In the snowy predawn light of Valentine’s Day 2013, six other CC students and I hoisted loaded packs onto our shoulders, clicked into our touring bindings, and set off into the Aspen backcountry. Nothing could have been more romantic. We were off to the Tagert Hut, one hut of many in Colorado’s 10th Mountain Hut Division, for three days of epic backcountry skiing.
Our crew consisted of junior Addis Goldman, seniors Teddy Collins, Halsey Landon, Eric Syrjala, and myself, as well as two Colorado College alumni who had decided to come along: Ian Coughlan (‘12) and Ben “The Rhino” Gardner (‘11). Collins and Gardner rocked split boards (snowboards that split lengthwise into two planks, enabling their users to tour alongside skiers), while the rest of us toured on our powder skis.
From the Ashcroft trailhead just outside of Aspen, we toured south into a large alpine valley along a forest service road known for its extensive network of Nordic ski trails. When the road forked, we veered west and began climbing into the beautiful Pearl Basin. We passed the bottom of several large avalanche chutes, careful to cross one at a time, to negate the risk of being swept away by a rogue slide.
One of the fundamental rules of backcountry travel is to retain avalanche awareness, regardless of the group’s excitement. Too often, skiers and snowboarders do not take the time to assess the snowpack and suffer consequences. Excited as we were to make some turns, we dug a pit in a deep, windblown, north-facing aspect, and, as a group, carefully analyzed the accumulated layers of snow. We decided they were safe enough to ski, so ski we did, hooting and hollering all the way down.
The next morning, we hiked all the way to the top of Pearl Pass, only to be thwarted by high winds and poor visibility. Instead of skiing chutes in whiteout conditions, we decided to explore the 2,000-vertical-foot tree zones just below the hut.
It was a glorious decision; we found that the forested area retained snow much better than the windswept high-alpine zones. The woods below the hut became our playground, a kingdom of protected pillow lines and thigh deep snow. Pillow lines are cliffs that collect huge tufts of snow on rock outcrops. Skiing one is like leaping from one giant marshmallow to the next.
On our second lap in the woods, we encountered another A-frame hut, prayer flags fluttering in the wind. More interesting, however, was the old man chilling on the front porch. He introduced himself as Doug, growling almost unintelligibly through a mangy, grey beard. It was like something out of a John Muir memoir.
We found out that Doug has owned the little cabin in the woods for 30 years and that he spends each winter up there in solitude—a true aesthetic wanderer. We drank our fill of his wisdom, and then continued to lap our pillow wonderland until dark
The sun rose into a bluebird sky the next morning. Since poor visibility was no longer an issue, we ventured back up into the basin and onto a large, open-faced knob we had been scoping since we first hiked into the high alpine. Because of its rolling, convex qualities and questionable snowpack, the knob had a significant likelihood of sliding. However, we established a plan of attack, including a designated safe zone, constant radio communication, and an extensive protocol for companion rescue if something were to go wrong. But it was worth it; I have never skied such flawless turns in my life.
That night, in an Aspen bar, we raised our glasses and toasted to Doug, Tagert, and the wonders of skiing in the backcountry.