Mountain Passages: The Last Mountain Hike Before Ski Season

The last hike of the year is bittersweet. Bitter because one more hiking season is ending for the two of us, who have seen a number of seasons up here. Sweet because skis season is soon; we can see and feel winter coming.

It’s a cool, clear late October day. We are heading south from Moffat Tunnel to see how close we can get to Roger’s Pass. Ostensibly, we are doing survey work for backcountry patrol, but really we are two old friends going on maybe our 2,371st hike together.

My ex-hiking partner is fooling with his gear. He’s my ex-hiking partner because he nearly got us incinerated in the saddle between Belford and Oxford some years ago or turned into heaps of gore and gear at the bottom of various pieces of rock. This is all due to his Slow goingvast curiosity about what’s over the next hill and inability to do basic details (such as recognizing oncoming thunderboomers). His name is Alan Apt, but I call him Ansel. I remind him to turn up the volume on his radio.

We are testing new VHF/UHF radios and I sign on, “This is Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol, license KC 6026, signing on at 935 hours.” I feel a little silly doing this, but it’s protocol. The trailhead is at the bottom of a drainage with hills all around us. The radios only have five watts of power. We can hear each other, but no one in the entire world heard my sign on, except maybe the cyber creeps at NSA…privacy indeed.

He grunts as he swings on his pack.
“No grunting.”
“My back hurts,” he says.
“I don’t want to hear about it.”

We understand age is just a number or an excuse to stay on the couch. But as we start walking we are feeling our numbers. On some of our hikes we have run into geezers in the middle of nowhere who can go faster, stay out longer, and go higher than we can. They have spent much of their spare time in these mountains. They may die up here. That’s an okay thing. We’ve also run into 20-somethings along the trail. We love it that they are up here. It’s important that they care about this place. I envy them their energy but not some of the wars they have in front of them.

Unfailingly, early hike conversations revolve around injuries and illnesses.
“How’s the knee?” Ansel asks
“Fine, but I don’t want to talk about it.”
“My back is fine too.”
“So that’s why you grunt when you put on your pack?”
“I grunt to annoy you.”
“Okay.”

There wasn’t this edict from a Mountain God, something like, “Now you and your friends are going to talk about injuries, illnesses, doctors, and meds at every social gathering for ever more.” It just happened that somewhere along the line the conversation changed from books, politics, running, gossip, movies, sex, and music.

I tried to change the subject. “Your buddy Obama is in trouble.”
“How do you know?”
“Blue Eyes scraped Obama’s bumper sticker from the back window of her car.”
“Whoa, that’s serious,” Ansel says.
“Yeah, she’s disappointed.”
“What’s that mean?
“That means she hates that mental incompetents still buy and use assault weapons. She thinks the drone-strike-assassinations drop us into the same ring of hell as terrorists. She is simply embarrassed NSA is under no oversight and out of control. That the Obamacare webpage blew up at precisely the wrong time put her over the edge.
“Not much hope and change there.”
“Nope.”
“Still a hell of a lot better than Mitt Romney.”
“Who?”

Over the years, we have both gotten a good deal more careful in the backcountry. It could be that we have just turned chicken, but then being careful could be why we’ve gotten to spend all these years up here. The trail ices up as we move uphill. We stop to strap on trail cleats.

At three miles we are up to our butts in snow although the trail remains packed down. As we get closer to the pass the trail thins down, gets steeper and we see where folks have post-holed in warmer conditions. We walk in their tracks.
slow going
“Tell you what,” I say, “I see in front of us unlimited opportunities for post-holing. Maybe we should think about an early lunch and beat feet out of here before the snow warms up. “
“Good idea, let’s just go up to that big pine and see if we can see the lake.”
“Geesus. How many times do I have to hear that in one lifetime?”
“It’s just over the next hill.”
“I know. I know.”

We slog up another four or five hundred yards. Ansel is 5’ 10” and maybe 140 pounds. I’m six feet and 215. He is ghosting across the top of the snow. I start post-holing and, oddly enough, complaining. We decide to split up with me going downhill periodically calling him on the radio to check the range of the new units.

As long as there isn’t a mountain in the way, we can hear each other at over a mile. Given only 5 watts of output, we were convinced we could throw the radios farther than we could communicate with them in the mountains. Ski area patrollers have repeaters and relatively small areas to cover versus backcountry patrollers who are basically SOL with handheld radios. This has been a good test. I sign off the radio to no one and we stuff them in our packs.

I wait for him to catch up and then head on downhill talking about the coming season.
“This is supposed to be mostly a snowshoe route.”
“I know, but it looks totally skiable.”
“Yup, a little thin in spots and a couple of steeps that might be tricky, but eminently skiable.”
“ We can do it.”
“Sure.”
Rogers Pass scenic
We are within a mile of the trailhead and take off our trail cleats. We hike in silence for a while, stunned by how beautiful it is. When we get to the truck, Ansel grunts again when he takes off his pack. We look at each other and laugh as we shake hands at the end of the route as we sometimes do.

Last hike of the season Brother,” he says.
“30 days of skiing this year.”
“Remember when we used to say, ‘50 days of skiing this year?’”
“We used to be 35.”

Alan Stark is a recovering book publisher and freelance writer who splits his time between Boulder and Breckenridge.

2 thoughts on “Mountain Passages: The Last Mountain Hike Before Ski Season”

  1. Great article. I’ve begun watching for your byline in writings. If your name is there, it’s definitely a “good read”. Thanks, and happy coming winter.

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