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The Hillbilly Haute Route

Who can afford to ski the real Haute Route during a recession? What we need is a domestic version, a tour connecting, say, nine ski areas in Colorado. It’s out there for any mountain yokel willing to hoist a heavy pack, bribe snowmobilers, and break trail where trails aren’t meant to be broken. It starts in luxury and ends with nearly rotten mayonnaise—conditions permitting.
By Rob Story
posted: 12/09/2009


View Hillbilly Haute Route in a larger map

It’s not just a seafood platter, it’s a three-tiered seafood platter. Here at the Beaver Creek Chophouse, they don’t half-ass the appetizers. This one’s three silver trays loaded with sushi, lobster, scallops, tempura, and crab cake.

Hands flash out of the mahogany-paneled darkness. The hands attach to Lee Cohen, Craig DiPietro, Lance McDonald, and me. The hands seize morsels of dead fish and shove them toward mouths that don’t so much chew as inhale. 

Excuse our manners, but we’re famished. We’ve been packing, strategizing, driving, grocery shopping, dropping caches, shuttling vehicles, repacking, and wondering what we forgot all day. That’s what happens to skiers bent on establishing a Haute Route in a place without one.

Colorado.

Yeah, Colorado has some multiday tours and hut systems. But, for reasons I’ll detail later, there’s nothing that matches the sky-scratching, roof-of-the-Alps appeal of the original, roughly 50-mile-long Haute Route, which connects Chamonix to Zermatt. For a roof-of-the-Rockies tour, you need to connect high-end Beaver Creek to low-key Eldora. For all we know, the tour’s never been attempted before. With options for skiing fourteeners and significant chunks above timberline, it should be steep and involved.

Beav-to-’dora isn’t exactly a logistical piece of cake. Before we put skis to snow, we spend five hours motoring back and forth on I-70, stashing sleeping bags and cars. We arrive late. There’s no time to enjoy the luxuries of our hotel, the swank Pines Lodge. The therapeutic waters of its outdoor Jacuzzi never bubble into our trunks.

It’s a damn shame. Beaver Creek is an awful nice place to start a long, frequently out-of-bounds slog. But we do start our tour with face shots. Dozens of them. A foot of fresh blessed the Beav the day before, and it’s still dumping as we climb to 11,000 feet and drop into the resort’s Stone Creek Chutes.

Traversing out from the chutes, though, and angling toward Meadow Mountain and eventually the mining town of Minturn before climbing up the back side of Vail, we push more than we glide. Might have been easier to get through the glades last week, when a strong high-pressure system squeezed clear skies through the valley. Good visibility and firm snow, remember, can be a tourer’s best friend. Lance, who mapped the excursion, stressed to us that Beav-to-’dora is a do-it-yourself tour, far from all beaten paths, achieved with the help of baling wire and duct tape, and by any means necessary. “I call it the Hillbilly Haute Route,” he said.

Hillbillies, it should be noted, do things that aren’t strictly legal. They are frequently hassled by the Man. Some have trouble with trailers and tornadoes. They’re no strangers to bad luck.

A gray-ponytailed, lanky Lance McDonald is the town of Telluride’s Program Director and a geography/cartography/topography freak. His past has seen big descents and long endeavors such as traversing France’s Haute-Savoie or a two-day push across Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness Area.

Skiing town-to-town in the Alps, using the continent’s big lifts, got Lance thinking: What would a Colorado haute route look like? He grew up in Colorado and his great-uncle ran sheep near Beaver Creek in the 1930s. He’s skied all over the state. On a drive back to Telluride from Denver, the ideas began to stir.

Existing Colorado institutions like the San Juan Hut System or the 10th Mountain Trail System couldn’t compare to Europe’s Haute Route. The San Juan Hut System goes but 38 miles. The 10th Mountain system is long, but much is tame enough to connect on cross-country boards. It’s more Nordic. But we don’t have skinny skis or tights. We’re looking for a different experience, using lifts, hitting resort runs, all without schlepping all the stuff you’d need in huts.

