Hey friends and family. If you’d like to follow our ski across Greenland, check out this link. We’ll try to update it each day with a brief description of happenings on the ice. And if you want to message us, we’d love it! It’s great to hear from folks and helps us keep spirits high. Heading to Iceland tomorrow, Greenland Tuesday, hope to start the trip on my birthday April 19 if all goes well. Now, time to navigate the logistics of airports, 250 pounds of luggage, two flights and two helicopter rides.
This post is for hikers and prospective skiers who might be interested in tackling the San Juans or other portions of the Continental Divide Trail on skis. In my opinion, it’s a fantastic way to go. In Europe there are a number of “Haute Routes” or high routes that are very popular ski mountaineering trips. While we stuck primarily to the trail corridor, I do believe it would be possible to create an amazing CDT skiing “Haute Route” through the San Juans. More on that later. As part of our 2017 Continental Divide thru-hike from Mexico to Canada, my wife Snow and I elected to ski a portion of the route from Cumbres Pass on the Colorado/New Mexico border to Highway 114 in Colorado (in the general vicinity of Cochetopa Pass). In reality, the skiing ended just east of San Luis Peak, as the relatively low terrain in the Cochetopa Hills was clear of snow by early June. We skied the entire Continental Divide Trail thru the San Juan Mountains, including the loop that heads west from Wolf Creek Pass, north towards Stony Pass, and then east past Highway 149 and up and over San Luis Peak.
We were not the first people to bring skis into the San Juans as part of a CDT thru-hike. In 2015 She-Ra brought skis on her CDT adventure. I do not know if she brought them on the entire San Juan loop, and in the end it doesn’t matter. Hike your own hike, or in this case ski your own ski! Altogether we skied or carried skis for about 250 miles. Of the 250 miles, I’d estimate we were on the skis 70% of the time. The remainder, we walked, with skis on our back.
The winter of 2016-17 was record breaking snowpack for much of Colorado. Snowpack levels topped out to 120-130% of normal. In contrast, 2017-18 is barely at 60% snowpack. It may not be viable this year unless one plans to cross the San Juans in late-April or early May. A bit about our skiing background for reference when planning your own adventure: Snow and I ski a lot. We spend more than 100 days each winter skiing in the backcountry. We have a alpine ski racing background and compete in nordic ski races in the winter. We’ve had some success in randonee style ski races. We live close to where the CDT passes James Peak in Colorado, so we have good familiarity with the Colorado snowpack.
Based on trail difficulty, I will say a hiker entertaining the thought of skiing the CDT thru the San Juans would want to have a solid base of backcountry skiing in their skill set. It was harder than I thought it would be. There were a number of places where some of the skiing was quite dicey, especially in the section between Cumbres Pass and Wolf Creek. The ability to make quick hop turns and traverse steep hillsides is essential. We considered skiing on this route one large “no fall zone,” and while that is exaggerating the danger, an injury out here really isn’t an option. Best to keep it upright.
A prospective skier also should be aware that they will be managing risky terrain while trying to make big miles. We found this to be the biggest challenge and stressor. When we put our heads down and stopped thinking, we would often get ourselves into dangerous situations. When we focused on terrain management, mileage would suffer. It’s a tricky balance,The main dangers were exposure, fatigue and wet avalanche slides. A prospective skier needs to be able assess those risks and make appropriate decisions. That said, if somebody is a strong skier with good backcountry knowledge, skiing the San Juans is a viable and often joyous option.
For our gear, we went as light as you can go with a fixed heel ski system. We both used Ski Trab World Cup race skis and ATK bindings. The ski weighs about 700 grams, the binding quite a bit less than that. Snow used Scarpa Alien boots and I used Dynafit PDG boots. One MAJOR mistake we made was only bringing one pair of mohair Pomoca race skins. I would recommend future skiers bring AT LEAST two pairs of skins, preferably with a tail hook. We spent a lot of valuable time drying our skins out when the glue failed, as will happen in spring-like conditions. If we’d another pair of skins each, the latter part of the trip would have been much more efficient and enjoyable.
We ended up bringing ski crampons but never used them. We left regular crampons at home. That was a mistake. There were more than a few times when a pair of ultra-light boot crampons would have been nice. We didn’t use the ski crampons once. Next time, I would trade the ski crampons for the real thing.
We brought regular collapsable Black Diamond Ascension ski poles. We considered a BD Whippet, but in the end chose to leave this item at home. We used our Hyperlite Windrider packs, and in a perfect world I would have liked to have had a slightly beefier pack for this part of the trip. Weight will go up, and we were reaching the limit of what the Hyperlites could comfortably carry.
Like thru-hiking, thru-skiing is best when done as light as possible. Powder skis are unnecessary and too heavy. Skinny, light, maneuverable spring skis are best. Go for massive articulation in the boots and very simple bindings with no brakes. Watch pounds and ounces very carefully.
We shipped our gear to ourselves in Chama, and had some friends pick it up for us at Highway 114. Ideally, somebody would pick up skis at the eastern trailhead to San Luis Peak, but this is a very remote area, especially in late-May/early-June. As far as clothing goes, we used our regular hiking gear, with a bit warmer options for the high elevations. We did not use helmets, and this is a risk of course. I can’t recommend this tactic, but it worked for us. We left goggles at home.
There are many advantages to having ski gear. From a pure speed and moving perspective, skiing is faster on most terrain. It’s certainly faster on downhills, slightly faster on flats, and about equal on uphills. Sidehills are safer because one has an edge to dig into the snow. Kicking steps up steep couloirs was essentially like having a stiff toed mountaineering boot, far more secure and safe than a pair of Altras. From a mental standpoint, having the potential to make a sweet ski run in a very difficult section was certainly a nice carrot on the end of a stick.
Be aware though: bushwhacking is undeniably slower. Hopping deadfall with skis hanging off the pack to your knees is kind of like a Chinese torture test. We also lost a lot of time because of our skin situation. We spent hours and hours drying skins and postholing because our skin glue failed and we were forced to walk. Again, bring at least two pairs of skins.
We started our ski on May 26 and technically ended it with a ski off the 14er San Luis Peak on June 9. This was about 10-14 calendar days later than we’d hoped to be there. An emergency at home necessitated we leave the trail in Grants for about 10 days in late-April. Had this not happened, our ski would have almost certainly been earlier, faster, more wintery and less slushy.
We had some amazing moments and some rather hairball days. I’ve decided to include some brief daily excerpts from the ski across the San Juans on the Continental Divide Trail. Photos from the described day follow.
May 26 – Cumbres Pass to a saddle about a mile south of Blue Lake. 24 miles, 6007 feet of climbing, 4482 feet of descending. Switched to skis about a mile into the hike and kept them on the whole time. It is VERY easy to get sucked down the hill by gravity, end up below the trail, and have to hike back up. Day was sloggy, but there was a sporty 35-40° snow climb and very heinous sidehill traverse into camp through extremely thick woods. Inside right ankle was quite sore by day’s end because of an extensive amount of side hilling.
