Gear Review: Åsnes Mountain Race 48 Cross Country Skis

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0577.JPG

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

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

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

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

IMG_6024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0576.JPG

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

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

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

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

nordicmap

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

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

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

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0564.JPG

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

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

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

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0573.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_4807

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_4825

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

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

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

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

Snowstorm in the Bob Marshall Wilderness

At the mountaineering shop Elaine and I worked at in Boulder, Colorado, we sold a variety of maps highlighting regions and trails for adventure. Some of the maps cycled through quickly – the Indian Peaks, Summit County, Rocky Mountain National Park and Elk Mountain maps sold on a daily basis. And then there were the odd balls, the maps that sat on the rack, that almost never sold.

I always found the latter category fascinating. During slow times, I was known to pull out a dusty map of the Gates of the Arctic Wilderness or Himalayas, opening it on our big wooden table at the shop, looking at mountains, ridges and valleys and imagining routes through that landscape. On a hot, sweltering July day in Boulder, it was an escape to another world.

On the bottom corner of that rack, almost hidden, sat National Geographic map #725, titled “Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.” In the six years I worked at the shop, we sold this map one or two times. I remember an older gentleman came in looking for the map, and when we found it, with a knowing and distant look of adventure, told me in a hushed tone, “you need to visit the Bob.”

And so the Bob Marshall Wilderness was introduced to me. Research showed it was a place deep in the northern Montana Rocky Mountains, home of wolves, grizzly bears, inaccessible mountains and the best Wilderness in the lower-48. It’s a huge expanse, the fifth largest wilderness in the United States. It is known to have the highest per-capita rate of Grizzly Bears in the lower-48, more even than Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Grizzlies prefer more remote, more wild locales than even National Parks can offer.

It’s possible I never would have gone to the Bob. It’s not exactly a place you end up in accidentally. But, as the trail gods would have it, the CDT happens to take the hiker right through the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Indeed, it goes into the heart of it, below something called the Chinese Wall, a seven-mile cliff face smack dab on the divide.

After our fire-induced road walk connecting Rogers Pass and Benchmark, the weather took a 180° change. A major cold front moved into Augusta on our rest day, blowing a swift wind and a steady rain down from the north – raw, cold, winter-like.  By the time evening rolled around, that rain was coming down more swirling, frozen and whiter in the form of a wet snow/sleet mix.

We pride ourselves in being prepared for cold weather, but our layering system was under-gunned for this type of wet cold. We headed into the local convenience/hunting store, and came across a couple $25 thick fleece jackets. Neither were the epitome of style – mine had a defined green camo hunting motif and Elaine’s black hoody could only be described as something that a 15-year old fan of dystopian fantasies would wear – but they were very warm. As we left the store and walked back to the lodge in the cold snow and wind tucked into our ugly fleeces, we knew we had no excuses not to head out.

It was quick turnaround the next morning. Since we had walked the section from Augusta to Benchmark two days earlier, we were able to accept a ride up to the trailhead and still maintain our continuous footpath. We hitched a ride to Benchmark with Mack and Connie who own the Bob Marshall Wilderness Outfitters. After a stop at the local bar to pick up some breakfast burritos, we began the 35 mile journey to the edge of the Wilderness. As the truck bounced down the dirt road into the mountains, snow swirling in the headlight’s glow, we found out that our hosts were, for lack of a better word, caretakers of the Bob.

Mack and Connie take visitors, mostly on horse, into the Wilderness to hike, ride, fish and hunt. On this particular trip they (and their staff, which included a girl with a Master’s Degree in literature – stereotypes be damned) were taking two gentleman from Oregon elk hunting.

Hunting in Wilderness may be a strange concept to some, and I’m sure folks on the left and right coasts of this country would disagree with it.  But before casting judgement, let it be known that Mack and Connie are on the front lines of the Wilderness movement and have fought hard for decades to preserve land in northwestern Montana. I suspect when these two walk into a meeting with a land manager or a politician, they command instant respect. They walk the walk and talk the talk. In our continuing education about the real American west away from the Boulder bubble, this was one of the best encounters we had.  They drove us right to the trailhead, and before departing Connie told us, “Enjoy the Bob Marshall. It is a magical place.”

The trail headed due north across the Wilderness boundary. A light snow fell, leaving the path wet brown but the trees and shrubs on the side covered with a thin layer of white. The contrast between the yellow and red underbrush was stark against the white.

