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!

Crooked Couloir on Mt. Audubon

Forget

The real reason to get into the mountains: sheer beauty. 

Sometimes life just calls with responsibilities. It can range, but life will make its demands of everybody. So, for the past couple of weeks, Dan and I have been making do with “sanity skis” at the ‘Bou and biking to work. It keeps you sane, but inevitably, you just want more. Today, life stuff having settled into its hibernation for a bit, we packed up our ski gear, and headed out in the early morn’. 

Having had it on faith from some customers, we knew that the gate up at Brainard Lake was still closed, so we prepped for the three mile road walk and adjusted our time accordingly. Most people take bikes (and for good reason!) but we are not sure how Stella’s paws would do with the pavement. So we walk. It adds an hour on either end, but all in all, it’s more time out there!

The plan for today was to ski Crooked Couloir off of Mt. Audubon. It was also to be my first intro to snow climbing, as instead of climbing up Mt. Audubon’s flank as we have done in the past, we were going to hike to Blue Lake, and head straight up the couloir. 

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After a restless night of sleep (it’s been so hot lately, it’s been hard to sleep), we dragged ourselves from bed. The best thing about spring skiing is definitely not the early start. In fact, it may very well be the worst part. Groggy-eyed, we got ready, munching breakfast, and then piling into the car. After almost falling back asleep on the way to the trailhead, and I was happy for the long approach by road: it gave my body time to wake up and warm up. 

Once again, it was cruiser going. The road is completely clear, and the trail up to Mitchell Lake is almost clear, and if you hit it in the morning, the snow patches that are there are very solid. After Mitchell, it becomes more snowy, but it was still early, and hadn’t softened up, so we continued in our shoes. 

After seeing a couple of bikes at the Mitchell Lake Trailhead, we’d been debating which peak the people in front of us were going to ski (both of us were leaning towards Mt. Audubon). As we crested a ridge between Mitchell Lake and Blue Lake, we saw two guys at the base of Crooked. Yep, Mt. Audubon it was! We picked our way through the scree to a rock where we sat down to change, out of sight of the other guys. One thing about being in the mountains is the etiquette, and just as I don’t want anybody to intrude upon my time up here, I don’t want to intrude on anybody else’s. 

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Blue Lake with Mt. Toll in the background.

As we changed into our ski boots, Dan began giving me some pointers about using crampons. One main thing for me to remember was that the linking bar on my crampons was too long, and as I have yet to cut it, I have to be careful to not catch it on my pants, which might have the potential of sending me on an unintentional, impressive acrobatic descent of the couloir. 

Boots and crampons on, we started up the couloir. I was immediately quite impressed with the crampons. The amount of security you get from them versus with just your boots is (obviously!) huge. We never had to do the triple kick to get a good hold, and even if I just had the two front points in the snow, it felt solid. This made me happy, as I do have a history of not being the happiest li’l thing in the world when heights are involved. But, even as we neared the steepest point, I felt sturdy. Now, that’s not saying I was dancing a two-step, but I was also a long cry from hugging the scree to either side of me and declaring that I was going to fall off of the world. 

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Just shy of the top!

Since it’d been so long since we’d actually gone out and done a bigger day, I was concerned about my fitness. Spring skiing is hands down the hardest sport I’ve ever done, and booting straight up a couloir definitely does not make it any easier. Thus, I was pleased when I only felt slightly nauseous with the effort.

There’s not much that I’m aware of that can make the soul more happy than to climb a mountain in the sun with the man I love most, sharing a summit hug at the top, and then skiing an awesome line that practically dumps you right into an incredible alpine lake. For me, it just doesn’t get much better than that. 

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Sometimes life just can't get any better.

As we stopped at the top, gazing around at the surrounding peaks (Mt. Toll still looks really good!), the guys who had been down by the lake crested the top, and we all chatted for a bit, one of them recognizing us from Neptune’s. Then it was descent time.

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Heading in. One thing to say about going up what you ski: you know for a fact you can ski down it! As I am a much worse climber than skier, if I can climb it, I know I can ski it!

Crooked

Hubby rippin' it up. 

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Tollback

Morning fun.

Crooked Couloir is just fun. It’s steep enough that you can really enjoy it, but not steep enough to be gripped about it. When we ski Caribou in the summer, we wear shorts, do goofy hop turns, peer into marmot holes, and laugh. Crooked is none of that, but it still makes me grin with euphoria. 

Sitting at the lake, eating, drinking, grinning with joy, we basked in the sun, bade goodbye as the other two headed off, and finally began to get ready. It was still a longish trek out to the car, and it was a hot one. We changed into shorts, and left the basin in companionable silence, stopping to look back every once in a while. 

