I left home well before sunrise, so it was between Carrizozo and San Antonio/Socorro that I got to enjoy sunrise hitting South Baldy.
Why did I start so early? I had to make it to Ouray, Colorado...across three passes on the Million Dollar Highway...while a storm was hammering the San Juans. I had my fingers crossed that I did not have to take the alternate route over Lizard Head Pass.
From downtown Cuba, NM the mountains above were enshrouded. It was light rain at 7,000FT...in December? La Nina...this was a warm storm.
Durango Mountain Resort - even here in Colorado at higher elevation it was barely below freezing. The recent snow accumulation here was measured in feet. But I still had those three passes to cross: Coal Bank, Molas, and Red Mountain.
I was lucky - all three passes were open. This is Ouray - calls itself the Switzerland of America...and now I know why. It's nestled tight in a very narrow, steep valley...but it has the flavor of old US mining town. Here it was also above freezing. This is not good because Ouray hosts a winter ice climbing park...which had closed the day before because of the warm temps.
I rested here and met Cynthia, an ice climber from Albuquerque. She had to travel up Camp Bird Mine road to higher elevations to find climbable ice.
At the trailhead to the Ridgway hut, almost 9,000FT. Right around freezing, very thin snow pack. It was a warm climb. At least it was not sunny, or I would have died from heat exhaustion.
I had a bit over five miles to cover to reach the hut.
From here on a clear day you can see the high terrain of the Mount Sneffels wilderness. Today the aspen and conifers vanished into the low cloud deck.
Even on a dreary day the forest can be beautiful...extremely subtle shades of gray and hints of color.
For the first couple miles and hours...I boot packed. I did not anticipate this, and would have preferred to ski. But the snow was pretty thin, and the wet snow would have soaked my climbing skins...and I didn't want to test how well soaked skins work as you transition to dry snow.
Progress was slow, but I tried to keep patient so that I didn't rush and burn out on the first day.
Here I left the forest road and started up a narrow path at a steeper grade. No choice but to put on skis and skins. Fortunately the snow was deep enough, and was not too wet.
Progress continued slow, but I was not worried. And the skin track of the hut occupants from two days ago meant that I was not breaking trail.
Blue diamond trail markers, some with reflective tape in the middle, help indicate that I was on the right path.
But I wish such markers were not so widely spaced. Add factors such as heavy snow, wind, darkness, skier fatigue and frustration....and it's easy to lose the way.
First creek crossing. My skis were long enough that I could carefully step across and not risk falling in.
Small meadow - good place for a break, water, and a snack.
I had to rest at least 10 minutes every hour - patience and pacing are key.
This view did not make me happy. I had steeply dropping terrain between me and the next ridge. Gotta climb down and then back up.
Patience was faltering.
Beaver Creek drainage. I was happy for the new snow - it made it easy to come down the slope at a controlled pace. Hard old snow would have made the descent more challenging while on skis.
Interesting aspen trunk. I was now about a mile from the Ridgway hut...but sunset would catch me first.
I was not worried. From here it's a straight climb up the ridge along an obvious path.
Only in the last 1/10th mile did I use my headlamp....
A very welcome sight! I figured that the hut occupants would have a light on.
It was 45 minutes after sunset...almost totally dark.
Misty cooks their organic dinner.
Jeff tends the fire.
I was exhausted after over seven hours of hiking and skiing, and after introductions and some post-dinner conversation it was lights out...around 8PM.
As the sun was rising, the moon was setting. The sun would not come over the southeastern ridge for at least another hour.
Fortunately at this altitude (10,200FT) the temperature had dropped below freezing and the snow was dry.
It takes lotsa wood stove heat to melt snow for water. It gets very warm in the hut...so you open a window or door.
Misty snowboards, but it's a special split board that allows her to travel the back country like a skier.
It was Misty and Jeff's final day, and they decided to head down to the trailhead after breakfast.
I think Misty's pack was heavier than mine.
After the night's snowfall, I had to clear snow from the solar cells that power the lighting.
Ridgway hut has eight bunks. It must get awful cozy when they are all full.
I split some wood and prepared to head out to higher terrain.
