A few times every season I like to do long “out and back” tours in the Colorado mountains. Some of our huts make worthy destinations for such tours. The porch provides a dry place for sandwiches, or we’ll take tea with the guests. While we prefer such trips to have up-and-down that includes at least a few actual ski turns, sometimes arcs are secondary and we just want to see new country. In other words, go for a classic ski tour. Hence, while the route mostly covers terrain that’s too flat for turns, during March of last season we did the Express Creek slog to Opa’s hut just to “see the country and feel the breeze.”
(Opa’s is the newest hut in the Alfred Braun Hut System, located in the mountains between Crested Butte and Aspen, Colorado. You can get more details at huts.org and hutski.com)
While measuring only 6 miles in length with 2,700 vertical feet gain, the route to Opa’s via Express Creek and Little Italian Saddle felt longer than it should. I’m not sure why. Perhaps I was fit for up-down routes rather than relatively flat tours. I did use my lightest ski rig, Dynafit TLT6 boots with Cho Oyu skis and mohair skins. Even so, after a few hours I felt like the guy in that music video, stationary walking with the background crawling behind. The return leg was much easier, though slogging from the hut up to Little Italian saddle did not ignite my soul.
On the way in, when we got up into Italian Basin I’d had enough of the music video shuffle. So, in a moment of weakness for vertical I led up a snowmobile track that highmarked east up to the divide separating us from the Taylor drainage where Opa’s hut is. I’m glad we did that, because I can confidently say that ridge is mostly corniced. Finding a safe and facile way down the cornice face is not something most groups would be capable of. We could have done it, but instead continued on the highground for a scenic nip southerly along the ridge to regain the standard route that allowed us to check out the “downhill” part of the journey from Italian Saddle to the hut, which was important for an accurate take in case I did any guidebook writing about the route.
Before we get to the photo story, one other thing. The first part of this route goes to Markley Hut. If you’ve never been there you can easily bypass Markley by mistake and end up staying on the Express Creek Road far too long. Beyond Markley the route finding challenges continue, micro and macro. In my view, expert use of a GPS is mandatory for nearly all this route unless you’ve done it and committed to memory. What is more, a significant portion is above timberline and would be impossible to navigate in poor visibility unless you had a previously broken trail to follow and GPS for verification. Without a trail, GPS would be the only way you’d get there in a whiteout.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.