Coleman to Kananaskis: Forget-Me-Nots, Tornado Mountain and the Most Beautiful Spot on Earth

July 9, 2019 – 24 miles, 3,300 of climbing

Aspirations for getting out of town quickly rarely go as planned. The pattern of the trail gets broken, conversations happen and breakfast places keep serving food – all delaying departure. Such is life and the cause of us departing Coleman at an extremely lazy 9:45 am bound north on a six-and-a-half day ration to Kananaskis.

It was a productive break. My blisters healed, Elaine’s foot is feeling better and I traded in my sieve-like raincoat for a functional Patagonia Torrentshell that I got at a local fly-fishing shop in Coleman. If we open our own store someday it’ll look and feel a lot like this one: an earthy, wood-feel, a casual vibe with coffee and soup and pastries and a spattering of functional gear to get people into the outdoors. There are few things in life as wonderful as a small town gear/coffee shop.

The trail today was as if we got tossed back to Colorado. It was a mostly two-track day thru aspen groves and less dramatic gray mountains, reminiscent of Kenosha Pass or the eastern side of the San Juans. The sun was shining and there was a slight breeze making the trees quake, about perfect hiking conditions really. The area north of Coleman has been logged heavily, but the trees seem to be restoring themselves nicely.

While the landscape reminded me of Colorado, the animals tracks told another story. Big bear prints and scat were prominent, and for awhile we also followed what I’m positive was a wolf track. At the very end of the day we climbed a steeper pass and found a wonderful flat spot on its shoulder to sleep for the night. As I write this, the birds are chirping, the creek is gurgling and Elaine is fixing up some pasta for dinner. Life is simple, and life is good.

July 10 – 18 miles, 4,100 feet of climbing

Leslie and Keith told us this section had the most human resource impact of the entire trail, and we saw a big part of that today. After a blissful sleep we started up Race Horse Pass, a wake-up call stouter than the strongest espresso. I’ve always held the simple mantra that the perfect start to a day is to wake up early and climb a mountain. It’s good for the lungs, legs and soul.

We walk back down the other side on a long meandering ATV track as a light drizzle falls. I enjoy the insular feel, listening to the rain patter on my hood, letting the mind do nothing but be present in the moment. Humans spend too much of our time being busy. Yet what is particularly wrong with just being in the moment, listening to the rain or watching the wind blow through the trees?

After a long decent we came around a bend and saw what looked like Mordor. A quick glance at the map told us that this was the Line Creek Coal Mine, a massive scar on the landscape that resembled the Climax Mine back home. While we’ve passed numerous logging clear cuts, the impact from that seems minimal compared to this. I suspect it will take till the next ice age for the impacts of this mine to completely disappear. It’s always a tough balance, the need for energy and preserving the environment. I understand that balance but out here I tell what I see, and it isn’t always pretty.

The trail climbs out of the mine basin and up something called North Fork Pass. This pass is the official starting point of the original Great Divide Trail way back in the 1970s before they decided to include Waterton National Park. It seems a bit of an odd start, as it’s seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Then again, that’s part of what makes it so perfect…jagged grey mountains erupting into the sky from forests of dark pine and crystal clear streams running in the valley below. As if to prove a point of the wildness of this place, a buck leaps across the trail in front of us, stops, and stares at us for a good 30 seconds before moving on. It was almost as if the deer was evaluating us and decided we passed the mustard test to enter. Thank you deer, and may you have good luck this fall avoiding the hunter’s rifle.

We drop into a rowdy looking basin and turn left up towards Tornado Saddle. Tornado Saddle marks the beginning of the truly jagged part of this segment and promises to be a highlight. We follow an old ATV track up the mountain that gets more and more faint as we climb. We rise out of the trees and cross a talus field left here by the last ice age. The clouds rip by and build at a quickening pace. A check of the weather on the InReach calls for storminess this evening, and while a crossing of the pass might be unrealistic, we don’t feel like stopping yet.

The trail is more of a goat track than anything else now, and soon we come to a 100 yard section of blowdown that turns the trail into a 25-minute hopscotching ordeal. We arrive at a flat meadow with huge mountains on all sides. The weather is brewing up higher and this seems like a good spot to stop for the day.

I’ve been to many places in my life, but this particular place may take the prize as the most beautiful spot yet. It’s a mountain pass with lush, flat ground with scattered fir and spruce trees. Animal trails dart off in all directions, and cliff walls rise on all sides of the pass. A massive monolith shoots up 3,500 vertical feet to the east, and I believe I could spend a lifetime looking at this wall. Sheer cliffs rise up to the sky, broken up only by vertical gullies and snowfields. Rock fall echoes down the face, and the wind gives a haunting whistle as it rips thru ledges, towers, nooks and crannies. The top is constantly shrouded in misty clouds and fog, and below the wall is illuminated by the last rays of sun of the day.

Below the cliff wall, a slope of jagged talus and scree eventually relents to alpine meadows dotted with wildflowers. Below that small firs emerge, and lower, the dark northern forest with towering trees, deep and mysterious. And finally, further down, but still up above the rest of the world, the forest breaks into our valley were we are spending the night. Down here that howling wind that is ravaging the peak is a mere light breeze, keeping the mosquitoes at bay. Birds sing to one another, their chirps echoing across the forest.

Oh what I would give for a small cabin in this spot, to spend autumn and winter here, to see bears and wolves and watch the clouds roar by and the half moon hang in the darkening night sky. Today we did not see another human, just the way we like it. This may indeed be the most perfect spot on earth.

July 11 – 17 miles, 5,700 feet of climbing

Well this was a demanding day. It started off with a bushwhack out of the most perfect spot on earth through thick spruce forest on a steep sidehill that eventually gave way to alpine meadows. I have never seen so many Forget-Me-Not flowers in one place, hillsides of them covering the entire tundra. Forget-Me-Nots are my favorite flower, and I’ve never seen them spread so copiously.

I didn’t sleep too well last night. I had haunting dreams of the other world – work and the passage of time – and I wonder what brought it on. Remote places like this make you address your weaknesses head-on. My dad was a worrier, and it’s one thing I strive constantly to not do. That’s a big part of the reason I like to be out here – no time to think of frivolous things and let the undisciplined parts of the mind rule the days, not with a steep mountainside that was growing looser and rockier as we go up.

As we climbed the mountain grew steeper and the wind roared through the cliff walls. Tornado Saddle was living up to its name. As conditions got worse, I found myself getting more comfortable, the muscles and mind relaxing and flowing with the climb. Soon we crested the steepest part of the loose climb, and with a raging wind blowing in our faces, we reached the summit. As the wind howled, Elaine broke into a howl right into the face of the wind, wild and free, exactly where she belongs.

The descent down the other side of Tornado Saddle was less dramatic and steep, and soon we hit trail. We dropped back into the forest and onto the most perfect hiking trail, a remnant of the old GDT built decades ago. Logs were placed across the river, and after a nervous crossing high above on the first one we discovered that they were no problem and enjoyed the high wire act on the crossings to come.

We were meandering along when Elaine stopped dead in her tracks. On the ground in front of her was trigger device for a bear spray canister. While it’s possible it fell off, it’s more likely somebody in front of us actually had a bear encounter in this spot. That certainly got our attention, so we adjusted our bear bells to make them ring a little more jingly and talked and sung a bit louder. Some people find the ding of bear bells annoying, but I quite like it. It reminds me I’m in a wild place, that I’m not at the top of the food chain here and that we’re not walking thru Disneyland.

As the trail dropped lower still, we saw numerous wolf and moose tracks, but no bear signs. We took a lunch at a creek, enjoyed her sweet water and began the next long climb up. This one was very steep, and in the heat of the day sweat poured off of us, making the go a bit uncomfortable. After a long climb we eventually hit the ridge. Looking at the map and checking the GPS, we realized we’d reached the 50° north latitude of planet earth. As the border sits at 49° we’d now traveled one degree north in a little over six days.

