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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Ten Favorite Photos from Autumn 2018

The experts said it wouldn’t be a beautiful autumn. The experts lied. There was work stress and a million things to pull us away from the center. But then, as always, nature pulled us back. As we move full blast into winter, a look back at the most fleeting and urgent season of them all, autumn.

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In early August, the first sign of autumn hit the high tundra on the Continental Divide. The green turned to gold and the gold turned to red.

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The closest I’ve ever been to a yellow brick road.

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Birdseye view of the valley, the divide, the impending September storm.

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Autumn moves at a blur…the most beautiful moments, the peak present in days and hours, not weeks and months.

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A remnant stand of orange in the foreground, the winter playground in the background.

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On this day, we skipped a planned workout and just went exploring on a perfect autumn mountainside. It was a good choice.

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The roller skis turned crisper, the mountains more gold, the snow on the peaks providing motivation.

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We choose not to go to traditional church on Sunday. Instead, we go to our church everyday.

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Sneaking in a late roller ski past the moose sign as a cold sleet storm rolls in behind the fog.

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And then, the world turns white, a few gold hanging on to the past.

Photos by Dan Vardamis. Indian Peaks Wilderness, Colorado.

Home Turns

evski1The first ski turns of the season trigger nervous tension. Regardless of how long I’ve skied, there is always a predictable self-doubt, “can I still even do this?”

The reason I bring this up, is because it’s been snowing a lot here lately. There has been a constant white cloud bank hanging over the Continental Divide. While it’s been dry and cool in Boulder and barely a flurry in Nederland, it’s been regularly snowing in Eldora village. Further west and higher up, it’s been storming even more.

After a long but fun work week helping eager customers pick out ski gear – the new snow and less-than-great 2017 winter has everybody excited for this season – it was time for Elaine and I to check out the local conditions. I went for a solo backyard skin yesterday morning before work, was surprised at how good the snow was, and made notes for today.

We decided to head up to the local backcountry haunt for today’s go around. We’ve skied many, many days at this locale, and when we were first married and lived in the caboose, it was our daily morning stop. We now live in a place where getting in a car to ski is unnecessary, so we go to the old haunt less. But we still love it as much as ever. There are so many amazing memories up there with Elaine and Stella, and it’s hard to go there for us and not miss the latter.

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Nice boot-top powder. For some reason Elaine is using a 210 cm pole!

After a lazy morning, we loaded up the truck and headed up the hill. I’m a lucky guy for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is having a father-in-law who is professional car mechanic. In addition to being an all around amazing human being, Steve is a darned good mechanic who comes across some amazing gems when it comes to all things car related. Let’s just say the “new for me, ever-so-slightly-used” set of studded snow tires we just got were a major step up from the bald beads we used last winter. Getting to the local ski hill just got a whole lot easier thanks to Elaine’s dad.

The bumpy dirt road climbed ever steeper and snowier. Wind was ripping over the hillside, the sky angry shards of snow pelting the land. This was no picture-perfect Vermont Robert Frost snow storm – this was more like Metallica belting out “Enter Sandman.” Those Christmas movies that always show snow falling straight down, everybody perfectly attired with scarves and such, looking radiant? Those images are lies. Snow almost never falls straight down here, scarves will more often than not act as a wind sock and the only look that is consistent is snot from a runny nose frozen to the cheek as the tempest blares.

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Injury put in the past, fit, motivated and beautiful.

We’ve been following a nordic training “program” this fall, complete with heart rate monitor charting and actual daily plans. It’s a definite change for us and honestly the only reason we did it was so Elaine wouldn’t go insane with boring roller ski workouts that her broken foot relegated her to this summer. Having a daily goal made the time pass more productively. And, coincidently, it has us feeling pretty good.

Despite the dork factor, the plan has taught us a lot. For optimal human performance in skiing, it’s important to train really hard, really easy, and not a lot in between. This is pretty much the opposite of what Elaine and I have done the past eight years…we’re always moving just fast enough to wear ourselves out, but probably not fast enough to get any better. And with that, we almost never rest, which in turn means the body can’t repair itself properly. After the extreme fatigue we both felt after the Expedition Amundsen-CDT-Greenland very extended adventure, this was an important lesson to learn, because we were in danger of burying ourselves for a long time to come had we not re-set and re-built.