May 27 – Blue Lake area to a high saddle just east of Summit Peak. 17 miles, 6414 feet of climbing, 5427 feet of descending. One of the more epic days I’ve ever had on skis, or for that matter, any outdoor activity. Started off getting sucked down too far and having to wander around finding Blue Lake (frozen solid, had to break ice to get water). Climbed a ridge, decided to drop down to a valley and ended up skiing down an extremely steep slope, probably 45°, in snow too soft. Too dangerous to repeat again. Had we headed further up the ridge and followed the trail exactly we actually would have found a better slope, albeit after a rather dangerous ridgeline climb (would have LOVED crampons here, frozen solid). A nice switchback ascent to a ridge and back down a beautiful couloir to the headwaters of the North Fork of the Conejos River. Perhaps the best ski of the entire endeavor. Sure beat walking. Then, bushwhacking through woods, to a saddle and then a very dicey sidehill crossing on solid snow above a huge cliff (crampons again please).
On the ridgeline south of the Adams Fork of the Conejos, things got silly. Instead of being relegated to a long traverse around the edge of the mountain, we elected to climb directly up to the ridge in hopes of continuing on. This proved impossible – Class IV/V climbing along the ridge to the west, plus storms moving in. Did a risky traverse along the north side of the ridge. Evidence of wet slides everywhere off the cliffs above, but what were we to do? If we waited, the slope would have been bullet proof in the morning and likely more dangerous. Slope at top was probably 45° but we were traversing so as long as we had a good edge hold, we were fine. On the flip side, we covered this ground in about 10 minutes…would have been hours of posthole hiking. Heard rumors after that a number of people fell here, some got hurt. So in that regard, skiing was safer. Rest at Adams Fork, then elected to climb straight up a couloir to access the large flattish area north of Adams Fork. While not exactly fast, ski boots made kicking steps in the snow and loose dirt viable. About an hour climb, then a traverse to the ridge below below Summit Peak where we pitched camp. Lightning in the distance, elk on the horizon. Days like this are the ones you remember before your last breath.
May 28 – Summit Peak to top of Alberta Peak at Wolf Creek Ski Area. 18 miles, 4475 feet of climbing, 5400 feet of descending. Lots of high alpine traversing and skiing around a massive bowl. Passed Montezuma Peak, Long Trek Peak before deciding we were a bit bored with the nordic style terrain. Dropped down a north facing bowl/couloir that eventually led to Elwood Creek. This is something about skiing – you will end up choosing straight up-and-down over traverses. You may rack up a lot of vertical as a result. Ended up hiking for most of the rest of the day as terrain was either very wooded, snowless or on a high ridgeline. An exception was a very fun snow climb and descent just north of Bonito Pass. Ended up meeting up with Frank, and hiked a steep ridge with him. While not totally necessary, skis did make the descent off the ridge a bit more fun, and I would argue more safe. Decided to skin to the top of Wolf Creek Ski Resort to end the day in hopes of a fun morning descent down Alberta Peak. Ended up camping on the upper ramp of the Alberta Chair Lift. Great day of skiing the CDT.
May 29 – Alberta Peak to Wolf Creek Pass – 5 miles, 250 feet of climbing, 2,500 feet of descending. Are there better things in life than starting the morning off with a climb to the top of a mountain and a ski back down? I’d argue no. This was the reward for the hardships of the previous three days. Stellar descent back down to Highway 160, felt like mini-supermen and women. Ski the CDT! Spend the next day resting in Pagosa Springs.
May 31 – Wolf Creek Pass to a few miles north (west) of the Creede Cutoff. 14 miles, 5089 feet of climbing, 4190 feet of descending. Tough, tough day. Started off with a very dicey/class 3/4 ridgeline traverse, then some interesting skiing and climbing back up in the vicinity of Mount Hope. The snow here seems much more rotton, blow-out-your-ACL type skiing. Plus, slush wrecking havoc on skins. Mentally very tough. Weather cloudy, thunderstorms, rain, white-out conditions, wet. An epic 14 miles.
June 1 – Point North of Creede Cutoff to just before ridgeline that leads to the Knife Edge. 17 miles, 4,000 feet climbing, 4,100 feet descending. Very hard, frustrating, epic day. Body exhausted. Big, steep climb up SE of South River Peak. Pretty much a real, legit snow climb. I don’t know how people can safely do this in Altras. If you fall, you’re fucked. Even with ski boots, it was attention grabbing. Across a few VERY steep sidehills. Frozen. Elected to put on skis. Not much of a problem on skis with sharp edges, again a BIG problem if we were just wearing shoes. So skis were very beneficial and safer here. Total skin failure – wasted an hour drying them. Late in the day, snow absolute shit. Punchy, even on skis. Massive wet slides above us from previous days. Not the safest place to be in the world. We kept moving as briskly as we could. Then, a sidehill climb and back on skis on a burned, wooded ridgeline. Exhausted. Set up wet tent, questioned the reason for taking this route.
June 2 – East of Knife Edge Ridgeline Camp to Elk Meadow near Cimarrona Peak. 20 miles, 3200 feet of climbing, 5500 feet of descending. Easy hiking early on frozen ridgeline, then onto the much hyped Knife Edge. Easy, quick snow climb (although crampons would have been nice), and a set-the-edge, don’t look down traverse. Much, much easier on skis I would imagine. Harder terrain for sure on day two out of Cumbres Pass. Too warm of a day, very dangerous. Snow got rotten again, skins failing, avalanches ripping off rocks above us, so decided to lengthen the route and head south directly off ridgeline to Williams Fork drainage. Skied a bit, hill ended up turning into a cliff, butt-slid down a waterfall, made an extremely sketchy descent to valley floor. Wouldn’t have minded having a 30 meter section of 7 mm rope. Valley floor looked like a cyclone had hit. Terrible deadfall, made worse with skis on the back. So much deadfall. Saw an elk with a broken leg. Tough winter here. Hiked to Palisades Camp, but not before some of the worst deadfall I’ve ever seen in my life! But then, beauty, forests, good to see some vegetation and wildlife. Headed up Weminuche Creek, past Mile Creek, camped in an absolutely beautiful Aspen grove. Why does the CDT not offer this as an alternate? Snow covered early season trail is no match for the spring beauty of the lower Weminuche Wilderness. Elk everywhere. A bit longer than the actual trail, but give people this option instead of the Creede Cutoff which misses the absolute best of Colorado. Glorious evening.
June 3- Elk Meadow to headwaters of Rock Creek – 22 miles, 4,344 feet of climbing, 2667 feet of descending. Nice morning walk, but the crossing of the slow moving Pinos River was very deep (chest deep, murky so can’t see the bottom), and some of the crossing streams coming from mountains due west were very swift and sketchy. Long, long, long climb to eventual headwaters of Flint Creek. Fairly smooth going at first, bushwhack hell with postholing galore after. Lots of elk. Post holed right to the top of the pass, probably would have been better off skiing but too lazy to take skis off the back. Then, a major mistake. Put on skis, enjoying blissful descent down Rock Creek, decided to traverse to south side of river where snow line went further. Snow starting rotting out and eventually ended. Turns out, we skied a mile past where the trail easily crossing the creek. Light failing, incredibly fast moving stream, deep, very dangerous. Made up mind to do tandem crossing, pulled off pants (it was cold and late) and first step almost was the end of us. Aborted mission, went back on shore, had a emotional screaming session that we didn’t die. Set up a shitty, adrenaline filled camp, broke a stake, made pact not to keep pushing these limits each and every day. The daily adrenaline and danger is simply too much to maintain. Trying to do risk management of dangerous, snow covered, icy mountain terrain on skis and clock big miles do not go hand-in-hand. We will get hurt if we keep this up.