When taken into perspective with our walk a few years ago, it’s an accomplishment to be proud of. When we started walking the Continental Divide Trail back in 2017 at the Mexico/US border we were at the 29th north parallel. We’ve now come 21 degrees north of that. We’ve migrated from rattle snakes to grizzly bears, ocotillo plants to larch trees, desert sand to glaciers and snowfields, all by putting one foot in front of the other. The further we go, the novelties of society – burgers and showers and internet – have a harder and harder time competing with a simple trail diet, a cold stream and the sound of birds in the morning and evening outside our Mid.

We’re now closer to the Arctic Circle than Mexico, and I’d be lying if the thought hasn’t crept into both our heads about continuing this northward walk in ensuing years to the Laird River, which is the geographical northern end of the Rocky Mountain chain, and then beyond that, following the caribou migration north from the valleys of northern British Columbia all the way north to the Arctic National Wildlife refuge and Arctic Ocean. That’s a massive project that may prove to be logistically impossible, but what an adventure it would be.

It sounds crazy to even write about it. But I do find a certain irony there. It’s funny how the most basic things – walking, drinking from steams and sleeping in the forest for extended periods of time – essentially migrating under your own power – is seen as “crazy” or “extreme” when in actuality it’s probably the most natural thing a human being can do. Humans have been doing this for many millenniums. Meanwhile, sitting in a cubicle, staring at a computer screen and accumulating more-and-more stuff, an evolution that has happened in the last 50 years, not even one human generation, is deemed “normal.” Normal for who, and normal for what purpose?

Big thoughts for the head, but there is trail to hike. After the climb the route began an equally as precipitous descent back down to another valley floor. Before the hike I rolled my left ankle on a training session, and for the first time it began to bother me. I’ll have to keep an eye on that. The bottom of the trail was a horse shit, trampled mess and we wearily took a break and assessed our next move. We certainly didn’t want to stay here, so we began the next vertical wall climb, a slow go to the Beehive Mountain Cirque. This was the time of day when mental toughness ruled the roost, when the process of putting one foot in front of the other becomes more deliberate. True happiness comes on the heels of suffering, so there would be some happiness tonight!

After a roller coaster ride through fields of Forget-Me-Nots and stunning views, we found a place to set up camp for the night on the edge of a ridge underneath the stunning cliff wall of the Continental Divide. As I review the day in my head, a little battered and bruised but also ecstatic, I’m beginning to realize the purpose of all this: to feel totally comfortable in all natural environments.

I was a little nervous before Tornado Pass. On our Greenland trip, I think we were both constantly a little nervous. Being attentive is key. But being nervous is when mistakes happen. We have little interest in racing competition anymore, as we’ve kind of accomplished everything we need to accomplish in that realm. Going around in circles with hundreds of other people holds little interest to us now. But getting comfortable in all environments, no matter how harsh or alone or wild…now that’s something to strive towards. It’s a goal that may take a lifetime to attain, but it’s a good goal nonetheless. I am beyond lucky to have a life partner like Elaine who wants to do this stuff with me. I know of no other team like ours so well matched and motivated in this regard.

July 12 – 21 miles, 5,000 feet of climbing

There is a line the Bad Religion song “Sorrow” that resonates: “Let me take you to the herding ground, where all good men are trampled down.” Truth be told, this hike was the direct byproduct of a failed work situation that I’ve been thinking about, and at times feeling guilty about. As we walk on, clarity about these situations is becoming clearer.

The situation involved leaders degrading, harassing and belittling fellow co-workers. After months of this, after speaking up and trying to change the situation, we essentially left. We were far from the only one’s experiencing the situation, and in actuality we were carrying the burden of others who were. And I’ve been feeling bad about this. Perhaps we were too idealistic, and needed to be more compromising. But on the trail, where rules are simple and right and wrong are defined, clarity is emerging. We were right. We were absolutely right. Fighting for decency and the fair treatment of fellow human beings is the right thing to do.

It feels like we passed a test of one of those life moments where we were, like that Bad Religion song, brought “to the herding ground,” but instead of “being trampled down,” and compromising our values and morals, we made the harder choice, we fought back, we took a stand and we maintained who we are. And for that I am beyond proud. Thank you trail for providing that clarity.

Today is another day to rage in the mountains and walk north. After descending to a river valley, we climbed up another huge ridge and entered a mountain cirque with a lake perfectly placed underneath. Looking up, an eagle circled overhead and in the far distance, we heard the deep echo of a wolf howl. We crested another ridge, looked south, and saw the jagged undulations of the mountains we had just crossed. We have not seen another human in three days, and we are becoming as wild as the landscape around us.

We pass by remnants of an old gold mining operating, rusted buckets and cranks melding into the earth, a tale of a bygone era where fortitude and toughness and the chance of failure ruled the land. Onward still, into a Larch forest. Larch is a coniferous tree that sheds its needles every winter, defying logic and the norm. In the fall, it turns the most golden yellow, glowing on the hillside. If you have not seem a larch tree in the autumn, then you sill have things to do in life. Unlike most conifer trees, larch needles are soft when new, and when passing through them they brush your skin like a soft kiss. The have quickly become my favorite tree.

We descend to an mangled river valley, with stream beds everywhere, downed trees and clogged mud making navigation challenging. A flood ravaged this area in 2013 and the evidence is clear that this is huge country and we are mere blips to nature’s power. We take a break and a pine marten scurries through roots and moss, comes within ten feet, stares directly at us, and scampers away at a rapid pace. We suspect we might be the first humans the marten has ever seen.

We climb another ridge, another 1,500 feet, and come to another stunning vista, raging grey mountains erupting to the sky. As we head back down through the forest we come across something that I assumed was only legend. Tree shrapnel was scattered across the trail like a bomb had gone off. I’d heard stories of trees exploding in extreme cold when the sap freezes and expands, but until now had never seen it. If a person was close by when this tree exploded, it could easily kill them. I imagined a cold January night, so cold that sap freezes and trees explode like bombs. We are now north enough for trees to explode. That is a beautiful thing.

Wearily, we head down to a creek and debate camping there. We’ve learned that camping on creeks is a recipe for a cold, wet night, so we drag our bodies up yet another hill and plop our shelter down right on top of the trail, exhausted and dehydrated, but souls full and hearts happy and clear.

July 13 – 23 miles, 4,400 feet of climbing

Today was a strange day. We met other hikers. After being alone in the wild for so long, our social skills have declined. Like us, they were thru-hikers, one guy from Glenwood and one from Auburn, California. It was good to see other people, other like minded migratory folk out here, but I can’t imagine hiking something like the Appalachian Trail where groups of hikers are the norm. I crave more solitude and wilderness than that, at least at this time in my life.

After a couple warm up passes, we crested the final big rise of this stretch, Fording River Pass, which offered the most extended stretch of alpine tundra yet. In just the short 150 miles we’ve travelled, the land feels more wild. Near the top, I climbed a short stretch of rock and noticed that I was walking on top of fossilized sea shells. This high mountain pass used to be deep under the ocean where barnacles clung to rocks. It’s hard to comprehend that sort of transition in the span of human life but it brings to realization that this earth we live on has been here for a very, very long time.

We drop down the other side of the pass, and the mosquitoes, which had not been much of a problem thus far, begin to ravage us. We put on our head nets, spray on the deet and forge on, down the valley, to a creek. After five hot and humid days of sunscreen, bug spray and sweat, we take the opportunity to jump into the river, bathe and feel clean again. And just like that, another human civilization nicety, a shower, becomes unnecessary. I suspect, if we knew plants and animals and how to live off the land, we could stay out here forever and be perfectly content and happy.

The trail meanders down a river bed and I roll my bad ankle. Ouch, that hurt. Fortunately, the trail turns into a dirt road walk which is easy on it. We walk eight more miles and camp in an open field, watching the gophers scurry about and listening to the birds sing as the sun sets over the big mountains to the west.

July 14 – 20 miles, 2,100 feet of climbing

We’re up at 5 am for a road walk to Kananaskis and civilization. My ankle hurts to start but after a half hour it warms up and feels fine. Elaine is dealing with some aches and pains too, but walking on easy road for 20 miles is certainly not a problem. Walking is good for a person…the problem is being sedentary too much. We simply have to walk our bodies into shape.