There is so much in life to enjoy and experience, sometimes I don’t know how we’re supposed to have enough time to capture it all, but we do our best to. Part of the problem, too, is the more we do, the more we want to do. I am a lucky woman to be with the most amazing man in the world, and share all of our adventures! 

Summit

Radiobeacon Mountain

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Sometimes the weather dictates what you do. It's true from the ocean to the summit of Everest. We had been planning on doing Paiute Peak, spending the night, and then giving a snow climb up Crooked Couloir on Mt. Audubon a shot. 

However, when looking at the weather and seeing something as terrifying as 60 mph winds – and on the divide, you know they're serious, we called a no go on Thursday's ski. In fact, I slept in till 8, took a nap around 11, and another one at 2:30. Sometimes you just get tired, I suppose! 

Last night I scanned NOAA's prediction for Radiobeacon Mountain. High of 38 and 45 mph winds, not gusting t0 60 till after noon. That was do-able. Or at least more so. The concern wouldn't necessarily be wet slides, but getting off the summit before the real serious winds kicked in. Plus the four to six inches of new snow up there. 

My watch beeps obnoxiously at 5:50 AM. I groan and tell it I want to wait five more minutes to get up. This is always a horrible idea. It's really best to get up with the first beep. But I don't, and five minutes later my watch is beeping again. 

"Fine," I mumble, and drag myself into an upright position. I have not been sleeping super well. It's hot in our place, the wind was loud last night (I slept a lot better after I got up to close the window, until it got too hot again), I don't know. Anyway, as I mentioned before, my clothes for the day are all piled at the foot of my bed. 

I do it even in specific order, so that my ski pants are folded on the floor, my long johns (which I choose to wear today, since it's supposed to be cooler), my underwear, and then my socks. My top layers are folded in similar fashion to the right. I don't even have to rightfully awake in the morning, I simply pull on the top garment where seems fitting, and since I lay it out the night before, I usually get it right. Things end up back to front sometimes, but never inside out, since I always check that while putting it out at night. 

Dressed, I walk the two steps to the table, where I eat my cereal. Dan is stumbling around as well, starting his burrito in the microwave. He obviously has more faith in himself, because his clothing is always kept in another room. I don't have that faith in myself. 

Soon, we are out the door, Stella yawning along with the rest of us. When we pull into the trail head, the wind is howling – just like the good ol' times in the winter! It's a bit of a struggle to convince the body to get out of the car, but we manage. I put on my wind shirt and gloves. I'm wearing more than I typically do for a spring ski, but it feels more wintry than like spring! 

We hike along, noting that there has been much melt-out since Memorial Day. It seems barely a hop, skip and a jump before we are crossing the bridge that had been super sketchy last time. This time it has a nice, stable three inches of snow on it, making crossing the bridge a breeze. Crossing the bridge seems to be like crossing a line for my body and I feel like I just ran headlong into a wall. I stumble along, wondering what in the heck is wrong with me. We reach the meadow that in the winter, we turn left and up to reach the Arapaho Lakes area, but now we head right across what in the summer in a nice marsh, but for now is easy crossing. We stop to change into our ski boots so we can skin, as the day has warmed up *slightly*, and we are post-holing a few inches with every step.

I pull on my puffy jacket to change. It's cold! I think. Cold cold! I inhale an entire bag of honey stingers and make myself drink a bunch of water with them, even though there are ice shards floating in it. I do not like ice in my water, and I know it will set me to shivering, but I also know I need to drink.

Then it is upup! I like upup. Upup is, in a sense, slightly easier than updownupdownupdown. With upup, my body gets into a rhythm, and it goes just up. Updownupdownupdown just exhausts me. It's not long before I'm feeling better. I am sometimes very good at recognizing when I am simply hungry, and that I am not having an off day, but need food! I am proud, and we work our way, winding through the trees. It is a fun skin. There is fresh snow, and I imagine that the ski back down will be indeterminable amounts of fun. I grin. 

Today Dan and I are celebrating our three year anniversary, and I can't help but feel quite close to him.

We reach a saddle, and as we get our bearings, taking at look at Radiobeacon through a little gap in the trees, I apply glop stopper to my skins. They are icing up like crazy! 

We dip down slightly to the base of the bowl of which we will skin up, and the monster wind attacks us. It has been waiting for this moment, and it howls at us and batters at us. It is not polite, this wind. It never is. 

SMACK! It batters us first to one side, and then the other. 

We skin upup, reach a bench, and angle towards a spot on the ridge where we will then traverse up the ridge to the summit. Simple enough, ya? 

Ha.

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Skinning up, trying not to be dizzy!

