Jasper to Mount Robson: Mud, Mosquitos, and Magnificent Mountains

The short version of the last four days might go something like this:

*squelching through shin deep mud*

*slapping away gigantic mosquitos*

*spending a whole day crossing rivers*

*jaws dropping at the incredible Mount Robson*

August 8th – 17 miles, 2400′ of climbing

For our last night in Jasper, we got lucky. I was standing in line at the Post Office, and when I was leaving, a guy at the back of the line stopped me.

“Are you hiking the GDT?” He asked.

“Was it the zippy-bag wallet?” I asked, holding up the trade mark of a thruhiker in town: a zippy-bag wallet.

The guy introduced himself as Joe, and said that he and his girlfriend had hiked the trail the year before. He offered showers and a bed – in Jasper, where everything is sold out faster than you can think, I took him up.

The four of us – Joe and his girlfriend, Nicola, Dan, and me – all met up and had pizza, sharing laughs about the trail, and how it’s changed. Being not an “official” trail, the Great Divide Trail seems to change every year, from the route itself, there being closed routes taken away, new ones added, and some trail maintenance and even some new trail being built! As always, it was great to talk trail – and interesting to hear about the GDT from people who had had some “space” from it. Dan and I crashed at their place, and caught a ride back into town with Nicola on her way to work.

After breakfast, where we saw Coyote, Backtrack, Boat, and Mic again, we picked up an extra sticky bun from the local bakery and headed out to start hitching. Pretty soon after sticking our thumbs out, a car veered erratically of the road, almost hitting us. A young woman hopped out of the front and began shoving a whole assortment of odds and ends into the trunk of the car, chatting the whole time in between pounding a Monster, peroxide blonde hair with purple tips flashing over her shoulders. She was from Edmonton, on her way to see Victoria for a couple days, she explained, swerving onto the road and hitting it pedal to the metal, while hip hop blared from the stereo. She grew up downhill ski racing and skating and complained about how cowboy boots don’t fit over proper calves. Faster than an eye blink we were dropped off, as the whirlwind of our hitch drove away.

“Damn, I love her!” I said as we rearranged our packs before setting off.

The trail started off as an easy old dirt road, and soon turned off to slither up the mountain. We pushed past curtains of dense brush, the sticky humid air causing us to sweat profusely as we struggled through the muddy ground. Heads bent, as there wasn’t much to see, we eventually realized we were at the Miette River, a good 17 miles into the day. There was a rare spot of non muddy ground, so we decided to call it early, and set up camp.

After cooking dinner, I put my shoes back on (I always take my shoes and socks off whenever I can, as this has been such a wet trip that I’m struggling a bit with trench foot) and instantly felt a pronounced pain. Somehow, unnoticed by me, some grit from all the mud had gotten stuck between my sock and ankle bone and was now rubbed completely raw, a small dime shaped patch of skin worn away. It was such a silly thing to have happen, and all because of all the mud, I was a bit peeved. But there’s not much to do but put on some antibiotic ointment and a bandage out here!

August 9th – 18 miles, 1,900′ of climbing

I slept so well last night! After a few nights of terrible sleep in a hostel it was truly lovely. I struggle sleeping around so many other people – I don’t trust them, and so usually spend most of the night awake, listening to what they might do, which is immensely boring, as well as sleep depriving as they are usually sleeping.

Dan and I got to start the day off right by plunging right into the Miette River. Our shoes were clean for all of a few seconds in the river, before we exited and continued on what was becoming the now-familiar shin-deep mud of this section. This section is supposed to be a bit muddy as is, and locals we have met in town tell us that this is the wettest summer in the Canadian Rockies since 1923. Go figure! (I seem to remember something similar happening on our backpacking trip across the Hardandervidda…) As such, it seems exceptionally muddy.

As the morning wore on, we climbed to Miette and Centre Passes – more of a sweeping general pass than two true separate passes. In fact, it was rather flat up top between the two, complete with bog that we splashed through.We then dropped down Grant Pass into a beautiful meadow overseen by a towering monolith of a mountain with a glacier hugging its sides. A milky creek cut across the vibrant green meadow that we were descending to. Our maps were odd, we were glad to realize, as we descended. The evening before, going over them, we noticed that according to the contour lines on the map, the other side of Grant Pass was about vertical. The one thing we were hoping for was that there also seemed to be an odd seam along that particular point on the maps, as though two different versions had been melded together. We reached the creek without having to navigate vertical cliffs, and began the mucky climb of Colonel Pass, passing a horse camp at a lake on the way. Colonel Peak rose strong before us as we dropped down into the next valley.

