There is such thing as too much nature, and this is what it looks like.
That thought flashes through my mind as I wallow like a mired hippo in the bottomless snow. After losing speed on my splitboard in a spot where the angle flattens under piles of unsettled powder, I’m now hopelessly stuck. I push toward the earth to gain purchase but my hands only sink. I try to lean forward and grab my board and tip up to my feet, but it’s buried too far down. I start to dig up the nose, but new snow just falls into any divots I create, cancelling out my efforts. I push and writhe and lean and utterly exhaust myself. And still I’m stuck. Frustration wells up.
Thankfully, Babsi, the only speck of color in this whited-out winter tableau, skis up to me and offers me salvation: her ski pole. As I pull myself up and shake off, she agrees the snow is too deep and unsettled to enjoy, even for her extra-fat planks. We drop down to the road cut, put our skins back on, and start climbing through a muffled world of white to the shelter of the OPUS Hut.
The clouds thin momentarily, and the rugged landscape sparkles in the gauzy serenity of a storm break. The brightness makes my eyes water. Southwestern Colorado’s Ophir Pass is still obscured a couple of hundred feet above us, but the sun shines on the graceful shoulders, curving basins, and steep drainages below it, revealing a scene of San Juan Mountain splendor.
As the effort of climbing warms my limbs, the depth and breadth of the storm makes itself evident. Three feet of snow must have fallen in the previous 48 hours, and it’s not done yet. We slog uphill, the extra effort of pushing through the powder slowing us down. So. Much. Snow, I think.
This would normally be something to celebrate. But all I feel is a growing sense of dread.
Rather than being at the hut for vacation, I’m here to work. Bob Kingsley, the owner, had needed a second person to clean and cook for 14 guests staying at the OPUS for the weekend, and I had agreed to fill in as hut-keeper. A fun diversion from my desk job, I figured, and an excuse to spend a couple of nights in the high country.
I had picked up Babsi—a badass Austrian skier who would be the lead hut-keeper for the weekend—two days before on a dry, gray Saturday morning in our hometown of Telluride, Colorado. We made the 20-minute drive to the tiny high-altitude hamlet of Ophir on dry roads, strapping on our skins beneath mountains patchy with brown spots and bony. It hadn’t snowed for weeks.
I had just purchased crampons for my splitboard, a decision I was immensely grateful for as we started up a crusty skin of weathered snow in the gut of the basin toward the Ophir Pass. The snow had softened and hardened many times in the dry weeks that had passed since the last storm, and it became more bulletproof as the landscape grew steeper.
As we neared the top of the pass—the crux of the tour—I kicked hard into the crust, struggling to gain purchase on the off-camber slope, straining hard as I worked my way up. If it hadn’t been for the metal spikes, I could easily have lost an edge and gone careening a couple of hundred feet down toward the gulley. Best purchase I’ve ever made, I thought as I inched up the final, slippery section to the top of Ophir Pass, a notch in the mountains at 11,800 feet that had been sculpted into elegant flumes and feathers by fierce wind.
When we arrived at the OPUS Hut—a small but immaculately crafted wood and stone ski hut perched on the other side of the pass—the skies were gray and threatening. We ran into two guests outside of the hut, middle-aged scientists from Los Alamos, New Mexico. One of them looked spooked. They had been out skiing, he told us, and he had taken a bad tumble while trying to carve through the crust; he’d fallen toward some rocks and had to stop himself hard.
“The skiing is horrible,” he said with a glum look.
Later, they informed us that they were heading home—a day earlier than planned. Not enough snow for their liking.
Flakes appear the next morning, starting thin in windy gusts but drifting down consistently. We shovel the decks and trail to the sauna, our spirits lifted by the whirling white. We go for a ski down to the creek bed far below the hut, carving through a soft layer of six inches over the crust. We whoop and snap photos and skin back up to the hut to start cooking. On the way up, we see a group of guests—ten friends from Utah—skinning up for lap number three or four. They’re having a blast.
By mid-afternoon, the storm doubles its efforts. The wind calms, and the snow comes sifting down in straight thick curtains of white, muffling the landscape and piling up on the roof. We shovel again, the snow covering our path even as we clear it. As the day begins its descent toward dusk, it only seems to snow harder. It’s the kind of storm that provokes you to say “holy shit” every time you look out the window. The kind of storm powder hounds dream of. Plus some. It just won’t stop. The banks grow outside, the skis disappear under snow, the trees droop under the weight of it, the windowpanes grow fringes of white, and still it’s snowing. It’s humbling, this storm.
After dinner, I make my way to the sauna and can’t believe it: A foot of snow covers the path that I had shoveled only hours ago.
