And that was what I did. I had found a perfect spring ski tour – the kind that is worth repeating annually. The kind that should have a gaggle of trucks parked along the road on a sunny Saturday where people in all sorts of attire (bikinis included) are spending the last days of the season doing it the way it is supposed to be done – hiking up and arcing them down.
The highest mountain passes that offer a combination of both road access and good snow have a ritual significance to skiers. In this country, those spots are in California, Colorado and Montana. While the rest of the world stands on the abyss of another summer and all its promises, the devoted skier will pull out his boards (if he hasn’t continued using them through April and May) and head to the highest pass road, where there will be a small gathering of the cognoscenti for a final few days of hiking, skinning and car shuttling for turns on what the French refer to as “comme velours,” the velvet snow we commonly think of as corn.
It’s during this period of time, after ski areas traditionally close, that the bulk of the best ski mountaineering takes place. As the snow cooks down from late March through June, snow stability improves, along with access. Colorado is pocketed with great ski mountaineering ranges that all have their own prized descents, as well as a unique combination of snow quality and terrain, making each one a little different. When Colorado skier Chris Davenport skied all 54 Fourteeners in a year, he managed 17 of those summits in April, and 13 in May. I commonly find good skiing on Mt. Democrat, in the Mosquito Range, in June.
Independence Pass, above Aspen, is one of the traditional Memorial Day celebration sites, with master of ceremonies Lou Dawson (the first person to ski all of Colorado’s 54 Fourteeners from the summit) camped at the top of the road, smiling and greeting skiers as though they were a part of a long-lost tribe that has shown up for the final battle of Middle Earth. With only one real high access road, the congregation spot is a natural one, but for those of us in the San Juans, the pilgrimage can be a bit more decentralized. We not only have paved highways crossing three passes in the 11,000 ft. range, all providing access to terrific off-piste ski lines, but there are tangles of mining roads that cross those elevations, and higher – all leading to promising, accessible late-season terrain. All of these routes will take you to a part of ski season that, once experienced, will likely become part of your own annual ritual. And one of the real gems is the Ophir Pass Road.
The Ophir Road has two access points: one from Highway 550, just north of Silverton, and the other from Highway 145 (south of Mountain Village). The key to understanding when to ski the Paradise Basin on the east, or Silverton, side of the pass isn’t merely the weather – it’s also when they plow the roads. According to Joe Salette, a trail runner and Hard Rock 100 finisher who works at Ouray Mountain Sports, this boils down to studying not just the forecast, but the progress of the San Juan County Road and Bridge Department. Salette checks with the Department, or online with the Silverton Chamber of Commerce website (go to www.silvertoncolorado.com, and click on backcountry updates), for the latest road openings, because his interests lie in trail running and mountain biking and he wants to know where the roads are clear. But skiers, too, can benefit by checking the Silverton site, with slogging to good ski lines minimized by following the plowing schedule.
The road openings from the east side are determined by Louis Girodo, who supervises the San Juan County Road and Bridge Office in Silverton. Girodo isn’t considering the needs of post-season skiers when he chooses to open a road: He’s actually putting together a strategy to get the counties’ backcountry roads open in order to begin the four-wheel drive and OHV season. Girodo wants roads to open early because it encourages motorized users to visit San Juan County, and jump-start the high mountain season. Accordingly (weather permitting), the County tries to start clearing its side of Ophir Pass between mid-April and mid-May.
What benefits the off-road crowd also benefits backcountry acolytes: energy spent getting to good lines can be minimized by tucking in behind Girodo’s snow removal equipment.
According to Girodo, the plows begin on the Mineral Road because it is the flattest and easiest to clear; they then move to Ophir Pass. From there, they continue onto Cinnamon, Picayune, California and Stoney passes. All of these roads will offer crushing mountain-bike descents, come midsummer. Meanwhile, if conditions are right, or El Nino was good to the Southwest, the road access gives the San Juan skier a huge palette of choices to practice his art, right up until the last snow bank turns into a trickle of cold, clear water.
Another of the appealing aspects of the Ophir Pass/Paradise Basin area is the recently opened OPUS Hut. After searching mining claims for 16 years to find the perfect spot, builder Bob Kingsley recognized that this was one of the most beautiful alpine sites in North America for his hut-building project. He chose well; the ski descents from OPUS are long, even and easy to access. The OPUS hut has a comprehensive website that explains how to safely access the place in winter (before the spring road is open), and offers a gallery of images that will give you a good idea of what an optimal location it is. This is not your uncle’s hunting cabin, and it has changed the zeitgeist in this corner of the San Juans’ toward something more European in quality. Where else can you get a vegan entrée at 11,675 ft., two hours from the nearest State Highway? Adventure Journal’s website has an image of the ski line off Peak 13,300 (accessible from the hut) that should have you making plans to visit in your first available season.
As for access to Ophir Pass Road from the west side, the San Miguel County website (at sanmiguelcounty.org) indicates the mountain passes open in order of priority, with Ophir at the top of the list. According to Andie Herron, administrative secretary at the San Miguel Road and Bridge Department, the pass generally opens by mid-June at the latest, and occasionally earlier, depending on snow conditions. San Miguel County may take longer to open its side of the pass, but don’t be thwarted: If you’re on the Telluride side, it’s worth a drive around the hill.
Naturally, backcountry skiing off the Ophir Pass roads (and, for that matter, all high roads in the late-season) demands caution. In the heart of winter, for example, there are three major slide paths that cross County Road 8 (i.e., from Highway 550 on the east side) before you get to tree line. They are classic, big gullies that sweep up into the snow-loading zones above timberline, straight to the ridge tops. Every year these gullies see sizable avalanches; on a tour into Middle Mineral Fork, you are likely to cross the debris piles from these slides as you skin your way up an otherwise-easy road. Late-season skiing, of course, is best done in the first half of the day.
On a spring morning, when the snow is firm, and the capping layers are just going soft for carving turns, you can experience the unforgettable, existential free moments when all the variables have aligned and you feel the rush of living the essential self. Whether you are alone or not, you just know that skiers from Austria to Sonora Pass – wherever the snow remains – are having the same religious, last-of-the-year experience.
If You Go
Travel and Opus Hut details can be found at opushut.com. To see more of the hut, visit tinyurl.com/ast5hbr.
Early summer skiing elsewhere:
The best season to ski the great icefield traverses in the Canadian Rockies is April and May, and in the case of the Columbia Icefield, even early June. It can still be cold, but the days are longer, and your chance of skiing in safer conditions improves dramatically. The same goes for ski descents in the Cascades; the ski peaks of Mt. Baker, Adams, and Rainier all come into peak condition at a time when people are mowing grass from Vancouver to Denver. As for Europe, according to pioneering French extreme skier Anselme Baud’s guide to skiing in Chamonix, most of the ski descents around Mont Blanc have optimal seasons that extend at least into May, and some into June. Late-spring skiing in the San Juans isn’t always fruitful; it all depends on the snowpack. If you are a little frustrated with some of the machinations required to access good spring skiing here, look north, or a little further afield. It’s a big world – and you can always ride the mountain bike when you are older.