Stuck in the Rockies: Skiing the Colorado 13ers
By the time May rolls around, many locals have hung up their skis and left town. Some head to the beach, others visit family or go on a trip to the desert. I don’t blame them. Winter is long and it can be nice to take off your ski boots.
But if you love cross-country skiing, now is the perfect time to explore our local Colorado mountains.
The late spring snowpack is more stable and the weather is generally warmer and more pleasant. More importantly, access to trailheads and remote valleys improves as closed roads melt or are cleared of snow.
However, it can sometimes be difficult to come up with new ideas. If you’ve been exploring your garden for a while, you might not feel too inspired to repeat the goals you’ve already achieved. In that case, look beyond the mountains in your immediate backyard and consider exploring other peaks around the state.
It is common knowledge that our state has more than fifty 14,000 foot peaks. Fifty-three, to be exact, according to the Colorado Mountain Club. They can make great skiing goals, and consulting a list or 14er guide can be a great source of ideas.
If this list seems limited—perhaps your local peaks are too complex or there aren’t many nearby—consider expanding this list to include all of Colorado’s 13,000-foot peaks. There are nearly 600 of these mountains in the state.
Together, the 13ers and 14ers give you 634 distinct mountains in the Colorado Rockies, from entry-level to extreme. That’s more than anyone could realistically explore in a lifetime.
The peaks are distributed throughout the state, divided into subranges, defined by varying geology and geography.
Our local mountains around Aspen are known as the Elks. The Sawatch Range is east of Aspen across Independence Pass. You’ll find the Sangre de Cristos south of these mountains, which continue south into New Mexico.
The mountains of Summit County near Breckenridge and Lake Country near Leadville are part of the Tenmile/Mosquito Range. And the Front Range peaks are just west of Denver, Colorado Springs, and Boulder, as their name suggests.
The level of difficulty of the ski varies according to the sub-ranges. Generally speaking, the Elks and parts of the San Juans are some of the toughest and most technical mountains in the state. The Front Range, Tenmile/Mosquito, and Sawatch offer simpler, lower-angle options.
Depending on winter storm flow and spring progression, conditions may vary between sub-ranges. Some years the San Juans are a great destination in May. Other years they can be hot and dry or receive more dust due to their proximity to the Four Corners region.
Sometimes spring brings big “uphill” storms to the Front Range and Sangres, and when that happens the skiing can be great in these mountains. However, in the absence of these storms, they tend to be windblown and drier than other parts of the state.
If it’s late in the season, you might want to focus on Summit County and northern Sawatch. The higher elevation and colder temperatures often mean better snow cover that lasts longer than in other areas.
Snow conditions shouldn’t be the only factor in deciding which Colorado mountains to visit. It might be a good idea to plan a trip to an area you haven’t been to in a while. The nearby small towns that serve as launch points are always fun to visit.
Ouray, Silverton, and Lake City are always great places to incorporate into a trip to San Juan. Crestone or Westcliffe are small colorful communities near the Sangres. Leadville, Buena Vista or Salida are typical launch points for the Sawatch range.
Every time you pass by, you might find a new taco spot, cafe, or hot springs. Even if you don’t plan to spend a lot of time there – you could just stop on the way back – these small towns are part of the journey.
Recently we had a free weekend which coincided with favorable weather. A friend in Salida reported good skiing nearby in the southern Sawatch range. It had been a long time since my wife and I had skied these mountains. It was time to plan a trip.
We took a look at the long list of peaks and noted a few nearby that we thought might offer some good spring skiing. Several summers ago we hiked three mountains in the area: Cyclone, Carbonate and White. We knew the approach and what it would take to reach their peaks.
And just like that, a new Colorado backyard adventure was conceived.
There were a lot of unknowns. We knew the six mile approach would melt. So we didn’t know when we would reach the snow line and be on our skis. We also didn’t have a good idea of the skiing conditions we might encounter.
But even without a full picture, the idea sounded fun, the location was appealing, and we were excited to start a season of sleeping under the stars. It was also something new for us, and that in itself was appealing. So we packed up the truck and hit the road.
By some measures, this has been more difficult than expected. We had to travel the entire six miles with skis and boots mounted on our overloaded backpacks for the night. And the effort felt just as hard on the way out. The snow wasn’t terrible either.
But the weather was as good as expected and there was no one around. So while we only found mediocre skiing, we were excited to check out three new peaks on our list. And after a long winter, it was also nice to camp.
We returned to Aspen on Sunday evening completely exhausted but happy. In the end, it was much more than an off-piste skiing trip. It was a road trip that included a night in Leadville and dinner afterwards in Buena Vista, heavy physical exertion, a fun night sleeping outside, and our first campfire of the season! Looking back, skiing the new 13ers was almost a minor detail.
And now we have a good picture of the snow conditions in the Sawatch and Sangre mountains. Unfortunately, unless the weather improves, the snow in this area will go fast and we will have to focus elsewhere. Its good. We have a long list to work with and many options.
Ted Mahon moved to Aspen to ski for a season 25 years ago and has been stuck in the Rockies ever since. Contact him at [email protected] or on Instagram @tedmahon