In short, Colorado still lacks a backcountry megapath connecting its puckering steeps, mammoth peaks, and major ski areas. So Lance sifted through various maps and loosely connected a few dots. Like skiers on Europe’s Haute Route, we’ll ride lifts where we can, ski tour the rest, and take short taxi rides if needed.
The route goes about 120 miles to connect Beaver Creek, Vail, Copper Mountain, Breckenridge, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin, Loveland, Berthoud Pass, Winter Park, and Eldora—an embrace of altitude. As we’ve planned it, after a low point of 7,847 feet in Minturn, it never drops as much until the end, when we’ll drive down Boulder Canyon for cocktails at Boulder’s Hotel Boulderado. As routes go, it’s as haute as haute gets. It should be. Colorado is freakishly high, rippling with more 14,000-foot peaks than Switzerland.

Has the route been done before?

“Who knows? Not by us,” Lance said. “Along the way, I hope we can knock off some classic lines I’ve skied in the past. Conditions permitting…”
Conditions permitting. Two of the scariest words in ski touring.

We wake in the old-school, deluxe Lodge at Vail to this snow report: “12 inches of new, with 5 to 11 more to come.” We don’t know it yet but there will be 44 inches in four days—the very four days in which we’ll climb more vert than any other time all season.

It’s a deep-snow bonanza. We float down classic lines off Vail’s Prima Cornice. But we can’t linger. We need to cross a good chunk of Vail’s ridiculous 5,289 acres to its southeast extremity at Blue Sky Basin.

When we reach the eastern end of the resort we leave the ropes, surf knee-deep for just 50 vertical feet to a clearing, and prepare to put skins on to climb for Shrine Pass, gateway to Copper Mountain. Once the skis are off, we sink to our sternums. There’s five feet of unconsolidated snow. Suddenly, we’re on a hell slog. Suddenly, we hate powder.

Until you’ve skinned uphill through a series of three-foot-deep Clydesdale horse pies, you haven’t known resistance like this. We don’t establish a skin track so much as bulldoze a trough. We need to leapfrog to make any progress, taking turns out front like domestiques in a road-bike peloton.
“It’s champagne powder!” Craig says optimistically.

“Some places shouldn’t get four feet of snow,” Lance deadpans, knowing the nearly flat descent ahead.

It takes at least 90 minutes longer than expected to gain the pass. And once we’re there, we find ourselves with a flat descent so choked with snow we’re forced to pole our way downhill. It’s getting dark. We’re toast. When we finally get to I-70 and Vail Pass, we junk any notion of skiing down to Copper Mountain. What would a hillbilly do?

He’d try to wangle a solution that didn’t cut into his moonshine money. He’d try to hitch a ride from snowmobilers loading up their sleds for the day. And we do. To keep from flying out of the bed of a pickup barreling down I-70, I grab on to a snowmobile with fingers that have frozen into an icy claw. Pellets of graupel shotgun my face.

The Hillbilly Haute Route might be harder than we thought. It’s not just unseasonably cold for late March, but viciously cold. We’ll need to break trail on almost every ascent. And we’ll have to duck ropes that may not be legal to duck.

W renching ourselves 2,500 feet from Copper Mountain up to Breckenridge takes a good chunk of a day. And that’s only the third day of eight. (The real Haute Route gets completed in seven.) On the deck of Breck’s rickety, old-school Bergenhof day lodge, our strides make the ancient timbers groan. It’s a crowded Friday afternoon and patrons kick up their mushy rental boots and down pints of lager. We four are the only ones hoisting 30-pound packs festooned with pointy ice axes and crampons.

Here, close to the Front Range, mountaineers are few. One-piece suits and cotton turtlenecks are common. So I sense a bit of awe in the gawks of the bystanders. One dude asks incredulously, “Where are you guys going?” Another shouts, “Those are awfully big packs for Breckenridge!”

Yes and no. Breckenridge is known as a Summit County stalwart: 2,358 skiable acres and 155 trails. Look beyond the groomers, though, and behold a greater truth. Breckenridge rises to 12,998 feet above sea level and flirts with the Continental Divide. The Divide separates not just the Atlantic and Pacific drainages, but also ski touring’s wheat from its chaff because it runs in the shadow of fourteeners. The Divide’s passes are legendary: Loveland, Berthoud, Independence, Rollins, Wolf Creek. It wasn’t far from the nastiness of the Divide in the winter of 1874 that Alferd Packer cannibalized five of his fellow prospectors, becoming the first Coloradan remembered for “having a friend for dinner.”