We pass a ranger cabin and stop at a bench to eat a snack. A cycling group, riding an array of jeep roads to Whitefish, Montana passes the other direction, friendly folks enjoying their own adventure. At the end of the group, a young woman passes by and asks if she can share our bench and eat her lunch with us. Of course we say yes. She admits she is terrified of bears and appreciates our company. Bear fear aside, we love this woman’s style. She’s riding a rigid, 26″, steel Mountain Goat bicycle in some of the most remote terrain on the planet. Mountain Goat hasn’t made bikes in over a decade but she tells us that she’s ridden this very steed to Mexico and back and has no need for anything newer. After working in a bike shop this summer that sells $14,000 bikes, it’s refreshing to see that adventure requires no such price tag. It’s the size of the heart and bravery of the soul that creates true greatness, not the size of the wallet. After a jarring experience in the past month, it restores a little bit of my faith in that sport.

We depart ways and walk on north as she peddles south. As road walks go, this one is stunning. These mountains surpass anything I’ve seen in the lower-48, yet they don’t have a name. Eventually the road ends and we enter Elk Lake Provincial Park. If this is a provincial park, I can’t imagine what the national parks here in Canada will look like. We hike right to Elk Lake, the most beautiful alpine, glacial fed lake imaginable, and take another swim. There is a simple rule of the trail. If the day is warm and there is a mountain lake, by all means swim.

We continue on another five miles to the end of the segment. We’ll be back here in two days with our Banff friends to continue our journey north, but for now, it’s a hitch hike back to Banff for some R&R, healing our our bodies and fixing a couple equipment issues. True to Canadian style, the people who give us rides are some of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met, and we arrive in Banff safe and happy, restored and ready for the next phase of the journey.

Prelude to the Great Divide Trail

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The Great Divide Trail under Mount Assiniboine in Banff National Park. Photo by Elizabeth Morton.

June 6 was a rough day. Out of nowhere, Elaine was laid off from her job at a bike shop in Boulder. She was told the company was doing poorly financially, and that it was necessary to eliminate Elaine’s paycheck from the fray. She’d been doing good work and the owner was apologetic, explaining that his hands were tied and this was the only solution.

It was a harsh and unexpected blow. Work is something we don’t talk much about, but we pride ourselves in doing it well. At the old Neptune Mountaineering Elaine carried a large portion of the sales floor for half-a-decade. At Larry’s Bootfitting Elaine established herself as one of the up-and-coming stars in the craft.  And while relatively new at the bike shop, which doubles as a nordic ski shop in the winter, she was doing good work, selling bikes and learning the craft at a rapid pace. She’d never been laid off before and it hurt her deeply.

Part of the disappointment was that, to do well in the bike shop job, we’d already called off a hike we’d been planning ever since we finished the Continental Divide Trail. For a few years we’d aspired to hike the Great Divide Trail, an 800-mile extension of the CDT that heads north deep into the Canadian Rocky Mountains. This was the summer we’d planned to hike it, but the bike shop was a new job and we wanted to impress, so we postponed the GDT hike indefinitely. It was an odd and uncharacteristic decision for us, but we were trying to be responsible adults. The lay off changed the dynamics of all that drastically.

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Smiles were a little forced the day after the lay-off. It was a catalyst toward much better things.

For a couple days after the lay-off we panicked, and there was a lot of tears and anger. The prospect of finding a meaningless job until winter wasn’t appealing, and Elaine’s confidence was shook. During a particularly rough patch, we decided to call Larry from the bootfitting store. Larry was our boss, but more importantly he’s also a friend who understands Elaine’s value and work ethic better than anybody.

As is always the case, Larry put everything in perspective and let her know that it was a stupid decision that in absolutely no way reflected her work ethic or talent. That was good to hear and made her feel better. But before the conversation ended, Larry floated a carrot: we go hike the trail and come back to work for him in the autumn. Those words cascaded into a decision that lead us to where we are now.

After calling Larry, we went for a walk in the woods and discussed what we wanted to do for the rest of the summer. After eight years of thriving together, working away from each other on different schedules had zero appeal to either of us. The commute down Boulder Canyon was already a nightmare with summer construction doubling the time it took to get to work every day. What we wanted to do was get away from the chaos and go hike the Great Divide Trail. With the lay-off and the promise of work in the fall, suddenly there was not much stopping us.

We got home and called our friends Leslie and Keith. Leslie and Keith are fellow thru-hikers and adventurers who live in Banff, Alberta and are very familiar with the GDT. We met them on the Continental Divide Trail two summer’s prior. Leslie was thru-hiking it, with Keith playing the role of “super support team,” driving the truck and making sure Leslie was well taken care of. They’re an awesome couple and just good people. We weren’t sure we could pull together the logistics of a long hike in such a short time, but Keith and Leslie assured us it was completely doable.

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This is Keith. While hiking a hot, smoky road section outside Anaconda, Montana on the CDT, he provided us with the best trail magic possible, a surprise pint of Ben and Jerry’s Coffee Toffee ice cream.

It was an easy decision, and a necessary one. We booked tickets to Calgary and went into a blitz of preparations. We consider ourselves loners, but in reality we needed other people’s help here. The words and encouragement from Larry, Keith and Leslie led us directly to where we are now: flying to Calgary in eleven hours to go hike the Great Divide Trail for two months.

So what exactly is the Great Divide Trail? In the simplest terms, it’s a route that heads north from the Canadian border thru the Rocky Mountains. It starts where the Continental Divide Trail ends, in Waterton National Park just north of Glacier National Park. From Waterton, the route traverses north 800-miles along the spine of the Rockies through rowdy, glacially carved mountains and some of the most beautiful terrain on planet. The trail passes through Waterton, Banff, Kootenay, Yoho and Jasper National Parks before finishing at a place called Kakwa Lake in northern British Columbia, close to the northern end of the entire Rocky Mountain chain.

gdttrailThe Great Divide Trail is considered mile-for-mile the prettiest long distance trail in the world. Whereas the CDT has long stretches of flat desert and ranch-land walking, the GDT stays in the mountains and forests. It’s also one of the wildest and hardest trails in the world, with a lot of navigation challenges, river crossings and steep, snowy mountain passes. Often there is no trail, with the route more resembling backcountry travel in Alaska or the Yukon. The entire trail is in grizzly bear terrain which adds an element of excitement and challenge.

It’s been quite the lead-up to get this place, and we’re giddy with excitement. The type of terrain and climate the GDT presents is exactly the kind of place we like to be. Beyond the mountain terrain and natural challenges, the thing we’re most excited about on this particular hike is the trust-in-the-world attitude we’re going to have to embrace as a result of our limited planning. On previous hikes we had an almost military level of organization with drop boxes and supplies mailed to us well in advance. There will be an element of that here, but there is also going to be a lot more of the free-flowing Jack Kerouac traveling style involved.

We’re experienced now. We’re more confident, we understand the pacing of a thru hike and we know how to make trail towns and resource work. We are comfortable making smart decisions in big mountains and wild environments. There is a freedom to the looseness of this hike that is very appealing and invigorating. And it’s not like we’re not prepared…it’s just…this one will be a little more come-as-it-will.

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The trail ends here at Kakwa Lake in northern British Columbia.

The truth is, Elaine and I have struggled since we got off the Continental Divide Trail. Not with each other, but with everyday society and civilization. After hiking 3,000 miles north under your own power where everything is tangible and real, this civilized world seems mundane and contrived. We’re independent people and we don’t like being told what to do. We like to work hard – you don’t go for long hikes if you don’t – but we struggle with the bullshit that is so prevalent in the “real world.” More than ever, we need this hike.

It’s time to go for a long walk.

