more than two decades of ski writing, ski teaching, and ski publishing by Lito Tejada-Flores
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 town’s remaining buildings cling to a weathered, Victorian dignity.
It is June 15, 6:00 am. While Ophirites sleep, the sky brightens behind North Lookout Peak. We’re headed right for it, four of us jammed into the pickup’s front seat, grinding up the dirt road, past the ruins of an old Nash Rambler, past the one-room Ophir schoolhouse, past the squat log jail - a veteran of 80 winters and untold avalanches - and out onto the slide path itself.
With no flat ground anywhere in the valley, Ophir was built on the edge of the second biggest avalanche chute in the state.
Everyone looks left. Even Linde, who sits on Lito’s lap and must twist awkwardly to see, looks north up the Spring Gulch slide. It has the classic hourglass shape: a treeless, fan-shaped runout below a narrow track through the cliffs leading to glistening, ridgeline bowls at 13,000 feet - the start zones. Small slides stop harmlessly short of town. Big ones travel a mile or more and move houses around.
In fact, most of the original buildings were constructed on runners, big timbers under the floor joists so that, sled-like, they might move with the avalanche rather than be crushed by it. Some have indeed been moved; many have been flattened.
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.
Big slides are rare in the summer. The snowpack has settled, melted and refrozen many times over warm days and cold nights. We have come early to walk up on the frozen surface then ski down the other side, on softening corn snow into east Bear Creek canyon all the way to Telluride, Ophir’s sister city in the halcyon days, now a growing ski resort.
10,480 feet. Snowdrifts like pillows block the road. It’s farther than we had expected to get and gives us a good start for the climb.
Preparations. Rocks under the wheels. David stands off the side and stretches, wheeling from side to side. Lito and Linde prepare their packs, strapping skis on, abandoning vests, restuffing them against the possibility of cold winds on top or a change in the weather, though the day begins without a cloud.
“I have wax.”
“Skis, boots, poles?”
“Skis, boots, poles.”
In the predawn chill we set out, chanting our three-word checklist mantra
10,600 feet. A half dozen trees are down across the road. We head uphill into the woods.
The ground here is snow free and soft underfoot. Ducking branches, we find ourselves nose to nose with the first green shoots of summer.
“My god, it’s a giant asparagus tip!”
It is too early and too cold to smell the earth, though we can imagine its sweetness.
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.
We move up the left edge of the debris, walking on snow long since stopped, frozen into chunks like giant-curd cottage cheese.
11,200 feet. Over the lip and into the upper basin. Suddenly the view is all white. There are no more trees, no colors—only 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.
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 wait—a 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 don’t care much what happens. Perhaps it’s 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 don’t feel the cold. They just want to curl up in the snow and go to sleep.
But we’re 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.
We will go the last pitch together. It is the steepest yet.
David, with his carpenter’s eye, guesses 42 degrees.
Lito says it’s more like 30.
It feels like walking on a wall.
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.
It is an easy walk along the ridge to this unnamed summit.
13,432 feet. The top. We are at the intersection of two ridge systems. One runs east-west and divides the Ophir valley from Telluride’s 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.
Instead, we sit and stare off and eat. Ah, food. So often a perfunctory part of the day, eating assumes new meaning on a summer ski tour. The climb has emptied us, and the food (cheese and nuts, fruit and David’s beer) serves to anchor our lightheadedness while it refuels our bodies. The taking of food becomes a ritual, satisfying in itself and an integral part of this complicated puzzle we are creating.
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. It’s 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. We’ve 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 turns—identical short-radius arcs that transport him into a kind of peaceful brain-wave bliss.
I am dreaming of alternate gravities, created by my own speed, which will allow me to hang, bobsled-like, from gully walls.
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.
The snow was perfect, a virginal sorbet. And by some magic of the day, we were all set free at once on that knoll - freed from trying to ski, free from thinking even, so that what came out was something akin to extemporaneous music, the score for which we leave behind as tracks.
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 man’s work since the diggings on the Ophir side. We’re coming down.
10,800 feet. The Couloir - a 30-foot wide slot through the cliffs—the 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 snow’s 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. It’s 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.
I encounter several windows of creek noise where the snow has pulled away from the sides of big boulders. Water roars for a moment, then stops as I pass by. The feeling is like hands over ears, opening and closing, at play with the sounds of the world.
9,600 feet. Open water. A dipper, or water ouzel, bobs on a rock midstream. Blink of white eyelids and he’s off, wings beating furiously, inches above the water.
Walking is easy down the road. We are like rag dolls, our hips loose and rolling; knees flip feet forward, plop, onto the soft red dirt.
9,400 feet. First firs — a new spice in the evergreen perfume.
9,300 feet. Line of aspen change. Above: winter’s 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 we’ve 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.
Peter Shelton lives and writes Bend, Oregon; 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. And now, this splendid ski adventure is part of Peter's new book, Tracks in the Snow. See the Ski Books section of this site.