Skiing into an Apocalypse
More than 30 years ago, to celebrate the return of the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships to Colorado and to showcase the state’s ever-expanding network of off-the-grid backcountry ski chalets, a group of endurance athletes decided to ski from Aspen to Vail. Carrying a specially made World Championships flag like an Olympic torch relay, they traveled from Aspen (which hosted the ski races in 1950) to Beaver Creek (where the event returned in 1989), transiting 100 miles of rugged backcountry terrain (with 17,000 feet of elevation gain) over six days and staying at a different alpine hut each night. Since then, the Benedict 100 (named after Fritz Benedict, a World War II Army intelligence officer, Frank Lloyd Wright protégé, and Aspen architect who helped found the 10th Mountain Division hut system) has become a rite of passage for backcountry skiers the world over, as bucket-list worthy as rafting the Grand Canyon is for whitewater enthusiasts. And just like rafting the Grand, to ski the Benedict 100, you either have to have money or luck.
Officially, there are two options: You can ante up $2,500 for a berth on the sole Benedict 100 guided tour that’s offered each season (traded between Aspen Alpine Guides and Paragon Guides in Edwards). Or you can enter your name in an online lottery for the single self-guided trip (guaranteed berths for a group of 6 to 16 skiers at Margy’s, Betty Bear, Uncle Bud’s, Jackal, and Shrine Mountain Inn huts on the consecutive nights of your choosing) that the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association awards every winter. But I found a third way: By carefully monitoring the hut reservation calendar a year in advance, I managed to find, and book, the only five-night stretch in 2020 when six berths became available at every one of those five huts: March 9–14, which, as fate would have it, coincided almost exactly with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Planning the trip consumed the better part of a year. Sean Davis, a NOAA research scientist from Boulder, recruited the group we’d be touring with, mostly fortysomething Front Rangers like myself (a Boulder-based freelance photographer) but representing a cross-section of the brainy-outdoorsy types that moved in Sean’s circle: Jen Kay, an associate professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder; Simran McKenna, an environmental activist from Golden who pilots blimps for Greenpeace; Eric Merkt, an energy efficiency consultant from Nederland and his partner, Bonie Shupe, general manager of a merino outdoor apparel company; and Milos Novotny, a hydrogeologist from Golden. Together and separately, we trained for the tour like an ultramarathon, logging hundreds of miles on Boulder County trails in the summer, and, once winter arrived, uphilling at our local resort, Eldora Mountain, and touring backcountry terrain in Eagle and Pitkin counties, often in full skimo gear while shouldering 40-pound packs for up to 21 miles to steel ourselves and get a taste of the physical challenge we had all signed up for. On one of these Eldora outings not long before our go date, Sean caught an edge and dislocated his shoulder, an injury that cruelly DQ’d him from the trip he helped organize.
The logistics promised to be just as daunting. To provision our journey, we recruited an army of 15 volunteers in a dozen vehicles, who would drive to trailheads and ski into every hut each night with dinner and sometimes the next day’s breakfast, which helped lighten our food load considerably. We also had to plan for contingencies in the event of foul weather, avalanche danger, gear failure, getting lost, or running out of food or water. But there was no planning for the ultimate curveball that was thrown at us as the final day and hour arrived: the specter of a global pandemic. When we left the trailhead in Aspen on March 9, Colorado had just reported its first few cases of Covid-19; as we skied from Margy’s to Betty Bear hut on Day Two, Denver had canceled its St. Patrick’s Day parade, and the governor declared a state of emergency.
As we struggled to keep our bodies functioning in the backcountry, our mental health was also being taxed by the increasingly worrisome bits and pieces of news filtering in from our cellphones, and guests staying at the huts. As we traveled from Aspen to Vail, Covid-19 had evolved from a faraway concern into a full-blown statewide crisis. Yet every next day, as we glided uphill and downhill on skis, traversed high ridgelines, battled whiteout conditions, and crossed over frozen rivers, the worries of the world evaporated.
On the afternoon of March 14, when we triumphantly clicked out of our bindings, shouldered our skis, and clomped down Bridge Street in Vail Village, our elation was tempered by a new reality: ominous signs warning visitors to “Keep Your Distance.” That same day, with 109 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Colorado, Governor Polis issued an executive order closing Vail and all of the state’s other ski resorts.
We re-entered a world that in just six days and 100 miles had changed completely.
Bad omen: After months of preparation, the support crew we had arranged to provision Margy’s, the first hut—and shuttle us and our gear from downtown Aspen to the trailhead—canceled at the last minute, and we had to call a taxi. (Our driver seemed befuddled when he asked us our destination and we answered “Vail!”) Looking back on this image now (that’s Milos and Eric with the taxi at the Upper Hunter Creek Trailhead just north of town), I’m struck by how nobody was concerned about getting into a public taxi with a guy none of us knew or letting him help us load and unload our gear. We probably even shook his hand, and no sanitizer was used.