We’ll be updating this blog regularly, or at least as regularly as the wild stretches of the Canadian wilderness allow. There isn’t much information available about the trail, mostly because not many people have hiked it. We did find a few good resources for anybody interested. The Great Divide Trail Association are stewards for the route and a primary source of information. We also found this wonderful nine-part video series from a couple who hiked the trail back in 2017. It’s inspiring and gives a good flavor of the terrain and challenges we’ll encounter.

Special thanks: Larry for inspiration. Tour Guide and Wife Tracker for logistical assistance. Mom for cat watching. Julbo for awesome eye protection. La Sportiva for keeping our feet happy and healthy. Hyperlite Mountain Gear for the best packs in the world. Nemo for shelter. 

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Time to do what we do best: move freely thru mountains and wild places.

Gear Review: Åsnes Mountain Race 48 Cross Country Skis

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Åsnes Mountain Race 48 skis. Narrow and light enough for fast skiing around the track, wide and sturdy enough for serious backcountry pursuits. Waxable with skin lock, 60-48-53 width, 3/4 length metal edges and a sintered race base. It may be the one cross country ski to rule them all!

When I was a kid I had one pair of cross country skis. They were made of wood, had 3-pin bindings and worked for everything. I’d use them to go for weekend skis with my mom and dad on the endless tracks at Nordmarka outside Oslo. If we decided we wanted to leave the tracks and bushwhack across the forest or meadows, I’d use them for that too. Our school would have monthly cross country ski races and at recess, we’d build jumps and launch ourselves off them (I got a good black eye from an errant landing). They worked for that too. They were utilitarian, jack-of-all-trade skis.

A quick look at our ski rack today and it’s easy to see we’ve diverted heavily from the one ski quiver. To our defense, we’ve been working in the ski industry for almost a decade now, where pro-deals are the candy to entice people to stick around. Lately though, I’ve been thinking about simplifying things and I’ve been wondering if it’s possible to have a ski that actually works well on groomed tracks and in the backcountry?

On a recent trip to the motherland I spotted a new Åsnes ski in a shop in Oslo called the Mountain Race 48 that caught my attention. Featuring a narrow profile and sporty, green racing stripes, it was svelte, sexy and light to the touch. And yet, it had some features to make it backcountry worthy, including 3/4 length metal edges and Åsnes’ signature skin lock system for climbing steeper hills deeper in the mountains.

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Elaine spots the Mountain Race ski at a ski shop in Oslo. Now THAT’s a backcountry nordic ski selection! 75% of those skis are waxable, a far cry from the U.S. where waxless skis rule.

It is also a waxable ski. In the U.S., when people buy backcountry nordic touring skis, they almost always buy waxless skis. Most of these skis handle poorly, to the point where they really detract from the enjoyment of the sport. It’s kind of like…if mountain bikers were all still riding fully-rigid 26″ inch bikes with steep head tube angles. Yet in America, waxless backcountry nordic skis are pretty much the name of the game. Things have not evolved much and as such the sport has stagnated in this country.

To truly enjoy backcountry nordic skiing, I believe a willingness to delve into wax is essential. Yet it seems the concept of waxing has paralyzed most U.S. recreational nordic skiers to utter fear. Sure, racers use a gazzillion different waxes, but for touring it’s so simple. Pick up some Green, Blue Extra, and Violet and call it good. Learn how to apply it and wax away, a process that takes about sixty seconds at the trailhead.

In addition to a simple wax kit, Åsnes’ skin lock system is a game changer. Utilizing a narrow 35 mm mohair kicker skin that is easily applied under the ski, a skier can completely avoid using sticky and cumbersome klister wax when temperatures rise above freezing. The little kicker skins glide, they kick, they do everything needed for a good day on warm snow.

Elaine and I picked up a pair of the Mountain Race skis with the intent to use them on light and fast nordic backcountry adventures,  As such, we decided to shun heavier NNN BC gear and installed standard NNN track bindings on them. We did an adventure last week during a rare April cold snap that highlighted the perfect scenario for these unique skis.

When we woke up it was 15° and snowing, the kind of day that absolutely begs for a nordic classic ski. But it’s been a long season and Elaine and I were looking for something a little more low key and in nature than another seven laps around Eldora’s groomed trails. We also didn’t want to slog around in our leather boots. We wanted the best of both worlds, so we grabbed our Mountain Race skis, stuffed our anorak pockets with wax, a cork, kicker skins and some chocolate and headed to Eldora.

We started our ski on groomed trails, covered with an inch or two of new snow. We quickly found the sweet spot for ideal kick on the wax pocket and commented to each other, “hey, these ski like normal classic skis.” In the track they kicked and glided fast and light.

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Åsnes Mountain Race 48’s are just as home in the track as they are in the backcountry.

We hopped on an aptly named trail called Roller Coaster and immediately noticed that they descended a lot better than normal classic skis. Wind had blown in some snow drifts that deflect race skis, but these cut through the consolidated new snow no problem. The tips have a smidge of early rise rocker, which helps them maneuver and negotiate rough terrain.

For fun we looped over to Beaver’s Revenge, the steepest downhill at the entire area, and pointed them straight. The skis were absolutely confidence inspiring and fun…they rocked on the downhills. We backtracked and herring-boned back up the steep hill.  Instead of doing the same loops over and over, these skis wanted to play and explore.

We looped around Buckeye Basin, impressed by how well they performed in the track, not slow at all, even nimble. We continued skiing to the base of Rising Sun, a steep backcountry nordic trail that would be an absolute nightmare on normal classic racing skis. We pulled out our 35 mm mohair kicker skins and began working our way to the top of Tennessee Mountain and the high point of the nordic center.

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Eldora, like many nordic centers in the U.S., has some nice backcountry trails trails that jut off the main groomed routes. At places with this type of trail design, the Åsnes Mountain Race is a dream ski.

The trail was steep enough that we still had to occasionally herringbone, but for the most part the skins allowed us to walk right up. For this type of “mixed” skiing, it’s a good idea to put a slightly bigger basket on the poles, as my race baskets were occasionally sinking in on the soft side snow. There is no need to go with a backcountry pole however, as the intent of this type of skiing is to be able to ski in the backcountry but still have a functional set-up for the track.

We crested the climb, and kept the skins on across the rolling terrain to Tennessee Mountain Cabin. The 35 mm mohair skins glide well and offer more purchase on the loose new snow than just blue wax. A light snow was being whipped into a frenzy by a strong wind blowing off the Continental Divide, so we gladly ducked into the cabin, lit a small fire, and enjoyed some Norwegian chocolate in the rustic simplicity.

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Is there anything better than enjoying good company and chocolate around a wood stove in a rustic mountain hut part-way through a cross country ski? Probably, but I haven’t found it yet.

This is something I miss with just straight track skiing – the ability to be deep in nature, away from people. On the other hand I love the light, fast and free feeling of a fast classic or skate ski. It seems the Mountain Race skis offer the best of both worlds: wild and fast freedom. It is an intoxicating combination.

We left the cabin and made our way through the deep-and-getting-deeper snow along a ridge line to the Setting Sun trail. The trail climbed steadily to an opening, where it switchbacked and crossed over Volkswagen sized drifts shaped from a winter of windy rowdiness. This type of terrain is a nightmare on regular classic skis – kind of like driving a rough jeep road in a Lamborghini – but the Mountain Races ate it up with aplomb.

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For snow up to a foot in depth, the Mountain Race’s break trail just fine.

We crested the top, removed the kicker skins, and began a long descent back to the groomed nordic trails. It was a ripping downhill and we were even able to drop the knee and make some telemark turns, whooping and hollering with the joy that only skiing in a snowstorm can create.

Back on the nordic trails, we hopped onto Phoebe Snow and Meadows Loop – passing some skate skiers along the way, something that would never, ever happen on a wide backcountry nordic ski – and enjoyed perfect kick and glide and the sensation of moving fast. It was time to go home, but not before a fast drop on Gandy Dancer, where once again the descending capabilities of the skis shined.

