It’s been a few years since we first met Shane Hutton, you may remember Shane as an Ultra Runner, Mountain Biker, Climber and Ironman… now you can add Backcountry skier. After finish up in Patagonia Shane wanted to learn something new. He visited Colorado to learn to Backcountry ski, a skill he will need for a hopeful project in Alaska later in the year. Here is his story:
Australia Day 2017
We were up at 6:30am having packed and made breakfast the night before so we would be ready for today. The goal: To complete the Command Traverse starting from Vail Pass ending in Vail approx 15 miles away.
The Commando Run is named for the 10th Mountain Division ski troops who used to train along this route. The basic route starts at Vail Pass, heads up Shrine Pass road, turns onto Lime Creek road, then heads over some mountains to Vail Ski area. You then ski down Vail. Strong map and route finding skills are required for this route. You can’t depend on there being an obvious track to follow.
For my third time ever on skis this was shaping up to be a fun day out, albeit a cold one at around -15c.
The sun was shining and it was an easy start following a snow covered road that had been groomed. We followed the road along for a while as it dipped and bumped its way into the backcountry. Stopping every so often to adjust layers. It was one of the coldest days of the year, but U had my ioMerino Altitude Top & Leggings as well as my ever trusty Aztech beanie on so I was warm and comfortable.
Eventually we got to where the trail left the road. It was at this point that we could see the trail was unbroken. My friend Liz let us all know we were now in for a much longer day as we would be breaking trail the entire way. Breaking trail meant we were now reduced to 1.5 miles and hour. The deep snow combined with route finding meant we would definitely be out till dark. Lucky we all had headlamps. We had only covered around 5 miles when I had to take my boots off to assess some blisters. I was pretty frustrated as the two times I had been out previously I had no issues with blisters. I put some sudocream on them and refused the offer to turn back. (NOTE: Shane wasn’t wearing our socks at the time!)
The pace had dropped significantly as the route finding was slowing us down a lot. We were picking our way through thick pine trees for about four hours and covered five miles. We stopped briefly for some lunch in a nice protected treed area. The break had to be short due to the absolute freezing temperatures.
We continued making our way through the trees for a couple of hours swapping the leader every so often so nobody worked harder than the rest. It was working pretty well. After a few hours we had a brief chat as to whether we should keep going or find an alternate route out of there as it looked like we would not be getting out until 8pm. We decided to stick to the original route as it looked like there would be more downhill and let’s be honest, who likes turning back? 🙂
We got onto a ridge line and followed that along before dropping off camber to stay with the contour. We removed our ski skins and slid more than skied our way through some of the trees. It was pretty slow going. Eventually we put skins back on and continued to make our way through the trees.
One of the best parts about the day was even though it was -15c to -20c it was almost a pure blue sky day. Really stunning terrain and a fun group of people who didn’t mind dragging a novice along for the ride 😀
We did have some cloud blow in at one stage restricting our view down onto Vail ski basin. But once the cloud lifted a few hours later, we could see Vail ski area down below us. We made a line through the trees and finally hit the ropes to Vail, and had a snack and a chat before skinning our way up and along a road that cut through one of the giant back bowls.
As we climbed the road the wind picked up and I received a little frost nip on my nose. Liz got some frostbite on her little toes. We decided this was a good place to sip on a little whiskey to warm the insides and take in the scenery. There were no people around as we had come in after all the lifts had closed.
The sun set as we crested the last hill. Leigh and Kellie, our other friends who’d come along for the adventure, removed their skins, said goodbye, and skied the final three or so miles to the base of Vail. Knowing I would be pretty slow on the descent as I still could not really ski this was the best option. Liz and I put on our headlamps, dodged a few snow cats (Groomers) before beginning our slow descent.
I can tell you after 8+ hours skinning through the backcountry working for every meter, I was pretty tired. At this point the temp had dropped somewhere around -20c and I was very grateful to be warm thanks to my ioMerino. My hands had become cold and two fingers felt like lumps of wood. I was working hard listening to Liz’s instructions on skiing and to my surprise I was actually linking my turns. I had to stop often as my quads would start to burn because I was using the wrong parts of my legs but hey, I was making turns and still having fun. (NOTE: Sounds like we may need to send Shane a pair of our new gloves!)
After dodging snow cats and enjoying skiing Vail without any people around, we finally had the base in sight. I was ruined, my legs hurt so bad but we had made it. Leigh came back with the car to collect us which was a huge relief as we thought we would have to hitch hike our way back to Frisco.
The Commando Run is a classic ski tour in Colorado and many people never get the opportunity to do it. I am so grateful to have been able to do this as a part of my five week tour around Colorado/ Utah. Thanks to Liz, Leigh and Kellie for letting me tag along & a BIG thanks to ioMerino for keeping me warm in some of the coldest conditions this Aussie has ever experienced.
You can follow my other adventures at http://www.theultralife.com.au/