As I settle into the sauna bench I contemplate the situation. I’m supposed to skin up and over the notch of Ophir Pass the next day to get back to my real job. In these white-out conditions, Babsi and I would be lucky to find the way out. Not to mention the other, very real danger: avalanches. When I consider the amount of snow and wind that’s been hammering the avy-prone terrain that lies between the hut and my car, I shudder.
That night, I barely sleep. I think, How am I going to get out of here? I really don’t want to die in an avalanche.
The next morning, the hut is enrobed in snow, and it’s still nuking. I use the sliver of cell service I have to check the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s website. The Northern San Juans zone is flashing red. An avalanche warning is in effect for the entire area. To sum up the report: Don’t even think about going into the backcountry.
Babsi calls Bob Kingsley, who is intimately familiar with the zone. He’s planning to skin up from the Ophir side, where he lives, and resume hut-keeping after his weekend off. Instead, he tells us to stay put. Better to wait it out.
I call my boss to break the news that I won’t be at my desk, and Babsi and I go into plan B mode. First, we shovel. And shovel. And shovel some more. The amount of snow is staggering. Wind has blown snow into the sauna path so that it requires three shovelfuls to move forward a single footstep. The patios and decks are buried under a couple of feet. My back aches as I doggedly keep shoveling. And still it’s snowing.
After that, we’re exhausted, but it seems like we should get out and enjoy some of the spoils. With the avy-warning weighing on our minds, we decide to stay on low-angle terrain.
Which is how I end up hopelessly stuck in a bank of bottomless white.
I’m beyond tired by the time we return to the hut that afternoon and begin scrounging up an impromptu pasta dinner (no more fresh produce for guests; luckily everything tastes delicious at 11,000 feet). I’m worried about the safety of the guests, about crossing the high-angle slopes to get home, and my body feels ragged from all of the shoveling and skinning and feeling scared.
As a newspaper reporter in Telluride for a decade, I’ve written plenty of stories about people getting in trouble in the mountains—lost, socked in by storms, injured, disoriented, hypothermic or worse, caught in slides. Stories of avalanche fatalities and close calls have put a healthy fear in me, giving me the resolve to never be that person whose bad decisions put her in a sketchy position out there—like snowboarding in dangerous terrain during a full-blown avalanche warning.
I can’t sleep again that night. A wrestling match is taking place in my mind. Despite my fear, I wanted to be a badass mountain chick. To take it all in stride, ski pow, and revel in the ridiculous amount of snow that nature had dumped on us. But I wasn’t psyched. I was overwhelmed and out of my comfort zone. Despite how great I think it should have felt, I find myself wishing I were in the comfort of my own home, where I can hop on a lift and ski this storm’s riches on terrain that’s controlled, terrain I know like an old friend.
There are only a couple miles of miles between me and my car—my lifeline back to security. But it feels like a hundred.
Dawn creeps in the following morning in ethereal shades of blue and purple—a study in pastels and soft lines and the quiet of a post-storm landscape.
The skies are clear and calm and the day turns into a sparkling gem of blue and white. We clean the hut, gather the trash and recycle to haul out, and give it one more shovel. (This is why I got a college degree, I think while shoveling for the last time. So I wouldn’t have to do work like this.)
We say goodbye to the guests, who are heading out the opposite direction toward Silverton, and set off through the blank canvas of white. It’s a beautiful day and an uneasy skin. Natural slides have ripped in every direction—small ones near lips of peaks, large ones in drainages, middling ones through gullies. Like knife slashes on the landscape. We move as silently as possible, the skinning equivalent of tip-toeing through the snow. Babsi goes first, breaking trail through the unflawed white. As the angles get steeper and the consequences higher, we barely speak. It’s a heady experience.
We make it to the top of the pass and soon spot two tiny figures in the basin far below. Bob and Babsi’s husband, Stash, have skinned in to spot us from the bottom. Luckily, two of the scariest slopes we have to pass on our way down have already slid, so we don’t have to worry about them. We make turns through the bottomless powder, staying close to the trees, sliding safely to the basin floor to hug our friends.
An hour later, we’re driving into town through a bluebird day. It has rarely felt so good to come home.
As much as it’s a part of the culture of this mountain town, I realize now that being a badass isn’t the reason I venture into the mountains. For me, it’s more about experiencing beauty, feeling my own insignificance, and understanding my tiny role in the cosmos, which ultimately means getting intimate with my vulnerability.
But there’s a line between that intimacy and foolish risk. And for me, that apocalyptic storm high in the mountains crossed that line.
The experience at OPUS pushed me to the limits of my comfort zone and physical abilities. But it also taught me a few important lessons about humility, the power of nature, and my own puniness. These mountains demand and deserve respect. They will slap you down if you forget that. And nature follows its own whimsies. It doesn’t bow to human control or give a damn that you’re supposed to be at work.
So for now, I’ll keep my day job. I could go the rest of my life without shoveling another sauna path, after all.