You’d never know it sitting in ski day traffic on Interstate 70, but there are still places in Colorado to revive in quiet solitude.
In these remote areas, the only tracks are the ones behind you and the only sounds are the gentle “poofs” of snow on snow as loaded branches drop their bounty to the blanketed ground below.
The vast expanse of protected land west of Cameron Pass is just such a place. Sixty-five miles up Colorado 14 from Fort Collins is a massive area of rugged wilderness, including peaks between the Never Summer Mountains on the northern border of Rocky Mountain National Park and the Medicine Bow Mountains to the north of Cameron Pass.
In addition to the 71,000-acre State Forest State Park, there are several U.S. Forest Service National Wilderness areas, including Rawah with 78,000 acres and Comanche with 67,000 acres of protected land. The relatively small Neota, with about 10,000 acres, is still nearly twice the size of Vail, Colorado’s largest ski resort at 5,300 skiable acres. Of course, not all the area near Cameron Pass is skiable, but there are more than 100 miles of trails reaching into these untamed areas.
These trails — few of which are maintained in the winter — can gain up to 3,000 feet in elevation. An increasing number of skiers and snowboarders escaping lift lines and crowds at alpine resorts are earning their turns down these isolated slopes. Skiers put skins on their boards to slide uphill and snowboarders strap their boards on their backs and snowshoes on their feet to hike up.
Getting on a lift takes a lot less effort, but those who head into the woods on their own power say it’s worth the exertion.
“Skiing in the backcountry versus at a resort is like a different sport altogether,” said Jennifer Matsuura, a ski patroller at Cameron Pass. “It’s an adventure of discovery with like-minded people instead of being part of a crowd.”
Trails less traveled
Those visiting the North Park area for the first time should stop in at the Moose Visitor Center. Its official address is 58999 CO-14, Walden, but the easiest way to find it is to hang a left off of 14 at the moose. If you hit Gould (a former logging camp that is now a few scattered houses and a single building that serves as the Gould Community Center), you’ve gone too far.
The moose that’s always out front is a metal sculpture, but the meadows around the Visitor Center are prime viewing for the real thing. Inside are dioramas, displays, maps and rangers to provide information on State Forest State Park itself, local history, wildlife in the area and the best trails for winter recreation.
Last season, I tore myself away from my beloved alpine slopes (I’ll admit that I’m what backcountry folks call “lift-dependent”) for two days up Cameron Pass — and I’m glad I did.
Early in the New Year, my 11-year-old daughter and I headed up Colorado 14 with snowshoes in the trunk because there wasn’t a pair of Nordic skis to be rented in Fort Collins during the holiday season.
I’m not sure where folks were using those skis because we only saw a handful of cars at the trailheads for Zimmerman Lake, Lake Agnes and Montgomery Pass. During our hike up Blue Lake Trail, we only came across one couple.
My next trip up Cameron Pass was about a month later and was an actual ski — involving elevation gain and loss. In that case, as every person venturing into the backcountry in the winter should, I was prepared.
I was with a group of backcountry enthusiasts taking an avalanche awareness class. We were all wearing avalanche beacons that can send out and receive a signal to search for someone caught in a slide. Folded up in our packs were 8-foot probes for pinpointing a person’s location under the compacted layer of snow and debris that an avalanche brings down a mountain. Finally, we carried shovels to dig the person out once located. It’s equipment that had been explained in classroom sessions and practiced with before our expedition began.
“No one should head out into the backcountry without first taking an avalanche awareness class,” said Chris Denne, a volunteer with the area’s Diamond Peak Ski Patrol, a backcountry education, emergency care and rescue organization formed during the 1990-1991 season. “You can’t expect to watch a half-dozen YouTube videos and know how to avoid getting caught in an avalanche.”
All backcountry enthusiasts themselves — the 30-some members of the patrol — know how quickly things can go wrong in the backcountry and how great the consequences can be.
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That’s why their classes emphasize avoiding trouble in the first place. Before heading out, skiers should check avalanche conditions in the area they will be visiting and make a plan for the ski day that avoids riskier places.
“It’s important to stick with the plan you had when you set out,” Denne said. “Even a slight variation could make a big difference in the risks you are taking.”
Terrain decisions in the backcountry can truly be life or death.
Our state has recorded the most avalanche deaths in the nation — by a long shot. Since officials began tracking fatalities in the 1950-51 season up to the 2016-17 season, 276 people died in avalanches in Colorado. Alaska had the second-most deaths at 152.
A large part of that tally is the sheer number of people seeking the trail less traveled. Colorado has one of the most active populations in the nation and we don’t take winters off. But our climate is another major player in the avalanche story.
Close inspection of the snowpack reveals dense layers of windblown snow that has melted and refroze to form a slick surface and the coarse, sand-like “depth hoar,” which acts as ball bearings to accelerate the slide of the slabs of snow.
Some skiers greatly reduce the risk of avalanches by sticking to slopes no steeper than 30 degrees.
In the backcountry where trails often aren’t easy to find under several feet of snow, navigation is also an important skill.
The Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol (DPSP) is often called out to find lost skiers, in their patrol area and beyond.
“It’s so easy to become disoriented and end up far from where you should be,” said Denne, who has gone out on several searches for resort skiers who went out of bounds and couldn’t find their way back. “People don’t realize you can follow a ridge uphill and a ditch downhill, but not vice versa.”
Although the members of the patrol are drawn to the quiet of the backcountry like everyone else, they know that no one should head into the woods alone.
“Obviously, you need to have someone with you to rescue you in an emergency, but there’s more to it than that,” said DPSP member Tom Smith. “Having someone to help you assess the situation is just one of the many other reasons it’s so important to be with others.”
Smith’s partner and fellow DPSP member Matsuura agrees.
“We all know the dangers of the backcountry and that’s a part of why we belong to this patrol,” she said. “There’s a great camaraderie that makes it fun to be together, but we also know someone always has our back.”
Those new to backcountry skiing might consider starting out on a mellow route such as the favorites listed below.
- Boreas Pass Road was originally a railroad route into Breckenridge from South Park. The 6-mile trail has a modest grade well-suited for beginners.
- Cottonwood Pass near Buena Vista closes to cars after the first snow, converting into a high-alpine winter recreation trail.
- St. Vrain Mountain in the Indian Peaks Wilderness offers an easy skin up to the summit and a descent across three summits at an angle of 25 to 30 degrees.
- Rocky Mountain National Park’s Flattop Mountain trail follows a skin track between Hallett’s Peak and Notchtop before a 30-degree descent down the East Face.
- Monarch Lake, located in Arapahoe National Forest, offers a 4-mile loop for snowshoeing and skiing with easy access to the alpine lake.