One Last Day

Mountain Life

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Bill called Jerry who called Jen in Durango. I called George. Jim and Kim drove down from Vail after dinner, knowing they would snag little sleep before the 5 am start from Ridgway. The heat of May had cut the high-country snowpack to ribbons. Eight months after the first skiable snows of the season, it was time, we all figured, for one last ski day.

Ophir Pass, 6:30 am. The elegant, south-facing shoulder we’d skied in May was now Sound of Music green. One half expected to hear Swiss cowbells. Or Julie Andrews. The north-facing benches of Lookout Peak, which we had foolishly imagined might be today’s ski descent, had melted out in stripes according to a horizontal geology: From top to bottom we saw snow, then rock, then snow, then more rock like a chocolate-frosting, white layer cake. Remnant ski tracks scored the cake parts only to vanish here and there, erased by the earth tones of summer. Descentus interruptus. We were, for all intents and purposes, too late.

But not alone. A rumpled camper crawled out of his aluminum shell parked tight against the snowbank. “What up? You guys gonna ski? . . . I’ve got coffee brewin’.” He’d skied a short, soggy chute in nearby Yankee Boy Basin the day before.

We stood together in the sun and dust of the pass road newly opened for the tourist jeeping season. Another pickup with Silverton plates rumbled to a stop nearby and disgorged three telemark skiers and a boarder. Hands shaded eyes peering up into fractured rock then gestured toward possible lines, stitching together snow fragments like patches on a hobo’s coat. A couple of thread-thin gullies did appear to go all the way from the ridgeline to the road on the west side of the pass, so we decided to take a chance. The skiing would be meager, if not dangerously thin. But it was good just being out on such a day. Skis strapped to packs, sleeves rolled up in the already balmy air, we set off on a Sunday morning walk.

Marmots scattered as rust-red rock clattered beneath our boots. We passed around one end of Crystal Lake, just emerging from winter sleep, ice thinning near the shore, cracking turquoise leads running, weblike, toward the center. Down and across a short saddle, we tip-toed through spongy tundra, weaving drunkenly to avoid clusters of mutant white forget-me-nots, like corsages tossed about the green.

We stepped onto the first walkable snow, a steep little bowl invisible from the road and pocked with sun cups, a mysterious melt pattern that is the bane of summer skiing. A foot deep in places and wider across, sun cups are like whitecaps at sea, washboard on a dirt road. I see them as nature’s giant egg cartons, a pervasive design that makes for easy, stair-step walking but one that will test our balance and our light moods on the way down.

Nothing was going to spoil the ambience on top, a rocky perch at 12,900 feet, splashed with orange lichen à  la Jackson Pollack. The scent of wild onion emerged from micro gardens between the rocks. It was so quiet you could hear the Silvertonians crunch carrots 200 feet away. We dozed. We sipped tea and gazed off in all directions: Wham Ridge way off in the Grenadiers to the east; the island ranges of Utah floating on desert haze to the west; the old silver-mining town of Ophir 3,000 feet below, its Victorian houses like monopoly pieces on the greening skirts of Spring Gulch.

We talked about great ski days from winters past, solved half of the world’s knottiest environmental and geopolitical conundrums, told wicked stories about mutual friends who were not there to defend themselves, and finally decided it was time to go down. Better jump on it before what little snow there was turned completely to grits.

Over the sun cups we skipped, knocking their evil tops off, in a parabolic sweep to the turquoise lake. The bowl was bigger than it had looked on the way up. We had room to experiment. A softly steered GS turn worked best to absorb the egg-carton clatter. HHearts pounding, we glanced back up at white crescents carved in snow stained pink by wind-born pollen.

Back briefly on foot, we climbed a second saddle and over to the last strips of snow, the ones we’d seen from the cars, and a final 800-vertical-foot run to the road. Each step on the shattered rock sent pebbles cascading with the sound of a hard rain.

Ski boots clomped awkwardly until they were once again on crunchy, refrozen snow. One more coat of rubbed-on silver wax, the better to snake this coarse-grained snowcone. Once more, backpacks swung into place. Edges eased into the gravity dance, with a junior high-like mixture of anticipation and dread. The skis knew what to do. They wrapped the shapes, threw pearl roostertails. Cool air off the snow rushed past bare cheeks and ears.

We slid to a stop at the road edge to the sound of applause. Someone in a commercial jeep brimming with sightseers called out, “Thanks for the show!” Another four-wheeler asked if the skiing was any good. Bill answered for us: “The company was great.”

We stood around in our shorts, leaning on the cars, soaking up the warmth. It wasn’t even noon yet.

No one wanted to leave. Jerry looked off to a snowfield still clinging to the north side of Gladstone Peak 10 miles distant and said, “What are you doing next weekend? You up for one more?”

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