A stargazer and his bold group of mountaineers journey to a steep skiing Utopia in Colorado’s Grenadier Range, and allow their dream to awaken and limits to dissolve

I feel myself slipping into a rocking chair trance as my senses dull around me and my eyelids get heavy. The woody smells of our vintage coach, the distant mayhem of the Animas River pumping down its course, and the stunning views of the Rockwood Gorge all fade into a dream as we steam up the tracks along its rim.

Getting Dreamy
railroad
Rocked to sleep, or awakened to a new reality on the D&SNG. Isaiah peers out the window as the Weminuche peaks come in to view.Josh Jespersen

The more than century-old Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is the transport my intrepid group of friends and I chose to venture north on. We had left Durango about an hour ago, and just as I start to lose consciousness the lofty San Juan peaks of the Weminuche Wilderness come into view. They soar above us with massive prominence, and their snowcapped pinnacles suggest another world exists high in the clouds they are piercing. As my eyes close and I drift off to sleep, I know this fantastic world will invade my dreams.

Certainly a Dream
Arrow Peak
The first glimpse of what dreams may come. Ricke and the author look toward Arrow Peak.Isaiah Branch-Boyle

My legs are moving in a walking motion, but my feet are sliding instead of stepping. I’m breathing heavy, and my lips feel each exhale turn to a frosty fog. As I regain smell, sound and sight, I feel a weight on my shoulders. Taking in my surroundings, I realize I carry a heavy pack, and am skinning toward a massive ridge that looks like a mandible lined with jagged teeth. I’ve seen this place before while looking at pictures of gnarled peaks with Ricke, who I notice is just ahead of me.

Wham Ridge
Purity lost on Vestal Peak’s Wham Ridge. The crew’s track up, and down.Jon Krakauer

I know I am looking at Vestal Peak with the breaking wave appearance of Wham Ridge. On either side are the striking peaks of Arrow and West Trinity among others comprising the Grenadier Range, a geologically unique band of hard quartzite of the Uncompahgre Formation. I look behind me to notice my friend Jon is in awe of this place as well, and he taught me most of what I know.

Dream Team

Continuing to make our way up this drainage my group of five experience mountaineers is hushed, and I started to wonder if I was in a dream. In the evening when everything got cold and quiet, we all stared at the twisted giants above us. I wondered if I was here and now, or still in the train car. I wondered if my friends were seeing these peaks in an altered way like I was. I knew we were mystified by the range and that it was shifting our perspective on what kinds of lines could be skied.

Josh Jespersen
Dreams don’t get any better. From left to right: Ricke Schuler, Josh Jespersen, Jon Krakauer, Paul Dawson, Isaiah Branch-Boyle.Josh Jespersen

I had shared an array of mountain experiences all around Colorado with each person on this trip. Jon and I have ridden so many lines together I lost count years ago, but we always seem to laugh like we just discovered powder. After making snow at Eldora Mountain Resort with Paul, braving bitter cold nighttime temperatures and leaning in to classic Front Range winds, all weather seems benign.

The Sangre de Cristo Range is where I recognized Ricke and Isaiah’s penchant for pain might match my own, as we ski traversed the entire thing top to bottom over the course of 13 days. This group who I have formed bonds with in these austere environments was all standing around looking up with mouths anxiously watering. I figured we all must have been mentally painting ourselves into this picture.

Transient Flow
Electric Peak
Finding lines between a wall and a void. The author rips a couloir on Electric’s east side.Jon Krakauer

After the sun set and rose again, we completely let go and allowed the mountains to be our guide. We have all been chasing specific objectives throughout the Rockies for years, but these mountains induce a transient flow. They cultivated in us a fiery desire to explore more. Immersing ourselves in this place, and being drawn by seemingly intangible white lines, we started to bend the constraints of ability.

Breakfast Line
The author catching one last set on a dawn patrol before he wakes up. A line of the north shoulder of Electric Peak dubbed the “Breakfast Line.”Isaiah Branch-Boyle

Throughout this dream, we let creativity take over, and watched as our descents became lucid. We screamed down winding couloirs burdened by cliffs begging you to ride ever closer to them. We delicately danced from edge to edge down faces so steep I’m not sure snow should have blanketed them. As another evening set in, the still air was broken by our conversation highlighting the disbelief and awe at what we had accomplished that day. The landscape of this other world had pulled us in and warped our reality. It was hard to fathom, and I was uncertain it had actually happened.

Awakened!

Opening my eyes, I realized I was still on the train. I came out of my deep sleep knowing I was acting like Walter Mitty again, like I often do. Stretching my arms high in the air though, I caught that gratifying smell of sweat and exhaustion after days spent chasing gravity high in the mountains. I looked out the window, and saw we were going south back toward Durango. Had I only dreamed an existence in that abstract world? Or had I improbably cleansed myself of the vicarious pleasure derived from those photos of the pure and venerated Vestal Peak?

JOSH JESPERSEN has climbed and ridden all 54 of Colorado’s 14ers in record time. He took from that experience a fascination with our state’s ski culture, and a love for our high mountain towns. He is currently authoring Journey Lines, and there is a good chance you’ll run into him somewhere above 10,000 feet. Buy him a beer, and talk skiing if so… he loves that!