Here, the tale of west sung its song as we walked out of the mud into a large burn zone from ’98. As any hiker knows, an unmaintained trail in a burn zone is…less than desirable travel. As we navigated over, under, around, and sometimes through the dead fall, we took heart from the note that accompanied our maps in this section:

“If you feel yourself becoming disheartened with the dead fall in the burn zone, recall that Dustin Lynx described this section of trail as nearly impassable in 2004.”

As Dustin Lynx is pretty much the Godfather of the Great Divide Trail, and has hiked all of it and all the alternates, and seemingly skied most of is as well, for him to call something “nearly impassable” is saying something. As we scratched ourselves on the old burned trees, we re-christened the GDT the “Great Deadfall Trail”.

I also think we had somehow managed to hit the trail in a bit of a lull of hikers – several people had left town as we were getting there, but the crew of eight from Jasper was all behind us. You know this on trail when you start running into the spider webs. Overnight, they are usually ok, just little stringers that sometimes get stuck in your mouth or eyelashes, but nothing crazy. This was a whole other level. Great gobs of sticky web, with spiders the size of my thumbnail sat around the corner, invisible in the odd half light, waiting for me to walk in. More than once one of us walked into one, instigating a most graceful and verbose spree of jumping, writhing, spitting, face writhing, and occasional cursing.

Arriving at Upright Creek, we saw that there was a way to cross it via a conveniently fallen tree, but decided to cross it using our eddy method. All the rivers so far had been either benign or had bridges of some sort, but as there were a couple potentially intense river crossings, we decided to practice for the real thing. I collapsed my poles, stuck them in my pack, and took hold of Dan’s pack from behind as he faced up the creek, poles braced before him, as he is the taller of us. With his shouting “left, right, left” over the roar of the river to indicate when to move which foot and me not responding with my bellowed “yes” until I had stable footing, we steadily crossed the creek.

Satisfied when we exited, I pulled my poles back out of my pack and we continued to the first crossing of the Moose, which turned out to be easier than Upright Creek, and set up camp for the night immediately beyond, once again finding a rare, non-muddy spot with no dead trees to fall on us.

In an attempt to seek reprieve from the blood hungry mosquitoes that had been relentlessly plaguing us, we set up our bug net to eat dinner in and set the water to boil. As luck would have it, as soon as dinner was ready, thunder came booming over the mountains behind us, thick thunderhead growing quickly. Shoveling the food in our mouths as quickly as we could, we still didn’t quite beat the weather moving in. Shoving our pot and food away haphazardly, we hastily began to set up our shelter, right as the storm centered on us, lightning flashing and thunder booming.

But what sent me over the edge was when the torrential rain started. In 30 seconds about four inches of a super wet combo of hail and rain stood everywhere, and after forcing numb fingers to tie out our guylines, we both collapsed in the mid, panting.

“OMGDT,” I panted out. Our friend, Mic, had coined the term a while ago, and it had quickly become the standard for all things out of the normal level of anything, whether positive or negative.

August 10 – 18 miles, 2,500′ climbing

Today was a day for crossing rivers! The Moose River has a bit of a reputation throughout the trail, potentially more because you cross it five times, than because it is a big scary crossing. Or six times. And then you simply walk it for a while, because that is simplest way forward. But I get ahead of myself.

Our first two crossings of the Moose were pretty straightforward – we did the eddy method because we’re cautious and there’s two of us. In between were stretches of muddy, boggy trail, and then the third one was significantly deeper. All along, as we stomped our way through the mud, three sets of bear prints stood out in the mud. One, as I knelt down to put my hand against, was bigger than my fingertips reached, one of middling size, and one quite small. Also all up and down the trail were moose and deer prints. Once again, we never saw any – we have come to the rather unfortunate conclusion that to stay safe and not startle a grizzly also means we aren’t startling anything else, so we see little to no wildlife.