Through forests and river valleys the trail meandered. Sometimes we’d be in ancient timber stands, hundreds of feet tall, and the next minute, walking though the skeletal remains of a burned forest. In these sections new stands of bright green pine have filed in the space between the burned trees, the rebirth of life under the remains of death. We will both be gone by the time this forest is ancient, but in some ways that is comforting, the cycle of life never ending, unaffected by our blip of time here.

We breaked under the shelter of an old patrol cabin, and then continued our way. The trail began to rise noticeably, and with it the snow grew deeper and fell steadier. Clouds and fog shrouded high cliffs in front of us, and a quick glance at the map confirmed we were approaching aptly named Cliff Mountain.

We circled the base of Cliff Mountain, crossed a small pass, and came to the southern reach of the Chinese Wall. A sheer cliff rose a thousand feet, dark and foreboding as the mist whisped around it. It extended north into the fog, the end nowhere in sight.

Darkness was approaching, the snow falling hard and it was time to set up camp. We tamped down the snow on a flat section under the wall and hunkered down. The wet snow required constant tightening of the guy lines and shaking off, but inside the tent we were warm and cozy.

The next morning was magic. Cold magic, but magic nonetheless. The fog lifted some, revealing the Chinese Wall in all its splendor, with the fog just kissing the top of the cliff wall. The world below was white, as about eight inches of fresh powder blanketed the land. Our core, wrapped in our $25 fleeces and a host of other layers was warm, and the plastic bags between our socks and shoes did an adequate job keeping the feet from freezing. Ahead on the trail, animal tracks jutted off in all directions. The world tells a story with a fresh snow.

It’s rare when place and time converge to create such perfection. If I’d custom ordered up the conditions I’d wanted to see the Bob Marshall in, this would have been it. Deep fall, moving into winter. Cold. The first snow of the year. Mystical and beautiful. Hikers a few days ahead had to endure this section in smoke. We were luckier. Sometimes being patient pays off.

After traversing along the base of the wall, breaking trail through the powder, we had to descend off the ridge thanks to a fire reroute. The reroute took us into a new Wilderness area that most CDT hikers don’t get to visit, the Great Bear Wilderness. But not before a chilling descent. That snow up high fell as ice and sleet on the trees, bending them directly across the trail. As we passed through, we got an icy car wash, soaking our gear and freezing us to the core.

The sun emerged and soon we were sitting back, drying our gear and enjoying lunch in a beautiful old growth forest. The rest of the day wandered through magnificent river valleys and forests in the northern Bob. Yellow leaves dropped from trees and the rich smells of decomposing leaves permeated the air. We camped that night under the stars in deep forest, the sound of elk bugling and wolves howling serenading us to sleep.

The next day brought us up and over Gunsight Pass, a 2,500 foot climb through a recent burn near a mountain that literally had a notch in a cliff wall. It was something out of a novel – a lonely mountain in the northern Montana Rockies that looks like a hideout for cowboys or banditos. And then, past serene creeks that carved through moss covered ground, and down into an old, deep, peaceful feeling forest. If the Bob Marshall is the land of mystery, the Great Bear Wilderness is a step beyond, an Avatar-like dreamscape that captures the soul.

As the the light waned, bear tracks. A horse rider had crossed the opposite direction no more than ten minutes earlier, and these large bear tracks were on top of those. A grizzly bear, heading the same way we were. We suddenly started raising a ruckus, singing bad pop songs and telling the bear in no uncertain terms that we meant no harm. The tracks continued on to the Flathead River,  requiring an icy ford at the end of the day.


Across the river the bear tracks disappeared, and we emerged at the Schaefer Work Station, a wilderness airport and a USFS ranger cabin. It was dark now, so we poked our head into the cabin, aglow and overwhelmingly warm from a hot fire in the woodstove. A group of rangers inside informed us there was camping nearby, and a gentleman walked the 300 yards with us to the campsite. He lives in Eureka, Montana, along the Pacific Northwest Trail, and after talking with him about it…well, we have another adventure to embark on! This country speaks to us…we will be back. That evening Himal and Chosen staggered into camp. They told of epic tales of avoiding fire and freezing. They did not have the $25 fleeces, and Himal only had shorts, not ideal for temperatures in the teens and 20’s. Himal is a minimalist though, and I suspect it’s as much his identity as being good in cold and snow is ours.


The next morning was smooth travel along river beds in perfect fall weather, flurries and rain mixed with sun. Somewhere on this section one of those moments hit me: perfect happiness. Not because we are finishing – in a sense I dread that – but because I was in the perfect place, with the perfect partner, moving exactly how we wanted. No bosses, no traffic, no stress other than those things that are real: water, food, warmth, movement. The way life should be.


