Aspen Area - Chapter 7
Chapter 7 Aspen Area
Over the past century, Aspen evolved from mining town to ski town, to enclave of the wealthy, famous and a few backcountry skiers. Visit if you dare, but keep your hands on your wallet. To be fair, because Aspen is located fairly high in the mountains, it is a gateway to good routes in the Sawatch and Elk ranges. Just a few of these leave from town, while you reach others via spur roads in the greater Aspen area.
Chapter 7, Section 1, Aspen local routes
These are trails closer to the Aspen municipality. Obey parking regulations or else.
Roads and Trailheads
USGS Maps: Aspen, Thimble Rock, Highland Peak USFS Map: White River National Forest Text map:
Hunter Creek Trailhead
From downtown Aspen follow Main Street to Mill Street (the stoplight next to the Hotel Jerome). Turn N on Mill and drive a short distance down a hill, then across a bridge (.3 miles). Bear left after the bridge and follow the Red Mountain Road 1.2 miles to its second switchback. Just before the switchback, turn right and downhill on the Hunter Creek Road. Drive .3 miles on Hunter Creek Road, then take a hard left on an unpaved road (it doubles as a private driveway) which leads up past a water tank 300 feet to parking. The actual trailhead is farther up the mountain, but this is the only parking. The easiest way to reach the actual trailhead is to simply walk back down the driveway to the Hunter Creek Road, turn left through two stone gate posts marked "PRIVATE," then follow the paved Hunter Creek Road .3 miles around a hairpin switchback to the well-signed Hunter Creek Trailhead (8,380 feet). Your other choice for foot travel is to follow a poorly-marked foot trail that traverses up the mountain from the parking area to the aforementioned trailhead signs. If you're going for a multi-day trip or ending your trip in another drainage, get a friend or taxi to drop you off so you don't have to deal with all the above-mentioned convolutions.
Drive 35 miles on Highway 82 from Glenwood Springs or 6.5 miles from Aspen. At a sign for Woody Creek Canyon, turn right and follow Smith Way .4 miles down a steep hill and across a bridge. At the intersection just past the bridge, turn left and follow Upper River Road 1.6 miles downvalley to a hard right onto Woody Creek Road (a.k.a. Lenado Road). Drive the Woody Creek Road 8 miles to Lenado, a small group of rustic homes; then continue a short distance to the snow plow turnaround or Lenado Gulch Trailhead.
The Lenado Gulch Trailhead is often tough to find. A good method is careful use of your car odometer: The trailhead is located on the right (S) side of the Woody Creek Road, exactly 8.2 miles from Upper River Road. Not all odometers are equal, so here is a word description: Look for the first utility pole on your left as soon as you've driven through the densest group of Lenado buildings. The trail starts exactly across the road from this utility pole (8,500 feet).
Route 7.1.1 Hunter Creek
Climb rating: Easy wax or skins Ski rating: Novice, S1 Recommended seasons: All with snowcover Starting elevation: 8,380 feet Summit elevation: 8,780 feet Elevation gain: 500 feet Round trip distance: 4 miles Day trip? Yes Map: Aspen East Photo: [none supplied]
This is Aspen's backyard. It's getting a bit civilized (do you really want to ski in someone's backyard?) but you can still find good low-angled touring on either side of the valley. Start at the Hunter Creek Trailhead (see trailhead description above). Endure the initial steep pitch (which is often packed enough to walk up or down, to avoid an S1+ rating), then try doing a loop trip up one side of the valley and down the other, using a bridge across Hunter Creek about 2 miles from the trailhead. As you tour, you'll see various marked and unmarked trails. Enjoy exploring, but heed posted property. If you feel feisty, once on the north side of the valley continue E parallel to Hunter Creek. The trail gets rougher and less distinct the farther you go (S1+), with Thimble Rock eventually being the most visible landmark (about 3 ½ miles upvalley from the bridge).
Route 7.1.2 Hunter Creek to or from Lenado
Climb rating: Easy skins Ski rating:S2 Recommended seasons: All with snowcover Starting elevation: 8,380 feet Summit elevation: 9,820 feet Elevation gain: 1,440 feet Trip distance: 6 miles Day trip? Yes Map: Aspen East Photo: [none supplied]
Bored with Hunter Creek or tired of skiing around castle-like mansions? Take this spur route to the rustic enclave of Lenado. Arrange a pickup in Lenado, or return from Lenado to Hunter Creek. The challenge of this tour is that most of the trail is in dense forest with many false trails, and few landmarks help with map reading (a GPS could be useful). If you are new to this area, keep your map and compass handy, and use them often.
Ski 1 mile into Hunter Creek via route 7.1.1, and cross to the north side of the valley via the 10th Mountain footbridge (used by the 10th Mountain Trail to reach Margy's Hut, see guidebook Colorado 10th Mountain Huts). Do not confuse this footbridge with the major bridge you'll cross near the trailhead, known as the Benedict Bridge.
