"I'll be screaming for you when I get stuck!”
This from Julie Rust, director of Vail ski patrol, mountain safety, and community guest services, who has her head thrust out the driver-side window of a Vail Resorts 4x4. She’s only half-joking: we’re bidding adieu to a trail maintenance crew as we grind along a very rutted and mucky melted-out catwalk snaking its way up Golden Peak to Mid-Vail. It’s a bluebird morning at the tail end of mud season, and Rust has drawn the short straw, assigned to deliver me and my cargo—a bright orange waterproof container stuffed with Vail 50th Anniversary key chains and refrigerator magnets—to N 39˚ 36.906 W 106˚ 22.285. I’ve also brought a shovel, a camera, and a handheld GPS receiver, which is guiding us to those precise latitude and longitude coordinates. At this anonymous point, 10,282 feet up in the backcountry above the upper terminal of Gondola One, I will bury the Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine geocache, one of fifty-odd must-do activities featured in our cover story (“The Hit List"), a DIY adventure guide celebrating summertime in the Vail Valley.
I ask Rust, a longtime valley resident who’s spent more than thirty years patrolling the mountain in winter and summer, what’s on her summertime bucket list. She tells me she’s looking forward to pedaling her mountain bike to the summit of the very road we’re climbing.
“The mountain, that’s the reason I’m here—the views, everything about it,” she says. “As a patroller, you travel downhill in the winter. In the summer, you get to learn the mountain from the bottom up.”
As we round the Trans Montane Catwalk, the road bisects Riva Ridge, the black-diamond run extending upward through the forest like a white carpet, defying the onset of summer and bearing the scars of freshly carved S turns. By mid-May last season, what little snow there was had all melted away. Today, on the upper mountain, it’s still chest deep.
“We could be skiing Mid-Vail right now,” Rust sighs. Indeed, Aspen Skiing Company just announced that it will reopen for Memorial Day weekend, as Vail Resorts did when it reopened Vail Mountain on the extended-season weekend of April 19.
“That was one of the coolest things we ever did,” Rust says. “In all the years I’ve been on the mountain, that was the best skiing ever. Fantastic. Anyone who didn’t love that should have their skis taken away.”
Just past the gondola terminal at Mid-Vail, my GPS unit chimes, and Rust parks the truck at the intersection of a still snowed-in access road leading to my coordinates. While the patroller waits, I grab the orange container, my shovel, and my camera and hike up the snowy road. After ten minutes of post-holing, I arrive at my destination: a fir-shrouded promontory overlooking Mid-Vail. I bury the cache up to its lid, snap a picture, turn to leave ... and stop, gazing out over that vista. Lost in the silence, the beauty, I linger, for too long.
Back at the truck, Rust asks what the heck I was doing. Sheepishly, I pat my camera bag: “Photographs.”
It was only a white lie. The pictures I took that morning don’t reside on my camera’s memory card; they’re etched indelibly in the back of my mind. That’s one to-do I’ve ticked off my summertime bucket list. How about you?
Ted Katauskas, Editor