A road less traveled: Ski touring old Highway 40
December 29, 2017
If Mother Nature's serving up lemons for snowpack, why not make lemonade? Especially somewhere lemons used to drive?
That was my theory, anyway, behind rounding up a wingman before last weekend's onslaught of snow (my wife wanted no part) to ski tour down old Highway 40, from its portal near the West Summit to the Ferndale picnic area some 2,000 vertical feet below.
I'd seen Christmas tree hunters pulled over at the cleft in the trees, searching for saplings for their lights. That's when my own bulb went off: Why not ski the old road down the pass? Even if it was a jigsaw puzzle of downed trees, we wouldn't be missing much up on the mountain.
And it offered a brush with history. Originally used by trappers, the route served as a freight road to North and Middle parks until the Forest Service surveyed it in 1911. A dirt road for Model T's was completed in 1915, advertised as the “Moffat Highway,” the shortest route from Salt Lake City to Denver and a vital interstate commerce link.
After being closed for three years, the road got upgraded to its current path in 1960, when it was billed as "the most modern pass highway in the state." It replaced the old road's 70 curves with just 17, none of which exceeded 8.5 degrees of curvature. All this got our own wheels spinning about exploring it.
Our gear was Model T as well. Wanting beefier support than cross-country skis, but less weight than tele gear, I dusted the cobwebs off a pair of leather Asolo Extreme telemark boots and yellow Tua Mega skis, with three-pins. Affirming my wingman selection, Paul had similar gear: old Snowfield boots and even skinnier Tuas.
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With that, we set off, a couple of skiing Sherlocks piecing together the past. Easing past the entrance's cement barrier — having a feeling it led to Ferndale, but not sure — we lost the road right out of the gate, touring straight into a wall of alder. Like searching for a lost city in the Amazon, then we found it again, an oddly straight swath of white contouring a forested hillside.
Kick-and-gliding down the relic's 5 percent grade, each stride took us back in time to an era when waitresses wore roller skates and men smoked Marlboros. Gliding up to 10 feet per glide, you could glance around as if on an escalator, ogling the long-forgotten forest: beetle-kill lodgepole toppled atop one another; massive spruce spreading their wings; and groves of aspen fingering to the sky.
A testament to its surveyors, the road followed the terrain's nature contours, tracing hillsides, bisecting drainages, and traversing aspen-lined basins. It was easy to see how someone could get lost out here — as happened to a hapless cross-country skier just the week before. All I knew: Somewhere to our right was an old-school backcountry ski run called Devil's Hangover, and to our left, somewhere, today's Highway 40.
It wasn't all smooth sailing. No sooner than we settled into our moon-walking, gliding groove, our path would be blocked by downfall, forcing us to improvise our way over, under and around a Jenga pile of logs. Like negotiating rapids in a river, or moves on a climbing route, getting through the puzzle of toppled Ponderosas tested every ski skill in our arsenal, requiring an intricate combo of balance, polework and groveling. So we adopted a few tricks of the skiing-through-timber trade: picking up your ski tips with your pole basket to step over a log; teetering your ski more than halfway over so you'd slip forward rather than aft; and dropping your knees into a proposal/tele pose to limbo underneath.
Like mountaineers, we took turns leading, commenting on each other's route selections. "Nice line," I said as Paul teetered atop a log. His height gave him the edge stepping over logs, but was a disadvantage when it came to stooping.
Downward we trod, ever deeper into terra incognito, Lucy and Edmund exploring Narnia. Animal tracks — elk, deer, moose, fox, weasel and more — crisscrossed the snow, like drops of paint on a pallet. Life abounded beneath the snowcover as well, the subnivean zone shielding such burrowers as voles, lemmings and shrews.
We burrowed on as well. In places, the roadbed brushed by towering, 100-year-old aspen and cliff bands so close they likely bumped the elbows of '50s-era drivers. Every kick of our skis matched a turn of the tire from yesteryear. At an overlook above the valley floor, Paul pondered: "You know, I think my parents drove over this road way back when." We contemplated the other Prohibition-, World War II-, and Elvis-listening travelers that had backfired here before us.
Soon, a hairpin double-backed in series of tight curves, the gradient quickening. Aside from a few one-legged balances on narrowing swaths, the snow held, and a few tree-ducks later our car appeared through a stand of aspens at Ferndale. Veering off the road, which continues past the runaway truck ramp into a wildlife closure area, we traversed to the picnic area and our more modern-day shuttle home — our tour of the road less traveled complete.
Veteran outdoors writer Eugene Buchanan is the Steamboat Today magazines editor and author of a newly released book, "Tales from a Mountain Town: Musings from 25 years of Living in the Colorado Rockies."