June 4 – Headwaters of Rock Creek to lake just north of Stony Pass. 20 miles, 5,177 feet of climbing, 3,691 feet of descending. River was still raging in the morning, so we headed back up the valley and crossed about a half-mile up from our camp on a still frozen but very thin snow bridge. Mama moose and her days old calf were our only company. Gave them very wide berth. Nobody comes to this valley. Wild as heck. Rejoined the CDT, climbed to a big saddle, more elk. Lunch on Hunchback Pass, then skied down to Kite Lake (nice slushy turns) and then skied entire way up bowl that eventually led to spot where Colorado Trail and CDT join. Then, a real highlight. Flat high plateau, all the way to Stony Pass. Walking would have been PURE HELL this late in the day, sinking to thighs on every step. On skis, despite having to dry skins for 15 minutes, we traversed over it quickly. Crossed Stony Pass, skinned up bowl that constitutes the headwaters of the mighty Rio Grande, camped by a frozen lake way above Silverton. 14er Handies Peak in clear view. A stunning end to the day. Skis redeemed themselves in a big way.
June 5 – Just north of Stony Pass to Colorado Trail Yurt – 24 miles, 4,731 feet of climbing, 5,725 feet of down. Another tough day. Snow is failing, so after about an hour of efficient travel things just got too slushy. Ended up doing endless postholing, skins failing in minutes. Slow going. Past Cataract Lake, postholing everywhere, exhausted, when we got smart and put skis back on. Up over pass, awesome descent quite a ways down Lost Trail Creek. Then, a long hike back up to the trail and eventually up to a very cold, blustery and stormy Carson Peak and the high point of the Colorado Trail. Proceeded to have some very tough slush skinning/postholing and descents down ridgeline with eventual goal of yurt. Concerned that snow to the east and Snow Mesa doesn’t look all that snowy. Nice ski line down to the yurt, making turns over posthole marks. Work our way into the yurt, meet two other hikers. First humans we’ve seen since Wolf Creek Pass, only the third since Cumbres Pass. Feels like we’ve been in the wilderness on an intense, intense experience.
June 6,7 – Easy walk to Spring Creek Pass, rest days. The only thing of note here is that Lucky at the Raven’s Roost is an awesome human being, and we were very, very tired. Lake City is a gem of a trail town. Don’t miss it.
June 8 – Spring Creek Pass to massive cirque just west of San Luis Peak. 19 miles, 5,400 feet of climbing, 3990 feet of descending. No snow on Snow Mesa, then finally put on skis 10 miles into the day for a slushy descent. So wooded it made little sense to ski, so we posthole instead. We’re about two weeks too late. Windy camp born from exhaustion on the side of the mountain. Lots of carrying the skis on the back today.
June 9 – San Luis Peak to Cochetopa Hills. 24 miles, 3,200 feet of climbing, 5,000 feet of down. We are dead tired, but we’ve got to ski San Luis Peak, one of Colorado’s highest mountains and put a little exclamation point on this journey. Nice descent down the east side to Cochetopa Creek, but snow soon turned rotton, we had to scramble out, and thus ended the ski. All walking from here to Canada!
We carried our ski gear out another day and a half to Cochetopa Pass where our friends fed us and allowed us to convert to normal, lightweight, thru-hiking gear. We walked the remainder of the trail to Canada, but we did have some tiny “Ski Bums” skis sent to us in Pinedale, Wyoming and East Glacier, Montana to keep our streak of 86 straight months with at least one day of skiing alive. We ended up making some horrible turns in massive sun cups on the west side of Knapsak Col in the Wind River Range in August and did some cross-country skiing around the Amtrak station in East Glacier when the first snow of autumn arrived in mid-September. We made some turns in July at our home in Colorado. The steak lives on!
Summary: The ski of the San Juans is something we’re proud of. It was very hard and it felt good to persevere and prove that it was possible. There were a number of critics and naysayers beforehand, and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t fuel us a little bit.
I believe skiing is a legitimate form of transportation on the CDT. In the race to the South Pole, they skied. Snowy places are made for skis, and the San Juans in May are snowy. Skis are allowed in Wilderness – there are no restrictions and they are seen as appropriate in Wilderness areas.
Contrary to what one fellow-thru hiking critic (from the skiing mecca of Indiana) told us, skiing the San Juans is NOT “akin to getting in a car and driving to Canada.” The energy required to do the sheer vertical of heading up couloirs and back down was easily the hardest part of the trail for us. The San Juan ski took a toll. We were never as spry for the rest of the hike as we were after the San Juans. It was ten of the very hardest days of the trail piled on top of each other, and it left us exhausted for the rest of the hike. We finished, but it was not easy.
At times, the skiing was fantastic. There were lines that were dramatic and downright fun, and so remote that it would be unrealistic to just ski them on a weekend backcountry trip. The area south of Wolf Creek Pass offers terrific, essentially empty skiing. The area north of Wolf Creek was more traverse-like in nature, but we also really felt the effects of being too late in the season. I would say around Memorial Day would be a perfect time to be finishing up at San Luis Peak
Being up in the San Juans in May is harder physically than taking a lower route. It seems many hikers skip this part, and this isn’t necessarily a bad idea. It’s tough being up so high. It’s colder, it snows, it’s late spring in the high, high Rockies. Living at 12,000 feet is harder, you eat more, you sleep less, you burn more calories. The appropriate gear probably needs to be more robust and warmer.
If prepared, it is a wildly enriching experience to ski the San Juans, indeed one of the finest ski experiences I’ve ever had. The mountains observed, the descents enjoyed, the couloirs climbed…it’s unforgettable. It is the wildest part of the trail. The animals are just emerging, the tourists have not arrived, there will be few other people. We saw injured elk from winter, baby calves left on the tundra, and massive elk herds, skinny and surviving. We saw newborn moose calves, went to sleep each night to the sound of coyotes howling, saw black bears and enjoyed the awakening spring in the high Rocky Mountains.
In future years Snow and I hope to return to the San Juans and chart and map out a true “CDT Skier’s Haute Route Alternate,” that takes advantage of the awesome terrain by maximizing aesthetic and amazing couloir descents and snow climbs back up. Or if somebody would like that chart this out first, we will be your biggest supporters.
We encourage anybody with the know-how and desire to ski the San Juan part of the CDT. It will take toll on your body, but it does not need to be a sacrifice for finishing the CDT. In retrospect, it was probably the best part of the entire hike.
- Review baggage requirements with airlines.
- Print Permit – 2 copies
- Secure return date from Kangerlussuaq to Copenhagen & Copenhagen to Denver.
- Footbed refurbish.
- Warm socks.
- Purchase bear bangers for Polar Bears. Must do in Tassilaq.
- Focus on detailed dietary plan for expedition.
- Download music.
- Lodging in Tassilaq, Reykjavik
- Wind vane poles
- Tape poles, practice with sled bag.
- Purchase food
- Download music
- Download podcasts.
- Thank you cards to supporters and sponsors.
- Blog posts.
- Two paperback books for storm days in tents.
- Elastic for harnesses
- Six mm rope
- Fuel Canisters.