Anyway, today called for two sets of 12.5 minute level 3 intervals, followed by three sets of 3 minute level 4 intervals. In layman terms, that’s hard followed by really fucking hard. We got through it, but let it be known that level 4 intervals while breaking trail thru a foot of snow at 11,000 feet are simply brutal. It worked out how it never works out…the last set somehow timed exactly, heroically, at the very top of the hill, like a Rocky film. That wouldn’t happen again if we tried.

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Looks like Sun Valley from a circa-1967 resort promo brochure. The double skin track is a result of the training plan and working to stay in the “zone.” Don’t worry, it’s a phase.

Work done on the up, it was time for unabashed fun back down. The shocker of the day – the skiing was good. It was deep, it was soft, and we almost didn’t hit anything. No doubt, we kept our weight back and our tips up to avoid hidden obstacles, but it was still splendid. The float, the freedom, the happiness of a powder turn rushed back after the long hiatus.

evski2It’s good to be home again.

First Day of the 2018-19 Ski Season

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Clouds from the storm linger over Eldora ski area.

Opening day. There are few things quite as magical as the first ski day of the season. The initial click of the boots and bindings, the first turn and glide, cold air blasting into the face and lungs. It’s a harsh, yet spectacular reminder that the lazy days of summer are over. The reign of winter begins.

Sliding devices on cold snow are likely the greatest human invention ever. Instead of snow being an obstacle to movement, getting from point A to point B becomes easier, more graceful and much more fun. The early Norseman and tribesman of central Asia used skis for practical reason: hunting, communication, migrations and such. For us, skiing is a recreational activity, because even difficult point-to-point endeavors like skiing across Greenland are done by choice, not for survival. Yet despite our difference in skiing objectives, I have to wonder if those early skiers from a distant, simpler time felt that similar pure joy the first time they strapped skis to feet each season? I find it hard to believe, even for the most pragmatic human, that there wouldn’t be some sense of elation felt from those first few strides in snow.

Before I got into backcountry skiing, opening day would be dictated by the ski resorts. The annual battle between Arapaho Basin and Loveland to open first is a well publicized and exciting kick-off to the Colorado alpine ski season. But more often than not, this opening is dictated by snowmaking capacities, not by winter weather. It feels less about mother nature and more about marketing departments and the skiing hype machine. It feels artificial, like the snow these early openings provide (by contrast the Colorado nordic season opens in a much more subdued fashion, volunteers grooming trails on the top of Rabbit Ears Pass. It’s a more natural and enjoyable occasion.)

Opening day should be dictated by snow and cold. When snow falls, go ski on it. For the past few years, however, that snow and cold seems to be less predictable and later in the year. During last year’s disaster we didn’t start skiing in earnest until after Christmas. It was the ski season that almost never started.

After a balmy September this year, it felt like we were scheduled for a repeat. It started snowing early this year in Canada, but Canada and the northern jet stream is a long way from Colorado. Storm systems brushed Glacier National Park and the Wind Rivers, but for the most part avoided Colorado. We’d wake up a few morning and see a dusting of snow on the highest of peaks, but it was oddly warm.

I subscribe to a website called Open Snow that forecasts snowfall for the winter season. After weeks of nothing, I was surprised to read a forecast calling for a sustained period of cold and snow in the Colorado high country in early October. It’s not that uncommon to get a blast of snow in late October, but this forecast was calling for a week to ten days of cold, snowy weather.  I can’t remember the last time that happened here in early October.

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Post snowy roller ski time trial stoke…

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…gave way to a cold, wet hike home.

At the end of last week a cool, grey settled over Boulder. Every morning we would go for a roller ski or hike in sunny conditions here in Eldora and then drive down into the cold fog for work. Finally though, the storm moved uphill. On Sunday night it began to snow at our cabin, and when we woke on Monday morning we found a couple inches covering the trees and ground. We roller skied a cold and wet time trial up Shelf Road and froze on the hike back down to the valley. Yesterday it flurried sporadically, so we put on more layers, took to the trails west of home and enjoyed a splendid, solitary hike, our only company being tracks of a bobcat.

