Spring Break Tales from the CoWyo Backcountry

Saturday, April 2, 2016:

By 6am we had sleds and supplies loaded up and the truck pointed west.  We started our adventure with two of our friends joining Jas and I for the weekend.  We met Marc & Phil at Rabbit Ears, touted as one of the finest snowmobiling destinations in the nation.  The boys in this crew began their backcountry career about 20+ years ago as some of the first snowboarders getting it done at Loveland Pass.  These guys have been utilizing snowmobiles for the past decade to get to the finest in Colorado White Gold.  They did their research and we began our adventures at Baker Ski Resort; long abandoned, but offering up some easy shuttles with fantastic powder turns through the aspen groves.  Each rider was able to meet the 3 run quota, that is what our squad considers the minimum runs to count a day of riding.  We shared the hill with 3 or so friendly telemarkers, we were all careful to keep to a specific sled route to avoid any backcountry collisions and to keep the runs as clean as possible for all to enjoy.

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Video: Nona Bombing the Aspens (and crashing…doh!)

 

After our runs, we were all anxious to explore and we had our eyes set on the proud bunny ears.  Rabbit Ears is an easily recognized riding area, marked by two large rock formations jutting out from the peaks of the pass.  We picked our way through the trees and found a route to the top of the Ears.  We parked the sleds and post-holed a short way to the top.  Enjoying a bit to eat, wandering the peak, having Marc point out the mountain ranges in the distance, enjoying the Colorado blue sky that should have a crayon named after it, in the moment, trying to let the feelings and sights of the moment burn an imprint into my brain.  Instead of following our route out, the adrenaline junkie in all of us won, we decided to descend the steeps from those bunny ears.  I was the last out.  The intensity of rolling off a steep, with the eyes of your crew fixated on you, big breaths, get your feet back on the running boards, and hit the throttle.  I rode that bad boy of a drop out.  I got to the bottom where all were positioned for my arrival and I let out a big, loud whoooohooo and a fist pump.  The descent felt sketchy but Marc reassured me that my roll off the top of the mountain was the most graceful of all.

It was free riding time.  A big spring storm has just swept across northern Colorado, bringing over a foot to the area.  Many were out enjoying the springtime fun, I crossed paths with a few fellas that were dead in the backcountry, needing some tools to make quick repairs.  I didn’t have the exact tool needed but something close enough.  They were grateful for the assistance and after a few minutes, they were able to salvage the rest of their day instead of planning on getting a dead sled out of the backcountry, bonus!

Light was slipping away and we all returned to our trucks, loaded up, and moved on down the road to our Spring Break home, Hahn’s Peak.

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Sunday, April 3, 2016:

A tip for spring flings in Colorado… mountain towns shift into “Mud Season”, where locals get to take a break and the towns collectively agree to shut the town down for parts of April and May.  So, get a room with a kitchen, bring your food, and be prepared for working around town closures.  We were happy with our mud season half-off pricing for our accommodations and with our breakfast of yogurt, pastries, and coffee we brought with us.

We woke up to cold temperatures.  We decided on a slow-moving morning; getting in a solid breakfast, packing up a sack lunch for the trails, geared up slowly.  Based on previous visits and current conditions we decided to revisit a zone that we predicted held good snow and may provide a bounty of board runs for us.  Our navigator, Phil, came through once again, picking our way through the trees and getting us to the impossible to find trailhead.  We gathered at the base and looked up at the pristine, puffy trail with one very large downed tree that found its new home across the entire trail.  We broke out the shovels and decided over the log we must go.  After all of us got on the project, it was not long before we built a snow bridge over the log.  The “trail” is more like a singletrack goat trail that winds its way up the mountain, with a good bit of sidehilling to reach our destination.  We all knew it was time to be careful, set in some good tracks to keep the sleds on the hill.  With some carefully placed tracks in the virgin snow, we made it to Our Spot.  Sleds need room to turn around, that is in short supply on this goat trail.  So, again, the shovels come out and after a half an hour devoted to digging, the four of us were able to create a very nice turnaround.  I was the one to put first tracks on our road we engineered in the side of the hill.  I could see the looks on the boys, wondering if I would be able to traverse the engineered sidehill/turnaround combo.  The looks on their faces said it all, they were very pleased with my slow, even throttle to the top and traverse with one ski at a time down to flat, for overshooting the trail means dire consequences.  I even saw the look of pride and love in Jas’ eyes, I had to let out a giggle from inside my full face helmet.  On our way down, the boys stomped out the high ski trail to get the sleds locked into the mountain.  All for a big hope of two people up on one sled, with one being dragged up on the end of a tow rope… for the glory of powdery backcountry turns.