- Big stuff sacks
- Print Maps
- Melanzana Fleece Pants
- Put together repair kit
- Put together first aid kit
- AT&T International Plan
- Waypoint route across icecap and load into GPS system. (4/9)
- Order two stoves. Primus Ominifuel or MSR XKG leading candidates. (3/27)
- Rent satellite phone. (4/2)
- Order mitts. Call Steger in Ely as well as Baffin crew. (4/2)
- Mold boots. (3/25)
- Install bindings on Åsnes Nansens and Åsnes Ceciles, as well as on spare pare of Åsnes Nansens in case of equiptment failure. (3/26)
- Replace runners on sleds. (4/5)
- Cold Avenger Face Masks. (3/28)
- Dermatone. (4/4)
- Purchase necessary crevasse rescue gear + fixed rope. (4/2)
- Crampons order. (3/28)
- Determine memory card necessities. (4/8)
- Determine power plans. (3/28)
- Switch to Expedition Plan for Delorme. (4/4)
- Determine plan to get from Kulusuk to Sissimiut to Isortoq. (3/27)
- Danish cash. (4/3)
- Get candles. (4/4)
- Double poles for Hilleberg. (3/27)
- Plastic bags for feet. (4/8)
- Order hand brush for frost. (4/3)
- Purchase cooking box. (4/3)
- Pickup pots we ordered from REI for melting snow. (3/25)
- Bothy Bag. (3/28)
- How to get to Denver? (4/8)
- Little dude plan. (4/8)
- Send receipt to Scholarship fund. (4/6)
- Payment for sled bags and arctic bedding (3/27)
- Anemometer (3/28)
- barometer (3/28)
- Write in the Rain journals (4/4)
Add as necessary. Date when completed. – DV
A solid three days of training. While we’d love to get sled pulls in, I’ve been training with pack weight, which in many ways mimics workload on legs. Three straight endurance days, skinning right out the door to the ridgeline above Corona, mixed weather. Now rest, some morning nordic skis for sanity, knock off a chore a day while working, more when off.
It’s been a strange winter in Eldora, Colorado. It’s probably the closest I’ve ever felt to the “winter of discontent.” That’s certainly being a little bit dramatic, but there has been a lack of flow that has been disconcerting.
As fantastic as our Continental Divide Trail thru-hike was – and I would never trade it out – it did break up our traditional “rituals” for getting ready for ski season. Personally, late summer and autumn has been prep-for-ski-season time since I was 15 or 16 years old. The norms during these months are lots of roller skiing, running intervals in the mountains, biking up steep trails, lunges and the like. This year, we just walked. And while our fitness was fine the lack of going through the processes started things off weird and effected our mental readiness. It’s kind of like showing up to work or class late…things are all out of whack.
And then, winter just took a long, long time to come. We had some flirty snows in October and November, but then the faucet turned off. December was the warmest and driest twelfth month I’ve even seen here. The nordic center had their latest opening ever by nearly three weeks, and the two ski shops we work in, Larry’s Bootfitting and Boulder Nordic Sport, had customer flow more reminiscent of March than the supposed busiest time of the year.
We did our best to get out on snow, but it required different thinking and adaptability. Early season was a lot of uphill skinning and then skinning back DOWN on 2-3 inches of snow. The resort opened, so we spent more time than normal honing resort turns, gazing out at the brown hills as we made our way down the man-made strips of white. We bought uphill passes because the backcountry was non-existent. Around Christmas the nordic center finally opened, but it was just a fraction of its normal self in terms of available kilometers.
Slowly but steadily, snow came. We have yet to have a big storm, but there have been a fair amount of 2-3 inch offerings. Mid-February was actually good. We could finally ski right out the door, usually a norm for most of the winter, but then a warm spell hit and basically set us back another two weeks. 48 hours ago it was 77° F in Boulder, but a cold front hit, and right now it’s 9° F.
The snow graphs say we are at 90 percent of normal snow pack, but I’m skeptical of this. It seems much less. Down south in the San Juans, they are fairing much worse, and even with some recent winter blasts are sitting around 50 percent of normal. Meanwhile, the east has had polar vortexes and bomb cyclones, Europe has had their best winter in a decade and even South Korea looked enviably cold during the Olympics. Most years you win, some years you lose. And it’s not over yet, but things will start getting warmer now here on the 40th parallel, where the March sun burns long and high.
On top of the odd weather, my wife Elaine has had a bit of a rough go. The Continental Divide Trail left her dead tired and really what can only be described as over-trained. Six months of twelve hour days can do that. Most hikers take an entire winter off. We had planned to dive right back into training, but that proved unrealistic. She has battled fatigue and a fair bit of sickness. So while we have skied a lot, until very recently it has not been with the normal aplomb. There have been no nordic races, no intervals, just lots of days exploring the woods and waiting for the body to recover. We were actually a bit concerned about our health, so we got physicals recently, and it turns out we’re in perfect health, albeit overtrained. The only way to get out of that hole is to wait it out.
Eventually, recovery came. Something clicked two to three weeks ago, the snap returned, and with it a deep endurance born from the long walk along the spine of the nation. She’s been crushing again, we’ve had some strong sled pulls and systems are go for the Greenland trip. That said, we’re taking a year off nordic racing just to let the body build properly without unnecessary stresses. Greenland will require long, plodding strength and mental toughness. The gain versus potential risk of diving into a late season racing program simply is not worth it, We’ll fry that cat in 2018-19.
A highlight of the winter has been the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Korea. Olympic years are always fun and I find myself feeling more motivated after watching the best athletes in the world at the top of their game. Of course, the shining moment as a nordic skier in the United States was Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall winning the team sprint race. While it has been dubbed as something of an upset, the truth is they were primed for this race. Diggins is 3rd overall in the World Cup and Randall is a multiple World Cup sprint champion. It would have been a disappointment if they had not finished in the top three, and once it comes down to the last few hundred meters, and the skis are fast, it’s open season.
I’m hopeful this will provide a needed boost to nordic skiing in this country, because I really do think it’s the best sport around. Racing is just a small part of that. To me, buying a nordic pass is like buying health insurance – it’s really, really good for the body. The question now is how do we take that momentum and really make the sport grow in the United States? I have some ideas based on personal experience that I will write about in the next few days.
For now, it’s time to ski. Tomorrow is supposed to be in the single digits, so it’s time to take advantage and enjoy what will possible be the last Green wax ski of the winter. It will be our 90th day on skis of the winter, not bad considering it’s been anything but smooth. But in skiing, as in life, adaptability, creativity and persistence are essential.
We finally got our Greenland application out just the other day. That’s been a major weight, so it’s nice to have it signed, sealed and delivered. We’ll see what happens. I do worry we don’t have enough requisite polar experience to be accepted for an independent expedition, in which case we’ll have to reevaluate our timeline. We’ll know soon enough. If we get permission, it’ll be time to buckle down and get to work, because there is much preparation to do.
This has been one of the slower starts to winter in many years in the Front Range of Colorado. Of course, there have some memorably bad years, the winter of 2011-12 coming to mind, and before that, the drought years of the 2000s. Beyond the lack of snow, it’s been very warm, most days soaring well over freezing and perhaps one or two days where nighttime temperatures dropped below zero. Certainly global warming plays a role, but a larger factor is the jet stream is sitting just to the north of us. We’re missing the brunt of the action and the cold is having a hard time settling in.
That’s at 8,800 feet above sea level, right next to the Continental Divide. Just a few miles east and 500 feet lower, in Nederland, there is virtually no snow. Meanwhile, Boulder has been downright balmy. It’s a stark contrast from last year, where December and January were like a scene out of the Shining movie, snow piling up in copious amounts on a daily basis. There was so much snow we had to park our cars a half-mile from home and ski home with groceries.
We’re actually better off than most of the state. Down south, in the San Juans, the picture is grim.
