My fourth day in a row of skiing took me out to Old Monarch Pass. Unlike the previous three days, I had to work a shift in the evening and thus needed to limit myself with regard to distance and time. Skiing the old pass fits all requisites and is an easy way to enjoy the high country in Winter. The Old Monarch Pass Winter Trailhead is about three-quarters of an hour away, just over Monarch Pass on U.S. 50. I loaded up the shepherds and we all drove east out of Gunnison sometime just after nine in the morning. The remnants of the previous storm lay blanketed all over everything but the clouds had flown off elsewhere leaving behind a nice clear day. Reaching the trailhead I offloaded the dogs onto the high berm adjacent to the highway. This was an advantage for me, as I could more or less safely contain the canines away from traffic while I gathered my gear.
Gear donned we headed up the hill and followed San Isabel National Forest Road 237, most of which used to be old U.S. 50 up until the current highway was built in the mid to late Nineteen-Thirties. I don’t believe the old route was ever plowed during Winter especially since the technology and mandate hadn’t yet existed. Today, though, I relished the exhilaration I always feel when outdoors in the Rocky Mountains, up on the Great Divide, the Spine of the Continent. No wilderness, there are power lines, the highway, Forest Service Roads and Monarch Ski Area all packed into a relatively tight space. Still, the area may be considered backcountry and needs to be respected as such for common sense safety reasons.
The result of beetle killed forest is a patchwork of destruction similar to wildfire. Thus the area is also home to salvage logging, a practice I find a bit dubious as I believe the nutrients found in the old trees are better left in place. Many trees perish but some survive. Dead trees may not be pretty but they do provide habitat and shade. I’m not really in the mood to go off on a tangent nor deliver a treatise on the problems of the world, but let me say that I support quiet non-consumptive use of our public lands. Let Nature heal her own wounds. The dogs led out front, exploring the scent of other dogs while I ruminated on the situation. I let the thoughts fade away as I focused on the beauty found all around. The old road skirts the ski area, and as I climbed uphill an number of people swished on down on the opposite side of a rope barrier. Leah, naturally, wanted to walk via the groomed ski trail instead of the loose snow where the old road sits.
This short ski trek can be terminated at the summit, where a fine view to the west unfolds. Looking back down into the Gunnison Country I could also see out across the vast distance towards the San Juan Mountains. Despite the modern constructs this area still seems remote and in my mind’s eye I can feel the wildness of the realm, what it might have been prior to settlement. The pups and I continued another quarter of a mile on the western side of the pass. The wind had poured a large cornice up onto the road and this I mounted to get a better view. Almost every time I had past visited Old Monarch Pass the wind has poured through the gap on its way east but today only a small breeze pushed the air around. The sunshine kept things fairly comfortable, and the rime covered trees created a bit of iced magic.
As much as I admired the view, and enjoyed breathing in the fresh cold air scented with conifer, I still had to clock in to my shift in the not-too-distant future. I turned my skis around and piloted them back to the pass, where I posed the pups near the sign erected by the Forest Service to denote the parting of the waters by the Great Divide. In a fairly short time we had retraced our route back down to the car. I kept the dogs in check until I could get the car unlocked and the gate open so they could immediately hop up into the back. My gear loaded up I drove back over the pass and down into the Gunnison Country, and made it home with plenty of time to spare for a shower, lunch and commute. In other words, just another great day…