From the 10th Mountain footbridge, follow the well-used trail N for a few hundred feet, then make a climbing traverse downvalley to within sight of a sturdy fence and private manse known by backcountry skiers as the "Parthenon." Climb N up the side of the valley, and you'll intersect a clearly visible snowcovered (or plowed) road at about 8,720 feet. Follow the road as it takes a 1 ¼-mile climbing traverse to Lower Van Horn Park at Lenado Gulch (9,400 feet). Follow a snowcovered road up Lenado Gulch 1 mile to a flat confusing area known as "4-Corners." Continue N for ¼ mile, then make a sharp turn E and follow a quickly dropping shelf trail that cuts down the side of the valley into Lenado. This trail follows an obvious cut, and no other routes work for the descent because of dense brush and steep gulches. During times of high avalanche danger, there are a few spots on this section of trail that could produce dangerous bank sluffs; there is no slide danger on the trail from Hunter Creek to 4-Corners. Return via the same route.
Route 7.1.3 Hunter Creek to Midway Pass
Climb rating: Harder skins Ski rating:S4 Recommended seasons: Mid to late winter, early spring Starting elevation: 8,380 feet Summit elevation: 11,841 feet Elevation gain: 3,500 feet Trip distance: 25 miles Day trip? No Map: Aspen East and USGS Thimble Rock Photo: [in collection]
Probe the mystic Williams Mountains with this wilderness trek. Start at the Hunter Creek Trailhead and follow Hunter Creek to Thimble Rock. Continue up the Hunter Creek drainage to about 9,800 feet. A good trail may be tough to find through brush and deadfall here. Try crossing the creek several times, and if the creek is well-frozen, use it as a ski route if need be. Swing SE at 9,800 feet and follow Midway Creek up to Midway Pass. Now the fun begins. To avoid a traverse across avalanche terrain that the summer trail would take you on, drop directly down Coleman Creek. The going is easy to timberline, then the trees get thicker. There is no easy way. At least it's downhill. Ski Independence Pass Road down to the snow closure gate, where you've stashed a car or arranged a ride. The road is heavily used by snowmobiles; try hitchhiking if you see any going your way.
To avoid pain in Coleman Creek, with low avalanche danger traverse 1 mile at about 12,000 feet SE from Midway Pass, then continue a dropping traverse that leads to Independence Pass Road near Lost Man Reservoir. This is the general route of the summer pack trail.
Route 7.1.4 Aspen/Snowmass Nordic Trail System
Climb rating: Easier skate or nordic wax Ski rating: Easier skate or nordic wax, S0 to S1+ Recommended seasons: All with snowcover Starting elevation: NA Summit elevation: NA Elevation gain: NA Round trip distance: NA Day trip? Yes Map: Obtain at nordic trails center Photo: [in collection]
For civilized skiing under your own power, the Aspen region boasts one of the largest systems of maintained nordic trails in the country. Over 50 miles of trails link the towns of Aspen and Snowmass, with several extensive nordic centers acting as hubs. A good place for beginners to start is the Aspen Golf Course, where tracks on low-angled and flat terrain allow a smooth learning curve. At Snowmass Resort, you'll find a similar (though slightly more hilly) system of golf course trails. The Aspen X-C Ski Center is located at the municipal golf course on Highway 82 a short distance downvalley from Aspen. To reach the Snowmass Touring Center, follow signs on Highway 82 for Snowmass Resort. Inquire for directions at the parking information center you'll encounter several miles up the road. (Note there are many other commercial and non-commercial nordic track systems accessible from the Roaring Fork Valley; inquire locally.)
Route 7.1.5 Owl Creek Trail
Climb rating: track skiing Ski rating: Track skiing, S1 Recommended seasons: All with snowcover Starting elevation: NA Summit elevation: NA Elevation gain: minimal Trip distance: about 7 miles, depends on route Day trip? Yes Map: Obtain at Nordic Center Photo:
The Owl Creek Trail is the key link for the Aspen and Snowmass area nordic trails and is a worthy goal for novice backcountry skiers. It's a maintained route so use lightweight gear. To do the route, get a trail map at one of the touring centers in the valley (see description above for the Aspen/Snowmass track system).
Route 7.1.6 Government Trail and Buttermilk Bowls
Climb rating: Easy nordic wax, optional skins Ski rating: S2- Recommended seasons: All with snowcover Starting elevation: 8,400 feet Summit elevation: Approximately 9,400 feet Elevation gain: About 1,200 feet Trip distance: 5 ½ miles Day trip? Yes Map: Aspen West Photo: [in collection]
If the nordic tracks of the upper Roaring Fork Valley are Novice rated, then the Government Trail connecting Buttermilk and Snowmass Ski Areas makes Novice Plus. It's just not tough enough to get the Intermediate rating on the scale in this book. Nonetheless it gets an S2- because of extremely groomed ski slopes you have to tackle for access and egress, and the fact that the trail is not maintained or groomed as the Owl Creek Trail is (see route 7.1.5).
The Government Trail is so named because of the Forest Service's establishment of the trail and its intermittent attempts to maintain and sign it. As it is, this trail may be poorly signed. Find the route; it's worth the search. This description assumes you're traveling from Buttermilk Ski Area, but you can go either direction. Stow a car at your endpoint, use the excellent valley bus services, or do the route both ways.
Start by driving Highway 82 from Glenwood Springs or Aspen to the Buttermilk Ski Area. Head to the far southwest corner of the main parking area, and drive up the steep West Buttermilk Road for about 3 miles to West Buttermilk parking near the ski lifts. Ski a few hundred feet up the right side of the farthest right ski run. Look along the trees at the edge of the run for a metal gate, Forest Service signs, or other indications of a snowcovered road. Leave the ski run, and follow the snowcovered road as it climbs westerly with one short switchback.