It could be an ugly summer down there if this continues. As we learned hiking and skiing thru it this summer, southern Colorado is a tinderbox of dead, beetle killed trees. If I were hiking the CDT this summer, I would definitely go north, at least if things continue this way. Best to get thru the state before things possibly burn up.
We’ve managed our winter decently well thus far given the snow restraints. Thank goodness for Eldora, the nordic center and uphill travel. We’ve spent a lot of time on manmade snow there this winter, only recently getting out more on natural surfaces. That’s been a nice change of pace.
There is a drainage near our home that I’ve been eyeing for a nice backcountry cross country ski “trail” for some time now. It has all the desired factors – generally north-facing, sheltered from the wind and a bit away from the main travel routes. The Little Raven and CMC trails are fantastic nordic touring options, but it would be wonderful to have a bit more. So yesterday we headed out into the forest and did some exploring.
As is always the case on exploratory days, there was a fair bit of futzing around, making wrong turns and getting stuck in deadfall. I carry a small hatchet on days like these to try to break thru and create something decently passable. Bottom line though – the route could be a good one. There were moments during the two hour ski where we thought, this could be really good. Another good sign – there were moose tracks. I find if animals use an area, it’s probably a good human route too. Numerous times on the CDT we lost the trail, followed a game path, and found a better way. Animals are not dumb. It’s an area of mysterious woods, full of creaking old trees, freshly sprouted firs and deep, deep snow. It has a feeling of good forest. I think we’ll explore it some more.
Our Chevy Suburban creeks, groans and moans as her tires bounce and crawl over the red-rocked arroyo gully, deep in the New Mexico bootleg. A long, dusty cloud of red wisps off in the distance behind us. We’re on the official “road” to the Crazy Cook Monument and the start of the Continental Divide Trail, but to call it a road is being generous. It’s a desert two-track: gnarled, raw, dusty, rocky and cactus strewn.
Our driver Juan, is relaxed but focused on the path ahead. Bob Marley eminates from the old stereo, appropriately rebellious and care-free music for our little band of CDT thru-hikers. I’m in the front seat next to Juan, the best seat in the house. He’s quiet and talkative at the same time, like somebody who has a secret he’s dying to share. He tells me about some hikers earlier in the year who got drunk at the start and ended up walking to a Mormon camp across the border in Mexico: a bad start to the biggest and baddest long distance hike in the U.S. We talk more: he lets me know that Lordsburg, New Mexico is a shit hole (he lives in Silver City), and he thinks the U.S. Border Patrol’s effort to round up immigrants is a load of crock. We’re in it now, deep in the desert, in Abbey Country, where immigrants, water and ocotillo plants are the biggest realities and concerns.
Juan drives this shuttle as part of a service the Continental Divide Trail Coalition offers to help hikers get off on the right foot. On a 3,000 mile hike, it’s less than ideal if a bunch of skinny hikers die in the first 100 miles. The Crazy Cook monument, the official start to the trail, is not a place easily reached. To get a seat on Juan’s shuttle, one must make their way to the aforementioned town Lordsburg, tucked deep in southwestern New Mexico. Since hiking the Continental Divide Trail is not a round trip vacation, it can be challenging getting here with no loose ends to pick up later. My wife, Elaine and I, ended up flying to Tucson, Arizona, walking ten miles thru the city slums to the Greyhound station, and then catching the bus to Lordsburg.
Riding Greyhound is an adventure in its own right, a trip to a culture of America that is rarely found in Boulder, Bend or Boston. It’s a lot less white and a lot less affluent. Most folks on-board have a hacking cough of some sort. There is a lot of stress, a lot of bickering. One woman on-board is relegated to a wheel chair. The Greyhound has certain areas where wheel-chaired passengers can sit, and there are straps coming from the floor and walls of the bus to secure them in place. As we exit Tucson and make our way around the twisty entrance lane to I-10, the woman and her wheelchair suddenly go flying across the bus, slamming into the opposite wall, with her rightfully screaming, “stop the FUCKING bus!” It’s not a pretty sight, but it is our first real immersion on this trip into a world that is very different from ours.
After two hours of cramped riding, we get off the bus, breathe the evening exhaust and McDonald’s french fries filled desert air, cross under the Interstate and search for our hotel for the night. Lordsburg is a gathering spot for northbound CDT hikers. It’s a railroad and highway town, located directly on Interstate 10 and the Santa Fe railroad line. While the Continental Divide might evoke images of snow covered peaks and lush mountain meadows, Lordsburg is a far cry from this. It’s a lonely, sun-baked, blown-down, litter-strewn dilapidated town in the heart of high New Mexico desert. The main street in town features an old pizza place and a general American food joint called Cranberries.
There are a few motels, including the Econolodge, recommended strongly in Yogi’s CDT Trail Guide, the one and only real “guidebook” to the trail. In Lordsburg, the Econolodge is the place to be. Juan’s rides to Mexico leave from here and they also hold re-supply packages for hikers. In a town where business is hard to come by, the Econolodge is doing all it can to cater to the small segment of CDT hikers using Lordsburg as their launch locale.
It’s been a long day, catching the bus from our mountain cabin in Eldora, Colorado to Denver, flying to Tucson and then bussing it to Lordsburg, and we are mildly starving. We drop our backpacks off at the Econolodge, and head over to the convenience store to pick up some supplies. While checking out, I ask the teenage boy at the counter what the best eating options in Lordsburg were.
“Well, my favorite place is McDonalds, but the Arby’s is great too,” he informs us. “The pizza place is OK and Cranberries has good Mexican food.”
I’ve learned over time that “OK,” when asking locals for food advice, is somewhat akin to them saying, “It’s goddamn awful but you probably won’t get food poisoning.” Case closed. We were not in the mood for fast food, so Cranberries it is. Turns out the enchiladas and milk shake are indeed pretty good. Test number one, avoiding gastrointestinal sickness on the first day, accomplished.
After dinner we head outside and the sky is simply exploding in a way that can only happen in the great American desert. We’d heard of these New Mexico sunsets, but this was beyond anything imagined. Orange melds into red into purple into a firestorm of western desert magic. Perhaps it was the sky, or the end of a long travel day, but an elation that only total freedom can bring hits us hard. For the next five months, we are about as free as humans can get. From the deep bootleg of the New Mexico desert, our mission, our calling was simple: walk across the wild land, along the spine of the divide, north to the Canadian border. Giddy excitement hits us. We may be standing in a brown desert field littered with trash and needles, but there is nowhere we want to be more.
An ecstatic, slightly nervous sleep takes over and before long the alarm is signaling the wake-up call and the beginning of the greatest adventure of our lives to this point. We head to the Econolodge breakfast room, packs in tow, make some of those mediocre waffles hotels tend to serve, and chat with a few fellow hikers at the table. In addition to Juan, there are five other hikers joining us on the ride to Mexico. A guy introduces himself as “Backbone,”, and is definitely the most talkative of the group. He asks where we all are from, what we had hiked before and if we are worried about rattle snakes. At NOLS, we would call him a fluffy bunny, full of energy, perhaps a bit too much for 6 am. There is a nice elderly couple from Canada, a slightly overweight younger fellow from Albuquerque and finally, a Dutch guy who introduces himself as Frank. Frank looks the part, lean, appropriate clothing, and a backpack that looks slightly larger than an elementary school kids day pack. Indeed, in comparison, our packs seem downright behemoth.