After the third crossing of the Moose (or fourth so far), we veered off a bit, and crossed Steppe Creek three times. You know, because Today Is The Day To Cross Rivers In The Mountains. We did a final crossing of the mighty Moose River, now reduced to a tiny little brook that we decided to walk up instead of fight our way through the brush on either side.

As we ascended Moose Pass, though, the trail suddenly became defined, and dare I say, even a bit less muddy. Reaching the top of Moose Pass, the skies cleared, the sun came out, and angels might as well have been trumpeting from the glacially-draped peaks around us. Setting up the bug net, we took a leisurely snack break.

“I know why Moose Pass is the only thing hikers talk about in this section,” I said, as I worked my way methodically through a spoonful of peanut butter with M&M’s.

Dan looked at me, too busy eating jerky and identifying peaks to ask.

“It’s because you’re a bit traumatized by all the mud, and then you reach Moose Pass and there’s wildflowers everywhere, and glacier-capped peaks, and it’s perfect land, so you forget the three days of mosquito-infested valley mud-bog slog in favour of Moose Pass.”

But the day was ticking on, and the Perfect Land of Moose Pass wasn’t going to come with us, so eventually we got up and moved on, down, back into the mosquito-infected valley of mud-bog slog for a few hours, complete of course, with multiple encounters with the now dreaded massive spider web.

And then there was the Smokey River. We tumbled out of the woods onto the gravel bar of the Smokey River, and squelched to its sides where we gazed at the rushing torrent raging past us. Sitting down (socks and shoes came off, of course), we read through all the recent notes that had been left on the crossing and looked at the weather forecast. Typically, with a glacially fed river, you want to cross in the morning, as the runoff will be highest in the afternoon/evening from melt. (We later heard a hiker tell of how it lowered three feet between an evening crossing and a morning one.) But we were predicted heavy rain overnight, which we thought might hamper the lowering effects. So we got up and began a thorough scouting of the river bank, looking far, both upstream and downstream.

We started crossing at two different places, pulling out both times as the roaring water reached Dan’s mid-thigh at a fast pace. We finally settled of a point rather downstream from where some other hikers had gone, in favour of a more braided river path. The first braid was simple enough, as were the several quite shallow braids that we simply walked across. I was thankful for a bit of walking, as even the short time we had spent in the rushing torrent had frozen my legs into numb stubs and the walking brought proper mobility back. The second true part of this crossing was more trouble. We started in two different places, pulling back both times as it got deep very fast.

Finally, we spotted a very ripply spot (with glacially fed rivers, it’s very hard to visually see the depth, so if you see the “right” kind of ripples, it can indicate that it’s more shallow in that location) that we aimed for. This did indeed prove to be only about knee deep, though still quite strong. About mid way through, I began to hear thunder booming. But soon we were across and it was only a few more little threads of water to splash through and we were fully across.

Weak with the adrenaline rush, and laughing from the relief, we trekked off down the still mud bog of a trail, but soon pulling over to camp, as the skies opened up and the rain began.

August 11 – 19 miles, 1,000′ climbing (but 3,400′ descent…which we do have to climb back up)

It rain, rain, rained all night, and when we got up to hike, the fog was so thick we could hardly see tree to tree, let alone the huge mountains around us.

As we neared Burg Lake, my grumpiness came out. I had just slogged through 3 days of mud, and I wouldn’t even get to see Mount Robson. Now, I can’t say I knew much about Mount Robson before I started looking at the GDT, but it’s a bit of a thing to this trail. For one thing, it’s the tallest peak in the Canandian Rockies, standing just shy of 4,000 meters (apparently it was demoted from being 4,000 meters, which has some folks upset still). For another thing, it is a common ending point for GDT hikers. Not being “officially” a trail, the GDT has many odd things going on, and one is that there isn’t really even an official end. A fair amount of people end in Jasper, and a lot of people end at Mount Robson. After walking out on the trail, I understand. For one thing, it feels very appropriate. It’s this huge, incredible, awe-inspiring mountain with three massive glaciers carving down its flanks. There’s the perfect alpine lake at the base, and then, yes, there’s an and then! And then you go tumbling down this perfect trail, down, down, down the Valley of a Thousand Falls, with hundreds of waterfalls cascading all around you – thundering monstrous falls, whispy, willowy falls, towering falls incredibly thin, but cascading hundreds of feet. For another thing, you have to hike back up that same trail if you want to continue on to Kakwa Lake. From Robson it’s a relatively easy hitch to Jasper, where you can hitch to Banff, or even get public transportation to either Edmonton or Banff.

