High times

The canyon’s snowy edges yawned like wide double doors. Off in the distance, the alpine beckoned. Answering the call, we skinned into the rocky channel and up the track, visions of powder dancing in our still sleepy heads. The sound of poles and bindings ticked away in metronome clicks as one ski slid in front of the other. A late March snow laughed at the feeble effort, biting our faces and stinging our eyes. Just as my legs started to tire and the monotony of the slog took hold, the veil lifted.

Off to the right, Deadwood’s ragged, southern shoulder appeared through the snow-driven haze. As light touched on the peak’s craggy ridge, my world blazed out of black and white and into Technicolor. A smile rose to my face. “At last,” I whispered to myself. “The backcountry is taking its clothes off.”

Newly motivated, I worked my way up the ridge still in slow motion, one step, creak and burning calf muscle at a time. At that moment, my mind, body and boards were where they needed to be – approaching treeline and blissfully at home in the mountains. My ski buddy and I crested the summit point and took in a view that swept from the Utah desert to the Continental Divide. And then, almost as an afterthought, the two of us floated off that twisting ridge and celebrated the season’s final turns through virgin snow.

We landed back at our original track exhausted but intoxicated. The noon hour had only just hit, but I already had a summit and nearly a hundred turns in my pocket. Above all, I’d gotten a final, big alpine dosage – a hit that would carry me through off-season and to a time when a slimly traveled ribbon of dirt would serve as my track into high places.

There, back in the canyon and with more than my fill of the high life, the ultimate irony struck. Skating to the trailhead, I recalled a time when I tried to turn my back on that thin air – a time not so long ago when I tried to leave these mountains.

Let’s just say that growing up in the San Juans was beyond experimental. I did enjoy the test, making my way through my hippy town and getting valuable education at the co-op, in the lift line, backstage in Town Park and around the pool tables at the Roma bar. But somehow it wasn’t enough. Questions remained unanswered. Something always seemed to be missing.

For me, it was the big world, the outside, the real show, the great urban unknown. And at first chance, I shelved my skis, packed my bags and hopped the first flight out of Colorado. It was going to be bigger and better for this Colorado kid. I was on my way, or so I imagined.

The first stop would be the nation’s capital, and I wanted it all, everything the big screen had shown me. Bring on spring breaks in Daytona Beach, BMWs with subwoofers, a foreign affairs degree and an eventual post at the American Embassy in Monaco. Show me six figures, 16 ounces of single malt and the 600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue. And so it was as I set out on my extended exile from Colorado’s high places.

Let’s just say my stint in the “material world” did not go as planned. It didn’t take long to realize that I’d traded knee deep for gridlocked. Needless to say, I was not piloting a Bavarian Motor Works rig with all the trimmings around the East Coast. And between you and me, I spent nearly every weekend jamming my way out of the beltway for slopes and crags in far off West Virginia.

After four years at an East Coast university and a year working for a Mid-East think tank, I finally threw in my dirty towel. The first thing that struck was a strong desire to get back above treeline. And so I proudly pocketed my East Coast merit badge and hauled ass back to the Rocky Mountains, which brings us back to present day (thank the maker, whoever she may be).

And so there I was last Friday, a month to the day after my final turns. The sun had just poked over Missionary Ridge, a bitter wind was on the rise and an early April snow had started to pelt my face. The same storm that had been so welcome on Deadwood was a little less appealing as it blew over my freezing water bottle and into the dark regions of my bike shorts. But I persevered, gave the merit badge a rub, and started pedaling up Animas Mountain.

And right on cue, just as my legs started to tire and the monotony of the slog took hold, the veil lifted. As I reached a high point, Deadwood’s ragged, southern shoulder materialized off in the distance through the snow-driven haze. “At last,” I whispered to myself, knowing I was back and exactly where I needed to be.

– Will Sands



In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows