Ski Touring Around the Ridgway Hut
Elevation hut: 10250 ft / 3124 m
It was not very difficult to convince my friend Hans for a 3-day backcountry trip with an overnight stay at the Ridgway Hut. It was the first time for him going on AT gear into the untracked BC and first-timer for an overnighter in a primitive mountain hut in the winter season. Sunday evening we got our backpacks stuffed with a sleeping bag, some other personal items and lots of food. We estimated a 5 to 6-hour approach to the hut and it might be a good idea avoiding additional weight by not bringing any red wine or beer – big mistake.
Monday we left Hans’s house in Grand Junction and drove south towards Montrose and Ridgway. Before we turned on county road #5 in Ridgway, we stopped by the little coffee shop and bookstore downtown. Zipping hot espresso while studying the topographic map, we left civilization about noon. Due to the mild winter weather of the past couple days the dirt road and the parking lot thaw up to a huge mud puddle. We got the gear out of the car, strapped the skis to our boots, heavy pack on the back and off we went.
I had no experience either how staying at a BC hut in the Rocky Mountains looks like and how strenuous the approaches are. I spent lots of time on the European Alpine Club Huts and was a little bit spoiled regards food and beverages available on most of them.
The Hut Approach
Long and flat – maybe halfway on our way in I became huge blisters on both of my feet. Usually, I do not have any problems with my broken-in and touring approved telemark boots, but on a flat pitch slope, the heel rubs different against the boot liner. I remembered while getting the blisters, that I had exactly the same problem many years ago on a similarly long and flat skinning trail. If I would have remembered that one and taped the problem zones with some tape, there would be no pain at all (damn Alzheimer’s). Hans did surprisingly well with his regular ski boots, no blisters, no complaints and that is so important for the first backcountry trip.
The first half of the hike follows a forest road broken in and groomed by snowmobiles. I guess it serves as a cross country slope maintained by the community of Ridgway as well. The route to the Ridgway Hut turns sharp to the right after about 3 miles and meanders through some Aspen forest with impressive sized trees. After another mile the track descents for a steep and short descent into the Beaver Creek. Be very careful and cautious skiing down the steep slope. Some fallen trees and sharp turns have to be mastered with skins, free-heel, and a heavy backpack. From the creek crossing the path follows an old logging trail for another a half-mile of climbing until it reaches the hut. Finally, the relieve from the heavy load torture is reached.
Our shelter is a simple and rustique 20 ft x 20 ft cabin. The centerpiece is a very efficient wood-burning stove with a water reservoir and an attached oven with a thermometer for roasting or baking some fine food. Eight bunk beds with vinyl-covered pads are offering a comfortable resting place for the night. The cabin is equipped with basic kitchen utensils like pots, pans, plates, silverware, and cups. Propane lamps and a small propane cooking stove are very convenient and the only comfort available.
A table could be a very good addition for extra comfort and we were guessing why this kind of furniture was not available. Toilet paper and fire starters are not available, so please bring some for your visit. Firewood and extra propane cylinders are stored outside of the hut. Running water is not available, melting snow in big pans and pots is a continuous task but easy to do. The unsheltered outhouse 60 ft away from the hut has it’s own story.
New to ski touring in a remote Rocky Mountain location we followed an existing skin track. The trail was forking at a glazed area and we got a glimpse of where it might lead to. Through the tall fir trees, we spotted an old avalanche path coming down from a huge bowl of an unnamed peak just west of Mount Ridgway. It’s labeled in the map as point 12478′. The existing skin track was winding terribly up and down to the heavily wooded area to the right side of the glades.
Hans and I, we did some swearing about the lousy choice of direction. The previous skiers just skinned up maybe half the lower part of the chute before they skied back in the open area. From here I started breaking a new trail in the fresh and fluffy powder from last night. The trail was steeper and more in the falline but consistent in gaining elevation and not energy-wasting as the existing one we followed up to here. After a one-hour breaking trail, we reached the apron which created the natural break between bowl above and glades below.
We decided to continue to the only rock boulder right in the center of the apron providing a natural platform for a safe and convenient lunch spot. Getting something to drink, beef jerky as a snack, we enjoyed the views to the north and the beautiful sunshine. Later last night we got some company at the hut from two splitboarders. They left the hut maybe half an hour later behind us following our tracks. Hans and I waited until they joined us at today’s lunch spot.
When John and Tony arrived it was time for Hans and me to break the untouched powder with our skis. Excellent conditions down the narrow apron and further down in the wide-open glades. It was a shorter skiing trip but just enough after the long and exhausting hut approach from the day before.
From the glades we had good views back further up the chute and the bowl. I couldn’t understand why the existing skin track is not leading uphill in the gladed area which makes it much more efficient and shorter to gain elevation. I already had plans for a nice line to approach the ridge of point 12478′ for the next day. John and Tony followed us immediately on their snowboards and we had some fun skiing together until we reached our base camp in the afternoon.