It seems, more and more, genres of sports are blending. The most popular type of cycling these days is gravel riding, a melding of mountain biking and road biking into a style that is tough, fast and versatile. Same goes for trail running and hiking, where the lines and gear used for backpacking and traditional jogging are completely blurred. In this era of increased reliance on complex technology there seems to be a movement towards outdoor gear that offers versatility and less complexity, or in this case, one nordic ski to rule them all! It makes sense: the simplicity of the outdoors is a needed medication to the complexity of the other, real world.

Even without a higher cause for the greater social good, this type of hybrid Nordic skiing is fun. Probably the coolest thing about it is it opens up the mind to new possibilities. In essence, it basically doubled the skiable terrain we can normally enjoy at Eldora Nordic Center, and in turn enriched the experience. The only thing I’m disappointed about is we didn’t figure this particular ski out until the very end of the season. It’ll certainly be something to look forward to next winter.

Of course, no gear is perfect and this set-up has some limitations. If I was trying to win a 50 km classic race, this would not be my ski of choice (bigger lungs would be my choice). It’s a little too heavy and there are better skis out there for that endeavor. Conversely, if my daily ski consisted of running a trap line in Canada’s Northwest Territories breaking trail through 18 inches of new snow everyday, this wouldn’t be my ski of choice for that either, as I’d want something a lot wider and beefier. But for somebody who enjoys skiing the track and backcountry equally and doesn’t want a bunch of different pairs of skis, the Mountain Race is about perfect.

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Hot laps before dark at Brainard Lake on the Mountain Race 48’s.

The most difficult decision regarding this ski is what binding to put on it. I skied it with my normal Madshus classic NNN boots, and felt a little under-gunned on the tight, twisty trails at Brainard Lake. Elaine used it with a combi boot that has a stiffer sole and, more importantly, more lateral stiffness, and had good luck. In this case, I’d recommend steering clear of the most expensive boots, as more recreational models are generally stiffer and have more insulation.

No doubt, this ski paired with NNN BC bindings and boots would absolutely rock for Brainard-style, tight, twisty conditions, while giving up some performance at the track. For something like skiing across Greenland or Expedition Amundsen, where pulling a pulk adds additional balance concerns, I’d certainly install an NNN BC binding and use an appropriate boot (At Expedition Amundsen, it was THE ski of choice for the fastest competitors). And while I love the simplicity of 3-pin boots and bindings, to me that’s not a good option for a ski I plan to use at least a little bit in the track, as the sides of the binding will drag on the grooves.

I’d say if the intended purpose is 70% or more backcountry, install it with NNN BC. Anything less than that, and it’ll work better with a regular nordic NNN binding and a combi boot with some stiffness in the uppers. Of course, better skiers can get away with less boot stability, and visa versa.

The biggest single problem with this ski is availability.  Åsnes skis are very hard to get in the United States, and the Mountain Race 48 ski isn’t something shops currently bring in because it breaks the image of a traditional backcountry nordic ski. A grand total of three Mountain Race skis were shipped to the U.S. last year (a 180, 190 and 200 cm) It’s a tough sell in a category that doesn’t generally generate much enthusiasm in the first place.

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These skis scream adventure. A warning though – they are so much fun they tend to lead to late arrivals back to the car because a skier just ends up wanting to go deeper into the wild.

Which, I suppose, is part of the motivation for writing this review…showing the beauty of this type of hybrid skiing and making the skis more available to North American nordic skiers! If the people demand it, it will arrive.

In the interim, what’s a skier to do? Go to Norway and buy a pair there? Well, there are worse options in the world. Roundtrip flights to Oslo on Icelandair or Norwegian Air cost about $500 in the winter. It wouldn’t be that difficult to fly in with just a backpack and boots, take the train into the city, go to a shop that sells the skis, give the shop tech a little tip to mount them quickly, and head out into the amazing Norwegian forest for a backcountry/track adventure of a lifetime. If this seems intriguing, message us and we’ll gladly share more information.

In the interim, we’ll keep our eyes peeled for other skis that are waxable, narrow, 3/4 edged, offer a skin lock system and are available in the United States. As far as we know, the Åsnes Mountain Race 48 is the only ski in the world right now that has all these traits.

“Long Way Radio” Greenland Podcast

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A 300-year old sod roof cabin Elaine and I stayed at in Østmarka at the end of our trip.

We arrived back in the United States from our 16-day adventure in Norway late last week. It’s good to be home in our cabin in the mountains again, where we can be creative, go for little recovery skis, live cheaply and ease into some normalcy of life again. We’ve truly entered the “off-season” for Elaine and I. Of course we go out and ski, hike or bike almost every day, but right now it’s just for fun, there is no plan to follow and the pressure is off. It’s an absolutely necessary time of the year to refresh and relax mentally and physically before determining future goals and rebuilding for next season.

Personally, I have five main projects/goals for the next 30 to 40 days:

  1. Getting a lot of these adventures we’ve been on – Expedition Amundsen, Greenland and the Continental Divide Trail – beyond journal entries and into some sort of working written format, some for this blog, and some for publication.
  2. Improving knowledge about bikes and all things bike related for our new job. It’s an exciting challenge and it’s been fun learning something new.
  3. Carve a wooden spoon or something made of wood once a week.
  4. Improve flexibility. This is an essential part of the fitness rebuild process and necessary for injury prevention. That, and I’m stiffer than a 2×4!
  5. Start working on firewood for winter 2019-20. This is an extended process that requires cutting wood in the spring and then allowing it dry for the summer.

Late last summer a good friend of ours, Jack Fisher, paid us a visit. Jack worked with us at Neptune Mountaineering before the place went bankrupt a few years ago. Jack is one of my favorite human beings, with a good sense of ethics, an incredible work ethic and a sense of humor that often has me laughing out loud. Jack also has a penchant for unique adventures that includes going to India, renting a motorcycle and riding it to the Pakistan border. The inspiration I get from Jack is to do things a little more off-beat and not take everything quite so seriously! That’s a good way to be.

Jack recently went back to school in Oregon to become a journalist/story teller. As part of this process, he started a Podcast called “Long Way Radio,” that focuses on adventures and the folks that participate in them. Podcasts are a fun, relatively new way of telling stories, and indeed Elaine and I listened to them religiously while hiking some of the more dusty and boring sections of the Continental Divide Trail.

Jack convinced us to talk about our Greenland trip for a “Long Way Radio” podcast episode. The trip itself didn’t go quite as we’d planned, but the lessons we learned there have proven invaluable for everything we’ve done since. Besides that, it was a harrowing adventure, and it’s a good story.

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Two sleds in the vast expanse of the Greenland ice cap.

Thanks to Jack’s podcast, we’re finally able to tell a bit more of the story. If you are so inclined, listen to it on some headphones during your next adventure, or on the stereo while carving a nice piece of birch or cooking a good soup!

I’m not a podcast expert, but I believe it can be found on iTunes, or by clicking the link below. Happy listening!

Long Way Radio: Greenland Episode 5

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Jack Fisher: Podcast maestro or Professor of Botany at the University of Montana in Missoula?

Leather 3-pins, snowy forests and wind: A ski trip around Brainard Lake

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Enjoying a nice early season ski after a snowstorm on the CMC Trail.

One of my favorite places locally to go for a ski tour is Brainard Lake. While Eldora ski area offers the type of nordic skiing most people think about when conjuring up images of the sport – perfectly groomed tracks for skate and classic skiing – Brainard is a different experience. This is the place where backcountry nordic ski touring reigns in the region.

Brainard is hardly a secret, which is why I’m not particularly reticent to write about it. As Edward Abbey so eloquently wrote, “I have written much about many good places. But the best places of all, I have never mentioned.” Let’s just say Brainard is a really good place. And, I also have some concerns that nordic ski touring as a sport is fading in the United States as Alpine Touring skiing and fat biking become more popular. I’d like to do my part to reverse this trend, as I believe nordic ski touring is the most pure and soulful type of skiing there is (another blog for another time).

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Nordic ski touring gear is different from nordic track gear. The skis are a bit wider, they often have metal edges, and the bindings support a bigger boot. Here we’re all using leather 3-pin boots and bindings, a classic option. Note the wooden skis. They work well!

