Route Finder: A ski bum’s guide to summer in Summit County
Want more from backcountry maven Fritz Sperry? Read on for his once-a-decade ski attempt on the West Face of James Peak.
I have to admit that it has finally happened: summer has arrived. The ski outings lately have been more about the approach than the skiing — I’ve always been in shoes. The water levels in the rivers have maxed out, barring a giant rainstorm. The Indian paintbrush and columbines can be seen high in the hills. It’s a completely different world out there, with completely different activities to enjoy before the first big dump of winter.
White Cliff climbing
Rock climbing and bouldering are great summer activities. Bouldering is especially centering — I liken it to vertical yoga — but that doesn’t mean climbing is for the faint of heart. I can attest to the danger factor: Back in 2000, I was rescued from the bottom of Hallet Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park after a huge fall high on the North Face.
But the thrill of getting high on a rock face still has many yearning for the sharp end of the rope. You’ll find locals honing their skills around the county on Mount Royal, White Cliff and House Rock. The bouldering at Swan Mountain is a great quick shot, but it’s not as cool as it once was when the forest was still healthy before the pine beetle.
Climbing is more of a Spartan effort than some of the more expensive sports: all you really need is a pair of shoes and a partner if you’re going out bouldering.
Fresh tracks on the river
Rafting and kayaking are always super-popular in the summer, and this summer has been one of the best for whitewater in several years.
Personally, I have a profound fear of drowning, and so I generally stay away from these sports. I’ve heard that running the rapids with splashdown is akin to getting face shots all day long in the winter, and, better yet, there are never tracks to boat over. The river is like a fresh powder field, over and over.
If you’re out with the family, rafting is a great way to get the kids smiling and laughing — surely parenting’s best medicine.
Trout, pan seared with lager
Speaking of water, I hear the fishing is pretty good right now. Gold Medal waters in Summit County and nearby Eagle County draw the fishermen, and the process of setting up can be super soothing — or maybe it’s just the sound of rushing water flowing around your waders.
Remember: They call it fishing, not catching, so patience is the key. I’m not sure I get the catch-and-release thing, though. Isn’t it kind of messed up to hook a fish, play with it, take a photo, and then put it back in the water? Sounds like the start of a fish PTSD epidemic.
When it comes to eating I’m a big fan of fish, especially trout that’s pan seared with mustard and a little lager. It’s the best reward for picking the right leader, the right fly and the right hole.
Vegas of the Rockies
Hiking and trail running are also wildly popular in the county. Compared to biking or skinning, the mountains are so much easier to travel through in shoes, at least on the way up. The way down, though, can be a nightmare on the knees. As one famous ski filmmaker puts it, “You only have so many bumps in your knees.” I like to keep the downhills to skiing.
After a long hike in, the rewards of solitude on a remote peak or isolated pond inspire, unless, of course, you’re going for a 14er, in which case it can be more of a social function.
Combining hiking with fishing is a great way to combine it all. My favorite hike-to-fish trip is Mohawk Lakes or anywhere in the Gore Range (but I won’t say where). The Gores are a little like Las Vegas: What happens in the Gores stays in the Gores.
MTB for the skier
Mountain biking is a lot of fun, and some of the body dynamics are even pretty close to skiing. You get a great workout riding up and plenty of thrills on the way down. Summit has some of my favorite trail riding anywhere, including the section of West Ridge from Georgia Pass to Highway 9 that is one of my all-time favorites.
Biking is not all fun and games. It can get hot and dusty. Falling off a bike breaks bones and rocks rip flesh. Great bikes are also really expensive, not to mention all the money that goes into taking care of a bike.
But the benefits for a skier are there. Learning to use the correct forward stance and lean into turns translates to what you do on the snow, and mountain biking can’t be beat for off-season cross training.
From the first day of summer’s solstice we are comforted by the fact that the days are finally getting shorter again. It might be hot and sweaty day and night, but we’re on our way back to winter. The snow will fly again soon, and even though it’s never soon enough, there’s plenty of fun to be had.
Just remember: We can always go skiing on last year’s bounty if the wait is too long to bear. The high north faces, like Democrat’s North Face, hold snow all summer long. Perhaps we’ll run into each other, as I’ll be holding onto my turns for as long as I can.
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