The tree work on this run is too much for me, so when we made it to the bottom of the run, the boys prepared for their trek up the mountain, and I pointed my sled towards the meadows.  When traversing in the backcountry, you need to be always mindful of navigation.  I was on my own, the crew not that far away, but in the backcountry it’s all about (knowing your) location, location, location.  I took this as an opportunity to better my backcountry navigation skills.  I took a picture of the mountain and took note of specific characteristics that would mark my entrance back into the woods and to the bottom of Our Spot.  I took one of the oldest and must-have pieces of equipment out, a compass, and took note of the SW positioning of my trail into the woods.  I was all alone, not a soul entered the meadow I sat in.  The solitude, the perfection of my surroundings, sitting with myself and my thoughts… these moments are just as precious as the adrenaline boosts of the backcountry.

I received a radio communication, the boys took a run and the conditions were wrong, the steepness of the slope and the spring snow, it was a risk better not tested.  So, shortly, the boys joined me in the meadow and we all decided to press on to another peak.  We played up top for a short time and the setting sun said it was time to begin our descent into Hahn’s.  We had dinner, some laughs, then had to say goodbye to part ways with the friends returning to the front range.

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Monday, April 4, 2016:

This was the day that had taken the most mental and physical preparation for the trip.  Jas wanted to do an epic sled trip, he wanted to travel from Hahn’s Peak, CO to the Sierra Madres of Medicine Bow, WY.  I gathered intel during the week previous to the trip.  Colorado does not always have snowmobile maps readily available but I did locate an ATV trail map of the Hahn’s Peak area to the Wyo border.  Our neighbors to the north have ample maps for sledders so in my arsenal of maps, I located our SW Wyoming map, loaded them both in a Ziploc bag for safe keeping and in the gear bag they went.

Again, we woke to cold and again we delayed setting out, hitting trails by 11am. Our stops were few, scarfing down snacks and water.  About 2 hours into the adventure, we crossed the CO/WY border, exiting Routt National Forest, crossing into Medicine Bow.  We reached the furthest spot we had ever ventured on previous visits, then the plunge into the unknown, new trails.  To both our surprise, the sled tracks never ended, keeping us company on our journey.  But on this Monday, there was not a single truck or sled at any of the trailheads nor did we see another soul on the entire adventure, we felt as if we were the only souls in the vastness spanning two national forests.  That weighs on your thoughts, taking more care with your route, riding, communications, everything.  With a bit of summit fever, Jas had his heart set on seeing the Sierra Madres.  During one of our few stops, I did the math with him, 4 hours in, we must turn around to make it back to Hahn’s by 7pm.  We were closing in on the destination but time was ticking, we pressed on.

We had been closing in on the Encampment trailhead and reached a south-facing bend in the road void of snow.  We chattered for a moment about the possibility of this being the end of the road for our adventure.  Jas parked his sled at the edge of the concrete and had a somber walk to the bend in the road.  I was fiddling with gear and then I caught him from the corner of my eye doing a dance down the trail towards me, this told me all the information I needed, we were indeed going to press on.  We sped on down the trail, pushing past the Encampment trailhead and zooming into the Sierra Madres.  Before long we had reached Red Mountain and our time limit.  Jas has a hard time turning around and pointing it home.  I see in his eyes the curiosity of a great backcountry adventurer, he craves the knowledge of seeing and feeling and being in what lies just beyond that next bend, valley, peak.  We rested for a moment, admiring the vast rugged terrain of the Sierra Madres, a strange feeling of merciless mountains that care not about your survival, fear and respect for the mountains grow within.

