Wander where WiFi is weak
There is nothing more liberating than gliding down a pristine mountain slope far away from lift lines. At least that was the mantra swirling in my head as I grunted uphill to Ophir Pass for my ladiesonly birthday weekend at Opus Hut, a cozy skier’s habitat tucked away in the San Juan Mountains. I was turning 42 and trying to figure out how to backcountry ski despite only having a couple dozen days with sticks under my feet in any sort of terrain. Two friends, one a world- class mountaineer and the other a ski instructor, were along on the mission. We had everything we needed on our backs for two nights at the hut, a celebration, and hopefully an attitude adjustment.
This was the point in my ski life that uphill travel remained my favorite. The cardio sufferfest was balanced with increasingly gorgeous views as the trees, flocked and large at the beginning, grew smaller and then disappeared altogether. It feels good to earn turns. Skiing up the road from Ophir, a bitesized historic mining town 12 miles up the road from Telluride, to the pass of the same name was a reasonably gentle effort but for the icy conditions of the snow and deep ruts of snowmobilers achieving heights by faster means. Under a brilliant blue sky, we made good time to the pass, despite a lot of jabbering, and then skied down the other side to our destination—the very charming, and well-located, Opus Hut.
After unpacking our bags and carb loading on chocolate, we geared up and headed out to make tracks in the snow. While lower altitudes were struggling with inadequate snow, above 11,000 feet we found pockets of the good stuff. We just had to cross some hard-packed and windblown surfaces to get to it, and not having fully embraced the feel of my ski edges, that was a challenge. That’s why we were up here — to push limits. Before long we stood at the top of a bowl of cream snow reserved just for us. Cue anxiety again, it happens every time I remove the skins that provide grip for uphill skiing, and turn tips toward the fall line. A sigh, a gulp, and a prayer that there might be a giggle in it somewhere, then off I went chasing the other two down our line. At the bottom there was another sigh, this time of relief, and a high-five from the teammates. I don’t recall a giggle. But it was the first run. There were many more during those three days and each one induced larger grins.
Getting a Taste of Life in the Hut
Hut life is good. The food was excellent and plentiful, particularly when supplemented with the birthday libations my partners so graciously carried for me. Hut conversations tend to be some of the more interesting ones with like-minded snow and mountain junkies swapping stories and tips. With the exertion and adrenaline spikes of the day, the sleeping at such altitudes comes easily. Opus Hut even has a wonderful sauna to get your cheeks reinfused with warmth. When I woke up eager to sk,i I knew that I was making my transition to an actual backcountry skier and not just someone infatuated with the notion.
Finding Fulfillment in the Backcountry
Despite no new snow falling while we remained at heights blissfully shredding, we always managed to find fresh lines that pushed past the comfort zone. There is so much room to explore and develop your kind of skiing when you get out there, immersed in the alpine. I like big bowls of powder. Others love their tree runs. There are always important decisions to be made for safety and thrill enhancement, which makes backcountry skiing a very intellectual sport as well as athletic and aesthetic. I gained another year that weekend, but think I lost a pound or two of doubt, swapped it for a heap of joy, and found enough motivation to get to work and really learn how to ski. That’s the true beauty of spending time in the mountain huts, you can find the skier within and exceed your expectations.