The rain began to beat down hard. We put on every layer. The trail dumped out onto a dirt road heading north towards Glacier National Park. It was too cold to stop. We moved in the cocoon of rain, pitter patter on the hood, breath exploding in front of us. We crossed another mountain pass and soon hit Highway 2.

We turned right, avoiding the spray of 18 wheelers, rounded a corner, and saw it: the southern border of Glacier National Park. Grey mountains erupted from the valley, and snow capped peaks that were sheer, unlike anything we have seen. Our destination for the past five and half months, right there in front of us. It was a joyous, emotional moment, a hug and a few tears shared. We made it to Marias Pass and camped on the side of the road, an icy wind blowing down from the glaciers above.The next morning, it was back on trail for a 15 miles walk on the CDT to the town of East Glacier. We’ve been laying low for 36 hours as a storm rages in the mountains. This will not be an easy finale. The mountains have about a foot of snow on them and there are still 100 miles to go. But the route is open, the fires doused. For a snow-loving, mountain couple, we woudn’t want it any other way. I am giddy with excitement – we are going to Canada and we get to cross some of the best mountains in the world to get there to finish up this 3,000 mile thru hike on the Continental Divide Trail.

Out of the Winds

Sometimes, even after a full zero, it’s still tough. The infected blister I got in the Red Desert didn’t heal (shockingly) in one day. But options are low, and mostly the option is forward, northward, ever onwards. So despite green puss and a toe still too swollen to fit in my shoe, we finished up town chores and headed out to hitch a ride.

Part of the town chores involved picking up mail, one of those boxes being our Lucky Bums skis. Dan and I have skied at least once a month since October of 2010. We weren’t about to let that streak die just because of a five month hike. So, after scouring the interweb, we picked these skis, little kids skis (I think they have a weight limit of 80 lbs) with plastic strap-on bindings. With them strapped to my pack, they garnered a fair amount of attention. A gentleman approached us as we stuck out our thumbs as yet another massive truck went whizzing by.

“Those skis?” He asks. I laugh and explain the story, and next thing you know, he’s giving us a ride up to the trail head. Turns out this guy skied for the US Nordic Team from ’76-’84 – quite the long career. We had a lot to chat about as we headed up, picking up TennesSteve (whom we haven’t seen since Chama) along the way.

Soon, we were strapping on our packs, saying goodbye to our ride, and diving back into the woods.


The Winds had a high snow year, and things are still melting out.

The toe, the toe, the damned toe! It’s such a tiny thing, but it was being a beastly little thing, and my speed was limited. We debated going over Knapsack Col on the way up – we had 11 miles to make the decision. The information on it was surprisingly differing: at the Great Outdoor Shop in Pinedale, they told us that a group with crampons and ice axes couldn’t get over it, and a thru-hiker in front of us said another thru-hiker did it with no gear, no problem. Which of the two extremes was true?


Little skis, big mountains.


Heading into Titcomb Basin

Of course, we decided to do it, and so took the turn to Titcomb Basin. As we climbed slowly, once again we were surrounded by the immense Wind River mountains. Some of the tallest peaks in the state towered high over great blue lakes, and finally we stopped, finding one dry spot amongst the swampy tundra to set up.


Titcomb Basin is popular, but we had this whole area to ourselves.


What’s for dinner?

Before drifting off to sleep, the same incredible thunderstorms that we’ve been having at night hit, great violet bolts of lightning shooting across the sky and thunder cracking so hard you could imagine the stone giants tossing boulders around. But the deep exhaustion runs so deep in a thru-hiker that sleep won out before long.


Titcomb Basin in the morning

Up and out of camp the next morning, excited to see Knapsack Col. Soon we hit snow, but it was east facing, and so softened early, and huge sun cups pocked the surface, so traction was easy.


Things warmed up fast.


The last push before the top.

Up and up and up, slipping between two gigantic peaks, and then, one last push to the top, where we met TennesSteve again. We laughed and took pictures before heading down the other side – we saw some lower-angle snow down low that maybe wasn’t as sun cupped.


Happy we took the alternate.

The ensuing moments were filled with hilarity as we strapped the tiny wooden kids skis to our feet (clearly the binding was meant for kids, too, as Dan’s feet barely fit) and skittered around the snow, out of control and off balance, but laughing our heads off. TennesSteve walked by telling us he’d rather keep his streak of non-broken bones. Good point.