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Better prepared and warmer for a long walk in the woods the 2nd day of the storm.

Last night it snowed more. There was a forcefulness to the 4-5 inches left on the ground that was lacking the previous two days, and it was colder too, in the low 20’s. The training plan called for some easy roller ski intervals, but the snow looked too good to pass up. And besides, the road would be a slushy mess to roller ski on. Skiing on October 10 seemed almost novel, possibly the earliest I’ve ever been on snow in a season. We decided to make today opening day of the 2018-19 ski season.

Elaine and I have a lot of skis. We have nordic racing skis, nordic training skis, backcountry nordic skis, spring couloir skis, powder skis, daily backcountry skis, resort skis and telemark skis. It’s a bit ridiculous. But without doubt, the most important skis are something we call “rock skis.” Our rock skis are designed for just that, heading out when the snow coverage is shallow and we don’t want to damage our good skis on rocks. Four to five inches in early October is impressive, but it’s nowhere near deep enough to avoid hitting objects in the appropriately named Rocky Mountains.

Our rock skis are almost silly: a pair of 2006 Icelantic Nomads in a 156 cm length. At the time Icelantic subscribed to the belief that shorter skis were better, and this was the only length they made. They were revolutionary when I got them, and I spent a winter coaching the Nederland Alpine Ski Team and skinning up and down the race course on those fledgling Icelantics. I believe they even won a DoJoe race from some bygone era before ultralight rando gear became all the rage.

The diminutive Nomads now have more than 1,200 days of skiing on them. The bases are almost worn to the core, the edges terribly thin and the bindings – an early era Dynafit – are starting to work less than optimally. But still, twelve years later, they serve an important function. More often than not, they bat lead-off for the coming ski season. Today was no exception.

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Shallow snowpack but a mid-winter feel thanks to copious amounts of snow of the trees.

We decided to head from our home to a popular local backcountry skiing destination. The storm grew in intensity as we moved along, gradually climbing at first, and then more steeply gaining altitude. While the snowpack was shallow, the snow clinging to the trees had the feel of mid-winter. That amazing quiet that snow provides, the insulation to sound it gives, soothed us along as we strided uphill.

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How can you not have a huge smile on the first ski day of the year?

A pleasant surprise: we felt physically good. The first backcountry ski of the year is usually a painful affair. It appears the training plan we’ve been following since we got back from Greenland is working. We tossed in our interval sets, moving not quite effortlessly, but easily enough up the mountain. It’s nice to see hard work paying off.

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Looking forward to the best winter yet with this gal.

Near the top, the wind started to blow, the snow pelted us, and the sky and clouds above opened for a second to let the red hew of evening alpenglow pass thru. This was no fluke storm. This had the feel of winter. I zipped up my collar, dipped my eyes towards the ground, and headed ever upward into the tempest, into these mountain that I love, to begin the winter cycle once again. We are skiers, and our time, after the long, hot summer, has finally arrived.

Kuksa Carving Class at the Northhouse Folk School

IMG_4049This September, Elaine and I took a unique-for-us trip to the northern part of Minnesota. The plan for the trip was two-fold. First, we wanted to learn how to carve Kuksa cups at the Northhouse Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota. After the class, we hoped to take our packrafts on an adventure in the legendary Minnesota Boundary Waters Wilderness.  As odd as it was to load up the car and head away from the mountains, the trip rewarded us in ways different from the sheer athletic and adventure endeavors we normally tackle.

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The Focus, loaded up with axes, paddling gear and roller skis for the 1,200 mile drive to Grand Marais, Minnesota.

I first heard of the North House Folk School from my old boss, Gary Neptune, who visited the school to take a wooden ski building class. The idea of making something from scratch out of wood fascinated me because it’s so simple yet almost never taught in modern society.  When we heard that there was a three-day carving class in September at the school to learn how to make Sami kuksa cups, we decided to take the dive.