A day later, across the valley from Breck, we make a fantastic off-piste descent into the Snake River Valley off a shoulder at Keystone—which has much better backcountry than it gets credit for. We ski a steep rollover with wind-loaded cream down to a road where we catch a short pickup ride. Lee and Craig sit on the tailgate en route to tonight’s “hut,” the Ski Tip Lodge. A creaky-floored, low-ceilinged wooden structure that debuted as a stagecoach stop in the 1880s, the Ski Tip opened as Colorado’s first ski lodge in 1947 to serve the pioneers of Arapahoe Basin. The lodge oozes old-timey ski culture. Its 10 rooms are stuffed with antiques and ancient copies of National Geographic, but nary a phone or TV. The peace and quiet of the Ski Tip lull us into a complacency that leaves us ill-prepared for what will be a nefariously nasty tomorrow.

Lance knows it. “There’s always a big day on a tour that knocks you sideways,” he says. Our objective on the accursed 29th of March, 2009: take a short bus ride to A-Basin, grab first chair, exit the North Pole gate, bootpack to the 13,050-foot summit, ski off the back, climb gobs of vert to the top of 14,267-foot Torreys Peak (the 11th-tallest mountain in Colorado), and ski down Grizzly Gulch to an I-70 exit at the hamlet of Bakerville.

But the 29th of March, 2009, has other plans.

We immediately lose 30 precious minutes due to bad info. We’re supposed to take a bus to Keystone, where we’ll transfer to another bound for A-Basin. Everything is fine until we get to the second bus stop, where we wait. After half an hour, the A-Basin bus approaches. It halts 30 yards before us at a tiny sign we didn’t see before. It never makes the final 30 yards. To our horror, it turns around and guns toward Highway 6. What the hell?

Lifts, skins, taxis—these are things we know. But it’s easier to catch a bus and get around where the language is French than in the States’ Neanderthal public-transit systems.

Unable to wait anymore, we get hillbilly-like and offer a random ski tuner $30 to take us to A-Basin. Another day, another ride in the back of a truck. Gusts attempt to relieve cars of their doors in the A-Basin parking lot. We take lifts to a wind-battered refuge atop A-Basin and try to regroup. No go. Lance is peeved because I should’ve called a cab to take us from the Ski Tip but didn’t. Lee is mad because my hydration bladder has leaked all over his $2,400 camera lens. Craig isn’t angry. He’s just nauseated, so climbing above 13,000 feet is not in the cards. Mutiny happens. Craig and Lee bail.

Lance and I posthole in miserable sugar snow, gasping for nonexistent oxygen. Our ski down the back side of A-Basin is tense, as the wind has loaded the slope with iffy, avalanche-prone deposits. Conditions are barely permitting. Quiet focus accompanies every scratchy turn.

Now howling to 65 miles per hour, the wind rips over Torreys summit. Snow contrails blast hundreds of horizontal yards off its denuded ridges. “We’re getting worked down here,” Lance yells over the wind. “Torreys is off. We’ll be lucky to get over that,” he says, pointing to the “easy” 90-minute climb to gain a saddle above Grizzly Gulch.

We’re battling to adhere skins that are doing their best to fly to Wyoming. The wind knocks us to the ground on several occasions, pinning us flat for minutes at a time. Gusts sneak behind my shades and try to rip the contacts off my eyes. Once off the ridge and out of the savage wind, the ski to Bakerville is mellow, except for the swastika graffiti on trail signs.

The day before we started the Hillbilly, we’d stashed a car. Lee and Craig pick us up at Bakerville and drive us to Loveland Ski Area. There, we grab some food we’d cached and board Lift 2. It rises to Ptarmigan Roost, a 12,000-foot-high shelter where we’ll roll out sleeping bags and spend the night. Lift 2 moves at a snail’s pace due to winds that hurl its chairs to and fro, attempting to smash exposed limbs against steel lift towers. We aren’t really safe until we shut Ptarmigan Roost’s door and light a fire.

The best thing about days like March 29, 2009? They end. If you’re lucky, they end at places like Loveland. With a base of 10,600 feet and an apex at 13,010 feet on the Continental Divide, Loveland embodies high-mountain Colorado like no other resort. Its employees have been ridiculously nice, letting us stash food in their offices and offering shuttles wherever needed. When the windchill drops to minus 6 the next day (which is technically spring!) and visibility vanishes, they remain cheerful. A fitting name, Loveland.

