Outdoors: Taking the high route
December 12, 2007
There are few explorers today who can claim they’ve discovered something new, but ski-mountaineering expert Dr. Jean Vives of Fraser, who authored his latest self-published backcountry book “Ski Randonnee,” might stake the claim.
Colorado, he said, is one of the few places in the world ” perhaps the only place in North America ” that has a haute route, or “High Route” that successfully links world class ski resorts, rivaling a European off-piste experience.
From Vail to Winter Park, “it’s a turn-key operation,” Vives said, former co-director of Aspen Alpine Guides and past member of Aspen Mountain Rescue.
He’s written a dissertation on the physiology of alpine touring, hiking, telemark skiing and snowshoeing. (Alpine touring is like alpine skiing, but with bindings equipped to free the heel for backcountry traversing.)
“It’s a commercially viable tour that could easily be guided by a company.”
The most revered ski tour in the Alps, as Backcountry.com called it, Europe’s Haute Route is a 60-mile, seven to ten-day guided adventure that traverses from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland, treating skiers to awe-inspiring mountain views and cozy alpine villages.
Vives has skied it, and twice skied the Colorado Super Tour from Winter Park to Crested Butte, a 28-day adventure covering 170 miles ” a route that no one has repeated.
“It was done with tents, winter camping all the way, in a storm,” he said.
In pioneering spirit, he aimed to find a different Colorado ski tour more appealing to the masses.
With the help of a National Geographic computerized mapping program, Vives took his 40 years of backcountry experience and applied it to plotting a resort-to-resort route. He then programmed the route into a GPS device. In late winter 2005, he and a friend successfully toured the route. The following summer, he hiked it a second time.
Sure, the United States has its share of adventuresome backcountry routes, such as the 10th Mountain Hut System route, the Grand Route from St. Mary’s Glacier
(between Grand County and Central City) to Vail, The Trooper Traverse, a 20-mile excursion from Aspen to Leadville, or Utah’s Interconnect Route that covers 20 miles between and through five different resorts: Park City, Solitude, Brighton, Alta and Snowbird, but the Vail-Winter Park route “blows them away,” he said.
His found route has public transportation at each end.
A skier could land at the Denver International Airport, shuttle to Vail, ski seven to ten days from Vail to Shrine Mountain Inn, then Shrine Mountain Inn to Copper Mountain, Copper to Breckenridge, Breckenridge to Keystone, Keystone to Loveland, then Loveland to Henderson Mine and Henderson Mine to Winter Park. From Winter Park, the skier could board a train and head back down to Denver.
The entire tour is 62.64 miles with 44,000 feet of vertical ascent and descent and can easily be separated into day tours. Nights are spent in hotels.
The route is close to I-70, and search and rescue operations are within emergency distance.
“It worked a lot better than I thought it would,” Vives said.
Although the route succeeds as is, a hut located at the Loveland ski area would make the route better, Vives said, and another may be needed at the Henderson Mine.
Without one, skiers can shuttle to Empire for the final night.
Vives was 56 years old when he completed the route for the first time. Any experienced backcountry enthusiast can ski it, he said.
Although, “there is one spot where an ice ax and crampons might be handy.”
Why the interest?
“To give back to the sport,” he said. “There’s a growing group of people who want something different from their ski experience, and this is it. It’s more than skiing; it’s ski mountaineering. Backcountry skiing brings people more in contact with the mountains.”
Searching for support
The ski adventurer tried to convince Colorado Ski Country, USA, on the idea, thinking they’d snatch it up and help work with resorts, tackling all the necessary insurance questions and U.S. Forest Service permission. After all, here exists among the state’s own peaks a ski tour that famed resorts could guide, link up to other resorts and promote to attract the million skiers who love the European Haute Route experience.
With direct flights from Munich to DIA, “Europeans would love this. They’d eat it up … if they just knew about it,” he said. “But money is really not the point. It’s more like bragging rights for Colorado. We have it. It’s here.”
According to Vives, Ski Country told him there’s aren’t enough skiers that do backcountry skiing to warrant the route. (A spokesperson at Ski Country said they don’t recall talking to Vives.)
Vives disagrees. New technology is accelerating the ski learning curve, and the way the media builds up backcountry excursions, there must be a market out there, he said.
He also contacted the U.S. Forest Service. According to Vives, he was told that “they really haven’t heard any requests for that.”
“That’s because it doesn’t exist yet,” he told them.
At first, he’d thought, “I’m going to be the first one to discover the Amercian Haute Route.”
But then, “Blank. It hasn’t worked out that way.”
Seeing the dream to fruition comes with a complicated mess of liability and permits.
“It gets complicated, maybe that’s why nobody wants to touch it.”
The major hurdle would be insurance; perhaps linking the resorts could be the catalyst for reevaluating the way the nation’s ski industry handles liability.
“I think we should get a little more sophisticated when it comes to insurance, especially in Colorado.”
Responsibility should be shifted from the resort to the individual skiers, he said, like in Europe.
“Part of lift costs is liability, everyone’s paying for that guy who goes out of bounds.”
Fixing liability could also open the door to ski schools adopting backcountry skiing and riding as part of their curriculum, which Vives said he doesn’t understand why it’s not happening already.
Rather than punish people for ducking the rope, why not offer backcountry instruction, safety information and guidance?
“It’s where the hype of the sport is at, yet it’s not being taught,” Vives said.
It’s not mentioned anywhere in the publication, but on the last page of the Professional Ski Instructors of America “Tactics for All Mountain Skiing” manual, by Chris Fellows, there is a photo of several skier with alpine touring gear, skiing off into the distance.
“In my wildest fantasies, I’d like to see some backcountry guides be included in ski schools,” Vives said.
The map of the Colorado Haute Route is appendix K in Vive’s book, almost as an afterthought. But the rest of the book is a comprehensive how-to on backcountry skiing, for those who aspire, to intermediate and expert.
Maybe some day, the dreamer’s high route will become a reality – and lessons in his book applied to his own discovery.
– Tonya Bina can be reached at 887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail email@example.com.
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