A Colorado Skier's Excellent Adventure
Fearless mountain traveler takes on the 18.7-mile 'Commando Run'
VAIL, COLO. — 'I GUESS we'll be reading about you in the paper,'' Leo House said to me on the balcony of the Shrine Mountain Inn, perhaps the most spectacular lodgings of Colorado's 10th Mountain Division hut system.
Mr. House didn't mean this travel article. He meant he'd either read about my rescue or my demise.
The man was aghast that I was going to ski the most difficult stretch of the 300 miles of 10th Mountain Division trails, and yet I was lollygagging on the sunlit deck of the majestic Shrine Mountain Inn. It was getting closer to noon with every query into my sanity.
The Commando Run is 18.7 miles long, ascends more than 2,000 vertical feet, traverses at or near the tops of five 11,000-foot mountains, and drops a total of a vertical mile - often on steep slopes and through thick forest - into the resort town of Vail.
I was still 16 miles from Vail, had 11-year-old back-country skis, and hadn't done a serious ski tour in years. An adventure awaited me, but I was ready.
Shrine Mountain Inn is made up of two large, majestic log huts - if ''hut'' can be used to describe three-story back-country log lodges - that make up one of the 22 ski-in accommodations along the 10th Mountain Division Association hut system. The association is named after the famed United States Army division that trained in the central Colorado mountains in World War II.
The first two huts were built in 1982 near Aspen, and now it's possible to ski from Aspen to the Copper Mountain Ski Resort in Summit County, spending each night in a different hut.
The ski trails are back-country ski trails, which usually demand metal-edged back-country skis, back-country Nordic ski boots (they resemble mountain-climbing boots), and either three-pin or cable bindings. ''Climbing skins'' glue or strap onto the bottoms of the skis and allow skiers to climb up slopes as steep as intermediate runs at ski areas.
While the trails of the 10th Mountain Division are designed to avoid any avalanche routes, skiers might well encounter white-out conditions. Trails are not groomed or marked with any consistency, so route-finding skills using map and compass are a must. Families might need to wait until their children are teenagers to try hut skiing together.
When I finally packed up, I skied in a downhill racer's tuck down the road to where the ski trail left all signs of civilization and climbed straight up a wooded mountainside.
I was drenched in sweat when I reached the mountaintop and took in the spectacular views of the Gore Range, Tenmile Range, and the Mount of the Holy Cross, a 14,000-foot mountain named for its long, steep snow gully and horizontal band of snow that form an almost perfect cross.
From this vantage point, the only signs of man's existence were the ski trails of distant Copper Mountain. During my entire trip, the only other people I saw were those at the Inn.
I kept my skins on to descend the steep trail, which soon traversed through the trees again. I checked the map and saw I'd be descending almost 1,000 vertical feet, so I took the skins off and whizzed through the powder snow in the forest. I'd probably hit 70 miles per hour during my downhill ski-racing days, and now I was equally thrilled to be going a tenth that fast.
Soon I left the tracks I'd been following and, despite seeing no signs of life other than trees, I've rarely felt more alive. At times, concerns about losing my way or being out after dark would gnaw at me, and the trees would thicken and make the skiing difficult.
But then an opening through the trees would appear out of nowhere, as if the creator of all this were looking out for a lone - or not so lone - skier.
Sometimes the snow was wispy powder, and other times it was breakable crust with an icy glaze, so my skiing was far from pretty. I'd call my technique survival-mode-utilitarian-floundering-snowplow, or SMUFS, if you like clever acronyms.
At last I reached the backside of the Vail ski area, which was good news. But Vail is seven miles wide, and I was in the back bowls, which meant a long, arduous climb in high winds. But I stopped to savor the moment and take in the view behind me of the Mount of the Holy Cross silhouetted against a flaming red sky. I took the last pictures on my last roll of film, and then quoted Homer Simpson - ''D-oh!'' - as the red immediately became more brilliant.
By now, twilight had long since left for the west, leaving only darkness, and I had to traverse the long, exposed ridge above the ski area to get to the trails. The clouds obscured any moonlight or starlight. But unless you're underground in a cave, mine, or building, there's almost always some ambient light if you look hard enough.
When my eyes adjusted, I could see I was traversing a steep, icy mountainside below a band of cliffs. I couldn't see that I was heading for the edge of a drop-off until a few feet before I would have fallen, when a subtle shaft of light from somewhere showed me the edge.
Finally, I made the summit of the Vail ski area and began skiing down the dark slopes. All I could make out was the difference between the lighter snow and the darker trees, so moguls came as a surprise. The entire experience was equal parts surreal and comical, and I did two things I don't do that often on skis anymore - fall and laugh.
When the task seemed daunting, I pretended I was one of the 10th Mountain Division commandos that the run was named after, because they routinely did harder things than I was doing. Still, to motivate myself I pretended I was a commando skiing down to blow up the expensive boutiques and snooty restaurants of Vail in the middle of the night. (Given the prevalent attitude of the town, this wasn't the first time I'd fantasized about doing such a thing.)
I reached a miles-long snowy road that beginners use and traversed down the mountainside. From around a snowy ridge the mock-Bavarian village of Vail appeared. My ambivalent feelings about the resort became almost entirely affectionate, and I skied right into the heart of the village, where fur coats are more common than in a zoo.
As I took off my skis and backpack, people looked at me, well, much like Mr. House had. Since he won't be reading a story about my rescue in the papers, I think I'll send him this one.