|Memories. . . . Summer 2000|
Ophir to Telluride
by Peter Shelton
Ophir, Colorado. Elevation: 9,700 feet. Population today: about 20 romantic, mountain-lovinig souls. Population ca. 1893: about 1,000 silver-crazed miners. The valley walls are riddled with abandoned mines. The towns remaining buildings cling to a weathered, Victorian dignity.
9,840 feet. Ophir cemetery on our left. A slide sometime this winter made its thick-rivered way in among the gravestones. The snow is now hard as rock, an eerie garden of white marble, frozen statues, giant steps and walls, an ancient, devastated city still radiating the immense energy which formed it.
10,480 feet. Snowdrifts like pillows block the road. Its farther than we had expected to get and gives us a good start for the climb.
10,600 feet. A half dozen trees are down across the road. We head uphill into the woods.
10,700 feet. All of the trees in this aspen stand are down or leaning, as if felled by a tremendous wind. Walking on tree-trunk bridges, we finally make the edge and behold the wind maker - an avalanche, of course. The valley is a book of them. This one started near the ridgeline 2,000 feet above us, scoured a small bowl to bedrock and swept all the way across the river and up the opposite slope. The shock wave knocked down trees 30 yards on either side of slide itself.
11,200 feet. Over the lip and into the upper basin. Suddenly the view is all white. There are no more trees, no colorsonly shapes and their cool blue shadows. What in late summer we know to be delicately balanced piles of vermilion rock are now sleek white waves and bowls, crystalline dunes that crunch beneath our boots.
|> HOME PAGE||11,400 feet. Left foot, right foot. It takes sustained concentration to walk efficiently. The mind must be uncluttered to focus on the business at hand:
1) Staying upright. Walking on inclined snow with skis, lunch, water, shovel, emergency kit, cameras and extra clothes on your back requires a certain devotion to making each step the same, or at least to finishing each step in balance. Call it a balance dance.
2) Finding a pace. Lito is a firm believer in the snail approach to high-altitude walking (Watch me snail over this pass.), in which the pace is slow enough to allow complete recovery from one footfall to the next. On Denali in 1970, Lito was always last to camp by at least 45 minutes. But, he is quick to add, he was the only member of the team not to develop some sort of high-altitude edema, the only cure for which is going back down.
David, on the other hand, likes to sprint and waita metabolic preference perhaps.
Linde and I are somewhere in between. We require a pace above snailing in order to concentrate, yet chug along deliberately enough to allow for long stretches without stopping. Finding a pace often means going too fast and getting tired, then slowing down.
3) Keeping cool - and warm - enough. This is closely related to pace and the layers you wear. Staying cool keeps you dry, which makes it easier to stay warm when you stop. Getting cold in the mountains is scarier than avalanches. Becoming very cold, or hypothermic, makes you insensitive and dumb; you dont care much what happens. Perhaps its not a terrible way to go - a little like nitrogen narcosis underwater. (Picture the diver waltzing with the shark, ecstatic in his new-found freedom from breathing.) Advanced hypothermia cases dont feel the cold. They just want to curl up in the snow and go to sleep.
But were all walkers here, and into the balance dance. Because taking care is like taking your time. It makes things clear, and where we cannot afford to stumble, it gets us through.
12,000 feet. The bowl is huge. It looks vertical near the top. Our different paces have spread us out, each to his own breathing, heartbeat and careful placement of feet. We move, David thinks, watching us from his lead above, as if on another planet, adventurers with heavy, magnetic feet.
13,000 feet. A small rock outcrop. David is sunning, marmot-like, as I arrive. Across the view to the south, west and east stretch endless, snow-covered peaks. Some we know, some we guess at. Others are just whitecaps on the horizon.
Linde arrives, midriff exposed to help the heat escape. Lito snails up, occasionally knocking snow from his soles with a ski pole.
13,100 feet. The ridge, and suddenly another hemisphere to the north. Bridal Veil Basin drops away like a porcelain saucer. A receiving line of peaks marches north.
13,432 feet. The top. We are at the intersection of two ridge systems. One runs east-west and divides the Ophir valley from Tellurides upper basins. The other runs north-south and divides Bridal Veil from East Bear Creek. From this spot, you could roll off into any of three drainages.