The drive to northern Minnesota was an epic, hot, two-day slog across Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota and finally Minnesota, but we did enjoy passing thru the Black Hills and watching the Great Plains slowly drift into the hardwood forests that stretch from the Missouri River to the Atlantic Ocean. After two solid days of driving, we finally arrived in Grand Marais, road weary but excited.

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Sunset on the banks of the Missouri River in Chamberlain, South Dakota.

Conveniently, the North House Folk School is located directly adjacent to the campground we were staying at. It was an easy five minute walk from our tent to the school and classroom. The school consists of a half-dozen or so independent buildings surrounding a center plaza. It’s located directly on the banks of Lake Superior on the main road thru town. Grand Marais itself is a small, tourist destination with lots of fish restaurants and outfitters for visitors heading into the outdoors.

The class met the first morning in a long room with wooden floors, wooden skis on the wall and birch bark canoes hanging from the rafters. Our instructor was a gentleman named Alex Yerks. Alex has been making Kuksa cups for about a decade now, and produces some wonderful pieces. He is arguable the most prolific Kuksa cup maker in the United States, and we were fortunate to have him as our instructor. I enjoyed his teaching style and willingness to let us get to work: after a five minute general discussion on wood grain, it was time to get busy, carving axes wielded, hacking away at our selected pieces of fresh cut birch wood. I was a little amazed nobody chopped a finger off, but Alex was watching us carefully, giving instruction when needed. I suppose too, that human self-preservation ensures that the axe blades stay safely away from exposed fingers!

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These are Kuksa cups made by Alex. They are cut from greenwood of various types, birch, alder and maple being the most common wood selections. Alex lives in northern New York where a variety of wood is available. We’ll have to experiment with aspen here, as hardwoods are extremely limited in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. These are all hand carved and not sanded. It’s a point of pride with experienced carvers not to sand their work.

 

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Step one: pick out your piece of wood and cut it length wise to size. The next step is to split it to a general form of a cup. This is done with a carving axe and mallet.

Alex teaches techniques to build the entire Kuksa by hand. Before the class began, he headed into the Minnesota forest and chopped down an older birch tree. The wood we got was something called “spalted wood.” Spalted wood has been affected by fungi, and while it does lose a bit of strength in the decaying process, it also provide some unique color and design patterns that can be fun to work with. Strength, while important for making skis or furniture, isn’t particularly important for making a cup.

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After the wood has been cut and split to an appropriate size, the working piece is viced. In class we used hand made wooden stands and wooden wedges to hold things in place. Using first an adze and then a gouge, the cup inside is hollowed out. This is a the best time to remove wood, as the cup is held in place and it’s easy to get leverage. A skilled craft person could hollow out a cup in 10-15 minutes using this technique. It took us a bit longer!

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Gouges come in many shapes and sizes. This particular one that Elaine is using was built by Alex and is specifically designed to make Kuksas. The longer shaped handle and shallow cutting part makes it easy to use.

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Elaine’s 1st kuksa cup, gouged out. Ideally it’s good to have a little overhang to prevent liquid from spilling out when the cup is in use. Note the pencil drawn in handle on the outside of the cup. Which brings us to the next step…

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Using a carving axe, first the area around the bowl is chopped and rounded to size, being careful not to cut so deep that it puts a hole in the cup. Next, the handle is thinned. There is still a lot of knife work to do after this process. The point is to remove enough material so time isn’t wasted knife carving away lots of wood material. Skill and a good axe can help the process. We had neither, but we eventually got the job done.

After hewing out the cup with carving axes, we used straight blade carving knives and hook knives to complete the kuksas. We learned that the inside of the cup has a different grain pattern than the outside, which dramatically changes carving techniques. A general rule is it’s best to carve with the grain of the wood, as anything else can make knife handling choppy and hard to control. Our first finished cups looked nowhere near as good as those made by Alex, but that’s to be expected. If it were easy, everybody would do it.

