Posted by: highmountainmuse | February 6, 2009

Riding the high country

Sorry, friends, I’ve got to wait a day before I share that pizza recipe.  I would like to share this story with you instead.


Yesterday, my boys took off to ride the high country. The two of them headed off after breakfast on snowmobile to see if they could find a route over the Continental Divide, from our ranch to the town of Silverton, about 25 miles away.  If you thought this was the high country here, you are right in a way, we live at nearly 10,000 feet elevation.  But where they went, they were riding in elevations of up to about 12,600 feet. 

A good picture of how the snow makes what was a "road" impassable in the winter time.

A good picture of how the snow makes what was a "road" impassable in the winter time.

They have never done this before, and were unsure of what route they would be able to take. During the summer, there is a 4WD Jeep road, but as you can see from this photo, you can’t plan on holding a snowmobile on a switch back in the deep snow. If this route was not passable, they were going to explore a route further to the north.  In pouring over images from Google Earth before heading out, the terrain north of Stony Pass looked like it consisted of unrideable ridges on top alternating with continual avalanche chutes on the bottom.  This would only be an option if the chutes have already run.

A Google Earth image of the road in summer over Stony Pass

A Google Earth image of the road in summer over Stony Pass

I’ve been over Stony Pass, as have innumerable people bouncing along the rough but clear and passable road in their Jeeps and 4-wheel drive rigs.  And I’ve been all over the high country horseback. But it’s different in the winter.  It is vast, enormous, overwhelming to most, and largely untraveled.


For one, everything (trails, markers, landmarks, roads) is under several feet of snow, except for the very tops of ridges on the windward slopes, where the snow has been blown off to expose the harsh grasses and rocks that cling to existence on what seems like the top of the world. 


On the wind blown top of Stony Pass

On the wind blown top of Stony Pass

For two, there is no one else there. Not even close. I suppose the closest person they would find from up on the Divide is me, 17 miles to the east.  To the west, the town of Silverton lies 25 miles away from our ranch.  To the north, is Lake City, probably 12 miles as the crow flies (but we can not fly across the mountains).  And to the south, lies the Weminuche Wilderness, the largest Wilderness in Colorado. Don’t think you’ll see many folks there in the winter!


For three, there are real risks.  Avalanche, frost bite, hypothermia, getting lost, getting hurt, snowmobile breaking down… I think of them all. It is not just the fear a mother has for watching her child cross the road, but more like the fear a mother would have for watching her child spend the day running around the race track.  The dangers are factual, and the dangers are severe.  All too serious for anyone who knows about winter in the high country and the reality of avalanches.


A Google Earth image of the mountains they crossed from the other side.

A Google Earth image of the mountains they crossed from the other side.

And once again, my boys were out there, just the two of them.  More often than not, I worry about them less when it is just the two of them than when they ride in a group.  They remain focused on each other, work together as a team, and have only each other to bail out or look out for.  And both head out prepared. They better be.  They were travelling in country with an average elevation of 11,000 feet, where the nearest person could be well over 10 miles away, where I could certainly not get to nor did I know anyone else capable of getting to them should they call for help, and where there is no cell phone service to call for help even if someone could find them and get to them. (We’re used to this one – we don’t have any phone service at or even near our ranch.  We are living proof that there still is life beyond cell phone range.)


Each of them carries an avalanche beacon, avalanche probe, and shovel. Forrest carries a SPOT and a GPS, and Bob a map. In addition to their survival kits, fire kits, first aid kits, food, and water, both boys also carry knowledge: knowledge of the mountains and knowledge of survival, from first aid/cpr training, avalanche classes, innumerable reading and discussions, and knowledge of the mountains based on years of hands-on back country experience.


And still, I worry.  Of course I worry. But I know how much they love to ride and to explore, and perhaps most special to me, I love to see how well they work together, to the point of upon their return when they have to relate to me every remembered detail of their ride, they speak together almost as one, without competition but in companionship, and I am glad beyond words to see this, to listen to them both (and all the crazy stories).


As it turned out, the boys were able to follow the jeep road – for the most part – and make it to Silverton in time to ride their snowmobiles into town for lunch. They returned around 5 pm, having travelled nearly 60 miles of some very high ground.


Yesterday was Thursday, which of course was supposed to be a school day for Forrest. We home school, as you can imagine, and he’s a great student, but… he’s falling behind in his studies, as he does most every winter, because it’s his favorite season, and there is just so much to do!  For him, that primarily means snowmobiling, and mechanicking on his snowmobiles.


I’m not much of a snowmobiler.  I do it when I have to – to get places, like to the pick up truck or back to the ranch.  But I don’t do it for fun. I don’t like the noise and I don’t like smell. You only have so much free time, and I’d rather spend mine working with the horses or snowshoeing.  Everyone is different.  We encourage each others differences. That’s what makes things work around here, and keeps things going smoothly. It’s what makes us all special. I don’t want to be a clone; I want to be an individual, with my own special traits, qualities and interests. It’s fun to share sometimes – I usually go along with the boys once a year on a big ride, and they will join me about once a year for a big snow shoe excursion. But otherwise, I’m content in my solitude, and they are happy to have each other, and at the end of the day, we all have plenty of stories to share.


Well, at the end of this day, when we sat around hearing stories of this ride told by the two of them jointly as the team that they are, I told Forrest it was probably worth missing a day of school to do this ride. As much as I adore reading and encourage him in his education, there are so many things we can not learn from a book. Days like this will do more to get him through life and be the best person he can be.



  1. Wow! That’s amazing to a girl who lives in the level lands!!! Although I think our highest mountains in Western Maryland are around 3,000ft in elevation…I know, wus!

    So, tell me do you get mail or does USP deliver???

    I also home schooled (15 yrs) and winter was always so hard to get through…and then spring came along…..well, we just tried to school all yr long to get it all done. Those were great years! Enjoy!!!

  2. Would you believe the UPS truck actually does come up to our ranch? In the summer only, of course. I’ve been asking our UPS delivery man if he wouldn’t consider a little brown snowmobile, but so far, no luck. In the winter he leaves our packages with our cousin in town, about an hour away. Bob picks up the mail and our packages whenever he makes it of the mountain – every week or two. It’s always a big deal and lots of excitement to pour through the mail, even the junk, when it’s that infrequent! I suppose the bills are never really welcome…

  3. I admire the spirit of your family. I would be freaked out if my kids would have been out on a wildreness mountain in the dead of winter. I am sure they loved every minute of the adventure.

    I think about how your family lives on the ranch in sort of a wilderness area. Personally, I would have fear living that far from other people..but you make it sound like fun.

  4. Having been over the pass to Silverton in the summer I can almost envision the experience in winter. One must feel very close to heaven.

  5. Brenda, I’ve been thinking about your comment and wanted to share this with you – it may be a strange perspective, I don’t doubt it – but if you can see, I am far more afraid of (and have been far more hurt by) people than nature, wildlife and wilderness. I am safer here!

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