I am sort of in training for leading these things, and so I begin the switchbacks up the face. It seems obvious where to go when following a skilled leader, but when put in the position myself, I often fumble it. Thus I am in training. We stop, Dan pointing out a few things for me to watch for, and I set off.

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Today I pay attention to setting switchbacks and trying to pace myself. I have a tendency for going at 110% then having to stop to catch my breath. It's *slightly* obnoxious. So today I work on those two things. I'm fairly proud of myself for the switchbacks, but find that my pace is still ballistic. Damn. 

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Almost to the aimed-for point.

I reach the point I'd been aiming for, crouching over my poles as a particularly heinous wind blast comes at me. It is strange up here today. There is a sharp wind whipping up from the valley that twines sinuous tendons around my legs, trying to pull me off balance up the mountain, while at the same moment, a ferocious blast will come from above, catching my torso and trying to send me pompom over binding down the mountain. I struggle with both of them, urging my body to stay upright. 

This sort of moment is where I struggle. In very specific conditions, I am apt to freak out. It involves several things:

1. I must be skinning, and preferably with my heel lifters in the high position

2. It must be white out, or nearly so

3. It must be horrendously windy

4. There must be a drop off to my left and right.

When all these things come into play, my self control disintegrates. 

Since I had been battling with the first three for the whole face, I am already slightly battered by the time we are to begin the final push to the summit, which is literally 30 yards away. If I had a good arm, I could hit it with a rock. Now, since I don't, and since there are ballistic winds blowing from that direction, it would be neigh impossible. 

The blast passes, and Dan takes the lead to the summit. And suddenly, I feel it. My heart is surely beating outside my ribcage, my lungs are so tight with fear I can hardly draw breath, my vision dips and reals as I become extremely dizzy.

I am gripped with a couple of bizarre notions. The first is that I am most definitely too tall. Somehow this is related to the fact that I am surely going to fall off the world.

They are connected, but I cannot figure out how. I have a notion that I am a kite. 

Now, none of these thoughts is rational. At 5'6" tall, I am by no means a giant. And to fall off of the world is just ridiculous. 

But all four items have fallen into place. 

The slope is not steep. There is a good ten feet of ridge with no drop off, even though there is on after that. I would have to seriously mess up to go off the edge. I was comfortable on Mt. Toll, even though that was steeper. 

The next thing I know, I'm clinging to an ice-encrusted rock, battering back tears. I cannot understand why I am freaking out. I look to my left: rocks, I can grab rocks, no problem. I look to my right: a few feet of snow, drop off. It's incredibly windy, and I can't see much beyond that. 

"Dan," I gasp. I am trying not to cry. I won't cry. "I need help." 

Within minutes, I am sitting at the base of a rock about twelve inches high, but it offers slight protection from the wind, and my skis are off. The summit is now so close I can taste it. With my skis off, and with a slight protection from the wind, and less white to confuse my sense, I begin to come around.

"I want to boot to the top," I say.

And even though the conditions are exactly the same as we head out to boot to the top, I am okay. I took out one of the factors that tips me over the edge from this-is-a-little-freakiy to I-am-a-shaking-heap-on-a-ridge – the skinning. Booting I am okay. 

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As close to a summit shot as we got today!

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By looking at the picture, it makes me think maybe I was just blind today. Visibility looks fine! 

We reach the top. It just sucks. I cannot see Winter Park. I cannot see James Peak, I cannot see Frosty Mountain which is just a little jaunt along the ridge to the south. I cannot even see the remnants of the old radiobeacon tower up here, hence the name. We click into our skis and look down.

Clicked in, I feel comfortable. I can ski. I know this. It is windy and weird visibility, but it is not bad. From a skier's view, I realize what I could not as a skinner. 

We start to ski down, and, even though cortisol and norepinephrine are still pumping through my body, I feel better. The first turns down the ridge are a little solid, but then we begin to drop down the face, and it is amazing. A perfect four to six inches of new snow, perfect turns, perfect everything. It is worth it. 

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There may have been a scary moment, but the skiing was fantastic!

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We live in a beautiful area!

I feel sheepish. I feel like a fool. There are certain things that I need to work on. The mountain gave me fair warning today. 

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The hike out was incredibly mellow comparitively!

 

Mount Toll Spring Dreamin’

Arc
Boulder has a number of classics. Your favorite central asian leaf steeped in hot water at the Dushanbe Teahouse. Fresh corn and Sister's Pantry Dumplings at the Farmer's Market. And of course, silky corn turns down the southeast face of Mount Toll.

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Mount Toll is popular, and for good reason. It's a stellar ski. Truth is, Elaine and I tend to avoid the popular areas, and while this often leads to gems, it's a mistake to skip something so profoundly good for the sake of being different. Toll doesn't come much better than it did this Tuesday.

