Aspen, CO Backcountry Report: Cold Temperatures & Perfect Snow

Clay Malott | BackcountryBackcountry

Brought to you by 10 Barrel Brewing

Report from Thursday, February 18, 2021

On Thursday, February 18, we left home in Snowmass Village, CO, and made the roughly 35-minute drive up Castle Creek road to the ghost town of Ashcroft. Ashcroft was an old mining town abandoned in 1940 and is now home to cross country skiing, hiking, and backcountry skiing.

The Castle Creek drainage is home to many of the Alfred A. Braun Huts of Colorado. We reserved the Markley Hut located up Express Creek for the night of the 18th.

We departed the trailhead at about 9 am. The route up to the Markley Hut follows a dirt road, and the touring was fast and easy. However, the road crosses three major avalanche paths. Considering the deadly persistent slab problem that is plaguing our mountains this season, we took extra caution to cross the paths one at a time and to move across them as quickly as possible.

After about 2.2 miles and 1,200′ elevation gain, we arrived at the Markley Hut. Since it was only about 10:30am, we planned to go for a day tour. We stopped in the hut for about 10 minutes to drop extra stuff at the hut, including unnecessary layers, sleeping bags, and food. We skinned back to the junction between the road leading to the Markley Hut and the continuation of the Express Creek road. From here, we turned south and crossed Express Creek itself, where we began putting in switchbacks through the densely populated forest. We were the first ones who had been in there, and the trail-breaking was hard going.

The Markley Hut. Photo credit: Clay Malott

We ascended adjacent to a large gully, being careful to stay out of it. Evidence of natural releases indicated instabilities in the snowpack, and we were managing the persistent slab problem accordingly by selecting conservative terrain where a weak layer collapse could not have the potential energy to turn into an avalanche.

We ascended up past a few abandoned mine prospects up to the northeast ridge of a minor peak called Green Mountain. We continued up the ridge until the summit at a little more than 12,000′. The views of the surrounding Elk Mountains were spectacular.

Looking south towards the mountains of the Castle Creek Drainage. Photo credit: Clay Malott
The Elk Mountains from Green Mountain, including 14ers Castle and Conundrum Peak. Photo credit: Clay Malott

We transitioned our skis to downhill mode and stripped our skins to prepare for the descent. We essentially followed our skin track back down the ridge and then dropped down into the north-facing gladed bowl of Green Mountain. The snow was spectacular. Perfectly light, no other tracks to be found. We all had smiles on our faces all the way back down to the Markley Hut.

Author Clay Malott enjoys buttery turns on Green Mountain, CO. Photo credit: Clay Malott

At the hut, we changed into “hut clothes” and began on chores for the night, namely chopping wood for the fire and melting water. The hut had a massive pot in it, which we placed on top of the wood-burning stove and melted fresh snow outside down into drinking water. The fire took a lot of wood to keep hot, so we always had someone outside chopping wood to feed the flames.

The interior of the Markley Hut. Photo credit: Clay Malott

We cooked dinner, played some cards, and planned our route for the next day. Unsurprisingly, we were asleep by about 9 pm (it’s hard to stay awake when camping!).

The next day, we got started at about 6:30 am. The first thing to do was get the fire going again to heat up water and cook breakfast. For breakfast, we had oatmeal and sausages. We swept, chopped, and disinfected the hut to prepare for the next guests. At about 9:30 am, we departed the hut with all of our gear to go skiing.

We kept the gear that we didn’t need for skiing that morning in trash bags and left them under a tree near the skintrack. That way, we could save weight and pick it up after our descent before skiing back down the road to the car.

We followed our skintrack from the prior day up through the woods, and followed it up to the ridge. Since we were a bit crunched for time to get back down the road, we didn’t ascend the ridge to the summit. Instead, we transitioned at the saddle where our skintrack gained the ridge. The descent, as expected, was butter. Perfect, smooth snow all the way back down to the creek.

We grabbed our extra stuff in the trash bags under the tree and skied all the way back down the road to the car. Overall, it was a great way to spend a few days in the mountains having fun and getting some great turns!

Avalanche Forecast:

Photo credit: CAIC
Photo credit: CAIC


Photo credit: CAIC

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