It was just after seven o’clock on what was shaping up to be an unseasonably warm, sunny, late September morning, and I sat perched on a rock outcrop at the top of St. Mary’s Glacier, about a thousand feet above the little hamlet of Alice, Colorado. I rifled fruitlessly through my pack, hoping to find something more appetizing than an ancient, misshapen Clif bar.
Bix, long since resigned to going along with any number of harebrained schemes, fiddled with a half-empty Nalgene bottle, perhaps in an attempt to avoid making eye contact with the slope below us.
“And you’re sure this is a good idea?” he asked hesitantly, though he already knew the answer.
“It’ll be fun!” I told him, not quite believing myself.
My friend Elizabeth finished adjusting her ski boots and we surveyed the terrain below us. St. Mary’s Glacier is really more of a permanent snowfield, though “snow” is a generous descriptor for what lay ahead: a pitted, rocky ribbon of ice, topped with a cookies-n-cream sprinkling of glacial silt, blown up from the moraine below by St. Mary’s notoriously gale-force winds.
We cheerfully agreed that these appeared to be the absolute worst conditions we’d ever attempted to ski.
If this sounds nuts, that’s because it is. It’s important to be self-aware when you’ve committed yourself to an endeavor like skiing every month for a calendar year.
It was pretty easy to get started on an undertaking like this: we ski the first and last few months of the year, anyway, and in dreamy spring conditions, most snowbunnies are reluctant to declare a last ski of the season and relegate our expensive toys to their home in the garage until next December.
Bix and I had been living in Anchorage, where—even in a less-than-ideal winter, in terms of snowfall—we’d racked up more than our fair share of flawless backcountry ski days in the nearby haven of Turnagain Pass, just forty-five minutes from our hovel in Midtown.
In April, as we drove south toward Colorado for our summer jobs, we lamented leaving our favorite runs behind just as the corn harvest began.
“What if we just don’t stop skiing?” I asked.
In Seattle, we picked up a guidebook for backcountry skiing in Snoqualmie Pass, hoping to make some late-season turns as we journeyed south. Unfortunately, the Cascades had fared no better than Southcentral Alaska, and there wasn’t much (any) snow to be had on the tours we’d eagerly dog-eared in our new guidebook.
My disappointment didn’t last long. “You know where they always have snow?” Bix asked me, the gleam in his eye accentuated by a perfect goggle tan. He was getting into the spirit. We headed for Mount Rainier—you can always find something to ski on the most glaciated peak in the Lower 48.
We arrived in Colorado in the middle of May, with just a few days to spare before the clock ran out on our shoulder season and our summer employment was to begin. Elizabeth (who, as I write, has skied 30 consecutive months) invited us to ski the 14,265-foot Quandary Peak, and we enthusiastically put our May Ski on the calendar.
With nearly half the year down, I felt obligated to give this ski-every-month thing a solid effort. It was with this in mind that we embarked on the first of several mid-summer St. Mary’s ski sessions.
In early June, we could skin nearly back to James Peak, a few miles across a vast expanse of tundra above St. Mary’s. We ripped skins and skied perfect corn all the way back to the lake, then headed back up for another lap.
The skiable snow had shrunk by the time we returned in mid-July, but not enough to dampen our spirits. It was so warm that Bix and Elizabeth peeled off their boots and jumped into the glacial lake after we skied.
It’s one thing to ski when there’s snow on the ground, but by August, things were looking pretty rough for the ski-every-month crowd. Ready for a change of scenery, Bix and I left our house at three o’clock on a crisp nearly-autumn morning for Rocky Mountain National Park, hoping to ski a line we’d heard about in Sundance Bowl.
We parked on the side of Trail Ridge Road and scrambled across a talus field to get a look at the terrain before we bothered to assemble all our gear. It took us about twenty minutes of boulder hopping to realize the snow—usually in all summer—was nonexistent except in a steep, narrow couloir directly across from the sinisterly-named Lava Cliffs.
As we regrouped at the car, weighing the pros and cons of our ill-conceived plan, a ranger sidled up to our trusty Forester.
“You look like skiers,” she said. “Are you skiers?”
We nodded sheepishly and she launched into an account of the complex rescue mission she’d participated in the previous day, wherein a group of search-and-rescue personnel had hauled an injured skier from the would-be snow we planned to ski.
St. Mary’s it was.
There’s a small contingent of incorrigible snow lovers (confirmed lunatics?) who frequent the trails above Alice even in their relatively miserable late summer conditions. We look a little odd, our A-frame antennae lashed to our packs, ski boots clacking over rocks on the bone-dry trail up to the erstwhile snow, but usually the turns—as they were in August—are halfway decent.
Not so in September. What had passed for snow five weeks before had been transformed into a treacherous, icy luge, and on the hike in we joked that our outing might be more like “Side-slip September.” This, as it turned out, was an apt assessment of conditions.
We clicked into our skis and started the survival ski back to the lake. It was predictably awful. I cackled as Bix came skidding to a halt on an unseen patch of dirt, landing on his palms and cursing himself for not having adjusted his bindings to be more forgiving for this outing. Moments later, I caught an edge and had a spectacular yard sale, then gathered my strewn equipment to the raucous, well-deserved laughter of my friends.
Fall in Colorado is really, really nice. It’s finally cooled off enough to head out for a long mountain bike ride on some of the Front Range’s myriad singletrack. The afternoon thunderstorms of summer have abated and the rock is dry enough to climb. So why ski?
We set goals because they motivate us to get out. Thanks to my inexplicable commitment to this arbitrary objective, I hauled my ass out of bed in the pre-dawn hours at least one additional day each month to spend a day outside. Those post-trip beers taste that much better when your quads are screaming and your skis are a little scratched up.
Like most accomplishments, this one feels more manageable with the passage of time. Now that those crux months are over and pleasant spring conditions lay ahead, I almost feel ready to commit to skiing every month in 2016.
I guess we’ll see in September.