peak – a descent named one of the 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America by Chris Davenport and Lou Dawson.

Packing for a ski trip in early June is exciting. Getting up in the morning for it? Not quite as exciting, but I would deal. Into the car with the pup, my hubby, our gear, and a map, we hit the road, and then the trail nice and early at about 7:30. There wasn’t enough snow down where the trail started, so we initially wore our shoes and strapped our skis to our backs.

We were both feeling good and made pretty quick time up to an old log cabin, where there was enough snow for us to hop into our boots, click into our skis, and continue the trip with the aid of ski crampons. (The major blessing of this peak is that there really is no long approach – you just start going up. No wasting your time dilly-dallying around with some two mile approach where you actually don’t gain any elevation to speak of.)

Chatting and laughing, we skinned our way up the peak, Stella (and the rest of us) thoroughly enjoying getting out of the heat and back onto snow. We set a goal to stop at, where I downed some water and a packet of Sharkies, fueling up for the big climb up the face. We started up the face with our skis on, hoping our crampons would be good enough, but soon we realized that it was altogether too steep to do so, so we strapped our skis back on our backs and booted up the face.

At one point on the boot up, I had this feeling that we were ascending into the lands of the gods – a place where no mortal was supposed to go. It was a supremely surreal feeling that made me contemplate if there could be some sort of afterlife happenstance where, to get to your Heaven or Nirvana or what-have-you, you had to perform crazy physical feats of strength and endurance – anyway, that was definitely how I felt. Mother Earth was testing us, testing our limits, our core, our very souls, and most definitely our intelligence.

We had been a little late in getting out of the caboose, so we hadn’t started as early as we would have liked, and things were softening up way faster than Dan was comfortable with. We were both aware of this, but aside from a couple exchanged comments about it, we kept our worries to ourselves, and put our bodies, already pushed to the limits, into overdrive in the hope that we could summit and ski down without anything horrifically wrong happening. Definitely more than a bit foolish, and I really think that it was a lesson in waking up earlier and getting out of our home more efficiently.

We pushed ourselves to the summit, took all of two pictures, before ripping our skins, buckling down, and clicking in to begin the descent. (This is not normal for me – I like to be able to rest my poor legs for a bit and chow down on some nosh before heading down, otherwise my legs go to jelly quickly, but it’s amazing what your body can do when it needs to in order to survive.)

Starting down the face was incredible. At over 12,000 ft, the snow had not become too slushy yet, and was perfect – an amazing, out of body, god-like experience, which caused me to let loose a whoop of joy that I simply could not contain. But it was a different story when we reached Silver Couloir.

The sun had done much damage on the snow, leaving it slushy, and more than a little avalanche prone. We did the couloir in segments, Dan skiing down first, then me following after he had stopped in a safe place. Not too far down, Dan set off a mini, slow-moving avalanche. Not enough to bury you, but definitely way more than enough to pull you down and do some serious damage. A twisted knee or broken leg in the backcountry can spell death for a person, because there simply is no one out there to save you.

It turned out that this avalanche helped us to make it down the couloir safely. If you ski in the recent path of an avalanche, it is much less likely to slide than another area, as the top layer, the unstable layer of snow, has already slid. So, it was hop turns all the way down. My nerves tingled, my senses reaching new heights of awareness. I could hear the trickle of water as it ran down the rocks that framed the couloir, a single click as a rock collided once with another rock, the weird noise of the avalanche below us making its sluggish way down the mountain, paving a safe path for us, the sun baking my skin, reflecting harshly off of the snow, my heart thumping in my chest, in my throat, my whole body ready for action, my mind running over everything I knew in case of an emergency. Never have I been so completely in tune to everything around me and myself. I knew what Dan was doing, what Stella was doing, what I was doing, and, most importantly, what the mountain was doing. I couldn’t have become distracted if I’d tried.

A final segment completed, and we were out of harms way. It had not been a relaxing descent, but it had been a learning experience. We were humbled by Mother Earth and Buffalo Peak that day.

But the trip is not over yet, for now it is up and over Independence Pass and down into Aspen. As Aspen is maybe the most expensive place to live in America, there is no way in hell that we could possible get a place in town to stay, and even outside the town in a rinky dink campground with no working water pump is $17 for one single night. Well, we’d gladly have just parked on the side of some road and spent the night in the car, but Aspen, with its rich peeps, would not put up with that kind of thing, and we really don’t have the money to pay for a ticket, so expensive campground it is.

We scoped Independence Pass out while driving over it, and are stoked with what we see: snow. Snow, snow, and MORE snow. Looking around, you realize that there is so much terrain to ski. Everywhere the eye falls is beautiful, awe-inspiring line after crazy, intimidating line after amazing, euphoria-inducing line. We want to ski it all. In fact, we are ready to throw in the towel and move here just to ski. But, that’s probably not reasonable, right?

The next morning we sleep in. Unintentionally, but we do. Two full hours. Guess Buffalo took it out of us more than we realized, and when we awake, it’s a frenzy to get out of camp.

Arriving at a location that we had decided upon the day before when driving down the pass, we see about six other cars. I’m a bit pissy because I hardly got any sleep the night before (part of the reason we slept in was because I didn’t actually fall asleep till right before we were supposed to get up), and I just don’t like being around people. Well, despite my great urge to dislike these people, I just can’t. immediately, we get recommendations from the locals of what to ski, and what to stay away from for safety. We listen, and then decide to do what our whim tells us to do, and just start skinning right up the valley.