In less than a mile you'll come to a clearing. Head to the left into aspen forests and pick up the obvious trail. Soon you'll arrive at a small pond known as Whites Lake. Here the trail climbs a bit to the left, then heads toward Snowmass Ski Area. It may be tempting here to drop N into the main valley, but persevere to Snowmass. The trail intersects the eastern boundary of the Snowmass ski runs at a point high enough to insure a good run down the groomed slopes. If you get lost, follow any drainage down to the north and you'll eventually end up on a road. There is no avalanche danger on this route.
For extremely mellow downhill, with little or no avalanche danger, try the Buttermilk Bowls. Reach the bowls by climbing south from the vicinity of Whites Lake, and return to Buttermilk after a few laps.
Chapter 7, Section 2, Lower Castle Creek
Castle Creek Road is perhaps the deepest all-season probe into the heart of the Elk Mountains. It reaches so much terrain, that routes from Castle Creek are also covered in Chapter 8
Roads and trailheads
USGS Maps: Aspen, Highland Peak, Maroon Bells, Hayden Peak, Pearl Pass USFS Map: White River National Forest Text Maps: Elks North East, Middle, West
Castle Creek Road, Conundrum Creek Trailhead
Drive Highway 82 downvalley from Aspen or upvalley from Glenwood Springs. About a mile outside of Aspen you'll come to a stop light and good signs at the turnoff for Castle Creek and Maroon Creek roads. Turn off the highway and drive Castle Creek Road 5 miles to a right turn (W) onto poorly signed Conundrum Creek Road. Follow Conundrum Road to snow closure (about 8,400 feet) or a closure gate about 1 ½ miles from Castle Creek Road. Parking may be sparse. If so, park on Castle Creek Road and walk to the trailhead.
Little Annie Road, Mount Hayden Trailhead, American Lake Trailhead
From Colorado Highway 82, follow Castle Creek Road 7 miles and turn left on the Little Annie Road (may have a sign, but don't count on it). The road is plowed a short distance up through a residential area. Parking at the snow plow turn is cramped or zilch; if in doubt, park on the Castle Creek Road and walk to the plow turn. Selfish locals may have completely restricted parking in this area, obey all signs or pay.
To reach the Mount Hayden Trailhead, drive Castle Creek Road 8 miles from Highway 82 (see descriptions above). Park at a slightly widened shoulder on the road (9,000 feet. The correct trailhead is neither signed nor distinct, but may be identified by a good view of Ski Hayden's summit.
For American Lake Trailhead and other access points, see Chapter 8, Section 1.
Aspen Mountain Ski Area
The summit of Aspen Mountain Ski Area (11,215 feet) is used as a trailhead for routes along Richmond Ridge. From downtown Aspen, take the gondola to the top, then exit through a backcountry gate behind the gondola building. You can also reach the top of the ski area via Little Annie Road (route 7.2.7) or Midnight Mine Road. This is a crowded area; go elsewhere for solitude.
Route 7.2.1 Conundrum Hot Springs
Climb rating: Harder skins Ski rating: Advanced, S3- Recommended seasons: Mid to late winter, and spring Starting elevation: 8,400 feet Summit elevation: 11,200 feet Elevation gain: 2,800 feet Round trip distance: 18 miles Day trip? No Maps: Elks North Middle, North West, South West Photo: [several in collection, including a panorama of region]
A geothermal hot springs nestled in the arms of sublime wilderness at the foot of a 14,000-foot peak. Yes. Crowded and trashy in summer, paradise in winter. At least during the snowy season, this is most certainly one of the Elk Mountain's Seven Wonders. For many years, skiers who ventured into Conundrum Creek Valley were viewed as crazy fools. Perhaps that attitude was the result of a then common Forest Service description of the valley as the "most avalanche-prone in the Elk Mountains." Though plenty of avy paths drop into Conundrum, that was a bit of an overstatement. In reality, during times of low avalanche hazard the valley can be traveled safely; just check the weather before you leave so you don't get caught in a storm and resultant slides, and don't take rest breaks at the base of the slide paths. Indeed, there have been rescues in Conundrum Creek-usually because skiers misjudged their abilities. This is a serious route in winter. You'll need expert orienteering skills, the ability to recognize and avoid avalanche danger, and a high degree of physical fitness. Without those qualities, start your education somewhere else, or you'll finish it in a rescue helicopter or a body bag.
Leave from the Conundrum Creek Trailhead (see section introduction). Keep in mind that this route is one of the most intricate valley routes in the Elk Mountains. From winter or spring snow closure, follow the snowcovered road to the summer trailhead (a gate in a meadow at 8,800 feet). You're now exposed to your first avalanche paths dropping from Highland Ridge to your right. Continue up the valley through the meadow, then find the trail, which follows the cut of an old road for about 4 miles to where the valley narrows significantly at 9,700 feet. Follow the road where you can on this part of the route, but simply head upvalley through a series of meadows you'll encounter.