And even though, in the scheme of long distance hiking, you haven’t hiked that far, (“only” 584 miles) it is a very, very challenging hike. There are multiple Tripple Crowners out here (folks who have hike the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail) who all say that this is the hardest trail they’ve done. The terrain is tough, it’s tough to cover the same amount of trail in bad to no trail conditions, and the weather is tough. In fact, we’ve been told in multiple towns now by locals that this is the wettest summer in the Canadian Rockies since 1923. Being wet day in and day out, being in thunder and lightning storms, being hailed on, being snowed on – this makes for good stories, but it’s draining. And it’s quite evident in the hikers by now. I’ve never seen hikers so worn down by so few miles, but this trail is tough.

So, as we stumbled along in the fog, my grumpiness set in as the thought of not even seeing Mount Robson set in. We walked by Berg Lake, where a bit of Berg Glacier could been seen sitting right above it, and then the thick cloud bank. Taking a chance, we stopped for an early snack break on the shores of the lake and watched as the clouds began to shift and change, and the sun began to try to shine weakly through the clouds. And then – it appeared! We gazed in awe of Mount Robson, marveling at it as we snacked. Finally, we scooped ourselves off the lake shore and continued on the trail, swooping and cascading down into the Valley of a Thousand Falls.

As we had just finished walking the road into the Mount Robson visitors center, we found a patch of grass, and promptly exploded our packs. This is a typical thruhiker thing – you get to town and suddenly, the things that are most important to you while on trail (like trekking poles) are useless or silly in town, and things that are useless or silly on trail (like a wallet) are most important in town. As we did this exploding, a voice floating across the grass:

“Any hikers looking for a ride to Valemount?” Dan and I both looked up at this – and Keith and Leslie walked up. The timing was serendipitous, as apparently they had literally just pulled in to the parking lot. We all tumbled into their mini van (which I have decided is an incredible adventure mobile) and rode off to Valemount where we ate burgers and told trail stories and laughed at their perfect ability to show up for us on the side of the trail.

And to be honest, I do think, in a way, this is the end of our thruhike. Thruhiking involves a certain mindset, and this next section into Kakwa Provincial Park is more of a wilderness excursion.

Gear Review: Åsnes Mountain Race 48 Cross Country Skis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Doorway to the CMC Brainard Cabin.

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

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

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Enjoying some spring nordic skiing at Brainard Lake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Upper Little Raven Trail usually features some fantastic snow conditions.

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

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CMC and Little Raven Junction. Skiers Only!

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

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Early season creek crossing on the CMC Trail.

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

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

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

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

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

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Drifted area views near the CMC Cabin.

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

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Navigating the descents on the Waldrop Trail.

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

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

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December Alpenglow off Longs Peak from the Waldrop Trail.

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

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

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

Gear Review: Amundsen Peak Anorak, Knickers and Gaiters

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Elaine sporting the Amundsen Peak anorak, knickers and gaiters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Amundsen Sports gear in its natural environment.

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

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Free the knee, drive the ski!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love and Packrafts

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The Little Blue Boat on its first river excursion back in 2008. It didn’t end well…a shallow creek bed and deadfall led to a long, swampy walk out. 

My very first foray with the sport of packrafting was back in 2007. Sore-legged and weary after the Soggy Bottom 100 mountain bike race on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, I found myself navigating a rental car through back alley streets of Anchorage on a clear, crisp fall day in search of Alpacka Packraft World Headquarters. I’d first learned about these rafts by reading magazine stories of a mystical, distant group of bike riders in Alaska who would ride along beaches and then paddle from inlet-to-inlet along the Alaskan sound, strapping their bikes to the front of the tiny rubber boats. Even then, the rawness and authenticity of these type adventures appealed to me, because it was like nothing I’d ever seen. They seemed like a warrior clan from another land. I wanted to be like them.

