9,700 feet: Ophir, June 15. The sun is just easing up over the flank of North Lookout Peak. We’re headed right for it, four of us jammed into the pickup’s front seat. Past the ruins of Reiny’s old Nash Rambler, past the one-room schoolhouse, past the squat log jail, a stolid veteran of 70 winters, and out onto the slide path itself.
Ophir was built on the edge of the second biggest avalanche run-out zone in the state.
Everyone looks left. Even Linde, who sits on Lito’s lap and must twist awkwardly to see, looks north up the undulating, treeless fan to the massive bowl system that feeds the Spring Gulch slide. Though there is no snow left in town and summer is working its way up the valley, there are thick, free-standing rows of ice on the slope above the cemetery, lingering evidence of when Spring Gulch ran big last winter. Or rather, ran medium, for a big slide out of Spring Gulch moves houses in Ophir. It’s happened a handful of times since the boom days. Quite a few buildings, in fact, were constructed with heavy timbers under the floor joists rather than solid foundations, so that, sled-like they might move with the avalanche rather than be crushed by it. Some buildings have indeed been moved. Others were flattened.
9,840 feet: This winter’s slide made its thick-river way in among the gravestones and almost to the road. What’s left is now hard as rock, an eerie, white-marble garden full of statues, giant steps and walls, reminiscent of an ancient, devastated city still radiating the immense energy with which it was formed.
Big slides are rare in summer. The snow has melted and refrozen many times over warm days and cool nights. We have come early to walk up the hard snow shapes above Ophir, then down on skis through the softening corn into East Bear Creek Canyon on the way to Telluride.
10,480 feet: Snowdrifts like big pillows block the road. It’s farther than we had expected to get anyway, and gives us a good start for the climb.
Preparations. Rocks under the wheels. David stands off to the side and stretches, wheeling from side to side. Lito and Linde prepare their packs, abandoning vests, restuffing parkas against the possibility of cold winds on top or a change in the weather, though the day is beginning cloudless and still.
“I have wax.”
“Skis, boots, poles?”
“Skis, boots, poles. Skis, boots, poles.”
In the chilly, splotchy shade of the aspens, we set out, chanting our three-word, checklist mantra.
10,600 feet: Half a dozen trees are down across the road. We head uphill into the woods.
The ground here is snow free and soft underfoot. Ducking branches and scrambling over logs, we find ourselves nose to nose with the first green shoots of summer.
“My God, it’s a giant asparagus tip!”
It is too early and too cold to smell the earth, though we can imagine its sweetness.
10,700 feet: All of the smooth-bark aspens are down or leaning, as if felled by a tremendous wind. Walking on tree-trunk bridges, we finally make the edge of the stand and behold the wind maker – an avalanche, of course. Ophir’s valley is a book of them. This one started near the ridgeline at 13,000 feet, scoured a small bowl, swept down a narrow gulley then out into the valley across Ophir Pass road. It finally came to rest 50 yards on the other side of the Howard’s Fork of the San Miguel. Total distance traveled: a mile and a quarter. The shock wave knocked down trees 30 yards on either side of the slide itself.
We move up the edge of the slide path, debris like giant, frozen cottage cheese. Past an abandoned cabin and mine, and over the lip into the upper basin.
11,200 feet: Suddenly the view is all white. There are no more trees, no colors—only shapes and their cool blue shadows. What in late summer we know to be delicately balanced piles of vermilion rock are now sleek white waves and bowls. We walk on, and there is only the whiteness and the walking.
11,400 feet: Left foot, right foot – it takes concentration to walk efficiently. Must. Focus. On the business. At hand:
1) Staying upright. Walking on steeply inclined snow with skis, lunch, first-aid kit, ski boots, and extra clothes on-board requires a certain devotion to making each step the same, or at least to finishing each step in balance. A balance dance.
2) Finding a pace. Lito is a firm believer in the snail approach to high-altitude walking (“Watch me snail over this pass.”), in which the pace is slow enough to allow complete recovery from one step to the next. On Mt. McKinley in 1970, Lito was always last to camp by at least 45 minutes. But, he is quick to add, he was the only member of the team not to develop some sort of high-altitude edema, the only cure for which is going back down.
David, on the other hand, likes to sprint and wait – simply a metabolic preference.
Linde and I are somewhere in between. We require a pace above snail speed in order to concentrate, yet go slowly enough to allow for long stretches without stopping. For me, finding a pace usually means going too fast for a while, then slowing down.
3) Keeping cool – or warm – enough. This is closely related to pace. Staying cool enough keeps you dry, which makes it easier to stay warm when you stop. Getting cold is just as scary as an avalanche. Getting really cold – hypothermia – makes you insensitive and dumb. It’s easy to get hurt, and finally you don’t care much what happens. Perhaps it’s not a bad way to go, a little like a diver with nitrogen narcosis. I picture a guy underwater waltzing with a shark, ecstatic in his new-found freedom from breathing. Advanced hypothermia cases don’t feel the cold; they just want to curl up in the snow and go to sleep.
But we are all walkers here, and into the balance dance. Because taking care is like taking your time – you own the moment; and where we cannot afford to stumble, it gets us through.
12,000 feet: The bowl is huge. It looks vertical near the top. Our different paces have spread us out, each to his own breathing, heartbeat, and careful, metronome steps.
We move, David thinks, watching us from his lead above, as if on another planet, adventurers with heavy, magnetic feet.
12,400 feet: I am making my move from the bowl to its eastern spine. Though the sun is getting higher, this exposure is only just out of the shadow and the snow is hard. Each step requires two kicks.
Below, the bowl stretches out like a prefect yawn. You’d definitely take a big ride if you slipped here. My mind goes back to Lito’s instructions to Linde at our last stop: “If you start to fall, get onto your stomach and try to dig in with your poles, like an ice-ax arrest. Of course, if you have an ice ax, it’s bombproof. But…”
“Lito, we have to go out and practice falling someday.”
13,000 feet: A small rock outcrop. David is sunning, marmot-like, as I arrive.
Across our view to the south, west and east stretch endless, snow-covered peaks. Some we know, some we guess at, others are just whitecaps on the horizon.
Linde arrives, midriff exposed to help the heat escape. Lito snails up, occasionally knocking snow from boot with a ski pole.
We will go the last pitch together.