Brainard Lake is staggeringly popular in the summertime, so much that we almost never go there from July 4 to Labor Day. Even on weekdays, the crowds can be oppressive. This is a shame, because there isn’t a better concentration of peaks, trails, snowfields and lakes in the entire Indian Peaks region.

In the wintertime, the crunch of people at Brainard Lake can be oppressive, but it’s more manageable. Truth of the matter is the parking lot could be full but very few people go in more than a half-mile from the gate. Indeed, as skiers, there is an advantage. Certainly a hardy few snowshoers will make the three mile trek from the Red Rock Trailhead to Brainard Lake, but the vast majority will not. Meanwhile, the distance is easily covered on skis.

Brainard Lake has a rich cross-country skiing history. In 1928, a group of University of Colorado professors in the Colorado Mountain Club pooled their funds and hired a gentleman named Joe Stapp to build Brainard Lake Cabin. Rumor has it that in 1929 a rowdy group skied completely naked to the lake and cabin, “save for boots and skis.”

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Doorway to the CMC Brainard Cabin.

The war years in the 30s and 40s and the growing popularity of alpine skiing in Colorado limited use of the area. That changed in 1969 when a Norwegian named Ingvar Sodal started the CMC Cross Country Ski School. Ingvar and his staff – usually varsity ski racers on the CU ski team – would teach waxing techniques and skiing lessons to the general public. Ingvar began ordering skis from Norway, worked on making the CMC cabin more winterized and encouraged CMC members to build ski trails so they would have alternative routes to the road.

The South Trail, now called the CMC Trail, was built in 1970. In 1971, the more technical and rolling North Trail was constructed. It’s name was changed to the “Waldrop Trail” to honor Harry Waldrop, a CMC member who was killed in a kayaking accident. To complete the system, the Little Raven Trail was built in 1988.

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Enjoying some spring nordic skiing at Brainard Lake.

Cross country ski races used to be held at Brainard Lake. Courses were either the North Trail, the South Trail or around Long Lake. The Colorado Mountain School hosted the Gold Spittoon Races in the area, but all races ended in 1984 as liability insurance costs became too expensive.

Today, the infrastructure of ski trails and the cabin are still there. While the CMC is less of a force than it used to be, they still play an active role in the Brainard Lake area. The CMC Cabin is open and staffed by volunteers on weekends from Thanksgiving to April. During these times, the cabin serves as a nice spot to eat lunch and get out of the elements. Outside the weekends the hut is locked, available only to folks who rent it for overnight use. To stay in the cabin, one person in the group has to have gone through a CMC hut training program.

Meanwhile, the trails around Brainard Lake are alive and well and require no special training or key. The Waldrop Trail was rerouted by mountain bikers in a couple places a few years ago, but other than that the trail system hasn’t changed since it’s original construction. A group of long-time local skiers head out on the trails at the beginning of every winter and clear deadfall. Of the three main trails, Little Raven and CMC are “skier-only” and the easier options. The Waldrop Trail is multi-use, and features faster downhills and more excitement.

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Map of the Brainard Lake Trail system. Click to expand.

A popular and pleasing loop begins with a ski from the Red Rock Trailhead up Left Hand Reservoir Road to the eastern terminus of the Upper Little Raven Trail. The initial road climbs 500 vertical feet and is a nice warm-up for the trail ahead. It’s a relatively gradual climb with a few steep sections that will test the skier’s wax or ability to herringbone. If you’re fortunate enough to have a pair of skis that feature the little notches for kicker skins (Åsnes and Fischer both make these), it’s not a bad idea to have these skins available in your backpack for this section if needed. That said, 95% of the time I can get up this first climb with just the proper wax-of-the-day.

After 1.25 miles on Left Hand Reservoir Road, turn right and west onto the marked Upper Little Raven Trail (not to be confused with the Lower Little Raven Trail that heads east from Left Hand Reservoir Road and drops down to the Sourdough Trail). The trail starts with rolling terrain in beautiful pine, spruce and fir forest for another mile. This is the highest part of the entire ski and usually has the best snow on the loop, with occasional views of Mount Audubon and the Continental Divide when the trail breaks  into meadows. If you’re lucky, you’ll get first tracks after a new snowfall. If you’re luckier still, you’ll get 2nd or 3rd tracks so you don’t have to do all the work breaking trail.

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Upper Little Raven Trail usually features some fantastic snow conditions.

After the first mile Little Raven changes character and begins to head downhill. The descent is fun and increases in challenge the further along the skier gets. The final drop to the intersection of the CMC trail is guaranteed to garner a whoop of joy or a scream of terror.

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CMC and Little Raven Junction. Skiers Only!

You’re now exactly three miles into the ski and at a decision point. If you turns right you begin the journey home on the CMC Trail. The original built of the three trails, the CMC is also probably the easiest. It doesn’t have any big climbs or descents, although there are a few few tricky short downhills heading east, including one about a half-mile from the Little Raven junction that features a fast descent and quick right turn over a creek bed. In mid-season with lots of snow it’s no problem, but in early season when rocks are prevalent and the creek isn’t quite frozen, the crossing can be on the spicy side.

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Early season creek crossing on the CMC Trail.

The trail enters a gully and then meanders it’s way back to Left Hand Reservoir Road. You’ll pass a couple signed intersections, including instructions for snowshoers to go one way, skiers to go the other. Stay on the skier trail and follow it back to the road. Turn left on Left Hand Reservoir Road and enjoy a zippity half-mile drop back to the car. This loop is about six miles total and a great option for a short day or less experienced skiers.

If you are looking for a longer, more adventurous ski with the possibility of some creature comforts, turn left at the Little Raven/CMC junction. Follow a winding trail that takes the skier out to the far west side of the Brainard Lake Loop Road. Turn left on the road and enjoy the splendor of the lake and mountains in front of you.  This is a popular moose hangout, so be on the lookout for those sometimes ornery characters.

Turn left again on Mitchell Lake Road and continue straight past Long Lake Trailhead Road until you see signs for the CMC Cabin/Waldrop Trail on the right. Turn right into the woods, and after about 100 feet arrive at the nicely protected CMC Cabin. If it’s a weekend, drop into the cabin, donate $1 for a cup of hot cocoa, talk to other skiers and enjoy a piece of wilderness history. If it’s a weekday and the cabin is closed, keep moving because this area can get hammered with brutal wind chills off the divide.

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Enjoying a little “Worst Case Scenario” board game in the CMC Brainard Cabin as a storm rages outside.

After enjoying the cabin, continue north just past the front door of the building. Pay attention to the little blue markers on the trees, as the drifts in this section can get huge and disorienting. You’ll soon pop out onto a large, heavily drifted open section with spectacular views of Mount Audubon and Toll. There are a lot of signs and intersections here – your general goal is to keep following signs for the Waldrop Trail.

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Drifted area views near the CMC Cabin.

After the drifted area it’s time to buckle in and get ready for some fun descents. The first one is a real rip-roarer and intersects with the South Saint Vrain Trail. Keep following signs for the Waldrop Trail, making note of the black diamond rating markers. The trail offers some twisty descending that, when conditions are right, is some of the best nordic ski touring around. Be aware that the Waldrop Trail is multi-use…stay in control on the downhills to avoid freaking out snowshoers and fat bikers!

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Navigating the descents on the Waldrop Trail.

After a mile-plus non-stop descent the trail crosses a bridge over Saint Vrain Creek. This is a wonderful place to take a little snack break and enjoy beautiful forest. Be on the lookout for Grey Jays – aka Camp Robbers – looking for a free handout. From here, the trail gradually climbs to a meadow, where there is an option of cutting back up to Brainard Lake Road for an easier – and possibly very windblown – ski back to the car on the road. A better option is to stay on the Waldrop Trail and enjoy some whoop-dee-doos and gullys. Snow levels effect the ease of travel here greatly. Gullies that are no problem in mid-season conditions can be quite exciting in early season when rocks are popping out everywhere.