This narrow section of the valley is where route finding becomes critical. The summer trail climbs the west side of the valley here and crosses many avalanche paths. Stay off it. Instead, head up the right side of Conundrum Creek. When a steep hillside blocks your way, cross to the left (east) side of the Creek. Stay on the left side of the creek until you're about ¼ mile past Cataract Creek (use careful map reading here). Head up and left through sparse timber that gains a large open shelf (about 10,000 feet). Notice the avalanche slopes that threaten you from virtually everywhere. Turn back if in doubt.
From the 10,000-foot shelf, continue S up the valley to the end of the shelf, then cross the creek and find the summer trailcut. Use the summer trail for the remainder of the route to the springs. While in various meadows don't worry about the exact location of the trail. But when you get to the dense trees bordering the meadows, find the trail or else! A lost skier will encounter impassable underbrush and deadfall.
If you make the springs, give yourself a pat on the back. Then take a warm relaxing bath. The pool is the perfect temperature for a lengthy stay, and the view is hard to beat. Before your dip you'll be confronted by a dilemma foreign to most winter mountaineering: How, while standing in a subzero breeze, do you remove multiple layers of clothing, take a bath, climb out of the water dripping wet, then get dressed without becoming one of Medusa's statues? The most effective balneology begins with careful arrangement of your clothes so you can dress rapidly when you leave the pool.
The worst mistake you can make is to succumb to temptation, stay in the pool until darkness falls and not have a lamp handy. Once a man from Aspen actually skied to the springs totally nude, spent the night in the pool, then returned to civilization the next morning! Others have tried this, got caught in the pool by a storm, and speciated into sentient prunes. If you've ever sought proof that the theory of evolution is truth, perhaps this will suffice.
Route 7.2.2 Conundrum Hot Springs to Conundrum Pass
Climb rating: Harder skins Ski rating: S3- Recommended seasons: All with snowcover Starting elevation: 11,200 feet Summit elevation: 12,920 feet Elevation gain: 1,720 feet Round trip distance: 4 miles Day trip? Yes from high camp Map: Elks South West Photo: [several in collection]
This is a good day trip from a high camp at Conundrum Hot Springs, and it's the connector for one of several excellent high routes between Crested Butte and Aspen (see chapter 11).
The route is relatively simple because it's all above timberline and easy to see. From the springs, ski directly S up a small hill into Conundrum Basin. From the mid part of the basin, follow a series of ribs and shelves for a route to the pass that's reasonably safe from avalanches. Return via your ascent route, with glisse variations you eyed on the way up. The slope on this route that slides most frequently is the small bowl on the east side of the Conundrum Pass saddle. You can avoid this slope by traveling either of the wind-scoured rocky ribs forming the sides of the bowl. Note that on the USGS Maroon Bells map (1960), Conundrum Pass is labeled in the wrong location. It's actually the pass labeled "Triangle Pass" on the USGS Gothic map (1961). This is corrected on the maps in this book.
Route 7.2.3 Highland Peak, Maroon Bowl and Highland Bowl
Climb rating: Harder skins, easier boots Ski rating: S4+ Recommended seasons: Late winter, or spring snow Starting elevation: 11,675 feet Summit elevation: 12,381 feet Elevation gain: 706 feet (from top of ski lifts) Round trip distance: Varies with route Day trip? Yes Maps: Elks North Middle, North West Photo: [in collection]
In olden days, arrogant corporate drones kept the backcountry available from the Aspen Highlands Ski Area off limits to all but a chosen few. In recent years, boundary policy has been more liberal during the operating season, and after the lifts are closed all boundaries are de-facto open. Problems don't end there, however. Getting up the lifts when they're operating is expensive. Once the lifts quit for the season, if you know the right person (or you are the right person) you can access the top of the ski area via snowmobile. But if you're among the un-chosen you'll have to skin climb up the area, which will definitely cause you to break a sweat; it's 3,635 vertical feet to the apex.
At any rate, once you're at the top of Aspen Highlands Ski Area, the classic backcountry route is to climb S to the summit of Highland Peak, a famous location where much bliss and misery have found their beginnings: bliss in the form of incredible glisse descents, misery in the form of avalanche death and injury such as this author's near-death humbling journey down Highland Bowl in 1982, and the deaths of ski patrollers Chris Kessler, Craig Soddy and Tom Snyder in March of 1984.
From the summit of Highland Peak, you can simply return via your ascent route back to Highlands Ski Area (often the most prudent choice with a typical Colorado winter snowpack). Highland Bowl drops E from the summit (S4+). This area is part of the ski area permit and can thus be legally closed, as it may well be. If you head farther S along Highland Ridge (the famous cordillera snaking south from Highland Peak), you can access public land that's out of the permit area (see routes 7.2.4, 7.2.5). Another big descent you can do from Highlands is Maroon Bowl (S4-), which drops W from the saddle just past the highest lift terminus at Loge Peak (11,675 feet). Maroon Bowl takes you down to Maroon Creek Road (8,400 feet) for a total drop of 3,275 feet. The Maroon Creek Road is closed in winter, so plan to hike or skate about a mile down the road to your ride at snow closure. There are other routes similar to Maroon Bowl that drop from points farther S from Highland Peak. Note that the ribs between such bowls are studded with cliffs, and some bowls may end in cliffs. Ditto for routes into Conundrum Creek off the east side of Highland Ridge.
