The job offer was good. But, Ohio?
I was honored, excited, and terrified.
I love skiing, mountains, being outside, and finding wild places. But, I also love teaching and writing. After a roller coaster ride through the academic job market I decided to take a job…not in Ohio.
I am thrilled to be moving to what is unequivocally my favorite place: Alaska.
While I am excited, it is also bittersweet. So, as I think about bigger skis, growing a beard, packing warm clothing, and trading my Subaru in for a truck, I have found myself reflecting on Colorado memories.
These places came to mind: five favorite Colorado ski mountaineering lines.
The Stammberger Route, North Maroon Peak
Let’s start the list out with a bang. The first time I heard about the ski line down the North Face of North Maroon I thought ‘Holy $%^^!’
The place is great, the climb is great, the day is great.
Below the ‘gun sight’ on North Maroon’s north ridge a short steep gully leads out to a bench that takes one into the meat of the North Face. 45 to 55 degree ramps and gully’s zigzag up to through the rock bands. Once you traverse out, you are in a no-fall zone for the rest of the way up and down. The summit sits in the heart of the Elk Range.
During our descent there were three cruxes. First, getting down ‘punk rock’ (the top rock band) involved a very awkward 4th-class-ish maneuver with skis on. Second, I took 105 underfoot 185 length skis, which turned out not to be not-so-fine on chattery no-fall hop turns. Third, another group was out that day, and managing slough and passing in that terrain was a bit nerve racking. Nevertheless, we had a blast. We were lucky with fast climbing conditions and snow from the summit down to Crater Lake.
I thought a lot that day, about how crazy the idea of the line seemed to me not so long ago. I remembered first climbing North Maroon with my dad almost 10 years earlier. I remembered getting lost in a formative Colorado adventure up there with two of my best friends in 2008. I thought about skiing in far off places and using those experiences back in Colorado.
The North Face of North Maroon is everything classic in a big ski mountaineering line.
The Flying Dutchman, Longs Peak
Playing with ropes is fun. A steep inset couloir in the Chasm Lake cirque below the East Face of Longs Peak, the Flying Dutchman is ski alpinism at its finest.
The couloir runs 600ft up to a scrambley ridge in between Longs and Mt. Meeker. The run is narrow. The climb is technical. The walls are high.
The Flying Dutchman was one of the first ‘alpine’ climbs I did when moving to Colorado. On a beautiful October day, we scrambled through three mellow rock steps, then climbed a full pitch of perfect, fact, easy ice.
A few Novembers later, the climbing was scrappy, dry, scary, and bad, but the skiing was oh-so-good.
The Longs Peak cirque is a patch of Patagonia that has somehow found its way into northern Colorado. Steep granite soars skyward. Wind whips. Days rarely go as planned. The Dutchman sums up alpine appeal in a proud and proper ski mountaineering line.
The Dyer Amphitheater, East Ball Mountain
Sorry Leadville, I’m going to give away one local spot.
Father John Dyer arguably spent too much time working in the lead mines of the Midwest in his youth. He heard the voice of God, who obviously told him to to go skiing in Colorado. Throughout the late 1800s, Father Dyer was on skis, taking the mail through the Mosquito mountains to mining camps.
The last two years I have co-directed the Father Dyer Postal Route Backcountry Ski Race. We set up the race as a fundraiser for winter trails in Lake County. It has been a blast.
The course passes over East Ball Mountain, and through prepping, planning, and managing the race I have skied East Ball more times than I can count. Mellow or steep, faces or chutes, all manner of terrain wraps around the basin. Late in the spring the approach is next to zero.
The Hopeful Couloir, Mount Hope
This line is not that exceptional.
The approach is long. The couloir is short. The entrance is steep, but the line quickly mellows and doesn’t offer much that you couldn’t find much closer to the road 20 minutes away at Independence Pass.
Mount Hope is also beautiful, sitting at 13,933ft on the eastern edge of the Sawatch. The climb is interesting, either by the couloir or via the ridge from Hope Pass. Hiking in with skis, beautiful lakes, the preponderance for thunderstorms at Hope Pass, and the lack of people make it an adventure that feels very “Colorado.”
The first time I attempted the Hopeful with friends Vince and Dan, we got turned around because of isothermal snow and approaching thunder. Dan and I returned early in the morning a few days later and had a blast making slushy June turns on down.
Lines like the Hopeful quintessentially sum-up ski mountaineering in Colorado for me.
South Face, Mount Harvard
If at first you don’t succeed, you are probably on Mount Harvard, at least in my case.
Late April, I skied the South Face of Collegiate 14ner Mount Harvard with Nick Vince. It was my third time on the mountain, but first time on top — Harvard has been consistently lowering its admissions rate.
My first two Harvard outings were stifled by thunder, sickness, and a bake-sale at 13,900. This time was entirely different.
Vince and I were able to drive to within a half mile of the summer trailhead, but left the car later than we hoped. We got a bit lost in the woods. We weren’t moving particularly fast. I complained a lot. The weather wasn’t stellar. None of that mattered. The snow was perfect!
The route up is fairly straight forward except for the final 30 vertical feet, which requires a minimal amount of scrambling (and a fun bit of ‘Davenporting’ to ski right off the top). There are harder 14ers and more aesthetic lines, but Harvard offers an adventure that is not-so-obvious, yet true. I had a grin the size of Texas on my face the whole way down.
Colorado is outstanding. The backcountry community here is a small supportive world that rocks. Despite popular opinion, if you venture off the major passes and the most popular lines, you rarely see other people, let alone crowds in the mountains. (In the last week and a half, I have skied the North Face of La Plata, $#!@ For Brains, epic pow on Freemont Pass, Indy Pass, and Officer’s Gulch and only saw two other groups of skiers!). There are endless possibilities for creativity and adventures big or small in the mountains.
Colorful Colorado, thank you.
Alright, time to go pack. I know my Carhartts, wool pants, and bear spray are around here somewhere. Starting the Alaskan truck we had during our past AK residency required a screwdriver as well as comfort with sparking wires; we’ll see what we end up with this time.
Soon, summer skiing in AK!
Dr. Alex Lee lives in Anchorage, Alaska. Alex is a professor at Alaska Pacific University, teaching philosophy and environmental studies. He also works as a sometimes guide, naturalist, writer, and photographer.