After scouring the internet I found the contact information for Sheri Tingey, the owner of Alpacka Rafts. Legend had it a few years earlier, Sheri built the first packraft because her son Thor needed something the cross the water-clad Alaskan tundra in the summer. Sheri sewed the boat in her garage and Alpacka was born. I traded a few phone calls with Sheri telling her I wanted one of her boats. With a wry chuckle she told me she had a factory second with a cosmetic defect at a discounted price that she could sell me.

Turns out the world headquarters of Alpacka was a cluttered garage in the home of middle-aged yet spry looking Sheri. When I arrived, Sheri was expecting me, and pulled out of a pile in the garage a shiny looking royal-blue rubber raft. She rummaged through another pile and pulled out a perfect fitting spray skirt, and had an old five-piece fiberglass paddle that she sold me for $10. Walking out of the garage with my new boat was exhilarating, a freedom similar to that felt by a child when he or she gets their first bike.

As I boarded the plane in Anchorage heading back home to Colorado, I felt a strong sense that big world of adventure had just opened up.

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The start of the 2007 Soggy Bottom 100 Bike Race and the reason I was in Alaska to pick-up that first packraft. This was simply an amazing 100-miler on the Kenai Peninsula out of the fun and quirky town of Hope, Alaska. I strongly remember the endless singletrack across the tundra and the never ending jingle of bear bells as I pedaled for 12 hours across the wilds of Alaska. Thus far, it’s is the last bike race I’ve done. 

Turns out I didn’t use that first packraft much. Winter hit early that year freezing the waterways and the next few years of my life were filled with enough chaos to make relaxing trips into the mountains to go rafting a rarity. I did do some exploring of high alpine lakes west of home, and enjoyed the novel idea of hiking to a lake and then paddling around it. I wondered if some if these lakes had ever had a boat on them. I even tried to raft a way-too-low creek connecting two alpine lakes and almost lost my neck to an overhanging tree strainer. I loosely formulated a plan to be the first person to packraft every single lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness during the next few years.

Alas, life had other plans. I ended up selling that packraft to a guy in Norway to fund a trip to meet my eventual wife in Ireland. It was a worthwhile sacrifice: we ended up getting engaged after a tipsy night in Gallway and have been life partners ever since. In a  weird way, that Alaskan born packraft made that possible. It was barter to get the girl.

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First paddle in the Blue Boat on Lake Isabelle. 

In the past few years Elaine and I have seen enough Banff Mountain Film Festival-style clips featuring packrafts to instill a serious case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) in us. Our adventures seem puny compared to the unique, irreverent and quirky hike/raft, bike/raft, ski/raft excursions done by Luc Mehl and Roman Dial. These are the people we look up to, the people who make us dream bigger, folks creating adventures that are incredibly unique and authentic.

When Elaine and I came back from Greenland we were flat broke. Fortunately we were able to find jobs immediately upon return at the old gear shop we used to work at, and were able to get ourselves past the Raman noodle stage and into the pasta-and-a-decent-sauce stage fairly quickly. A lot has changed at the shop since we worked there last: the Little Red Lighthouse grew into the Great Grey Bridge. Synchronously, through a major remodel, a mostly new staff and reinventing its image, the store quietly started selling Alpacka Packrafts.

Alpacka had left distant Anchorage years earlier for a more business friendly factory deep in southwestern Colorado. The business simply outgrew Sheri’s garage. Ten years ago, when I mentioned packrafts to people I would get blank stares back. In 2018, almost all outdoor enthusiasts are familiar with packrafts and many people own them. It’s still a relatively small, niche sport, but it’s getting more popular exponentially.

The boats changed too. Instead of an oval they now had some shape that helps them cut through water better. The old packrafts required a substantial pack load on the bow to prevent the front end from jutting out of the water. The new ones are more balanced and handle better. Whereas the old rafts basically did a 45° rotation on every paddle stoke, the new ones track better than expected for a one-person raft with no rudder or keel. Features like cargo fly storage, thigh straps and removable spray decks have turned the early simple models into a game of “Pimp My Packraft.”

On our first day back at the shop we stumbled upon a packraft clinic accompanied by a tempting offer designed to get poor gear shop employees into a boat. It was slightly irresponsible, but we took the plunge and ordered rafts, from none other than Sheri’s son Thor, the recipient of Sheri’s first sewn boat. I ordered the same (but quite different) model as my first boat I picked up at that Anchorage garage: the Yukon Yaak. Besides the fact that it’s the right size for my six-foot tall frame, I like the name…the Yukon and my time there evoke strong memories for me. Elaine, who is 5’6″, ordered the smaller Alpacka model.