Tea
As always, the morning wake-up call is rough, and this time it was me dragging. Once Elaine was up though at the 5:15 alarm, I followed suit quickly. I had the sense to brew a mug of tea before the adventure, which made the drive from our home to the trailhead much more pleasant. Elaine finally saw the beaver that's been building up a storm, getting after it like us in the early dawn. 

Whenever possible we take Stella on these adventures. I'd say her limit is about 45° slope. She can handle slopes up to that just fine, and possibly even more, but beyond that steepness Elaine and I need to completely focus on ourselves and the mountains, and it's not a risk worth taking. We also draw the line of any slope where rock fall is possible. Again, too much risk. Toll falls well within the safer range and as such Stella was our always good spirited companion. The three of us decided to briskly walk the now completely dry road, foregoing the complexity of bikes and enjoying the mellow 50 minute warm-up.

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Toll can be a slog, but on this day it was perfect. The lower woods by the creek, the rise to the taiga, heck all the way up to Blue Lake went as smooth as can be, thanks to a copious frozen surface that allowed us to hike briskly up to Blue Lake in running shoes. With the lightweight skis and gear, you can really make some time. Gone are the days of having to lug 20 pounds plus of gear into the mountains. Light and fast is the way to go. 

We made our way up from the lake to the lower bench, where we elected to put on skis, boots and ski crampons. The surface was somewhat firm so the crampons add just a bit more security. Truth is, with ski crampons, skins and a whippet  - an ice-axe like attachment that extends from a ski pole – a person can cover tons of ground, limited only by the steepest and slickest slopes where ice axes, crampons and occasionally ropes are necessary. 

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The slopes up to the final Matterhorn-like pyramid of Toll angle in a tricky maze of snow patches, where they finally emerge below the peak proper. This is when the natural stair master starts. We skinned as high as we could, switchbacking constantly to keep the pace moving, before tossing the skis on our back and boot packing up the steep slopes of Toll. 

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I love bootpacking. It's super meditative, a hell of a work-out and just good for the soul. We took turns leading, sometimes following existing steps and sometimes making our own. Elaine has shorter legs than I do, so I have to pay attention to kicking reasonable steps. It's good teamwork. I feel safest skiing with her. As she says, "we may not always talk every second on these skis, but we're always communicating." It's as subtle as a change in stride, a look, anything. I've come to recognize the key signs she gives me in the mountains and she has the same ability with me. It keeps us safer – well, that and a reverent respect for the mountains. John Muir used to believe the mountains would protect him…as such he'd often just venture out with a loaf of bread and water. I feel a similar thing at times, but it comes with a catch. They must be respected, ego tossed aside, beauty appreciated, danger held in high regard. They are the temples of our time. 

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Soon we were at the top. The entire glacial carved heart of the Indian Peaks stretched out to the north and south of us. Audubon, Paiute, Pawnee, North Arapahoe, Navajo, the glaciers to the west. We hope to ski as much of it as possible this spring. In these peaks lie potential hopes and adventure. The Indian Peaks are not the mightiest range in the world, or even Colorado, but they suit our needs fine. They are lofty, rugged and spectacular. Unlike the Elks or San Juans, they have real deal glaciers, thanks to wind and latitude. They are a great place to live, a home base to hone skills and then visit the great ranges of the planet. 

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Sequitur time: Speaking of great ranges of the planet, I've been proud to see a couple kids (now adults) I used to coach have the opportunity and conviction to visit Nepal and explore the Himalayas. It appears from a far that their experiences were quite different, and one of them was tragic. But I'll leave it to him to explain that story when the time is right. Regardless their stories and photos of that land are spectacular and inspirational…it is an area and mountain range Elaine and I must visit someday. 

It was time to continue our ski, and enjoy the fun part, the down part. Conditions were a little firm up top, but the Ski Trabs, born in the alpine valley of Bormio, Italy, locked up great. I got these skis back in April 2008, during one of the harder times of my life, and they have been a very trusty companion right from the get go. We've climbed lots of mountains together and had lots of adventures and had lots of beauty overcome any darkness. I suppose I'll need to replace them eventually, but they are sentimental to me. That, and when conditions are right – steep, firm and dramatic – they work beautifully. 

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As the pitch increased the snow softened to perfect corn. It's something to savor in this year where things have been slow to set-up. Elaine was up next, arcing turns right down the face, mellow and smooth at first, confident and fast by the end. Skiing off the top of a peak is a good feeling, and we were beaming. 