Waxing is another ritual. We rub on a coarse, soft yellow in strokes across the ski to break the suction of the wet snow. This also gives us a chance to feel our skis, to run fingers down the edges, bend them like long bows, and imagine their turns. Ah, the imagining. A few moments of reverie, during which the spirits are called upon to create great skiing behind closed eyes. Its all there: the feel of the curves, the breathing of the body, extending and contracting, the lightness and weight, the resistance and the letting go.
The first turn is a coming home.
|13,100 feet. Stopped midway down the first steep pitch, I am surrounded by sliding snow. No, not an avalanche. There is a thin, windblown crust still unmelted on this northwest exposure, and it shatters where we ski, sliding along, tinkling madly like thousands of runaway chimes.
12,700 feet. A marmot whistles and dives for his hole as we wing out onto the broad flats below the steep.
12,600 feet. Weve come to the top of a whale-back knoll. In the distance, we can see where our route will follow the creek course twisting between narrow walls and out of sight. But the round nose of this knoll prevents us from seeing what is immediately below. The exposure is good. We know it will be steep, maybe very steep. We decide to ski it just as the sun takes a momentary powder behind one of the few afternoon puff-ball clouds. We wait.
David is dreaming of what he calls alpha turnsidentical short-radius arcs that transport him into a kind of peaceful brain-wave bliss.
Who knows what Lito and Linde are thinking? They will entwine their tracks in figure eights of affection.
The sun comes. We go.
12,500 feet. I breathe in long, whooshing breaths, as if by matching sounds with the skis on the snow, I can ensure their continued response.
12,200 feet. We pull up as if in a dream, the only sound our collective breathing.
11,200 feet. The harsh purity of the snowfields is now pierced by an occasional spruce. Ruby-crowned kinglets dart about the branches chatting purposefully. Here, too, is the splendid ruin of the Nellie Mine, the first sign of mans work since the diggings on the Ophir side. Were coming down.
10,800 feet. The Couloir - a 30-foot wide slot through the cliffsthe only way through. Vertical black walls block the sun and keep the snow icy, refrigerated. Bear Creek Falls roars offstage left, just out of sight. We ski one at a time, carefully. This is not the place to soar. Between my ski tips, I can see The Big Rock at the end of the road up from Telluride - the end, most likely, of our skiable snow.
|10,600 feet. Out of the couloir, relieved. Violet-green swallows ride updrafts along the cliff. Trickles of water and bits of ice from the crevices above leap out into the sunlight like temporary jewels and fall back into the shade of the cliff base.
On this last pitch, we hip-hop old avalanche debris, lumpy by nature and further pocked with the melt holes of small rocks. Loosened by the thaw, they clatter from the slopes above and light on the snows surface where, during the hours of sun, they radiate warmth, melting the snow around them, and sink into cups of their own making. Dark pearls - pearls in reverse - they shrink in relation to their growing shells, feed the melt process and hasten the day when they will be lowered gently to the talus below, one of a million rock cousins, indistinguishable, pearls no more.
9,800 feet. Skiing right on the creek now. Its rush is only a vibration through the thick layer of avalanche-deposited snow. Spruce branches lie about on the surface. Bent willows point down-slide. It is the last tongue of winter, melting fast, pulling back up-canyon.
9,600 feet. Open water. A dipper, or water ouzel, bobs on a rock midstream. Blink of white eyelids and hes off, wings beating furiously, inches above the water.
9,400 feet. First firs - a new spice in the evergreen perfume.
9,300 feet. Line of aspen change. Above: winters bare finger branches. Below: shimmering fields of new green color, like an impressionist painting in motion. Currants leaf. Rose hips bud. Birds gossip everywhere.
9,000 feet. The track turns west, away from the creek, and we descend into Telluride.
Dogs. Saws. Hammers and boards. The sounds of town are clear and busy - and welcome. Natural town sounds, they would be as foreign where weve been today as the snowy stillness would be among the streets and houses. The contrast is exquisite.
This is what we go for, I suppose. To trade our comfort for a little pain, our complacency for a little fear. To walk up in the shadows, ski down in brilliant sun. Hard snow turns to soft, winter into summer. All in one day from Ophir to Telluride.
|Memories . . . . Summer 2000|
|© Peter Shelton
Peter Shelton lives and writes in Colona, under the northern escarpments of the San Juan mountains in Colorado, not far from Telluride, in a house he built himself; but skiing and ski writing have taken him around the world. This story about skiing down into summer first appeared in a now defunct Telluride magazine, and years later, again, in Ski Magazine. This is its third avatar.
Skiing in the Ophir / Telluride backcountry