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The yellow and red dreamboat pack rafts.  

And then we waited. Six weeks to be exact, while the boats were created per our specs. I ordered mine in a bright yellow color – I figure it will look good on blue and grey glacial rivers with snow capped peaks behind, while Elaine got a shiny bright red boat. Elaine looks good anywhere, but the red boat will certainly compliment her well! We waited and worked and waited. And then finally, we got a notice of “package shipped and delivered.”

When we got home the first thing we did was rip open the packages to examine our new boats. They looked better than we imagined, and the folks at Alpacka tossed a calendar and some hats into the box for good measure. We didn’t get to bed until 1 am that night – too excited – but when we did the dream of floating down arctic rivers danced in our heads. In a way, packrafts have played a big role in our relationship thus far, and as such I can’t help but think they will play a big role for us as our relationship and adventures continue to progress. It’s time to fulfill that giddy excitement felt walking out of Sheri’s garage more than a decade ago.

But before all that, we need to practice…a lot. As such, to the lakes we go…

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Practice time on Lost Lake, our neighborhood lake. 

Energy

energy1Energy.

Without it, there is nothing. With it, anything is possible.

When Elaine and I got back from the land of ice and snow – ironically named Greenland – our energy fuel tank was empty. Two years of living in motion, a never-stopping pace, covering more than 5,000 human powered miles, left us drained and done when the rescue helicopter touched down on a small dirt patch in Tasiilaq, Greenland.

Finding the motivation to do anything since then has been challenging. On our days off from work, we’ve holed up in the cabin, done the necessary workouts to stay in shape, eaten a lot of fruits and vegetables and made the most concerted effort in the 8 years of our marriage to take the foot off the gas.

Like a well that is drained, but then not used for awhile, the energy is filling back up. It was a slow return at first, frustratingly slow, because while patience is a virtue it’s not one of our strengths. And waiting for life to happen isn’t something that comes naturally to us. We don’t really believe in dumb luck and fate, as we have found hard work and vision tends to create better results. Waiting is tough.

The motivation to train and play hard in the mountains is returning, but more importantly, the spark that creates new ideas and dreams has come back. At this point in my life, fitness is a fairly simple, predictable game. Work hard and rest enough to get the desired results. But the dreams and ideas of ways to make a better living, feel fulfilled and adventure further and deeper, those are something new, or at least a continuation of what was born and planned on the trail and across the snow.

There is a realization that what was good enough for us before is not good enough for us now. Quite honestly, we’re worth more than that. There is something about walking 3,000 miles from Mexico to Canada that makes you realize anything is possible, that there is a better world out there and that going back to that “other” world isn’t enough. It’s not living up to potential.

This is all very vague talk – the kind that scares mothers unnecessarily – but it’s intentionally so. With the return of energy comes the return of ideas, and now, with the new realization that anything is possible, the determination to put it into action. But the ideas need more flushing, and then – action.

There was a lot of energy in the mountains today. We decided to go back to a familiar haunt, the trail to the Continental Divide, a geographical vortex of energy. We live close to it, but today we needed to go right to the source. We decided to take the late shift, the sunset view. The early bird gets the worm, but around here everybody is the early bird. At some point, early bird turns into night hawk, and on Colorado trails, things are trending rapidly to the latter. So we decided to gamble and head up as everybody else was heading down. It worked out well.

energy2From the get-go, I could tell today was different from the past two months, or even last week. When we moved in the mountains last week, Elaine did great, but I could tell there was some hesitation in her step. Not today. There was pep, lightness and strength to her movement, ever up rocks and roots into thinner and thinner air. Elaine was born and raised in these mountains, and like the prodigal son in “Legends of the Fall,” she didn’t leave, but instead explored them even deeper. She gets stronger every year, but more than that, watching her I get the sense that she is becoming one with these mountains. She always had a comfort in the mountains, but after the past few years, something is different. She has become a part of the spirit of the wilderness.

