Friday we headed to the Never Summer Range! We stopped in Fort Collins to meet up with Laura and Aaron, who were coming from Denver, and to get sandwiches. Wednesday I had run into the post office to mail some Liberia stuff to Mustafa and had fun joking with the folks there about whether I was allowed in the building: a sign outside read "Guide Dogs Only". So when we stopped at the Moose Visitor Center, Laura popped out of their car and wondered if I knew what noises moose make so we could blend in if non-mooses weren't allowed. Unfortunately, I'm not really up on my moose calls, but no one seemed to notice and we made it in and out again with nothing more alarming than our car passes for the weekend.
Some technical notes about what we were up to for the weekend (skim ahead to the ** if this bores you - I found it fascinating and wanted to share!); Justin, Aaron, and I rented Alpine Touring (AT) skis. Michelle and Patrick had Telemarking (Telly) skis, and Laura had Nordic (traditional, cross-country [X-C] skis like mine in Wisconsin, only with metal edges for better turning in alpine conditions). Traditional X-C skis have light boots and completely free heels. They generally have a "kick zone", waxless - where "fish scales" give grip, or waxed - where wax is used for friction. They are bowed, so that the "sticky" part of the ski doesn't really contact the snow until you put your weight on it, giving you the friction you need to take your next step forward. They're great for flat and slightly hilly areas, but once you get vertical enough, they just don't have the grip to keep your skis pointing up the slope - you start sliding backwards. Then it's time to push your skis out side-by-side and 'herringbone' your way up the slope - exhausting! There is an easier way to do this - more on that in a moment. They're not really built for going down steep hills either, especially when it comes to turning!
Telly skis are similar to X-C, but they are constructed for back country skiing: essentially finding cool mountains in the back country wilderness, climbing them, and then skiing down. So for the downhill part, the boots are heavier and more supportive, but the heels are still free. To aid efficient downhill motion, they are not bowed like x-c skis, nor do they have a kick zone; they're also wider to better hold the skier on top of the snow. Watching a skilled telly (or freeheel) skier (like Michelle) is just awesome as they crouch with one leg forward to make turns (since the heel isn't locked in, there isn't the same side-to-side control you have with regular downhill skis). So how do telly skiers go uphill? Well, the free heel is a great start; you can imagine that trying to walk uphill with your heels locked to the ski would be taxing in the extreme - even going horizontally in traditional downhill skis is painful. But to actually give the friction needed to keep the ski from going backwards, backcountry skiers use "skins". These used to be actual animal skins, with the fur pointed in line with the slide, so they would go forward, but not easily backward. The same effect is now achieved with synthetic materials. Picture a long, flexible strip of that material they use to make lint brushes with super-adherey rubber-cementy stuff on the back. Sliding forward is fairly easy, sliding backward is nearly impossible. While you can't glide on them (it's pretty much a slidey walk to get around), you don't have to work to keep yourself angled up on a slope. The lint brush grabs the snow and holds you in place. So backcountry skiers carry around skins, apply them to the bottom of their skis when they need to do significant climbing or horizontal movement, and pull them off when they get to the top and have earned the fun of going down!
AT skis are a hybrid of telly and downhill skis. The binding lets you lock the heel down to the ski when you're going downhill, and unlock it when you're climbing. Though they're generally heavier than telly skis, you get the fun of backcountry skiing without having to learn a whole new way of going downhill. Again, skins are used for significant horizontal/uphill.
Here are some pictures of me putting skins on my skis. To keep the sticky stuff sticky, the skin is bonded to itself when not in use, so pulling it apart is major work. Once you've done that, you hook the loop around the end of the ski. Then you gradually smooth the skin to the ski, keeping it centered as you go. Once it's on, you're ready to climb! When you get to the top of the slope, you peel the skin back off the ski, fold the sticky part back on itself and stow the skin away, lock down your heels, and ski off down the mountain! Unless you're me, of course. Then you ski in very quick, short runs, dump yourself into fluffy-looking snow banks to slow down, somehow re-right yourself and your pack, sort out your poles, and shake off accumulated snow, then repeat! It's jolly good fun for everyone, as long as you don't count worn down, blister/bruise-causing rental boots, frequent pauses for breath during climbing (especially as the air gets thinner), having a very screwed up sense of balance because of the huge pack on your back, and constant wardrobe adjustments based on the temperature, wind, and whether your next intention is to go up or down. Ok, I'm overstating the negative - it really is a blast.
