The new year started with the normal revelry of great music, too much food and wine, and the company of good friends. Our little mountain village has become a haven for nature lovers, musicians and other free thinkers who are trying to make some sense out of this crazy world, and their company is very enjoyable. The unusually warm winter started quite late, but it finally hit with a fury, and resulted in one of my best ski seasons ever. Our local ski area is only 15 minutes away, and sometimes I can ski from my house, so I ski almost every day and managed to log 118 days on the slopes. I can’t quite remember my previous record, but I think it was only about 110, and I was 23 and living in Aspen then.
Skiing is like dancing on snow, and the gentle rhythm of perfectly carved turns allows me to escape “if only for a few moments” from the turmoil of this crazy world. The occasional huge storms provide waist deep powder which is the closest thing to nirvana that I have ever experienced.
The county where I live varies in elevation from 4,718 to 13,502 feet, and this offers a great variety of weather conditions. The day time temperatures on the plains can vary from below zero to 70 degrees in January, and if the skiing is bad, the south facing crags are usually warm and cozy and great for rock-climbing, which is my second favorite sport. The melting snow feeds the wild rivers, but I can’t hold my breathe as long as I used to, so the fear of drowning has turned me into a land lubber. But, I managed one run on our local river, and the thrill of whitewater still feeds my spirit. I used to ski every month of the year, but I’ve discovered that August and September really aren’t worth the effort, so I’ve narrowed it down to 10. The nearby mountains of Loveland and Arapahoe Basin offer incredible high altitude terrain and lift assisted skiing from October till June. I’ve skied waist deep powder at A-basin in May, but my favorite type of skiing is to climb a big mountain and ski back down. My favorite mountain to ski is Mt. Toll in the nearby Indian Peaks wilderness area. It involves about ten miles of skiing into a remote basin with frozen lakes and stunning peaks.
The last three miles of the road was not yet open, but it had been plowed, so I started just before dawn and rode my bicycle up the steep paved road with my skis on my backpack. The sun was just starting to show it’s face as I stashed the bike in the woods and started to ski up the gentle valley. The calm air was a bit brisk, but the sky was clear and the Alpenglow on the high peaks was stunning. I had the whole valley to myself, and proceeded up past Lake Mitchell and onward to Blue Lake as the sun gradually warmed the morning air and the snow glistened under its rays.
The path steepened as I proceeded up the east face, and I stopped a few times to catch my breath and gaze in wonder at this empty paradise.
I arrived on the perfectly calm summit at 10 AM and spent a very pleasant half hour eating lunch and resting against a comfortable rock in the warm sunshine. Mountain summits are magical places, and I thoroughly enjoyed the grand vista of the surrounding peaks and lakes while I contemplated my descent. It had been a really wet winter and spring, so I was able to start skiing from the top. The snow was still a bit frozen, so I skied carefully and felt my senses suddenly become enlightened by the pure joy of carving rhythmic turns on this great mountain. The mid day sun was starting to melt the snow, and the thin layer of perfect corn provided excellent conditions as I danced down the majestic peak.
Mt Toll is challenging, but I do not consider it dangerous. The easiest route involves less than 35 degree slopes (with some optional 45+) that start on a spectacular somewhat exposed ridge. This ridge ends at a giant north-east facing bowl, which soon curves again to face the north as it drops into the scenic gorge of the South St. Vrain river. Here the gradient eases, but the skiing is still really fun as I ride the gentle force of gravity all the way back to my bicycle.
When the snow finally melts on the high peaks, the meadows come alive with a myriad of colorful flowers and plants, and the soft tundra is very pleasant for hiking. My favorite local mountain is the pointed one in the middle of the lower right photo. Mt. Navajo is a stunning peak with a moderate route that involves a little bit of steep frozen snow, a bit of scrambling in a secure chimney, a usually empty summit, and an easy descent route. It’s about a 14 mile round trip, but every inch of the way offers great views, and the tranquility of a mountain paradise.
It seems kinda foolish to drive anywhere when I live in paradise, but I did manage to take a couple of road trips including Wild Wonderful Wyoming. This pristine state is still very sparsely populated, and the empty roads are a pleasant change from what is happening in Colorado. A group of friends decided to mix a climbing trip with the eclipse, so I headed north a bit early and joined them at a place called Ten Sleep Canyon in the Bighorn Mountains. This ancient gorge was once submerged by the sea, and consists of some of the best limestone crags on the planet. Everything that I’ve learned about geology, has been because of rock climbing, and limestone is one of my favorite rocks. The crags are usually steep, but filled with lots of hand and footholds that provide very exciting routes. The lush campground next to the river offered shade from the mid day sun, and a roaring river that lulled us to sleep. A few days on the steep rocks managed to wear out my old arms and Ten Sleep was not in the direct eclipse path, so I took an old dirt road that meandered south through a remote valley of the Red Desert. A few irrigated fields provided a stark contrast from the desert walls, and dozens of gallant horses browsed in the lush meadows.
I found an empty hill top, and settled back in a comfortable chair to observe the big event. The grand desert sky gradually darkened and I watched in awe as the sun disappeared. The temperature dropped dramatically, and the few birds and antelope that occupied the hillside seemed to be quite startled as the mid day suddenly turned to dusk. Some very friendly local strangers had come to join me, and we all shared an incredible sense of awe as we watched the sun return.
As I left the remote hillside, it suddenly appeared that half the population of Colorado had journeyed north for the big event, so the traffic was quite unforgettable as well. But, I wasn’t in a big hurry to get home, so I found a sheltered gully full of sweet smelling sage, and enjoyed a peaceful afternoon of reading and writing, while the memory of the big event still lingered in my brain.
The next day I wandered south to a hot spring, and then stopped to climb a gentle mountain of quartzite rocks that resemble marble. It’s called Medicine Bow Peak and the trail meanders through an ancient glacial basin with about a dozen pristine lakes, a diverse variety of high altitude plants, and giant chunks of the marble like rock. It’s actually quite a spectacular peak, and the summit was filled with a mature group of astronomy professors who had gathered at the University of Wyoming for the big event. They were very interesting folks who shared a passion for eclipses, and had traveled the world to observe most of them, and had already made plans for some more.
Meanwhile back at home, the local rocks and trails were still beckoning, and I enjoyed many days of climbing and hiking in the back yard. Nature is my strongest passion, but I also still work a little bit, and I’ve become very involved with a local toastmasters club. It’s a really fun and interesting group of people that share the same goal of public speaking. Our group is very talented, and the support and exposure to each others skills helps everyone improve. I’m still hoping to turn this into a career to inspire mature adults like myself to stay active mentally and physically and improve their lives.
I can’t help but admit that I’m striving to find something to be cheerful for as I watch my country being destroyed and millions of people suffer because of the greed of just a few. Greed is a disease and it is causing so much pain and destroying the planet that I love so much, but once again, I have managed to survive another year by hiding in the mountains and meditating with the Gods of nature.
I feel extremely fortunate to be enjoying good health and to live in this mountain paradise, and because of this good luck I feel obligated to use my health to continue to explore this “Garden of Eden”, before it is destroyed. I continue to hope for peace and prosperity for everyone and truly hope that 2018 will be a better year. Please check out www.danceonedge.com for more stories. John Mattson