Plenty of tasks for all of us after arrival. Snow melting for drinking water, wood chopping for heat and cooking, preparing dinner. Tony had a special and important task. He broke his high-tech-carbon-fiber-extendable skiing pole. He did well with a custom carved and fitted piece of a fir dowel.
He inserted the dowel at the breaking point into the tube to stiffen the broken area and duck tape did a good job to keep the two parts together. After a delicious and plentiful dinner, John and Tony had steaks, Hans and I had pasta with olive oil and lot’s of garlic and various herbs, our friends handed out some cups of red wine. John and Tony carried up some in plastic bags bottled red wine and helped us out in the part we were lacking badly. The evening passed quickly by telling various stories and we went to bed quite early.
The next day the weather was a mix of snow clouds and some occasional sunny breaks in the clouds. Our goal according to John was to approach the ridgeline we looked at yesterday but from further west. He had some aerial-photographs with some scribbled-in lines for approach and descents. We left the hut at about 9:30 this morning and followed another existing skin track.
It was a much better one than the one from yesterday but it made a huge detour in a kind of a loop to reach the ridge. Maybe the initial creator had 100% avalanche safety in mind and never left the woods. From the ridge when the weather permits you have spectacular views over to Mount Sneffels (14150 ft) but that day a snowstorm slowly moved into our area. It started snowing while we climbed higher on the sharp ridge. The trees gave us a short break. That must be the first chute marked on his map. I continued to break trail. The snow at the ridge was windblown and in the upper part frozen corn. Just a thin layer of ice and blown-in powder gave us some challenges to continue uphill.
The snowboarders decided to glide down from here into the ice chute. Hans didn’t like the idea to scramble with skis and skins over exposed rocks and scree. He joined the boarders for a descent back to the hut from here as well.
At this point, my old mountaineering soul was strong enough to make me go further. I felt confident enough to continue safely just by myself. After the exposed and treeless ridgeline, I disappeared in the woods with deep fresh powder again. The voices and moving shadows of my friends are vanishing quickly and the only thing I could hear from now on was coming from a light breeze carrying snow clouds in and the falling snow.
The trail-breaking without the support of a partner in one-foot deep powder was exhausting but I got paid off by the beauty of a knife-sharp cornice created by the winds. This must be the most western border of the wide-open bowl above the lunch spot from yesterday. It looked different from above and the limited visibility due to the cloudy weather made it challenging enough to reconstruct the picture from the day before. A very short break in the clouds, giving a good view of the peaks for just a glimpse, helped me just enough to be back on orientation.
I’m right there where I wanted to be. Now it was the right time and place to dig a snow pit to check on snow stability and avalanche danger. Surprisingly stable snow conditions on that side of the bowl. From here on I wished I had a partner to share the tough trail breaking work. After a short while, I was too tired to continue alone to reach the unnamed peak above me. I might be able to make my way up there but it would take too long and I didn’t know what the weather had in mind for the afternoon.
The risk of getting trapped in a white-out and not being able to navigate while skiing was not worth the risk. I skied from halfway between peak and treeline and left the ridge behind me. Always perfectly in falline, excellent powder and a steep pitch – what else do you need? The visibility was not the best but still on the good side.
I had a blast skiing in the middle of the storm and the slope was so long I needed a break halfway down to relax my quads. From where I stopped the view into the narrow gully opened up and I could see the narrow and steep apron before the chute reaches the wider glades. Also, the lunch spot from yesterday was visible but the old skiing lines got almost wiped out from today’s fresh fallen snow.
Continuing down the now steeper and narrower chute I passed the resting place from yesterday until I reached the more gently sloped gladed old avalanche path. I stopped, eager to catch up with breathing and looking back the entire line I just skied. Wow — It was worth all the hard work without support.
Exhausted but lucky, I was trying to take some pictures but the clouds were limiting the view and the quality of the photos. Maybe not on film or on a digital image, but this view back will be remembered forever in my mind. From here on it was an easy slalom race through the young and little fir trees functioning as gates.
Twenty minutes later I reached the cabin just a few minutes past the arrival of my friend Hans. He had an exciting ski descent as well and he was full of happiness and joy. He told me the two snowboard friends had lunch at the bottom of the other chute and are trying to get a second run in.
While having lunch Hans and I was thinking about an early leave. I had the painful blisters and it was just 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Tomorrow we had no ski touring in mind, just the return to the trailhead and civilization. We made a quick decision and agreed on departure right after our lunchtime.
The way down was almost exhausting as the way in. The backpack was heavy and the slope not steep enough to get a fast ride down the hill. It took us about 3 hours back to the trailhead. The snowstorm brought about 4 inches of new snow that afternoon. Back at the car we just threw everything unorganized in the back and headed down to the coffee shop in Ridgway.
After a round of hot espresso Hans and I said goodbye, he drove north towards Grand Junction and I went south to the little town of Ouray. I booked a room in the Box Canyon Lodge and soaked, while zipping a couple of beers, in one of the hot springs at the Hotel. — What a great day and memories.