In the breakfast room we meet a 50-something year old grizzled man who goes by the name “Radar.” Radar is a trail angel, and there is no place where that magic is needed more for disoriented hikers than Lordsburg. Radar serves many key functions. He drives hikers around but much more importantly, he makes sure water caches are filled. The Continental Divide Trail Coalition, in an effort to ease us into the trail, maintains water caches between the Mexican border and Lordsburg. They are located every 15-20 miles. While it might be possible to do the first part of the trail without these caches utilizing cow troughs and the occasional well, the caches make the experience much more enjoyable. Radar is the most essential person in this section for CDT hikers.
Indeed, this is some of the driest country in the entire United States. The hike begins in the extreme northwestern corner of the Chihuahuan Desert, a massive arid region that extends deep into Mexico and east into Texas. It’s the second largest desert in North America (the largest, we will cross later, in Wyoming). This ecosystem promises to be singularly unique on the entire trail. Even just north of I-10, the deep desert gives way to the rolling, sagebrush hills of New Mexico, a little more mountain, a little less desert.
Juan our driver meets us, we load up the Suburban and begin the journey to the southern terminus of the Continental Divide Trail. As we head east on I-10, the red fireball sun rises over the horizon, painting the desert in deep oranges and purples. Juan tells us that he had to call border patrol before we left to let them know that we would be out there for the next 4 to 5 days. The area south of I-10 is heavily patrolled for immigrants trying to make their way north from Mexico. There are sensors everywhere, on fence posts, on cacti and on bushes; in addition, border patrol guards are constantly driving up and down the mish-mash of dirt roads in the area, checking on anything that might trigger the sensors – a rattle snake, a cow, an immigrant, a thru-hiker. Anybody traveling in this area is required to check in with border patrol before departing.
I have mixed feelings about this heavy level of security. On one hand, I understand the need to keep tabs on who is coming into the country. But I overwhelmingly feel that if somebody is able to risk life and limb and cross the incredibly dry, prickly and hazardous land between the border and I-10, they deserve to be here, at least in some capacity. It’s much more of a sacrifice than most of us who were born in the United States will ever make. Visiting this area also brings to light how laughable and unnecessary the concept of a gigantic wall between Mexico and United States is. There are sensors on practically every bush. What in the world do we need a wall for? And how exactly are we going to get people and supplies down here to build it? Crazy Cook is a two-hour rough jeep road ride from Interstate 10. Is Juan going to drive all the construction workers down here, towing the concrete behind his Suburban? And where will these workers stay and what will they drink? There is nothing out here but cactus and arroyos. Are we going to build a small city, pipe water in from the Rio Grande so we can build a gigantic wall? A wall seems like an archaic idea – we aren’t in the Middle Ages anymore.
These are the topics of conversation on the ride down between Juan and I. Just before turning off the pavement, we stop at the tiny town of Hachita to fill up water bottles, pee and stretch. And, then onto a wide graded dirt road before turning off onto a spine jostling two-track jeep trail straight across the desolate desert. As we drop sharply into arroyos and back up over slickrock and sand, mountains unfold in front of us. The Hatchet Mountain Range is the southernmost segment of the Continental Divide in the United States. It’s mostly brown and cactus filled, but on the very highest reaches I could make out pine forests, a rising crescendo from tan to deep dark green. Bighorn sheep frequent the high reaches of the range, grazing on the vegetation and basking in the cool, thin air.
The passing landscape is full of gnarled-looking plants and cacti. One particularly stark looking specimen is the Ocotillo plant. The Ocotillo is tall, sprouting up in thin stalks ten feet in the air. The plant itself is covered in sharp needles and is topped off with a bright red flower on each stalk. It’s very beautiful, but you wouldn’t want to accidentally walk into one, lest you end up pulling cactus prickles out of your flesh for the next hour. Our two-track turns southeast, down the rise from the Hatchet Mountains, towards our destination.
Across a massive valley, hills rise to the east. Those mountains are in Mexico. I couldn’t help but think as much of an adventure this was, what would it be like to head SOUTH from Crazy Cook along the Continental Divide thru Mexico? Perhaps in another life. That is not our calling, and honestly we’re not exactly the ideal pair to head deeper into the south. We’re as pale as can be with nordic complexions, light hair and blue eyes. We also live at 8,800 feet and relish the snow. Just two weeks earlier we’d been camping in negative-30 degree temperatures on a high plateau in central Norway. Odd as it sounds, that seemed less foreign and harsh than crossing the Chihuahuan Desert. Cold and snow we understand. Everything about this landscape was new and intimidating.
Just when the bouncing and jarring was getting unbearable, we reached the Mexico border. It’s not a spectacular location and there is no fanfare, just a dirt road paralleling a fence line. There is no border crossing here, no sign, no flags of any type. There are actually three separate “official” starting locations to the CDT, one further east in Columbus and one to the west in Antelope Wells. The Crazy Cook start seems to be the most remote start, and with the shuttle and the water caches is where the coalition is dedicating the majority of their resources. Juan pulls over as we reach a large CDT Monument, dropping us off at Journey’s beginning.
The crew quickly exits the Suburban and we start unloading packs. I can quickly tell our packs are among the heavier in the group. They say you carry your fears on your back. Well, it would not be an exaggeration to say Elaine and I are afraid of the desert, and in particular, running out of water. Even with the caches, we are well stocked, each carrying seven liters of water from the start. I don’t think anybody else in our van had more than four liters. It’s a significant amount of water weight – a liter weighs 2 pounds. When you do the math, that’s about 14 pounds of water weight Elaine and I chose to carry in the beginning of the hike.
We all take our photos at the monument. We’re informed by Juan that it’s OK to cross 100 feet or so into Mexico and take a photo for posterity sake, so we do. Elaine and I do some re-shuffling of our packs, intentionally going slow so we’d have some alone-time at the monument and start of this momentous journey north. I notice Frank and Backbone left first, then the kid from Albuquerque, then the Canadian couple and finally us. We are a little rusty – our last backpacking trip was seven months earlier in Norway – and it took a little bit to get our systems dialed, our layering figured out, our packs feeling just right.
And then, after a final photo and hug of the CDT Monument, we take our first steps north. When we first talked about hiking the CDT, during a 2012 hike of the Colorado Trail, we probably didn’t even understand what it would require to even get to this point. And while a 3,000 mile thru hike is a physical beatdown and a mental trial, one of the hardest parts of any thru-hike is just getting to the start. It took Elaine and I five years. We had comfortable jobs at a popular Boulder outdoor shop, a dog and a great life at home. To actually quit your job and to leave everything behind to essentially live a quasi-homeless lifestyle for about half a year is not a decision most people make. But it was a decision we made, and as a result, it is time to walk north, across the New Mexico desert.
The trail in the beginning traverses a flat plateau dotted with cactus plants and Ocotillo. Massive, almost comically large “CDT” trail signs are placed every 100 yards or so, perhaps in response to the guy who got drunk and headed to Mexico in the first ten minutes of his walk.
One disadvantage of the van ride is it left us starting off at 10 AM, well into the part of the day where temperatures are rising to a crescendo. On a normal backpacking day we’d be up well before that, taking advantage of the cool of the day to make early miles. That isn’t an option on this first day. As we head into the desert, the Hatchet Mountains guiding us along, it starts to swelter.
Up on the horizon, we see a couple walking ahead – the Canadians. They are a couple in their late-50’s, well covered in long pants, long sleeve shirt and gloves for sun protection. This is not their first rodeo. Indeed, they inform us they had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail as well as a number of smaller trails.