Route 7.2.4 Highland Ridge-Five Fingers
Climb rating: Harder skins, Advanced snow climb Ski rating: S4- Recommended seasons: Early spring snow season Starting elevation: 8,400 feet Summit elevation: 12,495 feet Elevation gain: 4,095 feet Round trip distance: 3 miles Day trip? Yes Map:Elks North Middle Photo: [in collection]
The Five Fingers are the stunning lines dropping from the ridge S off Highland Peak (Highland Ridge) into Conundrum Creek. You get good views of these from the Aspen Mountain Ski Area and from Castle Creek Road. There are two ways to reach the fingers. The most aesthetic method is to wait for a good day in early spring and climb the route from the bottom. To do so, drive to Conundrum Creek Trailhead, then follow Conundrum Creek Road to the summer trailhead in a large meadow. The Five Fingers rise to the west from here. The climb is straightforward, with the only trick being how you cross Conundrum Creek. There may be a snow bridge from avalanches, but make sure it's strong and thick before trusting your life to it. Descend your ascent route, with variations you spotted during the climb.
The other way to get tickled by the fingers is to use Aspen Highlands Ski Area for access. Go to the top of Highland Peak, then boot along Highland Ridge to the top of the fingers. See route 7.2.5 for details. Bear in mind that this is prime avalanche terrain and should only be enjoyed during lowest hazard, preferably on compacted spring snow.
Route 7.2.5 Highland Ridge Traverse
Climb rating: Harder skins, Advanced snow, Class 4 rock Ski rating: Advanced, S4 Recommended seasons: Late winter or spring Starting elevation: 11,675 feet Summit elevation: 13,516 feet Elevation gain: Approximately 5,000 vertical feet (varies with exact route) Round trip distance: 20 miles Day trip? Depends on how you define a day Map: Elks North Middle, North West, South West Photo: [in collection]
Highland Ridge connects Highland Peak with Conundrum Pass 10 miles to the south-via one of Colorado's longest, highest, most jagged and visually stunning aretes. Over the past decade, dozens of people tried to nail this route as a winter traverse. One group was stymied when a member dropped his pack. Another party gave up when a member strained a knee while cramponing. Still others were halted by weather or had to turn back on technical class 4 and lower class 5 sections that ask the best of the best. Success was finally claimed by award winning mountaineer Jeff Hollenbaugh, who soloed the route in one amazing 18 hour push in March of 1997 (his "day" included skiing down Conundrum Valley to the Castle Creek Road). More amazing still, as a purist, Hollenbaugh started the route by skin climbing the Highlands Ski Area!
There is little to say about the route except to expect the worst, bring a rope and hope for the best. Just the altitude alone could cause major problems, including but not limited to death. The roughest part of the route consists of many small cones of rock you have to skirt. Danger comes from a number of deadly cornices you dodge to the windward side, but in doing so end up on steep shale with terrifying fall potential. What's more, escape routes are poor and a series of seemingly endless summits stud the ridge. As if that's all not enough, the route ends up in the middle of a vast winter wilderness, with return to civilization down the long hazardous Conundrum Creek Valley. According to Hollenbaugh, the key to success on Highland Ridge is finding it in the right conditions: firm snow and minimal avalanche danger. If you pull off this route in winter you're ready for the hardest mountaineering in the world. This is not really a ski route, but rather a mountaineering challenge where skis are used for access and egress. Let this author know if you do it, but keep the terrifying details to yourself.
Route 7.2.6 Richmond Ridge
Climb rating: Easy nordic wax Ski rating: Novice, S1 Recommended seasons: All with snowcover Starting elevation: 11,215 feet Summit elevation: 11,400 Elevation gain: 200 feet Round trip distance: 6 miles, varies with route Day trip? Yes Map: Elks North Middle Photo: [in collection]
The divide behind Aspen Mountain Ski Area, separating the Castle Creek drainage from the upper Roaring Fork drainage, is called Richmond Ridge. The crest of this ridge is heavily used by snowcats, snowmobiles, snowshoe walkers and ski tourers. It's scenic, easy and often crowded.
To reach Richmond Ridge, either ride the Aspen Mountain gondola (a 1-ride ticket may be available), or ski up the Little Annie Road (see route 7.2.7). Once on the ridge you'll find good novice travel S for about 4 miles on a snowcovered road. The route finding becomes slightly harder after that. Richmond Ridge eventually leads to Barnard Hut (route 10.6.1), then to the east side of Ashcroft Mountain and the Gold Hill area (route 7.2.12). A good Intermediate to Advanced rated tour combines Richmond Ridge with Express Creek (route 7.2.13).
Most terrain on the crest of Richmond Ridge is free of avalanche danger, but a number of dangerous avalanche gullies and bowls drop from the ridge. Much of this terrain is used by a commercial snowcat ski operation, and it's also heavily used by private parties. In view of how cramped this terrain is, compared to the vast reaches of Colorado's mountains, the amount of crowding appears ludicrous. Perhaps this book will help spread out the crowds. But if you'd rather ski the backcountry with hundreds of people, now you know where to go. It is nice to have a beer at the Sundeck Restaurant at the end of the day-even if one small bottle of brew costs more than a 12-pack at your local outlet.
