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“NIGHT SKIING IN THE BACKCOUNTRY IS A TRANSCENDENT AND MAGICAL EXPERIENCE. THE PLAY OF LIGHT AND DARK, BLACK AND WHITE, TREES LOOMING AND THEN BLENDING INTO AN EPHEMERAL WORLD OF SHADOWS FLOWING BY.”
I shot out of the forest and into the meadow, carving big arcs; floating and dancing on my super fat skis through the dark. On this, the longest night of the year, if there is a better way to pay homage to the first day of winter I don’t know it.
We had started our celebration earlier in the afternoon with the first leg of our Solstice Pole Pedal Paddle, a new tradition my friend Kara and I established this year based upon our shared love of nature, outdoor pursuits and in honor of the cycle of the seasons. On the summer solstice, in late June, we were able to mountain bike dry trails outside of Aspen, ski at 12,000 feet on Independence Pass and paddle our packrafts on a lake between the two. For the winter solstice, our Pole Pedal Paddle would take a slightly different twist, but would involve watching the sunset and the addition of rituals to celebrate the start of the new solar year.
Escaping early from work, we met a couple of hours before sunset, at the base of Sunlight Mountain Resort above our home town of Carbondale, Colorado. Mounting skis to fatbikes using Voile straps turned out to be a lot easier than mounting ourselves, our heavy packs filled with various paraphernalia. Eventually we were all aboard and headed up a snowpacked road, pedaling hard to keep some semblance of forward motion on the groomed but soft surface. An occasional steep hill had us dismounting and joking we should add an extra ‘P’ to the winter Pole Pedal Paddle to include “pushing,” but after a couple miles of mostly riding we reached our transition point, unstrapped the skis and stashed our bikes beneath a tree.
As we started our skin up the ridge of our favorite local backcountry peak we could see to the west a glimmer of the setting sun through pewter skies heavy with the snow of an incoming storm. It was now at its lowest point in the sky, on the shortest day of the year. We continued our climb in the dusk as it sunk rather innocuously below the horizon, letting our eyes adjust until it was too dark to see on this moonless night.
On the summit, we performed our ceremonies with offerings to the sun to ensure its return, and to the gods of winter for deep and frequent snows: lighting a yule log, decorating the summit pole with new prayer flags, and saying wishes for the year ahead. On top of our little world, with a swig, or five, of spiced cider to warm against the cool night air, we took in the beauty up high, the cornice on the summit ridge swelling and spiraling into the night. I could have stayed a while longer but we were only half way through our celebration and the best was yet to come. We began our descent.
“ON THIS, THE LONGEST NIGHT OF THE YEAR, IF THERE IS A BETTER WAY TO PAY HOMAGE TO THE FIRST DAY OF WINTER I DON’T KNOW IT.”
Night skiing in the backcountry is a transcendent and magical experience. The play of light and dark, black and white, trees looming and then blending into an ephemeral world of shadows flowing by. The glitter of snow crystals in headlamp beams, whirling around our heads, and streaming frothy plumes in our wake. In the dark eddy that follows, spindrift swirls and slowly settles. A hushed sigh is the only sound, a mere echo of the passing skier in the night.
All too soon it was over and we were back at our bikes, cruising down the trail to parking. We ended the evening with a paddle – aka soak in the natural hot springs along the Crystal River – figuring our packrafts wouldn’t fare so well in the icy and mostly frozen waters. And so ended our winter solstice celebration. Cheers to a new solar year, and a snowy winter with many happy powder turns.
About the Author
Location: Carbondale, CO
Top Gear Picks: V8 176cm
A Jill of all trades and a master at none, Ann is a weekend warrior and backcountry bon vivant who lives to hike, run, ride, paddle but mostly ski in the mountains of western Colorado.
Ann lives in Carbondale, Colorado, from which she aims to explore as much of the wild and beautiful places of her local geography as possible. She loves to begin her day with a backcountry dawn patrol, watching the sunrise from a local summit and then sliding into work wiping the powder from her grinning face. The weekends are spent skiing deep into the Elk Mountains, where devising new routes and truly connecting with nature, returning with memories, pictures and words with which to inspire others, are what makes her tick.
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