Making the Continental Divide Trail a debut long distance hike, as Elaine and I are doing, is quite rare. It’s almost always a second hike, and often the final adventure in the “triple crown.” The triple crown is awarded to hikers who hike the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail. There is some debate in the hiking community if the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail are harder. There is no argument about the CDT however – it’s considered the most difficult of the three. It’s remote, it’s high, it’s long, it’s mountainous and, of the three, it’s the trail that will offer the most opportunity for real adventure.
For Elaine and I, it was a relatively easy decision. From our home in Eldora, Colorado, a tiny town of 50 people that sits at 8,800 feet above sea level, the CDT is practically in our backyard. An eight mile hike from our front door takes the hiker to the top of Rollins Pass on the Continental Divide Trail. We see the trail multiple times every year, and every time we would wonder what it would be like to link the whole thing up from Mexico to Canada. We have no such fascination with the PCT or AT. The CDT was burned into our heart and soul long before our first step on this thru-hike.
We continue on past the Canadians, finding a hiking rhythm after a long hiatus. This is our first real hike in more than seven months. During the winter months, Elaine and I are avid skiers, and spend much of the year traveling up, over and down mountains in the winter landscape. And while there are similarities, skiing is not hiking. A plastic ski boot feels different on the feet, the stride of a kick and glide is less impactful than a hiking step and skiing is much, much cooler on the feet. It feels good to be walking again, a little foreign, but not completely alien either, buried under a few layers of muscle memory.
The route begins to rise slowly and we leave the wide open plain of nothing. Small canyons rise to our south and ahead the terrain gets more hilly. As we hike along, we see the guy from Albuquerque sitting on the side of the trail, taking a snack break, umbrella in hand protecting him from the sun. We exchange hellos, comment on how it is warming up and tell him we’d see him up trail. As it turns out, we never did see him again.
We are ready for our first break and looking to get out of the sun. There is little shelter from the sun, so we crawl into an arroyo with prickly brushes and contort our bodies in such a way to get a little bit comfortable while eating a bag of chips in the sand. Just as we are wrapping up lunch, the Canadians come walking by. They are ready to take a break as well and take our just vacated spot: shade is a hot commodity out here. Like the chap from Albuquerque, we tell them we’d see them up trail. We never did.
The trail now rises in earnest into a desert canyon reminiscent of something out of an old Cowboys-and-Indians movie. Fueled by our snack break, we begin to hike with more rhythm, gliding up the mountain, using our trekking sticks like nordic ski poles to help us up the mountain. We’re both much more comfortable on the up than on the flats, and it is nice to hit the first real hill of the Continental Divide Trail.
Sitting just off the trail is another hiker from our van ride, lounging in the shade of a tree. It’s Frank from the Netherlands. We don’t say words, just exchanging a quick wave before continuing onward. We climb further still and come upon yet another hiker, Backbone, relaxing under a Cottonwood. We exchange greetings and he asks us if we’d like to join him for lunch. We gladly oblige, happy to get out of the desert heat for a bit.
We chat for awhile about the adventure and how we all got to this place. Backbone is from New York and is taking a hiatus from life to hike the trail. His wife and kid are at home, and his parents are following him, at least at first, in a RV for the summer. It sounded quite nice, but I can’t imagine leaving my spouse and family for five months. Backbone asks us if we have trail names, and we reply no, so he bounces a few ideas around. None of them really appeal or stick.
At that point Frank comes by. Before continuing, I should point out that over the course of the hike Frank became one of our best friends during the entire hike. He is extremely knowledgable, has high integrity, and once you figure out his direct personality, he is really an enjoyable guy to hang out with, However, first impressions did not go so well. His first question to us is, “So is this your first thru-hike?” We respond no, that we’d hiked the Colorado Trail a couple of times. Frank had mentioned earlier that he had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail the year before, so I was curious where this line of questions was going.
“So this is your first thru-hike,” he say, mincing nothing. He continues, “If you were an experienced thru-hiker you would know that it is better not to hike during the heat of the day.”
Whether or not it was meant as a slight, we took it as such. If there is one thing to know about Elaine, it is that she is no wilting flower. She is also very, very strong physically. When annoyed or angry, that strength can go thru the roof. The next hour we spent hiking at a ballistic pace, fueled by a fair bit of angst and “what the fuck?” We may have never done a 3,000 mile hike before, but we were not exactly newbies either.
In some ways, that moment feels like the start of the real hike. The honeymoon ends after a few hours, and emotion takes over. It would certainly not be the last time that happened on the trail, where raw emotion fueled us when the body was tired.
After hiking down a rocky arroyo for a few miles, we reach the first water cache. It is a beautiful thing – fresh gallon bottles of water absolutely filled to the brim. We drink and fill up, preparing for a night of dry camping. Dry camping is spending the night somewhere where there is no water source. Lack of water excepted, it’s a phenomenal way to spend the night. There is less condensation to deal with, less concern about aggressive animals and it’s generally a bit warmer. Of course, one must carry enough water to get through the night, but it’s usually very doable.
Up until this point the CDT has been relatively benign. Now, however, as the day grows late, the trail starts benching north along the foothills of the Big Hatchet Mountains. The massive CDT signs disappear, replaced instead by bushels of ocotillo plants, prickly and waiting to grab a hiker. The “trail” dips in and out of arroyos, side hilling the whole way. It isn’t a trail at all, however, simply a direction, and I quickly shift out of the mode of following the GPS and checking it every minute. It is far better to pick something on the distant horizon, a peak or a distinct landmark and head directly towards it.
Adding to the challenge are huge groves of cacti forcing big detours from our goal to head in the “most direct route possible.” The dips seem to get bigger and the Big Hatchet Mountains rise to our west. At one point we have to lower ourselves down a small cliff, hike up a slick rock arroyo, and then scramble back up the other side, all the while avoiding ocotillo plants. Snakes are a constant concern as well, but we do not see any on this day.
We continue on as the sun drops low towards the horizon and the sky turns a fire red. We are in Abbey country now, god’s country, the land of the Apache and tribes even more ancient. The sky and earth turn a blood red, and soon it will be dark. We decide to use the next good spot to camp, as areas devoid of cactus and massive rocks are few and far between.
After another half hour or so, we find a level spot on the plateau with flat ground for setting up camp. It’s a perfect evening out, with not a cloud in the sky (not to mention that the ground in the area is so hard I doubt we can get a stake in it without breaking one) so we opt to lay out our sleeping pads (after a very thorough cleaning of the ground for sharp things), sleeping bags and sleep out under the stars, cowboy camping in the New Mexico desert.
As we were about to fire up dinner, Frank comes by, looked worse for the wear and coughing. He laments to us, “that was absolutely brutal travel.” Despite our rocky beginning, we invite him to stay at our camp, as flat spots are hard to find. We learn that evening that he is suffering from a bad cold. We offer him some tea but he politely declines.
Frank is a good guy and we let our emotions get the better of us that first day. In retrospect, he was right. The Colorado Trail, while amazing and challenging, is nothing like the 3,000 mile Continental Divide Trail. We just didn’t know it at the time. It did indeed become a source of conversation as we made our way past the 1,000 mile mark, the 2,000 mile mark: no, hiking the Colorado Trail is not the same as a “true” long distance hike.