Initially I followed the forest road, and the skin track that Jeff and Misty had established...but I wanted to venture more to the west, not south...so I deviated from the established route....
Deviating was a mistake. Deadfall and blowdown seemed to be everywhere. This is bad enough to hike in summer...add skis and soft snow to the mix and you get tired just thinking about it.
OK, deviate around the deadfall....
...and you find the small trees so tight that route finding is next to impossible.
I suppose that with another 4 - 6 feet of snow this can be skiable terrain, but on this day it isn't.
I had hoped to climb the ridge above the hut to see Blaine Basin and Mount Sneffels.
I can study topo maps and imagery to determine likely paths for ski touring, but they don't show me the regions of serious deadfall and blowdown. I gotta find better sources of info to avoid these obstacles.
Back at the hut I watched the final sunlight on the high ridge.
Evening twilight and solitude.
But would it last? After all, I arrived at the hut in almost total darkness...and I had no way of knowing if others were coming up the trail today....
...until I heard a shout about 1 1/2 hours after sunset.
Ken and Francesca got a late start at the trailhead.
Ken has dual US/Canadian citizenship, flies for a commercial airline and the Canadian Air Force as a reservist....did a tour in Afghanistan recently. Francesca has been around the world because of family, school, and work. Lots of good stories were shared in the short time we had together.
I packed up and headed down the trail to the Burn hut....
The guide book mentioned that many aspen in this area show bear claw marks.
Those vertical cuts look awful suspicious.
Coming down through the small meadow.
There was enough slope that I could make some quick turns on skis, but the 40-pound pack didn't help.
Following the obvious road to the burn hut up through a beautiful aspen grove.
As you zoom/frame differently, the impression of this section of the trail can change a great deal.
Aspen against a hard blue sky.
These are not snow flakes. This is surface hoar - crystals that grow on clear, calm, humid nights. The largest ones here were about 1 1/2 inches.
This surface hoar does not bond or stick well to new snow...which makes the snow pack unstable...waiting for a skier to trigger an avalanche.
Looking down and north from the sloped meadow that is just short of the Burn hut. No snow at the lower elevations.
The Burn hut - my home for the next two nights.
Since nobody else was present, I had to do all the wood splitting and snow melting.
Solitude can be nice, but it's also nice to share chores among several people.
Evening twilight view looking out the kitchen windows.
Next morning - more hoar frost had formed.
Claw marks...from a literate bear?
Moonshine Park. This sloped meadow would be great for skiing...if it only had another 6 - 12 inches. I chose not to ski here.
As a consolation I took in the amazing panorama.
I returned to the hut for a warm lunch (the first in three days!).
Although it was calm at my elevation, I noticed plumes of snow coming off the high peaks.
Breaking trail, skinning up the meadow heading southwest.
A wall of low clouds was moving in from the west...
In a matter of minutes they were covering most of the sky...
...and soon snow was falling at the highest elevations.
I kept climbing the meadow. My plans were to stay within a short distance of the hut, so I was not worried about the sudden change in weather.
My first ski run down this meadow was to an abandoned vehicle.
Why is it here in the middle of winter?
You wouldn't understand - it's a Jeep thing! ;-)
I heard dogs barking, and then spotted a local skier who was doing a loop and heading back down for dinner.
I skinned up the meadow for a second run as sunset was approaching...and learned a valuable lesson: I got up the hill at least three times faster because I was not breaking trail on the second lap.
Solo ski touring can be nice, but your rate of progress can be agonizingly slow compared to a group of skiers that can take turns breaking trail.
Final day, and time to head home.
I awoke well before dawn and got on the trail before sunrise, when the world was still blue-tinted by twilight.
Low clouds and fog below me.
The first rays of sunlight show that it's windy up high.
The low clouds cleared as the sun came up.
I couldn't see this view during the hike up, but now I could see the Sneffels wilderness in all its glory.
Mount Sneffels - 14,150FT
This shows how narrow is the valley that holds the town of Ouray.
Mountains above Ouray.
The drive out of this town on the Million Dollar Highway is unforgettable. No room for guard rails on some sections, and the dropoff goes for thousands of feet.