The car-shuttle turns off Berthoud Pass are great—and famous enough to spur territorialism. Thanks to the miracle of spray paint, a once-innocent road sign there was amended to read: “Welcome to Grand County, Now Go Home, Shitbag.”

We’re hillbillies, not shitbags, so we go ahead and start climbing above the west side of the pass, aiming for a high crest accessing 2,000-vertical-foot runs. Finally, we top out. Below lie countless chutes and evergreen alleys. Some of the softest snow imaginable cushions our descent. We ski up to tracks that lead to Highway 40 and car-shuttle back up to the top of the pass. It’d be fun to follow the tracks and harvest more powder but the itinerary won’t hear it. Instead, we slap the damn skins on again and climb, this time toward a shoulder that should provide sufficient gravity for us to coast down to Winter Park’s Mary Jane base.

The down side of the shoulder is more of a flat. There’s no trail. Instead, there are trees. Billions of them. Because it sits much farther south than British Columbia’s Coast Mountains or Italy’s Dolomites, Colorado maintains a high timberline, 12,000-plus-feet in places. Which is really a pain in a Hillbilly Haute Router’s butt. Allegedly the pine beetle is devastating the conifer forests of Colorado, but from our perspective the forests are strong as ever. The thwack-thwack-thwack sound of human vs. tree is a part of all eight days of this slog. More than the shouts of “shit” and “dammit.”

The real Haute Route, in the high alpine of the Alps, rolls mostly above timberline. And a trail has been broken. You can race across glaciers, covering big distances much faster than here, where it’s often hand-to-hand combat with trees. Sure, the European Haute Route appears threatening, thanks to crevasses and waves of Euros in tights. But it lacks the physical impediments that come with forging your own way. Here I’m left to wonder: Where’s a pine beetle when you need one? And where’s a giant tram?

In hillbilly America we don’t have cute funiculars rising from every little village, like in the Alps. If we’re lucky, a snowbound logging road may reach a desired pass. But a ski tourer can’t hope to accomplish anything if forced to skin 12 or 15 hours up a road. Unlike the Euro version, our Haute Route requires snowmobiles.

In Winter Park, on the eve of our last day, we reek of desperation. Attempts to line up a motorized lift to 11,671-foot Rollins Pass are roundly rejected. We try to convince the region’s biggest snowmobile outfitter to deliver us to Rollins but the owner says his insurance doesn’t cover skiers. We duck into a ski shop. The owner is kind and helpful. He knows slednecks who might take us. But not on Wednesday. Thursday, maybe...

We go out for pizza. The waiter says we should talk to a guy at a bar called Untamed, a half mile up the road. We get there before last call. Bartender Mark is friendly and encouraging. “I’d like to help,” he says, “but Steamboat got 20 inches today. I think I’m headed north.” Mark wonders if Jeremy, who owns a 700cc, might be interested. We call Jeremy. We get his voice-mail.

We wake up on our last day not knowing how we’ll make it over the Divide for the third and final time. Finally, Jeremy is located. He and his buddy Justin, who owns a 900cc, will take us—if we flow them 100 bucks.

Soon we’re rocketing up to the treeless moonscape of Rollins Pass. The views, hovering in a kaleidoscopic miasma of windblown snow, are surreal, with the skylines of Boulder and Denver ahead, the Gore range and memories of Vail behind.

After a couple hours, a few short uphills, some backcountry powder shots, and a thousand more broken twigs, we cross into Eldora Mountain Resort. At that moment, the sun emerges for the first time in three days. We squint as we enter the maze for the Corona chair.

Skiing down to our final base lodge, we spot two fellow patrons in Starter jackets, one representing the Colorado Buffaloes, one the Iowa Hawkeyes. It’s a far cry from the Prada jackets at Beaver Creek. We’ve clearly covered some distance.

“This is like going from ritz to roots,” Craig says, noting the three-tiered seafood platter at Beaver Creek. At the Eldora cafeteria, clerks give us turkey sandwiches for free because it’s 3 p.m. and the mayonnaise won’t last till tomorrow’s lunch.

We grab beers and head outside. We sit on a deck where generations of Front Rangers have brown-bagged. There’s mud on our boots and salt crusts on our beanies. The less said about our long underwear the better. We unwrap our expiring sandwiches and take a bite. The lettuce is soggy but not yet black. To hillbillies like us, it tastes like triumph.

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