This image was taken near McNamara Hut, three or four miles up from the trailhead. That first day was brutal: we logged 14 miles and 5,200 feet of elevation gain with many miles of breaking trail in rotten spring snow. The temptation to turn around was very real, but that meant you’d be trekking back to the trailhead late into the night or the next morning. None of us succumbed. After 10 hours, we arrived at Margy’s Hut to take in the exquisite views of the Sawatch Range and Independence Pass to the south just as the sun was setting. I remember thinking, “Whoa, we have six days of this!” as it started to sink in just how difficult it would be to hit repeat day after day.
After dinner (our first-night potluck feast at Margy’s was an assortment of boil-a-meal pouches we carried in, since our support crew had bailed on us), Simran and Milos strategize the next day’s route. While we carried multiple GPS units and personal locator beacons, we also had printed two sets of customized waterproof maps for each day’s adventure. I’m still not sure if it was our encroaching middle age, or our embrace of all things old school, but we ended up using the maps for navigation most of the time and only using the GPS as backup.
Our first of many breaks on Day Two; just a couple of hours up the trail from Margy’s, our stomachs already empty of breakfast, Milos, Simran, Bonie, and Eric stop to wolf down snacks. Moving almost nonstop anywhere between 6 and 10 hours a day burns an enormous amount of calories, so many that eating—bars, gels, peanut butter, way too much candy—becomes a constant chore just to keep up with the energy your body is burning. Not to mention replenishing all the water and salt that’s being lost via sweat and just breathing—a half-liter or more every hour. Unlike long summer trail-running expeditions, where you can just stop and filter water from a stream, resupplying that precious liquid isn’t easy in the winter. You’d need to melt snow with a camping stove, which consumes an enormous amount of fuel and time. So you carry all the water you’ll need on your back. A liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds. You do the math.
Six hours later, we neared the end of what proved to be the hardest day yet—17.5 miles of bushwhacking and creek crossings that passed like an eternity. At one point, we consulted our GPS track and were astonished to find out that we did a measly half-mile in two full hours. In addition to the usual expletives, a new vocabulary (“Wallow ... slog ... boondoggle”) started creeping into our trail lexicon, words spoken and thought. Here, after following moose tracks over a sketchy ice bridge crossing of a frozen Frying Pan River, we arrived at the beginning of an absolutely soul-crushing 2,000-foot-vertical, two-mile climb to Betty Bear Hut, which, thankfully, friends had opened for us. They even prepared a memorable dinner that erased the painful recollections of that day—a wheel of brie followed by burritos (no cold beer or cocktails, though: we were so whooped and dehydrated that water, and sleep, was all we craved). More than 30 miles from Aspen, we were nearly a third of the way to our goal.
Epic stretching and yoga sessions became an essential part of the routine every night and morning. Very quickly we learned that not only does a Nalgene bottle work well as a vessel for carrying water, but also as a brutal medieval roller to draw and quarter those sore muscles. It was during a couple of these sessions, while chatting with other guests (we were a group of six, and most huts sleep up to 16) who bore news from mountain communities and the Front Range, that we began to realize, and worry, that the world outside our small group and cloister of 10th Mountain Division huts was changing rapidly. As the pandemic was spreading, we heard rumors that schools were closing, that service to regional airports like Aspen and Vail would be shutting down, and even that I-70 might be closed, shutting off our escape route home. We frantically started satellite texting and calling our loved ones to get a better grasp on what exactly was going on, and even they didn’t know.
When I started researching this trip, I was told by a friend who had done the Benedict 100 a number of years ago that he got in maybe five turns total over a hundred miles of skiing. While we didn’t exactly crush the downhill, we found plenty of little pitches here and there that elicited whoops and hollers from our crew. Early in the trip we encountered fairly epic glades and a good half-hour of untracked fluff down from the top of Hagerman Pass. In this image, as we transited between Resolution Ridge and Ptarmigan Hill near Vail Pass on March 13, we summoned the energy to take a side-tour and skinned a thousand feet up this pitch, because what self-respecting backcountry skier, however trail-weary, could leave a north-facing slope like that untracked?
