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My First Backcountry Ski Trip

By Chris Pew on

We moved houses last year and in the process, I came across an envelope with photos of my first extended backcountry ski trips: two weeks in Colorado's Gore Range in 2005 and 2006. I flipped through the old photos taken on a couple of disposable cameras and I couldn't believe how much of it I could remember. From our made-up names to the lines that we skied to the name of the classic rock station we listened to in the afternoon, the details are clearer to me today than yesterday's commute to the office.

We did nothing else but climb, ski, and hang out in our camp for week-long stretches. Those were the first extended backcountry ski trips I ever went on but they were also the last time I took to the mountains with absolutely no real point in being there besides as a way to spend time. There is no greater luxury than spending time in the mountains at that speed. Here's what I remember...

After both my freshman and sophomore years at Colorado College, I stuck around CO for two weeks to climb and ski the jagged peaks of the Gore Range with my friend, Charlie. A pioneering backcountry skier in the Vail area, Charlie had found an old cabin, sitting on a mining climb, nestled in the Gore Range in the Big Horn Creek wilderness. The location was an ideal basecamp for late-spring mountaineering, it was surrounded by countless peaks that you could climb and ski. Charlie and his friends called it the Big Horn Hilton.

Big Horn Hilton

I think the cabin was built in 1911 according to a carving on the desk. We ended up meeting the descendant of the owner of the claim during our second trip. He was stoked that people were using it. He had never stayed inside the cabin himself, opting for a more comfortable and water-tight tent. 

tiny house

The cabin wasn't standing height, it needed a tarp on the roof to keep out rain; at night you could hear field mice scurry all around you and sometimes run right into you. On one occasion, we battled a giant porcupine that had wandered into our abode. Given these details, you would think our nights would be restless, but I had never slept better. 

the view from the cabin
^The view from the front door of the cabin. We skied both the prominent face to the skier's right of the large, rock and tree-covered ridge, and the longer more gentle-sloping line to the skier's left. The longer line we named "El Pato" after the lone bottle of hot sauce that we brought on the trip. 
The day started around 4am with hot tea and oatmeal. We would take the hot water and fill our Nalgenes, which we would then place in our ski boots to soften and warm them up. Your feet would slid in like in a slipper. We would be walking by 4:30 or 5am. Sometimes we would walk right out of the cabin with our crampons on, the snow chalky and frozen, but most days we would skin up to "Morning Bowl" the southeast facing slopes that would get the first sun. 
Charlie approaching morning bowl
^Charlie approaching morning bowl. 
The peaks in the Gore Range are steep and jagged, but they aren't huge. Most of our climbs were 1,500-2,500 ft I would guess. Some of my favorite lines must have been less than 1,000 ft. 
Charlie had been skiing there for years, so he had already skied most of the obvious lines. It was fun to bring a fresh perspective, and ski some lines that he had never skied, and maybe no one else had skied. If you're only up in the Big Horn for a day trip, you probably wouldn't waste your time skiing some of the smaller stuff that we did, opting instead for the bigger, more prominent peaks. But I relished these micro lines. 
full body rush
^I forget the name of this chute. Charlie had skied it before. The cornice was huge and overhanging. We entered via a ramp on the exposed face to the skier's right, which connected to the chute towards the top. 
on top of the z
^ Looking across at the same chute from the top of the "Z". You can see the tight ramp at the top. These disposable camera shots either look impossibly steep and exposed or not steep at all. I remember it being somewhere in the middle. 
Z chute
^ The "Z Chute," my favorite micro line. Super fun to climb and ski. The snowpack actually kind of sloped away from those protruding rocks, forming a ramp that made it feel less exposed but more exciting to ski. 
In thee Face
^Charlie standing next to our "booter." The peak to the looker's left in the background was the most interesting thing we skied. I think we called it "In Thee Face." I think I skied to the skier's right of the very top rocks and it connected to the fall line which took you down to the crux of that bottom chute. We knew that the chute didn't completely connect, but it looked like a small rock that blocked the passage.
extstream sking
^Turns out it was more of a stream that ended in a little boulder that we slid off. For the next 5 days we referred to ourselves as ex-stream skiers. 
the crux of the face
^Charlie coming out the bottom of the crux. Looking super ex-stream. 
We could usually score two lines in a day and be back to the Hilton by 11a. The predictability of the snowpack in the late Spring was comforting. In the morning, if the snow was still there, it would dependably stick to the mountain. The cold and clear nights yielded great climbing and the snow would only have to soften for a couple of hours to be skiable. But when it did get warm, the mountains really started to fall apart. The wet slides later in the afternoon sounded like explosions.
listing to the radio
^Afternoons were for chilling and listing to music.
hoopin 2
^^Shootin Hoops. 
Booter sesh
^Or an afternoon booter sesh. 
The Gore Range was both my introduction to backcountry skiing and my farewell to a certain type of being in the mountains that's hard to imagine these days. Being young, being a beginner, and being aimless is a fertile mix for mind-blowing experiences. Nevertheless, it is a mindset that I aim to enter again. 

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