We traveled even faster on our return as we certainly wanted to be off the snow by dark and fuel was definitely running low, even though we did bring reserves, although you have this innate feeling that you should be stingy with your resources.  We reached some fun snow and did a quick lap through a meadow opening.  Jas was riding the trees along  side me and I saw him venture a bit further right out of sight, next to some power lines.  I moved down the trail a bit but stopped and used the radio to call to him, he thought he would ride the power lines and would meet me on the trail ahead.  I rode for another mile and called to him again, no sign of him on the trail.  He said that I would need to travel further down the road to meet him.  Going another mile I stopped and radioed him again, with no response this time.  I worried that in following the power lines, he did not end up on the correct trail.  I worried that going further would get me further away from him and dig deeper into a situation that could turn from bad to worse, and worse had no limits today.

After 15 minutes with no communication, I made the decision to turn around and head to the last point where I saw him, this is a rule among our crew if we find ourselves separated.  I went back to our meadow we were playing in.  I had more tough decision to make.  I had the extra fuel on my sled and I did not believe we would be making it home without some extra fuel for the both of our sleds.  However, waiting long would mean that if I had to navigate out by myself, I could be doing it in the dark.  Do I follow the power lines or do I stay on the road?  I went out on the power lines and looked around, I didn’t have a good feeling about following them down.  I went to the only signage in the area.  I broke off some large sticks, planting a very large one on the trails edge.  With the sticks, I placed a “N” and an arrow pointing down the trail towards home.  This was my message to Jas, this is where we were, I thought I would move down the trail to the next big turn in the road and hope that we would meet up down the path.  Fear bubbled up in me but you have to work at letting that not take hold, you need a level head when things go sideways in the backcountry.  I pushed down the trail, not speeding but moving along, keeping alert.  I stopped a few times with trying the radios to reach Jas.  On one of these stops I looked back and saw that the gas can was hanging off the side of the sled, held there with my bungee cords.  A deep dread flooded my body, head to toe, losing my breath at the site.  A frightful moment, where you realize your life is dangerously dangling by bungee cords.  I fought back the emotions and tears.  I moved with intent, repositioning the fuel on my rack, methodically wrapping the bungees around it.  Disaster averted, push the emotions into place and block the fear out, keep moving; and with a deep breath I pushed forward.

It was shortly there after that Jas came ripping up the trail.  It was an emotional moment when he pulled up and shut down his sled.  I saw him breathe a heavy sigh of relief as I am shouting the words “you just don’t leave me alone like that!”.  The stress melted away, a bit.  He did indeed find quite a shortcut, he circumvented about 10 miles of trails following the power lines.  He indicated he was headed back to where he last saw me.  The reunion was kept short as we had many miles to travel and the sun was dropping fast.  We began moving into familiar territory and a bit more stress melted away.  We found ourselves in the meadow not far from the Columbine trailhead.  My sled was reading zero gas and Jas did not believe he had enough fuel to make it all the way home.  So, it was about 12 miles out from Hahn’s that we finally fueled up our sleds.  The descent into Hahn’s was rewarding, we had survived one of our greatest backcountry adventures together.  We travelled for 8 hours, we logged 114 miles on this adventure, indeed an epic one.  Jas and I made it to dinner with just 30 minutes to spare before closing time.  I ordered a side of onion rings with my salad and pizza, I earned those onion rings, and they were divine.

 

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Tuesday, April 5, 2016:

Today was cold, cloudy, and weather ranging from overcast to blizzardy.  On a day like this in the spring, it was the right decision to take a day for exploring the goods in Steamboat Springs.  As we head into town we pass through the town of Clark.  We see a sled with a board pulling out from a side road, looking freshly stored in the back of the pickup, snow still clinging to the sled and board.  Jas pulls off the road and reached into his pocket pulling out a tiny piece of crumpled paper.  He has a name of a road written down, a friend had told him about a gem of a trail.  We turned around and the name on his crumpled treasure was the name of the road the sled just came off of.  We spent about an hour doing some reconnaissance, admiring the snow, wondering about what lies just beyond the viewable terrain, valuable time spent in our opinion, this is how sledders vacation!