When the going gets tough, the tough use open flames to smooth out a wax job. On our third night out (March 11), high above the town of Leadville at Uncle Bud’s Hut, the coronavirus talk really got going. A group of four college kids on spring break from Pennsylvania had decided that their route the next day to Jackal Hut (21 miles and 4,000 feet of elevation gain, which also happened to be our route) was a bit too much to chew off and just decided to stay, even though Uncle Bud’s was fully booked. Sure, they slept on the floor, but everyone knows that hut etiquette dictates that you never extend your stay, especially not during a pandemic. In addition to the four freeloaders from State College, there was a group from Australia (a Covid-19 hotbed where Tom Hanks and his wife caught the virus) and a gaggle of older gents from a multitude of different states. On our first night at Margy’s, we had bunked with a guy who had been in Thailand—where the coronavirus had been ranging since January—a mere few days before. Wincing at every snore and cough we heard that night, we started to think that sharing confined spaces with strangers from all over the globe wasn’t such a good idea during a pandemic.
The next day—a 20-plus mile segment that was the longest of the tour—we started to think that maybe those kids from State College were smarter than us. While the Benedict 100 frequently follows old logging and fire roads, our ski boots almost never touched pavement, the sole exception being this crossing of Highway 24 (with Bonie, Milos, Eric, and Simran channeling the Fab Four on Abbey Road) just south of Camp Hale, the World War II training grounds for soldiers of the hut system’s namesake 10th Mountain Division. We found the sign pretty darn appropriate.
Once we crossed Highway 24, our death march from Uncle Bud’s to Jackal Hut segued to one of the longest sustained vertical climbs of the trip—close to 4,000 feet. That night, while our bruised and blistered feet attested to the punishment we had endured, from our perch on a promontory high above the plains of Camp Hale we were rewarded with a stunning sunset and incredible views of 13,000-foot and 14,000-foot peaks in every direction.
That impending snowstorm you can see rolling in from the valley floor as Bonie, Eric, and Milos leave Jackal Hut? Yeah, we saw it, too. At an elevation of 11,600 feet, Jackal is one of the highest huts in the system. There are two ways to ski from Jackal to Shrine Mountain Inn: the “low route,” an 18-mile trail through sheltered low-angle terrain, or the “high-route,” a 14-mile track where we’d spend most of the day skirting along a completely exposed ridge, well above tree line, where we’d be at the mercy of the weather. We chose Option Two, for the sheer ski-mountaineering challenge and the beauty it promised.
The high route rewarded us with a spectacular combination of intermittent blinding snow squalls and glimpses of the sun rising like a veil-shrouded orb in the east, lighting the scene as dramatically as a Hudson River School landscape painting. That’s Simran, leaning into the wind; sometimes whiteout conditions were so bad that a couple of us got vertigo, and worried we’d accidentally ski off a cornice.
Looking like a couple of polar explorers, Eric and Bonie trudge along the wind-scoured spine of Machine Gun Ridge above Camp Hale; when the storm clouds finally dissipated later that day, we were looking down on Copper Mountain and could see traffic snaking along I-70 on the distant horizon. As alone as we were, that made us wonder what kind of world we were heading into. Would Vail Mountain even be open? Would we arrive at Shrine Mountain Inn to find our last refuge shuttered, leaving us to wander in the wilderness as Benedict-100 Covid-19 refugees?
After leaving Shrine Mountain Inn on the morning of March 14 (the day the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association announced a systemwide Covid-19 closure), we followed a classic route known as the “Commando Run,” which 10th Mountain Division ski troopers pioneered from Vail Pass to the present-day resort. We entered in-bounds terrain on Vail Mountain through a backcountry access gate near the top of the Poma lift in Siberia Bowl. A few of our support crew also came along to cheer us through the last miles, including our two science-nerd friends—Andi Fox, a specialist in land data assimilation at Boulder’s National Center for Atmospheric Research (pictured between Bonie and Simran), and Ali Banwell, a glaciologist at CU Boulder (far right). Half of us descended groomers on the front side of Vail Mountain, while the other half stuck to the classic Commando route, with one more uphill back out the access gate and down the double-black glades of Mushroom Bowl. We reunited at the base of Gondola One to the strange scene of crowds of people clustered in the ski yard and kicking back with pitchers of beer on the slopeside deck of Los Amigos, cheerfully ignoring signs urging social distancing. One guy, eyeing our packs and haggard, unwashed faces, asked us where we’d come from and shook his head in disbelief when told him: Aspen.
The magnitude of what we had accomplished was tempered by the gravity of the looming pandemic, not to mention our overwhelming physical and mental exhaustion. So instead of celebrating over a round of beers and dinner, we clomped down Bridge Street and shouldered our skis together one final time, posing for a classic tourist picture with the 10th Mountain Division ski trooper statue in Slifer Square (L-R: Tim Romano, Simran McKenna, Bonie Shupe, Milos Novotny, Eric Merkt, Jen Kay). Eager to reunite with our families and figure out what the hell was going on in the world, we soon went our separate ways, as did everyone else in Vail Village, as one of the world’s busiest ski resorts emptied into a Covid-19 ghost town.
Tim Romano is a Boulder-based freelance photographer; follow him on Instagram: @timromanophoto