A long awaited summit by full value approach
There is something inherently magical about Mount Sopris in Colorado’s Elk Mountains. Formed some 30 million years ago via an igneous intrusion, her volcano-like twin peaks dominate the skyline from the Lower Roaring Fork Valley. According to local lore, the Ute Indians believed once you laid eyes on Sopris, you would never be able to leave.
I can attest to the curse. Ever since I first laid eyes on Colorado’s most prominent peak, it hasn’t left my thoughts. My dad even has a picture of Sopris as his desktop background in his New Jersey Office––he must have fallen victim as well. And every time I’ve seen the peak since, I’ve been overwhelmed by the insatiable desire to stand on it, a desire that would take years to finally satisfy.
I don’t live in the Roaring Fork Valley, but between storm chasing in Marble, hiking for turns up Highland Bowl, or work trips to Carbondale, I kept finding myself there, in the shadow of the beast. Every visit revealed Sopris in a different light and thus our relationship grew. Stormy days showed me to respect the immense energy of the mountain while sunny days only deepened my lust. I knew that I was going to stand up there one day, but I was going to have to earn it.
Editor’s note: It’s that time of year when true ski devotion emerges from the woodwork. Approaches by bike and by sneaker are mandatory fare unless you’re lucky enough to find yourself in snowy flow of the austral winter. May this post inspire your late summer and early fall outings, regardless of effort required to reach the snow patches.
Time Round Trip: 5-8 Hours, 32 miles
Total Ascent: 7000ft
Difficulty: Advanced- while the skiing doesn’t exceed 40 degrees in the bowl, the approach is 16 miles
Top Elevation: 12966 ft / 3952 m
Location: Elk Mountains, Colorado
GPS: 39.260038°N / -107.171459°W
This was not without trying. In 2018 I caught wind of an informal group ride and ski that started on bikes in the town of Carbondale and finished on the summit of Sopris. At the Thomas Lakes Trailhead, you traded bike for skis, skinned to the summit, skied down and rode the bikes back to town. A 100% human powered adventure from 6181 feet in town to 12,966 on the summit, an impressive vertical gain and mileage. Needless to say, I was intrigued. What better way to summit my favorite mountain then from my favorite town?
In the spring of 2018, with a Power of Four ski-mountaineering race under my belt, I was ready for the prize. The Universe, however, had other plans. Last minute, on the day of the bike to ski mission, my ride from Vail bailed. The early morning text made my heart sink in my chest. Sopris would have to wait another year.
Mount Sopris is a favorite at WildSnow. See some of our other posts here.
A long, hot summer finally gave way to one of the wettest winters on record in Colorado. Storm after storm pummeled the state. Our snowpack grew and it became clear Sopris would be ripe for a spring mission. Before I knew it, the night before the Sopris Sprint arrived. It was time to stand on top of this mountain once and for all.
A 4 a.m. alarm clock gave way to a steaming cup of coffee and the open road as I made my way towards Carbondale and destiny. My tried and true ski partner Jack sat shotgun, and despite bartending the night before and carrying on well into the night, he was ready to go. With unlimited stoke in the air, and caffeine flowing through our veins, we arrived in Carbondale with minutes to spare as first light began to glow beyond the horizon. Not long after, we were mashing pedals with the glorious Mount Sopris visible in the distance.
The ride to snow was pleasant with an even dirt road surface and mellow grade. I rode my full suspension rig, but a gravel grinder would suffice. Nine short miles from town, we ditched the bikes. A shuttle had been set up and the shuttle master, Randy, had taken the liberty of spreading our gear outside of his truck. When we rolled up, he’d assumed his position for the day: lounging in a camp chair wearing a straw hat. After a quick transition into our ski attire, we were walking up the road in search of skinnable snow.
Shortly after, we found it. On the long approach we met wonderful people with the same goal in mind. We skinned up a mellow grade through gladed terrain with only minimal glimpses of Sopris. Finally at Thomas Lakes we saw her full beauty up close and personal.
Until then, my relationship with this mountain had taken place from a distance. I was simply a watchful admirer. Now things were different––I was in the belly of the beast. With the route to the top clearly visible, we saw a line of ants zigzagging toward the summit ridge.
The sun beat down on us. We slathered sunscreen and made our way towards the finish line. We ascended the frozen skintrack up a massive bowl off Sopris’s East Summit. The skintrack steepened before giving way to the final bootpack. Just when my legs felt good and tired from the full value approach, I ran into a good friend Matt Hoogenboom who’d been charging on fat bike and tele skis since 4 that morning when my alarm was just going off. Impressive! It gave me just the jolt of energy to storm up the ridge and onto the summit.
Finally, the moment long awaited. I stood on top of my favorite mountain. Sopris isn’t alone like she appears to be from the valley floor. Instead, she stands among giants of the West Elk Range including Capitol and Snowmass. Jack and I endured the blustering summit winds just long enough to enjoy salami and brie. Soon I was arcing turns down Thomas Lakes bowl in perfect corn. A little shuffling and a few puddles skips later, we were back on dirt. The single track gave fast, flowy reprieve to my tired legs and before long I was back in town.
With a plate of barbecue in my lap and an ice cold IPA in my hand, I looked back at the summit of Mount Sopris. It seemed just as far away as ever.
Getting There: Exit i70 at Glenwood Springs and drive south for 15 minutes to Carbondale. If you want to skip the bike portion of this trip, access Mount Sopris from Thomas Lakes TH via Prince Creek Road.
Lines to come back for
As Colorado’s most prominent peak, Mt. Sopris offers a seasons worth of skiing. Here are two of the ‘crown jewels’ of this amazing mountain.
Laundry Chutes: Guarded by a corniced entrance and rock bands (on sparser years), the Laundry Chutes are a series of super steep couloirs off the North Face of Mt. Sopris’s East Summit. Read Lou’s trip report.
Crystal Chute: A super aesthetic line located off the West Face of Mt. Sopris, access to the Crystal is inhibited by private land so to access it (without trespassing) plan for a long day and thousands of feet of vertical. The reward? A 3000ft descent with views of the spectacular Crystal River Valley.