We rose rapidly through the pine forest, hopping across rocks to cross streams, gliding up switchbacks, the heart and legs working hard but comfortably. They know the routine by now, and smile when they get to be part of it.

We rose up a steep bench, the mountains exploding ahead. The setting sun lit our faces, providing warmth and more energy. We crossed onto Alta Flats. Alta means higher, and it’s also Elaine’s middle name. In the darkest time of her life, when she spent all her time inside, fighting the demons, we think her spirit decided to occupy this higher spot surrounded by granite, snow-capped mountains, waiting for her to return. And when her physical self did, that spirit sang.

energy4The few hikers we saw on the lower trail were wrapping up the day. We were alone, exactly how we like it, two hearts in a big, wild place. Past Alta Flats, the trail rises again, the krummolz shrinks and we are at that magical place: timberline.

A friend of mine once told me, “there are no bad days above timberline”. To me, there is no place on earth with more energy and beauty than the land above the forest. The thin air, the angular light, the crisp breeze and the emergence of near vertical mountains around and above brings me more happiness than almost anything.  And when things are impossibly complex, the alpine brings some sense of simplicity and peace.

With that joy created by landscape, we climbed up. The steady rhythm is fueled by that happy energy, like moving from 85 octane gas to 93. Just a little bit better. We conversed with marmots and watched elk gallop in the valley below as a cool wind graced our bodies. And then, with a final few steps, we reached the summit, the Continental Divide. We checked our watches. While we weren’t trying to hit a certain time, there is a satisfaction reading the numbers. Pretty good, and there is a lot of room for improvement. The energy is returning.

energy5Ahead of us, the Pacific. Behind the Atlantic. All around, 12,000 and 13,000 foot peaks rise in every direction. The wind attacks from the north, the direction of legends, and we feel something different. This is no gentle summer wind. It has a slight bite. I have not felt that bite since spring. It is a bite of coming change.

We continue up, to a lake that sits impossibly at the very top of the Divide. We settle next to that lake, looking at remnants of the last ice age, sometimes talking, sometimes quiet, remembering the past, dreaming of the future. Stella used to love this spot, and it brings back memories. But then I remember that she is playing in the high mountains with the spirits of all our loved ones who have gone before. In time, we will join them. But not just yet.

energy3The evening is growing late. On the down, we will be more cautious, as Elaine is still healing from her broken foot. Better to get down five minutes slower intact than aggravate things. The wind picks up even more, and as Elaine walks out onto her cliff and looks over her domain and home of the past 28 years since her birth, the cold wind blasts into us, energizing the land and making us smile. No doubt about it – it is a wind of change, of a returning autumn.

There is nowhere to go but down. On the descent we can’t stop talking about ideas and dreams. We don’t talk much on the uphill – that’s the business end of things. But on the way down – that’s the time to dream. The shadows grow long, evening colder, the sun drops under the western mountain range. We glide through the woods effortlessly and happily, not stopping till we return to our two-decade old pick-up truck just as the first stars shimmer in the Rocky Mountain night sky above.

energy6Finally, energy – the ingredient that fuels anything great – has returned.

Turning Around the Winter of Discontent

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In February the roads finally got snowy enough to pull pulks. 

It’s been a strange winter in Eldora, Colorado. It’s probably the closest I’ve ever felt to the “winter of discontent.” That’s certainly being a little bit dramatic, but there has been a lack of flow that has been disconcerting.

As fantastic as our Continental Divide Trail thru-hike was – and I would never trade it out – it did break up our traditional “rituals” for getting ready for ski season. Personally, late summer and autumn has been prep-for-ski-season time since I was 15 or 16 years old. The norms during these months are lots of roller skiing, running intervals in the mountains, biking up steep trails, lunges and the like. This year, we just walked. And while our fitness was fine the lack of going through the processes started things off weird and effected our mental readiness.  It’s kind of like showing up to work or class late…things are all out of whack.

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Back on the CDT for a Valentines Day ski at Tennessee Pass before dinner at the cookhouse. 

And then, winter just took a long, long time to come. We had some flirty snows in October and November, but then the faucet turned off. December was the warmest and driest twelfth month I’ve even seen here. The nordic center had their latest opening ever by nearly three weeks, and the two ski shops we work in, Larry’s Bootfitting and Boulder Nordic Sport, had customer flow more reminiscent of March than the supposed busiest time of the year.