In that place, it’s so easy to forget that we are just miles away from a town, that we are right in Colorado, not in the middle of the wilderness, not trekking across Antarctica. The valley we went up was huge – so vast and expansive, it simply filled me with awe to be witness to such beauty. On our way up, Dan and I discussed glaciers and volcanoes – powerful forces that Mother Earth puts into play to shape herself. A fascinating conversation for sure. The science behind the formation of our planet is captivating, and I wish I knew more about it. We top out on a mini roll in the valley, which we had pinpointed so that we could scope around for what we wanted to do. Dan and I chit chatted a bit about each mountain around us, before both of us admit to being called, strongly, irresistibly, to one single peak. We can’t help it, it is perfect, the face is steep and beautiful, the peak is sharp and jagged, the early morning sunlight is glinting off of it, and the soul of the mountain is an ancient one, yet one that my husband’s and my own soul understands perfectly. 

Climb me. Ski me. You will not regret it. The deep, reverberating voice of the mountain echoes in my head, and it tugs at my heartstrings and the essence of my soul. Dan and I are decided. That is the peak we shall climb and ski.

So we start up. I’m actually not stiff from the day before, which shocks me (it must be a new strength exercise I have added at the gym), but my legs are just moving a bit slower than the would if they were fresh. We don’t mind. It dipped below freezing last night, and today is warm, but with a chill breeze – we have time today, which we did not have yesterday.

We assess the face of this magnificent peak when we reach it, and I make the (unwise) decision to try and make it up with our ski crampons. Soon, I am scared shitless. It’s steep, I’m intimidated, and feel reduced to a child in my inability to properly read the mountain. Dan takes charge, keeping me from losing it (don’t ever – EVER – loose your cool on a mountain, the mountain will eat your soul for that, and have absolutely no qualms about doing so. Always respect Mother Earth, for her wrath is fast and furious) and gets us safely over to a boot pack left by the seven odd people we have seen either climbing or skiing down the peak in front of us. We remove our skis and begin up the boot pack, which is decidedly faster, and we summit in no time. A local woman is hanging out up top, waiting for the snow to soften up. (Smart idea, with the bitter wind, the snow is still hard – no fun to ski, in fact, we wonder why people have been skiing down already.) We talk, and Grizzly Peak comes up. We all look across the way to a mountain that seems to call skiers to it like rain drops are called to the ground. It’s a beautiful peak, a magnificent one, and I believe it is one that must be added to our list.

As we wait, two more locals show up (it appears that we have happened upon the locals’ dawn patrol), just as friendly as the woman, and after some discussion of the condition of the snow, their gazes are drawn by the irresistible Grizzly Peak. It seems no one can resist it. It calls; it’s been in my dreams. That mountain has a pull on skiers.

The locals of Aspen are great. Well, the skiing community (who, actually, don’t live in Aspen itself, as it’s much too expensive for your typical ski bum) is great. They are so open and welcoming, so informative. We joke about the other inhabitants of Aspen, The Others, the ones who shop at Gucci and buy $6,000 dress. The locals say they don’t mind them too much because they don’t go out and take up space in the wilderness (my goodness, a chipped nail? NO WAY!) and keep a lot of people away, just because they are rich. The local skiing community takes what they can get in keeping people away, they joke, but they are extremely friendly to us. Deb, the woman, announces that even though the snow hasn’t softened up enough, she has to get to work. We all watch as she skis down the face, yelping dog chasing after her, and then she disappears down the valley.

The rest of us wait, and as we wait we chow down on some snacks, share chocolate and stories. When the snow is ready, all of us click in excitedly.

My first turns down the face are, while great, a tad disappointing. Dan and I stop to regroup and watch the two local men ski down. They’re good. They may be a couple of crusty old men, but they can rip on skis, and that’s what I respect. Age doesn’t matter on the mountain – on the mountain, who you are is reduced to your skill and your personality, actual things that matter in the face of adversity. They ski past us, laying down perfect arcs.

I head after them, and almost immediately hit the perfect snow. Not utter slush like we skied yesterday, and not hard pack, but perfect. Just soft enough, my skis spring off the snow with each turn, my legs move smoothly from one movement to the next, and my heart jumps around, doing a jig of happiness while my soul reaches for the sky, shouting Thank you! Thank you, mountain, for this amazing experience!

 I stop over a knoll, regrouping with the Aspen locals (T-Bone was the name of one, and he invited us out sometime in the winter, and he would show us around), and we share euphoric grins. That was perfect (and I must say, I think I earned their respect on that face). We all watch Dan come down the face, and when we are all together, it doesn’t matter, none of it matters. What age we are, what gender we are, where we are from, what our backgrounds are, our socioeconomic status – all that matters is that we all have a passion, a passion that is true and pure, that binds our souls together. We are skiers, living the dream, getting after it, even in June. And we all respect each other for that. There is a community that is formed, one that overlooks everything, every little stupid detail that humans like to focus on rather than the real stuff and forms bonds that can’t be broken, because we all love something more than ourselves – the mountains.

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