You gotta be crazy to have this much fun
LAS VEGAS de SAN JUAN The SUV came to a halt in the middle of the road and a rear window lowered. Before I could make out a face, the question came.”Are you guys crazy?””I’m fine,” I replied. “But Charlie here is quite mad, I can assure you.””Where’s he going?” the interrogation continued. “Up there?”Well, yes, I supposed. We were both going “up there.” Somewhere. Although, as I considered the initial query, it occurred to me that neither of us really knew where we were headed. Given the conditions at hand, temporary insanity couldn’t be ruled out.We were at the summit of Red Mountain Pass, somewhere around 11,000 feet in the heart of the San Juan Mountains between Ouray and Silverton. And even this caravan of New York Louisianans understood the dangers presented by several days of fresh snow in the steepest and most notoriously avalanche-prone mountains of Colorado. By the time the skins were attached to our skis and backpacks stuffed with enough gear for an overnight at St. Paul’s Lodge, there was time aplenty to reconsider.Already we’d experienced a night on the town of Silverton, extending our adventure that morning by slithering through avalanche debris of snow and splintered timber stacked nearly 20 feet high on either side of what is arguably the most dangerous paved road in the Lower 48. Word had it that the pass had been closed for four days earlier in the week, awaiting a break in the weather long enough for the helicopter to fly in and blast the countless slide paths lining the twist of asphalt. Only a few minutes earlier we had stopped to assist a truck driver who had skidded some 30 feet over an embankment. Conditions were ripe for crazy.”I’m staying low angle today, that’s for sure,” Charlie reasoned aloud as we drove up the pass. Mouth agape, all I could do was nod my concurrence. Given my previous experience in the area, I wondered whether we would be able to ski at all.Prior to learning of St. Paul Lodge, the only skiing I’d ever known in the San Juans included the precipitous bomb-controlled steeps of Silverton Mountain or nearby Telluride. Even the snowcat skiing in the region benefited from control work. This would qualify as genuine backcountry touring, and the hazard above treeline was rated somewhere around “you’ve got to be kidding.” From here on, everything was a gamble.But luck, it turns out, was on our side. The one-mile, 350-vertical foot ski into the hut proved representative of the terrain most easily accessed from the beatnik lodge. Owner Chris George built the joint based upon its proximity to roughly 1,000 acres of relatively safe open bowl skiing hovering just below the 30-degree slope-angle range. Turns out, this is where the guides from Silverton Mountain come to ski to avoid death on their days off.”We’re surrounded by some of the most dangerous terrain in North America,” said George, an esteemed British mountain guide who climbed just about everything from the Alps to the Andes before buying the mining claim at 11,440 feet and salvaging the rustic hut in 1974. “But with a little sense, you can ski around here until your head spins.”Truth be told, Charlie was the sensible one in our posse, a ski instructor and family man with an ailing back that kept us both in check as we skinned up from the lodge for laps of maybe 1,000 vertical feet in a snowstorm. It was his idea to bring the avalanche poodle, kindly suggesting we tie a rope to it before tossing it over the precipice. I wanted to do things the old fashioned way, digging pits and whatnot. We compromised by skiing established low-angle routes and glades.George offers a guide service out of St. Paul’s, and with the advantage of a full gas-powered kitchen and running water, provides the unique benefit of catered meals at the hut. A full day of recreational powder snow riding comes complete with three squares prepared at the hands of George, his son (Chris George) and a nutty Chilean named Francisco. There’s also a hot shower and sauna. As hut skiing goes, it doesn’t get any easier.After polishing off a Shepard’s pie and a fresh-baked apple pie, we bedded down and awoke to another four inches of snow for a dawn patrol run the next morning. The skiing and company were good enough to keep us on for another day, but being the crazy bugger-hucker that he is, Charlie wanted to go fishing. “Rip some lip” was, I believe, how he phrased it. Who was I to argue?We climbed back down the pass and crossed the New Mexican border on a safari to the San Juan River, where low flows, high winds, full-combat fishing conditions and out-of-state license fees added up to $9 worth of frustration. Nothing, however, that a few hours at the casino couldn’t cure.My memory was jostled by a spot on the rio known as Las Vegas de San Juan, and the wild look returned to Charlie’s eyes when I mentioned the nearby Sky Ute Casino in the reservation town of Ignacio. He stuffed the egg-sucking leeches back in their box and once again we were off. Three hours of free lemonade, people watching and second-hand smoke at the blackjack table somehow resulted in $100 profit, easily good for a night on the town in Pagosa Springs and another day of recreational powder snow riding at nearby Wolf Creek, where 20 inches of snow had quietly accumulated over the course of a week.As it happens, no one really skis Wolf Creek on weekdays, so some light in-bounds touring resulted in easy access to untracked snow off Alberta Peak, Horseshoe Bowl and all along the Knife Ridge, even on Saturday. Five more hours of first tracks in the San Juans and the adventure lumbered to a halt. I lowered the rear window of my SUV and drove down the pass toward home, all the while thinking, man, I must be crazy. qAn overnight ski trip to St. Paul Lodge costs $95 per person (up to 24 people), or a second hut next door sleeps 6-8 people for a lump sum of $100. For information, call 970-387-5367 or log onto http://www.frontier.net/~dgeorge/Scott Willoughby hopes you’re having as much fun as he is … but he doubts it. E-mail him to let him know all about it at firstname.lastname@example.org.