Addicted to skiing
Some people complain if they have to walk a quarter mile to the chairlift, or if there’s a queue. Others will ski only when the conditions are just right, or the weather is fair.
There’s a small contingent of Vailites, however, that will do just about anything to make some turns at all, even if it involves three days of driving, hiking, camping and climbing on all fours – just for a few fleeting moments on the snow.
“If I have to hike six or seven hours just to ski 500 vertical feet of slush, I’ll do it,” says Matthew “Tooth” Toth, 30, who with a buddy, Matthew Horton, 29, has begun satisfying his yearn for turns by scaling Colorado’s second-highest mountain, Mt. Massive, and skiing a snowfield on its north-facing slopes. “I’m just addicted to skiing. It’s become like a disease. It’s just so cool.”
Toth, a seven-year Vail resident, works at Vail Ski Tech in Lionshead; Horton, who’s lived in Vail nine years, works at Vail Sports in the village. They met as part of the “first-chair crowd” waiting for the gondola to open on those mornings they weren’t “punched in at the shop.” Both former Boy Scouts, the pair has teamed up on similar trips in the Tenmile and Gore ranges, too, in both winter and summer. They say there’s not a month on the calendar when there’s absolutely no place to ski in Colorado.
“I remember going up the lift at Vail and looking across at the Gore Range and saying, “Wow, how do I get up there?'” says Horton, who originally hails from a small town in southern Virginia. “It’s really like going out and playing. It’s actually easier in the winter because you can wear your gear instead of carrying it. You get out your axe and crampons and go.”
Toth and Horton say they’ve been accumulating mountaineering gear for years. The boots are made especially for climbing, and once on the snow they clip into special ski bindings that are hinged at the toe. Much like telemark equipment, the specialized “randonnee,” or alpine-touring gear allows one to travel across flat snow, or even to climb, like a cross-country skier; then, when it comes time to descend, the bindings can be clamped down at the heel for alpine-style turns. Of course they’ve got all the necessary avalanche safety gear, too, for when the conditions require it.
“We’re not famous; we buy our own gear,” says Horton, referring to colleagues seen in ski films, such as those made by Warren Miller Enterprises and others. “We’re in it for the soul.”
Horton says he’s climbed the 14,421-foot Mt. Massive five times, taking Toth with him twice. The three-day journey involves driving to Leadville, past Turquoise Lake and up the road to Hagerman Pass and the Rainbow Lake trailhead, about an hour and half in the car. From there it’s four hours or more of hiking, much of it off-trail, to a “secret” camp site at about 12,300 feet above sea level. From there, one has a view of Mt. Massive above and the vast Arkansas River Valley below.
“It’s up on a shelf. You can see the sunrise, the sunset, shooting stars and the lights of String Town,” says Horton. “On a clear day, you can see the whole Continental Divide, even Long’s Peak. It’s one of those campsites you don’t forget.”
The second day, the pair leave the camping gear behind, hike the final hour and a half to the top of the snowfield and prepare, finally, to satisfy their craving.
“When you get up there, you feel very aware of what’s around you,” says Toth. “You feel really good. You want to get your gear on because it’s time to ski.”
Conditions, Toth adds, can be “very variable,” but at that point there’s certainly nothing about which to complain. Once, in late-September, the snow “rivalled China Bowl in the spring, beautiful, soft and gushy.” Another time, also in the summer, there was “some fresh” stuff.
“The snow never sucks,” says Horton. “And I’m usually pretty amped up just to be up in the High Country.”
The snowfield can be seen from miles away. Its shape resembles the African continent on a map. They call it their own, personal “Africa Bowl.”
The worst part of the journey, they say, is the final hour of the long hike back to the car, the skiing long over, the legs dead tired.
“But you can’t describe the reward,” says Horton. “When we’re packin’ up at the end, nobody’s really talking much. You’re just thinkin’ about what you just did.”
“It’s mind over matter,” adds Toth. “It really clears your head.”