WIENS WORLD: NEW YEAR’S DAY SWAMPY SKI TOUR
New Year’s Eve 2008 in Gunnison, CO, DeMattei/Wiens family style had the entire family watching the ball drop in Times Square on CNN at midnight…..eastern time! That’ll work for me, good night. There must be a good reason for being lame, going to bed early: the fourth annual (I think) New Year’s Day Swampy/Beckwith Ski Tour. The route circles the Anthracite Range in the West Elk Mountains, gaining four passes along the way. It’s around twenty miles with 4,000 or 5,000 feet of vert.
Twenty-one (once JB and Jari caught up and Young Scheef had skied over Ohio Pass from CB) intrepid souls from Gunni and CB set out from the Ohio Pass winter trailhead at 7am. Most everyone present was a veteran of the Elk Mountain Traverse including four past winners of the race from CB to Aspen. Also, the GT, the Grand Traverse, the Traverse, whatever you want to call it, is on most of these skier’s to do lists for the last weekend of March. This was a friendly training ski, one that would help harden the body and mind, for the less friendly tour to come in the early spring.
We were all stoked because it was 15 below in Gunni but a solid 2 above at the trailhead! Skies were clear the weather would be fine. The first annual, in 2005, ended up being much longer and harder due to route finding difficulties and lots of trail breaking. Some pretty blown skiers drug home in ten plus hours. ’06 was straightforward while last year it was bitter cold: something like 30 below at the start. Being kind of a fair weather participant, I had only been on the ’06 tour.
This year, the majority of the crew was on ultra light AT (alpine touring) gear, but a few still plied the route on basic Nordic stuff. Barely heavier than traditional Nordic gear, the AT gear is fast, stable and efficient on the descents. In addition to climbing skins, everyone was also equipped with avalanche beacons, probes, shovels, bivvy gear, the whole nine yards.
Nobody had punched the route clear though yet this year but everything indicated a clean passage. The crux of the biscuit is between Swampy and Beckwith passes in the West Elk Wilderness. It’s isolated as hell; no one back there. Generally no trail has been broken and, once you drop in, it’s uphill in either direction to get out, unless you want to glide west, down to high-nowhere, a place you might not come back from.
The route is a tadpole loop with a one-mile stem starting at the trailhead. We went clockwise, two-tracking (not a jeep road bu the tell tale track left by XC skis in powder) from the Ohio Pass road, up over Swamp Pass, down into the upper Cliff Creek drainage and then climbed up west of Beckwith Pass proper (a bit higher than the pass due to some sketchy avalanche terrain). The descent from Beckwith Pass to the Kebler Pass road, down the Cliff Creek trail, is the longest and most difficult of the tour.
Indeed, everyone on AT gear ripped this descent, although, Rebecca Dussault and Jesse Rickert, nothing short of amazing skiers, were right there on their skinnys. In fact, Rebecca was at the front pushing the fastest boys for everything they had! Ski it like a girl! Two passes yet to go, a 1,200’ ish vertical climb over Kebler and just a couple of poppers then to top out on Ohio.
For the final descent of Ohio Pass, the road cuts along a steep slope prone to sliding, so we descended a drainage further west that began with nice open glades but quickly turned into a steep and narrow snowmobile track lined with 16” diameter aspens. It was pretty sketchballs, especially for those on skinnys. Lower Ohio Pass road, skating and double poling and we were back at the cars. A great seven hour tour and Ochs had some cold ones ready for the post ski story telling. I hope you like the photos.