Keep your eyes peeled to the north for some fantastic views of Longs Peak. These can be especially enjoyable in the evening as winter alpenglow basks the land. The trail continues east for another half-mile or so before dumping out at the Red Rock Trailhead and your waiting vehicle. All told the Little Raven/Waldrop Loop is 7 miles long.

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December Alpenglow off Longs Peak from the Waldrop Trail.

The routes listed here are the classics, and are great options for learning the lay of the land. Of note – dogs are not allowed on any of these trails. If you want to ski with your pup, the Sourdough Trail is a terrific option. There are a lot of other great skiing options in the area, including a thorough examination of the South Saint Vrain Trail, the Niwot-Cut Off Spur with a loop around Long Lake on the Jean Lunning and Pawnee Pass Trail, or an adventurous exploration ski from the Mitchell Lake Trailhead up the frozen tundra to Blue Lake.

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Heading up to Blue Lake with the intrepid Gary Neptune himself!

Above all, be sure to enjoy yourself. Everybody has a different agenda, but to me a nordic ski tour around Brainard Lake is great way to spend time in nature, get outside during the winter and enjoy a thermos of something tasty with friends. Do your best to keep the p-tex on the snow and have a good tour!

Gear Review: Amundsen Peak Anorak, Knickers and Gaiters

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Elaine sporting the Amundsen Peak anorak, knickers and gaiters.

In the modern world of ski fashion and clothing, knickers and anoraks rank somewhere in the same spectrum as a pair of 205 cm Rossignol 4SKs. These days, it’s all about steezy (style + ease) Gore-tex garments with baggy cuts, uber high tech shells and colors that resemble a bag of Skittles. Classy style has given way to bright colors that look flashy on social media posts. That’s a shame, as the timeless looks found in those old black-and-white 1960’s ski photos hearken back to a time when skiing was stylish, soulful, sexy and functional.

To which I say – thank goodness for Amundsen Sports. I was first exposed to Amundsen Sports gear back in 2016 in a tiny gear shop in Tromsø, Norway, a real ski town, ringed by mountains that sits close to 69° north latitude. The skiing around Tromsø is the best I’ve ever experienced, with sheer, glacial carved mountains dropping straight into the Arctic Ocean.

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Just a bit of skiing in Tromsø. Elaine enjoying some svelte turns on Store Kjostinden above the Arctic Ocean.

The shop was perfect. Ski gear was packed into what can only be accurately described as an attic. To access the “attic,” there was a swinging rope bridge, not unlike what I imagine explorers would use to board old wooden ice breaker ships. Skis, boots and bindings were packed inside, a Jotul 602 stove was burning crisp birch and the walls were lined with skiing posters from across the eras – the Lange girls, signed racing photos of the great Norwegian ski racer Lasse Kjus and ancient grainy images of polar explorers crossing some distant land of ice and snow in the extreme latitudes of our planet. And everywhere, there was wood. The walls were wood, the wooden slats on the floor creaked when walked upon, and stacks of birch logs sat by the wood stove, ready to heat the shop on the cold arctic days and nights. When Elaine and I fulfill a dream and hopefully open our own gear/ski shop some day, it will look and feel a lot like this one.

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The ski shop in Tromsø where I first found Amundsen Sports clothing. When a place has as much character as this place does, I tend to believe what they sell is legit. To make a ski shop look like this, it has to be run by skiers.

Tucked in a corner, was a small wooden rack of clothing that caught my eye. It was a throw-back to the skiing days of my youth – the entire rack was covered with knickers and anoraks. Yet these weren’t cheap thrift store items from a by-gone era. A snazzy patch that said “Spirit of Amundsen” adorned the highly technical garb. It was expensive – apparently all made by hand in Europe – but I remember thinking to myself, remember this stuff.

My next exposure to Amundsen Sports came last winter. We were working at Larry’s Bootfitting, the premier bootfitting shop in the country, knee deep in another busy day fixing people’s hurting toes, when two gentlemen with an accent walked up to us and introduced themselves as Trygve and Christian. Their English was impeccable and it quickly became clear they were from Norway. They told us they had been trying to find us, as they had heard about our result in Expedition Amundsen the previous winter.

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Roald Amundsen statue in Tromsø, and the inspiration behind the Amundsen Sports brand. Amundsen was an explorer extraordinaire, the first person to reach the South Pole, and an inspiration to skiers everywhere.

Turns out Trygve and Christian were reps for Amundsen Sports, and wanted us to try some of their clothing. They handed us a catalog and told us to pick out a few items. Honestly, we were a bit stunned by the interaction, as people do not “seek out” Elaine and I to try their gear.

Fast forward to this fall and Elaine and I were working at Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder. I was talking to the clothing buyer at the store, a wonderful woman named Erin, who was running down the clothing brands we were carrying this winter. The list was what one might expect…Patagonia, Arcteryx, Rab and…Amundsen Sports?

I was instantly jazzed. I told Erin our story of the little shop in Tromsø and our interaction with Trygve and Christian the previous winter at Larry’s. Turns out we were going to be one of the first stores to carry this brand in the United States. Long story short, the Amundsen Sports clothing arrived, we were impressed, so Elaine and I decided to purchase some of it to try out this winter.

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Perfect clothing for a little tour around Brainard Lake on mountain touring skis and leather 3-pin boots. Warning – you’ll get a LOT of questions about this stuff if you wear it.

We decided to purchase the Amundsen Peak anorak and Amundsen Peak knickers. The anorak was a no-brainer. I’ve always enjoyed pull-over Anoraks, as they provide great warmth, a fantastic hood when the weather turns bad and, most importantly, a massive chest pocket for stashing a camera, a chocolate bar, a map, some wax and whatever else one might want to put in there (you could get a bottle of cheap red wine in the front pocket in a pinch). The Amundsen Peak pocket also has a sewn hole for running a set of headphones from the pocket into the jacket for your listening pleasure.

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The anorak pocket is plenty big enough for nine squares of chocolate and two pieces of Babybell cheese.

When pulling sleds, where it’s required to wear a chest harness, that center pocket is a godsend. With a regular jacket, it’s a complete pain to access the normal side pockets because harness straps go right over them. With an anorak, that’s no longer a problem. To me, anoraks have always been the ultimate ski shell. They are not currently overly popular in the United States – it seems Americans have a problem pulling something over their head as opposed to unzipping – but don’t knock it until you try it. What you lose with the minor inconvenience of having to pull the anorak over your head (and there is a massive side zipper to make this no problem), you more than gain in full weather protection.

The Amundsen Peak anorak was a far cry from the old waxed cotton anoraks I wore as child learning to nordic ski on the Nordmarka trails above Oslo. The shell is made of Schoeller fabric, a waterproof yet highly breathable material that is the epitome of high performance backcountry clothing.  I’m always flabbergasted at the amount of people skinning uphill in full Gore-Tex shells, sweating to the hilt. It’s important for gear to breathe, and also protect from the inevitable wind and snow that pounds the alpine. The Schoeller fabric in the Amundsen Peak anorak does that very well. And if it’s still too warm, the anorak features full pit zips for more ventilation.

The anorak also features snaps that allow the wearer to attach a coyote fur ruff to the hood. In arctic and above timberline environments where wind and cold are at a premium, the fur ruffs create a weather barrier that protects the face well. Coyote fur is certainly a controversial subject, and if you’ve spent anytime reading this blog you know my stance regarding predator hunting (I’m against it). That said, our trip to Greenland exposed us to different cultures where some things that offend the typical Boulderite are the norm, and indeed necessary for survival. Let’s put it this way – we didn’t get the coyote ruff for now, but when we return to the polar regions where conditions are extreme, we will.

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Amundsen Sports gear in its natural environment.

Unlike the anorak, the knickers were something of a gamble. Knickers were THE style back in the 1950s in nordic ski racing. In the “Ski Mountaineers Handbook,” a book written about backcountry skiing in the 1950s by David Brower (ex-Sierra Club executive director and one of the most prominent environmentalists of all time), he described knickers as the perfect ski pant because, “the knee is free for action!”