** (resuming actual story!) We got out at the trailhead, unloaded our gear, put the skins on our skis, and headed out. Having a pack on my back while skiing was quite a different experience for me - it's not terrible, it just means your balance is different and it's more work to get uphill. And that downhill you have more momentum - which may or may not be a good thing. :) We skied up for about 2 1/2 miles before reaching our destination, the Upper Montgomery Pass Yurt. It was a great little spot, at about 9500 feet above sea level, and the closest yet I've been to true winter camping. It's amazing how roomy it was, given that there were six of us in it, but with a little coordination, we really didn't have too much of a problem keeping our gear straight. Patrick was primarily the fire man - they leave you with a good-sized pile of wood right there, and ask that you split more before you leave. The temperature was comfortable until the fire went out at night, at which point it got down to freezing, but we all had good sleeping bags. Patrick would be the first one up in the morning (he should get LOTS of points for this!) and would start up the fire, so by the time the rest of us tumbled out of our bunks the yurt was at a pretty comfy temperature again.
Friday night, Aaron and Laura cooked up a delicious shepherd's pie while the rest of us played Euchre, and then we all went out for some star gazing. The ski was clear, and there were so many stars I couldn't find the little dipper without help - there were too many other visible stars around it! It was breath-taking. Justin set his camera on super-slow shutter speed, and actually captured part of Orion in a picture (I get major nothingness when I try to get star pictures!). The funny thing is that 30 seconds was enough to blur the stars a little, just with the movement of the earth or something. Crazy. We went back in, played Up and Down the River, then headed to bed.
Saturday morning, Justin and Michelle cooked these yummy egg-veggie-ham-toasted bagel thingies and we got ourselves set for an expedition. (Here's a short "yurt moment" video I took accidentally.) We re-applied the skins, climbed our way to about around 10,800 feet (we didn't go further because of concern about avalanches given recent snowfall), then skied back down. Laura kindly swapped her x-c skis with me for the day (the AT boots were grouchy at my shins for some reason), so I had great fun trying to navigate the downhill with them. I kept the skins on for the first, steepest part, but then pulled them off for a great cruise back down to the yurt. It's just so fun to go downhill after you've worked so hard for it. And, it goes down and down and DOWN - unlike Wisconsin which I love, of course, but that's generally flat and flat, little up, little down, and flat again. We still had packs on because we needed to keep the avalanche gear with us - and it was also nice to have storage for lunchy things and extra clothing for the windy top.
Back at the yurt, the others settled into Cribbage - Patrick and I were on for dinner. I played prep cook and he sous chef, and he pulled off this yummy veggie beef stew that had everything from eggplant to green pepper in it. We talked and laughed and played Dutch Blitz (the boys LOVED it…) and more Up and Down the River before heading to bed.
Sunday was a flurry of berry/chocolate chip pancakes, packing up, cleaning up, wood splitting, and generally pulling things together. We took off down the mountain in decent time, and again had a blast cruising down the mountain. Michelle took a short video of me skiing around a turn (doesn't it look FUN?!).
The trail leveled out for the last mile or so, so some folks put on their skins for the trek out. Unfortunately Aaron really had trouble with his ski boots and blisters, so that part wasn't much fun for him. (Aaron did a lot of trail breaking throughout the weekend, and - whether backpacking or skiing or anything else - is generally leading the group, so we knew it was serious when he just eased himself along for that last mile).
The mountains were beautiful (as was the reggae Michelle was playing) as we drove our way out; already the snow from Thursday's blizzard was clearing out. We stopped in Fort Collins for a delicious Mexican lunch/supper where we all ate far too much, and parted ways with Aaron and Laura. We did stop to watch a full train go right through the middle of Mason Street in Fort Collins - a very odd but fun sight - and had fun talking and joking right up to when we headed out. Then it was back to Boulder for regrouping, picture sorting, and - OF COURSE - the loveliest-ever of showers.
Today, Patrick had taken the day off (it was his birthday!!), so he and I bummed around and returned rental stuff. He picked up Frank (who seems to be doing a bit better!) from the vet where he'd been watched for the weekend. We then had a chill brunch at Blueberry Hill, picked up rental gear from Justin and Aaron (and went out to lunch with them - hooray!), and headed off to Golden where the group had rented the avalanche gear. We bummed around the town a bit, found ourselves back in the foothills at White Ranch Park admiring the state from that fantastic vantage point, and then headed into Denver to prowl a bit at an amazing book store - Tattered Cover. I have to say it's about the best book store I've ever visited - wowsa. Antiques everywhere, and lots of character-filled nooks to tuck into for an afternoon. I didn't want to leave! Patrick needed to get me off his hands, though, so I soon found myself back at the airport, boarding an on-time plane, and back in Appleton. (Even if I wasn't now afraid to complain about any air travel, I wouldn't have found much to complain about on this flight - hooray for that Appleton-Denver nonstop flight!).
So many, many, thanks to Michelle (particularly for all the gear, coordination, insight, patience, and hospitality!), Patrick (for schlepping me to and fro and for entertaining me today), Justin (for making the whole thing happen and for the advice, photography and being such a great vegetable), and Aaron and Laura (for picking up the gear and lending me your skis and being excellent trail buddies). And to all of you for being so swell to a clueless flatlander!
Click here for pictures of the trip