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We worked our way down a series of glacial cirques back to the lake. The glide down, rimmed by granite cliffs and spires, feels more like Greenland than Colorado. It was in this area where Elaine and I took one of our first backpacking trip as newlyweds back in 2010, and I smiled with the memory of that. It was not calm on that night – our MegaMid almost blew away and we barely slept a wink as a result, but it's a wonderful recall. It's been a fun life building one together with her. Mountains, skiing and adventure are great, but the addition of love to the concoction makes every day out there feel like winning a championship. 

Glacial

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Back to the lake and it was a combination of gliding and skate skiing our way to the road. The pine smells and raging creek sounds of spring were our serenade down, the essence of the mountains this time of year. We walked the road back the car, worn but spirited, and realizing the popularity can go hand-in-hand with goodness.

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Mt. Frosty

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It was a long weekend of work. Not that I’m complaining, really. As far as jobs go, we’ve got it pretty cush. Dan and I get the same schedule, we work four ten hour days, so we get three days off a week, and we get to spend all day in a gear shop. But, sometimes, it’s long. We commuted by bike to work three of the days, trying different ways down, and Sunday we did a nice relaxing yoga class after work. The place next to us offers a Yin Yoga – extremely nice, because there is no muscular activity through it, it’s simply stretching. Plus, they give a us a discount! Not bad. That being said, we were still pretty tired by the time we got home. We had thought about doing Mount Toll, but decided against it. Memorial Day? Definitely a time to choose a less popular destination. So, upon arriving home, the very first duty is to pack up all of our gear. No lollygaging around. The number one rule I learned with early morning starts – make it as easy as possible to roll out of bed, into your clothes, and into the car. Otherwise, the likelihood of not going out increases  exponentially. Also, never wait to get ready till after dinner – I seem to have a mechanism inside me so that after work, I eat dinner, and immediately start falling asleep – often before I even finish my food. Slightly embarrassing to fall asleep in a delicious plate of spaghetti. 

 The alarm went off rudely early. Honestly, not that early, only 5:45, but after yet another night spent tossing and turning in the heat, it felt too early. After two snooze sessions, Dan dragged himself from bed, and I soon followed suite. I knew I’d feel much better for doing this. It was not long before we were in the car, and headed to the Moffat Tunnel. This trailhead is extremely funny. Most of the time when we come up here in the winter, we about decide to turn around. It’s one of the windiest places around (and Ned is pretty windy, so this is saying something), there’s a train (hence the tunnel part) that has all these fans that start blaring when a train goes by. You sit in the car, windows rolled up tightly, knowing that it is hella cold and windy outside. But if you make yourself get out and ski for ten minutes, you find yourself protected by the trees, and truly it is quite nice. 

 In the summer, it goes through a complete transformation. It seems like a beautiful, benign mountain valley. But I’ve got your number, Moffat Tunnel! You won’t fool me.

 As per it’s usual, it was beautiful at the trailhead that morning. There were a few cars, but nothing exponential, and soon we were tromping along.

 “Wet, wet, wet,” I said as I splashed through the little brook that had decided that the trail was the perfect place to run its course. But we do not mind. We pack extra socks for this very reason. You can’t go spring skiing without getting wet. Part of the game. 

 At the trail intersection, it was like a convoy decided to camp there, probably about six tents all set up in the meadow. This is what I was talking about at the beginning of this post: I cannot complain too much about work, since I am lucky enough to have three days off a week every week. For many, that is most uncommon. I’m not gunna lie, I love my life. 

 We turn right, cross on the bridge for the first time since late fall (a nice snow bridge forms here in the winter), and on. We pass a couple, more secluded camp sites, one with a man milling about making coffee. We all do the obligatory exchange, but people go to the mountains to be alone, not to chat. We go on, till we reach another bridge. This one has a gnarly, breakable-looking lump of snow leading on to it, and, with the creek so high, was blackened by water. Early as it was, I suspected it might be frozen, and so very gingerly stepped down onto it. My foot nearly went slipping into the mad crashing current below, and I pulled back.

 “Super slick,” I informed Dan. Dan decided to give it a try, and concluded the same thing. Well, there was really no reason to cross this creek anyway, we decided, so we headed off the trail and straight up the mountain. The snow was firm in the early morning, but soon we were post-holing more than either of us liked, and so we switched to skis. 

 Following was a complicated weaving through dense pines. This area actually does hold some really nice AT skiing in the winter (most who visit the area are cross country skiers) but it is a bit difficult to find exactly where it is. We finally located the gully we ski in the winter, made harder than normal since we were coming at it from a different angle, and wound our way up.

 Work had been exhausting, and I was feeling a bit sluggish. Fortunately, Dan and I seem to rotate on the same physical-well-being scale, and he was feeling sluggish as well. We skinned slowly, letting the movement sweep the work-cobwebs from our bodies, till we reached Arapahoe Lakes. Then the real up started. Frosty is not very steep, just steep enough to make you want to ski it in the winter, but know that you probably shouldn’t. 