One of the best parts of the class was the classroom setting and our fellow students. In addition to Elaine and I, there was a hockey player and a bicycle advocate from Minneapolis, an outdoor instructor from Ontario, a retired wolf-volunteer lady from Ely, a retired, cross-country skiing and canoeing enthusiast who had a cabin near the Canadian border, and an older, 70-something gentleman from southern Minnesota who surprised us all by telling us he planned to visit Burning Man next year! There was a diversity in skill and experience level, from Elaine and I who had barely carved to the Ontario instructor who has carved extensively and sells items on the internet. Despite this, everybody was friendly and helpful and there wasn’t much lag in the time it took to get work done.

I was surprised at the age range in the class. Real world craft skills like working with wood are gaining popularity with the younger generation in our technology based society. Working with wood is an opportunity to unplug and do something that harkens back to a time before computers, smart phones and video games. It’s good for the brain and soul.

The room had a kitchen where we could cook lunch and dinner. We did splurge on lunch a couple times at a nearby, informal fish restaurant on the water with the fresh catch of the day from Lake Superior. Before class Elaine and I would go for a roller ski around the campground to get our exercise in. All in all, it was a perfect environment for learning a new skill, getting away from it all and relaxing.

I found the whole thing much more inspiring than a traditional school setting. Students were engaged and there was a tangible product produced in the class. Too often in modern society we deal with theoretical ideas. We don’t really teach people to make things from start to finish. We’ve become a society of people who rely on others to make and fix things. Learning to make things, be it a kuksa cup, a tool, a garden or finely prepared meal is healthy for humans because it provides a sense of completion and pride.

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It was important that the wood didn’t dry out too much. As such, we would soak our kuksas in the sink for the night. Drying really impacts things and I’m already learning that our Colorado climate can dry wood to such an extent and so quickly that it cracks.

Alex taught us many interesting techniques to make the kuksas unique, including chip carving for designs and lettering and using milk paints to add color to the cups. Alex usually treats his cups with tung or linseed oil, but having the ability to put a non-toxic paint on the finished product is a nice tool in the arsenal. We also learned how to sharpen tools, including using a power grinder for sharpening axes and knives. Finally, we were taught knife techniques so we could carve safely and effectively.

There were other concurrent classes going on at the school that we got to visit. Just next door, the blacksmith class was teaching participants the basic techniques of forging, a skill Elaine very much wants to learn. Across the pavilion, a wooden furniture class was being taught by a legend in the woodworking world, Jogge Sundqvist from Sweden. Next door to him, there was a cooking class focused on making traditional Viking meals. We all benefited from that class as they served us an afternoon snack of sacrificial broth and bread…it tasted much better than it sounds!

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The school hosts a lot of classes. There is even one teaching how to build a birchbark canoe. I could easily spend a couple weeks after ski season doing that!

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For three days we learned and carved. Our hands were sore and splintered, but there were only a few sliced fingers and no serious injuries. These are our finished 1st kuksas. Alex taught us the technique of forming a pointed front end. It makes the cup stronger and gives them a slight Viking ship look. The spalted wood gives the cups and unique, natural feel. These cups were untreated and as such leaked, as the wood still was wet which allowed moisture to pass through. Finished cups that have been treated would not have this problem.

The final event for the class was a pizza dinner. This was no ordinary pizza dinner. The school has a wood burning pizza oven. Students would roll their own dough, select topping and then cook their pizza in the oven. While I’ve been fortunate to be exposed to this type of cooking, it was a first for many people in the classes. It all harkens back to the school’s mission of teaching people to do things and learn, not just providing.

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Pizza and libations in our handmade kuksa cups.

Overall, it was a great experience and learning opportunity in a beautiful and inspiring place. We’ll certainly be making more of these at home. I’m signed up to go back in January to learn to make wooden skis and Finnish ski poles. Elaine and I also talked about how the class was the first time since we got off the Continental Divide Trail that we were surrounded by a healthy, alternative thinking community of people with a shared goal and tangible accomplishments. It was remarkably similar to the CDT in that regard. A class at the Northhouse Folk School might be the perfect re-entry for a thru hiker who is just off the trail and is struggling to dive back into the craziness of the real world.

After one final, perfect Indian Summer night at the campground, it was time to leave Grand Marais and head due north to the Minnesota Boundary Waters for some hiking and packrafting…