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Free the knee, drive the ski!

And yet, logic begs the question – how is this the perfect ski pant in backcountry conditions? If the snow is more than ankle deep, won’t socks and boots get absolutely soaked and frozen? Ah, but the folks at Amundsen Sports have a solution to this. In addition to Schoeller knickers, it is absolutely imperative that one order the corresponding gaiters to go with them. The gaiters button to the bottom of the knickers, pull over the top of the boots and strap underneath the sole, keeping the socks and boots toasty dry and warm.

In addition to being made of Schoeller, the Amundsen Peak knickers also feature some fantastic pockets, including a right leg pocket that is great for stashing items that, for some inexplicable reason, can’t fit into the massive Anorak pocket. They feature full vent zippers, which I found absolutely necessary in all but the coldest conditions on the uphill. The knickers have a clasp on the bottom that allows for tightening or loosening depending on how much venting the skier in looking for. Regarding zippers, the ones on the Amundsen Peak line are heavy duty and absolutely bomber. This stuff is clearly made to last. All Amundsen Sports clothing is made of materials sourced in Europe, and they are one of the only companies in the outdoor industry to make their clothing in Europe as well. That’s good not only from an ethical standpoint, but from a durability one as well.

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Closing down the Brainard Lake parking lot after another day of skiing. Elaine is 5’6″, 120 pounds and comfortably wears women’s small in all Amundsen Sports clothing.

The gaiters come in two models, slim fit and boot cut. The slim fit gaiter is meant to be worn over leather nordic boots, or possibly very narrow alpine touring boots, while the boot cut is for everything else. I would recommend the boot cut gaiter for any alpine touring boot, as I am unable to secure the slim fit version over my Dynafit TLT 7, one of the narrowest cuffed boots there is. I wear a size 26.5 boot…but even my wife who has the same boot in a size 22.5 has a tough time getting it to secure over the boot effectively. That’s an easy solution – just order the boot cut version.

When moving in the mountains, I believe these gaiters are the perfect ski pant. I find them to be more free feeling than a normal ski pant, and I enjoy the classic look. My only slight beef with them occurred during a winter camping excursion with blowing snow and 60 mph winds, where a little bit of snow sneaked in between the gaiter and the knicker. We talked to Christian about this, and he told us about a little secret clasp on the gaiter that tightens it to the knicker and prevents this problem. On our next excursion, utilizing this little technique, the problem was solved.

For nordic ski touring there really isn’t a finer clothing set-up available than the Amundsen Peak anorak, knicker and gaiter. It’s designed perfectly for this type of skiing. On cold days I also use the knickers for easy classic skis at the local nordic center (Amundsen Sports has another lighter weight knicker/anorak set up for track skiing called the 5-mila series – another review for another blog). I’m excited to try the knickers for spring skiing, as I imagine they will offer the perfect temperature range for booting up steep snow climbs, sans long johns, and then skiing back down.

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Protected from the elements on a deep day at the Fowler-Hilliard Hut.

One of the nicest features of wearing gaiters is how functional they are after the ski. In the mud room, simply take off the gaiters and remove boots. The knickers are high enough so no snow tracks inside. The knickers are absolutely comfortable enough to hang out in for lunch, eat a bowl of bolognese pasta and drink a glass of mead, and then head back out for an afternoon skiing session. Or, if I really want to kick off the aprés ski session right, I’ll toss on a nice sweater and a pair of mukluks and hit the town.

For this review I’ll give the Amundsen Peak anorak, knickers and gaiters the highest rating available. It’s a throwback item that is highly functional, technical and stylish. It’s not cheap, but after a winter of hard use the stuff barely shows any wear and tear. To quote the old adage, you get what you pay for. What’s not to like about that?

Amundsen Peak anorak, knickers and gaiters are available at amundsensports.com.

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Amundsen Sports, bringing back style one skier at a time.

A Million Forks

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0316.JPGIt’s dead winter. Eight degrees Fahrenheit tonight, but the numbers mean little. It’s been cold for two weeks, the kind of cold we haven’t seen in Colorado in about a decade. When we ski, the snow crunches. No, make that squeaks. While the lowlanders and recent transplants are bitching about how they miss spring and warm weather, our little winter tribe of two is in absolute heaven. At night, coyote howls echo across the valley and the full snow moon turns the land into a brilliant, beautiful, haunting white glow.

Elaine and I are deep in Expedition Amundsen training. We alternate between pulling 120 pound sleds into the alpine, and then recovering with easy skis, with no weight, to stretch the legs and remember what it feels like to move at something faster than two miles per hour. Like today, day 87 on skis for the winter, an easy classic ski around the Eldora trails, where a light coat of Guru Green kick wax was all that was needed for a simple evening glide around the perfectly groomed trails.

I honestly have no idea how well prepared we are for the event. I suspect we’re prepared well enough, but until you put yourself on the line and go, it’s all a bit of a mystery. We’ve been putting in the time and doing the work, but there are so many variables to the event. Honestly, my main concern right now is just being mentally tough enough and getting enough rest before the shotgun blast kicks things off on March 8. Life has been chaos the past two weeks, but we’re finally getting to a place where a stoke and calm is taking over.

IMG_5919Tonight, after our ski, I was hanging out at my at wife’s parent’s home, spinning an old globe they have on the table. And while spinning it, running my fingers over raised mountain ranges and gazing at plateaus and river valleys, I got to thinking – my God it’s a massive world, and there is so much to do. The little problems of our daily lives – the things we put so much emphasis on – block us from doing what we really want to do. Of particular interest to me was the top of the globe, the land to the north. There is so much unexplored territory there, from Canada to Siberia to Greenland to Baffin Island. It gets me giddy just thinking how much there is to do up there. It makes me want to do it all, drink the wine of the north country, pack in as much as I can in my time here.

Did you know that the coldest town in the world is Oymyakon, Siberia? I didn’t know that till I found it on the globe tonight and looked up what it was all about. The average winter temperature in Oymyakon is -50° C. That’s average – the lowest temperature ever recorded was -89.9° C. I want to experience what that’s like. I want to see if I’m tough enough to stand it. I want to hear the sap from trees explode, I want to know what gliding on snow in that kind of cold feels like. But who in their right mind goes to Oymyakon? People seeking real adventure, that’s who, modern day Indiana Jones’, Magellans and Nansens. Adventure is still out there, but if it’s a place on the tip of the tongue for most, or a place that sounds cool on social media, it’s probably not real adventure anymore. If you want real adventure, go to Oymyakon, Siberia, or Nome or someplace that has no guidebook, no hype, just unexplored potential.

Oymyakon, Siberia

I must admit, like this blog entry, my mind these days is all over the place. That’s the problem with a world of unlimited opportunity in front of you – it’s hard to know where to start. When there are a million paths to choose, it’s hard to pick one. For the last eight years of our lives, Elaine and I have been on a pretty consistent work path. It was a relatively comfortable path, not really going anywhere, and getting more rocky by the day, but still, it was a chosen path of employment. And then, we grew a conscience, tired of moral and ethical injustice, of people just getting treated wrong, of getting treated wrong ourselves, exploded the situation and chose a new path. So now here we are, and there are a million paths leading away from this fork. Some paths seem safer than others, but are safer paths really the right path for ultimate happiness? That’s really the goal of life in my opinion – the quest for ultimate happiness.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0314.JPGToday, on our ski, my mind was in a million places (like this blog), some on the ski, but mostly in other places. And then, frustrated by this lack of focus, I forced myself to slow down. I forced myself to stay in the moment, the exact moment, to focus on the breathe, to focus on a perfect stride and glide, perfect balance, perfect synchronicity with the snow on this cold winter day.

Rapidly, the world became clear. The woods shifted from a blur of chaos to a distinct outline of each tree. I was back in the moment, feeling that skier’s high, and once again, calm and a sense of confidence reigned. Maybe that’s the key to navigating these new waters. Less focus on everything, and all the focus on what can be managed in the here and now – this exact moment in time. I’m no expert, but that feels like the right path to me.

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