 Up, up. Spring skiing is the hardest thing I do. When I first started back country skiing, I thought that was hard. And then I started spring skiing. There is something about the elevation gains (we are averaging about 3,000 feet of elevation gain, whereas in the winter, our average is probably about a thousand to 1,500 feet less), being at higher elevations, the heat, or something that makes it hard. It’s an incredible workout, and often you are done by noon – time to grill a burger, and take care of life business, too. 

 Right beneath the summit, we removed our skis, and booted the last 100 feet or so to the summit. From there, we could see James Peak and South Arapahoe Peak. We had made it a little too early, so we hunkered down, down jackets on, food and water in hand, to wait for the snow to soften. I ate one of my Shot Blocks by Cliff Bar while we waited. Our place of work has been having trouble getting a hold of snacks, and we’ve been resorted to the Shot Blocks. They are gnarly, I’m telling you. They are too big, so you put one in your mouth, and if you’re breathing hard, it can be bad. (I won’t go into detail.) They are incredibly chewy, never seeming to dissolve, until you finally swallow the whole damn thing practically whole. Honey Stinger Chews are definitely my favorite – they don’t freeze like Sharkies (which otherwise are good), they are a better size than Shot Blocks, and they actually give me a kick. I guzzled water, and finally it was time. 

We clicked in, standing, debating, and then dropped in. Frosty is just fun. It’s mellow, beautiful turns that you can link for a good ways down to the Arapahoe Lakes, and then pick your way down through the trees to the trailhead. A simple ski, good for a post-work -week shakedown. 

 
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One of the things about spring skiing is when you’re hiking out, and you’re on a part of the trail where the snow has melted, and people are shocked that you have skis.

 “Did you find any snow?”

 “Did you get to use them?”

 “Any good skiing?” 

 Are common questions. Some ask with genuine curiosity, some ask with a slight sneer to their voice.

And you smile and say yes, and know that if they are going for a hike of any length, they will wish they had skis.

Red Deer Mountain

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Storm over the divide.

After much deliberation, the ski for our weekend was decided upon: Red Deer Mountain. It’s not actually a named peak, but it’s the other guard of Buchannan Pass, standing slightly taller than it’s much better known partner, Sawtooth. There was some storming going on, so we were choosing once again to go mellow. Sawtooth definitely beacons, but maybe I’m an old woman at heart – I just don’t want to fully risk my life. I’ll be safe and mellow, thanks. I'd like to grow to be an old woman someday. 

We were packed and ready earlier than our trip to Pawnee Peak, and good thing too, for as we drove up towards the trailhead, we were blocked quite rudely by a gate.

“Camp Dick is closed due to late season snowfall” read the sign posted there, hand scrawled on a piece of paper.

Well, poo.

After meticulously parking due to the plethora of “NO PARKING” signs around, complete with a hidden camera in a bird house (walking along, what is that strange reflection in the bird house? Damn, it’s a camera. Odd.), we piled out of the car, strapped our skis to our backs, and off we went. The road was completely dry, making us think that Camp Dick was probably to be opened for Memorial Day weekend. It was a mile long road walk tacked on, and after a bit, we reached the trailhead. Apparently, you can ride a bike, or drive a “very high clearance” vehicle on this road. I for one, would not like to do either.

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Packs on back, time to hike in!

Soon we were post-holing through rotten snow, and being the stubborn, pigheaded people we are, we put our skis on once, but after having to remove them for a sketchy river crossing, we just post-holed the whole way. After about six miles, we found a section of dry ground.

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Stella, as always, is adorable!

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Ah, a dry camp!

“Dry ground!” We marveled. “It’s been months since we camped on dry ground!” So even though we were a little short of where we wanted to be, we decided to stop for the evening, and pitched camp. It is very funny how in a howling storm, a Hilleberg tent goes up in a snap, but when you have the luxury of being picky with your set up, it’s amazing how long it can take. Finally it was set up to our satisfaction, and we started dinner. The evening was fine, so we cooked outside, laughing as Stella ran from the steam emitting from the stove. This time we packed slightly less dinner, and it was almost perfect, just about an ounce too short. Next time!

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Dinner time with hubby and pup. 

Sipping tea, we laughed as the sun dropped like a base jumper behind Red Deer Mountain and the cold sunk in. We were close to St. Vrain Creek, and the cold settled into the valley suddenly. Packing up our dinner stuff, we crawled into our sleeping bags, me, warming a Snicker’s bar in my pocket. We read for a while, but being tired, soon the headlamps went off. I brought out my Snicker’s bar and munched on it before bed time. There’s nothing like a good, sugary, fatty snack to keep you warm through the night.

