This winter has seen feast or famine snow conditions so far, with strong December snowfall and frigid conditions yielding to sunny, dry and warm January skies.
Thus far, skiers and snowboarders have had the options of heading up to their favorite mountains and enjoying decent early season conditions, waiting for February and March storms to possibly dump prodigious amounts of powder, or forgoing fate and lift lines and seeking out Ullr’s blessings in the deep snow of the backcountry.
We settled on the latter and drove toward Rifle on a quest to ski North Mamm Peak.
My friends Bryan and Dan are very familiar with the area and have been urging my wife and me to join them on an expedition for a few years.
The sun was shining brightly as we turned onto Forest Service Road 824 and drove up the twisting and dirty but well-plowed road toward Tepee Park.
Within this wilderness lies Forest Service land that runs adjacent to private property, but ultimately offers public access to the top of North Mamm Peak.
Several miles up we pulled off, geared up at the roadside and began our ascent.
The trees were cloaked in shadow, and the air felt much cooler in the dense aspen grove. Skin tracks cut a path through the thigh-deep snow as we snaked our way toward the sunshine above.
Maybe 50 yards in I looked down and spotted the distinctive track of a mountain lion, likely curious what these strange humans were doing skiing uphill in its quiet domain.
Pushing farther we broke free of the oppressive cold and steepness of the initial climb. The aspen grove opened up to a more gradual grade, and the bluebird sky above sighed warm breaths upon our weary, chilled shoulders.
The difference in light and heat meant clothes would have to be shed. Sweat poured from my brow, as I took this break to soak in the scenery.
The fingerprints of the local denizens were everywhere. Tracks of deer, elk, squirrel, coyote and birds criss-crossed the landscape between the trees in connect-the-dots fashion. And though no critters were in view, we knew myriad eyes were upon us as we slogged along through the loosening snowpack.
As the increase in light brought a contrast to the once shaded bark of the aspen trees, bruin graffiti appeared almost as if it had been conjured into existence by some arcane magic.
The bears’ claw marks etched the delicate aspen bark as they climbed upward in search of a better view.
And as we climbed through the grove I felt a kindredness with my slumbering brothers and sisters of the wild, climbers by nature, but on this hillside by choice.
The trees soon thinned like my aging hairline and a vast expanse of snow climbed toward the sun.
We were almost to the top, and many of western Colorado’s peaks began to unveil themselves.
Glorious Sopris was the first to emerge from the skyline. Soon joining in were Capitol, Snowmass, Treasure and Chair, with the Gore Range peering over their broad shoulders further to the east.
Off to the left, bobcat tracks loped across the shiny snowpack in pursuit of the day’s fare.
All of my sightseeing had left me behind the group, and I found myself being passed by another local backcountry enthusiast, Bernie, who had a friendly chat with me about the far-off peaks and nearby wildlife tracks before disappearing into the deep blue abyss above.
I quickened my pace and finally reached the top, joining Bryan, Dan and Jolene.
They were readying their gear for a quick lap down the upper third of the slope and enjoying a few snacks.
At this point, I felt my lower back starting to lock up on me, and knew I could be in trouble if I didn’t stretch.
I shuddered at the thought of these guys having to fetch a gaper burrito to tow me back down the mountain, so I passed on the first run and watched as the other three vanished from my view in a flurry of turns and exploding powder.
We had picked a perfect day for our trip, as wind was nonexistent at the top. I was surrounded by deafening silence and breathtaking views. Various birds fluttered by investigating this odd visitor to their lofty home.
I closed my eyes and absorbed the peace that only the high country can offer.
A few minutes later another skier, Steve, stopped by and introduced himself. We chatted about the fantastic conditions, and I found out that he was also from the Chicagoland area.
Strange that of the six people enjoying this remote, western Colorado backcountry gem four were from Chicago ... Dan’s from Michigan, but we didn’t hold that against him too much.
After a few minutes, Steve also took the plunge into the velvety powder below.
I knew the others would be coming back soon, so I got my gear ready for the descent.
Waves of pain shot through my lower back as I stood up.
Skinning has never been good on my sciatica, and this trip was proving to be no exception.
I tried to stretch, but my back was frozen in a Quasimodo-esque curve.
I had little strength left in my left leg, but felt I could ride it out if I made long, sweeping turns and kept my speed at a minimum. The others returned, rested for a few minutes, and were ready for the long ride back to the vehicle.
I took off first and awkwardly found my balance.
I made wide, easy-paced turns and felt a little better. Maybe this would be OK after all, I thought.
Cruising through the deep snow I realized why we made the trip. Each turn whispered gracefully to my ears as confetti-like powder celebrated in my wake. I was weightless and felt more alive than I had in ages.
I entered the wall of aspens slowly and in control, but found myself getting stuck in the deep snow. Bryan and Dan sped past, being more experienced in the trees than I, and easily glided through the obstacles ahead. I waved Jolene on and continued my sloth’s pace through the quickly thickening forest.
The turns were tough, and the freedom I had felt only minutes before was gone, caged by the searing pain of sciatica.
I finally called it quits, took off my skis and post-holed my way down toward the respite below. At first I was angry, then embarrassed, then downright pissed off.
The pain was excruciating, but there is no shame in opting out when a situation is out of your league.
It’s better to be the last one down than to not make it down at all.
Exhausted, I stumbled out of the dark woods about 30 minutes later, and Bryan ran up to grab my skis from me.
“How was it man?” he asked.
I was furious at that point, but something in his excitement quickly calmed me down.
He was genuinely happy that we had accomplished our goal for the day.
We had climbed from approximately 9,700 feet to the 11,128-foot apex over less than two miles distance and safely skied our way down.
It was quite an achievement for a grumpy desk jockey like myself.
I began to mirror Bryan’s smile as I climbed into the waiting vehicle, in serious pain and loving every minute of it.
— Collin Szewczyk is outdoors editor at the Post Independent. He urges anyone who would attempt North Mamm Peak to be careful, enjoy themselves and know where the public land is and not cross into private property. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.