A little impromptu R&R adventure, we decided to make Strawberry Park Hot Springs our destination.  It has a reputation for being one of the finest hot springs in Colorado and neither of us had ever been, it was time to change that!  Into Routt National Forest with our newly purchased bathing suits we went.  An oddly wonderful thing to have bathing suits on with FEET of snow on the hillside surrounding the springs.  The springs were glorious, it was so good to soak our weary bodies in the steaming water.  We walked around town, window shopping and enjoying some good eats in The Boat.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2016:

We load up and check out of Hahn’s Peak Roadhouse, getting on the road by 10am, pointed towards the Rabbit Ears once again.  This time, we are not headed to the spots we have already ventured to.  It’s once again time to explore.  We have our sights set on the trail that leads to Buffalo Pass.  We snapped a picture of the map at the trailhead and set off.  The trails are few but well-marked with winter stakes, without the stakes it would be very difficult to navigate the area as you pass through multiple meadows with treed riding in between.  We make it two hours into the adventure, reaching a point where we have visited before, weather equipment perched on top of a high point at 10,200 elevation.  I was worn down and the weather switched drastically as we rose above 9k, the winds kicked up and the temperatures were cold.  I tapped out, letting Jas know it was time for lunch and to turn back.  Again, he wore the face of desperate curiosity, wanting so badly to continue on, seeing what is around that next corner.  But he too was very tired and relented.   Before lunch, we turned around and played a bit in the fresh snow that was being preserved at the elevation.  We quickly ate as the wind and temperatures were still significant where we stopped at around 9500 feet.  We stopped once we passed the 9k threshold and such a different mountain was there waiting, a bluebird day with high temps and low winds… sledders know, elevation in the springtime is probably the most significant factor to consider when choosing a riding area, it was profound on this day especially.  We meandered on the sleds back to the truck, with a newfound appreciation of the beautiful weather we were now enjoying.  We loaded up for the last time on our epic adventure, the joy of gearing down and taking the snowboard boots and slipping into dry, warm, comfy clothes is a high moment of the day.

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What an adventure!  We logged about 225 miles and rode 4 days in four unique zones, very different adventures, that all began at trailheads quite near each other.  The springtime fun was at a maximum here in the Colorado-Wyoming backcountry.  I take a few words to capture some reflection as I ponder these wild adventures…

 

Invest in developing riding partners.

Much different adventures were had when we were a team of four on the mountain.  We all bring different strengths to the table, and when we venture into the backcountry as a team, there is magic.  Jas and I are becoming quite strong mechanics, Phil is one hell of a navigator with an innate sense of direction, Marc is one that will surprise you with the gear he can pull out of his avy bag and his knowledge of the mountain ranges by sight and of backcountry critters is extensive.  I say that snowmobiling is a team sport, a cooperative, when you get a solid team together, I do believe that the backcountry can become more enjoyable and safe.

 

Stay flexible.

Having a plan for the day is ideal but keep flexibility as the plan may not be realistic.  Day 2, the board runs looked stellar, puffy fresh snow that had pristinely been preserved especially for us all season.  Turned out the spring snow showed signs of sliding on the steeps, and after all the hard work of digging and creating a solid trail, plans had to be abandoned… and you live to ride another day.

 

Take lessons away from each backcountry encounter.

My mind wanders to the gas incident… what if the gas can had been unknowingly flung from my sled and couldn’t be located?  That is one giant What If.  A siphon will be added to my backcountry kit and on the next long distance journey I believe two riders should carry gas as a backup.  No matter what your level of expertise, there is always more to know and understand about traversing in the backcountry.

 

 

As the season changes from winter to spring, many shift gears and set aside thoughts of snow.  For the afflicted, the spring season offers so much special.  It’s time to pay attention to the weather reports, taking days off sporadically to chase the storms.  Carefully selecting zones where the elevation has preserved the freshly fallen pow.  Riding with the jacket open and enjoying the spring turns on glorious bluebird days that seem endless as the sun gifts us extended daylight.  I am an afflicted soul with so much passion for backcountry adventures and it pours out of me.  If you have read these words, you too are afflicted; and you understand there is something missing from my account and that is… how the backcountry brings meaning to our life, but that’s because there really are no words.  Your understanding of the words that cannot be spoken, that is our special bond, and makes us a backcountry family.

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