My climbing skins grip slushy snow for a moment, then slip back with an exhausting lurch. Sunscreen-laced sweat stings my eyes. I pull out of the fall line, lean on my poles, and turn the lead over to Chris, who’s strong and can break trail the rest of the way to our campsite. Brian lags behind, ill with a bad cold, but he continues to force himself up the trail because this place is too beautiful to leave. More, we know who’s gone before us — our struggle is nothing compared to theirs.
It’s the year 2000. We’re at 12,400 feet elevation on a 40-mile ski mountaineering and backcountry skiing trip from Leadville, Colorado to Aspen, retracing the steps of thirty-three 10th Mountain Division soldiers who skied this same traverse in 1944. They were training for World War II and most shipped to Europe soon afterward. Some never returned. While it probably did not occur to the soldiers just how ahead of the time their journey was (they had greater things on their minds) their “trooper traverse” ended up being one of the most forward-thinking and aggressive ski traverses ever done in North American mountaineering.
Led by Captain John Jay, father of modern ski films, and Sergeant Paul Petzoldt, the man who pioneered modern outdoor education via the National Outdoor Leadership School, the troopers made a flawless four-day winter journey over Colorado’s highest peaks. They could have shirked the avalanche slopes of the Continental Divide by meandering through lower drainages, and they could have avoided the jagged Williams Mountains by simply skiing down the Independence Pass road to Aspen. Instead, the troopers took a direct line and conquered every couloir, ridge, and avalanche slope in their path.
During my life as a Colorado ski mountaineer, I’d heard vague and often apocryphal stories about the trooper traverse. My favorite were the heroic (and false) legends of soldiers skiing between Vail and Aspen, back when Vail was a sheep ranch with no interest to skiers whatsoever. The truth was better. In 1994, while I was working on a guidebook for the 10th Mountain Hut System, 10th vet Fritz Benedict sent me a few tattered pages from the Camp Hale Ski-Zette, a newspaper printed for the 11,000-plus soldiers stationed at Camp Hale. And there it was in the ‘Zette, staring me in the face, a detailed article about “one of the most ambitious ski marches ever attempted by mountain troopers…” Here it was in plain english: the Trooper Traverse, skied by 33 10th Mountain Division soldiers in 1944.
The Ski-Zette article fascinated me – but my ski focus at the time was doing difficult descents, not covering miles in an arduous slog. Half a decade passed. The ‘Zette clipping sank deep in my files. Then, in 2000, I had a rebirth of enthusiasm for ski trekking. Perhaps it was the rosy glow of the past, as my previous slogs now seemed appealing, with things like dehydration, hunger, and frostbite fading to small inconsequential blips on my radar screen.
During my skiing epiphany, the ‘Zette article floated out of my files like a tattered treasure map, inspiring me to repeat the route. But first I needed to figure out where the 10th Mountain soldiers really went. I started by calling trooper Tap Tapley. “The officers led us, and we really were just following them,” he said. “So I have no idea of the details.” Ralph Ball, another veteran, said the same thing. Officers Jay and Petzoldt were dead and other troopers I spoke with had little recollection of the route.
I decided to do some detective work at the Denver library, where I found a page of photos taken by trooper Richard Rocker, along with a fairly detailed account of the trip. By using a magnifier on some of Rocker’s shots, I was able to identify ski tracks coming down the pass into the head of Lost Man Creek. Also, the terrain in several of Rocker’s group shots was identifiable. Back home, the route line on my map went from pencil to pen. Time to go.
I meet my partners on a warm day in May of 2001, near the Outward Bound camp just outside of Leadville, Colorado. Brian Litz, photographer and backcountry ski journalist, is the perfect companion—the guy doesn’t have a negative bone in his body. His friend Chris Clark, a man of few words and plentiful smiles, is super fit, psyched, and an expert skier.
Like most Colorado backcountry ski trips to anything but roadside attractions, this one starts with a trudge up a snow covered road. Despite our trepidation, six miles of uncertain travel goes quickly, and we’re soon on climbing skins in the land of alpine snow. We camp where the soldiers spent their first night, in the last trees beneath Mount Elbert.
Compared with the soldiers, we are wimps. The troopers carried 75-pound steel framed rucksacks; or 90 pounds if you were the guy who hauled one of the group tents. I groan under my 35-pound pack. The soldiers broke trail in unconsolidated February snow, climbing and skiing prime avalanche terrain without modern safety gear. We travel in spring, when avalanches are more predictable, the weather milder.
We start before dawn on day two. As I hoist my pack and click my backcountry skiing bindings, alpine air spills from the highlands and gusts my face. Breaking out of the timber, we pass by ancient cabins and mine structures. Trooper Ralph Ball had told me about this area, but the next part was unknown.
The only information I have is from the Ski-Zette, which says the soldiers crossed the “Champion-Deer Mountains Pass.” According to the map, this could be one of several places. My plan is to rely on our mountaineering judgment, and pick what we feel is the best route, rather than blindly following where we guess the soldiers might have gone. Indeed, doing so is nothing less than an honor to 1944 traverse co-leader Paul Petzoldt, who would go on to repeat the words, “use your judgment, don’t be a sheep,” to thousands of National Outdoor Leadership students under his tutelage, including me.
Later, when I compared photos, it was easy to identify the pass we’d taken as the same one the soldiers took.