Route 7.2.7 Little Annie Road to Richmond Ridge
Climb rating: Easy skins Ski rating: Novice, S1+ Recommended seasons: All with snowcover Starting elevation: 8,880 feet Summit elevation: 11,200 feet Elevation gain: 2,320 feet Round trip distance: 8 miles Day trip? Yes Map: Elks North Middle Photo: [in collection]
This is a good Novice trip and could include some turns on slopes in Little Annie Basin (S2). Drive to the Little Annie Road via Castle Creek (see section introduction). Ski up the snowcovered road as it winds through timber and enters the open slopes of Little Annie Basin (a large open area with obvious downhill ski terrain and several cabins). Once in the Basin at 10,600 feet, switchback directly up to Richmond Ridge or take a road that climbs through open areas, then timber 1 ¼ miles N to the top of Aspen Mountain Ski Area. While most of this route has no avalanche danger, the steeper open slopes slide on rare occasions. Who was Little Annie? Let's just say she was friends with a lot of miners.
Route 7.2.8 Hayden Peak-North Summit (a.k.a. Ski Hayden)
Climb rating: Harder skins Ski rating: Advanced, S4- Recommended seasons: Late winter or spring Starting elevation: 9,000 feet Summit elevation: 13,316 feet Elevation gain: 4,316 feet Round trip distance: 9 miles Day trip? Yes Map: Elks North Middle Photo: [in collection]
One of the Aspen area's most historic and aesthetic descents, the North Summit of Hayden peak should be a must-do on anyone's list.
First a clarification: The main summit of Hayden Peak is on a long ridge dividing the Castle Creek Valley from Conundrum Creek. The official summit (13,561 feet) sits between two lesser summits. The peak ½ mile to the south (13,540 feet) was named in 1937 as "Ski Hayden" by famed mountaineer Andre Roch. The summit ½ mile to the north (13,316 feet), termed "Ski Hayden" in this book, is what most people ski when they speak of descending "Hayden Peak," and is the route described here. Confusion arises because some old-timers call the North Summit "Ski Hayden," and it is also called that in the first edition of Colorado High Routes. Also, in the first edition of Wild Snow (this author's book covering ski history) the North Summit is sometimes called "Hayden Peak."
The ascent route generally follows the Sawyer Creek drainage. At parking you'll be about 1/8 mile downvalley from the Sawyer Creek-Castle Creek confluence. Ski a short distance down and cross Castle Creek. You may find a log crossing or snow bridge. Once on the west side of Castle Creek, follow a marked trail SW across a private property easement, then intersect a distinct roadcut. Follow the old road as it leads up the Sawyer Creek drainage, crosses the creek at 9,480 feet, then ends at a flat area (9,600 feet). Bear left and find a more obscure trail leading to the base of a narrow gulch. Stay out of the gulch by crossing to the right, then continue climbing with the gulch on your left. Continue up the drainage to an area where the timber thins just below timberline; this is called the Lunch Spot (11,300 feet). The steep face above you to the south is the Stammberger Face, playground of that famed pioneer extreme skier.
Swing W at the Lunch Spot, climb a rib between the famed Twin Gullies, and continue into the gigantic bowl under the summit. The remainder of the route to the summit is either an obvious trudge straight up the northeast face, or a ridge hike from the 12,800-foot saddle. Base your choice on avalanche danger and aesthetics. Descend the ridge or face into the bowl, then continue down your ascent route. In stable avalanche conditions, the Stammberger Face is a popular variation (S4+). Another variation (S4+) drops from near the summit down a steep southeast flank to Sandy Creek. Return from Sandy Creek by dropping to 11,200 feet, then climbing N to a saddle that takes you to Sawyer Creek.
A young man was killed in the 1970s by an avalanche in the gully on your right at 9,600 feet in Sawyer Creek. Major avalanches scour the upper bowls every winter. In spring of 1985 a huge climax avalanche running from near the summit trimmed a large swath of old-growth spruce near the Lunch Spot.
Route 7.2.9 North Hayden Peak (Ski Hayden) West to Conundrum
Climb rating: Harder skins Ski rating: Advanced, S4 Recommended seasons: Late winter or spring Starting elevation: 9,000 feet Summit elevation: 13,316 feet Elevation gain: 4,316 feet Trip distance: 5 miles Day trip? Yes Map: Elks North Middle Photo: [in collection]
Once you've attained the summit of Ski Hayden, you can gaze down the grand cirque dropping west into Conundrum Creek. This is skied on occasion and ends in some interesting terrain at the bottom. Only tackle this route during times of low avalanche danger, preferably on compacted spring snow.
Route 7.2.10 Hayden Peak Main Summit-North Face
Climb rating: Harder skins, moderate boots Ski rating: S4 Recommended seasons: Late winter or spring Starting elevation: 9,000 feet Summit elevation: 13,561 feet Elevation gain: 4,845 feet Round trip distance: 8 miles Day trip? Yes Map: Elks North Middle Photo: [in collection]
The true summit of Hayden Peak is a worthy goal. Probably the easiest way to reach it is a simple ridge run ¾ mile S from Ski Hayden (see route 7.2.8). A fine extreme descent takes Hayden's north face from the summit (S5-). You can also descend the east ridge a short distance, and ski slightly lower-angled terrain into Sandy Creek. Get back to your car by descending to 11,200 feet in Sandy Creek, then climb N over a saddle to your Sawyer Creek ascent route. Do not descend lower Sandy Creek, which drops you into dense timber and private property. All the skiing on this route is in prime avalanche terrain. Behave accordingly.
