November can be a tricky time in Colorado. Storms are coating the peaks to frosty snow but the lifts aren’t spinning yet. Powder hounds are itching to get turns while praying to Ullr for snow. But the best way to get in shape for the months ahead is to charge out on your own two feet and earn your turns with some early season skiing in Aspen's backcountry. Here's what you need to know.
No matter your discipline, there are plenty of ways to find the goods. Skiers with alpine touring, or AT, setups simply free their heel, apply skins, and start walking. If you don’t have an AT setup, snowshoes make for good over snow methods of transport, with your skis or snowboard on your backpack.
Snowboarders have a couple of choices in addition to snowshoes. First, there are splitboards, which are a newish kid on the block. This nifty creations are literally snowboards that split in half for the ascent, and slip back into a regular board shape for the pow turns on the descent. There are also Mountain Approach skis, which are three-piece foldable climbing systems with no removable parts and permanent skins to access the backcountry. Before you go anywhere though remember the age-old phrase, "If there is enough snow to slide, there is enough snow to slide.” So before you ever set foot on the snow, do a quick refresher course with your avalanche equipment. Take the time to bury beacons in the snow with your ski buddies and practice finding them. And when you do arrive at the slopes, analyze the conditions, make cautious decisions, and always remember you have all season to be out there.
Around Aspen there is some perfect terrain to get your legs moving and your heart pumping and find some turns at the end of the rainbow. A convenient choice just out town is Aspen Highlands. From downtown, turn on the Maroon Creek at the roundabout and you can't miss the steep slopes on your left. From the base you can head to the left up Thunderbowl, on the groomed or soft snow, or to the right up toward Merry Go Round. You really can’t go wrong either way, as there is a perfect skin track already set to both destinations. Skin for as long as your heart desires or still slide over soft snow all the way back to the base. For an adventure at a little higher elevation, head to Independence Pass, on Highway 82 headed east of Aspen. At the top you will find a parking lot on the Continental Divide, with plenty of views, sledding, or skiing depending on what you prefer. The ski objective is an east-facing slope called Mountain Boy, which rises high above the parking lot on the ridge to the south. Again the skin track is set, and the ski tracks are easily visible. While the terrain below is mostly grass, be cautious of rocks or debris beneath the early-season snow.
Beware, though, that with a lot of snow Independence Pass will close, so be sure to check resources like cotrip.org for up to date conditions. But no worries if it's closed: Drive as far as the road closure, and if you park there you have a perfect bunny slope to skin up and ski down. While there might not be any epic pow turns, you'll get a dose of exhilarating exercise and smooth, uninterrupted turns from top to bottom.
If you are looking for steeper terrain and a longer skin, head to the end of Castle Creek Road. High above the end of the road is Montezuma Basin, which was a summer ski area in 1967. The base elevation is at 13,000 feet with a vertical drop of a couple hundred feet.
Because it is a “glacier” with year-round snow, you are all but guaranteed to find some good skiing. Just be sure to save some gas for the long descent back to the valley floor.