This first highpoint, now known as Darling Pass, is incredible. We’re perched on the highest part of Colorado’s mountains. The Continental Divide, our goal, looms in the distance. Mount Elbert (Colorado’s highest peak) bulks behind us, covered with snow and rock, 3,000 vertical feet of its mass hovering above timberline.
We make turns down from Darling Pass, cutting powder and crud, dancing over a bit of breakable crust. While resting in the valley below, I think again of the troopers. One in particular, Burdell “Bud” Winter, joined the 10th when he was 18, trained at Camp Hale in 1944, and must have stood near this exact spot, looking back up at his tracks, perhaps laughing in joy with his friends. By all accounts, young Private Winter was one of the strongest on the trip, breaking much of the trail in deep February snow. A few months later Bud Winter shipped to Italy. He didn’t come home.
After a long rest in the valley, we climb in hot sun and slushy snow, the Continental Divide looming above us like a distant castle. Chris takes the lead and disappears behind a spur. Brian and I wonder where he’ll stop, we need to camp soon.
Panting like wrung out dogs, we follow the tour mark Chris has made in the slush. Soon we crest a rise. This has to be the place, otherwise we’ll be climbing over 13,000-foot ridges in the dark. And yes, there is Chris. I ski closer. His skis and pack are off, and he’s lounging on a flat sun-baked rock the size of a small parking lot. Shucking my skis, I walk over to Chris, and realize this hunk of granite forms what is perhaps the best campsite I’ve ever had in 30 years of mountaineering. We are at 12,000 feet elevation in the middle of the Rocky Mountains — we could have been on smooth asphalt in Miami.
As if fashioned with three exhausted skiers in mind, the place is replete with chair-back shaped knobs and perfectly flat beds. Above us, spring snow with elegant melt patterns leads above us to the Continental Divide (beauty we can appreciate now that we rest as we look, instead of climbing). I walk to the edge of the rock where it juts over the valley below. Sitting with my legs dangling over a small drop, I take in the astounding view. A few puffy clouds decorate a sky so blue you’d think it came off a computer screen – only it never could. Sunset paints more than twenty of Colorado’s finest mountains, baring their souls just for us. Here, in this in this weather, peace is the word. And to be fellowshipping with Brian and Chris, in such a place — oh that the world below could be so.
The next morning we huddle over our stoves, sipping tea and watching the sun growing behind Mount Champion. This is a hard place to leave.
Above us, the obvious route over the Continental Divide is a steep avalanche slope. While the snowpack seems reliable in its spring compaction, we worry about weak layers still lurking from the past winter (a particularly bad one for avalanches). Our map shows we can take a lower angled route over a different pass, then traverse a highline that drops us into our next drainage. The route works, but I wonder if were deviating from the trooper’s line. Petzoldt’s sheep maxim echoes in my head, and we stick to our human instincts. Later I discover photos showing troopers on the same terrain and know we’ve followed them. I name our route John Jay Pass.
At the head of Lost Man Creek we’re perched above the best run of the trip, two miles of perfectly angled corn, ripe for harvest. We ski with abandon, skating traverses to set up for small fall-line drops. This is what skis were built for, moving across the skin of the planet, the closet thing to flying you can do without wings.
Our next goal is the Williams Mountains. This pocket offshoot of the greater Sawatch Range is not particularly high by Colorado standards, topping at 13,382 feet. Yet most of the range looks like something from the French Alps, with ragged couloirs and jutting rocks blocking nearly every route. We pick a line of lesser resistance, but nonetheless find ourselves perched above a steep couloir. As we descend the most radical terrain of the trip, I mention to Brian my doubts about the soldiers having gone this way. I later find out they had. “We looked down a very steep, rock-studded gully, that disappeared from view in snow and growing darkness,” wrote trooper Richard Rocker. “Better to risk it than stay where we were.” The same thought had crossed our minds, only we’ve just descended it on a sunny day with modern backcountry skiing gear.
What we now call the “trooper couloir” made it a three-pass, twelve-hour day. We find a patch of dry ground, cook our last freeze-dried dinner, and build a campfire. As the blaze dries our socks and warms our faces, we talk late into the night, sharing the trial and success of our lives. As the coals glow the forest embraces us in spring optimism. Our problems shrink, the future seems bright and full of promise. It remains unsaid but we all know the key: bring that feeling home to ourselves, our friends, our wives, our children.
Our last morning arrives with clouds. As the sky darkens and spits, Aspen reels us in with thoughts of food and comfort. When the 10th Mountain troops came tromping down into Aspen, they made a beeline for the Hotel Jerome bar, where they partied as hard as they skied, stoked by a carbo-loading concoction of their own invention: the Aspen crud, a vanilla milkshake laced with bourbon. At 250 calories a swig, it was the perfect drink for ski troopers in off the mountains. Just as the soldiers did, we make a beeline for the Hotel Jerome, where we quaff cruds and bake in the burn of an outstanding backcountry ski trip.
But sitting at the bar, I feel something different from my other backcountry ski tours; something beyond recreation, deeper than fun, warmer than the sun at our shelf camp. Something…
Then it hits me. Above all, above the Hotel Jerome, above fine companions such as Brian and Chris – above even the lofty Colorado peaks — are the soldiers who took on the trooper traverse, then went in harm’s way so we could take pleasure in the same mountains, in the same way. We raise our cruds. “This one’s for you, Bud Winter, rest in peace.” Then, somewhere in the distance, I faintly hear the refrain from the trooper’s famous marching song, 90 Pounds Of Rucksack…