Route 7.2.11 Hayden Peak to Electric Pass via Roch Ridge
Climb rating: Harder skins, moderate boots Ski rating: Advanced, S3+ Recommended seasons: Mid to late winter, and spring Starting elevation: 13,316 feet (summit of Ski Hayden) Summit elevation: 13,561 Elevation gain: 750 feet Trip distance: 6 ½ miles Day trip? Yes Map: Elks North Middle, South Middle Photo: [in collection]
This marvelous ridge run is perfect for the experienced mountaineer who wants a good day above timberline with the challenge of several scrambling sections and three main summits. Roch Ridge, connecting the summit of Ski Hayden and Electric Peak, is named after Andre Roch (rhymes with croak). Famous French skier and mountaineer Roch was hired by the Highland Bavarian Corporation around 1940 to find the best potential ski area near Aspen. He recommended using Ski Hayden (route 7.2.8), and the Bavarian Corporation even went so far as to print up some sketches of the Hayden Massif with an aerial tram from Castle Creek directly to the Ski Hayden Summit. This was an idea, to say the least, a bit ahead of its time! Roch went on to help develop Aspen Mountain, and ever since that time the Mt. Hayden area has been popular for ski mountaineering.
To traverse Roch Ridge get an early start and ski/climb to the summit of Ski Hayden (7.2.8). Try to pick a day when there is a packed trail for the Ski Hayden climb. Call local shops and guide services to find out if anyone has been there.
From the summit of Ski Hayden, begin the walk along the visible ridge leading ¾ mile to the summit of 13,561 Hayden Peak. From the summit of Hayden follow a more broken but negotiable ridge to the next high point at 13,540. This bump on the ridge is known as Ozone Point. From Ozone Point walk or ski down into the broad saddle between it and Electric Peak, the next point on the ridge at 13,635 feet.
From this saddle you have two choices, either ski from there E into American Basin (see below), or negotiate the forbidding ridge that takes you on up to Electric Peak.
If you decide on the ridge, begin by traversing around the right side of the first rock bastion to the first climbable gully on your left. Climb up the short gully to the ridge, then drop onto the left (east) side of the ridge and snow climb along the line where the snow meets the rock. If the snow here is unstable, a rope belay would be a good idea. About a hundred yards of such snow climbing gets you back on the ridge, and with a bit of easy scrambling and walking you gain the summit of Electric Peak. From Electric Peak walk a short way down the east ridge, ski into American Basin, then follow the American Lake pack trail out to Castle Creek Road (see section introduction for American Lake Trailhead).
It's also possible to ski S into the Cathedral Lake Basin, then descend the Cathedral Lake pack trail to Castle Creek. Only follow this route if you're familiar with the Cathedral Lake pack trail; it's intricate, threatened by inescapable avalanche paths and a wrong turn will send you over cliffs!
Take care on Roch Ridge to avoid dangerous cornices, and be extra careful while dropping into American Basin. Whichever way you choose to drop into the basin, you can get a good look at your route from various points along the ridge. Just remember to look!
Note that a variation of the above-mentioned traverse can provide an amazing day of skiing: Pick a time in late winter with low avalanche danger or a colder day in springtime. Start at Ski Hayden and descend the southeast pitch into Sandy Creek. Next, climb to the summit of Hayden Peak via its east ridge. Descend Hayden SE into a bowl to about 12,400 feet. Climb up and S to a saddle, then drop into yet another bowl which you follow down to American Lake. Take the American Lake pack trail down to Castle Creek Road. Stash a car or have a ride arranged.
Route 7.2.12 Barnard Hut and Gold Hill via Richmond Ridge
Climb rating: Easier skins Ski rating: Intermediate, S2- Recommended seasons: All with snowcover Starting elevation: 11,200 feet Summit elevation: 12,361 feet Elevation gain: 1,460 feet (varies with exact route) Round trip distance: 20 miles Day trip? Yes, or overnight at huts Maps: Elks North East, South East Photo: [See Chapter 10 and some in this chapter collection]
If you'd like a tour with little downhill skiing, but good views and access to two backcountry huts, Richmond Ridge to Gold Hill is a good bet. Most of the route is usually packed by snowmobiles and is reasonably easy to navigate if you pay attention to map and compass. A GPS could be useful here as well. The description below is divided into two sections, one for getting to Barnard Hut, and one from Barnard Hut to Gold Hill. While going to and from Gold Hill in a day from Aspen Mountain would be quite an effort, fast lightweight tour skiers can make a long day trip by taking this route to the Gold Hill area, then descending Express Creek to Ashcroft (route 7.2.13).
Richmond Ridge to Barnard Hut
The route in the description below is an extension of the Richmond Ridge tour covered earlier in this chapter. Use that route (7.2.6) to ski 3 miles S along the ridge, following the well-used snowmobile and snowcat "over snow" road. Continue another mile or so to an open meadow at the head of McFarlane Creek. The big tempting bowl you see below may yield good skiing during stable avalanche conditions, but keep in mind that several people have died in slides here.