As night settles in, the stars explode in light, Polaris, the North Star, guiding us to Canada. As we write the final words in our first day journal entry, as the Milky Way emerges and satellites cross over the sky, a content yet excited feeling sweeps over us.
We are on the CDT, we have survived our first day, and we are on the greatest adventure of our lives. Now the only job is to walk along the spine of the country, day in and day out, the end impossibly far away. And then, as coyotes serenade us to sleep and the full moon lights up the Big Hatchet Mountains, we sleep.
Elaine and I have spent a lot of time in the past seven years since our wedding day sliding around snow on skis. It’s our passion, and has led us to mountains and northern locales around the world. We’ve had the fortune to ski chest deep powder in British Columbia, beautiful mountains that drop to the ocean in northern Norway and endless plateaus of white in that same country that resemble Greenland or Antarctica. Skiing has brought us much good.
Yet those trips are a major outlier to what actually happens on a daily basis. They are the exclamation point on seasons where honestly a lot of the skiing is mundane and sometimes downright terrible. Take a couple days ago, for example. A ridiculously warm November melted out the one slope decent for some tentative turns. We ended up walking down the hill, skins on skis, picking our way through rocks and tundra and dreaming of a better winter to come.
A point of pride among skiers is the magical 100 day a year mark. In the Vermont mountain town where I grew up, under the shadow of Mad River Glen, it was a badge of honor with the generation of ski bums I admired and looked up to. The John Egan’s and Jeremy Nobis’ didn’t miss days because they didn’t feel like skiing. The credo was, get out there as often as you can, don trash bags when it’s raining, don’t be afraid of black ice and -30° F temps, and ski every damned day.
Since being married in 2010, Elaine and I have never skied less that 125 days in a winter, and one year, the magical winter of 2010-11, we almost hit 200 days. Elaine and I also work full time, 40 hours a week, and right now, when our value in the ski industry is high, quite a bit more.
Of course, the easiest way to ski 100 days a year is to work at the resort. But that’s not an option for everybody. Don’t worry…there are other ways. This article is written for skiers who do not live in those lucky areas where there is night skiing available. Of course, night skiing with tracks and runs lit till 9 or 10 pm makes it much easier to rack up the days.
Skiing 100 days a year and working 40 hours a week requires dedication that borders on obsession. But if it’s something you want, and you live within a reasonable drive of accessible snow, it’s possible. Here are ten tips to ski 100 days a year:
- The early bird catches the snow – This isn’t really about getting first tracks, although that can be an added benefit. Simply put, if skiing 100 days a year is something you want, early rising is imperative. After a long hard day of work, it might not happen. The couch can be too appealing. Get your kit – your clothes, pack, skis, boots, essentially all your gear – organized the night before. That way when the alarm goes off at 4:30 am, all you have to do is stagger out of bed, get dressed and go. Early nights to bed and dark and cold mornings will be your reality for the next five months. Embrace it.
- Backcountry is your friend – Unless you work as a night chef, waitress or late night E.R. surgeon (or work at the ski resort), it’s near impossible to work 40 hours a week and ski 100 days a year just relying on lift-accessed skiing. Invest in a backcountry set-up. A robust BC kit can work fine at the resort. But you need to be able to access snow on those Monday thru Friday mornings too. To ski 100 days a winter and work full-time, you need to earn your turns and ski outside the 9 am to 4 pm window. Your lungs and legs will thank you.
- Find a go-to route – Skiing 100 days requires consistency and repetition. It’s kind of like going to the gym (wait, it’s WAY better than going to the gym) in that a regular place to go and a routine is needed. I find 1,000 vertical feet is a magical number. I still get a good ski in but can usually make it happen in an hour or less. Us working stiffs don’t have all day. Pick a few spots and get efficient at them.
- Lighten up – Lighter gear is faster. It’s not necessary to go full randonee racer, but I promise a good AT boot, a light pair of skis and a tech-style binding will be way faster than a heavy alpine boot with an Aprés ski mode and a big bulky frame binding. Speed is your friend. The less time you spend going up, the more realistic it is to get sleep and still get in a good ski before work.
- Go nordic skiing – Elaine and I embrace all types of skiing minus the 225 meter ski jump at Vikersund. We alpine, tele, backcountry, nordic tour and nordic track ski. When the backcountry gets crappy as it sometimes does here in the Front Range, nordic centers provide an outlet. Consistent grooming ensures good skiing during long dry spells. Also, there is no better way to build fitness quickly than nordic track skiing. The skin track will feel flat after a 6:30 am anaerobic threshold workout at 9,500 feet above sea level on nordic skis. Careful though, you might end up falling in love with the sport and make it your go-to.
- Embrace resort skinning – Resort skinning lacks the aplomb of the backcountry, but for many folks this is a necessity to daily skiing. Many resorts allow skinning before and after work. Gear choice is simple, you don’t need a partner and you can just pop on the headphones and jam out if you feel the need to escape. Summiting the top of Arapahoe Basin as the sun is setting at 13,000 feet on the Continental Divide listening to whatever music makes you feel good is one of the finest skiing experiences around in my book.
- Give yourself a test – Self-motivation is awesome but sometimes we need a little extra push to get out the door. This is where a big race, goal or ski trip later in the season can provide powerful impetus to go ski. Every year we’ve signed up for something, or planned a much bigger trip that requires fitness and comfort in the backcountry. Go register for that Elk Mountain Grand Traverse or something similar. It will lead to a great winter because it will get you skiing regularly.
- Give yourself regular skiing rewards – Beyond an end of the year goal, dot your ski season with fun trips. Maybe this is the year to take that long backcountry skiing weekend to Teton Pass? Nelson, British Columbia is an easy, inexpensive trip and the skiing is out of this world. Or book a Colorado hut trip, ski powder all day and get tipsy with friends at 12,000 feet in the evening – easy to do at that elevation after exercising in the fresh mountain air all day. Plan some awesome (not expensive) trips to snazz up the season and keep it fun.
- Go deep into the season – Resort-only skiers have a set season: Thanksgiving to mid-April, give or take a few weeks. That’s ridiculous, because some of the absolute best skiing is in May and June. If the goal is 100 days a year, it becomes much more achievable if you extend the season to 6-7 months instead of 4-5. Embrace the concept of the endless winter.
- Don’t be afraid to take a day off – Skiing 100 days a year and working full-time requires discipline and consistency, but it’s not a prison sentence. If you are exhausted, sick or just burnt out, take a day or two off. I find that usually cures whatever is causing the hang up, and after a few days off I’m psyched to get back out there. By averaging five days a week on snow, 100 days a year will happen. That leaves two days a week to sleep in, grab a greasy spoon breakfast and just chill.
Once you commit to skiing 100 days this winter, start strong. Bank days early in the year. Make it a habit. After 30-40 days, it will feel automatic and you’ll begin to question why anybody wouldn’t want to ski as much as possible. There is a satisfaction to heading into work well exercised, awoken by the cold, soul filled by a gorgeous sunrise and smiling huge because that’s what snow – whatever condition it might be in – does to human beings.
Have a great winter and think snow.
If you like this article and want more content like it, we ask for your vote!: So Elaine (featured in all these photos) has signed up for Fjallraven Polar Expedition, a dogsled trip with Fjallraven in northern Sweden this winter. She’s quite well qualified I think but it’s a social media, popularity contest based entirely on votes, and despite what our boss Larry says, we’re little pions in the social media world. So, if you are so inclined, cast your vote her way! We promise, there will be an amazing story on here when it’s all said and done. D&E