At 4:30 a.m. the alarm rings. Few things can get a man out of bed at that hour voluntarily. With stars still in the sky and only the faintest hint of an approaching dawn peering over the Continental Divide, there’s not a whole lot of incentive. But if there is a chance to skin up a mountain and beat the sun to the tree line in order to get in an early-morning ski run, that incentive package gets a lot more attractive for some of us up here in the High Country.
To anyone who’s ever taken in that morning alpenglow high on a mountain ridge, it’s no that wonder alpine touring (AT) gear is one of the fastest growing segments in the ski industry. And that growth is expected to continue with a number of ski and snowboard companies expanding their AT offerings next season.
There’s no question that more and more people are looking to head into the backcountry. But at what cost? Avalanches have led to seven fatalities this season in Colorado alone. According to officials at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, that’s already one higher than the annual average, with much of Colorado’s snowiest month still to come.
So with trekking gear growing far beyond the niche market it once was, the danger is that the number of fatalities could increase as more people head into the backcountry with the right gear but without the proper education. It’s a notion that CAIC officials and local groups are trying hard to fight with a number of avalanche education programs.
But for experienced skiers with the proper training, like Eric Thomson of Boulder, backcountry travel is all about calculated risks, assessing conditions and educated decision making to minimize danger. That and a chance to carve some early-morning turns before the lifts open.
‘get a little ski in’
“It’s just good to get out before work and get a little ski in,” he said.
With a 6:15 a.m. appointment to connect at the Mayflower Gulch trailhead for a before-work touring session, I was showered and loading the jeep by 5.
Having discussed the details the night before, Thomson figured he could still make it to work by his 8:30 call time if we met at that time.
“Don’t think it’ll be more than 1.5 hrs for the actual tour,” he’d said during a Facebook conversation.
There’s something relaxing about being on the street and hitting Interstate 70 before most of the town is up and functioning. Under a still starry sky I pulled off of I-70 at the Copper Mountain exit and headed toward Leadville.
While the trailhead for Mayflower is just minutes up the road from Copper Mountain it feels miles from anywhere at 6 a.m. It’s hard to imagine that the abandoned cabins at the end of the gulch were once home to an above-tree-line mining camp, somewhere around 12,000 feet.
Except for one apparently abandoned car, I turned into an empty lot at the trailhead and waited for Thomson, who pulled in shortly after.
With skins attached and the heals on our bindings released we started up the trail at 6:30. For Thomson, the trip was part morning stress reliever and part conditioning for a touring project he and a group of friends and coworkers are working on. The team, sponsored by a number of gear outfitters, is planning on documenting its quest to ski-mountaineer 23 summits in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, near Rocky Mountain National Park.
As we approached tree line, the sun crested over the Continental Divide and reached the tops of nearby peaks.
Avalanche danger had decreased over the previous few days, so we opted for a safer below-tree-line route back, minimizing any potential risk. With this year’s large snowfall, even fairly stable slopes may be increasingly susceptible to sizable, deep-slab avalanches, like the one that recently killed two skiers outside of Leadville.
Skins removed, line chosen and tight on time, we were ready to charge back down hill shortly after 7:30.
Scratchier than expected, the line wasn’t necessarily fit for a postcard, but the surrounding quiet made the phrase “earn your turns” no less true.
At shortly after 8 we were back in the parking lot parting ways — still an hour before the lifts were scheduled to open at Copper.
While for us the risks were minimal, we still made a conscious effort to observe conditions and take the necessary precautions. In avalanche accidents, it’s not uncommon for people to forego the warning signals, blinded by a quest for fresh powder. Frequently in those instances, a group dynamic has been credited for causing a lapse in judgement.
The CAIC encourages anyone exploring the backcountry to seek the proper education — and to always remember to be observant.