Not trying to pursue broken bones

But there were miles to be made, so down, down the valley we swept, past Peak Lake (complete with rock slide to scramble around without falling into the icy depths), over Cube Pass, and down, down, eventually hitting the official CDT again.


The trail around Peak Lake appears to have been taken out


The beauty of the Winds

I poked the trail with my trekking pole when we reached it – a habit I’ve picked up whenever we take an alternate or end up off trail somehow, I jab the trail with my pole when we come back, emphasizing in my mind that we are “back”.


Into the woods


The Green River quickly becomes quite large.

The trail wound through beautiful forest, deep and green and mosquito infested. So infested with mosquitoes that when we set up camp along the Green River, we quickly barred ourselves inside our tent, feeling ever grateful for having a tent with a screen.

Walking along the Green River the next morning was incredible. This hike is full of those moments: I look forward so much to Knapsack Col, and then this little section captures me by surprise with its beauty.


The sections that surprise you.
Getting dumped into sagebrush land.

Soon we were dumped away from the Green River, heading up Gunsight Pass, back in sagebrush land. Both of us, a little traumatized from the Red Desert, rushed past, giving the poor sagebrush some serious side-eye. I don’t trust it. This is not a section that is talked about by hikers, I know not what to expect. Do we go back into the desert? But the land only teases us. The expanses of sagebrush seem like they will go on forever, but we make it to the oasis of Lake of the Woods, which shockingly is not a mosquito nightmare, where we hear our first loon of the trip, and drift to sleep listening to that enchanting call.


Lake of the Woods was enchanting.

North, I think. We’ve walked to The North. I’m feeling a difference here. The bite in the cold, just a little bit, the call of the loon, the track of a wolf print, the shift in Polaris as I stare skywards in the evening. It’s higher in the sky than it was when we started. Much higher.


This wolf print was as big as my whole hand spread out.

Dense fog rolls in that night, and we hike through it most of the morning. Afternoon finds us lucky with no thunderstorms as we bounce along a ridge we will learn burned four years ago.

Charred trees, black skeletons, stand stark against the bright blue sky and a true riot of wildflowers erupt in a flurry of colors at their bases. It is beautiful. Life. Death. The Cycle. We walk back, click click click with our trekking poles.


Fireweed, some of the first plants to come back. They help keep the soil stable while more plants grow.


Hiker hunger: when you find a Snickers on the ground, you smile and eat it.

The next morning is resupply day! We are picking up a package at Brooks Lake Lodge, and we have no idea what to expect. We hear there is nothing there. You cannot eat. I don’t know how this works, as it’s a place people stay (for $350/night, minimum 3 night stay!) and people usually have to eat.


Oh, hello.

We arrive early afternoon, packs light at the end of a ration. Donna, the nice lady at the desk finds two of our boxes, but not our box with my shoes and more food. We sit down outside and explode our packs, trying to do so in a contained sort of way, while we set the wheels in motion trying to find this box. UPS tell us they delivered the package three days ago. Someone else helps Donna search for the package, and I ask somebody else if I can buy food. I’m met with a crisp no. Finally, because I may be a bit of a freak and want to see things for myself, I ask Donna if I can help look, and we find our box. Happy, we sit back down.


Resupply at Brooks Lake Lodge

I have a slightly shameful moment of begging. I’m hungry. I know Dan is too, but he won’t say anything.

“Is there any way there is any food I can buy here?” I ask Donna. (I may or may have embellished it into true begging.)

Before long, Dan and I each had a bowl of strawberry rhubarb crumble with whipped cream. Slightly embarrassed from my begging, but pleased with the results, none the less, I cherished that bowl of dessert more than just about anything.

It came time to leave, so we packed everything into our bags again, said our goodbyes to Donna, and headed up the trail.

Leaving Brooks Lake Lodge.


Nothing like the moon on the lake and a fire.

We didn’t make it that far, as soon we came to Upper Brooks Lake, and the peacefulness of the area captured us, pulling us in until we set up camp and made a small fire, watching the full moon rise above the mountains.

71 Months of Skiing

IMG_0229

Back in October 2010 Elaine and I headed up to Loveland ski resort on Halloween Day. There was a certain excitement as there always is on the first ski day of the season. Truth is, the opening affair always features terrible conditions and soaring excitement. This one was no different. There was a “white strip of death” that offered a typically hazardous opening to the season. And yet being up there at 12,000 feet, feeling the slide of skis on snow, the cold autumn air, and smelling the wood smoke from the top shack on the mountain made up for any lack of pizzaz the skiing offered.