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This was the first year we ever shoveled in a skin track to keep skiing. Lots of downhill skinning this early season.

We did our best to get out on snow, but it required different thinking and adaptability. Early season was a lot of uphill skinning and then skinning back DOWN on 2-3 inches of snow. The resort opened, so we spent more time than normal honing resort turns, gazing out at the brown hills as we made our way down the man-made strips of white. We bought uphill passes because the backcountry was non-existent. Around Christmas the nordic center finally opened, but it was just a fraction of its normal self in terms of available kilometers.

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More resort days than normal as a result of the low snow. 

Slowly but steadily, snow came. We have yet to have a big storm, but there have been a fair amount of 2-3 inch offerings. Mid-February was actually good. We could finally ski right out the door, usually a norm for most of the winter, but then a warm spell hit and basically set us back another two weeks. 48 hours ago it was 77° F in Boulder, but a cold front hit, and right now it’s 9° F.

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Sled pull up to 4OJ. That’s either a fox track or Gary Neptune’s work on the left there. 

The snow graphs say we are at 90 percent of normal snow pack, but I’m skeptical of this. It seems much less. Down south in the San Juans, they are fairing much worse, and even with some recent winter blasts are sitting around 50 percent of normal. Meanwhile, the east has had polar vortexes and bomb cyclones, Europe has had their best winter in a decade and even South Korea looked enviably cold during the Olympics. Most years you win, some years you lose. And it’s not over yet, but things will start getting warmer now here on the 40th parallel, where the March sun burns long and high.

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Classic powder days have been few and far between, but there have been a few. Let’s hope spring brings more. 

On top of the odd weather, my wife Elaine has had a bit of a rough go. The Continental Divide Trail left her dead tired and really what can only be described as over-trained. Six months of twelve hour days can do that. Most hikers take an entire winter off. We had planned to dive right back into training, but that proved unrealistic. She has battled fatigue and a fair bit of sickness. So while we have skied a lot, until very recently it has not been with the normal aplomb. There have been no nordic races, no intervals, just lots of days exploring the woods and waiting for the body to recover. We were actually a bit concerned about our health, so we got physicals recently, and it turns out we’re in perfect health, albeit overtrained. The only way to get out of that hole is to wait it out.

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Finally, real winter came in February, where we could ski out the door and take runs behind the house. 

Eventually, recovery came. Something clicked two to three weeks ago, the snap returned, and with it a deep endurance born from the long walk along the spine of the nation. She’s been crushing again, we’ve had some strong sled pulls and systems are go for the Greenland trip. That said, we’re taking a year off nordic racing just to let the body build properly without unnecessary stresses. Greenland will require long, plodding strength and mental toughness. The gain versus potential risk of diving into a late season racing program simply is not worth it, We’ll fry that cat in 2018-19.

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After a few months of extreme fatigue and sickness, Elaine has found her mojo again. It’s been fun to watch. 

A highlight of the winter has been the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Korea. Olympic years are always fun and I find myself feeling more motivated after watching the best athletes in the world at the top of their game. Of course, the shining moment as a nordic skier in the United States was Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall winning the team sprint race. While it has been dubbed as something of an upset, the truth is they were primed for this race. Diggins is 3rd overall in the World Cup and Randall is a multiple World Cup sprint champion. It would have been a disappointment if they had not finished in the top three, and once it comes down to the last few hundred meters, and the skis are fast, it’s open season.

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Cold nordic ski days have been rare, but we’ve had a few.

I’m hopeful this will provide a needed boost to nordic skiing in this country, because I really do think it’s the best sport around. Racing is just a small part of that. To me, buying a nordic pass is like buying health insurance – it’s really, really good for the body. The question now is how do we take that momentum and really make the sport grow in the United States? I have some ideas based on personal experience that I will write about in the next few days.

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Nordic skiing makes this girl happy. 

For now, it’s time to ski. Tomorrow is supposed to be in the single digits, so it’s time to take advantage and enjoy what will possible be the last Green wax ski of the winter. It will be our 90th day on skis of the winter, not bad considering it’s been anything but smooth. But in skiing, as in life, adaptability, creativity and persistence are essential.

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Green wax day tomorrow.