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Ski What You See

Mountain Life

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Every morning the light touches Horsefly Peak first. Its snowy summit blushes pink then white, as dawn scrolls down the mountainside. Fourteen miles from my living room window, Horsefly dominates the western horizon like a softer, slightly asymmetrical Fuji. Aspens vein its steep upper drainages, separated by muscular, snowy shoulders. Sage and scrub oak beard the flanks leading to ponderosa, piñon and juniper below. It is only 10,347 feet high, a mere dune compared to the San Juan Range to the south and east, where a slew of Fourteeners out-crag even the Tetons, poking their rocky fingers at heaven. Horsefly stands alone, the highest point on a western Colorado landform known as the Uncompahgre Plateau, a massive, 100 mile-long anticline that rolls like an evergreen wave from here to Utah.

Every morning last winter I sat with coffee in hand as Horsefly emerged-sometimes ringed in cloud, other times clear as a wood block print against the sky-and wondered how I might get over there to ski it. On the map an old wagon route, the Dave Wood Road, glances by about four miles to the west. Before the railroad, horse teams hauled supplies over Mr. Wood’s toll road, south to Telluride and then, laden with ore, back north over the plateau to Montrose. But that road was snowed under until May, and by early April bare earth was already advancing up my intended ski run.

A direct line from home was impossible: All roads from this side turned back before a series of deep-cut canyons guarding the peak.

A friend told me about an approach from Leopard Creek to the south: up Buck Canyon, east on San Juan Ranch Road for two switchbacks, then on to Hull Ridge Road, which was plowed, he thought, almost to the peak itself.

The next couple of mornings dawned too warm to guarantee a solid spring crust. I sat and watched the light play across Horsefly’s east face. How big was it really, I wondered? How many turns? Did it ever avalanche? Binoculars didn’t help. With no nearby peaks to give scale, the ridgetop cornice could have been 2 feet or 20 feet tall. What caused the faint lines contouring some of the open pitches, and how big were they? I thought about a run I’d skied in France years ago that ended in farmers’ fields, dropping step by step over low terrace walls to a village smelling of cows and springtime.

Horsefly, too, is private land. I wouldn’t go there in summer if cattle were grazing. But winter is different somehow, when the land is locked up, white and empty. The Norwegians have it right, I think. In winter there, anybody may ski anywhere-over fences, past mustard-colored barns, across dormant gardens-as long as property is respected. The West is not Norway, but I had to go. The peak was calling me. Would it be cold enough tonight?

Finally, there was a good hard freeze and I was on the road before sunup. In the back of the pickup I had skis and skins, my pack with map, water and lunch, snow shovel and avalanche beacon. These last two were pointless on a day when I’d be skiing alone, but I brought them anyway out of habit.

My friend’s directions proved true. The plowing ended at an expensively made sign for High Point Ranch. In what seems to be an irresistible trend, trophy homes are replacing cow-calf operations on these once-wild hills with million-dollar views. There was nothing here yet, however. Just a sign, and snow. So I shouldered my pack and started marching for the ridge, hard crystals crunching underfoot.

At any moment I expected to pop up to the rim and see the Uncompahgre Valley spread before me. But the ridge loomed bigger than it looked, and when at last I reached the crest, I saw not the big eastern view but more ridges, a complex series of folds working higher and higher toward Horsefly proper. The peak was still a good mile or two away.

Down and then up again I tramped, the climbing sun warming my face. I put my skis on for a quick schuss to one saddle, then packed them again for the next climb. Coyotte tracks crisscrossed the meadows. In one treeless hollow a cracked and frozen tarn, like a blue cat’s-eye, reflected the sky.

A last scramble up snow and rock and I was on the summit. There, finally, was the valley, a deep bowl of shade, the backlit roof of the San Juans behind, my house down about there, too small to see, but yes, just there in that side valley already greening with the first crop of hay.

I sat for a long time, not worried about the hour-the snow was still firm. I peeled an orange, compared its color to the lichen on my rock seat. I swiveled west to take in what we couldn’t see from home, all that lay hidden behind the plateau’s great hump: Iron Springs, Sanborn Park, the island range above Moab called the La Sal Mountains. But, curiously, more magnetic than the new were the familiar features to the east-Wildcat Creek, Busted Boiler Draw, Cimarron Ridge and home-from a new perspective, looking back.

The cornice proved to be a sun-rounded step about head high. The snow below skied, as the French say, like velour. Twenty easy turns left half-inch deep crescents, haiku brush strokes, white on white. Then I was dodging the first twisted aspens and hopping the remnant road cut I’d seen through the binocs. Slowing just a little, I skied over a barbed wire fence, gray aspen posts drifted over here and there leading to a smooth, round gully, like a crystalline skate park, sun up top and cool shadow down in the tube.

In thick willow and alder, I stopped. Nearby a bird I’d never heard before sang noisy jazz. And in the distance, down in the direction of a stock pond glinting through the branches, I listened to the creak of old metal, a windmill perhaps from back in the time when these meadows fed the gold-rush towns in their crazy search for wealth.

I still had the return trip-skin track back to the top and more gliding down to the truck-but I could already see myself the next morning, coffee steaming, leaning into the window, gazing up to this spot and remembering.

Peter Shelton is an award-winning writer based in Montrose, Colo. Contact him at, or check out his previous columns at