IMG_0184.jpg

Thanks to my newly earned job at Neptune Mountaineering, I was privy to a weekday ski pass at Loveland. And while Elaine didn’t work there yet, I was able to convince our bookkeeper Roland to put her on the Neptune list so she could buy a pass dirt cheap. It was a good move, as Loveland and all of Colorado got hammered with snow that winter. I’ve never skied more inbounds powder than I did that season, and memories of gliding silk-like on six inches of powder EVERY SINGLE TIME OUT still linger with me today. That was a great year, and a start to something kind of cool that we’ve been doing ever since.

IMG_0185

That Halloween Day was the first of a skiing streak that has grown impressive in numbers. We’ve skied at least one day on snow for 71 straight months. It’s nothing unusual from November to April. Those six months of the season are the gimmes…as they should be. We live three miles from a ski area, have skinning and backcountry routes out our door, and more nordic trails than most folks this side of Norway. And honestly, unless you want to become an alcoholic, there isn’t much else to do here in the winter. Skiing in the winter is our health and sanity.

IMG_0200.jpg

It’s something of a secret, but the best skiing in this neck of the woods – at least in terms of climbing peaks and sliding back down them – is in May, June and early July. The snow consolidates, bringing our normal extreme avalanche danger to safer levels. The Indian Peaks are a great place to go in these months, even better than the rest of the state, a result of our slightly more northern location and distance from snow destroying desert southwest dust. Skiing in May, June and July is something to be relished here, because it’s  a world class experience.

IMG_0231

August and September is when things get interesting. The winter powder is long gone and the corn snow of the spring is a distant memory, having turned to something more resembling ice. That said, we are blessed with many things in this area, and the one in particular that directly impacts the local year-round skier – we have more glaciers in our local mountains than anywhere else in Colorado. These aren’t your Alaska behemoth glaciers. Indeed, most of them no longer count as official glaciers since they don’t really move anymore. They are, for all purposes, permanent snowfields. But they are there and they can be skied year round.

IMG_0246.jpg

The skiing is marginal. In the late summer, the corn snow turns to ice which turns to something called “sun cups.” Sun cups are formed by melting pools of water in the snow that create cavities in the surface – basically, thousands and thousands of cups. These cups are not particularly fun to ski. The worst of the sun cups are nearly unskiable, so you pick your way between little paths of relative smoothness. It’s a far cry from powder skiing…it’s almost a Mad Max-style battle type of skiing. But, it’s turns on snow when most folks are sweating on the flats. It’s good and it’s worth it.

IMG_9669

There have been some interesting adventures over the past near six years to take the streak this far. That first summer was easy…it snowed so much. The next year was one of the driest on record. I remember right before our first CT hike skiing a 30-foot-by-30-foot patch up at the local haunt. September was relegated to some horrible turns at Saint Mary’s Glacier. Come to think of it, September often involves horrible turns at Saint Mary’s.

IMG_9667

The cruxiest time of the streak was back in 2014 when I had knee surgery. My surgery was somewhere around May 25. May was in the skiing books – I was making turns the day before surgery despite the impending surgery – but June was no sure thing. It was way, way, way too early to be making turns safely on my expensive new ACL, so while Elaine and her friend Danielle took a couple laps on Sundance Couloir in RMNP, I skinned around the top for two hours. It wasn’t sexy but it counted as a day of skiing on snow in June. That whole summer was a challenge, and I distinctly remember being downright angry and scared with the horrible sun cups on Saint Mary’s in September. I was like…I’m going to end my season on this junk and the year hasn’t even begun!

IMG_9666

Alas, it all worked out. The next real threat was last year right after our Colorado CDT trip. We were simply out of of days and time to hit the glaciers in September, and were busy driving around the state picking up caches. We tossed our skis in the car in hopes of finding something, and we did – a 20×20 foot patch on the top of Cottonwood Pass. We hiked that patch 10 times each and skied back down so many times we actually made ruts in the snow.

IMG_0248

It’s been a good winter and spring and we managed to keep the streak alive, our last ski being fun little couloir on the 4th of July. Since we’re heading to Norway at the end of this month and have to work the days before departure, yesterday was our designated day to ski in August. We decided to head to Isabelle Glacier. Isabelle is a little pocket mountain glacier tucked between Apache and Isabelle Peaks. It’s a gorgeous cirque and the 4-mile hike in takes the visitor past lakes, pine forests, talus, tundra, moraines and right through some amazing peaks. I’ve seen a lot of mountain ranges, but the western part of the Apache cirque is hard to beat.