At home, we are currently living in a place that is way too warm, causing us to not sleep well at night, but tonight, with the crisp mountain air, we had the best night of sleep we’d had in a while.

In the morning, it was up, and changing in golden splashes of sunlight, as the cold from the river was still sunk deep with us. Packs on, skis on, and up. We spent a little bit on the trail, following a solo snowshoer, until we came to a spot that was obviously a used campsite. Here the trail petered from sight under all the snow, and we decided it was time to cross the river, and we started searching for a crossing. A series of semi-sketchy feeling snow bridge crossings later, and we began switchbacking up to Red Deer Lake. It was steep, through snow rotten in some areas, frozen slicks in others. Breath came sharp and alive briskly through my lungs. The burning, the high of your body on endorphins filled me up. Up, up, and up, and then we were at Red Deer Lake, Sawtooth slightly to our left, Red Deer towering in front of us, a 2,000 ft climb, and, as we raised higher and higher, we caught sight of Ogalalla and Elk Tooth to our right.

One thing about going on these trips, is you can’t help but start planning others right then and there. We talked of a three or four day trip into the St. Vrain Glacial Valley. One day to ski in (it’s quite the approach!), one day to ski Elk Tooth, one day to ski Ogalalla, and then ski out. That will be slightly later. There was also Sawtooth beaconing. As a skier, it is not possible to drive the Peak to Peak Highway without fantasizing about Sawtooth. You don’t actually see the ski route from the highway, but it still ignites the imagination. These sights are much needed on these climbs. Red Deer is not too steep, but still a huff of 2,000 ft, and the majestic view is a much needed distraction.

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Up, up, up we go! 


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Obligitory summit shot. 

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Goofin' around on the summit. 

And then we were at the top, all of a sudden like. There had been some storms recently, and there was a plethora of hoar frost on the mountain, with a nippy wind still blowing. Despite it being May, I pulled on my puffy jacket and warm hat. Leaving our skis, we tumbled around the broad summit, ambling this was and that, admiring the view from all angles. Dreams filled us till we were heady with anticipation. But we had a 2,000 ft descent right now! Clicking back into our skis, we began the descent. The first few turns were downright wintery – the velvet feeling of skiing fresh snow, not the velvet feeling of spring corn. A few turns down, it turned breakable, and a several turns were spent carefully avoiding a blown out knee. But then, a little further down yet, the snow turned to that smooth, easy corn that you stay on top of, and it was cruiser down to the lake.

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These skis get me skiing all old school…But I love 'em!


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Beautiful corn truns. Love spring skiing!

We looked up at our tracks for a bit, before turning, and playing a game of hunt-and-peck down the steep trees back to the river. After a much better feeling snow bridge crossing a little higher up, we were soon back at camp. The day had warmed up significantly, and we took off our pants and lounged around camp in our underwear, stretching luxuriously in the sun and eating cheese. Finally, we decided that, as sumptuous as it was to soak up the sun in our underwear, really, we had a sizable distance out that we should get started on. So camp was packed up, pants put on, and off we went.


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I have a thing where I love to sit on signs when the snow is high enough…


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Creek crossing. 


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Pasque flowers. A whole field of them!

I suspect that the massive long approaches to skis is coming to an end, since trailheads will be opening quite soon now, but for the moment, they are limiting the folks who came back here, and I’ll take that any day. We tromped back through the rotten snow, dreams of sugar mountains dancing in our heads, summits, descents, and mayhap the best spring season of my life.

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Saint Vrain Mountain

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On top of St. Vrain Mountain.

Well, as all know, bugs are incredibly easy to catch. No matter the nature of the bug, you must be wary of them, for if given the chance, they will infect you.

 The bug has got us. It was back to work for one day, and, even though we are exhausted by the time we get home (we crossed Boulder three times in twenty minutes!), the very first thing we do is get the ski gear ready. It is easier than last time – I know where all my stuff is, for one thing, and what I need, for another. It’s a quick dinner and to bed – we’re to be up early in the morrow, and up to St. Vrain Mt. 

 After our experience with Pawnee, we decided that the snow has not *yet* consolidated, and so we shall ski something uber mellow. Besides, neither of us has been to St. Vrain before, so why not?

 You can have incredible stoke in the evening, and that stoke just dissipates in the morning. After much groaning and mumbling (and much mutterings about the indecent hours that spring skiing requires of one), we finally managed to drag our sorry asses up, and beginning to don our clothes. I am particularly lazy, and if I am going to be getting up early in the morning, I pile up every article of clothing right by the bed, so that I sit on the bed in the morning, getting dressed. If it’s cold, I sometimes don’t even get out from under the blankets before being fully clothed. This morning is not cold – in fact, the whole night was indecently hot, part of the reason why we did not sleep well. But, ach, well, whatchagunnado?