From the head of McFarlane Creek the trail is tougher to find and may require expert orienteering skill. Ski to the SE along the westerly edge of the meadow at the head of McFarlane Creek, then follow a roadcut through trees that leads down into the head of the West Difficult Creek drain.
Once you're at the head of the West Difficult drain, do not drop too low. Follow the trail as it parallels the creek then climbs easterly up a hill. At the top of the hill you'll break into another flat area (there is a swamp here, 11,280 feet). You are now at the headwater of Difficult Creek.
From the flat area mentioned above, follow a confusing route that wanders southerly through sparse timber, then passes through a nondescript saddle (11,480 feet). You are now at the head of Fall Creek, but whatever you do, don't descend Fall Creek (the name says it all). After the saddle, the trail drops a bit into an open area, then passes west of Barnard Hut (11,480 feet), which is on a timbered knob about 200 yards west of the trail. The hut is not easy to see from the trail. Route markers and signs may be in place, but don't count on them. To return to Aspen Mountain from Barnard Hut, reverse the route above. Take care to climb back up to Richmond Ridge after you drop into the West Fork of Difficult Creek.
It should be emphasized that this route is confusing. Many experienced mountaineers have wandered around Richmond Ridge looking for Barnard Hut.
Barnard Hut to Gold Hill
This is the slightly less traveled part of Richmond Ridge, though on certain days it can see a lot of snowmobile traffic. Ski to the upper east side of the open area east of Barnard Hut. Identify McArthur Mountain to the south. Head S, slightly to the left of McArthur Mountain. Your goal is an obvious wide corridor in the timber. Head up this corridor to the east side of McArthur Mountain, then continue ½ mile SE to McArthur Saddle (11,800 feet) at the head of Waterfall Gulch.
The next section of trail takes a low-angled climb SE for 1 mile to the top of a nondescript hump (12,320 feet). This is a good place for intense map and compass work. Descend E from the hump down easy ground to a saddle (2,080 feet). Gold Hill (12,361 feet) is the little bump rising east and northeast from the saddle. The ski to the summit is trivial, the view terrific. You can ski around Gold Hill to Goodwin Green Hut (see chapter 10). Return to civilization via Express Creek, or take your ascent route back to Barnard Hut if you left your sleeping bag there.
Route 7.2.13 Gold Hill via Express Creek
Climb rating: Harder skins Ski rating: Advanced Recommended seasons: Late winter or spring Starting elevation: 9,498 feet Summit elevation: 12,361 feet Elevation gain: 2,863 feet Round trip distance: 10 miles Day trip? Yes, or overnight at huts Map: Elks South East Photo: [see chapter 10]
This route takes an efficient climb to a high alpine plateau area at the south end of Richmond Ridge (see route 7.2.6). Combine Express Creek with Richmond Ridge for a nice point-to-point tour. The Goodwin Green Hut is located on the northeast side of Gold Hill, and the route described here forms part of a route to that hut, as this route also does for Markley Hut, located in Express Creek. See chapter 10 for specific hut information.
Drive to the ghost town and residential area known as Ashcroft, 10 miles up the Castle Creek Road from Highway 82 (see section introduction). From parking in Ashcroft (probably across the street from the Toklat buildings, obey parking signs), follow a public access trail that leads NE across flats to the Express Creek Road, where you cross a bridge over Castle Creek. If in doubt about parking or the route from parking, inquire at the commercial ski touring operations office near the snow plow turn at the end of the Castle Creek Road.
Once you're past the bridge and on the east side of Castle Creek Valley, ski up Express Creek Road as it makes a long southerly climbing traverse. In about a mile the road crosses the lower portion of an avalanche path dropping from the west side of Ashcroft Mountain, and less than ½ mile past this slope the road takes you across another avy path. The traditional-and still best-way to deal with these slopes is simply to cross them quickly one at a time. They are relatively inactive and only slide to the trail several times a year. If conditions are extremely dangerous you can avoid these slopes by dropping lower into the drainage, but this entails difficult bushwhacking and route finding. Indeed, during high avalanche danger the more prudent course is probably to simply turn back-or not leave in the first place.
After you cross the avalanche paths mentioned above, you'll pass through sparse aspen forests, and about two miles from Ashcroft you'll come to a trail that forks right. This is the spur to Markley Hut (there may be a sign here). Do not continue up the main road; instead, take the trail to the hut (10,400 feet). Continue up up the valley past the hut, staying in the middle of the valley to avoid the runouts of slide paths to either side. At the head of the valley (11,300 feet), swing N and continue up the drainage (do not use road that climbs S across many avalanche paths). You can climb this last part of the drainage N then E to a broad saddle-like area (12,090 feet) that's technically on Richmond Ridge (though it doesn't look much like a ridge). Head E here and climb ¼ mile to the summit of Gold Hill.
As an option, you can also make a more direct climb out of upper Express Creek by heading NE from about 11,600 feet to another broad saddle-like area. Gold Hill is a short distance N and E from here.
Avalanche terrain is a concern on most of this route, but once you're on Richmond Ridge, navigation is job one. Landmarks in this vast alpine area are few, similar and vague. Storms can drop a whiteout on you in moments, and high winds can make a simple map check into a gymnastic contortion.
(For more routes from Castle Creek, see our Elks-Central chapter.)