IMG_0253

It was a good ski and a great hike. The turns were surprisingly high quality and the snow was actually kind of smooth in places. For August it was a ten! Perhaps the coolest thing about the ski was the large gaggle of crows just hanging out on the glacier. When they crowed, it echoed off the mountain walls with an eerie reverberation.

IMG_0254

On the hike out we were greeted with rain, hail and sleet that was predicted to turn into snow by night’s end. Fall is coming rapidly and I haven’t felt it more all year than I did yesterday afternoon. We hiked just slightly faster than the storm, and when we stopped near the trailhead to relax by a stream and watch a family of ducks feed, it caught up to us.

We got loaded back into the car just before the deluge began. Evening plans included a quick shower at home and then dinner with our good friends Erica and Bob at Crosscut. Stomach full and soul alive, we noticed through the heavy cold rain that the bank thermometer read 39°. While the satisfaction of skiing 71 straight months was significant, it was overwhelmed by the excitement of the snow-filled, skiing months to come!

Past accomplishments, medals and long streaks have their place, but they can’t compare with the giddy anticipation of future adventures. The past has been great, but the future excites me much, much more.

Roll , roll, roller skiing into fitness


One commitment I made this spring was to spend more time roller skiing. Last year we only went a paltry 15 days or so, and that’s a bit of a wasted opportunity since it’s actually easier to improve technique and fitness in the summer than in the winter. I’m not going to get much sympathy on this one, but our access to groomed nordic skiing in the winter is a ten minute drive, whereas roller skiing we can actually walk out our door and have a nice 10 kilometer route without having to drive a minute. Roads are consistent and it’s easy to work on stuff. Want a flat road to work on v2? No problem. A long climb to build your threshold fitness? We’ve got plenty on those. The only thing we don’t have out our door is rolling terrain, but alas our workplace is located in the roller skiing hotbed (I use this term very lightly) of Boulder and it’s all rolling. In addition to great terrain, there is little pressure in the summer and one can just progress at a natural pace. There are no races to break up training, few shitty weather days and less illness to contend with. It’s a great time to become a better skier.

Probably the biggest issue with roller skiing is it’s dorky as heck and there are a lot of other things you can do in the summer. You have to put ego aside a little bit and just enjoy being dorky. It’s actually a lot of fun and there is no better way to build ski specific fitness. We’ve gotten out 31 days so far this summer and the peak season is yet to come. There are few things I like better than roller skiing up Vail Pass or Mount Evans as the leaves are changing. It’s a highlight of the annual preparation ritual.


Elaine and I signed up for a ten-week Tuesday night summer roller ski training group that ended just this week. Our coach was Adam St. Pierre, a honch Boulder area Nordic racer, ex-collegiate racer, coach of the Boulder Junior Nordic Team and all around awesome dude. Elaine and I both improved a lot, which is what it’s all about. I remember back in week one how every divot and bump in the road scared the heck out of me. Ten weeks later, the hills seem a lot less steep and the confidence is way higher. On our last session I decided to do a little one ski pirouette down a fast hill, and while I didn’t crash Adam did give me a “be careful show-off!” Good advice, as I’m at that place where confidence and skill and miles don’t quite match! Fitness has come a long way too, from that first interval way back in June. There is some hop in the stride now and it feels good.

During the class I got to enjoy the simple pleasure of roller skiing in the rain, the brutality of skiing on 110 degree tarmac and everything in between. We skied up and down hills with medicine balls, we skied while towing people behind us, we skied with no poles while bouncing basketballs in front of us, we tackled scary descents and went faster on them than we’ve ever gone before.  The class took us out of our comfort zone, and that’s when you improve the most. 


We’ve found a lot of great routes around our work place, with interval options ranging from one minute sprints to ten minute consistent efforts. That’ll be nice a lunch break as we move into clinic season and morning workout opportunities shrink. We also picked up some classic roller skis which are great for our high elevation climbs near home. I’m quite surprised more AT skiers don’t classic roller ski as it’s a very similar motion to skinning uphill fast. I could certainly see it increasing in popularity as uphill travel gains even more traction. 

It’s been good, and I’m thrilled to have made solid strides during a time of year when I normally wouldn’t think of skiing. Elaine is crushing strong this year, so we’re on track for a good year. Now it’s time to have a strong autumn season and then just basically stay healthy for the entire winter. A cold front just moved in and they are predicting snow above 10,000 feet Friday night. One of my favorite seasons of the year, autumn, is just about here!