 Getting up early is for crazies, I think to myself. Crazies, nutsos, and people who have no sense of self worth. 

 And still we get up. 

 Finally, the engine of the car revs, and we are off. Allenspark is a while away…my brain goes into it’s-early-in-the-morning-foggy-white-place. We finally arrive at our destination of a random campsite along Rock Creek. I am still not sure that it is decent to be up and about, but I have one of those itchy, not-possible-to-ignore feelings that if we do this, I will feel much better. So, I suck it up, shiver (hey, it’s cold! finally!) and strap my skis on my back. 

 One of the things I love about skiing in the spring is the little hikes you get to do before hand. I know there are some people who hate the whole skis-strapped-to-the-pack thing, but I love it, I love hiking along, feet becoming saturated quickly in the melt-off, the smell of pine dense, the golden shafts of early morning sun gilding all, the crisp air, with those pockets of heat that happen in the spring, all drugging the senses till you feel punch drunk, staggering in awe through the dense pine. 

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Taking the skis for a hike!

After a while, it’s on with the skis, and the skinning begins, at first following a road – easy travel! At one point we stop to check the map, and Dan looks up.

“Hey, hey, hey!” He says – morning time leads to impeccable, eloquent language, for sure. I look up as well and see two snow shoe hares dashing pell-mell right at us – and Stella. We all three of us stand there staring at them, until you can see the fear light up their eyes, and they dart off into the trees. 

Psycho bunnies. We have seen psycho bunnies. Taking it as a sign, we decide that this is where we turn, and head up the little clearing the psycho bunnies just came sprinting down. Soon we are switchback up, up, up through dense pines – ‘tis an adventure we want, ‘tis an adventure we shall receive! 

Pant, pant, pant. But, miracles of miracles, I feel better than on did on Tuesday and Wednesday, which makes me happy. We wind our way up through the towering pines, and slowly, they become not quite so towering, shrinking, shrinking, shrinking, as we climb higher and higher, till we find ourselves dumped out upon the Rock Creek headwaters. 

We spent a bit of time dinking around, thinking at first that the mound to our right must be St. Vrain. It seems to be in the wrong direction, and according to my watch, we are only at 10,800 feet, and the summit of St. Vrain is supposed to be 12,162’, and the distance looks nothing like that between us and the summit of that lump. As we wind our way across the valley, suddenly in front of us looms a large peak in the correct direction.

Ah! That must be it. That lump must be Meadow Mountain, and this peak, which looks so far away and huge, that must be St. Vrain. It looks like it’s on another planet!

“Huh, well, this is quite the approach,” Dan says, and I agree. 

However, distances are hard to measure up here, sometimes, and we find ourselves at the base of the peak in what feels like no time at all. 

More up. At first it’s not too bad, and then the grade kicks up, and I find myself sucking the clean mountain air hard into my lungs, the two little guys working like my own perfect bellows. The air sears so good. I love the feeling of gasping for air, the slightly light-headed feeling (nothing like on Pawnee, which was not so fun) that makes me feel heady and exhilarated. 

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Huffing it up the ridge. 

Suddenly we gain the ridge and there is the whole Wild Basin to the north of us, Meeker and Longs Peak looming in all their grandeur, flanks blanketed in majestic cloaks of white, crowns of cold upon their regal heads. The views are a nice distraction as we huff it up the ridge, bellow-lungs sucking air, arms and legs mechanically pumping away – the body can be an amazing machine, when well oiled and cared for.

 
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Glorious mountains.

Several false summits later, and we stood upon the true summit, looking down at the marker briefly, and then out and around. We try to tell which peak is Ogalalla Peak. I want to ski it because it’s so far from the trailhead, and also because the name is just enchanting. Ogalalla Express. It makes me feel exhilarated just thinking about it. 

 
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How 'bout an overnight in that basin? Stay a few days and ski as much as you can!

The wind is whipping up here, so we decide not to stay long, each downing some food before clicking into our skis, almost skiing off down a very tempting slope that would definitely put us in the wrong drainage, and off we go. 

 
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Beautiful conditions.

The snow on Pawnee was like wet cement, this was *almost* the perfect corn. In just a few days, it has become much nicer and smoother. We enjoy the sweeping turns, both of us laughing, and Stella doing her adorable lop-sided grin when we reach the bottom. We look back up at our tracks. One thing I like about skiing is the mystical part of lying down nice tracks down a pretty slope, and the fact that when the snow melts, the fact that you were up here at all is completely erased. 

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